The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

George not King, Judges rule

Revolution still in danger but far from dead. This is all beginning to look like the pacier pages of Lord Macaulay. (Via.)
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Arguments and Fights

The trouble with liberals (though not these, bless their shivs and toecaps) is that they often mistake a fight for an argument, and the right never does. Though this article on the respected and influential Nazi (yes, really) political philosopher Carl Schmitt comes down on the woolly side of the fence, it includes plenty of quotes from which to draw a different conclusion for the days that we have been given: always fight. (Via.)
No wonder that Schmitt admired thinkers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, who treated politics without illusions. Leaders inspired by them, in no way in thrall to the individualism of liberal thought, are willing to recognize that sometimes politics involves the sacrifice of life. They are better at fighting wars than liberals because they dispense with such notions as the common good or the interests of all humanity. ("Humanity," Schmitt wrote in a typically terse formulation that is brilliant if you admire it and chilling if you do not, "cannot wage war because it has no enemy.")
It has now.
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Tuesday, June 29, 2004


Today's Independent carries a full-page obituary of Anthony Buckeridge (1912 - 2004), who died yesterday. The author of the Jennings books (comedies about boys at an English boarding school) turns out to have had a full as well as a long life.

There's often something sad about comedy, or so I find it. When I was around the same age as their protagonists, I read the Jennings books, the William books, and the Molesworth books, and their effect was very different. Nigel Molesworth is clearly a boy well in touch with his inner adult, who is doing something unpleasant in Personnel. William Brown, whose adventures I read voraciously, is a creature - a wonderful creature - of the imagination, not, or not so much, of observation. What William and Nigel have in common is a sense that growing up and becoming an adult is something you are doomed to, and that's what gives them their poignancy behind the laughs.

Buckeridge has no truck with that. The adults in Jennings world are, as it were, on the same level as the boys. The whole trick is that you see the teachers' point of view at the same time as seeing that of Jennings and his pals. The collisions of their world-views are the engine of the comedy, and the product is pure laughing gas, an unalloyed joy to read. The Jennings books made me laugh more than anything in print before I met Jeeves.
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Monday, June 28, 2004

Surveying Information Age Warfare

Socialism in an Age of Waiting is back, and very much welcome, not least for linking to a deeply depressing paper on the future of warfare (text download) by the late Paul Hirst. The good news in Hirst's paper is that there is unlikely to be a war between the major powers. The bad news is that in every other respect the 21st century is likely to be worse than (e.g.) the one I imagined in the Fall Revolution books. It's likely to be worse than John Brunner imagined. Hirst concludes:
This is not a pleasant prospect. It could be that this analysis is too pessimistic and the forces outlined here will be less powerful, that climatic change will not be so dramatic, that the R[evolution in]M[ilitary]A[ffairs] will prove more limited in scope, and that the developed countries will shift resources dramatically to tackle poverty on a world scale. For that to happen the attitudes of ordinary citizens in the developed countries would have to change radically: accepting the massive reduction of emissions (and the changes in lifestyle that would have to accompany such moves) to check climate change, paying for more for aid, welcoming migrants, and seeking to eliminate the sources of conflict rather than repress those who take up arms. It would be a remarkable reversal and it will have to happen soon.
It is not, of course, likely to happen at all. The comrades at SIAW would no doubt see the considerations adduced by Hirst as an argument for the democratic socialist world revolution for which they are waiting. But if the economic calculation argument is valid, we must accept that (Marxian, non-market) socialism, however democratic (etc, etc), would result in industry grinding to a halt and people dying like flies, as indeed it has done whenever it has been seriously attempted. (Fortunately it has not been seriously attempted in most socialist countries, hence the otherwise inexplicable prevalence of state capitalism, and the inevitable reversion from state to private capitalism.) If so, it's time for responsible Marxists to follow Hirst's excellent example and stop blathering on about socialism, in the sense of some post-market order about whose actual economic mechanism that is supposed to replace the market they (like the rest of us) have (when you part the thickets of wearisomely familiar verbiage) no fucking clue, and which won't arrive no matter how long we wait.

There is, however, hope, and it does lie in the proles. For if socialism has been the crushing disappointment of the twentieth century, proletarian revolution has been its smashing success. Marx was absolutely on the money about the revolutionary potential of the urban working class. He was just wrong about its liability to establish a socialist order. Proletarian revolutions have been frequent and are increasingly prevalent, but socialism in Marx's sense is still news from nowhere.

(A perhaps avoidable digression: There was one proletarian socialist revolution, and it went to the devil as swiftly as any medieval millennarian commune, due in large measure to the unexpected and (in 1918) quite novel and inexplicable phenomenon of industry grinding to a halt and people dying like flies. ('If you don't mind me saying so, that's a very Soviety bridge,' remarked an old women to Lenin and Krupskaya as they picked their way across some rickety deathtrap over a freezing torrent. Lenin, to his undying credit, promptly added 'Soviety' to his already extensive thesaurus of pejoratives. But to his dying day he never did understand why a Soviety bridge was a rickety bridge - he thought it had something to do with bureaucracy, and put Stalin in charge of sorting the matter out, a decision he lived just long enough to regret but not, alas, long enough to rescind.) 1917 aside, the proletarian revolutions have not been socialist, and the socialist revolutions have not been proletarian.
For lack of even the most essential data, also excluded from this study is the People's Socialist Republic of Nambuangongo, established around February 1961 in the Dembos forests in north-western Nambuangongo (between the rivers Loge and Dang) in the immediate wake of the 1961 rising in Luanda. The republic will probably remain the most distant and curious echo of the Bolshevik revolution. Therefore, in spite of the fact that it has not proved possible to unearth any data on this example, it does seem important that its existence should be put on record.
Bogdan Szajkowski, The Establishment of Marxist Regimes, Butterworths, 1982.

(The book painstakingly and almost tediously documents the non-proletarian social basis of every single establishment of a self-styled Marxist regime, other than the one established by the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet in October 1917 (Old Style).) Some of the most impressive proletarian revolutions have been anti-socialist: Hungary 1956, Poland 1981, Rumania 1989, China 1989. Not all were victorious but, as Perry Anderson said of the 19th-century English workers, even when they won no victories, their defeats were astonishing. What The Economist said of 1981 can stand for them all: Marx's irresistible force met Lenin's immovable object. Sometimes the irresistible force was stopped, and sometimes the immovable object ... moved.)

Not long ago the commonest form of unconstitutional governmental or regime change was through military coup, with guerilla war running a distant but respectable second. These days it's through proletarian revolution: mass, urban, working-class insurrections have toppled governments across the globe. The wage and salary earners are now the largest class on the planet, and by far the most decisive one. They've been throwing their social weight around to good effect. The unappeasable crowd in Republic Square, the converging columns of the rural poor, the snowstorm of secret police files from the broken windows of the gutted Ministry of the Interior, the armed workers and students reading the news in the national television studio - such formerly once-in-a-generation epochal events have become so common in the years since 1989 that they sometimes fail to make the front pages of even serious bourgeois newspapers. The governments they put in have so far not been outstanding at advancing the interests of the working class, but no doubt we'll get the hang of it eventually.
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Friday, June 25, 2004

A New Martian?

Cheryl Morgan has forwarded this curious email:
Dear Ken,

Apologies for hijacking one of your friends' email accounts, but as you can probably guess it is not wise for me to reveal my location to the authorities right now.

Anyway, to the point: outsourcing. Please tell Jon not to worry about the Indian thing. I am on the point of securing a lucrative deal with a call centre based on Mars. Their rates are very competitive and initial tests have shown that they have adequate bandwidth. There is a small problem with time delay, but their staff cleverly cover that by claiming to be thinking hard about calls.

As you have probably guessed, their employees are not human. I am still in the process of determining whether or not they are organic. One clue is that they claim to have no transgendered employees, which they say gives them a big advantage over the Indians when going after lucrative US contracts. Personally I don't give a fuck, and I doubt that the average Evangelical Christian has a clue what hijra means anyway, but I suspect that Jon may be concerned that the Indians are exploiting a cultural minority that has difficulty obtaining work in traditional companies.

One small problem. The company gives its name as Freedom Hound Ltd. I smell a rat. Or rather a dog. If you or Jon still have moles inside GCHQ a few quiet enquiries concerning bizarre explanations for lost exploratory hardware would be appreciated.

Yours profitably,

Dave Reid
I should make clear that references to 'moles' are entirely a product of my friend's vivid imagination.
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Free-Market Think-Tanks Out-sourced

Callers to the Intellect Foundation, the Caesar Institute and other libertarian think-tanks will from today be surprised to hear a pause, a click, and an answer in a flawless but distinctly Indian-accented English. The free-market foundations' entire staffs have been sacked and replaced by eager graduates in the Bombay-based Kali Call-Centre, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of creative destruction.

'If you really want passionate denunciation of an over-regulated economy, and paens to the glory of the free market, there's no better place to come than India,' explains its owner, self-styled 'intellectual entrepreneur' Saresh Ramakrishnan (19), as he proudly oversees a small back room full of two hundred fast-talking, keyboard-tapping, headset-wearing men, women, hijras and children. 'Here we know what strangling red tape and mass poverty are really like. As for religious interference in politics and private morals, we're up against the world's worst serial offenders outside of Iran. We can undercut American ideologues any day. We're English-literate, hip, and nobody can accuse us of being a bunch of fat white men.'

Jonathan Wilde, eminence grise of the Deforestation Alliance, England's 'premier free-market and anti-environmentalist think-tank', gloomily agrees but is holding out against the tide. 'Here in Britain we have libertarians who will work for nothing,' he says. 'I know, to our American friends it seems incredible, if not immoral, but that's the way it is. And it gives us a chance to hang in there until the Indians are in turn undercut by the Fr - the Fr ... the frigging Chinese.'
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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Market exchanges

Michael Fahey commented on my remarks on socialism and economic calculation, and with his permission I'm posting our exchanges as a dialogue. In cases where I made a point for point response, I've given the whole of Michael Fahey's message first:

Economic calculation is not a barrier to socialism. Supply and demand operate, whatever the economic system, to determine the price (expressed in money) of commodities and services, based on availability and desirability/utility. The powers-that-be make political decisions to subsidize particular people, goods or activities. Subsidies may be exploitative or re-distributive, and subsidies may be offensive to some economists, but they are neither impossible nor unusual.
Thanks Mike. The only socialism that the economic calculation argument addresses is socialism that dispenses with money and prices. This was a common view of the socialist goal before WW1 and the Russian Revolution and it is this that Mises and others claimed was impossible. Other socialisms that retain the market and price system are, as you correctly say, unaffected.
Perhaps Steele and the writers he cites were demoralized by the daunting task of society-wide computation in the pre-digital era. Nowadays, two honest brainiacs with one Pentium could do a better job calculating and articulating the wants and needs of humanity than the ''free" market ever will.
Sorry, no, this is exactly what the economic calculation argument claims can't be done. How on earth could a computer be programmed to register the 'wants and needs' of humanity? Not even a Culture Mind could do it.
Not so fast, MacLeod.

As to needs: six billion times the optimum personal amount of clean water, grams of protein, square feet of safe housing, linear feet of sewage pipe with supporting infrastructure, etc.

As to wants, I'm assuming the brainiacs will have access to polling data through which we can express our preferences as to ice cream flavors, garment styles, etc. (A socialist society presumably would not produce ice cream until malnutrition is conquered, botox until ...) And I'm not looking to hand myself over to Big Brother. Verify that I've done my share of the work, and then leave me alone. I believe that freedom is illusory without substantial leisure time and discretionary income. Not too much to ask given 21st Century labor-saving technology.

>Not so fast, MacLeod.
>As to needs: six billion times the optimum personal amount of clean water,
>grams of protein, square feet of safe housing, linear feet of sewage pipe
>with supporting infrastructure, etc.

At that point, the economic calculation problem only begins. Perhaps calling it 'economic calculation' is misleading. All it means is that you have to have an accurate measure of the value of the resources you're using, to make sure they aren't being wasted - that for any given project, your inputs aren't worth more than your outputs. Or to put it another way, that you aren't using up stuff for one use that would be better put to another use. For that you need a market price, or some measure that does the same job as a price. It is the contention of the economic calculation argument that no such measure has been found, or is likely to be found; and so far none has.

As Trotsky put it: 'Economic accounting is unthinkable without market relations.'

>As to wants, I'm assuming the brainiacs will have access to polling data
>through which we can express our preferences as to ice cream flavors,
>garment styles, etc. (A socialist society presumably would not produce ice
>cream until malnutrition is conquered, botox until ...)

There are some problems with this, starting with that polling data can't tell you (accurately) how much people want a particular good (i.e. what they would trade it off against) and that there is no link between the expressed preferences and the willingness of the brainiacs to supply them.

As to priorities not expressed through the market - as you said yourself, these can be dealt with by taxes and subsidies.

>And I'm not looking to hand myself over to Big Brother. Verify that I've
>done my share of the work, and then leave me alone. I believe that freedom
>is illusory without substantial leisure time and discretionary income. Not
>too much to ask given 21st Century labor-saving technology.

Indeed not, but unattainable (or at least, unlikely to be attained, and greatly at risk) if you don't have a way of counting costs.

Points taken, MacLeod.

1. Re: Market price as necessary for efficiency:

1a. We can set prices without a capitalist market. In our roles as consumers, shop-floor producers, or enterprise managers, we constantly establish the value of things for the purpose of exchange. E.g. six hours of baby-sitting in exchange for help with the school paper; one Barry Bonds trading card for two Mark McGuires. Consider the "black market" in Cuba, or the barter among factories in late Soviet Russia.

1b. There is no "correct" price in the abstract. Price is the product of subjective interactions, continually settled in our billions of transactions. Price need only be acceptable to the parties involved to be functional.

1c. Socialist societies have typically had a retail sector to facilitate distribution of consumer goods. Productive goods, such as hydroelectric dams or dialysis machines, for which there is no ready consumer market, must be assigned resources by the powers-that-be. Reason, trial-and-error, and good faith will do the job. (Capitalist relations of production retard our immense productive capacity. Mal-distribution is one of capitalism's most glaring defects. Distributing things [e.g. toilets!!] by selling them requires that they be scarce relative to demand.)

1d. Efficiency is a means, not an end. Waste is certainly to be avoided, but would it be so bad if we built too much housing, or distributed too much AIDS medication? (Capitalists have never scrupled about redundant production in their weaponry and propaganda.)

2. Re: Preference and fulfillment:

2a. Polls routinely ask us to make choices and rank preferences.

2b. There is no automatic link between asking for people's preferences and fulfilling them. We're assuming an honest socialist government, which will require the constant vigilance and participation of its citizens.

3. Take heart, MacLeod! There are considerable obstacles to socialism, but they are not theoretical.

>Points taken, MacLeod.
>1. Re: Market price as necessary for efficiency:
>1a. We can set prices without a capitalist market. In our roles as
>consumers, shop-floor producers, or enterprise managers, we constantly
>establish the value of things for the purpose of exchange. E.g. six hours of
>baby-sitting in exchange for help with the school paper; one Barry Bonds
>trading card for two Mark McGuires.

Absolutely correct. And if prices are set by bargaining between enterprise managers, presumably they are exchanging means of production - machines, tons of cement, etc, and you do have a market not just in consumer goods but in means of production. Whether that is being done in a capitalist market or market socialism is irrelevant to the point that it's not non-market socialism: it's not the 'communistic abolition buying and selling', 'production for use', the society in which 'the producers do not exchange their products', but instead 'manage things very simply, without the intervention of the famous "value"', in other words the socialism of Marx and Engels, of the SPGB, and of Bukharin and Preobrazhensky's _ABC of Communism_, and of Bolshevik practice (or heroic attempt) between 1918 and 1921, when it was abandoned after resulting in complete breakdown of industry. That's the socialism that the economic calculation argument primarily cuts against.

> Consider the "black market" in Cuba, or
>the barter among factories in late Soviet Russia.

These were/are regarded by the authorities as a bug, not a feature. In fact the enormous black and grey markets, the activity of fixers, etc, contributed quite a lot to the survival of the Soviet economy, which might otherwise have simply ground to a halt for lack of the right stuff in the right place at the right time. So functionally, the illegal market was a feature, but the authorities kept trying to remove it as a bug, until they gave up and the bug ate the program.

>1b. There is no "correct" price in the abstract. Price is the product of
>subjective interactions, continually settled in our billions of
>transactions. Price need only be acceptable to the parties involved to be

Again correct. So 'prices' set by central planners are unlikely to replicate the prices set by billions of transactions, and won't fulfil the function of balancing supply and demand. That will result in dislocations of all kinds. It's beginning to sound like we are in vehement agreement.

>1c. Socialist societies have typically had a retail sector to facilitate
>distribution of consumer goods. Productive goods, such as hydroelectric dams
>or dialysis machines, for which there is no ready consumer market, must be
>assigned resources by the powers-that-be. Reason, trial-and-error, and good
>faith will do the job. (Capitalist relations of production retard our
>immense productive capacity. Mal-distribution is one of capitalism's most
>glaring defects. Distributing things [e.g. toilets!!] by selling them
>requires that they be scarce relative to demand.)

The socialist retail sector wasn't exactly its bright, inviting shop window.

The consumers of hydroelectric dams and dialysis machines are the suppliers of electricity and health care. Whether great public works, health care, sanitation or for that matter flush toilets should be produced (or subsidised) by the powers that be is outside the scope of this argument. Most people would say that they should. But with the best will in the world, and with all technical competence assured, gigantic malinvestments by the powers that be are quite possible. The first glimmer I had of this was seeing a fucking enormous oil-rig production site [or some such facility] on the west coast of Scotland, with a huge hole in the ground and workers' housing all ready, built by the powers that be in (quite reasonable) anticipation of a boom in oil-rig construction ... which was never used.

>1d. Efficiency is a means, not an end. Waste is certainly to be avoided, but
>would it be so bad if we built too much housing, or distributed too much
>AIDS medication? (Capitalists have never scrupled about redundant production
>in their weaponry and propaganda.)

Building too much housing would mean building too little of something else; distributing too much AIDS medication would mean distributing too little of other medication (or other desired products of whatever was used to over-produce AIDS medication).

>2. Re: Preference and fulfillment:
>2a. Polls routinely ask us to make choices and rank preferences.

The preference ranking we give in polls can notoriously differ from what our real preference ranking as expressed by purchases is.

>2b. There is no automatic link between asking for people's preferences and
>fulfilling them. We're assuming an honest socialist government, which will
>require the constant vigilance and participation of its citizens.

Indeed we are, and indeed it would. As Oscar Wilde said, too many meetings. Not to be flippant, but to ask billions of people to engage in time-consuming participation just to accomplish what they do today by shopping is to ask a lot.

>3. Take heart, MacLeod! There are considerable obstacles to socialism, but
>they are not theoretical.
>Fraternal regards - Mike Fahey

It all depends on what you mean by socialism. 'Feasible socialism' as proposed by Alec Nove and various kinds of market socialism are theoretically possible, but aren't all that different from a 'mixed economy' and wouldn't do all (or in fact much) that Marxian non-market socialism hoped to do, notably ending the anarchy of production and establishing conscious control over the economy.

With your permission, I'd like to post our exchanges so far to my blog, along with your last word for the moment, should you care to give it.
You have my permission to post our exchange. I've added some comments below, but feel free to take the last word. And at the risk of
appearing tendentious, I'm happy to continue our dialogue. Fraternal regards
- Mike Fahey
Has experience taught us to choose capitalism over communism on the basis of market relations vs. command economy? No.

* The main problem with markets is what they won't do. The "free" market is accessed by cash. Half the world has no money or virtually none.

*Efficiency? Consider planned obsolescence, chronically idle industrial capacity, and most-of-all the wasted energy and creativity of the billions who are un- or under-employed, or slogging along without the benefit of labor-saving technology.

*Capitalism's bookkeepers (Enron, Parmalat, Shell, ad infinitum) have demonstrated their unreliability for an accurate inventory and accounting of resources.

*Bureaucracy exists in capitalism. Ask anyone who has worked in or dealt with capitalist corporations or the governments they control.

*Consider degree-of-difficulty. Socialism takes on a much more challenging task, that of promoting the general welfare vs. abetting conquest by the "fittest". (The Soviet Union subsidized its satellites; the capitalists exploit theirs. Compare the standard of living in the former USSR with that of Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, etc. Now compare the USA with El Salvador,
Haiti, the Philippines or Zaire.)

*Has there been a fair test? No society has been able to experience socialism undistorted by war-mobilization. From the attempt to strangle the soviet infant in its cradle, through the Cold War, to Oliver North's terrorist campaign against Sandinista Nicaragua, and four decades of
strangulation of Cuba.

Will socialism mean "too many meetings" and "time-consuming participation"? Yes, if I must sit on the board of my local library, housing estate, food co-op, football club, child-care center, etc. Let the government provide these services.

By all means, let's have maximum freedom of action and exchange, but keep the "commanding heights" of the economy under socialist control. This requires "production for use'' and "communistic abolition of buying and selling" in key sectors. To leave the major means of production in private hands is to choose barbarism.
Rather than go through Mike's closing points, I'll just remark that I agree with some, disagree with others, and I'm sure it's easy enough to tell which is which. To be continued another time, perhaps, and in the meantime thanks to Mike Fahey for his comments.
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Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Prophet Reissued

Via Marc, via Norm, Christopher Hitchens' review of a new edition of Isaac Deutscher's biography of Trotsky. Hitchens' reflections are worth reading, but I think Marc Mulholland's own are more to the point:
I approached the biography convinced of the moral and political superiority of Trotsky to Stalin. I have no reason to change my mind on this, and I'm eternally grateful that my ultra-left enthusiasms were in the Trotskyist rather than the official Communist or Maoist modes.

But the very arcane nature of the struggle in the USSR in the 1920s, as a piratical cadre in command of the listing Russian hulk groped for a way forward in ignorance of the disasters to come, highlighted for me the terrible difficulty of plotting one's way though political morality. There were no pain-free options for the Soviets in the 1920s, and Deutscher brought home the 'reasonableness' of Stalin's rejection of dependence on world revolution and his stolid willingness to practically build socialism with the resources at hand.

I could empathise with the Stalinists, the Rightists, and the renegades of the Left Opposition. More to the point I could see that, in the same circumstances, I could not be sure of my own unimpeachable probity. I appreciated anew that the road to hell is paved, if not necessarily with good intentions, then with indeterminacy, caution, uncertainty and fear.
Deutscher's other great biography, that of Stalin, calls forth like reflections with even greater force. His writings on Stalin and on his successors, and on conditions in the Soviet bloc and China, are clear-eyed and plain-spoken. Sometimes he let his hopes run away with him, but their conditionality was always evident in a closer or wider reading of his work. Deutscher is unfashionable these days, partly because some people read into him illusions they harboured but he did not, and blamed on him their subsequent disappointments.
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Where It All Began

It's on vellum. You can still see the shape of the lamb. It's hard to read: the orthography, if not the language, has changed since 1638. It's harder yet to grasp its significance: the rant against the Roman Antichrist, the intolerance to all outside God's true church, the professed loyalty to the King's Majesty are now alien. But some phrases still leap out: 'a free monarchy', 'the fundamental laws, ancient privileges, offices and liberties of this kingdom', 'the people's security of their lands, livings, rights, offices, liberties, and dignities preserved'. The cramped signatures at the foot, of the lord, the councillors, the burgesses and the ministers of Queensferry. I looked at it today, in the museum that was once the town hall. It's behind a small pair of red curtains; you are asked to pull them back after looking at it. Its ink cannot bear the light.

Philosophers have imagined a Social Contract. Scotland actually had one; or rather, two. This is the original of this town's copy of the first, the National Covenant, signed in Greyfriars Kirk and then in local copies in most of the towns of the kingdom. Quaintly loyal as it seems to us, to Charles I it was provocation enough to raise an army. He neglected to ask Parliament's leave for its supply, and the English Revolution began.

It's too early to say, as I did below, that the Revolution is over. That two square foot of vellum had its successors, in stronger and sharper language. As Charles I found, the Revolution has its sharp reminders, for men of blood.
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Tuesday, June 15, 2004


The world has laid low, and the wind blows away like ashes Alexander, Caesar, and all who were in their trust; grass-grown is Tara, and see Troy now how it is - and the English themselves, perhaps they too will pass!
(from A Celtic Miscellany)

The American Revolution is over.

When the President claims for himself powers outlawed in every country issuing from the English Revolution, and last exercised when James the II & VII personally supervised the splitting of Presbyterian shins, I guess we have to admit that in the long run the English Revolution failed.

Oh well. Freedom can always choose another people.
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Thursday, June 10, 2004

Looking Upward

Max Mitchell asks, apropos the last couple of posts: "I wondered if you'd come across Michael Albert's Participatory Economics (ParEcon) and what you thought of it?"

I hadn't, though I'd read a little about it, so I checked it out.

A common response to imagined societies of common ownership is to say: 'I'd like to live there, if it was as you describe, but I don't think it would work' (or 'you haven't shown how it would work'). Many would say that of Iain Banks's Culture, the colony world in James P. Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear, or William Morris's News from Nowhere. They all handwave towards unspecified machinery. Morris has his 'force engines' humming away behind the greenery. Hogan has his co-ordinating computers and robots. Banks has his Ship Minds. In the Culture, the humans need concern themselves no more with economic co-ordination than the bats in a belfry need follow the deliberations of the General Synod. The same, mutatis mutandis, is true of my own Solar Union. Basically, people live in an immensely fruitful and various tree. Sometimes their councils of elders tell the tree what to do, but it is by no means evident that the tree listens. I'd happily live there myself, but I haven't shown how it would work.

Michael Albert has been slightly miffed to have his utopia encounter the opposite reponse. Most critics, he says, admit that it would work. They just wouldn't like to live there. Although Albert and his colleague Robin Hahnel have tried to answer their critics, it still looks to me as schoolmarmish an anarchy as Le Guin's Annares. The invisible hand of the market and the clenched fist of the revolution give way to the pointing finger of the neighbourhood.

It doesn't evade the economic calculation problem, at least at first glance because the scheme is a market, albeit an apparently cumbersome one. (Though my handwave detector registers a slight disturbance in the air at the step where 'socially agreed algorithms' are applied to work out the 'true social opportunity cost'.)

It's still well worth thinking about, especially for anyone designing a social system for a space habitat or a generation starship (I remark, idly). One SF fan and Parecon advocate has suggested that it fits the data for the Star Trek Federation. A revolutionary Marxist, Joseph Green, has written a rather interesting critique of it, to which Albert has replied. Other critiques, defences, and basic and in-depth expositions can be found at the aforementioned Parecon site. One of its inspirations, which I'm now itching to read, was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. This is a socialist utopia in which the people of 21st century America live in skyscrapers, listen to electrically recorded music, work for giant corporations, and spend with credit cards. As far as I know they didn't have to justify their purchases to their neighbours. We are indeed building the new society within the shell of the old.
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Sunday, June 06, 2004

Not so impossible

In putting together the post below, late last night, I dropped a final paragraph which makes my own position clearer and makes sense of the Marx quotes. It's in now.
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'What else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, "possible" communism?'
There is no middle path between these two, for a man must either be a free and true commonwealth's man, or a monarchical tyrannical royalist.
Gerard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1651.

From space you can see no borders. We, and previous generations, have built up a productive capacity that is more than sufficient to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and amuse everyone on the planet. The only barrier to its use for that purpose is that it exists as capital. The only basis for its continuing existence as capital is our continuing acceptance of capitalist and state property rights. From below, at the sharp end, in the worker's-eye view, these look as obsolete and obscene as property rights in people. Without those rights, capital would just be machinery, that we all together already operate and improve upon every day, every minute, collectively and globally. The only way in which these rights can be permanently abolished is consciously, politically, collectively and globally, at one fell swoop. Not on the same day all over the world of course, but in the space of a few years, in one historical moment. And why not? Slavery and feudalism were in the end abolished, with a stroke of the pen followed if necessary by a stroke of the sword.

Why should we not think, then, of the abolition of capitalism? We can't reform it out of existence. Long experience, as well as theory and common sense, tell us this. Neither 'socialist' governments nor 'communist' regimes have ever brought society a day nearer socialism or communism. There are many reasons why not, but the basic reason is simple. Production for exchange can't be gradually reformed into production directly for use. Nor, in a world where almost everything is produced as part of a global division of labour, can it be abolished locally in one community, or one country, or one continent. It's all or nothing.

Closely related to that reason is another. A society of conscious and voluntary co-operation can't be established unconsciously or unwillingly. It can't be imposed from above or from outside or from behind our backs. It must be established consciously and willingly - nay, intelligently and enthusiastically. Many will agree, if pressed, that the world co-operative commonwealth can be thus established eventually, but not now. In the meantime, they want something else: a society called socialism which retains wages, price, and profit but keeps them in the hands of the state - and the state, they hope, in the hands of the workers, which all too often means the hands of the workers' party, which all too often means in the hands of the correct leaders of the workers' party. They want that, or they want steps in that direction. The co-operative commonwealth itself is, they insist, for the distant future.

Why not now? We don't need to wait for capitalism to increase productive capacity to the point where the co-operative commonwealth is possible, because it's already done so, and it’s already the greatest barrier to the use and expansion of the productive capacity that exists. Why then should we vote for reforming governments to manage it, or 'progressive' regimes to develop it further? Especially when these reforming governments and these 'progressive' regimes waste so much of production, and so many of us, in war and slump.

We have to make up our minds, once and for all, that we want rid of this system, for good and all. Let those who want to keep it reform it and improve it and expand it. It's their job while it lasts. The job of those who want to end it is to give such people not a vote, not a gun, not a penny, not a person, not an inch, not an ounce of support. No political contender who is not a wage slavery abolitionist, nobody who advocates in word and deed anything less than, and anything other than, the speedy end of this system, and the consequent emancipation of the working class, deserves another minute of our time. To everyone who claims to want such an end eventually, but advocates something other or something less in the meantime, we can say we've lived already a long time in that meantime, and we're still no nearer.

All it would take to do away with this system and establish the world co-operative commonwealth is for most people in the world to agree to do it. It's no news that most people don't. The number who understand and want the commonwealth is tiny. The only revolutionary action worth the name is working to increase that number. Nothing more is needed, and nothing less will do.
When the worker recognises the products as being his own and and condemns the separation of the conditions of his realisation as an intolerable imposition, it will be an enormous progress in consciousness, itself the product of the method of production based on capital, and a death-knell of capital in the same way that once the slaves became aware that they were persons, that they did not need to be the property of others, the continued existence of slavery could only vegetate on as an artificial thing, and could not continue to be the basis of production.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse, translated by David McLellan, 1971.

So much for the impossibilist case, as I understand it. I don't, however, agree with it. One reason why I don't is that while it's quite easy to write an eloquent rant about non-market socialism, it's not at all easy to write a credible science fiction story, or even a scenario, of how it could come about and how it would work if it did. I've tried, and not succeeded. (The Cassini Division wasn't the attempt, by the way.)

I'm open to persuasion and example on this point, but until then I'll stick to 'hard left libertarianism' and co-operative market socialism with the possibility of further co-operation developing as and when, and close with one of Marx's more moderate suggestions:

If co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production - what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, 'possible' communism?
Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871.
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Saturday, June 05, 2004

A Socialist Centenary

Britain might not seem a hotbed of ultra-leftism, but it is. In no other country is there an ultra-left organization with hundreds of members, and many more supporters. Its members are for the most part disturbingly normal people. Even more surprisingly, this party is a hundred years old this month.

A couple of days ago the centenary issue of the monthly Socialist Standard dropped through my letterbox. It's an informative and often entertaining read, and I don't just say that because it includes an article by me. The party has, as John Sullivan perceptively noted in 1988, outlived the socialist pretensions of most of its rivals. Having cast a cold eye on everything from the founding of the Labour Party, through the Bolshevik Revolution, to the Welfare State, the End of History and the New Economy, it faces the future with quiet confidence, and looks back on its first century with a forgiveable tincture of Ivor Cutler's 'Scottish education': 'Ah telt ye! Ah telt ye!'

A highlight of the centenary issue is 'Smash Cash', a legendary Oz article from 1968, which tried to put the party's case for socialism across to a largely stoned readership. Its author, David Ramsay Steele, went on to become one of the most entertaining and erudite free-market libertarian polemicists of our time, and to write the definitive work on the economic calculation argument against the possibility of socialism, From Marx to Mises.

Discovering that the SPGB was ultra-left - or to put it more technically, part of the non-market socialist political sector - was for me an intellectual turning point. Reading Steele's article on the economic calculation argument was another. They happened at about the same time, in the late eighties, and around about the time I began seriously writing SF, and have influenced all that I've written.
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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Window seat observations

My book idea below has already been anticipated. Reader John Abbe points to a BoingBoing post about a book on this very subject.

Further useful suggestions from John Erikson:
The next time you are on a book tour of the United States or Canada, try to find a copy of the 1984 book "Landprints," by Walter Sullivan (ISBN 0-8129-1077-X; Sullivan, by the way, was the New York Times science editor). It is a popular book on North American geology as it can be seen from an airliner, with some culture thrown in (the field shapes, etc.). As well as explanatory chapters and copious illustrations (well done -- and I'm a geologist), it has a long list by itinerary of the items covered -- Chicago-Seattle, Vancouver-Toronto, etc.

Also, in case you haven't discovered it, it is entertaining to look in used book stores for a cheap map of, for example, the United States, if that is where you expect to travel. Usually drawing a straight line between origin and destination comes pretty close to laying out the route your plane will fly, and it helps enormously in figuring out where you are and what you're looking at -- National Geographic maps in particular are quite good at squeezing in a lot of data and place names. A further refinement is possible if you know that the trip will take, say, three hours: divide the line you have drawn into thirds, and you can locate where you are quite closely by your watch, even over cloud cover that allows only occasional glimpses of the ground.

Even the schematic maps that that airlines' inflight magazines usually include can often settle which of the Great Lakes you must be flying over, or if the river visible below is actually the Missouri (and the included coupons can be used a straight-edge; fold one in half several times for measurement units).
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