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:

1) It’s likely to leave a significant number of people in a position where they’ll happily walk up to edge of socialism, but aren’t willing to step into it. Yes, I can see how bad the status quo is, yes I can see why it’s that way, and no, I don’t think that you want some blood-soaked crazy utopia, but…what do you want? A species that didn’t evolve inhibitions on stepping into the unknown would be a short-lived species.

2) It’s self-reinforcing. That is, the fact that this is the case generally makes it harder for any individual to buck the trend. In criticising capitalism in various ways, it’s fairly easy for individual socialists to know what all the others are likely to be thinking – it’s possible to offer the arguments in relative confidence that they are established and respected arguments, and that one in some sense ‘speaks on behalf of’ a traditon of thought.

But when it comes to telling people about how we envisage socialism, things are different. The relative silence of others means that what an individual says, especially if they’re not well-read in Texty-Texts, feels like a personal invention. How does democratic planning work? If individuals have to ‘bear the responsibility’ of explaining that themselves, they’re likely to be quite reluctant to say much.

3) A particular worry is that this feeds into the problem I discussed in this earlier post, of the frustrations of the working class producing not a desire to be personally and collectively free but to dominate some Other – a desire that leads away from socialism and into various deflections.

That’s because if the idea of the future society remains vague and sketchy, attention naturally becomes focused on the process of acheiving it: ‘the struggle’. The sorts of emotions attendant on the idea of ‘struggle’ are such as imply an Other against which to struggle, and whose eventual defeat is the key source of satisfaction.

That’s not bad in itself. Struggle is certainly what will be needed, and it would be absurd to suppose that it could happen (and be successfully resolved) without the sorts of emotions and relationships that are appropriate to struggle.

But at the same time, we might be justifiably anxious at a phenomenon which increased this relative to the less antagonistic emotions that might be associated with actually acheiving a self-managed, co-operative, rational society.

We can recognise this when capitalist states seek to make war – how the idea of ‘being at war’, and the sort of public attitudes that result, make it easier to justify repressive measures, easier to stigmatise dissent and solidify ruling-class power. Supposing, as some socialists sometimes seem to, that the only problem with this is that it’s nationalistic fervour and not fervour for the revolution, would seem to rely on the idea that we have nothing to fear from revolutionary leaders. Which would just be silly.

So those are some reasons to be anxious about this phenomenon, of focusing on defensive or offensive, but not constructive, arguments. What are some reasons to be glad of it? Find out in the next post, at – Directionless Bones! *theme tune plays*

6 Responses to “What the Left Does and Doesn’t Do, and why Perhaps it should Do what it Doesn’t”

  1. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    After reading this, especially your “reason 2/.” I’d really appreciate your views on a couple of pieces I wrote about 6 months ago called “Ordinary Commies”, in which I suggested one possible way a future communist society might look, and why it would be better:

    Part 1

    Part 2

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hi Snowdrop.
    I would have posted this at your blog but the comments box didn’t seem to accept things pasted from word, soooo it’s here.

    I like what you do there, but my main concern is that it maybe focuses on the wrong things – though obviously that’s sortof a question of what your aims are.

    What I mean is, your focus seems to be very individual, as opposed to social, and very consumption-based, as opposed to production-based. You don’t talk much about how any of these decisions get made, except vaguely at the end – and there you suggest that the unspecified issue debated is a ‘political’ one.

    This runs the risk of leaving out what’s arguably the most important issue – collective ownership/control of the means of production. Obviously different people have different interpretations of what exactly that means, but I think most could agree on something like: all individuals are part of councils based on their place of work and/or their place of residence, which make all decisions at that level by direct voting, which create further (district, regional, national, global, etc.) councils for deciding high-level issues by the election of directly recallable, constantly-monitored delegates from amongst their members, and which combine economic and political functions – that is, the structure of councils replaces both the structures of government and the structures of employers, markets, corporations, etc. Organisations of specialists would exist (statisticians, accountants, etc.) but their role would be informational, not decision-making, and all information would be publically available for checking (unlike now, when most information is restricted either for ‘national security’ or for ‘protecting commercial interests).

    The reason I think this is important is because merely describing the distribution of goods, the allocation of jobs, etc. describes the effect but not the cause – a lot of what you describe could conceivably be produced by an implausibly benevolent ruling elite. I suspect this lies behind most of the questions that you and Amber discussed in the comments. Obviously it bears on ‘will we end up like China, but I think it also bears on the big issue of incentivising people to work.

    That’s because on that issue we get into a mix between prescribing and predicting – whether people do need to be disciplined into pro-social work is ultimately an empirical question (or rather, the question is how and under what circumstances). If you describe principally the effects (individual consumption) you have to assume an answer to that question, that others may just disagree with (although I suppose that’s partly a problem simply with getting concrete).

    But if you describe principally the causes (collective ownership) then you can say ‘the eventual effects will be whatever the facts make reasonable’ – that is, if it turns out that people really are (at a particular time and in particular circumstances) irredeemably lazy, then the structure of councils will observe that there’s not enough work being done, and can decide to respond by introducing material incentives in the form of ‘wages’ and ‘prices’. The scare quotes will be because these aren’t really ‘money’ as we know it, since 1) this currency can only be exchanged for consumption articles, not for means of production – i.e. one person may be able to drink more beer than their neighbour but can’t come to own the factory or office where that neighbour works, can’t get into a position of control, and 2) this currency can only be obtained by working, not by trading, nor through interest, rent, or profit on investments. In short it does not circulate, it does not create a market, it does not create capitalists – it is not capital.

    So that way you can say: ‘I believe that people will work even if goods are freely available and not priced – but if I’m wrong, that’s fine, we will have to be content with a more moderate form of socialism. Now help me with this revolution.’

    Anyway, that was my main concern. I think it’s a good description of what we might imagine the ‘culture’ of communism to be like, the individual lifestyles and ways of relating to our activities.

  3. links for 2009-08-28 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] What the Left Does and Doesn’t Do, and why Perhaps it should Do what it Doesn’t « Directionless… […]

  4. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t know why it had a problem with pasting from Word, but anyway, to answer your points:

    I think that your concerns are perhaps a product of the questions I was answering, and addressing the concerns that I knew Amber had. To some extent, I had it in my mind that it was already given that ownership of the means of production was in the hands of the whole of society (I had meant to talk a little bit about Mark’s position on the workers’ council at his work as well, but maybe I was too oblique about that).

    Also, I see a lot of people put workers’ councils and production at the centre, but very often I find that in so doing a lot of the social side is ignored; so in that sense, my pieces were also meant to fill the blanks left by others.

    You say, “your focus seems to be very individual, as opposed to social”, but I would answer that by saying that society is composed of individuals, and the commonly understood interpretation of “focus on the social”, as applied to communism, tends to see it as a crude utilitarianism so that the individual becomes merely a means to an end and abrogated in favour of some faceless entity called “Society”. I had never seen a clear-cut refutation of that perspective, so I thought the clearest way to do it would be to write from the personal perspective of an individual. This could show how each individual might be seen as an end in themselves even within a larger socially-oriented culture.

  5. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    “2) this currency can only be obtained by working, not by trading, nor through interest, rent, or profit on investments. In short it does not circulate, it does not create a market, it does not create capitalists – it is not capital.”

    Honestly, I don’t know how you could stop it from circulating and becoming capital. Even if the currency itself is not transferable from one person to another then the goods for which it can be exchanged, are. From there, it is only a short step to a black market economy using a currency of its own devising, for the trade of commodities obtained using the official currency. At that point, official currency will be redeemed not for goods with use-value to the person who earned the points, but for trade-value in the black market system.

    A further problem is that it clearly opens up the door to corruption if one person obtains a large amount of this official currency, and uses it to bribe others by obtaining for them goods that those others do not have the currency to buy themselves; this could in turn potentially lead to individuals obtaining control over means of production through bribery.

    One final problem with this is that for such incentives to work, you have to assume a relatively resources-poor society, so that the benefit gained from working is significant in proportion to the conditions of life without that benefit – otherwise, a(n irredeemably lazy) person will simply say “I’m comfortable as it is, I won’t bother”. Either resources for consumption must be artificially limited (in which case, what happens to any excess? Under capitalism, we know it goes into the pockets of the capitalists…) or else they were limited already due to shortage, in which case, from what source do we draw the incentives?

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “my pieces were also meant to fill the blanks left by others.”
    Cool, that’s a reasonable aim.

    Re. can a non-circulating currency work, I started typing a response but realised that it might be better as a whole post, so I won’t put it here. I will ask though – when you say “I don’t know how you could stop it from circulating and becoming capital”, what’s the implication? That the system will morph into its opposite over time, or that it will have an enduring small problem like the current one does?

    Oh and on “for such incentives to work, you have to assume a relatively resources-poor society”. This doesn’t seem like a problem because it’s precisely when a society is so resource-rich that people don’t feel the compulsion to work that it can afford to not compel them – the worst that can happen is that some epidemic of laziness lowers the resource level to an equilibrium where it does become possible to incentivise work sufficiently.


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