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Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Since my postings about my struggles with FranceTelecom were intended as humorous [however far they may have fallen short of that mark], I do not want to go too deeply into the question of consumer satisfaction in a socialist state.  That would be a bit like mounting a full-scale Foucault/Barthes/Derrida analysis of a Groucho Marx routine [something, I am sad to say, that has on occasion been produced by otherwise unoccupied cultural critics.]  But on a lazy 4th of July morning, after an invigorating six kilometer walk at six a.m. through the streets of Paris, it might not be over the top to say just a few words about the comments provoked by my feeble attempts at humor.

First of all, my old friend Jim Smethurst is of course right about France and FranceTelecom.  I cannot speak authoritatively about Verizon, but I do have a good deal of experience with Time Warner Cable, and save for the fact that I am fluent in English, there is not much to choose between the two experiences.  Periodically my phone, internet, and TV service back home goes all weird, and the most helpful advice I get when I call the [to be sure toll free] tech assistance number is to unplug everything, wait two minutes, and plug it all in again.  This, I might say, is the exact same advice I received here in Paris, thus exemplifying the globalization of consumer dissatisfaction.

But seriously, folks:  Socialism has virtually nothing to do with retail merchandising and consumer satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  It has everything to do with collective control of the means of production, and the guiding of investment and social savings decisions by considerations of human need rather than private profitablity.  In the United States today, tens of millions of men, women, and children struggle in poverty while high-end gated communities sprout like toxic muchrooms.  That is a malapportionment of social resources that results from the capitalist organization of the means of production.

Some state run  bureaucratic operations run with astonishing efficiency in the complete absence of market regulation or the discipline of competition.  Two striking examples are Medicare and the United States Army, both of which I have experienced personally.  Some do rather less well.  The Treansportation Security Administration comes to mind [the folks who cheerfully pat you down and feel you up on your way to an airplane.]

In a socialist society, there is plenty of room for your neighborhood grocery store, and also for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates [both of whom, so far as I am concerned, deserve to be very rich just as much as do LeBron James or Lady Gaga.]

Well, I am perilously close to attempting a literary critical analysis of a Groucho Marx routine, so I shall knock it off and have breakfast.


Rob said...

Dear Prof. Wolff, I have nothing to add to the current post, and so my comment below is wildly off topic, but I would like to ask you for some comments on a particular historical figure.

I'm intrigued by Pavel Pestel of the Decembrist societies:

I have been reading a biographical account of his life, written by Patrick O'Meara. I'm sure you know all this, but he wrote what amounts to a radical socialist consitution (Russian Justice). And he seems to have been almost successful in his plans to overthrow the Monarchy in Russia in 1825, although various contingent politcal events were his undoing.

I wonder if maybe he could be a subject for a post of yours?

Rob said...

Also, on something else, also not related (apologies), I thought this was a rather amazing graphic-view of the whole of philosophy:

Jerry Fresia said...

Well, just in case there is some doubt, I thought the last post was hysterical. I rarely laugh out loud, but the Professor gets me to laughing often, then I have to read the post again to my wife, enjoying it all over again. Maybe I enjoy such commentaries more than the average bear in that I live in Italy full time. So whenever a great scholar who speaks French runs into these difficulties in perhaps the greatest of all cities, I am tickled pink. I thought such difficulties only befell those ex-pats living in lowly Italy, who apart from their Kafkaesque tribulations, are reprimanded as well for their mangling of what normally passes for a beautiful language.

JCE said...

"Socialism has virtually nothing to do with retail merchandising and consumer satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It has everything to do with collective control of the means of production, and the guiding of investment and social savings decisions by considerations of human need rather than private profitablity."

I'm sorry but when has that ever happened? there's no such thing as 'collective control' of the means of production. it's always one group or another that exercises that control. it's either a lot of people in private firms, or a few people in private firms, or a few politicians. that's it.
do the chinese collectiviely control their means of production? no. it`s the people in the communist party. did the russians? the east germans? no. it's always the politicians
i thinks history teaches that capitalism permits a wider distribution of means of production than socialism, even if only beacuse the number of private firms is always larger than the number of bureucrats and politicians with power

Kevin said...

Is JCE a troll? One wonders.

To minimize inadvertent feeding of the troll, I'll just quote Bob Wolff from an earlier post:

"But there never has been a socialist economy, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to the contrary notwithstanding, so we must at this point engage in genuine speculation. [I really do not want to have an argument about whether the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were ever socialist economies. Read my paper, "The Future of Socialism," for some insight. I am old, and tired, and I have had this argument too many times in my life. If you think they were socialist, because they said they were socialist, then you probably also think the Holy Roman Empire was holy, Roman, and an empire. In any case, you need to seek out another blog."

Scott said...

"But there never has been a socialist economy, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to the contrary notwithstanding, so we must at this point engage in genuine speculation."

This is just from personal experience, but card-carrying communist party members I know in Spain are huge supporters of the Castro government in Cuba and often defend the Soviet Union. I've even met one who has good things to say about North Korea. Is this an aberration or is the Communist party still just a sty of hacks who toe the vanguard party line?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think it is important to distinguish the Soviet Union and [God help us, North Korea] from Cuba. Nevertheless, I have never had much patience with card-carrying Communists [as we used to say.] Nor, I would like to think, would Marx have had either. I may have to attempt some serious words about this subject, beyond what I have written in my paper "The Future of Socialism," posted on

Chris said...

JCE, look at the company Mondragon, which Richard Wolff just wrote an interesting article about here:

For other examples, watch the documentary The Take by Naoimi Klein, about an Argentinian collective.

formerly a wage slave said...

I certainly don't want to get rid of Medicare. I certainly like the idea of extending it to everybody. However, I don't think it works well. I am currently uninsured, and have been for three years. However, my parents are insured, and have Medicare.. They do get their needed doctor visits, but when it comes to help at home, what they get is less than they need. (They are eighty-six and eighty-seven and increasingly unable to handle the requirements of daily living. ((Hence, my presence.)) And the paperwork is awful. There are also questions about whether the fees charged by doctors are fair. Now, I am very ignorant about all of this really, but my impression is that it gives them less than they need, and with lots of hassle. My only personal experience with a different system was in Slovakia. I was hospitalized for two weeks when I had pneumonia. It cost me nothing. All the attendant visits to doctors involved no paperwork, except when one doctor sent to another or sent me somewhere for tests and in those cases I hand carried the transfer documents. Oh, yes, there was one document from the health care agency telling me I might be entitled for money to pay me for time I'd lost at work. (I moved away soon after, so I don't know if they made a decision.) I repeat: I don't want to get rid of Medicare (or Social Security for that matter), but the comparison between what I see here and what I saw in Slovakia is shocking. Now, it may not be due to Medicare per se. Or my experience in Slovakia may have been too brief to make a total assessment. Nonetheless, what I experienced was state-run insurance, essentially what's left of the old so-called 'communist' system, and it had fewer hassles in it than what I see here. One might also like to know that among countries in the Eurozone, Slovakia is near the bottom in terms of income; so, it's not that Slovakia is richer than the USA. But my visit to the hospital in Slovakia cost me nothing. Oh yeah, and whatever medicines I needed were cheap. (Whether things have changed there, I do not know. (The experience I described happened four years ago.) And, yes, I must concede that Slovak friends complained about the medical system, but none of them had ever compared it with the USA......)

Forgive me for repeating:
My remark is not meant as a criticism of state-run medicine.

formerly a wage slave said...

Just a brief follow-up, if I may:
So far as I can see, the problem with Medicare---when it comes to providing the care my parents need as eighty-something citizens---is that Medicare contracts out to private companies. And those private companies have all the vices one expects within capitalism: e.g., those who do the real work are poorly rewarded, and there is too much stress upon advertising and marketing which is both wasteful and results in in a sick atmosphere. The companies which provide care to the elderly are quite clearly actively in competition with one another, not by trying to be superior, but through the illusory methods of marketing and advertising..... Another feature of these companies is that they are greedy to provide at home services via a person with the minimal amount of training and knowledge: EG, Their position seems to be: Why send a physical therapist when a physical therapist's assistant can do the job?
That is, at any rate, my impression.......and I believe that my parents are not getting what they deserve. The private companies which supply care are despicable entities greedy to get their hands on Medicare dollars; but, like all capitalist firms, they attempt to increase profits for the already wealthy few at the expense of the people who actually are productive. My experience with the company my parents currently use is that the Nurse Supervisors don't know anything significant about medicine or biology, or what they know they cannot really explain. They are, moreover, generally poorly informed, and lack basic reasoning skills. However, the guy who comes to give my father a shower is a very decent, humane human being---and has no degree at all. There is another nurse with less education (she has a different title---I don't know this system) is also a decent individual. But the CEO of this little health care company is basically an illiterate bore---to judge by one letter which was sent to my parent.
(Forgive me for preaching to the choir. )