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Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Well, now that the technical experts at ORANGE have explained to me how to plug my phone in so that I can use it, and I have, all on my own, figured out how to stop my television set from playing things in black and white rather than full color, I can return to my reflections on what socialism might be like if it ever happened.  Today, I will respond to the extremely interesting comment posted by Wallace Stevens.  Once again I want to caution my readers.  I am not presenting a theory of socialism; I am just musing on what socialism might be like if it ever happened.  I am trying very hard to restrict myself to things I have experienced or know something about, so if I describe a situation as one that might suggest some clues for what socialism might be like, for heaven’s sake do not weigh in with the objection that that does not explain some other aspect or feature of socialism.  I know that.  I am simply trying to imagine how things might be different from the way they are now.

The part of Wallace Stevens’ comment that got me thinking was this:  “Second, I am not sure that everyone would even want to participate in the “planning, designing, and overseeing of the work that they are doing.” I know that I don’t. I am close to the end of a career in the business world where I have held senior positions, but never been the ultimate boss. I have had my share of decisions that didn’t go my way. But I would much rather see a decision made and move on than get bogged down in endless debate and complex voting schemes. For me, the Occupy Wall Street form of democracy is a vision of hell. I’ll qualify this by saying that I’m not talking about decisions to do anything illegal. And I certainly don’t appreciate commands from on high with no debate of any kind. I just mean that, in my experience, once the various alternatives and their pros and cons have been aired, it is better that someone breaks the tie and we move on, provided of course that the person who has final say is also accountable for the consequences. I have often been surprised later at the number of times that what seemed like momentous decisions in the end didn’t matter much one way or the other. Such is the human mess! I’d be curious if the experience is similar in the academic world.”

The remark about Occupy Wall Street reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s famous witticism about socialism:  “It will never work.  Too many meetings.”

The situation in the academic world is instructive.  Let me talk about the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I taught for thirty-seven years as a senior faculty member.  The faculty was paid weekly, but the salary was officially a nine month salary, spread evenly throughout the year.  When you took on an administrative position, you received two months of extra salary, on the theory that you were working eleven months a year, with one month vacation.  Administrators did important stuff, I guess, but most of us thought of it as terminally boring and were quite happy to leave it to those doofuses who didn’t have enough serious research going on to fill up their days and were attracted by the marginally better working conditions [your own secretary and a carpet on the office floor.]  Even Deans and Provosts did not have very much power to control the actual working life of the faculty.  They could not tell us what to teach, or how to teach it, nor could they tell us what avenues of research to explore [it would never have occurred to them to try.]  The difference in salary for administrators as opposed to senior faculty was not big enough to be life-changing, nor were the perks all that important.

Now, compare that with what is happening these days in the Academy.  First of all, administrative staffs are ballooning, with Assistant Deans and Associate Provosts multiplying like Tribbles [see the famous episode of the original Star Trek called “The Trouble With Tribbles.]  Secondly, administrative salaries are in fact pulling away from the salaries of faculty.  Third, contract teachers and part-timers, without job protection or fringe benefits, are now doing virtually half of the tertiary level teaching.  And finally, administrations are invading the workspace of faculty, trying to dictate what is taught and how.  All of this is happening in the name of rationalization, bringing a business sensibility to the Academy.

Nevertheless, in its glory days [roughly coterminous with my career, as it happens], the Academy was an excellent model of one manageable way in which control over work could be placed in the hands of those doing the work, without “too many meetings.” 

Clearly, the rough comparability of compensation is crucially important.  As Wallace Stevens implies, having someone else make some of the decisions might be quite acceptable to someone whose compensation was adequate and comparable to that of the decision makers.

If I may revert for a moment to my comments about Rawls and the matter of unequal rewards, if unpleasant or tedious jobs like garbage collector or hotel maid had higher than usual salaries attached to them, there might be a number of people who would willingly take those jobs for the pay, especially if the work week were reduced to thirty-five or thirty hours.  Once we get past the completely unjustified assumption of economists, sociologists, and philosophers like Rawls that the attractive, complex, high-status jobs can be filled with talented people only by offering unusually high salaries, we see that there might be enough money in the pot to raise the compensation attached to the grubby, boring necessary jobs.  Would the manager of a large bureaucratic operation really decide to spend his time on the loading dock rather than in the executive suite if the pay were cut all the way back to that of a factory worker?  It would be kind of fun to try it and see.


Tom Hickey said...

"Too many meetings" is really about efficiency rather than preference. Preference must be accommodated in an organization or performance will decline, which is inefficient.

But the cardinal rule of successful organization aimed at achieving objectives was enunciated by Peter F. Drucker. To paraphrase the message of The Efficient Executive: Efficiency is going things right and effectiveness is doing the right things.

Efficiency is about means and effectiveness is about ends. Purpose is end-oriented. Unless one is a tourist, the objective is to get to the end as efficiently as possible with the means at hand.

Drucker also makes a good case that owing to the nature of organization large and well-managed organizations will dominate the future, being both more efficient and more effective than smaller organization and having other advantages as well, such as deeper pockets to take advantage of opportunity.

It doesn't matter what type of system is adopted, capitalism, socialism, social democracy, whatever. Minsky said there are as many forms of capitalism as Heinz has products. What counts is how the organization performs. The only way this would not be factor is a word in which the same type of organization was homogenous. That's not likely to happen owing to differences, including geographical one that are natural.

In the hunter-gather period of human development, decisions were made by a combination of consensus and custom. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses were enabled that required development of distributive systems on one hand and means of protecting them on the other. The outcome was the hierarchical military model perfected by the Romans that has dominated organization since.

The question now is to what degree consensual organization can be combined with hierarchical organization in order to maximize advantage and minimize disadvantages. Experiments like the lattice structure of Gore Industries and the holistic approach of Zappos are examples of such an attempt.

It is important in this regard that barring a sudden turn of events, one of the chief factors is the transition from one dominant form to another, that is, now to get from here to there as optimally as possible.

This means tradeoffs and opportunity costs. Thinking about this rigorously is now possible. The objective of social and political thought is, first, what is possible, secondly, what is feasible, thirdly, closing among alternatives based on tradeoffs and commonly shared preferences, and finally implementing the transition along a developmental path.

Occupy, rightly, was still at the talking stage. It was pretty simple to identify where change was needed but it is a lot more difficult to come up with shared solutions. That's what popular sovereignty is about — government of the people, by the people and for the people, which has never been tried. Rather the rule has been John Jay's, Those who own the country should govern the country, and that's been the case since the creation of surpluses for distribution.


Tom Hickey said...


Marx articulated the fundamental view of anarchism, left and right, in his observation that the social and political problem arises from the separation of the state from the people so that the state can be captured with the result that government acts in the interests of a ruling class. There are two fundamental solutions on the table. First is abolition of the state, agreed upon by both left and right anarchists, and the second is the actualizing the popular sovereignty of liberalism through political means that obviate privilege.

My own conclusion is that utopian thinking a real danger because it is basically ideological and therefore dogmatic rather than "scientific" and pragmatic in the broad sense of adapting to reality, which is dynamic. That means, for example, that a viable solution must be dialectical in that societies are complex adaptive systems. Marx was just scratching the surface of this. Much broader and deeper knowledge is available now, and this knowledge is constantly developing.

Moreover, technological innovation is making a great deal possible now that was either unknown or science fiction in the time of Marx. And a lot of this technology is disruptive, not only economically but also socially and politically. The transition from the industrial age to the digital age will naturally result in different social, political and economic possibilities and therefore new thinking a institutions.

It's already happening. Thinkers and activists should be working toward influencing the direction and taking the next steps. In that regard, experience already shows that Occupy was a watershed event that shifted the discourse in the direction of addressing inequality. Would Piketty's *Capital in the 21st Century* have been noticed the way it was if not for Occupy. Pickett also wisely decided to use a standard neoclassical model to engage conventional economists and policy people. Would has work have made the same impact if he said what people like Jamie Galbraith have been saying for some time.

Policy, strategy and tactics are all needed. Policy is based on values. This is probably the place to beginning rather than with designing a utopian idea, although that is a very useful exercise, too, and one that his necessary as part of an interactive process in coming to agreement on a direction to take. BTW, Occupy and associated groups are still very much active. While Occupy has disappeared from the headlines, a lot of people got radicalized, just like with the anti-war movement in the Sixties and Seventies.


Tom Hickey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.R. said...

I have two loosely connected things to say:

First, regarding the "garbage man problem," I recall a story about the establishment of the New York City Sanitation Department. Prior to their existence, the city was more or less choking on its own filth, one year later it was much better. How much better? When the garbage collectors had a parade to celebrate their one-year anniversary, the streets were packed with residents cheering for them. As far as they were concerned, the garbage collectors were heroes.

They were, of course, right, garbage collectors arguably do more to keep us safe and healthy than doctors or police--you don't hear about many people dying of cholera these days. One might think that under socialism garbage collectors would get the respect they deserve, and this alone would make people more willing to take on that job.

Secondly, Wolff speculates that we could reduce their work week to "thirty-five or thirty hours." My first thought was that in the U.S. today a great many people would count themselves lucky to get that many hours of work. We have already reached a point where we seem to have trouble divvying up the available socially necessary labor.

There is a lot of worry about the pace of automation among capitalist intellectuals. For example, there is a big push for the introduction of driverless cars now. This technology seems to be almost, if not fully, mature.

Last week I read an article about the rollout of the first fully-automated semi truck, which portends the end of another working class profession. Several, actually, as bus and subway drivers be phased out as well. Even traditional white-collar work such as accounting and translation is increasingly in danger of being automated nearly out of existence.

The point of this is that our near future hypothetical socialism is likely to be much less labor-intensive than the capitalism of the last fifty years or so. As a consequence we would likely enjoy very short workweeks, with plenty of time to hunt, fish, rear cattle, and criticize.

J.R. said...

I will also note, based on my own experience and others I have talked to, that Occupy meetings were hell not because they were democratic, but because the decision-making system (in both its Madrid and New York forms) was fundamentally broken. Things would have run more smoothly had we all shown up with Robert's Rules of Order in hand.

Lesson learnt--any feasible socialism will not run on "consensus."

Tom Hickey said...

The point of this is that our near future hypothetical socialism is likely to be much less labor-intensive than the capitalism of the last fifty years or so. As a consequence we would likely enjoy very short workweeks, with plenty of time to hunt, fish, rear cattle, and criticize.

Technological innovation that results in increased productivity results in a greater surplus with fewer hours of human work. The question, as ever, is how to distribute the increase. This is basically an issue of owner share (capital share) and worker share (labor share). Recent gains have gone to owners and top management, which technically is a part of worker share.

Were the share distributed more equally, then workers could enjoy higher pay and more leisure for the same input of work. Without bargaining power,workers don't have the leverage to negotiate this under the existing institutional arrangements.

Indeed, owners and top management considers increasing worker bargaining power to compel a proportional distribution of the increasing surplus to be "socialism," which is held to be antithetical to capitalism in that it would undermine incentive and market forces. Under marginalism, distribution based on free markets is equitable in that all receive their just deserts based on marginal product. As most heterodox economists argue, neoclassical economics employs specious reasoning based on unrealistic assumptions, for example, rather distributional outcomes being the working of so-called natural laws governing market forces as neoclassical economists claim.

Neoclassical economics is a rationalization for neoliberalism as a political theory based on economic liberalism. A different economics would result in a different economic policy and different institutional arrangements. There are many proposals among heterodox economists. Marxist economics that purports to be faithful to Marx & Engels is not monolithic either, since there are different interpretations of Marx. But no heterodox view of economics accepts marginalism and "just deserts" as the natural and equitable outcome of the operation of market forces left to themselves.


Tom Hickey said...


What kind of a system would might replace neoliberalism depends in large part on the type of economics adopted, which itself depends on assumptions like economic methodology but also philosophical assumptions about not only the philosophy of economics, of science, and of social science, but also ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy. For example, most heterodox economists reject the methodological individualism, which is based on a presumption of ontological individualism, as an unrealistic view of human nature and society. They argue that human being are social and that history, cultural and institutional arrangements are part and parcel of human activity. In econospeak, this is the difference between homo economicus as rational utility maximizers and homo socialis, whose motivation and decision-making is much more complex.

The use of language to think and communicate depends on context and context is shaped by worldviews as a web of assumptions that are largely implicit. Some of these assumptions are methodological assumptions about norms and criteria. Moreover, many if not most people identify their own worldview with reality, which makes debate among those holding different views of the world difficult or impossible without compromise. Dogmatists don't do well at this. This often results in conflict, especially if a party attempts to impose a particular style of thinking and its worldview.

Conflict is especially likely to arise when there is a lot of money and power on the table. As Warren Buffett is quoted as saying, "This is class war and my class is winning." Owner and top management share of gains versus worker share is an especially tough point regarding this, especially when the mainstream regards distributional issues settled by market forces that operate naturally. But, as Joe Stiglitz said, "There is no invisible hand." He might have added that there is a rather visible fist.


classtruggle said...

"Technological innovation that results in increased productivity results in a greater surplus with fewer hours of human work.The question, as ever, is how to distribute the increase. This is basically an issue of owner share (capital share) and worker share (labor share). Recent gains have gone to owners and top management, which technically is a part of worker share."

Do you mean under capitalism or socialism or that technological innovation in general has this sort of impact? The introduction of machinery under a system of freely associated labour would create both more free time for everyone and more surplus for social advancement, yes that is certainly true.

If you remember Chapter 15 of Volume One of Capital (Machinery and Large Scale Industry) Marx, who relies heavily on the writings of Ure and Babbage, two pro capitalist ideologues and leading promoters of industrial management at the time, starts off by pointing out that the introduction of ‘machinery under capitalism’ was never intended to reduce the amount of work, but only ‘to cheapen commodities and, by shortening the part of the working day in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the other part, the part he gives to the capitalist for nothing. The machine is a means for producing surplus-value’ (p.492, Fowkes).

And in Chapter 12 (Relative Surplus Value), Marx makes two crucial points:

1) a decrease in the value of labour or the necessary labour time can only be done by lowering the value of labour-power or cheapening the means of subsistence (cheaper housing, food, clothes, etc.) or increasing the productivity of the means of production dedicated to the means of subsistence.


2) an increase in productivity, the revolutionising of the means of production in any branch of industry (change in tools or in method of work), acts in such a way as to ‘shorten the labour-time necessary for the production of a commodity, and to endow a given quantity of labour with the power of producing a greater quantity of use-value’ (431). In other words, an increase in productivity does not result in the production of more value. It produces more use-values with the same total value as before, but now divided amongst more, that is to say each use-value has less value.

The implications of new methods in a capitalist system is that they have the potential to drive capitalists with old methods out of business; to increase centralisation and concentration; and they also produce the rationale for the advertising industry which is to promote consumerism and create demand to meet the expanding supply [Galbraith wrote about how certain goods are then 'over provided' due to the process of advertising which creates an artificial demand above the individual's basic needs]

"The exceptionally productive labour acts as intensified labour because it allows more values to be produced in the same time as 'average social labour of the same kind (p.435). For this reason, new methods increase the degree of exploitation because the ratio of necessary labour time to surplus labour time has increased.

classtruggle said...

In his address to the General Council of the IWMA, Marx argued that machines had effects that turned out to be the opposite of what was commonly expected. This point was reflected in the very first sentence of Chapter 15 where Marx quotes Mill's Principles of Political Economy: "“It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” They clearly did not. As Marx and Engels observed, the working day was prolonged instead of shortened; the proportion of women and children working in mechanised industries increased; labourers suffered from a growing intensity of labour and became increasingly more dependent on capitalists because they did not own the means of production any more.

Under capitalism, technological innovation creates an incentive to prolong the working day in order to counter the problem of economic obsolescence and the devaluation of old machinery by the introduction of new ones. Owners therefore try to recoup some of that value by keeping the machines employed 24 hours a day (if possible).

Tom Hickey said...

Do you mean under capitalism or socialism or that technological innovation in general has this sort of impact? The introduction of machinery under a system of freely associated labour would create both more free time for everyone and more surplus for social advancement, yes that is certainly true.

I am speaking of whatever system. Moreover, there is no single form of capitalism or of socialism. What I am saying is that given technological innovation the result is increasing productivity (fewer work hours for the same output per capital). Writing in the 19th century Marx could not have foreseen the development of technology and this is one of the chief criticisms a being dogmatic about Marx's writing in today's historical context.

Technological innovation has to be taken into consideration in any socio-economic analysis and the result of technological innovation in a greater surplus with less need for work raises the economic question of distribution, but it this is not merely an economic issue but also a social and political one, as Marx & Engels and contemporary heterodox economists acknowledge. Neoclassical economists, especially proponents of neoliberalism as a political theory, reject this view: Operating on the marginalist assumption all receive their just deserts, so distribution is not an issue unless economic power allows rent extraction.

Typically, neoliberals view collective bargains as economic power that allows workers to extract economic rent, so unions should be banned to ensure that market forces work naturally. Given increased productivity and therefore profit owing to technological innovation, owners, entrepreneurs, and top management further argue that ordinary worker who have been made redundant are not entitled to share in the distribution of the increased surplus since they did not contribute to it.

In order to change this, a different worldview based on different social, political and economic assumptions is needed. In principle there are many such worldviews. Whatever the worldview the same enduring questions remain and to be a successful contender the proposed view must adequately address them.

This was the challenge presented to the participants in Occupy, for example. There were widely shared views about what is not working and why, but no shared view of a practical solution emerged, and I don't think that this was solely or even chiefly about the decision process. It is inherent in the political process. Neoliberalism remains in place because, as Margaret Thatcher said, "There is no alternative." Well, of course there are many alternatives, but the pressing issue is a common enough vision to inspire sufficient people politically to present a political alternative to which enough people are attracted to get traction. Moreover, there needs to be plan for how to get from here to there. Just proposing a utopian vision without a strategy is therefore problematic. Even the center left in the US and UK have not been successful in this, and neoliberals are now on the march in the EZ to tear down social democracy as Reaganism began to tear down the New Deal in the US, and Thatcher destroyed the traditional Labour Party in the UK.