[OPE-L] Fact or philosophical conception?

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sun Aug 26 2007 - 17:46:33 EDT

Hi Alejandro,

You asked: "Do all you agree in the necessity of a full consumer market? I
see so much apprehension in your writings."

You are correct, I am apprehensive because this problematic requires a
knowledge which is not easily accessible to me yet, since few thinkers I
know of (in languages I can read) have thought these things through to the
end. I am not yet sure what exactly you understand by a "full" consumer
market. In defending Marx's idea of labour-value, I am not at all rejecting
other kinds of modalities of economic value. That would be absurd. Many
different sorts of valuations are essential to assess economic optimality.

In defending the idea of labour-value, I am claiming it is a real regulative
force in the trading process and the economising of work effort, and that
you have to reckon with it, just as e.g. you have to reckon with the law of
gravity. For most purposes, knowledge of the law of gravity is
uninteresting, assumed and obvious, but that is not to say it doesn't have
an enormous effect on human activities nevertheless.

It is true, markets can mediate the contradiction between self-interest and
the common interest. It is also true that markets can provide stability for
the social system. However, markets cannot exist without a social and legal
framework, and without a lot of non-market activity and co-operation. And
the stability markets do provide, is typically shortlived - in the history
of the world economy since 1820 there have been something like 25
destabilising recessions and depressions, and an uninterrupted series of
wars, many of which issue forth precisely from the destabilising, corrosive
effects of commercial expansion on the traditional social structures. This
corrosion, just like economic growth, is also directly related to crime

One of the points Oskar Lange made is, that the way economic theory pictures
consumer behaviour vis-a-vis prices often has little in common with reality,
i.e. prices really function in a different way in practice than is depicted
in economic theory. So we need much better theories of consumer preferences
and consumer behaviour, and of how prices are actually used in the real
world, based on a more realistic appraisal of empirical reality.

You write: "what you call objective value is a confusion with empirical
facts whose existence is impossible out social construction. Objective value
properly conceived derived from a meta-agreement needed to conceive a
functional social order."

"Objective value relations" mean that value relations exist, which escape
from human control, gain an independent status, and persist regardless of
what one might think about them. There is no "meta-agreement" about those
value relations, they arise spontaneously out of the social existence of a
producing community. The objectification of value occurs when object
relationships between products or assets (objects) come into existence which
transcend individuals, which limit what they can do, and to which they must
necessarily adjust their behaviour, regardless of what they may think.
Money-prices are not essential for these value relations to exist at all,
but money-prices objectify them all the more.

"We" do not "propose" to record and allocate labour-time, that is something
which already occurs every day on a mass scale in capitalist society.
Planning also occurs on a large scale in capitalist society. It is just that
the allocations occur in a specific way, and according to specific
principles, and it is argued that a different kind of allocation would have
a better result, i.e. less war, less crime, more satisfaction, and more
possibility to fulfil human potential. When capitalism seems to work fine,
few people are interested in alternatives. But if capitalism is in crisis,
people do look for alternatives.

Social accounting for labour-time is a planning tool, which aims to
facilitate the effectivity of human work and promote a just allocation of
resources. It acknowledges that work is central to human lives, and that is
why it should be collectively accounted for, morally and economically
speaking. No society, according to Marx, can escape from the necessity of
producers to adjust their work activity to each other and to consumers. The
question is only which kinds of methods best promote human development of a
healthy, happy and peaceful kind.

In this regard, there is something like a "hierarchy or logic of human
needs", in the sense that the fulfilment of some needs is predicated on the
fulfilment of other needs. In socialist ethics, satisfying the basic needs
of all has priority, since the satisfaction of all other needs depends on
them. Certain conditions (e.g. health, housing, security, work, education,
access to biological and physical necessaries, proper care for the old, the
young, the sick and the disabled) are an essential precondition for meeting
all other needs, and as soon as they are met, the amount of social conflict
and immorality (as indicated by crime incidence for example) decrease. If
they are not met, social conflict and immorality increase.

In my personal thoughts about socialism, what I emphasised is, that there is
no need for only one principle of allocation, or one principle of property
rights, numerous different allocation principles and property rights could
in principle be combined, in accordance with social priorities and what
works best. In a very modest way, I often try to determine very exactly and
with as much objectivity as possible what works best and why that is, in my
own life, or why exactly some things are right/wrong or beneficial/harmful
to do (some phenomena remain terribly puzzling to me, maybe that is my
naivity, and some things I am not game to try at all). You can have all
kinds of moral theories or ideologies about why some things are good or bad,
but the point is to verify with precision yourself, why that is really the
case, with an open mind, and come to a definite conclusion about it. Of
course, you should not be so open-minded, that your brains fall out.

This is an experiential or experimental ethics, which says that which norms
are finally best to adopt, is something which often cannot be stated
definitely in advance of experience, they have to be verified from
experience (including historical experience). Ethics must therefore be open
to experience, rather than simply an a priori dogma. It makes a living
environment desirable, in which there is both room for making mistakes and
trial-and-error, but in which big mistakes can be avoided, i.e. a learning
environment which is non-arbitrary (non-chaotic), informed by scientific
insight, permitting at least some predictability, and allowing definite
experiential conclusions to accumulate. If, for example, people have to live
a life in which they can hardly predict or anticipate what will happen next,
because everything about their future is rather uncertain and beyond their
control, this makes any balanced human development impossible. A basic
amount of continuity is simply essential to achieve anything beyond
survival, and socialists argue that therefore society should be organised to
provide it.

Planning is not something socialists invented, it has always existed, the
question is only whether we can plan better, and whether we can create an
organisational framework within which the best effect can be given to the
plans made. The effectivity of planning is almost totally dependent on the
mode of co-operation which can be realised, and this is obviously the stuff
of political insight. If co-operation fails, you do not even get the
information necessary to make the plan. Planning techniques are one thing,
but a critical question is what motivates people to co-operate with the
plan, and that depends greatly on how their interests and needs are taken
into account. What socialists argue is that the interests and needs of the
working majority (as producers and consumers) should be taken into account,
since they create the wealth on which everything else in society depends.

You can coerce people into co-operating with the collective plan, or they
can do so voluntarily. Too much reliance on coercion does not work, and
becomes inefficient and unjust, but too much reliance on voluntary
co-operation (lack of sanctions for anti-social behaviour) also does not
work. Markets however cannot address this problem adequately by themselves,
because they contain no specific morality other than whatever happens to be
required to settle transactions and contracts, and every
contract/transaction can be negated by another contract/transaction.

I am personally convinced now through personal study that commerce - if not
in the first instance, still in the last instance - generates a kind of
nihilism (a "why not?" or "who says?" or "anything goes" approach). It could
be benign, or very harmful.  That is, in reality, exactly why market
expansion has gone hand in hand with the expansion of the aegis of state
activities (not simply public ownership, but increased rule-making and
regulation) which aims to restrict the amount of nihilism. But a
totalitarian state generates just as much nihilism.

That is just to say, that this nihilism is really sourced in a malformed
relationship between the "individual" and the "social", such that it is no
longer clear why any norm or rule - whether individually chosen or socially
imposed - should necessarily be followed, or apply.

Another way of putting that is, that how the ability for people to "rule
themselves" combines with the imposition of social rules becomes riddled
with contradictions. It can be difficult to fathom, but the result is
typically a perspective which sees the world as being without objective
meanings, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. This nihilist
perspective conflicts directly with an experiential ethics, and with an
environment that can contain such an ethics, causing its critics often to
retreat (conservatively or not) to religion, fundamentalisms and tradition.
A Marxist would of course emphasise that the nihilism is an effect of the
conditions of social existence, and that if society is reorganised
appropriately, the nihilism will reduce, since in that case there will be
"objective meanings, purpose, comprehensible truth, and essential value".

A little amount of nihilism is maybe not such a bad thing, it could even be
radical and progressive in some sense (often difficult to judge), but a lot
of nihilism simply cripples the capacity for social learning, because it
becomes impossible to conclude anything durable from experience that could
orient behaviour. In that case, we are left just surviving in a world that
makes no sense.


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