The Minimal Socialist State Versus Bloated Capitalism

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Perhaps one of the largest, propagandistic triumphs of capitalism is to equate socialism as inefficient, bureaucratic bloat. In contrast, capitalism is portrayed as a lean, efficient system. Many argue that the market, instead of depending on a slow moving, centralized bureaucracy to produce and allocate the necessary goods, automatically balances supply and demand, with the price signal as the carrier of information on how to produce and distribute commodities. However, I believe that socialism, at least the version exposed by Marx, would be a free society with a very lean and bare-bones administrative apparatus (a minimal state). For socialism to be a qualitatively different stage of history than previous class societies, social structures need to be dictated by free time as opposed to the imperatives of slavery, survival and toil. In other words, the time outside the activities necessary for the survival of the human species, must dominate the course of history. This freeing of human life from drudgery and misery requires a lean apparatus that curtails all the extra socially wasteful industries and infrastructures in order to progressively reduce the length of the work day until the eventual abolition of toil. In short, the socialist state must be minimal. First, I will expose the arguments that portray socialism as bloated and inefficient, then I will argue why instead, capitalism is wasteful and swollen, and then I will sketch some of the key attributes of this minimal socialist state.

At first glance, the right wing case against socialism sounds sensible, both philosophically and empirically. In the philosophical realm, it seems unlikely that a central planner can possibly have all the necessary expertise to know what is happening “on the ground”. In the empirical realm, the former socialist bloc was sluggish, bureaucratically bloated, and authoritarian. In contrast, market-based societies appear much more efficient and freer.

However, I believe these arguments, although they may sound plausible, are ultimately wrong. The reason why these arguments appear correct, given that many of the socialist states tended to be more authoritarian, inefficient and “backward” than the West, is due to a combination of a couple of factors: (i) pre-modern forms of life that existed in the underdeveloped countries where “socialism” took root, (ii) geopolitical configurations where the periphery (socialist states were peripheral) is in an inferior bargaining position, and (iii) the ideology of instrumental reason in the West, that rationality that values the calculation of the means, over thinking about the end.

In the first case (i), as I mentioned in a previous post, many of the problems identified with the existing “socialist” countries are not formally related to the idea of a planned economy, but are linked to social forms that predated “socialism” sometimes for centuries. For example, clientelism is a large scourge in underdeveloped countries, where informal exchange of favours and services between powerful agents undermine the transparent functioning of institutions. These problems predate capitalism and “socialism” and where even formalized in ancient Rome. In the USSR, clientelism was evident through the way wealth was accumulated by the elite, where high ranking bureaucrats exchanged favours and privileges at the expense of society at large. The opacity of institutions due to these webs of corruption and hierarchies also created feedback loops where the citizen do not trust formal mechanisms anymore, creating the large-scale systemic problems that led to the USSR’s collapse. This generalized state of corruption also lead to various factions of the bureaucracy scamming and conning each other, by misrepresenting and exaggerating (e.g. how many widgets where produced in a factory) in order to lever a career advantage. The sum-total of all these dynamics led to massive wastefulness, scarcity of useable goods, and ultimately terror. The problem of corruption, wastefulness, and terror is common across much of the periphery (including peripheral capitalist states), and is not formally related to socialism.

The second case (ii) is very closely related to to the first case. Due to various historical factors, many of the countries that became “socialist” where peripheral societies (e.g. Cuba, Russia, etc.) that where economically subordinated to other more powerful countries. Their lack of capital-intensive technologies and working institutions made them dependent of the core economies for technologies (e.g. engines, computers, medicine, etc), turning them into bodegas to be ransacked for slave-like labour and cheap natural resources. This dependency not only assured that the periphery (and thus many socialist states) lagged behind, but also created other feedback loops that lead to other dysfunctions. In the case of the USSR, the State was forced to industrialize quickly in order to have the military capabilities to defend itself against a more powerful and hostile West. This fast, frenzied, and unscientific hyper-industrialization that appeared during the first Five Year Plan, created corrupted institutions due to unrealistic objectives that forced, for example, factory directors to inflate their numbers and share dishonest information.

The third case (iii), the focusing on the most efficient way to achieve the means, without thinking about the end, distorts the discussion on what does “efficiency” mean. Capitalism is extremely good at intensive development, where a novel technology or a service, is made progressively cheaper and more advanced as competition forces firms to cut down costs. This leads to the “lean” and “efficient” perception of the West. However, the efficiency that leads to profit, that is the optimization of processes related to the creation of random commodities, is not necessarily the socially preferable form of efficiency. For example, a key socialist demand is the shortening of the work day until its eventual abolition. Defenders of the market, such as Keynes, thought that capitalism by its own devices would create a shorter working day. However, the eight hour work week has persisted in the United States and Canada for about a hundred years, even if the economy grew exponentially in that same century.. Other more banal examples of capitalist “inefficiencies” are the coexistences of vacant buildings with homelessness, and long work-day with unemployment. In short, capitalist efficiency ultimately only concerns itself with profit, and although this logic can lead to various socially beneficial by-products, such as cheap computers and an abundance of calories, capitalism is not concerned with the realization of social-need, therefore it cannot reduce the work-day, create sustainable and psychologically beneficial urban spaces (as opposed to private condo towers and desolate suburban sprawl), and deal effectively with the question of climate change. Ultimately, capitalism, with its creation of random, socially unnecessary market and industries, becomes increasingly bloated. For example, a large percent of the GDP in core economies is related to Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE), a sector that would be rendered irrelevant with the abolition of private property.

Ultimately the socialist, minimal state, would shrink the world’s administrative apparatuses (the bureaucracies of corporations, the executive and judicial powers, the administrative bloat of universities) by (a) the abolition of private property, and (b) through planning. The fact that private property is mediated through a contract, whether the contract is digital (e.g. ownership of stocks), or analog (the paperwork of a house), inevitably creates an administrative bloat of gentry-scholar like functionaries, both in the private and public spheres, that have to deal with the regulations, lawyering, and the legalese of these contracts. In addition, the increasingly fractal and abstracted labyrinth of private property creates an informational complexity in the form of FIRE, which is a socially unproductive sector, but is necessary for capital to “grease its wheels”, by bailing out companies through loans, stimulating investment, moving capital shares across thousands of miles at a fraction of the speed of light through optical fiber cables, etc. Once socialism abolishes private property, the informational complexity will be greatly reduced, transferring the world’s labour to socially necessary tasks.

Planning will be the central engine of the minimal socialist state. By planning, through a combination of accountable “planetary” central planners at the large scale, and machine learning algorithms and local committees at the granular scale, industries that are deemed socially necessary (e.g. agriculture, some IT, medicine, etc.) could be preserved and social waste eliminated. This would create a situation where only the minimum tasks required for comfortable survival will be the domain of labour and the  bare-bones State. Once these socially necessary tasks are recognized (through a combination of scientific planning and grassroots consensus), work will only be spent in doing these socially necessary activities, in contrast to capitalism’s arbitrary tasks that have enslaved humanity to toil for centuries. Once labour-time is minimized, the majority of waking hours would not be spend in grind forced upon by survival, but in free time. Socially necessary labour will be rotated by all the citizens, and will be reduced to the social equivalent of “cleaning your room.” Thus socialism will create a different type of efficiency than capitalist optimization. Although socialism may not lead to the most effective janitor, or the most optimized smart phone, that does not imply that it will be more bloated, miserable, and labor intensive than capitalism. This emancipation of humanity from labor is the hidden potential of modernity, and would usher for the first time in history, a society that will be shaped by free time, not the constraints of survival.

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I told myself if I got 500 Facebook likes I would start a Patreon. That milestone has  already happened! All my content will still remain open to everyone, however if you want to buy me a monthly beer because you like my rants,  pitch in a couple of bucks to my Patreon.

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.

 

 

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.