Your analysis on why the third world lags behind is shitty

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If there is anything that annoys me intellectually the most, is when people give  the apparent well-greased functioning of the Global North as evidence that the Global South should follow the steps of the former.   It sometimes comes in the form of immigrants and exiles  from the periphery or the former socialist bloc, who are often quite ignorant of the source of the dysfunctionalities of their former homes, and simply think these problems are related to very abstract and  cosmetic differences between let’s say, Venezuela and Canada.   For example, I recently saw a blog post claiming how Hayek showed that the pauperization of Venezuela is related to the socialist calculation problem!  To this person, it seems that Venezuela tanked due to not satisfying some extremely abstract and formal philosophical requirements, such as letting price signals decide the allocation of goods. Yet, Venezuela “on paper” is very similar to european, social democratic states like the scandinavian countries, the latter which are  much more livable and successful. Therefore its problems are not really related to liberal or libertarian canards, but very concrete issues embedded in the venezuelan social fiber that probably pre-date capitalism or “socialism”, which make Venezuela much more miserable than Scandinavia, even if both’s policies seem very similar abstractly, “on paper”.

Popular and pundit analyses about the deficiencies of the periphery, especially on countries that have  leftist administrations, often contain very little about the concrete microphysics of these states.  For example, they almost never speak about the existence in the periphery of pre-capitalist social formations that impede the rise of rule of law and transparent institutions. Some of these social formations are: (i) Patron-client relations, where loyalties between different factions and groups are mediated through the exchange of services and goods, at the expense of loyalty to the state, law and public  institutions. (ii) Cultural issues, such as different approaches to work, time, nature and communalism, that impedes the formation of an “efficient” proletariat.  (iii) Lack of capital intensive technologies in the periphery that make one hour of labor time much less efficient than the same hour in the core.  (iv) Finally, the  asymmetric position of the periphery in the global economic order is probably the most important source of immiseration, where peripheral countries cannot run deficits as large as Canada or the United States to fund social programs, and instead are at mercy of the boom and busts of whatever raw materials they use to finance their social spending.

The sumtotal of the the above  outlined conditions will lead to to a large gap between the periphery and the core, and these conditions are not only a matter of policy, but slow moving, historical averages that are frozen into the social fiber of these countries and that cannot be uprooted easily without some sort of incredible violence.  Much of the economic advantage seen in, for example Canada, is a function of an extreme bloodletting  that lead to the destruction of First Nation social consciousness, in order to supplant it with anglo-saxon approaches on law, private property, and work, turning Canada essentially into the fevered labor camp imagined by the spiritless  automatas of Protestantism.  In the case of Latin America, such as  in southern Mexico, many indigenous nations have not forgotten who they are,  their pre-capitalist memories, although transformed by the centuries long existence  of private property, presidents and Kings, still form an impediment for the smooth functioning of the capitalist economy. For better or worse, this existence of ancient modes of life hamper the efficient realization of the capitalist clockwork we see in the core economies.

Curiously, this abstract disease of western liberals that make them unable to fathom the concrete causes of the periphery’s misery, is shared by western leftists as well.    For example, many leftists believe the common anti-communist canard that the Soviet Union collapsed due to the abstract constraints of a “planned economy”, In other words, that the conditions of the USSR’s lag were related to formal failures in the idea of a planned economy  – i.e. Hayek’s argument that planners will never be as efficient at allocating goods  as price signals.  However the collapse of the USSR was probably related to concrete, social microphysics that were a combination of Russian social forms that pre-dated socialism as well to dysfunctionalities that emerged due to the USSR’s need to defend themselves militarily from a hostile and more economically powerful west.  In fact, some left historians and sociologists (e.g. Fitzer, Ticktin ) have pointed out that these unique conditions created degenerative laws, such as various factions of the bureaucracy scamming, lying, and conning each other which lead to the manufacturing of shoddy, unusable goods,  artificially  tight labor markets, incredible waste, terror and authoritarianism, opacity of information, “planless” planning, and ultimately, collapse.  These conditions outlined are not simply the product of “formal” arguments about economic calculations, but a function of the concrete historical trajectory that predated the creation of the USSR.

Another example of a leftist version of the disease of abstraction lies in the Keynesian/post-Keynesian hegemony in leftist economic thinking. Much of Keynesoid arguments, such as  running large deficits, printing extra money, and the state patching unemployment through the generation of public sector jobs, assume that states have monetary, material, and food sovereignty – that the supply of money and accrual of debt is not constrained by the productive bottle-necks in the agricultural  and manufacturing sectors. These idealized conditions essentially assume the generalization  of labor camp-like relations and homo economicus in all relevant countries. Yet these idealized conditions essentially exist only in a handful of imperialist countries (e.g. United States, and Canada) and not in countries that actually have or had real leftist administrations (Venezuela, Brazil).

Curiously, the partisans of these neurotic abstractions claim the mantle of realism and pragmatism, given that they assume that the triumph of the core economies stand as empirical evidence of their arguments.  It’s a methodology that fits quite well with the anglo-saxon theory-less barbarism of correlation coefficients and tables.  This disease has led to to many Leftists pursue weak-kneed programs such as market socialism, big tentism, and slow gradualism. However the concrete issues of the periphery, such as the lack of material and monetary sovereignty, should raise questions against this cowardly and short-sighted programs. If anything, we must look beyond the nation-state and the market, and find scientific ways of administering and planning the planetary economy in order to destroy imperialism, avoid ecological collapse, and create a world where african, european, and latino workers take reign of their destiny collectively and in an internationalist way.  We must present an alternative to the present, the latter which is  rendered under the stochastic whims of the  capitalist, headless automata.

 

 

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Centrist reason versus socialist reason: the principle of planning

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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.

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.

 

 

 

The centrally planned economy, Hayek, and the red spot of Jupiter.

Jupiter

After the fall of the Soviet Union, economic marginalists triumphally proclaimed that the market is the only realistic system to manage our complex, global civilization of billions of people.   Although homelessness, vacant houses, starvation and food waste persist, the marginalist will argue that the market is not perfect but that no better alternative exists. Yet, an incoming catastrophe in the form of climate change may pose the question of a democratic and globally planned, socialist economy – after all, it seems self-delusional to think that an economic system made of competing firms and nation-states can respect the planetary boundaries. Global warming was almost entirely caused by the laws of motion of  capitalism, which lead to the wear and tear of bodies and the Earth, given how competition drives firms and nation-states to harvest the cheapest labor and natural resources.  Furthermore, the  fact that the length of the working day has not decreased in almost a century, and imperialism has exacerbated predatory asymmetries between the core and the periphery, should make the question of global, economic planning central for socialists.

The planned economy  has a bad rap, even amongst socialists.   The debate seems to have been settled in the first half of the 20th century with the so called “socialist calculation problem”, where  marginalist economists such as Hayek and  Mises  criticized the inability of centrally planned economies to compute the authentic demand and supply for specific goods. Hayek in particular, gave the most sophisticated attack, with his essay,  The Use of Knowledge in Society where he argued that the market acted as an unconscious, distributed computer where resources are efficiently allocated through the computation of the demand of goods by price signaling between different parts of the system (e.g., individuals and firms).   Many socialists have  criticized Hayek’s arguments throughout the last century, yet many of the socialist retorts are posed from a philosophical and epistemological perspective.  However, I believe the argument for central planning can be contextualized using new mathematical sciences, such as computer science, and nonlinear dynamics – fields that didn’t exist in Hayek’s day. So I will attempt to contextualize Hayek’s argument using a more “mathematical”  ( but not quantitative) method and I will retort from a pro-planned economy, socialist perspective.

The theme of Hayek’s argument is that the central planners have no possibility of knowing all information required to efficiently allocate goods in  a society. In contrast, the market acts as a giant, distributed computing system, where firms and individuals act as “parallel processors”, where each individual processor computes a small, local problem: a shop-keeper computes that a particular brand of cigarettes is very popular in  their neighbourhood, and consumer calculates their individual demand  on cigarettes the moment they look at the available cigarette brands.  The parallel processors, which are embodied in individuals, firms, and institutions, then in turn communicate with each other,  finally collectively computing the price of a particular commodity, which embodies the aggregate demand and supply of a particular good. To conclude,  central planners can never  acquire all the required information to compute efficiently the needs and wants of a particular good, while the market, which acts as a distributed network of processing cores, can efficiently allocate goods because each processor computes a smaller, simpler problem (e.g. the want of an individual for marlboro cigarettes over parliaments, or the observation by a small shop keeper that 5 ft long USB cables sell out abnormally fast in a particular Best Buy), and communicates with other processors through pricing and purchase, leading to the allocation of goods where they are demanded.

However,  the old socialist would counter that there is nothing efficient about the market, given the vacant houses, food that goes to waste, massive poverty, the business cycles,  etc. However the marginalist would retort that the market as a distributed computing system has its problems, but it will still always be better than  central planning,  citing toilet paper shortages, and long bread lines.  Hayek argues that  problem is ultimately about information – the central planner will never have enough or timely information to plan the demand at the granular level – e.g. the demand for a specific brand of cigarettes, or for the right size of a smartphone, or a particular laundry machine.

However, the Hayekian attack on central planning is only valid at the granular level. If the strong form of the Hayekian attack against central planning were true,  then the natural sciences would be invalidated.    The lack of information at the granular level is actually a common problem in the natural sciences – where for example, we can predict the climate (e.g. the average temperature of the Earth averaged throughout ten years) but are unable to forecast the weather (the temperature, precipitation, etc for one hundred kilometre squared at a given day). Similarly, we can predict the average thermodynamic properties of a gas, such as temperature or pressure, but we cannot predict the movement of an individual molecule in a gas.   This can be understood in scientific parlance as random noise at local scales that makes theories more uncertain at smaller scales but still allows for predictions and modelling at larger scales.  The  “random noise” can be thought as unpredictability arising because of lack of information at smaller scales. For example, in the case of weather forecasting,  the lack of information about all the variables affecting the weather, such as precise temperature measurements,  numerical errors arising from the computers solving the hydrodynamic equations that govern the air flow, the  inadequate modelling of the physical geography etc, rapidly leads to  inaccurate results at the local level. However, in the case of making predictions about the global scales of climate, such as the average temperature of the whole earth in the next ten years, the statistical noise at smaller scales becomes irrelevant. What Hayek implies,  is that because  statistical noise  exists in a given economic system, that economic planning is absolutely impossible. He frames his argument as informational, stating that the central planner has not sufficient information on the demand of goods at the local level. Yet, many natural sciences have to deal with extreme statistical noise at small scales, making forecasting only possible at larger scales, so his argument would seem to invalidate the natural sciences such as astronomy, climate science, and ecology as well. Therefore, a physical scientist would reply that his argument only applies to the smaller scales where the noise dominates, and does not say anything about larger scale systems.  Hayek argued  that one cannot compare the economic and natural sciences, because the latter is concerned with objective, natural laws, while the economic sciences are concerned with subjective, human wants; however that argument is irrelevant, because it’s obvious desires can be quantified,  which is precisely what psychologists or firms like Amazon do. Finally,  empirical evidence invalidates his argument against planning, for the institution of private property and the rule of law, which are necessary for the existence of the market, are large-scale, national and sometimes even international systems that require inordinate amount of coordination and planning, given that these institutions have incredible overhead in the form of the police, the paper-pushers, the lawyers and judges. These institutions are formally necessary for the market in general, even if social welfare or food regulations don’t exist.

Another interesting assault against planning comes from Nassim Taleb, who has revived the Hayekian argument in spirit but with the use of modern statistical tools.  His most important point is the existence of “black swans”, rare and unpredictable, extreme events that can  trigger radical changes in a given system.  Some  black swan examples are terrorism,  massive floods of coastal cities, and nuclear melt downs. All of these are rare events with extreme and almost unpredictable consequences. For example. terrorism’s body count is highly variable, from a couple of people dying at a given event, to thousands of people. Terrorism can also   trigger unpredictable  social instabilities in a given polity.   Other black swans come in the form of famous works of arts,  economic crises, the overthrow of governments, and   world-historic events. The problem with economic planning, then, is that by its own nature it’s blind to black swans; thus  planned economies are very fragile to unpredictable shocks, not unlike a very complicated clockwork that can crumble the minute one of the cogs breaks. However, the existence of black swans such as economic shocks is not really an argument against economic planning, given that  human societies throughout history have always been endangered by black swans and shocks, with disease, wars, and technological inventions wiping out whole societies. So whether the  economy is planned or not, dangerous black swans could still appear. A way to deal with black swans is with sensible risk management; although we cannot predict black-swans, we can design systems to be robust to shocks.  For example, buildings in seismically active regions are built to withstand earthquakes, the latter which are black-swans,  given their rarity, extreme nature, and unpredictability. Hypothetically, there is no reason why economies can’t be built to withstand shocks.

My retort to the Hayekian argument is highly abstract and formal given that the original form of  Hayek’s argument is very formalistic. However, it would be interesting to see how a global, central planned economy would look like, and how the granular uncertainty Hayek pointed at would be dealt with.   Economic planning could be made of two processes: a distributed, decentralized planning from below, and a broad-stroke centralized planning from above.  The broad-stroke, central planning would be directed by elected and recallable councils but would deal with planning at the central, global level, dealing with planetary objectives  such as making sure the economy doesn’t surpass ecological constraints (e.g. global warming). Another global, planning objective would be reducing the length of the working day. This latter point is important given that marginalists like Keynes promised a short working day that will triggered by the movement of the market. However, now it is obvious that the working day is entirely a planned and political thing, and cannot be reduced just by the stochastic behavior of the market. In fact, the historical shortening of the working day happened entirely because of legislation triggered by the militant activity  of  the working class. Finally, global central planning would have to deal with global problems capitalism  exacerbated such as global inequality and imperialism.  The  distributed, decentralized planning from below, would be in charge of the micro-economical calculations of supply and demand for particular goods, such as the appropriate way to stock stores for consumers.  Capitalism is  competent at the micro-economic  part, stocking shops  with commodities based on the supply and demand as mediated by price signals – this latter point was at the heart of Hayek’s argument. Yet, there is no reason why efficient, micro-economic calculation couldn’t be made by local, democratic councils with the aid of advanced computers.  Input data on consumer wants and needs, which can be signaled from what individuals pick up at stores, can be quickly processed by machine learning algorithms, not unlike how in capitalism purchases and pricing propagate the information of supply and demand. In fact, this sort of big data processing is already done with intra-firm planning today, with companies such as Amazon and Wal-Mart planning resource allocation based on consumer data that is processed with machine learning algorithms.  The socialist democratic councils that would plan micro-economic movements could act as semi-autonomous, but publicly owned, firms as well, using a similar micro-economic calculation approach to modern capitalist firms, but without having to depend on price signals, and instead using consumer big data and information related to global  constraints such as world resources, global development plans,  ecological risk,  global resource allocation etc (these global constraints  would  be outputted by global planning councils).

Global planning is a very big hypothetical, and would require the existence of a world, socialist council republic.  However, given the hard, planetary constraints that global warming unearthed, it’s urgent to argue for alternatives to the anarchy of the market.  If socialists don’t argue for an alternative, factions of the capitalist class, such as fascists, will certainly come up with their own forms of centralized, authoritarian economies given the social and political threats that global warming would bring to the table.  Global warming is going to trigger humanitarian disasters that will lead to unquantifiable social and political consequences, such as a massive refugee crisis that will embolden reactionaries and nationalists. Therefore, the problem socialists face will not only be ecological, but political, and if we do not bring our own alternative to the table, our enemies will.