Rethinking Communist Economics After the Twentieth-Century Debacle
© 1997, 1998 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.
A. Where to begin?
Academic or bourgeois economics begins by presenting axioms which mathematicize the behavior of “atomistically separate man,” with his portfolio of assets—and which mathematicize processes which produce outputs from so-called factors of production. The quantitative totality thus obtained is a model of resource allocation having an equilibrium solution. The equilibrium is an optimum because, roughly, it gets the most tons of marketable product from all the resources that can be procured. Right prices are established by the intersections of supplies and demands in markets. To know the right price—that is the essence of economics.
As for the idea of Communism, it was given its official identity by generations of literary publicists, by labor union radicals, and by Soviet-bloc states. The official tradition sometimes envisioned Communism as a return to a far simpler, less complex and technical life. (Lenin once said it.) I will implicitly reply to this view below; but in general, I will ignore it as unworthy of a reply. From the other side, there were attempts to frame a socialist economics which were continuous with the bourgeois resource-allocation models. Without going back to the earliest exercises of this nature, I may mention Kornai’s Mathematical Planning of Structural Decisions; Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism and its pathetic sequel, The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited; John Roemer’s mathematical Marxism.
The collapse of Communism—and what was symbolically even more significant, Kornai’s personal reversion to bourgeois ideology—exposed these deferential approaches as socialist defeatism.
In this manuscript, I will use capitalism to denote economic formations which profess the bourgeois resource-allocation models as their rationale. One of the curiosities of the twentieth century is the appearance of tendencies which practice capitalism but are ashamed of the label: social democracy, mixed economies, the welfare state. Given the collapse of Communism and the world-wide turn to privatization at the end of the twentieth century, there is no reason to indulge the attempts to mitigate capitalism with euphemisms.
I just observed that the spokesmen for socialism took their stand on academic, that is, bourgeois economics; while social-democratic propaganda sought to evade the label capitalism. All the while, bourgeois economics increasingly came to be accepted as a natural science. Three illustrations out of many are: Steven Weinberg’s citation of Samuelson’s 1970 Nobel Prize lecture in Gravitation and Cosmology (1972); the publication of a Jeffrey Sachs article on restoring the market in Poland in Scientific American (March 1992); and the “Pricing the Planet” issue of Nature, May 15, 1997. The mystique that everything in heaven and earth is born with a price tag has become a truism accepted by all public intellectuals I know of. (Below, I mention how physico-mathematical science and capitalism are interwoven by the Action Principle and mathematical preference theory.)
Meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama argued that the bourgeois republic is the summit of human social creativity. And indeed, there is no publicly understood evidence which refutes him. I will call this claim Fukuyama’s challenge. What emerged at the end of the twentieth century was an implicit consensus among public intellectuals that the bourgeois vision was an unsurpassable culmination. Claims by Soviet spokesmen that the Soviet Union had discovered a new system called socialism (e.g. Bukharin’s “Theory and Practice from the Standpoint of Dialectical Materialism”) had in the end to be called a hoax. The only room for disagreement was over whether the capitalist rationale should be called by its name or by something else.
All roads in official economic thought and economic practice led back to capitalism. That capitalism proved so difficult to escape must have some significance. I will comment on capitalism’s observed inescapability later.
If I consented to the consensus, it would nullify the topic I propose to write about. Our purpose here must be to escape the consensus. Ultimately, Communist economics will be intricately quantitative, since it envisions even the coordination of a global economy without money and with an immense increase in automation. But we have just seen why Communist economics cannot begin with a resource allocation model. It cannot begin by writing axioms which mathematicize the behavior of economic actors, employment of factors of production, processes of production. It must begin with an attempt to imagine qualitatively what bourgeois economics would call non-economic existence. Only later can the lessons learned be translated into operations research, which will itself have to be constituted on a new basis.
Qualitative aspects of life
Human life, in the larger view, is an individuated journey of desire, satisfaction, [curiosity, initiative, inventiveness, imagination, speculation, awe,] esteem, morale, contentment, boredom, etc. We must try to understand qualitatively how economic precepts might honor this realm (as opposed to disgracing it). What sort of mode of life would escape selfishness, greed, property, trading as economic principles (principles which will always engender capitalism)? We have to find mental handholds by which to move into a profoundly new conception of existence. To get the most tons of processed product from all the resources that can be procured, for example, is not an appropriate goal for humanity.
The following topics, then, need extensive qualitative discussion.
1. Collectivism—interdependence as an enabler of human possibility.
2a. Self-arrival, enjoyed self-realization.
2b. Amenities, benefits, not measurable in money.
We have to reason backwards from (1)-(2b). Humans are intrinsically interdependent, intrinsically communal. Humans provision themselves—envision needs which can only be satisfied by inventive production. Human amenities are realized on the platform of organizing and producing sociality. Production and civility embody or evince a system; society is intrinsically systemic.
The question is how the human need to produce subsistence—and the long-term alteration of the human/environment relation by the expansion of production (resource-depletion, etc.)—can be programmed, coordinated, guided in a way appropriate to (1)-(2b).
Innate human disposition?
Historically, average people are involved in a game of “selfishness and greed”: covetousness, comparative comfort, possession of baubles conferring self-confidence and sexual appeal. Human vanity was already highly developed in the earliest civilizations (if not in primitive society). What capitalism, in particular, does is: to democratize or vulgarize these impulses as mass-market status symbols.
What will become of these impulses? It is facile to dismiss trading, and to dismiss the use of people as beasts of burden and pawns. Slavery, and trading, would hardly have been thought of if their basis was shallow. Marx made it an axiom that selfishness and greed are the product of the objective evolutionary forces materialized in class society. Implicitly, there was the question of the innate component in generic human disposition and potential. (Human nature.) In the nineteenth century, molecular biology did not exist, and the notion of re-engineering human hardware would have been considered mad. So experimental manipulation of the conditions was impossible, and Marx had no way of demarcating human nature, not even in theory. He posited a determinism of environment, of culture, with no supporting evidence; and people espoused it as a religion.
The scientific Establishment as we know it worships the manipulation of matter and bourgeois values. (I already alluded to the interweaving of science and capitalism in §A.) This Establishment has already altered human fate, with the introduction of nuclear power. Another round of dislocations has commenced with genetic engineering. Thus, it would be ignorant to imagine that biological tinkering with human nature is impossible.
All the same, I do not wish to include such heroic tinkering in the present discussion. I will abstract from the prospect that the present scientific Establishment will re-engineer human nature for the purposes of “social harmony.” If scientific reality is to be brought to the center of the discussion, I would insist on my perspective of an intellectual revolution so profound as to cancel scientific reality. In turn, that would open a truly visionary perspective on collective existence. Then, meta-technology might reshape the sphere of material necessity through and through.
In §A, I noted Fukuyama’s challenge. Among other things, this study aims to refute Fukuyama in thought. I want to envision a society which could lie in our future and itself have a future. I seek understandable arguments. What, then, of generic human disposition? We can learn a lesson from the way in which slavery was ended. Progress did not eliminate the human capacity to enslave. What progress accomplished was to make slavery structurally and psychologically unnecessary and difficult. That is the sort of solution I seek in regard to selfishness, greed, covetousness, vanity, etc.: to make them structurally and psychologically unnecessary and difficult.
B. The individual, the collective, striving and economic activity
Our perspective can reject selfishness as an absolute.
The collective would make an unconditional commitment to nurture individuals, acknowledging individual differences: so that people would quicken one another. You are helpful toward other people because you enjoy them, because you find them indispensable. You want intact friends, not battered and beaten friends. A parent’s relation to children: you don’t make them prove individually that they produce a good return to your investment in them. You nourish them according to their different natures.
The crux of Communism—what Communism holds out that is profoundly new—is that your helpfulness is no longer charity, no longer sentimental, no longer a sentimental duty. Systematic wealth-based power is gotten rid of. In a philanthropic relation, person A gives person B something because A is pleased by B’s satisfaction. In the classless society, B would get something as his or her “stake in the system,” without reference to A’s sentimental disposition. People are not nourished because they elicit a sentimental solicitousness; they are nourished because everyone is entitled, is a peer. The aim of Communism is to arrive at general entitlement, realizing the collectivity of interest.
Let me backtrack to lessons about selfishness in historical societies. The “quality of my life” is profoundly dependent on the condition of other people. If I live as a rich person where a population is starving, my “quality of life” is poisoned.
That is not the end of the matter, however. It does not follow that I am better off if the populace enjoys Swedish prosperity as opposed to the destitution of India. It is much more nuanced than that. Values can survive in a society of traditional dominance and subservience which will mean more to some than the amenities of the European welfare state. A profound lesson emerges here about fabianism. “Progressive” thought in the West in the twentieth century arrived at something of a consensus as to what gradual progress in equality consists of. But there was an enormous catch here. Increases in equality may not at all constitute an absolute improvement in the quality of life. That is because today’s relatively progressive societies—examples would be Sweden or New York City—are not utopias. What they have done is to take capitalism, the manipulation of matter, bureaucratic rationality, sterile design farther than they have ever been taken before. There is not the slightest reason to consider these “advances” a utopia. There is not the slightest guarantee that they bring the population closer to an absolute of fulfillment.
We reject selfishness as an economic axiom. On the other hand, what it means to say that the quality of life depends on the condition of the collective is a still-unanswered question. We require discoveries which are far removed from the welfare states of the third quarter of the twentieth century (which are now tottering, anyway).
Our perspective can reject greed as an absolute. But to implement this remark, we must insist on the distinction between what a person uses and what a person owns. Communism undertakes to provide reasonable satisfaction in what people use. In that respect, greed is not defensible. I may eat one chocolate bar in a day. To try to eat a thousand of them is mad. A person might want a thousand bars if he could own and trade them. But the accumulation of stocks as the nucleus of personal wealth is one of the practices which, by definition, Communism wants to abolish.
Either there will be no “ownership of assets”; or trading of assets will be abolished.
It is sensible for the social body to “give” individuals what they do not desire. An understandable illustration is the vaccination of children. “If it feels good, do it, and otherwise, don’t” is not, as an absolute, compatible with Communism. The collective’s wisdom can outrank the individual's pleasure-seeking. That is a fundamental principle here.
Marx took a fateful step in circumscribing the production of necessities of subsistence, treating it as a burden, to be shared by all and to be made as light as possible. Indeed, will there be a rigidly circumscribed sphere of production concerned with mass provision of food, shelter, clothing, medical services, etc. etc.? If so, that has consequences throughout the mode of life. To crystallize a sphere of production of “necessary work” would seemingly be necessary to reap the benefits of advanced technology and absolute efficiencies of scale.
Another sphere of activity in which a nonchalant or individualist approach is improbable is adventure which consumes massive resources, such as off-planet astronomical facilities or particle accelerators. This sphere will have to be one in which accountable administrators issue wide-scope commands—correlative to the way production is administered.
Apart from the “giving” of benefits which an individual may not desire, how are people’s experienced needs, desires, satisfied? We have to follow the path of public libraries and “complimentary” (i.e. moneyless) cafeterias. Administrative assignment of complimentary housing. Laundromats. As throughout this essay, I choose the examples for their familiarity. When we finally come to particular technical perspectives, technological revolution may render the particular illustrations antiquated. The providers—cafeterias, clinics, laundromats, etc.—are supervised by people specializing in the work.
As with a public library, “request levels” are one signal to the supervisors of what to offer. Electronic referenda could be another avenue for transmitting consumer wishes. (The electronic suggestion box.) There is a great deal more to be said here, which I will get to below. The notion of rationing has to be re-thought, so that it no longer connotes a makeshift of scarcity. What is sought is a moving equilibrium of people getting what they will accept. The point-to-point match between the individual’s money and the product uniquely elicited by that money which is supposed to be embodied in a consumer purchase cannot be a goal—not in the sphere of mass provisioning of the population.
What if a consumer good required coal for its production, but when the order went to the supply end, people didn’t want to supply it, i.e. to be coal miners? What is the incentive to produce the supplies which (accountable) administrators demand? How is unpleasant work to be divided among people? Capitalism, we may observe, does not solve the problem of distasteful work by paying higher for it; that is a myth. Coal miners are paid far less than athletes. The capitalist solution is to trap sub-populations in low castes, wherein most members experience themselves as having to accept the same unappealing jobs their forebears have accepted.
Our answer begins with a culture in which people are expected to serve, to give something back to those on whom they depend. There has to be a social pressure to give something back, an active resentment of the person who is all take and no give. Again, I appeal to an antiquated illustration for its familiarity: the military draft. Everyone has a service obligation; and there has to be concept of occupational options considered equivalent. So it is that routine or productive work would be allocated. You have to fulfill an obligation in one or another designated way, given a schedule of options. If for some reason the job requires continuous attendance for long periods, the off time has to be greater. Coal mining might be considered more burdensome than clerking. The jobs might be segmented so that total per-person time in the former job might be shorter than in the latter.
Human effort outside the realm of production (assuming there is a circumscribed productive realm) will be donated outright—since the individual’s means of consumption will have been provided anyway. I will return to this topic.
Central administration and authority
Obviously this perspective requires professional supervisors, administrators, people entitled to issue commands of wider and wider scope, to make decisions of wider and wider scope. They will be authorized in a system of representation. That means that accountability, recallability, must be built into all organizations in which authority is granted. A further question to be pondered is that of organizations whose members’ job is to “guard public order.” Police agencies. Lenin said that the need for separate police organizations would disappear. It was part of his notion that Communism would comprise a return to a simpler, indeed primitive mode of life. Public disorder would arise only in individual cases, from those who were emotionally unbalanced. The collective would coalesce spontaneously to restrain the individual. Lenin promised that jailing would not exist. But because of the confluence of great masses of people and advanced and dangerous technology—of processes that set massive resources in motion—I hold that there must a be a central perspective on society, making decisions of wide scope, issuing commands of wide scope. Let us follow the hypothesis that there would be organizations “guarding public order” concomitant to this central perspective on society. Again the problem is to create a system of representation, to build accountability in everywhere. But then we presuppose a rule of law; and the reconstitution of law for the future envisioned here is unexplored territory indeed.
What institutions must forestall is a scenario in which a police agency becomes the captive of a clique of administrators, so that the latter gain power outside their authorization and can declare themselves nonaccountable and nonrecallable. A peer culture would have to be cultivated which would guard accountability. This culture would be interdependent with, on the one hand, contempt for the person who is all take and no give, and, on the other hand, with a perspective that service obligations can be discharged in offbeat ways.
I will expand on these questions in what follows. But let me state some very general principles. To pass from levels of narrower scope to levels of wider scope need not mean passing to centers of more and more coercive force. An organization’s executive can be very much controlled by the members which constitute it. All the while, I do not see multiple centers or apexes of administration as the key—because our world has already been unified, and we do not wish to disconnect the fate of one region of the world from others. The key, rather, is to build in
i. consultation between center and periphery.
ii. local independences, locally autonomous solutions.
iii. a flow of instructions upward as well as downward.
All the same, I have to disavow a mystique of local initiative. It is facile to locate all virtue in one corner of society like that. With that said, the principles (i)-(iii) have to be embodied in mathematical programming without optimization. It is (among other things) a problem in applied mathematics which has never been addressed because there was no public motivation to address it.
To repeat, the purpose of this discussion is to shape an attitude, far in advance of particular technical perspectives. Again, I choose illustrations, for familiarity, which might be rendered antiquated. Also I do not seek to envision a society which can instantly grant every request made by every individual. Nor do I seek to envision a society free from built-in risks of usurpation. It is precisely bourgeois anarchism that wields such expectations; and they are inherently unfulfillable.
A Communist perspective must insist that a given “society” projects a temper or sensibility which shapes what individuals can do and what they want, while at the same time, that temper or sensibility is created by the collective, not by an individual. The envisioned society might not provide this or that individual with a favorite brand of cigarettes. To bourgeois anarchism, that might be an overwhelming objection to it. But the objection does not take into account how a society’s temper, a mode of life, are collective creations. A genuine Communism would expose the whole of present civilization to have been a horrible temper, if you will. I wish to envision a holistic advance in collective existence—not a promise to grant every desire that can be named, not a promise to allow people to live without organizations.
The problem of accountability (local entitlement, democracy) may be inseparable from the problem of whether the economic problem (the dependence of survival on material production) can be handled in a post-capitalist way at all. But if we distinguish the problems verbally, it is the latter problem which has been the great stumbling block (because its solution needs a technical insight). My focus here is on the latter problem.
C. Production, mass existence, self-motivated endeavors, spontaneity
Let me resume with the question of circumscribing a sphere of production (of high-level subsistence). One way to build a house is to make a hobby of it, working “inefficiently.”
Here is where I may interject that a perspective which wants to freeze “the liberated zone” at a low-tech level (neo-primitive anarchism) will be beaten from outside, where unrestrained capitalism will invent baubles and infiltrate the low-tech zone to market them.
Mass production builds millions of dwellings by mechanical methods so that everybody can have a sophisticated amenity. Another example is provided by washing machines. How, in fact, would Communism distribute access to washing machines? Complimentary laundromats. The loaning of appliances like books from a lending library. The building of complimentary domiciles pre-equipped with utilities.
The mass production of washing machines is not a labor of love: it is a burden that immediate producers bear, a social responsibility only. Certain occupations may need full-time dedication; at the same time, some people will find them rewarding enough to seek them. (Medicine; managing.) The contours of burdensome work are to be transformed by automation. The time released will be distributed to those whose work is not a labor of love.
Production and the provisioning of the collective emerge as a pragmatic burden. There is a tension in the way that this burden contracts and expands simultaneously. Metaphorically, you give people a computer for $1000 which would have cost millions, if not billions, to have been built as a unique item. When support industries are established and appliances are mass produced, the resources embodied in a single unit are greatly contracted. At the same time, even more of human activity has to be devoted to this sphere of “necessary labor,” because expectations of comfort and scope rise. More and more attention has to be given to the changing human-environment relationship. Humanity becomes addicted to the fruits of “development”—i.e. the introduction of new products, the building of new facilities, the creation of new industries. Human self-realization depends on the availability of mass-produced appliances.
Another complication is that food which is the first solution to occur to mass producers is not necessarily as healthful or as delectable as “organic” or “primitively assembled” food. Would some useful work be carried out as a hobby with complimentary, rationed supplies? The product would be distributed as a gift.
I have rejected the absolutizing of selfishness; the individual’s possibilities are enabled by a social temper which is a collective creation. But that is not to deny that the individual can be menaced by the group’s stupidity; or to deny that there can be value in self-sequestration or “going off on one’s own.” I don’t want to be a captive of a collective sensibility, of collective styles. At the same time, I have great admiration for some styles or sensibilities which were produced collectively. The Communist task, among other things, is to abolish trading—and the pursuit of money as the value which annuls qualities. Marx promised that it was obvious and easy how the private person and the social person would be re-united. For him to promise that was not only irresponsible; it was retarded.
A collective sensibility is inevitable in public space and in decisions which have to be made for multitudes of people. There will not a be a different city for every person, because a city is a collective zone; there cannot be a different industrial landscape for each person. Fishing, on an economically significant scale (not a hobby or voluntary simplicity), cannot be designed from zero by each individual. It is an industry whose practitioners can only combine given means in different ways. It is entirely possible that the only innovation in fishing which would matter would be an innovation which reorganized the entire industry.
As I hinted at the beginning, if the mode of life can only materialize in the far future, then meta-technology could play a crucial role—reshaping the sphere of material necessity through and through. Then we would be beyond the range of the illustrations I have given here to convey the outlook. Even if technology became more “psychological,” the devotion of effort to the sphere of necessity would remain.
You may think of big research as collective adventure, or as a support system which the economy’s embrace of technology has made indispensable. In either case, it is a sphere in which individualistic solutions are not possible. The researcher has to convince administrators that his or her use of the massive equipment should take precedence over the other researcher’s wish to use the equipment—and that involves demonstrating understandable expertise, and agreeing to canons of responsibility and secrecy.
Again, we arrive at the necessity for administrative hierarchies able to make decisions of wide scope. What we may ponder is that historically, the societal temper or sensibility resulting from the decisions made by the authorities varied profoundly. We seek to alter the context of the decisions so that unpriceable human possibility is encouraged, non-“material” technology is encouraged, the constriction of people in order to get use of them is avoided, abolished. We have acknowledged the necessity of the social executive or planner. We have anticipated questions of how wide the scope of this body will be, what sort of authority it will have. But, while awaiting a survey of these issues which is even plausible, my focus here is on whether a post-capitalist solution is possible at all.
The bourgeois production function offers itself when the topic of production of subsistence, necessary labor, is posed. “Radical economics” in the universities in the second half of the twentieth century assented to the bourgeois production function (if not the neo-classical version, then a linear or circular version). All I shall say here is that I provisionally accept absolute efficiency: the avoidance of pure waste. Referring to a given qualitatively specific input to a production process, if other inputs are held constant, then given output should be produced with the least of the given input that custom permits. If one makes an item much more slowly than the process presupposes, then one has dropped out of mass production and is making the item as a hobby.
On the other hand, I reject the concept of relative efficiency, because it depends on the establishment of ratios of value between inputs. Investment decisions would be made not on the basis of relative efficiency, but on the basis of computer “impact” studies, which would preserve qualitative specificity of inputs, and be mindful of the environmental context. (What bourgeois economics has to call external because it is outside of the firm’s purchasing decision.)
Again, we do not rebut capitalism by saying “individual is bad, society is good.” As is known well enough, this slogan can, among other things, enable a clique to usurp the general interest and claim to speak for it. Beyond that, we do not want the sociality of a caste system—or of the welfare state, for that matter. We want a collectivism which finds a place of spontaneity and for people who go off on their own.
Even if we had at our disposal a science fiction supercomputer, it would be out of the question to have a centrally commanded economy in which all signals flow from the top: because that would turn the population into cogs in a machine, limited to following orders.
Again, there has to be an executive organ which manages the productive and distributive system in the large, including environmental relations. At the same time, there is the important problem of consulting with local production councils, of allowing local initiatives and views to guide the center. We must be cognizant of the case of groups which spontaneously embark on new modes of “useful” work. Local, spontaneous, experimental production.
The economic coordination routines must provide for the center’s decisions to dovetail with certain independences in routine management; and to dovetail with local experimental production or invention. [Local authorization and consensual authority.] Closely parallel with the way that central authority derives from members’ consent, with the way members constitute central authority.
[The system must be at once planned, centralized, and bounded; and also improvised, decentralized, and unbounded.] The label in algorithm theory presently known to me is decomposition.
The self-motivated vocation
The case of groups which innovate in “useful work” is understandable, and to be expected. But there is also the case of the individual in a unique situation, the case which cannot be judged by pre-existing standards. My foremost personal reason for entertaining the Communist idea was my crisis of survival, as a person with a self-motivated vocation, in the years following 1960.
There were other compelling reasons, of course, to turn to the Communist idea. Capitalism abolishes quality. It demands human sacrifices: a continual supply of pauperized workers (no matter how far it has to range to find them); ever-expanding markets (no matter what it has to do to secure them). And capitalism perpetuates, via the inheritance of wealth, the ancient phenomenon of inheritance of privilege.
Again, though, what settled it for me was the promise that a genuine Communism would protect the individual from the group’s stupidity far more fairly than capitalism. Suppose an individual attempts something worthwhile which the group is unable to appreciate. How does one deal fairly with the innovator whose innovation can’t pay its own way?—because it transcends the very criteria by which worthiness is measured. The obvious answer is to make the individual’s subsistence unconditional; and to conceive every individual contribution to the collectivity as service or gift. To repeat, the individual receives the means of subsistence unconditionally.
Every individual will have a service obligation which must be discharged in a way understandable to other people. As for capitalism, it structures work in a way which can be lethal to inspiration. Capitalism wishes for workers to make the specialized job their entire life. The inducement is money, not released time. The above-the-line occupation is so burdensome as to preclude the below-the-line vocation.
The service obligation in Communism should not rule out the self-motivated endeavor. There should be service obligations which do not exhaust the person—after all, while I do not discuss technical questions here, I assume a pervasive application of automation.
Ultimately, just these two arrangements may carry the entire burden of protecting the self-motivated endeavor. There is another avenue which could be thought through. The administrative authority could have the option of approving self-motivated undertakings as fulfillment of the individual’s obligation. Depicting this avenue in the most favorable light, the obligation to serve would allow different tracks. Some people would commit fully to “the practical,” medicine, management, planning of environmental consequences, etc. Other people could be accredited to engage in “visionary” pursuits.
Let me say immediately that I am all-too-familiar with the risks of this avenue. The authorities, the group, never welcomes the claim that an “obscure” submission embodies standards higher than the standard embodied in official accreditation and certification. If you can petition to be exempted from routine work in order to fulfill your obligation by being a visionary, that will put accreditation as a visionary in the hands of a “governmental” committee. Being a “genius” is treated like being a baseball player. A class of people is elicited who make a high art of playing to the administrators’ limitations—when those are the very obstacle we are contending with. To underline the point, a committee charged with giving dispensations to “exceptional” people favors “innovations” which are entertaining, which the benefactors can patronize. Those who pointedly cast aspersions on the benefactors’ honesty or refinement are not favored. I spelled this out in the first of the “social recognition” essays in 1961. For this avenue to lead to the wanted result, then, the collective would have to exhibit an elevation of spirit which has no precedent known to us.
Again, therefore, the only certain protection for the self-motivated endeavor may come from the two arrangements I outlined in the first place. The condition of having a dual vocation would have to be accepted, to come to be understood.
Under Communism, individual contributions which were not service would be gifts. Practical inventions would be donated, not traded for wealth. Obvious precedents are the medical discoveries, such as the polio vaccine, whose discoverers were not remunerated in proportion to the discovery’s benefit to humanity. We don’t want to encourage the notion of making benefactors of humanity commensurately wealthy. Not when people no longer support themselves via their occupations.
D. The dimensions of the problem reviewed
Again, the Communist idea has been poorly served by Leftist folklore which has promised that the “new dawn” will restore Arcadia—and in consequence of that, frictionlessly reconcile the private and the social person, abolish all risk of usurpation, grant everyone every wish they can conceive. How could that be, when humans already know how to blow up the world, when there is no prospect of abolishing illness and death (and if there were, the demographics would pose a new problem), when cybernetic systems have to be the key to superseding the manual and repetitive labor which made class societies advantageous?
Again, to promise people that a foreseeable arrangement in which people live together and produce their means of subsistence will grant everyone every wish they can conceive is demagogic; it just throws up another obstacle to answering Fukuyama’s challenge.
The existing quantitative tools in economics have capitalism’s mystique—universalization of trading, homogeneous factors of production, selfishness, greed, etc etc.—as their foundation and basis. The mystique is further buttressed by the enshrining of the action principle, by which Nature Herself is discovered to be a profit-maximizer. And by mathematical preference theory, which encourages scorn for collective demand, collective consumption.
Additionally, Communist theory suffered a massive setback when Marx sought to explain the dynamics of capitalism, and to prove the theft of profit from the workers, by taking his stand on a price concept (labor values, efficiency prices).
The ultimate failure of all socialisms and anarchisms in the twentieth century teaches us that a Communist economy cannot rest on this “economism.”
Now the quantitative tools for Communism have to be created from scratch, from the “physical” considerations in consumption and production. It goes even beyond that, because engineering science has been deeply compromised by the notion that there is always an “objective” which has to be driven to the resource limit. So the quantitative tools need to concretize the conceptual environment which I have explored here. It is an environment of interdependencies and group needs, of resources and throughputs which can be substituted, but not measured in a common unit. Consumption is planned to reflect custom, engineering expertise, and what amount to initiatives and referendums; investment is planned with disaggregated “impact” studies. There is no such thing as a single (composite) good which the economy sacrifices everything else to maximize.
Certain particular issues in consumption are instructive in principle.
It is plausible that Communism would not cater to certain consumer vices, such as alcohol and tobacco. In other words, strip people of the option to become users in the first place, on the grounds that the person who starts using is only made worse off. I discused this suggestion with a person who doubted that these common vices could be abolished, reminding me that the Soviet Union had not dared to curb them. But that is an important lesson. The Soviet Union could not restrict these vices for the same reason that colonialists did not curb the use of narcotics by the colonized. It was advantageous, necessary, to give anodynes, soporifics, to the subjects. If that consideration continued to be operative after the inception of the envisioned Communism, it would be a symptom that the system was psychologically toxic.
Incidentally, I favor experimentation with mind-altering drugs. It seems to pose the same problem of supervision as any technique which has a threshold of harmful consequences. ( A person could want to play with an X-ray machine, too.) When we consider narcotics, we are reminded of a factual consideration which has profound consequences for an ethics of prudence. Humans are seducible. The offer of pleasure leads to a habit which relentlessly destroys the user. We do not judge a practice by the individual case, but the collective impact. That is why it seems suitable not to offer certain vices in the first place.
The utopian abolition of art
I have a critique of art which is utterly unlike the “anti-art” buzz surrounding various famous modern artists. The public anti-art buzz proves to have been a version of artistic conservatism, complaining that art has been corrupted by commercialism, or that Dada ruined the European sensibility so that it was no longer possible to make good art. When I first framed my theory, I assumed that traditional art was discredited by its ties to reactionary social arrangements. I also thought that the genres standard in the European tradition were intolerably corny. I rejected the claims of intellectual edification (not to mention the claims of religious edification ) made for Bach or for twelve-tone music, for example. Beyond that, because I began my career very much in the modern art milieu, I was intensely aware of what is casually called self-indulgence: wherein the artist demands attention simply for objectifying his or her “self” in an institutional genre. Without re-tracing my reasoning any further, I concluded that a utopia would not have what we call art: museums, opera houses, concert halls, playhouses. This is not the place to insist on the point, but I must say that the prospect of a society without the objectifications and the roles associated with the arts still fascinates me. (There would still be public space, decoration, a public sensibility.) These views may have some bearing on my conception of self-motivated endeavors whose results are distributed as gifts.
E. Notes on classes and the transition
Communism has pictured itself as the political movement for the most deprived and disadvantaged and impoverished of the earth. But there is no way that this constituency would spontaneously construct an economy which literally transcended capitalism, sustaining and surpassing whatever intellectual wealth and technical expertise had already been attained. When Leftists propose that paupers (if you please) will spontaneously create a utopian society, they have in mind a neo-primitivist cliche such as rust-and-smokestack syndicalism, or even regression to aboriginal culture.
A feasible reconstruction of the Communist idea would move it further away from what is intuitively plausible to the destitute. Communism cannot be an industrial regimentation whose architects are paupers. (Nor can it be a consolation prize for a romantic fringe of society.)
I accept that the bourgeoisie is a class in power which has to be divested of its power. Direct action by the poor is necessary to shake loose the existing property relations. A successful revolutionary movement would have to expropriate the means of production immediately, because the capitalist class would have to be defeated and dispersed. System-wide economic consequences would have to be addressed immediately.
In the nineteenth century, the Left accepted that the proletariat was the necessary protagonist of modern history; that the proletariat was the revolution’s protagonist. It assumed that the factory worker is intrinsically the nucleus of a new society. Industrial workers were collectively organized in production; hence their wants coincided with what was best for all. The shop floor molded a consciousness to which solutions to problems of a futuristic civilization manifested in immediate experience.
Historical experience belies these assumptions. Workers are committed to the preservation of their existing skills, and to demanding steadily increasing pay for the given job. The syndicalist aspirations of workers in the Spanish Civil War did not become a significant experiment.
In the beginning, industrial society—mass production and marketing—installed the sociological preconditions for labor organization and bargaining. In that sense, capitalism gave birth to a tendency countering it. However, remarkably, capitalism beat back the relevance of unionism. Unions landed behind the technology curve. Capitalism chose technologies lending themselves to independent contracting.
The notion that the proletariat is the revolutionary protagonist was an idealization of smokestack-and-rust production and union radicalism. The actual developments do not confirm this notion. The shop floor of a rust-belt factory does not produce a consciousness to which solutions to problems of a futuristic civilization manifest themsleves in immediate experience.
Organized immediate producers may in some sense be the core of modern society, but the political consequences which were expected from this circumstance have not materialized. The success of the bourgeoisie in staying in command must mean that capitalist relations are not yet archaic—which is why this study is carefully positioned as a thought-experiment.
The notion of an economy of factories owned by their workers—which confront each other like competing artisans—is an attempt to “workerize” private property which must now be considered quaint.
All the same, we are left with questions of the revolutionary protagonist and of institutionalized economic power in a revolutionary society. Let us reason backward. I envision a society in which all members have work obligations, no one owns capital, and administrative authority is democratically constituted. The parallel today, then, is with everyone who is an employee, neither a small nor a large businessman. Vaguely, that speaks for itself.
But to try to add a political strategy to the mode of life hypothesized here would be hopelessly premature. I do not see any value in lionizing factory workers as the revolutionary protagonist or future ruling class.
The bourgeois revolution merely adjusts political life to the convenience of an exploiting class which has arisen spontaneously, and which wields power directly, via its control of the means of production. Communism expects for the victorious political movement to reconstitute the economy. In the Leninist model, self-appointed autocrats make a coup d’etat, then commandeer technocrats and demand that they establish collectivism with the tools they already have. As for anarchic movements, we have to distinguish between their fine rhetoric and the actual outcomes of their activity. The Situationists were typical of all of them. They are publicity stunts—reflecting fads such as those codified in the early work of Baudrillard and Sollers, and usually amounting to claques owned by one or two charismatic leaders. No matter how cathartic it is to read their denunciations of authority, it is impossible that such groups would go beyond being publicity stunts.
That leaves the question of the organization of the political movement as an obscure one. The political game plan for Communism will have to be rethought as circumstances permit. It would be absurd to propose a political strategy here.
Rapid expropriation of the means of production would mean, if you will, that by the authority vested in the revolutionary political organization, functionaries would tabulate the newly expropriated resources, ensure that the capitalists had indeed been expropriated, and sit on factory councils to ensure that the policies of the general authorities would be carried out. A vast system of communication and decision-making would be required for the management of expropriated means of production.
Such authority has to be balanced by consultation and local authorization; and that is one of the profound questions for this perspective. There has to be an intricate system of political representation that accurately transmits the different interests and priorities of the sectors of the productive means of society. The system must allow for the determination of general policies that reflect the different interests and priorities; while preventing authorities at the center from abusing their power.
The system must produce, reproduce, the entitlement of the peers, the comrades—guarding the accountability and recallability of representatives. An active peer culture. The peers demand more free time than in previous epoches.
The question was traditionally asked, and suitably asked, how can the proletariat control a state that owns the means of production? Factory councils represent the partial, sectoral interests of relatively small groups of workers. The summit of authority represents the interests of the population as a whole. Would the authority (and the apparatus it controls), given the power at its disposal, strive to become an autonomous ruling body? Would it become a distinct social class with its own interests?
A negative observation is possible. The criteria of accountability announced by Marx in his commentary on the Paris Commune are merely quaint. Perhaps there could be a transitional role for them; but they presuppose a socialism which is a regression to a far simpler society.
All the same, historical experience shows that social outcomes do not depend primarily on voluntarism, but on non-voluntaristic power relationships and material advantages. (The latter manifest as laws of history: in the sense that various schemes of voluntary cooperation which seemed reasonable to some people did not work. I turn to one example of this state of affairs in the next section.) How usurpation will be forestalled at that level is the real problem. Some sectarian socialisms today imagine that even if the following preconditions were satisfied,
i) workers hold political power
ii) “the society” uses resources in the most egalitarian way
the threat of workers being politically disenfranchized in their state would still be overwhelming. This belief in inevitable usurpation is a pessimism which needs a thorough probing.
F. Capitalism’s observed inescapability
A paramount philosophic question for Communist economics is: why does laissez-faire have so great a competitive advantage in the present epoch? (Why, for example, was capitalism not discredited relative to the Soviet Union by the Great Depression?) Why does laissez-faire re-emerge as the winner in every attempt at a mixed economy?
In our time, capitalism is like a virus that always conquers the host. When it co-exists in a polity with a compensating, counteracting arrangement, such as an attempt by the state to make economic activity improve the condition of the poor, capitalism always wins out. (So long as world financial collapse can be forestalled by governmental intervention.) Social democracy has the status of a compromise which needs an excuse: because the very way economic thought is framed already militates against it. Social transfers are seen as a bribe, with the state as the bagman, paid by those with incomes to those with no incomes to keep the latter docile. Welfare and Medicaid are bribes to unwanted personnel to stay out of the labor force. But when social transfers are distributed in kind (education, health care), economists can object that the individual summoning of products is prevented. Economic theory has it that:
The purpose of society is to foster the individual’s purchasing decisions: the individual’s exchange of “assets” he or she owns for goods desired. The aggregation of these private choices is sacrosanct.
The state may intervene in the economy, but the practice is inherently perverse because it is an interference with the aggregation of private choices. Any occurrence other than private action is a defect.
Private enterprise is conspicuously aggressive as a “developer”—introducing new products, building new facilities, creating new industries. (However, the state can also act as an aggressive developer, for better or worse. The Five-Year Plans, the supersonic airliner, nuclear power, the space program, particle accelerators.)
Capitalism unleashes the individual, and individual greed, holding out wealth as a reward for establishing a new salable benefit. Historically, average people have been involved in a game of “selfishness and greed”: covetousness, comparative comfort, possession of baubles conferring self-confidence and sexual appeal. (What capitalism, in particular, does is: to democratize or vulgarize these impulses as mass-market status symbols.) It is facile to dismiss trading, and to dismiss the use of people as beasts of burden and pawns. Slavery, and trading, would hardly have been thought of if their basis was shallow.
Capitalism orients human intellect in the direction of receiving money for inventing weapons and salable benefits. Other things being equal, weapons, for example, are necessities which are also levers of power.
intellect —> weapons —> money —> intellect
Would war have to be made unimportant before Communism could get started?
Afterward, June 1998
Reading the foregoing, a trained economist will know that it is necessary to go more deeply into quantitative transactions and their “behavioral” rationales to substantiate that economic management is possible under the circumstances pictured.
There is also the question how the inherited capitalist economy would straightaway be reorganized once the bourgeoisie had been divested of power.
My thoughts on these matters are scattered in manuscripts written over several decades. A leading aim of these writings is to reconstruct economic thought from the base in a way which replaces the bourgeois slogan of efficiency with the watchword of feasibility.
Bourgeois economics assumes atomistic isolation, atomistic separation, both because the political ideal of the Enlightenment was “the free individual and his aggrandizement,” and because “the invisible hand” technically cannot work without these assumptions. (And since the assumptions are false, one gets the sciences of market failure and externalities.)
In my perspective, atomistic separation is rejected at the base, at least in the form in which economics has known it. I propose an individuality which is not defined by “consumerism.” I do not assume that production is carried out by “firms,” “companies,” whose physical behavior is atomistically segmented in the Neoclassical manner.
I do not recognize “proceeding to the point of market failure and then compensating for it with government intervention.”
I do not recognize planning by computer which pictures the economy for computational purposes as if it were a private enterprise economy — loading Neoclassical preference maps, Neoclassical production functions, Neoclassical interest rates into the big computer and solving for profit-maximization.
That puts the responsibility on me of solving the problem of physical description of the economy in a new way — from the base up.
Investment projects too large for community initiative — no longer commanded by individual entrepreneurial decisions — are modelled on the basis of interdependency, collective consumption, etc. from the outset. They are technically qualified by criteria of feasibility. Again: computerized modelling not only replaces investments controlled by entrepreneurial purchases — it supersedes marketized definitions of economic transactions in computer models.
This is heavy — because, as I realized when I was writing my dissertation, existing computer control theory is a translation of capitalist behavior into machine relationships. There is always an objective function — qualitative de-individualization of benefits, or shadow pricing. So not only economics, but systems engineering has to be ripped apart and reconstituted.
My principal writings which are germane here are:
The Theory of Socialist Economic Administration (1978)
Ch. VII. Advanced Industrial Economies and Classical Socialism
Ch. VIII. A Hypothetical Totally Automated Economy of the Future
Premises for Communist Economics: Contrasted with premises of Neoclassical economics (Feb. 1976)
Marx’s Economic Axioms: Their Compatibility with Bourgeois Economy (Oct. 1977)
The other puzzle is that of the political method for a tendency which aspires to actual communism. I am not even going to take the space here to defend myself from that majority of “the Left” which says that one must confine oneself to current rebellions of the destitute, and maintain an unbroken silence on strategic questions. The last one hundred fifty years have been years of searing historical experience, of grand illusions and tragic and humiliating aftermaths. Courses of collective conduct have definite consequences. Unless we propose to be defeatists of socialism, we have to learn from the many decades of historical evidence. The theorist has a necessary role in spelling out framing questions and criteria of consequences, as I call them.
My thoughts to date on the political modality are found in:
The Future of Utopian Deliverance (1989/90)
The Organization Question (1978)
and in concluding sections of:
A Critical Communist Survey of Economics (February 1996)
Ecology, Social Democracy, and Art: More Thoughts on Economics (1996).
An obvious puzzle concerns Marx’s picture of the manual laborer as the revolutionary protagonist. Indeed, the proletariat is the class which would be served by divesting the bourgeoisie of their power and property; the class whose social role involves mass production, and for whom collective consumption is a familiar practice. But we have to be clear that the productiveness of a class does not qualify it as revolutionary subject. Marx never denied that farmers and artisans make useful things. If it were a question of being grateful to classes which benefit us, farmers would have to be shown gratitude. But that was not the point. Marx denied that the social roles of these producers qualified them psychologically to be socialism’s campaigners or sovereigns. Marx was looking for a class whose circumstances of life fitted it to be sovereign in an industrialized and collectivist society.
There has been an amazing expansion of the contribution of cognitive work in production; the assembly line is no longer the “commanding height in production.” Supposedly plants in which photographic film is manufactured have no line workers. It is not only that the new scientificity has forged ahead; it has created dangers which only other scientists can gauge precisely (although the public is often ahead of the scientists in suspecting the danger). In an age of information-driven production systems, the manual laborer is less and less able to say what the technique should be. The manual laborer is no longer an initiate.
The manual laborer is not the natural sovereign of production which he was thought to be after the Left embraced unionism in the nineteenth century. Politically, manual laborers as a mass have easily been co-opted by reformism or ambient social interests; or else by party leaders with a police apparatus.
Again, it is not a matter of expressing our gratitude to those who make the things we use; it is a matter of strategizing the base for the struggle for socialism. Answers à la mode, such as the turn to the Third-World peasantry, or to students, don’t work; in the long run, an objective rationale reasserts itself.
A struggle which had genuine communism as its aim would at some point have to break with the institution which I call bourgeois justice (the democracy managed by the bourgeois state). This is a key juncture — because such historical evidence as we have says that at this juncture, a single political organization, headed by a professional leader, appoints itself sovereign for the class and for society. It is even more difficult: because a rule of law would evidently be necessary in such futures as are envisioned here.
It is not a matter of us solving these problems affirmatively. Perhaps the events we want to speak about will not occur in our lifetimes. All the same, a great deal can be known about the consequences of known courses of conduct. We can expect ourselves to spell out framing questions and criteria of consequences relative to affirmative solutions.
Who typically were scientifically illiterate, not to say anti-intellectual.
I do not want to launch into an explanation of the balance of my work here. “Meta-Technology: An Analytical Sketch,” which has been published, will serve as a sample.
Efficiency is a tendentious concept which I will return to. I reject relative efficiency, but provisionally accept absolute efficiency—it is co-implicated with circumscribing a sphere of production.
I don’t even bother to put this disgraceful bourgeois term in quotes.
Cf. the label ‘individualist anarchism’.
The import of capitalism in itself is neither consensual nor majoritarian.
The original essay does not survive.