On scientific socialism and the necessity of the eclectic crank

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The task of scientific socialism in the 21th century should be to understand the laws of motion that govern capitalism in order to ultimately, replace them with  the “laws of socialist planning”. Both parts, the descriptive analysis of “the law of value” and the development of  a political program in accordance to a future “law of socialist planning”  are crucial for the  existence of a lively and healthy research program for scientific socialism.

However,  I would argue that the current research program of scientific socialism is degenerate, and almost dead, even if there is a an existing community of thinkers and writers that develop radical theory.  Since the critical theory turn of the Left after the 1960s, partly due to the absorption of marxism into the humanities,  the “scientific” impetus of  what was once known as “scientific socialism” has been more or less lost.  The  main reasons for the degeneration of the socialist science are: (i) extreme, self-referential formalism, (ii)  a turn towards the critical and descriptive, but without prescription,  and {iii} disdain for the empirical and quantitative.    The original purpose of this blog, was in fact, to combat these three anti-scientific tendencies,  by offering  prescriptive, transparent, and eclectic content that could generate discussion.   I will describe these three issues in the following paragraphs.

Issue (i) is the one that definitely bothers me the most – namely that much of radical theory has  devolved into an a closed, exercise of exegesis – from graduate students finding the meaning of the universe in Marx’s Capital or the Grundrisse, sectarian cadre getting their political education from primary source pamphlets (e.g. Lenin, Marx, Mao),  to  cultural capital waxing in the form of opaque prose that cites  dead frenchmen. This exercise takes the form of a closed self-referential loop that employs a horde of writers, thinkers and sect gurus but does not say much about the world. Contemporary  marxism is completely diseased with this problem,  where a social or economic phenomenon suddenly becomes a platform for the exegesis of Marx’ s Capital (or in its sectarian form, a pamphlet of Lenin or Mao), with academics, bloggers,  and autodidacts finding every excuse to cite a chapter of Capital in every paragraph of an essay/book.  It is a form of primary-source dogmatism  that forms a closed, self-referential system of signals and glyphs that refuses to open up to the outside.   Instead of, for example, engaging academic, secondary sources in sociology, history,  finance,  “bourgeois” economics, and business, in order to synthesize information using Marx as a rough, heuristical guide, all empirical reality is simply filtered through the passages of Capital.  This primary-source dogmatism reveals itself in the numerous reading circles that exist around Capital, rather than that time being spent more fruitfully  reading a secondary source on Capital (in the same way physicists learn Newton’s Laws through a textbook not through the Principia) and instead engaging with current scientific literature  to form a synthesis.  Indeed, if anything, this is entirely the opposite of what Marx did! Marx studied  the cutting edge of his era  in mathematics, “bourgeois” economics, and history,  to form a synthesis; he didn’t  bind  every paragraph he wrote to a reference from Hegel’s Phenomenology!

One probable sociological cause behind  issue (i) is the phenomenon of gate-keeping.  Privileging  the mastery of obtuse and unreadable subject matter and also a specific form of method  creates a pecking order of gurus and academics who use this “mastery” to justify their social or economic position, not unlike the function of medieval guilds.  Yet  this extreme formalism is  often confounded with the traditional form of specialization – where  a doctor an engineer require authentic mastery of technically challenging skills to be adept at their work.   Instead, the formalism acquired in academia or through politico-sectarian education can often act as a straightjacket because it imposes limits into how much can be imported from other disciplines, or how much  can the method change; in their eyes, going beyond method and discipline turns you into a “crank”, “dilettante”  or “eclectic”. However, as Feyerabrand once pointed out, young scientific research programs require precisely of “cranks”, epistemological anarchists that throwing shit against the wall and see what sticks, in order to flourish.

Issue (ii), the lack of positive, political programs as opposed to the overproduction of descriptive criticism, is deeply connected  to issue (i) given that it is related to the  academic-formalist straightjacket for two reasons: (a)  reluctance to engage in interdisciplinary research with other academic sciences inhibits to ability to formulate solutions because of lack of knowledge of the concrete (logistical, managerial, financial, scientific) issues of capitalism, and (b) it is much more academically respectable to engage in descriptive criticism as opposed to formulate radical, concrete solutions. In the case of (a),  the hard physics of capitalism are disregarded  (which require knowledge on finance, economics, computer science and logistics which can only be acquired through inter-disciplinary and  crank-eclectic study) and instead the discourse is saturated with “soft” concepts such as alienation, power, and knowledge, and “value” (some of these concepts related to the formalism of literary and critical studies), so that the discourse is too abstracted to formulate a concrete, political solution to a given problem.  In the case of (b), it’s just simply more congruent with academic formalism to dissect critically the problems of capitalism (and civilization)  without suggesting a political solution that amounts to more than just soft, fuzzy platitudes.  The problem is that, although it is understanding why academia does not have space for radical, political prescriptions, this “critical-descriptivism” is exported outside academia, to the more general radical millieu.  Although a partial, neutered shell of the the old “scientific marxism” still endures in some history or sociology departments, the fact is that these tools are merely used to academically dissect social phenomena without asserting a positive prescription for a better world.

Finally, issue (iii), the general disdain for the quantitative and the empirical, is simply a result of innumeracy and scientific ignorance that comes from the “academic-formalist” straight jacket described in the preceding sections.  Although it is understanding that a person cannot master all subjects, the language and culture of the Left is very alienating to trained scientists and engineers that could collaborate, and the opacity of radical theory due to self-referential formalism gathered from pamphlets or “dead frenchmen” makes it hard for trained scientists to access. Finally,  since the 60s, the Left has developed a counter-enlightment and “social constructivist”  critique of the quantitative positivism of the hard sciences, which often makes the milieu uninviting to  engineering/science types.

It used to be that the workers’ movement was a haven for unorthodox, eclectic-crank types that definitely made the socialist research program alive and useful.  Some names that come to mind are: Bogdanov, Dietzgen, and Preobrazhensky.  Many of these thinkers were often wrong, and often their ideas amounted to little more than crackpot fodder. Yet,  the fact that they were not shy to throw shit against the wall and see what sticks gave rise to politically (and also academically) useful narratives on imperialism, revolution, and socialist planning.  This old, eclectic crank spirit has been replaced by ossified pamphlets and sterile academese.  For the sake of scientific socialism in the 21th century, we must reinvigorate the eclectic-crank once again, as opposed to the measured and methodical “academic” thinker, or the dogmatic guru of the fossilized sects.

 

 

 

The free exchange of ideas for the benefit of humanity

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A worrisome trend in anglo-saxon societies is the way that freedom of speech as a principle has been recuperated as a rhetorical device  by misogynists, “anti-feminists” and racists, while the left wing has more or less refused to defend it, often by rightfully pointing out that the whole free speech spiel of racists, transphobes and misogynists is mostly a convenient cover for  rotten beliefs. Yet, this leftist deconstruction of the principle of free speech is often done from a negative, critical perspective, without postulating a positive and socialist freedom of speech. I find this trend worrisome for two reasons: (i) freedom of speech is an important principle to defend that actually has a long tradition in the socialist movement, and (ii) freedom of speech as a principle is extremely popular in western societies, even if people tend to be hypocrites when applying it at the practical level.

First let us deconstruct this new reactionary and “anti-progressive” freedom of speech that has recently been used against various social movements fighting for gender or racial equality.  In the last decade or so, a  constellation of  youtube demagogues, rogue professors,  sub-reddits, and self-help scammers have emerged under the umbrellas of “Men’s Rights Activists”, “video game activists”, “alt-lite”, “centrism”, and “classical liberalism”.  Given that I am unaware of any label they would accept that describes them as a group, I will refer to them as the “alt-reaction”. One of the common threads that unites the alt-reaction is a belief that liberals/leftists have eroded the principle of freedom of speech. This belief is a reaction to leftists/liberals confronting cerain forms of speech (often racist and sexist) that the  left deems problematic, which often results in doxxing, or administrative action (e.g. the firing of the utterer who made the problematic assertion).

One of the problems with this discourse around free speech is that the legal versus the practical aspect  of this principle is often confounded. I will make a difference between  the “strong program” and the  “weak program” of freedom of speech. In the weak version,  no utterances are criminal (with the exception of harassment),  yet their legality does not hinder institutions from taking disciplinary measures against the utterer in the form of employment dismissal, economic coercion, or censorship enforced by private institutions (e.g. websites, newspapers).  In contrast, the strong form of free speech is absolute, where the utterer cannot be penalized by any institutional mechanisms, whether employment dismissal, legal action or censorship.  The weak form of free speech more or less exists in the United States, and Canada asymptotically approaches this state, given that the Canadian, legally binding definition of “hate speech” is fairly extreme (e.g. the literal advocacy of genocide), which excludes most garden variety racist or misogynistic statements.  Given that the weak form of free speech more or less operates in the  anglo-saxon sphere, the kerfuffle must be  related to a perceived infringement of the strong program  of freedom of speech.

First, the strong form of free speech has never existed historically. There hasn’t been any society that does not penalize utterances or statements deemed threatening, whether through legal means, such as  criminalizing certain forms of speech, or through other, more indirect means, such as economic coercion (e.g. through employment or through a business contract) or by private censorship. So the narrative given  by the alt-reaction that “Social Justice Warriors”, feminists, etc. have eroded  the strong form of freedom of speech, is a cynical lie.  Anglo-saxon institutions have disciplined throughout modern history people for saying the “wrong things”, from seemingly apolitical utterances that nevertheless constitute as harassment, to having unacceptable political stances.  The only thing the alt-reaction can really point at  is that some of the discourse they cherish (e.g. purposely misgendering people,  advocating a white ethno-state,  implying female intellect is incompatible with science, apologizing and encouraging for rape etc) is finally becoming unacceptable and therefore liable to be disciplined by private/public institutions.  In other words, now that the people targeted aren’t communists but vocal misogynists and racist trolls,  they cry pathetically and suddenly become  “classical liberals”, “rational centrists“, etc. or whatever dumb buzzword they looked up in wikipedia.

However, even if I have very little sympathy for these people, I think they do point at something real. Namely  that the weak program  for freedom of speech is too abstract to protect most people in a  practical sense.   In capitalism, livelihoods are tightly coupled to employment, and therefore getting  blacklisted or sacked due to having an “incorrect opinion” is an effective way to silence someone and therefore suppress the free exchange of ideas.  The alternative to not “tow the line” so to speak is to become homeless and destitute.  Many liberal think-pieces have retorted to the alt-reaction by claiming that freedom of speech (in its weak form) does not mean you cannot get disciplined by the employer, yet these think-pieces simply state this discipline is desirable. Although the wrong utterance can cause destitution, especially for more vulnerable demographics that depend on wage-labor to survive, mainstream commentators only care that freedom of speech is respected from an extremely abstracted and legalistic vantage point. Coincidentally,  this is a common socialist criticism against liberal legalism, where the arguments that emphasize only abstract equality before the law, do not take into account how the law overwhelmingly targets the poor and marginalized.  A similar argument could be made about the liberal, extremely abstract defence of weak freedom of speech, where they are merely satisfied by the existence of the abstract right rather than the practical realization of it.  Incidentally, James Damore reflected that his autism might have blinded him from the possible repercussions of his diatribe, which also points about how disciplinary actions  against taboo speech make people who are “neuro-divergent” or poorly socialized for whatever reason, more vulnerable to repression  (even if Damore’s behaviour cannot be excused by his autism).

So, capitalism cannot even enforce the weak program of freedom of speech, given that it does not protect the individual from  destitution if a taboo statement is uttered.  Therefore,  the only way to realize the principle of freedom of speech is through a socialist economy, given that a safety net in the form of public goods, such as housing or food, could shield an individual from  ruination due to their unpopular opinions.  While I can’t condone the “strong program” of freedom of speech,  given that certain places must become  psychologically safe spaces for their optimal function,  such  educational settings and social work spaces (e.g. a social worker shouting racial diatribes should be fired immediatedly), dissenting and taboo  views, no matter how disgusting and reactionary, should be allowed to exist without the threat of material destitution.  One (of many) of the issues of the old “bureacratic-socialist” movement,  is that the principle of freedom of speech was not really respected,  starting all the way back  with the banning of factions in 1921 by the early Soviet state, and the violent suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, the latter which had as a demand, the freedom of the press.   This disdain for freedom of speech has followed the movement all the way to the present,  partly because of the historical heritage of marxist-leninism and maoism, but now making its way to more “mainstream” left as well.  I think part of the reasons is that the early socialist movement became victorious  in peripheral regions of the world where a culture of liberal democracy had not been cultivated, and instead socialists had inherited the culture of authoritarianism of tsars and empires. Yet, we must revitalize the early, socialist defence of freedom of speech, an issue that Marx was very passionate about.  Not only because it is the ethical thing to do, but also, as a tactical issue, given that many people rightly identify with this principle.

Red giants: statistical fat tails and revolutions as inverse risk-management

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I consider my small intervention, in the form of this blog, in the continuity of the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution.   Not only because I want all forms of  oppression, exploitation, and misery to be destroyed, but I also desire an ambitious, positive program as well,   such as how Bogdanov dreamed of socialism in Mars, or how delegates representing millions of workers around the world, met in the First Congress of the Communist International to  draft a program for a world, socialist republic.  I desire a planetary, democratic community, where individuals of all nations, genders, and ethnicities, get together to direct and plan the world-system for the purpose of  emancipating humanity from toil and misery. In contrast,  the capitalist economy  is a blind and purposeless demiurge  that turns children in the periphery into soldiers and  slaves,  citizens  in the first world  into emotionally damaged and  medicated  automatas, and cruel idiots into presidents, CEOS and autarchs.

I expect  for this month that the internet will be bursting with  didactic lessons on the October Revolution – how certain, socio-economic conditions  of Russia and tactical decisions of the Bolsheviks determined  the revolutionary overthrow of the Constituent Assembly, and what these lessons mean for socialists today.  Different groups, depending on academic pedigree or sectarian loyalties, will excavate different lessons  – with some claiming that we need a party modelled  by the bolshevik approach, while others will suggest that the era of ambitious political programs  is over, given that the structure of capitalism today has essentially fractured the identity of the old mass worker which the  radical socialist program was built upon.  Finally, some like certain maoists, will argue that revolution is a “science” that is updated by revolutionary events, with China updating Russia, and Russia updating Marx.

The large spectrum of different conclusions  implies that the problem of didacticism is hard. However, I think it is because all these agents are asking the wrong questions.  Revolutions are abrupt changes: extreme, highly variable, non-linear, almost unpredictable, but usually under-predicted – in short, they are black swans. I’ve talked about the black swan before – basically it is a pop-finance/statistics term that describes highly impactful but unpredictable events, like the invention of the internet, the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, or  the October Revolution. Other black swans are earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and terrorist attacks. This “black swan”  dynamic makes revolutions incredibly epistemically opaque to us, and also bounds the type of questions we can ask about them.

Trying to forecast whether revolution is possible on not in a given timescale is like trying to forecast the next earthquake and its magnitude.  Many radicals treat revolutions as a function of certain inputs – for example, how the pressure of a gas is proportional to its temperature.  So if you can excavate from history the variables that are coupled to revolution, you can analyze those parameters and predict whether revolution is in the horizon and how it will look like.  However, the statistics of revolutions are more comparable to earthquakes – earthquakes, like revolutions,  have technically concrete, quasi-deterministic causes, but they are usually epistemically opaque to us. You can in hindsight analyze the dynamics of earthquakes, by solving a set of physical equations in a computer, but you cannot possibly know when will the next earthquake be, or what will be its magnitude. Similarly,  historians can analyze in hindsight what were the causes of a specific revolution, but they are incredibly ill equipped to delimit the possibilities/impossibilities of the next revolutionary event.   This does not mean that future prognosis based on longue durée history is epistemically prohibited, but that history can only be used to forecast slow-changing, long averages, not shocks and sudden jumps. Revolution, if anything, is the quintessential  example of a historical shock, therefore no amount of PhDs and “brilliance” can  prognosticate the possible horizons of the next revolution.  Whole traditions of socialism  exist that have “caked” in them a strategy of revolution or social change, but many of them are nothing more than dogma.

The October revolution actually gives us an empirical example on the unpredictability of revolution.  The soviets and the bolsheviks didn’t entertain the possibility of overthrowing the Constituent Assembly until  a few months before the assault of the winter palace, after a long and gruelling polemic about whether  Russia was ripe for socialism or not.  The revolutionary timescale where everything was done and decided in their case was less than a year long.  In fact, the Marxist orthodoxy based on  longue durée historical analysis at that time predicted that Russia was not ready for socialism, given that it was underdeveloped and hadn’t gone fully through capitalism yet. Yet, countering all intellectual and theoretical expectations, and therefore embodying a statistical black swan,  Russia experienced the first socialist revolution in history.

In contrast to the “historical-academic” approach, a better method  for the study of revolutions from the perspective of a socialist is inverse risk-management. Just as how engineers and planners might design buildings to withstand earthquakes or massive floods – events of low probability but with high impact, socialists  should be “prepared” for the revolutionary window.   Revolutions  are low probability, high impact events, and the only possible epistemic approach to them is to be prepared. Just as how the capitalist state has plans in case of social decomposition, such as how the United States  subsidizes agricultural production in order to have food sovereignty in case of a world-historic break-down, socialists should build their own infrastructure and presence in society, in a patient, thoughtful manner, in order to be prepared to ride the earthquake, so to speak.

What does this preparation consist of?  That is the million dollar question.  However one cannot extract  the solution to this problem by looking simply at longue durée history, because such a study concerns with long, slow moving time-scales, while the concrete actions that need to be taken are short-termed  and granular and extremely contingent to the conditions that exist now. Therefore, an “apple to apple” comparison between the old socialist parties, and how socialist parties in the 21th century should look like is impossible.   Indeed, some socialist “pessimists” explain their position by simply stating that the conditions now are very different than the ones of 1917, and therefore a  revolutionary, socialist party is an impossibility.  However, the only thing we can know from such an argument is that a socialist party would look different than the one of 1917, which is a very banal assertion. Perhaps, a better approach is to look at the current existing social averages to start building a party in the mean time, while having flexible enough tactics that can be modified depending on future social contingencies. Such an approach would require engaging with current tried and tested modes of financing, organization, and media that are being developed by current, bourgeois organizations, while at the same time, taking into account longue durée historical analysis to develop a radical, principled socialist “maximum program”. Therefore, such a program would be  inspired from the historical experiences of socialists, but “filtered” by granular tactics informed by modern scientific disciplines, current aesthetics and present values.

Forex and intellectual property: the weapons of Empire

In the previous post, I outlined a hypothetical, centrally planned world economy. A question that naturally arises is how would  this world, planned economy deal with the economic imbalances between core and periphery.  I  have argued  before that garden variety anti-imperialism, where a peripheral region gains political independence from imperialist, core countries would still be economically subordinated (and therefore, in some sense politically) to core economies because there is almost no possibility for self-sufficiency/autarky in a global division of labour where the production of basic goods (clothing, medicine, computers) requires the coupling of resources/labour/technology across planetary scales. In other words, ultimately peripheral states, regardless if they are legally independent from core states, would require the purchasing of goods from imperialist countries, and therefore  will be forced to use  money that is valued in terms of  imperialist/core currency (e.g. dollars). So in my opinion, the destruction of imperialism can only be brought by a world, socialist economy, where the economy is planned at a  global scale in accordance to  planetary  constraints related to productivity, technological capacity, ecological limits and amounts of natural resources. This approach contrasts to development plans that assume a global market, given that the market will always favour those at the top of the geopolitical order.

An important question the socialist approach to resolving imperialism raises is whether workers from more affluent core regions would have to “foot the bill” so to speak.   It is important to answer this remark given that we live in a dark era of reaction where oppressed demographics, especially if they are not white, are considered deadweight and a drain. Furthermore,  much of the Left does not help, given that they phrase the question of emancipation of oppressed nations as ultimately resolved by zero-sum mechanisms, such as wealth redistribution, or “sacrificing” privilege. To put in another way,  it is implied that the more affluent and “white” working class will have to sacrifice their standards of living in order to emancipate oppressed nations.  I don’t believe that movements arise out of merely altruistic impulses, but from the realization that change will bring material betterment for the movement’s members.   If socialism requires that the majority of people in core regions sacrifice, then the whole project will be doomed unless there is a a sudden restructuring of the world economy that causes massive pauperization of core states.  Yet, I don’t believe that the resolution of the core-periphery asymmetry will appear as a zero-sum movement of wealth from the Global North to the Global South; in fact, this  argument comes from the corrupted perspective that material wealth is accurately represented by money.  In other words,  because social security, bailouts, and loans take the form of money that is extracted from taxes,  popular intuition renders the question of equalization as a transfer of wealth.   Yet,  a key issue to eliminate the core-periphery asymmetry is the  destruction of money as the mediator of wealth.

Why is the destruction of money important to eliminate imperialism? Money does not only mediate natural resources, or real capital (e.g. factories and technology), but embodies an opaque set of relations that includes financial and geopolitical/military balances of power. The value of the dollar and other global, reserve currencies is a function of the  geopolitical, military and financial balance of power that has been determined by centuries of wars, colonialism, and technological dominance. To put in another way, in the era of fiat money, reserve currency embodies credibility and trust, which is merely the representation of existing power relations that were imposed often through decades or even centuries of violence.  This is clearly evidenced in Greek debt crisis, where Syriza, an ostensibly anti-capitalist party that won the elections under a euro-sceptic platform in 2015, ultimately decided against pulling out of the euro-zone and against printing their own currency, given that Greece would be in the losing end of the balance of power, and therefore their currency would  be worthless to the global economy.  Instead, Greece  chose to be tied to the euro, which embodies the credibility and dominance of Germany, the latter a country with a long imperialist history. One of the means in which the core maintains its dominance over the periphery is that wealth is mediated by global reserve currency, the latter’s value which is determined by the dominance of  core states, and therefore it does not reflect necessarily a country’s available natural resources, labour power, and productive capacities.

Currency dominance couples to the opaque intellectual property of the core economies, where the engineering and science behind capital intensive technologies is rendered a trade secret, or simply becomes gated away by complex intellectual property laws.  Modern life in virtually every corner of the market requires access  to capital intensive technologies in order to produce even the most basic needs, such as electricity, automobiles, computers and medicine.  Although many peripheral regions, such as Africa, have the available natural resources to produce these technologies, they lack the technical expertise and  the trade secrets that are gated away in the core states. The imperial pecking order thus forces peripheral states to sell their natural resources cheaply for “imperialist” currency so that they can use the same currency to have access to commodities that require capital intensive technologies, commodities which are ultimately sold by core states.  The only alternative is to reverse engineer the core’s trade secrets,  which is a slow and labor intensive process that will still leave the periphery in a disadvantageous position, as ultimately, the core will keep increasing productive capabilities, making it impossible for the periphery to catch up in the global market. A good example of this phenomenon is the way many peripheral countries with oil reserves end up buying  gasoline from core states. Although some of these (semi)peripheral countries, such as Mexico, have the technological capacity to refine oil, they can never do it as efficiently and cheaply as the core economies, constraining the periphery to use global reserve currencies and also become dependent on the cores’ technological secrecy, deepening the core-periphery asymmetry.

A socialist, planetary economy would have to decouple itself from money,  as the value of currency does not reflect social need, but the balance of power, and ultimately the dominance of the core states. Instead, the development of the periphery should be planned in accordance to the available labour pool and natural resources, and under the assumption that information and technical expertise is widely available.   Today, the game is rigged for the periphery, and their contribution  to the global economy, in terms of  natural resources and labour, is under-valued, given that  the value  of global reserve currency, and the prices themselves, are  shaped by the geopolitical, financial, military and technological might of core states. A  socialist development program would not depend in lowering the standards of living of core workers,  as it will not take the form of a “tax” extracted from core workers and transferred to the periphery, but rather, it would be enforced by the transfer of technical expertise and the loaning of capital-intensive technologies to the periphery,  and ultimately, in fully integrating peripheral labour and resources into a  large-scale and planetary, world socialist republic. Such a plan would not just be carried out of humanitarian concern for the fellow human, but simply by the well known fact that elevating everyone to a decent standard of living  will have long-term, positive consequences for core workers as well.