Thursday, February 27, 2020

On your Marx

"'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to 
narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make 
thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no 
words in which to express it.'"  -- Syme
One of the things that makes having intelligent political conversations in the U.S. difficult these days is the basic vocabulary.  People use words like "liberal," "conservative," "progressive," "authoritarian," "nationalist," "radical," "fascist," "communist," and others often without having any idea what those words actually mean, and sometimes without even knowing what they themselves mean by them, or just as often thinking the words mean something entirely different than whatever meaning their listeners might assign.  This is to say nothing of nouveau creations like "alt-right," which--thank goodness--nobody worth listening to actually seems to take seriously.

This is becoming an issue of late because Bernie Sanders--a self-identified "democratic socialist"--is far out in front of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and now has various opponents are throwing the terminology out there in hopes of scaring off voters who instantly associate "socialism" with the likes of Stalin and Chairman Mao.  This isn't quite as bad as the terrible right-wing rag National Review calling Sanders a "national socialist" (which, if you didn't realize, is what the term "Nazi" actually comes from)--and no, I'm not linking to that bullshit.  But it's in the same sport, if not the same league.  They ought to knock it off.  Half the people calling him that have no idea what the word means, or think it means something different than it does--and then people hearing the term interpret it all different kinds of ways.  It's no way to have a meaningful conversation.  So yeah, really, they ought to knock it off.

They won't.  So I'm just going to level some gripes about "socialism" and its misuses.  Have you got all day?  Probably not.  So I hope you won't mind the inevitable oversimplifications.

Basically you have to go back to the mid-1800s in western Europe.  It's well into the industrial revolution, and people are leaving farms to go work on mines or in factories or other industrial activities.  And these new jobs are dangerous and back-breaking and hardly pay shit--but their labor generates massive profits for the factory owners and shareholders.  And this isn't much different than before, when folks were basically peasants or tenant farmers eking out a living in the countryside, while their landlords lived in luxury.  Sound familiar?  Okay, but believe me--that shit was a lot worse.

While this is all happening a guy called Karl Marx takes notice and thinks, "well, that's bullshit.  The people doing all the work don't get squat, and meanwhile the owners and landlords rake in the Deustschmarks for just sitting on their asses playing bridge and sipping tea all day."  Marx looks more into this, and realizes the economy need not be structured in this manner; instead of a few wealthy owners--the capitalists--basically exploiting the workers, perhaps the workers could jointly own the factories or mines or farms (i.e., the "means of production") and divide their gains equitably.  Better yet, you could have the government basically take over all the means of production and run all the farms and factories and mines and shit for the benefit of all the people.

Now, Marx was quite brilliant--likely the most significant economist of the nineteenth century and undoubtedly one of the most significant ever.  But he was hardly the first person to come up with socialism.  Plato and Thomas More had both theorized proto-socialist utopian societies where all property is owned in common for the benefit of all its people, of course.  The first reported use of the term in English is attributed to Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen in 1822, though intellectuals throughout Europe and North America had already been publishing on the topic (but without using the term) for decades by then.  This is to say nothing of various forms of de facto socialism practiced in tribal societies the world over throughout antiquity, or scattered examples of socialist practices in even larger communities (such as Vedic India or, arguably, the Incan Empire).

One difference with Marx, however, was that he fully understood capitalism, thinking that practice through to its logical conclusions.  For one thing, capitalism obviously depends on markets, since the point of producing anything under capitalism is to sell it for more than it cost to produce it.  In order to sell something, you need a market.  If you go along making and selling something long enough, though, eventually you'll reach the point where the demand for your product declines because all the people who want it already bought it.  So then you need a bigger market.  If you've been selling your product in California, now you need to sell it all along the West Coast.  Then the entire western U.S.  Then the whole U.S.A.  Then all of North America.  Eventually the whole world.  Then, I guess, the Milky Way?  Just go sell that shit on Alpha Centauri.

At some point, of course, no capitalist enterprise is going to be fully sustainable.  That's what capitalist critics mean when they say stuff like "infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet."  Maybe you've heard that one?  Eh.  Well, the Wall Street cheerleader types don't like to hear things like that but it's true of course--and largely explains why market economies go through boom-and-bust business cycles rather than go steadily along.  Still, if it took saturating the entire planet with goods for a capitalist enterprise to fail, we could probably all live with that.  Some folks would be out of a job, but at least we'd have a widget in every pot, or however that goes.  Still, that's not really the problem.

Preliminarily, expanding markets in this manner is really possible only to the extent new markets are open to what you're selling.  Maybe the people in X country don't want your greasy hamburgers because they're not interested in an obesity epidemic.  Maybe the people in Y country don't want your  toxic paint and electronic cigarettes because they like potable water and healthy lungs.  Or maybe the people in Z country would definitely buy your cheap cell phones if they could--but Z country has its own fledgling cell phone industry and doesn't want your company to put the domestic firms out of business before they have a chance to develop.  So governments do things like impose tariffs on imports or exclude foreign commerce altogether for these types of reasons--and this inevitably leads to hostilities.  I mean, that's what Marx thought would happen, anyway; it's not like anybody ever actually fought a war just to get access to a foreign market, right?  Or maybe some crazy dictator country did or something, who the hell knows. 

And then we have to look at competition, which you might say is simultaneously the greatest virtue and the greatest curse of capitalism.  The objective is to be the "low-cost producer."  That is, customers in a marketplace are generally going to buy the best product they can get for the lowest possible price--so if that's what you can offer, they'll buy from you.  But if they are not buying from you, that means they are buying from a competitor, and if that goes on for too long you'll go out of business.  So then you've got to compete: find a way to either offer a better product, or to offer the same product at a lower price.  Sometimes people don't manage to accomplish this and, well, they're not heard from again.  But often enough people do--and that's what makes capitalism an engine of innovation and efficiency.  Over time, this competition produces better products and makes them more affordable.

Market competition can seem glamorous when we're talking about how capitalism motivates, say, tech engineers to design the latest tablet PC or find practical new uses for recycled metal or whatever.  But competition is just as much (or more) about reducing overhead--and that means things like paying the lowest wages, avoiding investments in worker safety, clean technology, or other such costs, buying the cheapest raw materials (likely from suppliers who likewise follow cut-rate practices), and when you can get away with it you stiff people or violate regulatory laws and so forth.  Capitalism is at least as much a race to the bottom as a race to the top--and while the shiny new tablet might seem worth it to the customer who buys it for a song, that evaluation might be different on a collective level when the workers who produced that tablet show up at food banks because they weren't paid sufficiently, or the whole town has asthma because the manufacturing plant spewed toxic smoke into the air.  But it keeps the prices down.  And that new tablet is pretty awesome.

This race to the bottom aspect is just as unbound by political and cultural borders. You already know this with with wages; why put your factory in country A and pay $15/hr. when you can produce your product in country B and pay $2/hr?  Do I really have to ask?  Okay, how about your raw materials?  If you need rubber or petroleum or diamonds, then you'll go and buy it from whoever has it and has it the cheapest.  And if some country's government comes in and tries to nationalize your factory?  Or says they won't sell you their oil (or worse, that they already promised it to a competitor)?  Well, now we have a problem.  I guess now your head of state is a crazy dictator who needs to be removed for your own good.  Because again, we certainly wouldn't have a war over gaining access to somebody's raw materials.  Oh, that Marx.

Then there's the fact that capitalism tends over time to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, a process that tends to diminish the ability of new producers even to enter markets in the first place--hence eroding the very competitive forces from which capitalism derives its value.  Without taxation, anti-trust measures, and other means of wealth redistribution, this manifests first in the formation of monopolies within particular industries and, well, you'd ultimately get to a sort of feudalism with the tectonic plates of society just grinding to a halt.

So yeah, Marx saw how all this was going to go.  But the other thing about Marx was that he wasn't just some academic putting out "wouldn't it be great if..." type pieces in esoteric journals only fellow thinkers might ever read.  Dude was a revolutionary.  He wanted to see workers actually rise up and improve their circumstances.  So in 1848 he drafted a short, 23-page pamphlet in German for distribution not to philosophy chairs at elite universities but to actual workers slaving away for bread.  Sort of like the Facebook post of the time, I guess.  The best part was the end.  "Arbeiter aller Länder, vereinigt euch!" it said.  "Working men of the world, Unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains."

Fuck yeah.  You're seriously going to read that and not put on the RATM?

So is this what Bernie Sanders means when he calls himself a "democratic socialist?"  Hardly.  But to understand what he does mean, we need to look at a bit more history.

Marx's ideas caught on with workers movements all around the world.  But, apart from a couple short-lived experiments in imposing socialist in Australia and Paris, he never actually got to see a socialist state actually play out in real life.  He died in 1883.

But the workers' struggle carried on world-wide, and labor did win lots of concessions and improvements even within capitalist societies: child labor laws, minimum wages, social safety net programs, the damn weekend....  But as you've probably heard, in 1917 the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsarist government in Russia and established the first communist state.  So, how did that go?

This was really not even a true natural experiment since, as a number of scholars have made clear, Eastern Bloc communism wasn't really worker-directed socialism so much as "state capitalism."  But I am going to steer clear of that whole debate and just focus on a couple things the Soviet experiment did prove.  One is that central planning is impossible, the other is the free rider problem.

See, if you are going to have the state own all the means of production and then make stuff for the benefit of all the people, then you have to be able to predict what stuff people are going to want or need and in in what quantities.  That's called "central planning."  This is pretty much impossible because consumers are unpredictable and because there is an unlimited number of unforeseeable things that can to alter peoples' needs and priorities.  So inevitably you'll make too much of one thing, not enough of another--and this will manifest in the best of times as empty shelves and long lines for TP and in the worst of times as famines.  Not a good time.

Markets, on the other hand, are inherently driven by the forces of supply & demand.  Nobody needs to figure any of this shit out--the market just does it, and does it a hell of a lot better than humans (and probably supercomputers, but who knows) ever could.  With capitalism, producers know to make more of a certain thing when people buy it, and they know to stop making something when people don't buy it.  So you might think the American Girl doll is too big and hideous and overpriced and why in the everloving hell would any kid want that--and then they fly off the shelves.  Meanwhile, nobody wants Love/Hate CDs even though they're an awesome band that rocks.  Well, nobody has to predict this absurd consumer behavior for producers to know they need to make more AG dolls and stop pressing Love/Hate.  (Ultimately that's yet another reason capitalism is fucked up, but I guess this is a debatable contention).

Then there's the free-rider problem.  This is basically the idea that if people don't have to pay to ride the bus, then you probably aren't going to get enough in voluntary contributions to pay for the gas.  A few people might step up and pay their fair share, some others might chip in a little less then they should, and still others will just ride for free.  If this goes on too long, eventually nobody goes anywhere.

In other words, if you  take all the resources of a society and divvy them up equally to all its members, then inevitably there will be people who won't do any work because "hey, I get paid anyway!"  Or other people will work, but not very hard.  And good luck filling the really crappy jobs.  And overall, you just won't have a very efficient or well-functioning system. 

Capitalism, by comparison, does not have these problems.  You don't ride the damn bus unless you pay the damn fare.  And you're not going to have money to pay the fare unless you do something to get money--whether that's working at a job, operating your own business, whatever.  And you're not going to have those opportunities unless you are willing to actually put in work--and probably work harder than the other people competing with you for those same opportunities.  Getting people to do the crappy jobs isn't difficult either--maybe you pay them a little more, or maybe they just go to the people who lost out in the competition for better ones.  Either way, the market takes care of everything and keeps everyone under constant pressure to get shit done, and do it better and faster than the next person.

Since central planning is impossible and the free rider problem exists, a purely socialist economy is basically impossible to successfully maintain at a large scale. You will find no shortage of people in the U.S. and other western free enterprise economies who will wildly nod their heads in agreement at this statement. But here's the rub: the same is true of pure capitalism.  It may be for different reasons, but in their pure, extreme forms both are destructive and ultimately unsustainable.  Yet for some reason (or, more likely, some vast multiplicity of reasons), the prevailing view in the U.S. is to the contrary: socialism is the devil's work, capitalism god's.  And this is more than just a bizarre cultural double-standard: we have an economy that is already very close to pure, unadulterated capitalism and creeps ever closer day-by-day. 

Source: unknown.  But thanks!
Anyone who bothers to heed the lessons of the last two centuries can understand, however, that a nation should not adopt either approach to the exclusion of the other.  A healthy economy and healthy society requires both capitalism and socialism.  The competitive forces of capitalism are necessary to stimulate innovation and maximize efficiency, as well as to calibrate the production of goods and services to the actual need and keep all citizens productively engaged.  But socialist policies are equally necessary to curb the rapacious ends of capitalism--to ensure that workers are paid sufficient wages, that their health and basic comforts of life are assured, to avoid and manage conflicts between producers and between producers and states, and to redistribute wealth and capital as is necessary to perpetuate competitive forces and diffuse opportunity.

There are different ways to balance these forces.  But capitalism and socialism are best seen as poles on a continuum, with the objective being to steer the best path between them--not as a pair of self-contained alternatives presenting an either/or choice.  Yet this is precisely how most people in the U.S. seem to conceive of socialism and capitalism: a choice between one or the other.  And of course, we have chosen the former--suffering an infatuation with capitalism and intolerance for anything associated with socialism that is absurd, unhealthy, and destructive.

A similar devotion to socialism would be equally as wrongheaded, but that is not what someone like Bernie Sanders has in mind when he says he advocates for socialism.  He means that we need some socialism--that we need more socialism than we have now, that we should have enough socialism to balance out the harms of our well-entrenched turbocapitalist society.  He doesn't mean we should have only socialism or that we should have socialism instead of capitalism.  And he's exactly right.

Calling himself a "socialist" may not be good politics, but it does demonstrate that Sanders has at least bothered to actually learn the lessons history has taught us about full-on ideological devotion to one economic theory or another.  The same cannot be said for the so-called "moderates" who cannot even entertain the idea of anything less than unfettered capitalism.  Perhaps they might be bothered to read a 23-page pamphlet and grasp the irony of their extremism.  Or nah.


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