17 January 2013

Scuffle in the market

There is a debate about market socialism happening on the Jacobin site. It began with Seth Ackerman’s article that briefly lays out the evolution of market socialism in the Eastern Bloc countries, considers the success of central planning in setting prices, and ends by endorsing a socialized capital market. John Quiggin replied to Ackerman by addressing some of the limitations of Ackerman’s proposal, particularly in regard to the feasibility of such ideas in the current political climate. This isn’t meant to be an adequate summary of the ideas, so please read them for yourself!

It’s very heartening that a discussion like this is happening at all. The neoliberal era has been plagued by an intellectual atmosphere that was ably characterized by Margaret Thatcher in her slogan “there is no alternative.” But I think that there are also important problems in how both Ackerman and Quiggin have approached the question of a socialist economy. Rather than provide an in depth review of these articles, I’d like to present this as an opportunity for discussion. To get things going, I’ll start with a few observations:

  • Ackerman places little weight on defining capitalism, simply starting “from the common socialist assumption that capitalism’s central defects arise from the conflict between the pursuit of private profit and the satisfaction of human needs.” But it would be just as relevant, arguably far more so, to start from the assumption that the central contradiction of capitalism is between ever increasing productivity on one hand and the continuing necessity of human labor, on the other. What are the implications of Ackerman’s assumption?
  • Quiggin’s reply is helpful in that he raises the current political context as a necessary factor in evaluating what kind of society we can and should be fighting to create. But despite his sensitivity to political issues, Quiggin argues for reforms that hardly seem radical, and may actually be reactionary. Breaking up the big banks, for example, would merely substitute of the tyranny of the market for that of Big Finance, making the industry harder to regulate and forestalling the use of finance for badly needed investment to mitigate environmental destruction and encourage development in poor countries. However, it is worth mentioning that Quiggin has also presented much more interesting ideas elsewhere.
  • To what extent is the debate that we need to be having economic, and to what extent should it be critical of the categories in which economics as a discipline grasp the world? It seems to me that Ackerman and Quiggan for the most part take the meanings of these terms, such as profit, to be self evident, even if they find the operation of profit to have some negative outcomes. And how can we bring such a critical perspective to bear on a practical left politics?
  • It’s interesting that both authors feel the need to raise participatory economics and then to quickly dismiss it as a desirable economic system with little elaboration. Whether or not they are correct, it might be enlightening to have a fuller account of its merits and flaws.
With those points raised, please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.


  1. I wasn't perfectly clear, perhaps. I see reversing financialisation as a prerequisite for the more radical reforms I favor, not as an end in itself.

  2. I haven't read the Jacobin articles in question (full disclosure) but the points raised here seem interesting and plausible.

    I wonder whether a deeper way to see the failings of the tendency those two folks orbit is in their political imagination. What I mean by that is that they're very interested in traditional questions of economics, allocation of resources, efficiency of production etc. and understand that in some determinate, human way capitalism is not ideal and some more "social" alternative would be better.

    This position however, I feel relies heavily on a political imagination that sees the possibility of social transformation resting on the action of some concrete will. Be they states or be they parties, the only actors who would practically care about which option for social organization "works" or doesn't is some singular will that transcends lived social life. This made sense for "Actual Existing Socialist" states where the state could be such an actor. It even made sense for an insurgent, jacobian Bolshevik party. But I think it's a historical as well as abstract question, about whether it's the most historically appropriate imaginary for our era. For my bet, a more autonomist position (like Rosa Luxembourg's in Leninism or Marxism) seems more promising.

    This thought leads to an even more interesting one, which is the link between our political imagination and our conceptualization of capitalism. It seems likely to me (again, not having read it) that Ackerman's view of capitalism as an inefficient form of social organization is symptomatic of his political imagination as a manager of social life. I wonder what the characteristic political imagination is for the counter position (roughly Moishe Postone's) Deckard has brought up. It's an important and hard question and I have only vague thoughts on an answer.

  3. I think Ackerman's approach is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. Too ambitious because he doesn't give any indication that the society we have right now could ever lead to the society he sketches out. Marx's critique of utopian socialism was not merely that we could not foresee the details of a future society, but that the path to the future society was tightly constrained by the forms of unfreedom that prevail under capitalism. As neoliberalism deteriorates, the most urgent question is what sort of immediate politics is possible now and how that might ultimately lead to a real movement that could challenge capitalism, perhaps in the space of three or four decades. Ackerman gives us neither.

    It's not ambitious enough because what he proposes is not socialism but a new configuration of capitalism. It would involve less brutality and inequality, but it would also take the abstractions underlying the compulsions of capitalist society to an extreme, which might actually make overcoming capitalism much more difficult. A longer conversation would be needed to argue that case, but the persistence in Ackerman's proposal of the animating social forms of capitalism - labor and value, not profit, which is only derivative - provides an initial reason for skepticism.

  4. I agree with where Walker is coming from on this. However virtuous and abstractly plausible a social vision may appear theoretically - and both Quiggin and Ackerman offer much of value in their separate proposals - it remains irreducibly utopian if it does not or cannot account for its emergence both subjectively and objectively. I think, somewhat obliquely, that this gets at both Walker and Earl's respective points.

    Notably, both Ackerman and Quiggin are indeed aware of the dialectical relation between theory and practice, but their respective attempts to grasp it remain abstract and one-sided. Ackerman explicitly attempts to ground the immanent possibility of his vision in a certain, easily verifiable historical logic of capitalist society, namely the decoupling of economic ownership and management. But in doing so, as Quiggin points out, he completely excludes the active, ideational and subjective dimensions of social life, which constrain the "political feasibility" Ackerman's argument. It's pretty hard to believe, at least prima facie, that owners of private equity who are schooled in sacred, neoliberal rights of individual property will simply consent to have their property nationalized and converted into public holdings. Ackerman thus fails to grasp how neoliberal capitalism - as a form of society that produces people who think, feel, and act in certain ways - is a historically specific social formation that shapes subjectivity in certain indelible ways. Among other things, leaving this crucial dimension out of one's analysis opens one up to objections like Quiggin's, which point to the political infeasibility of the vision.

    Quiggin, for his part, seems to overemphasize this subjective or political aspect of the equation, pointing to a few journalists as sufficient evidence of his vision being genuinely "on the table." If the political class took their orders from journalists, however influential (e.g. Krugman), we would have had a second New Deal a long time ago. And as Deckard suggests, there seems to be a certain misrecognition at work in his specific calls for economic reform that is potentially reactionary rather than genuinely future-oriented. This misrecognition is the result of focusing on surface level phenomena that are ultimately derivative, such as financial profits and the size of banks. To the degree that the ongoing crisis of neoliberalism is the result of a historic (and probably irreparable) collapse of its deep engines of value creation, such a surface-level analysis would fail to grasp the real objective constraints that limit subjective possibilities for action in the present. This is one reason why a critical orientation grounded in capitalism as a historically dynamic form of society, and which grasps it in terms of the fundamental categories of labor, capital, and value, would be an important element in the articulation of any social vision that presumes to imagine a future. (For an argument on the historical specificity of the current crisis, see here: http://permanentcrisis.blogspot.com/2011/03/first-steps-in-explaining-crisis-of.html)

    So in different ways Ackerman and Quiggin give us contributions that move the debate forward, but that also give us strong negative demonstrations of what is missing within the recent revival of vision on the left.

  5. I think Walker's question "what sort of politics is immediately possible now?" is the right one, but I think there's some confusion as to how we answer that. Folks on this blog, and Walker and Paul in your comments here are I feel in this vein, have focused on the conditions of subjectivity under neoliberalism to answer this. I think that's a good instinct but I have two worries about this.


  6. First I wonder whether there's an equally important question of objective conditions that need to be taken into account. For example, there's an objective element to wage struggles. Industries with a large gap between productivity and labor-costs have room to raise wages. The recent Hostess debacle is a good example of that. Yes "vulture capitalists" made a political decision to close the plants, yes the workers were strategically and politically correct to not give concessions, but within the current market situation Hostess, a twice bankrupt company, wasn't going to be able to be a island beacon of high wages. That's why the politically sound position on the closing were the calls to socialize the plants, occupying them and repurpose them to produce healthy food. That tactic is of course utopian, but so is thinking that Hostess could just keep trucking along the way it was. These kinds of objective constraints need to play a bigger role in how we think about organizing and where potential mass activity might come from. Some of these have to do with where we have room to win, some have to do with where there's solidarity to coalesce a concrete collective will, some have to do with where there's enough de-legitimation of the hegemonic order that high levels of militancy and experimentation are viable, and some have to do with where alternative forms of social organization are imaginable and practicable enough to spark workable experimentation. These are hard questions, and I think we're asking them, but I just wanted remind folks.

  7. The second concern I have is more nebulous, and it's that I feel folks on this blog sometimes have an overly abstract conception of subjectivity. Notably, subjectivity as a historical conditions like the rate of profit that moves mechanically (or at least determinately) with other historical forms. Of course this is a caricature, but I think the talk about neoliberal subjects as somehow incapable of solidarity, or incapable of grasping the social totality, is dubious at best and when frankly very white (I'm not trying to race bait here, I'm just being honest with how it feels to me). Marx's notion of Man is actually very concrete, History for him is grounded on the specific and concrete activity of individuals (see the Holy Family and German Ideology). For him the production of the Proletariat as a historical force came from the specific conditions of industrial production. The middle classes had different tendencies of consciousness due to their particular concrete practical activities (peasants, petit bourgeois etc.). And so I wonder whether when we're talking about subjectivity we need to get more concrete. My coworkers (in a university cafeteria) all have some form of class consciousness. It may not be "Marxist" but they all hate the boss and all have some sense that there's a difference between them, their lives, their aspirations, their work, and the work of high level management and the big bosses. My African American neighbors who are being displaced out the neighborhood they grew up in by gentrification have a very different consciousness of race then I or my other white friends in the neighborhood do. If we're going to talk about subjectivity I think it behooves us to be that specific and concrete. Asking whose subjectivity, what forms that consciousness, and where does that consciousness fit into the social totality, rather than simply deriving the abstract conditions, from equally abstract social forms.

    On a side note, I think this is where class, racial, gender, heter-normative, etc. analyses becomes really important so that we can understand the heterogeneity and strategic configurations of consciousness in their specificity, which is also in their political capacity. (that's why I brought up the whiteness of the term "neoliberal subjects," which I'm happy to argue about)

  8. I agree with much of Quiggin's political agenda (though not with breaking up the banks, for the reasons stated above), but I think both he and Ackerman are starting with an overly static conception of the current political moment, and of capitalist society in general. Superficially the crisis that began in 2007 seems to have abated, but the emergency response and subsequent turn to austerity not only failed to address the contradictions within neoliberal society that produced the crisis, but actually intensified them. Neoliberalism as a regime of accumulation is no longer viable, and while the massive intervention of the states of the rich world (in particular the intervention of the central banks) has forestalled the reckoning, we are now in a moment of great instability and uncertainty.

    Political analysis has to start from this understanding and proceed from there to an agenda that is possible under such circumstances. Moreover, if the left is to avoid once again pursuing a course that leads to perverse and horrific reversals, it must also consider the effects that a given reform will have on the social totality. Merely "definancializing" the economy, as Quiggin suggests, would only deepen the crisis because ultimately the grotesque form taken by finance reflects dysfunctions in the productive economy. A similar critique must be directed against most of the "common sense" policy reforms supported by the left. The program of the left is necessary but not sufficient to overcome the crisis of neoliberalism, and in this case being inadequate to the moment is very dangerous.

  9. Earl's reminder to us about dubiously abstract conceptions of subjectivity is well-taken. If my writing is giving the impression, to anyone, that I'm suggesting people living at this moment in history are "incapable of grasping the social totality," or are incapable of solidarity, or are mere reflexes of deeper historical conditions, or whatever, then I need to correct my style because I'm not expressing myself clearly. That said, I think it's mistaken to suggest that's how we are thinking subjectivity here. There is a big difference between reducing all contemporary forms of consciousness to mere ideological reflexes of an underlying reality, which Earl seems to suggest is a tendency on this blog, and taking contemporary forms of consciousness, in some basic way, to be shaped by historical - thus malleable - currents of discourse and practice. The latter approach, in the way I have always understood it at least, is the only real way to understand the relationship between spontaneity and organization in political mobilization, because it alone demands that theorists/organizers/activists/whoever meet people where they are at, socially and culturally. It means taking people's subjective self-understanding seriously. This doesn't preclude trying to get an accurate theoretical understanding of the general situation; it just means that theory, in order to be relevant, has to presented in such a way as to be legible and compelling for actually existing people in actually existing concrete circumstances. Now that, I think, is an area in which Permanent Crisis could improve.

  10. I think it is important to distinguish between something like the ‘neoliberal horizon,’ in other words the limits to our ability to grasp society in certain ways within the current social configuration, and the plethora of ideologies and various social practices that have flourished within neoliberalism. Without some kind of horizon or deeper historical current, as Paul put it, molding consciousness, I don’t think that there would be any coherence to the social system itself. Clearly it’s vital to theorize this force if understanding and changing society is on the agenda. This is not a separate question from objective conditions. These abstract determinations of subjectivity arise in and through the concrete.

    Having said that, I appreciate Earl’s point that we can take a closer look, and hopefully achieve some kind of ethnographic depth in describing the different ideologies, practices of resistance, and attempts at overcoming that can be found among the diverse social groupings occupying our world. But the former is not a negation of the latter, it’s a necessary supplement.

    As for the suggestion that this deterministic analysis is characteristic of whiteness, and the clear assumption that this is a pejorative term, I think it’s clear that Earl will first need to specify and ground this racial category before proceeding. I would assume that you're pointing to the tendency to think in these terms as being linked to relatively privileged academics (which I certainly wouldn't balk at,) but I can only assume, because "white" as an identity points to a potentially much larger group.

    Thinking in racial categories has been profoundly challenged not only at a scientific but also at a cultural level. The persistence of discrimination linked to race and ethnicity should push us to carefully consider the ways that we are deploying these terms, not to spare ourselves discomfort (quite the contrary) but to work towards an adequate understanding of the ways in which inequalities are reinscribed into society. (Think for instance of the liberal analysis of racism evinced by a film like 'Crash.') Otherwise we risk counterproductively ontologizing the category of race and forestalling an adequate reckoning with the problems of social inequality.

  11. Ooo controversy! So my language was definitely sloppy and slightly inflammatory, but I'm pretty sure sloppy and slightly inflammatory the most appropriate register for the comment thread on an obscure blog. Sorry if there were any hurt feelings, I think y'all are very smart and sincere folks.

    Now on to some substance!

    1. My caricature of the tendency (which I mean as a dangerous pole I think folks are tending toward rather than a specific line of thought) around subjectivity is not about this being a base superstructure issue, but that the ontological status of subjectivity is screwy. I wasn't claiming that folks feel that subjectivity is produced mechanically by the rate of profit, but that it was an object of knowledge in the same way the rate of profit is. I'm not going to be able to be entirely clear on this, but I mean something like there's a tendency to view subjectivity as an abstract category that has certain mechanical properties, and whose essential character can be determined on a socially general level. Moreover that this socially general essence would have some concrete purchase on political action. What I hear from folks can sometimes sound like this "In these ethnographies of folks, and in these general understandings of mass culture, we can see this about people's subjectivity. From this we can know that we'll meet people where they're at by saying X and that if Y happens, people will tend to do Z." The statements made may all be true, but I the style of thought still rubs me the wrong way.

    The reason why I think is because they take the agency out of subjectivity. When we understand subjectivity as a historical category that is concrete in its abstraction in the same way economic or physical categories are, or that is mechanically linked to the social totality (which is not the same as the "economic base") then we actually remove from view one of the most important aspects of how History (and for that matter Revolution) happens, which is the autonomous and creative self-activity of people. It maybe true that on a socially general level people cannot grasp the social totality. But the way that's going to change is from the fact that people are not merely that. That people, qua people, are subtle, sophisticated, and irreducible to abstractions. As a result the masses will always surprise us. The big changes will not come from the intentional activity on the people by revolutionaries, they will come from instances of unprecedented and unpredictable creativity from people that revolutionaries must interact with. (I should note, that I don't mean we have to hop from rupture to rupture at all. Just to be clear.). Unless we understand this we have no hope in having meaningful engagement with a revolutionary process.

    I want to be absolutely clear though that I don't mean we can't make general claims, or that that it's matter of "scale" and we should only make small claims about "individuals." What I mean is that they type of knowledge I think we need to be gathering about subjectivity and subjects is fundamentally different from the type of knowledge we gather about the economy etc. My hunch is that this other way of knowing has less to do with empirical "scientific" research of subjects, and more to do with the familiarity with people that comes from entering into struggle with them. Though, I'm not trying to be anti-academic or anti-science here.

    Sorry if this is all confusing. I seem to have found myself out on my own limb.

  12. 2. To go further out on a limb here's a quick justification for my race baiting.

    When I called the term "neoliberal subjects," white, I was not saying it was a term that only white people would use. Instead I meant that it the subjects it designated were white. In other words, I think an attempt to characterize a subjectivity that is central to a historical period, in the US at least you gonna end up with a subjectivity that has a certain level of whiteness to it. This is to me unavoidable because whiteness is in it's very essence the character of being included in society. Those who get to be called white are those who get to identify most thoroughly with the world around them. White people, are the people for whom the world is. This is produced materially through systems of privilege and material advantage as well as symbolically by things like network sitcoms being almost entirely white. Take Modern Family as a great example of this (the fact that Latino folks are included in the Modern Family is, I think, very significant and does not change the whiteness of the cast). It would be very surprising to see an all African American cast sitcom be called the Modern Family. My claim was mostly that any term that homogenizes out of American society will end up being white and so I my race baiting was meant to highlight a racial danger to any practice of homogenization around subjectivity.

    Anyway, these are very sketchy thoughts and themes. I don't think I'll be able to get much further in clarifying them here, hopefully I'll make some posts soon that will flesh stuff out with more concrete material to work from.

  13. I don't think that this is much more controversial than any other comment thread, and, speaking for myself, we're not even close to hurt feelings. In the future it might be more helpful to use concrete examples (and you're certainly welcome to pull from my scant posts for that) for the sake of clarity if nothing else.

    I'm not sure I know what you're really getting at with point 1. The thing is that when it comes to collective action, it seems important to recognize that there are certain constraints on consciousness. I don't mean there are constraints on consciousness 'for them' and that I am unconstrained because of my access to awesome social theories, I mean that this is a general condition arising from the concrete situation. We're doing our best to discern the contours of the neoliberal configuration and to guess what might be able to come next, but it's necessarily a bit like fumbling in the dark. For me the question is less what people will do than what further possibilities their actions will open up, and how these things can be connected to the structural contradictions.

    But I don't want to seem like I'm dodging the issue. I see consciousness as the chief problem in capitalist society. If 'interest' or 'force' were the motor of the system, open conflict would be everywhere. Rather, the conflicts that we do see more often than not tend to strengthen the social system. Understanding the ways in which people's consciousness is a structured and structuring moment of system is vital.

    Now that I see what you're going for with the whiteness thing, I think it's quite interesting. But I think that this is also a situation that is highly ambiguous. Fanon said, "For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white." It's deeply troublesome that the extension of a privileged place in the socioeconomic system for different social groups has been achieved through their attainment of white status (Irish Americans) or recognition of their proximity to whiteness (many East Asian Americans.) With white as the "universal" cultural marker with a meaning that can move between genetic and cultural poles, there is always a space held open for the particular, the groups that are supposedly unable or more to the point unwilling to join the in-group. Inequality is reproduced even as equality is supposedly made universal through the extension of whiteness.

    But it's also true that particularity is just as surely produced by this cultural system as universality is. In the end, there is no way for particularistic identities to be "elevated" to a position of equality. The transcendence of the opposition between universal and particularistic identities would involve the transformation of both. In the present we're stuck with 'actual humans' and social groups who must negotiate life inhabiting, at times, one, two, or more identities, even seemingly exclusive ones.

    Moving forward, I certainly can't begrudge anyone further comments on this line of discussion, but it would probably better do it justice properly to have a post dedicated to it, especially since I think there's a lot more to be said on the market socialism topic.

  14. I agree with Walker that a political agenda for the future must begin with the understanding the present economic configuration is not viable. Notably, we should note some trends that suggest that markets are losing their efficacy in perpetuating growth. We should consider the weakening of intellectual property and the ephemeralization of commodities through digital distribution. Value is flowing out of the economy because of the decommodification of many kinds of information, entertainment, etc. and with the 3D printer, it's possible that many kinds of commercial design will also be swept up in this process.

    We know that it's reactionary and probably not even possible to stop decommodification through the draconian enforcement of IP law, so we should carefully consider what other possibilities present themselves, whether, for instance, it might be possible to treat such digital material as a form of collective good and to pay for it through taxes.

  15. Jacobin recently published another critical response to the Ackerman piece: http://jacobinmag.com/2013/01/on-democracy-and-socialism-a-reply-to-seth-ackerman/