Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Socialism: Dream or Institution?

I have been questioning the meaning and value of the word "socialist" and "socialism". There are roughly two outlooks that the Left generally holds. The first is held not only by Marxists but also anarchists like Noam Chomsky, while the second is held by other anarchists (a primary example would be Michael Albert).

The first is that socialism is a good dream which has been conjured for evil causes. This view describes socialism through the dreams of all the revolutionaries who have been inspired by it, talking about worker's control of the means of production, the end to capitalism (or, at least in the early days, its reform and humanization), and the sharing of the resources of society to benefit and enrich all. I am sympathetic tot his view because of the extensive history of the term, because of the acceptance of it in the majority of the world, and because I don't feel I should have to back down from a term because capitalists or tyrants have sullied it through propaganda. If the Left backs down from every such word, they will have given the field to the powerful. These men for institutions often point to the soviets or parecon or libertarian municipalism as socialist institutions.

However, the second points out that there is something disingenuous to the way that each generation of the Left attempts to recapture the term while describing concretely quite distinct institutions. Further, most socialist parties that come to any kind of power advocate market or central planned socialism (whether democratic or totalitarian). While it is true that most socialist advocates reject what happened in the USSR, indeed calling the collapse of the USSR a victory for socialism, there is also something disingenuous about dismissing the ideology of it too quickly as not socialist. Those men could spout Marxism and offer paeans to freedom just as well as anyone else, and Lenin had some quite libertarian writings. Whether it was something unique about Russian culture, or the influence of the state, or what have you, something went wrong... or did it? That may not be the most authentic formulation. It may have been that Marxism or Leninism or socialist institutions propelled the USSR by design. Further, when someone says "socialism", whether in Europe or America, what is implied (aside from connotations, whether negative or positive) is what happens in Europe: good to be sure, but not remotely the ideal a serious libertarian socialist or anarchist would commit to. Even completely non-capitalist market socialism is not my goal. Even the word, "socialism", implies a social focus rather than a libertarian or individualist focus.

So I'll open this up to whatever viewers I have. What would you argue is socialism? What comes to mind when you hear it? Should parecon advocates or advocates of other alternative economies call themselves socialists or not?

4 Comments:

Anonymous TurdSandwich said...

"Authentic" socialism only exists in the dream world, just like pure capitalism lives only in the heads of the idealogues.

The same goes for Xianity, Islam, Judasim, Buddhism ...All ideas become distorted and perverted as soon as they make contact with the real world (I don't mean it necessarily in a negative way. For example, the old, vengeful God of the bible mellows out in modern day)

"Authentic" Xiantity is not the verses in the NT. Those are mere words with open ended intepretations.

True Xiantity is the sum total of its historical expressions, which include selfless sacrifices as well as genocides. It reaches the summit of nobility and sinks to the bottom of depravity.

Likewise there is no authentic socialism, authenticity is in the eyes of the beholder.

In order to survive and continue to be relevant in a changing world, an ideology has to be supple and flexible enough to adapt.What happens to socialsim is not unique.

Purists call that sell out.

But like fundamentalists of all stripes, purists on the left are irrelevant except to the converts. That is, in a healthy society.

The rise of religious fundamentalism is an indicator of deeper crisis. It may has little to do with the faith itself.

Take Islamic fundamentalism in the ME. Islam itself is not the cause for radicalism.There are moderates and extremists in all faiths.Harsh social, economical and political realities are the real reasons for the radicals' appeal.If their world has not been so screwed up to begin with, the moderates would have prevailed.

It is the same way with political fundamentalism.

We should consider ourselves lucky that wishy washy people are able to pass themselves off as socialists.

This is evidence that we still live in a relatively healthy society.When
the fire and blimestone "authentic" radical left actually has a real public impact it is the sign that we are in deep troubles.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

I would argue that to some degree there have been socialist institutions or socialist-like institutions in history: The Spanish Revolution, Mondragon, traditional tribal structures, the soviets, etc. I agree with your general tack re: Christianity, though I should note that it is unfair to blame Christianity for the crimes done in its name but actually propelled by totalitarian institutions and leaders.

I would certainly argue that we should alter our expectations of the facts in light of new evidence in accord with our values. What is "selling out" is the loss of the values not simply the change of expectation, a fact that your comment ignores much to its detriment. If someone tells me capitalism is eternal, there is one set of problems if they are gleeful and another set of problems if they only say this regretfully.

Those who call themselves socialists but who you call moderates in fact are supporting capitalism, a destructive institution, or at best inferior forms of socialism. I would point you to www.parecon.org, which is an eminently reasonable and well-argued economic proposal that surpasses capitalism and traditional socialist models.

3:44 AM  
Anonymous TurdSandwich said...

"What is "selling out" is the loss of the values not simply the change of expectation, a fact that your comment ignores much to its detriment. If someone tells me capitalism is eternal, there is one set of problems if they are gleeful and another set of problems if they only say this regretfully."

But what is "capitalism"?

My comments regarding ideology also apply to capitalism. You may be correct that many socialists are indeed "selling out" but this is also true with the "capitalists".

All functional economies operate on a mixed model which is neither capitalist nor socialist in the way fundamentalists of both camps would approve.

You are very eloquent in pointing out the difference between values and expectations. But the demarcation is not clear cut.

We can always articulate an abstract vison in the form of a manifesto: values. But they are open to interpretations unless you have a concrete plan to put them to work. Once you produce an implementation, it would not be obvious to everyone who shares your vision that the implementation actually upholds the value you started with. It is at least to a degree subjective.

Some socialists think world revolution is a necessary incredient to any form of true socialism. But Kruschev said that soicalism, in Russia's concrete setting, meant "potato and roast beef in every pot". Did he sell out? May be. But he could have argued that world revolution was only one possible path to achieve the socialist goal, which was fulfilling the material need for the masses.

Some socialists have more ambitious goals such as popular control of means of production, etc. But a Kruschev would probably say that these are all merely means toward the same end.

Parecon sounds interesting and revolutionary, but putting aside the question of practicality some marxists insist it is still a form of sell out in that the market is smuggled in throught the back door. Regardless of the merits of such criticism it does highlight the point that debating doctrinal purity is a futile and exhausting exercise and most likely irrelevant.

In the end most real people don't care about ideological purities. They would settle for the muddle middle as long as there are enough roast beef and potato to go around.

I have no proof for this assertion. It's just a hunch.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

"But what is "capitalism"?

My comments regarding ideology also apply to capitalism. You may be correct that many socialists are indeed "selling out" but this is also true with the "capitalists"."

Well, I actually didn't even mention socialists selling out, but there is a phenomenon of "the God that failed" that can be seen among party apparatchiks in the Soviet Union or people like David Horowitz here.

Capitalism is a set of institutions typically defined by market interactions and private ownership of the means of production. While state capitalism is the antithesis of a number of tenets, it is nonetheless still capitalism and nonetheless not simply ideology but actual facts on the ground and actual institutions that govern our lives. Your attempt to make socialists and capitalists of a piece is wholly disingenuous, for this very reason: both may be idealogues, but the latter are reactionaries for an existing system while the former proposing new systems, whether good or bad. The latter's role is inherently obfuscation of the quite real crimes of an existing order, crimes I'm sure you'll admit given the tenor of your arguments.

Most economists actually accept as the base line market economies that have never existed and will never exist, while putting into the margins quite real concerns about externalities, commodity fetishism, etc. If you read my blog, you will find extensive discussion of quite concrete economic scenarios and facts and their applicability. You can call it ideology if you wish, but that only begs the question.

Further, you are rampantly confusing two issues: Facts about economies and values about what economies actually do. Capitalism does perform some tasks, clearly. How well is a relevant concern and the debate between "liberals" and "conservatives", generally speaking. But what ends and what values employed are what socialists actually critique. They propose alternatives that they argue lead to different ends and serve different agents, mostly ones that support liberty, humanity, etc. The funny thing is that, in my experience, even libertarian capitalists only question where that economy would work for those ends and concede that their economy only serves a small elite. So "models" and so on are fairly well footnotes to this discussion. It is conceded by virtually every capitalist advocate (and it is the obvious truth) that corporations serve to guarantee the maximum profit for shareholders. They think that is acceptable, I think that is disgusting, immoral and irrational.

You then show that you completely missed the point of the entire blog post. Khruschev, Brezhnev, Lenin, Stalin, etc. did not "go wrong", and they "sold out" only in very peripheral ways. Rather, certain intrinsic components of Marxist ideology combined with the anti-social pressures of the state replaced the quite real socialist initiatives, the soviets and other institutions you scrupulously ignore. Their ends were not good but they failed to achieve it, their ends were rotten whether they knew it or not and "failure" from a human standpoint is inevitable.

Socialism means, at its most basic, not simply state or political redistribution of economic resources. If that were the case, all economies would be socialist, period. Rather, it means control by some means by the workers of the means of production. The question I posed was, Do the commonly accepted mechanisms (market or centrally planned socialism) actually achieve this goal and other worthwhile goals? I submit that they do not, and there is an argument that I cannot properly be called a socialist, but a pareconist (a vision that you again refuse to take up concretely: www.parecon.org for resources). The question of whether or not to focus on domestic prosperity or world revolution is an interesting one, but socialists, lefists and pareconists can have meaningful disagreements and not "sell out": tactical rather than actual value disagreement, a distinction you again glossed over wholly.

It would not be obvious that X vision actually upheld Y values only if sufficient data weren't available, putting aside semantic quibbling. Those would be objective tests, I'm afraid, though there is always some degree of subjectivity as to what indices one measures and so on, but that is in the same camp as semantic quibbling and obfuscates the core point.

If Marxists argue that the market is smuggled in through the back door with parecon, they're not responding to parecon but to a figment of their imagination. Albert, Hahnel, other parecon advocates and I have received no small amount of flak even from fellow leftists (for a good example, a most brilliant and excellent comrade Bwong whose comments grace this site) precisely for enumerating a market vision. Parecon employs prices, wages, etc., as would any economy aside from a simple barter economy (which parecon could run on if people so chose, though for what reason I am stumped by), but those prices, wages, and so on are not determined by anything remotely resembling market interactions, namely competitive interactions between producers and consumers in various stages that set exchange rates. In fact, unlike many Marxist visions, parecon categorically and explicitly jettisons markets from its purview, though the question of whether some parecons would allow or incorporate some markets for freedom of choice purposes is a separate one (and I happen to think many would and I would argue that they should).

I think also that you still are refusing to notice the distinction between a insular group of crackpots watching for deviation from the norm and in fact diametrical changes in opinion and values foisted obviously by the material enticements of existing institutions versus the real disincentives pushed by those institutions.

Doctrinal purity isn't my concern. Justice, equity, self-management, etc. is my concern. Again, I think if you read my or Albert's comments and descriptions of parecon, you won't find concern with ideology or camps or commitment (I discuss the term "socialist" only from a tactical standpoint; if someone called me a capitalist I wouldn't care as long as they knew that the term would mean something drastically different in honest practice), but rather to replacing a bad set of institutions with a good set of institutions, period. I agree, many people don't, nor should they, care about ideological purity. They care about the essentials, not only meat and potatoes but freedom, equity, etc. Deprive these things and people will be unhappy. Provide them and they won't. Capitalism doesn't, parecon does. Period.

2:20 PM  

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