Councilism and the knowledge problem (archive)

Talking to Tom, the host of the From Alpha to Omega podcast, I have recently come to a conclusion about why I increasingly gravitate towards councilism, as its confederated structure is more likely to deal with the only serious critique of centralized communism that I think stands: the knowledge problem.    Marginal utility, the collective man, and all these things are red herrings that cannot be ascribed to Marx proper, but in thinking a totality can replace another totality, Marxists have often been in hubris bout the limits of any centralized planning.  For example, Jacobin has written, accurately, that during the depression the Soviet system was more productive.  That is absolutely true, but what is missed is that if you look at the work of Getty and Fitzgerald on Stalinism, you’ll see that from USSR’s own stats, caloric consumption from the average worker was BELOW what it was during the sources of the Russian Civil war.  I want that to sink in for a second, to keep that level of production up, a whole massive society had to starve itself, and also become conspiratorial to explain all the industrial collapses that were happening in order push that much productive capacity that fast.  Add to that this ruined the countryside of a lot of central Asia.  When a lack of knowledge of a ecological limit hits, society can become quite violent and need a scapegoat.

Furthermore, completely decentralized societies also go through similar shortages and inability to deal with changes in the weather and of blow back from ecological developments or even political ones. Councils work in concert with each other, and can do limited planing  in a matter similar to a corporation–although it is hard to say exactly what this would look like after capitalist development seizes since it would not look like entirely pre-modern councils due to the knowledge of certain types of technology, nor would be  look like city councils in capitalist worlds or corporate boards whose primary function is value production, but we can assume that a worldwide council would not be logistically possible without multiple levels of federation.    While centralization does increase efficiency as many liberals and socialists will tell you, they miss that in all complex systems there is a point of diminishing returns which acts in conjunction with recourse limits as a hard limit to any possible project, capitalism decentralized totality has been far more adaptive to that than the centralizing and teleological development chosen by the Soviet Union.  That was not the only path.

Furthermore, I increasingly see this in China, the cultural revolution with all its advances and human tragedy was aimed a centralized apparatus that could not meet demands placed on it by the population.   The forms of de-centralization were barred, the one that emerged in the second Shanghai commune and the market liberal one that Deng actually choose.  By deciding to crush the development of the former for fear of dissolving China, it seems like the latter became the only option under Deng to get a very particular developmental plateau.

Now, the form of a governing system cannot explain all failures, but it does explain some.  The irony that fear of decentralization leading to dissolution of “the revolution” often leads to the dissolution by other means.   The refusal to learn this lesson and continue to pretend that any socialist society could be a mass society mirroring capitalism in some ways is, frankly, probably one of the key ideological reasons why these states have actually empowered nationalist and capitalist development in either the dissolution or reform.   The knowledge problem is real particularly as you scale up and the entropic causes of failure increase dramatically.  That is a law of physics as much as a law of history.   It cannot be ignored, but it is false to think all communitarian societies are given to it:  since most of our history will lived in small communities with limited or no private property in terms of land and means of production, it seems like something is turned to complexity of the system also ties to being unable, to use Marxian language, to transcend the value form.   Commitment to any ideal may be necessary in that case, but it is not sufficient.

Lastly, I am not naivete to think councilism removes knowledge limits from our lives: capitalism does not either, actually, and we can see that with ecological degeneration and the shortness of scale of politics in mixed economic republics.   What such council confederation does is limited the damage done in a system from a collapse in any point.   Tragedy is part of human of life and that often stems from lack of knowledge, but systems that are centralized and massive in scale have highly fragile collapses with much higher costs.  That is true would be true in a socialist world as well as a capitalist one.

(Originally posted here)


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