Re: [OPE-L] Socialism and markets

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sat Jan 14 2006 - 10:50:15 EST

Hi Jurriaan,

Thanks for your response.  Your post was rather long so I'm going
to have to pick and choose which points I will respond to. (I admit
to tiring -- quite literally -- when composing a reply).  If you want
me to respond to other points than those below, please call it
to my attention.

>  The rhetoric of choice is to a large extent a bourgeois ideology
> also, quite vacuous and dehistoricising.

I agree: in fact, that was the point I tried to make previously.

>  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.

Harmony?  Hmmm.  Well, I think that part of the process of
building socialism is overcoming the very restricted understanding
of the relation between the individual and society that is part of
bourgeois ideology and social norms common in the bourgeois mode
of production.  Whether this is "harmony" depends, I guess, on what you
mean by harmony.  I'm not really convinced that with socialism there
will be harmony: struggles will continue.

>  It is impossible
> to theorise this without a scientifically based moral understanding.

Scientifically based moral understanding?  I don't know about that.
I don't even really know what it means.

> What  workers want most of all is a decent life and the opportunity
> to be able to improve their lot. I do anyway.

Well,  I don't really like that way of putting the issue because it
seems to infer that a decent life means improving one's lot which
implies _just_ more material goods.  What workers want, rather,
is something less easily defined and specified: happiness.

> 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,

Yes, I  think you're probably right about that.

> 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.

Yes, for the same reason he was not all that clear on the character of
socialism.  I.e. he seemed to believe that the societies of the future
would resolve the practical questions of socialism for themselves through
their own praxis.  Good enough for Marx -- perhaps -- but not good
enough today.

> 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.

A kind of a learning by doing?  Not bad, but I don't think that's the
same as what you refer to above as scientifically based moral
understanding.  I rather like the analogy to learning by doing, though,
because it emphasizes self-determination and that there will be a
number of different practices which will be accessed, reevaluated,
and changed over time.  It seems to me that any vision of socialism
must be broad enough to allow for the possibility of mistakes and then
learning from those mistakes.

>  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.

Going back to Marx and Engels (and even pre-dating them) was the
implicit belief that the forces of production had reached a stage of
development where, following re-distribution, the needs of workers
could be met.  There are a couple of problems with this idea, though.
First, while the forces of production grow so does need, so need is
a moving target.  What workers believe they need today is quite
distinct from what they needed just 20 years ago.  And, of course,
needs will continue to change.  This has important environmental
consequences which I don't think most socialists have thought through.
Second,  the belief that there is more than enough productive
capacity, productivity, and resources to meet (following re-distribution and
reorganization in an international  socialist commonwealth) the needs
of everyone in the world is *at best* an assertion.  Even in the most
advanced capitalist economies, it is an assertion which (at least to my
knowledge) has not been rigorously empirically studied.  I'd like to
see someone crunch the numbers and see how much of a pie there
really is and what this means per capita in terms of the ability to
satisfy peoples' needs.

>  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.


>  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.

Agreed.  Another way of  expressing the problem with that idea is that
it eternalizes and naturalizes markets.

> Different countries are at different stages of
> social development, some require markets more, other less, in different
> areas of life.

If your point is that the question has to be addressed at a more concrete
level, then I agree with you.  But, there is still another issue:  if we
believe that socialism must be an international system, then given the kinds
of inequalities and disparities in development in different social
formations, how do we get there?

This is a complex question which is not easily answered.  "World
revolution", for instance, is not a sufficient answer. In part, that's
because although different social formations have different
understandings of need, what is considered to be necessary is (in
part due to mass systems of communication) ratcheted upwards in
all parts of the world.  E.g. there are social formations where PCs
are not considered to be a necessary good for individual consumption
now, but they will be. Etc. Etc. Etc. Again, there are  environmental
implications.  There may also, depending on how large the world
pie is in relation to needs (see comments above about need for an
empirical study) possible (highly likely) conflicts between different
regions and social formations within the context of an international
socialist commonwealth.

>  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.

Err.  You lost me.  Because he was denied tenure at Yale?

> 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.

Oh, I don't know about that.  Capital expansion breeds its own
forms of moral  decline.  E.g. conspicuous consumption.

> A simple indicator is longterm crime statistics.

Well, yes, there does seem to be an empirical correlation between
unemployment and crime.  But, this does not translate into an
increase in immorality. If workers, e.g., steal from Wal-Mart to
meet their basic needs, this is not from my perspective an
immoral act.  Sometimes engaging in what the state defines as
crime is the most moral, self-empowering, and noble activity that
workers can do.

>  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.

Another pattern of behavior was witnessed by workers in Argentina:
by taking over factories they were both looking after themselves
and building solidarity.

> 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.

As John Lennon remarked in the song "Beautiful Boy":

"Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

This is a topic that cries out for group, collaborative research.

Sorry but I'll have to leave it at that for now.  Thanks again for
your response.  As always, I'd be interested as well in hearing
from others on the list about these questions.

In solidarity, Jerry

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sun Jan 15 2006 - 00:00:01 EST