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starbucks4ever (97.43)

A system within a system

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August 27, 2010 – Comments (14)

I thought I would write a few lines in anticipation of David in Quatar's forthcoming post with critique of Marx, just to offer the proper context in which I think one must view Marx's writings. 

The ideologues always (at least, I am not aware of many exceptions) like to present their ideology in its purified form. Inevitably, the picture they draw for us is always a caricature. If it is free market, we must do away with food stamps, if it's socialism, we must collectivize every farm to the last hen. But pragmatists know that neither ideal is attainable, and that any real system differs from the party slogan as much as a real horse differs from the physicist's 3-dimensional spherical model.

In reality, neither system can be successful without borrowing some of the tools from its ideological rival. The Capsters are very well aware that the system we currently have would - for better or worse - have crashed in 2008 without the American version of Gosplan, also known as the Fed. And bloggers from the socialist camp also remember that they would be undernourished it were not for the "bazaars" where food was sold at market prices. But this does not mean that America has gone socialist or that Stalin was a closeted capitalist. The way you tell the difference is by telling the dominant social structure from the subordinate one.

At times, the distinction becomes so fuzzy that an observer can't even notice it, unless he applies some intelligence and common sense.

Some of you may recall Melville's story, "Benito Cereno", in which a ship controlled by the slaves looks similar to an ordinary ship controlled by the captain. At least it looks similar enough to Amasa Delano, who is paying too much attention to the captain's insignia and misses all the red flags until the very end. It's a telling story, which I am sure Marx would have liked, because it aptly describers the dialectics that accompanies a 180 degree social change. In that story, the U-turn is happening in the literal sense of the word as the ship changes course back to Africa. But the new masters of the ship still need elements of the old order - the captain and his white sailors - to provide the necessary expertise, and also to manage the ship's economy (trade relations with Captain Delano). But the Old System is really playing the second fiddle to the New System, and Benito Cereno's insignia can't buy him a cent's worth of power. This is what Marx's Socialism should look like when managed properly. You can still have a CEO driving his limousine.

The United States of America looks socialist in many respects, especially when viewed from a distance. To many Soviets, it looked in fact like a better version of the USSR: after all, didn't the American unemployed often enjoy a better standard of living than the Soviet workers? But to the Americans, who know the real situation on the ship, it doesn't look like the unemployed are calling the shots. Even more generally, everybody who is in the lower 49% is well aware that his well-being is NOT a primary concern of the government and that all those "socialist" handouts from the government are often just token money. If you can see beyond appearances, all those socialist things that useful idiots like Rush Limbaugh complain about have a well-defined capitalist function. 

In Marxist terms, in America, socialist distribution relations form a subordinate subsystem within a dominant capitalist system of property relations.

Now, the reason I'm writing this is because if you don't understand it, you can easily miss the Marxist boat. Marx was more of a philosopher than an economist, and his views were based entirely on Hegel's dialectics. The notion of a system that utilizes its polar opposite for its own purposes was the main tool in his toolkit. A social change, to Marx, works as follows: 1) The old system runs into crisis, 2) The adaptation of the opposite system provides a temporary cure but soon the opposite extreme causes a similar crisis, 3) A synthesis of the best features of the two systems resolves the contradictions and the society moves on to the next stage where the cycle repeats itself.

If you accept dialectics, as you should because it mattered so much to Marx, then you must realize that a frontal attack on private property and collectivization of everything is against Marxism. It is the opposite extreme of pure capitalism, and in dialectics, opposite extremes produce the same result. If you try that, you will wind up with a single enterprise owned by the state. When the dust settles, you will realize to your amazement that it is facing the same problems as any capitalist monopoly. Coincidentally, this is exactly what happened to the Soviet Union. The Marxists were shell-shocked by its collapse only because they never learned dialectics, otherwise they wouldn't fail to see the writing on the wall.

Marxism still remains a scarecrow for many. One part of the problem is that people who called themselves Marxists were in fact as far from Marx as one could possibly be, but the other reason is that the US is really, genuinely, an ideological society. Even if Marxism were carried out in an optimal manner, the ideological rivalry between the two systems would be more intense than the rivalry between religious cults, because while a Christian and a Muslim can in principle agree that they are praying to the same God under different names, Capitalism and Socialism are both about distribution of money, and if a dollar is lying inside Peter's wallet, you can't pretend that it's lying inside Paul's wallet and vice versa. There is no reason you should accept egalitarianism which was so important to Marx. Marxist economics is a different matter.

When you discuss Das Kapital, remember that we are should be talking about regulating the use of capital, not about taking away your bank account. That means making capitalist production relations subordinate to the socialist distribution relations.

Which brings us to the REAL problem with Marxism: how do you set up a good bureaucracy that will work for the whole society and will not itself degenerate into bourgeoisie over time? It is here, in my opinion, that Marx's writings are substandard if not outright utopian. We know that on a small scale of an Israeli kibbutz it can be managed, but how do you manage it on a large scale? Perhaps modern game theory in combination with modern IT technology and motivation psychology could find a solution? But it may well be that the solution remains illusory. I think the jury is still out on this. Our social science is in even worse shape than our economic science, and besides, it hasn't even been asking that question, let alone looking for the answer. To be brief, I see a HUGE problem with Marxism on the social side of the equation. On the other hand, I DON'T see any problem on the economic side. It is my current view (of course I could be wrong) that economically, the system is 100% workable.

 Just to make sure you are not fighting against a straw man.  

14 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On August 27, 2010 at 7:30 PM, kdakota630 (29.46) wrote:

Liked your first few paragraphs a lot, but don't have the time to finish.  Will get back to it tomorrow morning hopefully.  I'm looking forward to reading this as well as David's upcoming blog you mentioned.

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#2) On August 27, 2010 at 8:06 PM, whereaminow (< 20) wrote:

Thanks zloj. I will read this post today.

Now, I'm not looking at Das Kapital (Volume I) as something to set up and knock down.  

My plan is simply to show people here that no matter what you believe, you can learn by investigating other viewpoints.  Too many people here try to dismiss everything they disagree with by simply calling it "ideology."  That's not what CAPS is about for me.

So the idea here is to get a good discussion going that people on CAPS will find interesting and they learn a little bit,  I'm going to throw stuff out to you and rg, you guys can defend it or show why you don't like it, and then we move on.  It will be free-flowing for the most part - and not a hard-core debate.  

It's an introduction to some of the topics of Marx that cause contention, with some viewpoint sprinkled in, that will hopefully make people interested in learning more.   I don't like that people are afraid to read Marx.  That's not a good thing.

David in Qatar

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#3) On August 27, 2010 at 8:19 PM, starbucks4ever (97.43) wrote:

"I don't like that people are afraid to read Marx." 

A normal xenophobia (fear of things alien or unknown). Reading Keynes or Friedman was also a taboo in the Soviet Union, with the result that when the curtain finally fell, a few pretenders like Gaidar and Chubais literally stole the show.

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#4) On August 27, 2010 at 8:46 PM, guiron (20.20) wrote:

The United States of America looks socialist in many respects, especially when viewed from a distance. To many Soviets, it looked in fact like a better version of the USSR: after all, didn't the American unemployed often enjoy a better standard of living than the Soviet workers? But to the Americans, who know the real situation on the ship, it doesn't look like the unemployed are calling the shots.

This particular example misses the point. Strictly speaking, socialism is when the means of production is owned by the workers, as well as public ownership of means of allocation. I seriously doubt to anyone who lived there at the time that the US looked anything like their system - in fact the culture shock was more than usual, at least in my experience. We are many times less socialist and far more laissez-faire than any other advanced economy at the moment, although this may change, but there is great resistance to the idea that the poorest among us should not shoulder an undue amount of risk (the downside is most devastating to those who have nothing left to lose). Our culture instead focuses far too much on the idea that you shouldn't be given any help whatsoever unless you "deserve" it, and of course the definition of whether you do deserve help changes constantly but usually leaves far too many people who need help behind. This may be ideological, but I think it's more to do with the constant propaganda coming from the corporate sector and top tax bracket in the form of talking points (from think tanks such as Cato, trust foundations funded by Koch, et al, etc.), which have been readily picked up and repeated endlessly by the media as if there is truth in it.

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#5) On August 27, 2010 at 9:04 PM, starbucks4ever (97.43) wrote:

"Strictly speaking, socialism is when the means of production is owned by the workers, as well as public ownership of means of allocation"

Here is one stereotype of Socialism that people repeat too often without giving themselves trouble to think what it means. Owned by workers? Sure, that's a central requirement. But what does it mean to own a car factory? Can all the workers collectively visit the factory that they "own" and collectively decide how to run it? Obviously not. So "the workers" can only own the factory indirectly, via a hired official. Let's hope that representative democracy works well and the official does not lose touch with the common workers...In the best case the workers may also get to own a few shares. Let's hope they pay a dividend...Wait a minute! In America, more half of the households are shareholders. And how many households owned shares in the Soviet Union? Zero, right? Now think about it: which country is closer to Socialism by that standard?  

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#6) On August 27, 2010 at 10:04 PM, Donnernv (< 20) wrote:

Guys:

This is a very interesting thread.  But I beg of you, hit enter after three or four sentences.  It just looks like a gray blur as the words run on and on and on.

You'll get a lot more readership.

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#7) On August 28, 2010 at 6:48 AM, ATH001 (< 20) wrote:

Zloj, you have a way of presenting issues that don't occur naturally to many of us, at least to me. # 5 is a great example.

Thank you for taking the time to show me other sides of the issue.

L

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#8) On August 31, 2010 at 9:09 PM, Monroe7 (< 20) wrote:

Great discussion, I have actually been thinking alot about the balance between good social policy and the amount of control the government should exert over the economy.  It appears to me that the middle class is now under more and more pressure as the costs of healthcare and higher education sky rocket while living wage jobs become more scarce. 

 I am traditionally Republican in leaning but have become frustrated with some of the mindless arguements that tax cuts, weak social programs, and that basically no government control over the economy is the answer.  Somewhere there is a balance that has to be found that is more pragmatic in nature and is willing to evolve with the economy and the social concerns that we face now and in years to come.

 Obviously most of us are not going to agree alot with Marx on the way that government and the economy should relate to each other.  However, there are always good things to learn from other thoughts and theories even if we think 90% of it is wrong.  We should never be afraid to consider theories or beliefs that are alternative to our own. 

 

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#9) On September 01, 2010 at 12:31 PM, russiangambit (29.12) wrote:

> Obviously not. So "the workers" can only own the factory indirectly, via a hired official. Let's hope that representative democracy works well and the official does not lose touch with the common workers

Exactly. Not much different from US "corporatism". Somehow every civilization ends up destroyed by its leaders who hold their own interest much closer than those of the others. For marxism to work, the leaders have to be selfish, this is simply impossible.

Great post, rec #9.

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#10) On September 01, 2010 at 1:55 PM, lemoneater (81.74) wrote:

zloj, one of your statements jumped right out at me so I copied it below.

"It is here, in my opinion, that Marx's writings are substandard if not outright utopian. We know that on a small scale of an Israeli kibbutz it can be managed, but how do you manage it on a large scale?"

I agree.

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#11) On September 03, 2010 at 12:34 PM, NDimensionalDino (98.10) wrote:

I've always believed that government should be a dynamic process. Eexpanding and contracting as necessity dictates, and shifting between capitalism and socialism as required.

 I've always believed this should be heavily studied so that we know what to do beforehand.  When a market overheats, regulate it.  When a market declines, deregulate it.  When govt. program is needed, create it.  When no longer necessary, kill it.

All should be done automatically without being subjected to the whims of charlatans, ideologues, and  missionaries.

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#12) On September 03, 2010 at 2:09 PM, whereaminow (< 20) wrote:

zloj and rg,

Look for my post on Das Kapital on Monday.  Should be fun!

David in Qatar

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#13) On September 04, 2010 at 1:18 PM, starbucks4ever (97.43) wrote:

#12,

Will be a great way to celebrate the Labor day, I hope :) 

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#14) On September 07, 2010 at 1:40 AM, whereaminow (< 20) wrote:

zloj,

Make that Wednesday at the earliest.  =(

Sorry to disappoint, but something came up. 

David in Qatar

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