Saturday, February 28, 2009

Communism, atheism and truth

To me, the connection between communism and atheism is obvious and direct.

Before I'm a communist, before I'm an atheist, I love the truth, and I believe the truth matters. And it's true that no god exists, there is no afterlife, there are no purposes or ethical standards external to human thought. There's no reason for being at all, there is only the fact of our individual existence. I'm a communist because communism rests comfortably on the truth, whereas capitalism does not. One can support communism (or anything at all) with lies and bullshit, but one must support capitalism with lies and bullshit.

Indeed, one can support anything at all — truth or falsity, good or evil, profundity or triviality — with lies and bullshit, and therein lies the rub. I won't condone lies and bullshit in support of communism not just because I love the truth, but because the same lies and bullshit that support communism today can just as easily support tyranny, exploitation and oppression tomorrow, because lies and bullshit can support anything.

If we implement communism today because we believe God — not humanity — wants communism, then what happens tomorrow when we believe that God wants the subjugation of women under communism, or the oppression and marginalization of gays? What if tomorrow God wants us to sacrifice our material comfort for the sake of sacrificing our material comfort... turning, of course, a blind eye to the material comfort of some privileged elite? If the value to humanity is not a good enough reason today to justify the first steps towards communism, why will it be a good enough reason tomorrow to continue the class struggle and take the next step?

I like self-interest. I'm a communist because I believe communism is in everyone's self-interest. But rationality and truth is the only counter to the tendency of mutual self-interest to narrow to class or individual privilege.

The problem with religion, any religion, is that some privileged elite almost always has to speak for God. Some preacher, some priest, some theologian, has to tell us that he knows better than we do what God wants, and we'd better comply if we want to get on the right side of God. Such justification must necessarily come at the expense of humanity and rational, mutual self-interest: if we could justify some belief by appeal to humanity and self-interest, why even bother to invoke God? I don't claim divine revelation to justify gravity; I appeal to experiment and observation.

Even "gnostic" religion, religion available to everyone, is dangerous. How am I to separate my own personal preferences from "that of God speaking to me"? Even a gnostic religion — if it is to be any religion at all — must hold that some dictates of my conscience are authoritative and beyond the bounds of rational criticism.

It's none of my business if some individual is a communist because he believes that God wants communism. It doesn't matter whether I think he's rational or irrational. I'll be happy to work with him in building a rational, just and good society.

The problem comes when he — or anyone else — demands that I myself sacrifice the truth to preserve his sensibilities. This I will not do, even if it sets back the cause of communism by a thousand years. It's better to set back communism than set back the truth.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics
[K]eep in mind that the presuppositionalist is not approaching you with an eye towards reasoning together to get to the truth. He's admitted as much by saying that he sees you as deranged and in need of some kind of personal confrontation. He is not entering the discussion in good faith, as a co-investigator. (Van Til has an essay on this that is quite enjoyable, featuring Mr. White, Mr. Black and Mr. Gray, which makes it quite plain how they see such attempts. It's one of the few things I've read by the presuppositionalists that I found enjoyable.) In an ordinary intellectual discussion among friends, it's fine to speculate on things, refining one's ideas as one goes along; but in this sort of encounter they will try to commit you to as much as they can, to force you off balance. So when I say "think in terms of tactics" I mean: keep focused on how your words will be used by the presuppositionalist. In effect, think of those famous Miranda warning words: "Anything you say can and will be used against you." Don't commit yourself to more than you need to in order to make your points.

[h/t to Arthur Vandelay]

Quotation of the day

I don't understand people who say they're spiritual but not religious. Isn't that just being superstitious without the benefits of community and ritual?

Shawn McDonald

[h/t to PZ Myers]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Language of Looting

The Language of Looting; What "Nationalize the Banks" and the "Free Market" Really Mean in Today's Looking-Glass World:
[T]he rhetoric of “free markets,” “nationalization” and even “socialism” (as in “socializing the losses”) has been turned into the language of deception to help the financial sector mobilize government power to support its own special privileges. Having undermined the economy at large, Wall Street’s public relations think tanks are now dismantling the language itself.

[h/t to kevin]

Monday, February 23, 2009

Communism and self-interest

One of the more persistent criticisms of communism is that communism assumes or requires that individuals sacrifice their individual self-interest to the good of society. All of Ayn Rand's criticism of collectivism (under which she includes both communism and fascism) depend on this fundamental view of communism.

This view is fundamentally misleading and the criticism the demolition of a straw man.

It is a scientific truth about human minds that individual people will choose among the available options determined by the predominant political-economic context to maximize their self-interest. If there is any "fundamental" component of human nature, this is it, and communists can ignore this scientific truth no more than we can ignore the law of gravity. However, the political-economic context plays a critical role. Furthermore, there is no intrinsic limit on how far people can look ahead to the consequences of their actions, and how broadly they can construe "self-interest".

There is a very limited sense in which a collectivist political-economic ideology requires individuals to "sacrifice" their self-interest. This sacrifice is best illustrated in the Prisoner's Dilemma. The best outcome in a Prisoner's Dilemma for an individual is where she "defects" and her opponent "cooperates". Communism demands that individuals "sacrifice" this outcome and instead end up with mutual cooperation. But practically speaking, absent coercing either party, the outcome of Prisoner's Dilemma is mutual defection; Communism therefore demands that individuals choose mutual cooperation over mutual defection, to the benefit of both individuals. Essentially, Communism typically deprecates the benefits of exploitation in favor of the benefits of mutual cooperation.

There are two ways to promote mutual cooperation. The first is to change people's individual psychological makeup so that their feelings of empathy make defection intrinsically negative: to "change the game" from within. The second is to coerce mutual cooperation, to impose external penalties for defection, making defection extrinsically negative: to "change the game" from without.

Exploitative political systems such as capitalism "change the game" from without, but do so asymmetrically. They coerce cooperation from one party (the ruled class) but do not coerce cooperation from the other party (the ruling class). Under every ruling/ruled class political-economic system, the vast majority of the social, political and psychological constructions of that society exist to justify the asymmetric changes — established coercively — to economic decisions that follow the logic of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

To the extent that asymmetric, exploitative changes to Prisoner's Dilemma economic decisions are entrenched in our society, it is true that communism demands that some people — those whose reward is the outcome of exploitation — sacrifice their overall, actual self-interest for the good of society, with only the lesser reward of mutual self-interest. Such individuals already lack some degree of empathy (if they had full empathy, they would not be exploiting others); and they have internalized at a deep level the ideology and propaganda that justifies exploitation. Thus we cannot expect those presently enjoying exploitative privilege to simply abandon that privilege out of the goodness of their hearts and begin to act for mutual benefit.

Can such psychological and social constructions that promote mutual cooperation exist? Of course: they already exist. All instances of teamwork and cooperation employ psychological constructions that promote mutual cooperation and deprecate exploitation. I can, for example, pool my capital with my wife, without worrying that she'll "defect" and run off to Rio with our combined savings. Such psychological constructions even work at the highest, most abstract levels, as when people help others on the other side of the world after a natural disaster, rather than exploiting their extraordinary misfortune to scoop up some more slaves.

Social and political constructions also already exist. Both the capitalist class and the working class do a lot of mutually beneficial trading amongst themselves; exploitation is typically embedded only in relations between the capitalist class and the working class, and really only in some relations.

So, in essence, communism does not ask for anything substantively new: it asks only that psychological and social constructions that already exist be promoted and made more pervasive.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

We're Number...

... seventeen?

Not too shabby, I suppose.

Communism and feminism

The Apostate and her commenters criticize communists' attitudes towards feminism. They hit the nail on the head. Communists, at least the official organs of most communist parties and organizations, rarely display an all-sided and complete view of the dialectical position of feminism and women's issues in politics and economics, and do not give anything near adequate attention to feminist issues.

I'm convinced that one of the reasons why the Revolutionary Communist Party focuses on racial issues is that Bob Avakian, the founder and chairman of the party, was particularly racially aware in his youth and early adulthood, and spent a lot of time with racial activists such as the Black Panthers. He's no misogynist, but he didn't spend a lot of time with feminist activities and activists, and feminism does not seem to "grab" his attention at a deep and personal level. (Furthermore, the RCP's explicit reliance on Avakian limits the party's activities in no small part to those issues that grab Avakian's attention. I don't think Avakian is a bad guy: he's clearly smart, hard-working and completely dedicated to communism. But he's just one person.)

Also, many communists' analysis of the position of women in today's society begins and ends with modes of inheritance: a patriarchal society needs to ensure that male lineage (father to son) is well-determinable, so the obvious physical establishment of lineage (mother to child) has to be closely regulated for the benefit of men. This analysis isn't wrong, and many of our patriarchal social constructions do in fact embody this dialectical force, but inheritance is only a small part of the story.

A much larger part of the story is hyper-exploitation. All ruling/ruled class relations are of course exploitative to some degree, but in all societies some of the the ruled class retains some political power: they can strike, riot, emigrate, and sometimes vote, so their exploitation is tempered by political considerations. Hyper-exploitation occurs when some segment of the ruled class does not have even the small amount of political power enjoyed by other parts of the ruled class.

Exploitation and oppression go hand in hand: to exploit people, you need to oppress them. The greater the exploitation, the greater the oppression. But it's not correct to ask "which comes first": exploitation and oppression have a dialectical relationship, they influence each other. Hyper-exploited people are hyper-oppressed; hyper-oppressed people are hyper-exploited.

And really: to any honest observer, the hyper-exploitation of women — in addition to the hyper-oppression of women — is staggering. The employment of women's labor in child-bearing, child-rearing and housework is the epitome of labor consumed in total but paid for at the minimum cost of subsistence.

Bourgeois feminists are very good at pointing out and working to correct the hyper-oppression of women. Any person concerned with the well-being of others cannot have anything but praise for their efforts, as far as they go. The only critique is that they don't go nearly far enough: bourgeois feminists rarely look at hyper-exploitation (those few that do become communists). If we deconstruct their arguments, they might follow the line: "Rape is not a good way to hyper-oppress women." To contradict this statement would appear an argument in favor of rape. "Gender," they might say, "is not a good way to limit entry into the bourgeoisie." Again, one does not wish to argue in favor of gender discrimination.

But the communist must ask, "What is a good way to hyper-oppress women? What is a good way to limit entry into the bourgeoisie?" Rhetorical questions, of course: there isn't a good way to hyper-oppress and hyper-exploit women, and even a perfectly meritocratic, gender-neutral (and race-neutral) bourgeoisie still fundamentally exploits the working class.

The bourgeois feminist is in a bind. Fundamentally, the hyper-exploitation of child-bearing cannot be equally distributed (at least not until we invent an artificial uterus that can be operated as cheaply as a hyper-exploited woman). The cost of correcting this hyper-exploitation will have to come out of the bourgeois feminist's pocket. Furthermore, if the hyper-exploitation of women is directly and explicitly confronted, then what of rest of the exploitation in capitalism, exploitation that is foundational and ineluctable under capitalism?

I've been astonished and dumbfounded by the erosion of women's reproductive and abortion rights over the last 20 years; it seems the high point for these rights came only a few years after Roe v. Wade and have been declining ever since. What's even more astonishing and dumbfounding is the Democratic party's passivity at protecting these rights. What's even more astonishing is the amount of energy feminist activists seem to put into issues that, while important, seem to me to pale beside the relentless assault on women's — especially poor women and women of color — fundamental bodily autonomy. I'm not a woman, of course, and it's not my place to set the agenda for the women's movement. I can still, however, express my astonishment.

As a communist, though, my astonishment evaporates. So long as abortion and contraception are legal — and there is no indication whatsoever that even the most callous and opportunistic Republican would make abortion and contraception actually illegal — reproductive rights for bourgeois women (and women in the labor aristocracy) are secure. And bourgeois women are in no danger of hyper-exploitation anyway. When abortion and contraception are not subsidized though, poor women's bodily autonomy is as effectively compromised as if abortion and contraception were illegal.

Abortion and contraception must be subsidized by the state in exactly the same sense that police and legal protection must be subsidized by the state: These activities safeguard fundamental, democratic human rights that obtain — to anyone but a dedicated Randian — regardless of individual merit.

Like I said, it's not up to me to set the agenda of the women's movement. But it is up to me to set the communist agenda.

First, communists and socialists have chosen the strategy of exposing and denouncing capitalist oppression, and, more importantly, tying that oppression to relations of exploitation. All well and good. But communists should do more — much much more — at exposing and denouncing specifically the oppression of women and tying that to their exploitation. This is not at all a difficult task: one cannot swing a cat in our patriarchal society without hitting an oppressed, exploited woman. By all rights, at least — at the very least — half the instances of oppression and exploitation exposed by communists should be directly and specifically about women.

Secondly, if we are to make common cause with any movement not specifically communist, we must demand without compromise and as a precondition the absolute ideological equality and full human rights of women — especially and most emphatically regarding their bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. Just as communists will make only the most tentative common cause with bourgeois-friendly Economists (and make clear we will not stop with a "kopek added to a ruble"), we must make only the most tentative common cause — if any at all — with any movement that ideologically condones the oppression of women.

The common cause with both Christian and Islamic leftists here is very directly on point. If the equality and rights of women are not uncompromised a priori communist demands, then communists will appear to accept (or actually accept) the limitations on women's rights that are part of Christian and Islamic ideology. We cannot eliminate oppression and exploitation immediately, but communists should be absolutely unwilling to "move the oppression around" or ideologically justify even the tiniest bit of oppression or exploitation.

I personally am generally suspicious of making common cause with any religious movement. "God loves communism" is just as bad an argument as "God hates fags," and communism is not furthered by justifying it with bad arguments.

But to the extent that Christianity and Islam actually do ideologically support the oppression and exploitation of women, I'm no longer suspicious. I'm actively hostile. Lip service won't do it: I need to see a sincere, dedicated and active commitment to ending the oppression of women. I'll buy (or start to buy) that a Christian supports women's rights when he* comes out unapologetically, uncompromisingly, 100%, no bullshit for abortion and contraception as fundamental human rights. I'll buy that a Muslim supports women's rights when he comes out unapologetically, uncompromisingly, 100%, no bullshit for not only imprisoning for life or executing** men who perpetrate honor killings, but also heaping the most severe dishonor and social and religious contempt for men who do so. Of course, any Christian or Muslim must absolutely support all women's rights; supporting abortion and opposing honor killings would constitute at best only a good start. Without such a start, though, as far as I'm concerned calling almost any Christian or Muslim a communist or even communist-friendly is as ridiculous as calling Paul Krugman (and I like Krugman) a Maoist.

*I use the gendered pronound advisedly.

**I'm typically against the death penalty, but there are some crimes for which my opposition to the death penalty is at best lukewarm.

I'll march next to a Muslim to oppose, for example, the massacre in Gaza: even the most extreme religious fundamentalist misogynists do not deserve to be caged and slaughtered like jackrabbits. But that's as far as I'll go: my opposition to the violation of basic human rights of religious assholes does not extend to supporting or condoning their misogynist ideology.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Commodity relations and intellectual property

Intellectual "property" (using the term in its loosest, most colloquial sense) helps illuminate Marxian commodity relations.

Marx means "commodity" in a very restricted sense: It is something physical (trivial: everything is physical), bounded in space and/or time, and most importantly that physically embodies a more-or-less definite amount of actual labor time*. It's easy to see how a car, or a pair of shoes, or a bolt of cloth or a bar of gold is a Marxian commodity. It takes a certain amount of time to make a car, and when you've made the car, well, there it is. The car physically embodies (or "congeals") the time it took to make it. If I give you a car, I am, in a concrete, fairly obvious sense giving you the time it took to make that car.

*Technically socially necessary abstract labor time. Under ordinary circumstances, however, the actual labor time is close to the socially necessary abstract labor time.

Adam Smith first asserted that it is human labor, and only human labor, that creates value*. Marx realized that, everything else being equal (which is often not the case), when labor is physically embodied in a thing such as a car, then people will trade the car for some other thing that physically embodies the same amount of time. The exchange value of a commodity is the labor time embodied in that commodity.

*Watch for the fallacy of the converse. Smith says, "If there is value, then there is labor." Critics of the labor theory of value say that "If there is labor, there is value," and note the absurdity of this construction.)

As a corollary, Marx further realized that the use value of a commodity does not contribute to its exchange value (except by setting an upper bound). My computer is vastly more useful to me than my car — I certainly spend a lot more time using my computer than I do my car — but the exchange value of an ordinary new car is much higher (by an order of magnitude) than that of an ordinary new computer: it requires an order of magnitude more human labor to build a car than it does to build a computer.

Marx also realized that the exchange value of a commodity is the labor time embodied in the commodity without anyone ever actually calculating that labor time.

That commodities are exchanged according to the labor time embodied in each commodity is a description of equilibrium conditions. In just the same sense that thermodynamics says not that everything is the same temperature, but rather that things of different temperature will move inexorably towards equilibrium, the labor theory of exchange value doesn't say that all commodities are traded according to their labor time, but that the exchange value of a commodity will tend over time to its labor time, according to the law of supply and demand in a more-or-less free market.

In disequilibrium conditions where demand exceeds supply, the exchange value of a commodity will be higher than the labor time embodied in that commodity: when shoes are scarce, I'll work three hours to buy a pair of shoes that took two hours to create. Since the exchange value exceeds the actual time, it makes sense for more people to produce that commodity, increasing supply, until supply and demand stabilize where the exchange value is equal to the actual labor time. (Likewise if supply exceeds demand, it makes sense for some people to stop making that commodity.) Under some specialized circumstances, the labor cost of a commodity will rise to its exchange value rather than its exchange value falling to its labor cost. In either case, conditions will stabilize when the exchange value is equal to the labor cost.

Marx's most penetrating insight is that labor itself is a commodity. When I wake up in the morning, my body embodies a certain amount of labor power: the ability to labor to create value. This labor power has a cost as well: I (or someone else) must grow food, build and maintain a house, make clothing, fetch water, etc.; all of these activities require human labor. The cost of creating my labor power is less than the labor power actually created: The difference is the surplus value of labor.

In a capitalist economy, where labor is a commodity, capitalists can make a profit even under equilibrium conditions. They pay the workers the cost of the workers' labor power (variable capital), and they use that labor power to create commodities that embody all the workers' labor power. It takes 1,000 hours of labor to create a car, but that 1,000 hours of labor costs 500 hours to create. So I can create cars indefinitely, obtaining them for 500 hours each and exchanging them (with other capitalists) for 1,000 each.

There's a lot that you can do with this basic understanding of commodity relations: the theory of falling profit, the pressure for a capitalist economy to become imperialist, the analysis of consumer capitalism, etc.

Intellectual "property", however, is difficult to manage under commodity relations. By intellectual property, I the loose sense of the abstract content that is the product of human mind. Consider a physical book made of paper and ink. The exchange value of a book embodies the physical labor necessary to produce the physical book — manufacturing the paper, applying ink to the pages, binding the book, moving the book to its purchaser, etc. — irrespective of the way the ink happens to be arranged on the pages. The book is the commodity, the arrangement of the ink is the intellectual property.

Now Marx's proviso about socially necessary labor time becomes relevant. It of course takes human labor to create intellectual property. The socially necessary labor time to produce a commodity is (in one sense) the minimum amount of time necessary to produce an identical commodity. Since it is physically possible produce an identical copy of any book by only transcribing the content, which takes much less time than creating the content of the book, the socially necessary labor time embodied in a book represents the lower cost of transcribing the content, not the higher cost of creating the content.

It's worth repeating this point to emphasize it: the exchange value of a commodity is the socially necessary labor time necessary to create the commodity. For most commodities that are "things", the socially necessary labor time is the actual time. For commodities (such as books) that contain intellectual property, the socially necessary labor time includes only the time to duplicate the content, not to create it. The intellectual property — the cost to create the abstract content, the particular arrangement of ink — does not and cannot form the natural socially necessary labor time embodied in the book.

When the physical labor time necessary to create a physical book is very high relative to the time necessary to create the book's intellectual property, a publisher is annoyed but not devastated by someone else copying the intellectual property. The publisher makes his profit from the difference between the socially necessary labor time and the labor cost of the workers to create the book. In other words, she can sell the book at the same price as her competitor, who does not have to pay to create the content, and still make a profit. In this sense, the publisher indirectly commoditizes the intellectual property in the book.

Because intellectual property cannot be directly commoditized, the producer of intellectual property fundamentally has a service relation to her publisher. Services, i.e. the direct employment of human time, can be commoditized, in the form of the provider's body and brain over a specified period of time. Of course services follow ordinary commodity relations: the exchange value becomes equal to the cost of producing the service -- in this case the cost of feeding, housing, clothing, etc. and educating and training the producer of intellectual property, not the time she actually takes to create the content.

Of course, no capitalist likes to have even a tiny part of his profit margin compromised, so he employs artificial means to raise the socially necessary labor time to create the content, i.e. he uses the power of the state to create copyright laws. It's important to understand, though, that the extra surplus value created by copyright laws goes not to the producer of the intellectual property, but to the publisher.

There are several ways to deal profitably with intellectual property in a commoditized economy.

First, strengthen copyright law enforcement. This move would artificially commoditize intellectual property directly and raise the socially necessary labor time to duplicate content without permission at or above the time necessary to create content.

We can find new ways to indirectly commoditize intellectual property. For example, some musical bands release their songs for free. Their songs serve as advertising to promote live concerts. In this case the commodity is the band's appearance at the concert, embodied naturally in the band itself. The creation of the song is not itself a commodity; is becomes part of the socially necessary labor time to produce the use-value of the band's appearance.

We can produce intellectual property as "overhead"; in the model of the state-supported university, state (or private) grants to artists, or the ruling class themselves producing intellectual property.

It's not that intellectual property cannot be commoditized: of course it can. The problems are more subtle.

First, when labor is commoditized commodity relations in general lead to exploitation: however you inject the creation of intellectual property into commodity relations, those producing intellectual property will receive the cost of their labor power, and they'll generate surplus value for whoever owns the capital.

Some observe that many producers of intellectual property, especially those in information technology, are highly paid even though they cannot naturally embody their labor in a commodity. This observation is correct, but it does not contradict the overall economic laws of commodity relations any more the observation that my coffee is hotter than the surrounding air contradicts thermodynamics.

The demand for information technology presently exceeds the supply, so the price is higher. But commodity relations and the law of supply and demand predict that precisely because this disequilibrium exists, the supply should increase over time... as it has, in millions of new information technology workers appearing in India, Russia and China. Commodity relations predict that the price of information technology will over time approach the cost: the price should decrease and the cost — training and education — should increase until they are in equilibrium. Again, we have seen just this phenomenon, especially regarding low- and mid-level information technology workers: their pay has decreased, and their costs — four-year college degrees, classes and certifications, many of which (cough Microsoft) offer little value and exist merely to inflate costs — have increased.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Oligarchs' Escape Plan

The Oligarchs' Escape Plan:
One would think that politicians would be willing to do the math and realize that debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. But the debts are being kept on the books, continuing to extract interest to pay the creditors that have made the bad loans. The resulting debt deflation threatens to keep the economy in depression until a radical shift in policy occurs – a shift to save the “real” economy, not just the financial sector and the wealthiest 10 per cent of American families.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Quotation of the day

Criticism as I understand it differs entirely from attack or complaint. Its difference from complaint is especially important here, for I am persuaded that complaints against the machinations of culture today have become as poisonous as the things complained of. This is not surprising. Resentment and indignation are feelings dangerous to the possessor and to be sparingly used. They give comfort too cheaply; they rot judgment, and by encouraging passivity they come to require that evil to continue for the sake of the grievance to be enjoyed.

Criticism, on the contrary, aims at action. True, not all objects can be acted on at once, and many will not be reshaped according to desire; but thought is plastic and within our control, and thought is a form of action. To come to see, in the light of criticism, a situation as different from what it seemed to be, is to have accomplished an important act. The contemporary world, cluttered with leagues and lobbies and overawed by the zero-weighted look of large numbers, has forgotten that to redirect fundamental opinion — including one's own — is also to do something. It can give solace or mastery, or at the very least replace a plaintive passivity with a stoic impassivity.

— Jacques Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment, 1964

Preparing for the Great Collapse

Getting Prepared for the Great Collapse: Dmitry Orlov:
If there is one thing that I would like to claim as my own, it is the comparative theory of superpower collapse. For now, it remains just a theory, although it is currently being quite thoroughly tested. The theory states that the United States and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt. I call this particular list of ingredients "The Superpower Collapse Soup." Other factors, such as the inability to provide an acceptable quality of life for its citizens, or a systemically corrupt political system incapable of reform, are certainly not helpful, but they do not automatically lead to collapse, because they do not put the country on a collision course with reality. Please don't be too concerned, though, because, as I mentioned, this is just a theory. My theory.

[h/t to kevin]

On abortion

Who can say it better than Twisty?:
[E]ven if you call the body-snatcher a baby, if it is leeching off my personal internal organs, and if having it there displeases me for any reason whatsoever, and the only way to get it out is to kill it, then kill it I will. When another entity appropriates sovereignty over my person, what am I but a slave? As a human being, I object unconditionally to enslavement, for me or for anyone else. ...

Following [anti-abortion] logic, women are really only fully human until we are born.
No one can.

[h/t to the Apostate]

Labor syndicalism

It is a communist/socialist trope that socialism entails that the workers own the means of production, i.e. "labor syndicalism". If the workers do not own the means of production, whatever it is you have, by definition it's neither communism nor socialism.

However, this definition is today nothing more than dogma inherited from the 19th century. It is no longer applicable to a post-industrial society.

First, the definition is vague. Who precisely are the workers? What precisely are the means of production? Who owns variable capital: who feeds the workers before the production of a commodity is complete?

In what sense do the workers "own" the means of production? Does each individual worker own the means of production she herself uses? What sort of ownership does a worker have over some means of production that she produces, such as a machine or a factory, when she herself does not actually use that means to produce other commodities?

When production of some commodity requires an integrated process, do the workers who participate in the process collectively or individually own the the means used in that process? What happens when a process, such as the production of a computer or an automobile, requires integrating a score of factories spread across the globe populated by tens of thousands of workers from a dozen different cultures? And, of course, our modern economy is highly integrated: almost everyone depends on almost everyone else is some way. At what point does high-level collective control of a large-scale integrated economy move from True Socialism™ to State Capitalism?

But these questions fade into triviality beside a more subtle flaw in the idea of labor syndicalism: the system of workers controlling the means of production as the sine qua non of socialism still embodies commodity relations, only the workers are now directly transforming money to commodities to more money instead of the owners of capital doing so. This is not to say that having workers having more control the means of production is a particularly bad idea; it at least eliminates the most egregious form of capitalist exploitation.

But capitalism has become a fetter on the means of production in two important senses. First, capitalism prevents increasing production efficiency (i.e. use-value produced divided by labor time) at the expense of decreasing labor efficiency (labor time used to produce commodities divided by labor time necessary to create labor power) and absolute surplus labor. If overall we produce the same amount of stuff using less labor time, there is a net loss of surplus labor and no net gain in labor efficiency; such improved productivity results in lowered profitability and cannot occur under capitalism. Second, capitalism cannot make non-commodity production profitable: to be profitable, labor must be congealed into something that can be exchanged.

Simply transferring control over commodity relations to the workers who produce commodities does not fundamentally change that commodity relations themselves have become a fetter on production.

When we talk about "ownership" we're talking about granting political status to a class based on their political and physical relationship to that which is owned. Therefore, labor syndicalism entails granting political power to the class of workers who produce commodities.

We cannot fault the 19th and early 20th century socialist and communist theoreticians. Pretty much everyone other than the bourgeoisie was either in the industrial proletariat or agricultural peasantry. Everyone was employed creating commodities: labor syndicalism (to the extent it included the agricultural peasantry) was exactly the same thing as popular democracy. The problem they had to solve was capitalism's fetters on distribution, ensuring that the proletariat received something more than bare subsistence for their labor.

But, while distribution remains a problem, our primary problem today is moving production to a post-industrial model. First, we have to improve production efficiency at the expense of labor efficiency: We must produce the same amount of stuff (or less stuff of higher quality and durability) using less labor overall, instead of producing more stuff by improving labor efficiency. Second, we must increase non-commodity production: we must produce more use-value — especially intellectual property — that cannot be easily "congealed" into commodities that can be exchanged.

Fundamentally, labor syndicalism leaves the producers of non-commodities with no political power. A computer program, for example, is fundamentally not a commodity; it cannot be exchanged without draconian copyright laws. Even though I own my means of production, that ownership confers no real political power because I cannot use my means of production to create a commodity.

I could sell my services as a computer expert instead of writing and distributing computer programs. But services are commodities only to the extent that labor power itself is a commodity: the commoditization of labor power is the distribution problem of capitalism in the first place.

Labor syndicalism makes sense only under industrial conditions, where the vast majority of people are in fact producing commodities, and producing commodities necessary for general consumption. It might be a more moral way to achieve what capitalism has achieved: maximizing labor efficiency. But labor syndicalism cannot "break through" to post-industrialism any more than capitalism can break through: in both systems political and economic power is still tied to the production of commodities.

Labor syndicalism cannot achieve true production efficiency by using less labor overall to produce the same amount of commodities. Labor syndicalism cannot achieve increased non-commodity production. Fundamentally, labor syndicalism cannot achieve the communist goal: "from each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs."

This is not to say, however, that we must continue to exploit — in an global sense — those who do in fact produce commodities. But the production of commodities cannot be driven only by the needs and desires of those who produce commodities, in the same sense that production cannot be driven only by the needs and desires of those who own capital. In some substantial sense, the ownership of the means of production of stuff must be democratized beyond the bounds of immediate production: The people, not just the workers, need to own and control the means of production. Labor syndicalism will simply not suffice for post-industrial communism.

Bubble Economy 2.0

Bubble Economy 2.0: The Financial Recovery Plan from Hell:
Martin Wolf started off his Financial Times column February 11 with the bold question: “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?” The stock market had a similar opinion, plunging 382 points. Having promised “change,” Mr. Obama is giving us more Clinton-Bush via Robert Rubin’s protégé, Tim Geithner. Tuesday’s $2.5 trillion Financial Stabilization Plan to re-inflate the Bubble Economy is basically an extension of the Bush-Paulson giveaway – yet more Rubinomics for financial insiders in the emerging Wall Street trusts. The financial system is to be concentrated into a cartel of just a few giant conglomerates to act as the economy’s central planners and resource allocators. This makes banks the big winners in the game of “chicken” they’ve been playing with Washington, a shakedown holding the economy hostage. “Give us what we want or we’ll plunge the economy into financial crisis.” Washington has given them $9 trillion so far, with promises now of another $2 trillion– and still counting.

The End of Neo-Liberalism

The End of Neo-Liberalism and Bush's Last Scam: How Racism Sparked the Financial Crisis:
The crisis of the economy is at once a crisis in ideology. After 30 years of worship at the shrine of the free market, Reaganomics and other branches of conservative and neo-conservative thought seem bankrupt and thoroughly discredited if not dead – and not only right-wing schools. Deregulation, privatization, intense financial speculation on debt, the scaling back if not elimination of government social spending, in a word, “neo-liberalism” has reached its extreme limit almost bursting state-monopoly capitalism’s seams and triggering a worldwide financial meltdown.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rebranding communism

French postman delivers far left message:
The decision to remove the word communist from the new name was thought crucial to the success of a 21st century far-left party - and one which has proved effective in wooing younger people easily alienated by references to the dialectic of the past.

"You know, Marx and all that, that's our history," said Lucas, a 17-year-old member with a ponytail and tie-dye shirt. "But I prefer to call myself an anticapitalist rather than a communist. It's all stuff from another time."
An interesting perspective. It remains to be seen whether calling a party "anticapitalist" rather than "communist" will be seen as innovative or dishonest, especially if the party promotes economic and political policies that come straight out of the communist play-book. It's also telling that the Guardian labels Besancenot's manifesto as "Trotskyist" and captions his photo as "French communist postman..."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rants 'n Raves

I've noticed a fair number of hits from the Rants 'n Raves discussion board. I admit to a writer's vanity: I'm curious when my work is cited, for good or for ill. Unfortunately, I'm unable to read the threads that reference my work.

If anyone would care to share this information in comments, I'd be much obliged. If not, I suppose my curiosity must go unsatisfied.

Lady of the night

Ethel Blackmore, Horror Fiction lady of the night:
I'm an addict, and this is the one way I have left to support my habit. It's not a matter of choice, if that's what you think. Addiction is a lifestyle, and this is what that lifestyle looks like. But then, maybe I'm just disposable. ...

Some people can make it work, I guess. They hook up with a sugar daddy or a fast-talkin' publisher that doesn't treat them too badly, but the majority of us just sink as low as we need to keep the lifestyle going.

The Theist’s Nightmare

The Theist’s Nightmare:
Ray Comfort, unlike the banana, is perhaps the greatest boon to atheism since Darwin discovered the process of evolution. His sheer idiocy, voiced with childish certainty, is almost incontrovertible proof against theism’s view of humanity’s place in the cosmos. What sort of malicious, foul entity would create a creature such as Ray Comfort as the pinnacle of all existence? What madman would set this moustached buffoon at the center stage of the universe? Nay, no morally perfect being with any sort of competence would deign to do such a thing. A glimpse into Comfort’s beady eyes, an examination of his tiresome and relentless stupidity, or a simple glance at the insufferable tripe that constitues his blog are enough to send even the most ardent theologian backwards in shock, his hands to his face in horror, as he racks his brain for whatever theodicy could possibly refute this stark, moustached testament to God’s nonexistence. There is no such theodicy.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Morality Without Gods: Part 2

Morality Without Gods: Part 2

Tuesday, March 3, 6:30 - 9:00
New York University
The Silver Center - Room 703
100 Washington Square East

Across the planet with unjust wars, uncertainty & convulsions in people’s lives, belief in gods and religion is rising. Broad controversy and debate rages over god, atheism, faith, and science. Last November, an overflow crowd came out at NYU for Morality Without Gods: Part 1. Don’t miss Part 2, when 3 non-believers will discuss their views on:

  • If you don't believe in god, where do you get your morality from?
  • Why is science not just "another belief system”?
  • Could we/should we do away with belief in gods?


Massimo Pigliucci - Professor of Biology and Philosophy at SUNY - Stony Brook, author, with Jonathan Kaplan, of Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology, and Denying Evolution: Creation, Scientism & the Nature of Science. Massimo is a regular columnist for Skeptical Inquirer and Philosophy Now.

Sunsara Taylor - writer for Revolution newspaper and a host on Equal Time for Freethought on WBAI-NY. Sunsara is currently on a national campus speaking tour for AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, the recent book by Bob Avakian.

Paul Eckstein - Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bergen Community College, Paramus NJ, Adjunct Lecturer in Philosophy at Montclair State University, and a host on Equal Time for Freethought Radio on WBAI-NY.

Moderated by:

Matthew LaClair – student at Eugene Lang College, student President of The Center for Inquiry on Campus and on the Board of Directors of Secular Student Alliance. Matthew came to national attention when as a high school student in Kearny, NJ, he challenged his history teacher who was preaching his religious beliefs in class.

Sponsored by:

Equal Time for Freethought on WBAI and Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers at NYU

Tuesday, March 3, 6:30 - 9:00

New York University
The Silver Center - Room 703
100 Washington Square East

[6 to Astor Place, N,R,W to 8th Street, A,C,E,B,D,F,V to West 4th St.]

for more information: Equal Time For Freethought or call 347-933-0776

Joan Hirsch
Tour Coordinator

Sunsara Taylor campus speaking tour. A talk on Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World.

The current capitalist crisis

The present depression, caused proximately by the crash of 2008, is very different from any previous capitalist crisis, including the Great Depression. There are some things in common, of course. All depressions and recessions under capitalism, including this depression, have as their underlying cause over-production and under-consumption.

All ruling-class systems tend to concentrate most consumption in the ruling class, some consumption in the middle class (those individuals providing services (e.g. medicine or military command) to the ruling class, services that require the providers' enthusiastic cooperation), and the bare minimum of consumption necessary to maintain productivity to the working class. The ruling class tends to appropriate all the surplus production from the working class, and then grants some of that surplus production to the middle class. This distribution of wealth is fairly obvious in pre-capitalist societies.

Capitalism subverts this extremal distribution to some extent, because the capitalist ruling class is composed of those who own the most productive organizations. As Marx noted, capitalism deserves credit for stripping away the bullshit of pre-capitalist societies and focusing directly and unashamedly on material production as the sine qua non of political power.

All well and good in conditions of scarcity, especially when conditions of scarcity directly affect the productivity of the working class. Under pre-capitalist economic conditions, each worker consumes the vast majority of his own productivity, leaving only a tiny surplus. Capitalism instead of consuming that surplus, uses the surplus to mechanize and industrialize production, leading to a larger surplus. Most of this larger surplus is fed back into increasing industrialization, leading to exponential growth of productivity. As industrialization increases, the surplus labor that an individual worker contributes increases: Industrialization makes workers more efficient.

Because a well-fed, well-housed, healthy and more-or-less happy worker is more productive, the working class consumes some the increased surplus. But this increased consumption is grudging and measured out to the gram. Most of the surplus labor is still appropriated by the ruling class: the bourgeoisie, the owners of capital.

But the bourgeoisie has a problem. They simply cannot themselves consume all the surplus value generated by a working class whose efficiency increases exponentially. They require some services that cannot effectively be compelled, services that require the creativity, independence and, most importantly, advanced education of the provider. In order to secure the cooperation of the middle class, the ruling class must allow them to consume some of the surplus labor of the working class. This consumption, however, is still allocated grudgingly and only as needed.

Of course the middle class also wants middle-class services, so there's a something of a trickle-down effect. But someone has to generate surplus labor for the ruling and middle classes to consume, so this trickle-down effect is self-limiting.

The previous depressions — including the Great Depression of the 1930s — were caused by the inability of the ruling and middle classes to consume the surplus labor of the working class. The problem was more-or-less ameliorated by arbitrarily allowing millions of workers into the middle class, and allowing them to consume some surplus labor. To support this expanded middle class, the ruling class had to access the surplus labor of people outside the country, necessitating imperialism.

Now that we have a global economy, though, there is no more "outside" to draw surplus labor from.

The attentive reader will note that I have talked about surplus labor, and not surplus use-value. When the amount of surplus labor is small, a small increase in surplus labor is a larger percentage increase. If a worker works 12 hours a day and produces 0.1 hour of surplus value, the production of 0.11 hours of surplus labor represents a 10% increase in the economy. If, however, a worker works 10 hours per day and produces ~9.09 hours of surplus labor, it is impossible to grow the economy by 10%: it is physically impossible for a worker to consume nothing. Note that increasing the use-value output of a worker by 10% does not grow a capitalist economy by 10%. If it takes one hour of labor time to produce 1,000 hats, then producing 1,100 hats in one hour does not grow the economy by 10%, it just reduces the value of a hat.

Why should this be so? It seems intuitively obvious, does it not, that improving output by 10% should grow the economy by 10%: efficiency is output divided by input. To understand this counter-intuitive proposition, we must go back to the beginning of capitalism.

Capitalism originated under conditions of scarcity of everything, raw materials, energy, technology, surplus labor and raw labor power. It is not enough to simply produce stuff at random; for maximum efficiency, improved production has to be targeted at those items that are most scarce. But actually determining which items are most scarce, especially accounting for complex systems of dependency, is an enormously difficult task. If cars are scarce, you can't simply produce more cars: you have to obtain the right raw materials, you have to make different parts, you have to train workers, you have to improve technology, etc.

It's such an enormously difficult task that it cannot be solved analytically or computationally without enormously powerful computers, computers we are only just now beginning to develop. So, hand-in-hand with capitalism, the "competitive market" was established. The competitive market is (more or less) a genetic algorithm to incrementally improve the efficiency of production of the system as a whole. People go into business "randomly" (i.e. without knowing analytically whether their endeavors will be successful); only those endeavors that actually are successful (more efficient than before at relieving scarcity) survive.

Even though the details of this genetic algorithm are left to individual initiative, the overall structure has to be established by social and political constructions. Most importantly, we establish by social construction how to measure the ability of a business to relieve scarcity.

The crucial scarcity for most of the beginning of capitalism was the scarcity of surplus labor. Every other scarcity (except perhaps the scarcity of raw labor power, which could be relieved only by increasing the population) paled in comparison. The capitalist economy bent all its effort to reducing the amount of socially necessary labor time necessary for the workers' survival, while still keeping the workers working as much as possible. Therefore the vast majority of the political, social and psychological constructions under capitalism measure, promote and reward the increase of surplus labor. No "conspiracy" or special teleology is necessary to explain these constructions. The constructions that produced the most surplus labor survived competition; those that produced less perished.

Social, political and psychological constructions, though, have a life of their own; they persist and exert "pressure" even when the environmental conditions under which they evolved have changed.

In the Great Depression, the environment had changed somewhat, but there was still dramatic growth in surplus labor as yet untapped. The fundamental conditions that applied to capitalism had not changed dramatically; the social, political and psychological constructions just needed a little tweaking to measure new scarcities.

Today, however, fundamentally new conditions obtain. Surplus labor is no longer scarce, and there is very little new surplus labor that can be created. (We are also up against severe externalities, especially pollution.) Capitalism has achieved success, and there's nowhere left to go but down: by the measures and social constructions of capitalism, all we can do now is reduce the middle class and transfer the surplus they consume to the ruling class... and the ruling class will then cannibalize itself until only the most dominant and ruthless remain.

The alternative is, of course, to stop measuring the value of endeavors by the increase in surplus labor they consume: to eliminate the profit motive. There is nothing sacred or essential about the profit motive. It is efficient under conditions of surplus labor scarcity, but it is simply irrelevant when surplus labor is abundant. We must measure not whether we are producing more, but whether we are producing more effectively at meeting the needs of everyone.

We no longer have a choice about whether or not to "save" capitalism. Capitalism is doomed. Our only choice today is whether capitalism will evolve into feudalism or communism.

A thousand years

Anarcho-communism: Anarcho-communism is a society characterized by a high degree of cooperation, cooperation for mutual benefit, the absence of exploitation, the absence of economic classes, and the absence of a state that enforces class distinctions and class privilege. More importantly, anarcho-communism would feature the absence of coercion, direct or indirect, soft or hard, overt or disguised.

Anarcho-communism differs from anarcho-individualism in that anarcho-individualism would be a society characterized by a low degree of cooperation and a high degree of individual self-sufficiency, still with the absence of coercion. Anarcho-anything of course differs from conceptions of society that permanently or essentially privilege classes and exploitative relationships.

Anarcho-anything cannot be "implemented"; it will simply "occur" when most people have a naturally conforming political, social and individual psychology, and those who do not have a naturally conforming psychology recognize that conformity is more pragmatically valuable than subversion or resistance.

Anarcho-communism is, I think, best viewed as a "thousand-year" goal of contemporary communists. It's not necessary in this view to understand how anarcho-communism would work in precise detail; we can let our descendants work out the details to their satisfaction. It serves, rather, as a "flag in the sand": are we moving today (or in the near future) closer to (good) anarcho-communism or farther away (bad)? If we find a better goal later -- perhaps more or less modest -- we can always change it.

Anarcho-communism can emerge from "governmental communism". Governmental communism is, like anarcho-communism, characterized by cooperation for mutual benefit, and the absence of classes and a class state. Governmental communism retains coercion to enforce relations of mutual benefit. Governmental communism must combine literal democracy (rule of the people) with strong social and political constructions (e.g. constitutional provisions) that prevent majorities from exploiting minorities.

Governmental communism can emerge from "state communism". The goals of state communism are to eliminate class distinctions by absorbing the capitalist class into the working class, to promote literal democracy, ahd to establish the social and political constructions that allow a literal democracy to function without majoritarian exploitation. Marx's plan was to establish a class state compliant to the interests of the working class, since only the working class can absorb all other classes. To successfully transition to governmental communism, state communism must sail between the Scylla of privileging a governmental class in opposition to the working class and the Charybdis of the workers giving state power back to the capitalist class because of obsolete social and political constructions inherited (or adopted from) from capitalism. (The argument that the USSR and the PRC never were state communists is to argue that they intentionally and directly sailed straight for a privileged governmental class (USSR) or a thinly disguised capitalist bourgeoisie (PRC), a position I do not believe holds up in light of the historical evidence. They ended up there, but I don't believe it's plausible that they intended to end up there.)

State communism must emerge somehow from our present circumstances of capitalism. ("state" capitalism in an analogous sense to "state communism" above: a capitalist society that uses the power of the government to enforce and maintain class distinctions and the privilege of the capitalist class). The transformation of capitalism to state communism is, of course, a complicated and difficult endeavor.

This transition is aided by the fact that even as we speak, capitalism is collapsing at a fundamental level. For a lot of reasons (which I'll write about soon) the present crisis is very different from any previous capitalist crisis, however severe, including the Great Depression of the 1930s. However merely because capitalism itself is failing does not mean that the state communism will inevitably emerge; the transition to state communism requires the conscious intention of actual human beings to actively implement it. And it is not enough for communists to simply bring down capitalism (or let it fail); we must bring it down in such a way that a communist state — a communist state immune to, or at least less prone to, the dangers noted above — emerges from the collapse.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The atheist community -- or lack thereof

Jack Carlson writes about atheism's big fail. I think he's mistaken on two counts. First I think there is an atheist community. More importantly, I don't see any particular reason why there should be an atheist community, or why any specific level of participation — including none at all — should be viewed as a failure.

There are two levels of atheism: people who do not believe in any god(s), and people who self-identify as atheists. I've observed that many people who do not have any belief in god(s) in any meaningful sense do not or actively refuse to self-identify as atheists.

Carlson is correct: "Other than that one specific philosophical opinion, atheists do not necessarily share any other conclusion, interest or attitude." Communities do indeed form around shared interests. Since atheists do not have any shared interests, it's natural that there would not be an atheist community per se. It's not, as Carlson suggests, a "failure of marketing". There's no actual shared interest to market.

What we do see is a lot of different communities — political, philosophical, scientific, recreational, professional, etc. — forming that include or are dominated by atheists.

There are a lot of atheists I have absolutely no interest in being in any type of meaningful community with: Libertarians, Randians, Republicans, new-age crystal woo-woo. There are other communities — e.g. skeptical anti-woo investigators, advocates of evolutionary science, pro-secularist political activists — who, while I admire their activities, do not engage in activities I have any particular interest in.

I resent being called a "failure" and chided because I don't drop my particular interests and take up some manufactured superficiality necessary to be in an "atheist" community, a group of people 90% of whom I simply do not share any meaningful interest. Quite the contrary: I'm proud to be a member of a number of different communities as an outspoken and unapologetic atheist.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Real" Socialism

I don't know whether it's better to implement socialism — in the sense of a transition from capitalism (or feudalism) to communism — using a "top down" or a "bottom up" approach. But to simply declare that a "top down" approach isn't real socialism seems like substituting ideology for pragmatism and a No True Scotsman fallacy.

It's acceptable to take an ideological approach towards a goal; it's much less acceptable to take an ideological approach towards the means to achieve that goal. Ideology is not completely inappropriate towards means: you obviously want to avoid any means that will compromise your goal, and there are some means we consider ideologically unacceptable on their own merits, regardless of their effects. Even if I were confident that we could achieve communism — a classless, stateless society free of exploitation and oppression — by killing millions of people with the "wrong" sort of psychology, I would consider such means ideologically unacceptable.

But the ideological limitations on means apply mostly to extreme cases, and it's usually possible to transform an "essentialist" argument against means to a pragmatic argument. It's easy to argue that we cannot be confident that killing millions of people with the "wrong" sort of psychology would indeed lead to a communist society.

It is, of course, entirely legitimate to debate which of a "top down" or "bottom up" means is better to begin the implementation of communism. But it seems intellectually lazy to simply declare one or the other definitionally wrong.

Communist: Socialism is great!

Skeptic: But the USSR and the PRC were socialist, and they weren't that great.

Communist: The USSR and PRC weren't socialist.

Skeptic: How do you figure?

Communist: They weren't great. Socialism is great by definition.

Few people (mostly Christians) make their logical fallacies so blatant. Usually one picks some definitional component to exclude the undesirable cases, but the choice of component is driven only to exclude the cases, and only because they are undesirable. One could just as easily say that the USSR and PRC were not socialist because they didn't use the English language; since we in the United States would use the English language, we would be real socialists, and socialism — real socialism — is great.

The point is that making a definitional case avoids making the causal case, or makes the causal case superficial. If we simply deny that the USSR and PRC were socialist, then communists need not examine their successes or failures in any depth or rigor, any more than we need to examine Hitler's successes or failures as failures of socialism.

The definitional case is not entirely inapplicable: it's not a No True Scotsman fallacy to argue that Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is not a True Scotsman, because Apu is not being excluded by virtue of liking sugar in his porridge. Likewise, it's not a No True Scotsman fallacy to note that "National Socialism" (i.e. Nazism) is not socialist: not because Hitler was an evil bastard but because his economic and political philosophy had no connection whatsoever with Marxian philosophy; indeed Nazi Germany was violently opposed to anything that had any connection to Marx.

But even so, the definitional case has to be made very carefully, very rigorously, and one must bend way over backwards to avoid bias suggesting the No True Scotsman fallacy. Even a small mistake, a small hole, makes the argument look like bullshit to an honest skeptic. Addressing the stronger rebuttal is always more persuasive.

It's better I think to see the USSR and PRC as failed socialism, rather than not socialist, as attempts that failed — at some point — to move society towards communism. If we find that they failed because of decisions made in the first five minutes, we still have to make a causal case for that finding (and conclude they were monumentally inept socialists), not a definitional case.

I object to calling the USSR and PRC "not socialist" not because I have an enormous admiration for those societies and believe they must be emulated, but because I think we have much to learn from them, both good and bad.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Quotation of the day

Yet though you never feel its force or its absence, nothing kills or promotes quicker than the word-of-mouth. The gross example is of course the best-seller, but the same mechanism is at work in the most off-track circle. Its most frequent effect is that of artistic rehabilitation. In my time I have seen Mozart and Henry James lifted from the status of empty, frivolous virtuosos to that of great and deep geniuses; El Greco rescued from a negligible place as a baroque artist; Berlioz raised from grudging toleration to the highest eminence; Italian opera recognized as permissible to attend; and the Cubists credited with the sole seminal power in our century. All these conclusions began by being ideas in solitary minds, lone dissenters from the crowd. It follows that what you think — what you decide and keep firmly in mind — is of the utmost importance. Before you know it, your conviction comes out in attitudes and words, which in turn start echoes and arguments distant from your own corner, and after that anything may ensue.

— Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art, 1975

The USSR and the PRC

I consider the detailed historical study of the Soviet Union under Stalin and the People's Republic of China under Mao, to be important in the study of communism*. I do not agree with db0, who seems to hold that Stalin and Mao are just as irrelevant to communism as Hitler or Mussolini.

*The study of Lenin is important in understanding practical techniques for achieving a revolution. Lenin died too early, unfortunately, to offer much practical information on how to govern a socialist country in peacetime.

A detailed study of Hitler's Germany is interesting from a general historical perspective, but not very interesting from a practical perspective of implementing communism. Despite the label "National Socialism", we can easily see that Hitler from day one goes on a very different track than modern communists, and all his subsequent actions, successes as well as failures, are deeply dependent on that alternative track.

Stalin and Mao, however, seem like a different case.

The objection that the USSR under Stalin and PRC under Mao never were communist, in the sense of being classless, stateless societies, seems trivial. Since Marx, it's been an uncontroversial understanding that there must be some sort of substantive transition — often labeled "socialism" — between the existing political-economic system (feudalism for the USSR and PRC) and a classless, stateless communist society. And it is unacceptably dogmatic to assert that the USSR and PRC were not true "socialist" societies just because they did not manage the transition as Marx specified.

Both the USSR and the PRC seem to have least started on a track interesting to communists, that they really struggled with many of the issues that any communist must struggle with in creating a socialist government in actual reality. The most obvious and fundamental struggle was with the private ownership of capital, and the use of private ownership to exploit labor. Both the USSR and the PRC created and managed a more-or-less modern economy and dramatically raised the standard of living without the private, competitive ownership of capital. Regardless of whether or not we want to replicate their methods, they decisively proved that capitalism is not necessary. Both the USSR and the PRC also made great progress (although nowhere near complete success) combating the hyper-exploitation of women.

Of course both the USSR and PRC made some enormous, catastrophic errors. No one wants to replicate the famines in both countries, leading to millions of deaths. But these famines can be explained simply by noting that both countries were under tremendous external pressure to industrialize, and their initial poverty magnified even the smallest error into catastrophic results. Once a moderate level of industrialization was achieved, however, the famines stopped. (And it should be noted that famine and pestilence were hardly absent under capitalism in similar primitive circumstances.)

We must assign more blame to the USSR and PRC for their attempts to forcibly inculcate communist ideology. Such attempts were not only unjust and had abhorrent human cost, they were unnecessary and counterproductive. Communism ought to stand or fall on its own, rational merits, not the ability of the government to enforce assent; to force assent makes it impossible to evaluate the rational merits of communism, for good or ill. (Also the capitalist countries have shown that it's much more effective to bribe the intelligentsia rather than threaten them. Intellectuals are not only whores, they're cheap whores.)

To reject that the USSR and PRC were, at least initially, sincere attempts to implement socialism is to say that communists have no more to learn from them (other than that they somehow (how?) started off on the wrong track), positive or negative, than we have to learn from Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, IBM or Lehman Brothers.

Of course to accept that the USSR and PRC were sincere attempts to implement socialism does not mean that we must approve of everything they did. Nor are we compelled to conclude that their eventual failure (in that both countries became firmly capitalist) means that everything about communism and socialism is necessarily false.

Pure ideology

Commenter DuWayne Brayton offers a long comment on Should the government own everything?.

DuWayne seems to argue that communism is a "pure ideology":
Most ideology looks sexy as hell on paper and sound great from the mouths of charismatic philosophers. But when it comes to real world application, it starts falling apart. On paper, it is inevitable that the one factor repeatedly ignored, is human nature. There is some default assumption that humans will transcend millennia of our evolution and make it all fit together like so.
There are definitely examples of this sort of "pure ideology": Christianity and Islam spring immediately to mind. These ideologies certainly ignore fundamental facts about human nature, especially that human beings are sexual beings, and that sex is both fun and — with modern technology: contraception, antibiotics, condoms and safe abortion — need not be any more dangerous than riding a motorcycle.

The question of course is whether communism is such a "pure ideology" and whether it ignores human nature at a fundamental level. We communists certainly say that communism is a science, that it is reality- and results-oriented*, and that it takes into account human nature at a fundamental level.

*Bob Avakian's polemics against "pragmatism" are best read as polemics against a narrow, superficial expediency, rather than an argument in favor of essentialism and against pragmatism in the broadest results-oriented sense.

Of course, we could be wrong. But if we are in fact wrong, it seems incumbent on critics to offer actual examples where we are wrong. Merely observing uncontroversially that communists have explicitly written some ideas down, and have therefore created an ideology, does not argue that communism is a pure ideology, an essentialist ethical-political system that contradicts or ignores important scientific truths about the world in the same sense that many religious ideologies contradict and ignore scientific truth.

To a certain extent, the admonition against dogmatism, essentialism and ideological authoritarianism should be a "standing order" for all intellectuals. Even scientists all-to-often fall into dogmatic ruts, ignoring or prejudicially dismissing uncomfortable evidence and challenging new ideas.

But the question goes deeper than that. Dogmatism — ideological authoritarianism — is the sine qua non of religion; take out the dogmatism (i.e. scripture) and you are left with ordinary, natural opinion, preference and psychology. If you take the dogmatism out of communism, if you read Marx, Lenin, Mao, and a host of other communist intellectuals critically, applying one's own observation, natural reason and ethical intuition, do you lose the "communism"? I say no: I have read Marx, Lenin, Mao, and a host of other communist intellectuals, I have read them critically (or so I believe), and I've come to the conclusion that despite larger and smaller errors they make a lot of sense at a fundamental level.

There is only one fundamental doctrine of communism: All relations of exploitation and oppression — economic, political, social and psychological — are morally wrong. But this is a doctrine, not a dogma: it's not presented as factual truth but as a defining moral position. If you disagree, you are not mistaken in the same sense that you are mistaken if you disagree that the Earth orbits the sun. If you disagree you are simply an enemy of communism. If you agree, the only question is what kind of communist are you?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Monty Python and socialism

Preference satisfaction

A few years ago, Brian Leiter attempts to undermine preference satisfaction as a valid meta-ethical approach. He makes two cases:
Case 1: Anyone in the grips of addiction will have preferences whose satisfaction (another shot of heroin, another whisky, another hand of blackjack, etc.) will make them worse off.

Case 2: Anyone lacking relevant information will have preferences whose satisfaction will make them worse off.
The second case is incompetent and stupid, an obvious straw man. Lacking relevant information (or having incorrect information) about objective reality can make the satisfaction of any and every preference result in being worse off. If I prefer to cure cancer, and I believe that killing all left-handed people will cure cancer, does that mean that actually satisfying the preference to cure cancer is itself bad? Hardly.

In addition to thus being a vacuous argument against preference-satisfaction (but a good argument for having correct information about the world), one can find that the agent is worse off only by consulting that agent's preferences, those that go unsatisfied.

(It's also egregiously stupid to look at any ethical or meta-ethical preference-fulfillment philosophy as about the fulfillment of individual preferences in isolation. It's trivially obvious that people have competing and mutually-incompatible preferences; preference-fulfillment philosophers simply observe that people have meta-preferences, preferences about other preferences, which they use to decide between competing preferences.)

The first case (addiction) is a little better. Being an addict myself (tobacco), I have some first-hand information about the situation.

It's important to understand that the trade-off between short- and long-term preferences is actually a trade-off between the preferences of two different people: present-me and future-me. When I smoke a cigarette today, I'm fulfilling my preference today to avoid the suffering of withdrawal symptoms at the expense of my "altruistic" preferences towards future-me, a different person. Present-me — the me that decides to smoke a cigarette — is better off in every sense of the word: I presently value the avoidance of withdrawal symptoms more than my altruistic feelings towards future-me.

There's no objective case to be made regarding one's obligations to one's future self. One's obligations to one's future self are completely determined by one's present empathy for one's future self, a different person. We can conclude that one is "worse off" by satisfying a present preference at the expense of a future preference only by arbitrarily privileging the future preference. But if we arbitrarily privilege the future preference, why should we not sacrifice everything, all our lives, just in order to maximize the benefit on the last day — or even hour, minute or second — of our lives? If we are not to absolutely privilege our future preferences, then how much we should privilege them becomes exactly what meta-ethical preference-fulfillment says: how strongly do we feel today about our future preferences?

[h/t to faithlessgod]

Should the government own everything?

Isn't communism the idea that the government should own everything?

The real question is: who owns the government?

Under capitalism, the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) owns all the capital, the physical tools, machines and buildings required to produce stuff (constant capital) and the ability to feed workers before they've actually produced anything (variable capital). The capitalist class doesn't "own" the government outright, but they exert a dominant influence — by choosing who can run for office, and by disseminating an enormous amount of propaganda — that they might as well own it. Since the capitalist class dominates the government, the government on the whole acts in the interests of the capitalist class.

Even though the people are occasionally asked to vote on which faction of the capitalist class to give official state power, our present government can justly be termed a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The goal of communism is to (somehow) implement a government dominated by the people who work for a living (the proletariat), and that thus acts in the interest of the workers: to implement a dictatorship of the proletariat. When the government really is dominated by the workers and acts in their interest, the government then can "own" all the capital.

(While there will probably be some changes to how we construct ownership of ordinary personal property, they need not be as profound and radical as the changes to ownership of capital. You might not "own" your house in the sense of accruing an increase in value, but your rights of tenancy — to stay in the house and live in it as you see fit (with responsible limitations) — would be strengthened.)

A lot of people consider the model of a monolithic one-party central government that micromanages the entire economy as the sine qua non of communism. It seems true that both the USSR and PRC employed this model to some extent. Whether or not this model was correct for the USSR and PRC, it is just one model among many, in the same sense that fascism is one model among many for implementing capitalism.

It's important to understand the specific historical circumstances surrounding the implementation of communism in the USSR and PRC:
  1. Both the USSR and especially the PRC lacked even basic industry
  2. The people of the USSR and PRC were mostly illiterate and lacked basic education
  3. Before their revolutions, the USSR and PRC were subject to severe imperialist domination by the West
  4. Both the PRC and the USSR were facing unrelenting violent hostility from the West; the USSR accurately believed they would be invaded by the West.
None of these circumstances apply to the West, nor would they apply even if the capitalist "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" were to collapse in the present depression.

There are good arguments that a monolithic government has severe limitations and there are better models compatible with the fundamental principles of communism. Still, we have to give credit where it's due. The monolithic one-party governments of the USSR and PRC developed industrial societies in decades; the capitalist West required centuries to achieve the same. Not to engage in apologia — injustice is always wrong and mistakes should always be corrected — but the injustices perpetrated by the communist governments of the USSR and PRC as well as the catastrophes resulting from their mistakes are mild compared to those of the capitalist West.

If we communists must squarely face up to the injustices and mistakes of Stalin, Mao, Castro, et al. as communist errors — and we must — the capitalists must squarely face up to the injustices and mistakes of Hitler, Pinochet, Somoza, Pahlavi, et al., capitalist governments all. If we communists must squarely face up to the famines of the USSR and PRC, the capitalists must face up to the Irish famine and the 1918 flu pandemic.

The comparison is especially favorable to communism if we compare the USSR and PRC to the capitalist monolithic one-party governments: Germany, Italy and Japan of the late 1930s to early 1940s. Compared to less than a decade of Nazi or Japanese imperialist rule, Stalin, Mao and Castro come off as exemplars of grandfatherly kindness.

I do not intend an apologia for the errors of communist governments; it would be a tu quoque fallacy to excuse these errors by noting equally or more severe capitalist errors. I merely note that all human endeavors are fraught with peril, and egregious, catastrophic errors at worst fail to differentiate capitalism and communism; at best — if we count two world wars, centuries of imperialism and colonialism, and the hyper-exploitation of women and minorities in the West — they show communism in a better light than capitalism.

In any event, a monolithic one-party central government that micromanages the economy is simply not warranted for the specific economic, political and social circumstances that obtain in the West. With a pre-existing industrial base, a literate and relatively well-educated population, and a tradition of individual relatively responsible liberty, we in the West can move much more quickly towards the guiding slogan of the communist revolutions of the early 20th century — All power to the soviets! — true grassroots participatory democracy and true self rule by a responsible, compassionate citizenry.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Confirmatory and disconfirmatory evidence

Much is made of the "logical fallacy" of evidentiary reasoning. The hypothetico-deductive method supposedly goes like this:

    (A) If theory X were true, we should see Y; we see Y, therefore theory X is true
The problem is obvious: it's the fallacy of the affirmation of the consequent. In logic, the converse of an implication cannot be directly derived an implication: if p -> q is true, we cannot always infer that q -> p is true.

We have a better tool, though, in our toolbox of logic: the contrapositive:

    (B) If theory X were false, we should not see Y; we do see Y, therefore theory X is true
This has the advantage of logical validity: if ~p -> ~q, we can validly infer that q -> p.

We want to make sure that theory X does in fact preclude something. Consider the statements about a "toy" theory of gravity:
    (1) If the theory of gravity is true, a dropped rock will always move somewhere at some acceleration
    (2) If the theory of gravity is true, a dropped rock will always accelerate straight down at 10 m/s2
Both statements are of form of an implication (p -> q). We cannot, however, create a negative implication from the first implication: the "theory" predicts any logically possible observation of its motion. On the other hand, we can easily create a negative implication from the second:

    (2') If the theory of gravity were false, a dropped rock will sometimes not accelerate straight down at 10 m/s2
Theory (2), therefore, is falsifiable.

The presence of "always" and "sometimes", however, complicates the matter. Life would be easier if I could say
    (2''): If the theory of gravity were false, a dropped rock will never accelerate straight down at 10 m/s2
Unfortunately, we cannot derive this implication from (2). If, therefore, I drop a rock and it accelerates straight down at 10 m/s2, I have not demonstrated that the consequent is false, and I cannot employ the contrapositive to infer the truth of the antecedent.

We can use probabilism, however, to quantify "sometimes". We can say,
    (2p) If the theory of gravity were false, the position of a dropped rock at time t should be randomly distributed (or correlated with some point other than p)
We can calculate the probability of the rock randomly being at point p at time t (straight down after accelerating at 10 m/s2). We can then use Bayes' Theorem to calculate the probability that the rock always appears at point p after time t.

The "metaphysical" objection to Bayes' theorem is that it requires the assumption of some specific prior probability that our theory is true, and we have no good prior reason to assign any that specific probability. There are two ways of overcoming this objection. First, we can simply set the prior probability for the truth of the theory to the probability that the rock will appear randomly at point p at time t. Our first (successful) trial, then, will raise the probability that the theorem is true to 50% (i.e. perfectly agnostic).

Another strategy is to plug any arbitrary value (such as 50%) as the prior probability. Each subsequent successful experiment will raise the probability that the theorem is true; if the theory really is true, one can perform a finite number of experiments to obtain any desired probability, and as the desired probability rises exponentially, the number of experiments necessary to achieve that probability increases linearly.

It's important to understand that the "truth" of a theory is, in this sense, nothing more (or less) than the prediction of a correlation. This interpretation of theoretical truth ignores any underlying ontological interpretation of a theory, and ignore the the sense of "truth" as that the ontological interpretation "corresponds to" reality. A "true" theory in this sense is a theory that predicts or explains correlations.

Much philosophical hay has been made of the undesirability of making ad hoc corrections to a theory. But that a theory is adjusted on the basis of evidence that contradicts the theory is not by itself objectionable. We have to look, rather, at whether ad hoc corrections to a theory make it broader or narrower, predicting more or fewer alternative observations. For example, Einstein's "ad hoc" corrections to Newton's theory of gravity is just as narrow, just as specific, as Newton's theory.

With this way of looking at evidentiary arguments, we can easily see many of the problems with evidentiary apologetics. The biggest problem with evidentiary apologetics is that they do not specify disconfirmatory evidence, except in the trivial sense that we would not have the specific confirmatory evidence we already have.

Another more subtle problem with evidentiary apologetics is that by the invocation of supernaturalism they deny the probabilistic basis of determining universal physical laws. Supernaturalism essentially says that even if an observation precluded by universal physical law is actually observed, the "universal" physical law might still be true. According to the natural theory of gravity, the probability of it rising straight up is exactly 0% — if I drop a rock and it rises, my theory is decisively disproven. Under supernaturalism, though, the probability that it will "miraculously" rise straight up is not calculable. No series of observations, however many we perform, can ever support or undermine an assertion of universal physical law: We can attribute any number of contrary observations to miracles.

William Lane Craig, for example, invokes supernaturalism.
What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.
The problem is obvious: There is no way to calculate the prior probability of a supernatural event. He makes this interpretation clear in the preceding sentence:
In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.
Craig is right: We simply cannot discuss the prior probability of God's existence and therefore of a supernatural resurrection. There is no meaningful way — not even a metaphorical way — of discussing the prior probability of a supernatural event. How, for example, can we speak even metaphorically about the "possible worlds" where God does or does not resurrect Jesus?

Saying that a number in an equation is not meaningful does not give us license to plug in whatever value we feel like. To say that the prior probability of Jesus' resurrection is not calculable means that one cannot draw any inferences at all from a Bayesian examination of the evidence.

This is why I assert that Craig is at best (as a professional academic) massively incompetent or at worst intentionally lying. He proceeds with an argument he ought to know is logically invalid. If he does not know it's invalid, he's incompetent; if he knows it's invalid and still uses it, he's lying. Furthermore, it is very difficult to believe that everyone in the field of evidentiary apologetics is massively incompetent: it seems highly probable that some of them know that the argument from evidence is invalid because of supernatural priors, but still continue to employ — and allow their incompetent colleagues to employ — the argument.

In either case, it is pointless to engage in a rational examination of evidence with evidentiary apologists. They are either incompetent to employ the argument, or they're lying.