Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Socialism and markets

Much ink has been wasted on the supposed conflict between free markets versus central planning, with free markets supposedly being intrinsic to capitalism and central planning intrinsic to socialism. All nonsense. Sadly, too many socialists retain an irrational and unfounded fear of the word market.

In the broadest sense, a market is a system of voluntary transactional exchanges of goods and services using money tokens.

As a general principle, a society should ban voluntary action only in extreme cases where the voluntary action either imposes uncorrectable externalities, such as going without a mask in a pandemic, or is just completely stupid, such as driving without wearing a seat belt. (I tend to libertarianism in the latter case, but that's not a hill I'm willing to die on.)

Any society facing scarcity must have some numerical way of allocating scarce resources. If a society imposes a numerical limit on consumption, it has money: money is the numbers and the limits.

Different jobs have different average desirability, so it makes sense to somehow make undesirable jobs more desirable by allowing workers in undesirable jobs to consume more per hour of work.

"Market socialism" is, therefore, kind of a redundancy. A truly communist society would not have markets, but only because communism presupposes no material scarcity. Under communism, a transactional accounting method for allocating scarce resources, i.e. money, would be superfluous. Whether we might have unlimited material resources in the future, at present we do not yet have them.

A socialist society could ban voluntary transactions, and some societies have. I have no idea whether those bans were good or bad ideas in those societies under their specific historical circumstances. But such a ban is a tool, not an intrinsic characteristic of socialism.

A more critical investigation of capitalist markets, however, gives socialists a better idea of what is essential to socialism.

First, capitalist markets are not always voluntary. If I must pay rent or freeze to death, the "choice" to pay rent is not voluntary. If I must kiss my boss's ass to keep my job so I can pay my rent and not freeze to death, the "choice" to kiss my boss's ass is not voluntary. Nature does coerce us — we must eat to live — but we can eliminate nature's coercion only with science and engineering, not with law or social construction.

Second, capitalism really does require markets (however involuntary) in everything. We can carve out exceptions, and the exceptions work in practice, but capitalists always offer unrelenting indefatigable opposition to any exceptions to markets. Capitalists exercise power using involuntary capitalist markets; any exceptions diminish their power.

Third, and most important, the driving force behind capitalist markets is the profit motive: each household must do whatever it takes to increase its flow of money tokens, without limit. Capitalist markets are about accumulating power, not the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Just because Elon Musk has accumulated a metric assload of money tokens does not mean that firing a Tesla into space is an efficient use of scarce resources. (I mean, maybe it was, but we can't tell just because Musk had enough money tokens to do so.)

The essential nature of socialism is not to ban voluntary transactions. A socialist society might or might not ban some or perhaps all voluntary transactions, based on specific material circumstances, but such bans are not essential: we cannot say that a society that does not ban voluntary transactions is therefore not socialist.

What is essential to socialism is first being honest about distributing nature's coercion. Human beings must work to live, so a socialist society, unlike capitalist societies, must be honest and direct about saying that each person capable of working must actually work. And once we are honest about nature's coercion, we can tackle the scientific and technical task of freeing ourselves from nature's coercion.

It is also essential to a socialist society to reject the profit motive. The motive for each households should not to accumulate as much wealth as possible, but to offer its scarce resource, labor, and use its demand on the social product efficiently to maximize the happiness of its members.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

What is socialism?

Every so often, I talk to people about socialism. Almost always, the first response is, "But what about Stalin/Mao/Castro/Chavez!? If you're a socialist, you must be in favor of gulags, reeducation camps, famines, hyperinflation, and mopery on the high seas."

Bollocks. It's a bad faith argument on its face. The reasoning is obviously unsound: Stalin was a socialist (granted), Stalin sucked (granted arguendo); therefore socialism sucks. Sorry, non-sequitur. You would have to establish that Stalin sucked just because he was a socialist. And people don't do that.

I'm sure there are a few fringe people out there who think that Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. is the One True Prophet. Fine, whatever. But most people don't think so.

These guys (and others) were real socialists, but they were also human beings, and they were working in very specific historical, economic, social, cultural, and international contexts. A simplistic analysis cannot separate out these various historical influences from the influence of socialist ideology.

It's worth taking a step back, though, and trying to just answer the question, "What is socialism?" There's not one good answer; it's not like the National Institute of Standards and Technology has standardized the term.

The best I can do is take a position that is half historical and half normative: I think what follows is common among socialists and worth keeping.

Socialism consists of three elements:
  1. The government acts directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class holds and exercises direct economic power
  3. The working class holds and exercises direct political power

Feel free to add "should" to the above to go from actually existing socialism to normative socialism.

These elements are continuous, not binary, so there is an overall continuum of socialism.

So, for example, the U.S. federal and state governments provide Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, workplace safety and health regulations, mass transit and other public goods, so the government does in fact at least partially act in accordance with the first element of socialism.

Most of the workers in the U.S. vote, and we still have (for now!) a political system that resembles a democratic republic, so the U.S. is at least partially socialist in the third element.

Workers have almost no direct (or even indirect) economic power, so the U.S. is almost completely non-socialist on the second element.

Anti-socialism, then, just negates the three elements:

  1. The government does not or should not act directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct economic power
  3. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct political power

Everyone should be aware of long-standing anti-socialist opposition in the U.S. to Social Security, Medicare, and all the socialist measures listed above. The working class has been all but excluded from any sort of economic power (and was almost completely excluded from economic power for most the United States' existence), and the project of neoliberalism has been to place most economic power outside the control of the state. Finally, the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent the Democratic Party) has been dismantling even the appearance of a democratic republic.

If you want to say you're against socialism, I think you have to commit to 100 percent to all three of of the anti-socialist negations. Otherwise, you're at least a little bit socialist, and as they saying goes, I already know what you are, we're just negotiating the price.

Notice that the above elements say nothing about markets, central planning, the structure of the government, reeducation camps, freedom of speech/religion/assembly, etc.

These are important issues, to be sure, but they are not essential to socialism; they are implementation details. Implementation details are important, of course, but we have to agree first on the goals and framework before we can begin implementation.

The elements of socialism also say nothing about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Someone could be a racist socialist: they would be an asshole, of course, and wrong, but they would be a socialist asshole. It is more productive, I think, to just say, "You shouldn't be racist," than to say, "If you're a racist, you're not a socialist."

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it's hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.