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Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Today I begin a several part essay that may take me a while, so settle down.  These remarks are prompted by a comment [see below] offered by Scott to the original posting of my Credo on November 28, 2010.  [Close readers will note that my Credo thus precedes the famous speech by now-Senator Elizabeth Warren in which she said essentially the same thing, without however the tagline from Marx.]  I shall be alluding to, and at certain points even quoting directly from, my essay "The Future of Socialism," which you can find by clicking on the link at the top of this blog and then searching the archive of my occasional writings.  First the Credo:


We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.

If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.


Four days after this originally appear, Scott said:  "But you're not advocating market abolitionism are you? That's just throwing out the baby with the bathwater."  When I asked what market abolitionism is [thus revealing my ignorance], he replied:  "I already mentioned it before on this blog but I'll explain it again. Market abolitionism is the idea that all market functions should be replaced by planning. The most famous proponent of this view is Michael Albert and you can read him here:

I think that a marketless world based entirely on planning would turn society into a Brazil-type dungeon of bureaucracy and oppression. This is why I keep asking people on the left what exactly their views are of the marketplace. Seeing as how I generally hear nothing but hostility towards them can I really unreasonably assume that the logical conclusion of their views would be supplanting all market functions with planning?"

This provocative comment by Scott [I hope he or she is still reading my blog -- I hate the anonymity of this entire medium] triggered a series of reflections during my walk this morning, and led to my decision to expand the response I had originally planned into a full-scale disquisition. 

 One of the most effective ideological dodges of apologists for capitalism has been their successful substitution of the phrase "free market economy" for "capitalist economy" in our public discourse, as though "capitalism" and "free markets" were synonymous.  So before we can get anywhere in this discussion, we must sort out that confusion. 

A market is a public space in which people meet to exchange goods for goods, goods for money, and money for goods.  [I leave virtual markets and such matters aside for the moment.]  There have certainly been markets for all of recorded history ["Let's go down to the Agora and see whether Socrates is there"] and in all likelihood for a long time before the invention of writing.  One finds markets in slave economies [including slave markets, needless to say] and in feudal economies, as well as in economies that can be described as capitalist.  In many instances, perhaps all in fact, there are traditional, cultural, religious, or legal constraints on the functioning of markets.  To give just one example that is historically significant to this discussion, in the European middle ages, much town or city based craft production was organized into and regulated by guilds --formal organizations of men working in the same craft, such as silver smiths, gold smiths, furniture makers, and so forth.  The guilds maintained elaborate systems of restrictions, enforced by law, on who could ply those trades, under what conditions and for what wages workers could work for them, what objects they could make, where they could sell them, and what prices they were required to charge.  In some cases, these guilds grew quite large and entered into association with other guilds, the Hanseatic League being the most important and well-known.

The phrase "free trade" refers in the first instance to the historically important effort to remove some of those restrictions, so that anyone who wished could enter a sphere of production, using whatever techniques he chose, hiring whomever he chose, selling where he wished and at whatever price he wished.  [ I use the masculine pronouns to convey the fact that at the time we are talking about, the guilds were restricted to men, and most of the early non-guild undertakings, though by no means all, were begun by men.]

But while the removal of legal, customary, and other restrictions on market exchange was an important pre-condition for the development of what we now call capitalism, it was by no means identical with capitalism, and the kind of relatively unfettered market exchange that I am talking about can be found in many economies that were not capitalist in their organization.

So if capitalism is not free trade simpliciter, what is it?  We shall find out tomorrow.

1 comment:

Jerry Fresia said...

Might the feudal economy in any way be considered planned?

BTW: the Wikipeidia entry on the origins of "From each" is interesting: