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…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s