[OPE-L] Socialism and markets

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Jan 13 2006 - 18:46:51 EST

Hi Jerry,

.... I think it is worthwhile recalling the historical
experiences with markets in societies that claimed to be or desired
to be socialist.

I agree - and you have to study the economic thought of people like Lange,
Brus, Kornai, Horvat, Sik, Samary and so on, not necessarily because they
are correct on questions but to arrive at an adequate interpretation. I
should also mention Makoto Itoh's Political Economy of Socialism.

If I were to grant you that markets in some limited ways promote
choice and further claim that workers internationally _want_ choice
and that they will be most attracted to a vision of socialism which
claims that they will have _more_ choice than under capitalism,
aren't there are social mechanisms that would _better_ promote
choice by workers than markets?

Well I am a bit iffy about that way of posing the question. You see, people
make choices all the time anyway regardless of what the social system may
be, and they have to make them, that's an eternal human drama. The rhetoric
of choice is to a large extent a bourgeois ideology also, quite vacuous and
dehistoricising. The question really concerns that of making your own
independent choices rather than externally forced choices, and the effects
of those choices, and then how this correlates with collectively made
choices. But in reality, "choice" is merely the ephemeral surface of the
topic, it's really about decision-making power and the consequences of those
decisions, the capacity to shape your own life by your own efforts according
to decisions which you have made yourself, in such a way that there is some
sort of harmony between the individual and social living. It is impossible
to theorise this without a scientifically based moral understanding.  What
workers want most of all is a decent life and the opportunity to be able to
improve their lot. I do anyway. The question is then what moral framework
must exist for that to occur, and what economic/technical/cultural
institutions really support that structure. The Marxist literature on ethics
is however mostly pretty bad, pretty scholastic - Marx himself is partly to
blame for this, because he did not clearly expound ethical foundations, it's
more implicit in what he did, but many things he left open, believing that
they would be resolved through class struggles and could not be resolved in
advance. He saw the horizon of the future, but obviously not the end of the
road.  Essentially, I argue a socialist ethics is an experiential,
experimental or empirical ethics, i.e. we do not set out from principles and
axioms, but from moral life as it is actually lived practically by people
and reflected in social thought, and we try to distill enduring learnings
out of that. We have to go beyond prattle about  "the market" and "choice"
and focus clearly on enduring human values, not on the basis of moral
cookbooks and blueprints, but on the basis of verifiable experience, and the
learnings from that experience distilled by the humanities, politics and
social/behavioural sciences. Yes, there are better forms of resource
allocation, and globally the working class and the peasantry has produced
many original forms of giving and taking, getting and receiving with their
own meanings. Social insurance for example was to a large extent a working
class invention - though, over time, the cooperatives and credit unions
became capitalist businesses. One big innovative revolt occurred in 1968
which shaped the whole of Western culture for two decades, elements linger
on to this day. The most efficient allocative mechanism, as Hugo Chavez and
Fidel Castro know, is direct (unmediated) allocation according to need, and
in itself, provided there are sufficient resources, that is no special
economic problem beyond the technicalities of it. But if there is scarcity,
then there's a problem, and if people want more than their fair share,
there's a problem. The dialectics of scarcity and surplus are complex, but,
we have to draw an important distinction between imagined and real scarcity,
imagined and real surplus. The biggest scarcity is usually between our ears.
A socialist society is not a society where the state owns everything, this
is a nonsense. A socialist society is a civil society in which people have
the opportunity to experiment, democratically or otherwise, with what
property forms and methods of allocating resources work best, what forms are
most just and efficient, from the point of view of freedom, equality and
justice. To get there, you don't wait until the red revolution, you start
right now, with debating about those forms and methods, and where possible
experiment, to verify what works best, at whatever level you can. There is
absolutely no point in restricting market trade, if it does a good job and
allocates resources well, but if it doesn't, you have to be able to replace
it with other methods. Bourgeois society claims to be full of
experimentation and innovation, but in reality it mainly just tries to
harness people's creativity for commercial purposes and makes that
creativity conditional on the extraction of income. There are those who must
do the shit work, and there are those who may do the creative work, it's
conditional on accepting commercial culture. In ideology, for example, there
is not enough entrepreneurship in Europe. In reality, there is lots, except
it often isn't commercial. Creative people become very protective about
themselves, they don't want to be exploited anymore and they wall themselves
off. Of course, the more the boundary between private and public vanishes,
the more easily can you get ripped off because people can reach into every
aspect of your life. Then they talk about "respect". The real problem is
that marketisation itself is amoral (not immoral, amoral). Consequently, the
deregulation of capital goes hand in hand with the increased regulation of
the masses by the state. The masses must respect their superiors, that is
the real message.

1. Of course, neither we nor workers want a form of 'socialism'
which is some kind of totalitarian bureaucracy or military dictatorship.
But that doesn't _necessarily_ mean that we should favor some form of
market socialism, does it?

Well first of all I am a worker, and actually I don't like the rhetoric
about "working class" and "workers" all that much, I prefer to talk just
about people. I use those words in a socio-economic sense, cultural or trade
union sense at times. Second point is that in some countries, people there
quite like tough military leaderships, so you can't just generalise about it
like that. Third point is, there is - as Marx well knew - not one type of
socialism, but many different kinds of socialisms, and people in different
countries articulate different kinds of socialisms based on local
experience. That process will continue. The idea behind market socialism is
that we will always need markets and cannot get away from them, so any kind
of socialism will have to be a market socialism. But this is just a
generality, which moreover shows very little understanding of what markets
are and how they really work. Different countries are at different stages of
social development, some require markets more, other less, in different
areas of life. Lastly, in socialist economics you don't talk all that much
about markets anyway beyond empirical supply and empirical demand, you talk
about a trading process, the whole process of giving and getting, taking and
receiving, sharing and excluding. This process is not theorised in
economics, because exchange is assumed to occur, we focus on price
movements, and forget about the social process. That is an error of
monstrous proportions causing the death and misery of hundreds of millions
of people. Just how vicious bourgeois ideology can be in this respect, can
perhaps be illustrated with the story of David Graeber.

2. Markets may not, as you say, imply any particular morality of their
own beyond what you state.  But,  aren't there a lot of grounds (both
theoretically and historically) to believe that the _dynamic_ of markets
tends to erode fundamental socialist concerns such as  *solidarity*
by, for instance, leading to conflicts between partial and general interests

There is a rich critical literature which demonstrates the corrosive effects
of commerce on human morality - alienation, anomie, corruption, commodity
fetishism, egoism, crime and so on. But that literature is unbalanced, and
often lacks historical perspective. When market economy works well and the
economy improves, morality and self-acting capacity also improves;
conversely, when market economy works badly and the economy dysfunctions,
morality declines. A simple indicator is longterm crime statistics. There is
however no general rule you can apply to say that markets will always erode
social solidarity, it depends a lot on the inherited social institutions and
forms of social organisation. All you can say is that if the economic growth
declines, competition for resources will increase, and that in turn
fractures social solidarity - I'm allright Jack, look after yourself. Social
solidarity is largely a question of whether all people can make gains in the
trading process, and the extent to which they can make gains. Obviously,
people would not trade unless they stood something to gain, but some can
gain vastly more than others. I do not deny the importance of social
ideology and of political decisions in all this, but basically I am a
materialist in this sense, i.e. social solidarity has a material basis, it
is not simply a political consequence. The conflict between partial and
general interests is extremely old in human thought (it existed even within
primitive communism) and will remain until a hypothetical fullfledged
communism based on the moral maturity of the human race, i.e. when the
processes of giving and taking, getting and receiving operate harmoniously
on the basis of correct perceptions of scarcity and surplus (you need both
for a viable economics). We cannot wish it away, but we can drastically
reduce it, and invent institutions mediating the conflict so that its
consequences stay within acceptable limits. The new information technologies
and the sexual revolution are already are profoundly reshaping human
morality, though of course it also creates plenty moral confusion, leading
to panicky, reactionary attempts to force moral fundamentalism on people -
and in their urge to stone an imagined devil, they trample their own kind to
death. The devil exists only in ourselves, it's our own shadow. There is no
ritual that can excorcise that devil, you actually have to improve life,

3.  If there is a better way of enhancing choice by workers than that
offered by markets in a socialist society, what is it?  ...concretely?
... exactly?  I.e. how would such a mechanism work and how might
it be structured so as to avoid some of the problems (e.g. bureaucratic
over-centralization) that have been observed in the past?

I had intended to research and write a treatise on it, but my life got
wrecked, I felt helped to hell, and I didn't get around to it. It's a very
big topic and I could write thousands of pages on it, if my fingers lasted
the distance. Most of the knowledge and experience already exists, it is
just a question of bringing it together, in a good synthesis. Choice is
enhanced if we make people strong and self-acting with a solid social and
moral awareness, i.e. we get people believing they can make choices and act
on them, taking the consequences, overcoming fear. In this sense, the
neoliberal era is a good education, a good school, although neoliberalism is
also rent with hypocrisy, insofar as it really promotes freedom for some and
not for others, or at the expense of others; basically the amoral market
flourishes to a large extent at the expense of the poor, who in a gated
world community exist maybe in a remote location where you can't easily see
them. The basic principle here is, that you can get many things that you
want without commerce, as the poor have always known. Even if you are poor,
you can have a wealth of relationships that provide what you need, through
sharing and cooperation (I haven't been a shining example of that though
lately, being rather reclusive). In bourgeois ideology, cooperation is
strictly a management problem, a managerial prerogative, a prerogative of
the boss class seeking to unite people in certain sorts of ways, for
example, "to fight terrorism". In socialist thought, cooperation is a human
question, affecting all, and is everyone's prerogative. And cooperation can
occur outside of the market circuit as well, indeed the market could not
even exist without that non-market cooperation. It is just that, dulled by
market ideology and the rhetoric of private accumulation, we are scarcely
able to recognise it, even as we do it. A lot of leftist perceptions in this
regard are so bad that they're best forgotten.

4.  Do you believe the Cockshott-Cottrell proposals suggested in
_Towards a New Socialism_  satisfy your concerns about
enhancing choice?  If not, what is missing?

I haven't got the book handy here, it's full of good insights, it's a good
primer for socialism 101. But I dispute many of the claims made in it as
well, and I argue for a different methodology. Of course, I live in Holland
and not in Britain. I cannot discuss all that now. To each their own
socialism, and may our socialisms meet!


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