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Thursday, June 17, 2021

HERE i GO AGAIN

A reader of this blog sent me the following message:

 

“Obviously, you are highly committed to socialism.  What, however, seems to be the perennial problem is that despite 150 years of socialist thought and practice, it’s not at all clear how it would actually work.  We all know what communism is, having seen it in the Soviet Union, the Eastern European satellite states, China, etc.  We all know what social democracy as practiced in Western Europe is, i.e., capitalism with a political commitment to a fair degree of redistribution.

 

But what would a socialist economy and polity look like?  One hears vague phrases like “economic democracy” and “community control” but never any reasonably precise description of how it would function.

 

As I look across my room at the new swivel chair I recently purchased I see chrome, leather, plastic and thread brought together, as well as the shipping and financial transactions that were associated with my purchase and the underlying legal framework for such transactions.  I don’t want to fetishize the “miracle of the marketplace,” but well, the chair is there, and I don’t see what the process would be under socialism that would produce the same result.

 

Am I missing something?  It doesn’t feel like I am asking for too much from proponents of a political and economic system.”

 

It certainly does not seem like too much to ask, so instead of replying by email I promised I would try to say something useful on this blog. But I warned not to expect too much because I have nothing more than suggestions to offer, certainly not a blueprint or even a coherent plan of action.

 

Let me begin by reminding everyone of how little Marx himself had to say about the subject. As I have several times noted, he wrote more than 5000 pages of detailed analysis of capitalism as he observed it, principally in England, but scarcely as much as 100 pages about socialism. Besides describing socialism as collective ownership of the means of production, he said almost nothing about how a socialist economy and society would function. There is a reason for that, of course. Marx believed, correctly in my judgment, that fundamental changes in the organization of an economy come about as a consequence not of command decisions by a government or ruling clique but rather internally as a consequence of the decisions of large numbers of individuals engaged in various aspects of that economy. We all recall his striking metaphor – the new order developing in the womb of the old.

 

It is for this reason that every time I try to address this important question I start by describing the major changes I see taking place within contemporary capitalism rather than by following the practice of those thinkers whom Marx described dismissively as Utopian Socialists.

 

Capitalism has changed dramatically in the more than century and a half since Marx published volume one of Capital. Aside from the explosion in productivity which makes our world as different from that of Marx as his world was from that of Adam Smith, I can see at least four fundamental developments internal to capitalism whose significance we must try to understand before we can even begin to answer my reader’s pointed question.

 

First, the internationalization of capitalism that was already underway in Marx’s day has now been brought virtually to completion, as any of us here in the United States can tell simply by reading the tags on the things we buy and discovering how many of them were made in China. This is not simply a matter of imports and exports. The production process itself of individual goods has been internationalized so that, for example, it is impossible these days to purchase a car every part of which has been made in the same country.

 

Second, as I have frequently observed, the ownership of privately owned capital has been to an extraordinary extent divorced from day to day management of its use in production, through the introduction of the limited liability joint stock corporation, and the public sale and trading of shares of stock on markets widely accessible to investors who have no functional relationship to the private corporations of which they are in theory partial owners.

 

Third, modern governments around the world play important roles day – to – day in the private corporate economy, shaping it through fiscal and monetary policies, saving it from its moments of self-destruction, bending it to the service of politically determined ends, all without invading or violating the fundamental private ownership of the means of production that is the core fact about capitalism.

 

Fourth, the private ownership of capital results in a steady irresistible accumulation of privately held wealth that dwarfs even the enormous budgets of modern imperial states. Because this wealth is passed on from generation to generation – because it is, as the French say, patrimonial – certain individuals and families become incomprehensibly rich, rich as it used to be said beyond the dreams of avarice.  This wealth is the financial representation of the cumulative product of the labor of billions of men and women who, however, have no more control now than they did in Marx’s day over how that product will be used.

 

But what of my readers new swivel chair? Will it still be available in a socialist economy or will we just sit around on tree stumps eating peaches and cream? More tomorrow.

38 comments:

Howie said...

Professor Wolff

Theories are fine but facts are much preferable.
We know as much about the future, distant or otherwise as we do about the distant past.
Marx is engaging as you are too in what Freud would call wild analysis
Yes he offers some guidance but so do lots of theorists, and not just in sociology
His theory isn't even solid a law as say the law of entropy.
What you are saying or exhorting is to act for a socialist future and when the workers own the means of production everything will somehow work out.
There's always the law of unintended consequences and there's always complexity beyond our imagination.
Just the fact of how pervasive computers have become has made me want no centralized power that powerful even the people, even the workers
History isn't always statistical like entropy it is a Brownian motion where one or two stray molecules can mess up the whole mix and whole equation.
Yes, Marx offers a flag not even a roadmap because the road has not been built except in the clouds

Ahmed Fares said...

I recently posted an article by Blair Fix which showed that you don't have to own the means of production for exploitation, you only have to control them. Here is the link again:

The Allure of Marxism … And Why It’s a Mistake

Many years ago, I read an interesting book by American humorist Will Rogers. It was about what he saw in his trip to Soviet Russia, the basic gist of it was that had no more of socialism in Russia than they did in the US. Quotes from this book are very difficult to find, but I was able to glean this from doing a search from memory:

"Over there, in Russia, everybody gets what he can get, and where he can get it, and it takes two to watch one, and then four to watch those two."

Recently in the US, we had this:

A former Harvard University fencing coach took more than $1.5 million in bribes from a telecommunications CEO to get his two sons into the Ivy League school, prosecutors said in announcing the pair’s arrest on conspiracy charges.

ITalk Global Communications Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jie “Jack” Zhao allegedly paid the bribes -- among the biggest in the U.S. college admissions scandal -- to Peter Brand both in cash and in kind. He bought the coach a car, paid his mortgage and helped cover tuition for his own son at Penn State, prosecutors claim.

The alleged scheme didn’t involve William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind of the nationwide scam, which has swept up such prominent figures in entertainment and finance as “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and former Pimco chief Douglas Hodge.


Note, the coach doesn't actually own the means of production here, he only controls them.

LFC said...

One weird thing about that Zhao story is that the son's application profile was such that he likely would have been admitted had the process been legit (i.e., no bribe). (I remember the story involving only one kid, not two. I guess I misremembered...)

Second, what means of production did the coach control? You have to stretch the phrase a lot even to locate any means of production here. But I think this general issue has been debated on this blog before, so no point going round on it again.

s. wallerstein said...

I've said this before, but I'll repeat it here because the topic is the same.

Towards the end of his life the great British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the British communist party until the party disappeared, commented that normally people make a binary distinction between socialism and capitalism. Capitalism includes everything from
Thatcher's Britain to contemporary Scandinavia.

In reality, one should see it, says Hobsbawm, as a continuum in which contemporary Scandinavia is a lot closer to our ideal of socialism than it is to the ideal of Thatcher and Reagan.

Ahmed Fares said...

One weird thing about that Zhao story is that the son's application profile was such that he likely would have been admitted had the process been legit (i.e., no bribe).

It's possible, but the bribe makes it a certainty that he would be admitted. That's where the value lies.

Second, what means of production did the coach control?

A University produces human capital, which is part of labor, itself one of the factors of production.

Another Anonymous said...

I had never heard of Jie “Jack” Zhao, so I Googled his name. All Wikipedia said about him is that he is a professional contract bridge player who holds many records in the game. Apparently there are two people with this unusual name, because the champion bridge player has homes in China and Florida, whereas the professor who paid the bribe lives in Potomac, Md. Is “Zhao” a common Chines name, like Jones, or Singh, or Chan?

On the subject of China (mild segue), last night Frontline had an expose’ on China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. It was horrifying. The Uyghurs are being subjected to mass incarceration, political indoctrination, and constant surveillance. Their homes are all identified by exterior codes, and cameras observe them everywhere. They are required to carry identification cards and police have the right to monitor their portable phones upon demand. The report indicated it is the largest mass internment since the Holocaust. Many Uyghurs suffer from depression and commit suicide. And the West is essentially powerless to put a stop to it.

LFC said...

Well, I view that as stretching the phrase "means of production." But whatever.

Btw, who actually "owns" a private university in the way that shareholders own a corporation? No one, I would suggest. Sure, the university can take a corporate form when it needs to do so, but I'm not sure where to locate the owners. (In the case of Harvard, there are two governing boards, but they're not owners, closer to senior mgrs, esp the one called the Harvard Corporation.)

LFC said...

Above was in response to A. Fares.

Re the Uighurs: this has gotten a good deal of media attention. (I didn't see the Frontline piece.)

Another Anonymous said...

LFC,

Most private colleges are organized as non-profit corporations, which do not have “owners” in the traditional sense.

LFC said...

Yes thanks for reminding me. (I'm serious -- I had forgotten that fact.)

Ahmed Fares said...

re: the Uyghurs

Islam is an Occasionalist religion, i.e., everything comes from God. That includes tribulation. The Qur'an says that all acts are divine acts, except insofar as they are channeled through human beings. Here is the relevant Qur'anic verse:

While Allah created you and that which you do? —Qur'an 37:96

It still means that humans are responsible for they acquire divine acts. This doctrine maintains both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. This from Thomas Aquinas on free will:

Free will

Aquinas argues that there is no contradiction between God's providence and human free will:

... just as by moving natural causes [God] does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.
— Summa, I., Q.83, art.1.

Note "He operates", not, "they operate". If Christians followed Aquinas, they too would be Occasionalists.

Hindus are also Occasionalists. In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna is disheartened at the thought of taking life. Lord Krishna, who has incarnated as a human being, says the following:

"I am come as Time, the waster of the peoples,
Ready for that hour that ripens to their ruin.
All these hosts must die; strike, stay your hand—no matter.

Therefore, strike. Win kingdom, wealth, and glory.
Arjuna, arise, O ambidextrous bowman.
Seem to slay. By me these men are slain already.

You but smite the dead."


In Judaism, we have this example of God using a people against a people:

"Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets. —Isaiah 10:5-7

So while Occasionalism is very strong in Islam (it's on every page of the Qur'an), you can find it in these other religions.

Having said that, Muslims are not fatalists. We act but knowing that whatever happens is God's will.

To sum up:

Number of Uyghur deaths caused by China? Zero.

Another Anonymous said...

Ahmed,

I mean no disrespect in any of the following, but how can all human acts simultaneously be the result of divine sovereignty and human responsibility?


Regarding the Uyghurs, are you saying they have no basis to blame the Han Chinese for persecuting them, that it is the result of the will of Allah? Was the work of the Nazis during the Holocaust an expression of God’s will?

Unknown said...

Here are some very useful and up to date theoretical discussions on the topic of how socialism may differ from contemporary neoliberal capitalism and what sorts of things need to be considered in attempting to develop socialism - eg, issues about justice and fairness, the role of markets, the role of the state or governments, community, etc.: David Schweickart's "After Capitalism (2nd ed)", Ian Hunt's "Liberal Socialism" and Michael Lebowitz's "Between Capitalism and Community" and "The Socialist Alternative".

Unknown said...

Stephen Darling (from Australia) is the above unknown re. some references on Socialism.

Ahmed Fares said...

I mean no disrespect in any of the following, but how can all human acts simultaneously be the result of divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

None taken. It is said that the greatest mystery in life is the merging of the personal and the divine will. The correct term for this is "Compatibilism". Here is a quote from Wikipedia:

Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent.

The best example of that, mentioned in both the Qur'an and the Old Testament, is the story of Joseph. God has Joseph's brothers throw him in a well, which is God's way of making him go to Egypt. Then the wife of Potiphar throws him in prison after he refuses her advances. At the same time, two servants of the king of Egypt enter in to prison. He interprets their dreams and thus becomes known to the king. Anyway, you know the rest of the story, and Joseph becomes the prime minister of Egypt.

And why did Joseph forgive his brothers? Because he knew that everything that happened to him came from God.

You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. —Genesis 50:20

See, dual agency. The merging of the personal and the divine will.

Regarding the Uyghurs, are you saying they have no basis to blame the Han Chinese for persecuting them, that it is the result of the will of Allah? Was the work of the Nazis during the Holocaust an expression of God’s will?

Yes to both. In Occasionalism, there are no exceptions. That includes the countless Muslims that died in the recent wars in the Middle East.

Having said that, that means that both the Chinese, assuming the reports are true, are evil, as were the Nazis. So while evil people exist, evil itself does not exist. From an Occasionalist perspective, evil people hold no power in this world, nor good people for that matter.

“Evil does not exist; once you have crossed the threshold, all is good. Once in another world, you must hold your tongue.” —Franz Kafka

Incidentally, Franz Kafka was Jewish, and while he did not live long enough to see the Holocaust, he was aware of the pogroms and purges of the Jews. And yet, he wrote these lines.

source: Franz Kafka - Quotable Quote

Apologies in advance if I've offended anyone, but these are the beliefs of 1.8 billion Muslims, a few billion more people if you add the other religious groups I mentioned. In any event, it's always good to learn how the other side thinks.

As an aside, do you remember this from Madeleine Albright (short 20 second clip):

Madeleine Albright The deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was worth it for Iraq's non existent WMD's

Number of deaths of Iraqi children caused by US sanctions? Zero.

Number of worldwide deaths caused by Covid-19? Zero.

You get the point.

LFC said...

Surely there are different varieties of Islamic belief, at least to some extent. There are certainly different varieties of Christian and Jewish belief.

I'm not sure how the initial mention of the Uyghurs by Another Anonymous prompted all this, and I don't intend to participate at length in the discussion.

But obviously a whole bunch of philosophers and theologians are of the view that evil exists in the world. (If evil didn't exist, there'd be no problem of theodicy for these theologians and philosophers to address.)

Lastly, it's easy to cherry pick quotes from the Old Testament (and probably other scriptures too). Why do the Old Testament prophets exhort people to act justly if "the merging of the personal and divine will" means that everything is, in effect, determined?

P.s. There may be some good arguments for compatibilism, I don't know, but this is not convincing me to look into it.

(P.p.s. Not a theist myself, at least on most days.)

Another Anonymous said...

Ahmed,

I find a lot of what you have written rather paradoxical, so I am not sure I do get the point.
It sounds a bit like Leibniz's proposition that we live in the best of all possible worlds, regardless how it might appear. I will have to give some more thought to what you have written.

It also appears that you are suggesting there is a lot in common betwen Islam and Judaism. Too bad it has not led to more harmonious relations.

According to my research you live in Morocco, so it is unlikely that we will ever meet, but I am sure we could have some very interesting conversations if we did meet.

Michael said...

The stuff on occasionalism all very interesting, and IMO (no disrespect) very strange! I don't say any of this to scold, but just in the spirit of friendly discussion...

To keep metaphysics at a safe distance from politics, human affairs, and the like - or in Hume's words, to "be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a (hu)man" - is generally a good policy, I think. That's a vague statement, but hopefully its meaning will become somewhat clearer in what follows.

Part of "being a human" is experiencing moral outrage, and expressing it in the beliefs and practices you adopt - hence the willingness to say, and to mean, something like "The Republican stance on X, Y, and Z is abhorrent" (and to act accordingly in your political dealings). But there are various opinions in various branches of philosophy that would threaten to make nonsense of such sayings, and by extension make the moral experience unintelligible - at least at face value. (It's always debatable whether they'd actually do so, and how serious an objection that would be.)

These, for example, are all purposefully silly arguments, but I'm not sure what there is, rationally, to distinguish them from "Occasionalism is true, therefore it's incorrect to say that China caused any Uyghur deaths." (Again, no disrespect intended, though I am having a bit of fun.) -

"If mereological nihilism is true, then there are no composite objects, and therefore no dogs - in which case, we'd have to abandon our objections to dog-fighting."

"The self is an illusion, so there's no such thing as suicide. (Shut down the crisis lines!)"

"The past is unreal, so it mustn't be the case that I robbed the liquor store."

David Palmeter said...

“I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it"--Thomas Nagel,The View from Nowhere.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Yes...

Another Anonymous said...

Davis,

That is a great Thomas Nagel quote.

He is an exceptional writer and thinker. I have recommended his essay "What Is It Like To Be A Bat" in past comments.

He was a student of John Rawls at Harvard.

Ahmed Fares said...

According to my research you live in Morocco

I live in Canada.

It also appears that you are suggesting there is a lot in common betwen Islam and Judaism. Too bad it has not led to more harmonious relations.

Land wars. Before that, Muslims and Jews lived peacefully together for thousands of years, for the most part.

Another Anonymous said...

Michael,

According to several of the commenters on this blog, the "self" is an illusion. So there is no such thing as suicide - only the termination of sense perceptions.

Ahmed Fares said...

LFC,

But obviously a whole bunch of philosophers and theologians are of the view that evil exists in the world. (If evil didn't exist, there'd be no problem of theodicy for these theologians and philosophers to address.)

Islam has no theodicy.

The idea of evil only exists in the minds of deists, i.e., those who believe in a creating God but not a sustaining God. The end of their analysis is always a God that is either impotent or malevolent. In either case, a God not worth worshiping.

From Wikipedia:

Epicurus' trilemma

One of the earliest uses of the trilemma formulation is that of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, rejecting the idea of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god (as summarised by David Hume):

If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?

Although traditionally ascribed to Epicurus and called Epicurus' trilemma, it has been suggested that it may actually be the work of an early skeptic writer, possibly Carneades.

David Palmeter said...

Another Anonymous

I believe Nagel was an undergraduate student of Rawls at Cornell.

Another Anonymous said...

David,


Usually it's LFC who is correcting me.


Yes, Nagel obtained his undergraduate degree at Cornell. But he obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard, where he did, in fact, study under Rawls.

Anonymous said...

And Nagel also studied (Kant) under Robert Paul Wolff, at Harvard.

Michael said...

Further off-topic, tangential to my previous comment, but I know there are some Hume admirers here...

I had spent years being unable to settle the question in my mind, but I think I just realized that Hume is my favorite philosopher.

"Hume is my favorite philosopher" is not equivalent to "I consider Hume the greatest philosopher," or "I think Hume's philosophy has more truth to it than anyone else's." In fact I truly needed a couple people to tell me, rather bluntly, when I was younger: "Philosophy has come a long way since Hume."

I feel like saying about Hume what Russell said of Spinoza: "Intellectually he has been surpassed, but ethically he is supreme." I'm still in the process of learning how and by whom Hume has been philosophically surpassed (I doubt he'd make the top 10); but "ethically" - by which I mean, not as a moral theorist or activist, but as a representation in philosophical writing of what I take to be the most admirable, endearing, and relatable human qualities - "ethically" I find him without equal. (Though I haven't read everything of his; the only works I've managed to finish are the first Enquiry and the Dialogues.)

There are philosophers who give off an almost "saintly" vibe: highly distinguished and praiseworthy and worth emulating (up to a point), but in a way that makes them less genuinely charming, more forbidding and unapproachable, as if their example is a reminder of how inferior and shamefully ordinary we are. This would be one of my main objections to calling any other philosopher my favorite.

There can also be something very attractive about a certain "iconoclasm" in philosophy (whether it's railing against the Church, the System, humanity, life itself, or whatever), but too much of that starts to reek of disease, fanaticism, smugness, juvenile affectation. Hume, IMO, has a healthy amount of "iconoclasm," and can have moments of darkness that rival Schopenhauer and the existentialists (see the problem of evil in Dialogues 10, the skeptical "shipwreck" in Treatise 1.4.7) - but he always has the ability to step back from it all and enjoy some drinks and backgammon, and it's wonderful. I get the feeling that he'd be an ideal friend. I don't know who else in philosophy pulls that off so well.

s. wallerstein said...

Michael,

Very interesting.

I'm an iconoclasm addict, so my favorite philosopher is no doubt Nietzsche.

However, while Nietzsche was a good friend (I've read a few biographies), he was a little too much in real life to want to be around all day, so for a friend, I'd pick Simone de Beauvoir without hestitation. She is entertaining, non-conventional, smart, generous, wise, the ideal person to have coffee or a drink with or to talk my problems over with.

John Rapko said...

It would certainly have been a blessing to have been friends with Hume or de Beauvoir; but wouldn't the 'ideal friend' among philosophers, in light of the fine characterizations of such given above, be Montaigne?

s. wallerstein said...

John Rapko,

I guess that for me at least Montaigne is too distant in the past to imagine as a friend.

Hume, on the other hand, shares enlightenment values, comes from the time when capitalism is beginning to take over, when Great Britain has something of a constitutional monarchy, when in Great Britain and Holland at least you weren't going to be burned at the stake for expressing skepticism about the truth of Christianity, when modern science, Newtonian physics at least, was widely accepted in intellectual circles.

To take a more extreme example, I can't imagine a Greek philosopher as a friend. Would I want Socrates as a friend? Plato? The question makes no sense to me.

From the enlightenment on, I can imagine conversing with any known philosopher or at least with many of them. Probably not Hegel or any of the German idealists.

LFC said...

I'm not sure about philosopher-as-friend, but for philosopher-as-person-to-have-a-drink-or-cup-of-tea-with, Iris Murdoch would be relatively high on my list. Not that I'm an unqualified fan of her philosophical work, but I do like some of her novels. (Though perhaps not quite as much today as I used to.)

John Rapko said...

On the question of phantasy friendship with the ancients: the 16th century seems to me the century of Montaigne and Rabelais, and so sentimentally closer than the 18th century, at least up through the Council of Trent.-- One would want to exercise a bit a caution in becoming friends with Iris Murdoch, as she practiced what she preached in saying that for her having sex with someone was her natural expression of friendship. And I think I've somewhat deepened two very different friendships when the friends took up my suggestion to read Murdoch's novel The Sea, the Sea.

LFC said...

_The Sea, The Sea_ does not happen to be one of my favorite Murdoch novels, though it is the one that won the Booker Prize.

Apparently one of Murdoch's favorites among her novels was _The Book and the Brotherhood_, which I also think is among her best (though her biographer Peter Conradi does not). But since she wrote more than 25 novels, there's no shortage to choose from.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I wouldn't dare to order for my wife and kids in our occasional visits to a restaurant, much less speak for their inner beliefs.

It is not just that our tastes and beliefs differ, it is that they change so much over time.

So, I began life as a practicing Catholic. During my late teens I considered a conversion to Judaism and moving to Israel (perhaps that had something to do with a delightful Jewish girl I once knew). Eventually, I changed my mind due to a friend and neighbor (a Jewish musician and holocaust survivor), who helped me realize that the whole idea wasn't so good as I thought. Then I became an atheist and now consider myself just an agnostic.

these are the beliefs of 1.8 billion Muslims, a few billion more people if you add the other religious groups I mentioned. In any event, it's always good to learn how the other side thinks.

So, I regard that certainty with a mix of envy and trepidation. Envy for the power such staggering unanimity confers. Trepidation for the responsibility that would place on my shoulders.

On second thoughts, I'm probably better off with my family's uncertainties.

- The Original Another Anonymous

jeffrey g kessen said...

I don't know about S. de Beauvoir as a friend, S. Wallerstein. As much as I was enamoured as a lad with her four-volume autobiography, subsequent biographical enquiry, conducted not least by some of the "closest" of her contemporaries, suggests a character somewhat more cunning, selfish, manipulative and exploitative of the weaknesses of others than the one she herself sought so indefatigably to maintain. Still love, "The Mandarins", though.

s. wallerstein said...

Jeffrey,

Try Becoming Beauvoir, a recent biography (2019) by Kate Kirkpatrick, for a balanced view.

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