Sunday, February 3, 2013

The S-Word


A question thrown my way yesterday got me thinking about what my views are on socialism today.  (They keep changing.)  Here is a quick summary, more for getting my thoughts in order than to satisfy whatever interest there may be out there in blogland.

1. Objectives.  There are four areas in which capitalism often falls short and which might be served better by fundamental economic change.

a. A poor balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  For me, extrinsic motivation is a precise way to characterize psychological alienation.  A world in which people are motivated to live their lives as intrinsically as possible is, all else equal, offers a better, more meaningful way of life.  Of course, lots of important activities can’t be reliably left to intrinsic motivation, so this is not an all-or-nothing issue.  It seems clear to me, however, that we could have a much better balance than we now see.  Of course, intrinsic motivation is also linked to other issues, like the perceived fairness of the organizations we take part in and the reasonableness of what these organizations do.

b. Equality.  For an egalitarian like me, more economic and social equality is better, again all else equal.  Equal doesn’t mean “same”, of course.  We will continue to live, as we should, in a highly differentiated world, but it doesn’t have to be so hierarchical.  As with motivation, there are practical tradeoffs to take into consideration with equality; whether or not we face a tradeoff today between greater collective prosperity and greater equality (probably not), as equality is increased such a tradeoff must inevitably appear.  But to say that absolutely perfect equality is unattainable is not to say that we couldn’t thrive in a much more equal world.

c. Social control over economic life.  It is essential that our economic activities, which, as technology develops, become ever more far-reaching in their effects, be subjected to broad social control.  As a starting point, however, it is important to recognize that the market can quite often serve as a perfectly adequate mechanism of such control.  To take an example, think about the problem of producing shoes for a population with a wide variety of foot shapes and sizes.  I believe the market does a creditable job of generating and distributing an assortment of shoes that meet this collective need for diversity, both statically (existing technology) and dynamically (encouraging an appropriate level of effort in the development of new technologies for making footwear production more flexible).  This is a matter of some interest to me, because I have oddly-shaped feet.  (Note that I’m restricting the issue to the problem of foot diversity, not to the different question of whether everyone who needs some sort of footwear can get it.)  On the other end of the spectrum, the market is doing a terrible job of propelling us into a desperately-needed transition to carbon-free energy, with all it entails for infrastructure, residential and commercial location, patterns of consumption, and other related matters.  Arguably, there are many other, if perhaps less pressing, aspects of economic life that call out for greater social direction.

In connection with this point, it should be mentioned that there are two interrelated dimensions to social control.  First, this entails the formation of the “social” itself, the achievement of we-ness, jointness of purpose, in a society of (ideally) free individuals.  I certainly don’t expect that we would or even should arrive at a monolithic unity at the level of society as a whole; a desirable social-ness would be a mosaic of cross-cutting social groups, with individuals experiencing multiple affiliations.  You might consider this an extension of Tocqueville’s observations on association or Dewey’s reflections on democracy as a way of life.  It sounds rather airy and abstract but takes very practical, material form in the social institutions we create or could create in the ordinary course of life.  The second element is “control”, which, the closer you look at it, the more slippery it becomes.  As I’ve written elsewhere, ownership does not determine control in the modern world; control is multifaceted and inheres at all levels of economic life, from the most granular (a work team) to the most systemic (like a market).  Social control suggests something like a stakeholder economy, but with a much more developed, encompassing and democratically constituted set of stakeholders and a variety of mechanisms that incorporate them at all levels of the system, as is practical and meaningful.  But not too many meetings, please: the resources for democracy are limited and should be allocated to their most important uses.

d. Class politics.  When I’m feeling optimistic, I can imagine all the problems of capitalism being fixed by incremental tweaking, except one, the overweening power of the capitalist class.  A system of private ownership undertaken for profit cannot avoid creating a small group, a 1% of the 1%, who command an outsized portion of society’s wealth and can use it in a variety of ways to influence the political process.  One reason it is difficult to make progress on the preceding issues is the grossly disproportionate power of this minuscule group.  Nearly every proposal for circumscribing this power has been adopted somewhere on the planet, but no country has managed to actually tame it.  This may be the single negative feature of capitalism least amenable to reform.

In principle, I identify socialism with progress on these four fronts and not with any particular institutional forms.

2. Reform versus system change.  This topic may be mislabeled: I’m not convinced that it is justified to think of potential economies as discrete systems, boxes that are separated from one another by hard walls.  Nevertheless, there is a crucial strategic decision to make: do we prefer to make small, incremental changes in economic institutions or large, multiple changes all at once?  (This is about preference, but sometimes our preferences don’t matter: there may be no alternative to piecemeal or systemwide change under the historical conditions we find ourselves in.)

Here are the arguments for incremental reform:

a. Economic, political and social life are unimaginably complex, and our knowledge of how they work is spotty and often in error.  In order to avoid unintended outcomes, we should take small steps, learning as much as possible along the way from our successes and failures.  This is the logic of adaptive management.

b. Small steps usually entail less conflict and especially less violent conflict.  Violent conflict is bad for three reasons: it is harmful in itself, it results in chaotic situations whose outcomes are difficult to predict and control, and it typically institutes a dynamic of repression and exclusion that poisons the forms of democratic participation that a desirable socialism requires.

There are also two general arguments for radical, systemwide change.

a. Because of the interconnectedness between elements of the economic system, it may be the case that multiple, simultaneous changes are feasible while piecemeal changes are not.  This is an application to social change of the logical of interactive nonconvexity.

b. One possible lesson of history is that opportunities for significant change come infrequently and should be used to their fullest.  Reformism might be the right strategy in a world of open, democratically responsive politics, but that is not the world we live in.  Change should push up against its political limits and not be self-limiting.

As you can see, these are not finished propositions but ways of framing questions.  In fact, I would distrust any set of answers that are held to apply in every situation we might find ourselves in.

2 comments:

Wallfly said...

I tend to think that the hallmark of socialism is (or should be) a system that does not let class politics undermine democracy. So a mixed economy (the social democratic welfare state) could be socialism if the owners of private capital do not have enough political/social power to ensure a self=perpetual veto on majority will.

If this were possible it would probably mean limits on how much private capital could be allowed and definitely limits on much could be inherited, and in the face the reduction of ownership of private capital some form of public,social and/or decentralized ownership of capital would have to substitute.

In the limiting case, private ownership reduced to virtually zero we are looking at Nove-ian market socialism. I don't think there is any reason this could not be approached incrementally. In fact a strategy incremental long term strategy of supplanting private ownership with social ownership is feasible (if we include the expansion of the co-operative sector as a key component - Swedish co-ops control a lion's share of the retail
sector - if that were true in every developed country we are would be looking a qualitatively different balance of power)

Okay, I confess, I think the real issue is being able to formulate transitional programs which of necessity are going to be incremental in nature. The first obstacle to this (the biggest? who knows) is the general tendency of the Left not to do it. Social democrats because they are adrift since Second-International vintage nationalization-centric Marxism went aground and much of the rest of revolutionary Left not doing this because of various strains of romantic atavism.

FuzzyFace said...

The biggest advantages capitalism has are its potential to be self-healing and the distributed nature of decision making. It's biggest weakness is the distance between a true free market (as opposed to the rightist "unfettered market") and reality, where oligopolies are likely, vital information is frequently hidden or not well understood by purchasers, and agents often make economic decisions on behalf of others.

That said, it means that the simplest way that political power can overcome the shortcomings is by addressing the weaknesses, rather than trying to force some outcome desired by the power brokers. An excellent, if simple example is the difference between New York City attempts to limit what restaurants can sell, and labeling laws which inform consumers in large print, just how fattening their purchases are. Most of the biggest specific issues (such as access to health insurance) are the result of strong deviations from the free market, not an excess of capitalism.