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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Know Your Rights

Another post about matters of phrasing and expression.

People sometimes say that someone has ‘the right to life’, and mean by this that you shouldn’t kill them (because it would violate that right), and similarly say that they have other such rights, whose import is that we should not to certain things to people.

For example, the 3rd article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (one of the few articles that relates more to ‘ethics’ than to ‘politics’) says that every human being has the ‘rights’ to life, liberty, and security of person, which as I understand it is principally to say that we should not murder, kidnap, imprison, assault, rape, or injure them.

Now, this is a little puzzling. When I take off someone’s hand, there’s not just them and me (and the weapon), there’s a third thing, their ‘right’? And they have several of these things? How many? If they have, in fact, 4, or perhaps 7, or 12, should we establish that number as an important number and regard it as an important fact about humans that they have that many?

A related worry is this: the practical content of these ‘rights’ seems to be an entirely negative thing – don’t murder and mutilate people with them. But the tone in which this is said makes it sound very positive: there’s something inspiring and thrilling in that sort of declaration. But if there is such an inspiring positive value in having those ‘rights’, what is it?

Actually, it doesn’t take too much thought to realise that what is being talked about here isn’t a plural noun called ‘rights’. What’s being said, it seems to me, is that persons are valuable, human beings are persons, and that the condemned acts – murder, assault, rape, imprisonment, injury, etc. – are violations of a person.

That is, when someone kills me, they don’t violate my right to life, they violate me. When they cut off my arm or lock me in a cage, they don’t violate a different right, they violate me in a different way. So there’s no such question as ‘how many rights do people have?’, just ‘how many ways of violating a person are there?’

This also removes the tension between positive and negative: the practical content, prohibiting certain acts, is negative, but the prohibitions flow from, and make reference to, a positive thing: personhood, that mysterious condition that differentiates us from tables and pieces of cheese.

Now, hopefully this is all intuitive and almost obvious.

But isn’t it odd to take a way of speaking that’s used for specific legal entitlements separate from their bearer, to talk about this quite different idea?

It might have made a bit of sense to take the legal notion of rights and use it to express things like ‘the right to a standard of living sufficient for health’ or ‘the right to education’, because these are really claims – things (I suppose, specifically, services) that this person can demand from (unspecified?) others, and which are themselves valuable separate from the rights-holder.

Whereas things like ‘the right to freedom of speech’ are more complicated – they are denying the applicability of certain sorts of exceptions to the prohibitions that follow from personhood. That is, while it’s affirmed that locking people in cages is a bad thing, because a violation of them ‘as people’, it’s then also said that this can be done in some cases, most notably by the state in enforcing the law. Then people are given ‘rights’ that serve to qualify the state’s right to violate people, such as the right to a fair trial, and the right to free speech. (After all, you need no right to free speech against me, because if I locked you up for expressing an opinion, I would simply be a kidnapper).

So these ‘rights’ are actually portions of the ‘remainder’ of the original ‘rights’ of life, liberty, and security of person – which in their turn are not really rights.

People sometimes try to distinguish things like ‘positive rights’ and ‘negative rights’ to clarify this, but it doesn’t seem like the right response to me. If a set of things aren’t the same type of thing, it’s not much good saying that they’re just two varieties of…the same type of thing.

In conclusion? The language of ‘rights’ tends to mystify matters somewhat, by expressing very different things in the same grammar. This probably doesn’t matter too much in practice but it’s a reason to not expect a useful account of ethics and political justice to talk much of ‘rights’.

Materialism or Naturalism

It’s common for Marxists and others in the ‘class-struggle tradition’ often speak of themselves as ‘materialists’, talk about a ‘materialist worldview’ or ‘materialist philosophy’.

When pressed, what this turns out to mean is something like: there is only one world, subject to a single set of laws; human beings have evolved in this world according to that same set of laws, and there is no personal afterlife or an intelligent creator. In a phrase: ‘animal consciousness is a tautology.

Thing is, in philosophy, this position and worldview would be best described not by the term ‘materialism’ but by the term ‘naturalism’. The catchy slogan about ‘animal consciousness’ above, for instance, comes from Schopenhauer, a philosopher who is arguably naturalist but certainly not materialist.

‘Materialism’ adds the odd claim that the single basic type of stuff in the universe is something called ‘matter’, a claim which is either trivial (if matter is defined as ‘whatever exists’) or dogmatic and probably false (if matter is defined in some other way – as mathematical, as having mass, as not being conscious, etc). Maybe all of these commies are actually materialists in the stronger sense, but it would seem odd, especially since they are generlly keen to disparage metaphysics and abstract speculation, which is what the assertion of materialism proper would be.

Does this matter? Well, not very much. But I do think it’s unfortunate to have people in different arenas who, on this philosophical point, largely agree, using different, and potentially confusing, words.

I Do Know What I Think About Pornography

A while ago I wrote a post entitled “I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography“, in which I explained my uncertain fence-sitting on the issue of whether pornography is a bad thing from a feminist point of view. Thinking recently, I realised that my views had actually become more settled, and that I wasn’t particularly interested in being ‘against porn’ in any meaningful sense. So I figured I might as well explain a bit about how I’ve reached that view.

To be clear: I’m talking about the consumption of porn, not about its production and the people involved. That’s certainly a big issue – probably a bigger issue. But it’s not the same issue – it’s an issue of consent, employment, exploitation, etc. rather than an issue of cultural images and messages. As can be seen by observing that a lot of porn isn’t produced using any models, such as comics, stories, or computer animations.

The first thing to note is that it’s often claimed by anti-porn feminists that, in some vague sense, the meaning of our actions and statements isn’t something we can completely control – we can’t, for example depict a black person as a monkey without inadvertantly drawing on a history of racist images and actions. We carry cultural baggage and whatever we put out into society carries that baggage with it.

This is used to argue against attempts to trivialise pornographic images that, say, show women being raped and loving it – regardless of how they are intended, it is claimed, these draw upon a history of trivialising rape and ignoring women’s refusals.

But this has to work both ways.

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