Reciprocity vs. Baseline Communism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2015

I was rereading David Graeber’s Debt over the weekend. The intervening two years, since our book event, have not caused it to be the case that Graeber doesn’t owe Henry an apology, after all. But the life of the mind goes on. We do not freeze intellectual accounts due to outstanding personal debts. That is to say, the free market of ideas is baseline communist, in Graeber’s sense. If I have a bright idea, I do not expect to be paid back, by those who receive it, in the form of two half-insights – or 100 comments, each containing but a grote’s worth of thought; none of that. (I expect intellectual credit, of course.)

My bright idea for the day is that I have no idea what the difference is between reciprocity and baseline communism.

Let me back up and remind you a bit about what Graeber says. (I’m going to be a bit loose about this, first, because I have Debt on audiobook and can’t be bothered to chase down exact quotes this morning by playing an mp3 back and forth. Second, I’m not concerned to pin Graeber on this point. It’s an interesting question. I want the answer and don’t care whose it is. If someone thinks I’m unfair to Graeber, say so in comments and I will try to make payment on all valid claims.) He says there are three ‘systems’ or ‘principles’: communism, exchange and hierarchy. These are all operative at once, to varying degrees. That is, take any actually existing society and find all three at work.

The principles (as Chris notes in his introduction to our book event) have a tendency to morph into each other, at least apparently. Combine that with their perennial co-presence and you have room for confusion.

Graeber mocks those who insist on casting everything in terms of reciprocity, just because there is always some way to stretch the idiom of exchange to cover all. That seems right. (Per my previous post on the subject, I agree that the tendency to see ‘markets in everything’ is a bit of a mental disease.) Even so, Graeber seems to bend over too far in the other direction.

For starters, his defining formula for baseline communism – ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ – is appealing in large part (not exclusively!) because it construes the logic of communism as strict reciprocity. The formula articulates units of account according to which everyone puts in, and gets out, not just approximately but exactly the same. Thus baseline communism is, by Graeber’s own terms, not just an exchange system but a strict exchange system.

Speaking of which: Graeber construes reciprocity narrowly, by way of emphasizing that not everything is it. I see his point, but the result is that consistency requires him to regard things like the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do to you – as iffy cases. The Golden Rule is too subjunctive to guarantee actually equal exchange results, after all. “We are not really dealing with reciprocity here or at best only with reciprocity in the broadest sense” (Chapter 6). The ‘here’ here refers to commons and things every member of the community can call upon others to provide. But it would also seem to cover observances of the Golden Rule.

You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. Actual scratches you could scratch down in a ledger. That’s proper reciprocity. For Graeber. And money-for-goods, of course. Precise credit accounts.

The exception that proves the rule are gift societies (economies) in which this notion of precise ledger-keeping would be absurd. There is an aversion to cash. Everyone is constantly maintaining sociality by giving apples and later getting oranges, etc. But this concerted determination to thwart any decisive keeping, hence clearing, of accounts amounts to an implicit concession that exchanges are the sorts of things that can be cleared. We don’t want them to be because we want society to be knit together. Hence we constantly work to keep accounts uncleared.

To repeat: exchange can be squared, so the two parties can walk away. Reciprocity is exchange. The Golden Rule cannot be squared away, for all time. Ergo, the Golden Rule isn’t reciprocity.

But, of course, the Golden Rule is supposed to be a paradigm expression of an ethic of reciprocity, not some strained, ‘broadest sense’ borderline case. So if you rule it out, or push it aside, then mock people for their “peculiar ideological blinkers”, seeing reciprocity where there is baseline communism, it’s fair to say that you’ve engaged in some bait-and-switch.

On the other hand, there is something to the thought that the Golden Rule really is communistic in spirit. That is, you make people into good, sociable communists, as opposed to market-minded reciprocalistas, by preaching the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is a way of weaning people off reciprocity by giving them a kind of placebo. It feels like you are still exchanging, even though you are actually not. You are now a good communist.

I think this might be what Graeber would say. It’s what consistency requires him to say, I think. But obviously he wouldn’t want to admit that the Marxist slogan is pure exchange. (He says the bright line that tells you when you are dealing with baseline communism, in egalitarian societies, is that keeping accounts concerning x is not merely not done but would be offensive. But if this were right, then the Marxist slogan should be deeply offensive to communists. But it isn’t.)

Going over it again. ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ is strict exchange, ergo not communism, insofar as a units of account are specified, squaring of accounts mandated. Debits and credits must tally and cancel (otherwise presumably some sort of sanction will be in order. Someone will owe a very literal ‘debt to society’.) The Golden Rule is communism, not reciprocity, because of the absence of these strict (Marxist) requirements for markets in everything, with payment in the two-sided coinage of ability/need.

Something has slipped, but I’m honestly not sure what. None of the simple examples Graeber likes seem to me to help much. He mentions how silly it would be for one workman to respond to ‘gimme the hammer’ with ‘only if you pass me the wrench’. Co-workers are communists. One also thinks of G. A. Cohen’s fabled camping trip of socialism. Everyone pitches in. Yes, it’s true.

The problem with this, it seems to me, is that, in such cases, whenever we see absence of requirements of reciprocity, we also see hierarchy and other means-ends relationships that complicate the picture. So I’m not really sure where the baseline communism should slot in.

Take the workmen. Suppose two workmen are repairing a car. What really dictates terms here is the requirement that a functional car emerge at the other end. If the two workmen are equally skilled, it makes sense that they hand each other tools freely when doing so is the best way to get the job done. This is dictated by efficiency considerations. Obviously either of them will feel free to say ‘get it yourself, I can’t let go of this right now or oil will get on everything.’ If, on the other hand, there is hierarchy – a mechanic and her apprentice assistant or something – then the ability to ask for tools would be asymmetric. The mechanic is more free to ask, the assistant less free. But again there are efficiency considerations here. The assistant is only competent as a tool-getter, maybe. So the assistant should always get the tool. Another possibility: this really is an exchange relationship, in which the assistant is handing over tools and being paid, in part, in the opportunity to watch and learn.

Also, in any work environment in which someone is constantly asking co-workers/fellow team members for help and never putting in much – due to persistent weakness/inability – the norm is not that everyone else will carry the extra weight forever, like good communists. The expectation is that the incompetent will be fired or shifted to a different position on the team. Families are different from work environments in this way. You can’t be fired from your family. Is only the family communistic in this way? (But is the family not a case of hierarchy?)

Let’s shift to camping. Here ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ rules, up to a point, as does the Golden Rule. But is the spirit reciprocal or communist? How can we tell? There is something to be said for both, it seems to me. Cohen is very eloquent on the communist/socialist side. Go read him if you want to be convinced camping can be communistic (if it isn’t bloody obviously, which it should be.) But it’s also reciprocal, even market-like. If I am consistently not ‘pulling my weight’ I won’t get invited back for the next trip. That is, I’ll get kicked out of the camping society.

Of course, it might be hurtful to be disinvited in this way. But think why. It wouldn’t be because those doing the kicking-out are violating the camping communist ethic, according to which you aren’t required to ‘pull your weight’ – not unless you can. It would be because it was shaming to know you were thought incapable of pulling your own weight. Insofar as the camping endeavor is felt to be governed by exchange – everyone pulling their weight – it would be shaming to be a kind of moral incompetent, due to camping incompetence.

It’s perfectly acceptable for novices to not pull their weight for a time. But this creates an expectation that they will do better in future; and in the meantime it produces a status inequality, with experienced campers effectively acting as patrons and others as parasites (in the Roman sense: sitters-by around the campfire.) This sort or hierarchy is not socially disagreeable so long as it is temporary and nested within a larger frame of greater social equality. But it is closer to feudalism than communism, I think. Insofar as it is not feudal, because everyone starts as a novice, ergo there is a baseline egalitarianism, it is more exchange-like. You are ‘paying it forward’ by carrying and training tomorrow’s competent campers, as you were carried and trained in your time. (See also: parenthood.)

Compare: you ‘help’ your friend cook, even though she is a gourmet chef and you can’t boil water. This may be perfectly fine; but it will be hierarchical not communistic. She is your teacher or patron or something. It is pleasant for her to enjoy this high status. You get food and training. Something.

One possibility: since you can describe things as Graeber does – i.e. in terms of three principles – or you can reduce it all down to one – i.e. reciprocity, very broadly construed – then these different perspectives are really just notational variants. Say it is one, or say it is three, as you like it. Communism is always exchange, per the Marxist slogan; hierarchy is always exchange, just of an apples-for-oranges (gratitude-for-patronage) sort. Or, alternatively, exchange is a very narrow thing that you only get when accounts can be squared, in principle. Even the Golden Rule isn’t ‘really’ reciprocity.

This doesn’t seem satisfactory. The three do seem to be distinct, so I would like to distinguish them. I’m not sure that there are ONLY three, mind you. I’m just saying that my instinct is not to be reductive down to reciprocity-is-all. But my sense is also that reciprocity is more than Graeber thinks. His hostility to free market economics is slopping over into more generalized refusal to see reciprocity where it, plausibly, exists.

I wrote this post out quickly. Quite likely it is confused. If so, no doubt it will give great pleasure to those who derive pleasure from feigning pain, in the face of intellectual error. I like to give pleasure. I would like to know the answer to my question. Perhaps a bargain can be struck.

What is the difference between baseline communism and reciprocity?

Am I missing something simple?

Should I be reading more from Trivers et al. on reciprocal altruism in primates? Is the game-theoretic superiority of tit-for-tat over communism so great it gives us independent ground for reducing a great deal of apparent baseline communism to reciprocity? Where is kinship in all this? What do you say?

{ 1042 comments }

1

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 6:07 am

I suppose I really ought to update the post to make explicit (as opposed to merely crystal clear) that I am aware that there are forms of reciprocity/exchange that aren’t baseline communist. So the issue is whether communism is one kind of reciprocity, among others; or not. Not whether all exchange is communism.

But people like to complain, and few like to read comments. So by leaving this correction as a comment I will be maximizing everyone’s complaining pleasure, while minimizing the likelihood that those few who come to the comment box to discuss will be confused about my meaning.

2

Jeremy 02.19.15 at 6:24 am

Although he doesn’t mention it as an influence, Graeber’s scheme strikes me as similar to what Steven Pinker is describing in this animated lecture, which is anthropologist Alan Fiske’s “Relational Models Theory.” Pinker’s description involves three relational models that seem to correspond to Graeber’s. What I’ve managed to find from Fiske seems to break reciprocity into two different relational models. From the description at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Relational Models Theory is a theory in cognitive anthropology positing a biologically innate set of elementary mental models and a generative computational system operating upon those models. The computational system produces compound models, using the elementary models as a kind of lexicon. The resulting set of models is used in understanding, motivating, and evaluating social relationships and social structures. The elementary models are intuitively quite simple and commonsensical. They are as follows: Communal Sharing (having something in common), Authority Ranking (arrangement into a hierarchy), Equality Matching (striving to maintain egalitarian relationships), and Market Pricing (use of ratios). Even though Relational Models Theory is classified as anthropology, it bears on several philosophical questions.

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John Quiggin 02.19.15 at 6:47 am

I think the camping society (and in fact any well-running club) is more communist than you suggest. The expectation is much more like “from each according to their abilities” than like long-run reciprocity and it is failure to conform to this expectation that leads to ejection.

So (at least in my ideal club) everyone accepts that the stronger members will carry the tents and other heavy shared items as well as their personal stuff – their reward is higher status in the club. The people who get thrown out are those who are always mysteriously absent when it’s time to collect water or wash the dishes.

Obviously reality isn’t as neat as this: some members (often women) are imposed on to do low-status drudge work, the handful of people at the core of the club complain about the impossibility of getting the members to the AGM, and so on. But still.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 6:49 am

Hmmm, I’ve never heard of that one, Jeremy. I’ll check it out.

Another correction I should probably make to the post. Graeber narrows the notion of exchange, properly, not merely by requiring debts to be the sort of thing one could, in principle, square away. He also stipulates that debts are the sorts of things that obtain between approximate (potential) social equals. Reciprocity, for him, is not really a relationship that can obtain between a peasant and a king. Hence it’s really wrong to identify hierarchy as a kind of patron-parasite/supporter reciprocity.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 6:53 am

“So (at least in my ideal club) everyone accepts that the stronger members will carry the tents and other heavy shared items as well as their personal stuff – their reward is higher status in the club.”

I don’t disagree with this. But it keeps it from being communism in Graeber’s sense. It turns it into a kind of hierarchy. Per the post, I don’t mean to make it all about Graeber. I just actually agree with him that communism and hierarchy should be treated as different principles. So I can see camping as reciprocity, in which equals must pull their own weight (not moment by moment but eventually). And I can see camping as hierarchy, in which a few mighty ones enjoy high status for their supreme efforts, fishing and toasting s’mores and all the rest. What I have trouble seeing is the communism.

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Peter T 02.19.15 at 6:57 am

I think you might be construing baseline communism too tightly. It’s often more like “from each according to their inclination, to each according to their need”, in my experience of small co-ops, local organisations and such. A few people do most of the work because they like to work, most others do enough to assuage their consciences, and a few others do not much at all. But everyone gets a share in the product. The mechanics, in your example, are driven by the job. If it’s a bunch of car enthusiasts, you’ll find the same people doing secretary/treasurer, the same few petrol-heads tuning everyone’s engines and a wide tolerance for the hopelessly inept or lazy.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 7:07 am

“from each according to their inclination, to each according to their need”

I think ‘inclination’ is not strong enough. That sounds more like Rand Paul to me, frankly. Namely, voluntary charity will somehow miraculously work out and all needs will be met. (I realize that isn’t at all what you meant, but it shows why the formula just doesn’t say what you meant it to.)

I agree with what you (and John Q) are getting at about the dynamics of clubs. But I think it just doesn’t sound like communism. It sounds like the sorts of egalitarian societies Graeber describes in which the chief really is the poorest man in the village, because he can only maintain his status by taking care of everyone. In a lot of clubs, the high-status godhead leader everyone genuinely admires is also, paradoxically, a sort of dogsbody, doing a lot of the basics.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 7:13 am

Also, even if we switch from the coin of ability to inclination, my basic objection still stands: it’s still a unit of account in what looks like a strict exchange system. Which it isn’t supposed to be. We aren’t getting away from the idiom of reciprocity.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 7:17 am

In camping these godhead figures who do all the work no one else can are called s’morelords.

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Peter Dorman 02.19.15 at 7:43 am

A warning: this comment may not be helpful, since it’s coming from where I am rather than to where you and Graeber are.

That said, I think there are two levels of confusion here. One is that reciprocity is much too vague. One can have reciprocity of value, as in markets. One can have reciprocity of effort, as in an egalitarian team. One can have a sort of reciprocity of gesture, as in a gift relationship. Reciprocity can be overtly asymmetric, as in clientelism. Lots of reciprocities, and they’re not the same.

A deeper confusion is that a principle of justice seems to be conflated with a relational or organizational structure. Take communism, for instance. You could define it in terms of shared ownership and the structure of relationships between the sharers that results from this. In that case, whatever distributional principle they agree on would be communistic, since they are mutually consenting to their joint management of whatever it is they are sharing. Thus, a camping trip in which all the gear is commonly owned and, more to the point, the camping group is constituted by common agreement, can operate on many different principles and still be communist from a structural standpoint.

Or you could define communism as a particular distributive principle independent of how it is arrived at and implemented. You could go on a camping trip sponsored by a commercial enterprise, one that owned all the gear and had everyone sign waivers in advance subjecting their judgment to the mastery of the Great Outdoor Leader, but if said Leader imposes a policy of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” for the duration of the trip—well, communist it is.

My inclination would be to treat decision structures and distributional criteria separately. (I do that in fact in my micro textbook. Chapter 3 sketches five allocative arrangements—structural—and the appendix to Chapter 18 sketches various models of just distribution, including multiple varieties of reciprocity.)

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JHW 02.19.15 at 8:10 am

I confess to not being sure I understand the logic of the original post. But it seems quite wrong to me to say, “the Golden Rule is supposed to be a paradigm expression of an ethic of reciprocity, not some strained, ‘broadest sense’ borderline case.” The Golden Rule is not an ethic of reciprocity at all. The Golden Rule says, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” An ethic of reciprocity says, “Treat others the way they treat you.” The whole essence of the Golden Rule is that you treat others well, not because you think you get some equivalent in return, but because you value them in themselves (just as you value yourself). Something similar is true of the distributive logic of communism: you don’t get to “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” unless you first take the moral step of separating the entitlement to having one’s needs met from the ability to meet the needs of others.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 8:12 am

Peter,

I agree that there are multiple senses of reciprocity in play and that there is some is/ought confusion. Partly I’m inheriting that from Graeber (the is/ought confusion, I think). But I can’t foist the blame for that on him. I’m voluntarily partaking of it.

What is making it very hard to get clear in my head is that I – like Graeber – want to describe society. Basically, this is supposed to be a descriptive question. But the aspect of society we want to describe is norms. So we are saying: what is the IS concerning this society’s oughts? Furtheremore, two senses of norm are getting crossed: normal in the sense of average or typical. Normal in the sense of should. I’m sort of straddling a sense of what people really do, and really think; and a sense of what they really do think about what they really ought to do and think.

You write: “A deeper confusion is that a principle of justice seems to be conflated with a relational or organizational structure.”

Yes, but it’s hard to separate them out because the question really is which principle of justice is doing the organizing of this particular social structure (never mind what principle of justice ought to be doing it.)

So, yes, I’m failing to keep is/ought straight. It’s a fair cop. I’m trying and failing to tease them apart and keep them clear, somehow.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 8:20 am

JHW,

“it seems quite wrong to me to say, “the Golden Rule is supposed to be a paradigm expression of an ethic of reciprocity, not some strained, ‘broadest sense’ borderline case.” The Golden Rule is not an ethic of reciprocity at all.”

I see what you mean but I think my way of seeing it is standard enough. The Wikipedia entry starts by assuming that ‘The Golden Rule’ and ‘ethic of reciprocity’ are tolerably interchangable. “The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity …”

“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

“The whole essence of the Golden Rule is that you treat others well, not because you think you get some equivalent in return, but because you value them in themselves (just as you value yourself).”

This is sort of what I mean in the post when I say the Golden Rule is a placebo. It sounds like an exchange: I scratch your back, you scratch mine. So it appeals to our sense of reciprocity. But really it isn’t. You seem to find this obvious. I find it a bit less obvious. Ditto with this: “you don’t get to “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” unless you first take the moral step of separating the entitlement to having one’s needs met from the ability to meet the needs of others.”

It could be argued that you have it backwards. The ‘from each … to each …’ formula is not the thing we get after the step is taken but an attempt to induce us to take the step.

14

Ze Kraggash 02.19.15 at 9:02 am

Family is a bourgeois institution, wouldn’t exist in a hypothetical communist society.

And yes, division of labor is the culprit, obviously. It requires a hierarchy. Division of labor has to go. A 3-d printer for everybody.

15

Brett 02.19.15 at 9:04 am

Sounds like there’s only two norms: Reciprocity and Hierarchy. Hierarchy can include reciprocity (patronage and clientelism), but it doesn’t have to – slavery is a good case example of hierarchy without reciprocity.

I still don’t see where the communism fits in as something separate. Even if the reciprocity isn’t denominated in specific numbers or obligations, it’s still there. It only seems to be there with helping the severely disabled, where help is given with no serious expectation that they will give back in return even in a nebulous sense.

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Peter T 02.19.15 at 9:24 am

“Inclination’ may be the wrong word, but “ability” here is not, I think, just the physical capacity to do something, but the desire to do things. To “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind” is to look to a general state of plenty somewhat like that envisaged in Iain Banks’ Culture. Things are done for the enjoyment of doing them, and because most people like doing something. That other people do not contribute is not annoying, nor a subject for sanction. Most often the reaction is a form of pity.

Where do we find this? There is maybe no pure form, but I suggest a lot of music, art, informal teaching, craft, hobby groups and so on run along these lines. I was part of two housing coops in London in the 80s. There was some admin, some liaison and a fair amount of physical renovation work involved. I think maybe 5 or 6 people did almost all the work, but 50 or so people in each were housed. The 5 or 6 did the work because it was interesting, different from the daily round and thought useful to know. If I had fun stripping flats due for demolition, what was I supposed to do with 4 carpets, 3 stoves and 2 water heaters but give them to those who needed them?

17

Chris Bertram 02.19.15 at 9:27 am

You need more than just hierarchy and reciprocity, because of the moral claims of those who cannot reciprocate, because of age, illness or disability.

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bad Jim 02.19.15 at 9:44 am

Thinking back to when I actually worked on cars, which is to say adolescence and early childhood, I find it hard to identify economic considerations in the help I gave and was given. Whether I was helping my father or my friend or my brother, or they me, and though there was a general expectation that we would help each other, a major appeal of the effort was trying to figure out what worked.

Sometimes someone has the requisite expertise (I felt pretty confident after the first muffler I replaced) and not everyone has all the needed tools, though there’s an expectation that they’ll be shared. When collaboration is needed it’s often because the solution to a problem is not obvious, and collective action nearly always requires negotiation.

My point, if I have one, is that often our endeavors are exigent, ad hoc, and ill-described by power relationships. In the places I’ve worked, if someone got locked out of their car they’d be swarmed by fellow workers wielding an amazing assortment of tools and eventually an entry would be effected. Affection is at work on some level, being the hero is another motivation, but the point is solving the problem, so everyone cooperates.

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Chris Armstrong 02.19.15 at 9:49 am

Erm, I got lost right at the beginning here. In what sense is ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ an ideal of strict exchange according to which what we get out is equal to what we put in? If we’re talking about individuals, it seems to me to imply the opposite, which is that what we put in and what we get out are to be separated (unless you assume that ability tracks neediness, and I don’t know why anyone would assume that). What did I miss?

20

bad Jim 02.19.15 at 10:12 am

The confederate rejection of Medicaid expansion, which is leading to the closure of emergency rooms throughout the south, demonstrates that the desire to solve problems is not universal. I can’t speak to everyone’s motivations, and my point of view is probably warped by my manufacturing background. Nevertheless, I think people are often motivated to act to achieve agreeable goals (like getting a car working) without respect to moral concerns.

21

Pete 02.19.15 at 10:31 am

how silly it would be for one workman to respond to ‘gimme the hammer’ with ‘only if you pass me the wrench’.

What used to be more common is responding to “plug in my drill” with “that involves plugs, get someone from the electrician’s union to do it, and don’t you dare do it yourself”. Demarcation disputes as a quasi-property right. You can have demarcation disputes in the family as well; it’s a very common pattern of one partner insisting on doing a particular task because they don’t like the way the other one does it.

I think “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” is relevant here as well. Compare the official ‘internal communism’ of Valve software with the actual firing of their female-led AR development team.

22

Francis Spufford 02.19.15 at 10:41 am

I’m with Chris Armstrong here. I may be being stupid, but I can’t for the life of me see why John Holbo thinks Marx’s formula represents strict reciprocity. It is, after all, supposed to be what succeeds reciprocity, after communism is arrived at: it’s intended to be the distinct stage that follows the fully and precisely reciprocal one where everyone gets rewarded in exact proportion to their contribution of labour-time. This is the contrastingly proportion-less arrangement. You pay in and you get out according to two deliberately incommensurable schemas, and both sides of the non-ledger are deliberately absolute. How much of your abilities should you contribute? All of them. How much of what you need do you get? All of it. This seems to me to be a formula intended to invoke the opposite of measurement – to point to a trans-finite plenty where even the indirect or loose reciprocity of the Golden Rule is exceeded away. So, again, I don’t understand the starting point at all. Unless for JH ‘ability’ and ‘need’ are somehow the natural reciprocal of each other, considered as qualities?

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 10:51 am

“Erm, I got lost right at the beginning here. In what sense is ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ an ideal of strict exchange according to which what we get out is equal to what we put in?”

Suppose you and I want to buy beer. A pitcher costs $10. We each put up $5 and we each get to drink half the beer. It’s a bit funny to call it an exchange but it is less funny to call it reciprocal. We are matching each others’ positive contributions. Wikipedia: “Reciprocity in social psychology refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action.” ‘Let’s buy ourselves some beer! I’ve got $5!’ A very natural, reciprocal response might be ‘I as well have $5 and so will match your contribution, dollar for dollar!’

Certainly it’s clear in what sense we both put the same in, and get the same out. We put in the same amount of money. We get the same amount of beer.

Now suppose a liquid volume Y of beer costs X. You put up x/2 and get y/2 out. We are just turning the dollar amounts into variables.

Now imagine that, instead of letting x and y range over dollars and liquid volumes we let them range of capacities to pay and degrees of thirst (ability and need). The point being: the appeal of the formula sounds much the same as ‘we pay the same, we get the same’.

I quite agree that it is not necessary – perhaps not even correct – to regard the communist slogan as a reciprocal exchange. But, like any slogan, it is designed to appeal; and one way it appeals is to our sense of reciprocal fairness. We don’t always like some people putting in more and getting less, and other people putting in less and getting more. So if there is a way to frame it so that everyone puts in the same, and gets out the same, it appeals more to our sense of reciprocal equality and fairness. The formula hits on the precise units of account (ability and need) that will allow this framing. I submit this is no rhetorical accident.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 10:58 am

In reading the Marxist slogan in this strained way I’m really just pushing what Graeber himself says. You can always cash out any of these distribution rules as ‘exchange’ or ‘reciprocity’. I don’t conclude that therefore they all really are. I agree it gets kind of unhelpful.

I am genuinely puzzled by the question: how can you tell when reciprocity is ‘really’ at work as a motive/principle? I don’t seriously think the answer is: everything is reciprocity because it is possible to describe everything that way, in a strained sense.

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Francis Spufford 02.19.15 at 11:02 am

But then you would contribute x/2, half of the capacity to pay, in a strictly metaphorical sense: ‘one of two people’s share of the capacity to pay’. Ditto y/2, half the thirst, which would now mean ‘one of two people’s share of the total thirst’. Numerators and denominators no longer match. You may well be right that there is a rhetorical contrivance of the appearance of fair exchange here, for the purposes of appealing to a fairness-dominated world, but I’m also hearing a strong appeal, rhetorical and otherwise, to a fairness-transcending alternative.

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John Holbo 02.19.15 at 11:13 am

“in a strictly metaphorical sense”

Oh, I don’t know what’s metaphorical here and what isn’t. There is a sense in which the numerators and denominators match, and a sense in which not. Depends what is being numbered and nominated. Let’s emphasize our agreement, rather than disagreement.

“I’m also hearing a strong appeal, rhetorical and otherwise, to a fairness-transcending alternative.”

I wouldn’t say ‘fairness-transcending’ because communism is supposed to be fair. But there is certainly a sense in which communism goes beyond the idea that fairness is purely based on reciprocity. (In the post I put this in parentheses “(not exclusively!)” but I add an exclamation point!) My point is that the slogan tries to have it both ways: communism gives us perfect reciprocity, hence fairness, and also transcendence of reciprocity-as-fairness. That we have mixed moral motives, making us susceptible to appeal on two fronts, was intended to illustrate that it’s hard to say when the motive or principle of reciprocity is ‘really’ at work, when not. I don’t like Graeber’s proposal: namely, it’s communism when it is offensive to make it sound like you are keeping accounts equal. There’s something to that, but the Marxist slogan is itself a counter-example.

I’m honestly puzzled by it. The first time I read Graeber I thought it made pretty good sense, actually. This time through I got puzzled. Maybe tomorrow it will all make sense again.

27

Francis Spufford 02.19.15 at 11:14 am

JH @ 24:

Indeed. (We’ve got out of sync with comments and responses.) Me too; I agree that the spreading imperiousness of market analogies over the last couple of decades follows directly from this fuzziness about what can and can’t be described as reciprocal. Almost anything can be represented in both reciprocal and altruistic terms. That is, any piece of seemingly altruistic behaviour can be represented as a (utility-maximising) exchange, and vice versa, depending on where you draw a boundary around the consequences and systematic linkages you are willing to consider on this particular occasion. Assume you need to consider the practical viability of the whole of the Marxian idyll as a system, and of course the books need to balance there too; needs must be less than or equal to capacities. I think it would be more useful to have some kind of agreed scale of measurement (or customary language) to indicate how tightly and immediately (as opposed to loosely and ultimately) a piece of behaviour is being asked to balance out reciprocally. A rheostat with communism at one end and exchange at the other…

28

Brett Bellmore 02.19.15 at 11:30 am

I think you have to seriously distinguish between the norm of reciprocity, which is about what people *give* and *take*, and communism, which is, in practice, about what people have taken from them and are permitted to have.

Despite all the glittering descriptions that might imply otherwise.

29

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 11:58 am

“communism, which is, in practice, about what people have taken from them and are permitted to have.”

Is it really true that you have never made a friend or had a family, Brett?

30

Brett Bellmore 02.19.15 at 12:15 pm

Is it really true that you never read Gulag Archipelago?

It might salve the conscience of advocates of communism to describe small scale volunatry arrangments as instances of communism, but who is fool by this that doesn’t feel the desperate need to be?

31

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 12:47 pm

“Is it really true that you never read Gulag Archipelago?”

I have!

But is it really true that your family home was run along the same lines as the Gulag Archipelago. If so, I extend my condolences. If not, then what is your point?

But let me take a step back. As on previous occasions, Brett, you have me at something of a disadvantage. I can’t be sure which mistake you are making.

Graeber is stipulating the use of ‘baseline communism’ for, among other things, small-scale mutualism, such as a family or friend-group. Camping trip, perhaps. (Not all voluntary arrangements. Here again, your failure to make a friend – if that has indeed been your fate – may be cramping your imagination.)

Do you have a theory of language according to which it is not possible to use ‘communism’ to denote mutualism, not governed by reciprocity or hierarchy? As an exercise, you might try this. Could you use the word ‘giraffe’ to denote any social instantiation of mutualism? Hint: I think the answer is ‘yes’.

Incidentally, the Gulag Archipelago does not quality as ‘communism’ at all, by Graeber’s definition. You shouldn’t allow yourself to be taken in by Soviet propaganda about how it was all free and mutual and all that. It wasn’t at all. Read the book!

32

mdc 02.19.15 at 12:55 pm

Fairness, justice, and reciprocity sound like the broad terms that could extend over all three principles; “exchange” the narrow one. I don’t think there’s exchange in the workmen scenario, the beer-pitcher, the Golden Rule, or the communism principle- though there are principles of fairness.

(Most actual existing beer-pitcher sharing in my experience is exchange/gift drinking, not communal drinking: I’ll buy a round this time, you’ll buy a round later. On the other hand, I’ve been to many communistic pot-lucks.)

These 2 indices of communism you site seem really useful to me: 1) in this sort of sharing, clearing of accounts is irrelevant; 2) only social equals can exchange.

33

Zamfir 02.19.15 at 1:29 pm

communism gives us perfect reciprocity, hence fairness, and also transcendence of reciprocity-as-fairness.
Even in the ‘perfect reciprocity’ view, it’s not individual reciprocity. You’re not balancing your karmic book with everyone separately, but only with the whole, the commune.

The message I took from Graeber is that such abstract ‘debts’ are not debts in the strict sense of our world, perhaps even an opposite. You can never settle them, they cannot be made precise, they can’t be taken out of the individual context. If you try to force them in the strict reciprocity view, you lose their essence.

34

ezra abrams 02.19.15 at 2:14 pm

a few months ago, you had fun trashing N Kristof of the Times
and not just dis agreeing, but dis agreeing in that angry, derisive tone often call internet rant.

take a look at todays column; there just aren’t that many people in his position even close to that column

I mean, out of all the morons in the world, why pick on Kristof ? do you understand the concept of liberal circular firing squad, pointing in ?
surely you can find someone who is a real enemy, like the Heritage foundation

35

Anon 02.19.15 at 2:26 pm

At the risk of repeating Spufford @22, “from each according to her abilities” is, as the slogan of achieved communism, meant in pointed contrast to “from each according to her labor”: reciprocity is the principle of the preliminary, temporary stage of mere socialism.

Examples of the former principle are precisely where reciprocity is impossible, for example, a severely disabled person who cannot make a truly reciprocal contribution, or even someone who simply lacks the talent or skill to contribute to the same degree as others.

“Communism is supposed to be fair.” If you mean, “Communism defines justice as ‘fairness’ in some common sense version,” then no, that’s Rawls. If you mean “Communism is supposed to be just, which is ‘fairness’ in a broad sense,” then sure. But it’s a view of “true fairness” against common-sense “fairness” basis in equality or reciprocity. There is give and take (one must labor according to ability), but not equivalent give and take: those with lesser ability labor less, those with greater need take more.

In what sense is communism about “fairness”? Simply in the sense that it’s fair for labor to be un-coerced, and so workers must have an amount of control over the means of production that a ruling bourgeoisie makes impossible.

Why doesn’t fairness also require reciprocity? Well, first, because ought implies can, and it’s necessarily true that ability is not equal, so the less able cannot fully reciprocate. Second, “merit” is a moral superstition incompatible with a materialist understanding of human nature, so “getting what you deserve” is not actually deserved. Desert is ability and ability is ultimately luck. Third, if fairness is about control of labor, then whatever works want to do with that control is fair, and wanting to satisfy everyone’s needs, not just those of the most able, is what Marx thinks a classless society will want to do. It’s allowable and desirable, therefore better.

So, again, I think “from each according to need” is primarily a rejection of reciprocity, not an instance of it. Even if not a total rejection, the point is to make reciprocity no longer the central feature in our view of justice.

36

William Timberman 02.19.15 at 2:30 pm

The assumption behind the from each, to each slogan is indeed trickier than any strict accounting balance would suggest. Becausewe’re good communists, we do assume that you’ll tend to take out what you put in, or slightly less. However — as with insurance plans — when an occasion arises when you need to take out more than you put in, none of us will complain. The time factor, it seems to me, is crucial to the broad meaning of reciprocity which John is trying to extract from the slogan. Provided everyone acts in good faith, things more or less balance out over time — what’s important isn’t so much fairness narrowly defined, as the successful functioning of the social project, whether it’s the ad-hoc one of the family, or the highly structured one of stateless communism.

Of course, taking the darker view of libertarians, hardly anyone can be expected to act in good faith, and so we need Brett Bellmore’s .45 in the nightstand drawer. I won’t argue the ultimate perfectibility of the human species, but it’s clear that we’ve at least embedded the concept of that perfectibility in our moral schemas, and so, as the slogan implies, we do at least aspire to good faith in our dealings with one another. Bully for us, and boo to the libertarians.

37

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 2:31 pm

When did I pick on Kristof?

38

Neville Morley 02.19.15 at 2:31 pm

Apologies for classical pedantry, but ‘parasite’ is a Greek rather than Roman phenomenon. I’m also doubtful about equating it with the patron/client relationship as you do; yes, as it appears in Greek Comedy (the main source for the negative portrayal of the parasite), it involves the abuse of the hospitality of a rich host, but there is also a clear sense that it involves the abuse of commensality, going against the norms of a horizontal rather than hierarchical social relationship. Potentially, then, rather than interesting case for this issue, and I’ve been surprised – in checking the literature to hand – that there’s apparently been very little scholarly discussion. Entertainingly, Wikipedia claims that social parasitism is a concept based on an analogy with biologic parasitism, rather than vice versa; sometimes I wish I had more time to correct such things.

39

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 2:32 pm

““Communism is supposed to be fair.” If you mean, “Communism defines justice as ‘fairness’ in some common sense version,” then no, that’s Rawls. If you mean “Communism is supposed to be just, which is ‘fairness’ in a broad sense,” then sure.”

I meant the obviously true one, not the obviously false one. Sorry if that was unclear.

40

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 2:37 pm

“Even if not a total rejection, the point is to make reciprocity no longer the central feature in our view of justice.”

I think that is probably fair.

41

John Holbo 02.19.15 at 2:38 pm

Neville is quite right.

42

Neville Morley 02.19.15 at 2:41 pm

…rather an interesting case for this issue… Sorry.

43

Anon 02.19.15 at 2:47 pm

@36 “Because we’re good communists, we do assume that you’ll tend to take out what you put in, or slightly less.”

Is part of the temptation to see it as rough reciprocity about seeing it as a practical principle, rather than as a principle of justice? Namely: the system can’t go broke.

Because as I read Marx, the possibility of communism is the ever advancing productive power of technology, which will increasingly exceed human need. The idea is that “Each according to their ability” will always generate a surplus, provided that surplus isn’t funneled into capital and a capital-hoarding class. So, one reason it can leave behind reciprocity is because we don’t need it to stay afloat.

Holbo,

My point wasn’t to pretend you meant the obviously false one, but to show that the obviously true one is almost as confusing or problematic, since it requires rejecting many common ways of thinking about fairness (namely, any version grounded in the primacy of equality or reciprocity).

44

Anon 02.19.15 at 2:48 pm

“I think that is probably fair.”

Un mot juste.

45

jake the antisoshul soshulist 02.19.15 at 2:51 pm

@Holbo #31.

Brett Bellmore is doing what I find among many conservatives/libertarians. To them Communism/socialism means only one thing: the authoritarian state socialism of the Soviet Union or Maoist China.
If you say communism means X, they will respond with an off topic comment about some atrocity committed by the Soviet Union or Maoist China.

46

William Timberman 02.19.15 at 2:57 pm

Anon @ 43

A very good point. Would a guaranteed surplus make moral perfectibility moot? Probably not, but it might make the impact of such greed and rapacity as continued to exist a lot more bearable. Worse come to worst, it might even get the libertarians off our backs.

47

Brett Bellmore 02.19.15 at 3:12 pm

Denying that communism means the authoritarian state socialism of the Soviet Union, or Maoist China, or any of the other horrible communist regimes, is something that only apologists for communism, the sort of people who’d think “we’re good communists’ wasn’t an indictment, would do.

I mean, you could analogize some positive aspects of the family, or fraternal organizations, to fascism, too. But why would you, if you didn’t want to try to rehabilitate the ideology that led to the final solution? It’s the same with communism. To everybody but ‘good communists’, communism means the Gulag, because only the people who are desperate to try it, yet again, have the need to deny that communism means the Gulag.

48

Chris Bertram 02.19.15 at 3:20 pm

So Brett, the people who deny that the Soviet Union was communist are apologists for the Soviet Union? How’s that supposed to work then? There seems to be something weird going on with your referents, plus, some version of the no true Scotsman argument.

49

Sebastian H 02.19.15 at 3:23 pm

“Do you have a theory of language according to which it is not possible to use ‘communism’ to denote mutualism, not governed by reciprocity or hierarchy? As an exercise, you might try this. Could you use the word ‘giraffe’ to denote any social instantiation of mutualism? Hint: I think the answer is ‘yes’.”

Ugh. This is academic game playing, and like with lawyers engaging in rules-laweyering this is why people think academics are intelligent idiots. Yes you CAN write a book in which you you common words and define them in uncommon ways. But you shouldn’t. If you aren’t trying to rehabilitate Marx, Engels, and Lenin, you shouldn’t use ‘communism’ to talk about small-scale semi-reciprocal relationships. In fact you would have been MUCH better off if you had used giraffe, because then it won’t look like you are trying to smuggle in other stuff beyond your allegedly tight definition. Hell you probably would have been better off calling them ‘familial’.

While we are at it, where do we got off think of ‘familial, as non-hierarchical? In most instances of families they clearly are hierarchical as to parents and children. And very often also by age and gender of children.

50

Matt 02.19.15 at 3:24 pm

I guess the authors of the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia on “communism” were closet Stalinists then. Since of course, all the communistic communities they described ended in Gulags, right?

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04179a.htm

51

TM 02.19.15 at 3:27 pm

I’m trying to make sense of 23. “Now imagine that, instead of letting x and y range over dollars and liquid volumes we let them range of capacities to pay and degrees of thirst (ability and need). The point being: the appeal of the formula sounds much the same as ‘we pay the same, we get the same’.”

Your formula is each pays x/2 and each drinks y/2. No matter what you substitute for x and y, given your formula, each still pays the same and drinks the same amount. I’m sorry, you can’t fool with Math.

I speculate that what you have in mind something along these lines: Let’s say my ability to pay is 10 and your ability to pay is 90, and the cost of a beer is 10. Then under communism I would contribute 1 and you would contribute 9. (*) We would have to do the same calculation to divide our respective thirst to find out how much each gets to drink. Now such a model is hypothetically imaginable but I find it far-fetched to assume that Marx had anything even remotely like that in mind. (In fact what is being described really looks like flat rate taxation. But I’m probably missing something, as everybody else on this thread seems to do.)

52

MPAVictoria 02.19.15 at 4:12 pm

“a wide tolerance for the hopelessly inept or lazy.”

Everything is coming up MPAVictoria!

53

M.Jamison 02.19.15 at 4:13 pm

Brett Belmore @47
Your comment would imply that anyone who uses the term “Christian” would be meaning Jim Jones, David Koresh, or some other perversion of the idea. Because a group of people co-opt and misapply a term doesn’t automatically make their example the forever standard of what the originator said or implied.

54

Watson Ladd 02.19.15 at 4:35 pm

Of course families are run along authoritarian lines! When my brother was in infancy, he refused to eat any food that wasn’t bananas. My mother would every day put him in the high chair, and attempt to force green food down his throat, until eventually disposing of the contents of the jar all over the floor, then giving him the desired banana. Is this an act of mutual respect, or one of coercion for the good of the one being coerced? What about the dentist or the doctor: what parents have to do is often quite a pain, and when taking blood from a 3-year old, a battle ensues.

As for the amature Marxology, what’s missing is freedom and the history of socialism. Socialism is about overcoming the dynamic of capital, and by doing so, enabling the conscious creation of society. Rawls didn’t stop welfare reform, after all. And there is that little matter of the WWI war-credits vote: Socialism or Barbarism was the reality.

55

LWA (Liberal With Attitude) 02.19.15 at 4:56 pm

As an architect by profession, and Catholic by upbringing, I can testify that reducing socialism to the linear taproot of Marx/ Lenin/ Mao is an absurd mythology , but a widely spread one.

First, a reading of art and architecture history of the 19th century, like Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement reveals that there were plenty of critics of the capitalist structure of the Industrial Age, whose criticisms either predated Marx, or were drawn independently of his thinking.

Second, the notion of flexible property rights, that can be widened and narrowed to the point of nonexistence, appears in foundation of Catholic social teaching from Rerum Novarum onward.
Again, while the Pope and Catholic theologians were aware of Marx, they drew their thinking from much different sources.

It serves the convenient purpose of property rights fundamentalists to sweep all contrary claims about property rights under the cloak of Stalin, so that any attempt to modulate the boundaries of property rights becomes a call for the gulag.

56

Phil 02.19.15 at 5:21 pm

Now suppose a liquid volume Y of beer costs X. You put up x/2 and get y/2 out. We are just turning the dollar amounts into variables.

Now imagine that, instead of letting x and y range over dollars and liquid volumes we let them range [over] of capacities to pay and degrees of thirst (ability and need).

I think you’ve put your finger on the problem in your own argument – although, since you clearly don’t think so, this may not be terribly productive.

The point where (Graeber would say, and at the moment I’d agree) you’re breaking the model of reciprocity is the jump from the first model to the second one. Amounts are publicly measurable: I know we’ve both put in the same amount because I saw you put the money down, and I know we’ve got the same amount of beer because I watched the barman pouring them. As this image implies, reciprocity is an ethic of qualified distrust: the outcome is that you’re both satisfied with the deal, but you don’t trust that it’s going to be the outcome going in, and you’re not called on to trust.

‘Degree of thirst’ and ‘ability to pay’ aren’t countable, measurable or even publicly knowable. ‘Need’ and ‘ability’, same same: even if there are only two people involved, you can never know that your partner has put in as much as he could or claimed no more than he needed.

‘To each… from each…’ can’t be measured and is therefore an ethic of trust, therefore communism, not reciprocity. And if, when ‘communist’ arrangements are iterated, somebody does take the piss, you bump them back down the trust scale to reciprocity – ‘you wash those dishes, then you get to relax with the rest of us’.

57

geo 02.19.15 at 5:23 pm

Sebastian @49 (and Brett passim): No, it’s not academic game-playing. The ideal of communism, or the cooperative commonwealth, was evolved long before the Bolshevists, by Owen, Fourier, Marx, Bellamy, Morris, Perkins Gilman, Russell, and others . It was (and is) a magnificent ideal — you really should get acquainted with it. It was so good, in fact, that the Bolsheviks stole the name, with all its well-deserved prestige, to describe their hideous system, which shared with it only some criticisms of capitalism but entirely suppressed the democratic and cooperative side.

It’s easy to see why the Bolsheviks should have wanted to steal the name, and it’s also easy to see why this suited capitalism’s defenders very well: they could use the ghastly Bolshevik perversion of communism to discredit the genuine ideal, to which they were no less inimical than the Bolsheviks were, though for somewhat different reasons.

Please be assured, SH and BB: Holbo, Spufford, Bertram, Timberman, Anon, and I will all be hauled off to the American gulag (somewhere in Nevada or Wyoming, I expect) on the same train as you two if Bolshevik pseudo-communism ever comes to power in the Land of the Free; and we all know it perfectly well, so there’s no need for you to remind us ad nauseam. Try to understand what we mean by the term “communism” (it is, after all, the original meaning) and then, if you like, try to persuade us that it’s a pipedream. (Sebastian has at least made a start by grasping that some aspects of family relations — generosity and self-sacrifice, not hierarchy — are among the sources of the communist ideal.) But please stop distracting us with that tired old ditty about “game playing.”

58

Adam Roberts 02.19.15 at 5:24 pm

The ‘families are run on Communistic lines’ argument has always seemed problematic to me. Not because families aren’t run on Communistic lines (of course they are) but because of the problems of scaling the logic up from families to society as a whole. So: when we are raising kids, we give them what they need without expecting to get anything in return, because they’re kids. Adults, though, not only are not kids, they can’t really be treated like kids without such treatment corroding their adult dignity. This feeds directly into a Capitalist logic that says Welfare is bad because precisely it infantilizes grown men and women who would be better served learning self-reliance, independence, agency, empowerment and so on.

I’m not saying I agree with this latter statement, by the way. In fact, like Francis above, I tend to think that structural inequality, minimum wage, poverty and oppression do a much better job of robbing people of dignity than does Welfare. But I suppose I am saying that the family makes a poor paradigm for society as a whole.

59

Doug 02.19.15 at 5:34 pm

So, if “communism” (or worse, “socialism”) must always mention “Stalinist atrocities…”, then must “capitalism” always mention “the destruction of the environment…”, “the abuse of indigenous peoples…”, “the abuse of the poor…”?

Both communism and capitalism, as implemented in practice, have caused a great deal of pain and suffering. The “winners” of capitalism like to pretend otherwise, for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate that. Anytime someone dismisses communism “Because Stalin…”, they clearly are arguing from bad faith (or they are an idiot).

60

John Theibault 02.19.15 at 5:37 pm

OK, I haven’t read Graeber, so take this for what it’s worth, but it seems to me that you have way over thought this. It looks like Chris Armstrong and Francis Spufford started down the right path, but it got derailed.

I deny that “to each according to his needs” implies any kind of reciprocal obligation and I think it’s strange that it seems so obvious to you that it does. It is a one way obligation, from haves to have nots. If you can tell me what concrete obligation “to each according to his needs” entails maybe I’ll buy your confusion. What are the needy exchanging? I can’t even see that it implies “be thankful to those who had the ability t0 give.” That’s why it’s not reciprocity.

Your drinking example under baseline communism complicates things a little, but not much. You have 10, your drinking partner has 90. You drink 10 worth of drink between the two of you. It doesn’t matter how much each of you drink (= your “need”). It doesn’t matter which of you pays (you are both able). If you drank 12 worth of drink, your partner would pay at least 2. That’s “fair” under baseline communism. It will all even out over time.

From my perspective, the relationship of hierarchy and reciprocity might prove more interesting. I see it as undermining the Hobbes contractual nature of the absolute state and tending towards Charles Tilly’s notion of the state as organized crime. The implied “exchange”: obedience for your life is in fact no exchange at all. It’s just obedience with no obligation to protect the life. (Though again I’ll admit I haven’t read Graeber, but from what I’ve read about him I could imagine that as a reasonable interpretation.) At first, I was going to interpret the Golden Rule as being like baseline communism, but the more I thought about it, the more it seems like it is more akin to hierarchy. You have no guarantee that people will actually follow the Golden Rule with you. So, it is not reciprocity.

In sum: As I see it, reciprocity sets up lines of obligation for both parties. youme. These lines need not be equal exchanges, but they are exchanges.
baseline communism only has lines of obligation from haves->have nots.
hierarchy only has lines of obligation from have nots->haves.
There is a tendency to dress up the latter two approaches as being in some way “reciprocal”

61

Brett Bellmore 02.19.15 at 5:55 pm

Sure, why not? Capitalism has had it’s failures. Having failures amid the successes is much better than having nothing but mind rendingly horrific failures, to the point where you’re driven to claim your idea has never ‘really’ been tried.

Like it or not, communism will always be defined by the gulag. And this is justice, so get used to it, and stop being annoyed when you advocate communism, and people bring the gulag up. The real question is, after it’s history of horror, why anybody who wanted the respect of their fellow man would ever refer to themselves as a “communist”.

62

LWA (Liberal With Attitude) 02.19.15 at 6:02 pm

@Brett-
It is rather convenient, when any proposition we don’t like can be made into a binary choice. Which is why adolescents always leap for tribes and labels.

Look, if you want to beat on the ghost of Joseph Stalin and the Comintern, be my guest.

I would rather troll in a different direction, such as at what point the just and moral ownership claim over wealth can be said to be effectively zero.
As in, is there such a thing as a maximum level of wealth, above which all else is forfeit?

63

js. 02.19.15 at 6:05 pm

Phil @56,

Thanks for clearly saying what I was inchoately thinking. I’m not sure I’d emphasize the epistemic aspect—the point is that they’re incommensurable, not that we can’t know the measure—but otherwise this seems dead on to me.

64

dn 02.19.15 at 6:13 pm

Sigh.

Brett, Stalin and company made the USSR a modern country, brought millions out of poverty, and won WWII. That they committed world-historical crimes along the way does not allow you to ignore these realities any more than the facts of Dickensian misery and ongoing ecological catastrophe allow me to ignore the successes of capitalism. Please try to discuss rationally.

65

Rich Puchalsky 02.19.15 at 6:22 pm

I’ll note here that Bakunin thought that something like Leninism was implicit in what Marx wrote, and that thinking so is part of some living left ideologies. If you really identify with William Morris and you want to argue against “communism leads to the Gulag” on that basis, fine, but if you’re a Marxist then I think you’re in denial.

I have some experience with different kinds of communalist attempts, and adoption of “to each, from each” without being able to control who is in the group is highly problematic. Not because of reciprocity — a group of people using contemporary technology is generally productive enough to easily support people who don’t do anything. But because some people just can’t get along within the group, and unless you can exclude them, the people in the group would rather not have it.

66

js. 02.19.15 at 6:27 pm

Here is one way of responding to someone like Brett Bellmore on a thread like this:

67

Anon 02.19.15 at 6:49 pm

William Timberman @47,

“Would a guaranteed surplus make moral perfectibility moot? Probably not, but it might make the impact of such greed and rapacity as continued to exist a lot more bearable.”

My impression is that for Marx questions of moral perfectibility were, if not moot, then not really a central concern. If morality is the product of economic conditions, trying to change it independently of material conditions gets it backward. I take it this is also part of M and E’s principle objection to “utopian socialism.”

That’s also why it’s so annoying when people claim communism is over-optimistic about human nature: what’s so optimistic about the view that morality is utterly contingent and materially determined, or that the natural condition of humans is exploitation and conflict, a condition only improvable with historically late technological developments that allow for new economic relations?

And what’s so “pessimistic” about the view that institutions of private property and free exchange will magically turn selfish, violent animals into good sports who, if they lose the free market game, won’t begrudge–or inevitably avenge–the winners?

68

Ze Kraggash 02.19.15 at 6:57 pm

“communism leads to the Gulag”

Gulag is just a prison system. And judging by HBO series Oz that I watched a couple of years ago, not the worst kind. A better question would be: can Gulag lead to communism, or does it have to be a strictly evolutionary process? I suspect it’s the latter.

69

William Timberman 02.19.15 at 7:14 pm

Anon @ 66

Another good point. I don’t think that Marx was a pessimist, however, or blind to the sources of human interaction that fall outside the realm of economic determinism. I’d say this: if you want to turn Hegel on his head you must be focused, nevertheless it’s still the case that if want to live outside the law you must be honest.

70

Hector_St_Clare 02.19.15 at 7:36 pm

Sigh. Nobody fucking cares about the gulag other than whiners like you, BRett.

71

William Berry 02.19.15 at 7:37 pm

@geo: A waste of your time on the likes of BB, but thanks for trying anyhow.

And P.s.: What about Rousseau? Wasn’t his primitive society [c]ommunistic?

72

js. 02.19.15 at 7:49 pm

One other thing: the idea that families are communism in miniature, or whatever, seems like total bullshit to me. Just out of curiosity, do people think that the ‘oikos’ as described in Book I of the Politics is also communistic, or is it only the post-Rousseauian bourgeois family that qualifies as such?

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geo 02.19.15 at 7:58 pm

Rich @64: With sincere respect to Bakunin (and you): Marx was large, he contained multitudes. He had an immense and fertile brain, and tossed out fragments of ideas all over the place. Some of them had possible authoritarian implications; others had democratic implications; none were definitive or final. In any case, what he devoted most of his brain to was figuring out the internal dynamics and historical trajectory of capitalism. So a “Marxist” is, properly speaking (that is, according to me), someone who finds Marx’s analysis of capitalism plausible.

If you really identify with William Morris … fine, but if you’re a Marxist then I think you’re in denial.

Didn’t Morris call himself a “Marxist,” for whatever that’s worth?

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geo 02.19.15 at 8:05 pm

WB@69: Good question. I don’t really know much about Rousseau. I seem to remember that Chris Bertram does — maybe ask him?

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cassander 02.19.15 at 9:16 pm

@DN

> Stalin and company made the USSR a modern country, brought millions out of poverty, and won WWII. That they committed world-historical crimes along the way does not allow you to ignore these realities any more than the facts of Dickensian misery and ongoing ecological catastrophe allow me to ignore the successes of capitalism. Please try to discuss rationally.

None of this is accurate. Lenin’s communist party, of which stalin was a high ranking member, utterly wrecked russia, the fastest industrializing country in the world in 1913. several 1913 production figures would not be reached until after world war two. And stalin did not win world war two, he fought in world war two armed with weapons provided by the capitalist west, spilling the blood of his own people in vast numbers. Two thirds of his aviation gas, half of his aluminium and copper, virtually all of his rolling stock and best machine tools came from the west. And despite all this aid, he managed to still have larger famines after ww2 than anything the czars ever presided over. As for “Dickensian misery and ecological catastrophe” the peasants of the Ukraine would have loved Dickensian poverty, and the Aral Sea is plenty of testimony to communist environmental concerns.

But let us pretend that you are right, and that Stalin’s crimes are somehow justified by his economic achievements, and that those achievements were not largely illusory. If you think that, you should still be a capitalist. Why? Because capitalism has wrought similar levels of achievement with far lower levels of death and murder. If economic progress is your only metric for success, then you can’t be anything other than a capitalist. But, of course, you don’t actually believe that. If I argued that Pinochet was a great leader despite killing a few thousand people, you’d call me a monster, despite the fact that Chile has the highest HDI in latin america. So please, stop the special pleading and just call spades spades. stop fellating stalin just because he was vaguely on your side.

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Jonathan Mayhew 02.19.15 at 9:32 pm

It might take a while to get there:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

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mdc 02.19.15 at 9:38 pm

In the second Discourse, Rousseau makes family life predate private property. Still, the family is a historical development not given by our nature. It also sows the first seeds that will become fatal to happiness, by establishing a dependence on a division of labor. It is communistic- and dominates relations in that “happiest epoch” of human history- , but is at the same time a station on a continuum that leads, eventually, to utter slavery.

The family is given a more explicitly dark cast in Emile, I think.

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geo 02.19.15 at 10:00 pm

dn: “That they committed world-historical crimes along the way does not allow you to ignore [their achievements] … “

cassander, in reply: “let us pretend that you are right, and that [their] crimes are somehow justified by [their] … achievements”

Note to CT collective: can you perhaps build a “talking past each other” detection feature into the moderation software?

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dn 02.19.15 at 11:44 pm

Yeah, I don’t know where those guys got the idea that I consider Stalin even vaguely on my side.

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David 02.20.15 at 12:04 am

I don’t understand how Brett Bellmore and cassander don’t get tired of themselves. How can someone be so boring and predictable and not feel the sting of self-contempt?

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David 02.20.15 at 12:04 am

Q: How do you get conservatives to care about the deaths of foreigners?
A: Have them killed by leftist regimes.

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TM 02.20.15 at 12:13 am

Re 23 and 51, Still curious about how the Math is supposed to works out.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 1:05 am

“Your formula is each pays x/2 and each drinks y/2. No matter what you substitute for x and y, given your formula, each still pays the same and drinks the same amount. I’m sorry, you can’t fool with Math.”

I’m not sure what the problem is. My point is basically that the slogan amounts to fooling with math, a bit, to make something that not really clearly reciprocity feel like reciprocity. Everyone puts in the same. Everyone gets out the same. To get the numerators and denominators to work out, even nominally, I would need to talk about more than one exchange. It’s the whole system, man! But, similarly, to explain how standing your round of drinks at the bar amounts to reciprocity, you need to refer to more than one round of drinks. I take it you don’t deny that people standing their round is a kind of ethic of reciprocity?

I’m not seriously proposing that this could be turned into a currency. The math isn’t a serious economic proposal. Maybe this will do. You say ‘you can’t fool with math’. I agree. But there is one important exception. You can fool with math so long as you don’t mind slightly foolish math being the result. Say, when you want to cook the books. My point is that the slogan cooks the communist books to make it look like a credit/debit relationship that cancels. My point isn’t that this really makes sense, but that it looks good enough to pass, superficially. It appeals to people’s sense of reciprocal fairness.

The only way for you to deny what I am saying would be to say this: the math here is so nonsensical that no one will ever find ‘from each … to each’ appealing as a kind of tit-for-tat balance. It will only be appealing as a kind of utilitarian ideal, or something. I think, to the contrary, it is appealing as a tit-for-tat balance.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 1:22 am

A number of people are saying it sounds wrong to say the family is communism as opposed to hierarchy. As my post and comments say, I agree. But it’s important to remember that Graeber (rightly) regards these as principles that operate together. You can have communism and hierarchy together. The family could be always both. I think there is something right about this. Certainly we shouldn’t think family communism is refuted by parent-child hierarchy. The clear operation of the hierarchy principles is not evidence that the other principle is not operating.

Sebastian is offended by using ‘communism’ because he thinks it’s bizarre to use that word for systems in which things are held in common – communally. After all, the gulag! But this is wrong. Sebastian complains that we are playing an academic game here. But it is the game of seeing realities, despite the temptation not to. ‘These herders couldn’t possibly be holding the land in common because: the gulag! We have to find some way in which they are really being proto-Smithians! There needs to be reciprocity here.’ That style of thinking is not helpful. You shouldn’t assume the social world has been arranged for your moral convenience. The question of whether the herders should, or should not, be regarded as communists is not to be settled by staring at the evils of the gulag. It’s to be settled by looking at the herders and trying to figure out what’s really going on (in their societies, in their heads). My own suspicion is that Graeber (and G.A. Cohen) exaggerates the extent to which we need the category of communism to describe commons cases. I’m inclined to place my bets more on reciprocity and hierarchy. But – foolish academic that I am – I hope I am not so foolish that I think ‘because the gulag’ is a get-out-of-anthropology-free card.

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cassander 02.20.15 at 1:23 am

>I don’t understand how Brett Bellmore and cassander don’t get tired of themselves. How can someone be so boring and predictable and not feel the sting of self-contempt?

Funny, we feel the same about those who are still repeating Stalin’s lies …..

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David 02.20.15 at 1:28 am

Too true. Crooked Timber is a renowned bastion of faith in the unshakeable science of Marxism-Leninism.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 1:45 am

cassander, way back at the start of the thread Jeremy linked to a Steven Pinker lecture on Alan Fiske’s model, according to which there are three principles operating in human relations: hierarchy, mutualism, reciprocity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU

Jeremy is correct that this is rather similar to Graeber’s model. What Fiske calls ‘mutualism’, Graeber calls ‘baseline communism’. Pinker seems to think this is pretty ok.

Now: do you think that Fiske’s Relational Models Theory is refuted by the bare existence of the gulag? Do you think Pinker is necessarily ‘repeating Stalin’s lies’, in the course of the lecture? If you think you know that: you are a big fool. If you don’t: then what are you complaining about already in this thread?

If you are literally getting hung up purely on the word ‘communism’, that is just dumb. It’s perfectly fair to say that Graeber is being a bit mischievous, calling it that. (He could have called it ‘mutualism’ instead. Fair enough.) Graeber is not a communist but an anarchist. Not quite the same thing. But he wants to épater le bourgeois, no doubt. Pro tip: if one little épater causes you to lose your mind, you were weak-minded to start with. So strengthen your thinking, to do less badly the next time you go forth to argue with leftists (if that is your path in life). The truth is that using ‘communism’ as a term for communality is a reasonable choice. Note the etymology of both words! Graeber has chosen a term that is 1) perfectly reasonable and defensible; 2) intended to provoke. In light of 1) you really have to suck up 2), if you want to participate in discussion rather than be dismissed. A lot of wishful nonsense about how the gulag means mutualism can’t be real doesn’t help. Snap out of it.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 2:03 am

A few comments were stuck in moderation and I turned them on. Apologies for lateness. I see I accidentally turned Hector on as well, even though he is banned for past failures to maintain minimal standards of civil discourse. Well, we’ll let this one slide. But, be it noted: I look with extra skepticism on claims that mutualism is impossible, coming from people who may simply be unable to uphold the communism of conversation, as it were.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 3:14 am

Communalism and communitarianism are both actual words. English has many words.

geo, sincere respect back to you, but it was different for William Morris to be a Marxist in his time than it is for someone to be a Marxist now. While Marx had some ideas that were authoritarian and some democratic, we now know which results his thought leads to when implemented, and we now also know that Marxist thought about capitalism doesn’t provide any understanding of capitalism that is useful in actually opposing it.

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David 02.20.15 at 3:42 am

Can we have one single discussion here on Marxism that doesn’t devolve into ”common sense” anti-communist banalities? Just one?

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js. 02.20.15 at 4:42 am

Certainly we shouldn’t think family communism is refuted by parent-child hierarchy.

It’s not just the parent-child relation, tho. It’s also the husband-wife relation, at least for most of human history. And e.g., the oikos, at least in Aristotle, includes master-slave relations. Etc, etc. I’m not sure where the communism is supposed to get a look-in, except in an idealized sort of modern family.

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js. 02.20.15 at 5:02 am

And anyway, the point isn’t even that it’s all hierarchical. The standard view is—or has been historically—that there are special kinds of parental and filial duties for example, and these aren’t really generalizable to other kinds of social relations. They certainly don’t in any way map onto how two random members of a community, Gemeinschaft, whatever might normatively situate themselves with respect to each other. So even where the family isn’t straightforwardly hierarchical, it still looks nothing like communism. Admittedly, this isn’t a point specifically against you, JH. I found it quite annoying in Graeber as well.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 5:05 am

“I’m not sure where the communism is supposed to get a look-in, except in an idealized sort of modern family.”

I think a far likelier candidate is probably egalitarian communities in which hunting/food gathering is a communal activity and there are strong norms against anyone trying to set up as chief/claim more goods on grounds that he hunted more. In such communities you can get a large group of true social equals who hold large amounts of goods in common. But maybe, on examination, it is all better described as a delicate dance involving norms of reciprocity, and the appearance of communism results from not taking a sufficiently wide/long view.

I am, as I have said, skeptical about how significant mutualism/baseline communism is as a social force in human life, as opposed to hierarchy/reciprocity. But I reiterate my severe hostility to the grounds Brett/sebastian/cassander cite for skepticism. Skepticism shouldn’t be based on moral wish-fulfillment fantasy – a kind of panglossianism, in effect. ‘Since communism is bad, there must be none.’ (It is particularly pernicious, in my opinion, that this sort of fantasy styles itself as shrewd anti-utopianism, when it is patently the opposite of that.) The issue has to be an empirical one about moral psychology/social psychology/anthopology/sociology. How do human moral minds actually work? But in order for it to be an empirical question, you need to keep these principles from just morphing into each other. You have to be able to say what the mark of baseline communism would be, as opposed to reciprocity (exchange).

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js. 02.20.15 at 5:09 am

Yes, sorry. I’m not arguing against baseline communism, or even communism. I’m arguing against the family. I do realize that I’ve picked the single most unpopular position.

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ragweed 02.20.15 at 8:18 am

In regards to family as communistic – Greaber makes clear that he sees his three categories as non-exclusive. So a family can be both hierarchical and communistic – there can be a hierarchy where one party has final authority in decision making, while others

John,

I think one misunderstanding of Graber here is that you are missing the whole point he makes (and I think here is very influenced by Polyani) about these various systems of distribution being nested in a wider society. So you and Quiggan can go into a bar and come up with some system of who puts in what and who gets to drink what, but whether this is fair or not depends not on what the two of you think, but on what the entire community around the bar think. They may think that you are both able-bodied uni professors, and so should be mostly even in who buys, or they could figure that Quiggan has a bum leg and can’t hunt down his beer money, so you should pony it up. Or they could figure that because you are in the Holbo clan but married to someone in the Waring Clan, you have a social duty to buy the beer, but the Quiggan clan is responsible for the chicken wings because Seagull, the totem of the Quiggan clan, was the one who first brought beer-nuts and chicken-wings to the people, and thus the Quiggan clan has done since time immemorial. But either way, it is not only a question of beer and wings.

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Ze Kraggash 02.20.15 at 9:30 am

“A lot of wishful nonsense about how the gulag means mutualism can’t be real doesn’t help. Snap out of it.”

I don’t think this is what they’re saying. Their thesis is that mutualism is inconsistent with human nature, and that establishing (and maintaining) it as the prevailing principle would require some serious coercion, violence.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 9:43 am

“I don’t think this is what they’re saying. Their thesis is that mutualism is inconsistent with human nature.”

I think I understand what they are saying. I’m just pointing out that the argument to the thesis is totally illogical.

Compare: suppose some anthopologist is saying, ‘the so-and-so people are peaceful, live in harmony with nature and hold all goods in common.’

Very well, what’s your evidence (you might well ask.) The anthropologist replies:

‘Because just look at the evils of Wall Street and the horrors of the 2008 financial crisis!’

A reasonable person would ask how the horrors of Wall Street could possibly bear on the reality, or lack thereof, of perfect communism among the so-and-so people. An unreasonable person, of a certain predisposition, would immediately feel the deep emotional rightness of this retort. Wall Street = unnatural = bad. Tribal People = natural = good. The sheer horror that is Wall Street is itself a proof that good, natural people must have nothing to do with that, ergo must be blissfully free of any taint of the market, competition, any of that.

The Gulag Archipelago gambit, as a response to the sort of discussion we were having, is just this, but with the Noble Savage values transvalued. Gulag Archipelago = unnatural = bad. Ergo, any good, functional society must be totally free of anything like that. Ergo, any good, functional society cannot contain communism even as one governing principle among many.

It’s a totally illogical way to think about anthropology. I have no patience for it.

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Ze Kraggash 02.20.15 at 10:02 am

I agree that it’s irritating. But that’s the argument: mutualism is inconsistent with human nature. They are too emotional about it, and unable to express it in any good-natured way, without a temper tantrum. But it’s still a valid supposition.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 10:20 am

Well, I don’t mind it as a clear supposition. You can suppose what you like, especially if you do so clearly. Whether it’s a valid supposition is open to question. Is mutualism inconsistent with human nature?

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Ze Kraggash 02.20.15 at 10:43 am

Depends on the conditions that form human nature, I suppose. But then you have the usual EP controversy: how much of it may be pre-wired, how strong the pre-wiring is, and all that.

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Brett Bellmore 02.20.15 at 11:34 am

I think Ze has nailed our position, the more concise formulation of which is, “Wonderful theory, wrong species.”

Why do we get so emotional about it? Because of the damned piles of skulls, that’s why. How can you NOT get emotional about people promoting an ideology that, literally, piles up skulls?

I wonder about anybody who can pleasantly, academically, discuss an ideology that keeps ending up with mass murder. I mean, you guys are no particular threat to anybody so long as you don’t attempt practical applications, but, still.

Like I said up thread, you could analogize certain aspects of family life and fraternal organizations to fascism, too. If you were of that bent, you could so so as a way of casting fascism in a positive light. And, yeah, things didn’t work out so well in Germany, but they weren’t really fascists, they got things wrong, and the next time we try it, we’ll get it right…

But you wouldn’t, because, lamp shades made from human skin, and all that. Some ideas work out so badly in practice you don’t try to find the good in them, don’t try to get them right this time, you shun them. Well, decent people do, anyway.

Communism is that sort of idea. Not because communal arrangements don’t sorta work on a very small scale. Because it doesn’t scale without world-historical levels of evil, in practice.

And I see a bunch of people here, working hard to blind themselves to that, in the hope, I guess, that they can have another go at it someday. And rationalizing that you won’t end up with the piles of skulls.

But you will, if you get that chance, and how can I be unemotional about that?

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 12:14 pm

Brett, if you think that communism 1) kinda sorta works sometimes; 2) always ends up with piles of skulls; then you are committed to 3) sometimes ghastly piles of skulls are kind of an ok way to go. If YOU want to apologize for genocide, then feel free. But leave ME out of it. Seriously.

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Brett Bellmore 02.20.15 at 12:43 pm

Oh, spare me the faux outrage, John. I think *communalism* sort works, on a very small scale, where people share some over-riding cause, and where the communal enterprise is embeded in a larger capitalist society. Communism is a different beast altogether, an effort to force communalism on a large scale, and it never works for reasonable values of “works”.

And, you think I didn’t notice the way you carefully crafted the contours of your outrage, to exclude from its application anybody who advocates communism, so long as they just deny the obvious causal link to mass murder? Way to express outrage at anybody who points out the obvious, but not at the people who advocate a genocidal ideology.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 12:52 pm

Brett, you have accused me, falsely, of saying things that imply in any way shape or form that I am ok with the whole Gulag thing. I am not outraged by that. You are, after all, you. Water is wet. Brett is Brett.

I have pointed out, truthfully, that in the process of you alleging, falsely, that I have implied this stuff, you have – inadvertently, I’m sure! – implied that you yourself are ok with genocide. Sometimes. (It’s true! You implied it!)

Of course I find this funny. How could I not! But what I really take it to show is that your head is full of nonsense, not that your heart is full of evil. That you cannot manage to pin this stuff on me without, inadvertently, pinning it on yourself, speaks to the quality of your argument, I think.

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Ronan(rf) 02.20.15 at 1:09 pm

I haven’t read Graeber and can’t speak to theories of communism(an exciting start to the comment, I know) but I am reading, on and off, the new Fiske (mentioned above) book at the minute, and his models, from my reading, are primarily talking about the ways people evaluate and understand their social relationships. If Graeber is working from him, then I assume ‘baseline communism’ maps on to Fiske’s ‘communal sharing’ and ‘reciprocity’ onto ‘equality matching.’
The main difference is that CS is primarily concerned with in group unity (so JQ’s running club), whereas EM is concerned with equality. (I’d assume gift giving etc) Fiske’s distinction is, ‘unity is directed toward caring and supporting the integrity of in groups through a sense of collective responsibility and common fate’, whereas ‘equality is directed towards enforcing even balance and in kind reciprocity in social relations.’ So they are two quite differen’t ways for a person to understand and take part in a relationship. (although ragweed is also right that these are in some ways context dependant; ie you can evaluate a relationship with a person in one context differently than you would with the same person in another context, and you can evaluate relationships with different people in different ways in the same context. )
That might be a little confusing, perhaps even wrong, potentially even irrelevant, and that’s because I don’t really understand his argument fully yet. But I thought I’d add my tuppence.
(I think though that perhaps talking about this type of theory in the context of Marxism(or whatever) doesnt really make a huge amount of sense. Theyre explaining two different things, afaict.)
I’d also note for Brett that this is compatible with violence, in group unity can lead to hostility towards an out group. In fact, according to Fiske, the relationship within the group best explains the reasons it commits violence against those outside of it.

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Ze Kraggash 02.20.15 at 1:22 pm

“Because of the damned piles of skulls, that’s why.”

I remember reading about the mamluk sultan Baibars, who, after defeating Mongols in Palestine, actually constructed a mountain of skulls there. He was a tough guy. If a city wouldn’t surrender, he would storm it, take it, and kill every-fucking-one inside. To give the next city the right incentive, you know.

I’m pretty sure, however, that we would be able to have a nice and pleasant discussion about the mamluks, and Baibars in particular.

This anti-communist vaccine they give you, it’s a real good stuff. It actually makes me more optimistic about the possibility of a mutualist society.

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bill benzon 02.20.15 at 2:05 pm

While reading Fiske, John, you might also look at Christopher Boehm, also an anthropologist, and a primatologist too. In Hierarchy in the Forest he argues that we’ve inherited authoritarian/hierarchical ways from our primate ancestors and an egalitarian overlay when we became modern humans. He reviews lots of primate ethology lots of by now standard stuff on (quasi)egalitarianism in preliterate societies. Here’s a brief review of Hierarchy:

http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/balance-of-power

Here’s an old post where I talk about Boehm a bit:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/hierarchy_and_equality_the_essential_tension_in_human_nature_or_was_marx_ri/

And here’s review of his recent book on morality:

http://www.epjournal.net/articles/how-did-morality-originate-a-review-of-christopher-boehm-moral-origins-the-evolution-of-virtue-altruism-and-shame/

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Phil 02.20.15 at 2:19 pm

My point is basically that the slogan amounts to fooling with math, a bit, to make something that not really clearly reciprocity feel like reciprocity. Everyone puts in the same. Everyone gets out the same. To get the numerators and denominators to work out, even nominally, I would need to talk about more than one exchange. It’s the whole system, man! But, similarly, to explain how standing your round of drinks at the bar amounts to reciprocity, you need to refer to more than one round of drinks. I take it you don’t deny that people standing their round is a kind of ethic of reciprocity?

That’s actually an interesting example. So Al goes to the bar and gets a beer for himself and one each for Bert and Charlie. A little later, Bert goes to the bar and gets a beer for himself and one each for Al and Charlie; he also gets a bag of crisps, which he opens and puts in the middle of the table. A little after that, Charlie goes to the bar, but as he offers the routine “Same again?” Al says, “actually, no, could you make mine a bottle of [something outrageously expensive]?” Charlie complies, but with a bad grace.

Is Al violating the ethic of reciprocity? It seems to me that there are two different answers which correspond to two different understandings of ‘reciprocity’. If reciprocity means ‘I give you [what you want], in return you give me [what I want]’, everything’s fine and Charlie’s just being a grouch. If it means ‘I give you [something with a measurable value], you give me [something of the same or similar measurable value]’, Al’s way out of line and will probably be informed of this before too long, and certainly if he tries this stunt again.

So there’s a significant difference between reciprocity-1 and reciprocity-2 – there has to be, or they couldn’t give different answers to a Yes/No question. The interesting thing is that when people actually do stand rounds they don’t always use the same form of reciprocity. I mean, nobody watches the register like a hawk and thinks ‘his stout came up 30p dearer than my bitter, I’ll make sure to ask for something more expensive next time’. (At least, I hope they don’t.) I think people work on the basis of reciprocity-1 (everyone has what they like, we each take in turns to pay) until their sense of a fair outcome is violated, whereupon they scale back to reciprocity-2.

But reciprocity-1 and reciprocity-2 are clumsy and uninformative neologisms. How about we avoid ambiguity by giving them different names? We could call the second one just plain ‘reciprocity’, and the first one we could call… I don’t know, how about ‘baseline communism’?

(I actually think ‘baseline communism’ is a lousy name for it, precisely because of the bitter but pointless arguments the c-word is prone to spark off, but there you go.)

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TM 02.20.15 at 2:20 pm

John, you are making no sense. You claim that ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ is a from of reciprocity. Then when several of us protest that it is no such thing, you come up with some sloppy math supposed to prove that even though it isn’t reciprocal on the face of it, you can mathematically turn it into something equivalent to reciprocity. Then you are pointed out that the math doesn’t make sense and your response is, oh come, who cares about math, clearly this is reciprocity and what’s the problem. You are adopting a position that is clearly nonsensical and then pretend it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Well to me this sounds like classic trolling. If it’s not, then you owe us an argument. Frankly if you think that throwing some x/2 and y/2 at us will get us to swallow an otherwise unsupported claim, that is offensive. We are not innumerate around here.

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Phil 02.20.15 at 2:22 pm

Is Al violating the ethic of reciprocity?

Oops – what I meant to say was, “Is anyone violating the ethic of reciprocity, and if so who?” The supporting argument will be left as an exercise for the reader.

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TM 02.20.15 at 2:27 pm

To be as clear as possible: Marx says that in communism, everybody’s needs are taken care of irrespective of how much, or if anything, they are able to contribute to the community. And you call that “a tit-for-tat balance? What drugs are you on?

JH: 83: “The only way for you to deny what I am saying would be to say this: the math here is so nonsensical that no one will ever find ‘from each … to each’ appealing as a kind of tit-for-tat balance. It will only be appealing as a kind of utilitarian ideal, or something. I think, to the contrary, it is appealing as a tit-for-tat balance.”

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engels 02.20.15 at 2:27 pm

the slogan amounts to fooling with math, a bit, to make something that not really clearly reciprocity feel like reciprocity

Umm, no, it’s just elegant phrasing of a very clear statement that socialism is not about reciprocity. Anyway your argument reminds of this kid’s joke (which I used to love when I was about 7):

Teacher: You can’t do that Johnny, you’ve got to learn to give and take.
Johnny: But I did, Miss. He took my chocolate and I gave him a black eye!

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William Timberman 02.20.15 at 3:00 pm

On Brett being Brett…. With certain notable exceptions, it seems to go something like this:

1) Human beings are an untrustworthy species. (This is a true fact.)
2) People who claim otherwise are fooling themselves, and attempting to fool me, and must be feared.
3) Because they’re fools, and I am not, I’m not bound to respect any of the rules they band together in their ignorance to make.
4) I’ve got a .45 in my nightstand drawer.

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jake the antisoshul soshulist` 02.20.15 at 3:01 pm

I will offer a sort of half-assed apology to Brett Bellmore. I do think he considers himself arguing in good faith.
The problem with any system is how it deals with non-conformists. Authoritarian regimes, Communist or Capitalist, tend toward “gulags”. Capitalism, even at its best, tends to starve its dissenters into submission.
I would suggest to Brett that Libertarianism has the same failings as Communism. That being establishing it on a large scale without resorting to some form of Authoritarianism.
If Communism always devolves into an Authoritarian state, Libertarianism will always devolve into feudalism. And, I have a feeling many Libertarians are OK with that, being that they think that they will never be the serfs.

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Neville Morley 02.20.15 at 3:26 pm

Thinking about Phil @108’s example of the succession of rounds, I wonder whether there’s any mileage in introducing the idea of commensality as something that is (at least in the classical societies with which I’m familiar, and such of the anthropological literature that gets cited in those discissions) clearly related to reciprocity in many cases but not at all the same thing. The Spartan sussitia, for example: every Spartiate is expected to contribute to the common meal and every Spartiate receives the same food and drink, and this is a key part of their homosocial and military bonding. Having something exotic and expensive and/or eating far more than one’s fair share simply isn’t done, not as a matter of reciprocity but because it goes against the whole idea of the common meal. Al asking for something expensive – in the knowledge that social convention will probably enable him to get it – is breaching the unwritten conventions of sociability as much as any expectations of reciprocity. Perhaps the ideal of baseline communism is precisely that access to resources should be governed by social and commensal relations rather than economic (i.e. reciprocal) relations…

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TM 02.20.15 at 3:55 pm

I guess it’s the time of year when CTers go about renaming the universe.

JQ on the other thread: why don’t we call every social arrangement concerning the use of resources “property rights”, and every form of social authority “government” or “state”. See, I just proved that property rights are universal and derived from the state!

JH: let’s call every form of exchange reciprocity. Oh by the way I just proved that communism is really just a form of reciprocity.

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up…

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armando 02.20.15 at 3:59 pm

I think a better argument against the use of the term “communism” is that it is tendentious (John admits this) and too often leads to exactly the argument seen here. I think, at a certain point, one should admit that the associations and rhetoric of a particular term make it too cumbersome and toxic to use effectively. And the desire to ignore such reactions speaks to a destructively combative stance.

I’m not really that bothered, but holding to the principle here involves having the boring argument for no benefit that I can see besides an affirmation of intellectual purity. Its not worth it, for my money.

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 4:14 pm

“Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up”

I think you just did, TM. Seriously.

I really don’t know how to make the reciprocity thing anything clearer. I guess I’ll just ask it as an honest question: evidently you find it utterly implausible that ‘from each … to each’ has any overtones of reciprocity? It specifies a sense in which everyone puts in the same and gets out the same. That feels like reciprocity. This doesn’t really hold up, when you think about it. But rhetoric doesn’t need to make sense to be appealing.

If you grant this, then we agree. If you don’t grant this, then I don’t know how we can go forward. It doesn’t really have anything to do with math. It has to do with the source of the appeal of the slogan, or lack thereof.

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Minnow 02.20.15 at 4:14 pm

” And the desire to ignore such reactions speaks to a destructively combative stance.”

True that. We sometimes call it ‘trolling’, no?

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Minnow 02.20.15 at 4:17 pm

” It specifies a sense in which everyone puts in the same and gets out the same.”

But it specifically doesn’t. If you have no abilities but have large needs (which is common enough), you will be putting in nothing and taking out lots. That isn’t reciprocity as anyone really understand it.

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TM 02.20.15 at 4:17 pm

Phil 108: “If reciprocity means ‘I give you [what you want], in return you give me [what I want]’”

Add hierarchy to that and you have exploitation, as in Brecht’s poem in which the oxen gets the straw – which is really all he wants – and the farmer gets the corn that the oxen worked so hard to thresh (couldn’t find this online). Sure you can call that reciprocity if you like. Or communism (as BB might, quoting that old Polish saying “Russia gets our coal and in return we give them our textiles”), or you might call it Rumpelstilz. Does it matter?

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John Holbo 02.20.15 at 4:21 pm

“That isn’t reciprocity as anyone really understand it.”

Well, that’s the question. If two people both try equally hard, but one does 60% of the actual work (due to greater ability), is it in some sense ‘fair’ to divide the fruits of their labor equally, not 60/40, on grounds that they both worked equally hard. There is a sense in which they both ‘put in the same’. To me this is not as nuts as, evidently, you take it to be.

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TM 02.20.15 at 4:27 pm

“evidently you find it utterly implausible that ‘from each … to each’ has any overtones of reciprocity? It specifies a sense in which everyone puts in the same and gets out the same.”

As JHW, Chris Armstrong, Francis Spufford, engels, Minnow, myself and a bunch of others stated, no it doesn’t. It precisely specifically says the opposite of what you claim it does. It’s not just that virtually everybody on this thread disagrees with you, it’s also that you haven’t offered a shred of an argument to support your unusual interpretation, apart from a half-assed attempt to turn it into a math problem which you immediately abandoned when challenged. I won’t respond any more, this is just trolling.

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John Theibault 02.20.15 at 4:28 pm

Well…
My comment 60 got lost in the moderation queu for a long time, but it’s a direct response to your questions to TM @ 118. “Overtones,” though, is a squishy word. Sure, the phrase sounds vaguely reciprocal, and maybe that plays some small role in its appeal, but it has nothing to do with actual reciprocity. Short question again: what are the “to each according to their needs” recipients reciprocating?

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Minnow 02.20.15 at 4:30 pm

“If two people both try equally hard, but one does 60% of the actual work (due to greater ability), is it in some sense ‘fair’ to divide the fruits of their labor equally,”

Communism doesn’t suggest the fruits will be divided equally, but according to ‘need’, and needs will be very unequal. So neither input nor output are equal. And in a large set of circumstances people will have no abilities but plenty of needs. If I do my nan’s garden because she is stuck in her wheelchair but still needs the garden doing, we have both contributed according to ability and taken according to need, but, really, it doesn’t feel reciprocal. Especially the day after.

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John Theibault 02.20.15 at 4:42 pm

I should modify my response a bit, since I think my concession on “sounds vaguely reciprocal” is too generous. The main source of the appeal of “to each according to his needs” is that the needy will be taken care of whether they contribute or not, not that there is some equitable division of responsibilities and rewards.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 4:46 pm

The only sense in which something like this can look reciprocal is by virtue of people being in the same society, which averages out “from each” to “to each” over place and time. It works on the assumption that people on average will go through a period of productivity during part of their lives during which they can contribute work to others, and a period of non productivity during which they can live off of the work of others. This is why I previously focussed on membership in the group or society. If you’re not starving in the short term, then what matters is not reciprocity in the short term but whether the group is still likely to be around in the long term. The sense in which a family is “communistic” has nothing to do with absence of hierarchy — there’s almost always plenty of hierarchy — it has to do with families classically being a way of doing this averaging over time (children and grandparents get supported by parents).

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Minnow 02.20.15 at 4:58 pm

“The only sense in which something like this can look reciprocal is by virtue of people being in the same society, which averages out “from each” to “to each” over place and time. “

And then we end up with a definition of reciprocity that envelopes everything and is functionally useless. But even then, there will be a large number of cases where people are never productive but still have substantial needs.

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Brett Bellmore 02.20.15 at 5:00 pm

“I would suggest to Brett that Libertarianism has the same failings as Communism. That being establishing it on a large scale without resorting to some form of Authoritarianism.”

I don’t advocate libertarianism as some kind of revolutionary change. I’m down on revolutions, they’re almost always 360 degrees.

I think a gradual evolution in that direction, with plenty of time to accomidate changes, and see what works, (And what doesn’t; Just because we’re the wrong species for communism doesn’t mean we’re the right species for libertarianism.) is more in order.

I don’t think this is in order for communism, because we already know how badly it sucks.

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armando 02.20.15 at 5:01 pm

Yeah, I’m not sure that “averaging out” is the right notion. I mean, what does a family do with a member who has some sort of long term, inevitable disadvantage. If it doesn’t throw them to the dogs, it probably just supports them – which lots of families do without complaint. But there isn’t an expectation that this effort gets repaid, I don’t think. Except maybe as a potential?

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 5:10 pm

I wasn’t intending my comment to be agreement with the idea that “from each, to each” is really reciprocal.

armando, if a family has a member who has some sort of long term, inevitable non productivity then it depends on the average productivity of the family being high enough to support that person. Averages include low or negative numbers, after all. If that person is really too much for the family to support then just about every society has some way of dealing with this — generally emotionally traumatic ways. Families, even extended families, are fairly small so random variation means that this sometimes happens even when society as a whole is doing OK, which it often isn’t. A lot of the push towards communalism is (IMO) risk-averse: based on the desire to have more people to turn to if something goes wrong.

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TM 02.20.15 at 5:13 pm

“The only sense in which something like this can look reciprocal is by virtue of people being in the same society, which averages out “from each” to “to each” over place and time. It works on the assumption that people on average will go through a period of productivity during part of their lives during which they can contribute work to others, and a period of non productivity during which they can live off of the work of others.”

What you are describing is the principle of Social Insurance. And yes it does have elements of reciprocity (which is part of the appeal – it’s not welfare or charity, everybody has contributed) but there is also redistribution and solidarity. The payout depends in part on what was contributed and in part on need. It gets interesting when right-wingers propose to replace solidarity-based Social Insurance with market-based investment: the appeal lies precisely in the reasoning that each should get out exactly what they paid in and any consideration of ability and need is less than fair.

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Neville Morley 02.20.15 at 5:17 pm

Possibly (if not probably) missing most of the point, but…

(i) Is this not a matter of how one defines the units involve: both A and B put in X effort and receive Y – where X is defined not in terms of energy or time expended, but “the best they could”, and Y is not defined in terms of loaves of bread, pints of beer or money, but “what they need”?

(ii) Isn’t the idea that this *looks* like reciprocity, explicitly on a very superficial reading, precisely so that it may appear as fair to those who might otherwise want to insist on a careful accounting of hours worked and loaves of bread received in return? In other words, communism is not reciprocity in any strict sense, but perhaps it needs to borrow some of reciprocity’s clothing, at least for as long as there are some people who think that those who worked a full day in the vineyard were seriously short-changed. I think this may simply be a restatement of John’s final paragraph in #23…

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 5:48 pm

TM: “What you are describing is the principle of Social Insurance. And yes it does have elements of reciprocity (which is part of the appeal – it’s not welfare or charity, everybody has contributed) but there is also redistribution and solidarity.”

Well… sort of. Social Insurance is how certain liberal societies implement this kind of idea at a societal level. I was trying to demystify it by pointing out that it’s really part of what any family member does whenever they work. There are some people who don’t get along with their birth families at all and, in addition, never marry or have children, so they can work just for themselves, but those people are pretty rare.

And the politics of it is not exactly what I’d call “redistribution and solidarity”, at least not in the U.S. If Social Security was means-tested so that only those who needed it got it, it would no longer exist. FDR made it stay around by specifically making it “from each according to his ability, to each whether they need it or not”. The end effect is, again, risk-averse: you don’t have the risk of contributing to Social Security and then making enough so that you don’t get benefits.

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TM 02.20.15 at 5:57 pm

Neville: Is there any evidence that people were fooled into thinking that the communism Marx was advocating was really just reciprocity?

The Marxian “to each … from each” clearly expresses an ideal that is purely non-reciprocal. I think the confusion comes in when people try to imagine this ideal realized in an actual existing society. We naturally assume that there has to be a degree of reciprocity for any society to work, that there have to be mechanisms to prevent free riding. That’s the point of the examples (beer rounds, potluck and so on) offered above.
I’m not sure what Marx’s response to that would have been but clearly, one can distinguish the ideal he articulated from the messiness of real world social situations.

Btw are we on this thread forbidden to hold two different ideas in our minds at the same time? Why shouldn’t a certain arrangement have elements of both reciprocity and mutualism – see Social Insurance 132. I don’t see why that would be an objection to Graeber, or does he claim that any given society has to be either purely reciprocal or purely communist?

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geo 02.20.15 at 6:02 pm

Brett@129: I’m down on revolutions, they’re almost always 360 degrees. … I think a gradual evolution in that direction, with plenty of time to accommodate changes, and see what works

Can’t speak for the other communists on this thread, but I’m with you here 110 percent. Gradual change all the way, democratically legislated and enforced with a minimum of coercion. (Just like the past and present capitalist order.*) It will certainly take a lot of persuasion and cultural evolution, which we communists really need to get busy on rather than blithering about revolution. Thanks for the reminder.

*IRONY!

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TM 02.20.15 at 6:05 pm

RP: Why would you not call it solidarity. We had that discussion recently, what is it about the idea of solidarity that makes Americans recoil from it? Any German or French would have no difficulty understanding how Social Insurance (which btw includes health and unemployment insurance in addition to retirement) is based on solidarity: the healthy support the sick, the employed support the unemployed, and those of working age support the retired but also their needy widows and orphans and those who can’t work due to disability. There is reciprocity in the sense of “I support the less fortunate in good times and expect to be supported should I fall on hard times myself” but not in the sense of a ledger that has to balance out. And the fact it’s not means-tested is not a bug but a feature, and neither is it US specific – it’s universal wherever social insurance exists.

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Donald johnson 02.20.15 at 6:10 pm

You’re assuming too much, Brett. Maybe pure communism is impossible for humans, but Sweden is further along the spectrum than the U.S. and which country is closer to having a full fledged gulag to make the system work?

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 6:19 pm

Maybe I wouldn’t call it solidarity because I don’t really trust most other Americans, or feel that we have similar interests. If you really think that you have solidarity with the other people in your country, why do you think that there is such a disjunction between your apparent politics (just from the impression I get from your comments) and the actual politics of that country? That’s something I don’t get about standard leftism: “Solidarity forever, we are all workers (or whatever)” and “Oh, I wonder why we can never win an election?”

I do think that we can cooperate within a formal, risk-averse structure within which all of the work of coordination is done by a bureaucracy so that we don’t have to actually directly cooperate. Is that solidarity?

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mattski 02.20.15 at 6:25 pm

@ 138

WA-BAM!!

141

geo 02.20.15 at 6:30 pm

Rich @139: But the bureaucracy will have to democratically accountable, right? We’d have to cooperate to the extent of monitoring and controlling it. Otherwise Brett and his friends will — quite justifiably — break out their arsenals.

I agree with you that solidarity is a very scarce and fragile commodity just now. But I’d say that socialism/communism/the good society simply is the practical realization of solidarity. A long way off, I agree. So let’s start talking about how to get there.

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Neville Morley 02.20.15 at 6:50 pm

@TM #135: Nothing that I know of, but I didn’t think I was making a historical claim. I will readily admit to being unsure what sort of claim I was trying to make…

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TM 02.20.15 at 7:14 pm

RP: I was making a statement about the principle of social insurance being based on solidarity. Not sure how your response is related. Solidarity is certainly more of an aspirational ideal than empirical reality in most places. I notice however that American leftists are reluctant even to make that appeal. I think this is a mistake. Social Security is solidarity-based and it works and Americans stand behind it. Why not use it to make the case that we need more of that.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 7:25 pm

TM: “Social Security is solidarity-based and it works and Americans stand behind it.”

I don’t want to do the Internet argument thing where you look up a definition of something, but no, Social Security is not solidarity-based. People do not think that they’re supporting the less fortunate, and then expect to be supported if they fall on hard times themselves. They think that they are participating in a wide-based insurance pool, and as with any insurance pool, if you could magically make it so that the pool only included the more fortunate but still included you, you’d do it. Since there’s no way to magically do this, people reluctantly accept that the pool has to cover everyone. But they don’t like it, and the insistence on universality rather than means-testing is a sign of that — if it were means-tested, it actually would be an insurance policy that only payed out for the less fortunate and the people who falls on hard times, and people won’t support that.

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TM 02.20.15 at 7:35 pm

You know an awful lot about what people “think”, especially the bit that people don’t like it that everyone is covered by SS – really, do you have evidence for that? But you are still missing my point – if you want people to develop a positive attitude to solidarity, maybe one thing to do would be to not treat it as if it were a dirty word. And there is nothing contradictory in noticing that people may be motivated both by altruistic and selfish impulses. Reality is complicated, and again it is not forbidden to hold two different ideas in your mind simultaneously.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.20.15 at 7:52 pm

Welfare programs in the U.S. worked exactly as you describe: everyone paid in, only the less fortunate got benefits. The evidence of what people thought about that is pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

And I don’t want people to develop a positive attitude towards fake solidarity. It consists of telling people to make believe that they share interests, values, and support with people who they do not actually share these things with, and it’s not a lasting basis for left politics.

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Phil 02.20.15 at 8:15 pm

“If two people both try equally hard, but one does 60% of the actual work (due to greater ability), is it in some sense ‘fair’ to divide the fruits of their labor equally, not 60/40, on grounds that they both worked equally hard.”

It’s fair (in the sense that there are good reasons to find it a satisfactory outcome), but there’s an obvious sense in which it isn’t reciprocity. So, if we want to associate ‘fairness’ with ‘reciprocity’, we should avoid confusing matters by finding another word to describe the way in which it’s satisfactory – we could say that it’s not ‘fair’ (because different amounts of work done) but it is ‘just’ (because equal levels of commitment & need). Ultimately it depends whether you want to think clearly or not.

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Phil 02.20.15 at 8:17 pm

NB levels of commitment and need are only presumptively equal – unlike the work done, they’re not measurable. Which is why baseline communism (like Neville’s commensality) is an ethic of trust.

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Phil 02.20.15 at 8:19 pm

PPS Perhaps the point of the OP is just to draw attention to an interesting way of not thinking clearly. In which case, never mind.

150

Bill Benzon 02.20.15 at 11:57 pm

Here’s a nice video about Japanese pubs. It doesn’t speak directly to the reciprocity – communism issue, but it is interesting on the issue of hierarchy vs. egalitarianism. The line is that the hierarchies that exist in the workplace disappear in the pub, when the boss and his employees go out drinking and eating together. Also, a common practice is to split the tab evenly regardless of how much each individual consumes (which is hardly a Japanese practice; heck, it’s just easier to do it that way). There’s an interesting story at the end about a pub that has notebooks representing over 800 different high schools. Consider this a bit of on-the-ground fieldwork (though with a bit of NHK PR spin):

http://youtu.be/WjTfeBH7rU4

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 1:14 am

TM: “What you are describing is the principle of Social Insurance. And yes it does have elements of reciprocity (which is part of the appeal – it’s not welfare or charity, everybody has contributed) but there is also redistribution and solidarity.”

You are moving the goalposts now, TM. But perhaps this is a sign the game may be nearing its end. Maybe you would accept that ‘from each … to each …’ is reciprocity so long as I re-stated (what I stated several times above) that, of course it isn’t PURE reciprocity? Is that the sticking point here? You think I am saying there is nothing but reciprocity in ‘from each … to each’? If so, of course I grant there is more. I say so multiple times up-thread.

Let me try one more analogy.

The symbol of justice is a set of scales. (I take it you will grant this.)

A set of scales is a symbol of exchange, hence reciprocity, balance.

I remember reading Ian Miller’s “An Eye For An Eye” in which he, a law professor, recalls asking his students, first, whether the result of justice running its course is that the scales become even, or uneven. And what is being weighed. The students, unsurprisingly, gave all sorts of different answers. 70% of them thought justice means the scales are made even, but a solid minority went for the idea that one scale going down was a sort of judgment (apparently.) Justice is one scale going down. As to what was being weighed against what: right, wrong, evidence, plaintiff and defendant, justice, reasons, arguments, wrongs, guilt, punishments, recompense. People had very different ideas about how the metaphor is supposed to work.

Conclusion: people like to have a sense of reciprocity, evenness, balance. Even when they don’t really have a clear conception of how that metaphor of weighing, exchanging, balancing, is supposed to work.

Wrong conclusion: I guess it turns out that that scales aren’t a symbol for justice, after all.

Now, back to our ‘from each … to each’ slogan. You are pointing out, TM, what I obviously know, that communism as, metaphorically, a giant system of reciprocal exchange – a big balanced scale – is a bit screwy. But that doesn’t mean that the slogan doesn’t appeal to people by making them feel that reciprocal justice has been done. Just as it would be wrong to say that the scales of justice aren’t a symbol of justice, after all, because people can’t coherently explain what they mean; so it would be wrong to say that ‘from each … to each’ is not a reciprocal slogan, after all, just because the math doesn’t really work. It patently is a reciprocal slogan. It says everyone pays in the same, according to a scale of ability, and gets out the same, according to a scale of need. That no one really understands such a ‘scale’, on reflection, is neither here nor there.

Make sense?

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 1:28 am

I missed this bit from TM, upthread:

“Btw are we on this thread forbidden to hold two different ideas in our minds at the same time? Why shouldn’t a certain arrangement have elements of both reciprocity and mutualism.”

I’ll take that as confirmation that TM has actually come around to my way of thinking, but is a bit embarrassed to admit it, and is trying to make out that this is where he started all along.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 2:19 am

OK, with that settled (unless TM wants to re-open it, which will be fine if he is not satisfied) let me shift to address a few other comments upthread:

Phil: “It’s fair (in the sense that there are good reasons to find it a satisfactory outcome), but there’s an obvious sense in which it isn’t reciprocity.”

No one is denying that there is an obvious sense in which it isn’t reciprocity. The question is whether there is any sense in which it is. It seems to me that there is. Do you agree?

“NB levels of commitment and need are only presumptively equal – unlike the work done, they’re not measurable. Which is why baseline communism (like Neville’s commensality) is an ethic of trust.”

The problem with this is that reciprocity need not be measurable. It can be rough. It is also an ethic of trust. So, while it is true that baseline communism is an ethic of trust, this is not its distinguishing characteristic, over and against exchange and reciprocity.

Then Phil writes: “PPS Perhaps the point of the OP is just to draw attention to an interesting way of not thinking clearly. In which case, never mind.”

Here is a way of putting my point which might have short-circuited some of the TM-style confusion (I know, I know, TM may not think he is confused. Well, he can come back and say so.) Graeber puts forth the Marxist slogan ‘from each … to each’ as a clear statement of baseline communism, over and against reciprocity. My reason for focusing on the ways in which the slogan rhetorically appeals to our sense of reciprocity is to highlight how, if it really is so easy to draw a bright line between baseline communism and reciprocity/exchange, you bloody well ought to be able to find a formula for the former that does not, rhetorically, mimic the latter. I agree that the slogan genuinely does express an alternative to an ethic of reciprocity, insofar as communism isn’t best conceived, normatively, as a system of reciprocal exchange, and the slogan genuinely does point at communism as a system. Even so, if you want to explain what a wolf is, you don’t point to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That’s slightly confusing. (I don’t mean to say that baseline communism literally is a wolf – i.e. a bad predator – I’ll leave that to Brett B.) The slogan’s function is to blur the distinction between communism and reciprocity. That Graeber tries to use a thing designed to blur a given line to indicate it as a bright line just shows how hard it is to say which we are in at any given point.

Let me try another example, to sharpen my puzzle. (I really am puzzled.)

Graeber says, plausibly, that one sign of communism operative, not reciprocity, is that it would be bad social form to keep an actual tab.

The problem is not just that the Marxist slogan itself is a counter-example but that all sociable reciprocity fits the communist bill. So again we fail to find a distinguishing characteristic. If a group of friends are engaged in a long-term project of standing each other regular rounds at the pub, or buying annual x-mas gifts for each other, whatever, it would be bad form for someone to keep a running dollar tab. Sociability requires that one not care about mere exchange value here – ergo we have communism. The point isn’t that everything come out even, to the penny, but that we are all friends here, sharing what we have with those close to us. But, realistically, if someone is a habitual shirker, people are going to feel that reciprocal duties are not being upheld.

Conclusion: being studiously approximate about reciprocity is a way of having it both ways. All such approximate reciprocal relationships are mutual (communistic) but also reciprocal (exchange). If this is how mutualism has to work, then it isn’t just the case that we often find two principles at work. It is indeed the case that reciprocity needs to be there, as the carrier for mutualism. Mutualism obtains only as loosened reciprocity. And never exists except as such. Maybe.

I am just musing out loud.

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js. 02.21.15 at 2:31 am

What seems right, indeed undeniably true, is that the ‘from each/to each’ trades on or appeals to an intuition of fairness. You, JH, seem to be working with a further intuition that fairness has to be cashed out in terms of reciprocity, which itself is internally related to notions of exchange—in a sense that brings in some notion of measurement. I’m cool with the idea that exchange involves measurement. What also seems abundantly clear to me (tho evidently our intuitions diverge here) is that the ‘baseline communist’ metaphor trades on an intuition of fairness that emphatically does not involve measurement. So either the fairness-reciprocity link is misplaced or the reciprocity-exchange link is misplaced. But mostly, I don’t see why you think that notions of fairness have to resolve into some idea of abstracted equal measures. (I also think that Phil has said much more clearly what I’m trying to say, so if this makes no sense, I’ll just sign onto Phil’s comments.)

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Peter T 02.21.15 at 2:34 am

After reading 151, I incline to the view that John Holbo is trolling. Unless “rhetorically balanced” equates to balanced in whatever other sense one chooses. Look! I said “neither fish nor fowl”, so I believe in capitalism!

The pub round is not the example. Take a bunch of people out for a long walk. They notice that their water needs replenishing. The most able-bodied and energetic immediately volunteer to fetch water from the spring at the bottom of the hill. When it arrives, the children and those visibly suffering from thirst get the most. In what sense is this reciprocity? That some amount of water was obtained and the same amount drunk is not evidence of anything about the relations among the people involved.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 2:47 am

Well, maybe I’ll start with something simpler. Do you agree that scales are a traditional symbol of justice, and that scales appeal to people as a metaphor of balanced exchange – reciprocity? And do you find it plausible that Miller is right? People aren’t exactly sure how this ‘market’ in justice is supposed to work?

As to the water-fetching, obviously it’s not reciprocity/exchange in the isolated abstract (no more so than is handing over coins at a market. You have to also include the seller handing the customer goods, in exchange for the coins. Half of a sales transaction isn’t a sale, but add in the other half and you’ve got one.) If there is a larger context in which people can and do expect this sort of fetching and providing to be the norm, then – yes – you have reciprocity.

Let me quote Wikipedia, not because it is utterly authoritative but because I didn’t write it, so I can’t be accused of slanting the terms out of some alleged motive of sophistry.

“Reciprocity in social psychology refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model.”

Suppose your water fetching and distribution event happens. And, later, those who received the water have an opportunity to run for bread, to give to the people who gave them water before, who are now starving. Suppose they do so. Is that communism or is it reciprocity? You say it is communism. I suspect it is more reciprocity. I think my use of the term – which is roughly Wikipedia’s – is standard enough. But of course I concede that there is a sense in which it may be mutualism.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 2:53 am

js. “You, JH, seem to be working with a further intuition that fairness has to be cashed out in terms of reciprocity, which itself is internally related to notions of exchange—in a sense that brings in some notion of measurement. I’m cool with the idea that exchange involves measurement. What also seems abundantly clear to me (tho evidently our intuitions diverge here) is that the ‘baseline communist’ metaphor trades on an intuition of fairness that emphatically does not involve measurement.”

Our disagreement is here, js. You think if there isn’t actual measurement, it can’t be exchange, hence can’t be reciprocity. I think that’s too narrow. I admit the notion of a ‘rough’ exchange, hence ‘rough’ reciprocity. The case of the scales of justice is even looser, so I would be curious what you think about it. Regarding justice people have a sense of fairness as balance – everyone getting ‘paid out’ what they are due – but no one knows what the currency is, even. My overall claim is really rather weak, since all I am claiming, re: the Marxist slogan is that a certain rhetoric of reciprocity attaches to it, by design. To make it more appealing.

If your argument against that is that it isn’t exchange unless it’s exact, hence there can’t be any appeal to exchange, unless it’s exact exchange, then I think that’s just wrong. The appeal of the scale of justice, as a symbol, in the absence of any plausible ‘exact’ exchange, refutes your view.

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Peter T 02.21.15 at 2:56 am

JH: I think you just conceded.

Relevantly, John Levi Martin in Social Structures makes the point (with maths) that nested hierarchy is the only base social form that scales beyond small numbers.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 3:05 am

“JH: I think you just conceded.”

If we all agree that what I just said in 156-7 is right, I’m happy to pretend that I was dragged, kicking and screaming to this position, if it will serve the greater good of social harmony and mutuality!

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js. 02.21.15 at 3:08 am

I think if there isn’t the possibility of measurement, then it’s not exchange. And I don’t think the notion of measurement makes any sense in relation to the “baseline communist” slogan. Still thinking through your response to Phil, tho.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 3:11 am

“I think if there isn’t the possibility of measurement, then it’s not exchange.”

Ah, I think that’s too narrow.

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TM 02.21.15 at 3:36 am

Peter 155: “After reading 151, I incline to the view that John Holbo is trolling.”

Way to win the argument John! But go ahead and tell everybody that I came around to your view. If it’s so important to you, don’t forget to tell that to JHW, Chris Armstrong, Francis Spufford, engels, Minnow. I guess I should be flattered that I’m getting all the troll attention but they all said pretty much the same thing as I did.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 3:38 am

“But go ahead and tell everybody that I came around to your view.”

As long as we are all in agreement, I am happy to bow down in defeat before the victors.

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TM 02.21.15 at 3:51 am

Re 156: Here’s a hint. The definition of reciprocity you used in the OP and repeated several times is: “everyone puts in, and gets out, not just approximately but exactly the same” . Your words, and yours only John.

Now in 156 you quote a completely different definition from wikipedia (which is actually closer to mutualism). So which definition is right? I personally lean more to the second but that’s beside the point. The point is, most of the disagreement refers to your original definition. If you you changed your mind about that definition, you would have to start from scratch and rewrite your OP. And perhaps admit that you wasted our time. Btw since the OP is really concerned with Graeber (whom I haven’t read), I think you would have to either use or critique his definitions but what you can’t do is claim that he makes no sense because when you change his definitions, something weird happens.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 4:08 am

TM,

“The definition of reciprocity you used in the OP and repeated several times is: “everyone puts in, and gets out, not just approximately but exactly the same” . Your words, and yours only John.”

Yes, and I stand by them. The formula implies equal pay-in and pay-outs and a unit of account. That’s pretty exact. Of course it doesn’t really make sense. Like the scales of justice. We like to think that everyone is being paid what they are due, exactly. That’s what scales are for. Exact balancing for exchange purposes. But we don’t really have a concept of what this currency of justice is.

“Now in 156 you quote a completely different definition from wikipedia (which is actually closer to mutualism).”

Sweet social norms on a stick, TM! if you really think that you are being trolled, not just by me, but by Wikipedia, then I give up.

OK, I can’t bring myself to give up! Let’s try again: if you think the Wikipedia entry for ‘reciprocity’ describes not reciprocity, but mutualism, then do you see what a serious semantic problem we have?

For the record here’s the link to the entry I quoted:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reciprocity_%28social_psychology%29

Since I am really trying to emphasize agreement here, not disagreement, will you at least admit this? If you think that the Wikipedia entry for ‘reciprocity’ describes, not reciprocity, but mutualism, will you at least admit that it seems people have trouble distinguishing the two. (You can insist that you are right and Holbo and Wikipedia are just trolling. But at least admit that the reason we are trolling is that we are suffering from serious confusion. It can’t seriously be that we are trolling just to infuriate you, personally. I could be doing that. I wouldn’t put it past me. But not Wikipedia. Right?)

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Consumatopia 02.21.15 at 4:12 am

I admit to some confusion here (and not rhetorical confusion, but genuine confusion I had before reading this thread) as to whether reciprocity refers to equality between what I give and what I get, or does it also imply conditionality–that what I get equals what I give because I will only be given what I choose to give.

Is it reciprocity whenever the scales balance, for whatever reason they balance? Does it matter whether everyone is sharing everything because Stalin said he would kill us if we didn’t, because Peter Singer convinced us all to stop us from being greedy and lazy, or because we’re afraid that people will stop sharing with us if we stop sharing with them? The “Ethic of Reciprocity” suggests that all of these are reciprocity. But terms like “reciprocal altruism” from evolutionary biology suggest that only the last reason represents an instance of reciprocity. In fact, even that “reciprocity in social psychology” bit from Wikipedia actually looks more like the conditional form of reciprocity–people respond to good with good, so if they see no good, they do no good.

So if Graeber is defining reciprocity narrowly, is that because he’s insisting on a stricter equality (or perhaps that individuals decide for themselves whether what they’re getting is worth what they’re giving) or because he’s insisting on conditionality rather than just equality?

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 4:30 am

Consumatopia asks good questions, and this relates back to good criticisms of my post that Peter Dornan made right at the start. The problem is that we are shifting between distinct senses of reciprocity. I admit that is a problem and I wish I could avoid being guilty of mixing is and ought, but I am honestly finding it hard to do.

Two points: the accent needs to be on description. We are trying to describe how people actually think. What they actually do and why. Oughts are getting mixed in only insofar as we are obliged to include descriptions of what people think about ought. What people think about ought is an is. Moving to point 2:

“Is it reciprocity whenever the scales balance, for whatever reason they balance?”

Go back to the water and bread cases. Suppose the people who run for the water are just thinking ‘someone needs water and I can get it’. That’s mutualism – or maybe just utilitarianism. But suppose when, later, bread is given to the needy former water-giver by the now rehydrated bread-getter, there is an aspect of repayment of a favor. ‘I have not forgotten when you brought water in my time of need, neighbor.’ Now, is the implication that the bread wouldn’t have been given now, UNLESS the water had been supplied earlier? No. It isn’t conditional like that. Still, it is nice to repay a favor. It is also nice to think that this whole business isn’t a balance of payment at all. But it can’t be both kinds of nice at once, can it?

“So if Graeber is defining reciprocity narrowly, is that because he’s insisting on a stricter equality (or perhaps that individuals decide for themselves whether what they’re getting is worth what they’re giving) or because he’s insisting on conditionality rather than just equality?”

The problem is that my sense is that Graeber’s motive for defining reciprocity narrowly is that he wants to make out that economists are maximally idiotic. This is fuel for his polemic. I don’t mind that, really, but I wouldn’t say it is the most theoretically rigorous moment in his treatment.

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Peter T 02.21.15 at 4:39 am

John

Isn’t Graeber just defining one of several possible forms of human cooperation as an ideal type before, as you acknowledge, that in empirical fact these are usually mixed? The clue with the water example is that you followed it with an “if”: if when bread is needed, those who receive water go to get it…But what if they don’t? What if someone says “now we need bread, everyone nods, and the most energetic and capable again go off, without any particular regard for whether they fetched water? That’s a large part of the way the housing coops I was in functioned. But not all the way. Usually some one or two were good at noticing what was needed and saying so (leadership, hierarchy), and if there were not enough volunteers there were some low-key appeals to reciprocity.

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js. 02.21.15 at 4:52 am

I’ll start with a concession, which is also a bit of a confession. I have puzzled and struggled through Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics on a _lot_ of occasions. And that shit about retributive justice and getting everything back in measure—it just makes no sense to me. I mean, I can get with a really abstracted notion of “balance” in terms of which justice is cashed out, but both the scales of justice image and Aristotle seem to be after something much more, I don’t know, quantitative seeming. And when Aristotle is on about something I just don’t get, I don’t hold it against Aristotle, I hold it against me. All of which by way of saying, there’s clearly a widely-felt intuition re justice-fairness-equality of measure, which I simply don’t share.

That said, I’m not really sure how much this is helping your case either. Two (related) points:

(1) I don’t think the ‘rough’ vs. ‘exact’ exchange is helping at all. It makes sense of speak of ‘rough’ exchange or rough measurements when, e.g., our tools aren’t up to the task of delivering precise measurements. It doesn’t make any sense to talk of rough exchange if the other person is arguing that the things in question are incommensurable. Which is what I was, and am, saying.

(2) More importantly, the rough exchange business makes a total hash of the intuition behind Aristotelian/scales of justice conception. Look, it’s not as if what you need for justice is to get the scales kinda sorta close to even. That seems like a total miscarriage of justice. If you buy this model at all, then you need get the scales well fucking even! Aristotle’s on about this at length—you need to get the measures perfectly back in balance for justice. Now again, you need to cash out what perfect balance or equality amounts to given that you’re dealing with not obviously commensurable quantities, but that the balance needs to be perfect and not simply some rough approximation can’t possibly be in dispute.

So it seems to me that if you want to go this fairness implies reciprocity implies exchange route, and use the scales of justice as a metaphor, then you really can’t stop short of measurement. The kind of notion of reciprocity you want makes no sense without it. (And talking about rough reciprocity just seems to be confusing things rather than helping.)

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 4:58 am

Yeah. Aristotle. Confusing. Let’s agree to agree about that. I have to do something else this afternoon so that’s all I have time for at the moment. I’ll be back later.

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John Holbo 02.21.15 at 5:05 am

Peter T: “Isn’t Graeber just defining one of several possible forms of human cooperation as an ideal type.”

Yes, my point was pretty much that, if you want to articulate an ideal type, it’s a bit weird that the best you can do is a rhetorical mix.

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js. 02.21.15 at 5:20 am

Still, it is nice to repay a favor. It is also nice to think that this whole business isn’t a balance of payment at all. But it can’t be both kinds of nice at once, can it?

This to me seems like an equivocation on ‘pay’/’payment’. If you take the idea of a favor seriously, I think it can be both kinds of nice at once. I point this out because I think it’s related to some of the other difficulties I’m having with your position, but I’ll have to think about that some more.

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Phil 02.21.15 at 3:17 pm

It says everyone pays in the same, according to a scale of ability, and gets out the same, according to a scale of need. That no one really understands such a ‘scale’, on reflection, is neither here nor there.

JH – we’re agreed that, in real social interactions, people work on a sliding scale between “things are OK if everyone puts in what they can and gets what they want” and “things are OK if everyone puts in and gets equal measurable amounts”, so that’s progress. What continues to baffle me is why you want to call both these things the same name. As I said above, the argument seems to boil down to “yes, but if you use these words this discussion gets much more confusing!”.

Here’s a thought: what if the home of reciprocity is the exchange between two strangers (who don’t share longer-term goals and don’t have any reason to trust each other), while the home of ‘baseline communism’ is the group operating as a group. The difference between the two is then in the (elided!) nouns – reciprocity says ‘Each [independent individual] gets the same value [from the other individual] for what s/he puts in [as individual 2 gets from him/her]’; BC says ‘from each [member of the group] [to the group] according to his/her abilities, to each [member of the group] [from the group] according to his/her needs’. Which would also clarify the code-switching that goes on. BC works when everyone acts as part of a group: when one person defects the other members of the group can reasonably start treating him/her as an independent individual, to be dealt with through norms of distrust and reciprocity. Conversely, reciprocity works when everyone’s out for their own ends; when people feel they’re part of a group with its own overriding purpose (e.g. for everyone to have a good night out), people can go up the scale to BC.

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Mdc 02.21.15 at 5:57 pm

I’ve been thinking about cases of mutually beneficial, shared activities that involve reciprocity, and ideals of balance, BUT in which there aren’t really issues of fairness (or exchange). We might accuse someone of ‘not pulling their weight’ in a conversation (cf appeals to the ideal of ‘classroom citizenship’), but by doing so, they haven’t shifted a burden unfairly onto someone else. Rather, they’ve made the cooperative, reciprocal activity more difficult, or even impossible. Or what about a musical ensemble? The member who doesn’t learn their part is throwing things out of balance, but not in a way that can even in principle be made up for by another member. (If the tenor is screwing things up and spoiling the piece for everyone, there’s nothing the alto can do to make up the difference.)

In these cases, ‘doing one’s part’ makes sense, but I’m not sure justice or even fairness is in play. Also not sure if economic relations ever play out on this model. Friendship does. Maybe family life does, sometimes.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 2:33 am

“What continues to baffle me is why you want to call both these things the same name. As I said above, the argument seems to boil down to “yes, but if you use these words this discussion gets much more confusing!”.”

I’m not hoping to be able to call two different things by the same name, for maximum chaos. I think I’m pointing out how two different names, despite the fact that they seem to pick out different things, in some abstract, Platonic sense, nevertheless can’t be used clearly, because it’s not clear which things we’ve got, in practice.

“Here’s a thought: what if the home of reciprocity is the exchange between two strangers (who don’t share longer-term goals and don’t have any reason to trust each other), while the home of ‘baseline communism’ is the group operating as a group.”

This seems to me to be a coherent but empirically falsified hypothesis. The basic problem is that reciprocity is clearly at the root of many group dynamics. Groups hold together not just because of BC but because of ties of reciprocity, knitting the group together. Also, it isn’t the case that reciprocity is a distinguishing characteristic of relationships between strangers. Hostility or non-relation is an equally common thing to find. I think you are conflating reciprocity with exchange between strangers. That seems to me to reduce reciprocity to a case that is really not a central case, let along a paradigm case.

Let me try once more. Let me go to a three-term puzzle, which may make things worse. But there’s always hope.

Exchange – Reciprocity – Baseline Communism (BC)

It’s pretty clear how exchange and BC are different. If things are being negotiated in an open market, especially if they are being mediated by some form of money – currency – we don’t have BC.

The puzzle is that the middle term – reciprocity – has a tendency to expand to the point where we get an inconsistency. Reciprocity = exchange. And BC = reciprocity. Here ‘=’ doesn’t indicate identity, per se, but more like: these things are so close, and are always together, so honestly I’m not sure which I’m dealing with in any given case.

But exchange does not = BC. (Maybe this is why TM thinks I – and the Wikipedia entry for ‘reciprocity’ – are just trolling him. This inconsistency just seems like someone is playing games. But, so far as I can see, the puzzle is real.)

Let’s take the two alleged equations one-by-one. Why would reciprocity = exchange? On the one hand, surely not. No textbook on economics, or money, is going to start with the formula for reciprocity. “Responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions.” That’s not even close to a schema for a market. (Partly this is because, honestly, the Wikipedia formula ain’t great. Reciprocity can be negative as well as positive. This gets dealt with a bit further on in the Wiki entry, but it’s still hardly a model entry. But that’s not the problem.) And yet, when humans develop a vocabulary for describing their reciprocity-based relationships, they seemingly inevitably money-fy it. Paying back favors. An eye for an eye. Debt and credit. Justice is reciprocity is equal exchange. This is not a minor or incidental phenomenon.

We see something parallel on the other side. Obviously mutualism is not supposed to be the same as reciprocity. But, as phrases like ‘from each … to each’ go to show, it’s hard to separate the two. As the bread and water example shows, we sort of want 1) that there be no system of payments here, because it’s nice if people just help each other; 2) it’s nice to repay favors.

So exchange and reciprocity get mixed up; mutualism and reciprocity get mixed up. I’m not doing the mixing. I’m describing a really tendency, by human beings who are not me, to mix these things up. I don’t conclude therefore that everything is reciprocity, much less that the free market equals communism because everything is reciprocity. But I am having trouble clearly distinguishing three things that do seem distinct, because reciprocity does have a tendency to spread over all.

Graeber – not that he’s the point here: he’s just an occasion for me to think this through – goes in the wrong direction. He tries to reduce reciprocity to exchange. He wants to say you’ve only got reciprocity when you’ve got money, or pretty near. But that seems to me wrong.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 2:54 am

Mdc writes: “We might accuse someone of ‘not pulling their weight’ in a conversation (cf appeals to the ideal of ‘classroom citizenship’), but by doing so, they haven’t shifted a burden unfairly onto someone else.”

I don’t think we do accuse people of not pulling their weight in conversation. In the post I joked that this is because it’s communism. Actually I think it’s hierarchy. Everyone likes to hear themselves talk, on average, so they don’t mind quiet people. (We commenters would not dream of accusing the lurkers out there of being shirkers!)

But if it’s something like groupwork in class, we do – or may – think that the student who just sits back, letting others do the talking, is slacking; is violating some ethic of reciprocity. He is benefiting, without putting in.

My daughter hates groupwork in school because she thinks it is unfair. She thinks she – and a few others – do all the work and the stupid boys in her group, who just sit there playing games on their phones, are freeriders. They get the same group mark as those students who did all the work.

Music? It’s funny. It’s about results, obviously. But also hierarchy. And reciprocity. And problematic fellow musicians.

I think this video pretty much says it all:

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Peter T 02.22.15 at 7:42 am

JH

It’s all mixed up. But the Good Samaritan was not looking for a reward, and the point of the parable is not that you should do good because what goes around will come around, but that you should just do good (random kindness and pointless acts of beauty). Do people actually do this? Yes, lots. In families, at small parties, when getting together to make music or in other crafts, very often they do it really intensely when the times are hardest (bands of brothers: greater love hath no man…). But when we start thinking about it, this disappears from view. Because the very nature of the motive precludes explanation: they did it just because! So we reach for reciprocity, or exchange, or hierarchy. Because these explain things. But it’s there nonetheless.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 9:00 am

Well, this conversation feels like it’s winding down. One last complication, in case we don’t have enough. We shouldn’t identify the pure motive to ‘do good’ with baseline communism or mutualism. The former is not a manifestation of tribalism, whereas the latter, plausibly, is.

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Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 1:21 pm

I think you’ve finally gotten around to the core of my point: Communal arrangements don’t scale, and communism is not communal arrangements writ large for precisely this reason. It can’t be communal relations writ large, because communal relations work best when they’re voluntary, and people do not voluntarily engage in communal relations except in small groups where everybody loves each other, or share some other over-riding common goal.

Because of this, communism, as distinct from communal relations, always requires massive levels of coercion. Always. And referring to the small scale communal relations of the family as “communism” is just an effort to obscure this, and pretend you could have a communism which wasn’t a horror.

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armando 02.22.15 at 1:41 pm

Brett: Isn’t that an argument against positive change ever being possible? That is, before the advent of democracy, your argument would demonstrate that democracy would have been *impossible*.

Is this why libertarians always like to refer to a fictional idyllic past that never existed? Because they simply don’t believe that any new social arrangements can ever be produced?

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 2:07 pm

“And referring to the small scale communal relations of the family as “communism” is just an effort to obscure this”

How so? I mean: what makes you think I’m trying to obscure this?

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 2:12 pm

I will point out that it is very polite of me to be talking to you, Brett, since you are, by clear implication, an apologist for communist genocide, per upthread. I know you didn’t mean it, but you implied it. And no one else said or implied anything of the sort in this thread. Just you. Given that you are a bit in the hole, then, when it comes to obscuring the dangers of communism with sloppy talk, I think you – of all people – should not be the first to accuse other people of being apologists for communist genocide. Make sense?

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Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 2:15 pm

No, that’s not an argument against positive change being possible, just against the idea that trying to extend a particular type of relationship that only works on a small scale to a whole society could ever work.

It isn’t an accident that communism keeps ending up at the gulag. It’s inherent in the mismatch between communism and human nature, which is huge. We should accept this, and move on, not keep trying something doomed to terrifying failures.

There’s going to be some mismatch between any system for organizing large scale society and human nature, because humans did not evolve in large scale societies. The best you can do is minimize the mismatch, and provide mechanisms for reducing the negative consequences of it.

Democracy is such a mechanism. Not a phenomenally successful mechanism, but coupled with constitutionally limited government, it’s the best mechanism we’ve found so far, because to a significant extent it works with human nature, not against it. It’s biggest problem is really just the tendency for people to try to defeat the limits, not realizing how important they are. (Damn fuses keep blowing, let’s get rid of them!)

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Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 2:17 pm

John, I already responded to your silly pretense that I was an apologist for what I explicitly attacked.

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Phil D. 02.22.15 at 2:28 pm

I wonder about anybody who can pleasantly, academically, discuss an ideology that keeps ending up with mass murder. I mean, you guys are no particular threat to anybody so long as you don’t attempt practical applications, but, still.

The application to Second Amendment absolutism is left as an exercise for the reader.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 2:31 pm

Nevertheless, Brett, you are the only person in this thread who has said or implied that genocide is ok. I know you didn’t mean it. But, given that you are the only person who implied anything of the sort, doesn’t it seem a bit rude to get on your high horse, accusing other people of this thing: namely, using language in a careless way that implies this horrible thing is ok? Who else is guilty of it in this thread besides you?

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Phil D. 02.22.15 at 2:33 pm

I mean it’s not exactly a secret that you’ve explicitly said that the occasional pile of two dozen dead schoolchildren is simply the cost of doing business. Oh, you’ll make the infrequent feint towards, “Maybe something about mental health but we shouldn’t actually DO anything because OMG coercion,” and also the patently stupid idea of changing things from a slaughter to a shootout by amateurs with children in the crossfire. But still.

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Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 2:43 pm

“Brett, you are the only person in this thread who has said or implied that genocide is ok.”

I’d be interested in you producing that quote.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 2:50 pm

Certainly. Comment 101:

“Communism is that sort of idea. Not because communal arrangements don’t sorta work on a very small scale.”

That is, you admit that communism sometimes works ok on a small scale. But you also believe that communism is “an ideology that, literally, piles up skulls?”

That is, you believe that something that sometimes works ok is an ideology of piling up skulls. QED you believe that sometimes piling up the skulls, genocidally, on ideological grounds, is ok.

Now obviously you don’t mean it. You are only saying it because you are an especially careless person when it comes to using the word ‘communism’. But, that being the case, would you please leave off accusing other people of being careless about the word ‘communism’ in ways that open the door to genocide. You are literally the only person in this thread careless enough to do that. So cut it out. Both with the implying and also with the implying that other people are implying.

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parse 02.22.15 at 4:14 pm

A set of scales is a symbol of exchange, hence reciprocity, balance.

I think a set of scales is a symbol of measurement rather than exchange. They are often used to facilitate exchange, in order to determine that each side is getting or giving what they are supposed to be getting, But they are also useful in a context when there is no exchange; you weigh the ingredients in a recipe.

As several people have pointed out, it’s hard to imagine how a set of scales would demonstrate that the sides in “from each/abilities” to “to each/need” was in balance.

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Phil 02.22.15 at 4:15 pm

Groups hold together not just because of BC but because of ties of reciprocity, knitting the group together. Also, it isn’t the case that reciprocity is a distinguishing characteristic of relationships between strangers. Hostility or non-relation is an equally common thing to find.

On the last point, where there’s no relationship (or a hostile one) between two strangers, there’s nothing much to talk about. As for groups holding together because of ties of reciprocity – between whom and whom? If one party is ‘the group of which the individual is a member’, that strikes me as a very different relationship from the reciprocity which may obtain between two individuals – so different that it deserves a different name.

Let me go to a three-term puzzle, which may make things worse. But there’s always hope.

Exchange – Reciprocity – Baseline Communism (BC)

OK. Graeber, whom you started with, had something called ‘reciprocity’ (with exchange-like features), something called ‘baseline communism’ and something called ‘hierarchy’, and, er, that’s it; he didn’t concern himself with the difference between exchange and reciprocity, and it could be argued that he didn’t need to, as long as he defined his terms distinctly enough from one another (which AFAICS he did).

Is your argument that Graeber was actually talking about exchange, and that real-world reciprocity is a hybrid beast that shades off into exchange on one side and BC on the other? If so I’d heartily agree, as it’s the point I’ve been making (albeit without using the same nouns).

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Anon 02.22.15 at 4:28 pm

What is at stake in insisting on the similarity of communism to reciprocity? I grant a general similarity, but why not instead focus on the difference?

My first thought was: maybe some want to include reciprocity in communism for practical reasons, if it’s to be possible at all. But now I think it may, for Holbo, be primarily about preserving the idea of communism as fair. I want to press this. I’ve admitted it’s about fairness in the sense of justice.

But I really think it’s more accurate to say: communism is in part a claim that justice is simply not about fairness in any sense, full stop.

Fairness is parasitic on conditions of scarcity. It is only given a limited resource that I can speak about distribution in this way. But the premise of communism is the commandeering of superfluous wealth, productive power that ends scarcity. It’s premise is that communism becomes possible precisely where fairness becomes irrelevant.

This is the deeps-seated realism of communism. It is the liberal or the conservative who–despite their claims that communism is too “idealistic”–whine “it’s not fair! I won fair and square! I tried harder!” The communist says, “Life’s not fair, fortunately. Get over it. There’s plenty to go around.”

So, to take one example of communism’s supposed reciprocity: everyone puts in the same “effort”, even if they have unequal ability.

I’d insist no. In principle, communism provides for all needs regardless of effort. It’s just not about fairness *at all.*

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engels 02.22.15 at 4:38 pm

Nice work, Brett. There was a small but still worrying risk of a substantive discussion of communism getting started here, but fortunately you averted it. Well done.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 5:03 pm

“OK. Graeber, whom you started with, had something called ‘reciprocity’ (with exchange-like features), something called ‘baseline communism’ and something called ‘hierarchy’, and, er, that’s it;”

He has something called ‘exchange’ (with reciprocity-like features), plus BC and hierarchy. That is, he plays down forms of reciprocity that are less clearly exchange like (money-like). He thinks of exchange as being a matter of exchanges that can be squared away. Debts that can, in principle, be paid. But a lot of reciprocity isn’t really like that. Basically, I think his emphasis on exchange, rather than reciprocity, introduces an artificial clarity in to his discussion which evaporates if one switches to reciprocity, as the key term, rather than exchange.

“What is at stake in insisting on the similarity of communism to reciprocity? I grant a general similarity, but why not instead focus on the difference?”

I think it was just that I was struck by the way Graeber was emphasizing the difference. The first time I went through his stuff it sounded rather ok to me. But the second time through I was suddenly more inclined to push back: what if we focus on the similarity here, rather than just hammering on about the difference? So I may be guilty of leaning too far to one side, because I was sort of overcompensating for a perceived lean in the other direction by Graeber.

As to the fairness of communism: I grant that modern revolutionaries – Marxist-Leninists, say – have always made a great show of rejecting bourgeois notions of fairness. But they have always had their own notion of what fairness properly is. I think Lenin thought that life, under communism, would be more fair. (Lenin, by the way, is totally confused on this point. Not just about the practical difficulties. But also about what he is asking for. He thinks he’s against fairness, because he’s against bourgeois morality, but he misses that there is such a thing as believing in fairness without buying into the sort of bourgeois morality he rejects.)

But more fundamentally, we aren’t talking theoretical Marxist-Leninism here, or any of that. Anon writes: “But the premise of communism is the commandeering of superfluous wealth, productive power that ends scarcity. It’s premise is that communism becomes possible precisely where fairness becomes irrelevant.” No, this is waaaay to theoretical and tied to modern revolutionary thinking to be identified with what we are talking about.

We are talking about BC – baseline communism. Marx isn’t about that, although Marx dreams of a world in which the baseline for communism is a lot stronger, to put it mildly. We are talking about smaller, more local phenomena. We are talking about things that actually exist now, not that might exist, post-scarcity and all that. And I think that, indeed, people think of all the little gestures of human mutualism Graeber has in mind as basically ‘fair’. Is it ‘fair’ if everyone helps little old ladies across the road, when they are in need? Not the first word you’d pick to describe it. But it’s more ‘fair’ than the alternative. Ditto for everyone pitching in on camping trips. And that is one of its attractive features.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 5:03 pm

I’m going to bed.

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mdc 02.22.15 at 5:20 pm

JH, doesn’t Socrates blame Meno for not holding up his end of the conversation? That’s the sort of thing I’m thinking of. Or, we might blame a troll for ruining our cooperative inquiry by bad faith derailing.

Re: groupwork- “He is benefiting, without putting in.”- I’d say that in group discussion, the slacker isn’t benefiting, especially if you abstract from the extrinsic factor of the grade. Still, he isn’t reciprocating. Which is bad, without being unfair?

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geo 02.22.15 at 6:02 pm

Brett@183: [T]rying to extend a particular type of relationship that only works on a small scale to a whole society could [never] work. … There’s going to be some mismatch between any system for organizing large scale society and human nature, because humans did not evolve in large scale societies. The best you can do is minimize the mismatch, and provide mechanisms for reducing the negative consequences of it.

Must disagree with my respected fellow leftists: I think Brett has here articulated the most plausible objection against communism with much cogency. The question for us is precisely, as he says, how to scale up the generosity, trust, forbearance, etc that sometimes characterize families or small voluntary communities to much larger societies. Of course his usefulness turns into mischievousness when he stubbornly exists that this will “never” be possible, even though large societies have only existed for a few centuries and we have (barring nuclear or environmental catastrophe) countless millennia ahead. But his skepticism is bracing.

His reference to evolution and “human nature” is kind of threadbare. There’s a lot of work on altruism currently going on among evolutionary biologists and others (eg, Samuel Bowles) that seems to leave the question of how it evolved and how far it can scale wide open at the moment. Equally important, there’s culture. Gene-culture interaction is another wide-open field of theoretical inquiry at the moment.

Besides, you don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to see that vast changes in social life and moral psychology have occurred over the course of modernity. Social/cultural evolution, for better and worse, is obvious. Patterns of literacy, sexuality, consumption, exchange, geographical mobility, and many other things have changed drastically. The idea that we’ll always be as mistrustful of everyone beyond our kin group as Paleolithic tribespeople or contemporary libertarians is, to put it mildly, a large and invidious assumption.

So how do we scale up solidarity? I don’t see any other way than the tried-and-true gradualist methods of persuasion, organization, and nonviolent resistance. Information technology, to the extent it doesn’t idiotize us, can be a great help; and other kinds of technology, democratically controlled, can greatly reduce the scarcity that makes conflict and possessive individualism seem inevitable.

Brett is right about one thing: it’s not going to happen soon. But to write off all possibility of significant moral progress forever because human nature is willfully obtuse.

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Anon 02.22.15 at 6:03 pm

“We are talking about BC – baseline communism. Marx isn’t about that”

Then it’s misleading to focus on “from each according to ability”–since the entire purpose of that quote is to raise the bar of what counts as communism. (Marx *is* about that, he just disagrees with other socialists about it.) So, if by BC you mean: the minimal necessary condition of calling something communist in a sense that would include most historical theories of socialism, then I’m happy to say it’s reciprocity.

And then you’re right to find it hard to keep exchange, reciprocity, and BC straight. For the very simple reason that they belong in the same category. Because they’re not, as Marx would say, really communism. Or, if you prefer, because they are all reciprocity-based social systems in contrast to Marxian communism which is post-reciprocity society.

This relates to the question about the family (or Cohen’s camping trip) as analog of communism. Surely not for Marxian communism, which is a victory of technology over natural community, not an expansion of natural community to the universal level. Natural community is a symptom of scarcity, an efficient distribution of labor and resources necessitated by survival. This is the great irony: the anti-communist complains that family-style socialism only works on the small scale, and Marx agrees! If we define communal socialism as communism, then Marx is an anti-communist!

But 1) why define “baseline” communism to include socialism when the major theorist of communism defines it *against* socialism? And 2) if we define it so, why focus on Marx’s language (“from each”) and on his narrower version (“according to ability” vs “according to labor”)?

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geo 02.22.15 at 6:04 pm

Sorry: “stubbornly insists …”

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Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 6:10 pm

“Nice work, Brett. There was a small but still worrying risk of a substantive discussion of communism getting started here, but fortunately you averted it. Well done.”

Substantive discussions of communism should, properly, start with discussion of mass murder, and end there. We do not hold substantive discussions about how to best implement cholera or the black death. No more should we hold substantive discussions about how to implement communism.

The horror of communism is that too many people manage to convince themselves that the idea can be redeemed. Think that you’re somehow derailing the conversation if you bring up inconvenient matters like genocide. Well, if that’s so, may we all hope such conversations are always derailed.

John Holbo, I wish I thought you were a moron. It would be charitable, but I can’t bring myself to think it. My apology for my failure to put that positive spin on your response.

As I summed up above, I do not consider small scale communal arrangements to be in any sensible way relevant to communism, because they are generally voluntary, and communism is uniformly not, and this is no accident.

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Ze Kraggash 02.22.15 at 6:15 pm

“Lenin, by the way, is totally confused on this point. Not just about the practical difficulties. But also about what he is asking for. He thinks he’s against fairness, because he’s against bourgeois morality, but he misses that there is such a thing as believing in fairness without buying into the sort of bourgeois morality he rejects.”

I think it’s exactly the opposite, Lenin is not confused, he’s exactly right.

This whole discussion – reciprocity, how much one contributes and how much one takes away – is suffering from being held within the bourgeois mindset: ‘how much am I going to have to pay for this’?

What you have to do, I think, is to move into a completely different plain, where the concept of ‘reciprocity’ simply doesn’t exist. At the minimum it’s very hard, perhaps impossible. But maybe it is possible, in one form or another. I used to know a hippie guy who had this kind of mentality.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.22.15 at 6:30 pm

I think that Anon @ 198 is substantially right. I tried to allude to this earlier, but got tired of it. Marx criticized other socialists quite a lot, and did not himself think that his ideas and theirs were all part of a general happy family of communalism. But if you take this seriously and say “OK, Marxism really is different” then it’s all about how we have to pick and choose from what we find valuable in Marx’ thought and not give up the name even though we’re giving up on whatever seemed rigorous about his ideas.

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mattski 02.22.15 at 7:03 pm

A fundamental aspect of human thought, at this stage in our evolution, is a kind of ‘selective memory.’ We systematically forget inconvenient, unflattering, unpleasant events. So our self-evaluations are often biased and faulty. When I think about my golf game I think about my *best* rounds, my *best* shots, etc. “That’s the sort of golfer I am!” I say to myself. So I wish.

I think a basic problem for utopianism is that it’s based on a similar selective memory of human capacity. True, humans can be extraordinarily generous & kind. But that isn’t the rule. At this stage of development we are mostly unanimous in insisting on the right either to give undesirables the boot from our camping clubs or the freedom to leave our club in search of a more congenial one.

Conjuring up social systems prematurely based on unrealistic assessments of our capacity is potentially harmful. The bridge made of spaghetti might not stand.

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Bruce Wilder 02.22.15 at 7:04 pm

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety . . .

Yeah, why don’t people quote that part more often?

It must be great to be an Hegelian!

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William Timberman 02.22.15 at 7:14 pm

geo @ 197

Brett’s a worthy enough adversary, with occasional moments of real clarity, but he does cherish his animosities, and as often as not they seem to goad him into saying amazingly stupid things. This, I think, is one of those occasions. Given the evidence of history, he can hardly be as confident as he claims that we’ll always be what we were meant to be, i.e. tribal, stingy, and murderous. Saying such things in this forum, of all places, sounds to me more like a plea for sympathy than a battle cry. Hard to tell, with all the martial trumpeting that accompanies it, but I think you’re right to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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engels 02.22.15 at 8:06 pm

Must disagree with my respected fellow leftists: I think Brett has here articulated the most plausible objection against communism with much cogency.

Supposing for the sake argument you are right, would it not perhaps be worthwhile just once to have a thread where people could discuss what communism is, without spending most of the discussion on the question of whether or not it ‘literally, piles up skulls’?

One of many examples of Brett’s ‘worthy’ inputs into setting the agenda on things red-related at CT: ahtread from 2003 about the ‘greatest Marxists’:
http://crookedtimber.org/2003/11/09/greatest-marxists-poll/

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Rich Puchalsky 02.22.15 at 8:31 pm

engels: “Supposing for the sake argument you are right, would it not perhaps be worthwhile just once to have a thread where people could discuss what communism is, without spending most of the discussion on the question of whether or not it ‘literally, piles up skulls’?”

Because leftists in the 20th century just didn’t do this enough. It must be Brett that’s stopping us from doing it now.

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Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 10:18 pm

If communism piles up skulls, how can you discuss what communism is, with discussing piling up skulls?

If communism piles up skills, why would you WANT to discuss it, in any other context but how to combat it? Would you like to have a similar discussion about fascism, in peace, without anybody bringing up the final solution and Auschwitz?

Morally speaking, I think that is about what you set out to do. Is realizing that beyond you?

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mattski 02.22.15 at 10:27 pm

If communism piles up skills

Wait, what?

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geo 02.22.15 at 10:50 pm

Re Brett@208: The fact that Brett occasionally says something sensible and useful doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t and shouldn’t ignore his many dumb and irrelevant comments, like this one.

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Robespierre 02.22.15 at 11:02 pm

I find it rather interesting that, here and in the dreaded pirate Roberts thread, different people are arguing against society-wide communism or stateless markets making basically the same point: people don’t cooperate in good faith except in very tiny groups.

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Peter T 02.22.15 at 11:20 pm

“people don’t cooperate in good faith except in very tiny groups”. I can’t speak for others, but my point is not that people don’t cooperate in good faith on larger scales, but that baseline communism – leaving it to each to decide how much and when they will put in (or take out) – does not permit production or exchange at larger scales, simply because it is too haphazard. The frequency of very early long-distance exchange, for instance, instances the ordinary-ness of good faith among quite large groups. And hierarchy is needed for larger scales. It’s not a question of good will, but of the degree of tolerance needed.

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Cranky Observer 02.22.15 at 11:26 pm

– – – – – Brett Bellmore 02.22.15 at 10:18 pm
Morally speaking, I think that is about what you set out to do – – – – –

A theory which apparently does not apply to Brett Bellmore’s strong advocacy of birtherism.

The loss of the RBC comments database was not a big thing in the scope of the world, but it did take away the ability to quote from 10 years of BB defending numerous morally indefensible hard right wing pet rocks. Mitt Romney as the victim in the physical abuse of a fellow high school student anyone? Brett Bellmore provided the argument. To take “pile of skulls” seriously from a person who defended the handgun fetish the day after Sandy Hook is not required.

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John Holbo 02.22.15 at 11:29 pm

The thread lives!

A few quick responses. Geo writes: “Must disagree with my respected fellow leftists: I think Brett has here articulated the most plausible objection against communism with much cogency.”

Sorry, I took it to be obvious, but maybe it needs saying: my problem with Brett’s objection to communism – i.e. that it doesn’t scale – is not that it’s wrong but that it is irrelevant. Go back to that link Jeremy posted at the start:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU

At a certain point there’s a slide about how mutualism is a possible human relationship. What Graeber calls ‘baseline communism’. If, when you see that slide, you think: ‘but this cannot be, because THE GULAG!’ you are a fool. Pinker’s slideshow is not an apology for Stalinism. Similarly, my post is not an apology for Stalinism. I have been raking Brett over the semantic coals because I do not appreciate because unjustly accused of apologizing for Stalinism, not because I regard it is likely that communism can scale up. I regard it as obvious that it can’t, for what it’s worth. (I’m sure Pinker agrees.)

“Then it’s misleading to focus on “from each according to ability”–since the entire purpose of that quote is to raise the bar of what counts as communism.”

Ah, I was very explicit about this but I’ll say it again. You can say that the entire purpose of the quote is to point towards some post-scarcity Utopia, but Graeber’s purpose is to use it for a different entire purposes entirely. Which I think is fair enough. He thinks it’s important that BC exists now, on a small-scale all over the place. Obviously you cannot conjoin ‘BC exists now’ with ‘BC requires post-scarcity utopianism to have been realized’. You are backing into absurdities as bad as Brett’s, although yours contain fewer piles of skulls!

As I say upthread, it is obviously cheeky of Graeber to use the term ‘communism’, where a term like ‘mutualism’ might have not caused Brett’s head to asplode or anon to get confused; and it is cheeky to use the revolutionary slogan to describe what Graeber takes to be actually existing relations. Nevertheless, his point – rightly or wrongly – is to assert that a relation that we think of as somewhere over the Marxist-Leninist rainbow exists right now, in small ways. That point is right or wrong. Argue as you like. But understand that this IS his point, narrowly. He thinks we have a tendency not to see the reality of ‘baseline communism’ because we associate it with Marxist revolution.

(Obviously Graeber is also an anarchist, so some kind of revolutionary. But that’s separate.)

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engels 02.22.15 at 11:52 pm

Yes, Brett, and equally it’s morally reprehensible to attempt a theoretical discussion of liberalism without mentioning the Great Depression, or a passage from the Bible without constantly shouting “Inquisition! Crusades! Paedophile priests!”

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engels 02.23.15 at 12:07 am

Mattski, communism isn’t based on the assumption that human beings are basically ‘generous and kind’.

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Ronan(rf) 02.23.15 at 12:09 am

I do think that Brett gets to the heart of the problem with communism though, that it completly skews individuals incentives (to concentrate and excel at a few specific, marketable area of competence ), and they just end up piling up skills.

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Brett Bellmore 02.23.15 at 1:05 am

“The loss of the RBC comments database was not a big thing in the scope of the world, but it did take away the ability to quote from 10 years of BB defending numerous morally indefensible hard right wing pet rocks.”

Cranky, you need to acquaint yourself with resources such as google cache and the wayback machine. Not everything Kleiman deleted is really lost, though a lot of it is.

And there are certainly enough contemporaneous blog comments from that time at other sites to establish quite clearly that I was never a “birther”, merely somebody who thought they deserved to lose in a court of law, not the editorial page of the NYT.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.23.15 at 1:17 am

Graeber’s set of principles “communism, exchange, hierarchy” sounds like a partial transmutation of Karl Polanyi’s three possible patterns,”redistribution, reciprocity, exchange”:

Reciprocity: “movement between correlative points of symmetrical groupings”
Redistribution: “appropriational movements toward a center and out of it again”
Exchange: “vice versa movements taking place as between hands under a market system”

They can exist “side by side on different levels and on different sectors of the economy.”

–Quotations from Trade and Market in the Early Empires, p. 250 (1957)

Polanyi defined these in an explicitly spatial or geometric way: redistribution depends upon “centricity”, reciprocity depends upon “symmetry”, and market exchange may occur between any two points whatsoever; it is atomistic and disembedded. Remember, Polanyi was attempting to defend his thesis that the economy had been determined in the past by social relations of symmetries and centricities: the economy had been embedded. The essence of The Great Transformation is that the economy is now completely disembedded from those old relations, by the market system.

Polanyi would have classified communism as a form of redistribution: if it requires centricity, i.e. goes into, then comes back out of, a center (e.g. a central government).

But what did Polanyi mean by reciprocity between symmetries? It is very specific, and covers a huge set of transactions reported in the ethnography. It is NOT gifting or communism.

Polanyi was thinking of symmetries like extended family lineages, which have the same structure, and therefore correlative points. A typical example of reciprocity is the “brideprice”, in which a marriage between two clans would cause the bride to pass into the groom’s lineage (in a patrilineal tribe), and the groom’s uncles would, in turn, present cattle to the bride’s uncles (and not to the bride’s parents. This example is from reports of the Nuer tribe.) The idea is that the cattle, a prized productive possession, are to compensate for her clan’s loss of her fertility. And this pattern is repeated throughout the tribe, at every marriage, so the cattle get around.

Dowry is another example, in societies where all the children of parents, i.e. both males and females, would receive a parental inheritance, so the bride’s inheritance is forwarded along with her, at the time of her marriage.

I think that a lot of economic anthropologists have adopted Polanyi’s typology of transactions, without understanding that “reciprocity” is a very specific idea. It is not communism.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.23.15 at 1:17 am

“it is cheeky to use the revolutionary slogan to describe what Graeber takes to be actually existing relations. Nevertheless, his point – rightly or wrongly – is to assert that a relation that we think of as somewhere over the Marxist-Leninist rainbow exists right now, in small ways.”

In other words, it’s meta-trolling. If someone said “hey, sometimes people get together and go on a camping trip where they share things”, fine. But first Graeber can describe this as “communism”, and then you can say “isn’t communism really a kind of reciprocal relationship?”

“(Obviously Graeber is also an anarchist, so some kind of revolutionary. But that’s separate.)”

Not all anarchists are revolutionaries. I have no idea whether Graeber is a revolutionary, but from how he talks about prefigurative politics, I’d guess that he isn’t.

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 1:27 am

“In other words, it’s meta-trolling.”

My sense of ‘trolling is narrower than yours in this regard, Rich. His use is intended to be provocative and, when he introduces it, he says it’s provocative, and how and why he thinks it’s important to provoke thought in this way. I think that’s not really trolling.

Basically, Graeber thinks people suffer from the confusion Brett suffers from AND that anon suffers from. To judge from this thread, he’s right. Of course, if his usage just pisses people off, rather than inducing them to recalibrate their notions, then maybe it’s just a loss. But I still don’t call his usage trolling. Just provocative, in an intellectually legit way.

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 1:29 am

“Not all anarchists are revolutionaries.”

Fair enough. Graeber is an activist, per his involvement with Occupy. That’s all I really know about his politics.

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Sebastian H 02.23.15 at 1:38 am

“As I say upthread, it is obviously cheeky of Graeber to use the term ‘communism’, where a term like ‘mutualism’ might have not caused Brett’s head to asplode or anon to get confused; and it is cheeky to use the revolutionary slogan to describe what Graeber takes to be actually existing relations. Nevertheless, his point – rightly or wrongly – is to assert that a relation that we think of as somewhere over the Marxist-Leninist rainbow exists right now, in small ways. “

He’s wrong. Mutualism isn’t particularly related to communism and neither is the family.

And if he wants to provoke a useful examination of the concept, calling it ‘communism’ is stupid. It isn’t cheeky. It is ‘preaching to the choir’ in absolutely every ugly sense of the fundamentalist Baptist metaphor. It involves knowing that your in group will think it cute. It involves knowing that it will strengthen your in group’s sense of persecution. It involves knowing that the out group will be annoyed or infuriated by it. It is exactly the opposite of trying to provoke thought for the in group (the choir is merely expected to say “AMEN”) and it isn’t even remotely trying to provoke thought for the out group.

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 1:39 am

““isn’t communism really a kind of reciprocal relationship?”

Ah, just to be clear, I never said (or asked) that. I pointed out that the slogan Graeber used, to distinguish communism from exchange – the Marxist ‘from each … to each’ – was, strictly, a kind of reciprocal formula of balance. My point was that this is telling. But I didn’t say it tells us that communism is literally just a form of reciprocity.

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Layman 02.23.15 at 1:55 am

“And there are certainly enough contemporaneous blog comments from that time at other sites to establish quite clearly that I was never a “birther”, merely somebody who thought they deserved to lose in a court of law, not the editorial page of the NYT.”

If a judge dismisses your case as frivolous, didn’t you ‘lose in a court of law’?

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 2:00 am

” It is ‘preaching to the choir’ in absolutely every ugly sense of the fundamentalist Baptist metaphor. It involves knowing that your in group will think it cute. It involves knowing that it will strengthen your in group’s sense of persecution. It involves knowing that the out group will be annoyed or infuriated by it.”

Look, Sebastian: I’m not part of Graeber’s in-group any more than you are. I’m not a communist or an anarchist. I’m a squishy liberal who puts way too much trust in institutions and markets and social forms that Graeber rather despises. From Graeber’s point of view, I’m the liberal enemy, I would guess. That’s fine. I can still try to assess his ideas, without my brain dissolving in annoyance or fury at the thought that he thinks I’m so wrong. If I can do it, you can do it.

“He’s wrong. Mutualism isn’t particularly related to communism and neither is the family.”

Look, it’s important not to underestimate the power of stipulation. If he uses ‘communism’ to mean mutualism, pretty much – which he seems to – then it is false that mutualism and communism aren’t particularly related. If you then want to emphasize that this sort of communism is no basis for Marxist dreams of utopia, fine. But allow the man to say ‘I’m going to use ‘communism’ to mean any sort of communalism or mutualism in which goods are held in common, and their distribution is not governed by exchange, reciprocity or hierarchy’. That is not a crazy usage, although it is cheeky. The question of whether there are such social forms is an interesting and open one. Don’t shut down investigation of an interesting question with a lot of irrelevant stuff about the Gulag.

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 2:01 am

I’ve got work to do so I’m off again for the next 12 hours or so.

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geo 02.23.15 at 2:07 am

JH@214: … not because I regard it is likely that communism can scale up. I regard it as obvious that it can’t, for what it’s worth …

Sorry, John, perhaps I haven’t been reading your comments as carefully as I should. Why do you regard it as obviously impossible that we might, even very gradually, “scale up the generosity, trust, forbearance, etc that sometimes characterize families or small voluntary communities to much larger societies,” as I put in @197?

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Lee A. Arnold 02.23.15 at 2:14 am

John, I think you are right. The problem for me is in distinguishing the three, “communism, exchange and hierarchy”. How would Graeber, or anyone, actuate communism? If it is through a central redistribution, then that is a one-step hierarchy. If there is a bureaucracy, it is probably more than one-step. If by “hierarchy” he means power-relation, then that also applies to “exchange”, if money is involved. And how would he categorize brideprice?

Perhaps Graeber wants to define them by the actuating intentionality: “communism” is offered to the need of the receiver; “hierarchy” demands tribute for the receiver; and”exchange” is a two-way swap between, a big catch-all category. Perhaps this is to establish the premises for the thesis of the psychological conditions of debt. It might lead somewhere, but I wish he had used different terms.

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 2:33 am

OK, a quick reply to Geo before I go: I basically think that the dynamics are different once you get into a situation in which everyone doesn’t pretty much know everyone else personally. In a small tribe or troop of 100 people, social forms are possible that don’t indefinitely scale up.

I shouldn’t have said, simply, that it’s obvious that it can’t work. What is obvious is only that there is a very substantial downside risk of catastrophic failure, per history. And there is game theory that goes with this. Tit-for-tat works way better than just giving stuff to anyone who asks. But I am an admirer of Peter Singer’s book, “The Expanding Circle”. I think it is important to see that, tribal as humans are, there really has been a slow ratchet up and out, with the sphere of moral concern expanding. That’s a good thing. Certain it isn’t nothing.

I tend to think that we humans are very tit-for-tat minded, morally, hence the best way to get us to think globally is not to overcome our tendency to think in terms of exchange and reciprocity but to work with it. Per upthread, and per the post, I tend to think that even the sorts of small-scale examples Graeber (and G.A. Cohen) likes should maybe be described in other terms. I’m a skeptic even about small-scale communism. But my objection is empirical, not moral. I don’t think it would be scandalous if there were small-scale communism, ergo there can’t be. That’s an illogical pattern of thinking that I diagnosed upthread, and that I disapprove (and that I see Graeber as, rightly, criticizing.)

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William Timberman 02.23.15 at 2:45 am

230 seems an appropriate hymn to conclude what has indeed been a confusing thread. As a recessional, may I suggest this:

http://youtu.be/Z_1LfT1MvzI?list=RDZ_1LfT1MvzI

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William Timberman 02.23.15 at 2:47 am

233

William Timberman 02.23.15 at 2:51 am

Well, I screwed that up. Twice, no less. Just imagine Billie Holiday singing God Bless the Child

234

mattski 02.23.15 at 5:35 am

William, William. How could you?

*engels, what do you think is holding communism back?

My .02: utopia (or as close as we’re going to get) will be born from practice, not theory.

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engels 02.23.15 at 9:12 am

Mattski, good point, but theory is a part of practice.

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engels 02.23.15 at 9:27 am

‘Not all anarchists are revolutionaries’

Serious question, Rich: in what sense are you am anarchist rather than a liberal?

Graeber on revolution:
http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/a-practical-utopians-guide-to-the-coming-collapse

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Brett Bellmore 02.23.15 at 10:28 am

“If a judge dismisses your case as frivolous, didn’t you ‘lose in a court of law’?”

If the judge sticks his fingers in his ears and goes “Neener, neener” when you start to argue your case, I suppose in some sense you “lose in a court of law”. It’s not the sense I meant.

I meant that they were entitled to have a hearing on the merits, and lose because Obama was, in fact, as demonstrated by the best available evidence, (Not just the evidence Obama felt like producing.) born in the US. And, as it happens, as soon as a judge actually scheduled a hearing on the merits, Obama contacted the Hawaian government, and the supposedly illegal to produce original birth certificate was produced.

If anything was frivolous, if was the several years Obama spent fighting the production of that document in court. Although I suspect it was only frivolous in the sense a red herring is frivolous; It did keep some fairly tenacious enemies focused on a topic where he knew they couldn’t find anything.

In any event I am not, and never have been a “birther”, and the people accusing me of that certainly know as much.

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Layman 02.23.15 at 12:16 pm

BB @ 237

This is the sort of disingenuous argument which makes conversing with you so difficult. You know quite well that it is the role of judges to dismiss actions they find frivolous; yet in this case you pretend it’s unusual or extraordinary while not bothering to explain why. Either you think every absurd claim should be heard, and every claimant has standing, or you think this claim was not absurd and this claimant had standing. Or there’s the middle case – you know the claim’s absurd, but you wanted it to go forward anyway because partisan mischief.

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engels 02.23.15 at 2:25 pm

John, just out of interest, would you also claim that Nozick’s alternative slogan ‘from each as they choose, to each as they are chosen’ expresses ‘reciprocity’? (Because that seems to me even more implausible than your argument above…)

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Brett Bellmore 02.23.15 at 2:52 pm

I don’t think it’s extraordinary for judges to dismiss frivolous actions, but I’m no fan of judges dismissing as “frivolous” actions they just don’t like. Which I think happens far too often.

The Birthers were unlikely to prevail, as it would have taken an implausible conspiracy for them to be right. But they were articulating a real cause of action, and whether they were right or not was a factual matter requiring evidence to determine.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.23.15 at 3:01 pm

engels: “Serious question, Rich: in what sense are you am anarchist rather than a liberal?”

Your ideology would make you unable to understand any serious answer I might give. But what makes you think that the linked article shows that Graeber is a revolutionary? He talks about revolutionary ideas sweeping the globe: so does everybody. What does he actually recommend doing in that article?

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engels 02.23.15 at 3:11 pm

David Graeber: The New Anarchists

It’s hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners…

Can Debt Spark a Revolution? by David Graeber

A revolution on a world scale will take a very long time. But it is also possible to recognize that it is already starting to happen. The easiest way to get our minds around it is to stop thinking about revolution as a thing — “the” revolution, the great cataclysmic break—and instead ask “what is revolutionary action?” …

David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

…etc

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Rich Puchalsky 02.23.15 at 3:22 pm

Whoa, lots more links. Since the same comment that I made that started this line of questioning mentioned prefigurative politics, you might think that I’m familiar with all this. I also link to a series of blog posts that I wrote about Occupy here all the time, to the point where I now treat such a link as a kind of joke: should I link to them again?

Graeber can call going out for a family picnic communism, he can also call the kind of activity that he recommends revolutionary if he wants to.

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engels 02.23.15 at 3:46 pm

You asked what Graeber recommends doing so I pointed you to some of his articles. If you’re ‘familiar with all this’ why did you ask? He is a revolutionary because he advocates revolution (albeit not in the straw-man ‘storming the Bastille’ sense you seen to have in mind).

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Rich Puchalsky 02.23.15 at 4:10 pm

I meant “What does he actually recommend doing in that article?” to be a rhetorical question.

You know, the “straw-man ‘storming the Bastille’ sense” is pretty much what people will understand you to be saying if you say you’re a revolutionary. Maybe 99% of the people will understand the word as having that meaning. Graeber is trying to redefine words: that’s appropriate to what he does as an ideologist. Other people may find that they prefer not to try to redefine words.

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Consumatopia 02.23.15 at 4:49 pm

“I basically think that the dynamics are different once you get into a situation in which everyone doesn’t pretty much know everyone else personally. In a small tribe or troop of 100 people, social forms are possible that don’t indefinitely scale up.”

I agree with you that there is some kind of “scale” issue here, but I don’t think it’s the number of people involved that’s the determining factor, because non-reciprocated actions involving entire nations or even humanity at large happen all the time. People vote despite the Voter’s Paradox. Sometimes they even vote for what they know will make them worse off. They (try to) help strangers who ask them for directions. They give to charity. They volunteer to treat dangerous infectious diseases. They risk their lives defending their country or resisting their government.

No one has yet succeeded in organizing a society on these motivations alone, but every society depends on them in some way. It’s more like there are two sets of constraints people put on the their society–people want to live in a society that they can be proud of, but they don’t want to taken advantage of as Stakhanovite slaves while others are shirking.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.23.15 at 5:24 pm

Here’s a somewhat more serious answer to engels’ question: in all my life as an adult I’ve been doing similar kinds of activities: making things intended to let people work communally (starting with a recycling center that produced real income that let people support themselves through college, and was run completely by us as students) and protesting the wholesale failures of larger society (such as by participating in anti-war demonstrations). Back when I was a liberal, tiresome people used to show up and tell us that we’d never get anywhere through these means: that we had to be revolutionaries and overthrow the government. Now that I’m an anarchist, it appears that tiresome people will show up to say that all of those demonstrations and so on are retrospectively declared to have caused a world revolution after all, and that only a liberal would fail to see that we’d been revolutionaries all along.

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cassander 02.23.15 at 8:17 pm

@John Holbo

The problem isn’t mutualism itself, but the belief that mutualism can be governed solely by mutualism. Mutualism works great in sub dunbar populations. Attempts to generalize it have tended to end poorly. The most vigorous of those attempts, marxism, led to gulags every single time it manged to get into power. Less vigorous attempts, like chavez’ venezuela, also have poor track records and tend fail in predictable ways.

Mutualism is great. I wish we could have it, but we can’t. In order to work it relies on social pressures that can’t be sustained outside relatively small groups of people. Unfortunately, industrial civilization requires people living together in large groups, and I am not willing to give up flush toilets and penicillin to get mutualism. Hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and criticizing in the evening sounds great, but it won’t keep your sewer system maintained.

Without mutualism, we have to rely on hierarchy and reciprocity. The great errors of the left (in general, I feel the essence of the divide between right and left is a debate of hierarchy vs. levelers) are to confuse reciprocity with hierarchy and to overlook the hierarchical nature of their mutualism enforcement mechanisms. They look at systems built by reciprocity, like corporations, and see only the hierarchy (there’s a boss), not the mutualism (the project team working together). Tearing down reciprocity, though, doesn’t produce more mutualism, because mutualism can’t work on a large scale. It just makes more hierarchy. Frankly, the best example of this is Marx. His dictatorship of the proletariat is the ultimate (both in the literal and colloquial sense) hierarchy, meant to reign supreme and violently destroy all other systems of hierarchy and establish socialism He excuses this hierarchy with the vain hope that this state will whither away. This is perhaps the greatest example of underpants gnome thinking in history, “step one: establish ultimate hierarchy, step 2: ?, step three: society free of all hierarchy.”

As to the word communist itself, I do think it should be jettisoned. There are a great many people in this world whose political views contain elements of nationalism and socialism. Since 1945, none call themselves national socialists, and very few fascists, to avoid any association at all with nazi germany. You see ardent fascists in China or Thailand spending the postwar period saying “Did we say fascist? Sorry, bad translation, we meant anti-communist democracy!”

Now, on some level, this is purely cynical posturing. But it also represents a (deserved) complete and utter rejection of nazi germany and its ideologies. People who were explicit devotees of fascism rejected the label post war. The crimes of the communist states were even more immense than those of nazi germany, but for a variety of reasons, the left seems unwilling to make a the same sort of categorical rejection of communism. No one says “Oh, I’m a nazi, but a strasserite, that was totally different” but people do say that they are trotskyites, bukharinites, etc. I do see this as problematical, not just morally, but it hurts your argument. By using the same name, you are willfully alienating a large number of people. I realize that communist is a useful moniker, but so is national socialist. You should drop it anyway.

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engels 02.23.15 at 8:46 pm

‘the left seems unwilling to make the same sort of categorical break with [C]ommunism’

Maybe it’s because despite years of unremitting right-wing propaganda they don’t see Communism and Nazism as equivalent? Just thinking out loud here

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anon 02.23.15 at 8:57 pm

The problem with taking Graeber’s incoherent, incorrect, and confused definition of communism seriously is that it forces us to mistake communism for its *opposite*. The model of communism is not nature but industrialism, not the family or the tribe or the camping trip but the factory. It is not, therefore, utopian: its model exists everywhere. Every factory, workplace, and multinational corporation is a parody of communism, a nightmare version, but a living, breathing version.

The post-reciprocal society is not a rainbow utopia, it exists. Every day 99% of human beings put more in than they get out. Every day in the western world, achieved socialist societies cynically called “capitalist” successfully redistribute their wealth, with the help of large scale, efficient, highly upscaled, regulated economies, to their ruling classes. Communism has no scale up problem. If anything it has a scale down problem.

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cassander 02.23.15 at 9:16 pm

doh. “that mutualism can be governed solely by mutualism” should read “that society can operate solely by mutualism”

@engels

>Maybe it’s because despite years of unremitting right-wing propaganda they don’t see Communism and Nazism as equivalent? Just thinking out loud here

And that’s precisely the problem. You don’t think communism is as bad, and you should. Whitaker Chambers was right, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were spies. Conquest was right that Stalin murdered more people than Hitler, and that his methods were not a perversion of Lenin, but the standard result of communist revolution. the Left needs to own up to its past, admit what it did, and hopefully, learn from it.

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Peter T 02.23.15 at 9:48 pm

The rest of us know that the US population has been conditioned over decades to think “gulag” when anyone says “communism”. This is not true elsewhere, so maybe thinking US people could stop projecting their conditioning into international discussions?

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John Holbo 02.23.15 at 11:24 pm

“The crimes of the communist states were even more immense than those of nazi germany, but for a variety of reasons, the left seems unwilling to make a the same sort of categorical rejection of communism.”

Well, I’ll test your own willingness to treat them in parallel. As you say mutualism is a great idea, but it doesn’t scale. I’ll buy that, as I’ve said. Ergo, communism is a beautiful dream, but it doesn’t scale. Do you say the same about fascism? That is, it’s a great idea, but you just can’t keep the dream alive at the level of all of Germany, or all of Europe? You say the views should be treated strictly in parallel, so this is your view?

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Layman 02.24.15 at 12:13 am

I’m surprised to read from cassander @ 248 that there are no more fascists:

“Now, on some level, this is purely cynical posturing. But it also represents a (deserved) complete and utter rejection of nazi germany and its ideologies. People who were explicit devotees of fascism rejected the label post war. “

Now, I suppose this may mean that there are fascists but they don’t use the word, because they’re bashful. But I recall quite clearly the antics of the MSI in Napoli in the 70s, when I lived there, and I assure you they are fascists, and call themselves that. There are fascist parties in most countries in Europe, and they’re achieving double-digit electoral results. So it doesn’t seem to me that people are too ashamed of fascism to espouse it.

In fact, I venture to guess that openly fascist parties are both more common and more popular than openly communist ones. Unless cassander thinks that Social Democratic parties are communists in hiding; in which case, what was the contrast between the two again?

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engels 02.24.15 at 12:17 am

‘You don’t think [C]ommunism is bad, and you should’

Nope- I think it was bad, but not comparable to Nazism (for the reason John states among others).

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 1:08 am

Let’s leave Cassander some space to decide whether he is prepared to launch a defense of the dream of fascism, and the viability of microfascism.

And let’s offer him an alternative avocation, should he prove hesitant to tread this lonely path.

Cassander, would you be willing to emend this statement –

“the Left needs to own up to its past, admit what it did, and hopefully, learn from it”

– for accuracy, to –

“The Right needs to own up to its past, admit what it did, and hopefully, learn from it”.

I speak only of the present moment, not for all time!

I don’t see a lot of evidence that the Left has blinders about the horrors of Stalinism, for example. I mean, as crypto-Stalinist apologetics go, this post sucks. Ergo, if your mission is to seek out such, and scourge it, and the best you can find is poor old me, it sucks to be you. (Am I right?)

On the other hand, the contemporary right is a target-rich environment, for those who aspire to deliver jeremiads of the form ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’. I would say the most paradigmatic conservative book of the past decade or so is Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”, the point of which is to feign that the horrors of a right-wing political phenomenon can be pinned entirely on the left. The idea that the right is free of any associations with anything bad is a bit of a conservative fixation, at present – and, frequently, through history.

You say Whitaker Chambers was right, but I don’t see a lot of people saying ‘Chambers Lied. The Rosenbergs died. Vote Hilary.’ Right? By contrast, the right-wing is currently up in arms about the very notion that the Crusades were a bad thing. Because the Crusades were Christian, and the right-wing is Christian. So if the Crusades were bad, that would mean the right-wing is associated with something bad and that is wrongthink thoughtcrime, right?

If you can find serious parallel examples on the left, I encourage you to go to town. If people apologize for Stalin, abuse them for it. I have done it myself! It is perfectly fair and great fun! But if that’s not how it goes, most days, then maybe it would be better to focus on the right, where there really is a lot of seriously unhistorical apologetics, intended to foster a kind of illusion of sin-free exceptionalism. Fair enough?

Following a trail of underpants gnomes really will lead you quicker to the gates of “National Review” than any lefty outlet, at the present time, I think. But prove me wrong! (But only after you have defended fascism adequately to support your position.)

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jgtheok 02.24.15 at 2:11 am

Brett,

“I think Ze has nailed our position, the more concise formulation of which is, “Wonderful theory, wrong species.”

Why do we get so emotional about it? Because of the damned piles of skulls, that’s why. How can you NOT get emotional about people promoting an ideology that, literally, piles up skulls?”

Why not take as given that other people on this site might be coming from a different cultural background than yourself? Not everyone freaks out upon seeing the word Communism. My mother belonged to a couple of French communes, and could fill you in at length on the positives and negatives thereof. You seem to regard ‘Communism’ as synonymous with a whole bunch of things, that, plainly, are not the sense being used in this thread. (Not unique to ‘communism’ – things like ‘democracy’ and ‘libertarianism’ also seem to mean radically different things depending on the speaker.) But no one is obliged to cede you the vocabulary.

Granted, the ideals of “communalism” or whatever you want to call it appear to function poorly as the organizing principle for a modern state. If you actually wanted to construct an intellectual argument against it, you could compare death tolls from countries which had “Communist” revolutions to those from other countries. To be fair, you should probably limit the control group to other authoritarian regimes with nearby external enemies… even then, Cambodia would probably seal your case. But so far, you haven’t bothered to make or cite any case at all.

Brett, politics and political systems are not new. “Communism” gave the theocracy a new coat of paint. Theocracy has some pretty grim characteristics to start with. The more modern variant, with improved communications and book-keeping, allowed the state to actually direct the economy – with even worse results. But probably a great system for sapient ants…

On some levels, political “libertarianism” seems even more dubious. Please spare me arguments along the lines of “it’s never really been tried yet” – many of the same ideals were fundamental to the Roman republic… History includes a long, long, list of cases since then where some state collapsed – yet the absence of state, somehow, never led to anything much resembling the libertarian paradise. Nor have I ever met a human who would function comfortably within this mythic realm (possibly okay for sapient tigers?).

In a curious way, this might be an advantage. We notice the arguments which require that people stop acting like people, and aren’t seduced into trying it out as the organizing principle of society. So, no mountains of skulls. (As for whether those ideas ever made some state weaker than it should otherwise have been, paving the way to some historic atrocity – that sort of impact is impossible to assess.) I have a few acquaintances who probably could make a go of communalism – lovely people, now if only they comprised 99% of the population… That way lies Brave New World, or possibly yet another mountain of skulls.

So, perhaps a little more respect for communalist ideals? I can believe they represent a valid criticism of the excesses of more dominant paradigms, without thinking they should be taken as the model for the larger state. Much like many of your ideals.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 2:32 am

The idea that some crimes (e.g. Stalinist ) are “more immense” than other crimes (e.g. Nazi) is dubious, execrable morality. Those regimes were moral equivalents.

There were numerically more murders under Stalin than Hitler, but different amounts of murder are morally equivalent. Destroying peoples’ lives is destroying peoples’ lives.

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js. 02.24.15 at 2:32 am

Well, this went predictably south. (But it took a while!)

Going back a bit, it seems that JH has adopted the sort of position I was urging him to. (I think! Cf. 154, 161, 175, 191, 194, and more around there.) Is this right, JH? Earlier, you wanted to hold on to a link between reciprocity and exchange, but balked at an explicit suggestion of mine that exchange implies measurement.

Now it seems your position can be cast as follows: reciprocity might involve exchange or it might not. When it does involve exchange, it doesn’t look much like baseline communism. But at other times it looks a lot like baseline communism, but then it doesn’t involve exchange. And finally, it’s kinda hard to tell one from the other. I would take issue with the last, but let’s bracket that for a second. Given the bracketing doesn’t your position resolve into something very much like Phil’s “reciprocity-1 and reciprocity-2” (@108). Or at least, can’t it simply resolve into something like that? If not, why not?

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 2:36 am

There’s a continuous confusion about the structure of the transactions vs. the psychology of the transactions. These are separable things. Is communism defined as redistribution through a center, or is it defined as a psychology? We already have various redistributions, for various reasons. We have a mixed economy.

Structurally speaking, it is inaccurate to say that “communism doesn’t scale” because it has scaled quite nicely to complement industrial capitalism’s defects. We need a little more help at the present time, it is true, but the problem seems to come from the realm of political power, not from the realm of anthropological impossibility.

Why not say instead, “capitalism doesn’t scale”? After all, this contention is also partly true.

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geo 02.24.15 at 2:40 am

JH@253: communism is a beautiful dream, but it doesn’t scale

Nearly everyone on this thread seems to take this for granted — at least I don’t remember having seen much argument to that effect, beyond “Well, it’s obvious you can’t care about people you don’t know.” I tried to offer some arguments to the contrary @197, hoping for counter-argument, but no takers. Maybe this will elicit some: would anyone like to explain why the cooperative and egalitarian societies depicted in, say, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Morris’s News from Nowhere, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, and Callenbach’s Ecotopia are impossible in principle and forever?

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 3:15 am

It’s pretty clear though that communism can scale, part of the way, because it already has done so in the mixed economy.

The idea that, “you can’t care about people you don’t know,” is a fairly recent social invention, and is not some sort of eternal psychological condition.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 3:33 am

Busy with other stuff again, but a brief answer to js. “Given the bracketing doesn’t your position resolve into something very much like Phil’s “reciprocity-1 and reciprocity-2″ (@108).”

I’m happy to do that, so long as we admit that reciprocity-1 and reciprocity-2, even though they seem different, have an odd habit of morphing into each other.

I still balk at the proposition that exchange requires measurement. I don’t see why it has to.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 3:35 am

“The idea that, “you can’t care about people you don’t know,” is a fairly recent social invention, and is not some sort of eternal psychological condition.”

I don’t think anyone thinks you CAN’T care about people you don’t know. On the other hand, I think the proposition that people always tend to care more about people they do know is not a recent conceit but really an ancient psychological condition.

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Peter T 02.24.15 at 3:44 am

“Communism doesn’t scale” is true of systems of production, or indeed any form of organisation that depends on timely, predictable coordinated action. That does not mean that it cannot involve very large numbers in other spheres. Many of the routines of everyday life in any large metropolis, for example, would be impossible without spontaneous adjustment without regard for reciprocity, among total strangers (think of a crowded sidewalk, or a busy pedestrian crossing, or a subway platform). This is not an innate human capacity; it has been built over time.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 3:46 am

You could tell similar stories about how pure capitalism/exchange doesn’t scale because of negative externalities, the tragedy of the commons, failure to provide for public goods, etc.

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js. 02.24.15 at 3:52 am

@geo:

Nearly everyone on this thread seems to take this for granted — at least I don’t remember having seen much argument to that effect, beyond “Well, it’s obvious you can’t care about people you don’t know.”

For the purposes of this thread/argument, I remain agnostic about whether communism can scale. But—assuming that communism means some sort of social order that’s governed neither by market exchange nor by social hierarchies—this already seems to presume too much. At least, I don’t see why it’s a requirement for communism in the above sense scaling that one would have to care about people one doesn’t know, for most recognizable senses of “caring”.

@Holbo:

I still balk at the proposition that exchange requires measurement. I don’t see why it has to.

Exchange implies that the things exchanged are commensurable. In that sense, it implies (the possibility of) measurement. If you’re dealing with incommensurable quantities (in a very loose sense of “quantities”), then I fail to see why one would think that what you’ve got is exchange vs. something quite else.

(And justice is the weird case here precisely because it seems to me obvious that one’s not dealing with commensurable quantities [unless you’re literally going eye-for-an-eye] whereas Aristotle e.g. clearly thinks otherwise and the scales of justice metaphor clearly implies otherwise.)

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 4:16 am

“Exchange implies that the things exchanged are commensurable.”

I don’t see why. If I trade you an apple for an orange does there need to be some commensurability scale along which apples = oranges? No. Nor do we need to assume that what we are co-measuring is preference, or pleasure, or any of that. Maybe you want the apple way more than the orange, so you are willing to trade, and I want the apple about as much as the orange, hence I am indifferent, hence (barely) willing to trade. We exchange. You could say that what is commensurable here is just the bare willingness to trade. Obviously that is present on both sides in any trade situation. But I don’t see that this is helping us. What are you thinking about these sorts of cases?

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 4:22 am

“Communism can scale” is one of the ideas that historically got communism into trouble. Why should you want it to scale? What are the political controls that keep scaled-up communism from going bad? How do you keep communism from turning into hierarchy as it scales up? Most anarchist writers that I’ve read suggest some kind of federative process, in which you have communism or whatever you want to call it within small, local groups, but the people within these groups relate to each other in a different way than the groups relate to each other.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 4:25 am

John Holbo #264 Sure, but I thought the question is whether the idea that “you can’t care about people that you don’t know” presents a natural, insurmountable block to social change.

By “fairly recent” I mean that the idea that “you can’t care about people you don’t know” has only emerged as a semi-respectable social excuse in the last hundred years or less. Perhaps as a spin-off of the Hayekian bafflegab in mid-century, as follows. Let’s take it from the beginning:

What is the cut-off for the number of people you can know, or account for by knowledge of lineage or some other connection? It is true that there are no acephalous tribes larger than about 11,000 members in the ethnographic literature, and everything larger than that had a chiefdom structure, to start watching the rules. But this does not support the assertion that the psychology of communism cannot “scale up”.

For at least the last 2000 years, the reigning social instruction was to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Yes, it is also true that Jesus said don’t bother about Caesar, give unto him what is his and so on. But that is because Jesus was not concerned with the material world. If Jesus had been concerned with the material world, and Jesus practiced what he preached, Jesus would have been a communist. He took corn out of the farmer’s field to feed his disciples, for example.

What licenses not-caring about others? First, the new modern idea is that individuals should advance self-interest and be rewarded for their merit by rising though a worldly material hierarchy.

This idea not ancient, either. The heroes in epics were not self-made men in this modern sense.

This idea of ascension for all individuals through self-merit, did not fully emerge into public consciousness until the last half of the 18th century. The story is told in Lovejoy. It was the emergence of social evolutionism, about a hundred years before Darwin and Wallace.

But even at that time, Adam Smith wrote a book about why we DO care about people we don’t know, entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The license to NOT care about people you don’t know, only appears to have followed upon the further theory, the further wrinkle, that self-interest leads to the best outcomes for all, and so you shouldn’t worry about people you don’t know, and it won’t make them into the best sorts of people, and there is no such thing as social justice, and so on.

It required the faulty theory of the applicability and efficacy of the market system, to license the emotional self-deception that you can’t care about people you don’t know.

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cassander 02.24.15 at 4:31 am

@John Holbo

Of course the dream was beautiful. Happy Aryans families tending farms on the Russian steppe, capital and labor both equally subordinated to the greater good of society, all working together for the greater glory of the people and state, Germany taking up its rightful place among the great nations of the world. Of course, none of it would have worked out as planned, but Hitler didn’t run on “we’re going murder a lot of people and lose a war”

>I don’t see a lot of evidence that the Left has blinders about the horrors of Stalinism, for example.

You don’t get a lot of out and out stalinists these days (though you do get a lot of people who quote out and out stalinists). What you get is people who can’t help saying “but”, as in, “Well of course Stalin was bad, but he did industrialize Russia.” No one says but about Hitler.

>You say Whitaker Chambers was right, but I don’t see a lot of people saying ‘Chambers Lied. The Rosenbergs died. Vote Hilary.’ Right?

During the cold war, the innocence of the rosenbergs, and other spies, was vigorously defended by the left. It wasn’t until the fall of the USSR and the opening of the soviet archives that this stopped, though mccarthyite remains an important political insult on the left to this day.

>The idea that the right is free of any associations with anything bad is a bit of a conservative fixation, at present – and, frequently, through history.

I would say that most people are of the vague opinion that their tribe is the source of all hope and light in the universe, and that the other fellow’s tribe are trying to ruin everything. But as to the more general assertion that the right fails to learn from its past, I find that extremely hard to credit, at least in the US. This is not because people on the right are clever or more virtuous than those on the left, but because the post ww2 American right has mostly been about fighting a rearguard action whatever progressive scheme was in vogue at the moment. Its ideology, to the extent it has any, is largely burkean. Sure, you have some intellectuals like Friedman flitting about the edges with serious ideologies, but in practice they served mostly as excuse generators for politicians who want to maintain the status quo.

> By contrast, the right-wing is currently up in arms about the very notion that the Crusades were a bad thing.

No, it isn’t. they are up in arms about the notion that their president thinks that he should call out the crusades as religious fanaticism, but not ISIS.

But even if you were correct that some on the right think the crusades weren’t so bad, what of it? No one, as far as I know, is actually calling for a new crusade. People on the left, people in this thread, are calling for Marxist governments.

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cassander 02.24.15 at 4:41 am

@Lee A. Arnold

I wouldn’t say it’s you don’t care about people you don’t know, I would say that you can’t enforce social norms on people you don’t know. In a small community everyone knows you, and if you shirk word will get around that “that arnold boy is no good” and soon no one will dance with you at the sock hops. In a large community, you can shirk during the day, then hang out with different people at night, which means no amount of community scorn can stop you. The incentive to give is less when you know you won’t face penalties for taking, and in the long run incentives drive human behavior.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 4:49 am

“Of course the dream was beautiful. Happy Aryans families tending farms on the Russian steppe, capital and labor both equally subordinated to the greater good of society, all working together for the greater glory of the people and state, Germany taking up its rightful place among the great nations of the world.”

This looks to me like sugar-coating it, rather. This is part of the dream. Aryan farmers and harmony. But do you not see that there are parts of the fascist dream that are rather less sunny, as places in the sun go? Eliminating lesser peoples, pushing them off their land to make room for the Master Race? (Hitler’s dream was that he would do to the Russians what the Americans did to the Indians. But I don’t like that idea.) Also, bowing down before Der Fuehrer. Germany rightly dominating others? Do you not see something sinister in this, even at the level of the dream?

To me the dream of communism is a lot more congenial, before – admittedly – it all went to Gulag hell in practice. Mutualism and individual self-fulfillment for all sounds good to me, in the abstract. Racist tribalism and severely hierarchical dominance relations, as the root of social organization, not so much. Does your mileage differ? If so, then I have to say your values are abhorrent to me. If not, what are we talking about?

“During the cold war, the innocence of the rosenbergs, and other spies, was vigorously defended by the left.”

I don’t deny it. For of course it is true. We could talk about it. But first, if you check your calendar, you will find that it isn’t 1951 out. Can you give me more contemporary examples that seem indicate of the tendency of the left to see no evil in Stalinism?

“Its ideology, to the extent it has any, is largely burkean.”

I think you have a naive view of the American right. Certainly of its recent history. We may have to leave it at that.

“No one, as far as I know, is actually calling for a new crusade.”

Actually, I think it is far more likely that Republicans will call for a new crusading spirit, against Islam, than that Democrats will call for Marxism. Don’t you?

But we can start with the good in the fascist dream and the good in microfascism. All the ‘little platoons’ of gemeinschaftliche brownshirts (in a Burkean sense, if you like). Do you really maintain that this was a noble dream, and it only went bad when they unwisely tried to scale it up, past the point where it could work ok?

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 5:05 am

Cassander #272: I think that’s why we’ve have ended-up with a mixed system. Note however that if necessary work became entirely automated, then there would be nothing to shirk. And we are already about halfway there.

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cassander 02.24.15 at 5:46 am

> Eliminating lesser peoples, pushing them off their land to make room for the Master Race?

You mean like how Marx talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat “sweeping away” counter revolutionary elements of society and social liquidation?

>Mutualism and individual self-fulfillment for all sounds good to me, in the abstract. Racist tribalism and severely hierarchical dominance relations, as the root of social organization, not so much. Does your mileage differ?

Not so much, but I fail to see how that matters. Say I grant that Nazism, if not all fascism, is just as bad in theory as it was in practice. I don’t live in theory, I do live in practice, and I care far more about the practical results that follow attempts to implement than how pretty the theoretical end was. If by some bizarre twist of history Hitler’s regime had produced peace, prosperity and racial tolerance, I’d say we should all start reading mein kampf, and try to figure out what we can learn from those mad rantings.

And, of course, there were plenty of fascists that weren’t hitler and didn’t have his racial obsessions, just nationalist aspirations and visions of a unified, modern country working for the common good of all ensconced in a benevolent hierarchy that promoted the good and punished the bad. Lots of people like the idea of being a player on a team, even if they know they won’t be the captain. If they didn’t fascism would never have been good politics.

>Actually, I think it is far more likely that Republicans will call for a new crusading spirit, against Islam, than that Democrats will call for Marxism. Don’t you?

No. There were a couple months in 2003 when that looked like a possibility, but even there that impulse was largely the result of a bunch of ex-marxists turned crusading conservatives, not typical members of the red tribe. American crusading zeal, be it inwardly or outwardly directed, is a largely left wing phenomenon. The right is perfectly willing to fight to “defend” the US, and it’s quite willing to take an extremely aggressive definition of defense, but at the end of the day, a crusade ostensibly about saving the souls of the people you’re fighting. The ur-idea of american conservatism has always been “America is the shining city upon a hill, and our duty is to defend it.”

>Do you really maintain that this was a noble dream, and it only went bad when they unwisely tried to scale it up, past the point where it could work ok?

Fascism failed because it was conquered militarily. Had it not been conquered, it still would have failed, but not really because of scale. Frankly, the idea of a small scale fascist community doesn’t really make sense because fascism is all about the question of how you organize society on a big, industrial scale. Hierarchy can scale really well, the problem it faces is information processing. Big hierarchical systems can do extremely impressive things, but need specific, measurable directions. If you want to maximize the number of widgets a factory produces, they’re fantastic. But if you want to maximize the economic output of a country, you need a subtler system. Fascist central planners ran into the same problems that socialist ones did.

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Peter T 02.24.15 at 6:02 am

For Brett and Cassander

Note that Conquest’s latest estimate for deaths under Soviet rule is 15 million. Hitler’s war in the east killed at least 25 million in the Soviet Union, 6 million Jews and several million Poles. His war in the west killed a few million more and, of course, 6 million Germans. War and genocide were central to Nazism: those happy Aryan farmers were raising sons to continue the campaign until all the world was Aryan and all the lesser races dead. That was the vision. There is a frame shift here.

My ex-Soviet in-laws do not regret the gulag (some went through them). They do regret the loss of education and opportunity for ordinary folk and the security of everyday life, and they hate the way anything of value is stolen if not nailed down. What they regret is not the domination or the terror but precisely the degree of communism actually realised (and now lost).

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 6:03 am

“You mean like how Marx talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat “sweeping away” counter revolutionary elements of society and social liquidation?”

Well, I’m not going to deny that Lenin was a psychopath. I think he was, personally. But Marxist-Leninism is more ethically respectable than Nazism, in my view, because I’m willing at least to consider that utilitarianism might be right. Someone says: should you kill one person if that’s the only way to save five? My response: definite maybe. What about killing 1 million people to save 5 million? By this point I am backing away slowly. Being a big bourgie liberal. Still, there is something to be said for the moral math of trying to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. That’s communism’s goal, ultimately.

On the other hand, if someone says, suppose there’s 1 Aryan on the track and, by throwing a switch you can kill 5 dirty Untermenschen instead, I have no problem at all saying that is very wrong and bad. There is nothing to be said for this philosophy whatsoever. It’s essentially toxic. Even though I’m sure Aryan farmers make a very pretty picture.

“Say I grant that Nazism, if not all fascism, is just as bad in theory as it was in practice. I don’t live in theory, I do live in practice, and I care far more about the practical results that follow attempts to implement than how pretty the theoretical end was.”

Well, I think there’s a big moral difference between ‘it was a noble idea, but a catastrophe in practice’ and ‘it was an evil idea, hence a catastrophe in practice’. I don’t regard these as equivalent, morally, and I find it weird that you treat them as obviously equivalent. That is (I take it?) you not only do not distinguish between these yourself, you find it hard to conceive of why anyone would feel better disposed towards the first? That’s weird.

“If by some bizarre twist of history Hitler’s regime had produced peace, prosperity and racial tolerance, I’d say we should all start reading mein kampf, and try to figure out what we can learn from those mad rantings.”

Seriously? I’d say you are starting to make Lenin look morally sane.

“Frankly, the idea of a small scale fascist community doesn’t really make sense because fascism is all about the question of how you organize society on a big, industrial scale.”

Ah, I think you need to read more history!

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 6:29 am

Even looking at the issue very ruthlessly – as I now see you are inclined to do, Cassander: you and Lenin have that in common at least! – there’s a difference between a plan that sounded good, but failed horribly, and a plan that sounded horrible, and failed horribly in just the way one would expect. The former is a much likelier candidate for salvage than the latter. Make sense?

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Sebastian H 02.24.15 at 7:20 am

“To me the dream of communism is a lot more congenial…”

Not to me. Not even particularly on the small scale. The dreams of both communism and fascism involve way too much of humanity as conformist little ants. There is a reason why gays and Jews get killed by both groups–they don’t fit perfectly in to all the little plans. (I’m perfectly aware that other non-communist, non-fascist hyper-conformist groups also like to kill gays and Jews).

I think a few key words apply to mutualistic communities that don’t come into ‘communist’ understandings: compassion, charity, tolerance.

Take the gay community in the years when about 1/4 of us were dying of AIDS: Graeber might call it ‘communist’, but it actually centered on a bunch of things that don’t seem to enter much into his equations.

Compassion–knowing that a man you loved had been rejected by his parents and siblings, and didn’t want to die alone.

Charity–seeing that asshole preachers would denounce him at the hospital, but knowing that someone needed to give him soup.

Tolerance–knowing that the big queen or the scary leatherman both could work together, because we had to but also because we could see the innate humanness in each other.

One of the reasons I have trouble with the communist label is it sucks all of the really important connections right out of everything and tries to replace it with a mechanistic monstrosity.

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Sebastian H 02.24.15 at 7:31 am

“Someone says: should you kill one person if that’s the only way to save five? My response: definite maybe. What about killing 1 million people to save 5 million? By this point I am backing away slowly. Being a big bourgie liberal. Still, there is something to be said for the moral math of trying to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. That’s communism’s goal, ultimately.

On the other hand, if someone says, suppose there’s 1 Aryan on the track and, by throwing a switch you can kill 5 dirty Untermenschen instead, I have no problem at all saying that is very wrong and bad. “

The two were never as far apart as you posit. It always turned out in practice that killing undesirable Jews and gays on the track was purported to save desirable Aryans/Good Communists on the other track. Both philosophies weighted the scales by defining unwanted groups as not counting no matter what the number.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 7:43 am

” The dreams of both communism and fascism involve way too much of humanity as conformist little ants.”

OK, Sebastian, I hereby call your bluff. Quote me some tasty Marx passage, stating that the ideal is not human autonomy but grinding conformism, a belittling of individuals for the sake of an inhumane Moloch machine. I believe you will not find Marx explicitly advocating such a thing.

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Sebastian H 02.24.15 at 8:36 am

Wait. I thought the argument was that ‘communism’ as a term was so divorced from history that Graeber could stipulate it all away. I am arguing that you can’t stipulate it all away and that even the ‘benign’ communistic visions tend to have ugly conformist streaks that end up getting nasty against non-conforming groups–specifically homosexuals and Jews. I am arguing that this is a trait shared by both fascist and communist groups.

It is kind of weird that “calling my bluff” on that means that you want to limit yourself to specifically Marxist texts. (I presume you exclude Engels because he has arguably straight up homophobic letters?).

The problem communism has is in the subtext. From each according to his ability, to each WORTHY one according to his need. I think your argument is that fascism makes the subtext clear, and is therefore worse.

My argument is that they both have sorting the worthy from the unworthy as one of the most important tasks. I’m not concerned about whether or not it is found in the text or the subtext.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 9:03 am

“I thought the argument was that ‘communism’ as a term was so divorced from history that Graeber could stipulate it all away.”

Sebastian, you are allowed to stipulate what words mean. If you say, ‘by ‘x’ I mean so-and-so,’ that’s generally fine, so long as you are clear. But you can’t just stipulate facts and thereby make them so. So, yes, Graeber can stipulate what ‘communism’ means, for his purposes – so long as he is generally reasonable and clear about it. But, no, Graeber cannot stipulate away real facts about communism and thereby have them disappear, if they are deemed inconvenient.

I trust you are agreeable with this?

Now: if all you’ve got is alleged subtext, I’m going to politely declare victory and move on. You are basically saying the problem with Marxism is that it sounds good in principle but goes bad, in practice. When the high ideals interact with human weakness, the whole thing turns toxic. But this is my point, hence you are conceding my point.

The difference with Nazism is that you don’t need to move from theory to practice, to find the problems. The theory itself is already abhorrent.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 9:34 am

“I presume you exclude Engels because he has arguably straight up homophobic letters?”

I wasn’t aware Engels wrote straight up homophobic letters. I’m not surprised, however. It was the 19th Century, after all.

You seem to be thinking of this argument.

1 Marxism is defined by what Engels thought.
2 Engels thought gays are bad.
3 Marxism is defined by the thought that gays are bad.
4 But a good political philosophy should not be defined by the thought that gays are bad.
QED Marxism is a bad political philosophy.

I am ok with 1, with qualifications, and I’ll take your word on 2. But I really don’t think 3 is a valid step.

Also, this: ” I think your argument is that fascism makes the subtext clear, and is therefore worse.”

No. I think that what is clear in the text IS the text, ergo not subtext. My problem with Fascism is: the text. I’m confident the subtext is nasty, too, but the text itself is quite bad enough, thank you. My problem with communism is: slippage between ideal and practice. Neither of those is subtext, I take it. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘subtext’ in this connection, actually.

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Z 02.24.15 at 10:54 am

During the cold war, the innocence of the [R]osenbergs, and other spies, was vigorously defended by the left.

FWIW, the archival records shows no credible involvment of Ethel Rosenberg, though she was aware of her husband espionage activities, as her brother admitted fabricating all apparent evidence to the contrary (with the encouragement of the prosecution, according to him). This, moreover, was probably known to Juge Kaufman at the time of her conviction. There are several credible independent sources showing that Julius Rosenberg did transmit valuable information to the Soviet Union, but not necessarily about the specifics of the atomic bomb, so even his sentence was probably too harsh (especially compared to other atom spies).

Anyhow, Stalin was evil and communist governments working within the bounds of a healthy democracy have existed, currently exist and have a decent, though not impressive, track record at the local level.

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 11:14 am

Could it be the difference between an idea that sounds good in theory and works out horribly in practice, and an idea that sounds horrible and works out the way you’d expect, is that the former is evidence you’ve got a tin ear, and ought to take people wofigured the former was the latter more seriously?

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 11:21 am

Fat fingers strike again. But point is, maybe you should suspect that anti-comunists demonstrated good judgement, and start doubting your own, if a theory that goes so bad sounds good to you.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 11:31 am

“Could it be the difference between an idea that sounds good in theory and works out horribly in practice, and an idea that sounds horrible and works out the way you’d expect, is that the former is evidence you’ve got a tin ear.”

What’s so tinny ’bout peace, love and understanding? (To paraphrase the poet.)

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 11:36 am

Sorry, just to be clear: that’s an actual question to which I believe you owe an answer, Brett. If you think no one should want peace, love and understanding, even if they could have them: why not? What’s so bad about freedom, for good measure?

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engels 02.24.15 at 11:42 am

Zizek LRB piece (with bonus reply from CT regular, Phil)

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n06/slavoj-zizek/the-two-totalitarianisms

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 11:52 am

Nothing is wrong with peace, love, and understanding, but after the 20th century, maybe anyone who thinks they have anything to do with communism should have figured out they were to gullible to be theorizing about politics. Shouldn’t whether your intuitions jibe with real world outcomes influence your confidence in your own judgement?

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 11:57 am

“Nothing is wrong with peace, love, and understanding”

Then why did you say people who merely think the ideals of communism (but not those of Nazism) sound good in the abstract are tin-eared?

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 12:00 pm

Look, I understand that you would very much like it to be the case that you have shrewder judgment than I do, Brett. Maybe you do. Stranger things have happened. But the sum total of your evidence for my bad judgment is, apparently, that I think peace love and understanding sound quite nice, in the abstract. You agree, as it turns out. So what’s the evidence for my bad judgment supposed to be?

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Salem 02.24.15 at 12:37 pm

John, I worry that you are taking the communist ideal at much too far a level of ideation, while not doing likewise for other ideologies. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” is Marx, not a Leninist novelty.

Lots of people want “peace, love and understanding.” Christians, conservatives, liberals – certainly all the libertarians I know say that’s why they’re libertarians; even the “Happy Aryan families on the steppe” in cassander’s 271 presumably do too. What makes communism distinctive is its vision of a classless, property-less society being the key to that “peace, love and understanding.” Marx saw this as a historical inevitability but the likes of Cohen have rightly reclassified it as a moral aspiration. In other words, the communist ideal isn’t “peace, love and understanding,” it’s “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” I am no expert on Nazism, but I their ideal would be something like “the best shall flourish and drive out the worst.”

Frankly, both of those ideals sound horrifying to me, but I can see why, considered in the right light, they could have an appeal to many.

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 12:40 pm

No, the evidence of your bad judgement is that you think communism has anything to do with any of those things.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 12:46 pm

“No, the evidence of your bad judgement is that you think communism has anything to do with any of those things.”

Brett, we agree that communism does not mean these things in practice. Where we disagree is this: I say that communists are in favor of these things, but fail to realize them in practice. You say that communists are not in favor of these things, even in principle (I take it.)

I can quote things from Marx in favor of my view. Can you quote things from Marx in favor of your view? This is where Sebastian fell short. The point where he was supposed to quote Marx saying that the dream of communism is to grind down the individual, etc. etc.

You are also allowed to quote Engels. (Sebastian asked about that and I said it was ok.)

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 12:52 pm

“Freedom” … “Dictatorship of the proletariat”. Happy?

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 12:58 pm

Look, somebody running a ponzi scam will talk about creating wealth, but how stupid do you have to be to believe them? How much stupider to advocate ponzi scams as an approach to building wealth?

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 12:59 pm

The contention of some people here (Cassander, Sebastian, Brett) seems to be that market capitalism is NOT an “enforced social norm”; is without “ugly conformist streaks”; does not “sort the worthy from the unworthy as one of the most important tasks”, and so on.

This will get you into more intellectual and emotional troubles. I suppose you could fall back upon the contention that it is a matter of degree, but then, look at what is happening.

In reality, after increasing inequality for about 40 years, this whole system recently caused itself to have a complete financial crash, followed by a bailout which protected the general structure of the highest levels of capital ownership, followed by a huge recession in which austerity programs were enacted to whip the lesser mortals back into line.

There are two different scandals here, a first-rate intellectual scandal, plus a disastrous immorality. Both are revealed to be close to the heart of the system, and so far, they are not brought to justice.

Were people murdered? Well not en masse, but we know that livelihoods have been ended, lifetime earnings permanently foreshortened, the US suicide rate has risen steadily since 2006.

Is this a necessary consequence of capitalism, or unnecessary? And if unnecessary, how would you propose to fix it?

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 1:36 pm

engels links to Žižek above: it’s funny how defenses of Marxism seem to involve defenses of Stalinism eventually. That’s the essay in which comrades would send Stalin congratulatory telegrams from the Gulag, and this is supposed to show that Stalinism wasn’t really as bad as people think.

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Minnow 02.24.15 at 2:01 pm

“I say that communists are in favor of these things, but fail to realize them in practice. You say that communists are not in favor of these things, even in principle (I take it.)”

I don’t want to get in the middle of a spat, but I think you could fairly argue that many early 20th century fascists also believed in those things. They just disagreed what needed to be done to achieve them. Hitler thought the Jews had to be eradicated, Lenin thought it was the bourgeosie. Neither of them argued publicly that their enemy should be murdered, but both of them adopted that policy behind the scenes.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 2:09 pm

Zizek is a good example of someone I have no patience with, since he actually defends Stalinism. It is entirely fair to lay the Gulag at Zizek’s feet. In praising Stalinism, he takes up that moral burden. I have said so myself. In print, no less!

“Dictatorship of the proletariat”

But the dictatorship of the proletariat is not considered ideal. It is supposed to be a stage to be eventually transcended. A necessary evil, if you like. (I am sorry to be picky about such things, but I don’t see why we can’t speak truth, rather than falsehood, if it isn’t so much harder to speak truth.)

“Look, somebody running a ponzi scam will talk about creating wealth, but how stupid do you have to be to believe them?”

Do you think that Marx was actually, intentionally running a ponzi scheme?

I know this is going to seem old-fashioned of me, Brett. But if you want to accuse someone of something, would it be too much to ask that you provide evidence that what you say is true?

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 2:18 pm

“I don’t want to get in the middle of a spat, but I think you could fairly argue that many early 20th century fascists also believed in those things.”

I’ve had my fun with Brett and Sebastian – and I have, I think, tried to play fair – but I think things are winding down, so I’m signing off for the night.

Let me just say: I think there is a moral difference between being in favor, ideally, of freedom and equality and dignity for all people; and being in favor, ideally, of violent, racist authoritarianism. (War and struggle isn’t a necessary evil, for Hitler, as it is for communists.) This isn’t just ‘you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to’. Obviously I grant that it ended up a ghastly mountain of bones in both cases. Still, there is a moral difference between dreaming of something that is, I think, right, in principle. And dreaming of something that is, I think, wrong, in principle. I don’t see the point of trying to bury this elementary distinction between right and wrong, in with all the bones.

That’s pretty much it for me. Good night, all.

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Corey Robin 02.24.15 at 2:22 pm

Minnow at 301: “Neither of them argued publicly that their enemy should be murdered.”

Hitler to the Reichstag in 1939: “In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance only the Jewish race that received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 2:26 pm

OK, one last thing. Glancing back upthread, it occurs to me that I may have caused some trouble by using the word ‘plan’ when I should have used the word ‘goal’. So, if anyone thinks I am saying something absolutely insane, due to the presence of the word ‘plan’, but the substitution of ‘goal’ would completely solve the problem … kindly make the mental substitution on my behalf.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 2:32 pm

Hi Corey! Welcome to the thread! But I’m still on my way out. Make yourself at home!

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 2:40 pm

I don’t think Sebastian is going to find that quote from Marx, because I doubt if it exists. The direct quotes from Marx and Engels on authority, discipline and so on that I’ve seen generally have to do with the Marx/Bakunin conflict, especially over Spain, and are usually from letters, minor essays, etc. It’s rather as if someone quoted from a thread here centuries later as evidence of considered political opinions. There are bits and pieces of poorly attributed quotes about how are you going to run a Barcelona factory without discipline that anarchists gleefully seize on because later on the workers ran the Barcelona factories without discipline, but this doesn’t amount to what Sebastian wants.

Bruce Wilder has already provided the core quote, though. Marx put the moment for communism off to the future and was quite scornful about the socialists who thought they could start it, if only at a small scale, immediately. That’s why I still think that geo’s position — the big, happy family of socialism, everyone dreaming in their own way about the same kind of basic communism — doesn’t really take Marx seriously.

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Minnow 02.24.15 at 2:49 pm

Corey, yes, once Hitler was secure in power the rhetoric changed, but my point was that, contra JH, it is as possible to build a picture of the idealistic young fascists in the 20s as it is for communists. It’s just the ideal was different and the enemy that needed to be destroyed was different. Communism tends to get credited with that idealism but fascism not so much.

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Anon 02.24.15 at 2:57 pm

Oh for crying out loud. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was a tasteless joke that became much less funny when Lenin was done with it, but it was a joke. If you aren’t able to see the overt irony of referring to a group large enough to contain every single wage laborer as “a dictator”–the logical impossibility of the term taken literally–then you could at least read the damn passage, where Marx makes the irony clear by saying it’s the opposite of capitalism, which is a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Lenin, of course, didn’t get the joke, since he equated the proletariat with the communist party. And a party can, indeed, be a dictator.

The punchline is that capitalism is a “dictatorship.” So, you can either choose to insist “dictatorship” holds its narrow ordinary usage, in which you must also accept that capitalism is a dictatorship, or you must accept it has a very broad, primarily ironic usage, in which case you must acknowledge that Marx’s meaning is not as diabolical as you wish it were. His “dictatorship” is no more literally one than capitalism.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is, in simplest form, a state in which those who were once wealth-generating non-laboring property owners have no political power whatsoever. If you’d like a historical analogue: it’s a semi-democracy just like America was in principle during slavery and until women’s sufferage: democracy for some, not all.

It is a contradictory state, to be sure: a small group’s freedom is absolutely reduced to zero. But for the remaining majority–again, every single wage-laborer–freedom would radically expanded, a much more *democratic* society, since the majority of the people (and “the people” in democracy is *always* only that) would finally have real rather than abstract political power.

If you’d like to contrast that theoretical (intended) “dictatorship” unfavorably to any historically existing “democracy,” be my guest. But you might start here: http://scholar.princeton.edu/mgilens/pages/research

You’re of course welcome to argue that there’s no way to effect a dictatorship of the proletariat except Lenin’s way. But that’s not the argument, the argument is about what Marx intended, not the feasibility.

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John Holbo 02.24.15 at 3:07 pm

“it is as possible to build a picture of the idealistic young fascists in the 20s as it is for communists.”

OK, I lied about going off. I’m still here. If Minnow wants to try to do this, my view is that it would be a worthy historical investigation, though I predict failure. It is certainly true that you can make a portrait of the sort of German romanticism that goes bad, with the Nazis, without having to see all that evil necessarily already in the romanticism. Heidegger’s primordial musings and black forest poetry don’t seem inherently doomed to fascist evil, even though that’s, tragically, what he ended up playing into. But I tend to see romanticism as separate from political fascism. If someone really convinced me that there was once some truly lofty, humane, fascistic ideal that was, tragically, derailed in practice, I would be consistency-bound to change my tune. It would turn out that communism and fascism are more morally parallel than I have argued. But I’m not holding my breath. It’s not enough to say that fascists were always in favor of motherhood and happy farms.

And now I really, really am off. No kidding around this time. If I come back again in the next 12 hours, laugh in my face.

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Minnow 02.24.15 at 3:09 pm

“War and struggle isn’t a necessary evil, for Hitler, as it is for communists.”

But Hitler said it was. Like Lenin did. Of course, it was a virtue to be warlike (as it was for the Bolsheviks) but the fascist claim was that they were peaceable so long as elements like the Bolsheviks and Jews didn’t force them into war and they got their land back.

I agree with your general point but I don’t think it is so easy to make the distinction you want. Both were peaceable utopias on paper, as it were, and to those who were temperamentally inclined that way, and both proclaimed that the blood of some baddies would have to spilt to get there.

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Salem 02.24.15 at 3:32 pm

But the dictatorship of the proletariat is not considered ideal. It is supposed to be a stage to be eventually transcended. A necessary evil, if you like…

Still, there is a moral difference between dreaming of something that is, I think, right, in principle. And dreaming of something that is, I think, wrong, in principle.

But the mass-murders of the Nazis were also a stage to be eventually transcended. They weren’t going to somehow keep on killing Jews/Slavs/etc after they’d killed them all. You are applying a selective rigour here. Why is cassander’s picture of “Happy Aryan families on the steppe” a problem? It’s not that those families wouldn’t be genuinely happy, it’s the label “Not pictured: Current inhabitants of the steppe.” There is clearly no way to get from here to there without them vanishing somehow, and the “dreamers” didn’t make that a secret. In order to make the dream seem non-nightmarish, you have to focus very hard on the cute blonde children, and bracket the mass-murder, even though it’s right there in the large print.

And the exact same thing is true of the communist dream. Sure, if you are willing to bracket all the evils that are right there in the large print – the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the fundamentally illiberal vision of society being promoted, and the absurdity of wishing away scarcity – then you can hold in your head a pleasing image, though even there it can seem rather lacking*. The communist dream has two advantages over the Nazi one; the first advantage is that the horror is slightly less front and centre, so it’s marginally easier for the true believer to bracket. The second advantage is that the communist dream is so slippery – is it that only communism can make us rich? Or only communism can free us from materialism? Or only communism can provide true equality? Or only communism can free us from bourgeois morality? – that people can read anything they like into it.

In your dream of communism, if you allow the mental camera to pan out from the gentleman-scholar supported by unexplained abundance, all the horrors come back in. Which is why even the mildest suggestions of possible problems get met with the notion that the changed conditions will result in the creation of a “New (wo)man” – the perfect expression of an ideology at war with mankind as it actually exists. I’m sorry, but to call this “right in principle” is just appalling.

* The idea of the good life being to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind” is perhaps the most extraordinarily sectarian, and dull, I have ever read, but YMMV.

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Anon 02.24.15 at 3:49 pm

“And the exact same thing is true of the communist dream. Sure, if you are willing to bracket all the evils that are right there in the large print”

The question is are the evils comparable: a temporary stage of genocide in comparison to a temporary stage in which a small group is deprived of political rights. If you do see these as comparable, then you must also believe western democracies are comparable, since they too had “temporary stages” in which minorities were deprived of political rights. (And I assume you also consistently believe that the end doesn’t justify the means in the case of western democracies, too, of course?)

“The idea of the good life being to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind” is perhaps the most extraordinarily sectarian, and dull, I have ever read, but YMMV.”

I understand some might see it that way (though whether the *alternative* option is preferable is key here–grinding 19th century labor? 21st century iphone games?). But you might notice the quote completely undermines your claim that Marxism is a “fundamentally illiberal vision.” The key phrase is “just as I have a mind.”

Marxism is anti-“liberal” but on liberal grounds. Its principle complaint is that under capitalism workers do not have control over–liberty with respect to–their labor, and that this means they don’t have control over–liberty with respect to–their time, which means they don’t in fact have liberty over their person. The goal is to change that. That’s why the vision of the good life is having the ability to use one’s time as one pleases. The fact that you find the example boring is *precisely the point*: you’d use be “free” (in the wild, illiberal sense of actually having the economic and practical power) to do whatever you like.

Again, you’re welcome to argue this is an impossibility, but it’s simply false that the goals of Marxism are in any way ethically comparable to Nazism or that it’s a fundamentally illiberal view in a substantial sense.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 4:10 pm

Even assuming that the Communists wanted to eliminate all their political enemies, that’s still utterly different from Nazis wanting to eliminate other races. According to their vision, one could stop being a political enemy of the proletariat. Get yourself “re-educated” or whatever. But you can’t stop having non-Aryan blood. To a Communist, the enemies of Communism are doing something wrong. But to a Nazi, the enemies of Nazism are being something wrong–a genetic identity that should exist.

Also, I don’t buy that the Nazis actually wanted a happy world of Aryans living in peace. I’m not even sure they said they wanted that. Did they not glorify war and struggle as good for their own sake? After they finished eliminating everyone they currently labelled genetically inferior, wouldn’t it make sense to subdivide the remaining Aryans and either A) keep picking ever narrower genetic subsets of Aryans as ‘purer’ than others and eugenically favoring them or B) putting different strains of Aryans into genetic competition with each other to let natural selection sort them out on the battlefield?

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Minnow 02.24.15 at 4:22 pm

“Even assuming that the Communists wanted to eliminate all their political enemies, that’s still utterly different from Nazis wanting to eliminate other races. “

But they didn’t. Or at least that wasn’t their public aim. They wanted to purify the German race and let other races thrive outside the German lands according to the natural law … blah, blah, blah. I don’t like it either but personal preferences don’t have any moral weight. The fact is it was, according to its lights, a utopian ideal of peace and love that just happened to be a) impossible to achieve b) based on a load of pseudo-scientific bollocks and c) doomed to cause immense quantities of death and suffering. Just like communism.

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mattski 02.24.15 at 4:29 pm

This is a very good discussion. For me it highlights the difference between basic liberalism [let’s keep expanding the franchise and ameliorating corruption of the franchise] and utopianism [we have a vision of the ideal society and we damn well mean to implement it].

And speaking of irony: while people of a philosophical persuasion debate these issues, other people of more practical concerns take what they consider to be theirs. Their friends in the media, and our own incredulity, help them cover their tracks.


“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

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Salem 02.24.15 at 4:57 pm

But you might notice the quote completely undermines your claim that Marxism is a “fundamentally illiberal vision.” The key phrase is “just as I have a mind.”

But think of all the other things he might have a mind to do, but he won’t be able to! Do you think it’s a coincidence that all his hypothetical activities are solitary and pastoral? He will not be able to interact with other people on mutually agreed terms, contrary to the will of the broader community. That’s what makes the vision sectarian and illiberal, and why that chosen focus is an evasion of the implication of his ideas, in just the same way that a happy Teutonic family on the Russian steppe (not pictured: Slavs) is an evasion. The positive vision doesn’t provide even a rough notion of how conflicting claims are resolved or social interaction regulated, it just wishes away the issue. And the actual ideas on this, even in their most idealised form (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) are obviously illiberal in every sense of the word.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 4:57 pm

“But they didn’t. Or at least that wasn’t their public aim. They wanted to purify the German race and let other races thrive outside the German lands according to the natural law … blah, blah, blah.”

Evidence? Did they offer people of other races a self-deportation option? Did they limit their territorial expansion only to lands that could remotely be called “German”?

Actually, nevermind. Because even assuming that the Nazis initially had the goal you describe, that still isn’t “a utopia ideal of peace and love”. It’s excluding people who live on a patch of land from that land based on their immutable genetic identity. A non-Communist could, in principle, see the “error” of their ways and become a Communist. A non-Aryan cannot become an Aryan.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 5:11 pm

He will not be able to interact with other people on mutually agreed terms, contrary to the will of the broader community.

If the broader community isn’t consenting, then the terms aren’t mutually agreed upon. If you agree to work below minimum wage, that’s an interaction not just with your boss but with everyone else in the economy.

That’s what makes the vision sectarian and illiberal, and why that chosen focus is an evasion of the implication of his ideas, in just the same way that a happy Teutonic family on the Russian steppe (not pictured: Slavs) is an evasion.

Just like capitalists evade the implications of their ideas on the environment or workers. Lee@299 was right about this.

Which is not to say that capitalists are like Nazis. Just that neither capitalists nor communists are like Nazis.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 5:13 pm

mattski: “This is a very good discussion. For me it highlights the difference between basic liberalism [let’s keep expanding the franchise and ameliorating corruption of the franchise] and utopianism [we have a vision of the ideal society and we damn well mean to implement it].”

I think that the discussion is pretty bad, actually. To take an example that I’ve already mentioned in this thread, when other students and I participated in a student-owned, student-operated, student-worked co-op, we had a vision of the ideal society. Did we “damn well mean to implement it” in some sinister way? No, membership was completely voluntary. Was it hopeless and impractical? No, it was an operating industrial concern that made money and supported people. I think that everyone, from engels to BB, agrees that this kind of small-scale activity is possible, workable, and not actively bad. I could go on about the actual problems involved in doing this, but no one has even gotten close to them so I won’t bother.

But what has happened is that everyone wants to take credit for this kind of activity in one way or another, to draft the people who work in this way into some larger system pro or con, starting from pretty much the OP. We could argue about Libertarian Marxism — pretty few of those people on the ground where I was — but most Marxist strands were clear about this activity being pretty much a useful-idiot kind of thing, and that it could really only happen some time in the future, or after being scaled up in some ill-defined, poorly thought out kind of way. This scaling-up in time and space goes directly with the authoritarianism that people on the left insist need have nothing to do with actual socialism.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 5:19 pm

But current redistribution programs are an instance of scaling up, and more and more people accept them over time without more authoritarianism. What can be ignored is the fact that “most Marxist strands were clear about this activity being pretty much a useful-idiot kind of thing”. This is not a judgment from Marx himself, who allowed that different sorts of emergences might occur in partial form.

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geo 02.24.15 at 5:31 pm

I’m flabbergasted and exasperated at the widespread inability to distinguish “communism” as its original exponents (Owen, Fourier, Marx, Bellamy, Morris, Kropotkin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, et al) and their successors (Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Korsch, Mattick, et al) described it, from the radically different set of institutions and authority relations that Marxism-Leninism created. The Bolsheviks professed communism (ie, the cooperative commonwealth, defined as maximally accountable democratic control of all social relations, political and economic) and practiced something wholly different (maximum centralization of control in a party-state), while retaining the original terminology, in order to co-opt and deceive potential sympathizers — and themselves, since no one likes to admit that they’ve abandoned their ideals. It’s not surprising that Western Stalinists, FBI directors, US policymakers, and Cold War liberals couldn’t see through this obvious ruse (or that they joined it, since it served their purpose — discrediting the ideals of cooperation and equality — admirably). But that so many Crooked Timberites are still taken in by it, and regard Bolshevism as the fulfillment rather than the abandonment of the communist ideal, is truly disheartening.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 5:37 pm

“But current redistribution programs are an instance of scaling up, and more and more people accept them over time without more authoritarianism. “

Current redistribution programs are liberalism, plain and simple. Left-liberalism / social democracy at best, neoliberalism at worst. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a classic (and beneficial) form of liberalism to set up large-scale social insurance schemes, but look at how they pay out.

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Salem 02.24.15 at 5:38 pm

If the broader community isn’t consenting, then the terms aren’t mutually agreed upon. If you agree to work below minimum wage, that’s an interaction not just with your boss but with everyone else in the economy.

That’s the anti-liberal view, yes, which strikes me as a nightmare, but YMMV. But those who believe in that dream need to own it, not evade it. Show how a society where my every interaction is subject to potential community veto is a utopia, not elide it by positing a dream where no such interactions exist.

Just like capitalists evade the implications of their ideas on the environment or workers.

I don’t think this is right. People arguing for capitalism may be wrong or even using bad faith, but they normally claim that it benefits workers and the environment. See e.g. here. The capitalist dream is a world where entrepreneurship and technological progress have raised everyone’s productivity and living standards, and where expansion of property rights have solved all our environmental problems (and other externalities). That doesn’t mean it actually works like that, but it’s not an evasion.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 5:54 pm

That’s the anti-liberal view, yes, which strikes me as a nightmare, but YMMV. But those who believe in that dream need to own it, not evade it. Show how a society where my every interaction is subject to potential community veto is a utopia, not elide it by positing a dream where no such interactions exist.

No, I didn’t describe the dream of communism because I am not a communist. I just pointed out that capitalism is also coercive, and describing interactions under capitalism as mutually agreed upon is a lie–you’re interacting with the community, but you aren’t giving them a veto. So when we argue between capitalism and communism, or the mixed economy, we aren’t arguing over whether there should be coercion, but over which kind of coercion would be the best.

People arguing for capitalism may be wrong or even using bad faith, but they normally claim that it benefits workers and the environment.

What is evaded is the coercion of workers and environmentalists. They may argue that those people will be better off–in the same way that techno-utopian socialists will claim that everyone will eventually be near-immortal in an post-singularity economy of nearly-unlimited plenty–but they don’t give them the option of rejecting capitalism or markets if they disagree.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 6:01 pm

Rich Pulchasky #323: “Current redistribution programs are liberalism, plain and simple. Left-liberalism / social democracy at best, neoliberalism at worst. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a classic (and beneficial) form of liberalism to set up large-scale social insurance schemes, but look at how they pay out.”

This is all immaterial, against Marx’s description of incrementalism in the Gotha critique. Also, one thing wrong: the ideas of classical liberalism are traceable to two centuries BEFORE the institution of the first general social insurance schemes, but didn’t appear until begun under Bismarck, (after being advocated first by some of the early socialists), and were not common in the West until later, around WWII and its aftermath. And they were fought for politically — they weren’t accepted by “classical liberals”.

Marx: “But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.”

–Critique of the Gotha Programme, directly preceding the longer quote above.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 6:04 pm

Sorry, that should read, “the first general social insurance schemes, WHICH didn’t appear until begun under Bismarck,”

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 6:11 pm

If you talk to libertarians in the U.S. (i.e. propertarians) they’ll go on about being classical liberals too. And yes, liberalism adopted social insurance as a way of warding off challenges from the left. That still doesn’t change the fact that it’s part of liberalism now.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 6:41 pm

What I am trying to ask is, who cares? The “fact” that “it’s a part of liberalism now,” even if it were true, doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

If the capitalist system has inherent tendencies which lead to further transformation of the social relations in the future, then, classical liberalism certainly won’t have the intellectual firepower or moral gravitas to stop it. Far from it: is already on the skids, in attempting to justify the current morass.

Marx did not put the time off indefinitely. And he certainly wasn’t alone in this; he merely elaborated (and apotheosized) a feeling that was growing throughout the 19th century, starting from the late 18th. In those days, very very few people asserted that the emerging system of private capitalism was obviously a new steady-state for social relations. In fact I am straining to think of even one person who maintained that.

Today it is quite different, many people assert that we have found the golden key for all time (e.g. the Hayekian hypothesis). This idea too is a very recent social invention.

On the structural side, since Marx’s time we have seen: more flexibility for individuals to enter the division of labor where they see fit; more equalization of the incomes difference between most mental and physical labor; increased productive forces and indeed machines now designing machines (cf. the Grundrisse).

In addition we have seen the rise of redistributive institutions targeted to emergent needs that were not met by raw capitalism, and we have seen a reawakening of deep anxiety and resentment, after society was sold the phony neoliberal bill of goods and then it all went smash.

Well, Marx would have taken all of these as further emergences upon points that are explicitly laid out in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. So I imagine that he would have judged that things have moved further along in the direction that he and just about everybody else in the 19th century supposed it would, (if anyone had asked them).

After all, they all probably had a better naive idea of the whole of the socio-psychological system than we naively do now, largely because they still had one foot planted firmly in the ruins of the older monarchic-aristocratic regimes, and thus some better perspective on how things turn out.

This is not to hold up Marx as the predominant authority either. I think that Schumpeter has the best update so far in describing, in concrete terms that avoid sociological jargon, the coming failure of capitalism in the book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942). It needs a further tweak, but it doesn’t appear that anyone has done it yet.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.24.15 at 6:44 pm

Or, wait — is this a James Livingston ‘the left has already won, even though we don’t think so’ kind of thing? I haven’t read enough Livingston to do him justice, but I think that this kind type of redefinitional leftism is a very common trope these days. Graeber does it in some of the links that engels linked to above. ‘We thought the anti-war movement was a failure because it didn’t stop Vietnam, but now that we look back at it it was a world revolution!’ That kind of thing. If all of the advances of neoliberal corporatism are really advances of the left, then whee we can’t lose.

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js. 02.24.15 at 6:52 pm

If the broader community isn’t consenting, then the terms aren’t mutually agreed upon. If you agree to work below minimum wage, that’s an interaction not just with your boss but with everyone else in the economy.

That’s the anti-liberal view, yes, which strikes me as a nightmare, but YMMV.

Wait, you think minimum wage laws are an anti-liberal nightmare? Because that’s what you have committed yourself to. (Are you using “liberal” in the British sense?)

(This might be an extreme HTML fail…)

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js. 02.24.15 at 6:54 pm

Oh, good—I fucked that up all by myself! That’s a response to Salem who was responding to Consumatopia, who was talking sense.

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cassander 02.24.15 at 7:01 pm

@ John Holbo

>Well, I think there’s a big moral difference between ‘it was a noble idea, but a catastrophe in practice’ and ‘it was an evil idea, hence a catastrophe in practice’. I don’t regard these as equivalent, morally, and I find it weird that you treat them as obviously equivalent. That is (I take it?) you not only do not distinguish between these yourself, you find it hard to conceive of why anyone would feel better disposed towards the first? That’s weird

I understand why someone would be better disposed to the good sounding idea that turned out badly than the bad sounding idea that turned out badly, but that’s a human cognitive bias, not good logic. In 1920, I’d have been extremely sympathetic to communists, I might even have been one myself. I would have been much less sympathetic to the Nazis. And even in the 50s, I might have been willing to be charitable to the people who were claiming that the problem was Stalin, not communism. But in the 60 years since then, all we’ve seen is more Stalinism. Whatever good will Communism earned by the the prettiness of its vision has long since been spent.

>If someone really convinced me that there was once some truly lofty, humane, fascistic ideal that was, tragically, derailed in practice, I would be consistency-bound to change my tune.

You should try reading what the Fascists wrote then. Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism is an excellent start. It’s energetic, positive, even progressive. It’s about the people fully expressing themselves through the state. You’ll hate it as much as I do, it’s a massive rejection of political liberalism, but that vision of everyone together marching arm in arm towards The Future! has enormous appeal on both the right and the left.

>But the dictatorship of the proletariat is not considered ideal. It is supposed to be a stage to be eventually transcended. A necessary evil, if you like.

Again, so was the messy business of clearing the slavs out of the steppe.

>Do you think that Marx was actually, intentionally running a ponzi scheme?

I think Marx was sincere, but that’s besides the point. Marxism, in practice, has proven to be a recipe for Stalinism, not a post-scarcity classless utopia. Some people pointed this out from the beginning, others denied it for decades. Some still deny it. Brett is saying that the the people who saw what communism truly was had insights that the fellow travelers did not, and that in future you should bear that fact in mind when considering future plans for post scarcity classless utopias. After all, who would you rather have give you advice on a new financial investment, the SEC which repeatedly cleared Bernie Maddoff of wrongdoing or Harry Markopolos, the independent financial investigator who repeatedly, and fruitlessly, warned the SEC that Maddoff’s numbers were impossible and provided documentation to prove it?

@Consumatopia

>You could tell similar stories about how pure capitalism/exchange doesn’t scale because of negative externalities, the tragedy of the commons, failure to provide for public goods, etc.

Those are market failures, not exactly problems with scale. As a rule, markets get more efficient as they scale up, not less.

>Did they offer people of other races a self-deportation option?….A non-Communist could, in principle, see the “error” of their ways and become a Communist. A non-Aryan cannot become an Aryan.

Actually, the Germans did try to arrange for a deportation option, and plenty of Jews did self deport and were encouraged to do so. they were taxed for doing so, but because of a capital control law passed prior to the nazi takeover. It was the communists that built walls to keep people from escaping the worker’s paradise. And quite a few people were murdered for being kulaks or the children of kulaks.

>Just like capitalists evade the implications of their ideas on the environment or workers. Lee@299 was right about this.

No, they don’t. The capitalists claim that capitalism will make life better for everyone overtime, and so far they seem to be right about that. Standards of living are rising just about everywhere. As to the environment, when did Marx ever address it? I have a hard time imagining Lenin ever even thought about it, and Stalin was downright eager to wreck it.

@Lee Arnold

>The contention of some people here (Cassander, Sebastian, Brett) seems to be that market capitalism is NOT an “enforced social norm”; is without “ugly conformist streaks”; does not “sort the worthy from the unworthy as one of the most important tasks”, and so on.

No one is claiming that. Human beings are communal creatures. Anything they do will involve those activities. But capitalism does them less than any other system. You dismiss degree arguments, but degree matters. Capitalism’s brilliance is that it rewards people for doing things that other people want, not what they want. It turns everyone into everyone else’s willing servant, in the christian sense. That’s a good thing.

>In reality, after increasing inequality for about 40 years, this whole system recently caused itself to have a complete financial crash, followed by a bailout which protected the general structure of the highest levels of capital ownership, followed by a huge recession in which austerity programs were enacted to whip the lesser mortals back into line.

I have problems with this narrative, but I’ll grant it. If this is as bad as capitalism gets, capitalism works pretty damn well. Recessions suck, but the communist equivalent of recessions was mass starvation. The socialist version is on display right now in Venezuela, it’s 70% inflation and shortages of food and toilet paper.

@Peter T

>Note that Conquest’s latest estimate for deaths under Soviet rule is 15 million. Hitler’s war in the east killed at least 25 million in the Soviet Union, 6 million Jews and several million Poles. His war in the west killed a few million more and, of course, 6 million Germans. War and genocide were central to Nazism: those happy Aryan farmers were raising sons to continue the campaign until all the world was Aryan and all the lesser races dead. That was the vision. There is a frame shift here.

Conquest’s 15 million is the lower bound of the things they can document. As for the war dead, the communists were responsible for a large number of those Soviet deaths. No one can say how many, but the Red Army reconquest of western russia and eastern europe was quite savage, and the Soviets had no trouble shooting people and blaming it on the Germans. Second, the Russian conduct of the war got a lot of people killed, it took a brave man to be a coward in the red army. Third, it seems rather unfair to blame hitler for both the soviet and german war dead. Surely Stalin has some culpability, no?

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mdc 02.24.15 at 7:14 pm

Maybe some reading of “On the Old Saw: That may be True in Theory, but does not Apply in Practice” is in order… this is “crooked timber”, after all.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 7:28 pm

Rich Pulchalsky # 330: “Or, wait — is this a James Livingston ‘the left has already won, even though we don’t think so’ kind of thing?”

Certainly not.

Let’s try it a different way: Have you observed that “neoliberal corporatism” is fighting, not advancing, the welfare state? e.g. the hard fight against Obamacare in the US?

In your mind, is a redistributive policy required to completely destroy neoliberalism, in order to not become a part of neoliberalism?

Thus, are you the one who is really doing the redefinitional stuff here, to suit your purist priors?

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 7:28 pm

Cassander #333: “You dismiss degree arguments, but degree matters.”

Wait a minute, part of the reason why capitalism’s recent crash hasn’t caused even more depredation (and you omitted my following paragraph describing more of of the things which it did cause) is that we have a MIXED system. We have government intervention, money printing, and preexisting redistribution in the form of unemployment security, retirement security, etc. which worked as economic stabilizers. It wasn’t enough, but what was there did some good.

If you are going to say, “A mixed capitalist-socialist system is better than the Venezuelan socialist regime,” that is the way the evidence appears. (I write that, because I don’t know anything about Venezuelan policy or events.)

But then to be consistent you should also say, “A mixed capitalist-socialist regime is better than pure capitalism.”

If you are going to say, “Capitalism is better than socialism,” you still haven’t proved it.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.24.15 at 7:38 pm

Geo #322: “flabbergasted and exasperated at the widespread inability to distinguish ‘communism’… from… Bolshevism…”
Mdc #334: “Maybe some reading of “On the Old Saw…” is in order…”

There’s a bunch of problems here. This tribe went on about the term “reciprocity” for several thousand words, without a precise definition. In addition, there are reading comprehension problems, plus thinking by priors. “Disheartening” ought to rhyme with “frightening”; we could pull a couplet out of it.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 7:58 pm

I understand why someone would be better disposed to the good sounding idea that turned out badly than the bad sounding idea that turned out badly, but that’s a human cognitive bias, not good logic.

This is absurd. Of course we’re going to judge a heart surgeon who performs an operation with good intentions but a bad outcome differently than someone who stabs a knife into someone else’s heart for the purpose of murdering them.

Brett is saying that the the people who saw what communism truly was had insights that the fellow travelers did not, and that in future you should bear that fact in mind when considering future plans for post scarcity classless utopias.

But the people who supported Nazis weren’t lacking insight, they had evil intentions. Not to mention that Brett has murderously utopian of his own, e.g. anarcho-capitalism.

Actually, the Germans did try to arrange for a deportation option, and plenty of Jews did self deport and were encouraged to do so. they were taxed for doing so, but because of a capital control law passed prior to the nazi takeover.

Alright, fine, but as I pointed out to Minnow this makes no difference. It’s still an inherently evil set of goals that excludes people–when it isn’t exterminating them–based on their genetic identity.

Those are market failures, not exactly problems with scale.

The problems with communism aren’t exactly problems with scale, either–families can have problems with free riding just as nation-states do.

As a rule, markets get more efficient as they scale up, not less.

As a rule, markets only work if communities and governments are intervene to make them work–to regulate externalities, ensure macroeconomic stability, and provide for public goods. “Scale” isn’t the issue for either capitalism or communism, it’s more a matter of incompleteness.

Capitalism’s brilliance is that it rewards people for doing things that other people want, not what they want. It turns everyone into everyone else’s willing servant, in the christian sense.

No. If the only alternative to choice you make is starvation, then it can’t be said to be a willing choice.

Here’s a warning: if we don’t do anything to slow down climate change, the future generations will think of capitalism the same way we think of communism–nice ideal, too bad it turned into a mass extinction event. The same is true if automation leads to mass unemployment and capitalists prevent the government from providing any relief.

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Anon 02.24.15 at 8:02 pm

At the end of the day, trying to get some here to acknowledge the disparate varieties and consequences of communism is probably about as hopeless as getting many westerners to acknowledge the disparate varieties and consequences of the Islamic faith.

They have a vested interest in painting all varieties as lunacy and zealotry, all proponents as True Believers, because it both justifies and obscures their own status as True Believers for another brand of zealous lunacy.

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bob mcmanus 02.24.15 at 8:12 pm

339: No shit. Thanks for trying, though. Now I’m off to line dance with Josef and Mao on the big tidal wave of skulls.

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mattski 02.24.15 at 9:05 pm

I think that the discussion is pretty bad, actually.

:^(

Well, I thought it was illuminating. But what is it about your co-op story that makes you so down on the discussion? I have some experience–not nearly as much as you I gather–with cooperatives also, having served on the board of a natural foods coop for a couple of years. I learned quite a bit I think, and the longevity of that business is a testament to the people and ideas behind it.

I think there is a certain combativeness in your history/conditioning that, you know, comes out whether it’s intentional or not. Certainly, I have some of that also. But where I would depart from some of the themes of this discussion is the invocation of broad generalities [liberalism/neoliberalism] as explanations/declarations of failure. You know, it isn’t some “ism” that has failed to do better. It’s people that have failed to do better.

And to repeat myself, sort of, I think there is an Archimedean lever staring us in the face. We just need to use it. The evidence is on our side.

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Brett Bellmore 02.24.15 at 9:49 pm

” Of course we’re going to judge a heart surgeon…”

The thing is, heart surgeons have a record of success, from which dead patients are just a demonstration that nothing is perfect. Whereas communists have an unbroken record of horror. If heart surgery never worked, but instead left nothing but death im its wake, we’d assume that anyone who became one was a murderer, amd ignore their claims of good intent.

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Hector_St_Clare 02.24.15 at 9:52 pm

John Holbo,

As this discussion seems highly interesting, I would like to re-apply for re-admittance to the Crooked Timber commentariat. I will promise to conduct my discourse more civilly and politely in future.

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Hector_St_Clare 02.24.15 at 9:53 pm

For what it’s worth, I find both yourself and Ms. Waring to be exxelent and deeply thoughtful writers.

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Consumatopia 02.24.15 at 10:53 pm

If heart surgery never worked, but instead left nothing but death im its wake, we’d assume that anyone who became one was a murderer, amd ignore their claims of good intent.

No, we wouldn’t retroactively assume that anyone who became a heart surgeon or advocated heart surgery before that record of failure became apparent was a murderer.

If those failed surgeons were concealing evidence, we would not assume that people deceived by them at the time were intentionally advocating murder.

Furthermore, that past heart surgeries failed doesn’t mean that some new technique could be invented by which they could be made to work. One can imagine an alternative universe in which failed heart surgeries were attempted in, say, the 18th century. Failure at the time would not imply that success was not possible after surgeons learned more.

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Peter T 02.24.15 at 11:07 pm

The ignorance of Nazism on display here is astonishing. It was not fascism, although it had elements in common (both saw struggle and war as positive virtues, both centred on national communities). Nazism put race at the centre, and was quite explicit about politics as a Social Darwinist struggle to the death between different races. The aim of lebensraum in the east was both to eliminate Slavs and to secure enough land to support an Aryan population large enough to wage war on the rest of the world. Minnow @311: the “fascist claim was that they were peaceable so long as elements like the Bolsheviks and Jews didn’t force them into war and they got their land back” is quite laughably wrong. Peace, in the Nazi and fascist lexicon, was a vice to be avoided. And in the Nazi view, being the wrong race slated you for eventual extermination. It was just that some people would be exterminated later.

So, yes, the Soviet (and German and French and Polish and Yugoslav and Rumanian and British and..) war dead are at Hitler’s account. He wanted a war, glorified in it, and did all he could to ensure it was waged as bloodily as possible.

There have been communist governments in power in Bengal, Bologna and many other places for decades. No skulls.

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Brett Bellmore 02.25.15 at 12:21 am

Consumatopia, it was no secret even 70-80 years ago how nasty communism was, not to anybody who paid attention. And the time when anybody would be deceived about it by anybody but themselves is decades past. And yet, it is discussed here as though it were not a horror. I don’t see that as an innocent mistake today.

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Sebastian H 02.25.15 at 12:26 am

“No, we wouldn’t retroactively assume that anyone who became a heart surgeon or advocated heart surgery before that record of failure became apparent was a murderer.

If those failed surgeons were concealing evidence, we would not assume that people deceived by them at the time were intentionally advocating murder.”

I’m not asking anyone to retroactively be condemned if they were confused/misled/deceived in the 1910s. I’m asking that we not be stupid about it forty years (and that is being VERY generous) after no one had any excuse. I’m saying that Graeber, who wrote in 2011 didn’t have any excuse to know that he was playing with explosives by idiotically insisting on calling nearly every small scale mutualistic thing under the sun ‘communism’.

John, it seems as if you grant charitable interpretation to communism that you don’t grant to other ideas in the same field of play (say libertarianism). Can you see yourself saying “the idea that we should all leave each other alone except in wholly voluntary transactions is noble and interesting in a vacuum, but tends to have unfortunate consequences when you take steps toward it.” It feels like your snark against libertarianism (which on the hyper-idealized level where communism is defensible sounds just as defensible) is practically unending while communism seems to have a soft spot, but I haven’t read every word you’ve written, so I don’t want to fail to give you credit if you would say something like that.

My point is that in 2011 (when Graeber writes), using the power of stipulation to narrowly draw your definition of ‘communism’ such that it encompasses nearly all small scale mutualist relationships in the history of the world, but excludes nearly everything that actual groups who called themselves communist did, is odd. I’m not sure exactly what he intended to mean by it, but it was a poor choice. The reason it is a poor choice is because it ends up with the appearance of wanting to endorse more than your stipulation, or because you want to preach to the choir more than intellectually engage, or because you don’t know the connotations of the word. The power of stipulation doesn’t extend indefinitely, because you *could* choose to use an appropriate word instead of an inappropriate word.

In theory I could define “Thatcherism” as a philosophy which was cute and cuddly and all about helping workers become their best selves while taking power away from company owners. But that wouldn’t be a good choice if my aim were to speak clearly.

‘Communism’ as a term is rightly poisoned by nearly every attempt of communists in power to go about their aims. There are all sorts of non-capitalist human impulses which might be harnessed to make a better world. But I confidently predict that they won’t go through the label communism. Anyone who understands the history of communism, and who also wants to harness non-capitalist impulses to make a better world, won’t want to be associated with communism. So when someone insists on associating with communism, it leaves the nagging feeling that they don’t understand the errors that were revealed, or that they have a scary attachment to some of the errors. Graeber would have done better to call the things he wanted to talk about almost anything other than ‘communism’. If his goal was to spark a serious discussion about mutualistic underpinnings of economies, there is almost nothing he could have done more damaging to such a goal than call it communist. Why didn’t he call it “Thatcherite”?

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Consumatopia 02.25.15 at 12:37 am

70-80 years ago isn’t when Lenin or Stalin took power.

“And yet, it is discussed here as though it were not a horror.”

Those who are discussing it as though it were not a horror are discussing a different communism than you are.

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Consumatopia 02.25.15 at 12:42 am

“I’m not asking anyone to retroactively be condemned if they were confused/misled/deceived in the 1910s. “

You may not be, but Brett, cassander, and anyone else comparing early Communists to 1920s Nazis definitely is.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.25.15 at 12:42 am

geo: “I’m flabbergasted and exasperated at the widespread inability to distinguish “communism” as its original exponents (Owen, Fourier, Marx, Bellamy, Morris, Kropotkin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, et al) and their successors (Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Korsch, Mattick, et al) described it, from the radically different set of institutions and authority relations that Marxism-Leninism created. The Bolsheviks professed communism […]”

This narrative says that things started to go wrong maybe by 1905? Maybe a few years earlier? Certainly by 1917. At any rate, this centers on Lenin.

I see a somewhat different narrative going back to the First International, where the Mutualists (and yes, the use of “mutualism” in this thread is just as wrong as every other political term) were the initially dominant force. They did not simply believe in scaling up. From here:

As G.D.H. Cole puts it, the French Internationalists, including Varlin, were “strongly hostile to centralisation. They were federalists, intent on building up working-class organisations on a local basis and them federating the local federations. The free France they looked forward was to be a country made up of locally autonomous communes, freely federated for common purposes which required action over larger areas . . . In this sense they were Anarchists.”

The rest of this story is somewhat better known. Bakunin joins in 1868, the Paris Commune happens 1871, Marx and Bakunin take differing lessons from it. Marx pushes for the constitution of the working class into a political party, and at the 1872 Congress there’s the split and the expulsion of Bakunin. That’s the time from which the assertions that Marxism is authoritarian and would lead to a new ruling class come from. You don’t have to wait until 1900-1905 and Lenin.

So no, it’s not that all Americans have been programmed to think that Marxism leads to piles of skulls. People can think that if they want to. I think that a bad mistake was made back when Marx was alive and politically active: it was his mistake.

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bob mcmanus 02.25.15 at 1:56 am

the Paris Commune happens 1871, Marx and Bakunin take differing lessons from it.

And we saw how the Proudhonists fared in the Commune. They died, in the tens of thousands. And how Makhno managed. He lost. And the anarchists in Spain. They died.

Anarchists plead with repressive states:”Please, we are so small and not a threat at all.” and consider themselves the righteous revolutionaries because of their futility.

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js. 02.25.15 at 1:56 am

Right-wingers, liberals, and anarchists of the world unite!

(I kid, I kid. I was going to respond to Holbo from way up but that seems vaguely hopeless now. I might still… In the meantime, would it help to distinguish communism from Communism and then spend the next 200 comments deciding which side Marx belongs on? Just a suggestion.)

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Layman 02.25.15 at 2:35 am

@ Brett Bellmore: “it was no secret even 70-80 years ago how nasty communism was, not to anybody who paid attention.”

This is damned funny, coming from an adherent of a political ideology, where for the majority of such adherents basic facts about climate change remain a secret today. If American conservatives can believe that there’s a conspiracy among scientists to deceive the public about the cause and effect of increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, and not be derided by you for their criminal naïveté, how can you pass judgment on the thoughts of people you never met, in a time you never experienced, and whose awareness of the facts you can’t actually evaluate?

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Rich Puchalsky 02.25.15 at 2:36 am

I guess that you have the big battalions, bob mcmanus. Maybe you can pay Brett to borrow his .45.

At any rate, I’m not trying to convince people that the anarchist view is necessarily right. I pretty much assume that anyone still Marxist in 2014 is never going to change. What I’m saying is that there is an actual left interpretation of history that differs from yours, and that yelling at some conservative “why won’t you understand” is a good way of pretending that everyone who disagrees with you is one of those conservatives. But it’s actually not true.

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geo 02.25.15 at 2:49 am

js@353: would it help to distinguish communism from Communism

You mean there are still people unaware of this distinction?

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John Holbo 02.25.15 at 2:53 am

It hasn’t quite been 12 hours but I’ll step back in and address a few direct challenges to me.

First, Cassander. Cassander thinks that favoring communist ideals over fascist ones can only be a form of ‘cognitive bias’.

“I understand why someone would be better disposed to the good sounding idea that turned out badly than the bad sounding idea that turned out badly, but that’s a human cognitive bias, not good logic.”

To me this is, to put it mildly, not good logic. It is fine (maybe) to be ruthless about ends-justify-the-means. Maybe. But then you have to fix your ends. Being crude about the argumentative stakes here, to make the battle lines vivid: I think communism is, in principle, in favor of flourishing for mankind. Fascism is, in principle, in favor of various sorts of degradation and unfreedom. (We can argue about whether this is right, but this is my view; this is what I’m saying. So, in saying what I say is wrong, this is the position Cassander is rebutting.) Cassander is retorting that favoring values of life and flourishing over values degradation and death is a form of cognitive bias. Well, you can say that, but why can’t someone then respond like so: sure, Stalinism lead to death and degradation for millions, but being opposed to death and degradation is just a form of cognitive bias. Why should mountains of corpses be worse than happy people playing in the sun? This is nuts, of course. But it shows where Cassander’s argument is going wrong: he is treating absolute ends – like human flourishing – as mere instrumental means. They aren’t. Favoring good over bad, right over wrong, is not ‘cognitive bias’. Not unless you are a pure nihilist.

Now, Sebastian:

“John, it seems as if you grant charitable interpretation to communism that you don’t grant to other ideas in the same field of play (say libertarianism). Can you see yourself saying “the idea that we should all leave each other alone except in wholly voluntary transactions is noble and interesting in a vacuum, but tends to have unfortunate consequences when you take steps toward it.” It feels like your snark against libertarianism (which on the hyper-idealized level where communism is defensible sounds just as defensible) is practically unending while communism seems to have a soft spot, but I haven’t read every word you’ve written, so I don’t want to fail to give you credit if you would say something like that. “

I try very hard to say, always and only, the thing Sebastian says I don’t say. So, not only can I see myself saying this thing about how libertarianism is good in principle but bad in practice, I can’t see myself not saying it. I don’t think I have ever said anything else, and if you find me being sloppy about that, feel free to call me out. I also try to be very careful about letting people use words they way they like, so long as they care clear about it. I let them do it even when I find the usage slightly annoying.

Let me give one example of my doing these things.

http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/black-hearted-or-bleeding-hearted-it-would-be-irresponsible-not-to-speculate/

Here is a post in which I 1) treat libertarianism in the abstract, taking seriously its noble ideals of freedom. 2) allow a libertarian to say that libertarianism should get to appropriate the word ‘socialism’. (In the post I explicitly say that I think this is a bit cheeky, but fair is fair. You can use language as you like, as long as you are clear and provide a plausible motive for your usage.) 3) I say the problem with libertarianism is not libertarianism but libertarians.

“It’s not that libertarianism is mean. It’s that the mean libertarian—and the average and modal libertarian, by my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation—is wobbly about that liberty business.”

This is precisely analogous to what I would say about communism. It’s not that communism is badly motivated. It’s that the average communist does not turn out to be actually motivated by communism’s high ideals.

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Peter T 02.25.15 at 3:21 am

Baseline communism has gone on working fine in small groups and worked in the past with larger groups. Exchange works across larger distances, but on a smaller range of things, and also works just fine. But some damn fool had to go and invent the hierarchical, structured organisation and, here’s the thing, it can’t be uninvented. When Walmart comes to town, there goes most of the local network of exchange, and a good bit of the local BC as well. When you take over a state, you are in competition with other states and, when they push, your political preferences yield. Most of the US Bill of Rights, for instance, along with much of the US preference for private enterprise, was quietly shelved during World War II. Keeping a check on large organisations is a difficult affair. It’s not made easier by wishing them away, or supposing that they are unnecessary.

A good many Ukrainians thought the Wehrmacht was going to save them from Stalin. In the end, it turned out that the Red Army was needed to save the survivors.

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Sebastian H 02.25.15 at 3:26 am

“This is precisely analogous to what I would say about communism. It’s not that communism is badly motivated. It’s that the average communist does not turn out to be actually motivated by communism’s high ideals.”

I’m fine with that as a formulation. And again, I certainly haven’t read everything you’ve written so I apologize for forming an incorrect version of you in my head.

From my perspective the Graeber choice was horrible because the topic of mutualist or trust based underpinnings of economic systems is fascinating. But once he mislabeled it as ‘communism’ he willfully made the topic much more of a mess.

The exclusionary and potentially violent sides of communism were there from very near the beginning and expressed by both Marx and Engels. The dictatorship of the proletariat isn’t a pretty vision even if it could be achieved without violence. The end state of both fascism and communism is pretty enough for the survivors, but I wouldn’t have been one of the survivors in either type of state, so naturally I’m not very attracted to the idea.

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geo 02.25.15 at 3:35 am

Rich @351: things started to go wrong …

Wrong with what, exactly? Wrong with the major organizations of the left — yes, perhaps. But I thought we were discussing the question: when did attempts to realize the ideal of society-wide political and economic self-determination, cooperation, and (rough, approximate) equality — that is, to realize the communist ideal, as expounded by … well, by now you know who — begin to go wrong? And if so, then when exactly did those attempts take place? Obviously not in Russia in 1917, or in China in 1949, or in Vietnam in 1954, or in Cuba in 1959. Those weren’t popular movements for self-determination, cooperation, and equality (ie, for “communism”). They were seizures of state power by a self-designated and authoritarian vanguard revolutionary party. Of course they all called themselves “communists.” But surely no one — at least, no one who knew what the word meant — was fooled?

I suppose the discussion — at least between you and me — is dwindling into something of a verbal quibble. I endorse around 99 percent of what I judge (from this and other threads) to be your ideal vision, and I suspect that if I had a chance to explain it to you, you’d endorse around 99 percent of mine. It will be a very long time before there’s any pressing reason for anarchists, anarcho-communists, libertarian socialists, council communists, and other egalitarian radicals to begin paying serious attention to our differences. Maybe when climate change is under control, nuclear weapons are abolished, and everyone in the world has clean water and 2000 calories per day, we can revisit this question.

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cassander 02.25.15 at 4:56 am

@John Holbo

> Cassander is retorting that favoring values of life and flourishing over values degradation and death is a form of cognitive bias. Well, you can say that, but why can’t someone then respond like so: sure, Stalinism lead to death and degradation for millions, but being opposed to death and degradation is just a form of cognitive bias. Why should mountains of corpses be worse than happy people playing in the sun? This is nuts, of course. But it shows where Cassander’s argument is going wrong: he is treating absolute ends – like human flourishing – as mere instrumental means. They aren’t. Favoring good over bad, right over wrong, is not ‘cognitive bias’. Not unless you are a pure nihilist.

What I am saying is that anyone who is pro-communist is every bit as much in favor and death and degradation as an equally fervent Nazi. We aren’t talking about theoreticals here, communism has been tried, and every time it produced death and degradation on a massive scale. So did naziism. Since both produce death and degradation, the two should be treated equally. What they claimed they would produce in theory is irrelevent. That is not being ruthless about ends means calculation, it is simply getting the left to acknowledge the facts of history, and forcing them to judge communism on what it actually did, not on what it purported it would do.

@Consumatopia

>You may not be, but Brett, cassander, and anyone else comparing early Communists to 1920s Nazis definitely is.

I said explicitly, in this thread, that “In 1920, I’d have been extremely sympathetic to communists, I might even have been one myself.”

>As a rule, markets only work if communities and governments are intervene to make them work–to regulate externalities, ensure macroeconomic stability, and provide for public goods. “Scale” isn’t the issue for either capitalism or communism, it’s more a matter of incompleteness.

Right, which is why it’s impossible to buy illegal drugs in american prisons…..

Markets can be made to function better by the things you say, but they are most definitely not required.

>This is absurd. Of course we’re going to judge a heart surgeon who performs an operation with good intentions but a bad outcome differently than someone who stabs a knife into someone else’s heart for the purpose of murdering them.

If you call yourself a heart surgeon, and claim that you’re only trying to help, I will give you the benefit of the doubt. But if every patient you see dies, and you keep trying to operate on more and more people, after a while I’m just going to call you a murder.

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John Holbo 02.25.15 at 5:16 am

Cassander: “We aren’t talking about theoreticals here”

YOU get to pick what YOU talk about. YOU do not get to pick what I am talking about. You cannot stipulate that, in saying one thing, I am actually saying something else entirely. If you want to argue with me, you have to argue with what I am saying, not something I am not saying. If I say that, in theory, communism has high ideals it is simply empirically false to say that ‘we’ are not talking theoretically. Do you understand this elementary point?

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John Holbo 02.25.15 at 5:33 am

Let me put it one final way. Cassandra writes:

“What they claimed they would produce in theory is irrelevent.”

No, it is not irrelevant since the question is, precisely, what they claimed they would produce in theory.

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Salem 02.25.15 at 9:08 am

Wait, you think minimum wage laws are an anti-liberal nightmare? Because that’s what you have committed yourself to. (Are you using “liberal” in the British sense?)

No, that’s not what I wrote. I think the best sense of liberalism is more about justifications for laws than specific laws. So a minimum wage law could be OK if it were the best way to prevent people being unduly coerced into low-pay contracts (with those who freely chose such contracts as unfortunate collateral damage). But it would definitely not be Ok if justified on consumatopia’s – yes, dystopic – view that every contract is “an interaction not just with your boss but with everyone else in the economy” and so society as a whole has a free-floating right to veto my private interactions. That’s the communitarian evil.

I’m Using liberal in the Millian sense.

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Consumatopia 02.25.15 at 11:30 am

This:

every contract is “an interaction not just with your boss but with everyone else in the economy”

does not imply this:

so society as a whole has a free-floating right to veto my private interactions.

The first claim is descriptive, the second claim is normative.

I was pointing out that contracts with “mutually agreed upon” terms can still be coercive. If you’re talking about people being “unduly coerced” into contracts, and you aren’t talking about someone literally pointing a gun at your face forcing you to sign, then you’re now agreeing with me.

Look, it’s simply the case that the contracts you agree to affect everybody else in the economy. You’re interacting with everyone. If you expect your contract to be enforced by the state, then your contract is interacting directly with the state! So if your normative claim (not mine!) is that interactions should be mutually agreed upon, then you’re forced to adopt the dystopic position. If by “community veto”, you mean that the committee elects a committee to evaluate each contract on a case-by-case basis for arbitrary reasons, then I agree that position is dystopic. I humbly suggest that rather than take this position, it would be better to modify that normative claim–as you just did with your caveats about “unduly coerced”.

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Brett Bellmore 02.25.15 at 11:49 am

John, you can want all you like to discuss communism as a hypothetical, and it won’t make the real world track record go away, or cause people who care about human suffering to stop bringing it up. Communism is not a hypothetical. Can you grasp THAT elementary point?

Communism has high ideals (present tense) like a ponzi scammer cares for his clients’ welfare. Because nobody advocates either today in ignorance of what would result.

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mdc 02.25.15 at 12:33 pm

Marge, I agree with you- in theory. In theory, communism works. In theory!

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Salem 02.25.15 at 12:34 pm

Look, it’s simply the case that the contracts you agree to affect everybody else in the economy. You’re interacting with everyone.

The fact that something may affect someone else doesn’t mean I’m interacting with that person. If Adam punches Bob, or is paid to mow his lawn, or poisons his geraniums, those are interactions. But if Adam marries Carol, or buys her strawberries, or is paid to cut her rhododendra, that’s not an interaction with Bob, even though it affects him (because he wanted to marry her/buy the fruit/do the job too). So I flat-out disagree that you’re interacting with everyone. At least, such is my use of the word.

I do think you need permission to interact, it doesn’t follow that you need permission to affect without interacting. That’s the basic meaning of liberalism. So to go back to the Marx daydream, it’s nightmarish precisely because all his private interactions have been reclassified into public ones, which is why the “happy focus” is solitary, pastoral activities. Now your objection appears to be “Aha, those interactions were public ones all along!” To which I can only respond that you are stepping outside the liberal mode of politics, and that if you really believe this, you need to come up with your own, non-nightmarish, ideal.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.25.15 at 12:58 pm

geo: “Wrong with what, exactly? Wrong with the major organizations of the left — yes, perhaps. But I thought we were discussing the question: when did attempts to realize the ideal of society-wide political and economic self-determination, cooperation, and (rough, approximate) equality — that is, to realize the communist ideal, as expounded by … well, by now you know who — begin to go wrong? And if so, then when exactly did those attempts take place?”

But this extended question seems very confused to me, geo. I know that nothing is at stake, that these are quibbling differences among a tiny number of egalitarian radicals, etc., but I’m still going to reply.

First of all, there’s a “society-wide” stuck in there. If you can only realize the communist ideal through a society-wide attempt, then you’ve already implicitly disallowed most of anarchism. A lot of anarchism is not revolutionary — oh, excuse me, “straw man” revolutionary — and depends on making small-scale attempts that are supposed to influence the creation of other small groups that gradually increase in number. From that point of view, attempts occur somewhere every year. Of course, these attempts are made much more difficult by the legacy of Marx — he directly denounced them, inspired generations of leftists who insist that leftist movements need to be animated by Marxist ideas, and produced an ideology suitable for successful takeovers of huge areas of the world which then failed dramatically, and whose advocates insist that they and anarchists are trying to do the same kind of liberatory activity.

But if you want to talk about large-scale attempts, bob mcmanus already mentioned two of them. It’s too bad that the repressive governments that he mentioned included the Bolsheviks, who directly destroyed the Mahknovites and betrayed the Spanish anarchists to destruction.

So Marx’ decision that the proletariat needed to take control of the state — along with his failure to theorize any actual limits on the power of the state — seems to me to be critical in all of these failures. And once again I’d put the year at 1872. The damage done has lasted nearly a century and a half.

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John Holbo 02.25.15 at 1:19 pm

Brett, if you think I have said – or implied – something false about communism, please feel free to point it out.

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Consumatopia 02.25.15 at 1:53 pm

“The fact that something may affect someone else doesn’t mean I’m interacting with that person.”

If you’re affecting me and I’m affecting you, then we’re interacting. That’s not a matter of politics, that’s a matter of fact. That doesn’t mean that everyone has the right to refuse every interaction, so stop slandering me (and for that matter Marx) with that nonsensical accusation. There is no simple formula for determining who should and shouldn’t be allowed to refuse interaction. Bob shouldn’t get to decide whether Adam and Carol get married. Nor should Carol get to decide whether Adam and Bob get married. Should the state get to decide whether Adam can marry a whole bunch of women (and have said marriage recognized by the state)? Liberals have taken both sides–divided between a desire to respect the autonomy of adults and the danger that normalized patriarchal polygamy could threaten that autonomy.

Or with the minimum wage, we think the state can prevent sub-minimum wage labor interactions. This surely isn’t because liberals think that Adam’s decision to work below minimum wage somehow coerces Adam–that is what would be illiberal, implying that we would be assuming we know better than Adam what is best for Adam. We prevent sub-minimum wage labor because Adam’s decision to work subminimum wage affects Bob’s capacity to work at minimum wage

Or take the case of racial discrimination. Liberals ban it not because whites are hurting themselves by only doing business with other whites. We ban it because they are hurting other people by not doing business with them.

None of this means that the state should appoint a central committee to give the thumbs up or down to each interaction at will. It just means that you can’t determine from the nature of “effect” or “interaction” alone which interactions and effects should be permitted.

You’re playing a funny game here in which your definition of “interaction” doesn’t require you to tolerate all private interactions (e.g. subminimum wage labor) but you also insist that my definition requires me to put a central committee in charge of everything. You’re allowed to separate your definitions and your normative conclusions, but I’m not. It does not make sense.

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Z 02.25.15 at 2:19 pm

When I read cassander

We aren’t talking about theoreticals here, communism has been tried, and every time it produced death and degradation on a massive scale.

or Brett

you can want all you like to discuss communism as a hypothetical, and it won’t make the real world track record go away

I wonder what world they live in. Maybe it’s a generational thing, I don’t know, after all I became aware of the meaning of the word communism after the disappearance of the USSR . But in the actual current existing world, not the world of 60 years ago, the town next to mine has had an uninterrupted string of communist mayors since 1935 to the present and has elected a communist representative. Where are the piles of skulls? The communist party was the second largest political party in France for two decades or so. Their most salient legacy is a single-payer universal health care system and a national monopoly on energy production. That can be debated, but it is emphatically not true that either lead to massive destruction and death.

It is absolutely true that communist government conducted within authoritarian systems lead to said horrible record (and the usual experience of intense geopolitical crisis did not help either) but if there is something that libertarians should have no problem grasping is that political ideologies put in practice by authoritarian systems go wrong, not necessarily because the ideology is wrong but because human beings like freedom and liberty. In fact, here is an interesting thought experience for any self-identified libertarian: what would you expect from an organization whose self-described ideals are libertarian but which operates within an authoritarian system (and possibly at the time of intense geopolitical crisis)? If you have a hard time imagining such a situation, real world examples would be the post-WWII rule of the Mafia on Sicily or (for a situation I’m actually familiar with) the mafia-ruled harbor of Marseille during the infamous French Connection episode in the 1950s.

My guess is that you would say that by definition, any such organization cannot embody the core ideals defining libertarianism, that any policy it will conduct will (per the hypotheses) not be libertarian and that you’d expect horrible crimes from such an organization (or quick total collapse).

Well, geo feels the same way anytime you write about the track records of communism by conjuring the USSR or Maoist China. As for me, I just wish you’d take a stroll in Bagneux , visit its XIIth century church, have a look at the original tomb of Oscar Wilde and chat a bit with a bloodless communist government.

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Z 02.25.15 at 2:26 pm

By the way, geo, I understand your exasperation at the confusion between Bolshevism and your strand of communism, but as you mentioned News from Nowhere up-thread (a book which I adore), I confess that I can’t imagine that you are not finding a measure of solace comparing this thread with the beginning of the book.

“Says our friend: Considering the subject, the discussion was good-tempered; for those present being used to public meetings and after-lecture debates, if they did not listen to each others’ opinions (which could scarcely be expected of them), at all events did not always attempt to speak all together, as is the custom of people in ordinary polite society when conversing on a subject which interests them. For the rest, there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions.”

And yet, this always manage to wrench my heart.

“If I could but see a day of it,” he said to himself; “if I could but see it!”

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areanimator 02.25.15 at 2:33 pm

It is impossible to find an ideology, religion or philosophy on Earth free of having skulls piled up in its name. As soon as an idea starts influencing the world, people are ready to use it as a pretext for violence. But if one were to deduce from this some kind of refusal to engage with utopian ideas per se, one would still have blood on one’s hands. After all, much violence has been justified with appeals to pragmatism, liberty, “the conditions on the ground” and so on. There are no winners in debates like this.

However, it is bizarre to use the argument above to conclude that all ideologies, ideas, religions and so on are EQUALLY culpable in global atrocities. Some of them are, in fact, more useful to proponents of genocide &c than others. In some of them, the genocide is a built in feature. I’m firmly on Holbo’s side in this. If his opponents could demonstrate at least one example of a fascist/Nazi counterpart to something like the Paris Commune they might have a better position from which to advance arguments.

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Salem 02.25.15 at 2:52 pm

consumatopia – I am not interested in playing word games with you. I have made it perfectly clear what I mean by “interaction,” and it is a pretty standard use. Most people would not say that Adam and Carol getting married is an “interaction” with Bob, even if it might disappoint him. You don’t have to use the word that way, but it is pretty tiresome for you to object to my statements by implicitly redefining my words.

The liberal position is that only interactions need permission, affects do not. Bystanders only get to object on the basis of some specific harm (not merely the frustration of their wishes). I’m sorry you find this difficult, but I’m really not playing any funny games, nor have I mentioned any kind of central committee. Is there a name for this kind of trolling – “It’s very unreasonable for you to accuse me of Albigensianism” – or is it original to you?

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geo 02.25.15 at 2:57 pm

Thank you, Z, for the Morris quote. That is consoling.

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Consumatopia 02.25.15 at 3:18 pm

I am not interested in playing word games with you

I’m not a Marxist, but your entire argument against Marx is built on nonsense word games.

I have made it perfectly clear what I mean by “interaction,” and it is a pretty standard use.

No, actually, it isn’t clear at all. And it’s definitely not standard, looking at a couple dictionaries, I can’t find any more specific definition applicable to this than “mutual or reciprocal action or influence”. You’re the one redefining words–it’s absurd to say that two men getting married today doesn’t interact with national politics. You might also say that two men getting married is none of our business, if we aren’t the two men in question, and you’d be right, but that’s not what “interaction” means (and if that was what interaction means, you couldn’t derive any ethical conclusion from it, because deciding what “our business” is already takes an ethical system for granted.)

The liberal position is that only interactions need permission, affects do not. Bystanders only get to object on the basis of some specific harm (not merely the frustration of their wishes).

The harm of discrimination is frustration of the wishes of the discriminated against. And note that some types of discrimination are totally permissible–we may force Adam to be nondiscriminatory in selling his house or hiring employees, but not in choosing his spouse or even his roommate.

No, I’m sorry. You can’t derive justice from the definitions of the particular words “interaction”, “effect” or “harm”.

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LFC 02.25.15 at 3:18 pm

@Hector St Clare upthread:

I will say this for Hector. Unlike some other people who were banned, he didn’t switch to another posting name and then reappear with impunity. That shd probably count in his favor. (OTOH I’m sure there are or may be considerations on the other side, such as what he actually said when here before…)

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Rich Puchalsky 02.25.15 at 4:03 pm

Z: “But in the actual current existing world, not the world of 60 years ago, the town next to mine has had an uninterrupted string of communist mayors since 1935 to the present and has elected a communist representative. Where are the piles of skulls? The communist party was the second largest political party in France for two decades or so. Their most salient legacy is a single-payer universal health care system and a national monopoly on energy production. That can be debated, but it is emphatically not true that either lead to massive destruction and death.”

Well, here goes. I’m just going to behave as if I can have a reasonable discussion and disagreement with Z and / or geo and pretend that much of the rest of the thread doesn’t exist. I have to do similar kinds of things when I criticize Obama (“Doesn’t that mean that you’re a birther, like all the other people criticizing him?”)

Various people in the thread have brought up less-than-society-wide communist local governments and political parties. I don’t really want to go through all of them and figure which particular kind of communism each of them is / was. But it’s my contention that the Marxist tradition is particularly vulnerable to authoritarian takeover and collapse, because of essential parts of its theory. Aren’t local and democratic-party communisms insulated in part from this failure mode particularly because they aren’t society-wide? They essentially rely on liberal society for the controls on their own power.

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mattski 02.25.15 at 4:11 pm

areanimator,

I’m on board with all you wrote with the possible exception of this:

But if one were to deduce from this some kind of refusal to engage with utopian ideas per se, one would still have blood on one’s hands.

Yes, in a sense just being human means we have blood on our hands. (!) But it’s pushing things to pin this on Gandhi, MLK, and the people who took their teachings to heart.

I make a distinction between utopianism which I think is both seductive and dangerous, and liberalism, by which I mean a belief in the process of democracy. Let’s focus on improving the machinery of democracy, especially where transparency and free flow of information are concerned.

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mattski 02.25.15 at 4:14 pm

They essentially rely on liberal society for the controls on their own power.

Rich! Did you just say something nice about liberalism??

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Salem 02.25.15 at 4:29 pm

I’m not a Marxist, but your entire argument against Marx is built on nonsense word games.

No, my argument against Marx is that his ideal only looks superficially appealing because he posits a man who just wants to do solitary activities, and indeed, he can do these “just as he has a mind.”* But conspicuously not mentioned are any interpersonal interactions, and the reason these cannot be mentioned in the dream is that communism does not have, and never had, a satisfactory answer to how these are to be regulated. A positive vision of society doesn’t just mean “I foresee everyone being happy.” It must necessarily posit a way to achieve that, a way for the inevitable conflicts of wishes and interests to be resolved. Communism doesn’t have any good solutions here, just a mixture of wishing away of the problem and illiberalism (“a new man will emerge”/”from each/to each”).

In other words, Zed might posit the ideology of Lovism, where true love is held as the highest value and everyone marries the person they adore. Think how wonderful it would be! I object – what if Alice loves Bob, but Bob doesn’t love Alice? Zed replies “In the Lovist society, all loves will magically align somehow. Also, too bad for Bob.” It’s pretty clear that Lovism is a nightmare of an idea, and will fail horribly. “Ah,” Zed sighs, “but Lovism was at least a beautiful dream. The formerly lovelorn now united with their true loves is surely morally right in theory.” The best that can be said for Zed’s dream is that he’s evading the issue.

You can’t derive justice from the definitions of the particular words “interaction”, “effect” or “harm”.

How lucky then that I’ve never tried!

*But note that this is only because problems of scarcity have been wished away.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.25.15 at 4:33 pm

mattski: “I make a distinction between utopianism which I think is both seductive and dangerous, and liberalism, by which I mean a belief in the process of democracy.”

mattski,, you asked upthread “what is it about your co-op story that makes you so down on the discussion?” It’s statements like this. You say that you’re on the board of a co-op, so do you attend board meetings and grimly think before each one “All right, this is utopianism. Seductive and dangerous. I’d better be on my guard.” No, I don’t think you do. And liberalism as “a belief in the process of democracy” just doesn’t really wash. What does that *mean*? Are you troubled that you’re on the board of the co-op without being a worker in it (which I assume you would have mentioned)? Should you be? Which democracy gets to decide about the operations of the co-op, and how do people get included and excluded? As someone in the Occupy group I was in wryly said about “consensus democracy”: “too bad those words are opposites”. These aren’t specifically liberal concerns.

Let’s imagine that you had a worker-owned and controlled co-op (not all of them are) in which the people in it could vote to do what they liked with the resources of the co-op, so they could e.g. decide to provide for unusual needs of co-op members to the limit of the co-op’s ability. Lo and behold you have worker ownership of the means of production, mutualism, communism etc. in some limited form. Is that utopianism, or is that pretty much an ordinary kind of arrangement that people could make and that no one would really object to? Is it invalidated because of its local context? (The workers certainly don’t own the “commanding heights” of the means of production, etc.) Those are questions that just aren’t well served by seeing this as an essential kind of difference between utopianism and liberalism.

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areanimator 02.25.15 at 5:02 pm

Mattski @ 382:
The point I wanted to emphasize wasn’t the fact that all humans have blood on their hands. While true, that statement doesn’t seem to lead in any constructive direction.
What I was trying to get at was – it’s insufficient to just say “well, everyone have blood on their hands” and dismiss all utopian thought. I do not impugn Gandhi, MLK, Jesus or Buddha Gautama, but I do note that their followers wasted no time in getting involved in the business of violence once a generation or even less than that had passed. However, that fact alone does not make Gandhi, say, morally equivalent to Hitler. I’m sure you agree. I would like to make a similar point concerning Marx.
Also, while you may find the distinction between utopianism and liberalism useful, a quick look back at the last 300 years or so of history shows that plenty of blood has been shed in the name of liberalism, both as a utopian ideal and as a pragmatic fact that needs to be defended. That leads me back to my original comment – I don’t mean that all ideas are equally dangerous. Dangerous people will use whatever idea they happen to find convenient to excuse their violence in the hic et nunc, but some ideas are more convenient for this purpose than others.
This is of course notwithstanding the fact that attributing particular instances of genocide, repression and murder to generic, vague labels that encompass vast swathes of the world across history is a useless enterprise at best.

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anon 02.25.15 at 5:14 pm

“A positive vision of society doesn’t just mean ‘I foresee everyone being happy.’ It must necessarily posit a way to achieve that, a way for the inevitable conflicts of wishes and interests to be resolved. Communism doesn’t have any good solutions here, just a mixture of wishing away of the problem and illiberalism (‘a new man will emerge”/”from each/to each’).”

Salem, I don’t think this is really an accurate representation. I don’t know the history or the texts as well as some here. But as I understand it, Marx has in mind something like :

1) an expansion of liberalism’s democratic procedures into the economic sphere, so that there are no kings or priests in the workplace as well as in the political sphere; conflicts are resolved by hierarchies of representatives of workers who are ultimately answerable to workers. In this sense it’s not “wishing away” but wishing for more of something liberalism offers/claims to offer, and

2) a limitation of liberalism’s democratic procedures to wage-laborers by making the foundational level of representation not citizens but worker’s groups (the origin of the “soviets” of the U.S.S.R), thus excluding non-laborers from democratic power. The second part seems complementary to the first, because as we all known first hand, an economic ruling class can easily subvert democratic procedures. Here rather than “wishing away” there is just a restriction of liberal democratic procedures.

Maybe I’m wrong, so feel free to correct me, but *if* something like that’s what Marx has in mind, I don’t see why its more fundamentally utopian or unworkable than any other political and economic system that is “democratic” in a broader sense of the word. It expands some features already in practice, and contracts others.

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mattski 02.25.15 at 5:23 pm

areanimator,

Again, well said.

plenty of blood has been shed in the name of liberalism

This is undoubtedly true. The American revolution is a prime example. WWII also. But it’s important to note, I expect you might agree, that the Vietnam war–for example–can’t be pinned on liberalism though some might argue so.

I said that utopianism is seductive and dangerous. I didn’t say that it serves no purpose or can’t have a positive role. The trick is not to become overly attached to visions, no?

Rich,

You’re a well-oiled disapproval machine. [said with a smile] More later.

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Z 02.25.15 at 5:24 pm

But it’s my contention that the Marxist tradition is particularly vulnerable to authoritarian takeover and collapse, because of essential parts of its theory.

Oh, sure, I completely agree: despite its at the time revolutionary (in the intellectual sense) attention to class distinction, Marx neglected the inherently agonistic relation which exists between different type of capital (finical, intellectual, social, religious etc). That’s an intellectual Weltanschauung that essentially commits you to the belief (naïve and empirically incorrect, in my view) that the abolition (either by force, as in the leninist version, or gradually, democratically and peacefully, as in the geo version) of class distinction (in the marxian sense) would abolish social conflicts.

In fact, I believe that the reason even local communist governments in democratic societies have at best an OK track record (rarely better) and the reason gradual, democratic, peaceful adoption of a marxian society at a large scale is impossible within currently existing societies is precisely this oversight: in the long run, the very real conflicted interests that do not easily conform to the marxian framework come back to bite you. And conversely, to geo’s question (how could we “scale up the generosity, trust, forbearance, etc that sometimes characterize families or small voluntary communities to much larger societies”?), my preliminary tentative answer would be “by giving your utmost attention to the full variety of agonistic social relations and the anthropological and social conditions that have shaped them.”

An answer I venture could please Marx, were he a reader of CT.

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Consumatopia 02.25.15 at 5:34 pm

You can’t derive justice from the definitions of the particular words “interaction”, “effect” or “harm”.

How lucky then that I’ve never tried!

You repeatedly insisted that because I use “interaction” in the standard way that I committed myself to a “dystopic” ethical position.. So, yeah, you did. I’m getting really sick of your posturing.

I’m not denying that Marxism neglects or wishes away some kinds of coercion. I’m just pointing out that pure capitalism neglects or wishes away other kinds of coercion. (And, yes, I have been consistent about this, see 319.) That’s exactly what you’re doing with nonsensical distinctions between ‘interaction’, ‘affect’ and ‘harm’.

Do people today have the kind of freedom Marx wanted? Can they do solitary activities just as they have a mind? No, the vast majority of them cannot. And, yes, part of the reason is scarcity–we have not reached a level of production that makes that level of leisure feasible. But that’s only part of the problem, because under capitalism, we still wouldn’t have that kind of freedom even if machines made human labor obsolete. Everyone could engage in whatever market exchanges they wanted, it’s just that some people would have nothing to bring to do the table. At best, they could become servants for the owners of machines–employed not for the sake of their labor but for the prestige of having humans servants. At worst, they simply starve.

Marxism, as originally conceived, depends on the eventual success of their plan to eliminate scarcity. (It’s not correct to say they wished it away–some of them had plans for how to bring it about. Flawed plans, yes, but error and evasion are too different things.) Capitalism as an ethical system, on the other hand, seems to depend on the continued existence of certain kinds of scarcity, like human labor. And this is not a theoretical, distant future problem, it’s at the root of unemployment problems–laborers are dependent on others having a need for their labor. To the point that governments actually try to create needs–to encourage other people to demand more labor and services from other people. Some of the resistance to Keynesian economics is no doubt that people recognize there is something absurd about all of this, but the absurdity is not in Keynes but in the market failures that make Keynes necessary.

It’s not hard to imagine a form of socialism that provides for all basic needs but still makes it possible for cooperating individuals to own or otherwise control capital beyond what is necessary to relieve individuals of immediate scarcity. Star Trek seems to portray such a society. And, similarly, you can combine capitalism with a guaranteed income or something similar to solve some of the problems I’m talking about here. In contrast, if your ideology is based on a concept of a “master race”, there simply isn’t any ameliorating fix you can bolt on to make that non-evil. Capitalist and marxist ‘evasions’ are comparable to one another, neither is comparable to Nazism.

That you think this analogy beween Marxism and “Lovism” should be convincing only proves my point–neither would be more convincing than the other unless material scarcity were an ethically different problem than romantic scarcity. Abstracting away that difference with talk of “interactions” and “harms” only makes a muddle of things.

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bianca steele 02.25.15 at 6:58 pm

John, quick question:

I think js.’s suggestion–if you don’t have measurement, you won’t have exchange–is pretty compelling. Would you accept his suggestion if we take it as given that the minimal requirement to have measurement is to be able to distinguish 0 from other quantities (or to be able to distinguish positive quantities from non-positive quantities)? In other words, if receipt is a black box, which I’m taking to be the equivalent of receipt without measurement, then what’s going on isn’t exchange. Yes, no, maybe?

(Also, I’m taking it that we’re talking about the situation “should I give to the community although I don’t know what I’ll receive?” . . . rather than “should we reward an individual although we don’t know what he’ll give?” Though perhaps I’m mistaken.)

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geo 02.25.15 at 8:15 pm

Rich @369: Yes, good questions. I’ll try to find a way around the terminological thicket.

What I’d like to work toward is a society in which decisions are made by those people whom they affect, in rough proportion to how much they’re affected. In a capitalist democracy, this is true of much of private life, i.e., consumption, religion, family — though the decisions of business and the state restrict the range of choices and opportunities we have to decide about. Of public life — work and politics — it is far less true. The relation of employers to employees is, libertarian fantasies notwithstanding,
radically unequal, and the state is — again, libertarian fantasies notwithstanding — almost entirely under the control of the owning class, who control employment and investment.

Liberal and social-democratic politics are about easing these structural constraints on self-determination while not challenging them in any fundamental way. I respect, even admire, liberals and social democrats, because they — unlike most conservatives and libertarians — actually care about the immense suffering inflicted by vast inequalities of power and resources. I wish them well, vote for them occasionally, even write them checks in a pinch. They’re comrades. I just think their moral/political imagination is a bit limited.

For the distant future, I think a more equal, cooperative, emancipated state of affairs is possible. Some of those who share this belief envision a society in which most public and private goods are produced locally, and therefore most political decisions are taken locally, with decisions about large-scale matters taken by representatives or delegates to a federal decision-making body. In this scheme, although most decisions would be taken locally, there would have to be a society-wide consensus about the forms and structures of the society, because otherwise, economies of scale would be unavailable and trans-local entities could create a race to the bottom, just as corporations do now.

Other egalitarians suppose that most production will be integrated over a larger geographical range and that political decisions will therefore be taken at a regional or national level. This will mean devising political forms that ensure strict accountability, which of course can only be enforced if local citizens are determined to use those forms to interrogate, instruct, and, when necessary, recall their delegates/representatives.

Both these visions presuppose high levels, widespread throughout the society, of information, participation, and trust. In fact, any decent society presupposes those things. To me the important strategic question, now and probably for many generations, is not exactly what the ideal society will look like but rather how to bring about the conditions among the population that will motivate and enable it to conceive and move toward a radically different, more decent society at all.

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John Holbo 02.25.15 at 11:11 pm

“I think js.’s suggestion–if you don’t have measurement, you won’t have exchange–is pretty compelling. Would you accept his suggestion if we take it as given that the minimal requirement to have measurement is to be able to distinguish 0 from other quantities (or to be able to distinguish positive quantities from non-positive quantities)?”

I don’t really understand the motivation for js. suggestion, as I’ve said, Bianca. If I’m willing to trade an apple for an orange, there doesn’t need to be some metric of measurement which gives the common denominator of apples and oranges. You seem to be suggesting that people need to be able to distinguish qualities. That’s certainly fair enough. But I don’t call that measuring. If you really mean something very trivial by measurement, i.e. any time you recognize any qualities of an object you are ‘measuring’, I’ll grant the point. I was only denying it in a more full-blooded sense where measuring means having some explicit standard against which two objects can be co-measured.

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mattski 02.25.15 at 11:21 pm

Rich 385

So, thanks for your response, I appreciate it. To clarify, I was on the board of the food coop in the 90’s, for about 2 years as I recall. Small community store in rural Vermont.

And liberalism as “a belief in the process of democracy” just doesn’t really wash. What does that *mean*? Are you troubled that you’re on the board of the co-op without being a worker in it (which I assume you would have mentioned)? Should you be? Which democracy gets to decide about the operations of the co-op, and how do people get included and excluded?

I think I did have some discomfort about participating in the governance of the coop without working in it. But there was a need for board members, I was asked to serve and I did. I didn’t participate in writing the by-laws. “Which democracy gets to decide” is a perfectly legitimate question. But aren’t you just pointing to intrinsic questions/problems of governance? You’re quite right to suggest that no one really knows the true meaning of “democracy.” I don’t agree that this invalidates democracy as an ideal. The “process of democracy” is an ongoing experiment. Let’s keep running the experiment in as many ways as creative people can come up with.

Let’s imagine that you had a worker-owned and controlled co-op (not all of them are) in which the people in it could vote to do what they liked with the resources of the co-op, so they could e.g. decide to provide for unusual needs of co-op members to the limit of the co-op’s ability. Lo and behold you have worker ownership of the means of production, mutualism, communism etc. in some limited form. Is that utopianism, or is that pretty much an ordinary kind of arrangement that people could make and that no one would really object to? Is it invalidated because of its local context?

I don’t think I would call that utopianism, at least in the context of this thread. Because, as you say, of the local aspect. What you describe is a wonderful example of cooperative organization. What makes it workable is the small scale, and of course it might work quite well for a period of time and nevertheless fall to pieces eventually. Such organizations can be difficult to sustain. The utopianism I’m talking about is large scale and I think the two of us are not far apart in how we assess that.

I am all for cooperative structures where they can work efficiently and stand the test of time. (If they’re inefficient and short-lived that’s fine too! But it’s nice when they can stick around.) I also firmly believe that hierarchy is not an intrinsic evil. Good-hearted leadership can produce lasting, respectful structures also. It really is about what is in people’s hearts. For me that’s the bottom line.

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John Holbo 02.25.15 at 11:22 pm

I also don’t see why it matters, bianca. What larger point depends on this?

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bianca steele 02.25.15 at 11:24 pm

Conceding that giving can be apples and getting can be oranges, by any “to each according to, from each according to,” I’d think you have to be able to define “enough” and by extension “too little” and “too much” and that seems to be measurement (with all that entails, etc., though not relevant so much in this thread). I can’t really remember whether you were agreeing with Graeber or contradicting him about the slogan being exchange, or why that matters for his argument, and that’s all I can type before dinner, I think, but thanks for the answer.

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mattski 02.25.15 at 11:41 pm

Addendum to Rich P: Even with the occasional flare-ups which inevitably occur in these forums, I get a lot out of reading comments from the MANY smart, well-informed commenters at CT. I really enjoy the opportunity to participate in the discussion as well whether it’s agreeing, disagreeing or just musing. I sincerely hope you get some joy out of it too.

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mattski 02.25.15 at 11:54 pm

geo,

To me the important strategic question, now and probably for many generations, is not exactly what the ideal society will look like but rather how to bring about the conditions among the population that will motivate and enable it to conceive and move toward a radically different, more decent society at all.

A strategy that combines the social (refinements and improvements to democracy) and the spiritual (refinements and improvements to ourselves.) People are the building blocks of society.

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bob mcmanus 02.26.15 at 12:03 am

393: re measurement and exchange

Pretty sure Marx says that the moment 7 apples equals 5 oranges consistently over time and/or space you have a universal equivalent, money and capital. Even if there is no currency, the fact is that the abstract commodity has entered the market.

So in this sense it doesn’t work to look at an individual interaction or isolated exchange, but to look at multiple instances and examples, apples vs oranges in Paris and Brussels. And of course we could have coincidence, so then apples exchange belts in Paris and oranges exchange hats in Brussels. And approach a social analysis of a social phenomenon. Again you don’t need money, as long as you can’t posit some common denominator or universal equivalent, even carried in heads.

Value, which isn’t exchange-value/price or use-value/utility.

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bianca steele 02.26.15 at 12:15 am

Cross-posted with John H. Still don’t have time to type more, though.

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John Holbo 02.26.15 at 12:46 am

“Conceding that giving can be apples and getting can be oranges, by any “to each according to, from each according to,” I’d think you have to be able to define “enough” and by extension “too little” and “too much” and that seems to be measurement”

The basic problem here is that ‘exchange’ does not imply equal exchange, or even approximately equal exchange. It’s true that if we are using exchange to imply voluntarism, it is unlikely that people will voluntarily engage in many exchanges that they regard as unequal. Nevertheless, he exchanged one apple for five apples is not a non-exchange, just a bad deal, sounds like. By contrast, reciprocity implies approximate equality. Any major violation of the equality relation indicates that the reciprocal relationship has actually broken down.

We may also use the term exchange to imply that there are markets. I don’t think that’s intuitive. But if you want to reserve the term ‘exchange’ for environments in which there is money or rationalized commodification, fine. But I wasn’t using it that way.

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John Holbo 02.26.15 at 1:50 am

OK, Cassander and Brett seem to have quieted down, and Sebastian seems to have accepted my defense that I am at least moderately consistent in my treatment of philosophies, in abstraction from their adherents, in practice.

Let me try to say what we have learned, or should have learned. Cassander and Brett’s line is to my mind not just irrational, but strikingly so. Even by internet standards. It strikes me as a kind of paradigm of how thinking about this stuff often goes wrong.

Cassander is 1) primary concerned to accuse ‘leftists’ like me of saying false stuff about communism, to cover up its sins. He is 2) explicitly indifferent to the question of what I am actually saying. When I say ‘theoretically’, he says ‘we’ are being untheoretical. He just isn’t listening because if I’m being theoretical, he’s not interested. And yet he is. Because, again, what he is most determined to do is say what I am saying is wrong and abhorrent. He is bubbled off in his own head, yet projecting that personal stuff on me – and on reality generally.

Brett seems to be much the same.

Making the same point with more references to the details of the argument. The one piece of evidence Brett and Cassander have that I am determined to lie about communism in practice is that I am, apparently, determined to speak truth about it, in theory. But this is crazy. Maybe my motivation for speaking truth, about the theory, is that I want to speak truth about communism, generally. Why not? Again, until I actually say, or imply, or hint that I want to say, something false or misleading about communism in practice, intellectual decency and basic logic would dictate holding fire on charges that I am doing things I, plainly, am not (yet). The fact that I am willing to allow Graeber his usage of ‘communism’ is no evidence whatsoever that I am angling at Gulag-denialism, or that I am trying to get the Rosenbergs off the hook and smear the good name of Chambers or any of that.

Now, why do Cassander and Brett get this so wrong?

Well, to be fair, there is a semi-valid (potentially valid) manners point. Which may be Sebastian’s. I’m not sure. Suppose you want to start a communist food co-op. In light of how many people died in the Gulag, it wouldn’t be crazy to rebrand that as ‘mutualism’ or ‘communalism’, strictly out of deference to the possibility that someone walking down the street has a family member who died in the Gulag. You don’t want to traumatize people, or remind them of painful stuff, unnecessarily. We aren’t doing it, be it noted, because starting a food co-op that is communistic is bad. We are doing it because maybe people suffer from something like PTSD with regard to the word ‘communism’, due to its very real historical association with very, very horrible things. Also, when something goes really wrong, it’s a good idea to do something seriously symbolic to atone and remember. If communists all said: the word ‘communism’ has been too tainted by Stalin, we are giving it up, I think there would be something fine and noble about that. (I’m not saying its obligatory, but it would be a fine gesture, I think.) Of course, if they did this, they would probably be accused of trying to cover up … but, still, you do the right thing, maybe, even if it will be misunderstood?

Even apart from the fact that such a gesture would probably be received badly, even if it were made with the best of wills, there are limits to this sort of thing. We can’t, for example, bowdlerize the title of “The Communist Manifesto” to “The Mutualist Manifesto” just so the likes of Cassander can read it without irrelevantly flashing back, like he’s still back in The Shit, i.e. at the Rosenberg trial. I guess we could attach a trigger warning to it. Anyone who is likely to suffer undue stress, maybe because a family member died in the Gulag, may have trouble reading “The Communist Manifesto” in a reasonably detached way. May have trouble seeing what it actually says, because all you will see is mountains of bones.

But mostly I’m not inclined to go that way, myself. If you want to opt out of discussion of a topic, because it’s personally stressful, fine. But if you want to participate – as an equal participant – you have to try to rationally overcome your own biases about all this. Anyway, you can’t just wallow in your bias, indulgently, wearing it as a badge of nobility or achievement. That just replaces rational discussion with a kind of victimology that I don’t think is constructive.

I expect Cassander and Brett will say: but what about the dangers that your communist co-op will end in blood and death on a mass scale! I entirely agree that it is very important to look to what went wrong in Russia, and elsewhere, and not downplay it in the least, and not regard it as some bizarre accident. There are obvious reasons why things are likely to go wrong in this sort of way, if they start in that way. There are a lot of non-obvious points to be debated in this vicinity as well. But, that being the way of it, it seems to me one of the least helpful things you can do is precisely what Cassander and Brett are doing: freaking out over a word, and implying a lot of nonsense that obviously isn’t true. It isn’t likely that starting a communist co-op will lead to the gulag, or that the people starting one up are thinking ‘bread today, mountains of skulls tomorrow’, so pretending otherwise doesn’t help when it comes to forming reasonable assessments of what sorts of things actually lead to gulags.

That’s probably it from me regarding this aspect of the thread. I’ll only come back if some other aspect of the discussion strikes my fancy. (I am wondering how long it will keep rolling on!)

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Priest 02.26.15 at 2:06 am

I thought of this analogy, regarding the conversation that John just summarized. The former East German state was formally the “German Democratic Republic.” To take that fact and say you can’t have a discussion about democratic republics, because democratic republics=Stasi, etc., is ridiculous and infantile.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., a democratic republic with plenty of skulls piled in its’ own past, there are politicians quite OK with not facing up to that legacy. Here in the state of Georgia, anodyne bills apologizing for the state government’s support of slavery and participation in the Indian Removal Act get nowhere, because “no one in this chamber voted for those things”, and the like. Confederate Memorial Day is still an official state holiday, though.

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js. 02.26.15 at 4:47 am

I also don’t see why it matters, bianca. What larger point depends on this?

It matters because that’s how you distinguish exchange from baseline communism, in Graeber’s terminology, or the two senses/types of reciprocity—in your terminology, slightly modified. But reading 401, I think you’re using these terms (reciprocity and exchange) in such a different way than I would and from what underlies Graeber’s distinction, that I think it’s hard to make headway—though I might try if I feel like drafting a longer comment.

I am wondering how long it will keep rolling on!

I’m going for 800.

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John Holbo 02.26.15 at 5:04 am

js. you could be right. The problem might be that I was listening to him on audiobook rather than reading on the page. That is fine for riding the bus home but not always so good for remembering precise definitional stipulations. I could well have things tangled up although I’m still not seeing it. For the sake of 800 please feel free to explain how you think it should go.

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js. 02.26.15 at 6:57 am

One thing I would say is that if we’re talking about trade/exchange vs. something else, then given that we’re talking about intentional actions, you have to bring in intentions—I don’t mean to be talking about psychology the way that’s generally talked about, if I can make obscure reference, what I have in mind is something like Anscombe or Davidson on action. You can’t really tell something is an exchange in any recognizable sense of the term simply by seeing that one person gives another something and the second gives the first back something. So, e.g., I might give you something today because it’s your birthday and you might give me something tomorrow because it’s my birthday tomorrow. This is, I would think obviously, not an exchange, and if the value of one of the gifts is much less than the other, that doesn’t make it a bad trade.

Which, again obviously, is not to say that there can’t be bad trades. But the very idea of a bad trade (or exchange) assumes that there is (some thought of) a common measure according to which one item exchanged is “worth less” than the other. Seriously, iof you don’t assume _some_ common measure, I don’t see how you can make sense of a “bad trade” any more than you can of a good one. In other words, you, JH, seem to think that “unequal exchanges” imply the lack of a measure, whereas the example you give implies that “unequal exchange” is being used in a sense which assumes the opposite.

Now the measure needn’t be a universal equivalent (though in our world it of course is), it needn’t even mean that it’s explicitly named—it’s easy to imagine barter systems that rely purely on measures. And note that if it’s not a universal equivalent, then there’s no need for the measure to stay constant across instances of exchange. So we needn’t advert to intensity of want or whatever. The point is the (to me) simple conceptual one that unless there’s the thought of some common measure, it’s utterly impossible to make any sense of the notion of fairness in exchange—which we anyway need to make sense of unfair exchanges.

I’ll leave it that for now, because what I really want to get across is the necessity of a common measure in an exchange. But the reason for insisting on this is that if one accepts this, then one can think about notions or standards of fairness that are quite different, that don’t rely on _this_ kind of equality. And if we can get to that point, we can maybe see how communism, baseline or otherwise, relies on some such other notion of fairness.

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js. 02.26.15 at 6:59 am

EDIT: “it’s easy to imagine barter systems that rely purely on implicit measures.”

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 11:04 am

“OK, Cassander and Brett seem to have quieted down, “

I wouldn’t read too much into that; I’ve been traveling, and my phone doesn’t have a data plan. (I’m cheap.) So you only got comments when I both had access to wifi, and wasn’t otherwise occupied. And was willing to read Crooked Timber on a tiny screen, and type on a keyboard with keys half the size of my finger tips and squirrely editing functions.

To sum up: Communism DNE mutualism. And I don’t see a good reason for calling mutualism “communism” except to rehabilitate a genocidal ideology. As I said above, you could analogize some positive aspects of the family to fascism, too, but who would? Only somebody who wanted to make fascism sound better.

To almost everybody, “communism” means the Gulag, and the Berlin Wall, and dissidents being disappeared, and all that. All for very good reason. And, while you can stubbornly insist on calling the local food coop “communism”, you won’t do so if you actually intend to communicate with people, have a productive conversation.

That, at 400 comments, you’re still determined to use “communism” where “mutualism” is actually meant, suggests that communicating and having a productive conversation aren’t on your agenda. Which obviously raises the question of what is, and suggests rehabilitating communism is the answer.

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John Holbo 02.26.15 at 12:16 pm

“That, at 400 comments, you’re still determined to use “communism” where “mutualism” is actually meant, suggests that communicating and having a productive conversation aren’t on your agenda.”

Brett, I don’t find you to be an entirely credible ambassador from the fair yet elusive land of productive conversation. But fair enough! But you see the problem. You are basically saying that if I will only give up all my considered beliefs and adopt yours, we could have a productive conversation. In a sense, that is probably true. But it is equally true that we could have a productive conversation if you would abandon your beliefs and adopt mine. I would prefer the latter option. You, I guess, prefer the former. A dilemma, then.

I suggest: argument! I have argued that your beliefs are false. That is, it isn’t true that communism is, essentially, a genocidal ideology. Your beliefs about this are false. Communism is guilty of causing terrible genocide, of leading to it, but that is actually not the same thing. (It is certainly true, as you say, that many people believe otherwise, but many people have been wrong before, and will be again.)

Happily this is the sort of thing that can be settled empirically. It’s quite clear what will settle the issue. Go off and get the bits of Marx and other communists where they ideologically advocate genocide. Not just advocating class war but advocating genocide as a good end in itself. Strictly, you should have to provide a valid sample, but I am a generous man. I will settle for just a few really hair-raising, Voldemort-grade moments from old Karl and co.

It’s put up or shut up! As my old science teacher used to say before we ran the experiment: do not speak of love! Do it!

Also, the fascism stuff. Minnow suggested, upthread, that you could give a parallel defense of fascism in the 20’s. Now you say so, too. It may be so, but I am skeptical. Again, this is the sort of thing that can be settled. Go find me a sympathetic, humane, fascist writer from the 20’s. If they exist, they should be findable. Until you provide the evidence, you will have to pardon me if I remain skeptical of your position.

Fair enough?

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John Holbo 02.26.15 at 12:50 pm

Lest someone else notice what I just did, and think I missed it: I did not. I just massively loaded the dice in Brett’s favor – because I value conversation, and I see him in his bubble, not coming out. And I can’t burst that bubble. Only he can (the way I see it.) So I just told him he gets to weigh the best of fascism’s days, ideologically, against the worst of communism’s. If that ain’t being friendly to his view that he can make them come out at least equal, I don’t know what is.

Seriously, I’m already thinking about some horrible shit Brecht wrote. (But I’ll be curious if Brett can find anything truly hair-raising from the 19th century. That’s tougher.)

So I expect to see something interesting. I’m interested in what Brett can come up with. I truly am. What do we see when we measure the worst of communism’s dreams against the best of fascism’s? But if he comes up with nothing much, I am going to conclude – reasonably – that he has been talking complete smack up to this point.

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Z 02.26.15 at 2:33 pm

To almost everybody, “communism” means the Gulag, and the Berlin Wall, and dissidents being disappeared, and all that.

By my reckoning, there are at least 500,000 citizens of the Paris area alone who have democratically elected self-identified communist local governments in 2014. 4,5 millions Frenchmen (or 13% or the votes) voted for a communist candidate in the presidential election. Where does your assertion that “almost everybody” equates communism with the Gulag live these guys? Could you at least qualify your statement with “almost everybody in the US” (that would be at least empirically true) or something like that?

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 2:59 pm

By my reconning, a democratically elected self-identified communist local government does not imply communism, when it is embedded in a larger non-communist system. The local government in Paris can not set up a gulag, or put up machine gun nests around the municiple borders, they’d probably even get in trouble for implementing secret police with the power to “disappear” people. (Though given recent revelations from Chicago, I’m less than confident on this last point.)

So it’s not communism, it’s just a communist in a position of authority in a NON-communist system.

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Z 02.26.15 at 3:33 pm

Now, in the spirit of reaching js. targets of 800, here are a few thoughts about the original topic.

First, the communist slogan and reciprocity. Well, Marx and Engels themselves had something to say about it, why not look? They thought that an early communist society would be the triumph of reciprocity (“the individual […] receives back from society […] exactly what he gives to it”) and lest we missed the point, they have another go at it: “Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values.” So, reciprocity, pure and simple, and that according to Marx and Engels is a progress towards communism. But that situation of perfect reciprocity must be transcended (and by the way, not after the enslaving subordination to the division of labor, as Bruce Wilder seemingly thinks, but after said enslaving has vanished of course) and then, but only then, you get the famous slogan.

But it is highly interesting to understand why and how we get to this stage. The first remark of Marx is that the pure reciprocity slogan necessarily frames the individual in a single of its manifold identity (workers usually, but camper in the camping trip example). As such, the pure reciprocity formula is restrictive, and as such is (by nature)unequal. And now, but only now, comes the money quote: to Marx this is all obfuscation anyway because exchange in a marxian framework is a logically subordinated category to production. So, as written by Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” is not only distinct from the lower communist phase of reciprocity, it is the utter logical rejection of it: it is the mindset that prevails when conditions of production will have changed so drastically that the notion of exchange, reciprocity etc. all subordinated, in Marx’s opinion, to the restrictive choice of one social identity and thus to the willing obliteration of all others, will have become meaningless. Read the all thing, as they say.

So from a marxian point of view, reciprocity and communism are very clearly distinct and confusing one with the other is the typical lingering effect of a mode of thinking that “bears the stigmata of the [capitalist] society.”

What about Graeber then? At first, it seems that Marx would be thinking he’s making a severe mistake in confusing baseline communism (mutualism in small scale arrangements) with communism in the marxian sense as implied by the choice of the slogan. But here, I think that one has to go beyond Debt (a popular book, after all, in all acception of the term) and read what he has to say for himself in other more scholarly works. In The False Coin if Our Own Dreams, Graeber very clearly outlines his goal: showing that far from being preconditioned to the existence of the higher phase communist society with radically different modes of material production of Marx (and thus residing in an indefinitely far utopian future), the capacity to envision an individual in the simultaneous reality of all her social interactions (and thus the capacity of actually realizing the “From each…” slogan in its marxian anti-reciprocity acception) is inherent to the anthropology of mankind because, and this is Graeber’s point, human anthropological interactions already function in the higher phase communist mode of Marx when social and symbolic modes of production (and not exclusively material ones) are considered.

So for Graeber, the slogan does not mean “I can fetch the water so I will, and when I’m hungry, someone will give bread” but probably something closer to “I, like any human being, have a need for symbolic interpretation of he social order around me, and that I will receive from others according to my needs; and, in turn, I will contribute to the extent of my ability to shape this symbolic order.” This, in Graeber’s philosophical anthropology, is baseline communism (and not a camping trip, though of course going on camping trips can be part of it) and this is why he chose to start the conclusion of his book with Eleanor Marx’s recollection of her father’s bedtime stories.

Where that leaves us to determine who gets to do the dishes is left as an exercise to the reader.

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Z 02.26.15 at 3:50 pm

So it’s not communism, it’s just a communist in a position of authority in a NON-communist system.

Nevertheless, when the good people of Bagneux (and millions of people around the world with them) think about the word communism, they think about their democratically elected mayor, not about the Gulag, and this runs in direct contradiction to your contention that almost everybody equates communism with the Gulag, which you should just stop making.

Also, I don’t see how the gestion of Bagneux or of the post-war energy production in France or of French naval construction in the 1950’s (all run almost single-handedly by communists) should be excluded from the track record of communism just because communism was not in a position of national power at the time. Do you exclude ISIS or the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria from the track record of islamism because they do not exercise national power?

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bianca steele 02.26.15 at 4:16 pm

Interesting discussion. Still not much time, early release day, ice melt not working as promised. I can’t think of a topic raised here that I have an opinion on that I haven’t commented on in the past, usually on one of John H.’s threads, except for the measurement thing, and Graeber, who I’ve haven’t yet read, but the book discussion of whom I found pretty interesting.

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Lurker 02.26.15 at 5:07 pm

“Who hath ascended up into heaven, and descended? Who hath gathered the wind in his fists? Who hath bound the waters in a garment? Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?” says the wise Solomon. “I do not know where he is, but this much is certain, A SKULL IS A SKULL!” exclaimed Merten. Anxiously he stooped down to discover whose head his hand was touching in the dark, and then he started back as if in mortal terror, for the eyes —

Yes, indeed! The eyes!”

Scorpion & Felix, 1837.

Here the very kernel of ideology is found. The preoccupation (fetishism?) of the SKULL is at the center of the pre-Marxist Marx’s -isms. Conceived of while young Karl engaged in foxhunts with the middling aristocracy even, foxhunts whose end was a pile of fox skulls (surely!). John Holbo is certainly aware of this text and is feigning ignorance.

Compare & contrast: “The Courtyard of the Old Residency” (1914). Could a clearer depiction of non-violent Aryan mutualism and the supremacy of the Nordic courtyard fountain be conceived? The splashes of burnt ochre, the still vivality of the duet of trees, could anything be further from a base pile of skulls.

I submit, that one could trace the river of Marxist blood back to his Origenian pre-existent origins. That even when known in his mother’s belly, his telos was nothing but a SKULL. Alas, poor Karl.

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 5:15 pm

“Also, I don’t see how the gestion of Bagneux or of the post-war energy production in France or of French naval construction in the 1950’s (all run almost single-handedly by communists) should be excluded from the track record of communism just because communism was not in a position of national power at the time.”

Because they weren’t able to do whatever they wanted? If I, an anarcho-capitalist, somehow got elected to the local city council, would that make that city an instance of anarchy? People can hold ideologies, and be put in positions of power, but that doesn’t mean that their ideologies are implemented, if somebody else is in a position to exercise some check on their activities.

Paris is not an example of communism. I’m sure there’s private property all over Paris, even, (Gasp!) privately owned capital.

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geo 02.26.15 at 5:49 pm

JH@409: Communism is guilty of causing terrible genocide

Really, must you talk this way? People calling themselves communists caused terrible genocide; people calling themselves democrats invaded Iraq and Indochina, subverted many democratic governments they disapproved of, and supported many other undemocratic governments they approved of, not to mention committing numerous crimes against democracy at home. We have no trouble in the latter case understanding that the so-called “democrats” are nothing of the sort but simply use the term, with its positive connotations, to market their policies. They neither understand nor give a fig for democracy.

Similarly, “communism,” as it was adumbrated by … well, no need to list them again … means radical egalitarianism, the extension of popular sovereignty into all areas of social life, whether political or economic. The Bolsheviks promptly abolished the soviets, suppressed independent unions, shut down all political assemblies they did not control, etc. These were not the actions of communists, whether or not the perpetrators called themselves communists. Genuine communists, like Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Korsch, Mattick, Silone, Serge, and many others, recognized this immediately, or in short order, and renounced Bolshevism.

No one else in the world, or at any rate in this thread, besides Brett, Cassander, and maybe Sebastian, think you sympathize with, or are even culpably nonchalant about the dangers of, Stalinism, Maoism, Castroism, Khmer Rouge-ism, etc. None of them has contributed anything, or probably has any interest in contributing anything, to discussing the possibilities and difficulties of achieving large-scale solidarity, cooperation, mutuality, trust, etc. Why do your waste so much of your — and our — time on them?

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 6:02 pm

“People calling themselves communists caused terrible genocide;”

Really, must you talk THAT way? If, every time people calling themselves “X” get the opportunity, they cause terrible genocide, if you’re sensible, you associate it with X, and stop taking people who call themselves X seriously when they say, “But, I’m not like that!”

Really, I get sick of “No true Scotsman!”, but if ever there was a case of it, it’s communists disavowing actual communism’s outcomes.

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 6:03 pm

“None of them has contributed anything, or probably has any interest in contributing anything, to discussing the possibilities and difficulties of achieving large-scale solidarity, cooperation, mutuality, trust, etc. “

“That doesn’t work” is a contribution, especially when somebody is obsessively focused on the thing that doesn’t work.

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engels 02.26.15 at 6:39 pm

“That doesn’t work” is a contribution

Only if you have a fucking clue what you’re talking about…

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js. 02.26.15 at 6:51 pm

Why do your waste so much of your — and our — time on them?

Inorite!? Holbo loves trolling the trolls tho.

———

Meanwhile, I thought of another example to press the point of distinguishing exchange (or exchange-like reciprocity) from other forms of social ‘give-and-take’, say. I mentioned above that according to the standard, perhaps slightly traditional, conception of the family there are specific and complementary parental and filial duties. Let’s just take something simple like parents are to take care of children when the children are young, and children are to take care of their parents when the parents are old. Again, clearly complementary duties, and looked at in a certain light, reciprocal. So one might then say: look, it’s a case of reciprocity that involves an exchange of caring responsibilities! Everything morphs into everything else—and specifically, everything morphs into exchange-like reciprocity! At least if you take the long view!

Except that this is ridiculous, I think. Consider a delayed exchange, a Hobbesian covenant kind of thing. I give someone something today and expect something in return at a later time. And suppose that in the meantime the recipient is rendered indigent or dies or whatever, so that I don’t get what I was promised in return. Now given the specifics of the case, I might not begrudge this, but obviously, this is a net loss for me. That’s straightforwardly implied by this being an instance of exchange. Now apply this to the parent-child case. Again the child, because of a premature death or some other mishap, can’t do their part at the appointed time. It would obviously be nonsense to think that this is a net loss for the parent! So even though there’s ‘give-and-take’ here, this is not a case of reciprocity if reciprocity is taken to imply exchange or equal exchange, etc. (cf. 401 and passim).

The point, once again, is that contra 263, exchange-like reciprocity and other kinds of reciprocity (or more simply, exchange and baseline communism) don’t morph into each other; they’re really quite distinct. And to see this, we need only pay attention to the presuppositions and entailments of something being an exchange.

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TM 02.26.15 at 7:09 pm

“I could well have things tangled up although I’m still not seeing it.”

Wow. I’m speechless (and will remain so ;-)).

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engels 02.26.15 at 7:51 pm

I’d love to read a CT thread where someone actually defended (seriously, not in a trollish way) the positive scientific, cultural, social, military, etc achievements of the USSR. Not gonna be me (I am not and never have been etc). In meantime, there’s a nice doc about Gargarin, Korolev, etc on BBC IPlayer ATM

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mattski 02.26.15 at 7:58 pm

Q: Why do your waste so much of your — and our — time on them?

A: As my old science teacher used to say before we ran the experiment: do not speak of love! Do it!

JH, Ambassador of Love. Amen.

Question for Brett. Do you think communism could work on a small scale? What if the US designated a town somewhere in the heartland as an experiment in voluntary communism? Anyone who wants to can move there as long as they accept the charter. Is this logically impossible?

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Rich Puchalsky 02.26.15 at 8:07 pm

I don’t really have time right now to comment on many of these things. But geo @ 392 writes:

“What I’d like to work toward is a society in which decisions are made by those people whom they affect, in rough proportion to how much they’re affected.”

People generally then go on to focus on deficiencies in power (e.g. people in employment relationships not being able to decide on workplace matters that strongly affect them) but not superfluities of power, other than those that are simply the mirror image of those above (the employee having too little power means that the boss has too much power). But that’s a critical analytical problem. All it takes is one victory, and suddenly all of the great things that you wanted — mattski’s”good-hearted leadership”, TM’s “solidarity” — become the problems that destroy you. These are all things that allow power to be used from far away, by people who are not affected.

At short notice I can’t find Bakunin’s quote about how if a worker becomes a representative on a worker’s council they quickly become no longer a worker, but a member of a new ruling class. But let’s take a much more homely and familiar and unserious example. When someone writes something bad in the comments of their blog, and they get a Ten Minute Hate from tens of thousands of people, that’s solidarity at work (unless you want to define solidarity as definitionally only a good thing that can only be used for good reasons). Democracy, similarly — all you have to do to destroy almost anything is just widen the democratic circle of people who get to vote on it too much.

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CaptFamous 02.26.15 at 8:19 pm

No true Scottish solidarity would be used for hatred!

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 8:24 pm

“Is this logically impossible?”

No, I think it could probably work on a small scale, so long as you had a larger society around it from which interested people could replace anybody who got sick of it and left. (I assume your experiment would permit people to leave, right?)

The key element here is that you’d have a society put together out of people who were already dedicated to making it work, and a reserve of people so inclined, ready to replace them as they burned out. So it wouldn’t actually have to be a viable socity, it would be more of a communist theme park.

I mean, monasteries work, don’t they? It would just be a sort of secular monastery. Not every piece of a society has to, in isolation, be a viable society. The essential problem with communism isn’t the dedication to communism, it’s the dedication to communism to the exclusion of anything else. The determination to prohibit other modes of social organization.

Communism by itself does not make for a viable society. But there’s no reason you couldn’t implement it on a small, voluntary scale, inside a more complete society.

But, communists don’t think of communism that way, do they? They think of it as “the” way to organize society, not one variation in a diverse society.

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mattski 02.26.15 at 8:28 pm

Is it just me or is Rich really saying,

“Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” … ?

:^)

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mattski 02.26.15 at 8:34 pm

But, communists don’t think of communism that way, do they?

Well, Brett, reading this thread I would conclude that many people think of communism as compatible with localized application. And is it really fair to say that it isn’t viable IF an experiment of that sort worked out? Just as you say, people who had a change of heart could leave while newcomers could replace them. Seems to me that’s viable even with the turnover.

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Brett Bellmore 02.26.15 at 8:41 pm

But then we’re just talking about co-ops, and things like that, which is not what people generally mean by “communism”. You’re talking about people accepting that most of society *isn’t* going to be run on the basis they like, just their little corner of it.

That’s actually one of the strengths of capitalism, that it permits other forms of social organization under it’s umbrella.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.26.15 at 9:21 pm

mattski, I forget whether you live in the U.S., but have you read the political discussions around the founding of the U.S.? They might as well have stated as premise #1 “Let’s assume that anyone who gets into power becomes a complete bastard.” The whole setup makes no sense at all except as a jury-rigged contrivance to try to play power off against power. That’s what liberalism as developed in the U.S. is about; it’s not really about democracy.

Marxists were quick to sweep this all away as bourgeois “rights”, as a way of maintaining capitalism, and replaced it with a touching faith in class consciousness: i.e. they replaced it with nothing. When I’m saying we have to replace it with something, I’m not being pessimistic.

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Sebastian H 02.26.15 at 9:22 pm

Mattski: No one here seems to be suggesting that small scale communalist or mutualist projects are impossible. We’ve all been in them even. But they aren’t ‘communist’ except in the sense that Graeber has a weird project of wanting to wrench the word out of its context and define all mutualism as ‘communist’. But there is no reason to do so when you have perfectly good words like ‘mutualist’. Hell he could even coin word. So he wants ‘communist’ for reason.

“Go off and get the bits of Marx and other communists where they ideologically advocate genocide. Not just advocating class war but advocating genocide as a good end in itself. “

Strange that you think this is giving Brett the easy side of the deal. Essentially you are playing the true scotsman fallacy as argument. The two obvious flaws in communism (the real thing, not Graeber’s game playing with the word) is that it advocates class warfare but has trouble defining which class get privileged, and it posits a situation where you can’t be successful long term without taking over the whole world (a problem it shares with fascism). Both of those features are there from very early on. The problem is that both of those (especially together) empirically seem to lead to gulags and genocides. That is a flaw with deep within communism.

That isn’t a flaw deep within all communal projects. Which is why we should resist labeling all communal projects ‘communism’. Doing so either gives communal projects a bad name, or unfairly rehabilitates actual communist thought.

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bianca steele 02.26.15 at 9:35 pm

I bring five apples and get a kick in the head. I don’t bring any apples the next day and get beat into unconsciousness. The next day I bring six apples and get nothing. Exchange? I think not. The mayor’s daughter brings three apples and gets a beer. Thus, there’s a market. Her apples must be better than mine. This turns the previous situation into exchange? I should stop bringing apples, because there’s no market for them? I should keep bringing apples, because there is a market? The village idiot brings pine cones and gets the same response I do for the apples, because he’s concluded there must be a market for pine cones just like mine for apples. Isn’t he right?

I bring five apples and my husband’s father’s elder brother gets paid. Exchange, combined with hierarchy. Not pure exchange. I’ll get what he decides I “need”. A combination of all three.

I bring my husband’s father’s elder brother five apples and his wives don’t pick on my children. Not exchange, hierarchy.

I bring my husband’s father’s elder brother five apples out of the goodness of my heart, because I truly believe in service. Communism, I’m thinking (and this seems in line with what Z says–and John H., i.e., the Golden Rule). The difference between this and the previous one seems subtle, and it seems to turn more on my state of mind than anything else.

Now: I bring my husband’s father’s elder brother five apples out of the goodness of my heart, etc., . . . and I get a kick in the head . . . because he thinks I’m trying to weasel special privileges out of him (importing exchange), or . . . because he thinks I’m trying to show I have power in the household in the form of being able to get apples, and this means I have an ideological attachment to the false idea that I’m a being capable of wielding power, potentially equal to him (or in Graeber’s terms, IIUC, I’m denying being in his debt). What is this? Apparently, within the system, I brought the wrong number of apples, and got the right response. So John H. would say it’s exchange, I guess.

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mattski 02.26.15 at 10:24 pm

But then we’re just talking about co-ops, and things like that, which is not what people generally mean by “communism”. You’re talking about people accepting that most of society *isn’t* going to be run on the basis they like, just their little corner of it.

Well, actually we’re talking about a town or small city. So I think that makes a significant difference. A ‘communist’ municipality in the middle of a non-communist nation-state would be able to benefit from a free flow of membership into and out of the community and at the same time it is a large enough social structure to require significant local governance. To me that sounds like an interesting experiment.

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John Holbo 02.26.15 at 11:35 pm

“If I, an anarcho-capitalist, somehow got elected to the local city council, would that make that city an instance of anarchy? People can hold ideologies, and be put in positions of power, but that doesn’t mean that their ideologies are implemented”

Brett, this is a very reasonable point, but it is entirely unavailable to you. Your whole argument about communism is that whatever happens – genocide, the gulag – because people who called themselves ‘communist’ did stuff IS the ideology of communism. By definition, I take it. You pay no attention to what anyone says they want, only what they get in practice. You deny all arguments of the form: ‘but the thing they implemented wasn’t actually communism’. This is not a very reasonable way to do political philosophy, to put it mildly, but I’ll thank you to follow your own rule consistently, at least. If a person who holds an ideology is put in power, that means (according to you) that the ideology is implemented by definition. This is insane, but that has never stopped you before. So it’s no excuse now.

You can’t hold an unreasonable view that ideology = results and then just sort of choose to become temporarily reasonable about this issue, when it suits you. In for a penny, in for a pounding.

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Hector_St_Clare 02.26.15 at 11:49 pm

I’d love to read a CT thread where someone actually defended (seriously, not in a trollish way) the positive scientific, cultural, social, military, etc achievements of the USSR.

I would be happy to defend the achievements of the USSR (in its post-stalin phase, to be clear), but it’s unclear to me whether John Holbo has been kind enough to un-ban me?

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Hector_St_Clare 02.26.15 at 11:57 pm

Brett and Cassander are doing a great job of making me more inclined to self identify as a Communist.

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Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 12:41 am

“They might as well have stated as premise #1 “Let’s assume that anyone who gets into power becomes a complete bastard.””

And they’ve proven right about this. People who get power over other people, people who’d try to get power over other people, do become complete bastards, almost without exception. A GOOD politician is the sort of person you’d be mad to trust babysitting your children. The bad ones run pedophile rings out of their offices.

“The whole setup makes no sense at all except as a jury-rigged contrivance to try to play power off against power. That’s what liberalism as developed in the U.S. is about; it’s not really about democracy.”

That’s exactly right: “Democracy” does not prevent people from being oppressed. At best, it assures that the oppressed are the minority, which is statistically better than the oppressed being the majority. You need something more to prevent the majority from oppressing the minority. You need to somehow limit what the majority gets to do.

And when you bring representative democracy into the system, (As is necessary in any but the smallest democracy.) it gets even worse, because you have to find some way of compelling the ‘representatives’ to represent somebody besides themselves. While they’re relentlessly trying to defeat whatever system you put in place to accomplish this!

Trying to design a government system on the assumption the people running it are just naturally going to do the right thing is utter madness.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 12:53 am

I hereby decree that Hector is allowed to comment in my threads. (Sorry not to have gotten back to you sooner, Hector. I have not received confirmation that others are willing to extend you the same courtesy. But I am willing to let you comment. And if you prove yourself a well-mannered contributor, all should be well.)

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 12:58 am

Some quick responses to others, upthread. Z’s comment @413 is great. Let me quote a big chunk in the hopes others will see it.

“First, the communist slogan and reciprocity. Well, Marx and Engels themselves had something to say about it, why not look? They thought that an early communist society would be the triumph of reciprocity (“the individual […] receives back from society […] exactly what he gives to it”) and lest we missed the point, they have another go at it: “Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values.” So, reciprocity, pure and simple, and that according to Marx and Engels is a progress towards communism. But that situation of perfect reciprocity must be transcended (and by the way, not after the enslaving subordination to the division of labor, as Bruce Wilder seemingly thinks, but after said enslaving has vanished of course) and then, but only then, you get the famous slogan.

But it is highly interesting to understand why and how we get to this stage. The first remark of Marx is that the pure reciprocity slogan necessarily frames the individual in a single of its manifold identity (workers usually, but camper in the camping trip example). As such, the pure reciprocity formula is restrictive, and as such is (by nature)unequal. And now, but only now, comes the money quote: to Marx this is all obfuscation anyway because exchange in a marxian framework is a logically subordinated category to production. So, as written by Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” is not only distinct from the lower communist phase of reciprocity, it is the utter logical rejection of it: it is the mindset that prevails when conditions of production will have changed so drastically that the notion of exchange, reciprocity etc. all subordinated, in Marx’s opinion, to the restrictive choice of one social identity and thus to the willing obliteration of all others, will have become meaningless. Read the all thing, as they say.”

This is really interesting because I genuinely was (and am) curious what Marx said about it. Thanks! Also, this point about how the slogan means different things in different social contexts is interesting. Z is saying that, for Marx, under certain conditions of production, the phrase is not reciprocal in spirit. But, of course, we are not in those conditions at present. So the phrase IS reciprocal for us, now. Ergo, getting back to Graeber, baseline communism, in his sense, is a kind of reciprocity, for Marx. (I think that would be right?)

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:02 am

Next up, Bianca:

“I bring five apples and get a kick in the head. I don’t bring any apples the next day and get beat into unconsciousness. The next day I bring six apples and get nothing. Exchange?”

I don’t get what we are talking about here, Biance, so your conclusion – “So John H. would say it’s exchange, I guess” – not so much.

To me it sounds like you are putting stuff into a magic box and getting random results. So this is a fairy story or a Stanlislaw Lem sf parable of the inexplicable mystery of the universe or something. I’m not tempted to call it exchange. Is there even an agent on the other side? If so, why is all this happening? If not, I’m definitely not tempted to call it exchange.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:11 am

Sebastian thinks I am actually not loading the dice by telling Brett he can take the worst of communism’s ideological days and measure them against the best of fascism’s. It seems like loading to me. Sebastian’s view is this:

“The two obvious flaws in communism (the real thing, not Graeber’s game playing with the word) is that it advocates class warfare but has trouble defining which class get privileged, and it posits a situation where you can’t be successful long term without taking over the whole world (a problem it shares with fascism).”

I think this is just wrong. You can be a communist without advocating class warfare or world domination. Take the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry for communism. (Not because it’s the wisest sentence ever written but because I didn’t write it, so you can’t accuse me of slanting things for present rhetorical purposes.) Communism “is a socioeconomic system structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and characterized by the absence of social classes, money,[3][4] and the state; as well as a social, political and economic ideology and movement that aims to establish this social order.”

Suppose you hope to achieve this without class warfare, on a local level. Never mind whether this is reasonable or not. Are you, plausibly, a communist if you are ideologically committed to bringing about a state of affairs such as is described in the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry? I say you are. You say you aren’t, I take it?

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Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 1:14 am

“If a person who holds an ideology is put in power, that means (according to you) that the ideology is implemented by definition. “

Not if their power is restricted by their being embedded in a political system which is based on a contrary ideology.

In a communist nation, communists get to do what communists want. In a democratic nation, communists get to do what communists are permitted to do. Mattski’s Leninworld or Marxland would not be a horror, because, being a subdivision of a non-communist nation, they wouldn’t have complete autonomy. They couldn’t bar people from leaving, (As essentially all communist nations have done.) they couldn’t censor the press, they couldn’t enslave people. I’d be more confident they couldn’t have secret police disappearing people, if Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago hadn’t apparently been getting away with that for the last few years. But perhaps an openly communist community would be under closer scrutiny.

All the things that make communist nations a horror are barred, if the communists have to work within a non-communist system. That’s the difference: Between getting to do whatever they want, and just getting to do the subset of it they’re permitted, by non-communists, to do.

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mattski 02.27.15 at 1:21 am

[The Founders] might as well have stated as premise #1 “Let’s assume that anyone who gets into power becomes a complete bastard.” The whole setup makes no sense at all except as a jury-rigged contrivance to try to play power off against power. That’s what liberalism as developed in the U.S. is about; it’s not really about democracy.

It’s about both I would say. Is that so controversial? The process (the experiment) of democracy was advanced by the creation of the USA. It’s shortcomings are legion but there’s no reason to be blindsided by that fact. Certainly, whoever said, “a Republic, if you can keep it,” was prophetic. We’re not doing a very good job of keeping it.

A GOOD politician is the sort of person you’d be mad to trust babysitting your children.

This is Brett’s typical canned nonsense. Opinions differ, but I think Lincoln did some good. FDR did some good. JFK tried and was murdered for his efforts. I have met politicians who were very good people in my judgement. I think Elizabeth Warren is one such. But, there are plenty of decent people in government. I think Obama is a decent person, but he’s quite limited in what he can do AND he made plenty of miscalculations along the way. That’s the way it goes.

A big part of the reason, I think, for why the plutocracy is ascendent is we’ve been taught a convincing lesson by monied interests that democracy is charade, we’re helpless and disenfranchised and subconsciously the public has swallowed the lesson. The public doesn’t much believe in democracy anymore. So the range of attitudes is rage-despair-indifference.

That is one reason I keep trying to interest my allies on the left in the political assassinations of the 60’s. Because that’s where I think our spirit was broken. And the success of the cover-up of those crimes is proof that the plutocracy owns us.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:23 am

Interesting thread. And it seems nothing has changed. Brett is still trying to say that no one can talk about communist or socialist theory without discussing the “pile of skulls and the gulag,” even though these things came from systems which were, in many ways, the opposite of socialist or communist theory. In fact, since communism is the absence of the state, there can be no such thing as a “communist state” to begin with; it’s an oxymoron, much like “boiling hot iceberg” or “democratic capitalism”. In communist theory, we reach that stage after real socialism has established a sustainable surplus, a living democracy, including the economy, is internalized and now second nature, and we get to kick off the training wheels of state apparatus and fully self-govern. There simply is no structure to create or maintain a gulag, much less a pile of skulls. All power has been dispersed, atomized, separated equally for each and every citizen. There is no ruling class. There are no class strata, period. And society is stateless.

Beyond that, if the mere word “communism” is supposed to provoke total ostracism, what then to do about “capitalism”? Unlike socialism or communism, we’ve actually had it in place. We know what it’s done. It’s not just a theory. And its results have been many, many times more bloody than even the mythical, non-existent beast Brett would falsely label “communism.” It’s not close. Capitalism has caused more death and destruction than all the Stalins and Maos of this or any other planet . . . and, unlike so-called “communism,” it’s actually a logical result of its internal makeup. Capitalism starts from the premise of autocracy, top down, authoritarian, and can not function without economic apartheid in place and the stripping of wealth, income and access from the vast majority for the few at the top. It got its start with slavery and genocide, and continues with the slavery model to this very day, with minor modifications. It grew and expanded via land-rape and plunder of soon to be “third world” colonies, and we still go to war to protect it from any and all threats to its hegemony. Those wars kill millions. Capitalism has the most blood on its hands of any “ism” in history.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:26 am

Geo, in response to my statement that communism (the ideology) caused (led to) genocide.

“Communism is guilty of causing terrible genocide

Really, must you talk this way? People calling themselves communists caused terrible genocide; people calling themselves democrats invaded Iraq and Indochina, subverted many democratic governments they disapproved of, and supported many other undemocratic governments they approved of, not to mention committing numerous crimes against democracy at home. We have no trouble in the latter case understanding that the so-called “democrats” are nothing of the sort but simply use the term, with its positive connotations, to market their policies. They neither understand nor give a fig for democracy.”

Compare: Enlightenment ideas caused (led to) the French Revolution. Neoliberal ideas caused (led to) the Financial Crisis of 2008. Supply-side economics led to the ballooning deficits of the Reagan Era. For that matter: the Enlightenment caused (led to) the counter-Enlightenment.

All such claims are gross oversimplifications, yet may be true, up to a point. I don’t have much sympathy with neoliberal economists who try to excuse themselves from responsibility for problems they have caused on the grounds that they didn’t intend these things.

I am happy to add all the qualifications, due to complexity, that are required. History is never A caused B. So communism caused genocide is never going to be right. If that is all you mean, then fine. But it sounds to you like you are saying more. You are saying that what went on during and following the Russian Revolution had nothing to do with the ideas of communism. I don’t think that’s right. That’s leaning way too far in the other direction.

Now one word that may cause trouble is, of course, ‘guilt’. Because that concept sits ill with the sorts of complex webs of causality that are history. I probably should have left it out. But ‘responsibility’ would still be appropriate. ‘Bears some responsible’?

Compare: are neoliberals guilty of causing the 2008 financial crisis. That’s too strong. Do neoliberals bear some responsibility for it? Definitely.

Do Enlightenment thinkers bear some responsibility for (take some credit for?) the counter-Enlightenment? That’s weirder, isn’t it?

Well, anyway, I think communism’s responsibility for genocide is at least a significant as neoliberals’ responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis.

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Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 1:27 am

“Unlike socialism or communism, we’ve actually had it in place. “

See, that’s the problem: Communism actually in place is so horrible, that everybody who wants to defend communism starts out by denying that it’s ever actually been in place.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:29 am

Brett @444,

A communist nation would be a democratic nation, so your statement is really absurd. It would, in fact, be real democracy, including the economy, and it wouldn’t be through proxies. There wouldn’t be party reps. Each and every citizen would have equal say and equal power, and they would all be a part of one democratic polity. No proxies. No reps. Full self-governance.

That’s what communist theory and philosophy calls for. It calls for full emancipation for each and every citizen from both public and private concentrations of power, exploitation, abuse, appropriation, etc. Pretty much the entire point is to break up all power centers, public or private, to establish true personal autonomy within an egalitarian, democratic framework. It is the apotheosis of freedom and liberty. We would no longer work to make others rich. We, the collective, would work for the collective itself, instead of being a tool for ownership, as is the case now under capitalism.

None of the above has ever been tried, even remotely, outside of small scale communes, kibbutzes and Native American villages, basically. But it is “scalable.”

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:31 am

Brett, will you please state your position on this whole ideology = results point. It seems that you are saying, on the one hand, that ideology has nothing to do with the logic of ideas. It’s pure results. That is the justification for communism = gulag. On the other hand, you are saying the opposite. Namely, it is possible to separate ideas and intentions from results. That is, unintended results are possible. The latter would seem more sensible, but if you admit that unintended results are possible, your whole position collapses. So where do you stand?

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:32 am

Brett #448,

No. It’s never been tried. Obviously. Again, communism is the absence of the state. You can’t have a communist state, by definition.

Your guilty of the following, basically:

A group of sociopaths gets together and calls themselves “birdwatchers.” They then go off on a spree of murder and other atrocities. They didn’t do any birdwatching, and their organization has nothing to do with birdwatching. You, however, want to tell everyone we can no longer talk about “birdwatching” without talking about that murder spree, which you now claim is the inevitable result of birdwatching.

Grow up.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:33 am

you’re guilty of, rather.

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Z 02.27.15 at 1:39 am

[F]or Marx, under certain conditions of production, the phrase is not reciprocal in spirit. But, of course, we are not in those conditions at present. So the phrase IS reciprocal for us, now. Ergo, getting back to Graeber, baseline communism, in his sense, is a kind of reciprocity, for Marx. (I think that would be right?)

Not so fast with that ergo, John! And that’s because, as I wrote in 413, for Graeber (and in contrast with Marx) the fact we are not experiencing those conditions of material production is (mostly) irrelevant because we are (in his views) experiencing those conditions of symbolic production. So Marx would say that Graeber is talking about reciprocity (for the reasons you describe) but Graeber would deny it, because he advocates for a very idiosyncratic reading of Marx insight in which symbolic production is taken into account (Marx plus Mauss, as it were).

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:44 am

Plume: “A group of sociopaths gets together and calls themselves “birdwatchers.” They then go off on a spree of murder and other atrocities. They didn’t do any birdwatching, and their organization has nothing to do with birdwatching.”

It is true that Brett’s whole philosophy of communism basically boils down to the ‘no false scotsman’ fallacy!

Z: “but Graeber would deny it, because he advocates for a very idiosyncratic reading of Marx insight in which symbolic production is taken into account (Marx plus Mauss, as it were).”

Hmmm. I think you are probably right about that, Z.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:44 am

John,

Not sure how much you’re playing devil’s advocate here (and a bit of gentle, good-natured trolling), but I’m guessing quite a bit.

Well, anyway, I think communism’s responsibility for genocide is at least a significant as neoliberals’ responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s not responsible for genocide because it wasn’t even remotely a part of the Soviet or Maoist systems. They may have called themselves “communists,” but history has given us mountains of examples of people calling themselves one thing, while acting in ways that have zero to do with the meaning of that word, or its foundations.

If you go to a restaurant and order #5, which says 12 ounces of Filet Mignon, but you receive 5 ounces of liver instead, does it make sense to hold Filet Mignon responsible for your hatred of the meal?

I just wish Brett and others would at least attempt to demonstrate how communist theory inevitably leads to their conclusions, rather than reading events back into the theories long after the fact.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:48 am

John,

Thanks. I did read his Debt, and found it fascinating. But it’s been awhile and I’ve forgotten most of his main points. Thanks for the reminders, and for hosting such a good thread.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:53 am

“They may have called themselves “communists,” but history has given us mountains of examples of people calling themselves one thing, while acting in ways that have zero to do with the meaning of that word, or its foundations.”

But this is also true for neoliberalism. Namely, neoliberals advocate a system, and then a lot of people in the system are not devotees of neoliberalism, as a philosophy. They are sharks trying to make a killing. But this screws up the neoliberal system and neoliberals bear some responsibility for that, because they should have anticipated that if neoliberalism only works if everyone in it is a devoted neoliberal, true to neoliberal ideals, it won’t work. If Larry Summers (at the height of his neoliberal phase) tried to excuse himself for bad results of his ideas on the grounds that if only everyone had thought exactly like Larry Summers it would have worked, I regard that as weak. He couldn’t say, ‘but the folks making credit default swaps are not true neoliberals, ergo it’s not neoliberalism’s fault if they cause a crisis.’ The relevant consideration is that neoliberalism advocated the construction of a system in which bad actors could flourish.

Something like that.

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js. 02.27.15 at 1:54 am

What, were my comments too incoherent to merit a response? (Not that you’re in any way obliged to respond to me, obviously.)

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 1:55 am

You are quite welcome, Plume. I am enjoying myself most strangely.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 2:03 am

js. wants a response. Sorry, I didn’t immediately respond because I, honestly, didn’t quite get your comment. And, like other things I don’t get, I then sort of forgot it. So let’s try to do better:

“The point, once again, is that contra 263, exchange-like reciprocity and other kinds of reciprocity (or more simply, exchange and baseline communism) don’t morph into each other; they’re really quite distinct. And to see this, we need only pay attention to the presuppositions and entailments of something being an exchange.”

The problem I have with this (unless I am misunderstanding) is that all reciprocity is exchange-like. That is, it can all be seen as an exchange. But it isn’t always a ‘proper’ exchange. Reciprocity is an attitude, a state of mind (that is one perfectly good use of the term). Maybe we can start there. Exchange isn’t an attitude. But the attitude of reciprocity is, in a sense, a preparedness to exchange.

There are some kinds of exchange that do not involve any kind of ethic of reciprocity, but it is not clear that there is any ethic of reciprocity that is not, in effect, a readiness to engage in a kind of exchange. I don’t see the bright lines you see. I’m not trying to be difficult. I just don’t see it. Please feel free to try to explain it more clearly. I literally am having trouble understanding what you were getting it.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 2:04 am

OK, after firing all these comments off, I’ve neglected my work. I’m off for several hours. Play nice.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 2:06 am

John #457,

I can see that. But you’re really talking about shades within one very similar and limited color field. It’s all under the rubric of “capitalism,” and I’d suggest that even if everyone practiced neoliberalism, so it was “pure,” then things would have collapsed even faster. Neoliberalism is basically, boiled down, the accelerated privatization of public goods and services; major tax cuts for the rich; and deregulation of all business, especially Finance. We’ve been doing this, to one degree or another, since the early 1970s, and the results are to be expected. Declining wages for the rank and file, rising cost of living as more and more things are shifted to the private sector, higher levels of inequality which radically slows demand, and deregulation which makes it easier for our totally integrated economic system to pull itself down (dominoes, etc).

The Soviet system, Mao’s China, etc. etc. . . . were actually night and day from socialist theory, and even further away from communism. They banned democracy, which is perhaps THE most important aspect, and the people didn’t own the means of production — perhaps the second most important. Instead, dictators or political parties owned everything, and practiced capitalist appropriation of the labor surplus. Lenin himself said he needed to impose state capitalism in order to modernize Russia . . . . and no subsequent dictator ever tried to go back to actual theory after him. They remained virtually locked in state capitalism without any democracy.

To me it’s pretty clear: Any system that leaves out the two most important aspects of a theory can’t really claim to implement it.

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Peter T 02.27.15 at 2:12 am

At this point we have had something over 700 country-years of variously communist regimes. This has included at least four major episodes of killing (Stalin’s purges, the Ukrainian famine, the Khmer Rouge, the Great Leap Forward famine) and a great deal of repression. On the plus side a great deal of economic and personal development (education, opportunity), provision of basic needs, and a long list of artistic, intellectual and technological achievements. Not a happy story, but not an unqualifiedly nasty one.

Fascism and Nazism together notched up 35 country years. Maybe 70 if you include the fascist satellite regimes of the 40s. In that short time fascism and nazism produced four wars, trashed a large part of Europe’s cultural heritage and instituted at least three major episodes of killing; one of them still a byword for institutional evil. On the plus side, a very limited amount of technological advance, mostly in weaponry, and a couple of interesting minor art moments.

Brett and sebastian need a better local library.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 2:17 am

mattski: “It’s about both I would say. Is that so controversial?”

Well, apparently it is. People are quite comfortable talking about experiments with democracy, but if “it’s about both” then they should be just as comfortable talking about experiments in limiting democracy. Consensus, for example, is a way of limiting democracy, not a full expansion of democracy or something like that.

Plume: “I just wish Brett and others would at least attempt to demonstrate how communist theory inevitably leads to their conclusions, rather than reading events back into the theories long after the fact.”

Z, geo and I talked about this between, say #351 and #392 (and see #381 and #389). I don’t know what “communist theory” is, but Marxist theory rather predictably leads to severe failure IMO when it becomes praxis outside of the restrictions of a basically liberal society.

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js. 02.27.15 at 2:29 am

I literally am having trouble understanding what you were getting it.

Well, take the case of complementary parental and filial duties I mentioned above: parents (are supposed to) take care of their children when the children are young, and children (are supposed to) take care of their parents when the parents are old. By your lights, is this a case of reciprocity?

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js. 02.27.15 at 2:43 am

I should also say that I am substantially in agreement with Z (leaving aside some very weird obscurities that I don’t want to get into right now), but mostly, I don’t want to give the game that fast.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 4:05 am

Which system would more likely “inevitably” lead to that pile of skulls and the gulag? One based upon cooperation, sharing, use-value and allocation based on need, not greed? Or one based upon competition, exchange-value, hoarding, endless rounds of creative destruction, endless consumption, and the appropriation of labor surplus by the few?

Which system is more likely to lead to people tearing each other apart, as they fight over resources? One based on competition and the control of wealth, power and privilege by the few? One that creates scarcity for the many because the few hoard almost everything? Or one with a raison d’etre of providing for the needs of all? Providing at least enough. For everyone.

Right now, just 80 people hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. As of 2016, in America, the richest 1% will, for the first time, hold more wealth than the bottom 99% of the country combined. And the richest 20% worldwide consume more than 85% of our resources.

To me, the answer is more than clear. If any “ism” inevitably leads to death and destruction, it’s capitalism. Its internal logic has that baked right in. And that doesn’t even count its obvious ecological destructiveness.

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geo 02.27.15 at 4:05 am

Plume: I wish you had showed up earlier, dammit.

JH @447: it sounds like you are saying … that what went on during and following the Russian Revolution had nothing to do with the ideas of communism

Yes, exactly. Of course, I then have to say with whose ideas of communism it had nothing to do. But I’ve done exactly that in the course of this thread, repeatedly. I’ve several times defined “communism,” as the notion was formulated in the mid- and late 19th century and named a dozen or so people whom I regard as authoritative exponents, and also explained many times why the Bolsheviks were happy to call themselves communists but behaved in exactly the reverse fashion, and why ignorant or malicious people on both sides of the Cold War throughout the 20th century were happy to accept the Bolsheviks’ self-designation. No doubt I have a ridiculously exaggerated sense of my own explanatory powers, but still, to hear people — even people like your respected self — gadding on as if I’d never loosed my eloquence upon them is naturally a bit frustrating.

Does all or any of this matter? It’s just a word, after all. No, I suppose it doesn’t matter, ultimately. When and if ideas about society-wide cooperation and solidarity begin to have any purchase in the real world, their exponents will invent a new vocabulary. I hope some of you are around then and can keep your ideals from being hijacked.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 4:15 am

Geo #468,

Well said. I think you’ve consistently made excellent points in this thread.

And another riff off the metaphor I posted earlier: The one where the menu says it’s Filet Mignon but you’re served liver, so why blame the Filet Mignon?

Oftentimes people like Brett will say that our insistence on an accurate word/description for what happened in the Soviet Union and in Maoist China is just apologetics for what they did. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be saying I hate the liver too. Which I do. I despise what they did. For a host of reasons. They set back the cause of leftist philosophy for generations, by NOT practicing it in any way, shape or form, while the thing they completely avoided got all the blame. A truly democratic, egalitarian, use-value, needs-based system, with true equality and actual power-sharing for all — that is the furthest thing from what they did. But when people advocate for that, “Stalin!!!” is now the knee-jerk retort. In an actual socialist society, and then later with a communist one, Stalin is an impossibility. At least if it is to remain socialist or communist.

You can’t have a Stalin in a true democracy. And socialism IS democracy fully realized. Communism, which follows it, is true democracy realized, without state apparatus.

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js. 02.27.15 at 4:20 am

Look, I am a lot less down on Lenin than most people in this thread, but it’s sort of ridiculous to say that the October Revolution had nothing to do with “authoritative exponents” of communism. Leninism is clearly inspired by strains in Marx’s thought—I don’t see the point in denying this.

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mattski 02.27.15 at 4:30 am

Rich,

People are quite comfortable talking about experiments with democracy, but if “it’s about both” then they should be just as comfortable talking about experiments in limiting democracy. Consensus, for example, is a way of limiting democracy, not a full expansion of democracy or something like that.

Two points. The US Constitution and the American revolution were a step forward in terms of democratic norms and institutions. Second, to say that consensus is a way of limiting democracy is to admit that democracy is open to interpretation. That is not some flaw to be pinned on ‘democracy’ in my view. Rather, it’s testimony to the inherent problems of governance. Or you could say, in simple language, the inherent difficulty of getting along when large numbers of people are involved.

There isn’t any way around that basic difficulty. It isn’t the fault of an idea or a theory.

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mattski 02.27.15 at 4:32 am

Oh, yes. Welcome back, Plume!

800 comments here we come.

471

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 5:55 am

“Leninism is clearly inspired by strains in Marx’s thought—I don’t see the point in denying this.”

I don’t see the point in blaming Lenin, because he’s so clearly an inheritor of Marx. The people saying that Bolshevism has nothing to do with the ideals of communism are just demonstrating that they have no idea how to keep their ideals from being hijacked again. It was pretty obvious long before anyone heard of Lenin.

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js. 02.27.15 at 6:07 am

If it sounds like I was “blaming” Lenin, then I just failed to write clearly.

473

geo 02.27.15 at 6:09 am

js @471: Yes, of course, Lenin endorsed Marx’s ideas as he (Lenin) understood them. All I’m saying is that “communism” before Lenin was usually understood as radical democracy/the cooperative commonwealth/workers’ councils, etc. — a society at once libertarian and egalitarian. It was thought that only a society-wide uprising could realize it, and there was no idea of a self-appointed vanguard party seizing state power and suppressing political competition. The degree to which the Bolsheviks were forced to abandon democracy by the savage efforts of the capitalist powers (including the US) to crush them is a matter for historical debate. I don’t cut them much slack in that respect; I think they should have accepted defeat (and probable liquidation, like the Paris Communards before them) before abandoning the reliance on popular support which the communist ideal would have prescribed. Plenty of contemporary European communists, and even other Russian revolutionaries, thought so too.

But who cares what Lenin thought? The point is, if communism means the assertion of popular control over all aspects of social life (as it does, according to the people who thought up the idea), then Lenin certainly didn’t act like a communist.

And really, at this stage in history (and in this thread), who even cares what “communism” means? Let’s all spend the rest of the century saving the planet and getting everyone clean water and enough food, and then we can resume the discussion.

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js. 02.27.15 at 6:46 am

All I’m saying is that “communism” before Lenin was usually understood as radical democracy/the cooperative commonwealth/workers’ councils, etc. — a society at once libertarian and egalitarian.

That’s part of it, yes. And a very important part of it, no doubt. Part of my difficulty is that I don’t know what sense to make of “communism” in general, but if we’re talking about Marx in particular, I think the above characterization undersells a lot of the really important radical content—radical content that I’m not ill-disposed to, I should add. Anyway, I know this is obscure, but this whole thread, I’ve really been avoiding getting into a discussion of the history, prospects, etc. of communism (partly for the kinds of reasons you mention in your last para), so I think I’ll leave it there.

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Sebastian H 02.27.15 at 7:20 am

“Communism “is a socioeconomic system structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and characterized by the absence of social classes, money,[3][4] and the state; as well as a social, political and economic ideology and movement that aims to establish this social order.”

Suppose you hope to achieve this without class warfare, on a local level. Never mind whether this is reasonable or not. Are you, plausibly, a communist if you are ideologically committed to bringing about a state of affairs such as is described in the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry? I say you are. You say you aren’t, I take it?”

Of course they aren’t. The definition you offer would seriously mean that Marx, Lenin and Engels wouldn’t count as Communists.

You might as well use definitions of ‘Catholicism’ that say the Dalai Lama is ‘really’ a Catholic, but the pope isn’t. At that point you really should use another word.

Class struggle is an absolutely integral part of how communism is formulated *as an ideology*. You can’t take that out and still pretend you are talking about communism. John, you can’t narrowly insist on focusing on the ideology to the exacting exclusion of real-world results and then also insist on watering down the ideology. Dictatorship of the proletariat is part of ideological communism. It is right there in Marx and Engels. If you don’t want class struggle and you don’t want dictatorship of the proletariat, you don’t have much in common with the communism. Insisting on a definition of communism which would exclude Marx, Engels and Lenin is just Humpty-Dumptyism.

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Sebastian H 02.27.15 at 7:26 am

And to be clear even if you think Lenin was a false prophet of *true* communism, instead of someone who took the flaws in communism and ran with them, such that you want to exclude him, it is silly to light upon definitions which exclude him AND Marx AND Engels.

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bob mcmanus 02.27.15 at 8:01 am

Democracy, democracy, democracy…wow, communism is just democracy? Well, maybe long after the revolution, but we need socialism (not quite social democracy or even democratic socialism) as a probable necessary stage. I actually expect this out of geo and I expect almost nothing from Plume.

We can go back before Marx to Proudhon: “Property is theft.”

No, as we are seeing as we write, in the privatizations of Greek ports and electric utilities, you really don’t get to communism through the reform of liberal capitalism. The Kochs are not going to let you vote their campaign contributions away, and the banksters will not hand over control. Liberalism and even social democracy is proving itself a bankrupt ideology, inevitably leading to mass immiseration. Inevitably. We are living through generations of liberal fail.

Talk as pretty as you like, the Marxists understand that first you must take their property, and then you open the polls. Short of horrific war, that is the only path, hopefully with somewhat less destruction than the liberals/capitalists/fascists (and I consider them very close to each other*) inevitably, inevitably will subject us to.

It isn’t pretty. It is revolution.

*I really don’t see why the Nazis aren’t considered a variant of liberal capitalism. It wasn’t as if all the GMbHs got nationalized, markets disappeared, and the rich were impoverished. I blame most of the 20th century dead, including Iron Curtain dead, on liberalism and capitalism.

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Salem 02.27.15 at 9:06 am

Communism actually in place is so horrible, that everybody who wants to defend communism starts out by denying that it’s ever actually been in place.

It’s more complicated than that, because the self-same people who declare that the USSR and it’s satellites were never communist and so nothing they did can be held against communism… they are also the ones declaring that the USSR wasn’t that bad really, that it made terrific industrial progress, that it only turned bad because of western aggression, that its crimes pale before the crimes of capitalist countries, and so on.

In other words, Communism has never been tried. And when it was tried , it succeeded.

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Stephen 02.27.15 at 9:06 am

Bob McManus: we’ve had “the Soviet Union wasn’t really a communist state” and now you come up with “Nazi Germany was really a liberal state”.

The twanging noise you hear if from the (quite elastic) English language being stretched past breaking point.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 9:34 am

“Suppose you hope to achieve this without class warfare, on a local level. Never mind whether this is reasonable or not. Are you, plausibly, a communist if you are ideologically committed to bringing about a state of affairs such as is described in the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry? I say you are. You say you aren’t, I take it?”

Of course they aren’t. The definition you offer would seriously mean that Marx, Lenin and Engels wouldn’t count as Communists. “

This is just elementary bad logic, Sebastian.

No one is saying that belief in the need for class struggle is incompatible with being a communist. I’m merely pointing out that it isn’t necessary. To put it another way, ‘Suppose you hope to achieve this without class warfare’ is not semantically equivalent to ‘suppose you define ‘communism’ as the hope to achieve this without class warfare.”

“Class struggle is an absolutely integral part of how communism is formulated *as an ideology*.”

Why do you think so?

I return to the Wikipedia question. If you are right, the Wikipedia entry is basically wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. But you have to understand why I’m a bit hesitant just to take it on your say-so. Why couldn’t you be someone who believed in communism, worked for it, but believed it was possible to eventually attain this goal peacefully? Why would wanting communism, but not by (violent) class struggle, make you not a communist? (What would you be, if not a communist?)

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bob mcmanus 02.27.15 at 9:57 am

481: Private property (for more than a king) and some degree of free markets. Period.

Funny in a thread about definitions, nobody has noticed how the definition of “liberalism” has been mangled for centuries in order to ensure that nothing bad or wicked is possible under liberalism or ever been done by liberals. This is currently carried to a ridiculous extreme, so that the vast prison population or imperialistic foreign policy is somehow accomplished by minority “conservatives” over liberal resistance in our “liberal” United States. Liberalism cannot fail, hell it can’t be less than perfect, liberalism can only be failed.

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bob mcmanus 02.27.15 at 10:14 am

Hell with it. Back to de Ste. Croix, and 1400 years of private property for the very few, and grinding hopeless back-breaking destitution for the 99%. 1400 years worth. Not mentioning the wars.

Puchalsky would tell me I’m evil for reading de Ste. Croix. Well, he can rest easy by knowing there probably aren’t many picking up that book anymore.

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Peter T 02.27.15 at 10:29 am

Well, there’s “liberalism” and there are “liberals”. The same root word, but attached to very different things. Language is like that.

“Communism actually in place is so horrible…” Actually, not so horrible that 20% or more of the Russian population consistently votes to go back to it, communist parties were until recently a major part of the political landscape in France and Italy, the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban parties remain in power…

I have no particular brief for communism, but I really wish that sebastian and Brett could shake off their blinkers.

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bob mcmanus 02.27.15 at 11:00 am

Okay. Just for a moment.

If, under whatever system, the sovereign can come in and grab the duke’s property, there isn’t much freedom. However, if the sovereign may not do so, or may only do so under onerous rules of due process, then many other freedoms (well, for dukes) will follow, because the duke can use his lands to feed some soldiers.

In addition, in more ancient times, at the point at which landlords could extract surplus from agricultural properties for their individual use, cities were founded with some leisure time and social interaction etc etc and a degree of freedom, again only for the urban 1%, but better than Egypt or Assyria.

OTOH, if I have to try to follow Plume and Puchalsky and geo in figuring out what socialism or communism or liberalism means I have to deal with some kind of vast intricate panoply where it isn’t really real liberalism without net neutrality and abortion rights and affirmative action and protection from trolls and and Tobin taxes and campaign finance reform and 51% of primetime tv sitcom directors being women and people-of-color. “Communism = democracy” is really easy to incrementally work toward when you have that vast a menu of activism to work with. Why would we ever need revolution?

We can just put off the property stuff til after we get all the other goodies. Or maybe after we empty the menu, communism just appears magically.

Communism is about taking their stuff. Period. We can do it early and ugly, but more likely we can share whatever crumbs are left after the next capitalist catastrophe and war. Marxism has always really been about preventing capitalist apocalypse, not creating a utopia.

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Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 11:02 am

Plume: “No. It’s never been tried. Obviously. Again, communism is the absence of the state. You can’t have a communist state, by definition.”

Look, I could say, “Perpetual motions machines don’t work!”, and you might reply, “You can’t say that, they’ve never been tried!”

And I’d point out a whole bunch of ‘perpetual motion machines’ that had been built, and every one ground to a halt. And you’d say, “Aha! Then they weren’t perpetual motion machines, were they? Because a perpetual motion machine, by definition, would never come to a stop. So, perpetual motion machines have never been tried, maybe we ought to try one, it would solve the world’s energy crisis.”

That’s what this “Communism has never been tried!” line is like. Communism has been tried. It’s been tried tragically, horribly many times. It was never “communism” by the definition of communism communists use, because you’ve baked working into your definition, and communism doesn’t work. So it can NEVER be “tried” in the sense you’re talking, because it can’t work, and you’ve defined “trying” so as to include working.

John: “Brett, will you please state your position on this whole ideology = results point.”

In the beginning, when an ideology is new, and hasn’t been tried, you can separate intention of the adherents from results. Because, until it’s been tried, you don’t know what the results are going to be. In 1905, it’s possible to be a communist with good intentions, because you can think communism will produce good results. It doesn’t require willful self-deception.

Then an ideology gets tried, and goes horribly, horribly wrong. And, at this point, it’s still possible to distinguish the intention of the adherents from results, because it’s plausible some big mistake was made, or there’s some variant that would work. There might be a bit of self-deception going on at this point.

Then it gets tried again, and goes horribly wrong. And gets tried in a bit different way, and they actually build literal piles of skulls. And gets tried in yet another way, and death on a massive scale.

And, at this point, the space been adherents’ intentions and real world outcomes is paper thin, or gone. Because they know now what the results will be, and if they are still advocating the ideology, it’s perfectly fair to conclude they mean to achieve the results they must know they will get.

And, if they don’t “know” that they will get those results, then they’re deceiving themselves on an epic level, to the point where you just have to treat them like madmen.

And that’s where we are now, in regards to communism. Not at the stage of innocent ignorance. Not at the stage of plausible ignorance. We are, today, at the stage of willful, guilty denial or insanity.

Does that clarify the matter?

Peter T: “Fascism and Nazism together notched up 35 country years. Maybe 70 if you include the fascist satellite regimes of the 40s.”

Yes, one of the positive things you can say about fascism, is that it lacks the staying power of communism. Burns out fast. Whereas communism is a sort of Energizer Bunny of evil.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 11:48 am

Brett: “Does that clarify the matter?”

No. Because what about the communist food co-op? (You’re refuted, right?)

487

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 12:02 pm

By Bellmore’s logic, capitalism doesn’t work either.

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John Holbo 02.27.15 at 12:13 pm

OK, Brett’s argument is pretzel-logic-y enough to record the form for posterity.

It seems to be this: because an obvious empirical falsehood is true, therefore an obvious conceptual falsehood is true.

The empirical falsehood is: for all x, such that x is a belief in communism, x has caused murder.

The conceptual falsehood is: if there is a belief x, such that x has always caused murder, it is impossible to specify the content of x.

I have no idea why one would believe the empirical claim or why, if you did believe it, it would be thought to support the other thing. I means, seriously: even if I actually believed that for all x, such that x is a belief in communism, x has caused murder, I think I could still specify the content of the belief. I mean: if it doesn’t have content, why even believe that it IS a belief?

Good night, all.

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engels 02.27.15 at 12:24 pm

As is occasionally the case here, you don’t have to be remotely left-wing to find much of this discussion ludicrous, just non-American. Anyway here’s a link to Paul McCartney performing in Red Square:

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Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 12:58 pm

“The empirical falsehood is: for all x, such that x is a belief in communism, x has caused murder. “

But, I don’t believe that a belief in communism causes murder. You can go around believing anything you want, that doesn’t kill anybody. It’s efforts at implementation that cause murder.

And efforts at implementation in the context of a non-communist nation tend to not cause murder, because the communists can’t do everything they want. Your food co-op can’t get away with disappearing people, or putting up machine gun nests around the parking lot to bar people from leaving. Even if it’s being run by genuine communists, rather than people who just believe in mutualism, the best/worst they can do is a kind of theme park communism, because they’re surrounded by a non-communist society, that won’t let them go full communist.

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mattski 02.27.15 at 1:11 pm

because the communists can’t do everything they want.

Brett, you’ve defined ‘communist’ as someone who WANTS to disappear people, etc. Yet somehow I don’t think you really believe this. You mean that pot-smoking hippies who want to form a workers cooperative must necessarily also want your parade of horribles?

Aren’t you arguing that my Commie-ville, USA, scenario is impossible? IOW, could the people living in Commie-ville ‘have what they want?’ Be content? Why couldn’t they?

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engels 02.27.15 at 1:14 pm

Bellmore #431 That’s actually one of the strengths of capitalism, that it permits other forms of social organization under it’s umbrella.

Bellmore #492 Even if it’s being run by genuine communists, rather than people who just believe in mutualism, the best/worst they can do is a kind of theme park communism, because they’re surrounded by a non-communist society, that won’t let them go full communist.

Hmmm

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mattski 02.27.15 at 1:16 pm

Blissful & instructive.

*The word ‘instructive’ should not be over-interpreted!

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Hector_St_Clare 02.27.15 at 1:17 pm

Am I the only one here who’s actually going to partly defend the record of the Eastern Bloc states? After the middle of the 1950s, the Soviet Union wasn’t committing mass murder against anyone. Plenty of its allies, like Cuba, never did. Neither did Yugoslavia (I don’t think immediate post-WWII reprisals count, and if you blame Tito for those then you have to also blame Charles DeGaulle). Most of them didn’t have a free press, but unlike Brett Bellmore, I don’t much care about that. As the current government of Belarus (of which I’m quite a fan) likes to say, sausages are better than freedom. Against that, you have to weigh the concrete achievements of the communist states (they achieved a basic and adequate standard of living for everyone, much lower economic inequality than in the west, put the first man in space and had many other scientific achievements, Cuba still has the second highest HDI in Latin America and Belarus is doing quite well for itself as well, and then there’s the market communist success story of Yugoslabia), as well as the merits of ideals like ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. I think Stalinist gulags, the Moscow Purge trials, etc., were aberrations which don’t really say anything useful or interesting about communism, any more than the inquisition says anything about Christianity.

Also, Brett’s remarks that communism ’causes’ murder is kind of hilarious, because it shows that he doesn’t understand much about statistics (particularly the problems of drawing conclusions with small sample sizes and lack of independence).

Plume’s remarks that ‘communism has never been tried’, while they’re certainly logically coherent, also render the debate kind of uninteresting.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 1:21 pm

js: “If it sounds like I was “blaming” Lenin, then I just failed to write clearly.”

I was just giving you a bit of credit that it turned out you didn’t deserve. Leave morality aside, and of course Lenin was a complete failure. Never has anyone had such a lucky victory and turned it into long-term world-wide defeat so thoroughly.

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Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 1:28 pm

“Brett, you’ve defined ‘communist’ as someone who WANTS to disappear people, etc. “

Functionally, communists ‘want’ to disappear people, etc, because they want a form of social organization which appears to alway involve such activities, and tend, if they get the opportunity to implement that form of social organization without severe outside constraints, resort to such measures instead of just giving up on communism.

They may have something else going on inside their heads, but does it matter? Not if they don’t let that something else cause them to change course when communism demands the disappearing, etc.

Yes, Engles, capitalism’s tolerance for other forms of social organization under it’s umbrella is not unlimited. Thankfully.

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Hector_St_Clare 02.27.15 at 1:30 pm

To be clear, unlike Plume my definition of ‘communism’ doesn’t necessary involve liberalism or democracy, and also unlike Plume I would defend the whole ‘rule by an authoritarian, elite vanguard party’ type conception.

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engels 02.27.15 at 1:30 pm

of course Lenin was a complete failure. Never has anyone had such a lucky victory and turned it into long-term world-wide defeat so thoroughly

So if it hadn’t been for Lenin, Russia and the world would be living under socialism now? (I’m not trying to get into an argument, just trying figure out if this is what you are claiming?)

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mattski 02.27.15 at 1:36 pm

Functionally, communists ‘want’ to disappear people, etc, because they want a form of social organization which appears to alway involve such activities

So, a voluntary communist community inside a non-communist nation-state is impossible because the residents of Commie-ville don’t actually just want to live cooperatively. What they really want is to take over the world?

It’s just that they don’t realize that this is what they really want…

(?)

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Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 1:54 pm

The Bolsheviks succeeding in destroying every other form of large-scale mass or vanguard leftism in the world, then they collapsed. Along the way they not only committed the crimes of Stalinism, they also so discredited left ideas in the area that they ruled that they left Russia vulnerable to more mass deaths after neoliberalism took over.

I’m not going to engage in contentless counterfactuals about what might have happened if history hadn’t happened. But of course the Bolsheviks directly suppressed large-scale anarchism, preferring to have the fascists win in Spain rather than have the anarchists around as a competing left ideology, and preferring to destroy Mahkno militarily rather than have his group fight alongside them against the Whites. The kind of feel-good communism or primitive socialism that geo keeps listing the sources for was everywhere suppressed under their rule by having its advocates be shot, and outside their rule suppressed by having the Bolsheviks assume the leadership of world socialism (as well they might, having one of the two superpowers under their control). And how did all of the other groups they inspired do against the capitalists?

Do you have any real ideas of your own about this, engels?

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William Timberman 02.27.15 at 1:56 pm

Pace mattski, Plume, and geo, it doesn’t take a bob mcmanus to spot the failures of liberalism’s arc of moral progress. Consider the even-handed foreign policy that gives us torture, black sites in Poland and the Baltic States, congressional sponsorship of bloody-minded lectures by Netanyahu, and the Department of Homeland Security. On the home front, consider the state governments of Arizona, Wisconsin, and now, it seems Illinois, with their impoverished schools, private prisons, right-to-work laws, open season on black teenagers, and even a black site in Chicago to match those of the CIA overseas, a black site which, mirabile dictu, seems to be run by some of the same people as the CIA’s were. Allow Bill Gates to accumulate half a trillion dollars, and the next thing you know he’s redesigning our entire education system to his own misbegotten commercial specifications. Let the likes of Carl Icahn decide our investment policy, and the next thing you know you’ll find one of them holding a gun on Tim Cook, and stuffing his pockets with the proceeds of Foxconn’s dark satanic mills. As for hapless Apple, it seems to me even Smaug could find better things to do with his treasure horde.

So in one sense, bob m has a point. If we’re not prepared to take their stuff there might never, ever be an end, short of a universal moral revelation, to the Koch brother’s self-righteous snickering as we’re all slowly, inexorably turned into part-time Walmart greeters. On the other hand, if it does come down to another civil war — one between bob’s revolutionary guard, say, and Brett’s ruggedly individual .45 — I have a feeling that the best that geo, Plume, mattski, and yours truly can hope to get out of it will be either a trip to the gulag, or a stint on a Georgia private prison chain gang. If so, we’ll hardly be able to claim that our fate has turned out to be inconsistent with what we already knew about the ironies of history.

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Plume 02.27.15 at 1:56 pm

Brett, again, all you’ve done is read selective events back into a theory which would, if implemented, make those events impossible. That’s why it’s absurd to say “communism” or “socialism” leads inevitably to the gulag or a pile of skulls. Not only is it the case that the Soviet system and China under Mao weren’t even remotely “socialist” or “communist,” they were positively anti-socialist and anti-communist. In deeds.

They talked a good game. But their deeds said otherwise. The core aspects of both philosophies were under constant assault from those regimes:

Democracy, including the economy
The people own the means of production

Neither was legally possible in either case, and attempts at either were met by crushing force.

They basically just swapped places with the Czars. The new management team was every bit as dictatorial and authoritarian, top down and hierarchical. There was no egalitarian structure put in place. There was no equal ownership of the means of production. It was not a cooperative organization of society. None of the building blocks — or the goals — of socialism and communism were set up. None of the essential pillars of leftist theory were established.

Again, it was a bunch of sociopaths, who called themselves birdwatchers. You now claim birdwatching leads inevitably to a pile of skulls and the gulag because they called themselves birdwatchers.

503

ZM 02.27.15 at 1:59 pm

“What they really want is to take over the world?”

That was true at least of William Morris – I remember reading him saying some such thing when I was a teenager and how he couldn’t be happy with his successes until all the world lived co-operatively and thinking myself that is an awfully big goal for a man to have and how he must accordingly have faced much disappointment. This was before I realised all the world has to act on climate change in the next couple of decades :/

504

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:03 pm

Brett,

Please tell me how a theory/philosophy, based upon cooperation, egalitarianism, the dispersal of all power to the individual and actual, fully realized democracy would lead inevitably to the gulag, etc. . . . . while your beloved capitalism wouldn’t. Your chosen system is autocratic from the getgo, on the individual business level and out. It’s extremely hierarchical, and produces greater hierarchies and systems of top down control the bigger it gets, and can not function without economic apartheid. Its raison d’etre is to hoover up and concentrate wealth, income, access and power to the very top of the pyramid, using “competition” for resources, jobs, compensation as a form of divide and conquer control.

The logic of capitalism, the profit motive, the eternal reproduction of theft from workers, the way it started via the theft of land in Britain and elsewhere, along with its centuries of land-rape in the so-called “third world” . . . . all of that logically leads to genocide, slavery and endless wars.

But you ignore all of that. To you, folks who believe in communal living arrangements are the real danger.

Sheeesh.

505

Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 2:05 pm

It was a LOT of bunches of sociopaths, in different places, who called themselves birdwatchers. Russia, China, Cambodia…

Eventually, if every time birdwatchers get in a position where they can do what they want without outside constraint, they go on murder sprees, you have to conclude that birdwatchers are just generally sociopaths.

506

William Timberman 02.27.15 at 2:07 pm

treasure hoard, dammit>

507

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:16 pm

If the subject is “how to get there,” then, yes, we can do it without violence. I don’t want to “take their stuff.” They’ve already done enough of that to everyone else. Capitalism is all about “taking their stuff.” No one gets that stuff in the first place without, at some point in time, theft . . . and the ramifications of that original (or repeated) theft don’t just suddenly stop at one point in history. (We stole the land of the Native Americans, and they’re still paying the price for that to this day, and paying the price for the West’s invention, under capitalism, of the concentration camp, which William Everdell gives to Spain (Valeriano Weyler Y Nicolau), initially, with a h/t to Sherman and his march through Georgia. America then radically improved on Spain’s innovations during its rape and plunder of the Philippines, etc. )

The way to do it peacefully is to establish an alternative economic system which renders their dollars worthless. A non-violent war of attrition will work to wait the old guard capitalists out until they join the new economy as equal owners of the means of production. The only legal tender, the only legal form of commerce, would be the one we switch to — which is the case under our current capitalist control as well. The state backs only one form of legal, contractual commerce, and one kind of currency.

We completely delink funding for anything from revenues due to sales. We supply our own revenue stream, completely separate from individual commercial transactions. We own that pool of funding commonly, together, with equal shares and equal voices. It’s 110% independent of sales. So, little by little, the rich are left to illegal transactions, holding useless business property and dollars without any value. They can’t legally do business, and their dollars are worthless.

Eventually, they either join or leave.

No violence is necessary.

508

engels 02.27.15 at 2:17 pm

The Bolsheviks succeeding in destroying every other form of large-scale mass or vanguard leftism in the world, then they collapsed

Wow.

509

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:18 pm

Brett,

Far more people have been slaughtered due to capitalism that all the Stalins, Maos, etc. etc. combined. It’s not at all close. The black book of capitalism dwarfs the one for so-called “communism.” You just conveniently ignore that.

510

Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 2:22 pm

“Please tell me how a theory/philosophy, based upon cooperation, egalitarianism, the dispersal of all power to the individual and actual, fully realized democracy would lead inevitably to the gulag, etc. . . . .”

You’re still building “it works” into your definition.

511

Phil 02.27.15 at 2:24 pm

Eventually, if every time birdwatchers get in a position where they can do what they want without outside constraint, they go on murder sprees, you have to conclude that birdwatchers are just generally sociopaths.

Kind of like unfettered gun ownership!

512

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 2:25 pm

William Timberman: “On the other hand, if it does come down to another civil war — one between bob’s revolutionary guard, say, and Brett’s ruggedly individual .45”

bob doesn’t have a revolutionary guard. I’m willing to believe that Brett has a .45, for what that’s worth. If there was going to be a civil war, it would not be between forces symbolized by either of these people, neither of whose ideologies has any kind of mass following. (Not that my own does either, of course. Not like I’m putting on airs here.)

A civil war would, of course, be worse for the area in which it occurred than the ongoing level of capitalist immiseration and environmental destruction, and if the choice is between having family members shot and becoming a Walmart greeter, then sign me up as a greeter.

513

areanimator 02.27.15 at 2:26 pm

Let’s see what happens if Brett Belmore’s logic @487 et al is applied to Christianity. Viewed as a utopian ideology with a long history of practical political implementation, it can clearly be seen that Christianity has been tried many times. Piles of skulls have been a frequent result. With Catholicism, you have, to name but a few examples, the Inquisition, the Crusades, papal tyranny, corruption and the genocide of native populations in South America.

Some people objected to this particular implementation of the Christian ideal. Thus, the many reformation attempts, most famous of them being the Protestant reformation of Martin Luther, who claimed that Christianity as defined by the policies and actions of the Catholic church and the states under its control wasn’t true Christianity as defined by the actions and words of Jesus Christ. But the implementation of Protestantism also proved bloody and conducive to tyranny, repression, the 30 Years’ War, the genocide of native populations in North America, slavery, and so on and so forth.

I therefore assume that Brett Belmore defines Christianity as a murderous ideology that inevitably produces piles of skulls, and anyone claiming to be a non-violent Christian trying to uphold the ideals of Christ to be a madman at best and a latent mass murderer at worst, held back only by the confines and regulations of the capitalist society around them. Is my assumption correct? And if not, why not?

514

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:31 pm

Brett,

It’s more logical to assume it would work than capitalism. Capitalism is an absurd idea, based on anti-human, anti-democratic principles and the lowest possible bar for “success.” A sane society never would have allowed it to flower in the first place, if they had the choice to prevent it. And a sane society would have kicked it to the curb long ago, if it managed to slip through the cracks to establish itself anyway.

Why would any society willingly turn over its autonomy to a few sociopaths at the top (plutocrats and oligarchs), so they can enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else, bottle up resources, arbitrarily set wages and prices, all to benefit themselves? That’s society under capitalism. Why would any society willingly organize itself so that a tiny fraction of it would hold the vast majority of all wealth, income, power and access to societal goods? Why would they do so and delude themselves that the lipstick of highly limited democracy might mitigate for that massive concentration of wealth and power? Why would they do that and bar democracy from the now most dominant sphere of life, the economy?

Capitalism makes it the dominant sphere — for the first time in human history.

It’s a ludicrous idea for a system and it’s caused at least 200 million deaths and counting.

515

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 2:32 pm

Sounds to me like Bellmore’s argument boils down to:

1. Communism, the theory, cannot work, because states claiming to be purely communist were dictatorships.

2. Capitalism, the theory, does work, even though states claiming to be purely capitalist were intolerable until they all became half-communist.

It looks to me like neither theory has worked in reality. Well duh. What is the problem here? In my neighborhood we figured this out, talking at recess on the school playground in 8th grade.

516

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 2:36 pm

Me: “Do you have any real ideas of your own about this, engels?”

engels: “Wow.”

Didn’t think so.

517

John Holbo 02.27.15 at 2:37 pm

“You can go around believing anything you want, that doesn’t kill anybody. It’s efforts at implementation that cause murder.”

This is what a normal person would think, Brett, but you are not that person. You treat as an axiom that the philosophy of communism = its effects. And those effects are murder

1) “Functionally, communists ‘want’ to disappear people”. And 2): “the space between adherents’ intentions and real world outcomes is paper thin, or gone.” To think is to try is to do. Being a communist equals wanting to murder, equals murdering. It’s an odd view, but simple in its way, and it clearly forbids you from falling back to some sensible-sounding distinction between belief and implementation. Denying that distinction is your whole deal.

Wouldn’t it me more sensible to say something else?

518

engels 02.27.15 at 2:38 pm

Back on planet reality, here’s an interesting potted history of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE):

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/understanding-the-greek-communists/

519

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:39 pm

By “low bar for success,” I mean the allocation of goods, income and resources to the richest 20%, with most of that concentrated at the very top. For capitalism to be considered “successful,” all it needs to do is hide the suffering of the billions of people it fails — and/or forces into poverty, etc. If it can fool the average Middle Class American, European, Asian, etc. etc. . . . into thinking that everyone must be okay cuz they are . . . . it can essentially write off 80% of the world’s population and still claim “success.”

“Liberalism” basically deals with the richest 20%. Conservatives and propertarians are more focused on the 1%. Neither tends to really factor in the bottom 80% or more when they talk about “success.” It’s either “out of sight, out of mind,” or “IGMGFY.”

OTOH, a system with the goal of leaving no one behind — socialism/communism — has a much higher standard to meet. “Success” for it would entail no write offs, no forgotten peoples. The allocation of resources, social justice, compensation, would need to be across the board. We couldn’t simply pretend billions of humans don’t exist, or that they “deserve” their poverty.

Capitalism with the delusion of mitigating democracy attached is easier in the sense that it’s bar is set incredibly low. It can quite literally completely fail billions of humans and still be seen as “successful.”

520

engels 02.27.15 at 2:41 pm

Didn’t think so.

“Suppose someone sits down where you are sitting right now and announces to me that he is Napoleon Bonaparte. The last thing I want to do with him is to get involved in a technical discussion of cavalry tactics at the Battle of Austerlitz.” Robert Solow

521

William Timberman 02.27.15 at 2:47 pm

Yeah, Rich, I hear you — and like everyone else here, I feel your pain. It’s true, I think, that if we do wind up with armed insurrections of one kind or other, they more than likely won’t be conducted by either bob’s or Brett’s factions, fantasies of Seeräuber Jenny and John Galt notwithstanding. This whole thread, of course, has been something of a tempest in a teapot, but it has at least identified the real conundrums, which are ancient. How, given the diverse motivations of millions of people, can we have an advanced technological civilization with informed participation on the one hand, and fair distribution on the other? Most of the necessary elements have been identified, but how they fit together is as much a mystery now as it was when the Enlightenment first opened the Pandora’s box of a rationalized polity, and in the process, more or less unwittingly, granted the crafty id the freedom to be all it could be.

522

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 2:48 pm

Well look, people defending pure socialism (my own preferred term) never say exactly how the psychology will inform the structure of transactions. Don’t refer to a book. Tell briefly how production and distribution is to occur, maybe in 140 characters like Twitter, so that everybody who cannot read or write can hear it, understand it and can do it. Don’t bother with protests that first the power structure must be smashed, because somehow they are inculcating a false psychology (e.g., the later alienation theories); and only then will people naturally share, in the dawn of peace pure perfect and perpetual; most people do not believe that.

523

mattski 02.27.15 at 2:49 pm

With Catholicism, you have, to name but a few examples, the Inquisition, the Crusades, papal tyranny, corruption and the genocide of native populations in South America.

Plus, we get to burn heretics at the stake on a weekly basis!

Well, we did anyway.

524

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:52 pm

Hey, Mattski,

Hope all is well. And thanks for the welcome back.

525

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 2:52 pm

Mattski, they still would like to do it, or have psychological need of talking about it, if Fox News is any indication. They just need an enemy, any enemy, or else their discourse doesn’t work.

526

mattski 02.27.15 at 2:54 pm

527

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 2:57 pm

engels doesn’t even read the links he posts. I was pretty amused to see how their long-term connection with the Bolsheviks helped the Greek Communists over the years, leading to their position of power in the struggle against neoliberalism today.

528

Plume 02.27.15 at 2:58 pm

Lee #524,

You are asking for a special limitation on socialism that was not placed on capitalism. Do you really think people in the 18th century found it “natural” to be kicked off their land, denied their ability to self-provide, upended from their own centuries of local economies? Do you think there was no psychological pressure applied to get them to switch to the brand new M-C-M, exchange-value mode, where they would, for the first time in living memory, go to work for a stranger?

The change was shocking for billions of humans, and it took decades and more to get them out of their previous “norms.” And it was done by force.

A brief summation of Michael Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism, with appropriate photos:

How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves

529

mattski 02.27.15 at 3:07 pm

William,

On the other hand, if it does come down to another civil war

That’s not a way I would talk. I’m going to put my trust in non-violence.

Rich,

I’m willing to believe that Brett has a .45

Back in the day when I knew Brett from debates/harangues at Jack Balkin’s legal blog Brett was a proud machine-gun toter.

:^)

530

Plume 02.27.15 at 3:11 pm

Quick follow up. There is a ton of reading back the present into the past in this discussion. People today have largely made their peace with capitalism, and all too many can’t conceive of anything outside its artificially created norms. They see it as “natural,” as, “there is no alternative.” But that wasn’t the case for most of its first two centuries of existence, depending, of course, which culture, which geography it conquered. It wasn’t the norm for the vast, vast majority of the planet even after it was embraced by Britain (first), continental Europe and the U.S. There was something absolutely different before it. Many somethings.

Because capitalism is everywhere, and follows us everywhere, it’s pretty difficult for many to think outside that preconditioned box of indoctrination. Which is part of the plan, of course. The idea of communal, egalitarian arrangements now freaks people out, even though it was the norm for the majority of the planet up until the 19th century. It was still the norm for “native peoples” until the 20th. We lived our first 250,000 years, give or take, under those arrangements.

If anything is “natural” to the human species, it’s communalism. Capitalism, OTOH, is only “natural” even now for a tiny portion of humanity, the sociopaths, the alphas who make up the 1%. Most of the rest of us would be very comfortable with cooperative, egalitarian arrangements, and they would benefit the vast majority far, far more than the current setup.

In short, one of the most bizarre aspects of capitalism is that it benefits such a tiny portion of the world, and hurts the majority and our ability to sustain life on this planet. The very same “nature” that would make us all at home in a cooperative, egalitarian environment . . . basically has adapted and goes along with kings and queens still.

531

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 3:17 pm

Plume #530, that is exactly NOT the answer to the question.

532

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 3:18 pm

The notion of the intentionality in communism, etc. gets us back to John’s original post. I have to say, I didn’t mind Graeber’s book so much, though I saw errors in the economic anthropology, which has a lot more old and interesting scholarship than what is available on-line. But the professors’ discontents with the book seemed born of an inclination to avoid discussing its central intentions.The thing that bothered me about the book, so I’m hoping he will get to the next one, is that he didn’t clarify the very statement of his central concern, which appears to be a psycho-sociological description of the possible kinds of socio-economic transactions. (Because it’s all one big thing, so we’re using these hyphenates.)

Graeber starts out from the concerns of Occupy, thinking, Okay, we’re enslaved to debt and the financial system, so how did we get here, and how is it coloring our individual psychologies; how has it begun to distort real things (i.e. can we further describe the contours of alienation, beyond Marxian descriptions of it)? So then he quite properly, I think, goes back to the beginnings, and although he doesn’t give enough schrift, in my opinion, to the emergence of money as a status object in status ceremonies before exact enumeration became a functional use, he embarks on a history as sort of a collection of psycho-social markers. But again, for me, the conclusion doesn’t wrap it up, even provisionally. So it has a very open-ended structure at the end, and doesn’t move intellectually beyond where things stood by the time of Marshall Sahlins and Roy A. Rappaport, and in systems theory, Anthony Wilden. And he hasn’t gotten to the best solutions for the mess, which are in Hazel Henderson.

533

William Timberman 02.27.15 at 3:19 pm

mattski @ 531

That’s not a way I would talk. I’m going to put my trust in non-violence.

More power to you then. Truly. For me, though, trust in this context puts too much of a burden on my already overtaxed cognitive skills. If being a good person requires of me that I indulge in a kind of willed schizophrenia, as in, say, Obama means well, but…, I’ll probably end up surrendering to the first overconfident asshole who kicks down my door.

534

Plume 02.27.15 at 3:21 pm

Lee,

You set up silly preconditions. I doubt anyone will try to give you an answer. But, who knows?

535

Plume 02.27.15 at 3:26 pm

I don’t know if you have already addressed this article, but I think it’s really excellent. Penned by the new finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis.

http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist

Speaking of civil wars: He gives one very logical reason for trying to work with his oppressors. He fears a right-wing takeover in the face of a collapse of capitalism in the present or near future. I think he just may be correct. As much as I detest capitalism, I don’t think we leftists would achieve our goals by trying to bring down the system at present. It seems far more likely that the right would fill the power vacuum, with neo-Fascism or neo-Nazism.

Non-violent change, through a far more aggressive (and further) left-populism is the answer.

536

engels 02.27.15 at 3:28 pm

engels doesn’t even read the links he posts. I was pretty amused to see how their long-term connection with the Bolsheviks helped the Greek Communists over the years, leading to their position of power in the struggle against neoliberalism today.

Oh dear. It’s an article about the KKE (which pace know-nothing American bloggers, remains a force within organised anti-capitalist struggle in Greece) from an informed, critical perspective on the Left.

537

js. 02.27.15 at 3:33 pm

I was just giving you a bit of credit that it turned out you didn’t deserve.

Oh, good! The old J Thomas tactic of willful misreading as charity! How I’ve missed it. The thing is, I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. I’m not even saying the __kind__ of thing you think I’m saying.

538

Z 02.27.15 at 3:41 pm

I should also say that I am substantially in agreement with Z (leaving aside some very weird obscurities that I don’t want to get into right now)

Thanks js., but I should point that the only think I did was trying to present accurately Marx’s position and Graeber’s redefinition of it. In particular, the weird obscurities are all theirs (except the usual clumsiness inherent in summarizing a whole book in the space of a comment post in a foreign language), and more specifically Graeber’s, because I enjoyed The False Coin of… but damn it is hard to get exactly what it means.

I am much more of a Bourdieu/Todd guy, myself (and they had a couple of interesting things to say about the topic, themselves, but that will be for a future 500 comments post).

539

Z 02.27.15 at 3:44 pm

thing, not think obviously, though the error is significative.

540

Plume 02.27.15 at 3:47 pm

Z,

Are you referring to Pierre? Haven’t read him yet, but he sounds pretty interesting. What book of his would you recommend for starters?

541

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 3:57 pm

js: “The thing is, I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. I’m not even saying the __kind__ of thing you think I’m saying.”

Are you saying anything? What is it?

542

engels 02.27.15 at 4:01 pm

Are you referring to Pierre?

Isaac shewly?

543

Robespierre 02.27.15 at 4:17 pm

@Plume # 532:
Why is it, then, that people had to literally be forced into communes, and escaped as soon as they possibly could?

544

Dan 02.27.15 at 4:27 pm

I hesitate to enter the discussion at this late point, but I am getting the sense that the defenders of “communism” here are missing the real dilemma.

John Holbo, for instance, resolutely rejects the identification of “communism” with the official ideology of the actually existing historical regimes that have called themselves communist. Instead he prefers the wikipedia definition (common ownership of the means of production, absence of social classes and money, etc). Now there’s nothing wrong with that — you can define your terms as you please. But the problem is that, if you’re being even-handed about things, the same move is going to (to a large degree) exonerate fascism too, at least at the ideological level.

The wikipedia article on fascism doesn’t have a similarly snappy definition, but here’s the best approximation I found:

[fascism is often defined as possessing the three features:] [i] anti-liberalism, anti-communism and anti-conservatism; [ii] nationalist authoritarian goals of creating a regulated economic structure to transform social relations within a modern, self-determined culture; and [iii] a political aesthetic of romantic symbolism, mass mobilization, a positive view of violence, and promotion of masculinity, youth and charismatic leadership.

That seems like a pretty good encapsulation to be. And you know what? Exactly the same move you’re using to defend communism can be made here: after all, nothing about these doctrines entails the historical atrocities associated with fascism; it’s possible to cultivate ultra-nationalistic corporatism and an aesthetic of violence without actually engaging in it, invading your neighbors, or murdering Jews.

So what’s the difference? You can’t say: OK, even if it’s theoretically possible to be a fascist without doing terrible things, you’re nevertheless forced to do them as a kind of praxeological necessity. You can’t say this because — as history shows — there’s a precisely analogous argument applicable in the communist case.

545

js. 02.27.15 at 4:33 pm

I should point that the only think I did was trying to present accurately Marx’s position and Graeber’s redefinition of it. In particular, the weird obscurities are all theirs

Yes—that’s what I meant! Sorry, I should’ve been more clear, but I meant that I agree with your rendering of the Marx/Engels position and how Marx understands the ‘from each…, to each…’ formula. Re “weird obscurities”, I was thinking of this:

“the individual […] receives back from society […] exactly what he gives to it”) and lest we missed the point, they have another go at it: “Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values.”

But I was misreading that, it’s not as weird as I originally thought.

546

mattski 02.27.15 at 4:44 pm

William,

I’ll probably end up surrendering to the first overconfident asshole who kicks down my door.

You shouldn’t be concerned. If I kick down your door I’ll be bearing beverages.

547

Plume 02.27.15 at 4:50 pm

Dan #546,

Not a good comparison. The tenets of Fascism were largely realized, before being overthrown. There was no real conflict between theory and its application. They were ultra-nationalist, rabidly anti-communist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic. They did in fact utilize the cult of the warrior and the idea of a heroic race. They did emphasize ethnic purity and scapegoated “the Other.” Obviously, they didn’t get everything they wanted, because singular leaders sent things in a direction those leaders wanted for themselves, not necessarily in adherence to the theories, always. But they were always pretty close. Fascist “thinkers” tended to believe they could use and control those leaders, and were often surprised at the difficulty, etc.

Communist theory, OTOH, is in direct conflict with what was done in its name. By definition. The Soviet system was top down, exceedingly hierarchical, power was not dispersed equally among the populace, there was no democracy and the people did not own the means of production. It wasn’t even a shadow of a shadow of a remote hint in accord with the theory. It was, in fact, an assault on that theory.

548

Plume 02.27.15 at 4:50 pm

Mattski,

I can see that. My preference would be the best local microbrew.

:)

549

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 4:52 pm

engels: “Oh dear. It’s an article about the KKE (which pace know-nothing American bloggers, remains a force within organised anti-capitalist struggle in Greece) from an informed, critical perspective on the Left.”

And as usual, you don’t read and you don’t think. I’m pretty happy citing that article as evidence that my views are correct, on the assumption that citing it means that people are likely to read it. The party’s own history blames its defeat on having to follow the priorities of the USSR either two or three times, and it was left with what the article calls “sectarianism” as its major barrier to actually accomplishing anything. Wow, is that an unfamiliar story about the few, mostly irrelevant parties that have lasted from that era.

550

mattski 02.27.15 at 4:53 pm

Dan 546,

Fyi, your point did get a fairly good going over earlier in the thread. I’m too lazy to find it though. But another clarification: don’t jump to the conclusion that everyone here urging an open mind about communism actually thinks it’s a good idea. I certainly don’t think communism is a good idea. But when we are engaging folks like Brett Bellmore many of us find ourselves compelled, so to speak.

Hey, speaking of Brett. That dude get’s a lot of love on this blog. That’s something for all of us to be proud of. Seriously.

551

anon 02.27.15 at 4:54 pm

“Exactly the same move you’re using to defend communism can be made here: after all, nothing about these doctrines entails the historical atrocities associated with fascism; it’s possible to cultivate ultra-nationalistic corporatism and an aesthetic of violence without actually engaging in it, invading your neighbors, or murdering Jews.”

This thread is so long I’m no longer sure, but hasn’t this been precisely what many people have been very directly arguing against throughout most of the thread?

Fascism in theory: “I explicitly support x.” And in practice: “x.”
Communism in theory: “I explicitly support *not*-x.” And in practice: “x”

552

mattski 02.27.15 at 4:55 pm

Plume,

;^)

I was thinking vodka & lime juice, but what the hell.

553

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 5:14 pm

John @ 442

I shouldn’t, but:

Now, thought-experiments are fairy stories? Who knew?

What does “is there an agent” even mean? Yes, there’s a person looking at the day’s contributions from all the group members and deciding what reward or punishment to dole out. I grant that my first and last paragraphs could be more fully flushed out.

I’m looking for a way to evaluate a criterion for exchange. Clearly, no one else is interested in how giving and getting would be evaluated in our future utopia, or at least that’s not the way the discussion is going. I think this lack of interest comes out in G.A. Cohen’s camping trip experiment, since as far as I can tell it’s entirely concerned with giving—with increasing production—and not at all with getting—with distribution. So, it kind of seems that what people are envisioning is that everyone works hard and trusts in the system, and maybe they get a bad deal, but it’s all good.

You’re talking about the moral affect associated with communism aka the golden rule, and that makes sense. But the moral affect associated with exchange seems to be opposed to that. The golden rule is about giving and once you ask “what do I get out of it,” you’re moving into the realm of exchange, and you have the wrong moral affect.

But silly me thought we were talking about societies and how they should administer production and distribution, not individual moral psychologies.

554

engels 02.27.15 at 5:16 pm

as usual, you don’t read and you don’t think

And your Momma, Rich.

555

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 5:19 pm

It’s worth acknowledging that, while big-C Communism did have some developmental successes bringing up agricultural economies to Western European standards (as Marx predicted was impossible and undesirable), and that big-C Communist parties have won elections in essentially liberal states like Greece and France . . . and that everything geo’s said about little-c communism is perfectly correct (and so is Sebastian when he deplores the habit of referring to all sorts of unrelated things as “communistic”) . . . in the US and some other Western states, the big-C Communist Party had a policy even before its near-total suppression in the 1950s of refusing to participate in the political process, at least openly. And so that’s Communism too.

556

William Timberman 02.27.15 at 5:19 pm

Mattski, you I could trust. Without a single doubt. Liberalism in general is another matter altogether. To put it as charitably as I can, there’s too big a gap between the promise and the reality, and too little honest attention being paid to the reasons why.

557

geo 02.27.15 at 5:23 pm

Lee @24: Don’t refer to a book. Tell briefly how production and distribution is to occur, maybe in 140 characters

No book? “140 characters”? I’m disappointed in you, Lee. It’s an excellent question, though. For psychology, see Bellamy, Looking Backward, Morris, News from Nowhere, Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Callenbach, Ecotopia. For mechanics, see Callenbach, John Roemer, A Future for Socialism, David Schweickart, After Capitalism, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Looking Forward.

The moral/psychological prerequisite of socialism or communism is summed up, I would say, in this phrase from Looking Backward: “the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.”

Yes, getting there will be a very long slog, and coercion of any kind would be entirely useless. But we have occasional intimations and prefigurings — see how we love one another in the CT community, for example!

558

TM 02.27.15 at 5:24 pm

An outright revolutionary deed has been done in this thread and nobody noticed it:

Somebody actually read what the authors under discussion have actually written about the topic under discussion. Compliments Z @ 413. Sadly this heroic example won’t get many followers around here.

559

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 5:35 pm

geo: “The moral/psychological prerequisite of socialism or communism is summed up, I would say, in this phrase from Looking Backward: “the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.””

I did think of contributing to Lee A. Arnold’s Twitter-sized request

“Commies didn’t have free bread, but they did invent free love”

but I thought maybe that didn’t have the high seriousness that his request demanded. I also thought of

“I’ll give someone an apple if they’ll just read this poem I wrote”

which nicely illustrates how sadism would persist under communism, and how it would still be connected to ideas of exchange.

560

Plume 02.27.15 at 5:47 pm

Bianca,

Distribution, allocation are obviously essential components. I likely differ from the authors under discussion in that I see fair and even distribution of societal goods as preeminently important. I think the actual goal of a society should be to start with that, and if the economic system can’t do it, it’s a failure. I don’t see “success” in the support of some fraction of that population, be it the richest 1%, 20% or 80%. To me, leaving anyone out constitutes a failed economic system.

I most likely differ along those lines with most of the CT denizens, as I view the compromise of the welfare system and the social safety net (American or European versions) an admittance of failure, while refusing to even talk about alternatives. I would much rather the economic system function in such a way that no safety net is even needed, that the economic system itself is able to allocate resources, comp and opportunity to 100% of the population — allowing for those who simply can not function as workers in any capacity. It should also be the case that the economy becomes nothing more than a tool, in the background, and ends its current position as the be all and end all of our existence. It should be no more than a means to fulfill material needs, while our true “riches” are gleaned elsewhere.

One of the many problems with the Soviet System was its insistence on extraordinarily hard work to meet production quotas . . . in order to pull Russia, kicking and screaming into the 20th. It ignored the leftist ideals of “working just enough” to enable a life spent on more important things — family, friends, culture, intellectual pursuits, etc. etc. And by removing profit from the picture, work hours should have been easily and radically reduced. The radical expansion of leisure time should be a major goal along with that fair and egalitarian allocation of goods, etc.

561

Plume 02.27.15 at 5:49 pm

Geo,

Thanks for that list. It’s a valuable addition to my “to read” list.

562

mattski 02.27.15 at 5:50 pm

William,

Liberalism in general is another matter altogether. To put it as charitably as I can, there’s too big a gap between the promise and the reality

We put too much faith in language, Amigo. It’s only a word. We aren’t helots in ancient Sparta, we aren’t going up in flames on a pile of faggots in the Middle Ages, we aren’t picking cotton in chains in the antebellum South. So that’s progress.

geo,

see how we love one another in the CT community, for example!

I agree! But the throw-downs are pretty vicious too. :^)

Spiritual nourishment for anyone interested.

563

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 5:52 pm

Geo, Hi, I once spent a couple of hours talking with Callenbach, so I’m happy he’s in there! I am optimistic that this era of obvious surfeit of necessities for all, prevented only by the current ownership structure, is leading to a change in attitude which is going to make the evolution happen more quickly than many now imagine.

564

Brett Bellmore 02.27.15 at 5:53 pm

“Hey, speaking of Brett. That dude get’s a lot of love on this blog. That’s something for all of us to be proud of. Seriously.”

Yeah, and I appreciate it. Some blogs, they go insane over a bit of dissenting commentary. You guys may be nuts, but as long as you don’t get any power, I’m sure I wouldn’t mind having you over for a bbq if you’re ever around Greenville.

565

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 5:53 pm

I also think that the best book is Hazel Henderson, Building a Win-Win World.

566

mattski 02.27.15 at 5:56 pm

Brett,

Big hug for you… :^)

Did we tell you we’re starting a petition to turn Greenville into America’s first experimental communist community?

567

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 6:07 pm

Plume,

Thanks for the response. I’m sure there are leftists who are differently oriented regarding distribution, etc. I just keep seeing a similar pattern. Cohen seems mostly interested in persuading people to work (at least in what I’ve seen), and this seems compatible with the ideal “don’t ask what your reward will be, do the work without thinking of your reward.” Socialism is equated with being more moral, which is okay, and that’s a decent moral ideal. Then I see people recommending “joining groups” that do what you think is good, and saying their movement or group is going to make the world better. And when you ask how, they say something like “Socialism is about working in groups, you have to trust to the process, and not ask what’s in it for you.” And that, combined with people denying there are contradictions in Marx, or being cagy about what their “anarchism” consists in, makes me (paradoxically) actually distrustful.

568

Plume 02.27.15 at 6:08 pm

Lee,

That current ownership struggle and the surplus. Others have used apples already, so I’ll throw in another. It’s kinda kindergartenish in its simplicity, but I’m a believer that we often make things waaaay more complicated/difficult than they have to be, and pile all kinds of useless jargon onto some very basic, readily accessible concepts.

Ten apples. Ten people. Under capitalism, one guy takes eight, leaving two for everyone else to fight over. There are enough apples for everyone, if we do what is obvious. One each.

Again, right now, the richest 20% of the world gobbles up 85% of our resources. We have more than enough for everyone to be just fine. But as long as we have capitalism, which concentrates wealth, resources, income, access and privilege at the very top, the vast majority of humanity will go hungry, in one form or another. This, to me, is intensely immoral. Beyond that. And it’s easily resolved.

I don’t really care what someone calls it. Socialism, communism, communalism, mutualism, whatever. It’s just common sense as far as I’m concerned. No one’s time on this earth is more valuable than another’s. It’s just bizarre that we’ve created a system that values a hedge-fund manager’s time 10,000 or more times that of a teacher, a nurse, etc. It’s actually quite insane that we allocate our resources as we do.

569

Ronan(rf) 02.27.15 at 6:24 pm

“As the current government of Belarus (of which I’m quite a fan) likes to say, sausages are better than freedom.”

Yes, if there’s one thing the people of Belarus have been blessed with over the years it’s great leadership. (welcome back Hector ; ) )

570

Plume 02.27.15 at 6:28 pm

Bianca #569,

I’m with you on pretty much all of that. It definitely doesn’t make any sense to just trust the process without question. IMO, one of the best aspects of leftist thought in general is the ideal of questioning all assumptions — and authority. Paradoxically, perhaps, this strength is also a great weakness. Leftists questioning leftists, herding cats, etc. etc.

Your point about “what’s in it for me” is very important. Easy to say, but the trick is demonstrating the solidarity of our “best interests,” with some of that being much easier to do.

I don’t think it’s tough to show how quality education, health care, a safe water and food supply, a safe environment, a sustainable path forward for our species, etc . . . is in our mutual interest. Working toward those things, etc. It may be more difficult to convince people that one particular job shouldn’t be wildly more lucrative than another, however. But, IMO, if we don’t radically flatten overall compensation, we can’t possibly improve the allocation already mentioned. Some folks are going to have to sacrifice their advantages over others in order to make sure everyone has at least what they need.

I see capitalism as offering a rather insane sacrifice or trade-off. The majority sacrifices the potential of a commons that would provide open access for everyone, without price being the determinant, in favor of a pipe-dream chance at “wealth.” Given that our median income for a single person is 28K, and roughly 95% of the workforce won’t ever make even 100K, this seems like a pretty stupid deal. A far smarter deal, IMO, would be to trade away that one in a million shot at the pot ‘o gold for quality education, health care, cultural venues, safe food, etc. etc. Organize society around the likely economic situation of the vast majority, rather than the exceedingly rare shot at the proverbial brass ring.

571

Hector_St_Clare 02.27.15 at 6:31 pm

Ronan,

Belarus has an impressively high HDI (much higher than the shambolic failed state to the south which had the so-called Orange Revolution), and it also has one of the lowest levels of economic inequality in the world. And never went through the post-Soviet economic catastrophe to the same degree that most of its neighbors.

Frankly, if forced to choose where to be born under the veil of ignorance, I would expect most knowledgeable people would say, better Dzerzhinsk than Detroit.

572

Hector_St_Clare 02.27.15 at 6:33 pm

Now that I’m back, I should like to begin by sincerely apologizing to a number of commenters on this blog to whom I was excessively rude last spring. Plume, Katherine, Lynne, Mpa Victoria, and others. I find your views on many things highly objectionable, but that was no justification for my being deliberately abusive.

573

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 6:46 pm

Organize society around the likely economic situation of the vast majority, rather than the exceedingly rare shot at the proverbial brass ring.

Sure, sounds good. But, I want to add, some people use that same argument in favor of the idea that women should all stay home with their children and cook meals for the family, and shouldn’t try to be equal in the workforce or in politics–because for the vast majority it isn’t feasible. Just saying.

574

js. 02.27.15 at 6:56 pm

I’d love to read a CT thread where someone actually defended (seriously, not in a trollish way) the positive scientific, cultural, social, military, etc achievements of the USSR.

Don’t know if this counts, but just as a PSA.

575

Plume 02.27.15 at 7:03 pm

Bianca #573,

Understood. But I would have thought the opposite would be the case. That a woman staying home, given the fact of flat or falling wages for the rank and file — forty plus years of it — pretty much requires two-income families.

As in, prior to neoliberalism’s ascendancy — at least for our brief moment of Middle Class boom times (1947-1973) — a single worker could make enough to support the family. That’s just not the case anymore. It takes two.

That said, I’d be opposed to anyone arguing that women should be forced to take a back seat in any realm, and not maximize their own potential. F that, etc.

576

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 7:23 pm

Also, regarding Fascism, I think Peter T is correct to want to distinguish National Socialism from Fascism. I’ve read a fairly convincing argument that Nazism is actually a perversion of Fascism (in I suppose the same way Bolshevism is a perversion of Marxism). Fascism was all about big men with big muscles doing big things (as was Bolshevism), but Nazism had an important strain of Kinder, Kirche, Küche and family life. The Nazis had strong support among the respectable petty bourgeoisie. There was a strong strain of support for the ideal of the simple folk living on the land that gave birth to their way of life and their simple culture. (There was in the USSR, too, at least later on.)
Fascist art and Bolshevik art do tend to emphasize the big men (and women) with big muscles (I think this is the part John’s mentioned more than once before), but I’d put that to the increasing internationalization of the art scene and the common experience of the First World War. Léger comes home and starts painting what could be described as robot-man killing machines. The paintings obviously take a negative attitude to the violence, but they also show a weird fascination—not unnatural under the circumstances—and it’s easy to see how later painters might have imitated the surface in a more or less ironic way.

577

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 7:26 pm

Plume: In the economic realm, you’re right. In the symbolic realm, maybe it’s more complicated. In any case I don’t agree with that position–I don’t really even understand it–and wouldn’t be the one to build a defense for it.

578

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 7:32 pm

Plume #570 — I’m still not sure I understand what your complaint is. I think that the system is changing slowly, for a number of reasons. It forces itself. Right now the problems of the imperative for credit expansion and continued financialization, the resulting crash and recession, the continuing deficient consumer demand (“secular stagnation”) coupled with increasing automation (“capital-biased technological change”), all, are coming together to: 1. worry more and more people (sales of Marx’s Capital were at an all-time high after the crash) and 2. cause mainstream economists, right now, to recommend more socialist-style policy, right up to a guaranteed income. A recovery after the recession will lessen some of the urgency, but the system has never really retrenched for long. The thing is evolving into something else.

Is it because you believe there must be a radical break? Even Marx’s own theory didn’t require it.

How can we push the psychology toward mutualism? There’s lots of ways. Push to protect and increase universal access to healthcare, and show that it doesn’t harm economic growth. Stop fretting about deficits, and show why they are a phony problem. Explain to people how inflation is not a future problem, because the central bank can always take take back the reserves from the private banks and burn the money, because money has no constant meaning. Every one of these things is a step, perhaps a necessary step, on the way towards a psychology of universal mutualism.

I think people don’t want to study the nuts and bolts of what is going on, they are intellectually lazy and would rather push to “smash the system”, because it’s easier to say.

579

js. 02.27.15 at 7:47 pm

Bolshevik art do[es] tend to emphasize the big men (and women) with big muscles

Tho not the early stuff. But beyond that, yes. Highly unfortunately.

580

Plume 02.27.15 at 8:04 pm

Lee #578,

Yes, I think we need a more radical break than Marx talked about. Though he really didn’t talk much about what would come after capitalism at all. He rarely went into that, concentrating the vast majority of his intellectual energy on critical analyses of capitalism.

I’m in favor of the kind of break that would leave capitalism so far in the dust, it would be as if it had never existed, as if no one had ever seen hide nor hare of it — as the old expression goes.

One of the best ways to do this, IMO, is to completely severe the connection between a commercial transaction and funding for any degree of the commons. Again, as if there never were such a connection. Instead of deriving wages and taxes from the price of goods, those prices would only be for accounting and tracking purposes. Funding for community, regional and national projects would come from a totally separate stream — a pool of numbers held in common. And wages would come from that pool as well, with absolutely no connection to the amount of sales in any given, commonly held outlet.

No more taxes. No more debt. No more deficits. Not only would it be “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (with tweaks)” which, of course, predates Marx . . . . that commonly held stream would be allocated based on communal need, within the overall egalitarian, democratic context. This solves the issue of funding and the scarcity of “capital.” It makes fair and equal allocation throughout society rather easy and contingent on nothing more than the ability to labor toward those goals. If we can build it, we will build it. Money no longer is an obstacle.

The above is a riff on Parecon and goes beyond Marx:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_economics

581

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 9:01 pm

Lee A. Arnold: ” I’m still not sure I understand what your complaint is. I think that the system is changing slowly, for a number of reasons. It forces itself. […] The thing is evolving into something else.”

You are the same Lee A. Arnold who replied “Certainly not” when I asked “Or, wait — is this a James Livingston ‘the left has already won, even though we don’t think so’ kind of thing?'”?

You gave the example of neoliberals fighting against, not advancing, the welfare state, as when they fought against Obamacare. Did they really? Brad DeLong opposed Obamacare? Big Pharma opposed Obamacare? (No they didn’t.) The health insurance industry also support Obamacare. If you’d like to study the nuts and bolts of what’s going on in the U.S. political system, then you’ll see that conservatives are not the same thing as neoliberals, and that there is no way Obamacare would have passed without support from neoliberals. Which is not surprising: something can be good for ordinary people on balance and still be good for capitalism. People got coverage; capitalism got everyone being penalized if they didn’t buy an insurance plan.

I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with “we don’t know it, but we’re winning” leftism, but if would be nice if you’d own up to it so we can discuss it. It uses three common tropes:

1. “Aren’t we all”

Aren’t we all workers? Really, when you come down to it, a tenured professor or a middle management person is a worker. Aren’t we all suffering in our own ways? So of course we have common things to come together around, even though these seem at first glance to not bear any relation to classic leftist theory.

2. Fun with words

When you protest a war, and that doesn’t succeed in stopping the war, you still made a revolutionary change because people afterwards seemed really motivated not to have people like you protest too much again. Therefore protestors are revolutionaries. Family camping trips are communism too.

3. Every day, in every way, it’s getting better and better

Look, productivity is going up, right? And people like us have had various cultural impacts and we do influence what happens. It’s intellectually lazy to say things like “smash the state” — instead, settle back and wait!

582

bianca steele 02.27.15 at 9:37 pm

@424 Soviet Russian ballet dancers were always exceptionally well prepared.

583

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 9:48 pm

Rich #581, I think it would help if both you and Plume give us your logical theories of exactly why there must be a radical break, and why the change cannot be evolutionist.

Is it an emotional theory, a theory of emotional pollution or poisoning? That is, you think welfare state policies cannot lead to proper attitudes, are incapable of it, because they are in the employ of propping-up the capitalist system, and so ultimately enforce the wrong intentionalities and expectations?

It is a theory of emergent definition of relationship, so you think people need to hear, “This is now socialism,” so they can change their attitudes on a date certain, and en masse, or else it cannot , it will be diverted?

Is it something else?

DeLong was against a public option or single payer; he expressed on his blog the hope that the system could be market-based. Now it appears that he wants the insurers out of it entirely, because he has thought more about it.

Big Pharma opposed Obamacare because they got a sweet deal, but they’ll be on the chopping block next. Because Dean Baker is going to win that argument.

Similarly the health insurance industry got a stay of execution, knowing that the 2017 provision that lets states go single-payer (or whatever the state wants, so long as they continue comparable coverage) is the beginning of the end.

And that just means there’s fights to come. And so no, I don’t think the left has “already won”. I think it’s inevitable, but that is different.

As to why the left feels it needs a big parade with slogans, balloons and a band, maybe you can tell me.

584

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 9:56 pm

Lee: “I think it would help if both you and Plume give us your logical theories of exactly why there must be a radical break, and why the change cannot be evolutionist.”

I don’t think that there must be a radical break, and I do think the change can be evolutionist. This is one of the reasons why (as mentioned above) I’m an anarchist, but I’m not a revolutionary anarchist.

A welfare state involves a state, and this presents certain difficulties if you’re an anarchist. But I don’t think we need to get wherever we’re going in my lifetime. I do think that it would be good to have some idea about what we actually want, and whether individual steps are in that direction or not.

585

Rich Puchalsky 02.27.15 at 10:06 pm

Sorry to double post, but I missed this somehow: “And that just means there’s fights to come. And so no, I don’t think the left has “already won”. I think it’s inevitable, but that is different.”

I don’t see any large difference there. “Already won” is obviously meant rhetorically: I don’t know anyone on the left who thinks that we have already literally won everything. If we’re inevitably going to win, what good do the fights that you mention do? Is this like the invisible hand of the market, where as a whole it’s going to operate to point to leftism no matter what, but its operations require people to be rushing around doing things?

I have been thinking about a point 4) for this kind of theory: “As long as we show up, we’re sure to win”.

586

William Berry 02.27.15 at 10:52 pm

Bianca @576: “Also, regarding Fascism, I think Peter T is correct to want to distinguish National Socialism from Fascism.”

Indeed. I have always thought that the Junker class-based militarism of the Federal Republic was closer to– and a progenitor of– Italian style fascism (“fascism is a corporatism . . .”, etc.) than National Socialism ever was. Imagine the Wilhelmine system unleavened by (reluctantly accommodated) parliamentarianism and this will be clear.

587

William Berry 02.27.15 at 11:01 pm

And, in re, the BB love-fest, above:

Thirty years as a shop steward, officer and committeeman in various capacities (including the presidency of USW Amalgamated 7686), etc., pretty much embittered me when it comes to any warmth of feeling for the BBs of the world who cravenly worship the ne0-fascist capitalist pigs that I despise with every fiber of my being. I know I should try to be nice about this, but it is too hard. I have given up.

588

Lee A. Arnold 02.27.15 at 11:33 pm

Rich #587: “If we’re inevitably going to win, what good do the fights that you mention do? Is this like the invisible hand of the market, where as a whole it’s going to operate to point to leftism no matter what, but its operations require people to be rushing around doing things?”

Yes, that’s a good way to put it. I think it is absolutely an internal requirement. The real need for redistributive policies never stabilizes, it always grows, and they are finally enacted and slowly expanded. It looks to me like this is what the history has shown us, that the system always needs a little more redistribution. Part of that is due to the technological change which slowly disemploys people from the more productive forms of labor, i.e. the more “money-profitable” forms.

There’s a lot of little “crises”, because capitalism never comes back working 100% effectively. So it’s a continuously progressing conflict, now faster, now slower, sometimes a reversal, but mostly always progressing. And, via the successes of policy, it inexorably inculcates the general intentionality toward mutualism.

Marx saw it. I haven’t read everything by a long shot, so I could be wrong. But as I understand his general theory, it was a theory of evolution that used “class conflict” for the competition. But it didn’t necessarily mean instant revolution.

Then after that, perhaps a little later, he decides that the existing class conflict is ripe for a push. Perhaps it’s not happening fast enough for him, so, as an adjunct to his theory, he endorses a proletarian revolution of seizure.

It might be a natural thing for a person to endorse at that time in history; it would not be such a stretch. After all, for a century and a half before, people had already seen the writing on the wall. There was a vast river of thought and opinion already in process. Marx had, in some sense, only collated it all together into books, and added some scientizing with the labor theory of value and so on.

In those days, books were much more prestigious, more convincing things than they are now; you published one and people took it seriously! And Marx’s were good sellers. So, like Paul expecting Christ to resurrect tout de suite, Marx might have assumed that the way had been prepared; that it should happen in his lifetime. So why not give the evolution a big push?

Of course as it turns out, this had a horrifying outcome.

But forced revolution still appears to me to be an adjunct; it is not required by any other part of his theory, which could allow for smoother evolution with smaller conflicts and psychological change, before “entirely crossing the narrow horizon of bourgeois right.” (Critique of Gotha Programme).

And for me, the fact that capitalism continues to have problems reveals that the intuition of so many people in the 18th-19th century is still correct. It is a limited historical passage and it is changing into something else.

We want to avoid two new mistakes: 1. Of those now against communism, nobody should say, “We should have known!” Because this was exactly not the case. It had been an open question from at least the middle of the 18th century through the end of Marx’s day. There was plenty of reasoned pro and con.

2. Of those now against capitalism, nobody should say, “Revolution is required!” Instead, it could even be possible that the post-Marxist Schumpeter is right: the whole thing peters out in a psychologically unavoidable process. His reasons are fascinating, still valid. Socialism comes, not with a bang but a whimper.

And if we add what we now know more exactly, the evidently growing gap in the income distribution, which Schumpeter did not suspect, then Schumpeter’s emendation of Marx gains even greater weight, as a further reason for psychological change (due to continuing disemployment from the more productivity-enhancing sectors of the economy, to greater employment in sectors less susceptible to productivity improvements — services, etc. — and thus earning less income in markets, a process which people are already getting a greater sense of). Capitalism will have an ever-increasing problem keeping a hold upon the individual mind, and that expresses as conflict.

589

mattski 02.28.15 at 12:10 am

WB 589

I know I should try to be nice about this, but it is too hard.

I don’t blame you one bit, William. I would add a couple of qualifying thoughts though. First, Brett is more complicated than at first meets the eye. I think he would probably not agree that about worshipping neo-fascists capitalists. But maybe he’ll respond to that.

The other thing is, most of the time Brett pisses me off royally and I’m sure the feelings are mutual on his end. So, I’m just jumping on an opportunity to express warmth precisely because these moments don’t come very often. Oh, and Brett has shown courage and honored us with his trust by sharing some difficult aspects of his life. I respect him for that.

590

William Berry 02.28.15 at 12:15 am

@mattski:

Yeah, you’re right, of course.* No personal animus, just a VERY intense philosophical/ political difference.

*Only slightly grudgingly admitted, in a curmudgeonly, grouch-old-fart kind of way!

591

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 12:15 am

“Marx saw it. I haven’t read everything by a long shot, so I could be wrong. But as I understand his general theory, it was a theory of evolution that used “class conflict” for the competition. But it didn’t necessarily mean instant revolution.”

Um. Maybe I’ll come back to the rest of this later, but you’ve read the Communist Manifesto, right? “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.”

Perhaps we should get engels back to disavow Engels again and explain how a revolution doesn’t mean a revolution. For that matter, maybe geo could look at section 3, “CRITICAL-UTOPIAN SOCIALISM AND COMMUNISM”, and explain how it doesn’t denounce exactly what he’s been talking about. (geo says he’s talking about “Owen, Fourier, Marx, Bellamy, Morris, Perkins Gilman, Russell, and others.” The Manifesto mentions Fourier and Owen by name, and along with many uses of the word “fantastical”, there’s text like “Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavour, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.”)

So, as usual for this thread, you seem to be talking about a Marx that I don’t recognize. Which Marx decided “later” that he had to be a revolutionary after all?

Note that when I talked about 1872, I was talking about Marx the revolutionary, I was talking about Marx the statist, the authoritarian. It’s not merely a problem of rushing into a revolution — people can say various things about that pro or con — it’s attempting to take control of the state specifically because you want to use state power and you have no idea that there have to be any kind of real limits on that power.

592

bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 12:23 am

But as I understand his general theory, it was a theory of evolution that used “class conflict” for the competition. Uhh no, the competition is between capitals…aw hell, I hardly know where to begin. My present horror is far more at the blissful techno-optimism of the complacent left than anything the right does. I know of very few optimistic Marxians, and none that are evolutionists or spontaneists.

Beyond The Swedish Model …Jacobin, a Swede explains their turn to the right

“At the same time, the Social Democrats themselves don’t understand the genius of the welfare state: it produced a society that had a collective subjectivity. There were institutions within society that interpolated, for lack of a better term, people as a collective entity. However, if you have privatization and a consumer model, people start acting as neoliberal economic subjects.”

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geo 02.28.15 at 12:42 am

Rich @593: maybe geo could look at section 3, “CRITICAL-UTOPIAN SOCIALISM AND COMMUNISM”, and explain how it doesn’t denounce exactly what he’s been talking about … you seem to be talking about a Marx that I don’t recognize

I haven’t been talking much about Marx at all, Rich. I find the question of exactly what he believed at which stage of his career only very mildly interesting. I’ve been talking about a social/political ideal or vision of the cooperative commonwealth, to which Marx and all those other people mentioned (and many others, on both sides of the Atlantic) made their contribution. Marx’s comes mostly in his early writings, I think — the kind of thing quoted above about labor being life’s prime want, the realm of freedom vs. the realm of necessity, “from each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs,” etc. Of course he said many other things — he was a vast, protean thinker, as you know. The fact that he disagreed with, even despised, other people who shared at least some aspects of his ideals and visions is hardly news, and only a puzzle if one is assuming that “communism” = “what Marx believed.” I certainly don’t believe that. I’m not even sure I believe that “Marxism” = “what Marx believed.”

As for evolution vs. revolution, I’m agnostic and believe that either can be the right strategy for a popular movement toward a communist society. It depends on how violently the ruling class resists democratically authorized radical change. My guess is that the bastards will resist it very violently, but you and I will never know: it will take many generations of patient persuasion and organizing before a large popular majority in favor of radically transformed social relations can be created. As I’ve said often, I’m a 25th-century utopian.

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Plume 02.28.15 at 12:51 am

Rich,

Marx wrote the CM in 1848, in the midst of turmoil that would later combine actual revolution. It was in the air. More than just that. He would go on to live another 35 years after that date. Are you saying his thought never evolved, never moderated — it did — never lost the edge of youth — it did.

He was also seriously influenced by the Communards of 1871. Of course, he was influenced by all the events after 1848, and remained one of the most voracious readers of his era. I think you lock him down to one time period in his development, and that’s really a mistake for any human. He “evolved” as well.

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Plume 02.28.15 at 12:58 am

Also, Rich, I have strong left-anarchist leanings meself. Personally, I don’t see how it’s possible to be an anarchist and not want a “radical break.” This doesn’t compute for me. And while I wish I could flip a switch today and instantly change us to an egalitarian society, one that leaves no one behind, one that meets the needs of everyone and has “social justice” baked right in, I know it will take time, and that “evolutionary change” is a part of the puzzle.

In order to sustain revolutionary changes, they can’t happen instantly. There has to be a degree of transition, transformation, adjustment, adaptation, etc. etc. I agree with Yanis Varoufakis’ article I posted above. If we just blow up capitalism right now, the more likely result is the opposite of what we want. Far right forces would likely take over. We’d likely have neo-Fascism in place, instead of our egalitarian, democratic dream, etc.

So, to make a long story short: Yes, a radical break is necessary. And, yes, it will be evolutionary.

596

Plume 02.28.15 at 1:03 am

Geo,

Again, well said. I take the eclectic, menu approach too. I see no reason why one should remain stuck in one particular camp, limited to one particular lane on the way to and from that camp, etc. etc. While I see the left in general as the home of the best ideas — and haven’t really found anything worthwhile on the right — I refuse to be tied down to just one voice on the left. There’s too much to choose from. Too much diversity of thought for that. The more voices the merrier, etc.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.28.15 at 1:17 am

Rich, there are many mentions of “peaceful revolution” in Marx and Engels. I’ve read in many places that the CM was where the flip occurred. Of course that doesn’t make it true. If he started out his intellectual career with the idea that it had to be violent, I imagine that someone would have documented it by now. But as I wrote, I have not read everything, (I prefer the really short stuff!), and I never will.

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John Holbo 02.28.15 at 1:35 am

As to my alleged love of BB. I think to think I roll like good old Henry James, according to H.G. Wells. I’m like a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea in the corner. But more Socratic, hence light-footed. A hippopotamus in a tutu, then.

No, seriously. I think it’s important – and strange, and wrong – that the likes of Brett and Cassander and Sebastian are absolutely determined to think no thought of the form ‘communism is a noble dream, but …’ I think failure to think several such thoughts results in severely deformed philosophy. That is all.

Bianca is frustrated by the fact that I called her thought-experiment a fairytale. As if I never tell such things. The truth is: I said that because I literally didn’t get what social situation she was trying to experiment with. I wasn’t totally sure it even was a social anything. In Leninist terms, it lacked the requisite ‘who whom’. Who is doing what to/with whom? I encourage Bianca to try again.

On a more positive and Bianca-related note, I think it would be genuinely interesting to think more about 578 and the Kinder Kirche, Kuche dreams of fascism. It’s a delicate question, to be sure. No one wants to be called a fascist. (I don’t!) But it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone who liked to hang pictures of be-muscled Aryans and zaftig farm-mothers on the wall necessarily wanted to engage in ethnic cleansing of the Ukraine. On the third hand, it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone who reads superhero comics about be-muscled, dark vigilantes is innocent of being attracted to a kind of ‘ideal’ fascism. I’ve got all those Frazetta volumes on my shelf! Am I a fascist? Inquiring minds want to know!

This isn’t just an aesthetic question, although it is that. It’s a question about how we grade utopianism (on a curve)? It is important, I say, to distinguish communism in theory from communism in practice. It’s important to realize that there’s a difference between dreaming of something good, even if it turned bad, and dreaming of something bad. But the latter is complicated, of course. As Socrates asks: does anyone really want what is bad? If it turns out that those ordering ethnic cleansing in the Ukraine did so because they had a kind of moral fantasy of Kinder Kirche, Kuche which kept them from noticing the horrors, is that any sort of partial excuse? Not all half-blind fantasies of moral perfection are created equal.

I tend to think that the Enlightenment, cosmopolitan fantasy of flourishing, equal human beings, living free, creative lives, in post-scarcity communal harmony, is unrealistic but not unhealthy, as ideals go. By contrast, the fantasy that we are the Master Race, they are the Undermenschen, is less healthy, even as fantasies goes. For more or less Nietzschean reasons (ironically). The question about communism, at the ideal level, is whether it is inherently tainted by a kind of resentment. That is, it’s a fantasy about an evil Other, who is to be eliminated, because one feels the psychic need for an evil Other. I say no. Unlike fascism, it doesn’t have to be that. That’s important.

Circling finally back: this is the sort of discussion that, it seems to me, the likes of Brett, Cassander and Sebastian are, ironically, excluded from. You can’t possibly discuss whether communism is inherently tainted by resentment so long as you believe, falsely, that it is just one big impulse to murder and has no cognitive or even emotional content beyond that.

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John Holbo 02.28.15 at 1:36 am

600!

600

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 1:37 am

Plume: “Marx wrote the CM in 1848, in the midst of turmoil that would later combine actual revolution. It was in the air. More than just that. He would go on to live another 35 years after that date. Are you saying his thought never evolved, never moderated — it did — never lost the edge of youth — it did.”

Well, I agree with all that. I think I’m confused by Lee saying that the *later* Marx turned to revolution. I could understand someone saying the reverse, although I don’t really think that it’s true.

geo: “The fact that he disagreed with, even despised, other people who shared at least some aspects of his ideals and visions is hardly news, and only a puzzle if one is assuming that “communism” = “what Marx believed.” I certainly don’t believe that. I’m not even sure I believe that “Marxism” = “what Marx believed.””

Well, my argument is against what Marx believed, since what he believed directly condemns what I believe. I have no idea what most people who call themselves Marxists believe, since they habitually disavow any particular item of Marx’ thought. In particular, I don’t think the problems of Marxism-Leninism are really Lenin’s and not Marx’s.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 1:50 am

“Rich, there are many mentions of “peaceful revolution” in Marx and Engels. I’ve read in many places that the CM was where the flip occurred. “

OK, thanks. Maybe it’s a deficiency in my own Marxology, but I’m using to thinking of the CM, in 1848, as early. He only met Engels in 1844.

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js. 02.28.15 at 2:01 am

Oh, for fuck’s sake! Marx was a revolutionary. He thought that the rise of the bourgeoisie was ruptural and violent (the French Revolution is obviously looming large in his imagination), and he thought the overthrow of the bourgeoisie would be equally violent and ruptural. If you want to disavow the revolutionary aspect of Marx—as I would—just plainly disavow it. At any rate, don’t whitewash it—if nothing else, then because Marx would be more contemptuous of that than any anarchist.

603

John Holbo 02.28.15 at 2:04 am

I would be curious about whether there was a shift in Marx’ thought, an early stage in which he wrote about ‘peaceful revolution’. I am not a Marx scholar and have no opinion on the question.

604

js. 02.28.15 at 2:06 am

people who call themselves Marxists believe … habitually disavow any particular item of Marx’s thought

Yeah, that’s because it’s not fucking gospel, obviously. It is—if you find it compelling—a, well, compelling analytic framework for thinking about social orders and social change. I don’t see why accepting it in the main requires that you accept every single word of it.

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js. 02.28.15 at 2:15 am

geo @595:

For what it’s worth (and it’s not worth much), the ‘from each…, to each…” formula comes from the “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, I’m pretty sure. So, it’s “late” Marx, I guess. I suppose I only point this out because as a big fan of the Grundrisse and Capital Vol. 1, I find the valorization of the “early” Marx vaguely off-putting.

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John Holbo 02.28.15 at 2:19 am

“Yeah, that’s because it’s not fucking gospel”

I remember when Gary Gygax insisted that anyone who changed one single rule wasn’t actually playing real ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’. I thought that was a bit too strict at the time, and I think Gygaxism about Marx is equally excessive. js. is right about that.

I know enough about Marx to know that there are a lot of bits that are the politico-philosophical equivalent of that contagious diseases table from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Just skip that rule, dude. No one wants their half-elf to come down with polio.

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John Holbo 02.28.15 at 2:21 am

I remember when they introduced the Grundrisse in the Fiend Folio. That was a good one. But some people will always prefer just the plain old Monster Manual.

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Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 2:23 am

But “accepting in the main” doesn’t really leave anything consistently accepted. Not even class analysis. When I talked to you about it before, you started saying something about how it could be applied to gender and race and so on.

Now that you’re back, would you explain what you meant about Lenin? It really is much more annoying than anything J.T. did to say one line, not explain yourself, and then accuse people of willfully misinterpreting you.

609

bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 2:24 am

605: If anything, the narrative is that the shift is the other way around, that the disappointments of 1848 and 1871 led a disillusioned M-E to seek better means of preparing the ground for workers, including the Internationals and the idea of parties.
I don’t think Marx ever limited himself to peaceful, evolutionist revolution, a) because he wasn’t the one to tell the proletariat how to free themselves, and b) although he did accept working with parliaments for social improvement, it was always tactical and never with the idea that socialism would be achieved that way.

Gramsci, and especially Trotsky’s strong opposition to the Stalinist Comintern
Popular Front
policy of the thirties is a decent place to start looking. So, if you believe in alliances with bourgeois liberal parties, you are essentially a Stalinist. Just kidding.

610

John Holbo 02.28.15 at 2:28 am

“I don’t think Marx ever limited himself to peaceful, evolutionist revolution”

OK, there’s a lot of space between this claim and ‘Marx was always only for violent revolution’.

As a non-Marx scholarly, can be achieve some consensus on the following: Marx was all over the map, throughout his career? Sometimes for violent revolution, sometimes against, sometimes a bit of both? Again, I have no personal opinion, not having done enough reading.

611

John Holbo 02.28.15 at 2:29 am

bob mcmanus: “Just kidding.”

That is some kind of first! He admitted it!

612

js. 02.28.15 at 2:39 am

Sorry, Rich, you find it impossible to talk about the history of communism (or maybe Communism) without assigning blame. I don’t have this problem. I said that Lenin was inspired by strains in Marx’s thought—an obvious point. I wasn’t endorsing, blaming, or anything else. I chose not to respond earlier because I vaguely suspect that this is still unacceptable to you.

613

Peter T 02.28.15 at 2:44 am

Marx actually lived through a revolution, with all the excitement and disillusion that usually entails. Engels actually took up arms in the cause and was shot at.

General attitudes to war and violence have changed radically since Marx’ time. Most people then thought something like “peace is good but war has its moments too”; it was not seen as an unmitigated evil. So theorising that the revolution would maybe need to be violent did not conjure up the same horrors that it does for us. But for Marxists the question was and is empirical: a peaceful revolution is better but maybe not possible.

Fascism, and even more Nazism, attached a positive value to violence for its own sake – both see war as a form of social exercise (good for the body and the mind!). This led fascist Italians, Germans, Spaniards and others to rush off to where the action was, commit atrocities and mostly die pointlessly. The break between Fascism and Nazism is the stress Nazism placed on racist biology and the struggle between races. Fascist prefer war, but they can also fly planes through hoops of fire if no war is available. Nazis need war. So the dead Ukrainians, Poles etc are inseparable in the philosophy from the kinder, kuche.

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mattski 02.28.15 at 2:57 am

JH,

As to my alleged love of BB.

I think it was your general demeanor of patience with and attention to opinions of an uncongenial nature that earned you the honorific, Ambassador of Love, more so than a specific crush! But a hippopotamus in a tutu is a winning notion.

600!

Hey, don’t undersell this thing. It could turn into a monster.

615

Plume 02.28.15 at 3:17 am

js 607,

Do you mean that was the work where Marx first borrowed the phrase to insert into his own writings? Because while some trace it back to the Old Testament (a variation on the theme), it at least is more properly attributed to Louis Blanc, roughly 25 years before Gotha.

In a way, it’s a clumsy wording of something that might lead to many different interpretations. The discussion of reciprocity and exchange may be overthinking a much simpler maxim. It’s more likely, IMO, just a protest against unfair compensation, inequality and mal-distribution within society . . . . with its antidote being something on the order of “we do the best we can, within our individual limitations and capacities, and we receive what we need to make a decent life.” But receiving what we need isn’t necessarily contingent upon our being “productive” in the eyes of all of society. Marx’s comment about the far distant horizon of communism tells me he wasn’t calling for any kind of chained-to-the-assembly-line quid pro quo . . . when he says:

In communist society, the opposite: no one is locked into an exclusive circle of activity and each can form in any branch of his choice and is the company that regulates the general production and allows me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon to take care of livestock at night and devote myself to criticism after the meal, as I want, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic

The above strikes me as “anarchist” in a sense, and at least left-libertarian. I just don’t get any sense of a strict adherence to reciprocity and exchange, here, and it seems anti-authoritarian to me as well. It’s quite idyllic, etc and a thousand light years away from the Soviet Union.

616

Plume 02.28.15 at 3:22 am

btw, my fellow Crooked Timber communards, if anyone has good online resources to wage online battle with the forces of the American Right which have accelerated their lie that “Hitler was a leftist” . . . I would greatly appreciate the knowledge.

I know, I know. I shouldn’t care one iota of a flip of an iota. But it bugs me nonetheless. Jonah Goldberg created a monster, and it needs to die.

Will check back later. Enjoy your weekend, all!

617

Sebastian H 02.28.15 at 3:31 am

“This is just elementary bad logic, Sebastian.

No one is saying that belief in the need for class struggle is incompatible with being a communist. I’m merely pointing out that it isn’t necessary. To put it another way, ‘Suppose you hope to achieve this without class warfare’ is not semantically equivalent to ‘suppose you define ‘communism’ as the hope to achieve this without class warfare.””

Words have meanings. Really they do. And I want to be sure I’m understanding you. Are you really saying that common ‘definition’ of communism excludes Marx and Engels? Again if you’re playing the Humpty-Dumpty game that far, why not just call it Thatcherism? Seriously. Why invoke Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin?

“OK, there’s a lot of space between this claim and ‘Marx was always only for violent revolution’”

Argh. The violent revolution quotes are well known and from very early on. Is ‘revolution’ even a word an 18th century person would use if they meant it to be peaceful. (I don’t know, but why don’t I push that research off to you?).

“Circling finally back: this is the sort of discussion that, it seems to me, the likes of Brett, Cassander and Sebastian are, ironically, excluded from. You can’t possibly discuss whether communism is inherently tainted by resentment so long as you believe, falsely, that it is just one big impulse to murder and has no cognitive or even emotional content beyond that.”

Now I begin to suspect you just don’t even read what I write, but rather pick up one or two words and riff of that. My whole argument all along has been that whatever the utopia content of the positive hoped-for end point of communism, there are basic enough flaws in the philosophy which lead to the communist horrors when anyone tries to put them into practice.

If you squint as hard as you are willing to for communism, nearly all of the utopias look the same at the end: “everyone left is happy with each other and lives in peace”. If you are willing to yadda yadda yadda all the middle part for all of them, they get there. My point all along is that many of the central features of what makes communism distinct as an economic philosophy (i.e. class warfare, universalism, attributions of false consciousness) lead quite easily to the horrors. The horrors shouldn’t be shocking because their seeds are embedded in the philosophy.

That isn’t the same as saying that all ideas and critiques by Marx of capitalism are wrong. Many of them were brilliant.

You want to twist me into saying that “nice people living together” leads to the gulag. But communism doesn’t mean just “nice people living together”. That is clearly Thatcherism, right?

618

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 3:38 am

js: “I said that Lenin was inspired by strains in Marx’s thought—an obvious point. I wasn’t endorsing, blaming, or anything else. I chose not to respond earlier because I vaguely suspect that this is still unacceptable to you.”

Well, then I’ll retract any suggestion of blame and just talk about causality. When people say something like “Don’t blame communists for the pile of skulls! That was Lenin’s fault” I think that they are neglecting a direct causal chain that goes further back.

It’s not merely a historical issue. I think that a lot of this is troublesome in the present. As I wrote above, people call for democracy, or solidarity, or leadership, or any one of a number of other things that vaguely sound good but are all centralizing, power-focussing forces and therefore inherently kind of dangerous.

619

geo 02.28.15 at 6:21 am

Sebastian@619: whatever the utopia content of the positive hoped-for end point of communism, there are basic enough flaws in the philosophy which lead to the communist horrors when anyone tries to put them into practice

Actually, although I asked you and Brett way up thread to make just this argument, I don’t recall that you have — sorry if I’ve missed it. Here you do make what looks like an argument when you say that “what makes communism distinct as an economic philosophy (i.e. class warfare, universalism, attributions of false consciousness) lead quite easily to the horrors. The horrors shouldn’t be shocking because their seeds are embedded in the philosophy.” The problem is, though, that “class warfare” and “attributions of false consciousness” (I’m not sure what you mean by “universalism”) are not part of an economic philosophy at all; they’re part of a political strategy (in the case of class warfare) and a sociological analysis (in the case of false consciousness). It’s entirely possible to believe that a large society based on cooperation, universal access to basic resources, and democratic governance of economic as well as political life (i.e., communism (as Bellamy, Morris, Russell, et al would have defined it) could someday be given institutional specification, without having any opinion one way or another about class warfare or false consciousness.

Moreover (though irrelevantly), advocating class warfare and invoking false consciousness do not lead inevitably to the Marxist-Leninist horrors we all recognize. Class warfare, by the rich against the rest, is simply everyday life in capitalist society; self-defense by the rest is long overdue, and whether it takes a violent form will depend entirely on whether the rich violently resist popular movements for radical change — which, as is plain to anyone who knows the first thing about American and European history, they invariably do. And false consciousness describes perfectly well the upside-down views of the contractors and laborers I work with who blame all their troubles on immigrants and liberal politicians. The iniquitous uses that Communist regimes made of what they called “false consciousness” is another matter entirely.

I hope you won’t think it patronizing if I say that I’m genuinely grieved that you’re so upset with many of us in this thread. You’re entirely right, of course, to abhor the results of Marxism-Leninism, in Russia, China, East Europe, Vietnam, Cuba, and everywhere else it’s taken power. (Although engels and others do have a point about some of those regimes having some positive accomplishments, those accomplishments don’t excuse all the oppression, violence, deceit, and deprivation.) But surely you know that nearly everyone here agrees with you about that? And surely you don’t believe that anyone who’s spoken up for the original communist ideal in this thread — Plume, mattski, Holbo, me, whoever — has a grain of sympathy for those regimes or an undemocratic bone in his or her body? We may have driven you half-mad by splitting verbal hairs; we may have made a mess of arguing our case; but surely you don’t believe that we’d make a charnel house of society, whatever our theories?

620

John Holbo 02.28.15 at 12:41 pm

Sebastian: “Are you really saying that common ‘definition’ of communism excludes Marx and Engels?”

You are assuming that if X is not part of the definition of Y, Y must be defined as -X. Again, this is basic bad logic, Sebastian. If you think about it, I think you will see where you are going wrong.

621

John Holbo 02.28.15 at 12:46 pm

“My whole argument all along has been that whatever the utopia content of the positive hoped-for end point of communism, there are basic enough flaws in the philosophy which lead to the communist horrors when anyone tries to put them into practice.”

No, Sebastian, a substantial portion of your argument has been that we cannot talk about the utopian content. That’s fine – for you I guess – but it forecloses discussion of the flaws, which don’t emerge except against the utopian backdrop of the ideals. I’m interested in talking about the flaws , but not if I’m forbidden to articulate the ideals. That’s pointless. Not because I want to ensure that communism gets half credit or something. Just because I want the talk about the flaws to be intelligent.

622

John Holbo 02.28.15 at 1:46 pm

“Just because I want the talk about the flaws to be intelligent.”

Sorry, that’s too harsh. Better: I want the talk about the flaws to be analytical, not polemical.

623

Plume 02.28.15 at 1:50 pm

Geo #621,

You continue to post excellent thoughts on the subject.

This is especially good:

The problem is, though, that “class warfare” and “attributions of false consciousness” (I’m not sure what you mean by “universalism”) are not part of an economic philosophy at all; they’re part of a political strategy (in the case of class warfare) and a sociological analysis (in the case of false consciousness). It’s entirely possible to believe that a large society based on cooperation, universal access to basic resources, and democratic governance of economic as well as political life (i.e., communism (as Bellamy, Morris, Russell, et al would have defined it) could someday be given institutional specification, without having any opinion one way or another about class warfare or false consciousness.

And you further nail with the point about “class struggle.” The rich have been waging class war on the rest of us for a long, long time, but it’s only called “class warfare” when we fight back. Instead of blaming the victims of that war, perhaps their critics should consider stopping the warfare waged on us from above. IMO, most people who complain about this fighting back are either very rich themselves, or shilling for the rich. Having an issue with economic self-defense (and the desire for self-determination) is absurd if they’re not on Team Plutocracy. And, yes, you are absolutely correct. There is no need for violence — at all — if the rich stop their war against us. It’s up to them. If they willingly stop hoarding the vast majority of wealth, land, income, access and power and share it, then there is no need for any violent “class struggle.” But they never have been willing to do this. They always push things to their limits and beyond.

If it comes down to the real thing, and goes beyond rhetoric and dreams, it’s on them. It’s on their greed, their stubbornness, their theft from workers, their insistence of greater and greater and greater control of resources, access, etc. etc.

Me? I’m in favor of non-violent struggle all the way. But I don’t speak for anyone but me.

624

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 1:55 pm

geo: “but surely you don’t believe that we’d make a charnel house of society, whatever our theories?”

If your theories predictably prepare the way for someone else to make a charnel house of society, is it your fault — wait, cross that out — is it a causal chain that you started?

Let’s see this bit again: “Class warfare, by the rich against the rest, is simply everyday life in capitalist society; self-defense by the rest is long overdue, and whether it takes a violent form will depend entirely on whether the rich violently resist popular movements for radical change — which, as is plain to anyone who knows the first thing about American and European history, they invariably do. “

There’s the inevitabilism that Lee A. Arnold was talking about, in a different form. So hold on, it looks like the nice, kindly communist ideal has become a historical analysis, and that analysis says: we should defend ourselves; we won’t be violent unless the rich violently resist our movements for change; the rich inevitably do. In other words, it says that people are going to inevitably have to be violent but it’s not their fault. (Oh dear, there’s that word “fault” again.) I can’t think of a better way of priming people for acts of righteous violence. Certainly it’s better for that purpose than bob mcmanus’ approach, which has the defect of leaving out the idealism.

625

Plume 02.28.15 at 2:04 pm

In pretty much all of these kinds of discussions, Team Plutocrat pretty much always ignores stats and data, and just repeats their mantra about the supposed “freedom and liberty” capitalism brings. They never say for whom, and at what cost. They just keep repeating their mantra. And the silly one about “lifting people out of poverty.” Again, this is a very small percentage of society, with a far greater portion being thrown into poverty to make this possible, and various governments and democratic institutions really doing the the legwork for most of that uplift. It wasn’t capitalism. Ever. On net, it’s crushed, killed, enslaved and beaten into submission far more people than it’s ever helped.

So, for once, don’t ignore the stats. Address them. Address the stats on inequality. Like the fact that just 80 human beings now hold more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion people. Any economic system that produces such a massive imbalance is an epic failure.

Or, the fact that by next year, in America, the richest 1% will hold more wealth than the rest of the country combined. The top 1%, all by itself, will hold more than half of all wealth in America. The “bottom” 99% will hold less than the top 1%. Again, any economic system that produces that is an epic failure and shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

To further sharpen the snapshot we get from those stats: We have a median income of just 28K, roughly, for individuals, and just 52K for households. A household can contain several incomes at the same time. When an economic system produces individuals who makes several billion a year, while the mid-way point is just 28K . . . . . that system is an epic failure.

And the above doesn’t include poverty stats, or the impact of capitalism’s war against the environment, or the fact that it needs trillions of dollars in bailouts repeatedly just to stay afloat, or the endless wars to keep its shipping lanes open.

It’s pretty amazing that the same people who support the actual, observable horrors of capitalism in practice have a problem with communist theory — something that has never gone beyond the commune, the kibbutz or the Native American village in the modern world.

626

Plume 02.28.15 at 2:11 pm

Rich,

Please shift gears for a moment. If you believe that communist theory inevitably leads to X — and you do this by mistakenly assuming that Marx invented communism and is the only voice in the matter — what is your view of the inevitability regarding capitalist theory? Surely you can’t claim that things should be better from a foundation of unleashed greed, the endless concentration (and reconcentration) of power and wealth at the top, the production of useless goods in order to accrue capital, the permanent conflict between owner and worker, owner and consumer, and owner and the environment. And all of this is based on an “ideal” of constant battle between players on the field, eschewing the ethic of cooperation, choosing instead to be the last guy standing with the most stuff.

How is that going to lead to better results than the ideals of cooperation, participatory democracy, sharing, egalitarianism, etc. etc.?

IMO, your views make zero sense, and I can’t find even a shred of “anarchist” belief in them.

627

Plume 02.28.15 at 2:24 pm

Also #626,

There’s the inevitabilism that Lee A. Arnold was talking about, in a different form. So hold on, it looks like the nice, kindly communist ideal has become a historical analysis, and that analysis says: we should defend ourselves; we won’t be violent unless the rich violently resist our movements for change; the rich inevitably do.

This assumes that “communists” are alone in making “class struggle” an important part of their platform, etc. That would be a major mistake. In one form or another, the acknowledgement of “class warfare” being waged from the top down is common across the political spectrum. It appears that it’s much more common on the left than the right, but we hear tea party activists complaining about “crony capitalism” as well. And from liberals to the furthest reaches of the left, including left-anarchists, this is a common concept. If merely discussing “class struggle” leads inevitably to violence, then a host of people from across the spectrum — and their particular ideals and philosophies — would be implicated. It’s far from being just “communists.”

It really doesn’t make sense to implicate any of them. The fault lies with the rich.

628

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 2:49 pm

Plume: “IMO, your views make zero sense, and I can’t find even a shred of “anarchist” belief in them.”

Well, I’m not surprised that you don’t actually know anything about anarchism. Did you know that Gandhi described himself as an anarchist? I wonder what he would have thought about “Class warfare by the rich exists, and they’re going to turn violent, so let’s get ready to sorrowfully and inevitably kill some people”?

But I’m not even a pacifist. Pragmatically, the ideas that you’re promulgating are stupid. If you happened to succeed, they ensure yet another round of “Wow, turns out we killed a lot of kulaks! How did that happen?” and then the failure of the left. I don’t think that we should really go through another iteration of that. I think it’s especially wrong that people who are all about small-c communism can’t even think about structures of power enough to consider that maybe something is wrong.

Henry recently did a post here on a right-wing anarchistic kind of guy who made an illegal drug-selling site, and how he had to replicate primitive state structures when things predictably went bad. Now, you have every indication that large-scale communism goes bad. And your position really is “It’s not going to happen: our ideals are better than that — it’s all just plutocrat propaganda and let’s not even think about it.” Really?

629

Plume 02.28.15 at 3:10 pm

Rich,

I know about anarchism, having strong left-anarchist leanings meself. And, again, I have yet to read a single comment by you that even slightly resembles anarchist thought. You sound much more like an apologist for the capitalist status quo to me. Though I may have misread you. I’ll admit that readily if the evidence warrants it.

My conception of anarchism comes from many sources, but to wrap it up in short order, I agree with Chomsky’s take in this video. I’m pretty much on the same page as he is on most everything:

http://www.c-span.org/video/?316460-1/book-discussion-anarchism

As for your insistence that communist theory leads inevitably to the Soviet Union, I absolutely disagree. For a host of reasons. First off, contrary to Marx, I see nothing as historically inevitable. Second, inputs in X environment will result in different outputs in Y environment. Context is everything. What happened in the Soviet Union and in Maoist China will never happen again, even in Russia and China. The context has changed radically. The players have changed. All of the variables have changed, there and around the world. And, beyond that, as mentioned already, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and company actually waged war against communist and socialist theory/ideals/principles. They didn’t even remotely implement them. They left out THE most important aspects of both:

Full, participatory democracy and equal ownership of the means of production by every citizen.

They installed State Capitalism within a top down structure of dominance and control by the few over the many. This is the opposite of socialism and communism, etc. And communism is the absence of the state.

630

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 3:33 pm

Once again: I don’t know what “communist theory” is. I do know that anarchists in many left traditions have had a long history of insisting on small-scale communist arrangements that then federate, with a whole lot of attention to how the federating is done so that the state isn’t inadvertently replicated. I don’t see any real signs of that attention here, in theory or in practice.

631

Plume 02.28.15 at 3:45 pm

Rich, that is exactly what I advocate for. Small scale, communal arrangements, linked to other small scale, communal arrangements, with power being dispersed to all individuals, equally. All of this in a context of full, participatory democracy and economics. All of this in an egalitarian frame. And I don’t want the state to replicate itself along current lines, either. Far, far from it. My own vision would be local democratic councils, rotating in and out, working cooperatively with other local democratic councils, with rotating regional and national councils as well. A constitution in place, detailing human rights, civil rights, etc. etc. for everyone. But most of the day to day “governing” being left to individual communities.

Every citizen would do his or her time on all three levels. Local, regional and national. Say, a four year commitment, total. One for the local, one for regional and then two for the national. Then they would go home. No elections. Just lottery picks.

And within businesses, a similar idea. Worker councils, rotating in and out of leadership. All of this designed to prevent the establishment of permanent workplace, local, regional or national power centers. All of this done to prevent the establishment of “classes,” period. And because it’s rotational, it’s not really a “state,” at least as we currently think of it.

Communist theory is quite similar to the above and has “left-anarchist” thought and ideals built in as well. IMO, you’re too locked into one narrow aspect of Marx, and assuming that the Soviet and Maoist systems, etc. etc. represent “communism.”

They don’t. Again, they waged war against communist theory.

632

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 4:29 pm

Plume: “A constitution in place, detailing human rights, civil rights, etc. etc. for everyone. But most of the day to day “governing” being left to individual communities.”

geo mentioned the need for large-scale agreement on the basics too. Who’s going to draft the constitution, how are these human rights going to get enforced, etc etc. If Brett says that he’s going to be an anarcho-capitalist among the co-operatives, are you going to stop him? (I wouldn’t. If the system can’t withstand capitalists within it that operate without state enforcement of their ownership of capital, it can’t stand. I’d be happy to have Brett doing whatever he does.) If some groups don’t think the same as you do about important human rights issues, are you going to let them form their own communal arrangements? Or is it time to go to war again?

There’s something to be said for “These issues are for far in the future, let’s just think about what we can do now.” So OK, let me wrench this back to here-and-now practicality. Just a few years ago people went through a mild version of small-c communal small-scale experiments that began to federate together, the Occupy movement in the U.S. Predictably, as geo writes, existing political structures eventually responded with violence. The Occupy movement did not itself respond with violence. It let itself be disbanded. Why was this?

I’ve written a lot about it, and I’m not going to link to it yet again. I’ll write more about Occupy if anyone is really interested.

633

Sebastian H 02.28.15 at 4:55 pm

“No, Sebastian, a substantial portion of your argument has been that we cannot talk about the utopian content. “

Really? My comments are 49, 223, 279, 280, 348, 359, 433, 477, 478, and 619.

If you stretch, maybe 282 means that. And BTW Graeber isn’t talking about the utopian content right? He is talking about mutualism in the present and past and labeling it ‘communism’.

And remember, you are responding to my comment agreeing that whatever communism’s alleged ideal endpoint, there are internal flaws which end up making the nasty stuff super likely. You were suggesting that wasn’t what I was saying.

So would you mind pointing out the substantial portion of my argument that relies on forbidding talk about utopian content while I was failing to suggest that there are internal flaws in the way communism operates which lead to the bad stuff despite their alleged good desires? Is it 279 that set you off? Because at worst that is me being mistaken about the desired utopia, not me trying to shut off talk about it.

I certainly said that utopia focus ends up not being interesting, because if you focus laser-like on the utopias while flying up to two or three sentence wikipedia summary levels of abstraction they don’t give you much to work with.

634

Plume 02.28.15 at 4:56 pm

Rich,

Our current system — and every previous system — establishes specific power arrangements that are legal and accepted. I think people cling to the idea that capitalist arrangements must be allowed in future alternatives simply because they don’t realize that our system outlaws alternatives, too, under the law, and only accepts one currency as legal, and certain, specific contractual arrangements as legal or valid. They live in a capitalist soup, see that as natural, and can’t even imagine a world without that soup. I can. Easily.

A new alternative should be able to do the same. It should be able to establish a legal framework in order to sustain itself. If it just lets anything go, it will not last. It can’t. And if it allows the concentration of wealth and power in its midst, then the entire work of shifting to a new alternative will be for nothing. That concentration of wealth and power will eventually overwhelm all other arrangements, and send us right back into a class structure, a top down severe hierarchy, where the few rule the many.

Any new alternative has the right to sustain itself, even if that means limiting what can be done within that structure. I would oppose Brett’s desire to establish his own economic fiefdoms, as they would lead right back to the horrors of our current system. They would lead to capitalist piles of skulls and capitalist gulags.

Beyond that, I’m not seeing that your advocacy would escape from the need for certain limits and at least democratic forms of control, either. You’re calling for a radical break from the status quo as well, judging from #634, but you seem unwilling to own that. And I think you’re deluding yourself if you think it won’t involve coercion on some level, too . . . and you’re deluding yourself if you really believe you can allow all manner of private, conflicting systems in the midst. They will tear down the thing you dream of and helped build. It will not last.

635

bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 5:00 pm

Certainly it’s better for that purpose than bob mcmanus’ approach, which has the defect of leaving out the idealism.

I don’t consider it a defect at all. I avoided this thread for a long time, because it appeared that Holbo and friends wanted to play at a pretty high level of abstraction, and Marxists abhor that. “Marx is all over the place on X?” Of course, it always depended, depends, will depend on the concrete material situation, and general rules are the stuff of, precisely, bourgeois idealists seeking external justification.

Ukraine is running out of food. If I am in Kyiv, the baker has full shelves, the children are starving, after asking real nice, and trying other means, do I grab a loaf to feed the kids, perhaps even involving a punch in the nose? Maybe a tough call, but I definitely will not commit in advance to a universal principle of property rights, non-violence, and feel comfortable in myself while the children die.

If I am hostile around here, it is because I take y’all seriously (geo is ambivalent) and believe in your non-violent promises not to “take their stuff” and so I seriously believe that in that particular situation you will let the children die for your principles and ideals. History of liberals and moderates jumping over to the side of order and state violence during crunch times of crisis confirms my instincts.

636

Plume 02.28.15 at 5:03 pm

Sebastion H #635,

Can you point out the specific aspects of communist thought that would necessarily lead to “the nasty stuff”? No one has yet. The folks who claim it would have avoided that entirely. They’ve just read back into “communism” what occurred in Soviet Russia, etc. etc. . . . even though the path from there doesn’t lead back to anything remotely like “communism.”

It’s like you’ve traced the road back from Buffalo to Santa Fe, when “communism” actually is in Barcelona.

637

Plume 02.28.15 at 5:14 pm

bob #637,

I want no one left behind, and the allocation of goods and access made universal yesterday. I don’t want to have to wait through decades of incrementalism, either. But I think what you’re calling for just wouldn’t accomplish any of that universal relief, and would more likely lead to a Fascist takeover from the chaos involved. Rather than a successful leftist revolution, I think it would open the doors for the various Golden Dawns, etc.

How would you channel those forces who would go to the stores to take the bread they need? Ironically, that’s where your “idealism” kicks in, in a strange sort of way. That you think a far more militant stance on the horrors of our current system would actually be focused on alleviating the suffering of all, and not on something else entirely. What would prevent what you’ve unleashed from ignoring universal suffering and need entirely, replacing it with brand new centers of power hoarding wealth, access and resources all to themselves? That may well lead to an even larger contingent of the suffering, etc. etc.

638

bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 5:24 pm

639: So very admirable in your caution and thoughtfulness. That’s why they like you. Keep coming up with your plans and programs, your utopias.

1) Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void has a good fourth chapter. Now I have to (interesting compulsion) read Steven Fraser’s recent Age of Acquiescence, recommended by Corey Robin. No, the default is not really toward recommending people obey the rules, follow authority, and be placid and peaceful.

Our Age of Acquiescence

You tell me there’s an angel in your tree
Did he say he’d come to call on me
For things are getting desperate in our home
Living in the parish of the restless folks I know

Everybody now bring your family down to the riverside
Look to the east to see where the fat stock hide
Behind four walls of stone the rich man sleeps
It’s time we put the flame torch to their keep

Wasn’t that awful long ago. Wha’ happened? Kids today.

639

Plume 02.28.15 at 5:39 pm

bob #640,

I know you’re being snarky. And I also know you know I’m not “liked here.” So that’s a rather odd premise for the rest of your post.

Regardless. I also oppose following the rules or the status quo, which is why I want to help build a completely different alternative to all of that. It’s not about “acquiescence” to convention, norms, “the system.” I despise the current system with every fiber of my being. It makes me nauseous. It’s about actually getting it done, achieving the goals of universal access, sustainability and everyone having at least “enough.” I just don’t see how what you’re suggesting would get there.

Again, I think you’re being hopelessly idealistic in your belief that you could ride the tiger to universal emancipation via force of arms. I fully understand the desire to cut through all the bullshit and just do it. This must have been what Bush was thinking while negotiations were going on to secure Hussein a place in another country. He probably said, “Fuck it. We’re bombing them into the stone age.” But look where that got us.

Again, how would you manage what you’ve unleashed? How would you make sure it was done in the service of an end to suffering?

640

Luke 02.28.15 at 5:51 pm

Bit late to the dance, but if you’re going to discuss the culpability of what-have-you of the communist tradition, you need to cast your net a bit wider. Has anyone mentioned the Paris Commune yet? From when it occured, it was *the* historical revolutionary referent for radicals up until and including the Bolsheviks. Also: democratic! A respecter of property and liberty!

The death toll for the carnage that ensued when the loyalist army conquered the city is usually estimated at around 20,000. One witness observed:

“As for the women who were shot, they treated them almost like the poor Arabs of an insurgent tribe: after they had killed them they stripped them, while they were still in their death throes, of part of their clothing. Sometimes they went even further, as at the post of the Faubourg Montmartre and in the place of the Vendome, where some women were left naked and defiled on the sidewalks.”

[*Unruly Women of Paris*, Gay L. Gullickson (New York, 1998), pp. 180-1] (sorry if I’ve forgotten how to footnote)

I could go on in this manner for some time. For radicals, the question has always been: how do you change the world in a way that (1) is actually effective and (2) doesn’t get you all killed? The Bolsheviks had one answer to this question. Other Marxists have had others (Rosa Luxemburg comes to mind, as does her grisly death. Or we could talk about the German SPD and its sorry complicity with the forces of reaction, and so forth). Any talk about what ‘Marxism’ leads to that doesn’t account for the other side of the revolutionary equation is simply worthless.

641

bob mcmanus 02.28.15 at 6:07 pm

Again, how would you manage what you’ve unleashed? How would you make sure it was done in the service of an end to suffering?

Since you want to feel all responsible and shit, you can be the boss.

I have said over and over that I don’t feel comfortable telling people more desperate than me what to do. It is the fact that most of you want to preach to the subaltern (no, mustn’t be violent) that makes me hostile and despairing. I just want to give them permission, tell them I won’t judge, or just shut up and let them talk.

Oh, while you were weighing the consequences, the children died.

642

Plume 02.28.15 at 6:17 pm

bob #643,

Oh, while you were weighing the consequences, the children died.

And while you’re talkin’ bout revolution, they’re dying too.

Sorry, you don’t get to be innocent in this, either. How have your actions to date stopped them from dying?

And beyond that, I’m guessing I’m much closer to their experience than you are. Just a guess. I’ve actually been homeless, hungry and poor. Have you experienced this? I’ve always felt kinship with the poor and the working poor, having been in that world. My solidarity with them also includes “not judging them or telling them what to do.” In fact, that complaint from you seems like a non-sequitur here. Speaking for myself alone, I’m just speaking for myself alone, not the poor.

643

mattski 02.28.15 at 6:22 pm

Oh, while you were weighing the consequences, the children died.

How dreadful of us to turn up our bourgeois noses at the maximalist mayhem all good kids crave.

644

geo 02.28.15 at 6:54 pm

mcmanus@643: I just want to … shut up

No! Please don’t!

645

Hector_St_Clare 02.28.15 at 7:50 pm

For what it’s worth, I agree with Bob MacManus much more than Plume.

Things are going to get worse before they get better, and I suspect that capitalism is going to get worse and worse until the whole thing comes crashing down in an apocalyptic conflagration. And after that, we get socialism.

646

Rich Puchalsky 02.28.15 at 8:03 pm

Luke: “For radicals, the question has always been: how do you change the world in a way that (1) is actually effective and (2) doesn’t get you all killed?”

Yes. (I mentioned the Paris Commune in passing above.)

I wasn’t aware that I was lecturing subalterns here: it seems like we’re all speaking and being heard. (If “having people read your comment on a blog” does not equate to being heard, then we’re all subaltern). As for kids starving: 1) you bet I’m going to grab the bread if my kids were starving, 2) no one is starving in my polity — see previous about lecturing people elsewhere, 3) your chances of success go up if you don’t wait until the kids-starving stage to attempt political action.

647

Plume 02.28.15 at 11:27 pm

Hector, I hope we get real socialism.

But there is no guarantee in that. We could have its opposite, Fascism. And right now, it would seem that the right is far better positioned to take advantage of chaos and power vacuums than the left. The left has been pretty much routed and forced to the margins since the early 1970s, with the right ascending since then. And it has the money and the arms as well.

I’m just not sanguine that some inchoate, all out revolution will lead to the desired result: Full democracy, in an egalitarian frame, with no one left behind. I fear a different world would be upon the next generation.

648

John Holbo 03.01.15 at 1:58 am

Sorry Sebastian, I have been taking comments like these –

“He’s wrong. Mutualism isn’t particularly related to communism”

And

“No one here seems to be suggesting that small scale communalist or mutualist projects are impossible. We’ve all been in them even. But they aren’t ‘communist’”

– as evidence that you are basically enforcing a moral (not historicist) stricture against saying anything favorable about communism, as a philosophy. If we have nice mutualism, it can’t be communism, by definition. Even though communism actually is a dream of mutualism. You stipulate that communism – or ‘communism’ – is essentially all its failures and essentially none of its values. Were it otherwise, that would be disrespectful to the millions of dead in the Gulag. This is a kinder way to put my point, up above, that your philosophy of communism is basically a wish-fulfillment fantasy. You regard it as indecent to speak well of a thing that has done so much harm. I can see that. But I think speaking truth means saying something that seems to you rather morally indecent to say. Have I misunderstood you?

One final comment and then I’m (probably) off for the day. I’m pretty influenced by G.A. Cohen about all this, although I don’t like his camping trip. Cohen treats socialism (communism) as more like a moral philosophy. He argues for it by showing it is normatively best (whether we can get it or not). This approach would have appalled Marx, who would never have admitted (even under the more severe torture!) that he was a bit of that old loathsome thing, a moral philosopher (shiver!) Marx thought he was an economist, a political scientist. Cohen thinks most of those bits of Marx are trash. Economically speaking, Marx is a failure in Ricardo’s line. Morally speaking, he’s a towering figure. Socialism is a towering idea, anyway. It’s normatively formidable. If you want justice, how can you be against socialism? I tend to agree with that. If you give up on socialism (call it that if you prefer), because it’s impractical, you are basically saying: so I guess we aren’t going to try to be just. (No analogous moral concession is required, in the face of the unworkableness of large-scale fascism.) A lot of my pesky persistence in this thread – to the degree that it isn’t driven by bog-standard, blog-standard passive-aggression! – is driven by that.

649

John Holbo 03.01.15 at 1:59 am

Let me just say I’m aware there are reasons to distinguish socialism and communism. But at the level of generality my previous comment exhibited, this is not clearly necessary.

650

John Holbo 03.01.15 at 2:02 am

If people are running out of stuff to talk about, we could debate the Graeberian efficacy/ethics of Rolling Jubilee:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/feb/23/student-debt-for-profit-colleges?CMP=share_btn_fb

651

Plume 03.01.15 at 2:29 am

John #648,

I consider myself a (eco)socialist, with left-anarchist leanings, not a communist. It’s probably a minority take, but I see communism, at least in the modern world, as the utopian extension of socialism — its never to be reached horizon. Primarily because the main thing that differentiates it from socialism, in my view, is the absence of the state. This absence of the state also is the last step in ending any remnant of a ruling class or classes period. The ideas I’ve put forward before of a rotational democracy . . . might strike some as a “state,” and I can see that, though I think it does get us about as close as we can get to its absence. It gets us about as close as possible to the absence of classes, especially the ruling class, which I think should be our goal. And it’s the moral thing to do. No more class divisions. None.

Socialism, if it sticks to its principles and reason for being, means full participatory democracy, with the people, all the people, owning the means of production, together, not through proxies, not through representatives, but literally. All of us would literally own the means of production with absolutely equal shares and say. Communism is the next step in the process after this becomes so much the norm, so natural, so internalized for us, that we can then take off the training wheels and go it alone. That then becomes the apotheosis of true self-governing. Fully realized socialism is just this side of that, without quite going there.

I see communism, in that sense, as a beautiful goal, but I also don’t see it as practical in the modern world. It’s what I wish comes true for future humankind, but I suspect there will always be the need of a state, primarily because our societies have become so complex and there are so many of us. One of the reasons why I want us to go back to old-style local economies, with use-value instead of exchange value, with C-M-C commerce instead of M-C-M, is to get us back to at least a shot at taking that next step. Simplify. Radically. Go back to artisanship. Craftsmanship. Individual artistry and away from mass produced crap. Personal quality of goods and services. The end of corporations and the indifferent and desensitized and depersonalized mode of capitalist relations. End capitalism period. As if it had never existed.

And I actually think this is doable, over time. I definitely think it’s necessary, just, moral and right. Communism, OTOH, is likely not possible or doable, at least given current complexities. If we could get there, I fear it would be of short duration, primarily because outside forces would take advantage of the absence of that state to violently implement something wildly different, as they establish their own governing body, etc. etc.

Beyond all of that, I still don’t think any of the people hating on the idea of communism have even remotely demonstrated that it leads to evil, that it must do so. There is no logical pathway from baseline communism to the gulag. It doesn’t exist.

652

js. 03.01.15 at 2:35 am

Back @402, when I noted this thread had serious muthafuckin’ legs, I bet you all thought I was kidding.

653

Hector_St_Clare 03.01.15 at 4:28 am

Plume,

I will just say that I find your radical democracy, abolish-the-state business to be totally unappealing as well as unrealistic. The socialism I support is definitely of the elitist, vanguard-party, Soviet variety. I see most people as basically similar to children, who need a strong State, run by a vanguard party, to rule them. The big question is whether they will be ruled by a right wing elite (that rules them for the good of the capitalist class) or by a left wing elite (which rules over them for their own good).

654

mattski 03.01.15 at 12:24 pm

A lot of my pesky persistence in this thread – to the degree that it isn’t driven by bog-standard, blog-standard passive-aggression! – is driven by that.

I thought it was your vainglorious ego hankering after 800 comments.

I see most people as basically similar to children, who need a strong State, run by a vanguard party, to rule them.

Hector, you’re a Platonist!

655

Plume 03.01.15 at 2:11 pm

Hector, #653,

Perhaps my own #651 was TLDNR, because it basically addresses your complaint.

That said, to me the problem is severe hierarchy and “bosses.” Those are key aspects of all that ails humanity. The best society, IMO, would be the one that flattens the pyramid to the degree possible (egalitarianism), and negates the power of bosses by making sure they can never be permanently fixed in that position. Others here have misread me as advocating for leaderless, rudderless commons. No. I think rotational forms of leadership best, so there is no chance to reestablish class divisions and the concentration of power. We would still have leaders. Or, one might say, facilitators. But they would always be temps.

Keeping it dispersed, spread out among the entire populace, in equal measure — I think that’s the way to prevent oppression, bullying, the destruction of personal autonomy, etc. etc.

As for your own ideas: I want no part of what the Who sang about: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” We can do much, much better than that.

656

Hector_St_Clare 03.01.15 at 3:06 pm

Hector, you’re a Platonist!

+1!

657

Hector_St_Clare 03.01.15 at 3:09 pm

Plume,

See, the advantage of my brand of socialism is the basic idea has been tried, I just want to tinker around the edges and get better people (i.e. Good Men) into charge. I.e. something somewhere between Yugoslavia, Cuba, and modern day Belarus. Brett Bellmore and Cassander may not like the results, but they can’t deny that such a system is at least possible to construct. You want something entirely new and untried, and there’s no reason to believe what you want is even possible.

658

Sebastian H 03.02.15 at 4:37 am

<“He’s wrong. Mutualism isn’t particularly related to communism”

And

John–

“[You've been taking…] No one here seems to be suggesting that small scale communalist or mutualist projects are impossible. We’ve all been in them even. But they aren’t ‘communist’”

– as evidence that you are basically enforcing a moral (not historicist) stricture against saying anything favorable about communism, as a philosophy. If we have nice mutualism, it can’t be communism, by definition. Even though communism actually is a dream of mutualism. You stipulate that communism – or ‘communism’ – is essentially all its failures and essentially none of its values. "

Ack. No. Communism is BOTH its failures and its values. It certainly would have been fine to say that part of communist philosophy *involves* mutualism. I would have had no objection to that at all. My problem is in you and Graeber defining communist philosophy *as merely a synonym for* mutualism. Communism isn't just 'mutualism' spelled differently.

Communism draws from mutualist ideals, feeds them through a lens of class warfare and revolution (both in the sense of actual violence), is universalist in nature (unlike the vast majority of mutualist projects), leans on 'false consciousness' in a way that leads toward wanting a vanguard to 'lead' the confused masses, and a number of other things that I'm sure Marxists would love to talk about all day.

Your project seems to be to strip away absolutely everything about communism that makes it distinctive and then just define it as 'all things that are mutualist'. But that is silly. What is the purpose of doing that? Why don't you want to talk about 'communism' as drawing in part on mutualist structures? Why do you insist on talking about it as if all mutualist projects were communist projects?

You seem to be interpreting my comments as anti-mutualist. But you only get there by stripping communism to nothing and calling all mutualist projects 'communist'. I don't see the point in doing that. Lots of mutualist projects aren't communist. Some of them don't care about class warfare. Lots of them don't care about false consciousness. Lots of them don't have universal aspirations. Lots of them don't have any democratic pretense. I don't even think we have to get to worries about the gulag to admit that talking about mutualist projects isn't identical to talking about communist projects.

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Plume 03.02.15 at 4:58 am

Sebastion H #658,

It is false to assume that communism must include revolution, a concentration on “class struggle,” or “false consciousness.” I think you are assuming that “communism” must always already be “Marxist-Leninist.” This is a false assumption. Communism predates Marx, goes beyond him, sometimes counters his thought, and he said next to nothing about how communism would work in practice anyway — and there are a host of communists who differ with even that.

Graeber is right to talk about small “c” communism. Again, this predates Marx and goes beyond him as well. The Soviet and Maoist systems had nothing whatsoever to do with socialist or communist theory, but I could see someone using “Communism” as a shortcut. But never, ever, not remotely, communism. In reality, the Soviet system and the Maoist system were State Capitalist systems . . . and SINO or CINO. Socialism in name only, or communism in name only.

Perhaps an analogous situation would be Political Islam versus Islam proper, though even there, we find more Venn diagram overlap that Communism and communism. With the latter, the sector of that overlap is virtually nonexistent. It’s in name only.

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John Holbo 03.02.15 at 5:10 am

“My problem is in you and Graeber defining communist philosophy *as merely a synonym for* mutualism.”

Ah, but Graeber’s baseline communism is not presumed to be equivalent to communist philosophy. So there was never a question of trying to make communist philosophy just ‘equivalent’ to mutualism, by definin BC as equivalent to it.

The only live dispute, upthread, was about whether communist philosophy involves some value of mutualism or none at all. You did seem to be taking the latter position. I’m glad you aren’t now but upthread you did seem to. You were 1) taking ‘communism’ to equal communist philosophy and 2) saying things like “Mutualism isn’t particularly related to communism”. Since communist philosophy is related to its ideals, the natural inference would be that communism does not aim at mutualism, even ideally. You said that what it aims at instead is conformism (and murder). Presumably as ends in themselves. My point was that this is polemically satisfying (I’m sure) but not very historically or philosophically enlightening.

But, as I said, am I glad that you now admit that communism – the philosophy – officially aims at a kind of mutualism.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.02.15 at 5:26 am

JH: “But, as I said, am I glad that you now admit that communism – the philosophy – officially aims at a kind of mutualism.”

This still grates. Mutualism was an actual thing that was not aimed at by most people who called themselves communists. I suppose that after all the confusion between large-C and small-c communism I shouldn’t even bother to point out that there was large-M and small-m mutualism, but small-m mutualism really is a lot more still identified with Proudhon than communism is with Marx.

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John Holbo 03.02.15 at 11:22 am

“Mutualism was an actual thing that was not aimed at by most people who called themselves communists.”

Well, you do see, I hope, that I’m trying to be accommodating to people with an allergy to the actual word ‘communism’. Do you have a better generic alternative? We want a word for mutualistic social relations in which goods are held in common. Most of the words for that sort of thing have associations that can be a bit distracting.

But anything to get us to comment 666 at least!

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Agog 03.02.15 at 11:37 am

We want a word for mutualistic social relations in which goods are held in common.

:-)ism?

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John Holbo 03.02.15 at 11:48 am

commonism.

665

John Holbo 03.02.15 at 11:49 am

I feel with this fresh neologism under my belt, the thread has been worth it! I leave someone else the honor of contributing a comment that shall bear the Number of the Beast.

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engels 03.02.15 at 11:59 am

It seems to of that Sebastian and Puchalsky are basically in agreement on what a permissible left-wing politics has to be like: it must be non-violent, it mustn’t talk about class or ideology, mustn’t aim at revolutionary transformation of capitalism, mustMarx, etc, it’s just that whereas Sebastian still opposes this, Puchalsky defends it: the Colmes to Sebastian’s Hannity.

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engels 03.02.15 at 12:15 pm

I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was time for a change.

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Brett Bellmore 03.02.15 at 12:20 pm

“No, seriously. I think it’s important – and strange, and wrong – that the likes of Brett and Cassander and Sebastian are absolutely determined to think no thought of the form ‘communism is a noble dream, but …’ I think failure to think several such thoughts results in severely deformed philosophy. That is all.”

Would you be satisfied with, “Communism could be a noble dream before people knew where it led”, which was a long, long time ago?

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mattski 03.02.15 at 1:39 pm

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

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Plume 03.02.15 at 2:01 pm

Brett,

For the billionth time, how could they know where it led — or where it would lead? It’s. Never. Been. Tried. On. Any. National. Scale. And. It. Means. The. Absence. Of. The. State.

Unlike capitalism, which has led to at least 200 million skulls and countless gulags already — and counting.

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Ze Kraggash 03.02.15 at 2:03 pm

Brett, 668: “before people knew where it led”

One interesting thing about the direct state control over the industries (which is what you’re confusing for ‘communism’) is that it led to the USSR becoming the second largest economy in 1989, and China becoming the largest one last year. Which is why it seems quite likely that you’re going to experience exactly the same thing (albeit under a different name; I bet ‘defending freedom’ will be in it) in your failing country, and very soon.

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Salem 03.02.15 at 2:10 pm

Brett, you are much too generous to JH.

673

mattski 03.02.15 at 2:16 pm

This still grates.

Spirituality says, Investigate the inner cheese grater.

Also,

Well if I ain’t I’m a big fat groovy pole on a rough hill on the way there.

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Plume 03.02.15 at 2:19 pm

And I’m still waiting for Brett to trace a path from communist theory, from what it actually says, from what it actually means, from the thousands of different intellectual sources, to the Soviet Union. All he’s done so far is force a pathway from the Soviet Union back to his chosen starting point, his bugaboo, without making a case for it. It would have made more sense to trace it back to England in the 18th century, to Smith and his Scottish friends. But that still wouldn’t have been the right way to go about it.

Trace it from the past to the present, with actual evidence. Not the reverse. His prejudice is doing his “thinking” f0r him, not history or logic.

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John Holbo 03.02.15 at 3:22 pm

I clicked on the link from Salem @ 672 …

http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/295

and read as follows:

“Pictures of the Socialistic Future is Richter’s satire of what would happen to Germany if the socialism espoused by the trade unionists, social democrats, and Marxists was actually put into practice. It is thus a late 19th century version of Orwell’s 1984, minus the extreme totalitarianism which Orwell had witnessed in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia but which was still inconceivable to 19th century liberals. The main point of the book is to show that government ownership of the means of production and centralised planning of the economy would not lead to abundance as the socialists predicted would happen when capitalist “inefficiency and waste” were “abolished”. The problem of incentives in the absence of profits, the free rider problem, the public choice insight about the vested interests of bureaucrats and politicians, the connection between economic liberty and political liberty, were all wittily addressed by Richter, much to the annoyance of his socialist opponents.”

So far so good. But now it all falls to pieces:

“Copyright information:

The text is in the public domain.”

Look. How is this not going to end in blood and death, I ask you.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.02.15 at 4:09 pm

engels: “in agreement on what a permissible left-wing politics has to be like”

I would never stand in the way of your own radical, revolutionary activities, comrade. No doubt those are too secret for you to ever talk about anything you’ve ever done, which is why I have the distinct impression that you’ve never done anything. So instead let’s hear about your ideas. Are there any of them that require more than two sentences and maybe a link to a funny youtube video?

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Watson Ladd 03.02.15 at 4:32 pm

Plume, who was Vladimir Lenin and who was Joseph Stalin? It’s pretty easy to draw that line: 2nd International radicals carried out the Russian Revolution, and Stalin took over when it ran into trouble. It’s hard to say they weren’t Communists, and didn’t write communist theory. Or is this some sort of the KDP wasn’t actually communist schtick?

678

Anon 03.02.15 at 4:34 pm

“I see most people as basically similar to children, who need a strong State, run by a vanguard party, to rule them.
Hector, you’re a Platonist!”

Well, since this thread is still somewhat alive but has not reached its 800 post aspiration, how about a derailment?

Plato is not, in the Republic, in any way, shape or form, a totalitarian.

Discuss.

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Luke 03.02.15 at 5:01 pm

Well, ‘totalitarianism’ was always a bit of wooly nonsense. Since we’re only going in circles now (how can you have an entire derailment about the Evils of Communism in Practice without a discussion of SPD vs. Spartakists/KPD? Well, because then it would fall apart), I see your provovation, and raise you two: (1) Nietzsche was a fascist, and precisely to the extent that he was a closeted Platonist (which he was), and (2) (neo)liberalism’s emphasis on ‘merit’ is equivalent to Platonic ‘virtue’ and just as authoritarian (they’re going to build us a city of merit on the hill, dontcha know).

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Luke 03.02.15 at 5:02 pm

provocation*

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Plume 03.02.15 at 5:04 pm

Watson Ladd #677,

So, whenever Christians said they spoke for the Church, and went on their murderous crusades, their murderous inquisitions, their murderous forced conversions of Native peoples around the world, because they said they were “Christians,” that’s proof of their adherence to Christian theories, philosophies, etc. etc.?

Just naming people who claim to speak for X doesn’t prove they do speak for X. Just naming people who claim to be in some long line of adherents doesn’t prove they actually adhere to the various philosophies.

Again, there is absolutely nothing about the way the Soviet Union or Maoist China were run that even remotely accords with communist theory and belief. One could stretch it and say it accorded with a perversion of it, a kind of Political Communism, much like Political Islam or our Religious Right . . . . but there is no Venn diagram overlap that takes us back to actual communist theory. It takes us only to that political perversion. The Soviet Union and Maoist China, along with its various peers like the NK dictatorships, actually warred against socialist ideals, philosophies, goals, and “communism” is the absence of the state to make this even further removed.

No democracy, including the economy, and no “the people own the means of production,” means no actual socialism, much less communism. And that’s just two essential components they warred against. There were a host beyond that.

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Brett Bellmore 03.02.15 at 5:19 pm

Looks like the Crusades are starting up again, and the same way as the first time: A defense against Muslim agression.

“Again, there is absolutely nothing about the way the Soviet Union or Maoist China were run that even remotely accords with communist theory and belief. “

I’ve already responded to that: Communist theory and belief are a steaming heap, it doesn’t work. So, naturally, no effort to implement communism is going to look anything like communist theory and belief, because communism doesn’t work.

Just like perpetual motion machines have never really been ‘tried’, because every time somebody claims to be trying one, it turns out to not be perpetual after all. That’s not a defense of perpetual motion machines, but an indictment.

After a century, every attempt to implement communism ends up looking nothing like communist theory says it should? That’s not a point in favor of communism…

683

Plume 03.02.15 at 5:29 pm

Brett @682,

I’ve already responded to that: Communist theory and belief are a steaming heap, it doesn’t work.

No. You haven’t addressed any of this. You’ve just declared communist theory a “steaming heap” and unworkable. You’ve never shown why, or demonstrated any grasp of what that theory and philosophy really is. You’re just stuck in your own infinite loop/tautology. Basically, your entire argument boils down to:

Communism is horrible because communism is horrible, so there!!

I’m still waiting for you to show why it’s horrible, why it can’t work, which would involve you also describing what it is in the first place, and accurately. That word being key.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.02.15 at 6:10 pm

JH: “I feel with this fresh neologism under my belt […]”

Commonism at least doesn’t have pre-existing associations, I suppose. But the basic reason why you need to invent a new word is that people are trying to blur together disparate ideas and to say that they’re really the same.

For instance, a whole lot of the “how could anyone criticize the basic ideal of communism?” stuff has been based on blending communism and communalism. Communalism is generally thought of as a system that has communal ownership within federations of independent communities, so it doesn’t have the scaling-up, authoritarian problem in the same way. (Of course, the federation itself may be badly done and effectively turn into authoritarian centralization. And some people may feel that communal ownership even within small, voluntary communities is authoritarian, especially when people start talking about how we need general society-wide agreement and how evidently everyone is going to need to belong to one of these things.)

685

Plume 03.02.15 at 6:24 pm

Rich,

Some good points there. But this thread started out being about “baseline communism,” and began with Graeber’s understanding of that. From reading his Debt, and knowing his anarchist roots, I’m pretty sure he means your description of communalism, which is my favored form as well. I think that can also be called small “c” communism. Small c communism is the basis for it. Sharing, community, egalitarianism, no more class divisions, no more ruling class, etc. Communal arrangements, small, local, in conjunction with other, small, local communities/communal relations, etc.

686

Anon 03.02.15 at 8:30 pm

Luke @679

Let’s say authoritarian, since I think that’s less tricky to agree on a rough and ready definition than “fascism.”

I will happily grant (2), and I’ll grant you (1) to a degree: Nietzsche’s somewhat of a neo-Platonist politically, if not in other respects, and he’s, on the whole, an authoritarian of some sort.

As I read the Republic (I’m not making any claim about the Laws), it’s a work of ethics not political philosophy, about the governance of the city of the soul. And it’s so because it’s grounded in a very realistic, not idealistic, deep pessimism about politics: the only way to improve social justice is either by good rulers or by morality, and there aren’t good rulers and if there were they’d be too good to want govern or to gain support, so the only way to improve social justice is by being Socrates: by teaching citizens to harmonize their souls.

The just city is initially introduced as a thought experiment, a mere means to the derivation of a definition of justice, which is then used to establish ethics. At the end of the book the just city is explicitly identified as fantasy and dream that has weight only as an ethical ideal, exactly like Kant’s kingdom of ends: the just person is the person who lives as if she lived in the perfect city.

If we set this aside and pretend that the Republic is a political model, then the comparison to Nietzsche has merit. In both, there is a ruling class, whose right to rule is based in some form of natural superiority (in Plato, capacity for wisdom, in Nietzsche, something more of a creative capacity combined with a kind of greater spiritual freedom and courage). In both, rights are class-dependent, a privilege. In both, the value of this system is communal: both Nietzsche and Plato believe their cities would be truly happier across the board, since some are by nature better suited to obey than to lead, to labor physically not intellectually, etc., and because, in Plato’s case, the truly wise will create laws beneficial to all, not to themselves while, in Nietzsche’s case, the superior caste serve as a source of community meaning for the rest, the superman is, as the greek heroes and gods, the basis of value, the protection of the community from nihilism.

Ironically, if Nietzsche is only a neo-platonist in this respect, it’s because he’s *more* idealistic than Plato. He still believes in demi-gods, and still believes that an unfree population will find them sufficient compensation for servitude.

But then, as you point out in (2). He was probably right: that’s how the capitalist meritocracy survives, after all.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 1:01 am

Anon,

Is it really viable to write a treatise about the ideal society and then add an asterisk saying well don’t take me literally?! The words that ring in my ears are Socrates,

“It’s the business of rulers to rule and of everyone else to obey.” Paraphrased of course.

Clearly, Plato & Socrates had nothing but disdain for Athenian democracy and the demos in general. Also, my memory of the Republic is very poor but didn’t the Noble Lie essentially negate any serious meritocracy?

Let’s discuss… maybe we crawl across the 700 comment line!

688

Luke 03.03.15 at 1:17 am

Interesting. I’m way too rusty on Plato, but I may be tempted to go back to the Republic now…

To forstall any confusion about my previous post: I think merely *abrogating to onself the right to define virtue* is authoritarian. Hence the authoritarianism of terms like ‘meritocracy’. What constitutes merit? Who gets to decide? Your betters, of course.

689

bob mcmanus 03.03.15 at 1:21 am

686: I’ll just give a ref, since it is in my current reading.

Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World by Geoffrey Maurice de Ste. Croix is a Marxist classic easily on the level of anything by Hobsbawm or Thompson. Very Marxian, very erudite classics scholar

I bring it up because de Ste. Croix despises Plato and adores Aristotle, and talks at length of their differing attitudes toward the demos

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mattski 03.03.15 at 4:38 am

Luke,

Why can’t merit be decided by a combination of popular opinion and performance? In theory anyway.

691

Plume 03.03.15 at 5:15 am

In the 1980s and 90s, I read everything I could get my hands on about and by Nietzsche. I was fascinated by his writings, revolted by some of them, and this spurred a wider search for various works about him. One such book that really took hold for me was Lawrence J. Hatab’s A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy: An Experiment in Postmodern Politics, which basically used Nietzsche’s writings against him, showing that he should have been pro-democracy, instead of against it as he generally implied. Worth reading.

I may have misread Nietzsche, but I never saw him as being in favor of a ruling class based upon financial wealth. It was always a sense of spiritual wealth and intellectual brilliance. He was obviously an elitist, and certainly not an egalitarian. Far, far from it. But he did not strike me as someone who wanted financial means to determine who ruled and who obeyed.

Easy to love and hate his writings, I still find him one of the most fascinating minds in all of intellectual history. I wish Spock had discussed him on Star Trek.

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Luke 03.03.15 at 5:18 am

Bob, you bastard, I’ve been wanting to read that for years but never have (except in snippets as an undergrad). IIRC, you might also try Moses Finley (not a Marxist, IIRC, but very good, and interested in the relation between the classics and modern politics), E.A. Thompson (The Other Marxist Thompson, wrote about rebels and barbarians), perhaps V.W. Harris (the go-to chap on Roman imperialism, along with Brunt maybe), and also J.T. Roberts’ ‘Athens on Trial’, which is germane to this sub-derailment.

@mattski
Absolutely. The ancient analogy would be the theatre audience — no-one ‘gets’ the play completely, but the crowd in aggregate knows the play better than the critic. Plato is the critic, and he has some very strong opinions about art. Now, if only a certain coterie of critics get to decide what art may and may not be made… Well, you see the problem.

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Watson Ladd 03.03.15 at 5:41 am

Plume, if everyone who called themselves a Christian between 600 and 1492 is off doing those things, and says it’s tied to Christianity, how are you claiming it isn’t? Likewise, who do you think actually is a Communist theorist, other than the people who called themselves Communists, who were called Communists by their enemies and allies?

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js. 03.03.15 at 6:16 am

I’m not super strong on Plato, but I would think that there are lots of “meritocratic” elements in it. (Holbo I’m sure knows this ten times better than I do, so he should maybe correct me.) There are indications tho that the guardians are meritocratically chosen, although the pool may not extend to all of society, but I think there are suggestions that they would be more or less meritocratically chosen from the “warrior” class (which, again, is a term that’s liable to be misunderstood in this context). (Sorry, I’m a bit too lazy to look up references right now.)

More generally, Plato’s obviously opposed to democracy in the Athenian sense, but it seems like a bit of jump to go from there to calling him an authoritarian in any sort of modern sense. What would you even base that on?

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js. 03.03.15 at 6:23 am

Sorry, I meant to add: One way of reading Plato is that he’s particularly concerned with separating money-making pursuits from the concerns of governing the city or state, and this is what’s driving the creation of a separate guardian “class”. But if this is true, then the governing “class” isn’t really a class in the modern, or at least Marxist, sense. And Plato is explicitly at pains to ensure that the guardians are not unduly influenced by the money-making class(es). I’m not really interested in defending Plato, but this last thought is not obviously insane, to put it mildly.

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Brett Bellmore 03.03.15 at 11:44 am

Plume: “No. You haven’t addressed any of this. You’ve just declared communist theory a “steaming heap” and unworkable. You’ve never shown why

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areanimator 03.03.15 at 12:25 pm

Related to the back-and-forth on communism and its crimes, the article here makes a good point that’s worth quoting in length:

While we were amusing ourselves with the myopic question of how religion leads to violence we have missed out on the main question: How does violence alter religion and religious believers? Exposure to violence and injustice, seeing no “why”, and looking for a “how” to survive, requires theological responses in their rawest form: What is wrong with this universe? What is right? How do I understand what I see? How do I respond to the challenges and how do I live?

When a state fails, when its promise to deliver a fair society does not actualize, and all other offers of a solution remain too feeble, religious networks, imaginations, solidarities, and mobilizations emerge as the most powerful, and often the only alternative, to address the question of theodicy and recreate a moral order.

Similarly, rather than occupying oneself with the nonstarter issue of whether communist ideology causes violence, I would rather discuss how the ideas of communism were altered and abused in the context of horrific violence in, say, Civil War Russia or Khmer Cambodia. To quote the article again:

In a context where violence is already present indiscriminately, it is easily seen as a regular and legitimate political option. Deployment of violence becomes a radical attempt to tame, control and re-order a universe that seems to be in decay and evil.

To focus on communism or some other ideology and treat it and it alone as the cause of murder, genocide and terror leads to an unproductive game of whack-a-mole where society’s would-be saviors spend their time chasing down the terror-producing ideology of the week while more salient causal factors go entirely unexamined. Under what conditions does violence become a legitimate political option? Can a system be constructed to prevent such conditions from arising? Those are the relevant questions, to me, if I want to prevent genocide.

This is not to say that ideologies are let entirely off the hook concerning the evil done in their name. Some ideologies are more conducive to rationalizing and legitimating violence. But I would still like to make the point that evil is orthogonal to ideology. And the corollary that there aren’t any “pure” ideologies, unstained by evil deeds done in their names.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 2:37 pm

Watson @693,

First off, you have your dates wildly wrong and truncated. The Inquisition lasted well into the 19th century. Capitalists, who call themselves “Christians,” were enslaving, killing, torturing and force-converting “the heathens” well into the 20th.

Second, anyone can say anything. It doesn’t make it so. You could claim you’re a trained nuclear physicist, even though you’re just a frat boy, in school via a legacy, taking the easiest courses you can find so you have plenty of time to party. It doesn’t make you a trained nuclear physicist. And if a particular philosophy says “we are absolutely 100% against X,” but you base your entire politics on being aggressively for X, your claims are absurd. I couldn’t care less what you call yourself.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 2:41 pm

Brett @696,

You still haven’t addressed it. Obviously. You’ve just declared that it’s “communism” without demonstrating that it is. You could just as easily call it “broccoli.” You’d find about the same connections.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 2:50 pm

areanimator,

This is good:

To focus on communism or some other ideology and treat it and it alone as the cause of murder, genocide and terror leads to an unproductive game of whack-a-mole where society’s would-be saviors spend their time chasing down the terror-producing ideology of the week while more salient causal factors go entirely unexamined. Under what conditions does violence become a legitimate political option? Can a system be constructed to prevent such conditions from arising? Those are the relevant questions, to me, if I want to prevent genocide.

To take this further: Even if we could agree that any one “ism” is in place – and it looks pretty unlikely, given this thread — the idea that the implementation of said “ism” will always result in the same thing is absurd to the nth degree. When the context is different, the results will be different. When the players are different, the results will be different. When the international responses are different, the results will be different. In short, different variables, different environments, different results — and this would scale up in the degree of difference with those variables, players, environments and international response, etc.

Marx said don’t try revolution in a backward, impoverished land. Long before Thatcher, he said this would result in socialized scarcity. He said take the revolution to “mature capitalist” economies, and make sure this is done in conjunction with many others. He saw well that isolated revolutions, in economic backwaters, would likely fail. It was too long and hard a climb up from poverty and feudalism, and a large bloc of countries opposed to it would bring it down before it had a chance, too.

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Brett Bellmore 03.03.15 at 2:50 pm

Your position, Plume, as I understand it, is that nothing people call “communism” really IS communism, even what Lenin and Marx called communism, if it doesn’t work out well. Like I’ve said repeatedly, you’ve built working right into your definition of communism.

I suppose that guarantees that communism can never be shown to have failed, at the expense of making it a fantasy.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 3:08 pm

Brett,

Lenin said he installed State Capitalism. So you’re cherry-picking. You believe him when he called himself a communist, but you ignore that he said he had to implement State Capitalism to bring Russia into the 20th century. How convenient.

And, again, it’s not what any of this is called. It’s what it actually is that matters. You have never, ever drawn a connection between communist theory, belief or philosophy and what actually happened in the Soviet Union, etc. etc. I keep asking that you at least give it a shot. You keep avoiding that.

Don’t work backward to your desired goal. Demonstrate that the earliest writings of communists, and then people who built on those theories, ideals, philosophies . . . . demonstrate how what they wrote (and what others added) could possibly lead to your pile of skulls and gulags. I’ve already demonstrated how this happens in capitalism — how theory and practice match so closely, logically, inevitably. You’ve never even remotely tried to forge a link with baseline communism.

Stop avoiding the issue.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 3:47 pm

This thread is FUCKING STUDLY!!!

700+

[Cuss words shouldn’t be a problem past 500 or so comments, right? Kids don’t stay up that late.]

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Robespierre 03.03.15 at 3:52 pm

Ok. So a self-professed communist has to get to communism by going through a stage of what he calls State capitalism (and despotism, not that it matters). The country then remains stuck in this stage until it returns to some forms of non-planned-economy capitalism. The same thing happens every single time this is tried. Maybe it’s a good reason not to try it anymore.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 4:27 pm

So, the Noble Lie as presented here is delivered with a fair amount of hedging. Plato seems to be saying that if a child of the ruling classes is a dullard or otherwise somewhat deficient he/she can be kicked down a rung (to the warrior class) or two (to the craftsmen & farmer class.) It’s not clear to me if Plato means to say that a particularly brilliant child of farmers is going to have a shot at joining the ruling class–but I sort of doubt it.

Point being, Plato’s vision is fundamentally NOT meritocratic. It’s called a ‘Noble Lie’ because it is conducive to social order, not because it has factual merit.

I am rather fond of sports metaphors myself though many on the left are not. My basic position is that meritocracy as an idea is sound. How it would be implemented is another question entirely, and subject to obvious complications and perils.

And part of the beauty of sports metaphors is that they have strong elements of both traditional right & left thinking. Example: if a member of your baseball team is a terrible batter there is a presumption against that player offering advice on hitting and he/she is likely going to get a “STFU” if they do. And when choosing a captain for the team the qualities which make for a good leader are a combination of proficiency at the game and communication skills. But at the same time there are many instances of great coaches who were not great players but who had both uncommon ability to communicate combined with keen observation and understanding of the game. The bottom line in sports is, ‘can you perform your particular role with excellence?’

Simultaneously, a lefty theme brought to life by sports is that the team is valued above the individual player. From today’s NYT coverage of Rangers-Predators NHL game:

“A player is only as good as his teammates, and I have a lot of help here,” Zuccarello said after his linemates Rick Nash and Derick Brassard turned in a strong performance.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 4:27 pm

Robespierre @704,

Come on. This isn’t rocket science.

Aside from the fact that we don’t agree on what “it” is, when you try “it” in 1917, in a Russia which is a century or so behind most of Europe, economically, you’re going to have markedly different results than if you tried “it” in any “advanced” economy. By definition. You actually don’t need to resort to state capitalism in the first place, or ban democracy, etc. etc.

Basically, if a nation is already producing a surplus, allocating that surplus is far easier than allocating scarcity. If you have 50 apples and 10 people, each person gets a nice bunch of five apples. If you have 5 apples and 10 people, you have a problem.

A million variations on that analogy, from a barely surviving farm to a farm that produces abundance, etc. You’re going to get entirely different results when you implement “it,” depending upon context.

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Luke 03.03.15 at 4:41 pm

“Point being, Plato’s vision is fundamentally NOT meritocratic. It’s called a ‘Noble Lie’ because it is conducive to social order, not because it has factual merit.”

Exactly. What is merit? A word. Like ‘intelligence’. Whe have ‘intelligence tests’ which test people’s abiliy to perform intelligence tests and declare the result a scientific test of intelligence.

Life is not a sport. You can’t have winners without declaring that something constitutes victory. I society dedicated to merit is in the thrall of whoever gets to decide what merit is.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 4:41 pm

Mattski @705,

That’s a well-written and thoughtful post.

I like sports metaphors, too. As for “meritocracy,” yeah, it seems fantastic on the surface. But, under the surface, it’s kind of like this:

The best athletes compete for a spot on pick-your-sport. This seems more than fair. But for many (perhaps even most) of those sports, it costs a great deal of money to get started, train, have access to the best teachers, nutrition, equipment, travel, etc. etc. So you end up already narrowing the field of athletes competing for those spots. Not only are you likely to leave behind truly gifted athletes already proving themselves in forgotten venues, but a far greater number of people will never have the chance to even know they could be great athletes. They’ll never have access to the right training, equipment, nutrition, travel, etc. etc. to even begin to tap into their potential.

In many ways, “meritocracy” is just a rationalization of privilege to begin with. It reminds me of how in many countries, in Feudal times and beyond, the various aristocracies could literally look down on the peasants because they were much taller, due to better nutrition and health care. This just reinforced their (highly selective) selection process and their leaving peasants out of the reindeer games of life.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 5:14 pm

Luke,

Life is not a sport.

Well, hold on a second. In some respects it most definitely IS a sport! In other respects, not so much. So, there are many areas of life where performance is measurable. Two carpenters on the job have different levels of skill and different levels of productivity. Two doctors have different success rates and different peer-review ratings (I’m not saying these are definitive, but they aren’t irrelevant either.) Some teachers are more talented (and love their work more) than others. I would say it’s foolish to dispute this. And unproductive. We want our teachers to be good at what they do.

You’re quite right to suggest that there are plenty of areas of life that are not like sports. And fundamentally, to use a cliche, how we treat the least fortunate among us is how we define the kind of society we ARE. So most of us left-leaning sorts are firmly of a mind that we don’t want people with average or less than average endowments to live deprived, undignified lives. That, to me, is a political decision that needs to be made by society as a whole.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 5:18 pm

Plume,

In many ways, “meritocracy” is just a rationalization of privilege to begin with.

Well, I think I would say that it could be as you describe but it need not be. I don’t think a perfect equality of opportunity is attainable, but I agree that it can and should be much improved.

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Anon 03.03.15 at 6:06 pm

mattski @687

“Is it really viable to write a treatise about the ideal society and then add an asterisk saying well don’t take me literally?!”

Sure, it’s weird, but I always assumed it was intentional sleight of hand: his audience is the publically minded Greeks who want big, political, practical solutions, not moral sermonizing. So he sneaks his moral teachings into what at first looks like it will be political wonkery of the sort they can’t resist.

But he’s not adding an asterisk. He announces early that the discussion of the city is a means to the end of defining justice:

“I think we should employ the method of search that we should use if we, with not very keen vision, were bidden to read small letters from a distance, and then someone had observed that these same letters exist elsewhere larger and on a larger surface….there is a justice of one man, we say, and, I suppose, also of an entire city…. Is not the city larger1 than the man?…. Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend.” (368d-e)

And he closes the discussion of the city with a description of the just person as *non-political* and explicitly declares the city a kindgom of ends, a moral ideal:

“He will look at the city which is within him…. he will not be a statesman…. he will be a ruler in the city of which we are the founders, and which exists in idea only; for I do not believe that there is such an one anywhere on earth… In heaven, I replied, there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or ever will exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other.” (592b)

Mattski:
“The words that ring in my ears are Socrates, ‘It’s the business of rulers to rule and of everyone else to obey.'”

Of course, Socrates only uses terms in the strictest sense, so this explicitly means: it is the business of *truly just* rulers (i.e., rulers who create truly just laws) to rule, and it is our moral obligation to obey them *only because* they are truly just. It’s analytically true: it is our moral duty to obey morality. This is also why the non-existence of the ideal city isn’t a problem. A just person lives in it, whether it exists or not.

The city is a thought experiment: what deductively follows from the *pure concept* of a perfectly just state? And playing by the rules of the experiment (No, you can’t drive a car in front of the trolley instead of pushing the fat man), it’s not authoritarian. In an ideally (conceptually, logically, thus impossibly) perfect state, not only are rulers and laws perfect, but the other classes *recognize* it’s so and *voluntarily, freely* obey because they acknowledge the rulers and laws are in fact just.

The noble lie is a problematic feature: Plato plays with both the strictly ideal version of the city and the possible transition from the non-ideal to the ideal. The noble lie serves the possible transition between the two.

I’d argue it’s supposed to be “noble” not just in the sense of being good for the city as a whole but not really being a true “lie”, but an anticipatory truth: the people really are golds, silvers, and bronzes, but raised in an imperfect city, they don’t realize it. In a (remember conceptually, by hypothesis) perfect city, each person would be placed in the function they’re really suited to and be entirely perfectly happy in that function because it corresponds to their true nature. So the “lie” is to get them into their place, where they then realize it’s their true place and are happy. In a truly just city, then, the noble lie would no longer be necessary.

But of course, the real “noble lie” is the city itself , the belief that the kingdom of ends could exist on earth rather than just in ethical intention and practice.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 6:12 pm

A word about hierarchy:

There are many forms of hierarchy. Some forms are more attractive than others, but when it gets down to the brass tacks of getting things done hierarchy extremely useful. This is illustrated, for example, by a phenomenon we’re quite familiar with, CT comment threads. Were it not for the ability of the author of the OP to moderate comments, delete comments or ban commentators… the threads would often degenerate it into shit shows.

Another aspect of hierarchy is that it can be both voluntary and provisional. So, people naturally defer to others when there is a clear disparity in proficiency. This implies that any particular person can be granted high status in some areas and low status in others. This is reminiscent of the Socratic ideal of rule “by the one who knows.” The only glitch on Socrates–and it’s sort of a HUGE glitch–is that Socrates wasn’t talking about specific disciplines like the art of Greek pottery, or the art of war making. He was talking about over-arching political rule. And in that I think he (and Plato) were completely mistaken about what qualities make for good political leadership. IOW, whether or not a given individual is a farmer, a craftsman, a soldier or a politician has very little to do with whether they have good character or a generous heart.

And among hierarchies benefits, when a person gains very high status through extraordinary proficiency they also gain influence which can be used for good purposes. A favorite example comes to mind (name that speaker!)–

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

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Anon 03.03.15 at 6:12 pm

P.S., is the ideal city a meritocracy?

If “meritocracy” means the best person for the job gets the job, then yes.
If “meritocracy” means that each gets what they morally deserve, then I don’t think so. The perfect city isn’t about “moral desert” in that sense–indeed, it’s beyond desert. In a world that’s perfect “trying” and “meaning well” don’t exist, so there’s no real desert.

I think this applies to Marx’s idea of true communism, too: it envisages material conditions where we no longer need to “keep score,” so “merit” is, like “reciprocity”, an irrelevant category.

The morality of merit is a symptom of, not a solution to, injustice.

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mattski 03.03.15 at 6:22 pm

Anon,

Appreciate your thoughtful remarks. Will respond later.

[A plea to CT to leave comments open!]

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Luke 03.03.15 at 6:55 pm

“The morality of merit is a symptom of, not a solution to, injustice.”

I think I can agree with this.

” So most of us left-leaning sorts are firmly of a mind that we don’t want people with average or less than average endowments to live deprived, undignified lives.”

Again: define ‘less than average endowment’. There is no universal scale of competence, only suitablity for a particular task in a particular context. I doubt your average investment banker would actually fare very well in the jungle.

I think it’s very dangerous to accept an (implicity moralised) notion of merit. Not only because it allows us to create categories of the ‘unfit’ without considering the social context (there is a whole literature on the construction of ‘disability’ and its relation to e.g. capitalism and the evolution of urban infrastructure), but because this categorisation is contagious and leads to moralising condescension. To go back to intelligence testing: the original purpose was basically eugenic. IQ tests were there to weed out the ‘feebleminded’, not to place everyone on a scale. Except then Americans discovered IQ tests and immediately developed a mania for them.

One of the important things about Marx, I think, is his refusal of the discourse of charity. Demonstrating that the ‘less well endowed’ were in general nothing of the sort, but rather placed in their position by structural factors. For me, being a socialist means absolutely discarding the bourgeois idea of rights and charity. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in helping the less fortunate: it means I refuse to categorise people according to the morality of the ruling class. Once you’ve decided that the working class doesn’t //deserve// anything except for reasons of higher moral purpose (charity, human rights), the political terrain comes down to how charitable we are all feeling (not very, increasingly).

re: hierarchy, remember that ancient Athens had this quaint thing called ‘democracy’. Magistrates (juries), for example, were selected by lot from the whole citizen body. Simply being a citizen qualified someone (subject to scrutiny) for a temporary position of authority. So, you have authority, but not (ideally) hierarchy.

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Plume 03.03.15 at 7:49 pm

Luke,

On that charity thing. Yes, it’s incredibly precarious, and more and more of it is showing other cultural divides and tribalism. Churches receive a disproportionate amount of it, and some use that “charity” to pursue things like blocking marriage equality.

And I love this quote from Chinua Achebe:

While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.

― Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

This is similar to the existence of welfare states. If the economy performed as it should, no welfare state would be needed. I doubt most people see this. But, to me, it’s self-evident. If the economy allocated resources in a fair and efficient manner — and this should be its purpose — there is no need for a welfare state. I think we’ve grown all too used to the idea of the system being subsidized, bailed out, propped up, and we don’t view this as a failure of that system. We tend to view it as the norm. To me, that’s crazy — to accept that norm.

If, for example, an individual business could never make ends meet, and was forever in need of bailouts, could never handle its own payroll, and always had to go hat in hand, begging for help . . . . No one would see it as “successful.” It probably wouldn’t last, either. But in the aggregate, this is what our system requires, without pause. It has never, ever, even during our one and only middle class boom period (1947-1973), managed to allocate resources, wealth, income and access in any kind of remotely fair or adequate manner. It always shorts large percentages of the nation — with billions left behind worldwide.

That’s just no way to run a railroad.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.03.15 at 10:03 pm

Well, here ya go: Cuba has the last best coral reef in the Carribean, because communism stifled development:
http://e360.yale.edu/slideshow/along_cubas_coast_the_last_best_coral_reef_in_the_caribbean_thrives/426/2/

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mattski 03.03.15 at 10:47 pm

Luke,

Again: define ‘less than average endowment’. There is no universal scale of competence,

It isn’t necessary to have a definition of competence or proficiency to notice that people are differently endowed. Ironically, I.F. Stone, in his book The Trial of Socrates, shows how Plato & Socrates used the impossibility of arriving at universal definitions to push their elitist agenda. It’s a red herring.

I think it’s very dangerous to accept an (implicity moralised) notion of merit.

If I understand you correctly it’s the moralizing part that you object to more so than the merit part. If so, then I don’t think the problem is with the notion of competence. You agree, don’t you, that all teachers are not equal in talent or effectiveness? Perhaps you agree that there should be a means of firing highly ineffective teachers? Is it objectionable to reward highly effective teachers with some sort of incentive pay? At the level of theory anyway?

Once you’ve decided that the working class doesn’t //deserve// anything except for reasons of higher moral purpose (charity, human rights), the political terrain comes down to how charitable we are all feeling.

This seems like strong priors you’re bringing to the discussion. I don’t think I’ve written anything that justifies it.

Re Athenian democracy I’m basically in agreement with you. I’d say that in the case of filling public offices by lot it’s not that this eliminates hierarchy but that hierarchy is rotated and shared. (Related: I wrote above that at it’s best hierarchy is provisional, so that you have higher status on questions within your area(s) of expertise and lower status in other areas. Same for everyone else.)

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hix 03.03.15 at 11:18 pm

The newest fad is to replace iq with stress resistance as inequality legitimation myth. That one is brilliant because the level of stress is strongly correlated to ones position in the social hierarchy. Thus the ones that already are on top now have self fulfilling defined that they deserve their spot.

My personal favourite is divine right.

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Peter T 03.03.15 at 11:36 pm

“To go back to intelligence testing: the original purpose was basically eugenic. IQ tests were there to weed out the ‘feebleminded’, not to place everyone on a scale.”

From my reading, Binet devised the test to identify those who needed a bit of extra help: special classes, extra attention, that sort of thing.

How we got from that idea to using it to slot some into the lower ranks maybe illustrates why communism remains a good idea.

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Plume 03.04.15 at 12:02 am

Something I’d like to see discussed:

If we ever got to the right-libertarian (propertarian) udopia, its night watchman state, how many would die as a result? If the Bretts and Ron Pauls and the Murray Rothbards of this world got their way, how high would their own “pile of skulls” go?

Most of the deaths attributed to Mao were due to famine. Estimates vary, but it’s in the 30-45 million range. There is also debate about the exact causes, and how much can directly be attributed to his policies. But most agree those policies contributed mightily to the totals. Stalin had similar ghastly famines, but with a bit lower overall tallies. In both cases, the horror was close to unimaginable.

America has (roughly) between 35-50 million people living in poverty right now, depending upon how this is calculated. It’s not a stretch at all to say that any change over to a night-watchman state would also result in mass famine, among other murderous effects. That propertarian state would also mean the end of government assistance for the poor, no more food stamps, no more medicaid or any other kind of assistance with health care. They would all be on their own. How many would die in the first few months, the first year, the first decade?

Given the complexities of the modern economy, its tight integration, its ripple effects, I’d guess Stalin and Mao’s totals would be surpassed in the first few years. And this doesn’t even factor in the huge likelihood that the night-watchman state would also send tens of millions of (formerly) middle class workers into poverty, as there would no longer be any restrictions for minimal pay standards or any workplace standards whatsoever. Employers could pay and do whatever they wanted. It’s highly doubtful that the numbers of the poor would remain the same. They would skyrocket, and they would be left without any safety net.

Again, I’d be interested in CT’s thoughts about the likely results of such a shift.

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Luke 03.04.15 at 12:11 am

@Peter T
That’s fascinating. My understanding of intelligence testing comes from reading about eugenics, and is doubtless skewed.

@mattski
“You agree, don’t you, that all teachers are not equal in talent or effectiveness?”

Yes, with the proviso that ‘teaching’ is not a simple task. What constitutes good teaching? Running kids through the standardised-testing mill, enforcing discipline, and encouraging critical thought or creativity are all different tasks, not to mention all the institutional and social contexts that go into education. When someone says ‘I support quility teaching’, they could mean many different things. Which means that any mention of a person’s skill at teaching is already laden with ideological baggage.

I’m certainly not accusing you of being some kind of chauvinist; I just think that the idea of merit is pernicious. Here’s a somewhat related anecdote: I heard a talk last year by a woman (her name eludes me) who spcialised in metrics. This was all about ‘big data’ and so forth, mostly with reference to marketing.

One of the things she said was that she had done some work with a certain university’s admissions office with the aim of ‘algorithmically’ enhancing the admissions process. Using big data, they could work out which aspects of a student’s data ‘profile’ correlated with academic success, and tweak the admissions process based on those factors.

Hard to argue with, at least in theory. Also, horrifying.

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Luke 03.04.15 at 12:17 am

@Plume
Well, I doubt you’d see too many megadeaths in this day and age, but who knows. Mike Davis’ ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ is essential reading if you’re interested in this issue. Privatisation and free trade policies in British India contributed to the deaths of tens of millions, for example, but the reality of mass starvations was and is complex, with lots of intersecting issues.

724

Plume 03.04.15 at 12:52 am

Luke,

I mentioned the Late Victorian Holocaust in a previous thread on Marxism.

As for the likely deaths this time, remember, we’re talking about a minarchist/night watchman society in place. That means no welfare state, no safety net. Who is going to help the victims of starvation? And, again, overall rank and file wages for those lucky enough to have a job are likely to be far lower than they are now — even after forty plus years of stagnation. There won’t be a lot of disposable cash for charity.

No floors for wages. Skyrocketing inequality. The regulatory apparatus on all levels of commerce would be shredded. Virtually no public support systems in place. I can’t see how mass deaths would be avoided.

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Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 1:13 am

“Most of the deaths attributed to Mao were due to famine. Estimates vary, but it’s in the 30-45 million range. There is also debate about the exact causes, and how much can directly be attributed to his policies. But most agree those policies contributed mightily to the totals. Stalin had similar ghastly famines, but with a bit lower overall tallies. In both cases, the horror was close to unimaginable.”

Yes, ‘famine’ is a traditional method for totalitarians to kill their enemies.

726

John Holbo 03.04.15 at 1:18 am

Brett,

I am still waiting for a defense of the claim you need: for all X, such that X is a belief in communism, X causes murder.

But in the meantime let me say I find your historicist approach a bit odd. You act impatient that people don’t admit something.

Exactly what is it you think other participants in this thread don’t know about the gulag or the Cambodian killing fields? Or is it a case of you thinking they know well enough but are inclined to lie about it for malicious purposes? Or wishful purposes? What is it you think people are missing?

I think ultimately what you need them to admit is the thing I said above: for all X, such that X is a belief in communism, X causes murder. But, if you want them to accept that, you should argue for it somehow.

727

Plume 03.04.15 at 1:59 am

John @726,

That is well put. Simple. Direct. To the point. Brett wants something from us. But he’s totally unwilling to make a case for it beyond “communism leads to a pile of skulls because communism leads to a pile of skulls.”

And, of course, he refuses to deal with the fact that his beloved capitalism has produced a pile of skulls many, many times greater than all the Stalins and Maos combined — and this number grows by the millions each year. Still. Now. In 2015.

And, unlike Brett, I’ve actually demonstrated why this is the case, based upon the internal logic of capitalism. He’s never even attempted to demonstrate any logical reason why baseline communism, mutualism, commonism or whatever one might call it, could possibly lead to his skulls and his gulags.

After all the requests for him to do so, and his complete avoidance of any attempt, it’s more than reasonable to call this cased closed. He doesn’t have one.

728

Sebastian H 03.04.15 at 2:37 am

“Exactly what is it you think other participants in this thread don’t know about the gulag or the Cambodian killing fields? Or is it a case of you thinking they know well enough but are inclined to lie about it for malicious purposes? Or wishful purposes? What is it you think people are missing?”

People are good at self-delusion. Smart people are especially good at self-delusion.

“I am still waiting for a defense of the claim you need: for all X, such that X is a belief in communism, X causes murder. “

As usual you win through definition. How about this? It isn’t the belief. It is through the implementation. It is through the wishful thinking about how humans operate. It is through the naive treatment of power dynamics IN the proletariat. It is through the focus on universalism and forced prostelyting (which caused the worst abuses in Christianity too). Attempts to implement communism on large scales causes murder because the philosophy doesn’t deal well with the fact that its ‘good guys’ might not always be so good.

729

Hector_St_Clare 03.04.15 at 2:43 am

Where were the famines in Cuba, Brett? How about in Yugoslavia? Or for that matter, present-day Belarus?

730

mattski 03.04.15 at 2:44 am

Anon,

I have to say you seem to be speculating quite a bit about what Plato “really meant.” That’s my impression. I’m not in a terribly good position to say for sure. But take this for example,

his audience is the publically minded Greeks who want big, political, practical solutions, not moral sermonizing.

Is this justified? Seems to me the ancient Greeks loved philosophy, and that would include moral philosophy. But further, I don’t see where the distinction you’re drawing between politics and moral philosophy obtains. What is the point of discussing moral philosophy except to promulgate a moral society?

So the “lie” is to get them into their place, where they then realize it’s their true place and are happy.

Sounds like an endorsement of a caste system.

The morality of merit is a symptom of, not a solution to, injustice.

If you meant to say ‘scarcity’ instead of injustice I think I would understand what you mean by this. I guess I don’t even know what is meant by the phrase, ‘morality of merit.’ I don’t see a necessary connection between the two.

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John Holbo 03.04.15 at 3:08 am

Sebastian H, “People are good at self-delusion. Smart people are especially good at self-delusion.”

Sorry, is this the thing that allegedly you (and Brett and co.) know, which others don’t know, and which you are informing us is a fact? If so: I think I had some strong suspicions in this regard even before this thread!

If the point is that the combination of ‘people are good at self-delusion’ plus ‘the gulag was really bad’ = everyone except Sebastian and Brett are wrong in this thread, then I’m not seeing it.

I hope the point isn’t just: people are good at self-delusion, ergo probably everyone except Bett and Sebastian are deluded. Because, after all, I hope you are people, too!

“It isn’t the belief. It is through the implementation. It is through the wishful thinking about how humans operate.”

First of all this requires the near complete retraction of all the stuff you’ve said about how you can’t distinguish the belief from the implementation. Re: communism, to belief is to attempt murder is to murder. This is Brett’s whole deal, and you too are very inclined to disallow any formulation of belief apart from implementation.

Second, how are you sure people are engaging in wishful thinking? Where is the evidence, in this thread, that someone is proposing something that won’t work, or will lead to Cambodian killing fields? If you are just making the point that people are probably confused, because they always are, then it follows that communists are probably confused because they are people. But never forget: anti-communists are people, too! (Don’t dehumanize the anti-communist opposition, Sebastian! That sort of thing leads to gulags.)

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Plume 03.04.15 at 6:00 am

Sebastion H @728,

I agree. People are very good at self-delusion. Smart people, too. And people steeped in a particular system (capitalism) are especially good at ignoring the monstrosity inherent in that system, because it’s theirs, and go team go.

Capitalism was “implemented” too. By extreme force. And the people who ended up doing so weren’t those nice men in Scotland, sitting in their nice chairs, before their nice fires, chatting about how political economy would work in theory. They were mostly brutes who enslaved whole populations, extended the life of slavery in places like the United States, and expanded and extended that slavery all across the globe. They were mostly brutes who forced native peoples to die on rubber plantations, for instance, collecting natural resources so a few capitalists could get rich back in Europe and America. And they were mostly brutes who felt threatened enough by alternatives to their capitalist system to make sure politicians waged war to destroy those alternatives. Tens upon hundreds of millions died due to the forced implementation of capitalism from Europe, to North & South America to Africa to India to Indonesia and most recently Russia. And they’re still dying. They’re still dying.

And if it’s a matter of not taking “human nature” into consideration, then consider the fact that human beings lived in communal arrangements for their first 250,000 years on this planet, at least, and that if anything could be said to be “natural,” it’s that. It’s living communally, not at the beck and call of a CEO. It’s not “natural” to have your economic destiny in the hands of people in some office a thousand miles away.

In short, you haven’t made your case and you, like Brett and his fellow lovers of capitalism, which has murdered and enslaved more human beings than any other “ism” in world history, are in denial about that and always will be.

733

Sebastian H 03.04.15 at 7:31 am

“Re: communism, to belief is to attempt murder is to murder.”

I don’t believe I’ve said anything like that in the thread. Could you quote what gave that impression? You give lots of strict attention to hyper-narrow definitions of ‘communism’, going so far as to exclude the majority of what has been called communism in history, but give rather loose interpretations of what I say in the discussion. I’m pretty sure even Brett hasn’t said that, but let’s stick to me. Where did I say that? People can have lots of beliefs that don’t cause harm until they try to put them into actions. (See anti-vaxxers, climate change denialists, and communists). I have repeatedly said that communism (the actual philosophical/economic approach, not communism=every nice thing anyone ever does for anyone else) has some weaknesses which lend itself to the nasty things which are closely correlated with people who call themselves communists gaining high levels of societal power. I’ve even identified what I believe some of them to be. I’m not certain that I’m correct in identifying where the weaknesses are, but I’ve made an attempt. Which by the way I haven’t seen you address while you’re ascribing things to me that I don’t remember saying and which don’t feel to me like they were central to my argument.

“Second, how are you sure people are engaging in wishful thinking? Where is the evidence, in this thread, that someone is proposing something that won’t work, or will lead to Cambodian killing fields?”

Well Plume is suggesting all sorts of things that won’t work. And frankly Plume’s blind spots actually strike me as the kind of thing likely to lead to Cambodian killing fields but there we are.

“If you are just making the point that people are probably confused, because they always are, then it follows that communists are probably confused because they are people. But never forget: anti-communists are people, too!”

Quite! Probably one of the best exercises you can do is examine what you could be wrong about. But one of the ways that you check is by looking at how things work out in the real world–an examination you are extremely resistant to with communism. The correlation between gaining a good deal of power as a communist and gulag-or-worse outcomes is tighter than you’d expect. When Cuba and its relentless work-camping of homosexuals for decades is one of the better large scale outcomes you can point to, you’re not doing well. One of the reasons religions sometimes take such nasty turns is because they are highly resistant to accurately assessing what happens when their beliefs intersect with the real world. Communism functioned like that in the 20th century.

Plume tries to escape this by no-true-Scotsman labeling. But eventually even that won’t work. Communism seems to attract a lot of particularly nasty false Scotsman.

John, your response seems to be “but the ideals are nice”. The ideals as defined by you aren’t really my flavor, but I sort of see what you’re saying. The problem is that you might be drawing the ideals a bit too abstractly–you’re cutting out lots of stuff which actual communists think are important and at the level of abstraction you use it is difficult to differentiate the communist end point from lots of other endpoints (Nazis didn’t mind the state owning the means of production for example). You’re also making a rather sharp artificial distinction between ends and means. The lack of class structures is central to the communist ideal, so the dissolution of class is rather important to its means.

This is where your power of stipulation comes in. Like a policeman’s power to arrest or a prosecutor’s power to charge, an academic’s power to stipulate is subject to abuse. The reason academics are supposed to stipulate is so that they can make what they are talking about clearer and more precise. But if you use a common word and then stipulate away a large part of the common usage, you run a high risk of confusing things rather than shedding light on them. It isn’t ‘cheeky’ to abuse it any more than a cop interviewing only black men is cheeky. It is misleading or foolish or confused or something worse. (Some cops are clearly racist. But lots of other cops develop blind spots because of the institutions they inhabit). If you don’t want to include class and means of production in your discussion you really shouldn’t call what you want to talk about ‘communism’. If you want to talk about ‘nearly every good thing people do for each other ever without using money, including stuff libertarians and religious people do’ you don’t need to call that ‘communism’.

You have the power of stipulation. Why be misleading with it?

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Peter T 03.04.15 at 8:00 am

Is sebastian’s and Brett’s objection to communism philosophical or empirical? It seems empirical (roughly, maybe the ideals are okay, but in practice….). But there’s no serious comparative examination of the record of communist governments. As I said upthread, at this stage we have roughly 700 plus country years of communism. Can Brett and sebastian nominate – for ease of calculation – 7 non-communist countries where we can check 100 years of history for each (not too much cherry-picking please, so not 7 Sweden equivalents) for a rough skull count?

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Robespierre 03.04.15 at 8:35 am

How about the seven most populous Latin American countries?
Just noting, however, limiting them to 7 countries makes the examined history longer. In general, the more far back, the bloodier and more barbarous, at least in relative terms.
Brazil’s case, interestingly, may go back far enough to count an anti-vax riot.

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John Holbo 03.04.15 at 9:43 am

Sebastian: “But one of the ways that you check is by looking at how things work out in the real world–an examination you are extremely resistant to with communism.”

What have I said in this thread that seems to you empirically naive? I really try very hard not to be empirically naive about this stuff.

“You have the power of stipulation. Why be misleading with it?”

How have I been misleading? You seem to be suggesting that it’s arbitrary to include bad stuff when you are trying to specify normative ideals. But it seems to me the reason for doing so is pretty clear: in formulating a normative ideal, you should exclude the bad stuff.

“But if you use a common word and then stipulate away a large part of the common usage, you run a high risk of confusing things rather than shedding light on them.”

The common notion of ‘communism’ is that it is a nightmare of piled-up skulls. Are you seriously suggesting that, in formulating communism as a normative ideal, I have to say it is a nightmare of piled-up skulls. What would be the point of that apparently very misleading construction? (If I did that, I would end up as confused as Brett, surely!)

“I don’t believe I’ve said anything like that in the thread. Could you quote what gave that impression?”

Certainly. This is the stuff I have been attributing to you going back to 648. A great deal that you say in the thread seems to make no sense unless you are read as defining ‘communism’ to mean: nothing good.

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Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 10:44 am

“But he’s totally unwilling to make a case for it beyond “communism leads to a pile of skulls because communism leads to a pile of skulls.””

See, I’m an engineer, and as such, an empiricist. The job of an engineer is, essentially, to make things work, and we get kind of focused on the question of whether something actually works.

As such, it doesn’t matter to me how good a theory sounds to you, if every time I follow the recipe I end up with an explosion, I file the recipe under “Explosives”, and don’t mix it up unless an explosion is wanted. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t investigate it under controlled circumstances, if it was an interesting explosion. (“Hey, where did all that energy come from?”)

This doesn’t mean I won’t try new things, or that everything I try has to be known in advance to work. You don’t advance the field working like that.

But, as an engineer, I frequently design stuff where, if it ‘blows up’, people will die. And, if I insist on trying a theory over and over, even though it leads to deaths, I get prosecuted for murder, and “According to my lovely theory, it shouldn’t do that!” wouldn’t work as a defense.

I don’t see why theorists of communism should expect more forgiving treatment. Give it up, and start investigating theories that don’t reliably cause explosions. Or propose a controlled experiment with a design that prevents the explosion from killing people.

But stop just pretending you’re not talking about a recipe for making a bomb, or that your intuition that it shouldn’t explode is some kind of defense after the first couple of explosions.

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John Holbo 03.04.15 at 10:55 am

“See, I’m an engineer, and as such, an empiricist.”

I don’t see a lot of evidence for that, Brett. The empiricist part. And that’s why I keep asking for something like an empiricist defense of your thesis: for all x, such that x is a belief that communism, x causes murder (or x is literally a bomb that blows up and kills people.) You are an engineer. Well and good. You want to analogize communism to engineering. Well and good. You need something pretty damn rigorous at this point. If not that, then all you have is a loose metaphor. If someone wants to say about the Communist Manifesto that it’s a ‘bomb’ that blew up, killing people, I’m ok with that. I like poetry. But if someone asks you for an analysis of the philosophy articulated in the Communist Manifesto and you say it’s a blueprint for a bomb, that is just a wrong analysis. Do you have anything besides loose metaphors or wrong analysis to contribute to the discussion?

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Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 11:29 am

” And that’s why I keep asking for something like an empiricist defense of your thesis: for all x, such that x is a belief that communism, x causes murder “

And I have already stated that “belief” doesn’t cause murder, implementation does. So you’re asking me for an empiricist defense of a proposition I not only haven’t advanced, but have repudiated. I’m kind of curious why you keep making this absurd demand.

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John Holbo 03.04.15 at 11:47 am

“And I have already stated that “belief” doesn’t cause murder, implementation does.”

And I have already stated that this works for sensible people, but I don’t think you can be accused of falling into that category. Your view is that communism is not a belief but a kind of tendency to murder. You resist the notion that it can be intellectually specified apart from that tendency.

“I’m kind of curious why you keep making this absurd demand.”

Absurd claims call forth absurd demands. If there’s no way for you to meet the absurd demands, it would seem like a good idea to withdraw the claims that lead to them, no?

If it helps, I will restrict myself to a weaker demand (although I regard this as loading the dice in your favor – something I have done on more than one occasion in this thread, not that you have thanked me for it!) Take something like the Occupy movement. Not communism, but a kind of impulse to egalitarianism and anarchism. Not very philosophically focused. But dear to Graeber’s heart, and arguably the sort of thing he wants his Baseline Communism to feed into. Do you think it is impossible for something like the Occupy Movement to lead to anything but Cambodian Killing Fields or the Gulag Archipelago? This is just a truth of ‘engineering’? You seem to be saying this and it seems to me absurd. If you are not saying this, then why do you keep saying ‘gulag gulag gulag’, or the equivalent, as though it proved something about ‘engineering’?

I suppose it’s worth mentioning for the umpteenth time. I’m not myself a communist, nor really a supporter of Occupy, although I have decided sympathies in that direction. But it seems to me grossly unfair – to say the least – to say they’re just a bunch of would-be murderers. And leave it at that. As though that said it all. The notion that leaving it at that is empirically rigorous … I literally don’t even know how you could think that.

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Layman 03.04.15 at 12:16 pm

Sebastian H @ 732

“When Cuba and its relentless work-camping of homosexuals for decades is one of the better large scale outcomes you can point to, you’re not doing well. “

If legal treatment of homosexuals is the standard you’ll use to judge the history of forms of government, I’m afraid you won’t find much to choose from.

That aside, I wonder how Cuba would have done without 50 years of hostility and isolation? I confess I don’t know. But then, you don’t, either.

742

Robespierre 03.04.15 at 12:39 pm

Maybe it would have had to pay for its oil, or sell its sugar at normal world prices. Who knows?

743

Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 12:46 pm

“Your view is that communism is not a belief but a kind of tendency to murder. You resist the notion that it can be intellectually specified apart from that tendency.”

No, rather explicitly no. My view is that communism is, in implementation, murder, and that this has been well enough known for most of a century that anybody who proposes implementing it should be regarded as aspiring to murder.

It’s not quite the same as communists being aspriring murderers, because they might not go looking for other ways to kill people if thwarted in implementing communism. But they are functionally aspiring murders in the domain of politics. If not in the domain of carving knives.

Now, I do regard “that” communism has this result as being rather more important than “why” communism has this result. Being an empiricist. But I have a theory.

Communists want to construct a society based exclusively on mutualism. But humans are not exclusively mutualist. Humans are not willing to be exclusively mutualist, outside of rather restricted circumstances. So, in its Procrustian way, communism sets out to make humans into what they are not, and a lot of cutting and stretching is involved.

Humans aren’t eusocial organisms. “Nice theory, wrong species.” Trying to force us to live as though we were involves, necessarily, a lot of coercion, up to and including murder.

744

mattski 03.04.15 at 12:58 pm

That aside, I wonder how Cuba would have done without 50 years of hostility and isolation?

It certainly was considerate of the CIA to try to murder/topple Castro on behalf of organized crime.

745

mattski 03.04.15 at 1:02 pm

Brett 742

Not to toot my own horn too much but I think my Commie-town thought experiment takes a lot of the air out of your tires. Imagine communism as the raisins in a loaf of bread: Poof! It’s voluntary.

746

mattski 03.04.15 at 1:03 pm

DEPARTMENT OF STARRY-EYED LONGING

…I see 800 on the horizon…

747

Rich Puchalsky 03.04.15 at 1:14 pm

Peter T: “But there’s no serious comparative examination of the record of communist governments. “

The elephant in the room is that the current #2 most powerful country in the world is China, an officially Communist state. Since Mao there haven’t particularly been mass deaths there that I know of. But the reason it hasn’t been talked about is because the advocates of “communism” have already staked out positions by which it is variously described as state capitalist or authoritarian and not an example of what they’re talking about. Essentially, the “USSR wasn’t real communism” thing covers China too and can’t be retracted without calling a lot of falsified history into question.

748

Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 1:25 pm

“Not to toot my own horn too much but I think my Commie-town thought experiment takes a lot of the air out of your tires.”

My tires have mostly to do with what communists do when they can do what they want. What they do when they’re closely watched by non-communists, is more a matter of “theme-park communism”, which I don’t have any objections to.

Might learn something from watching it fall apart under controlled circumstances.

749

Rich Puchalsky 03.04.15 at 1:34 pm

JH: “Do you think it is impossible for something like the Occupy Movement to lead to anything but Cambodian Killing Fields or the Gulag Archipelago? “

Geez, I write about Occupy ad nauseum, inviting the scorn and derision of other commenters. But it finally gets brought up as another stupid reply to Brett?

The actual reaction of Brett to Occupy, along with every other right-winger, was that the police were right in shutting it down. In Brett’s case this took the form of a defense of government-owned public space, which would be risible in an anarcho-capitalist if anarcho-capitalism was an actual thing.

In actual fact, as I’ve been saying ad nauseum etc., the rise and fall of Occupy has a lot of lessons for would-be communalists. (All right, one more time.) Someone could make an intelligent attack on or defense of some aspects of small-scale communalism by looking at what actually happened not back in the 19th or even 20th century but in 2011. But people here aren’t really interested in that.

750

mattski 03.04.15 at 1:44 pm

But people here aren’t really interested in that.

I think that’s too strong a statement, Rich. I have first-hand experience (previously mentioned co-op board) with cooperative forms which only reinforced my skepticism. Brett’s broadsides are crude enough that I think they should be challenged. But, like JH, I don’t think communism is a good idea and I agree with Brett that cooperative systems tend to break down.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.04.15 at 1:45 pm

Little-mentioned here is that the US, the “most capitalist”, has more people in prison per capita than any other capitalist state. And they’re no always treated too well. And that (as Plume noted above) the initiation of the “total market system” (K. Polanyi’s phrase), i.e. the land enclosures and “primitive accumulation” (a euphemism), perpetrated much violence and death. The US treatment of the indigenous tribes was horrific, and in at least one instance (Trail of Tears) murdered thousands (after what appears to have been an order from Andrew Jackson).

If you are out of line with ANY system, you get crushed. If you stay in line, you can have your own little world. And you can buy your way out of the restrictions of any system, by becoming part of its elite.

I think what we are see in comments here the General Knuckleheadedness; people jump-in with what they think is an unimpeachable observation, spouting what is called the “conventional wisdom” or “received opinion” — bafflegab from right OR left, gathered as if it were truth. Then when called on it, when challenged, they’re in over their heads, and they get caught on their own logic: whether it’s capitalist-apologists presuming that their own fat comfort is a guide to historical truth and the absolute way forward for all, or whether it’s eco-activists insisting that all wealth and technology is the devil’s work. Note that both sides insist that what’s wrong is always the other guy’s fault.

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Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 1:49 pm

I think the basic problem with the Occupy movement, is that they weren’t occupying their own places. They were occupying places other people were entitled to use, to the exclusion of those other people.

It was a kind of civil disobedience, but there are two models of civil disobedience. One violates the law being protested, to force it’s public enforcement under circumstances that make the injustice of the law manifest. Rosa Parks did this sort.

The other violates utterly unrelated laws, to as to create a public nusance, so that the protestors get an opportunity to express their views while the nusance is being reported on. Occupy followed this latter model.

The first creates sympathy for a cause, but is reliant on the law protested actually violating the public conscience. The second destroys sympathy for a cause, and does not rely on the law being protested violating the public conscience.

I don’t have a lot of use for the latter form of ‘civil disobedience’.

753

Lee A. Arnold 03.04.15 at 1:56 pm

Brett Bellmore #751; They were occupying places other people were entitled to use, to the exclusion of those other people.”

Are you currently seated in a tract of land that was originally stolen from indigenous people by either force or broken treaty?

754

John Holbo 03.04.15 at 1:58 pm

“to do with what communists do when they can do what they want.”

OK, I can work with that. The Brett thesis is this: everyone involved with Occupy would murder if they weren’t being watched. (Since, functionally, they are just murder-bots under temporary ocular restraint by non-communists.) Fine. Now we’ve got the thesis statement. What we need is just the argument. Lay the sweet, sweet, reality-based engineering on me, Brett. What’s the proof?

755

Rich Puchalsky 03.04.15 at 2:06 pm

Brett: “They were occupying places other people were entitled to use, to the exclusion of those other people.”

Note that Brett’s own ostensible ideology denies the validity of governmentally held spaces that everyone is entitled to use. Brett’s a Commie! Brett needs re-education by being forced to read David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom again (tellingly, and ironically, given away for free on the Internet).

756

Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 2:10 pm

“Brett needs re-education by being forced to read David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom again (tellingly, and ironically, given away for free on the Internet).”

You would only think that ironic if you didn’t pay attention when reading it. I suggest going back and re-reading chapter 3, “Love is not enough”.

Mutualism isn’t enough to make for a properly functioning society. That’s not at all the same thing as saying it isn’t part of a properly functioning society.

757

Rich Puchalsky 03.04.15 at 2:27 pm

No, Brett. You know and I know that when you defend the eviction of Occupy you’re defending the same kind of governmental political force that you decry in other contexts. The only difference is whose ox is being gored. A principled anarcho-capitalist is ready to see people making small-scale communalistic attempts within society, and even you have said that it’s a strength of capitalism that it can contain other forms within it, but your opinion on this simply isn’t principled by your own ostensible standards.

Again, it’s not like I’m doing any better over at my end of the kook spectrum. I have to have people like Plume who are happily ready to suppress small-scale traders, excuse me “capitalists”, by force ready to “agree” with me on ideal forms of anti-authoritarian society. But at least I don’t go up to people and say “I’m an anarchist, and since I hate right-wingers I think it’s really important for the government to enforce gun laws.”

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Layman 03.04.15 at 2:28 pm

“My tires have mostly to do with what communists do when they can do what they want.”

As a general rule, I’d be terrified of any group of people, be they communist, capitalist, Unitarian, or whatever, when they can do what they want.

759

Plume 03.04.15 at 2:40 pm

Brett @736,

You claim to be an engineer — and, surprisingly, an empiricist. It’s surprising (to put in nicely), given your comments on Climate Change. Regardless, reverse engineer the Soviet and Maoist systems and you won’t get back to communist theory, or baseline communism, or mutualism, or any other way we can label it. You won’t get to socialism. You won’t find any of the essential components for socialism or communism there — the two main being full, participatory democracy, including the economy, and the people own the means of production. And, again, communism means the absence of the state.

By definition, if you go by the theory, if you implement it, there is no state once you get to communism.

Again, you’ve taken a bunch of sociopaths who call themselves birdwatchers, and because you hate the very idea of birdwatching, you have taken them at their word and who the philosophy of birdwatching accountable for their murderous actions. You haven’t actually shown that their actions are derived from birdwatching philosophy, or that this philosophy is unworkable. You’ve just chosen to stop your investigation, well satisfied, at the ethos of birdwatching, for which you’ve always held such enmity.

Meanwhile, the real cause, the real philosophy at the root of these sociopaths, is a complex belief system that involves daily bouts of self-flagellation while looking at pictures of Sarah Palin, all in the hopes of sparking the rapture. But you just won’t go there.

760

Brett Bellmore 03.04.15 at 2:40 pm

“As a general rule, I’d be terrified of any group of people, be they communist, capitalist, Unitarian, or whatever, when they can do what they want.”

True dat. We do, however, seem to be better at realizing we can’t just let capitalists do whatever they want, than we are at realizing that of people who profess benign motives in place of profit motives.

761

Robespierre 03.04.15 at 2:41 pm

No, JH, you can do better than that. They wouldn’t create killing fields when not watched. Not personally What would more likely happen, where a communist system really set up, Occupy-ers would not be the ones in charge, the system would reliably produce despotism and death and – the point – this could be foreseen in advance.

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Plume 03.04.15 at 2:50 pm

Rich @756,