When Planned Economies Go Bad!

This is a follow-up to my post earlier about reification and the idea of a planned economy as an overcoming of reification, the process by which human beings and their actions are perceived as non-human things blindly operating according to mechanical laws.

The obvious comment that might occur is ‘but what about the bad planned economies? the USSR, Maoist China, North Korea? How can such oppressive societies represent a ‘humanising’ of the economy?’

The answer is, I think, that there are different ways of ‘seeing people as people’. Most obviously, there can be either egalitarian or hierarchical ways. The first case is exemplified in a discussion between equals: my friend makes shoes, I make hats, we discuss an arrangement whereby I will make hats for both of us and he will make hats for both of us. We both act freely, and respect each other in the knowledge that the other respects us – we are aware of each other’s desires as things to be balanced and harmonised with our own desires. The second is exemplified when someone gives me an instruction and I follow it. I recognise the commander as a person, but specifically as a superior person, a person whose will simply prescibes my whole course of action. And the other person other also recognises me as a person, but specifically as an inferior person, a person whose desires can largely be ignored and can certainly be subordinated to their own.

However, it is interesting to note that this hierarchical form of ‘humanisation’ bears a much greater resemblance to reification than the egalitarian form. This is because things like desire, judgement, and the ability to have an overall view of how things should be going, is a key part of what differentiates people from mere things. The person obeying an order doesn’t display these – or rather, their display of them is suppressed, pushed into the background. They are not seen as a thing, but the sort of person they are seen as – a person-who-obeys, a subject, a slave, is closer to a thing than a person who is ‘autonomous’, i.e. directs and controls themselves.

The statist command economies of the Stalinist states represent a replacement of an economy that encourages a subconscious habit of seeing the world in terms of mechanical things with an economy that encourages a subconscious habit of seeing the world in terms of, as Rousseau says, either gods and people, or people and beasts-of-burden.

That’s not a great improvement. But it is a difference. Of course, it’s even less of a difference once we point out that all statist societies involve plenty of hierarchy, plenty of orders and obedience. In fact, some kinds of non-state society could be permeated by hierarchy – ones where obedience to religious traditions is dominant, or where half the population are reared from birth with the idea that they are essentially people-to-commanded, not people-who-command on the basis of some physical difference like eye colour or gonads.

I think this sort of authority-training is just as much a distorting influence on consciousness as the reification and alienation that Marxists (such as Lukacs) are fond of discussing. What would be a good word to parallel ‘reification’? *shrug*. Maybe I’ll use ‘servification’ for the rest of this post, from the latin for ‘slave’.

A key thing that Lukacs (and Phil’s posts) talk about is the effect of reification on philosophy, the way that intellectual work carries over the prejudices built up through society. Reification, supposedly, produces a philosophical milieu of separated things whose connectedness can’t quite be comprehended. What sort of effect might this hierachicality of society have, if we allow ourselves to be speculative and say things without backing them up very much? Well, one possibility is that it reinforces the separating influence of reification by encouraging dichotomies – after all, in many traditional philosophical pairings (mind and matter, reason and feeling, God and nature, freedom and causation), one side is very much set up as the superior side, even if this isn’t said explicitly: one is prioritised and the other subjugated.

Anyway, that will require more sustained analysis. Basic point: in the realm of thought, reification can potentially be overcome in both servifying ways and genuinely humanising ways. This reflects the fact that in the realm of practice, the ‘chaos’ of market production can potentially be overcome both by the dictatorship of a command economy and by the democracy of a freely-planned economy. I think it’s a mistake to look focus on the market economy/reification as the ultimate basis of injustice – other structures of oppression, such as the state and the patriarchy, have some independence of capitalism, despite their interlinkings.

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