Is there a limit to socialist progress? (archive)

Progress, Socialism, Capitalism and Ideological Pathologies

Ronald Wright, of all the anthropological critics of “civilization” (a word which I find so horribly vague that I am hesitant to use it), seems to be the most cogent and thus in some ways the most damning. His work indicates that paleolithic hunter-gatherers, often the focal points for primitivists, were just as subject to resource overuse as anyone else. The profundity of that can hit you for a minute: the evidence is that not even pre-agricultural peoples were totally immune to resource over-harvesting and “progress traps.”

In a conversation with Tom O’Brien, the host of From Alpha to Omega, I spoke to him about the problems of Keynesianism, which does seem to stimulate a market economy but only for a short time. Historically, it’s hard to gauge, but if the era after World War 2 is an indication, Keynesian policies seem to promote growth for about 20 to 30 years. Indeed, for the mainstream liberal Keynesians, if their economics do stimulate growth by stimulating consumption the problem is immediately apparent: it accelerates both development as well as resource depletion.

How is this related to Ronald Wright and the documentary I have linked to above? It is simple: Wright writes down the idea that progress always trumps limits in development. Most societies in human history have declined and failed, and this is largely tied to various forms of resource exhaustion. This, ironically, does seem to be a form of what capitalists call “creative destruction”, as the poverty induced by failure often predicates the development of a new social form somewhere nearby which deals with some, but not all, of the hard ecological limits. This is not always the case though as isolated or closed social systems — or physically isolated systems (deserts, islands, etc.) — often just go through protracted decline. The most notable example of the latter is the Easter Islands.

While both classical and neoclassical economics accept these limits as given in the first instance — hence both rely on the theories of scarcity — they tend to fall into a trap of what Wright calls “ideological pathology”. And if the actions of China and the Soviet Union are an example then so did the larger actually-existing socialist societies. China fared better, however, by increasing land and resource exploitation while the Soviet Union expanded largely by debt to fund wars to liberate parts of the world. During most of its period of accumulation of territory the Soviet Union did not over-accumulate resources to expenditures — with the notable and highly tragic exception of the Ukraine — until the debt cycles of the 1970s. And ironically the very military required to maintain this accumulation was exhausting the resources extracted from these ventures instead of being pumped back into socialists development. Even after the Soviet collapse, Russia has continued to pay a demographic price and this has only been offset by price spikes of resource commodities (in the neoclassical definition of the term). It is important to point out that when Marx speaks of a commodity, he is talking about a manufactured and traded good; and when a neoclassical economist is talking about a commodity, they mean the raw materials used to make goods. Yet, the Economist is beginning to agree that even commodities in this limited neo-classical definition are subject to price declines and peaks of production.

What can primary producers do about this? In a recent conference at the IMF in Washington, one of the authors, Kaddour Hadri, suggested that commodity-dependent economies should take advantage of short periods of price spikes to invest in alternative industries. But many commodity-dependent economies fail to do this. William Sawyer, of Texas Christian University, argues that South America has failed to take advantage of high commodity prices over the past decade. As a result, their economies are not well-equipped to deal with the current price declines.

But according to Javier Blas, a journalist for the Financial Times who spoke at the IMF conference, commodity producers have been fighting against the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis for the last century. Many have shifted production away from commodities which do relatively badly against manufactured goods. The development of the soybean market, as well as shifts towards farming of chicken and pork, are some examples of this. None of these commodities appears in the IMF paper, so it does not tell a completestory. Still, and oddly enough, the IMF seems to have turned up some evidence to support a bit of Marxist economic theory.

This does not look good for either capitalist or socialist economies that are almost entirely dependent on resource extraction for their largess. That does not only include Russia, but Venezuela, Canada, and, this is unclear to me exactly why, perhaps Brazil. This also does not look good for the consumptive and production hubs needing those resources: China, the US, and the EU. (Despite the US trade deficit, it is still the second most productive economy on earth, but that fact in itself should be horrifying when you realize that its productive capacity and its import-consumption are so large.) What is clear is just that the labor force increasingly is not employed in the manufacturing sector of the economy: this is partially due to traditional exploitation and partly due to increased technological efficiency (which makes the former more efficient in tandem).

I say this to point out that, despite ideological buzzwords like “sustainability”, these very real resource limits are largely ignored in Marxian circles as well as Keynesian ones. Marx did clearly realize that capitalism exhausted the environment and he also said that wealth — although not abstract value (this distinction is not accepted in most other schools of “conventional” economics) — came from the nature, not from labor alone. He says this most explicitly in the Critique of the Gotha Program.  To paraphrase, labor produces abstract value, but is not the sole source of material wealth of the world. In fact, Marx clearly subsumed the category of labor in the concept of nature as well as is made clear by his quote, “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power” The Soviet Union literally ignored this with Stalin codifying a strange form of the law of value which mandated increased exploitation so that socialization of the surplus could continue. It was industrial output gone mad. Focusing on abstract value and conflating it with wealthat the expense of resources is not just something explicit capitalists do. It is important to remember that wealth refers to material goods one can use, but abstract value is a reification of social relationships generally manifested in currency.

None of these equations gives one a lot of room for hope for a socialist society slowing growth without impoverishing the society itself. Slowing growth, however, is really what such a society MUST end up doing. I, unlike my Luddite friends, do not see technology as the prime offender here: Wright is useful at this too, the technology that allowed for hunter-gathers was not a more efficient spear, it was figuring out how to chase herds of pack animals over a cliff. It was a matter of thinking, not of material technology. The distinction, when you really think about it, is thin to begin with.

Two Roads Half-Not-Taken

Very few traditional Marxists have begun to look at resource problems. I would venture to say that autonomists and communizers have turned their eyes hither, but perhaps not completely without either eschatology or fatalism.

1. Autonomism.

This article by Automnia, while given to the typical left declaring the left dead, is really quite good on the constraints we are witnessing:

We are approaching true dystopia. As the last remnants of the welfare state burn to warm the bourgeoisie, people freeze to death on streets of empty houses. Work is given for free, education for a fee and tax breaks for a kitchen supper. And should the people take to the streets? Well the ambush is well set. The batons that beat them down will be the same ones their taxes provided, the poison pens that libel them the same they paid with the morning paper. In fact, the ambush has already been sprung. They won’t let you find place to work or a place to sleep. They will shake the trust you put in those you organise with, live with, love. You are no longer a subversive, you are a domestic extremist.

The condemnation of the left myopia and contradiction is dead-on:

The left today is splintered, yet resistant to disunity. The idea that those who apologise rape for the SWP, torture for the WRP or statism for the SP are part of the same movement which unceasingly criticises them is deluded. The party form upon which the SWP, WRP, SP and all of the other muddles of sovietised letters depends is based on an oxymoron. “Democratic centralism” is a contradiction dressed up an ideology, an impossibility arrogant enough to wear its dissonance as a name. The idea that a narrow party can blossom into a mass movement, then bear fruit as a government for the masses is pure fantasy. The structures of the bureaucratised tyrant lie sleeping within the smallest cadre.

But the answer to this is, frankly, underdeveloped:

To progress in the pursuit of the total emancipation of humanity, the left must liberate itself from itself. It is time to free ourselves from the tyranny of obscurity and go forth either unlabelled or more truthfully described. Before the 1780s, “the left” did not exist, yet the world was not one of unquestioning obedience to authority and unchallenged oppression. The old forms which typify the established left will not help us, war for the future will must be fought against hierarchies, not from within them. We must atomise to unionise, divide to multiply, break apart to discover form with true potential. Friends, let us smash the left, from its rubble we can build barricades

The answer that the left’s main problem is its own obsession with its past is problematic. Yes, this is an ideological pathology that turns left-wing grouplets into stale newspaper sellers wondering why we cannot get along. The call for decentralization so that new ideas can flourish is also good, but none of this is all that material. The creative destruction of the left may be necessary, but really this is still placing “the left” at a hinge in history it does not necessarily deserve even if it did have dominance of a 1/3 of the planet for about one generation. In a sense Automnia is completely right, and in another sense, none of it brings the dinosaurs’ dead corpses which we have lived on back to the current economy. In short, there are real logistics that have nothing to do with current left-wing organizing that need to be addressed.

2. Communization

Communization theorists, by and large, have a far more material view of what is wrong with the left. One recent article from Peter Åström published in SIC deals with these problems, in which the analysis is provided as follows:

It is always hazardous to speak of the future, but the risks are smaller when we are discussing the near future. Let us therefore sketch out the following scenario: the crisis has deepened and enormous quantities of capital have been lost. The capitalist class desperately has to increase exploitation in order to restart accumulation anew. The proletariat is resisting and after a while the situation arises, somewhere, where none of the classes can yield, which leads to enormous disturbances in society. The wage loss due to strikes and unemployment along with a currency crisis then creates an acute need for all sorts of provisions at the same time as one can no longer pay for these. The movement thus enters a new phase, when the proletarians stop paying the rent, electricity, water, and start to break into warehouses, occupy farm lands and so on, in short when they take what they need. Now, these encroachments on property rights are not the appropriation of the means of production and of existence; these do not pass  over to the workers to become their property. Instead they cease to be property—they become communised. In the struggle against capital, the proletarians are strengthened and united by making themselves independent of working for money; class unity appears thus in the process of the dissolution of classes—in communisation. To concretely abolish themselves as proletarians is going to be the most difficult thing in the   world, but is at the same time the ultimate weapon in the class struggle. With its communising measures the proletariat combats efficiently the class enemy by destroying all the conditions which constantly recreate the proletariat as a class. In the end, the proletariat can only fend off capital by negating itself as a value-creating class and at the same time—in one and the same process—producing completely new lives that are incompatible with the reproduction of capital.

One cannot deny the materiality of the analysis, and yet it has the slight smell of eschatology: the class dissolution from extreme crisis will produce the conditions that will allow for communism.  This may just lead one to accept Wright’s and others’ critique, progress will begin only after current progress has failed and exhausted itself. Yet this is similar to primitivism in that it expects the crisis to clear the landscape in a particular way in which there are no other contingent factors. At least, that is how it reads.

Triploin has a view of communization that is not quite as mechanistic:

The idea is fairly simple, but simplicity is often one of the most difficult goals to achieve. It means that a revolution is only communist if it changes all social relationships into communist relationships, and this can only be done if the process starts in the very early days of the revolutionary upheaval. Money, wage-labour, the enterprise as a separate unit and a value-accumulating pole, work-time as cut off from the rest of our life, production for value, private property, State agencies as mediators of social life and conflicts, the separation between learning and doing, the quest for maximum and fastest circulation of everything, all of these have to be done away with, and not just be run by collectives or turned over to public ownership: they have to be replaced by communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life. The process will take time to be completed, but it will start at the beginning of the revolution, which will not create the preconditions of communism: it will create communism.

This does not seem to be nearly as mechanistic as the above quote from SIC. Some of the same concerns, however, are there:

Communism is an anthropological revolution in the sense that it deals with what Marcel Mauss analysed in The Gift (1923): a renewed ability to give, receive and reciprocate. It means no longer treating our next-door neighbour as a stranger, but also no longer regarding the tree down the road as a piece of scenery taken care of by council workers.   Communisation is the production of a different relation to others and with oneself, where solidarity is not born out of a moral duty exterior to us, rather out of practical acts and interrelations.

Among other things, communisation will be the withering away of systematic distinction between learning and doing. We are not saying that ignorance is bliss, or that a few weeks of thorough (self-)teaching are enough for anyone to be able to translate Arabic into English or to play the harpsichord. Though learning can be fun, it often involves long hard work. What communism will do away with is the locking up of youth in classrooms for years (now 15 to 20 years in so-called advanced societies). Actually, modern school is fully aware of the shortcomings of such an absurdity, and tries to bridge the gap by multiplying out-of-school activities and work experience schemes. These remedies have little effect: the rift between school and the rest of society depends on another separation, which goes deeper and is structural to capitalism: the separation between work (i.e. paid and productive labour), and what happens outside the work-place and is treated as non-work (housework, bringing up children, leisure, etc., which are unpaid). Only superseding work as a separate time-space will transform the whole learning process.

Here again, and in contrast to most utopias as well as to modern totalitarian regimes, communisation does not pretend to promote a “brave new world” full of new (wo)men, each equal in talents and in achievements to his or her fellow beings, able to master all fields of knowledge from Renaissance paintings to astrophysics, and whose own desires would always finally merge in harmonious concord with the desires of other equally amiable fellow beings.

Ignoring that many versions of Marxism and communism have promised a total overcoming, these acknowledgements of human limits are a profound step in the right direction. Thus Triploin also admits that some of the past bonds dissolved by capitalism and its consumption are preferable and that progress may be problematic:

In the past and still in many aspects of the present, quite a few things and activities were owned by no-one and enjoyed by many. Community-defined rules imposed bounds on private property. Plough-sharing, unfenced fields and common pasture land used to be frequent in rural life. Village public meetings and collective decisions were not unusual, mostly on minor topics, sometimes on important matters.

While they provide us with valuable insights into what a possible future world would look like, and indeed often contribute to its coming, these habits and practices are unable to achieve this coming by themselves. A century ago, the Russian mir had neither the strength nor the intention of revolutionising society: rural cooperation depended on a social system and a political order that was beyond the grasp of the village autonomy. Nowadays, millions of co-ops meet their match when they attempt to play multinationals — unless they turn into big business themselves.

Our critique of progressivism does not mean supporting tradition against modernity. Societal customs have many oppressive features (particularly but not only regarding women) that are just as anti-communist as the domination of money and wage-labour. Communisation will succeed by being critical of both modernity and tradition. To mention    just two recent examples, the protracted rebellion in Kabylia and the insurgency in Oaxaca have proved how collective links and assemblies can be reborn and strengthen popular resistance. Communisation will include the revitalization of old community forms, when by resurrecting them people get more than what they used to get from these forms in the past. Reviving former collective customs will help the communisation process by transforming these customs.

So what is not to like? The analysis of Gilles Duave and his collective is all very good, but it is vague in the specifics with only hints at how to redress ecological limits (like Das Kapital itself was in the regards to the future, and very specific in regards to the present). This is fine, but such negative ideological critiques seem to have been the building blocks of past societies which have failed, and we do have real practical limits which must be dealt with in the now. Still this line of thought is at least serious about the problems at hand.

Eschatology and Apocalypse is not an answer

My critique of Primitivism has always been two fold: it is not entirely honest about the life of hunter-gathers and its obsession with post-industrial technology eliminates the fact that all the things that led to technology and overreach are not only before agricultural civilization but we see signs of it in other animals species which can predate themselves out of a food source.  The idea that ecologies are somehow geared towards equilibrium and self-regulation does not withstand what a termite or a swarm of locusts can do to an otherwise balanced ecosystem.

The idea that an industrial collapse that would lead to a 99.5% population die-off which itself would depopulate the world enough for surviving wildlife to be unharmed by hunter-gathering is not particularly realistic as all sorts of technological fall-out could still render such a lifestyle mostly impossible.

Destruction of capital has reset capitalism before, so those crises would not automatically reset society to a socialist one, and only a socialist society not predicated on growth would deal with the ecological limitations anyway. Neither of the two more realistic theories I listed above completely deal with this. I, however, give them credit for looking at the problems seriously.

Finally, while extinction is possible, the course of human indicates that the likely outcome is not extinction: it is painful, horrible, and violent decline until a new social form emerges. The Marxist theory of the history of social forms has always had an implicit faith that such limits could be worked out. In placing social developments in history, it avoided the transhistorical optimism of a lot of capitalist talk or assuming that all prior societies function merely as prototypes for the current development of liberal modernity. In this, I agree with Marx, but I increasingly wonder if there are some limits — existing outside of the human sphere of influence like ecological systems — which effectively bring a transhistorical limit back into the picture? What development? What argument? What dialectic sublimates that?

I do not know.

What I do know is this: delusion is not grounds for social change. In many ways, the biggest enemy of social change is the soft idiocy of blind optimism. How can you change a world in which you are not willing to admit what the problems are? Any society emerging after capitalism either runs its course or is removed must deal with these problems, or face the dustbin of history.

(Originally posted here)


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