Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, September 10, 2010

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE

I take my title today from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that put Clint Eastwood on the map. After making A Fistful of Dollars, he made A Few Dollars More [and then The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly]. Well, the discussion we have been having about capitalism has triggered some interesting replies and rejoinders, so I want to say just a few more things before we move on to other topics.

The central question under debate seems to be whether it is possible somehow adequately to ameliorate the oppressions, exploitations, and gross inequalities of capitalism without altering the fundamental structure of a capitalist economy and society, which is to say private ownership and control of the means of production, wage labor, and production of commodities for profit rather than production of goods for human consumption and use.

The very first question one must answer is, Who is doing the ameliorating? It is dangerously deceptive and self-deluding to talk about capital grants and redistributions and so on without asking who it is that is doing all of this. Who, in a capitalist economy and society, has the power to fundamentally alter the structure of ownership so that ownership of the capital of the society is equally shared among all of the members of the society? The answer, of course, is Those who now own the capital or control it. And what will motivate them to carry out such a redistribution of ownership and control? Nothing, so far as I can see.

But this question actually is a good deal less interesting than a more fundamental one. Our modern economy is built on large-scale integrated production processes. You may think [though I have my doubts about it] that industrial agriculture can be replaced by a vast number of small-scale farms and ranches without a loss of efficiency in food production, but surely no one imagines that automobile production can be efficiently managed by means of boutique automobile production, nor can modern hi-tech health care delivery be carried out without large expensive hospitals stocked with MRI machines et al. Even if you somehow persuade the owners of capital to pass out shares of stock in such a manner that each person in the America owns one three-hundred millionth of the total capital of all the enterprises in our economy [a fantasy truly heroic in its detachment from reality], the enterprises themselves will continue to be organized as they are now. If the owners -- which is to say the entire population -- now mandate that that capital be managed and used for the good of all the owners, i.e., the entire population, then what you have is socialism, and the revolution has been completed. Capitalism ceases to exist. [As one commenter pointed out].

Am I in favor of that? Hell, yes. But I have no illusions that it is going to occur, at least without a revolutionary transformation in the beliefs and the behaviors of the entire population.

Short of socialism, there are of course many, many ways in which the worst of capitalism can be ameliorated. Again, one of the comments pointed out that this would require the rebirth of the union movement. All one need do is carry out a cross-national comparison of the various mature capitalist economies in the world to see that what we have in the United States is on the very worst end of the spectrum. Other countries provide a more equal income distribution and a stronger social safety net, all within the structure of a capitalist economy.

So what is the advantage of capitalism, that would lead us to make any possible adjustment in it rather than get rid of it? Well, that is a long story, and I have written about that too at length. I am really not going to repeat here everything I have said elsewhere.

Let me conclude by saying that we are still in coconut territory. Postulating the passing out of "capital shares" without asking who is going to do the passing out and why, is as feckless as supposing that two people on a desert island passing coconuts back and forth are somehow going to tell us anything about capitalism.

6 comments:

Mike said...

Robert,

I was not assuming that ameliorating redistributions require equal ownership shares. As long as workers aren’t exploited (in any morally interesting sense), and as long as people live reasonably well, I am morally content. And this, it seems to me, is more or less achievable with the kinds of redistributive practices with which we are all familiar (and perhaps a few additional ones, such as an initial capital grant). At a minimum, I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument to the contrary.

Moving on a bit, I still don’t understand your infatuation with equal ownership shares. What would be gained by having such an unwieldy system? If I own some productive asset A, then I have an incentive to improve it, to study its potential, to invest it wisely, and so on. If I use it wisely, I turn a profit. If not, I bear the cost. If, on the other hand, I own a one three hundred millionth share in A, it’s hard to see how I would have an incentive to do any of these things. And even if I stood to profit from its wise use, I would have no real power to make this happen. Democracy does not make for a good political system but we haven’t yet found a better alternative. This is not true, however, in the case of economics, where we have found a better way. And that way, it seems to me, allows for the private ownership of the means of production.

In short, I simply don’t see why you would want to import all the problems and inefficiencies of democratic decision-making into the economic arena. Of course, some of these inefficiencies are already there. But I have no idea what would be gained by expanding them.

Chris said...

Mike,
You're starting down the same path someone else did on Robert's blog a month or two ago. You seem to think that one individuals spontaneity/ingenuity/drive for profit/ etc, will actually serve the community as a whole. This is of course fundamentally false, and a basic concept learned in any introductory economics course; please wiki 'externality.' I assure you, there are good folks with ingenious minds, working very had at creating the next best/greatest/most efficient something or other at Boeings weapon department. And I assure it it will not benefit but the most minute of individuals.

If someone is going to generate 'new' commodities for the community, than what Robert would prefer is that the community actually have a say in what's being generated for them. You might think the market will sort that out, but there are too many examples of the market forcing demand when there really isn't one; or at the very least too many ways to manipulate people into believing their needs aren't met (Just watch commercials).

Finally, you think incentive to make commodities that are ameliorating to the community simply come from profit incentive; well I ask you, have you ever simply taught a friend or family member something new, just because? Was profit always at the basis? Was it at the basis of Einstein's equations, or Louie Pastures numerous medical breakthroughs? If not, is it really ideal to structure a societies mode of production around profit first and foremost?

At the end of the day Capitalism requires the generating of evermore commodities, that may or may not serve a useful purpose to the community. However, commodities are not what makes us human, happy, content, loving, affectionate, compassionate, etc. To isolate oneself into the profit way of thinking, as the way to structure a society is to begin at a position that guarantee we are both alienated, and foregoing value attributes that make us human.

Mike said...

Chris,

You’re attacking a straw man. Of course an individual’s ingenuity and drive for profit will not always benefit his community, but it typically will. Voluntary transactions, after all, are usually mutually beneficial.

You also note that markets sometimes force demand where there isn’t any and that, as consumers, people are susceptible to manipulation. I’m not sure about the first point, but your second point is clearly right. I don’t see, however, how democratizing the production process would reduce manipulation. Unless you think that, unlike consumers, voters are not susceptible to manipulation?

You then attribute to me the view that only profit motivates people to benefit others. I don’t recall saying any such thing. Profit, of course, is just one of many such motives. Of course, it happens to be an extremely powerful one!

Profit, of course, is not the measure of all things. There is more to life than money. Capitalists needn’t deny this. Their point is simply that while we know how to build an economy that runs on the pursuit of profit, we don’t know how to build one that runs on love, compassion, affection, or any of the other lovely things you mention. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t leave room for these things, but only that they are not yet a suitable basis for an economic system.

Chris said...

Mike, I shall need to post my reply in sections, for some reason this blog cannot handle the size of my post.


I'm not attacking a strawman, I was delicate, and consistently pointed out that private ingenuity can go either way. However, the motivation, in a capitalist mode of production, is never - by institutional mandate - beneficent. The strawman has been developed when you conclude that this form of commodity creation will most of the time "typically will" benefit the community.

I'm not sure if you've been to a major American shopping mall lately but not only does 99% of the stuff inside not serve a need -merely a want- but it also is literally crafted on the slave labor of tens of thousands of asians, africans, and latin americans. Even when private ingenuity can serve a community, at least in the capitalist model, it's often off the tears/blood/sweat of another community. If we realistically set about regulating all third labor exploitation we'd be on the verge of a revolution.

Chris said...

The idea of a voluntary transaction is ideal, but not in existence in capitalism. It was for Adam Smith, in an 18th century agrarian society, where markets are akin to a local farmers market. However, as capitalist augments more capital, their ability to force, dupe, manipulate, control, etc a transaction augments in tandem. That is our present reality, not the one of Smith's voluntary transaction reality.

If you're not sure about my first point, that corporations and capitalist can literally force demand, I'd ask you to look into the development of McDonalds in China, or Bananas in central america (but United Fruit). In the former, demand was generated where there wasn't any just by the sheer overwhelming odds of McDonalds capital against China's population. And in Central America, bananas became a form of slave labor, in a climate that wasn't natural for bananas, and than all exported to America where demand also had to be created. Edward Bernays/the banana man, king of propaganda and PR (literally wrote the book on it) was very much a part of creating this forced demand. These are just two small examples. The overall point is that, those with an excess of capital have the ability to create demand in communities where there really isn't any. And the demand they create doesn't serve a need, it often creates a fetishistic want.

I do of course agree voters are heavily subject to manipulation. And capitalism doesn't help that process one bit. Especially the latest Supreme Court ruling. It only makes it worse, because those with excess capital can generate more propaganda than those without. The trick to fixing the problem of voter manipulation is as radical, if not more radical, than the steps required to cease private ownership of the means of production. Trying to work within the framework is isolating, and requires so much radical change, that one might as well strive for something better overall.

I did not mean, and if I did it was accidental, to attribute to you that you think profit is the only sole motivator. What I meant was, when it comes to politically & economically structuring a society, profit need not take a front seat. Or even a back seat. Hell, throw it into the trunk, under the rug, near the spare tire. Of all of humans beautiful and diverse attributes, let's not limit ourselves to profit. That was my message. And it's because I know you're capable of understanding it, that I drove it home; not because I think you prescribe to it full force.

Finally, when a capitalist tells you this whole "we don't know how to do otherwise" scheme, they are either ignorant, or lying. If it's ignorant, it can be excusable. If they are lying, it's mendacious and wrong. I do not suspect you of the latter, so I want to recommend a short dvd to you. It in no way encompasses the entire plethora of working alternatives, but it will certainly drive home the fact that a working alternative functions remarkable in the present, albeit it's never reported. Please look into the dvd by Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis: "The Take." It is functioning anarcho-syndicalism in action in Argentina.

Chris said...

If you want to read about alternatives that have worked, I would suggest reading about the Spanish Anarchist during the civil war of Spain, the Paris Commune, or the present day Zapatistas in Chiapas Mexico.


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