Re: [OPE-L] what is irrational in the functioning of capitalism?

From: Dogan Goecmen (Dogangoecmen@AOL.COM)
Date: Thu Nov 23 2006 - 03:11:27 EST

sorry for the delay. Just briefly, despite all these relativisms can we not  
develop some criteria to evalute whether a social formation is rational or  
irrational. Beside the critaeria you mention below utopian socialists and Marx  
use also the criterion of potentiality to qualify whether a social formation 
is  rational or not. So poetntially as you said in one of your earlier emails 
we are  in a postion to feed all human beings in the world. But we struggle 
against  starvation. Potentially we are in a postion to reduce working hour such 
as to  create work for everybody. But we have unemployment of the half of the 
work  force in the world. This leads to the question how the world might be 
changed to  eradicate starvation, unemploment and so on and who might be 
interested  objectively in the changing of the world. 
Admittedly, this a very short reply. But I think it covers the crucial  point 
you make. If not we can come back. I am very happy to see you contributing  
to various debates of the list. Thank you for this.
In einer eMail vom 19.11.2006 16:06:08 Westeuropäische Normalzeit schreibt  


Just briefly, I find the question of the irrationality of  capitalism is
difficult to evaluate, since notions of rationality differ  widely and change
over time, and differ among different social classes and  population groups.
It is often linked to notions of

- what is  reasonable/unreasonable, or
- what is morally justifiable/unjustifiable,  or
- what satisfies human needs/interests/fails to satisfy them, or
-  functionality/dysfunctionality, or
-  predictability/unpredictability.

The rationality of behaviour is  however usually stated in terms of a
means-ends relationship of some kind.  Thus, if the means do not lead to the
end, the means are irrational, and if  the behaviour is not oriented to a
clear (conscious) means-ends  relationship, it is irrational. But

- the ends (goals) can also be be  judged irrational, in relation to other
means-ends relationships, and
-  much human behaviour simply is not rational, insofar as it does not  refer
to any explicit means-ends relationship.

Elmar Altvater and  Ernest Mandel talked about capitalist society as
"combining partial  rationality and overall irrationality". The idea here is
that behaviour  which makes perfect sense at the micro-level (it is
reasonable and  rational) has macro-level effects which are irrational and
harmful, and  conversely macro-policies which seem rational have
micro-effects which are  irrational. This is closely related to the notion of
unintended  consequences, i.e. that the final or aggregate effect of actions
may be  different or opposite to what is intended. The underlying idea here
is that  a rational society would be a society in which individual interests
and  societal/communal interests would be compatible or harmonious, rather
than  conflict, i.e. that societal irrationality is in good part caused by
its  structure, the way it is organised.

For a simple example, during a  boom, it is rational for private investors to
invest in increasing output.  But the aggregate outcome may be overinvestment
in relation to sales,  creating a result which disadvantages all investors.

The topic is also  explored in game theory, often implying that what is
"rational" is what is  in the "self-interest" of an actor. In that case, all
action which is not  in the self-interest of an actor, is irrational action.
But this assumption  may be questionable, insofar as it makes unwarranted
assumptions about what  is in an actor's interest, and because it reduces all
apparently  non-self-interested behaviour either to de facto self-interested
behaviour,  or else to irrational behaviour. In that case, we may end up with
a lot of  tautological truths which are not very informative.

If I am not  mistaken, the concept of a "rational society" was made popular
by the  technocracy movement in the 1920s and 1930s, which created the idea
that  society can be planned and engineered such that the results benefit
all.  This idea also strongly influenced Stalinist and Maoist  modernisation.
However there was often little evidence of any dialectical  understanding of
the relation between individual and social interests.  Social interests were
enforced simply by the barrel of a gun.

In  post-modernist thought, what is rational becomes dependent on  one's
subjective point of view, and thus the challenge becomes to  understand what
is rational from the point of view of the Other,  acknowledging Difference -
in that case, many different rationalities exist  pluralistically side by
side, and it is not possible to define one as  objectively more rational than
the other. This introduces a strong  epistemic relativism, basically due to
the absence of a shared or consensus  view about what is rational.

A social consensus (about rationality or  anything else) is strongly
influenced by the capacity of all individuals to  make gains, and improve
their lot, in proportionate amounts. In that case,  there is less conflict of
interests, and less of a sense that achieving  one's goals is at the expense
of others; there is more room for altruism.  If however this situation no
longer applies, it is impossible to maintain a  broad consensus. Hence the
importance of ideology in persuading people that  what is in the common
interest is also in their individual interest, and  vice versa what is in
their individual interest is in the common  interest.

Marx once remarked that if the appearance and essence of  things directly
coincided, there would be no need for science. Likewise we  can say there
would be no need for moral inquiry or legal systems, if  individual and
communal interests always directly coincided. Moral inquiry  and legal
systems exist precisely because of conflicts, real or potential,  between
individual and communal interests/needs, and they mediate those  conflicts.

In modern bourgeois society, there is no longer much of a  sense that we can
collectively make a better society for the good of all.  At best we can
contain or limit social problems. The discussion about  social rationality
then focuses mainly on the environment external to  subjectivities, for
example global warming, and on the limits of what is  tolerable. But this is
basically a regression of social thought, which  involves uncertainty about
what kinds of social organisation can harmonize  individual and social
interests, and how they can be brought about. All  that is left is ideologies
of  managerialism.


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