Join 3,376 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Red and the Black
January 7, 2013 12:42 PM   Subscribe

"The lofty vision of a stateless, marketless world faces obstacles that are not moral but technical, and it’s important to grasp exactly what they are." Seth Ackerman for Jacobin Magazine on "thinking concretely and practically about how we can free ourselves from social institutions that place such confining limits on the kind of society we are able to have. Because of one thing we can be certain: the present system will either be replaced or it will go on forever."
posted by davidjmcgee (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Because of one thing we can be certain: the present system will either be replaced or it will go on forever.

"End of history" theories don't usually work out.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:51 PM on January 7, 2013


If "profit is the motor of capitalism", it is driving the system in (a) in the wrong direction (b) in circles (c) over every cliff (d) all of the above.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"End of history" theories

I think you will find that that is not what is happening here.
posted by davidjmcgee at 1:03 PM on January 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


Most Socialists are content to point out that once Socialism has been established we shall be happier in a material sense, and to assume that all problems lapse when one’s belly is full. The truth is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence.--Orwell
posted by No Robots at 1:19 PM on January 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


"End of history" theories don't usually work out.


Specifically, the article says:

Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next...

What I’m not concerned with here is achieving some final and total harmony between the interests of each and the interests of all, or with cleansing humanity of conflict or egotism. I seek the shortest possible step from the society we have now to a society where most productive property is owned in common – not in order to rule out more radical change, but precisely in order to rule it in.

posted by dubold at 1:21 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Jacobin has been kicking some serious ass lately.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:21 PM on January 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


That's a really good article. I've been really hungry for non-polarized political analysis that critically examines multiple positions and tries to salvage the valuable bits from each of them; rather than just tendentiously savaging the other side, assuming it has no value.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:00 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the paper, the concluding paragraphs:

"Such a program does not amount a utopia; it does not proclaim Year Zero or treat society as a blank slate. What it tries to do is sketch a rational economic mechanism that denies the pursuit of profit priority over the fulfillment of human needs. Nor does it rule out further, more basic changes in the way humans interact with each other and their environment – on the contrary, it lowers the barriers to further change.

In a tribute to Isaac Deutscher, the historian Ellen Meiksins-Wood praised his “measured vision of socialism, which recognized its promise for human emancipation without harboring romantic illusions that it would cure all human ills, miraculously making people ‘free’, in Shelley’s words, ‘from guilt or pain.’” Socialism, Deutscher had written, was not “evolution’s last and perfect product or the end of history, but in a sense only the beginning of history.” As long as the Left can retain this elemental basis of hope, it will keep a horizon beyond capitalism in its sights."


This is exciting. I think if one thing can be said with some certainty it is that theories of history and social evolution that are predicated on "finish lines" are inherently flawed. We have this view of history that it starts, develops, collapses and resolves. There is a grand narrative buried in history that provides a dangerous temptation to believe that the future can be directed and controlled.

Theories of social complexity and social complex adaptive systems have offered much to tactics and strategy. The idea that change evolves from small mutations to the system is exhausting to contemplate as an activist, but perhaps more accurate in practice. This means that small experiments in "futuring" are useful, but attaching expected results to those experiments is delusional. There is no way to know all the factors that are at play. And unless you have your hands on some of the serious levers of power, you are unlikely, even by enlisting sheer numbers, to get the world you want.

There is much else to say about the content of this essay, but this type of thinking is really needed now.

It is good to see some theory coming from the left that is taking complexity seriously and balancing strategic desire with a tolerance for failure. I'm very interested to know who else is writing stuff like this.
posted by salishsea at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


The historical analysis of pricing in Soviet-bloc countries was fascinating, but the revolutionary program that the author outlines at the end is really odd. It seems to basically amount to calling money something else, with the idea that that will somehow prevent people from wanting to accumulate piles of it. And then he writes offhandedly:
To the same end, the accrual of interest to individuals’ bank deposits can be capped at a certain threshold of wealth, and beyond that level it could be limited to simply compensate for inflation.
That seems awfully question-begging to me. If you could somehow muster the political will to implement a wealth cap, that would solve the problems of private accumulation to begin with, without jumping through all of these peculiar hoops along the way. Let's say you undertook his program of financial legerdemain—converting people's existing monies into "claims on social capital"—without such wealth caps. In that case, wouldn't these "claims" function pretty much exactly like money, with the same problems of massive private accumulation and the incentives that go with it? And if you did implement these wealth caps, why not just implement them now, on actual money? What additional benefit is gained from first turning money into "claims on social capital?" Isn't that kind of a red herring?

Maybe I'm missing something, I'm a little hungover today.
posted by enn at 2:14 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


the end of history--reminds me of a lunch I had in 1997 with a Washington Bureau Chief of a major newspaper chain that used to be the head of the Washington Bureau of a major wire service. He told me news was dead because there were going to be no more news stories and that everything that was going to happen had happened.

A few months later the Monica Lewinski story broke and the news has been out of control for every day of the last 15 years.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:14 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


davidjmcgee: ""End of history" theories

I think you will find that that is not what is happening here.
"

In fact I read this quite differently - it is most recently the Neoliberal Capitalists that have declared the end of history with the defeat of the Eastern Bloc (capitalism as end of history, therefore "progress" is now over).

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
posted by idiopath at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"the present system will either be replaced or it will go on forever."? you will never be wrong in saying that.
posted by Postroad at 2:37 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]



"End of history" theories don't usually work out.


a) Not really relevant to the essay I feel.
b) Glib comments about the end of history generally evince no understanding whatsoever of the thesis - it's far more modulated than people credit it for.
c) Fukuyama has significantly resiled from his original opinion.
d) Technically speaking, he's still "right" - neoliberal capitalism if anything has become more entrenched and widespread since he coined the phrase.

Thanks for the post OP, this is a great read.
posted by smoke at 2:50 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


And if you did implement these wealth caps, why not just implement them now, on actual money? What additional benefit is gained from first turning money into "claims on social capital?" Isn't that kind of a red herring?

I don't think that individual wealth accumulation was something he was really trying to address in the article, which is why it was tacked on, even though it usually gets much more attention than the things he spends his time talking about. I read the article as saying:
1) we need to think of social change in more evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) terms,
2) markets with prices and autonomous actors are the big strength of capitalism,
3) socialist/anarchist alternatives to markets don't work as well*, and
4) here's an incomplete, evolutionary idea (because "cookshop recipes" are silly) about how to combine markets with socialism.
* Participatory Economics sounds like it could very well be one of the rings of Hell.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 3:05 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


To the same end, the accrual of interest to individuals’ bank deposits can be capped at a certain threshold of wealth

This is really just suggesting, in so many words, a ultra-progressive capital gains tax. I.e., one where the tax rate eventually reaches 100% at some level. Or rather, it should be saying that rather than restricting itself to talking about "interest to individuals' bank deposits," which is a stupid limitation and one that would be rapidly worked around by eliminating interest payments in favor of capital gains, as is currently done anyway.

But given that — at least in the US but also in many other Western countries — the capital gains tax is actually flat, and lower than that on real income to boot, that's a really tall order.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:17 PM on January 7, 2013


* Participatory Economics sounds like it could very well be one of the rings of Hell.

To be completely honest, most anarchists are rather wary of parecon too.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 3:22 PM on January 7, 2013


This is really just suggesting, in so many words, a ultra-progressive capital gains tax. I.e., one where the tax rate eventually reaches 100% at some level.

An idea already being touted in France during the last campaign season, if I remember correctly, although I think they dropped down to 75% and then pitched the idea entirely. But yeah, I agree - this guy's ideas aren't so much for a post-capitalist society as for a different way of managing capitalism.

“After the revolution…” is the wistful, ironic preface to many a fondly expressed wish on the Left.

Granted that I am a capitalist swine myself, but the Leftists I run into on the Internet and off all seem more inclined these days to talk about "after the end", "after the collapse", and "after civilization." More a question of how the pieces will be picked up and rearranged after the present order falls apart of its own accord, rather than after it is overthrown by the utopian élan of the people-in-motion, whatever that means exactly.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:31 PM on January 7, 2013


Granted that I am a capitalist swine myself, but the Leftists I run into on the Internet and off all seem more inclined these days to talk about "after the end", "after the collapse", and "after civilization." More a question of how the pieces will be picked up and rearranged after the present order falls apart of its own accord, rather than after it is overthrown by the utopian élan of the people-in-motion, whatever that means exactly.

We hang out with very different leftists.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 3:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


To be completely honest, most anarchists are rather wary of parecon too.

Oh god, and how. There's a character in one of the old Vampire: the Masquerade clanbooks who's trying to fuse some ancient vampire religion with modern posthumanism; the roleplaying hints include something like "speak reverently of a future in which all beings are but cogs in a greater machine; make it sound horrifying but speak of it as if it were the greatest possible achievement of humankind". I flash on that line sometimes when talking about politics with certain people.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:15 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a character in one of the old Vampire: the Masquerade clanbooks who's trying to fuse some ancient vampire religion with modern posthumanism; the roleplaying hints include something like "speak reverently of a future in which all beings are but cogs in a greater machine; make it sound horrifying but speak of it as if it were the greatest possible achievement of humankind". I flash on that line sometimes when talking about politics with certain people.

Replacing capitalism and hierarchical systems of oppression with the people's bureaucracy doesn't really line up with my preferred strain of anarchism. That said, I get along with the parecon kids just fine; I'm just kinda *meh* on the idea.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 4:22 PM on January 7, 2013


We won't have a stateless, marketless world until a public-served computer runs everything.
posted by Brian B. at 6:20 PM on January 7, 2013


Yup. I wouldn't call the collapse folks leftists or even see that kind of activism as representative of the left. Lots of libertarians in that camp with conservative ecologists, transition town folks and so on as well as some leftists. But not too many unions working in that realm in my experience.
posted by salishsea at 10:03 PM on January 7, 2013


Forgive ignorant me, but I'd like more info on what's being referred to here: The managerial-corporate model seemed to face a challenge in the 1980s when capitalist owners, dissatisfied with languishing profit rates, launched an offensive against what they saw as lax and complacent corporate managers.

Are we just talking about privatization of public services? Or was there a boards vs. managers strife that I'm not aware of (and that doesn't seem to exist widely now)?
posted by glhaynes at 10:11 PM on January 7, 2013


There is some good discussion and criticism of this article over on Crooked Timber, with the author responding.
posted by mek at 10:46 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


The lesson here is that the transformation to a different system does not have to be catastrophic. Of course, the situation I’m describing would be a revolutionary one — but it wouldn’t have to involve the total collapse of the old society and the Promethean conjuring of something entirely unrecognizable in its place.

I think this paragraph is the heart of the essay. The hand-wavy, poorly-thought-out economic suggestions and explications of Soviet Marxism and modern capitalism are means to the end of showing that there are ways of thinking about revolutionary (not evolutionary*) changes in society that aren't merely "burn it all down". To quote from the Preamble to the IWW Constitution, it's about "forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old", and there are real, imaginable ways to do that. Capitalists and defenders of the state (whether fascists, Marxists**, or U.S. Liberals) want to paint all socialist and anarchist ideas with the same brush, make everyone out to be a primitivist standing on the sidelines with a can of gasoline and a lighter. But there are a lot of ways (some of them, like the aforementioned IWW, currently in practice) of replacing the broken institutions of capitalism with democratic and egalitarian ones, for better or worse. It's really nice to see this talked about in so thorough and well-presented a form (even if I did catch two typos).

* I think you critically underestimate the amount of resistance the institutions of modern society will throw up in the face of any attempt to supplant them.

** I follow Chomsky in positing that Soviet Marxism was exactly as socialist as it was democratic. I guess there are still Marxists around, but anyone has yet to offer me a convincing explanation as to why.

posted by cthuljew at 11:32 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Given your grouping of "Marxists" with "fascists" and "U.S. liberals" you'll find the answer in the way you pose the question: it's a straw-man you use to paint people you perceive to be ideologically opposed to you. Unsurprisingly, you find them everywhere. Truth be told, none of those terms mean much more than "jerk".
posted by mek at 12:17 AM on January 8, 2013


Well, I mean, I grouped them under "defenders of the State", which I don't think you could argue they're not. And I was certainly being flagrantly rhetorical, so I guess sorry about that?
posted by cthuljew at 1:19 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Defenders of a state, not the State.
posted by mek at 10:16 AM on January 8, 2013


You seem to be either hairsplitting or being intentionally obtuse, mek. cthuljew's assertion is basically that fascists, real-world (e.g. Soviet) Marxists, and modern Western liberals are all statists, in the sense of using the apparatus of the State to set and enforce a preferred economic/social policy. They all have that in common when compared to various anti-statist schools of anarchist thought. That's not especially controversial.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:33 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


My point is that there's enough diversity of opinions within the given definition of "defenders of the state" to render the assertion that they want to "paint all socialist and anarchist ideas with the same brush" clearly wrong. (I mean, Marxists want a socialist state, obviously.) And environmentalist groups, while almost exclusively statist insofar as they advocate for stronger national (and global) regulations and are deeply critical of neoliberal "small government" initiatives, have a lot of overlap with indigenous rights movements which are arguably anarchist in character (as we're currently seeing with Idle No More).
posted by mek at 12:02 PM on January 8, 2013


« Older The five scholars explored the question, “What is ...  |  Original Animation film Kung F... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments