I wouldn't care if it was designed by a fascist if it looked this good
March 21, 2016 6:22 AM   Subscribe

 
Why Jacobin has taken off

Because it's not Vox.
posted by blucevalo at 6:39 AM on March 21, 2016 [14 favorites]


"We settle on a case of Magic Hat's winter ale, in addition to many cases of cheaper beer; only Jacobin editors and friends get access to the good stuff."

Uh oh...
posted by crazylegs at 6:43 AM on March 21, 2016 [41 favorites]


Yeah that beer comment was kinda red flaggy in a humorous way. Not living up to their ideals????
posted by ian1977 at 6:47 AM on March 21, 2016


Or more accurately, living up to the ideals of the soviet communist party? Special treatment (or beer) for those in charge, bread lines (or swill) for the rank and file?
posted by ian1977 at 6:48 AM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Not living up to their ideals????

They're called Jacobin, for pete's sake. Wouldn't that be pretty consistent?
posted by leotrotsky at 6:57 AM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


Or more accurately, living up to the ideals of the soviet communist party? Special treatment (or beer) for those in charge, bread lines (or swill) for the rank and file?

I'd just like to take the opportunity to reference the wonderful word nomenklatura, because it's just so fun to say out loud.

Try it. Nomenklatura.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:59 AM on March 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


Try it. Nomenklatura.

One would really rather not.

On the other hand, I'm trying to become more reconciled to contemporary marxist projects in recognition of how much they've improved over, say, ten years ago. The jokes about Stalin and the second international trivia, etc, are still tedious marxist-dude humor, but I've got to admit that a genuine attempt has been made. Jacobin is not all that it could be on gender and sexuality, of course, but that's not so different from any other recent marxist project. It does disturb me a bit, because it suggests that the underlying assumption is still that feminism and GLBTQ stuff are mere foam on the surface of the great ocean of class. I think we've been through that already with actually-existing communism and it does not fill me with enthusiasm to contemplate another round.

But speaking of marxism - would you like to become enthused about marxism, but you're basically a frivolous, light-minded and politically unreliable element like me? You might enjoy Owen Hatherley's interesting Militant Modernism. It deals with early Soviet arts and architecture, sixties utopianism and various matters of class, architecture and access. (It's pretty short, but if you're like me you'll wish it went on forever.)

It gets across a lot of the genuinely utopian (and implicitly, at least, feminist) dreams of revolutionary marxism in a way that gets lost in the jokes about the second international and the other stuff that tends to get depressing, clique-y and (IME) discouraging to women after a while.
posted by Frowner at 7:16 AM on March 21, 2016 [27 favorites]


Well, the last Leftist idea I heard here was "Let's automate everything! Of course there's no major technological hurdles to overcome!"

Hopefully Jacobian has better ideas than that.
posted by happyroach at 7:20 AM on March 21, 2016


Try it. Nomenklatura.

One would really rather not...

posted by Frowner at 10:16 AM on March 21


Geez.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:22 AM on March 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


That beer anecdote is unfortunate ("oh look, algore flies first class, and he's fat!) because it is kind of remarkable that a bunch of Trotskyists have built a website that draws 2.7 M unique visitors a month and a journal with a monthly circulation of 20,000, and annual income of $500k.

The FPP notes the print zines design (colorful and optimistic), and I think that spirit is one key to their success. Marxism and socialism should be colorful and optimistic -- the FUTURE, let's build it! When the other side is offering austerity and dimming, that vitality is attractive.
posted by notyou at 7:23 AM on March 21, 2016 [24 favorites]


Geez.

Sorry, I meant that as a little more light-hearted than it came across.

Perhaps I can tell you my cat-naming joke to make up for it? Our plan was initially to adopt two kittens and name them Diamat and Histomat. (We ended up finding a stray in our backyard and naming her after a Marge Piercy novel, so that went by the board.)

Also, sexpol is a great word. And kino fist, also great. Proletcult, too.

Did you know that early Russian SF author Alexander Bogdanov was Lenin's brother-in-law? Though both important early commies, they did not get along - Lenin thought that Bogdanov's ideas about "god-building" (IIRC) were wish-washy and a bad idea, and honestly I think Lenin had the right of it. Bogdanov was very big on proletcult (proletarian culture!) which turned out to be a mixed bag.

Again, if you are interested in but dubious about marxism and have failed on several occasions to read more of Capital than the enclosure acts section, I highly recommend reading up on some of those Old Bolsheviks and associated types. For a certain type of person - possibly a metafilter type of person - I think it's probably a starting point that is more helpful and sympathetic than a lot of the usual ones.
posted by Frowner at 7:31 AM on March 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


a starting point

It's the end points of the successful revolutions that give me pause.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:35 AM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's the end points of the successful revolutions that give me pause.

Me, too.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:38 AM on March 21, 2016 [23 favorites]


no wonder there's never been a successful Trotskyist revolution
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:40 AM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]




It's the end points of the successful revolutions that give me pause.

Well, yes, but I think you end up with a much better understanding of why things went the way they did if you actually read some period materials and do some detailed reading. The 1915-1928ish period is much, much weirder and things were much more in flux than I think a lot of non-specialists realize.

I think it's important - and this is something that Jacobin does very well - to pin marxism to specific historical situations rather than to treat it as purely a grand and Calvinistic philosophy (which was how I learned about it in the Reagan eighties). If there's going to be any solution to worsening systemic inequality, it's going to come from grappling with a lot of the same problems that various early and mid-twentieth century revolutionaries grappled with. If anything, it's a bit chilling to realize that these people weren't fools at all, and that they were aware of and tried to guard against a lot of the things that later went wrong.
posted by Frowner at 7:46 AM on March 21, 2016 [19 favorites]


Jacobin is interesting. It's what Hal Draper called a "political center" – a publication putting out political ideas of a particular bent. In Jacobin's case it is a kind of left social democracy (Sunkara is a vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America) but with a bit of a revolutionary mystique.

Now, Jacobin is doing on the ground organizing by putting together study groups, in a lot of cities, that are not coincidentally also helping to grow DSA. So I see it very much as attempting to find the political ground for a new social democratic movement, to the right of anything that's traditionally in the Leninist or Trotskyist tradition (and for clarity the people behind Jacobin are definitely not Trotskyists; I should know because I am) but left of the Harrington type of social democracy that has limped on in the US for the past couple of generations.

The reality is that it steps into a vacuum that's existed on the far left for serious hard thinking that's not a partisan project. Particularly online there hasn't really been much of quality since Counterpunch became erratic in the few years before Alex Cockburn's death. Jacobin has been very savvy about how it's pitched itself, but I think there are hard limits in how they work. Particularly because I think that political independence from the Democrats is a life or death issue for the left, and Jacobin has been more or less feeling the Bern, that's a contradiction that has been awkward.

But in the immediate term I think it provides an opening for thought that can lead somewhere. I just don't think it is itself the long term solution, and that the left-of-the-Democrats left needs something with an actual independent politics.
posted by graymouser at 7:51 AM on March 21, 2016 [14 favorites]


Platypus Review is my favorite cutely designed Marxist publication... but the design aspect doesn't come across on the web.
posted by Jahaza at 7:54 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The reality is that it steps into a vacuum that's existed on the far left for serious hard thinking that's not a partisan project.

Eh. I haven't seen anything published on Jacobin that would have seemed terribly out of place in Dissent, myself. But then I'm an intermittent reader of both.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:02 AM on March 21, 2016


Well, the last Leftist idea I heard here was "Let's automate everything! Of course there's no major technological hurdles to overcome!"

Yes, because the proponents of FALC propose that all the necessary technology already exists and it could be done today, and that no serious work remains to be done. This is a perfectly honest, good-faith comment which is the product of engaging with the ideas that it attacks, and not a bad-faith sneer at something the poster can't be bothered to take the time to understand.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:07 AM on March 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


Eh. I haven't seen anything published on Jacobin that would have seemed terribly out of place in Dissent, myself. But then I'm an intermittent reader of both.

I'd parse them this way: Jacobin wants a social democracy with elements of Marxism, Dissent wants one that leaves it behind. Both are ultimately social democratic but their engagement is significantly different.
posted by graymouser at 8:12 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The fact that Jacobin’s loyal brogressive readers regularly engage in misogynistic trolling of anyone who dares to suggest that sexism will not be solved by class restructuring makes me less than thrilled that they are being deemed the voice of the left. Threatening to rip a woman’s breasts off because she disagrees with your publication’s content is not a “Left” I want any part of, honestly.

You can argue that the magazine is not responsible for how their readers behave. But the magazine has been extremely cavalier about the kind of harassment and threats made against women online. It doesn’t make me super interested in their vision of a socialist utopia.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2016 [19 favorites]


I read somewhere recently that Dissent and Commentary are merging to form a new political journal called Dissentary.
posted by crazylegs at 8:22 AM on March 21, 2016 [15 favorites]


I've seen Annie Hall, too!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:25 AM on March 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


Is that where I stole that from? I don't even know anymore.
posted by crazylegs at 8:27 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The fact that Jacobin’s loyal brogressive readers regularly engage in misogynistic trolling of anyone who dares to suggest that sexism will not be solved by class restructuring makes me less than thrilled that they are being deemed the voice of the left. Threatening to rip a woman’s breasts off because she disagrees with your publication’s content is not a “Left” I want any part of, honestly.

Wait, what?????!!!???? I hadn't heard this one.
posted by Frowner at 8:30 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The term for the central event is “Jacobinghazi” (ugh), but I don’t have a good link that describes the whole confusing saga.

This one is wildly partisan on the side of Jacobin, but it still showcases the problem (despite the author’s intent).

Breast-ripping-off-threats were made against @sarahjeong. She doesn't mention that threat in particular, but she talks about the Jacobin mob here.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


Ugh. I'd always assumed that marxists, being stodgier, played a bit nicer than anarchists, but apparently they don't. I can't really make head or tail of those links since I don't really know the people involved and don't know their general approach/politics, but the general impression they give is pretty dismaying.

It seems like most of us think too well of ourselves and that leads us into being assholes.

I don't know, some days you just want to give up.
posted by Frowner at 9:05 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm not a woman, I can't speak to that experience (though threats of violence are deserve the sternest condemnation).
The idea that I shouldn't contemplate movement toward socialism because it would be less than ideal for ethnic minorities is a concept that ignores its correct reference. The imagined socialist future shouldn't be compared against heaven on earth, it should be compared to the world as it is or as it will be if we continue along the current path.
Transcending the tyranny of property is actually particularly attractive when I think of my ancestors who were themselves property. Furthermore, economic subjugation has always been one of the tools of white supremacy (though certainly not the only one), so removing it from the toolkit is a victory even if other tools remain (and need to be confronted).
posted by Octaviuz at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


The general sense I get, from the stories of a few people who have run afoul of the Jacobin crew, is that the model goes like this:

Jacobin Article: Fix Class=World is fixed, here are examples
Person: One of your examples is flawed, because reason
Jacobin staff: HOW DARE YOU UNDERMINE OUR IMPORTANT WORK
Person: I was just trying to help, and engage in dialogue--
Jacobin staff: BEGONE, FOOL, IMPORTANT WORK IS BEING DONE, YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES ARE IRRELEVANT
Jacobin fans: [twitter mob against person who pointed out flaw]
Jacobin staff: Why are we being unfairly maligned and targeted? It must be because of capitalism. Anyone who criticizes us must have been seduced by evil, evil capitalism.

It is...disheartening.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


The Jacobinghazi thing is mentioned in the article, with a link to this piece.
posted by Miko at 9:19 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Imagine a bunch of guys from the Northeast -- all Harvard, Yale, GW, maybe a few Dartmouth grads -- they get together one day over micro-brewed hand-crafted lager and charcuterie and they say "Hey, let's make communism".

So they make communism and it turns out that communism really means that smart dudes from the northeast get to decide political and social relations for the rest of the country, except it's cool this time because instead of Congress lying to everybody it's the People's Plenary XXI Parliament or whatever.

And it's not full communism, I guess, because they're not giving their mom's house in the Hamptons to an illegal immigrant or anything because that's bullshit -- where is the Vanguard going to spend the weekend, after all? Besides, dad worked hard for that cottage -- but it's all good because communism.

Of course, some people are always going to complain. "Feminists", "queer people" etc. Such a shame, really. They don't understand -- *sips delicately-crafted micro-brew* -- just how difficult it is to lead a revolution. I'm glad we have the People's Security Forces to deal with them, they might say.

This is what happens when Leftism becomes a fashion statement -- or, more precisely -- when it becomes a "lifestyle vacation destination". You get glossy mags telling you what a great place it is to visit, but at the end of the day, it's still run by the rich and you're still just a tourist.
posted by Tyrant King Porn Dragon at 9:20 AM on March 21, 2016 [16 favorites]


The Jacobinghazi thing is mentioned in the article, with a link to this piece.

Yes, I know. However, that piece is incredibly slanted, which is what I was trying to point out.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've always gotten a bad, dogmatic vibe from Jacobin. I'm no proper Marxist, I know. But then, I've always found Marxist approaches to actually solving problems ridiculously impractical and overly abstract and theoretical and intellectual in ways that seem stupidly in denial about the importance of lived human experience and practical realities like human biology.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


I used to marvel at the London Literary scene -- erudite folks lining up on this or that side of whatever it was about the latest review or the latest column and firing broadsides at one another via Letters to the Editor. So much gossip and vitriol and hidden agendas and intentional misreading and all delivered in such fine and sharp prose. Delicious. Also, tiresome.

Our own Twitter brouhahas share the vitriol and the misreading and the gossip and the hidden agendas, too, probably. The graceful prose is absent (maybe when Twitter ups the character limit that'll change*), although it is often sharp, but missing much of the deliciousness. Still, also tiresome.

-----------------------
*Or maybe the rape threats will just become more baroque. Were London Literary Scenesters too civilized to hurl rape threats or did the Editors kindly edit them away?
posted by notyou at 9:32 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


no wonder there's never been a successful Trotskyist revolution

Have you heard of the Russian Revolution? Trotsky had a little something to do with that. Besides his on the ground contributions, he contributed the essential ideology of the revolution. Lenin's adoption of Trotsky's idea of "permanent revolution" (i.e. that the proletariat -- and the proletariat alone -- can and should seize and hold power ASAP in an underdeveloped country like Russia, as opposed to supporting or allying with some other class -- bourgeoisie or peasantry -- in doing so) is an important thread in the events of Russia in 1917.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 9:45 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've always found Jacobin to be an annoyingly pompous and inauthentic mag... but it sure does look good!

The misogyny of the Jacobin crowd reminds me of the Stalinists I knew back in university (things were a little more hard-core 25 years than they are now) who believed global warming was just a bourgeoisie distraction.
posted by My Dad at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2016


The idea that I shouldn't contemplate movement toward socialism because it would be less than ideal for ethnic minorities is a concept that ignores its correct reference. The imagined socialist future shouldn't be compared against heaven on earth, it should be compared to the world as it is or as it will be if we continue along the current path.

Okay, here's my problem: the confusion of several different questions.

"Is socialism worthwhile if it improves things over the current situation for most people but doesn't help [group]" is a reasonable thing to debate. You'd need to talk about what [group] really is (like, if it's "women", uh, that's a rather large group....but if it's "dentists", well then.) You'd need to talk about whether socialism, properly brought about, really wouldn't improve things for [group]. Like, if proper socialism gave women more economic power in relation to men even if it didn't address all gender inequality, that would have a knock-on effect on other gender problems, so you might plausibly say that socialism would be a worthwhile improvement.

Of course, it would then be useful to talk about the vagaries of womanhood under historical socialism - Lenin, qualified hooray, Stalin serious boo, Tito a big meh, etc - with the goal of understanding how and to what extent feminism got incorporated into socialism and how that worked out.

And then you have to imagine just how you're going to sell a mass movement if quite a lot of it has to be "well, ladies, your problems should probably vanish under socialism, but we don't really need to talk about that".

But the point is, those are questions that it's perfectly possible to talk through, and the answers are going to vary depending on who you talk to and how they think about social issues.

I feel like there's some slippage on this, sometimes from rather dodgy people, where it gets turned into "don't reject Jacobin because it's less than ideal for [minorities]". Jacobin is just a magazine, not socialism. Jacobin can make changes to itself fairly quickly, for one thing, while changing society as a whole is a pretty big deal. If Jacobin and its associates are sexist, I don't need to just suck it up in the name of the revolution - we've been through that about a gazillion times with marxist movements, and I think we can say that it doesn't work very well.

~~~
In the interests of accuracy about Jacobin, though: they are a lot less white than most marxist projects, and they are a lot more international. That's more than plenty of other projects have achieved. Not a lot of coverage of Moldova or even the PKK in most non-specialist left magazines.

Again, I'm reminded of stuff from pre-revolutionary Bolshevik history - there's all these conflicts between people that get rather ugly, and the ugliness is frustrating and disturbing, and it gets really hard to parse out what's necessary conflict due to real, underlying differences and what's avoidable interpersonal stuff. For me, reading about the 1917 revolution, the most difficult thing to figure out is to what degree people who differed really could have worked together. There's far more actual political difference in the first few years of the revolution than I think non-specialists realize - it stands to reason; you can't change a very large country or even a large city overnight.
posted by Frowner at 9:55 AM on March 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


Imagine a bunch of guys from the Northeast -- all Harvard, Yale, GW, maybe a few Dartmouth grads -- they get together one day over micro-brewed hand-crafted lager and charcuterie and they say "Hey, let's make communism".

Soon we're going to get 'Engels owned a factory.'
posted by colie at 10:07 AM on March 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


Because it's not Vox.

Side note: Vox was valued at ~$1 billion-with-a-b as of last summer. May well have been writ down a bit by now, the way things are going, but I don't think they're any too worried about Jacobin nipping at their heels.
posted by Diablevert at 10:09 AM on March 21, 2016


I've heard the brogressive complaints before. Won't stop me from reading their stuff as long as it continues to be so well written.
posted by fraxil at 10:12 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Jacobin Article: Fix Class=World is fixed, here are examples
Person: One of your examples is flawed, because reason
Jacobin staff: HOW DARE YOU UNDERMINE OUR IMPORTANT WORK
...
Jacobin staff: Why are we being unfairly maligned and targeted? It must be because of capitalism. Anyone who criticizes us must have been seduced by evil, evil capitalism.


I've never had this particular experience, but this seems like an accurate template for a number of discussions I can recall across a range of topics, including discrimination and privilege.

My guess is that something like it is built into the human psyche and will probably fall out of most discussion sooner rather than later without a lot of conscious effort.
posted by wildblueyonder at 10:12 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I liked the part where Vox admitted to being sellout neoliberals.
posted by naoko at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2016 [14 favorites]


I think there are plenty of things one can criticize Jacobin for, but many of the broadsides being fired in this thread are just bizarre. Jacobin as dogmatic? They go out of their way to publish almost anything left-of-center, regardless of tendency (mostly). Jacobin as conspiracy of Hampton-vacationing bros? Please; look at who founded it, or who is writing for them, as Frowner mentions -- it's a diverse crowd.

Anyways, I think Jacobin does satisfy a void that has been present in American publications for quite a while -- an accessible, big-tent Left publication as an entry point to socialist politics. For building that, I think they are to be commended.

I've been to their reading groups in several different cities, and they vary in their character from place to place. Mostly they serve as a kind of my-first-Marxist-reading-group introduction to political issues; the subjects discussed aren't arcane and are usually topical. Often the reading material is drawn from Jacobin, but not always. Those in larger cities (at least that I've seen) tend to be heavily populated by DSA and ISO members. I also think these reading groups are great, and Jacobin also deserves credit for starting them up (including many in locales which aren't exactly hotbeds of radical politics). I would encourage people to check them out.

As far as my criticisms go: the magazine does still promulgate a social-democratic line in the main, which is a tradition with a checkered history, as far as emancipatory politics go. All of the rumblings in this thread about Jacobin "selling out" in one form or another are, I think, well placed, since that is the historical trajectory of social democracy, generally. I always find analyses like "now we can leave behind the old socialist baggage and organize around shiny, new and improved (millennial?) socialism" a bit confusing -- what happened in the past matters. And, to quote the famous adage, those that do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Do you think organizing a revolution within the (bourgeois) Democratic Party is going to pan out well? No, and if you studied instances in the socialist experience where people tried to do something similar and failed (China 1927 comes to mind), you would have known that.

One thing that I find puzzling is the collaboration between the DSA/Jacobin and the ISO. Jacobin sometimes re-publishes articles straight out of Socialist Worker (whose writing style I can't stand). I guess the ISO gets more exposure and Jacobin gets easy content? They also seem to be running a lot of events (panels, etc.) together. I guess solidarity has triumphed over factionalism, in this case?

I agree with graymouser that Jacobin in and of itself is not a political project (regardless of what its publishers think) and that an independent left project is needed to challenge the Democrats and everyone further to the right of them.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 10:50 AM on March 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


I liked the part where Vox admitted to being sellout neoliberals.

I mean they didn't need to, since we know that, but it's proper of them to cop to it.
posted by clockzero at 10:59 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


So I got maybe the exact wrong message from this movie, a fictionalized account of the silly poptimistic ad campaign that helped bring down Pinochet. I think the takeaway I was supposed to get would have left me feeling melancholy about the shallowness of the (successful) anti-Pinochet rhetoric and a sort of disappointment with humanity with regard to how we apparently won't overthrow a murderous dictator until some Coca Cola ad exec shows us that it'll be fun to do it.

but instead the takeaway I got was that poppy cool silly candy-colored optimism works; that what moves the masses is joy and bright colors and good salesmanship, and that there's nothing wrong with joy and bright colors and good salesmanship, and that although of course historians must document the atrocities committed by the right, the Left's public face and public rhetoric must be about joy and love and style and silliness and above all fun.

And that's why I dig Jacobin's visual rhetoric. Just because class war can be fatal doesn't mean it has to be serious, too.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:01 AM on March 21, 2016 [15 favorites]


poppy cool silly candy-colored optimism works; that what moves the masses is joy and bright colors and good salesmanship, and that there's nothing wrong with joy and bright colors and good salesmanship

People mistrust that stuff because it works for the right too. You can sell anything that way.
posted by chrchr at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2016


the right can also use math, that doesn't mean we have to invent some new numerical system in order to perform Correct Left Arithmetic. Sometimes means are value neutral.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:31 AM on March 21, 2016 [24 favorites]


and I mean yes we must continually advance our candy-coated pop revolutionary praxis to always stay one step ahead of the Right's attempts to co-opt and pervert the human experience of joy.

that's why the only solution is to establish a condition of permanent raveolution.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:40 AM on March 21, 2016 [11 favorites]


for more information see my pamphlet on replacing the M-C-M' circuit with MDMA-CCCP-MDMA', available by mail from the Communist Information Catalogue in Pueblo, Colorado.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:48 AM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


Just because class war can be fatal doesn't mean it has to be serious, too.

The proletariat will seize the memes of production!

From me_irl, which seems to have gone full communism in the past few months. See also /r/FULLCOMMUNISM
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 12:00 PM on March 21, 2016 [7 favorites]


I love full communism so hard. also, whenever I get depressed by either the results or the rhetoric of the U.S. presidential primaries, I remind myself that in the real primaries, both Clinton and Sanders are getting stomped by Space Communism.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:07 PM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Noisy Pink Bubbles, I'm pretty sure that was the joke, with a little bit of "but Communism has never really been tried" thrown in.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:07 PM on March 21, 2016


all Harvard, Yale, GW, maybe a few Dartmouth grads

GW I can live with, but anyone who would intentionally include Dartmouth?
posted by 1adam12 at 12:16 PM on March 21, 2016


Apropos of nothing, I picked up this tshirt at ConFusion2016.
posted by JohnFromGR at 12:28 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


> Lenin's adoption of Trotsky's idea of "permanent revolution" (i.e. that the proletariat -- and the proletariat alone -- can and should seize and hold power ASAP in an underdeveloped country like Russia, as opposed to supporting or allying with some other class -- bourgeoisie or peasantry -- in doing so)

That's not permanent revolution, that's Trotsky's contempt for the peasantry (a contempt, to be fair, which was shared by virtually all the Bolsheviks, since none of them knew anything about agriculture or peasant life—they were urban theorists par excellence). This (#10 at your link) is permanent revolution:
The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. [...] The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion, only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.
The opposition between "permanent revolution" and "socialism in one country" was one of the ideological issues that separated Trotsky from Stalin (though of course what lay at the base of their quarrel was an intense personal rivalry). "Lenin's adoption of Trotsky's idea" is not particularly accurate, but that's not significant enough to bother with.

> Again, I'm reminded of stuff from pre-revolutionary Bolshevik history - there's all these conflicts between people that get rather ugly, and the ugliness is frustrating and disturbing, and it gets really hard to parse out what's necessary conflict due to real, underlying differences and what's avoidable interpersonal stuff. For me, reading about the 1917 revolution, the most difficult thing to figure out is to what degree people who differed really could have worked together.

I'm not sure what you mean by "really could have worked together"; surely that's defined by interpersonal stuff, which is never avoidable. Lenin could not work with anyone who did not accept his leadership; is that ideological or interpersonal? Is his obsession with the leading role of a secretive, authoritarian party ideological or tactical? It makes no sense to try and separate out ideology as if it were a thing in itself; we are all human beings first and rational thinkers somewhere below that. And Bolshevik history is ugly from the beginning precisely because of Lenin's obsession with a secretive, authoritarian party; Trotsky saw that clearly while he was in opposition, but once he joined with Lenin he bought into it, because he discovered how easy and enjoyable it was to enforce ideas with the barrel of a gun. Power corrupts.
posted by languagehat at 12:31 PM on March 21, 2016 [8 favorites]



I'm not sure what you mean by "really could have worked together


Actually, I think Bogdanov and Lenin provide an excellent example. How much of their distaste for each other was about personality? How much of it was about legitimate ideological differences? Should/could Lenin have overcome his distrust of some of Bogdanov's more mystical ideas about proletcult to support Bogdanov's initiatives more? Bogdanov was a fairly mild-mannered guy who tended to believe that suasion and culture were better than force; would things have been different if he and his allies had a freer hand? On the other hand, Bogdanov had some pretty stupid and obscurantist ideas about a sort of cult of the people that Lenin really and quite properly disliked.

When I consider Jacobin and the brocialist threateners on Twitter, I find myself feeling that part of being serious about social change involves not being an asshole even if it's tempting. It's obvious that threatening sexual violence against women because you think they were insufficiently respectful of the experience of sexual violence of woman associated with Jacobin is pretty bad. (That's about all I can get out of that twitter business upthread). That's pretty extreme, and it should have been obvious that it was wrong. But far more often, we have to figure out when it's possible and appropriate to compromise and when it's better to stick to our initial beliefs, and just how strident/dogmatic it's appropriate to be in our beliefs. I think that's really tough, and the more I read about the early Bolsheviks, the tougher it seems to me to be.

I don't know exactly what you've read, but for me, some of the original source material about the Bogdanov/Lenin thing was pretty illuminating, because it revealed just how much flux and variety there was. I think that retroactively people tend to pick material that shows Lenin as the primary actor and tend to pick material that priortizes what he said over the actual, weird, uneven actions of the revolutionary period. I'm not a particular admirer of Lenin; I have my favorites among the Old Bolsheviks. But I think the whole period gets written about as though everyone involved was just Lenin's puppet and the cause of the Revolution was simply that Lenin put one over on a bunch of people.
posted by Frowner at 12:51 PM on March 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


FTA: Unlike more academic journals, it is always timely, globally oriented, and topically eclectic.

I don't see how one can comprehend Marx and yet say this with a straight face!
posted by polymodus at 1:32 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


> Bogdanov was a fairly mild-mannered guy who tended to believe that suasion and culture were better than force; would things have been different if he and his allies had a freer hand? On the other hand, Bogdanov had some pretty stupid and obscurantist ideas about a sort of cult of the people that Lenin really and quite properly disliked.

okay so I'm starting to get the impression (from statements like this and from having read Red Star) that I'll get an awkward, uncomfortable "IT ME!" feeling off of reading more about Bogdanov.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:53 PM on March 21, 2016


But did you read Engineer Menni? That's the real test.
posted by Frowner at 2:03 PM on March 21, 2016


> But did you read Engineer Menni? That's the real test.

I... uh... started it... and then fell asleep...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:23 PM on March 21, 2016


Ah, I'm sorry to hear that. Once you get past page fifty, there is a beautiful, lapidary and obviously true outline for a no-fail revolutionary strategy, guaranteed to bring about full communism inside six months with the minimum of disruption and violence. The whole book is a test of whether you are a dedicated enough communist to read that far. Sadly, hardly anyone does, which is why we have not had the revolution yet.
posted by Frowner at 2:27 PM on March 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Of course since I'm not a communist I just ignored it.
posted by Frowner at 2:28 PM on March 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Communism lost its last chance when human population exceeded the point at which a fair division of sustainable resources would leave everyone in miserable poverty.

Come the population crash it may get another, but only if we don't take the natural systems down with us -- but we almost certainly will.
posted by jamjam at 2:38 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


both Clinton and Sanders are getting stomped by Space Communism.

This reminds me, a friend posted the other day that Gagarin took a strip of cloth which was originally from a banner flown during the Paris Commune of 1871 on his historic flight. He didn't source the assertion and casual Googling proved insufficient. Anybody in here have a reference?
posted by mwhybark at 3:05 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


the magazine does still promulgate a social-democratic line in the main, which is a tradition with a checkered history, as far as emancipatory politics go

Communism, on the other hand....
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:02 PM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


We ended up finding a stray in our backyard and naming her after a Marge Piercy novel

That is amazing! Which one?
posted by lunasol at 4:14 PM on March 21, 2016


Ta-Neishi Coates disagrees.

And this part of the article he highlights is just the usual marxist "It's about CLASSSSS" reaction to racism that has been so damaging to the Bernie Sanders campaign:

Sunkara is even blunter: "If you're not focusing on class as your primary thing, then I can't see how you can build an anti-racist program or anti-sexist program, unless it just means purely yelling at people and changing consciousness."

Yes, social justice people aren't REALLY about changing the world, they're just about yelling at people.
posted by zabuni at 4:49 PM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there's some low-key shade being thrown in the Vox article. Clumsily delivered, but shade nonetheless.
posted by LMGM at 5:00 PM on March 21, 2016


Of course, some people are always going to complain. "Feminists", "queer people" etc. Such a shame, really. They don't understand -- *sips delicately-crafted micro-brew* -- just how difficult it is to lead a revolution. I'm glad we have the People's Security Forces to deal with them, they might say.

Congrats on your fantasy about a queer-beating paramilitary organization
posted by Greg Nog at 5:29 PM on March 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


> I don't know exactly what you've read, but for me, some of the original source material about the Bogdanov/Lenin thing was pretty illuminating, because it revealed just how much flux and variety there was.

I've read a lot about the period, but not much about Bogdanov, because (forgive me!) he was pretty irrelevant outside the cultural area (which is why Lenin tolerated him; if he'd been a political rival, he would have felt a much sharper edge of Lenin's rhetoric, and maybe worse).

I would like to read Engineer Menni, though!
posted by languagehat at 5:39 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yes, social justice people aren't REALLY about changing the world, they're just about yelling at people.

Offer some concrete examples of how three decades of myopic neoliberal focus on individual social justice and "opportunity" has improved the material lot of, say, a black single mother working on minimum wage one iota. And things have only gotten, and will continue to get, worse. Thus, yes, the current left "agenda" has basically amounted to little more than angry yelling about how the biggest problem with capitalism is that black/LGBT people aren't terribly involved in it, rather than the fact it is a manifestly unjust system designed to oppress the poor (of which an overwhelming portion are minorities) and benefit the rich.

Sunkara is absolutely correct. He is not saying that we should push aside discussions of social justice and racism. He is saying that race politics is a vital component of class politics. Without that underpinning it's easy to target (or dismiss) racism as just some evil kernel always and forever lurking at the heart of every human being, rather than what it actually is: a very useful pragmatic function within the capitalist system to justify and sustain oppression.
posted by smithsmith at 5:45 PM on March 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


That 'tear up the constitution' article has a New Bretton Woods aura about it
posted by clavdivs at 5:47 PM on March 21, 2016


just the usual marxist "It's about CLASSSSS" reaction to racism

It was the Bolsheviks (mostly Stalin, although Trotsky tried to impress it on his American followers as well) who, whatever you think of their other flaws, made Black liberation a major independent goal of the Communist movement in the United States. A lot has been written about this; I'd suggest starting with Mark Solomon's The Cry Was Unity. This was never perfect but it was a serious commitment.

(A lot of the modern Trotskyist groups in the US, including the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative, have imported British Trotskyist traditions that lost this thread. That's why you'll see something closer to the "pure class" explanations for things in their ideas.)
posted by graymouser at 6:36 PM on March 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


uhh so I just wanted to say how many warm fuzzies I get from the multi-tendency high-quality discussion found in metafilter socialism/leftism threads.

(a bunch. a bunch of warm fuzzies).

Totally going to look into that Mark Solomon book ASAP.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:54 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've read a lot about the period, but not much about Bogdanov, because (forgive me!) he was pretty irrelevant outside the cultural area (which is why Lenin tolerated him; if he'd been a political rival, he would have felt a much sharper edge of Lenin's rhetoric, and maybe worse).

He was an early rival to Lenin, who wrote 'Materialism and Empiriocriticism' as an attack on Bogdanov's Machian non-materialist philosophical views. But, Bogdanov was out by 1909.

The telling thing about Jacobin is that practically every article is written by a grad student or professor. It really is the realization of Harrington's dream of a socialism made up of technologists and professionals. It just gets depressing after awhile... left politics without the participation of the working class. And, frankly, their analysis reflects that.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:06 PM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


In the interests of accuracy about Jacobin, though: they are a lot less white than most marxist projects, and they are a lot more international.

Also, just to get down to specifics. Jacobin got the story of Syriza in Greece dead wrong. It was obvious for at least a month before the "agreement" that Syriza was dominated by ex-Pasok centrists who used the radical academic wing of Syriza as cover. Jacobin totally bought the PR line being fed them and then when Syriza turned around and capitulated to the Eurogroup, there was no serious discussion in Jacobin of where they went wrong. They just followed the usual US mass-market media script and moved on. No self-analysis, no coming to terms with mistakes...

They promoted a political party to an international audience without understanding the politics and should have had egg-on-their-face for it but no one cared. That's taking ecumenical to the point of dishonesty.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:15 PM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


To be fair, a lot of the international left got Syriza wrong. The paroxysms of joy at seeing guys who were somewhat Marxist in the official cabinet posts turned to large scale confusion and then despair as Syriza (dominated politically by Eurocommunists from the old Synapsismos group that came out of the Communist Party) flailed about and then capitulated. But for a few months it was rough being a leftist skeptic of Syriza. And God knows that Jacobin is not about taking the tough road with all its accusations of dogmatism and sectarianism.
posted by graymouser at 7:29 PM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


To be fair, a lot of the international left got Syriza wrong.

It wasn't that they got it wrong. It's that they ended up promoting a party which turned out to be... not good, but it wasn't important to go back and try to figure out where Jacobin went wrong with it's analysis or even acknowledge they had made a serious mistake.

It's not that they are too dogmatic, it's just that breezy pseudo-academic style also included the breezy academic imperviousness to thinking about actual consequences. I think it marked them, for me, as being too shallow to be anything but riding a political shift in the US rather than fomenting one.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:42 PM on March 21, 2016


the most difficult thing to figure out is to what degree people who differed really could have worked together

I suggest Rabinowitch's The Bolsheviks in Power for a good discussion of this. One of his main themes is how the collaboration between the Left SRs and Bolsheviks was critical for the continuation of Soviet power in its first year. (Of course, that's made a little harder when the Left SRs assassinate the German ambassador to try and provoke the Kaiser to invade Russia, but I digress...) Frowner, you might like it in particular because, although Rabinowitch does give proper due to Lenin's vision and tenacity at key points when he wins the party over to his position in debate (October Insurrection, Brest-Litovsk), he does reject the Lenin-as-puppetmaster tropes, instead emphasizing the autonomy and agency of other forces, Bolshevik and otherwise, during and after the revolution. I don't think the scholarship bears out the idea of Lenin as an maniacal, mustache-twirling evildoer (as most on the right depict him) nor the image of him as an omnipotent, omniscient strategist (as some on the left depict him).
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:06 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz, Well put about Jacobin's promotion of SYRIZA and lack of introspection, at the time or later! (They did eventually run one piece by the KKE after it became obvious SYRIZA wasn't going to deliver ponies, but that's hardly a compensation for the lack of critical perspective they brought to the situation!)

(Incidentally, this was one of the accusations Trotsky made against the Stalin-controlled Comintern: a tendency to label defeats as victories and a failure to step back and reassess the international situation.)

Totally going to look into that Mark Solomon book ASAP.

YCTAB, you might also appreciate the reading list at the end of this document, which addresses related topics (warning: self-link).
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:35 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Is this where the Cold War Reenactment Society meets? I brought yellow legal pads and pens that ...are ...not bugs.
posted by The Whelk at 9:45 PM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


Is this where the Cold War Reenactment Society meets?

it's more the "gilded age" reenactment society. come right in, you've already dressed the part.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:56 AM on March 22, 2016


That is amazing! Which one?

Appropriately for this thread, Vida. But we mostly call her Dr. Cat. ("A cat who is also a doctor! A DOCTOR who is also a CAT!!! It's Dr. Cat!!!!")

If I were going to name her for another Marge Piercy character, maybe Riva from He, She and It. But we felt like she was more of a Vida.

~~~~
On another note: where does one get reliable Marxist-inflected news nowadays? The Syriza thing is particularly disturbing, given how much coverage there was, and I think it's especially important given how enthused a lot of people get about the recent election or success of sorta-left politicians generally.

Come to that, I remember when Guattari was stanning for Lula, and now look at that whole situation. Everyone wants a heroic father figure and it always ends in tears.
posted by Frowner at 6:12 AM on March 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Interesting question, Frowner... were there any left outlets that got the SYRIZA story "right"? I'm not sure if you will like the answer, but as far as I can tell the outlets that accurately predicted what would happen when SYRIZA came to power are the more sectarian and extreme segments of the hard left. For instance, WSWS:
This is the historical significance of the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) defense of the historical continuity of Trotskyism against parties like Syriza, which it has come to call the “pseudo-left.” The ICFI alone warned workers internationally that Syriza was not a “radical left” party, but a pro-capitalist party, hostile to the workers, which would betray its promises to end austerity. The criticisms of Syriza advanced by the ICFI have been completely vindicated.
Despite WSWS's claim that it "alone" predicted SYRIZA's betrayal of their purported agenda, one can find similar analyses from, say, the Spartacist League and the KKE (Greek Communist Party).

I heard similar analyses from left-communist friends at the time ("Well, SYRIZA wouldn't have become as popular as it has without making critical compromises with reformist/capitalist elements, and after the election they will probably continue to do so; the only real option they have aside from capitulation is an exit from the Euro which they won't have the technical means nor the audacity to plunge into, and which only the marginal extreme left of SYRIZA is agitating for"), but I don't know if any of them were contemporaneously in print (or on a blog). A brief retrospective comment from a left-communist publication is here:
Similar limits were encountered by left-wing parliamentarians in Europe. There too it was ultimately the regional hegemon that would decide the fate of social movements, whatever came of their assemblies and government referendums. To understand the tepid nature of Syriza’s proposals — calling for a primary surplus of 3 rather than 3.5 percent — it is necessary to recognise that Greece cannot feed itself without foreign exchange. Moreover, any sign of unilateral default would deplete the country of taxable revenue. This left Syriza few options, such that their “modest proposals” could easily be ignored by the troika of creditors.
As to the more general question of reliable Marxist news outlets: WSWS is the only one that I am aware of that publishes at a volume comparable to a "real" news outlet (~20 articles/day). Other party organs like Socialist Worker (ISO) or Workers Vanguard (Spartacist League) publish at a far slower rate. I'm not sure I am ready to deem any of these publications "reliable", however. (Some consider the Onion Marxist, however... heh) The Communist Party of Great Britain publishes Weekly Worker which is probably the highest-quality Marxist weekly I know of, but it focuses more on multi-tendency polemic than news. There are also high-quality journals like Endnotes that publish quite infrequently and haphazardly.

I guess the failure to name any high-quality, daily, accessible Marxist publication speaks to how necessary something like Jacobin is, even if they don't follow my particular ideological taste nor focus on "news" exclusively.

I would be interested to hear others' opinions about both whether any outlet got SYRIZA "right" and what reliable Marxist news outlets exist, generally.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 7:04 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


In re Syriza: what I remember was people's will to believe in Syriza against all information. I am not sure it was a failure of information as much as a failure of ideology. I remember myself thinking that it seemed possible-but-unlikely that Syriza would actually leave the EU, because it seemed like the immediate consequences were going to be so grave, and that this would naturally push them to capitulate. I didn't know anything about anyone's background, and I too was enthused, but I think we were all operating at the symbolic/emotional level. This is what gives me a lot of pause about how people talk about Sanders, Corbyn, etc. I mean Syriza would have pretty much had to be willing for Greece to go it utterly alone on a basically wartime footing if they left the EU, and that struck me even at the time, even assuming the sternest revolutionary will on the part of the government, to be a very hard decision to take.

In this sense, I think that anarchists and certain varieties of marxist are most likely to "get it right", though for different reasons - in each case, though, a skepticism about the state and about political personalities.

I have no objection to reading marxist analysis - that's not where my problems with marxism lie at all; quite on the contrary, I think that marxists generally tend to be much more precise and better-informed than anarchists. It's the What Is To Be Done bit where we end up differing.
posted by Frowner at 7:29 AM on March 22, 2016


I read things from a lot of quarters. I'm lately partial to Left Voice, which is a project led by a group of Latin American Trotskyists but with analysis on a global level. Having navigated their way through the "pink tide" that caught up so many European and American Marxists in illusions about Chávez, Morales, etc, they tend to have a much more level-headed analysis of these events. Left Voice in particular has published about Greece with the OKDE-Spartakos, a Greek Trotskyist group that has been in the Antarsya coalition to the left of Syriza.

I don't read the WSWS because they are liars. (They still uphold a bizarre slander campaign against Joseph Hansen and George Novack, both of whom have been dead since before the USSR fell.) I do follow Socialist Worker, although I haven't been in the ISO for a long time; it's not as bad as it was ten years ago when I was in.
posted by graymouser at 8:01 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


"Syriza was dominated by ex-Pasok centrists". Well, no, it wasn't. Neither the central committee nor the membership, neither the great majority of MPs even. The reasons of SYRIZA's defeat were much more insidious. It was the strongly held belief (and this went well beyond the leadership) that there was a space for even soft-left policies inside the EU (and thus negotiating room) and the strategic miscalculation that the electoral policies of a (small) member-state could force a. a policy shift in the EU and b. the first step in the defeat of the austerity agenda on a pan-european level. When it became obvious that the EU had absolutely no qualms annihilating Greek the economy (and GRexit was but one of the threats not the most important IMHO) the SYRIZA leadership folded.
Now personally, I would be willing to go through many months of bread-lines and fuel rations (in fact this would be an extension and deepening of the current austerity induced disaster, not totally new except in scale), as well as all the secondary results of having an economic war waged against a small country by its major trading partners and the IMF, expecting that this situation would necessarily be resolved sooner or later (although in what way it could remains an open historical question) and rebuild the damn country from scratch. If it was up to me I would, anyway, personally prefer to see my kids go hungry than capitulate to the EU-coup. This however, as the results of the September election showed clearly, was not the majority view, even among the No voters in the referendum.

Syriza members were part or supportive of every single movement that developed in austerity and pre-austerity Greece. There was no question that this was a bona fide party of the left. It is very lazy to conclude that this was simply a "betrayal" of "former PASOK members" or of the leadership "not being left enough". In fact it obscures the important lessons of this past summer's debacle which are IMO a. that all minor countries inside the EU (especially but not only those in the Eurozone) are protectorates-in-waiting of EU institutions and b. that the EU is probably ready to use deadly economic force to make sure that the electorates remain irrelevant on issues of economic policy - and that is a planned strategy not a fluke, especially when a domino effect could result from any concessions. This, coupled with the realization (or fear) that a hostile secession from the EU could have economic consequences similar to those of a war (in Greece's case on top of destructive austerity that resulted in loss of 25% of GDP over 5 years) is what led to this summer's defeat.

So, to get back to Jacobin, it would have been absurd for it to ignore the developments in Greece or to pre-emptively dismiss what was happening there. In fact most of the articles Jacobin hosted during the critical period were from members and leaders of the Left Current (mainly Lapavitsas and Kouvelakis) who left SYRIZA in July to form Popular Unity. But the whole calamity (which the SYRIZA leadership made worse by practically dismantling the party) is IMHO is very instructive and very important regarding the limits of left politics in a globalized world under a very material elite hegemony, and the true face of the EU. This latter point is exceedingly important as far as the lessons that other movements and national left parties in the EU should learn from it.
posted by talos at 8:52 AM on March 22, 2016 [16 favorites]


> I think that marxists generally tend to be much more precise and better-informed than anarchists.

As an anarchist, I'm going to say you're reading the wrong anarchists, but I confess I can't tell you who the right ones are these days, because I'm sadly out of touch.

Also, it's good to see talos in this thread; I've always found his analyses of Greece and its politics to be informed and convincing.
posted by languagehat at 9:52 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


In re Syriza: what I remember was people's will to believe in Syriza against all information

... as depicted in Great Moments in Leftism
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 10:11 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I consider myself to have radical left politics and also to be fairly well read and relatively up to date on international news and I am learning so much from this thread I love it. Thanks to all the thoughtful people who are contributing here.
posted by latkes at 2:55 PM on March 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


If NYMag taking shots at them is any indication, it looks like Jacobin has reached some threshold of noticeable popularity.

(tangent: hilariously, the same writer wrote this and then this)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:38 AM on March 23, 2016


gotta give it up for Jon "Give War a Chance" Chait
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:54 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Frowner, Vida is a perfect namesake for a cat. A cat would really appreciate that lifestyle, and cats would definitely be the terrorists of any movement.
posted by lunasol at 10:26 AM on March 23, 2016


That would never happen here.
posted by vicx at 3:11 PM on March 23, 2016


A cat named Vida or revolution?
posted by clavdivs at 4:41 PM on March 23, 2016


I'm hesitant to say this, and I apologize in advance to the moderators in case this turns into a huge argument, but ... hasn't Marxist economic theory been largely discredited, not based on the historical record of regimes claiming to be Marxist, but by close examination of its theoretical foundations, even by sympathetic observers?

In particular, Jon Elster suggested that Marx's analysis hadn't given sufficient attention to collective action problems. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on methodological individualism:
... what made Elster's attack so forceful was not the accusation of objective teleology in Marxist theory, but rather the suggestion that much of Marxian “class analysis” overlooked the potential for collective action problems among the various world-historical actors. Consider, for example, the familiar claim that capitalists retain a “reserve army of the unemployed” in order to depress wages. This means that individual capitalists must stop hiring new workers at a point where marginal benefits still exceed the marginal costs. What is their incentive for doing so? They have an obvious free-rider incentive to keep hiring, since the benefits stemming from depressed wages would largely be enjoyed by rival firms, whereas the benefits of further hiring would flow to the bottom line. In other words, the mere fact that it is in the “interests of capital” to have a reserve army of the unemployed does not mean that individual capitalists have an incentive to take the steps necessary to maintain such a reserve army.

An even more disturbing consequence of the “rational choice” perspective is the observation that the working class faces a major collective action problem when it comes to carrying out the socialist revolution (Elster 1982, 467). Fomenting revolution can be dangerous business, and so absent some other incentive (such as class solidarity), even workers who were convinced that a communist economic order would offer them a superior quality of life might still fail to show up at the barricades. Yet these possibilities were largely overlooked, Elster suggests, because the failure to respect the precepts of methodological individualism, along with the promiscuous use of functional explanation, had led generations of Marxian theorists simply to ignore the actual incentives that individuals face in concrete social interactions.
According to Jonathan Wolff's sympathetic Why Read Marx Today?, Marxist economic theory (e.g. the concept of surplus value) is largely discredited today, even among Marxist economists.

In terms of the prospects for putting Marxist ideas into practice, it might be helpful to review Sheri Berman's The Primacy of Politics, a narrative describing the Marxist/socialist political parties in Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden, during the interwar period: the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the eventual triumph of social democracy in postwar Europe. Henry Farrell summarizes:
In Berman’s narrative, as in Polanyi’s, there were two antidotes on offer to “economic collapse and social chaos” - social democracy and fascism. Social democracy and fascism were both the result, according to Berman, of long standing intellectual debates within the left over the relationship between economics and politics. Both were movements created by socialists who had grown weary of the passivity of traditional socialism as set out by Engels, and explicated by Kautsky. The reigning orthodoxy emphasized the primacy of economics – economic progress would ineluctably lead to the victory of socialists, who merely had to bide their time. Over time, it became clear that this passive approach was both badly wrong, and a rotten basis to boot for sustaining mass support over the medium term. However, it also proved remarkably resilient. Even if socialist orthodoxy was wrong, it was hard for socialists to get away from. Those who tried to – by advocating even temporary alliances with bourgeois parties - could expect to be vigorously denounced for their heresy. The result was a prolonged and tortuous debate, both within countries and in the International, about the extent to which socialists should participate in electoral politics. In short, those who advocated active politics had a difficult time doing it within mainstream socialism.

On the one hand, social democrats, who wanted socialists to get involved in electoral politics and take power through non-revolutionary means such as getting involved in coalition government, weren’t able to bring other socialists along with them [except in Sweden!]. Some tried to stick it out and to build compromises with more zealous colleagues, sometimes emphasizing to them the need to protect the real advances made by the liberal state by participating in democratic politics. The result was often an unhappy halfway house, as in the German SPD, which participated in elections in the Weimar Republic, but refused to fully embrace it. This cost German social democracy, and the rest of us, dearly over the longer term. Where social democrats were willing fully to embrace existing democratic forms and to extend their appeal beyond the working classes, as in Sweden, they created the basis for a long-standing, and largely successful political compromise. This compromise didn’t seek to eliminate the market (although perhaps the Meidner plan came close), but instead to manage and subordinate it.

On the other, some socialists embraced a more radical notion of politics and of revolution that had little time for bourgeois democracy. Georges Sorel and other syndicalists began with demands that socialists foment massive general strikes, and ended by drifting away from socialism altogether, in favour of other ‘myths’ that might help inspire large scale political action, most prominently nationalism. This helped create the conditions for a synthesis between the nationalist movement and elements of the socialist movement in Italy and Germany. National Socialists retained many of the aspirations of social democrats, and made many of the same promises. Like social democrats, their main appeal was that they offered economic stability and security to the masses.
posted by russilwvong at 5:05 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Jacobin can make changes to itself fairly quickly, for one thing, while changing society as a whole is a pretty big deal.

fwiw, from jacobin...
Why I Became a Feminist Socialist - "Feminism provided me with the tools to work toward a new kind of socialism."

I think that marxists generally tend to be much more precise and better-informed than anarchists. It's the What Is To Be Done bit where we end up differing.

If Iceland held its elections today, the Pirate Party would win :P

Lenin thought that Bogdanov's ideas about "god-building" (IIRC) were wish-washy and a bad idea, and honestly I think Lenin had the right of it. Bogdanov was very big on proletcult (proletarian culture!) which turned out to be a mixed bag.

i still haven't read _red star_ -- at You Can't Tip a Buick's urging (much less _engineer menni_? ;) -- i just want to say that bogdanov features prominently in paul mason's _postcapitalism_ who thinks its time has come again! #RedStartideRising
posted by kliuless at 6:55 PM on March 23, 2016


Great question(s), russilwvong, and I hope this will turn into a productive discussion!

It seems that you're asking about a few different things here, so let me take a crack at them:

1) Are the collective action problems involved in revolution difficult, indeed, insurmountable?

Difficult, yes. Insurmountable, perhaps. Although I don't think there is a proof of this, and I don't really understand how it could be definitively proven. On the contrary, there have been successful revolutions from time to time in history, so this would seem to indicate that they are not completely impossible.

Part of the disadvantage of labor/revolutionaries is, as you mention, that capital doesn't have to coordinate action or build solidarity. Instead, the market tells a capitalist when to invest or not, or whether to hire or not, and price mechanisms enable capitalists to coordinate their activities without so much as talking to each other (for instance, capital flight from a country when it passes labor-friendly measures). So undoubtedly, the scales are tipped in the favor of capital in more ways than one.

2) Is Marxist economic theory discredited?

Short answer: in my view, I think not.

Longer answer: let's ask a Marxist economist. Here's what Richard Wolff thinks:
Marginalism and Marx's labor theory of value are different ways to think about economies; they contribute to different ways to act inside those economies and different ways to identify and solve those societies' problems. What matters are their differences and the social consequences of those differences. A debate over which manner of eating is “right” or “correct” – chopsticks or knife and fork – would strike most of us as absurd; the same applies to a debate over whether marginalism or the labor theory of value is “correct.” When advocates of one theory claim it has “disproved” or “destroyed” another, that is just a ploy to dissuade their audiences from inquiring about how the other works, what analyses it produces and what conclusions it reaches.
This answer strikes me as a bit kumbaya (everyone's economic theory is a special snowflake!), although he co-wrote a book outlining it in more detail, and I think there are more vehement defenders of Marxist economic theory.

For instance, Anwar Shaikh just released a massive book defending Marxist economics, and critiquing both Keynesian and neoclassical economic positions. I'm currently working my way though it, although it is very technical.

Lastly, I would pose to you: is orthodox economic theory discredited? It doesn't have any theory of capital accumulation, sees the market as a level playing field where people act out their intrinsic natural desires, and often makes dubious assumptions such as perfectly efficient markets and perfectly rational actors. Furthermore, the adherents of this theory are in charge of the economy at basically all levels and staff virtually all important academic posts in the field, and they often don't seem to have a terribly good grip on the reality of economic conditions (this lecture by Michael Roberts points out some humorous quotes from nobel prize winners).

3) The nature of interwar European politics

There is certainly much to say on this topic, but I'm not really sure what you're asking. The passage you quoted, though, does leave out what Communists did during this time (both in the USSR and in various national Communist parties), and they certainly "put Marxist ideas into practice." There is much to discuss there as well.

Speaking of which, and bringing it back a bit to economics, Robert Allen points out that the USSR economy was performing well relative to the Greatly-Depressed Western economies during this time. The USSR economy collapsed, he argues, not because the system was unworkable, but because the planners started to make bad economic decisions:
The interpretation of the Soviet decline offered here is the reverse of the analyses which emphasize incentive problems and the resulting failure of managers to act in accord with the plans. On the contrary, the plans were implemented; the problem was that they did not make sense. The strength of Soviet socialism was that great changes could be wrought by directives from the top. The expansion of heavy industry and the use of output targets and soft-budgets to direct firms were appropriate to the conditions of the 1930s, they were adopted quickly, and they led to rapid growth of investment and consumption. By the 1970s, the ratio of good decisions to bad was falling. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the market system is that no single individual is in charge of the economy, so no one has to contrive solutions to the challenges that continually arise. The early strength of the Soviet system became its great weakness as the economy stopped growing because of the failure of imagination at the top.
His book on global economic history ends with the conclusion that "Which of the many initiatives followed by these countries was the most effective, however, remains the subject of a great deal of debate. Also, it is not so clear whether the successful policies can be transplanted to other countries. The best policy to effect economic development, therefore, remains very much in dispute."
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 7:01 PM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


The passage you quoted, though, does leave out what Communists did during this time (both in the USSR and in various national Communist parties), and they certainly "put Marxist ideas into practice." There is much to discuss there as well.

yea, i was thinking that china is still nominally communist and india has been 'practically'(?) socialist; china has basically seen the collapse of the USSR as a cautionary tale, while i suspect, but cannot prove, that india's 'aadhaar' cards could be used to implement a citizen's dividend/basic income!

Running India: Domesday 2.0 - "A technological blueprint for better government"
IN A month or so, India will have registered a billion residents—the latest stage in the creation of a complete identity database of what will soon be the world’s most populous country. Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in Hindi, matches names with fingerprints and iris scans on a scale that has never been seen before. Reimagining government with such technology at its core will be key to meeting the mounting aspirations of India’s citizens, according to two of the scheme’s architects, Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah. If the Domesday Book, an 11th-century survey of England, was commissioned to raise funds for government, Aadhaar’s most useful purpose is to help their disbursement... It allows the government to pay benefits directly to over 200m bank accounts linked to its database, so cutting out layers of corrupt and inept middlemen.
or something more pernicious?

also btw...
Founding Father of the Quants Was Revolutionary Marxist - "Jacob Marschak was born to a Jewish family in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1898. He played a part in the Russian Revolution as a teenager, working as a Menshevik activist. The liberation of Ukraine from the czar's Russian Empire vaunted Marschak into the position of labor minister of the short-lived independent state of Terek. Within months, the state was absorbed by another region and then subsumed into the Soviet Union. A disillusioned Marschak fled to Germany, where he received training in the Austrian School of free-market economics. He hoped to make a permanent home in Germany, but when the Nazis came to power, the Jewish-radical-turned-Marxist-turned-Austrian-School-economist wisely left the country, moving first to England and then to the U.S., where he joined the New School in New York as part of an anti-fascist University in Exile."* (where Anwar Shaikh is now ;)
posted by kliuless at 8:53 PM on March 23, 2016


Thanks for taking the time to respond!

Are the collective action problems involved in revolution difficult, indeed, insurmountable?

Actually, that wasn't my question at all. The question is, is it accurate for Elster to say that Marx's analysis overlooked collective action problems? For example, did Marx assume that a common interest among the employer class would result in coordinated action between them?

The difficulty of carrying out a revolution is just another example of such a collective action problem.

Regarding Marx's economic analysis and the concept of surplus value, Jonathan Wolff has this to say:
Marx’s economics, we saw, are based on the labour theory of value [also used by Adam Smith and Ricardo, as Richard Wolff points out], and this, in turn, led to his most striking contribution, the theory of surplus value, which shows that capitalist profits depend on the exploitation of the worker. Furthermore, the labour theory of value allows us to understand that capitalism inevitably involves a trade cycle, and, perhaps most crucially of all, a falling rate of profit which, together with ever-deepening crises, brings about its demise. Everything seems to hold together beautifully. But, unfortunately, things are not always as they seem. For at the centre is a massive void. Although he attempts some lengthy arguments, in the end Marx gives us no good reason to believe that the labour theory of value is true, and these days very few economists will defend it. Now, you might say, economists are members, or at least representatives, of the ruling class, and thus bound to dismiss it. Marx’s theory of ideology predicts as much! But the point is that some of the strongest criticisms have been made or endorsed by Marxist economists, who were looking for reasons to believe the theory, and failed to find them.

... The key foundational claim for Marx is that labour is the source of all value and all profits. But what was the argument for that? It seems obvious, especially in simple cases, but seeming obvious is not enough. We need a reason. The fact is that although Marx makes some attempts he doesn’t provide anything that stands up. So aside from the plausible illustrations he provides, there is no basis for the claim that labour has this special role.

Of course, the fact that the claim is not defended successfully does not show it is false. So economists attempted to formulate the theory in a form where it could be tested. But what happened is very interesting. Once the theory is formulated in mathematical terms it turns out that there is nothing special about labour. That is to say, if one wanted, one could present a ‘corn theory of value’, an ‘oil theory of value’; a ‘steel theory of value’, or indeed any theory of value at all. A steel theory of value would claim that steel is the source of all value. It also has the remarkable quality that it creates more value than it costs, and thus all capitalist profit comes from the ‘exploitation’ of steel. Economists would now argue that this is no less justified than the labour theory of value.

The obvious reply is that this claim is absurd. All goods contain labour. They don’t all contain steel. So how can steel assessment be the source of all value? But, unfortunately, this argument equally condemns the labour theory of value. For as we have seen, not all goods do contain labour. Uncultivated land was the example. Another might be goods on a fully mechanized production line, which contain no immediate labour. Of course there are traces of ‘dead’ labour further back — the machines on the production line may contain labour. However, this is not so with uncultivated land, and in any case a similar point can be made about steel, or even the corn in the worker’s belly. In sum, surprising as it sounds, from the point of view of economics there is a nothing special about labour.
Thanks for the references to Richard Wolff and Anwar Shaikh; my impression from reading Jonathan Wolff that nobody would defend Marxist economic theory, not even among Marxist economists, was evidently too sweeping.
posted by russilwvong at 9:22 PM on March 23, 2016


Regarding Marxist/socialist parties during the interwar period, Berman is arguing that Marx's prediction of the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism and birth of socialism, based on the primacy of economics, led to a fatally passive approach on the part of orthodox Marxists in Western Europe. Rigid orthodoxy replaced constructive action. I suppose that's not really a question, I just thought Berman's book was helpful in providing some historical context about the impact of Marxism on politics in Western Europe (since there'd been some discussion in this thread about the Russian Revolution).
posted by russilwvong at 9:27 PM on March 23, 2016


But the point is that some of the strongest criticisms have been made or endorsed by Marxist economists, who were looking for reasons to believe the theory, and failed to find them.

... The key foundational claim for Marx is that labour is the source of all value and all profits. But what was the argument for that? It seems obvious, especially in simple cases, but seeming obvious is not enough. We need a reason. The fact is that although Marx makes some attempts he doesn’t provide anything that stands up. So aside from the plausible illustrations he provides, there is no basis for the claim that labour has this special role.


Granted that you are excerpting an essay, but citations would seem to be of the essence. Which Marxist economists in particular failed to find evidence to support the thesis?

In the second graf you pull here, I believe the point is being made that Marx himself was weak on citations. Which seems unsurprising for a 19th century author, no doubt.

Not being familiar with your source author, I would suggest it's possible that he was writing in order to support and expand a specific point of view, one which expressly rejects Marxist economic analyses and hopes to prevent their adoption. Just a thought, mind.
posted by mwhybark at 9:43 PM on March 23, 2016


Not being familiar with your source author, I would suggest it's possible that he was writing in order to support and expand a specific point of view, one which expressly rejects Marxist economic analyses and hopes to prevent their adoption. Just a thought, mind.

The quote is from the short book Why Read Marx Today?, by Jonathan Wolff. My assessment would be that he's quite sympathetic to Marx, but not a Marxist himself.

Which Marxist economists in particular failed to find evidence to support the thesis?

Wolff cites John Roemer specifically:
A sophisticated presentation of the objections to the labour theory of value appears in John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), esp. 186–8.
Wikipedia turns up the following on Roemer:
Roemer's work on exploitation led him to believe that the fundamental cause of exploitation was inequality of ownership of productive assets, rather than the kind of oppression that occurs in the labor process at the point of production—the latter view was held by many in the 'New Left' (see, e.g., Braverman 1974). While writing A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (1982), Roemer met the philosopher Gerald Cohen and the political theorist Jon Elster: they and others had formed a group of like-minded Marxists, young social scientists and philosophers who saw their task as reconstructing Marxism on solid analytical foundations, using modern techniques. Roemer joined this group in 1981. He was strongly influenced by Cohen, whose work Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978) was to become the gold standard of analytical Marxism.
posted by russilwvong at 10:16 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've got no particular opinion of Marxist economic theory, but even if all the specific arguments Marx made were discredited the school of thinking descending from Marx could still be productive, in the same way that Freud is still important even if we've (mostly) moved past most of his specific claims.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:38 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks russil, that's the bit more I wanted to see.
posted by mwhybark at 10:41 PM on March 23, 2016


Actually, that wasn't my question at all. The question is, is it accurate for Elster to say that Marx's analysis overlooked collective action problems? For example, did Marx assume that a common interest among the employer class would result in coordinated action between them?

Aha, sorry. So this seems to be a strange way to interpret Marx, and goes to the core of what people think is wrong with Analytical Marxism, so far as I understand it. Trying to prove the truth of Marxism based on neoclassical economics essentially assumes no solidarity between members of a class (since, according to the theory, we're all profit-maximizing anomic individual actors), as the second paragraph from the Stanford Encyclopedia you first quoted details. Elster seems to be saying "without solidarity, revolution is impossible." I think Marx, and certainly I, would agree with that. But I don't see how that can be read as a convincing critique of Marxism.

It wasn't Marx but Luckas who popularized the notion of "class consciousness" (based on a reading of Marx).

The thing about capitalism, as maybe I wasn't clear in elucidating in my last answer, is that capitalists don't really need to coordinate (with "solidarity" or otherwise) in the way that labor does. Capitalists are subject to the laws of capital just as labor is. Capitalism isn't a conspiracy of "the big banks" or some other evil entity in a smoke-filled room (this is the populist conception of capitalism). Of course, sometimes people we would identify as capitalists do coordinate, to influence the state or organize a counter-revolution or meet at Davos or whatever, but I think this falls outside the analysis of economics and enters the political realm. I'm not sure if there is a consensus answer to "what Marx thought" about your question, but this is my interpretation.

Regarding Marx's economic analysis and the concept of surplus value, Jonathan Wolff has this to say:

Yes, I am aware that one can poke holes in foundational economic concepts of Marxism. I think it's better to think of these concepts, like the labor theory of value, as axioms that must be accepted for the rest of the Marxist analysis to make sense. Perhaps you think that is unreasonable, but if so, it seems to me that orthodox economics is unreasonable by the same token, but for a different set of axiomatic beliefs. Of course it is still worth discussing, in either case, how the axioms may be inaccurate in certain ways and what the repercussions of those flaws have.

my impression from reading Jonathan Wolff that nobody would defend Marxist economic theory, not even among Marxist economists, was evidently too sweeping

You've gone astray under the influence of bourgeois falsifiers! But seriously, I would take with a grain of salt anything that "the establishment" (or what have you) says about Marxism, since they often have, if not a poor understanding of it, an interest in discrediting it for political reasons. That's not to say some of their arguments can't be right, but, as in that Chait article, snide dismissals are much more common and easy.

I just thought Berman's book was helpful in providing some historical context about the impact of Marxism on politics in Western Europe

One work by an Analytical Marxist that you might want to check out is Adam Przeworski's Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon (last essay in this document; warning: self-link). It lucidly discusses what the limits of social democracy are and why it flourished (and failed) when it did. A more extended work on the topic is Geoff Eley's Forging Democracy.

It's true that the SPD's politics led them towards a non-confrontational and passive stance in politics. This was the Communist critique of their philosophy, and led to a split within the various European social-democratic parties between the existing socialists and Communists after the social-democratic establishments virtually all voted to back their respective national states in WWI. This was a betrayal of the proletarian internationalism that social-democrats were, in theory, supposed to uphold. The SPD continued to be quite hostile to Communism, murdering the leaders of German Communism and thwarting attempts at proletarian revolution whenever they had the chance.

(My partisan opinion: both of these paragraphs are reasons that I'm not a fan of social democracy, since I don't think social democracy has gotten rid of these tendencies -- indeed, I'm not sure it can.)

Cohen, whose work Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978) was to become the gold standard of analytical Marxism.

Vivek Chibber has a good summary and critique of the Analytical Marxist school's theory of history here. TLDR: Cohen's theory can't really be defended, despite attempts to patch it up, and Robert Brenner's conception is much more convincing.

but even if all the specific arguments Marx made were discredited the school of thinking descending from Marx could still be productive

This was Luckas' line: even if all Marx's predictions turned out to be false, his method of reasoning about history and society was still worth preserving and adhering to:
Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 5:52 AM on March 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Again, thanks for the detailed response! I'll try to keep my response focused (so this doesn't turn into an all-consuming endeavor for both of us): I think the key question has to do with collective-action/free-rider problems. If I understand correctly, you're saying that class consciousness may be able to override these problems (or as you said earlier: how could it be proved that they can't?).

Something I've learned from reading Joseph Heath is that collective action problems aren't easy to grasp intuitively, or even to recognize. It seems natural to reason that if a group will benefit massively when everyone cooperates, then of course they will. But that's not the case at all. Heath calls it Hobbes's difficult idea:
... seeing the world in terms of collective action problems has become such second nature to me that I have increasing difficulty imagining what it would look like in any other terms, and thus, I have difficulty believing that anyone still fails to see it in those terms. I teach the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons, and all the basic stuff about collective action problems, every year in my classes. And yet I feel intensely self-conscious every time I do, figuring that what I’m saying is so obvious that I’m boring most of the students. (I usually preface my little lecture with an apology to all those who have heard the basic line before.)

And yet, the other day I was reading this little book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, and they totally don’t get it. The book is all about climate change, and yet the concept of it being a “collective action problem” just doesn’t show up. Thus they express complete bewilderment over the fact that we might all know that outcome x is undesirable, and yet fail to act to avoid outcome x. So they wind up getting stuck on the dilemma that so many environmentalists wind up stuck on, when it comes to explaining our inaction: either 1. it must be the fault of scientists, for somehow failing to communicate effectively how bad x is going to be, or 2. there must be some “ideology” that holds us prisoner, preventing us from acting. In the end they go with both, but leaning more towards 2 — they wind up positing an ideology, called “market fundamentalism,” which is somehow supposed to explain our inaction.

It’s hard to know what to say, other than that this sort of thing is super-frustrating. The stakes are too high to be making this kind of basic, basic mistake.
So you get this kind of dynamic:
“Outcome x is really bad, and our doing y is making it worse. We should all stop.”

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be REALLY BAD, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be a FUCKING CATASTROPHE, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be the END OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened…”
The intuitive example that works best for me is trees in a forest. Why are they so awe-inspiringly tall? It takes a tremendous amount of energy to grow to such heights, they need vascular structures to carry nutrients and water up and down the trunk, etc. It's great for us, but it's terrible for the trees themselves. They're stuck in a collective action problem: they're competing with each other for sunlight. Any one tree that's taller than the rest will get more sunlight, and also block sunlight from reaching the trees below it.

This example doesn't depend on unrealistic axioms; it shows that the dynamic of the collective action problem can be generated with very minimal assumptions, which is why they're so ubiquitous.

The key thing about competitive markets is that they take advantage of the collective-action dynamic. Buyers compete against each other, forcing them to pay higher prices than they would if they could cooperate; they're stuck in a competitive action problem. Similarly, sellers compete with each other. Like the forest, this has beneficial side-effects--but not from the point of view of the individual participants.

In particular, employers are competing as buyers for labor. If they could form a buyers' cartel and hold wages down, they'd be better off. Which is exactly why such cartels are illegal, and why it's important to have institutions to uncover them and break them up. (There were a couple recent examples that Apple was involved in: on the buyer side, colluding with competitors to not poach employees from each other; on the seller side, colluding with book publishers to fix e-book prices.)

This was the point of the criticism of the "reserve army of labor" concept: if employers aren't colluding, how is this happening? You can't leap directly from the the fact that they would collectively benefit from a "reserve army of labor" to the conclusion that they will in fact individually act to maintain such a reserve.
Consider, for example, the familiar claim that capitalists retain a “reserve army of the unemployed” in order to depress wages. This means that individual capitalists must stop hiring new workers at a point where marginal benefits still exceed the marginal costs. What is their incentive for doing so? They have an obvious free-rider incentive to keep hiring, since the benefits stemming from depressed wages would largely be enjoyed by rival firms, whereas the benefits of further hiring would flow to the bottom line. In other words, the mere fact that it is in the “interests of capital” to have a reserve army of the unemployed does not mean that individual capitalists have an incentive to take the steps necessary to maintain such a reserve army.
Another striking example of a collective action problem that Heath gives, from The Efficient Society:
The simple fact that work is hard creates a free-rider incentive. If there is any chance that someone else will come along and do the job, people are often willing to hang around for a bit before throwing themselves into the task. ...

Our society has such a strong work ethic that it is easy for us to underestimate how serious a problem shirking can be. People have been known to literally starve themselves to death because they are caught in a collective action problem. The most famous North American example of this occurred in the Jamestown colony, established in Massachusetts in 1607. Like many early Pilgrim colonies, Jamestown was initially organized on the model of a giant work crew. Every citizen was expected to pitch in and help build the palisade, sink the well, work the corn fields, etc. In return, everyone was entitled to an equal share of the colony's produce.

The latter turned out to be the weak point in the arrangement. The fact that everyone got a share of the produce, regardless of how much he or she contributed, generated a massive free-rider problem. Nobody had any incentive to actually do any work. Colonists found a million and one reasons why they just couldn't show up for work on any given day. Contemporary observers estimated that the colony's agricultural output was about one-tenth of its capacity. But in the midst of chronic scarcity and occasional starvation, visitors were amazed to see perfectly able colonists passing the time bowling in the streets, instead of working the fields.
Heath notes: "During the winter of 1609, the period of most acute starvation, the population of Jamestown was reduced from five hundred to just sixty."

Now as you said earlier, it's impossible to prove that Communism would be unable to overcome collective action problems like this. In particular, Heath notes that norms are a key mechanism which we use to deal with collective action problems. (Hans Morgenthau defines a norm as a rule, together with a sanction for breaking that rule: it may be internal, based on guilt, or external, based on social pressure or legal punishment. The norm against stealing is backed up by all three.) But this is where we get into the actual record of regimes claiming to be Communist: they used a tremendous amount of coercion and force, and they still suffered from very low productivity compared to their capitalist neighbors (East Germany vs. West Germany, North Korea vs. South Korea, Maoist China vs. Taiwan or China today).

Did Marx say anything about collective action problems and the difficulty of cooperation, besides the concept of class solidarity?

(I'll also go through the 500-page reader that you posted to Projects.)
posted by russilwvong at 12:04 PM on March 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


If I understand correctly, you're saying that class consciousness may be able to override these problems?

Yes.

You can't leap directly from the the fact that they would collectively benefit from a "reserve army of labor" to the conclusion that they will in fact individually act to maintain such a reserve.

I don't think they do "individually act" to maintain a reserve. Again, let me distance myself from the idea that capitalism is a conspiracy of collectively-acting capitalists to immiserate workers. Capitalists are subject to the laws of capitalism just as workers are. In Marxist economic theory, capitalists attempt to maintain and expand their profits against two adversaries: workers (who want to apportion a greater share of the surplus to themselves) and other capitalists (who want to expand market share at the expense of other firms, usually by undercutting prices of rival firms).

I think that two things are true: 1) that it does indeed benefit capitalists to have a large unemployed mass existing, so they can continually depress the wages of workers, on the assumption that an unemployed worker will gladly replace a currently employed worker who they attempt to pay as little as possible (full employment means that this would be an empty threat, since the capitalist would have no one to hire to replace the worker) and 2) what drives capitalists is not primarily their feelings about the unemployed but their pursuit of profit. If it is profitable for them to hire a worker, they will do so. If it is profitable (or, at least, the least worst option from the point of profit) to fire a worker, they will do so.

So I guess I technically agree with the quoted statement, although I don't think it's an attack on what I understand to be a Marxist principle, but perhaps I'm just insufficiently familiar with the literature.

But this is where we get into the actual record of regimes claiming to be Communist: they used a tremendous amount of coercion and force, and they still suffered from very low productivity compared to their capitalist neighbors

Well, keep in mind what I said above: there were points at which the USSR was growing faster than Western capitalist economies. All in all, they had a relatively successful development strategy -- Russia transformed from a backward peasant economy into the world's second superpower. We can argue about a lot of things with regard to Russia's development, but that much seems clear (not to mention they had a lot of historical handicaps: being invaded three times in the first half of the 20th century, starting off from a lower level of development, losing an enormous percentage of their population to war, etc.).

True, there was a great deal of coercion involved. But I don't suppose you think people submit themselves to wage-labor in capitalist societies for fun? Furthermore, to just take one example of coercion in our own society, "The US incarceration rate of about 700 per 100,000 is still the highest in the world and rivals the estimated rate for the Soviet Union at the height of the gulags in the 1950s." I'm not trying to argue that living in Stalin's Russia is preferable to the situation in the US today. I would simply submit that there is coercion involved in nearly any economic system / society, and we sometimes almost fail to see the type that permeates our own by virtue of its perceived normalcy or natural-ness.

Also I don't think the comparisons you are drawing between other capitalist vs "communist" countries to prove the inferiority of planned economies are as convincing as you might think. The development in Maoist China set the stage for the immediately following rapid growth. I'm not as familiar with the other economic stories, and not wanting to speculate, I'll stop there.

Did Marx say anything about collective action problems and the difficulty of cooperation, besides the concept of class solidarity?

Er, I may be wrong, but I don't think so. You can get a taste of what he did say about this by reading this chapter of the Communist Manifesto starting from "At this stage, the labourers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition." But keep in mind the framing of a "collective action problem" was a development that Marx preceded, so you'll have to forgive him if he didn't address the issue by name.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 2:16 PM on March 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


The key foundational claim for Marx is that labour is the source of all value and all profits.

"Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power." (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

So Jonathan Wolff's example of uncultivated land looks a bit weak. I don't know how relevant this is to the larger discussion, though.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 4:38 PM on March 24, 2016


paul mason had an extensive discussion of the labour theory of value in _postcapitalism_! (ch.6)
The central idea of my book is that:
  • information technology has paralysed capitalism’s capacity to adapt
  • information technology creates a short-cut to abundance
  • the root cause of the boom-bust cycles, collapsing productivity, stagnation and policy paralysis is that the markets are sending us a signal that there’s not enough value in a high-tech economy to justify current valuations — of debt, equities or derivatives
  • we are in a long transition beyond capitalism, in which the state, the market and a non-market sector based on collaborative production will jostle and coexist
  • and that the only theory that can encompass all of these facts is the one originated by the man quoted on the poster behind me [Adam Smith] — a modernised form of the labour theory of value.
The theory that can absorb the greatest number of facts, and persist in doing so, generation after generation, through all changes of opinion and detail, is the one that must rule all observation. (Smith)

Of course, as I will outline, the labour theory of value — effecively abandoned by the right and left in economics after the marginalist revolution — has none of the “gubbins” of a developed economics: you can’t run Tesco according to the LTOV. You can’t audit Tesco according to it.

But the LTOV I argue is the only theory that can provide a measuring stick to compare a market economy with an economy in transition beyond the market...

Ludwig von Mises, in his 1920 contribution to the so called calculation debate between the Austrian school and the socialist left, admitted that there is no “calculation problem” if the labour theory of value is right.

The Austrian school assumed the labour theory of value was wrong because so did their opponents market socialists led by Oscar Lange. Both sides accepted some common misconceptions and internal contradictions in the LTOV that proponents of it believe are easily refuted.

I think a theory that predicts, as Smith did, that commodities exchange according to the amount of labour embodied in them — living and previously done — can be used both to describe and manage the transition I’m talking about.
also btw...
Michael Roberts' dishonest criticism of Paul Mason :P

from what i can tell, LTOV's the concept that labor/work is the source of value/profit in society -- but like Gerald Bostock says, nature can be incorporated -- which (imperfectly) determines 'price' depending on the 'market power' a particular entity can command. you can then construct a political economy around this concept -- 'profit is theft', 'productive management creates surplus value' or 'surplus value is really just protection money (like danegeld)' or something -- but who decides?* as dostoevsky says in _dream of a ridiculous man_, 'if only everyone agreed, it could all happen at once', but people do coordinate around prices** measured by some quantity of money all the time, so then what does 'money' represent? nominally some (consumer) basket of 'real' goods and services you can exchange it with, but if you dig down there's still an infrastructure/ecosystem it needs to run on...

to (overly) simplify, in a one-item economy, say a 'brick' economy -- not unlike the lego movie or minecraft! (or say if everyone was like soundwave in the transformers _cartoons_ and could produce energon cubes ;) -- people would be 1) self-sustaining (or perish) and there would be no trade or 2) you could have a wampum/whuffie gift economy where those with more would give away their energon cubes to those with less, creating bonds of social obligation and a reputation economy. that is symbolic representations -- and the attendant accrued status it can afford -- of the fruits of our labor.

i'd submit we're closer to the second presently and graeber, iirc, thinks we swing between the two during 'axial ages' where religion and specie rule to/from eras when markets and credit-based currencies obtain. but it's never either/or right? there are, in effect, 'religious' gatekeepers along the great chain of monetary being that we have to 'perform our suffering' for in order to obtain biosurvival tickets credit; offerings to the banking gods: those who would control the monetary system. (and it really seems like all these economic priesthoods are at war -- marginalists vs. LVOTists, fresh water vs. saltwater, market monetarists vs. MMTers, or whatever.)

anyway, let me try to get to what i think is the point of all this from mason's perspective. the LTOV is kind of squishy;*** economics and markets provide a false sense of fungibility, that i can compare and exchange apples and oranges according to some (negotiated) ratio, as we're free and wont to do (unless there are information asymmetries, contract uncertainty, power imbalances, the list of market failure goes on...) but with information technology you literally (literals!) have a language where near infinite 'types' can be 'handled' at various levels of abstraction. money itself is becoming just another abstract object, programmable with associated behaviors.

in other words, it's becoming harder and harder to pretend that 'money' is the point or thing to organize around. if that's the case, then what is? and then where does that leave the financial 'masters of the universe' priesthood and what replaces them?

mason argues, through the LVOT, that people are the point (#humanism) and that we should act to reduce suffering and scarcity by promoting abundance and its distribution (or FALC ;) theoretically, he relies on marx's fragment on machines in the _grundrisse_ (mostly forgotten until the late 1960s apparently) where "the driving force of production is knowledge, and that knowledge stored in machines is social." echoing this, another way to redefine prosperity is: "the accumulation of solutions to human problems." or from cesar hidalgo:
Information, when understood in its broad meaning as physical order, is what our economy produces. It is the only thing we produce, whether we are biological cells or manufacturing plants... So it is the accumulation of information and of our ability to process information that defines the arrow of growth encompassing the physical, the biological, the social, and the economic, and which extends from the origin of the universe to our modern economy. It is the growth of information that unifies the emergence of life with the growth of economies, and the emergence of complexity with the origins of wealth.
as to the new priesthood, silicon valley it seems would like to see its technological priesthood become ascendant, but not without a fight as the fbi-apple fight would seem to indicate. i dunno, i just hope marginalized groups aren't trampled on more and that whatever replaces capitalism or it evolves into is inclusively humanist :P that is all!

---
*schumpeter: "For the system of economic science the main importance of this theory lies in the fact that, if distribution can be described by means of the social marginal utilities of the factors of production, it is not necessary, for that purpose, to enter into a theory of prices. The theory of distribution follows, in this case, directly from the law of social value."

**What Is 'Price Theory'? (A Guest Post by Glen Weyl) [hermann's grand nephew] - "This process eventually brought me to my own definition of price theory as analysis that reduces rich (e.g. high-dimensional heterogeneity, many individuals) and often incompletely specified models into 'prices' sufficient to characterize approximate solutions to simple (e.g. one-dimensional policy) allocative problems."

***from what i've read -- which is fine! needless 'rigor' is worse than none (see economics ;) -- as are ideas about 'value' generally -- time value, utility/use value, exchange value (easier to 'measure', but misses a LOT, so not so easy; sins of omission or what about all the metadata associated with any particular 'transaction'?), externalities, public goods, information goods, 'intellectual property', social value, moral value, opportunity cost, leisure, etc. -- hence, all the non-market sectors and institutions to regulate capital and markets to balance all these 'values ' for the public good and general welfare... oh wait. call them incommensurable (like bosons and fermions?) or contingent and everyone has their own opinions anyway.
posted by kliuless at 10:32 AM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


WaPo: The ‘Sanders Democrat’ is paving the way for the radical left (by the Jacobin editor)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:28 PM on March 25, 2016


_grundrisse_ (mostly forgotten until the late 1960s apparently)

It wasn't forgotten; it was only published in full (in German) in 1953. Earlier versions, published in 1939 and 1941, were incomplete. Many of Marx's works were first published only after his death.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:37 PM on March 25, 2016


So I guess I technically agree with the quoted statement, although I don't think it's an attack on what I understand to be a Marxist principle, but perhaps I'm just insufficiently familiar with the literature.

It's criticizing Marx's methods of analysis, based on the doctrine of methodological individualism: if you're thinking about what's going on only at the level of classes, without explaining how this works at the individual level, you can easily end up with the wrong conclusion. The "reserve army of labor" is one example of this.

The prisoner's dilemma formulation
allowed theorists to diagnose with unparalleled precision the errors that social theorists could be (and often were) led into if they ignored the action-theoretic level of analysis. Methodological individualism became important, not as a way of avoiding the political thought-crime of “collectivism,” but rather as a way of avoiding demonstrably fallacious inferences about the dynamics of collective action.

... [Elster suggested that] the failure to respect the precepts of methodological individualism, along with the promiscuous use of functional explanation, had led generations of Marxian theorists simply to ignore the actual incentives that individuals face in concrete social interactions.
Reading Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto, Marx describes the actions of the bourgeoisie class and their effect on society, and then goes on to talk about the interests of the proletariat. He goes on to predict that that the common interests of the proletariat, and their struggle against the bourgeoisie, will bind them together in closer and closer union. But this is another example of what Elster's talking about: there's many cases "where the mere existence of a common interest among individuals nevertheless failed to provide them with an incentive to perform the actions necessary to realize that interest."

Again, thinking of the global warming example: even if people are aware that they have a compelling common interest, it does not follow that they will be able to cooperate to pursue that interest.
posted by russilwvong at 9:49 PM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


if you're thinking about what's going on only at the level of classes, without explaining how this works at the individual level, you can easily end up with the wrong conclusion

When we're talking about social analysis, we're not talking about a question of right or wrong. This isn't mathematics. We're discussing how we interpret human behavior, often on a mass level. As someone once told me, we're trying to zero in on a theory that is least wrong -- that provides as much of an explanation for the phenomena in question as possible, even though it inevitably leaves out something, perhaps a lot.

Ok, so we've established that class analysis looks at human behavior at collective level, and methodological individualism looks at human behavior at an individual level. Is either of those "wrong"? I don't think so. There are definitely situations that an analysis based purely on homo economus would fail to explain: e.g. joining a union, even if it means lowering your salary by paying union dues; or refusing to scab on another union, even though it would profit you to take the union members' job; or manning a barricade in a revolutionary street battle, even though it would be less risky to just let someone else do it.

And we can also consider which mode of analysis is more appropriate when we zoom out and look at society from 10,000 feet. Does it make more sense to talk about masses of humans as a class, or to partition each out into his or her own atomic unit? If many people have a uniform experience in being degraded by being forced into wage-labor, can we consider those people to have enough commonality to group them together in our analysis? Marx thought so.

Of course, one could argue (and this is an opinion I am largely sympathetic to) that Marx's great genius was that he provided an analysis that argued why socialism was in the workers' own interest, not simply a good idea, as the utopian socialists held. If you want to apply a methodological individualist famework to a peasant who has just migrated into a city for industrial work, then you might come to the conclusion that him uniting collectively with other workers to resist and turn back the attacks (economic and otherwise) of the employer is the best individual choice for him. Under socialism, theoretically, the workers control the apportion of surplus value, as opposed to capitalism, in which the capitalists do. The expropriators are expropriated.
Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

Again, thinking of the global warming example: even if people are aware that they have a compelling common interest, it does not follow that they will be able to cooperate to pursue that interest.

Thinking about global warming as a collective action problem seems to be against the very individualist ethos you are arguing. As far as I understand collective action problems, it requires assigning costs and benefits to action (or lack thereof). If someone never sees costs to themselves in their lifetime as a result of climate change (or those costs are too speculative and difficult to measure, which may be the same thing), are they really incentivized to pay higher taxes for the sake of someone in a more-affected area?

I think about the climate change scenario differently. Capitalism requires infinite growth to survive, so "saving the planet" essentially requires overthrowing capitalism. As such, it reduces to a political question. Maybe you want to view revolution as a collective action problem, fine. But I think any thinking about ecological crisis that avoids the fact that a certain, powerful class of people have a preeminent interest in keeping it going is seriously missing the point.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:05 AM on March 26, 2016


we're trying to zero in on a theory that is least wrong --

Marx made predictions (e.g. about the outcome of the class struggle, and capitalism giving way to socialism, and the state not being required in a socialist society) based on his theories. Elster's criticism is that Marx's theories overlooked the difficulty of cooperation based on a common interest, because of collective action problems; so Marx's predictions were wrong.

In particular, the state is a key institution which overcomes collective action problems, as noted by Hobbes in Leviathan. In a society without private property, if people aren't working hard enough -- because the benefits of additional effort will now be spread over a large group, while the costs are borne by the individual, as in Jamestown -- one way to compensate is to have a state which is willing to use large-scale violence to get people to work harder.

And we can also consider which mode of analysis is more appropriate when we zoom out and look at society from 10,000 feet. Does it make more sense to talk about masses of humans as a class, or to partition each out into his or her own atomic unit? If many people have a uniform experience in being degraded by being forced into wage-labor, can we consider those people to have enough commonality to group them together in our analysis? Marx thought so.

I think my original question -- whether Marx had paid insufficient attention to collective action problems -- has been answered.

The point of methodological individualism is that even when we're analyzing social phenomena from 10,000 feet, we need to be able to explain how these phenomena arise from the behavior of individuals.
In Economy and Society, Weber articulates the central precept of methodological individualism in the following way: When discussing social phenomena, we often talk about various “social collectivities, such as states, associations, business corporations, foundations, as if they were individual persons”(Weber 1922, 13). Thus we talk about them having plans, performing actions, suffering losses, and so forth. The doctrine of methodological individualism does not take issue with these ordinary ways of speaking, it merely stipulates that “in sociological work these collectivities must be treated as solely the resultants and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons, since these alone can be treated as agents in a course of subjectively understandable action” (Weber 1922, 13).
Note that methodological individualism does not require assuming that individuals are driven purely by material interest ("homo economicus"); it does not assume a particular individualist ethos. In particular, I mentioned norms earlier, which are an important aspect of individual behavior, and a common way to overcome collective action problems. A norm consists of a rule, together with a sanction for breaking the rule, which may be moral (guilt), social (disapproval), or legal (punishment). MetaFilter is an example of a community with specific norms (e.g. don't self-post), backed up by sanctions.

Methodological individualism isn't saying that cooperation between individuals based on a common interest is impossible, just that it can't be assumed. The main institutions that come to mind:
  • The state (Hobbes' Leviathan).
  • Norms.
  • Hierarchical organization, as in corporate or state bureaucracies.
In small groups where people can interact face-to-face, cooperation is much easier. Also, in emergency situations, people can cooperate on a large scale for a short period of time. But overall, I think George Washington had it right:
A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that almost every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.
posted by russilwvong at 11:41 PM on March 27, 2016


There are some rather peculiar interpretations of Marx being referenced in this thread.

If anyone wants to read what Marx said about the "Reserve Army of Labour", it's in volume 1, chapter 25 of Capital, here. The basic argument is that the increased profit of capitalists is driven by automation, which reduces employment at a greater rate than it increases profit. A further argument is that if faced with a labour shortage, the capitalist class used the power of the state to increase it. There is no suggestion that capitalists choose not to hire so that they can maintain a reserve army.

John Roemer is a Marxist economist who believes that the Labour Theory of Value is not essential to Marxism, and in books such as Free to Lose has reconstructed Marxist conclusions using neoclassical economics and the Marginalist theory of value. It's very odd to see him apparently cited to assert that Marxism relies on the Labour theory.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:51 AM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Marx made predictions (e.g. ... the state not being required in a socialist society)

Perhaps in Communist society (although I don't know if he ever stated that explicitly; the state "withering away" is a Lenin idea -- or at least an Engels one), but between now and then, he definitely didn't think the state would be absent:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
I think it's a bit silly to argue that Marx's ideas failed because the state didn't disappear. Nowhere in the world has ever reached a situation of communism, and nobody ever claimed that anywhere has.

Yes, Marx made various predictions, some of which came out more true than others, but I don't think the above was one of them.

But overall, I think George Washington had it right

Ah, so the argument reduces to a human nature argument. Suffice it to say Marxists don't find those kinds of arguments terribly convincing.

we need to be able to explain how these phenomena arise from the behavior of individuals

Okay, so here's a question for you: is the behavior of the whole group different from the sum of the parts? A methodological individualist / neoclassical economist / game theorist would say no. A Marxist would say yes -- there are emergent properties that are produced by the interaction of individuals which can not be accounted for by merely adding up the aggregate behavior of isolated individual actors.

I mentioned Anwar Shaikh upthread; he has a video lecture series that was released concomitantly with his recent book. Lecture 2 addresses a lot of these points; he goes into Analytical Marxism at minute 57.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 5:48 AM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


There are some rather peculiar interpretations of Marx being referenced in this thread.

My sources are Jonathan Wolff, author of Why Read Marx Today?, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Marx; and Joseph Heath, author of the SEP entry on methodological individualism. Wolff and Heath in turn refer to Roemer and Elster. I may of course be misinterpreting these sources!

It's very odd to see [Roemer] apparently cited to assert that Marxism relies on the Labour theory.

What Wolff is citing is Roemer's criticisms of the labor theory of value. The assertion that the labor theory of value is central to Marxist economic theory is from Wolff himself.
posted by russilwvong at 4:13 PM on March 28, 2016


Ah, so the argument reduces to a human nature argument. Suffice it to say Marxists don't find those kinds of arguments terribly convincing.

That's an awesome illustration!

Seriously, the argument for methodological individualism isn't based on a particularly narrow view of human nature. Again, norms play a key role in overcoming collective action problems, and norms can vary widely between different societies. (Here I'm relying on Hans Morgenthau's characterization of norms, as described in Christoph Frei's biography.)

There's an amusing story about Hobbes being seen giving alms to a beggar: hey, doesn't this contradict your argument that humans always act from self-interest? Hobbes's response was basically that moral considerations (in this case, the avoidance of discomfort at seeing the beggar's plight) are also a form of self-interest. This isn't just verbal trickery: like the state, norms can serve as a mechanism to align individual interests with the collective interest, thus bringing about cooperation.

The point is that we can't just assume that if everyone is aware of the collective interest, a mechanism to overcome the collective action problem will automatically come into existence. Thus just telling people about the collective interest and raising their awareness isn't sufficient.

Regarding Marx's prediction that the state would no longer be required: Wolff cites the conflict between Marx and Bakunin. (Note that Wolff's description of Marx's ideas is based on Engels' interpretation; it's Engels who coined the "withering away of the state," but Engels attributed the concept to Marx.)
One important dispute revolved around Marx and the leading anarchist Bakunin. Marx had argued that after the revolution there must be a period of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in order to expunge from society those still existing elements of the capitalist economy. But sooner or later this revolutionary state would ‘wither away’. Bakunin countered that once it had its dictatorship the proletariat would never let go. The dictatorship of the proletariat may not be all that much of an improvement over the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Thinking about collective action problems (as in Jamestown), there's no reason to think that the state will no longer be required once we get to full communism. The state is a key mechanism for overcoming collective action problems; abolishing private property aggravates these problems; the increased role of state violence in societies which have attempted to abolish private property isn't surprising.
posted by russilwvong at 4:35 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'll also take a look at what Anwar Shaikh has to say about Analytical Marxism. (Alan Ryan is complimentary, but regards it as a dead end.)

This is an awesome discussion, by the way. Thanks for the time you're putting into your responses!
posted by russilwvong at 4:38 PM on March 28, 2016


russilwvong, are you familiar with the work of Elinor Ostrom? If I wanted to develop a theory of how a stateless society might manage collective action problems, that's one place I'd start looking. She doesn't rule out the idea that the state can have a role to play, but she has a lot to say about institutional mechanisms for collective action that aren't reducible to the state (or the market).
posted by Gerald Bostock at 1:57 PM on March 29, 2016


Yep, there was some discussion of Ostrom's work -- particularly managing a common-pool resource through shared norms -- in this thread on /r/CanadaPolitics. In particular, she describes how cooperation can be achieved through shared norms, based on trust; this is easiest to do in small-group face-to-face settings.

From Ostrom's Nobel Prize lecture:
... empirical results are growing (and are summarized in Poteete, Janssen, and Ostrom 2010) to establish that the following attributes of microsituations affect the level of cooperation that participants achieve in social dilemma settings (including both public goods and common-pool resource dilemmas).

1. Communication is feasible with the full set of participants. When face-to-face communication is possible, participants use facial expressions, physical actions, and the way that words are expressed to judge the trustworthiness of the others involved.

2. Reputations of participants are known. Knowing the past history of other participants, who may not be personally known prior to interaction, increases the likelihood of cooperation.

3. High marginal per capita return (MPCR). When MPCR is high, each participant can know that their own contributions make a bigger difference than with low MPCR and that others are more likely to recognize this relationship.

4. Entry or exit capabilities. If participants can exit a situation at low cost, this gives them an opportunity not to be a sucker and others can recognize that cooperators may leave (and enter other situations) if their cooperation is not reciprocated.

5. Longer time horizon. Participants can anticipate that more could be earned through cooperation over a long time period versus a short time.

6. Agreed-upon sanctioning capabilities. While external sanctions or imposed sanctioning systems may reduce cooperation, when participants themselves agree to a sanctioning system they frequently do not need to use sanctions at a high volume and net benefits can be improved substantially.
posted by russilwvong at 2:36 PM on March 29, 2016


More rock-solid analysis of Marxism from Chait (just for laughs)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:16 PM on March 30, 2016


re: ostrom, i like this simplified formulation (from the economist ;)

to avoid a tragedy of the commons requires:
  1. giving everyone entitled to use them a say in running them;
  2. setting clear boundaries to keep out those who are not entitled;
  3. appointing monitors who are trusted by users; and
  4. having straightforward mechanisms to resolve conflicts.
The point is that we can't just assume that if everyone is aware of the collective interest, a mechanism to overcome the collective action problem will automatically come into existence. Thus just telling people about the collective interest and raising their awareness isn't sufficient.

-How an obscure socialist text from the '80s predicted Bernie Sanders' rise
-The Bernie Sanders Moment: Brought to you by the generation that has no future
-"the best way to change people's behavior is to attack the systems that force them into competition, and that the material self-interest of the working class is a better motivating principle than concepts of sin and redemption"

The point of methodological individualism is that even when we're analyzing social phenomena from 10,000 feet, we need to be able to explain how these phenomena arise from the behavior of individuals.

microfoundations!*
-Issues about microfoundations
-Microfoundations for rules and ascriptions
-Microfoundations 2.0?
-Microfoundations and mechanisms
-Microfoundations and causal powers
-Do we still need microfoundations?
-Are emergence and microfoundations contraries?

not just for marxists but (fed-level) macroeconomists in general :P
-"another case of macroeconomists making fantasy microfoundations while ignoring the actual micro literature"
-Exchanges on the merits of microfoundations
-Why bother with microfoundations?*
-on rational expectations and representative agents
-Microfoundations would be nice if we had them
-I love microfoundations. Just not yours.

is there room for 'meso'-level analysis? (or is it just 'epicycles' all the way down..?)
-Microfoundations and meso causation
-Meso causes and microfoundations
-Are there meso-level social causes?
-Are there meso-level social mechanisms?
-Social mechanisms and meso-level causes
-Meso powers and causal mechanisms

where does that leave us?
-Goodbye, Macroeconomics
-Central banks as central planners [1,2,3] (contra chait)*
-Rethinking how we predict where the economy is going [1,2,3]
-When does inequality freeze an economy?*
-Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity:* "The book is an attempt to loosely define a new ontology for use by social theorists — one that challenges the existing paradigm of meaningful social analyses being possible only on the level of either individuals (micro-reductionism) or 'society as a whole' (macro-reductionism). Instead, the book employs Gilles Deleuze's theory of assemblages from A Thousand Plateaus (1980) to posit social entities on all scales (from sub-individual to transnational) that are best analysed through their components (themselves assemblages)."

also interesting btw in light of this recent mefi debate on moral relativism fwiw...

It wasn't forgotten; it was only published in full (in German) in 1953. Earlier versions, published in 1939 and 1941, were incomplete. Many of Marx's works were first published only after his death.

re: marx's _grundrisse_ and his 'fragment on machines' (and the LTOV) i'm far from a marxist theorist, so here's paul mason again in _postcapitalism_:
Marx recognized that to be rigorous the labour-theory should explain reality at the concrete level. He set about trying to build out the abstract model into a more concrete description of the real economy. This involved introducing a two-sector model of the economy (consumption and production) in the second volume of Capital, and a banking system in the third. Alongside this, he tried to show how the underlying values get transformed into prices at the concrete level.

There are inconsistencies in the way he worked out this so-called 'transformation problem', which led to a 100-year long debate over whether the theory is inconsistent. Since this is an attempt to apply the whole theory to a specific issue, not a textbook on Marxism, I will avoid that debate here, saying simply that the 'transformation debate' has been resolved (to my satisfaction) by a group of academics known as the 'temporal single system' school. The point is that, even in its most consistent form, the labour-theory is not going to be a practical tool for measuring and predicting price movements. It is a mental tool for understanding what price movements are... [pp.155-156]

The scene is Kentish Town, London, February 1858, sometime around 4 a.m. Marx is still a wanted man in Germany and has spent ten years becoming increasingly depressed about the prospects for revolution. But now Wall Street has crashed, there are bank failures across Europe and he is scrambling to finish a long-promised book on economics... By day he writes articles in English for the New York Tribute. By night he is filling eight notebooks with near-illegible scrawl in German: free flowing observations, thought experiments and notes-to-self.

The notebooks, known collectively as the Grundrisse (which translates as 'The Outline'), will be saved, but not read, by Engels. They will be stored in the HQ of the German social-democratic party until the Soviet Union buys them in the 1920s. They will not be read in Western Europe until the late 1960s, and in English not until 1973. When they finally get to see what Marx is writing on this cold night in 1858, scholars will admit that it 'challenges every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived'. It is called the Fragment on Machines.

The Fragment on Machines starts with the observation that as large-scale industry develops it changes the relationship between worker and machine. In early industry, there was a man, a tool worked by hand and a product. Now instead of a tool, the worker: 'inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor'.

Marx had imagined an economy in which the main role of machines was to produce, and the main role of people was to supervise them. He was clear that in such an economy the main productive force would be information... Organization and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the labour of making and running the machines.

Given what Marxism was to become – a theory of exploitation based on the theft of labour time – this is a revolutionary statement. It suggests that – once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, vastly outweighing the actual labour spent creating a machine – the big question becomes not wages versus profits but who controls the 'power of knowledge'.

Now Marx drops a bombshell. In an economy where machines do most of the work, where human labour is really about supervising, mending and designing the machines, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines muse, he writes, be 'social'... [pp.133-134]

[T]hese two ideas... led Marx to the following conclusions. First, in a heavily mechanized capitalism, boosting productivity through better knowledge is a much more attractive source of profit than extending the working day, or speeding up labour: longer days consume more energy, speed-ups hit the limits of human dexterity and stamina. But knowledge solution is cheap and limitless.

Second, Marx argued, knowledge-driven capitalism cannot support a price mechanism whereby the value of something is dictated by the value of inputs needed to produce it. It is impossible to properly value inputs when they come in the form of social knowledge. Knowledge-driven production tends towards the unlimited creation of wealth, independent of the labour expended. But the normal capitalist system based on prices determined by input costs, and assumes all inputs come in limited supply.

For Marx, knowledge-based capitalism creates a contradiction – between the 'forces of production' and the 'social relations'. These form 'the material conditions to blow [capitalism's] foundation sky-high'. Furthermore, capitalism of this type is forced to develop the intellectual power of the worker. It will tend to reduce working hours (or halt their extension) leaving time for workers to develop artistic talents outside work, which become essential to the economic model itself. Finally, Marx throws in a new concept, which appears nowhere else – before or after – in his entire writings: 'the general intellect'. When we measure the development of technology, he writes, we are measuring the extent to which 'general social knowledge has become a force of production... under the control of the general intellect'.

The ideas outlined in the Fragment were recognized in the 1960s as a complete departure from classic Marxism. In the twentieth century, the left had seen state planning as the route out capitalism. They had assumed that capitalism's inner contradictions lay in the chaotic nature of the market, its inability to fulfil human need and its propensity to catastrophic breakdown.

In the 1858 Fragment, however, we are confronted with a different model of transition: a knowledge-based route out of capitalism, in which the main contradiction is between technology and the market mechanism. In this model, scribbled on a paper in 1858 but unknown to the left for more than 100 years, capitalism collapses because it cannot exist alongside shared knowledge. The class struggle becomes the struggle to to be human and educated during one's free time... [pp.136-137; emphasis added]

In the Grundrisse, Marx says: if a machine costs 100 days' worth of labour power to make, and wears out in 100 days, it's not improving productivity. Much better to have a machine that costs 100 days but wears out over 1,000. The more durable the machine, the smaller the amount of its value chipped off into each product. Taking this to its logical extreme, what you ideally want is a machine that never wears out, or one that costs nothing to replace. Marx understood that, in economic terms, they are the same thing: 'If capital could obtain the instrument of production at no cost, for 0, what would be the consequence? Surplus value [would be increased], without the slightest cost to capital'. He lists two ways in which, even in the nineteenth century, capitalism was getting just such a free hit: from the reorganization of workflow, and through scientific advances. Marx then writes: 'If machinery lasted forever, if it did not itself consist of transitory material which must be reproduced... then it would most completely correspond to this concept'.

We should stagger in awe at this incredible insight, written by gaslight in 1858: that the ideal form of a machine is one made of material that does not wear out, and which costs nothing... Machines where parts of the value are input for free by social knowledge and public science are not alien concepts for the labour-theory. The are central to it. But Marx thought that if they existed in large numbers they would explode the system based on labour values – 'blow it sky high', as he says... If a machine lasts forever, it transfers a near-zero amount of labour-value to the product, from here to eternity, and the value of each product is thus reduced... [pp.166-167]

The new information produced by a computer has a use value, or utility, massively in excess of its component parts... [p.166] He imagined socially produced information becoming embodied in machines. He imaged this producing a new dynamic, which destroys the old mechanisms for creating prices and profits. He imagined capitalism being forced to develop the intellectual capacities of the worker. And he imagined information coming to be stored and shared in something called a 'general intellect' – which was the mind of everybody on earth connected by social knowledge, in which ever upgrade benefits everybody. In short, he had imagined something close to the info-capitalism in which we live...

This is possibly the most revolutionary idea Marx ever had: that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of a society; a person transformed by vast quantities of socially produced knowledge and for the first time in history more free time than work time... Marx, I think, abandoned this thought experiment because it had scant relevance to the society he lived in. But it has massive relevance for ours. [p.138]

Ironically, it fell to the people who had rediscovered the Fragment on Machines, the far left disciples of Antonio Negri, to make the first attempt at a theory of info-capitalism, which they dubbed 'cognitive capitalism'.

Cognitive capitalism, say its proponents, is a coherent new form of capitalism: a 'third capitalism', following the merchant capitalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the industrial capitalism of the last 200 years. It is based on global markets, financialized consumption, immaterial labour and immaterial capital.

Yann Moulier-Boutang, a French economist, believes that the key for cognitive capitalism is the capture of externalities. As people use digital devices, they become 'co-producers' with the companies they are dealing with: their choices, their apps, their friend lists on Facebook can all be given monetary value by the company that provides the service and harvests the information... [p.139]
anyway, this is all highly relevant to my interests and striking how it connects up with progressive ideas from henry george, edward bellamy, clifford hugh douglas and even (pre-marx) thomas paine:*

Free Lunch: Basic welfare policy
Today, with deepening anxiety that we will all be put out of work (or, alternatively, be enslaved) by robots, the appeal of basic income has returned to its roots. More than 200 years ago, Thomas Paine advocated it as a way to fairly distribute the “ground rent” generated by concentrated landholdings to the landless — the idea being that the earth was humanity’s common property. If technological change today means markets tilt the distribution of income towards capital owners and away from workers, a similar argument can be made for the redistribution of “rent” due to humanity’s technological ingenuity equally among every citizen.
---
*altho i do think liberalism is being challenged, viz. harari, but like e.g. GMOs, cf. bourlag, i think it's done more good than harm (so far!) i.e. for the 'material well-being' of most folk
posted by kliuless at 4:28 PM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


Sharp critique of Jacobin from a Left-Communist perspective
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:23 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sharp critique of Jacobin from a Left-Communist perspective

See, the stuff in this critique is precisely why I tend to dislike a lot of US marxist movements - it's all "well, it turns out that this [paper/bookstore/event/group] is just the front group for [the DSA, or Freedom Road, or whomever], trying to get new activists on board with a slightly-more palatable version of their usual stuff" and "here is an organization settling scores that date back to 1968" and so on.

Along with the continuing feeling that these groups will tell non-marxists/new marxists whatever the hell they want to hear in order to enmesh them in the group - which is the feeling I've had from Jacobin's Sanders coverage all along, that it's extremely opportunist and insincere and not at all what you'd hear if you were a fly on the wall at editorial meetings.

It's a cultural style thing and I have always been at a loss to understand it. Every so often, someone will try to recruit me into some marxist social formation. I frequently try to go along with it on a "why the hell not, I'd sell out for a really effective socialism" basis, and then it becomes only too obvious that they're telling me a lot of lies about what they really think so as to entice me in. You just get this powerful feeling of inner circles and cadres and lines of force, and the sense that you're considered by the inner circle to be not quite bright, and it's very offputting.
posted by Frowner at 1:43 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


That was a great article, though - not especially because of its critique of Jacobin, either.
posted by Frowner at 2:01 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I had the weirdest experience walking onto a university campus after a some-years' break and finding basically the exact same people under a totally new party name and slogan. As far as I could work out it was the same group, but they'd had a total overhaul and now stood for very different but confusingly-similar things. I still don't know what the hell happened.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:17 PM on April 6, 2016


Wow that sharp critique was really hard to read. Lots of ad hominem, weirdly focusing on stuff like what the publisher came up with for the cover blurb of their book. He doesn't get to a critique of the content of Jacobin until literally halfway through the article and that critique focuses on their pieces that demand full employment. Yet although the author makes a case that full employment is unlikely, he doesn't present much (any?) alternate platform.

Also, random photo of Robespierre statue?

I'm an anarchist with low patience for sectarian Red propaganda publications. Nothing I've ever read in Jacobin comes off as falling into that catagory, although I only read about one article per issue, so maybe I'm missing a lot? I've read a lot of thought provoking pieces in their that come from a bit of a range of perspectives, and I'm really glad it exists.

The cannibalism of the left depresses the shit out of me though.
posted by latkes at 1:12 PM on April 7, 2016


I thought that article did a pretty solid job of outlining where Jacobin is coming from, starting with its evidently inconsistent position on Bernie Sanders and contemporary popular movements, and moving on to a critique of the strategy of non-sectarianism and "engagement with liberalism." I get the complaint about leftist infighting, but I think it's actually pretty important to bear this context in mind, especially since the terms of that engagement have substantial implications for Jacobin specifically and for the US left in general. The section on full employment bears this out insofar as it's the desire for a "majoritarian left coalition" that leads the Jacobin folks to promote such a flawed program. I agree that that's the strongest part of the article, but I think that's mainly because the author has a more-or-less explicitly stated platform to respond to, rather than having to build up an analysis from an observation of general trends and scattered position-taking.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 11:26 AM on April 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


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