The free development of each is the condition of the war against all
May 19, 2015 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Some Paths to the True Knowledge[*] - "Attention conservation notice: A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don't actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses. Also, spoilers for several of MacLeod's novels, notably but not just The Cassini Division. Written for, and cross-posted to, Crooked Timber's seminar on MacLeod, where I will not be reading the comments."
posted by kliuless (12 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cosma is great.
posted by kenko at 2:59 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


MacLeod of the Star Fraction books is always described as a "Trotskyist" Sci-Fi author, but when you read the books he oddly fetishizes the quirks of sectarian Communist cults: the obscure publications, the pamphleteering, the over-heated meetings, the masculine back-slapping encouragement, etc. as versus the actual ideology. He comes off as a scenester, a Communist fan-boy who's a bit lost when it actually comes down to the ideas. I expect he has an impressive collection of communist pamphlets in plastic cases stored at home like comic books. The "true knowledge" really shows this. Trying to base "communism" on a fundamentally negative view of human nature is so counter-intuitive as to practically be a counter-factual. It's the sort of absurdity that internet libertarians revel in along with other intellectual up-is-downisms.

His later books, particularly his latest are embarrassingly libertarian diatribes against the nanny state, particularly with respect to smoking: social democrats gonna take away my cigarettes! I think the "true knowledge" is MacLeod trying to reconcile his fascination with communism with his more natural conservative Scots libertarian instincts.

However, the Five-Year Plan which turns into an autonomous AI agent is kind of a great Sci-Fi idea, and I'm pretty sure it's based on the work of Scottish communist computer scientists Cockshott & Cottrell.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:04 PM on May 19, 2015


Those who, like me, tried to buy these books when they first heard of them years ago and found them out-of-print, fortunately they are back in a new combined edition! Link.
posted by grobstein at 4:49 PM on May 19, 2015


His later books, particularly his latest are embarrassingly libertarian diatribes against the nanny state...

stevenjohnson actually addresses this in the CT thread (that CRS hasn't read ;)
As for The Cassini Division, written in the early stages of MacLeod’s ever speedier trajectory to the right, I would have thought a person with a economics background would have commented on how libertarian New Mars functions as Galt’s Gulch... The novel ends with the nasty Commies hiding in space, plotting imperial conquest. This nicely replicates stock Red Scare hysteria. I guess all you need add is that they will inevitably become more and more backward, suffering terrible deprivations and tyrannical horrors.
henry farrell makes the connection with 'rationalism':
The True Knowledge is a kind of ideological hodgepodge, which doesn’t always work very well to describe reality, and which comes with ancillary assumptions that are of even more dubious value... But it’s a recognizable hodge-podge – it’s unmistakably a close cousin of many of the undercurrents of modern thought.

The True Knowledge smacks of Darwin, of Marx (in Capital rather than Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts mode), of Spencer, and of a whole host of nineteenth century economists. It’s an alternative intellectual history buried within an alternative intellectual history (our future has already diverged dramatically from MacLeod’s imagined ones). Its authors have been deprived of other reading materials, so that they have to construct their own idiosyncratic understanding of twenty-first century politics on the basis of nineteenth century social thought.

That’s what makes it an interesting analogue to the shaping ideas of our own age, which are, although we don’t usually think about it, trying to pull much the same trick. As Charles Tilly notes in one of his books, nineteenth century social and political thought reflects nineteenth century social and political problems – but we still are its unwitting slaves a century and a bit later. The parallels between the True Knowledge and the rational choice theories underlying economic and political theory (the most influential nineteenth-century-ideas-carried-into-the-21st) are clear. Socialism based on crass selfishness is straight out of the No Bullshit Marxism project... Like rational choice theory, the True Knowledge isn’t actually right, but it’s not actually wrong either. What it is is powerful – a set of ideas that have compelling force, and that are capable of creating a self-reinforcing social logic.
and also highlights "collisions between the rationalities of war and market"* which i think is interesting -- like applying second amendment logic to, say, iran -- "Union and Division (and the pun is intended) reflect fundamentally different readings of the True Knowledge, with different implications for behavior."

macleod responds: "There never really was a Black Plan, as far as I know, but there were Black Planners. Some old comrades of mine from the International Marxist Group knew all about computers and their possible role in economic planning. They’d already taken on board the market-socialist critique, and they beavered away to influence socialist administrations of various kinds. They started with Livingstone’s London and have long since worked their way up to China. If they ever make it to the ships, it’s game over."

---
*e.g. "If a deterrence theory based on fractional claims on nukes is fundamentally incredible, so too, perhaps, is fractional reserve banking – both rest on the assumption that one will never actually have to draw on one’s full resources and are liable to decohere very rapidly if one does, and one doesn’t have some outside stabilizing force to step in and help out."
posted by kliuless at 4:56 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Interesting links (and tags). I have no doubt that a lot is sailing straight over my head, but is not a statement like

There is nothing but matter, forces, space and time, which together make power.

simply an expression of materialism – i.e. the ontological foundation of mainline Marxism*?

Apart from that, starting out with socialism as the the thing to be justified, and then trying to reverse-engineer a justification for it based in materialist ontology, seems to me to be Doing It Wrong, notwithstanding what Will Wilkinson has to say about starting with metaphysics being "presocratic." MacLeod, writing fiction, has a clear out for doing this sort of thing, but just because I can accept for the purposes of enjoying a novel that socialism is The Good does not actually say very much about what I find justifiable back in reality**.

Staying with Will Wilkinson's libertarianism bit, he has a very significant point about the political nature of property. If you genuinely believe that materialism is correct, then it's incredibly obvious that property is a social construct – to use his phrasing, no more than a component of the "pervasive matrix of political rules within which we are always already enmeshed." What's the enlightened libertarian response? It should recognise what property is; sharpen the critique of 'politicisation of property rights' by treating them as evils inherent to property itself; and try to change the rules of the game. Is it physically possible to have things that human beings can use as property, but are so different from traditional forms of property that politicisation is not inherent?

*The 'true knowledge' passage as a whole resembles nothing so much as Might is Right, the infamous screed by "Ragnar Redbeard", a likely pseudonym of Arthur Desmond, who, I just found out, was himself perhaps a deep-cover socialist.

** The ability to suspend disbelief in aspects of political philosophy is probably why I find much of Atlas Shrugged quite enjoyable. It's probably why I like the Culture novels.
posted by topynate at 5:00 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I did not like the first link.
posted by rankfreudlite at 5:03 PM on May 19, 2015


I liked Henry's contribution.

It introduced me for the first time to "Equilibrium in the Jungle," a sort of quasi-parody article that shows that the standard competitive equilibrium results of microeconomics -- including the "fundamental" welfare theorems -- hold in an "economy" of violent predation, i.e., one governed by the law of the jungle, where strong take from weak.

I realized this pretty early on in my own economics education but wasn't aware anyone had gone and spelled the whole thing out.

The significance is that these theoretical results are often taken to be arguments for free markets -- they show that there will be efficient coordination of production and consumption. But no one thinks these results are an argument in favor of a system of violent banditry -- so if they can be derived for such a system, there must be something wrong with the usual arguments.

Ariel Rubinstein:
When I present the model in public lectures, I ask the audience to
imagine that they are attending the Örst lecture of a course at the University
of the Jungle, designed to introduce the principles of economics. I use
this rhetorical device to emphasize that the paper is only a rhetorical exercise
aimed at shedding light on the implicit message that Microeconomicsí
students receive from us.

Being faithful to the classical economic tradition, we constructed a model
which is close to an exchange economy. We used terminology that is familiar to any economics student. After having deÖned the notion of jungle equilibrium,
we conducted the same type of analysis which can be found in any
microeconomics textbook on competitive equilibrium. We showed existence
and then discussed the Örst and second fundamental welfare theorems. We
emphasized the analogy between the initial endowments of an exchange economy
and the initial distribution of power in the jungle as determining the
distribution of commodities among the agents. Were I teaching this model, I
would also add the standard comments regarding externalities and the place
for government intervention.

There are arguments which attempt to dismiss the comparison between
markets and jungles. One can argue that the market has the virtue of providing
incentives to "produce" and to enlarge the size of the "pie" to be
distributed among the agents. One can also argue, however, that the jungle
provides incentives to develop power (physical, intellectual or mental)
which is an important social asset. Agents make e§orts to produce more
goods. Agents who wish to be stronger are an asset for a society which can
then defend itself against invaders or evade others in order to accumulate
resources.

One might argue that market mechanisms save the resources that would
have been wasted in conáicts. Note, however, that under complete information
a stronger agent can persuade a weaker agent to part with his goods with
no resistance. Societies often create rituals which aid people in recognizing
relative power and thereby avoid the costs of conáict. Under incomplete information,
the market also wastes resources. And Önally, I have not mentioned
the obvious trade costs which are also associated with market institutions.

One might argue that labour is a good which should be treated di§erently.
The long history of slavery shows this to be inaccurate.
I think some of the arguments Rubinstein rejects are actually right, and the market is better than the jungle -- but the exercise shows that the argument must be harder than the standard micro exposition.
posted by grobstein at 5:19 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


MacLeod of the Star Fraction books is always described as a "Trotskyist" Sci-Fi author, but when you read the books he oddly fetishizes the quirks of sectarian Communist cults: the obscure publications, the pamphleteering, the over-heated meetings, the masculine back-slapping encouragement, etc. as versus the actual ideology.

Slightly similarly, cstross spends slightly more time on geek set dressing than on the fine mechanics of data structures and computational complexity theory. Because he's writing fiction for a popular audience and not a computer science journal. And he's trying to make it readable.

The fact that MacLeod's works don't have enough ideology for you as a reader is less evidence of absence and more evidence of editing.

His later books, particularly his latest are embarrassingly libertarian diatribes against the nanny state, particularly with respect to smoking: social democrats gonna take away my cigarettes! I think the "true knowledge" is MacLeod trying to reconcile his fascination with communism with his more natural conservative Scots libertarian instincts.

My poli sci background is shamefully weak, but couldn't it be that he's just trying to tell a good yarn and play with ideas, and that he's not straightforwardly advocating or critiquing particular political ideas?

His blog may be a more accurate source of his views and thoughts than what his characters say and think.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:12 PM on May 19, 2015


Slightly similarly, cstross spends slightly more time on geek set dressing than on the fine mechanics of data structures and computational complexity theory. Because he's writing fiction for a popular audience and not a computer science journal. And he's trying to make it readable.

there's plenty of space in fiction to talk about socialism and the philsophical assumptions underpining it. but the problem is that the idea that a bunch of nihilists discovering the philosophical works of classical 19th century LIberalism would lead to "full communism" based on total rational self-interest is just a little out there for anyone actually sympathetic to marxism or any of the various socialisms. on the other hand if this is your reading list: (from Macleod's response:)
Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker haunt the pages of The Star Fraction. As I’ve sometimes said for a cheap laugh, I thought at the time that the ideas of Richard Dawkins weren’t getting enough publicity. Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation and David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom get a look-in, and in the latter case a shout-out, in The Stone Canal. My notion of fractional reserve banking, about which I would rather not sit an exam, probably came from Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. From Friedman and Rothbard (and Nozick) I appropriated the institutions of anarcho-capitalism in Norlonto and Ship City. (I mixed them with my own labour, honest, with enough and as good left over.)
it makes a bit more sense.

It introduced me for the first time to "Equilibrium in the Jungle," a sort of quasi-parody article that shows that the standard competitive equilibrium results of microeconomics -- including the "fundamental" welfare theorems -- hold in an "economy" of violent predation, i.e., one governed by the law of the jungle, where strong take from weak.

But when it comes down to it, all of these sorts of things tend to reverse the cart and horse wrt equilibrium. Rational agent models are fundamentally a way of justifying the applicability of the general equilibrium theorems imported from statistical theory by way of evolutionary biology. It's a kind of philosophic reductionism which actually masks a basic formalism i.e. we are inventing justififications for what is a formal result e.g. equilibrium is obtained, so you turn it around and derive equilibrium results from rational agents as if your theory is built on "rationalism" rather than importing mathematical theorems. It's also why people like Dawkins get so far astray talking about "Selfish Genes."

I'm not an expert, but part of Marxism ( the bullshit part of Marxism...) is a good critique of reductionist thinking as practiced by the early economists
posted by ennui.bz at 6:47 PM on May 19, 2015


Rational agent models are fundamentally a way of justifying the applicability of the general equilibrium theorems imported from statistical theory by way of evolutionary biology. It's a kind of philosophic reductionism which actually masks a basic formalism i.e. we are inventing justififications for what is a formal result e.g. equilibrium is obtained, so you turn it around and derive equilibrium results from rational agents as if your theory is built on "rationalism" rather than importing mathematical theorems.

Not sure if this argument is meant to be historical or something else. "Rational agent models" and "rationalist" arguments in political economy predate the general equilibrium results, and predate anything that can be called statistical theory or evolutionary biology. This sort of argument can be found in Hobbes and Locke. The modern mathematics of evolutionary biology is roughly contemporaneous with the development of modern mathematical economics. The agent-based formalisms of Maynard Smith, Williams, and Hamilton mostly came after similar work in economics, rather than leading the way.

I'm not an expert, but part of Marxism ( the bullshit part of Marxism...) is a good critique of reductionist thinking as practiced by the early economists

This is true, but there's plenty of Marx to go around. More than enough!

It seems like, in the United States, one consequence of the "end of history" and the triumph of capitalism has been that Marx has very little presence in the more "scientific" precincts of the social sciences. For example, Marx considered himself an economist, but most economics education says very little about him or his ideas. (My intro class included a perfunctory rebuttal of the labor theory of value, and when we learned the Cobb-Douglas model, we were told that the exponent to the capital term was roughly constant over time, refuting Marx's prediction that it would get bigger and bigger. But we never considered whether what we meant by "capital" was the same as Marx, which would be a prerequisite to serious engagement. Political Science had a seminar on Marx which seemed ridiculous from the title alone.)

But outside of the quantitative, reductionist fields, Marx has fared better. Marxist readings show up in literature departments, and the "cultural Marxism" of critics like Marcuse apparently continues to be influential. "Critical theory" is a heavily Marx-influenced enterprise, and one which is influential across the humanities: literature, anthropology, cultural studies, sometimes philosophy.

So Marx has fared well in the fields that deal with texts and critiques, and poorly in the ones that deal with numbers and models. And I think this influences what parts of Marx we regard as central. The critical interrogation of claims of "interest" and "right" in terms of power and false consciousness -- this is what I think of as the esoteric Marxism. Because everything is infiltrated with power relations, nothing can be taken at face value -- certainly not a reductionistic model that appears to prop up the current power structure. This cynicism can be found in Marx, notably the critique of rights. An advanced current expression of this strand is the argument (excuse the simpliciation) of Judith Butler that all forms of resistance are self-undermining because shot through with power relations, and the best we can do is irony.

The esoteric Marx maybe seems more like the true Marx, today, because the esoteric Marx is the one that's still alive in the academy. One way to think of this is that the esoteric Marx can explain why Communist revolution hasn't happened (here), so he remains relevant as long as it doesn't happen.

But there were also the ("non-bullshit" / "analytic") exoteric strands of Marx, in the labor theory of value and the analysis of history. It's at least possible to profess sympathy with Marxism as a "theory of justice," and sign on to the exoteric canons, without using the critical theory part. Whether that's a good idea is a further question.

The Wikipedia article on the (largely defunct) "analytical Marxist" movement shows the dialectic (heh):
Many Marxists would argue that Marxism cannot be understood as a theory of justice in the sense intended by the analytical Marxists.[13] The question of justice cannot be seen in isolation from questions of power, or from the balance of class forces in any specific conjuncture. Non-Marxists may employ a similar criticism in their critique of liberal theories of justice in the Rawlsian tradition. They argue that the theories fail to address problems about the configuration of power relations in the contemporary world, and by so doing appear as little more than exercises in logic. "Justice", on this view, is whatever is produced by the assumptions of the theory. It has little to do with the actual distribution of power and resources in the world.
MacLeod's construction of Communism reflects the fact that Marx was almost a 19th century liberal. He wasn't, but he was part of the same world and had much of the same background. The "true knowledge" is very much of a piece with this.

Liberal, individual rationalism can be found in Trotsky as well. For example, here he is sounding like an Austrian (ultra-libertarian) economist explaining the "economic calculation problem":
If there existed the universal mind, that projected itself into the scientific fancy of Laplace; a mind that would register simultaneously all the processes of nature and of society, that could measure the dynamics of their motion, that could forecast the results of their inter-reactions, such a mind, of course, could a priori draw up a faultless and an exhaustive economic plan, beginning with a number of hectares of wheat and down to the last button for a vest. In truth, the bureaucracy often conceives that just such a mind is at its disposal; that is why it so easily frees itself from the control of the market and of Soviet democracy.

The innumerable living participants of economy, State as well as private, collective as well as individual, must give notice of their needs and of their relative strength not only through the statistical determinations of plan commissions but by the direct pressure of supply and demand. The plan is checked and to a considerable measure, realized through the market. The regulation of the market itself must depend upon the tendencies that are brought out through its medium. The blueprints produced by the offices must demonstrate their economic expediency through commercial calculation.
My point is, this is a rich tradition, at least prima facie worth exploring -- not a self-refuting index of fanboyism.
posted by grobstein at 7:17 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Slightly similarly, cstross spends slightly more time on geek set dressing than on the fine mechanics of data structures and computational complexity theory. Because he's writing fiction for a popular audience and not a computer science journal. And he's trying to make it readable.


I know this is intended as a defense, but it's something I don't like about Stross. Geek set dressing is anathema. I'm not sure I need him to spend more time on "the fine mechanics of data structures and computational complexity," but I need to feel like those mechanics are there, making sense in the background, and I usually don't.

The only SF writer I know of who makes me feel that way is Vinge. (But other recommendations are welcome.)

Of course, (and this was your point I guess) the kind of work that would make me a bigger fan of Stross's stuff might do very little for the "popular audience." Maybe. And maybe the reaction of a real Communist to MacLeod is similarly driven -- he is just not writing on a high level, communistically, but the popular audience only cares about the communistic set dressing, if you will.
posted by grobstein at 7:25 AM on May 20, 2015


Staying with Will Wilkinson's libertarianism bit, he has a very significant point about the political nature of property... What's the enlightened libertarian response?

here're some...
-The Rise of the Digital Capital Economy[*]
-Bob Solow on rents and decoupling of productivity and wages[*]
-How we've all been duped into subsidising our employers[*]
-Reid Hoffman: Why the block chain matters[*]
-The Utopia Algorithm[*]

for me, more than property is the is the public goods nature of the unit of account, i.e. money, where you can see the tension between 'rationalist' libertarians and central banking that wilkinson kind of glosses over -- "What shall we do first? Audit the fed?" -- because the institutions backing the money system (primarily debt/currency issuers and tax authorities) have taken on implicit 'central planning' roles under the rubric of representative democracy but i think is being increasingly realized as a pseudo-public/private technocratic endeavor.[*] i'm actually, um, auditing a class online by perry mehrling that i think is pretty good at explaining the issues in historical context.

here he is sounding like an Austrian (ultra-libertarian) economist explaining the "economic calculation problem"

speaking of (obviating) the price system* that reminds me of schumpeter on the concept of social value... how to determine societal utility and preference curves, the mathematics of trust and the technology of cooperation. like i was listening to the TED radio hour (i know, right!) the other day -- How Can Trusting Strangers Fuel An Economy? -- and it struck me how uncannily similar botsman (heh) sounds like the chinese gov't, so back to the influence of the black panthers planners?

the fine mechanics of data structures and computational complexity

reading reviews of stephenson's seveness :P

"As in his other novels, Stephenson delights in descriptions of processes and functionality..."

"The drama of the first two-thirds of Seveneves is all in orbital mechanics and bolide fragmentation rates..."

---
*re: "Maynard Smith, Williams, and Hamilton," viz. George Price, the Price equation, and cultural group selection & Maynard Smith on the levels of selection question, cf. Predicting the Next Wall Street Disaster - "Using what are called 'agent-based models', Bookstaber's project focuses on how the actions of individual agents—such as banks or traders on Wall Street—create chain reactions that cascade through a much wider ecosystem in ways that can threaten the global economy... Some observers are doubtful."
posted by kliuless at 11:22 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


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