Monday, February 19, 2018

The startup cost of communism is too damn high - and other closing words (part IV)


(this is a continuation of the conversation which began here, and left off here)

Me: Regardless of which system is preferable once established, overthrowing existing capitalist institutions would require such massive bloodshed and economic upheaval, and be so unlikely to succeed for long, that attempting the transition is highly irrational.

Communism as most of you seem to be defending it (as opposed to more moderate intermediary states like socialism) is necessarily an all-or nothing proposition. It requires revolution. It requires that capitalism be overthrown, and that private property be abolished or seized. It requires a “dictatorship of the proletariat” incompatible with existing government institutions. And if it is to last, that dictatorship requires defense from neighboring states, domestic uprisings and internal corruption that threaten to re-impose class domination.

All of the above requires violence, and all of the above can fail. Because capitalism is the dominant economic system in the status quo, this risk and startup cost to communism has to be factored in to it’s merits on the aggregate. If the only way to get to communism is to BOTH overthrow the existing state AND prevent any other capitalist state (either internal or external to the revolutionaries) from eventually replacing it, and only a handful of countries have ever successfully done this for long, the odds of successfully communist implementation appear pretty slim.

Furthermore, the consequences of falling short in armed revolution against capitalist states are likely to be tragic: thousands if not millions of deaths, millions impoverished, only for capitalism to stay in power or ultimately return anyway. So now we have a high risk of failure + severely negative consequences for that failure. In order for attempting communist revolution to be rational, the potential marginal improvement in quality of life for humankind must be so large as to outweigh a cataclysmically high risk of disaster; literally “give me the complete dissolution of class inequality, or give me millions of deaths.” Is that a noble gamble?

From my view, libertarians (and most other enemies of the existing political order, for that matter) can offer a much more appealing sales pitch, because our ideology is compatible with incrementalism. Even if I prefer anarchy in the abstract, for the time being I’ll settle for ending the drug war and isolated deregulation of some economic sectors. Liberty exists on a spectrum, and we can make things better in our lifetime by gradually nudging in that direction. If our kids and grandkids can keep doing that, great: the final transition to anarchy or classless society will go almost unnoticed. But if they fall short somewhere along the line, and the capitalist state proves too stubborn to dissolve entirely, we’ll at least have made things better for the effort. We can erode and contain oppression by stages without resorting to bloody revolution. Isn’t that a more promising model for enacting social change?

Daniel: communism doesn’t necessary require revolution. The idea is we go from feudalism to capitalism to socialism to communism, not necessarily murdering everyone.

I agree that armed global communist revolution became a very bad idea since like 1945.

For now can I please just live in a globalized Keysian utopia with a robust welfare state, free education, free medicine and mars colonies and y’all will peace out with your extreme stuff

Steve: Communism does require revolution, it just doesn't necessarily have to be bloody and violent (though it is silly not to expect that very real possibility.

You are correct that nobody ever said a revolution would be easy though.

Sean: Andrew are you familiar with mutualism? Its a way of coordinating labor between individuals still mediated via labor units or credit of some kind, in a fully decentralized or distributed manner. This in combination with workforce relations being co-operative rather than competitive, can be one of the various non-violent forms of revolutionary activity or transformation of the mode of production.

Me: I read the Wikipedia page on mutualism and mostly, I like it. I’m admittedly skeptical that different sorts of labor can be fairly broken down into comparable units, with widely accepted exchange rates across all the immense diversity of skilled and unskilled labor conducted in the modern economy. I think currency as we understand it today probably does a better job of facilitating mutually beneficial exchange, by removing the need for a double-coincidence of wants if two people are to help one another, while also compensating people in proportion to the value of the work they do (rather than just the duration or difficulty of the work they do). And, I think the distinction between “private property” and “personal property,” revolving around whether the property is being currently used, is a bit contrived (although it’s also almost Lockean!).

But, I do like it’s reliance on markets of some kind, relative to the competing forms of communism I’ve seen. And mostly, I love that it’s wholly voluntary, which from my view makes it compatible with the libertarian world I envision. I’d be excited to see how it works, so long as (like you suggested) that segment of society wishing to try it pursues it peacefully, without wielding violence against whichever segment of society remains un-enticed.


(My OP) 3. I’m arguing that even if you disagree passionately with points 1 and 2, libertarians and communists trying to reach their ideal worlds have a common enemy in a powerful state, and thus a shared interest in containing and dissolving state power.

Steve: To address your third point, you don't understand what function the state serves. So long as class antagonisms exist, which is to say so long as classes themselves exist, a state will exist to enforce the will of the ruling class. Communists, while aiming for a stateless and classless society, recognize that there will be need for a state so long as these class antagonisms remain present. Maybe it is true that the state is an obstacle to both our political objectives, but it is for different reasons. In my case, the state is an obstacle because it serves as the organized class interest of the bourgeoisie and I seek to replace it with a state organized around the class interest of the proletariat. In your case the state looks like an obstacle because you don't understand that you can't have stateless capitalism.
Me: I don’t quite want stateless anything; I’m more a minarchist than an anarchist, and I’m glad to at least have a night-watchman state to arrest murderers and rapists, etc. You are right that capitalism cannot exist without clearly defined and enforced property rights, which probably requires a state too.

But supposing you meant I “don’t understand that you can’t have capitalism without extensive state involvement to the benefit of the rich,” you’re right again – I don’t understand that. Enlighten me: why is that so?


Steve: Because a state that enforces the property rights required for capitalism (i.e. bourgeois property rights) is one controlled by the bourgeoisie (which very roughly translates to the rich, for clarity's sake). They will inevitably use that state for their benefit.
Daniel: Your final point isn’t something I’m interested in arguing, because again, I like strong state. I think it doesn’t stand though, because in classical Marxism you need to increase state power, get into socialism, and wait for state to dissolve voluntarily, while libertarians wanna just jump straight into anarchy?Sean: One of the most important facets of Marx’s critical project was the exposition of the systematic logic of capital accumulation; what can be called the “systematic dialectic” of capital. Actually taking the commodity form as a given in the beginning, he unfolds the logical development of the contradictory character of the commodity form (the contradiction between a commodity’s use-value and its exchange-value) and shows how the capital-labor class dialectic is a result of the transposition of value from labor to capital (exploitation). The capital-labor dialectic is a contradictory one because of the contradictory interests of each aspect of the polarity, but capital is the superior pole that continues to subsume labor into itself, moving towards absolute subsumption and the elimination of labor (though “labor” is cognized as “variable capital” from the horizon of the valorizing perspective, as if it doesn’t exist, as if it’s another part of capital inputs). However, since capital and proletarian labor co-constitute each other (since it is precisely the extraction of surplus value that allows capital to appear as though it generates value from its own moving being, to have the pretension of being self-valorizing value), the dialectic by which capital subsumes labor is also the means by which it destroys the conditions for its own possibility; the logic of capitalist development is also the logic of its self-negation.

Yet this is only the systematic dialectic of capital; it exists in the abstract, and as such it is the “pure” logic of the process of capital accumulation. This is different from the “pure free market” ideology of right-libertarian thought because it employs a dialectical way of thinking about processes, which is to say that it identifies contradictory logics behind actual processes and builds a systematic totality to understand the whole and how these contradictions unfold in the whole, and how the whole and parts reinforce each other. The actual analytic process behind the systematic uncovering of the dialectic is not concerned with the unfolding of these logics in a linear causal framework but actually performatively validates each developed category through the retroactive evaluation of the antecedent category via the efficacy of the consequent one (for example, the capital-labor relation not only results from the contradictions of the commodity form but the former also retroactively supports the latter in a systematic way; the development of the class relation out of the commodity form retroactively reinforces the hegemony of the commodity form) The systematic logic of capital is timeless, though its exposition occurs in time.

The error of right-libertarian thought is the upholding of an abstract conception that is grounded in time; that we only have “crony” capitalism and that “true free market” capitalism will develop in time, and that the state is an entity external to market forces which appears as an obstacle to capitalist development. This is to confuse an internal logic of a system of particular forces with the way that it plays out externally, in history, with the totality of relations not immediately related to the economic; this is why Marx’s project is a critique of political economy, not merely “economics”.

The historical dialectic of capital accumulation reveals that the function of the State was always to reconcile contradiction by mediating between the capital-labor polarity, prioritizing one over the other depending on the historical moment in question. This is why I would generally differ from state-centered interpretations of communism or even socialism, since I think the retroactive historical account of the function of state-socialism in the development of global capitalism could show that state-socialism provided the ideological and geo-political countervalence that allowed neoliberalism to emerge. There is no going back to that interpretation of socialism and any apparently “actually existing socialism”, while probably immediately beneficial to the national proletariat (only in the sense of fending off capitalist imperialism & extractivism), only functions to mediate between the capital-labor dialectic and thus cannot hope to transcend the system, which is a transcending of the dialectic itself. In fact, I would think that the state-socialist line of thought wrongly identifies the primary contradiction of capitalist society as the class division, rather than the abstract relation to time which allows for the possibility of extracting surplus value (since nominal time is the lowest common denominator that commensurates the otherwise incommensurable; by time we quantitatively relate qualitatively different labors that otherwise can’t be compared). Fixing this issue is a matter up to labor itself with its own capital in its own hands, not an abstract state mechanism (“proletarian” lead or not) which can only register labor in terms of some quantifiable unit; utils in bourgeois economics or “abstract labor” in marxism. The immanent forces of liberal market relations is replaced by a transcendent management of capital by the party-state; both are two sides of the same coin.

Communism is an ideal, but this ideal is approached scientifically. Revolutionary activity is the science of socio-technical craft, of the development of socialistic relations of production in an efforts to generalize and universalize these relations until they overcome relations governed by the logic of capital (what is called the “law of value”), much in the way that mercantile/trade relations existed in feudalism but it wasn’t until their eventual generalization that capitalism emerges as the hegemonic system. And as with all experimental activity, this science will necessarily have failures, but ones it can only learn from. So there is no “ideal” against “ideal”, there is only lofty mystification v.s. praxical science. You talk of ideality, actuality, but no talk of what these really entail. Don’t repeat memes, think for yourself.

Me: So my first observation is that this is written in a different language. I don’t say that dismissively: it’s a fair critique of my ideology, and I appreciate the time and thought you put into levying it. But on my end, considering your critique required some serious translation. I’ve read the Manifesto enough (once, quickly, for a class) to recognize and decode Marx’s language, but not enough to respond in it, and I don’t think I should have to (just as you may or may not have thoroughly scoured FA Hayek or Milton Friedman or Robert Nozick, and shouldn’t have to). To expect debates between Marxists and non-Marxists to take place on Marx’s terms is to slant the tables from the outset. I hope we can proceed a bit more colloquially, not just for my convenience but for the sake of any undecided third-party that may be reading with interest.

My second observation is that the labor theory of value is hogwash. Value is just a word people dreamed up to describe how badly they want things. Not everyone wants things equally badly, so it isn’t contradictory for a commodity to be objectively worth one thing on a market (what you call its “exchange value”), but subjectively valued higher or lower by a given user (what you call its “use value”). Neither are fixed. Likewise, labor has no inherent value. I could labor as much as I please making snow angels or mud pies in my backyard right now, but if there is no demand for my labor and no demand for my mud pies, both remain worthless. As such, “the extraction of surplus value” is a nonsensical phrase. Value has no physical existence, and cannot lie latent in a thing until it is extracted. Capitalism most certainly generates things people want “from its own moving being,” and there are many more of those things lying around today than there ever could be without private property rights.

My third observation is that communism is no more objective than competing ideologies. You closed with a certain conceit among communists, that Marx and the adherents of his “project” are just dispassionate social scientists describing provable facts, while his enemies are puppets on a string, reciting the lullaby theories our masters ingrained in us. Any opinions not “rooted in history” are dismissed as absurd – as if your own interpretation of history were anything more than opinion!

The study of history is not a lab experiment. There is no controlled environment, and no mechanical cause and effect replicable in different environments. The interaction of social forces is not comparable to the interaction of physical forces like gravity and friction. The progression of history is neither natural nor inevitable. “Historical materialism” is just a fancy term for Marx’s highly subjective interpretation of historical causation.

You say my error is: “upholding of an abstract conception that is grounded in time…to confuse an internal logic of a system of particular forces with the way that it plays out externally, in history, with the totality of relations not immediately related to the economic.”

*played. Ftfy.

The way something *played* out externally, in history, with the totality of relations not related to the economic, is an objective fact. The way it *will play out*, in the future, with a NEW totality of relations not related to the economic, is conjecture. The function of the state in relation to capitalism historically is not determinative of its function moving forward. Observing “the historical dialectic of capital accumulation” can at best inform your guess about how the internal logic of my system would play out in a future world. But my having a different guess than yours, or a different interpretation of historical causality, does not amount to an error in logic. It amounts to you and I having different biases.
I applaud you for differing from “state-centered interpretations of communism”. But if history is determinative of how these internal logics play out externally, doesn’t the “retroactive historical account of the function of communism” show that a state is inseparable from it?

Why is saying “I differ from state-centered interpretations of communism or even socialism” different than saying “I differ from state-centered interpretations of capitalism,” considering that both have only proven possible in state-centered versions thusfar?

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