Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

RedMenace

Branko Milanovic has put forward an idea he thinks “will gradually become more popular”:

The idea is simple: the presence of the ideology of socialism (abolition of private property) and its embodiment in the Soviet Union and other Communist states made capitalists careful: they knew that if they tried to push workers too hard, the workers might retaliate and capitalists might end up by losing all.

The idea reminds me of an argument Etienne Balibar made many years ago (unfortunately, I can no long remember or find the original source but here’s a link [pdf] to one version of it)—that the “European project” was more progressive during the Cold War in the sense that the welfare state was constructed, by forces from above and below, as a response to the Soviet model of socialism, in order to prevent the working classes from adopting a communist ideology. (Since then, as Balibar has recently argued, the European project has fundamentally changed, as it has been assimilated by globalized finance capitalism and, under German hegemony, a strategy of industrial competitiveness based on low wages.)

Milanovice discusses some recent empirical work on three channels through which socialism “disciplined” income inequality under capitalism: (a) ideology/politics (e.g., the electoral importance of Communist and some socialist parties), (b) trade unions (some of which were affiliated with Communist or Labor parties), and (c) the “policing” device of the Soviet military power. He then offers his own analysis:

Communism, was a global movement. It does not require much reading of the literature from the 1920s to realize how scared capitalists and those who defended the free market were of socialism. After all, that’s why capitalist countries militarily intervened in the Russian Civil War, and then imposed the trade embargo and the cordon sanitaire on the USSR.  Not a sort of policies you would do if you were not ideologically afraid (because militarily the Soviet Union was then very weak). The threat intensified again after the World War II when the Communist influence through all three channels was at its peak. And then it steadily declined so much that by mid-1970s, it was definitely small. The Communist parties reached their maximum influence in the early 1970s but Eurocomunism had already expunged from its program any ideas of nationalization of property. It was rapidly transforming itself into social democracy. The trade unions declined. And both the demonstration effect and the fear of the Soviet Union receded. So capitalism could go back to what it would be doing anyway, that is to the levels of inequality it achieved at the end of the 19th century. “El periodo especial” of capitalism was over.

He admits the implication of such a story may be rather unpleasant:

left to itself, without any countervailing powers, capitalism will keep on generating high inequality and so the US may soon look like South Africa.

This is not to suggest we need another Cold War for United States to move even closer to looking like South Africa. But it does mean there will be a significant move from above toward more democracy and less inequality only if there’s a real threat to move outside of capitalism from below.

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For the first time, a poll has Vermont independent senator and socialist Bernie Sanders ahead in the crucial early primary state of New Hampshire.

The poll, released by Franklin Pierce University and the Boston Herald, shows Sanders leading former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 44 percent to 37 percent in New Hampshire among Democratic primary voters. (The live interview phone poll was conducted 7-10 August and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.)

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Should capitalists plan on putting The Doors on their karaoke machines?

According to Paul Mason they should. Me, I’m not convinced.

Before discussing Mason’s argument, let me get a few things out of the way. First, Mason implies he invented the word “postcapitalism,” which makes as much sense as the idea that Al Gore invented the internet. (But maybe Mason gives credit to the long line of other postcapitalist thinkers in the book, which I’ll have to read when it’s published.) Second, I’ve long been suspicious of technological determinist arguments, that is, the attempt to explain history and society (mostly or solely) on the basis of changes in technology. (That’s not to say technology doesn’t matter; just that it’s a mistake to treat it as the essential cause of everything else.) Finally, the bit about Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” (pdf) represents a terrible misreading. (The passages from the Grundrisse are not, as Mason would have us believe, about “an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them,” but a form or stage of capitalism in which laborers become appendages of machines as a condition for the existence of more, relative surplus-value.)

There is, in fact, a great deal to appreciate in Mason’s discussion. I’m thinking, in particular, of his critique of neoliberalism (which “has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures” and to create mostly “low-value, long-hours jobs”) and the problems mainstream economists have had in making sense of both information (since they start with the presumption of scarcity) and the rise of new kinds of economies (such as parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces, which they mostly ignore as irrelevant to the “real” economy). I even like Mason’s discussion of the new opportunities for collaboration and the reduction of work time created by recent changes in information technology (although many of us are actually forced to have the freedom to perform more, not less, labor as a result of digital information and information-based automation).

For me, the biggest problem with Mason’s treatment is his two-part argument: that capitalism will necessarily fail when it comes to dealing with new information technologies and that such technologies will necessarily usher in a new, noncapitalist economic and social order, ushered in by “a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being”). I just don’t see it.

Let’s consider each of the two parts in order. First, the idea that capitalism will come crashing down as information grows. The key element, for Mason (and for many others before him, such as Jeremy Rifkin), is that the new communication technologies are reducing the marginal (per-unit) cost of producing and sending information goods to near zero, which means that if information goods are to be distributed at their marginal cost of production (zero) they cannot be created and produced by capitalist firms that use revenues obtained from sales to consumers to cover their costs and to realize profits. And that’s the rub: it is precisely the existence of private property (and the other conditions of existence of private commodity production) that keeps the cost of information from going to zero. Information may “want to be free” and capitalist property is certainly an obstacle to the flow of more information but that doesn’t mean information is or will be costlessly produced or utilized. For every Wikipedia there are hundreds of Microsofts—and thousands of other capitalist enterprises that utilize proprietary information to produce still other commodities.

The other side of the argument is thus also questionable: there’s nothing about new information technologies that necessarily lead to forms of economic organization different from or beyond capitalism. Would but that were the case! It’s certainly possible that a democratically organized, worker-owned enterprise would be able to take advantage of networking and other new forms of organizing information but the mere existence of such information technologies does not bring new forms of noncapitalist enterprise (or other socialist or communist forms of economic organization) into existence. I do think we need to pay attention to the way “educated and connected” human beings are utilizing new information technologies (as I often remind my students, they permit such activities as “stealing” the digital information in music and videos and then “sharing” that information within and between communities). But, we need to remember, lots of people have organized noncapitalist forms of economic organization long before the new information technologies were imagined, and they’ll continue to do so (perhaps in different forms) within and at the margins of “cognitive capitalism.”

But to get there—to allow such noncapitalist forms of economic organization to be imagined and put into practice—we need more than new information technologies. We need a ruthless critique of the existing economic order and forms of political organization (aka a political party) to produce utopian discourses and concrete interventions to move us in that direction.

Addendum

While I’m on the topic of postcapitalism, let me also take up the case for socialist recently made by Gar Alperovitz and Thomas M. Hanna. Once again, I’m sympathetic—especially since the more talk about socialism these days the better. And Alperovitz and Hanna do make a convincing case for public ownership and control, including the fact that we already have lots of examples (from the Texas Permanent School Fund to the Tennessee Valley Authority, from publicly owned electric utilities to public internet systems) in our midst. Great! There are lots of ways for the state to distribute the surplus to meet social needs and there’s no reason to limit ourselves to tax-and-spend policies. Why not let the state take direct control of economic activities? But then let’s also talk about how the surplus is produced and appropriated within such state enterprises. If we don’t, then we’re just talking about expanding state capitalism (capitalist enterprises that are owned and/or regulated by the state) and not about eliminating capitalist exploitation itself.

Both Mason and Alperovitz and Hanna seem to overlook that particular aspect—the class dimensions—of the critique of political economy.

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It looks like the mainstream European left has fought its last battle. At last!

In supporting the economic dimensions of the European project and then administering the brutal austerity policies devised by the troika, the Socialist and Social-Democratic left has disqualified itself from anything having to do with the humanitarian aspirations, inclusive economics, and class solidarity of the socialist movement.

It’s game over.

That’s not just my view. It’s also the analysis of conservative business writer Ambrose Evans-Pritchard [ht: sw]. Permit me to quote him at length:

This has been coming for a long time. We Conservatives have watched in disbelief as one Socialist party after another immolates itself on the altar of monetary union, defending a project that favours the elites – a “bankers’ ramp”, as the old Left used to call it.

We have watched our friends on the Left apologise for 1930s policies. We have seen them defend a regime of pro-cyclical fiscal cuts imposed on the whole eurozone by a handful of “Ordoliberal” reactionaries in the German finance ministry. . .

By a twist of fate, the Left has let itself become the enforcer of an economic structure that has led to levels of unemployment once unthinkable for a post-war social democratic government with its own currency and sovereign instruments. It has somehow found ways to justify a youth jobless rate still running at 42pc in Italy, 49pc in Spain and 50pc in Greece, despite mass emigration.

It has acquiesced in the Long Slump of the past six years, deeper in aggregate than the span from 1929 to 1935.

It meekly endorsed the EU Fiscal Compact, knowing that it imposes a legal requirement on eurozone states to slash their public debt by 1.5pc of GDP in France, 2pc in Spain and 3.5pc in Italy and Portugal, every year for the next two decades – a formula for near permanent depression. It outlaws Keynesian economics, and indeed classical economics. It is a doomsday construct.

This is what they agreed to, and what they have reluctantly defended, because until now they dared not question the sanctity of EMU. And so the once mighty Dutch Labour Party has been reduced to a pitiful relic. Pasok has been obliterated in Greece.

The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party has lost its left-wing to the rebel Podemos movement, freshly victorious in Barcelona. France’s Socialist leader, Francois Hollande, has been languishing at 24pc in the polls as the French working class defects to the Front National. . .

The Troika bail-out in 2010 was intended to save the euro and European banks at a time when there were no defences against contagion. Greece was not saved. It was sacrificed. The roots of the “Greek Spring” can be traced to this original sin, further fed by the Troika overkill that followed.

The EMU creditors never acknowledged their own guilt. They never made an honest attempt to negotiate with Syriza, even on matters of common ground. They essentially demanded that the austerity terms of the prior Memorandum be enforced to the letter – regardless of whether they made any economic sense – hiding behind Pharisaical talk of rules. . .

We all know what the game was. Germany and its allies were determined to make an example of Syriza to discourage voters in any other country from daring to buck the system.

I doubt that this will work, even on its own narrow terms. Podemos remains defiant. It has accused the EU institutions and the Spanish government of committing an “act of terrorism” in violation of the Spanish Código Penal.

It is, in any case, a double-edged strategy. Costas Lapavitsas, a Syriza MP, said the salient message of the past five months is that no radical government can pursue sovereign policies as long as it is at the mercy of a central bank able to switch off liquidity at any time. “It is now perfectly clear that the only way out of this is to break free of monetary union,” he said.

All Souls economist Kevin O’Rourke says the next Left-wing party that rises to challenge the EMU will not be as “feckless” as Mr Tsipras, and will not bargain from a position of such abject weakness.

“The lesson that they will draw from this debacle is: negotiating with Germany is a waste of time; be willing to act unilaterally, be willing to default unilaterally, have a plan for achieving a primary surplus if you haven’t already achieved it, have a hard default and euro exit option in your back pocket, and be willing to use it at the first sign of hassle from the ECB,” he said.

That’s as precise and incisive an analysis as I’ve seen of the shambles the official left has presided over for the past five years.

It’s not about Tsipras and Syriza being traitors (as John Pilger would have it). Naive perhaps, in hoping they would be able to garner support for Greece’s cause in what passes for the European left, but not subservient captives of postmodern identity politics.

No, the fault lies with a project that has finally revealed its true colors (to make profits for a tiny minority and to hell with anything that stands in its way) and a Left that tried (and, as expected, failed) only to smooth its roughest edges. Now, that left stands amidst the ruins, proclaiming that it is the last defense against a far right that its own failure has brought into existence.

Right now, it seems, the only alternative is to finally declare the death of the euro—an extended “time out” (to borrow the phrasing of Wolfgang Schäuble’s threat to Syriza) until the day a real European project can be invented.

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Is it possible that—a quarter century since the Fall of the Wall and in the midst of the severe crisis of Western European democracy, we can finally begin (here as well as there) to reassess the legacy of the “revolutions” (first to socialism and then to capitalism) in Eastern Europe?

That’s what Joan Roelofs [ht: ja] begins to do in her review of Kristen Ghodsee’s recent book, The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe, which Roelofs describes as “an elegant book on a forbidden topic.”

These are Roelofs’s own reflections, “informed by but not attributable to Ghodsee”:

Bulgaria, like many others, had been a fascist country since the 1920s, with little freedom or equality. After its communist revolution, a decent standard of living gradually emerged; women, workers, farmers, and the elderly were protected by a social safety net. The Roma minority were assimilated, if willing; others could follow nomadic occupations such as street carnivals; and housing and education were provided for all. Violent crime, death by fire, and other breaches of homeland security, so common in the United States, were extremely rare. Men were required to serve in the military for a short period, but they did not go abroad to get killed and maimed, and murder thousands of foreigners. People did not live on the streets, and prostitution was not an industry. University education was free. Students upon graduation served for three years in their specialties, but in a location selected by government.

As in all countries, there were many imperfections, some serious. There were shortages, sometimes of essential items, not just luxuries. An impressive cultural life existed, despite censorship and repression. Fear of subversion (not irrational) resulted in surveillance and political prisoners. Most people lived a life untroubled by the authorities, yet, as Ghodsee’s informant Anelia pointed out, they accepted the political oppression of others passively, rather than protesting and taking action. This, I discovered, was true even of rank and file Communist Party members, who would have had some influence if they had tried to exert it. CP members, about 10% of the population, had both extra duties and personal advantages.

Roelof continues, offering a variety of explanations of why Bulgarians, especially young people, eventually rejected socialism and celebrated capitalism (including the consumerist values communist leaders themselves had fostered).

Finally, Roelof returns to Ghodsee’s narrative:

She found that in 2013, despite many years of transition and healing, even those who had not been Communist Party members or even supportive of communism were appalled by the current situation in Bulgaria, including the huge inequalities and their own loss of jobs, social safety net, homes, and even heating fuel. Attempts to survive for both rulers and the ordinary citizens included crime, drugs, prostitution, and migration.

There’s a lot to consider here—both for Bulgarians, who may now be expressing buyers’ remorse, and for those of us in the West, who may finally be emerging from the shadow of the Cold War and realizing how appalled we are at the huge inequalities and our own loss of “jobs, social safety net, homes, and even heating fuel” in the wake of the Second Great Depression.

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