[OPE-L] Socialism and markets

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Tue Jan 17 2006 - 13:16:29 EST

Jerry, a few comments (this topic is really a very big one, and it is
difficult to do justice to it without seeming to vent a banality):

>I have yet to see credible evidence to support this assertion unless
we make further heroic and limiting assumptions about what
constitute physical needs

UN calculations have been done of the type that an annual levy of 5.2% on
the fortunes of the world's 500 or so billionaires would be financially
sufficient to guarantee essential needs for the whole world population.
Wheter it should happen is another story, it is just stated as a fact (it
would require a high level of human cooperation to achieve this).
We're talking here about clean drinking water, proper sanitation, essential
health care, sufficient food intake, etc. Now just extrapolate the
mathematics of this. If I recall correctly, Stiglitz said in recent days
that the final all-up cost to the US alone of the Iraq war was likely to be
about four times the size of the shortfall in US social security across 70
years! It seems to me reactionary to argue that the lot of the poor
could not be improved, because it would stuff up the environment -
a poverty of thought really.

> The main area of
conflict potentially is by workers in the more advanced economies who
might be unwilling to make sacrifices

There are many reasons to believe rather few sacrifices are necessary. The
big differences in consumption between rich and poor workers concern not
food and household goods but money spent on housing, cars, international
travel and the like. Those costs can be reduced very significantly in a
socialist order.  The biggest economic problem in poor countries is
unemployment, resulting from a maldistribution of incomes and property
rights. To a large extent poor countries can raise their own standard of
living "if" there is near-full employment. I tend to think the basic
economic problem of rich countries is surplus capital not invested in
expanding production because of reduced profitability, lack of effective
buying power, the risks of deregulated world markets, and a lack of
ability to organise people collectively (this is one point about neoliberal
politics often ignored - if people have to depend more and more on
their own means and their own individual choices, it may also become
more difficult to organise them or unite them collectively, i.e. get
people to cooperate). In reality, there is always a lot of "slack" in
the capitalist economy, and particularly in wars, people discover
all sorts of resources they never thought they had. Necessity is
the mother of invention.

>Socialist morality must embrace environmental concerns.
Conspicuous consumption, to the extent that it wastes resources,
is immoral if one views the economic waste of resources as
immoral.  This is not rooted in a Protestant ethic which views
waste as .. well ... wasteful but rather is an ethical claim rooted in
environmental history and consciousness.

Of course, there have always been environmental concerns, and will always
be. The medieval burghs already had environmental concerns, insofar as
inadequate sanitation meant that people died of diseases. However, for
reactionary thinkers, it means we ought to stop economic growth for the sake
of the environment, instead of giving it a powerful new direction. All you
are really saying is that wasting resources is immoral. Of course, there are
cases of clear waste. But in other cases of waste, it depends on your point
of view of waste, that's the point, it refers directly to a particular moral
stance. Somebody might say to me "you waste money" and from one
point of view it is no doubt true (I get a bit sloppy at times), but from
another point of view it isn't.

>What is a moral action in one mode of production
might be viewed as being immoral in another.  To take an extreme case: if
a slave 'steals' food from her/his slaveowner in order to survive, is that
immoral? No.

Seems to me you contradict yourself here - on the one hand, moral action is
historically relative in different modes of production, on the other hand
the morality of a slave stealing food is to be viewed from a general human
or suprahistorical perspective. You could, however, argue (as Trotsky did)
that there exist only class moralities, and no universal moral norms, but
that argument will not really wash, insofar as people of different classes
all live in the same (world) community. Intrinsic to a moral rule (at least
in rational ethics) is that it must apply equally to all under the same
relevant circumstances (see further below).

>What is OK from a certain ethical perspective to do unto others under
capitalism is not the same as what is OK to do unto others under

That is perhaps true in some cases, but not in other cases insofar as many
basic moral problems remain the same in civil society whatever the social
set-up. This can easily be verified by looking at the legislation of
societies which are very different in social structure. Basically, a theft
a theft and remains so, under the most varied conditions, though we
may debate its moral significance.

>The problem will be how in practice one ethical standard
is abandoned and another one -- more appropriate for a 'higher' form
of social organization -- is adopted.

Well, if our discussion does not move beyond whether it is okay to steal
from Walmart, that problem will not get solved I would think. Obviously,
moral standards can and do change over time, even within capitalist society.
Through practical experience I have adjusted a few of my own moral ideas as
well, for example. I can expand on the topic a little here, just as a note -
on my reading, Marx distinguished implicitly or explicitly between:

- lived morality
- moral theory
- moralism

In all moral theory, the basic precept is always "do unto others as you
would have them to unto you, and don't do unto others what you don't want
them to do to you". The rational implication is, mutatis mutandis, that a
moral rule is a rule, which must apply to everybody equally, or at least to
all people involved, in the same relevant circumstances.

This idea recurs in all religions and philosophies, although it may not be
so rationally articulated; maybe, there a karmic principle, such as that you
get what you give out, and so on. Moral integrity requires, at the vary
least, some kind of consistent (or even predictable) behavioural pattern,
not arbitrary behaviour. Sometimes a principle of commutative
justice is proposed.

Question then arises, why morality exists at all, or why be moral. And
basically it is, because otherwise civil society could not function, man
would be simply a wolf to man; beyond that, moral notions are rooted in
values (scala of priorities and dispositions orienting conscious behaviour,
on the basis of conscious choices between different options) which are
regarded as promoting the survival and prospering of members of a group.
They regulate and mediate the social processes of giving and taking, getting
and receiving, sharing and excluding, because love or human sympathy alone
will not do the trick. Even if people contravene moral norms, this does not
mean however they have no morality whatsoever. Mostly they do, except their
morality, in the given case, deviates from a norm. Gradually, with the
growth of trade, we can also see how the concept of economic value
becomes distinct from moral value.

Faced with the question, ""why should I be moral ?", the liberal answers,
"because the protection of individual autonomy, rooted in the ability to
make free choices, is conditional on observing moral principles, and without
individual autonomy, morally principled behaviour is impossible to
exercise". Thus, morality implies autonomy, and autonomy implies morality.
One could then even say, tautologically, autonomy is part of what we mean by
morality, or morality is part of what we mean by autonomy. In very specific
morally relevant circumstances, a liberal could therefore endorse stealing
from Wal-Mart like you do. The true conservative argues by contrast that
there are basic moral precepts and boundaries which are good for all time
and all humans, and you must establish those and enforce them, or return to
them if they are lost. Thus, e.g. stealing for Wal-Mart is always morally
wrong, under any conditions, because stealing is intrinsically wrong.

Marx however goes one step further, and inquires also into the objective
social and material *conditions* required for
morally principled behaviour to flourish, and comes to the conclusion, that
moral behaviour consists in *activity* which develops and establishes those
conditions; to establish those conditions, a revolt is also deemed necessary
against all those forces which get in the way, such as, a society structured
on the basis of harmful competition, rather than beneficial social
co-operation. However this stance - the revolt against all conditions which
make people less than they could be - is also problem-fraught. Some
revolts have more merit than others, and some revolts are pretty lame
and stupid really, an alienated response to alienation. We could also for
example say, "don't do now, what you might regret later", or "do things with
an eye for eternity" but that is often not very helpful for moral
because there is change, people change. Often we have to act, without
knowing the full moral implications in advance, that is precisely the
problem. The bolsheviks had certain ideals, but acting on those ideals had
results which in important respects were disastrous. The question thus
becomes one of how we can most effectively and rationally reconcile the
ideals and the reality, and that is one reason why a viable ethics has to
be an experiential ethics. Marxists regrettably often present failures as
successes, and therefore no moral learning occurs. Faced with the horrors
of modern society, they yearn nostalgically for the glory days of the
Russian revolution, which is really rather infantile.

For the liberal, the market guarantees individual autonomy, and legality is
there, to deal with abberations, a sort of constraint or limit. From a
socialist perspective, however, the market guarantees effective individual
autonomy only for people with money in their pocket (and even then, it may
not guarantee that) but more importantly, the market does not have any
specific morality of its own, beyond those obligations required to settle
transactions. Hence the continuing requirement for legislation and religion
to regulate or shape moral behaviour.

If society is divided into classes, nations and groups with conflicting
interests, a universally shared morality is mainly an ideal. In that case,
there is a difference between the morality of different social classes and
groups. You therefore get a clash of morals. The legal system then provides
general guidelines for how those conflicts should be resolved. But in
practice, the legal system cannot overcome the reality, that different
people occupy very different and unequal positions in the moral
order, affecting the very design of the legal system. For a simple example,
if you have a lot, you can give a lot, but if you have little, you can give
little. You can then make a law about giving, but it may be largely
a formalism, because many have nothing much they can give, others a
lot. Ideology will, of course, also shape our very perceptions of how
much we have, and what we can give.

The paradox is, that if the conflicts did not arise, there would be no need
for a shared moral system, yet because the conflict does exist, a system for
moral evaluation is necessary... even although, and precisely because - this
is the point - morality is flouted in practice. As said, intrinsic to the
idea of a rational morality is, as stated, that a moral rule is a rule which
must apply to everybody in the same conditions, yet morality paradoxically
gets its functionality, precisely because the rule is *not* being applied to
everybody. There are two implications here, one for moral theory and one
for moralism.

You can try to formulate a general theory of human morality (e.g. in
theology) to orient behaviour but in practice, people cannot "live" this
morality and do not live it, at least not perfectly. They cannot live it,
because conditions of life prevent it. It remains an ideal which may or may
not have spiritual force. Yet, it is important that that ideal is there; it
does orient behaviour to some extent, it is a reference point.

For Marx, one implication of all this was, that ethical discourse invariably
has an *ideological* dimension. In ideology, sectional (or self-) interests
are represented as common interests, and common interests are represented as
sectional (or self-) interests; the whole nature of ideology is that the
real causes or reasons behind an action or thought or condition are
distorted, twisted or obscured; the ideology provides a rationalisation or
justification, which has a surface plausibility, but in reality may miss the
real nub of the issue. The ideology also functions for those in their
position of power, in a specific context, to "rally", unite or persuade
others (the "we" feeling).

The only ethics that then is therefore worth having, is an ethical theory
firmly based on real experience, an empirical ethics. Marx even goes so far
as to suggest that, what is regarded as "human" in one epoch is regarded as
"inhuman" in another epoch. (in Die Deutsche Ideologie; this is really
where the "mode of production" bit comes in, because different modes
of production bring out different facets of human beings more strongly
or weakly, and feature different popular moralities). Nowadays it
often seems that the very idea of what it means to be human is
being contested, but that is also a contest of values.

A critical and self-critical empirical (experiential) ethics, which reasons
from the real circumstances in which people live, contrasts with moralism,
i.e. the venting of moral panaceas, which, if only people believed in them,
would save the world. Moralism avoids the question, of why people would
*not* believe the beautiful moral ideas, or fail to act according to them,
the first place. In religion, however, this is often represented with the
idea of Original Sin, i.e. we are all sinners in the eyes of God. Or, we are
simply all suffering beings, and so on. Or, people are inevitably doomed
to make the same mistakes over and over again ("the human condition").
In that case, moral conditions are eternalised.

Moralism revolves around the idea, that people should adhere to a moral
rule, or adopt a value, and that if they did, life would be better. It is
not saying, "this is what my moral example is, or this is what I believe, or
this is what my people actually believe", but rather "this is what people
should believe, or act according to". A sort of propaganda, at worst.
Marx criticised this approach as a young man, in various writings.

For example:

"Because Herr Heinzen has always found Hegel's language "indigestible", he
has not, like "Engels and others", succumbed to the immoral arrogance of
ever priding himself on that same Hegelian language, any more than, by all
accounts so far, Westphalian peasants "pride themselves" on the Sanskrit
language. However, true moral behaviour consists in avoiding the motivation
for immoral behaviour, and how can one better secure oneself against immoral
"priding oneself" on a language than by taking good care not to understand
that language!"

Karl Marx, "Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality"

An experiential or experimental ethics leads to the idea, that the most
important thing is not whether the moral ideal is actually achieved, but
whether substantive moral learning practically occurs, and verifiably
advances, through various successes and mistakes (the rational meaning of a
"sin" [in Greek hamarta, in Hebrew hhat-ta'th'] is a mistake, to miss the
mark). Part of the art of politics is then, to help advance that moral
learning, by genuinely clarifying experience, and what lessons can be drawn
from it, not by moralising, but by stating the real situation, in no
uncertain terms. Only on that basis, can you say "what is to be done", and
do what is right.

For Marx, ultimately, a substantive moral engagement must lead to political
action, since, if different social classes, nations and groups have
different moralities, how moral questions are resolved, is ultimately also a
question of *power*, the assertion of a moral way of being, by living
example. Che Guevara talks in this sense about an examplary practice
(well, that cuts me out :-)).

If it is true that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,
then that politics must be an ethical politics, in the precise sense that
power is only a means, an instrument, and not an end in itself (power for
the sake of power) - the ethical politician is willing to assume power and
responsibility, but also cede it without reservations, in line with a
specific moral stance subscribed to. It is a politics which aims to
transform social relations, not the conquest of power in the first

But this is obviously very difficult, as they say,"there is no honest
politician" who tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,
and acts accordingly. That is not completely possible in politics, precisely
because of the existence of the sectional interests that give rise to it,
and human limitations. Lies and ruses will occur. But what you can do,
is at least try to be honest and truthful to your own constituency, your
own side; and you can be a person of integrity, to the extent that your
actions are not arbitrary and consistent.

That's I think some outline of the argument anyway. I find it a difficult
topic and I am often in doubt about it, or, I am unhappy with my own actions
(feeling more like Nietzsche). Of course, you can make the whole thing much
more subtle and introduce all sorts of dialectics into it. All morality I
think is ultimately dialectical, not in the sense of sophistry, but in the
sense of finding the mediations in the contradictions of life, in accordance
with a consistent pattern, i.e. on the basis of some kind of integrity or
consistency. Marx himself cited his strength as being singleness of purpose,
and his happiness was "to fight". In some respects, Marx's own life was
morally dubious, it often lacked singleness of purpose, some of his fights
were useless, and he underestimated his own effect. But moral learning and
progress did occur in his life, and I think people can still learn from it.

I think a reason why Marxism (not Marx, but Marxism) has withered is
precisely because it lacked a specific, substantive positive ethics (though
different writers and leaders have tried to impute one). Lenin's realpolitik
really wasn't a substitute for it. The socialist movement has however
involved such an ethics, it has been an explicitly ethical movement which
Marxists have drawn on, and criticised as well. But like I said, I think
there is not one socialism but many socialisms, reflecting the perceptions
of different strata, classes, groups and nations, all articulating notions
of a better world and the means to get there.

Ernst Bloch wrote:

"And yet ethics as experiment must neither remain boundless nor merely be a
formal requirement for individual behaviour. It must draw its light from the
class struggle of those who suffer and are heavy laden, from the humiliated
and the insulted. In this way only, will enduring ethical postulates become
indestructible and imperishable, in spite of their betrayal in reality. This
means that the true face of humanity, however vague its features, and
despite the weariness and purely loquacious character of its too general
determinations... is at least present in its self-consciousness".

- Ernst Bloch, Experimentum Mundi. Frage, Kategorien des Hereausbringens,
Praxis. Frankfurt: Surhrkamp Verlag, 1975, p. 184.

Thus the real and the ideal may be far apart, but if we are honestly
aware of both, moral progress may nevertheless occur, whatever the
trials and errors. The important thing may be, to have those trials and
errors, and not be afraid of them, so that something is learnt.


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