Worker Collectives. Mixed Markets. Liberal Freedoms. Local Control.
January 31, 2019 8:20 AM   Subscribe

“..What is instead needed is an honest presentation of the risks, costs, and dilemmas the socialist project will face, alongside credible examples and promising indications of how the problems might be creatively addressed. The primary quandary of socialism lies in how to concretely manifest social property in the means of production. Can workers run their workplaces? If social property is organized through the state, where does worker control fit in? If social property is divided among worker collectives, how do the particular interests of each collective mesh with the social interest? And can these fragmented collectives counteract the centralized power? That is, can the concentrated power that comes with comprehensive planning be democratized?” As the old order begins to wobble, a serious attempt to address the problems and critics of a future socialist society must be taken up : Socialism For Realists. (Catalyst)
posted by The Whelk (14 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’ve had the Catalyst piece in my opened browser tabs for a while but was always too busy to read it. Thanks for the nudge.
posted by The Toad at 9:46 AM on January 31


Good article. I like that he is taking head-on many of the questions that other would-be promoters of modern socialism seem to gloss over or require one to simply take on faith. I am not big on faith in my government, personally, so I appreciate that.

Even after reading the essay, though, I think there still are some gaps that need to be filled if you want to sell people on socialism as an implementable model:
  • Tankies: Every bunch of self-described socialists I've ever run into seems to have one or more closet (or not-so-closet) Stalinists in its midst. This is not just off-putting on the micro level (I want to hang out with Stalinists about as much as I want to hang out with Klansmen or Nazis, it's a sorta skin-crawly thing), but, uh, raises questions on the macro level about the end-state goal: you can't reasonably expect anyone to get behind your ideology if you don't have a good explanation of how it's not going to result in a repressive dictatorship. And there tends to be a whole lot of hand-waving about how "worker ownership" and "central planning" works, that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. If there's one thing people hate more than being pushed around by the invisible hand of the market, it's being pushed around by the very visible hand of some actual person. And while capitalism's market structure diffuses that hate and leaves it without a viable target, anything with central planning does not. I'd like to know that the solution to that doesn't involve reeducation camps, secret police, or gulags in inhospitable climates. So at least make it clear what's off the table.
  • Efficiency vs. External Competition: Gindin does a good job responding to some critiques of socialism, including Hayak's critique that markets are the only way to expose 'latent knowledge' in the workforce. But it's not clear how a socialist state would fare against external competition over the long run. States are economic actors in the world economy, which is de facto capitalist and likely to remain so (Gindin even says so). Within this arena, states compete: in particular, they tend to compete to advance their own socio-economic systems and in some cases impose them on other states via hard or soft power. A system that achieves significantly lower productivity than other systems is at risk of being "outcompeted" by others over time, and falling either to external or internal pressures to change. While the economic surplus of a good-sized country under socialism might be easily sufficient to produce a strategic deterrent (e.g. small number of WMDs) to direct military intervention, internal pressure is harder. If citizens of a socialist state see citizens of other states enjoying much higher living conditions and material wealth, it's reasonable to assume they might start to rethink the wisdom of their own system. The classical (read: tankie) "solution" seems to be censorship and propaganda (and failing that, secret police and execution chambers), which I do not think are acceptable answers. Nor is it reasonable to use a strawman of unfettered capitalism: the competing systems are likely to be mixed economies consisting of variously regulated markets, and I think there's at least a decent chance they can produce higher productivity over time than centrally-planned socialism. If that occurs, do you allow the government to evolve (devolve, depending on your point of view), and if so through what mechanism? A one-way ratchet mechanism that can't be backed up is an unappealing risk to adopting a system.
  • Inflated Expectations: Socialism's cheerleaders are sometimes its worst enemies; if you promise people the world to get them onboard with your project and then don't deliver, they're probably going to be pretty pissed. I think you can attribute the failure of at least a few socialist revolutions to this effect—overpromising and underdelivering, and then breaking out the 'revolutionary guard' when the formerly-supportive population decides they've had enough. The next stop is typically authoritarian dictatorship followed by oligarchy. Not a good failure mode. The temptation to paint an overly-rosy picture of life under socialism (or any other proposed social/economic system) needs to be resisted: people already know what the downsides of insufficiently regulated capitalism look like; if socialism, honestly presented, doesn't look better, don't misrepresent it. At best, they won't believe you; at worst, they might.
An interesting result of solving those problems—no internal coercion, capability of competing with mixed economies, realistic expectations from the outset—is that it isn't required, at least as far as I can see, to implement socialism at the state level. If you don't need the state's monopoly on violence to advance your agenda, and can compete in a market and at least hold your own, and you're not depending on starry-eyed cannon fodder for your 'revolution', you can start to move forward within the framework of an existing state. What you need is an assurance that someone isn't going to use the coercive power of the state against you, or otherwise tilt the scales unfavorably, but that's a much lower bar than asking for a revolution. I think people are likely to be supportive of localized intra-state experimentation, and the idea of a level playing field tends to resonate even with people who may not be necessarily friendly (or are at least skeptical) to the project as a whole.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:05 PM on January 31 [14 favorites]


All the above, Kadin, is why I think the DSA in its current iteration in the US may actually have a chance at making some real change.

The pitch isn't "let us march into the glorious socialist utopia" (well, ok, outside of some of the FALGSC memes, but memes are allowed and understood to be hyperbolic), it's "neither full throttle capitalism nor third way neoliberalism are working all that well, let's try something different". That's both way more palatable to way more people than overthrowing a massive national government by force and way easier to back out of if any particular plank of the platform turns out not to work in practice.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:49 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Disclaimer: I'm going to do my best not to be a tankie apologist here, and I also wish to state up front that I probably can't address all of this definitively.

Tankies: . . . raises questions on the macro level about the end-state goal: you can't reasonably expect anyone to get behind your ideology if you don't have a good explanation of how it's not going to result in a repressive dictatorship.

I think he's trying to address that here: "Adding liberal political freedoms (transparency, free press, freedom of association, habeas corpus, contested elections) would certainly be positive; it might even be argued that liberal institutions should flourish best on the egalitarian soil of socialism." Furthermore, I think the fear of gulags is a little overblown in a nation that imprisons more of its own people than any other nation on Earth. We already have debt, slave (prison) labor, homelessness, and the police as the repressive state mechanisms enforcing capitalism. Between the FBI & NSA, we already have secret police. [Not to mention corporate entities like Google, Amazon, etc that track our movements, record our information consumption, and surveil us for private profit]. There's plenty of existing internal coercion right now.

None of this makes Stalinism impossible, but it reminds us that repressive dictatorships aren't unique to socialism. I mean, look at who's being herded into tent cities in the desert. It's not anti-communists. The check on authoritarianism is decentralization of power, a commitment to abolition of prison and police in favor of integrative and restorative approaches to justice, and strong civic participation.

As for the visible hands of the market: "It therefore becomes more useful to contemplate a system based on 'layers of planning.' These interdependent layers include the central planning board of course, and the sectoral councils. They also include markets as an indirect form of planning and, with the critical role of the sectoral councils in constraining market authoritarianism, planning also extends to internal workplace relations. . . . In the service sector in particular, and to some degree also in the case of some local manufacturing, the 'municipalization' of the ownership of hospitals, schools, utilities, energy distribution, transportation, housing, and communications opens another possibility. The creation in these cases of local 'community councils' might facilitate bridging the everyday tensions among the various dimensions of people’s lives."

The boards and councils the author describes seem to have several levels so that they're never too removed from the people they're meant to serve. In that way, I think, he's envisioning that rather than either a remote "invisible hand" or a strictly bureaucratically insulated commissar, you'll have your neighbor Freida, or your co-worker Phil on the planning committees, ideally with service term limits and frequent elections of new members, as he describes here: "To this would be added the role of political mechanisms to establish national goals: ongoing debates at all levels, lobbying and negotiating between levels, and contested elections revolving around future direction which — because of its importance and genuine openness to public direction — would hopefully bring the widest popular participation."
posted by Kitty Stardust at 2:52 PM on January 31 [5 favorites]


Very interesting article. I think it's better at identifying the problems than solving them, but points for trying.

I think there's a fundamental conflict between worker control and central planning, and it's not addressed just by multiplying councils. Workers can certainly run a workplace. Do they get to do that, or are they overridden by the city or sector or central authorities? I kind of wish the socialists would talk to the anarchists about this before proposing anything with "central" in its name.

"Those working get pay for their work based on hours worked and the intensity or unpleasantness of the work. [...] Those not in the paid labor force receive a consumption stipend set at a level which allows people to live in dignity..." Those are some great ideas which don't seem to be thought through. I'm not sure how you can mix Soviet and Wildean socialism. If the basic stipend is enough to live on, surely a lot of people will be content just doing that. Or doing things (writing, research, painting, curating websites, studying Sanskrit) that make life worth living, but don't exactly feed and house the masses.

To solve this the author proposes paying more for unpleasant or intensive work. How much extra would you have pay to get people to pick grapes, wash dishes, mine, fight fires, unload container ships, handle hazardous waste? 10% more than normal? 100%? What if you have to pay them at a rate that seriously threatens equality?

"who can imagine a socialism without a marketplace of coffee shops and bakeries, small restaurants and varieties of pubs, clothing stores, craft shops, and music stores?" Again, sounds great at first, but I wonder if this is precisely backwards. Restaurant work is notoriously difficult, high-paced, and ill paid. Small firms can be terrible tyrannies. It's far easier to regulate a massive corporation than 100,000 small companies.

Also... I agree with Kadin about the tankie problem, but not about "socialist efficiency". That's because we can easily compare plutocracy with social democracy today, and plutocracy loses. The US could get as least as socialist as Germany or Denmark or France, and we'd be doing better off, so long as your criteria look at all classes, not the 10%.
posted by zompist at 4:53 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]


This link is great. Thanks for sharing it.

"Furthermore, I think the fear of gulags is a little overblown in a nation that imprisons more of its own people than any other nation on Earth. We already have debt, slave (prison) labor, homelessness, and the police as the repressive state mechanisms enforcing capitalism. Between the FBI & NSA, we already have secret police. [Not to mention corporate entities like Google, Amazon, etc that track our movements, record our information consumption, and surveil us for private profit]. There's plenty of existing internal coercion right now."

When people make this case, I think they very much over-estimate how persuasive it is to someone who hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid.

The idea that the US's justice system is significantly comparable to China's or DPRK's or the USSR or GDR's is pretty well bunk. The FBI and NSA aren't secret police on the level of the Stasi or Cheka — hell, even successor states like Russia have significantly more repressive state apparatus than the US. This isn't to excuse things like COINTELPRO or the abuses of the CPD, but arguing that we already have these things that liberals worry about when one of the primary associations with ostensibly socialist totalitarianism is an unchecked ideological security state is the opposite of reassuring. It's saying that you neither take those concerns seriously nor recognize the differences between our current state and possible worsening of it.

Why would the fear of gulags be overblown in a nation that imprisons more of its own people than any other nation on earth? Waving it away is the exact wrong reaction.
posted by klangklangston at 5:26 PM on January 31 [9 favorites]


... we can easily compare plutocracy with social democracy today, and plutocracy loses. The US could get as least as socialist as Germany or Denmark or France, and we'd be doing better off, so long as your criteria look at all classes, not the 10%.

I think I'm confused about the extent to which social democracy and socialism are currently discussed as different degrees of the same underlying system. One thing I liked about the initial article was that it tried to do a good-faith job of exploring socialism as genuine worker control of the means of production, because it seems to me that the real political story is in resource-production, not resource-distribution.

A state where the middle class still controls the means of generating wealth (and also controls the political system-- see e.g. here on the mostly-elite, well-educated, and professional composition of Scandinavian legislatures) but simultaneously doles out lavish welfare to the proles in the form of a UBI or extensive state programs (also conveniently staffed by the middle class)... well, it might be comfy to live in, but it does not strike me as something that Marx would be particularly pleased with. For precision's sake, if for no other reason, it makes sense to be clear about the distinction.
posted by Sockinian at 6:55 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Yeah, The FBI (just to take one example) is totally different from an ideological secret police.
"Theodore Roosevelt’s initial attempt to form a national police force under the Justice Department had actually been blocked by Congress, out of a concern that it would be a tsarist-style 'secret police force' used to spy on Americans. Congressmen warned of a 'system of espionage' and a 'central police or spy system in the federal government' that would undermine civil liberties."

"an FBI terrorism task force is investigating activists who oppose [Dakota Access] the pipeline, which means agents who normally spend their time looking into terror attacks are allegedly now focusing their energy on indigenous rights activists and environmentalists."

"But in its commonly understood usage, FBI entrapment is a widespread tactic. Within days of the 9/11 terror attacks, FBI director Robert Mueller issued a memo on a new policy of 'forward leaning – preventative – prosecutions'. Central to that is a growing informant network. The FBI is not choosy about the people it uses. Some have criminal records, including attempted murder or drug dealing or fraud. They are often paid six-figure sums, which critics say creates a motivation to entrap targets. Some are motivated by the promise of debts forgiven or immigration violations wiped clean. There has also been a relaxing of rules on what criteria the FBI needs to launch an investigation."

"Members of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force tracked the time and location of a Black Lives Matter protest last December at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota"

They may be less overt than the repressive states of other countries, but the combination of federal, state, and local policing, police-adjacent militarized organizations like ICE & the DEA, intelligence agencies, prisons, and private corporate control arguably do create an unchecked security state. Its ideology can be harder to see because we're swimming in it every day, but this system's function is absolutely as ideological as any Stalinist re-education camp.

So when liberals respond to any movement toward socialism with "what about the gulags," it misses the point that what they call a free, open society is, for the people targeted by these systems, anything but. I suppose our system could worsen as you mentioned. It seems like that's already happening, and socialism has nothing to do with this growing authoritarianism. For a long time, there has had to be liberal-buy-in on these carceral projects, which have come in the guise of ensuring security and safety (the Wars on Drugs and Terror, "Superpredators" etc). These concerns provided plausible deniability that allowed liberals to slip rightward. That mask is slipping off now, and the ideology of white supremacy yoked to capitalism is becoming more blatant about its intents, as well as more openly cruel. I think that saying a society that tolerates the brutal punishment, enslavement and murder of the poor (especially people of color), mentally ill, and generally unprofitable is substantially more equitable and free than the specter of past totalitarian regimes is mistaken. In 2012, Adam Gopnik wrote: "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height." That number is now 7 million.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:12 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


I kinda love the word "tankie" and its history but I also have some mixed feelings about the identification of "tankies" as a top problem facing the Left. I guess because I tend to think most tankies are basically cranks or cultists, and focusing on them as a Big Problem tends to play into old-school anticommunism (not that I'd say I'm a communist even necessarily but that's usually bad news) and right-wing framings - especially as the term is used by a wider audience.

On the other hand the problem with "tankies" is closely connected to other problems on the left, like people being stuck in the glory days of old (which they didn't even personally experience) or the dearth of really clear visions in the space between "bring back the New Deal" and "bring back the Cultural Revolution, why not?"
posted by atoxyl at 9:00 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]


American prisons may be bad, and even incarcerate more people (and more people per capita, which is the more damning statistic) than Stalin's USSR. However, in American prisons people are not dying by the millions because of unbearable conditions and forced labor. Also the US president can't arbitrarily decide to have a person and their family (and former political contacts, and neighbors, and...) killed on a whim. So the comparison to Stalin's USSR is... missing a little perspective. (By the way, the US prison population is declining).

On the more general issue of Stalinism: that kind of social system doesn't arise out of a vacuum; it appears in response to specific historical conditions. In Stalin's case, it was the epic, rapid transformation of the USSR from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, and the defeat of the forces that resisted this change (i.e. mostly peasants). The best guarantee that trembling liberals have against gulags reappearing under whatever version of "socialism" is being advocated is that no comparable traumatic socio-economic task is currently required in the US. I find it hard to imagine, say, a Green New Deal bringing forth an eco-Stalin.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 9:03 PM on January 31 [5 favorites]


"Yeah, The FBI (just to take one example) is totally different from an ideological secret police. "

That you don't understand that your links don't prove your point is kinda my point.
posted by klangklangston at 10:48 AM on February 1


That's because we can easily compare plutocracy with social democracy today, and plutocracy loses. The US could get as least as socialist as Germany or Denmark or France, and we'd be doing better off, so long as your criteria look at all classes, not the 10%.

FWIW, I agree completely. The point I was trying to make, though, is that the comparison really shouldn't be "socialism is more efficient than unfettered capitalist plutocracy", because of course it is. We can take that on premise; the only people who are arguing that unregulated capitalism is an efficient system of resource distribution are people who are using it as a cover to rob others. You know, plutocrats. And morons so deeply steeped in political tribalism that they don't care about the noose around their own neck as long as they're watching someone else getting hanged first.

So the matchup I'm curious about isn't "socialism vs. capitalist plutocracy"; it's "socialism vs. mixed economies on the European model". Basically: why would the US want to go any further left than Germany, Denmark, or France? That's the question that quickly emerges, and in addition to whatever ideological or political-philosophical answer, there's also the practical question of whether a more "pure" (for some definition of purity) socialist economy would compete favorably in the global economy with mixed economies, that use markets as a price-discovery and resource-allocation mechanism within a broad regulatory framework to do stuff like capture externalities. I mean, that seems like a pretty good model on its face. And if they are more efficient, I think there's a long term tendency—even in the absence of outright hard-power coercion—for people to want to move towards the system that produces the most material surplus.

(To be fair: it's telling that we're having a discussion where a heavily-regulated, mixed economy on the Euro model is the rightmost of the seemingly plausible, sustainable options. I mean, obviously it would be a pretty big deal if the US made it that far in my lifetime.)

On the more general issue of Stalinism: that kind of social system doesn't arise out of a vacuum; it appears in response to specific historical conditions.

This is true, but a lot of putatively Socialist revolutions seem to proceed like clockwork from revolution to dictatorship to oligarchy, and even the ones that don't seem to have a suspicious tendency to start turning on their own civil society. It's not just the USSR, although that's (like Nazi Germany is to fascism) not unreasonably the canonical example that people tend to think of.

I mean, the list of current and former self-described Socialist states is, um, not inspiring in terms of their apparent tendency towards internal repression. (Marxist-Leninist states, both current and former, seem to almost universally have a thing for secret police forces and "disappearing" people who speak too freely about the shortcomings of government. That's true of all four extant states and most of the former ones.) The degree of repressiveness admittedly declines as you move down the list, until "Multi-party states with governing Socialist Parties" (which includes places like Mexico, Ecuador, Barbados, and Greece, among others) don't seem like awful places to live. But that seems to indicate that the more hardcore the state is in its approach to socialism, and in particular if the socialist party succeeds in achieving a single-party state, the more dangerous a place it is to be a dissident. It strains credulity to argue that in each of these cases, the historical conditions to produce repression just coincidentally occurred. So I think the onus is on anyone proposing a system of government that involves single-party governance (or some other very broad-mandate rule) in order to implement socialism, clarify how they stop the country from going down the well-trod path to disappearing people in the middle of the night for their politics. Or, more reasonably IMO, propose a variant of socialism that doesn't require a single-party state or such a sweeping mandate to implement, i.e. some sort of incrementalist approach.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:32 AM on February 1 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure how the fact of a pre-existing apparatus of surveillance and punishment is supposed to make me less worried about handing over the reins of government to Stalinists.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:06 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


It strains credulity to argue that in each of these cases, the historical conditions to produce repression just coincidentally occurred

Sure, but internal repression is itself an effect of a previous cause, namely an unstable society that bequeathed revolution in the first place. It is of course a valid point to remark that post-revolutionary socialist regimes often feature a harsh repressive regime, but we could also say the same about post-revolutionary non-socialist regimes (e.g. anywhere a White Terror happened -- Finland, Hungary, Russia, etc.).

One of the whole points of an insurrectionary Leninism was to establish a dictatorship -- yes, a dictatorship -- of the proletariat so that the working class could crush its class enemies, which were, in fact, invariably gunning to overthrow the new regime in a post-revolutionary situation (and often succeeded). Now, yes, the tricky part about this is wrenching the internal culture of the society from one of violence to one of relative tranquility, an understandably difficult task when so many bodies and grudges have been produced by the revolutionary process.

A lot of this history is contingent. To evoke Russia again, the country did manage to achieve a degree of internal stability and relative calm after the civil war ended and before collectivization/the five year plan began, during the NEP. And even during Stalin's sweeping changes to the country, the political repression was not as great before the unexpected murder of Kirov sent it into overdrive. So, guarantees about the course of revolution are very difficult to make.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: 1) not all political repression, even by socialist states, is equal 2) a post-revolutionary socialist regime will invariably feature some repression, much of which may be seen as desirable and justified 3) it is hard to predict exactly what the nature and scope of the repression will be.

In any event, this is all likely a moot point for any future socialist politics, since, say, the US is not remotely politically unstable enough for revolution to be a possibility.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:07 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


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