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Monday, October 29, 2018


One of the Anonymati [Anonymouses?  Anonymice?] asks that I write a critique of the oh so sober, serious analysis of socialism, complete with charts and graphs, produced by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.  After more than sixty pages of objective, balanced consideration, the Council comes to the surprising conclusion that socialism is a bad idea, economically.  The Council’s principal point of comparison is Nordic countries [are they confusing socialism with cross-country skiing?]

The big news, of course, is that Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors actually thinks it is worth their time and effort to write the report.  Much has been made, and rightly so, of the fact that the Trump Republican Party has welcomed Nazis, Klansmen, racists, and anti-Semites in from the cold.  Who would have predicted that they would also give a shout out to us socialists?

Why am I writing about this today, after a horrifying week capped by the slaughter of Jews in a synagogue?  Because I am desperately trying to stay sane, that is why, and writing about alternative universes, like one in which socialism is actually possible, is one way to do that.

I have read the Executive Summary of the report and scanned through the report itself, but I do not intend to take issue with it, and my reason for not doing so is the real subject of this post.  Let me begin by reminding you that Karl Marx, who wrote 5000 pages, more or less, on the history, anatomy, laws of motion, and mystified ideology of capitalism, wrote maybe 50 or 60 pages, if that, about socialism.  It was not a lapse in memory on his part.  He had a reason for not writing about how socialism would work, and that reason is the very heart of his economic and historiographical theory.

Marx believed that just as capitalism had developed slowly, organically, within the existing socio-economic system of feudalism, so too the social relationships of production appropriate to socialism would develop within the structure of capitalism until the contradiction, as he called it, between the two would produce a revolutionary transition.  Socialism would not come about as a result of manifestos, or theoretical analyses, or counter-cultural utopian experimental communities.  Rather, the inner development of capitalism itself would create the new social relations of production out of which socialism would emerge.  In effect, capitalists themselves would be the gravediggers of capitalism.  Taking this claim seriously, I tried in my essay, The Future of Socialism, to think through what those inner developments might be.  If you are interested, you will find it archived at, accessible via the link at the top of this page.

Marx did not think that the transition to socialism could be advanced by arguments that socialism would be a good thing, in effect a plank in a political platform.  I am delighted that folks are once again calling themselves socialists and that the president’s Council of Economic Advisors thought it a useful expenditure of their energies to write a 70 page paper explaining why socialism would be a bad thing, not to say Nordic.  But arguing with their critique would be a waste of time.


s. wallerstein said...

Socialism is a good idea for the workers and a very bad idea for the capitalists, and I imagine that Trump's Council of Economic Advisors identify with the latter.

Ecrasez said...

Not for the first time, I’m reminded of Rene Thom’s briefly fashionable “catastrophe theory”. CT is a rigorous reworking of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” story. The idea is that, as the independent variable changes, the dependent hardly changes at all - until, whop, it has a sudden large change. In real problems the independent variable is hidden or hard to analyse, and so it appears as if the dependent is more or less constant, except when it isn’t and has a massive step-change. Identifying the independent variable is the purpose of the social sciences. For example, conditions in a prison might be getting worse and worse, but it seems as if the prisoners just take it. Then one day something trivial happens and the whole place erupts in a riot. Prison managers and bureaucrats are busy looking at prisoner behaviour, when they should be monitoring the conditions.

Nice resolution of the question, btw Prof - although it leaves open why we should campaign and fight at all, since the forces that will bring on Socialism are beyond our control.

Jordan said...

Ecrasez -- the forces are beyond the control of particular, limited interventions like the ones Prof. Wolff lists. But we still each have our small part to play in the campaigns and fights that bring about real economic change in the end. We still make history, even if none of us does so individually or immediately/directly.

Mobius Trip said...

With all due respect, are you saying socialism has no positive content? Is it merely a reaction against capitalism?

MS said...

I urge all those interested in the issue of Russian use of Facebook to influence public opinion and its potential to affect the mid-term elections to watch Frontline on PBS tonight. It is a two part series that began last night. If you missed last night’s segment, you can watch it here.

Yesterday’s segment makes it quite clear that Russia has learned how to weaponize the data available on Facebook regarding the opinions of its users, and did so to influence politics in the Ukraine.

The series raises compelling questions regarding whether Facebook has any obligation to protect its users from their own gullibility, and, if so, how can it do so.

Danny said...

I'll stipulate what scholars say Marx believed versus did not think, but I have a point that is not specifically about Marx -- my point is that one of the chief fallacies of ideologues is the tacit assumption that at bottom all reasonably intelligent people would accept the idealogue's political ideals if you could only expose them all to the right ideas, the right arguments, the right experiences, etc. etc. But that's not true in the least.

The best measurable predictor of ideological outlook is personality.

Now it just so happens that the personality type that is predisposed to leftist ideology is low in conscientiousness (one of the Big Five Personality traits) and weak in authority and loyalty (from the Moral Foundations Theory). Generally speaking, people on the left don't have personality types that make for good warriors. People tend to see the world through the prism of their personalities.. It's the primary reason why it can be so difficult to get people to change their minds about their ideological convictions.

howard b said...

Daniel, according to this data finding, antagonism on the dimension of agreeableness is driving support for Trump

s. wallerstein said...

One out of three personality traits for this lifetime leftist.

I'm conscientious to the point of being neurotic and loyal to the point of being boring.

I have a clear anti-authoritarian and even anti-authority streak.

Actually, most of my leftist friends are extremely conscientious, most are loyal and yes, most are anti-authoritarian, critical, a bit rebellious even in old age.

Anonymous said...

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, himself a Socialist, had rather unflattering things to say about his fellow Socialists. To wit:

“As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”

“The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to regard the book-trained Socialist as a bloodless creature entirely incapable of emotion. Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred—a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacuo hatred—against the exploiters.”

The last statement has been compressed (I believe by Jordan Peterson) to: “Socialists don't care about the poor, they just hate the rich."

s. wallerstein said...

No doubt that the best argument against socialism is the socialists. Then again, the best argument against conservatism is the conservatives and the best argument against capitalism is the capitalists and the best argument against philosophy is the philosophers. In general, people just don't live up to their ideals.

I don't see any reason why socialists should love the poor. Socialism isn't the sermon on the mount. It is to do with a more just society, not a society where everyone loves their neighbors.

Rebecca Virginia said...

great blog about Socialism and it is a good idea for the workers so keep posting.
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