Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The superficial criticism of communism

Museum Pieces

focusing attention exclusively on the failings of "Communism" is a great way to allow people of a certain mindset to walk out thinking, "See? Communism sucked!" without prompting any kind of reflection about the system we live in now. Because aside from the obvious gap in ability to make cheap shit to fill store shelves, every criticism in the entire museum was as applicable to modern capitalism as to Soviet-style communism.

Oh, under communism lots of people were imprisoned? People didn't feel free? Government was corrupt and unresponsive? Wow interesting tell me more. Through that lens even the line of argument that capitalism is awesome for consumption looks a little wobbly; "Most people couldn't get the things they wanted or needed" sounds an awful lot like "Most people can't afford the things they want or need" and the difference is semantic [sic]. I guess if the reason people end up under-provided for is the most important thing to you, that argument is worth having. In practice it isn't.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If I had any money, I would donate to her campaign. But she is not, as Jacob Silverman claims, "an inflection point in Democratic politics."

She probably won't be elected, and if elected probably won't serve more than a term or two, but if she survives, she'll be corrupted by power. Everyone becomes corrupted, no matter how idealistic they start out.

I don't mean corruption in the legal sense; I'm not saying she'll eventually take bribes or something like that. But the Democratic party and the House of Representatives are institutions, and every institution exerts a powerful moral force on its members, and expel those who fundamentally resist its moral core. And the moral core of the HoR and Democratic party is to preserve corporate capitalism at any cost.

If elected, her choice will become plain: appease the corporations and retire to a cushy job on a few boards of directors or as a lobbyist, or oppose them, be buried, and go back to waiting tables for subsistence wages. Courage doesn't enter into it: it's not "courageous" in any sense, it's just pointless stupidity, to sacrifice oneself for no gain. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not going to drag the Democratic party one inch towards even New Deal social democracy, much less a socialist utopia.

I kinda hope she does sell out. She's not going to change anything, so she might as well cash in. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery a lot more comfortable.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Socialist economics part 3

part 1
part 2


A socialist economy is a temporary and unequal (but less unequal than capitalism) economic system where people receive not just their cost of living, but the more-or-less full value their labor. From this position, we can begin to work towards the precursors of a communist economy discussed in part 2.


We presently have a capitalist economy. We want to get to a communist economy, i.e. "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." How do we get from point A to point B? And how do we get there without just destroying everything and starting over from scratch, from an subsistence agrarian economy?

We have to start with a bit of theory: Marx's distinction between labor and labor power. Labor is the actual production* that a person performs; labor power is the ability to do that actual production. Labor power requires labor: a person must eat food, live in a house, wear clothes, drink water, dispose of their waste, etc., and people (usually other people) must use their time and effort to produce all of these requirements. Critically, an hour** of labor power takes less than an hour of labor to produce. Surplus labor, then, is the difference between the labor a person can perform and the labor required to generate the ability to perform that labor.

*There's considerably more theory underlying this paragraph, but I think we have a good enough starting point.

**I'm being deliberately vague about my units, but "hour" is sufficient to get the idea across.

The fundamental pillar of capitalism is that the capitalist pays "fair market value" for a worker's labor power, i.e. the social cost of the worker's ability to work, and receives all the labor thus created. The surplus labor is the ultimate source of the capitalist's profit.

Therefore, socialist economics must start by undermining this fundamental pillar of capitalism: a worker should receive, at a first approximation*, the value of their labor, not the cost of their labor power. If I work eight hours to produce stuff for other people, I should receive stuff — including the food, shelter, etc. that I need to generate tomorrow's labor power — that other people expended eight hours to produce.

*Marx offers a more detailed accounting in Gotha ch 1.

Marx claims (again in Gotha) that this change, from a worker receiving the cost of their labor power to receiving the value of their labor, is not enough. A worker who can worker longer with more intensity, or who is privileged to produce more desirable goods will receive more than a worker who cannot work as long, with as much intensity, or who is condemned to produce less desirable goods. Marx argues that this inequality is temporarily unavoidable, because we start with a capitalist economy. However, Marx argues we absolutely should not accept this temporary measure as our ultimate goal: it is just the platform to begin to dismantle "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor."

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Socialist economics part 2 (Communist economics)

In socialist economics, part 1, I raised some concerns with Frederik deBoer's definition of socialism. It behooves me to offer a more useful definition.

Marx tells us where we want to end up: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." That is communist economics. But such a society comes only as a result of precursors:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! Critique of the Gotha Programme ch. 1

So our task as communists, then is to begin to realize the precursors, to eliminate the "enslaving subordination" etc. I will label here as "socialism" the task of realizing the precursors, which will be the subject of the next post.

To understand socialist economics, I want to start with communist economics. Marx's "thousand year" goal is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." A critical feature of this slogan are that a person's demand on the social product is coupled not to their contribution, but to their "needs". Marx can be vague about "needs" precisely because this is a goal, not a plan: part of the implementation of this plan is to more carefully define "need". Another critical feature, where I will again push back against deBoer, is that this definition does specify reciprocity: each person has the social obligation to contribute according their ability.

Marx does not believe that this slogan can be arbitrarily chosen or imposed on a society; he names a number of ideological and structural barriers, mentioned in the passage quoted above. I'll unpack this passage later; the question for now is not would this work? but is this worth striving for? And by "this" I mean not just the banner and slogan, but the precursors. Is it worth striving to eliminate "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor"? Is it worth striving to eliminate "he antithesis between mental and physical labor"? Should we strive to make labor* "life's prime want"? Should we strive to increase the productive forces, the "all-around development of the individual"? Should we make "all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly"? Communists answer these questions in the affirmative; indeed, if we have these precursors, the banner and slogan will naturally follow.

*I'll need to talk about Marx's conception of labor another time.

The question then becomes how to begin striving for a communist society, which brings us to socialist economics, the subject of part 3 of this series.

Socialist economics part 1

On further reflection, I want to push back on Frederik deBoer's conception of socialism. deBoer is, of course, free to define these terms as he pleases: I don't claim he is mistaken, since there really isn't a matter of fact at stake; instead, I claim there are more useful definitions of socialism. deBoer's defines socialism thus:
The term “socialism” refers to an economic system in which human goods are removed from the market mechanism and currency exchange and are instead distributed based on need. To socialize an industry means to remove its products (whether medicine, education, housing, etc) from the market model and instead establish some means through which need is assessed and filled without the expectation of reciprocity. Socialism does not change who pays for necessary social services but replaces the very system of exchanging currency for goods entirely. A socialist viewpoint recognizes the impossibility of moral reform from within capitalism. [emphasis added]

The biggest problem is that this definition is vague. First, what is "need"? Do I need anything other than a mud hut, rice and beans, a straw mattress and blanket, a tunic and trousers? Yes, I probably do need more, but although I live frugally, I have a lot of stuff I definitely do not need, and I like having that stuff, and I don't want to give it up. So what do we do about the stuff we don't need but just want? And what precisely are the "some means" to allocate stuff? And what precisely are the "market mechanism" and "currency exchange"? I'm an economist, and I've read my share of Marx, but I don't fully understand either of these terms.

Second, deBoer does not tell us why we would want to replace the "very system of exchanging currency for goods." deBoer seems to imply that this "very system" is what's wrong with capitalism: that if we just replaced this very system with just about anything else (so long as there's no "expectation of reciprocity"), we would fix the problem that is capitalism.

And what about reciprocity? Marx does not abandon reciprocity even in his thousand year goal, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I suspect that deBoer means some sort of direct, immediate and personalized reciprocity (if you don't pay full price up front, you don't get medical treatment), but the issue of reciprocity remains important.

Of course, it would definitely be nice if there were enough stuff that any reasonable empathetic adult could just take whatever they wanted, but if that were the case, we would have no need of any means at all to assess need. And if we restrict socialism to just the provision of needs rather than wants, however socially determined, then why would social democracy, a.k.a. welfare capitalism, not be sufficiently socialist?

I do not think that the system of exchanging currency for goods in itself is per of a problem, much less the fundamental problem of capitalism. So long there are not enough goods for everyone to simply take whatever they want, we have to use numbers to allocate production and consumption, and "currency" literally is nothing but numbers, numbers used to allocate production and consumption. Unless you advocate abandoning using arithmetic in the production and allocation of goods, you have currency.

It's easy to read Marx's charge that capitalism reduces all social relations to the cash nexus as a condemnation of cash. However, I read Marx differently: the key phrase is "reduces all social relations". The problem is not the "market" (another unacceptably vague term), the problem is the totalitarianism of the market. The problem is not that I must somehow exchange currency for stuff, the problem is first that at the limit, I have to dedicate every waking moment, I have to dedicate every choice, to obtaining and managing currency. And, of course, the second problem is the terms of obtaining that currency: Most people have to rent their humanity to the bosses to have enough currency just to live. It's not the currency that matters, but how currency is used as a means of domination and control.

Even as the most basic "ground floor" definition, I think we need more than deBoer's economic definition of socialism. Stay tuned for part 2, where I offer what I think will be a more useful definition.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Seven theses

Seven Theses by Phil Green
Engels proclaimed in the 19th Century that the choice was “Socialism or Barbarism.” The suspense is over. The barbarians are not at the gates, they’re inside.

Read the rest. We are well and truly fucked.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cultural boxes

In his comment to my post We can't just take what we want, Dustin Vinland Jarl writes,

So you don't think it should be the law, but that it should be angry online mobs that ensure that nobody strays from their prescribed "cultural box" into another "cultural box" for which they don't have "ownership"?

I will repeat my first response: "Mobs? This is the usual characterization of the people by anti-democratic elitists," but I want to add more.

We literally live in boxes — houses, apartments, etc. — about which we assert all sorts of ownership rights. The point is not to make sure that you never leave your own box and enter mine; the point is that you have to respect my ownership rights, and I yours. It's not that you can't come over and visit, it's that you need to ask permission or be invited: you need to respect my ownership. And if you have a history of breaking in by unannounced, and worse yet shitting all over my bed, I'm going to refuse permission for what I might otherwise grant it: I'm sorry you've become homeless, but no, you can't crash on my couch. Why? Because you've shown yourself to be a jackass.

So yes, I'm asserting that people in these "cultural box[es]" — boxes that I yet again note were constructed by white colonialists to dehumanize and exploit those they put in those boxes — are asserting ownership and demanding that we respect that ownership.

Do I think cultural exchange important? Of course I do. Should we engage in cultural exchange in a respectful manner, cognizant of the abominable history of colonialism? Absolutely.

If you disagree with the latter, why? Why should cultural exchange necessarily require abandonment of notions of ordinary respect and consideration?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Socialism, Marxism, and communism

Fredrik deBoer's offers his opinion about what socialism, Marxism, and communism mean. I largely agree.

The term “socialism” refers to an economic system in which human goods are removed from the market mechanism and currency exchange and are instead distributed based on need. . . .

The term “Marxist” refers to the teachings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their intellectual descendants. Marxism is commonly also called “dialectical materialism” . . . Marxism is the culmination of Enlightenment thought.

“Communism” is the political program of Marxists . . . Communism is a type of revolutionary socialism which calls for a worldwide workers revolution that destroys capitalism, kills God, and dismantles the state. . . .

deBoer goes into a little more detail; as the saying goes, read the rest.

It is pointless to argue that that's not what socialism, Marxism, and communism "really means"; the best you can do is say that that's not what <insert pseudo-authority here> thinks these things mean.

I personally would stress more the sense of socialism as the establishment of social welfare on the basis of the power of the proletariat rather than the sufferance of the bourgeoisie, but deBoer gets some of that sense in "communism", so I'm cool overall.

We can't just take what we want

I think non-Hispanics wearing sombreros at a tequila party is a maybe little bit racist, but not really a big deal: it was certainly not intended to be disrespectful, intended not as mockery but as homage. I think a young white woman wearing a Chinese-style dress to her prom is completely fine: it's literally just a dress.

But the whole point of cultural appropriation is that it's pretty much irrelevant what I think: I drew a straight flush of cultural and economic privilege.

A long time ago, I was negotiating with a family member (the details are unimportant). I said that I wanted thus-and-such. The other person said that I should not want that. I was furious. Maybe I couldn't get what I wanted, but how dare they tell me I shouldn't want it.

I suspect Yassmin Abdel-Magied objects to Lionel Shriver for much the same reason. Shriver is saying to people of oppressed cultures that they shouldn't want to protect the integrity of their cultures from white expropriation. I agree with Abdel-Magied: Fuck you, and fuck your artistic white privilege.

It was not women, black people, brown people, Asian people, Muslims, gay people, trans people, etc. who drew boundaries around themselves and said, "None shall pass." It was straight white European wealthy men who drew those boundaries and said, "Everyone in those boundaries is not human, so we can take from them, and do to them, whatever we want."

Surprise, surprise, surprise! people in those boundaries are taking ownership: "You made the boundaries, but we're taking them back, and you can't have anything inside them without our permission." Sometimes permission is denied for what seems to li'l ol' privileged me to be petty or arbitrary reasons. So what? The whole point of you owning something is that absent exceptional circumstances, I must ask your permission, and I don't get to judge your reasons for refusing.

The intent of objections to cultural appropriation is not, I think, to maintain some mythical cultural purity. It is simply to start to take power away from European colonialism and imperialism, to say, "We are actual human beings, and we have the right to own this thing, our own culture. You cannot simply take what you want."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Cultural appropriation

I'm almost completely unsympathetic to Claire Lehmann's argument in The Evils of Cultural Appropriation. Lehmann mentions two cases, the furor over a young white woman's Chinese-themed prom dress and Yassmin Abdel-Magied's outrage over Lionel Shriver’s defense of cultural appropriation. The boundaries of cultural appropriation are fuzzy, but just because they're fuzzy doesn't mean they don't exist.

We — white people, men, straight people, cis people — made this bed, and we seem shocked! shocked I say! to have to lie in it. For centuries, white people have been colossal dicks to people of color, men have been colossal dicks to women, straight people colossal dicks to gay people, and cis people colossal dicks to trans people. Ok, history, yadda yadda, but the thing is that we're still being colossal dicks. We have been literally victimizing people of color, etc., and now we're surprised that they're using their victimization? Seriously: grow up. Actions have consequences. We've been bullying the world for the better part of a millennium (and women for several millennia); we have no business complaining that they're fighting back in ways we disapprove of. You can't bully someone, and when they fight back, say, "Hey! Why can't we all just get along?"

I don't always agree with how people of color, women, gay people, trans people, etc. fight their oppression. But so what? I don't have to live with what they have to live with. I'm a straight white cis middle-class man. I don't have to fight any kind of oppression. All I can do is try not to be a colossal dick.

When people of color start getting their share of the awards and book deals, maybe then we can start talking about whether or not white writers get to write about people of color. Until then, let's stop trying to be colossal dicks about the whole thing.