Socialism, Capitalism, Risk, and Innovation

One of the themes that comes up often in debates between socialists and capitalists is the idea of ‘punishing success’.

‘When someone, a genius, a person of distinctive intelligence, comes up with a brilliant idea that makes huge savings and improves people’s lives, and in consequence becomes very rich, why do socialists want to punish them, by depriving them of their rewards? Such people are doing great services for humanity – why does socialism hate them?’

To this the simple response is that there are two personalities here: the big capitalist, who has skillfully accumulated a lot of capital, or otherwise come by it, and the innovator, someone who performs or has performed a particular productive sort of intellectual labour. Sometimes the two overlap – often they don’t. Socialists are hostile to the former, but not the latter.

Indeed, the argument is perhaps analogous to something like following, from a defender of an Classical (i.e. not racialised) form of slavery:

‘When a slave of distinctive intelligence, a genius, comes up with a brilliant idea that makes huge savings and improves people’s lives, and in consequence gains their freedom and enough money to buy themselves many slaves, why do anti-slavery advocates want to punish them, by depriving them of their rewards? Such people are doing great services for humanity – why does anti-slavery hate them?’

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The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

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Right and Left: Being ‘Anti-State’

Both right-libertarians (anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, ‘The Libertarian Party’ in various countries) and left-libertarians (anarchists of every other variety, libertarian socialists/communists, etc.) are ‘anti-state’. But notice:

Right-libertarians are generally least hostile to the state when it’s performing its ‘core functions’ (defending property rights, upholding the law, etc), and most hostile to it when it extends its activities to include providing public goods (like social security, safety regulations, healthcare, etc.)

Left-libertarians are generally least hostile to the state when it’s providing such public goods, and most hostile to it when it’s performing its ‘core functions’.

Discussing Future Societies

So yesterday’s post somewhat bemoaned the widespread reluctance of socialists to talk positively about socialism, and explained part of why I thought it was a bad thing. But obviously it would be one-sided to not discuss some of the good reasons for this phenomenon.

1) It’s really hard. More moderate political positions can easily describe what they’re after because it’s so much closer to what exists – and even the extreme right have a slightly easier time in that they can happily declare an intention to force society into a certain mould. Bot socialists have to describe something which is both a very radical change, and also supposedly freedom-maximising, with hyper-democracy and so forth. So it’s quite likely that any substantive description will be very hard to give.

But that seems like a fairly weak reason to avoid the whole endeavour. “If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing” is a maxim of Homer Simpson, not of the world-historic vanguard of the proletariat. But a more developed version of this argument says

2) We’ll be wrong most of the time, and

3) It will lead to a lot of time wasted in pointless arguments – ten people will have ten visions, of which 9 will be wrong, and they will take so long debating which one is right that nothing will get done.

I think this argument rests on the assumption that talking positively about socialism means talking about what socialism will definitely be like, or even about what it must be like.

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What the Left Does and Doesn’t Do, and why Perhaps it should Do what it Doesn’t

Continuing some of the themes of yesterday’s post (perhaps?) it occurred to me that it’s quite common to hear socialists and sundry radicals arguing in the following styles:
1. Defensive: no, we don’t love Stalin. No, we don’t want to have everyone living in caves. No, we don’t want to give more power to Gordon Brown. No, we don’t want…
2. Critical: you see this piece of right-wing or centrist ideology here? It’s bullshit, for reasons A, B, and C, as follows…
3. Lamenting: Doesn’t it suck how many people are being blown up or are malnourished? Look how bad the existing system makes things…
4. Illuminating: see, the reason why such-and-such happens is that capitalism is constrained by the drive for profit to do X, and the political elite have to respond by doing Y…

But there’s much less of the

5. Constructive: see, if everything were run by federated workers’ councils, then large-scale economic decisions would be made by…

Now, obviously the first four are very important, but I’m still somewhat concerned about the relative lack of point 5. It’s not that there’s no discussion of it at all (I recently came across this good piece) but it tends to be occasional, and often written by socialists for socialists.

If you look at what the public tends to hear, the ‘soundbytes’ that socialists throw out, I think there’s a tendency (at least in my experience) to refrain from talking much about what ‘socialism’ is, beyond a certain collection of vague aspirations (co-operative, solidarity, rational planning, economic democracy).

Is this a bad thing? A few reasons why we might think so:

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Communism and Morality

I posted a few days back about a couple of things – the metaphysical views taken by class-struggles communists, and the implications of talk about ‘rights’. I thought I’d throw out a few reflections that rather draw the two together.

Marx’n’Engels sometimes described their views as ‘scientific socialism’, which they meant, to quote, “in opposition to utopian socialism, which wants to attach the people to new delusions, instead of limiting its science to the knowledge of the social movement made by the people itself”.

I think this is clearly linked to a noteworthy feature of Marx’n’Co., their general refusal to speak in moral terms. Everything is ‘so-and-so is happening or will happen or must happen’, not ‘so-and-so should happen’.

Now I’ve always disagreed with this part of their approach, which seems to me to amount to stitching up one half of your mouth. But it’s still worth trying to understand. If I had to put words in Marx’s mouth (definitely the first person ever to do that), I’d say the following:

1. Whatever isn’t properly speaking true is false
2. Falsehoods are generally pernicious, and obscure people’s awareness of the truth;
3. (Being aware of the truth is revolutionary in itself);
4. Moral statements aren’t properly speaking true;
5. On the contrary, moral statements are almost always part of ‘ideology’, the tissue of widely shared ideas, which are just true enough to be convincing and just false enough to make a rotten society seem healthy, which are a necessity in any rotten (i.e. class-divided) society, but will be dispensed with in an actually healthy one.
6. Hence moral statements are generally pernicious for revolutionary purposes.

(Perhaps I’ve misunderstood what Marx was intending. Fair enough – I’d be happy to be corrected. But I think this sort of position is still an interesting one to consider, and not uncommon)

Now, you might think that the natural place to disagree would be point 4., which says that moral statements aren’t really true. Isn’t that what’s driving the whole argument? But actually, I think Marx(‘n’Co.) are right there, and their implied opponents, who want to simply change the content of traditional ideology and recommend a new abstract blueprint or a new collection of ‘thous shalts’, are wrong.

What I would actually contest is point 1., that this makes moral statements simple falsehoods. What on earth does that mean, that they’re neither false nor true?

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How Should Anarchists Fight a War?

A few thoughts on ‘anarchist warfare’ and ‘statist warfare’.

In normal wars (though to varying degrees), the contest is between two or more territory-controlling forces. The activity of ‘controlling’ territory is distinct from the activity of living there; the contending forces are thus distinct from the populations inhabiting the areas fought over (again, to varying degrees). Consequently, the inhabiting population tends to appear as a passive ‘background’, as what is ‘fought over’.

As long as this pattern is in place, I would call the conflict ‘statist’ regardless of whether it’s one ‘official’ state against another, one ‘rebel’ group against another, an established government against rebels, etc. The point is, insofar as the dynamic of the war divides the population in general from the contending forces, and makes one passive and the other active, the essential dynamics of statehood are in play.

So what would an anarchist war look like? The ideal (however closely it is or isn’t acheived) is that this division between warring force and local population not exist. That is, the ideal would be that the activity of ‘controlling’ territory be simply an aspect of living there; that local populations at each point be actively organised to maintain something like a ‘monopoly of violence’ in that area.

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