24 February 2013

Market Socialism Continued

A few weeks ago I posted Seth Ackerman's article about market socialism. There were a few responses to Ackerman's article posted to the Jacobin blog, but none that I felt addressed the problems in his original proposal for a market socialism that retained the market as a way to correctly determine prices (particularly for capital) yet completely socialized profits. As my comrade Paul insightfully noted, Ackerman's proposal is grounded in the native tendency of the capitalist system toward "the decoupling of economic ownership and management."

But while Ackerman's market socialism may take its basic plausibility from the immanent contradictions of capitalist society, as Walker argued, the real grounds upon which the realization of this market socialism might be realized politically were never specified, leaving it as little more than an academic exercise. Perhaps more fundamentally, the question remains as to whether Ackerman's proposal earns the name of 'socialism' by fundamentally overturning the basic features of capitalism, or whether it perpetuates these features, the most important of which is wage labor. In other words, this potential form of market socialism envisions a way to reinvest society's surplus more equitably, but leaves intact the basic form of the production of that surplus.

While the responses to Ackerman's article raised some important objections and are well worth reading in their own right, they did not confront this final point, and notably, they both seem to accept the utility of markets for society. In the meantime, Matthijs Krul has posted a reply to Ackerman on his blog mccaine.org that I think serves to return attention to the system of production itself. As Krul announces his intention:

In this reply to Ackerman, I will argue two things. Firstly, that market socialism cannot overcome the limitations of capitalism, and secondly, that the failure of Soviet central planning does not condemn the idea of central planning. In fact, I will argue that the flaws in Ackerman’s design and the Soviet model of central planning are remarkably similar: both are rooted in the failure to overcome capitalist production, as opposed to distribution.
Krul nicely warns us of the stakes of ignoring production in favor of distribution, arguing that by doing so one risks socializing the very conditions of our unfreedom. By making these economic functions even more decentralized and diffused in a way that is even less tied to specific class and political relations, one might give rise to a form of society in which it is even more difficult to grasp the source of our domination.

With this important critique of Ackerman's proposal now on the table, we should turn to the question of how we can create a political agenda that is both plausible to the current inhabitants of our world and able to address the dysfunctions of the production process. It seems to me that the issue of the ways in which people currently understand the world is the single most important consideration in developing such a political agenda. It does little good to lecture the masses on theoretical explications of social problems if those theories, however refined, are not made plausible by the experience of daily life.

Krul himself does not show a great sensitivity to this consideration of popular forms of subjectivity, and accordingly his analysis of resistance to the Soviet economic system seems a bit too neat to me. Understandably, he does not take up the issue of the current political feasibility of the project of fundamentally changing the production process. This is, nonetheless, a vital question for us. Our thinking will have to take into consideration the current crisis conditions: although the basis of our economic system has been exposed as inoperative, the most prevalent reaction has been something akin to denial and a Pollyanna-like insistence that things will soon return to status quo. Yet signs are everywhere that this popular mood could shift suddenly and violently, especially when a new economic crash erupts. We should be preparing now a response to such an event that persuasively lays out a progressive path beyond crisis. What resources do we have to make this case?


  1. I'm not sure what is interesting about Seth Ackerman's argument for Market Socialism, but it seems to need to be addressed here .

    The problem with Market socialism is not merely that it is focused on distribution rather than production. That is true enough, and it reflects a long history of "socialism" of a liberal sort which is the core of the DSA-inspired Jacobin magazine. It has a long debt to the early Christians and to Rousseau and has nothing in common with Marx. Luxemburg made the critique long ago in her article "Socialism and the Churches". Gaspar M. Tamás has made a far more sophisticated version of this argument in his essay "The Uniqueness of Capitalism and the Normative Content of a Socialist Political Philosophy", which starts out giving us a rundown of pretty much the entire tenor of Ackerman's article:
    In the dominant political tradition of the workers’ movement, capitalism is regarded as a régime, the destruction of which is the aim and the historical duty or calling of class-conscious proletarians.
    A régime, hence, is a state of affairs in society that can be destroyed by political action and replaced by another.
    If we consider those régimes in history which had been overturned by political action (and therefore will qualify), we could find some of their common characteristics. These common traits are likely, among others, to be (a) a dominant method of extracting surplus value, (b) the mode of redistribution and a given hierarchical order of social groups, (c) a number of coherent coercive practices ensuring cohesion and inner tranquillity within a polity, (d) a dominant system of moral justification, political legitimacy and law, (e) a certain mode of cultural hegemony…

    So what is at stake is not merely a failure to grasp a "critique of production", but a wholesale failure to comprehend what capital is. It is not a system of distribution on top of a neutral mode of production. It is not the dominance of that mode of production by a particular class. If it were, none of the 20th century would make any sense. In fact, capital has survived with markets and without. Capitalism is not even dependent on who owns the means of production, which is just a variation of the distribution problem. It is not even primarily about exploitation.

    Capitalism separates the producers from the means of production and forces them to sell their labor for a wage. The abolition of capitalism is the abolition of the compulsion to labor. Communism takes capitalism's separation of the individual's activity from the individual's needs to its logical conclusion, but instead of denying the needs of the individual and entirely focusing on their activity qua labor, communism is "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs", that is, the concern with fulfilling human needs regardless of the specific contribution of any individual to society.

    To put it in other terms, Moishe Postone has argued that the contradiction of capital today is best expressed as the imposition of labor as the determinate social form qua value and commodity production against the capacity to produce material wealth which far exceeds the bounds of this social form. That is, despite being able to produce to satisfy all in an ecologically responsible manner, and under our conscious control, we remain bound by the value-form and the domination of labor.

    The critique of capital is entirely lost on Ackerman and his acolytes. This is why, faced with this point, he immediately sets up a straw man of arguments about "human nature". The issue is not human nature, but about realizing what capital is already doing. It is capital that separates the activity of the individual from the fulfillment of their needs. It is capital that has made human labor redundant in a vast amount of production. It is capital that has replaced community knowledge in production with the direct application of science.

  2. Market Socialism is the belief that with the right regime and the socialization of "modern production", we can do that. States are reified as "things" outside of capital. Markets are made equally transcendental. Of course, once markets and states are not also social forms of the capital-labor relation, we have imaginary neutral entities, which are then controlled by the good guys or the bad guys.

    Ackerman's world of production, however, is distinctly old fashioned:
    "Look around the room you’re sitting in and think of your possessions. Now try to think of how many people were directly involved in their production. The laptop I’m typing on, for example, has a monitor, a case, a DVD player, and a microprocessor. Each was likely made in a separate factory, possibly in different countries, by various companies employing hundreds or thousands of workers. Then think of the raw plastic, metal, and rubber that went into those component parts, and all the people involved in producing them. Add the makers of the fuel that fired the factories and the ship crews and trucking fleets that got the computer to its destination. It’s not hard to imagine millions of people participating in the production of just those items now sitting on my desk. And out of the millions of tasks involved, each individual performed only a tiny set of discrete steps."

    How about we look around at how many people are actually involved in primary production today, as a percentage of the population in the U.S., still the largest commodity producer. Less than 10% of the population is in that category. If we add in all of IT and engineering, we are closer to 13%. 87% of the country is not involved in this kind of production. In the rest of the world, the only reason that more people are involved is because, from the point of view of profit it is more profitable (not more efficient), to use human labor.

    He moves neatly to the efficiency of prices, but makes no mention of what price represents. Without the value-form, price is meaningless. Price is only objective if the social form is commodity production, and commodity production is only possible on a generalized scale vis-à-vis labor as domination. When capital itself is creating crises of valorization because such a small part of the value of a commodity relies on living labor, how exactly does "market socialism" overcome this relationship?

    In speaking of "how much relative value people place on different things", he has completely abandoned the critique of capital and is a neo-classical wonk. This is marginalism at its finest.

    The club he wants to beat everyone with is "realism". Ackerman is a realist against the "unrealistic" critique of capital. He views the end of the market, money, labor, the state, as utopian in the worst sense. What he completely misses is that capital is already headed in that direction all by itself. This fantasy may allow him to seem plausible and sensible, but every fantasy world that is nothing more than a "kindler, gentler capitalism" is always easier to accept because it relies on so much of what is familiar and what assures us that not much really needs to change.

    However, the direction of capital, and its possible abolition, does not depend on Ackerman, his magazine, DSA, or any political party. There is no bigger fantasy than the idea that you can take over the state and impose this "socialism".

    On the other hand, what I would suggest is appropriate is a politics that recognizes and bases its demands on the increasing gap between individual activity (labor) and the fulfillment of individual need. Put in this way, everyone should work less, everyone should have their needs met regardless of their level of contribution.

  3. Maybe I didn't make it adequately clear that I thought Ackerman's argument was completely inadequate even on his own terms. As for my interest in it, I did find some of the historical material interesting, maybe just because I hadn't previously read about it. But what I was more interested in was the replies to Ackerman and the occasion for some discussion—which we did on the previous post, even if the topics ended up being somewhat tangential. This is after all a blog, so for me the opportunity to have discussions here is more important than posting finely polished papers.

    I'm completely sympathetic to your suggestion for a politics, but I guess I see that as the "Call me Ishmael." of the work we need to do, which will involve a lot of tangents, digressions, doubling back on our course, and maybe even shipwrecks.

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  5. In any case, I think that your critique is excellent, Chris, and it is more satisfying and comprehensive than the ones that I mentioned in this post and the previous one. When I first read Jacobin, I was delighted that there was a new publication with a Marxian analysis that people seemed to be reading. However, I've been sorely disappointed with many of the articles I've read since then, particularly in the most recent issue, which features some truly horrible manglings of Marx.

    To return to the subject at hand, I'm intrigued by your idea: "However, the direction of capital, and its possible abolition, does not depend on Ackerman, his magazine, DSA, or any political party. There is no bigger fantasy than the idea that you can take over the state and impose this 'socialism'."

    I think I understand what you mean about the 'direction of capital,' and I take that as a very important point, though I am of course still considering all the implications of it. But whenever a discussion of the state comes up, I find that my understanding of what is meant by that term is probably lacking. If we agree that the state withers away having transcended capitalism, do we take a wholly negative view of the state? Surely the terms of the reproduction of society will be consciously politically mediated in a post-capitalist society, do we really need a completely different term for this mediation? Can nothing of value be accomplished through the state as it exists? Or is the point that the state can never be completely turned to the interests of overcoming wage labor? As you can probably see, I'm not very sure how to begin approaching this problem, so I appreciate your input.