Jacobin (III): They are insulting Jacobin …

They are insulting Jacobin so maybe we don’t have to:

It is unclear why Sunkara and Frase didn’t publish their “manifesto on building social democracy” in their own magazine; I suppose the juxtaposition of Toussaint Louverture’s visage with such a conservative political vision would have been too much for even their inflated sense of irony. For my first thought on reading their article was that rarely has the word “manifesto” been deployed for something so uninspired (I would have went with “policy paper”) Ben Campbell  Anarcho-Liberals, Utopian Keynesians, and ActBlue Jacobins,

Ben Campbell’s generally fine dismantling of the pretensions of Jacobin unfortunately goes on to make an argument about the impossibility of reinstituting a welfare state that is perhaps too similar to the conservative argument against government spending; “the debt is too high”.

It is a natural phenomena of this age for there to be a publication whose actual politics are thoroughly Social Democratic but which can make gestures and references to tendencies closer to anti-state communism (Jacobin references “The Black Jacobins” by CLR James, who we might not agree with but would be much likely to consider a “follow traveler”). Thus Jacobin makes pretenses to five different shades of radicalism, none of which it actually shares.

Publications  like Jacobin exist in a world in which getting a tattoo and identifying as an anarchists can be considered equal as “radical gestures”. One might describe the “Jacobin Posture” as weaving a fog of radical references (“Imagined Communities”), darting back and forth and then coming up with thesurprising” punch to the right, having the “courageous” to take the bland reformist road they … well, had been on the start. All that said, now that multiple tendencies which Jacobin makes pretense to sympathy with are gunning at Jacobin, we indeed quite possibly don’t have to.

One useful activity of communists can be to distinguish ourselves from pretend-communists. However, it is at least as crucial for us to describe the integrated whole that all the tendencies of the left form. A thinker can be far further to the left than Jacobin and yet be in the orbit of capital. Especially, any position that considers that it is possible to address the American political class and that group could change its direction has to be basing itself some combination of self-interest and self-deception.

For example, the discussion of Jacobin’s ridiculous program veered into question of whether it is practical to rebuild the “welfare state”. Now, welfare programs are not coming back unless the proletariat pries them out of the bourgeois’ hard, cold nearly dead hands (and in such an  instance, the proletariat would do better finishing the job). But it is a rather murky question whether a welfare state can’t happen because of debt, because corporation “need” so much of that welfare themselves or because neoliberal capitalism simply does not want it (or rather, which huge barrier do you want to call insurmountable). The point is know that they are not bringing back welfare. We better not taking the position of the political by asking “what is possible for them if they really wanted it”. Not that they have a lot of choices but their choices are not our choices, right?

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Obscure Stuff: Value Theory And Profit Origin

“What, we should ask, are the basic stakes of the debate around the Transformation Problem [“TP”]? This question has a fairly straightforward answer: one arrives at the TP in seeking to ‘prove’ that exploitation in the labor process is the only possible source of surplus value — of profit that is also accumulation. There is in fact no other stake to the TP.” Louis-Auguste Blanqui (Facebook poster)

A very interesting statement. I would agree that is how the Transformation Problem is seen by many Marx-theorists. I would disagree with that however. For me the Transformation Problem is a technical question involved in modeling capitalist dynamics. I believe that for Bortkiewicz who formulated the transformed-form of Marx’s original question, it was a technical question and not a question of finding the origins of surplus value.

I think this questions relates quantitative and qualitative threads within Das Capital and Marx’s approach. I might imagine Marx’s political economy is more or less “stretched” between a position which saw communist revolution as a quantitative transformation changing the system distribution of production the existing framework and a position which saw communism as an absolute qualitative break.

And there is the rub. You don’t need any exact quantitative statement of the relation between labor and profit to say that profit requires labor. If communism is pure qualitative break, the exact quantitative contribution of the capitalist is irrelevant.  If we considering quantitative relations the question of origins becomes muddier. Indeed, it seems to me that a lot of theorists on both sides of the transformation debate see it as something like a “moral economy” debate. That if the profit a capitalist receives is numerically proportionate to labor power he inputs, he is shown to have a parasitic nature on the level of this “moral economy”, a level that’s not quite quantitative on the level of modeling but is crucial for a vague justice.

Workers, PC and The Totality

In discussing “communization”, a common critique (from the left and/or anarchists) is that the communist critiques of wage labor involves “economic reductionism” or “workerism”. Now, certainly there are positions that indeed see class struggle as nothing but the quantitative struggle of workers for immediate wage gain and I would criticize this as, yes, workerism.

However, what I would claim is the really crucial part of the critique of wage labor is that wage labor involves an infinity of miseries and exploitations through its reduction of us, of the our multitudinous natures, to quantities, to resource. Capitalism is “reductionist” whether we like it or not (and we don’t). Talking about our reduction by gender, by race, by culture, by traditional occupation, by national origin, can at best give a hint of this total reduction.  And also with that reduction comes, as we know, a multitude of competitions which turn us against each other, opening up a whole other series of problem.

So understand, if we talk about being opposed to capitalism, it is not “as an oppression”. The oppressions of today are too multitudinous to fit even on the longest “laundry list” and we are not attempting to engage in change by laundry-list. Our approach aims to operate at an entirely different level. And I don’t want to say that arrogantly because we also don’t want to give the impression that by talking about the multidimensionality of oppressions within this society we can conjure a micro-milieu that has already overcome them. We communists sadly are generally as caught by the order of things as everyone else. It simply our aim, our perhaps hobby, to imagine going beyond the totality of capitalist relations, a process which we would claim will require a collectively empowered proletariat, something is not equal to us, that we will not merely manufacture, that must arise through it own internal processes.

OK?

 

Andrew Kliman’s “The Failure Of Capitalist Production”

Andrew Kliman’s new book makes at least three interesting claims: That present crisis is the result of the decline of the rate of profit, that an increase in the rate of profit could come from a sufficient destruction of capital and that the US working class actually experienced an increase in the share of the GDP in the last two decades. Now, I would agree with first claim. Jehu made a reasonable comment concerning the second point (which I further comment on at the bottom of the page), and the question of the truth of the third claim gets batted about in gruesome detail here (I think it loses, I think towards the end I’ve shown Kliman is misinterpreting the national accounts tables). Anyway, just to add concerning the third point, that Paul Krugman has a blog including fine chart illustrating labor’s declining share of GDP over the last forty years. That too could be cocked-up too but I’m doubtful.

 

Crisis (I)

Another nice post by Jehu on Sasha Lilley’s anti-crisis-theory:

In a recent interview as well as in this essay, Lilley equates the inevitable demise of capitalism with “peak oil”, the Mayan calendar, religious inspired prophecies of the end of time, etc. She even tries to tie the inevitable demise of capitalism based on labor theory of value with the odious Malthus’ theory of overpopulation. Re:The People

Because capitalist relations engenders a certain tendency to make irrational predictions for its demise, it clearly will last for-ev-ah! (unlike all previous historical social systems). Also, each moment capitalist relations continue is further proof they will continue forever or at least “until the sun burns out” (as one expert Marx-hobbyist once posted).

A look at “historical eras” would indicate that one has followed the next in increasingly short order, so we can see that expecting change is hardly irrational today. Jehu makes the further useful observation that the failure of the crisis of the Great Depression and WWII to result in communism hardly means that those expecting a crisis in 1928 were incorrect in their expectation.

Ultimately, it is true that the usefulness of crisis theory comes not from the prediction of a single moment of crisis but in describing the entire fabric of capitalist relations that leads up to the crisis and results from the crisis. Here, I think it’s reasonable to say crisis theory has succeeded. The history of the last twenty years might well be described as “a tale of crisis postponed” – the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble involved increasingly short-term efforts to maintain the apparent health of an il-balanced economy. And now? Today’s economy with its huge corporate profits and anemic “real economy” performance seems to be later stages of “to preserve this cancer we must kill the patient” treatment. That the economy is not at the stage of 1930-style financial collapse is mostly a statement that the present rulers no longer have faith in the standard process of “destruction and renewal” that the previous crisis involved. That does point to a world of permanent depression without renewal. Which obviously can last “forever”.

Going back to the decadence thread referenced earlier, one has to say that there are two kinds of effective understanding. Ideally, we would want to have a scientific understanding in which our theories had specific, falsifiable predictions. However, since we live in the “real world”, we wind up forced to use the most plausible idea among a set of not-yet-scientifically falsifiable positions. And getting back to Sasha Lilley, in this real world, the absence of a fully-proven theory for X does not prove not-X.

Jacobin (II): Yes, It Is That Bad…

Thanks to Jon for a point to yet another article that puts the “S” in “Jacobin Magazine Sucks”.

Radicals responded to the end of “really existing socialism” mainly in two ways. Most stopped talking about a world after capitalism at all, retreating to a modest politics of piecemeal reform, or localism, or personal growth. … The other response was exactly the opposite — an escape forward into the purest and most uncompromising visions of social reconstruction.

Indeed, most people responded to the end of the USSR by noticing that the Soviet Union’s claim to being anything authentically related to creating a better world had become a laughable (so yeah, think differently or give up). Certainly, the communist left had noticed a bit earlier that the USSR and world Stalinist parties had became a fountain of lies, an engine of counter-revolution, a vile and despicable collection of liar, apparatchiks, hallow men and murders  – the grave diggers of the revolution. But by the end of the USSR, the jig was up with just about everyone.

But naturally this rhetoric is following a now predictable style of contrarian  journalism. First they find a situation where everyone choose either X or Y. Naturally this proves Z is the correct choice even if Z is otherwise senseless. This contrarian style has perhaps become the fabric of conventional journalistic idiocy, from The Atlantic to … Jacobin. (The reason for the pursuit of novelties is that the actual management of the capitalist system is entirely beyond the influence of any mass market journal, being concentrated in the highest bureaucrats and corporate managers).

A rule of thumb: Every tortuousness piece of bunk leftist reasoning leads – by twisted and deceptive paths, poisonous innuendo and thought-stopping rhetoric – to apologetics for state capitalism. Why? Because the final, default motivation of the bullshitter is “put me in charge”.

Economic Calculation

The “economic calculation question” is an argument that is wheeled by technocrats of every sort whenever they argue the need for one or another, guess-what, technocratic picture of a “post-capitalist” society. And the above linked article is only an example. Contrary to their claims, I believe I can prove the question isn’t “big”. However, let me avoid diving into the details for a moment and instead “meta-comment”.   That is, I want to warn that the whole “economic calculation” line of reasoning can leave one thinking in terms of a society where each person is fundamentally an element of some mathematically predictable central control system (this happens even if your control system is hypothetically democratically run). This is not to say that a communist society would regard its members as pure essences who would never conflict or as unique snowflakes whose behavior should never be quantitatively modeled. One way to describe this is that a future society would be looking at people as “subjects and objects” – predicting and controlling (“guiding” if you want a euphemism) behavior in some instances and in other instances allowing unpredictable behaviors to emerge from a rich network of formal and informal associations. An important part of all this is that communism would involve a balance between the output of an activity which could be considered productive and the qualitative internal experience associated with that same activity. We would abolish the distinction between work and leisure. A small scale bicycle shop which produces handcrafted cycles may indeed be much less productive than a large scale factory but this production process might be chosen specifically because it is more pleasant than factory production (and perhaps even more pleasant than a society where everyone has an infinity of time on their hands). A large scale steel-tubing factory, on the other hand, might be desired for all the interesting things that, say, producing general purpose steel-tubing allows (and some people might even enjoy working with huge fricken’ vats of molten metal).

It is also worth mentioning that, if you live in the real world, you probably know that a large amount of private capitalist rhetoric about “the market providing tradeoffs” is just self-serving bunk. It’s usually wheeled in defense of a highrise replacing farm land and/or wilderness and/or traditional “low income” housing. It often has little to do with any kind of efficiency.  Uh, and also keep in mind the people who usually babble about economic calculation are the right, not the left wing, not that we’d put ourselves in either category.

All that said, it seems quite probable that a future society would be confronted with some number of situations in which qualitative preferences would need to be traded-off against each other. And this is when “economic calculation” trolls start slobbering and gibbering. The first babble that usually drops out of their mouth is something akin to the linked Jacobin article:  “[prices] convey systematic information concerning how much of one thing people are willing to give up to get another thing…”

Not true! And in a number of rather factual ways aside from the question of whether we need such fine-grain trade-off to be calculated. You can probably guess that the real prices don’t conform to any ideal schema of the economic system as “information conveyor”. But it is worth noting that, in any fairly-general model of  maximizing production,  exchange-based prices  do not actually serve as the “appropriate analytic tool” for achieving “constrained maximization” (that is, maximizing some final production result subject to a variety of tradeoffs, ie “how much of one thing people are willing to give up to get another thing“). This is a mathematical question but it is not an unknown one. For capitalists own purposes, the question has been solved. Wikipedia can help us. A general purpose constrained optimization problem is most simply solved using Lagrange Multipliers. For economic problems, the Lagrange Multipliers are somewhat deceptively labeled “shadow prices”. However, the important “take-away” with shadow prices is that A. they are only equal to exchange-system base prices prices in fairly restricted conditions and B. they can be calculated exactly if you know the qualities of each production unit (factory or whatever) of a production system. So… A fairly generic centralized management system with a reasonable amount of information about each production unit and a schema for what tradeoffs to be between resources, can make the theoretically most efficient decisions about how to allocate resources within these quantitative constraints (corporations for example, will use shadow-prices-that-we-remember-aren’t-real-prices in their own internal resource allocation processes). Again, I would only imagine such a centralized distribution system as a part of, an aspect of a communist society. We don’t really have say how large a part of a communist the  centralized control of resources regarded qualitatively would be.  The point is that the mathematical machinery for solving the problem exists, it is not a problem. If we need it, we can use it as much as we’d want.

And this brings back the whole question of the USSR. If centralized planning can solve these problems, why did the USSR do so badly. Well, first of all, no social system is equal to its planning method. For us, instead, a social system rests on its class relations. The USSR’s planning was theoretically good for resource allocation but the antagonistic interests of the central authorities, the individual factory owners, the working class and the peasantry resulted in a situation where factory managers didn’t want to reveal information to the central authorities about the marginal costs associated with the factory they were in possession.  The lack of a fluid market prevented the entire elite from imposing the horrific discipline which the West has been able wring out of its working class. And altogether, the condition of the USSR could be seen as something like a bad-marriage of capitalist and worker, “it didn’t work for either” and so the apparatchiks lets go to pot till the class (or demi-class) could impose all the wonders of the West (when Russia experienced starvation-based-death on par with Stalin’s death camps). Back anyway, the take-away is that planning methods are not equal to prevailing social relations, they just aren’t.

Anyway, the thing about analyzing all this is that I am very glad that wikipedia actually makes a lot of explanations  straightforward (or at least into stuff you can fob-off on links). I think it would be great for revolutionaries to learn some serious maths but whenever thinks about adding complex theories to a revolutionary position, one runs the risk that people will spend their time digging through the entrails of those theories rather than using them as tools against the present order. Anyone in “the scene” knows how often this happens with Marx’s ocean of texts. So, be careful folks. This is why the “economic calculation argument” is a bogus paradigm for communists to begin any sort of analysis. I believe its worthwhile to have this not just understood but understood as not being “a big deal”. OK?

PS: Headline of the article is a response to who said Jacobin was “not that bad…”

… (II)

As you may notice. This blog is something of feed, edited as much as I have the resources for but naturally falling short of what a “slick” magazine would produce. While a fully worked-out statement the “journalist credibility” of a professional magazine would be desirable, I fear that today’s conditions are such that,  for the agora, we-communist-left-sympathetic people will wind-up with either a blog-feeds or very intermittent and somewhat academic publications.

I suppose it might be self-centered but I would argue that if even a small nucleus of left-communists come together in a positive way, they would do best making a virtue of being able to act in those fashions that are possible rather than being wedded to acting in fashion that presents them as credible to the passive observer.

One thing that I believe that we revolutionaries may find useful is thinking about how the modern world makes everyone into something like a  filters of the overall information flow. Peter Elbow’s methods of free writing may be interesting to we-would-be-revolutionaries at something like a self-conscious schema for looking at our own process of taking in and putting information relative to this order’s overall information-flow. And just much, if we, some small group, can use these or other techniques to get in the habit of looking at the resources available to us and how to use them effectively, this may be the most important outcome.

I should point that while Endnotes 1 begins with an article which praises the SI and takes them as something of a starting point, the Endnotes collective and the articles which the issue includes miss one crucial aspect the SI: an acute awareness of the ambiguity of the theory producer (which indeed includes the ambiguity of the artist but cannot limited to that; modern theorists sadly are almost universally something like “semi-proletarianized sub-specialists”. This is not something which condemns us to Hell but I think it sentences us to work on understanding the ambiguity of our position in the “information machine” – both our interests and our “filtering processes”).