Centrist reason versus socialist reason: the principle of planning



One of the failures of the western Left is to let the language of reason and logic to be recuperated and dominated by  “centrist” types and  pro-market ideologues. Indeed, a common stereotype levelled against  the leftist is the one of an idealist whose heartstrings are easily pulled but who cannot come up with a realistic, empirical alternative. The label “centrist”, which is a broad, almost empty signifier that includes Justin Trudeau,  Obama, and   Youtube demagogues/cranks such as Peterson or Sargon de Akkad,   usually connotes  tempered and well-read individuals that oppose the backwardness of the conservative right but also the idealism of the left, and instead pose themselves as the pragmatic, empirically verified, scientific option.  Yet, these centrists are usually motivated by quite vulgar and ideological motivations, from defending the status quo as the best situation available for humanity, deploying liberal arguments about the naturalness of market relations, to hysterics about how “postmodern net-marxists” are threatening freedom of speech and science.  Centrists, by painting themselves as the reasonable, logical, and scientific option,  have more or less succeeded in portraying the Left at best as idealistic, at worst unhinged and irrational.  Furthermore, the Left has its own (quite valid and partially right) criticism of enlightenment, “instrumental reason”, and scientism, and this often makes the Left seem anti-modernist and skeptical of the possibility of a rational/scientific approach to politics.

Yet this perception of the Left as “irrational” and “hysterical” is simply the culmination of the century long ideological assault against the workers’ movement. Once upon a time, socialists elevated reason and science in order to oppose the spooks of religion, nationalism, and the anarchy of the market, and instead fight for the rational organization of society that would provide for everyone’s needs, as opposed to the capitalist system which is an irrational,  aleatory, blind idiot-god  that is not consciously planned and therefore unable to efficiently satisfy social need.  Modern leftist thinkers are right about criticizing this naive conception of reason – that there is an objective, technocratic truth that exists above and beyond politics and ideologies. Furthermore, this fetish of “reason” has been employed to plunder, annihilate and dominate peoples who imperialists deemed “less rational” than the western, white man. However,  there is still space for a more nuanced, useful conception of “socialist rationality”, which was pioneered by Marx and Engels  and best fleshed out in Engels’ pamphlet “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, and later on developed by the workers’ movement. This scientific socialism is composed of two parts: (i) a desire to transform the  opaque and chaotic capitalist economy into a rationally planned, socialist economy, and (ii) an understanding of slow-moving, historical averages that reveal the class structures of the modern capitalist world, and  how this historical averages  must be transcended by a socialist political program.

This socialist reason therefore stands diametrically opposite to centrist reason, the latter which is the ideology of the present technocratic/professional elite who justify the present state of things (market oriented, liberal democracy, private property) as the best “pragmatic” possibility for a just, humane world, using a combination of vulgar empiricism (things “appear” to be better than the alternative), data-centric approaches,  demagogues with good “resumes” (Obama, Clinton), and mathematical toy models (e.g. “bourgeois” economics).    All these professional reason manufacturers will always defend their positions as the most realistic and pragmatic approach to satisfy social needs (education, food, shelter, infrastructure, leisure time).

Yet, the mortal flaw of this centrist rationality is that the laws of motion of capitalism are not about satisfying human need, but about expanding capital and generating profit in a very random and chaotic way. Social need, if it is  ever satisfied, is always done in an ad-hoc manner, as an indirect by-product of capital growth and immense waste.  So, after a mountain of obsolete smart phones, immense misery in the developing world, huge amounts of vacant condos, raising the average temperature of the Earth for a couple of degrees celsius, irrational and unplanned urban sprawl, homelessness, bullshit administrative and paper-pushing jobs, mass under-employment, and a 40+ hour work week,  capitalist dynamics may sometimes lead to the cure of a particular illness and some people (not even the world’s majority) having their material needs met. In other words, these centrist technocrats claim to use “instrumental reason” to achieve social good, yet, they choose to defend a system  where social good is not the priority, but an inefficient, convoluted by-product of a random-walk that sometimes happens to come up with electric cars in spite of damning the mass of the world into wage-slavery and ecological apocalypse.

The workers’ movement used to be very conscious of this irrational aspect of capitalism, and since the early 19th century, they sought socialist economic planning as a way to solve capitalist irrationalities.  The early utopian socialists, such as Owen, Fourer, and Saint-Simon,  imagined rational, planned economies that would be enforced by either  future enlightened rules or convincing the elite with argumentation.  Later on, Marx and Engels realized that the principle of economic planning will not come from appeals to rulers, but through the democratic, political struggle of the working class.   One of the  most lucid exponent of the contradiction between the irrational,  capitalist “law of value” and rational, socialist “principle of planning” was the early soviet economist Preobrazhensky, who saw the socialist imposition of reason into the economy as diametrically opposite to capitalist randomness, and therefore saw the necessity of a world, planned economy, for the survival of socialism, otherwise the aleatory irrationality of capital would engulph and destroy the “planning principle” if the latter was contained within the boundaries of the nation-state.

Socialist reason therefore is the impetus of making the economy rational and intelligible to human need. Furthermore, socialist reason is coupled with a scientific understanding of slow changing, historical averages that define the present moment; this historical understanding includes the intelligibility of the social classes that make up the capitalist world, and the geopolitical structuring of the core and the periphery. This socialist reason contrasts to the unambitious, ahistorical “centrist reason” that only considers the now, and is blind to the slow changing, historical averages that define the class stratification of the world – averages that are flattened out and erased through the vulgar empiricism of scatter plots and tables.  Another example of historically illiterate “centrism” is the idea that women are under-represented in STEM due to biological issues, where hundreds of years of gendered history are collapsed into a lousy correlation of a couple of variables.

To summarize, socialist reason is: (i) the principle of economic planning for social need, and (ii) consciousness of slow changing, historical averages. Contrasting this approach to centrist and technocratic reason truly unmasks centrism as an ideology masqueraded by performative appeals to credentials, math and science.