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Friday, May 4, 2018


One of the oddly comforting implications of Marx’s scathing critique of capitalism is that those exploiting and oppressing the workers are actually a very small, albeit rich and powerful, fraction of the population, which carries with it the hope that if they could be overthrown, the great majority of men and women could go on to create a just society.  As I live day by day through the present disaster, which increasingly feels like the end days, the most disheartening single fact about America is that not very much less than half of the adult population supports Donald Trump and his presidency.  I am absolutely committed to doing what I can to elect progressives in the midterm elections, to try desperately to do something, anything, for all those who, unlike myself, are personally hurt by the government’s policies and actions.  But even if we score an enormous victory in November, it will remain the fact that almost half the country supports Trump.

Now, it is easy to recount all those evils of America that that are as much the fault of the Democrats as of the Republicans, that are in fact rooted in the very structure of our society and economy.  I have been doing that all my life.  But since there will never be a revolution, if electoral politics is after all a waste of time, a mug’s game, then I am condemned to live what remains of my life as an internal outcast, a stranger in a strange land, to quote Genesis.

I cannot bear that, I cannot accept it, I cannot break faith with those I have called comrades in what feels like a self-indulgent fit of pique, but it is hard, it is hard.


s. wallerstein said...

It's possible to function politically on two levels.

On an ideal level I consider myself to be a libertarian socialist, but on the practical level I'm happy to elect progressives. It's obvious that Obama is better than Trump just as here in Chile Michelle Bachelet, with all her obvious defects, family scandals, lack of commitment and tepidness, was better than our current rightwing president Sebastian Piñera.

I don't see many possibilities for socialism at present nor in the foreseeable future. People have been so thoroughly brainwashed by neoliberalism that the rational cooperative
spirit needed to construct socialism is just not in great supply. I imagine that the construction of socialism would involved some sacrifice of instant consumer gratification in the beginning stage and very few people are willing to sacrifice being the first one on their block or in their Facebook group to have…..

Still, it's vital to keep alive socialist teaching and that of the socialist classics, as you do, since otherwise, the whole idea of socialism could go down the memory hole of history. We can bet that someday people in mass will re-evaluate socialism. I'm sure that someone brighter than me could think up a sort of Pascal's wager on why we should continue to support it even in these dark days.

David Palmeter said...

I’m a Bernie Sanders socialist, which is to say not really a socialist but a leftish New Deal liberal. My reasons for not being a socialist are not ideological; they are practical. I’ve never seen a persuasive statement of how a socialist economy would work.

Take the question of innovation. Perhaps the most important--and disruptive--innovative development in the past 30 or so years has been the personal computer and all that has been spawned from it: e.g. the internet, smart phones.

We have benefited greatly from these developments--this blog wouldn’t exist without them. But they came at a cost, a tremendous cost, to many individuals and communities.

Upstate New York was the home to many typewriter manufacturers--Remington Rand (where my father, his father, his brother, and his brother-in-law worked), Underwood, L.C Smith-Corona, Royal and no doubt others whose names escape me. They’re all gone--some (like Remington Rand) from failure to handle the arrival of the IBM electric typewriter; others from the computer revolution. Thousands of jobs were lost. Jobs were also lost in the 1970s when computers arrived at newspapers and put linotype operators and compositors out of work--skilled craftsmen earning good salaries whose world blew up in their faces. Now the internet is the primary factor in the downsizing of print journalism of all kinds. Several thousand workers at Kodak found themselves unemployed because of the development of digital photography and the smart phone. (When’s the last time you used a camera to take a picture?)

All of this happened in a capitalist economy--Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” It was and is brutal, and other developments have been and are equally brutal, e.g., the labor required to produce a ton of steel is about one-third that required 25 years ago. Technology, not imports, is the primary cause of rusting steel mills in western Pennsylvania, in Youngstown, Ohio, and other former steel producing centers.

But we’ve all benefited from this, and few of us would want to go back. Could it occur in a socialist economy? How?

Anonymous said...

The network which became the internet, which is arguably even more important an innovation than the PC, was originally developed as a government (DARPA) project before it was open to the power of innovation of the capitalists. And while internet companies are worth a hell of a lot more money these days (and the net largely co-opted by the old power structures)...I remember the golden age of the net when creativity, the pursuit of truth and ideas, and the desire for connection powered a truly magnificent, open, new frontier of human pursuits.

Sure, we'd probably miss out on a whole lot of valuable gadgets if you reduce or eliminate the profit incentive. But the human spirit prevails. If we didn't have Microsoft Windows, we'd still have Linux; entirely free and developed by human beings who just want to learn, develop, and share. Maybe we wouldn't have 10 new smart phones rushing to the market each year, but we'd still have what we need...

Just a couple thoughts. ;)

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Tonight at work, I watched a reading/talk from anarchist writer Derrick Jensen in Eugene, OR. Because he is associated with the group Deep Green Resistance, which takes a radical feminist stance towards gender, transgender activists and their supporters protested his being invited on campus by booing, hissing and otherwise heckling him during the entirety of his time reading and speaking. I found his readings interesting and moving, and his thoughts on patriarchy, the urge to violate and dominate, and rape culture quite interesting, even if I disagree with many of his views (mostly about environmentalism). That the circular firing squad that is the Left seems to be consuming more and more of itself does not give me much hope for the future.

Matt said...

I’ve never seen a persuasive statement of how a socialist economy would work.

There are lots of attempts to do this. My favorite examples include John Roemer's _A Future for Socialism_, Alec Nove's _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_, and the papers collected in Elster and Moene's _Alternatives to Capitalism_. I'd recommend all of those to those who are interested, but I have to admit that I don't find the schemes sketched to be very attractive, even assuming they are, in fact, feasible. At least, they don't seem preferable to other options that seem no more difficult to achieve but that are not, I think, properly thought of as "socialism", as opposed to something else - "Social democracy", "property owning democracy", or whatever.

Sure, we'd probably miss out on a whole lot of valuable gadgets if you reduce or eliminate the profit incentive. But the human spirit prevails.

For those tempted by this line, I recommend reading works by Slavenka Drakulic (among others), on the lives of women in Yugoslavia, even during the time when it was quite widely taken as a model for what a "progressive" socialist country would or could be.(*) As it turned out, things that are really necessary for women to be fully participating members of modern life (so not just "gadgets") such as basic feminine hygiene products - things by that time taken utterly for granted in the "west" - were regularly and typically unavailable to most women. The human spirit may prevail, but for these things, only the market provided, it seems. I'd want very strong grounds to believe that we'd not face similar things in the future, and don't find much reassurance even in the best sketches.
(*) As it turns out, much of what seemed to be success in Yugoslavia, supposedly based on the worker cooperative model, was really just due to unsustainable borrowing from Western Europe, so it probably wasn't as good of a model as was thought for a long time.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

I've known a lot of creative people, musicians, artists and poets, and they can't help being creative: it's an inner necessity.

I haven't known many scientists or technological innovators, but I imagine that the mechanisms of creativity work in the same way: they innovate, not because of monetary incentives, but because their inner creativity drives them to innovate.

As someone says above, maybe with a socialist economy we wouldn't have 10 new models of smart phones every year, but people would create new things which serve human needs.

F Lengyel said...

It seems difficult to think about alternatives to capitalism. The question of insufficient incentives has come up. There are at least two suggestions concerning incentives "in the environment."

First, that capitalists won't produce unless they are inordinately rewarded by comparison with their employees. Around the time of Occupy Wall Street, a Harvard economist wrote in a NY Times Op Ed that he might stop providing his services if he were taxed at 75%, and he warned that people you might rely on to save your life, such as brain surgeons and cardiologists, might take their marbles and go home. At the time at least one hedge fund manager threatened to close up shop if he were taxed at 50% and loose his 150 employees upon the world. These aren't credible threats--not if you believe the market rhetoric issuing from the other side of their mouths. Someone would step in to fill the void.

Second, the capitalists deserve every penny of the Pareto distribution of wealth coming to them. That's a moral case--it isn't persuasive.A standard line is that capitalism is meritocratic, a descriptive and normative claim. The "market" rewards the most innovative, creatively destructive cutthroats with a Pareto distribution. Only the most talented, capable individuals lie at the apex of the distribution--luck had nothing to do with it, and anyone who claims otherwise is a resentful malcontent. According to the Internet luminary and Jordan Peterson, socialists, Marxists and, especially what he terms "postmodern neo-Marxists" are motivated by "resentment toward the rich."

However, all of that is unscientific rhetoric. An agent-based simulation exposes the meritocratic line as self-serving nonsense. I cannot do better than to quote the abstract from Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure by A. Pluchino. A. E. Biondo, and A. Rapisarda

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth - considered a proxy of success - follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result - although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature - is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

F Lengyel said...

...continued from preceding.

This paper was also discussed in the MIT Technology Review and in Scientific American. A programmer attempted to recreate the simulation in Netlogo (the authors don't provide their code in the Arxiv paper) in this blog post.

F Lengyel said...

Errata: I should have written: " least one hedge fund manager threatened to close up shop and loose his 150 employees upon the world if he were taxed at 50%." The "and" before "Jordan Peterson" shouldn't be there, unless there were an actual Internet luminary, which Peterson isn't.

I'll take Ecclesiastes 9:11 over Matthew 25:29.

s. wallerstein said...

F Lengyel,

Ecclesiastes is the only book of the Bible in contact with reality. That may be due to the probable influence of Greek philosophy on the author.

David Palmeter said...

Anonymous #1

It is true that DARPA was crucial to the development of the internet (and CERN to the development of the web). But that doesn't get the product out of the Defense Department or out of the narrow bounds of some atomic physicists sharing documents about their collider.

Russia has superb technical expertise. They took a Western invention--the internet--and turned against the West. Slouches they are not. The Soviet Union was first in space with Sputnik.

But for all that, no one in Russia or the Soviet Union has been able to produce a car or an airplane or any consumer product I can think of (other than vodka) that anyone else in the world wants. To the contrary, when given the choice, the people overwhelmingly prefer an import from the West or from Japan or from Korea. There Russian billionaires, but they are Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos and he like. They're kleptocrats who walked away with the industrial organizations of the Soviet Union, moved to London, and bought English soccer teams.

You have a more sanguine view than I do of the "human spirit" and its ability to prevail. I'm with Rousseau on this question. We need to take people as they are and draft laws as they might be.

David Palmeter said...

F Lengyel,

The notion that people will stop working if taxes are too high has little merit in my view. It was the view of Reaganomics--the so-called Lafer Curve. True, if all income were taxed at 100%,no one would work other than those who really mean it when they say the love their job so much they'd do even if they didn't get paid. But, when that point is made it implies that ALL income is to be taxed at 100%. That's not the case with a progressive tax schedule. Anyone in that tax bracket in a progressive tax system would be making a lot of money before that rate ever kicked in. In the 1950s, the top rate at one point was 90%, but there was no shortage of CEOs or brain surgeons that I know of.

There's no empirical basis for the Lafer Curve. Indeed, you could argue the opposite. If taxes took too much out of your income for you to live on, you'd have an incentive to work harder at your current job or even get second job.

F Lengyel said...

David Palmeter, I quite agree. I trust that nothing I wrote suggested the opposite.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

I don't believe that anyone who believes in democratic socialism considers the Soviet Union to be in any way an example of socialism. The October Revolution took place in a backward, primarily peasant and uneducated society, without a large urban working class, contrary to what Marx himself specifies as pre-conditions for socialism.

What's more, the October Revolution was led by a small conspiratorial party, the Bolsheviks, while most of us today believe that socialism should come to power through a democratic process and has to be willed by the majority of people, because otherwise, it will be fraught with conflicts and those in power will have become repressive and to lose their democratic character.

You say that we have to take people "as they are", and I would say that we have to take people as "they can be", which is an unknown of course. I said above (the first comment in this thread) that given the mentality of most people today socialism will not work. However, we know that people can work together voluntarily for common goals, in sports teams, in the military, in community organizations, in political parties, in religious groups and most of us who believe in socialism bet that the spirit of working together voluntarily for common goals could be the guiding principle of a whole society.

People today are educated to be winners, to look down on losers, to compete to get the latest I-phone or the biggest car, to see their fellows as rivals and as objects to be used in order to reach their goals. I'm not sure that those are inevitable features of human nature, although they well may be. As I said above, socialism is a wager.

Jerry Fresia said...

Great blog. I don't think nearly half the population supports Trump. As with Europe, leftists are smeared, if not censored; Consequently, the vast discontent with establishment policies (neoliberalism) is expressed by supporting the only
anti-establishment parties electoral politics offers, whacky wingnuts. Hence the need for leftists to push Dems, given the constraints of a two party system, to articulate policies that champion the needs of the "precariat." And, in turn, this requires supporting left analyses and actions both within and outside of electoral politics.

Given your direct access to young students and indirect access to tens of thousands of older ones (ahem!), you are powerfully situated to broaden the conversation and the public mind. Half of Trump supporters, I believe, are receptive to Bernie, not to mention Marxist atheists. There is opportunity here. Bottom line: you are a haunting spectre.

David Palmeter said...


I agree with you that neither the Soviet Union nor Russia today is an example of socialism. I was citing the two regimes as an example of governments with manifest technical ability with a society that did not develop anything beyond what the government needed for its own, usually defense, purposes. So, I argue, the fact that a DARPA can develop an internet is no guarantee that the results will spread from government use to wide-spread consumer use. It happened her under capitalism. It did not happen in the SU or in contemporary Russia. (I consider contemporary Russia to be a kleptocracy, not capitalist in the entrepreneurial sense.)

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

I'm not sure that the differences between technological creativity in the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia have so much to do with their economic system as with huge cultural differences. The U.S. has some of the best universities in the world, many of them dating back to the time it was a British colony, before the historical onset of modern capitalism.

Russia, under the Czars, under the Communists and now under Putin, has never shown much technological creativity nor does it have any world class universities. Many many complex factors go into explaining that, but it very well may be that the same cultural factors which make the U.S. a leader in technological innovation would still be in play under socialism in the same society.

By the way, for some reasons the Russians produce great chess players, great classical composers and some of the best novelists.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

Agreed there are cultural differences as well as economic system differences between the US and Soviet Union/Russia. These no doubt contribute the failure of those societies to produce much that others find of value. But the Soviet/Russian space technology, military hardware technology are certainly advanced by any reasonable standard, to say nothing of their ability to interfere with Western elections. That none of this ability has been translated into products people outside of government want is to me the telling point. It was my response to the argument of Anonymous #1 that DARPA etc spawned the internet and that this demonstrated that much innovation comes from government R&D and doesn't need the stimulation of the profit motive.

LFC said...

@ D. Palmeter

Quick note on the Laffer Curve (two "f"s in the guy's last name, I believe): the Curve, (in)famously drawn on a napkin in a restaurant, held as I recall that if taxes were lowered, businesses would invest more, people would spend more, ec. growth (and profits) would take off, and govt revenues, even though taxes were lower, would in the end increase b/c incomes, corporate and individual, would rise so much it wd more than make up for the lower tax rate. I agree it was basically quackery, but it had more to do with the supposed macroeconomic effects of tax cuts on growth and revenue than with the question of the effect of taxation on individual incentives to work (though no doubt Laffer did believe that people would work longer or harder if taxed less, and vice versa).

F Lengyel said...

LFC, yes that's true: the purported macroeconomic benefits of lowered corporate taxes was the main story. The story for individuals was that lower income taxes would invigorate consumer spending. What wasn't mentioned was the effect on the government as the insurer of last resort, since these policy decisions have an effect on risk pooling arrangements.

Matt said...

...nor does it have any world class universities

I don't suppose the current economy of Russia, which is not at all plausibly a socialist country, tells us anything at all about socialism, but Moscow State University (aka, the Lomonosov university) is and has been a "world class" university for a long time, especially in math and the more abstract elements of almost all of the sciences, including computer science. (There are several other quite good universities in Russia now, including St. Petersburg St. and the New Higher School for Economics, where I once nearly took a job, though what this tells us about the plausibility of socialism, I'd think is at least not obvious. They are now all plagued with serious problems of academic freedom in law, philosophy, humanities, etc., which is one reason I didn't take that otherwise pretty attractive job.)

s. wallerstein said...


Since you have lived in Russia and know its culture better than the rest of us do, maybe you can answer the question of why Russian culture has produced so few technological innovations (except the Kalasnikov rifle) and U.S. culture (I assume that you are from the U.S.) has produced so many. That situation predates Communism since I can't think of any great inventions that come from Czarist Russia either, a culture which in the 19 century produced novelists of the stature of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who I for one prefer to any 19th century U.S., British or French novelists.

Matt said...

S. Wallerstein - I can't do much more than engage in amateur sociology, but I'd say that the influence of the Russian Orthodox church is one of the biggest factors for cultural differences between Russia and "the west". It contributes, I think, the the focus on emotion more than reason, the self-professed "mysterious Russian soul", and so on. The Russian Orthodox church hasn't had the tradition of scholarship and education that the Catholic church has, where many of the great universities of Europe(and many very good ones today in the US) are sponsored by the Catholic church. (No real tradition of hospitals or other things like that, either - just encouragement to look to the next world.) Why that would translate into differences in technical innovation, if it does, is beyond my pay grade. And, of course, there are lots of Russian/Soviet achievements in the sciences, including space exploration (not just the firsts, but the longest lasting space station, and for a while, the only real way to get something into space, when the space shuttle shut down.) Even here, there are interesting differences - while the US might spend several hundred millions of dollars to make a fancy, light and strong composite material for a space station wall (which works great if it works, but might fail), the Soviet approach was just to use thick steal and then huge rockets to hoist that big weight into space. So, different approaches. (Perhaps the US one has the idea of commercial applications in the background. I don't know.)

Finally, if you like Russian literature, let me recommend reading Gorky. For unknown reasons, I had avoided him for a long time, thinking he'd be dull. But, he had such an interesting (and important) life, I thought I'd give him a try, and read some of his auto-biographical work recently, and was amazed - wonderful stuff that I highly recommend. It's a shame, really, that his name has been removed from so many things in post-soviet Russia.

s. wallerstein said...


Thank you. That's quite interesting. I hadn't thought of the role of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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