Marxism vs. social democracy

Whilst re-reading Straw Dogs by John Gray, I came across this remark on the post-war consensus:

The welfare state was a by-product of the Second World War. The National Health Service began in the Blitz, full employment in conscription.

Look back to the nineteenth century, to the time between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of the First World War. That great era of peace in Europe was also a period of great inequality. The majority of the population lived from hand to mouth, and only the very rich were safe from sudden poverty.

In affluent, high-tech economies, the masses are superfluous – even as cannon fodder. Wars are no longer fought by conscript armies but by computers – and in the collapsed states that litter much of the world, by the ragged irregular armies of the poor. With this mutation of war, the pressure to maintain social cohesion is relaxed. The wealthy can pass their lives without contact with the rest of society. So long as they do not pose a threat to the rich, the poor can be left to their own devices.

Social democracy has been replaced by an oligarchy of the rich as part of the price of peace.

It is worth reminding ourselves that William Beveridge originally conceived of the British welfare state as a system to “keep men fit for service”.

I have suspected for a long time now that the post-war consensus was an historical one-off. A confluence of global and national factors enabled the creation of a relatively peaceful and relatively prosperous world, at least in the western democracies. Adam Posen argues that we are returning to the Victorian ‘old normal’ of a highly unequal, globalised, and multi-polar world. The world founded on what Cosma Shalizi calls the “useful work of mid-century optimism and intelligence” in monetary policy has collapsed, and been replaced with a world of floating exchange rates and neoliberal trade policy; a policy which benefits the global 1%, and results in stagnant or falling living standards for the majority – at least in the western democracies.

But of course, humanity as a whole has been made better off. The new working classes of China and India are massively wealthier than they were during the so-called ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Essentially, the last thirty years has seen a transfer of wealth from the middle and working classes of the developed world up to the global elite, and down to the Chinese and Indians. What I don’t understand is whether this transition could have been handled better; could it have been possible for politicians to ‘ease the fall’ as jobs went overseas? Is it true that many people in ‘post industrial’ countries are simply surplus to requirements, as Gray implies?

Chris Dillow is fond of pointing out that social democracy faces many inherent limitations in what it can accomplish, because it attempts to reach an accord with a capitalist system that is inherently hostile to the interests of most working people. I don’t know if Chris is right; after all, what was once achieved may again be achievable, but I agree that there are many systemic reasons to be sceptical of social democracy.

Subjective experience, language, Husserl, and MacLeod

The following quotation is from Literary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton:

For phenomenological criticism, the language of a literary work is little more than an ‘expression’ of its inner meanings. This somewhat secondhand view of language runs back to Husserl himself. For there is really little place for language as such in Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl speaks of a purely private or internal sphere of experience; but such a sphere is in fact a fiction, since all experience involves language and language is ineradicably social. To claim that I am having a wholly private experience is meaningless: I would not be able to have an experience in the first place unless it took place in the terms of some language within which I could identify it.

[emphasis mine]

I actually disagree with the emphasised part of this. Animals probably have experience. Small children have experiences. People who were raised by wolves and have no language nevertheless have experiences. I find the idea that subjective experience requires language to be a little odd. There is so much about the world as I experience it that is so utterly beyond language that I really don’t know where to start with disagreeing with it.

Ken MacLeod holds a similar belief:

Subjectivity is inseparable from language. Although emerging from animal sensation, animal emotion and animal signalling, conscious reflection and self-awareness are unique to human beings. We can name the prey, but they don’t name themselves.

Again, I disagree. Or at least, I would argue we cannot (yet) be so certain. Dogs and cats experience things; they certainly experience pain. The point is we don’t yet really understand the nature of subjective experience; but for the time being I remain un-persuaded that animals do not experience pain in a similar fashion to people. Animals are not automatons (or perhaps they are, and perhaps we are, but we are still automatons that possess qualia and intentionality, whatever these things may be). In Straw Dogs, John Gray tells us that:

Plato and Descartes tell us that consciousness is what marks off humans from other animals. Plato believed that ultimate reality is spiritual, and that humans are alone among animals in being at least dimly conscious of it. Descartes saw humans as thinking beings. He declared he knew he existed only because he found himself thinking – ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) – and that animals were mere machines. Yet cats, dogs and horses display awareness of their surroundings; they experience themselves as acting or failing to act; they have thoughts and sensations.

Despite an ancient tradition that tells us otherwise, there is nothing uniquely human in conscious awareness.

This is one of those areas where I find myself more in agreement with John Gray and Montaigne than with MacLeod and Eagleton.  But the dispute ultimately returns to the gap between the subjective and the objective, between what we feel and what is true, between the object and the subject. This gap between the subjective world of individual experience and the “real world” that (we suppose) exists “out there” is the mystery. I look forward to further progress in this regard.

Horrible mansplainy comment mark 2

Let me explain my thinking. In society, there is a problem called sexism. In those societies fortunate enough to have achieved a high degree of formal legal equality between the genders (the UK, the USA, Canada, and many other countries besides), there remains the problem of sexism; a problem which takes many forms, such as women being underpaid, under-represented in certain jobs, suffering from sexual abuse and rape etc.

The purpose of feminism is to remove this sexism. The victory condition for feminism is a society without sexism. Fine. But what is sexism? Broadly speaking, it is a set of beliefs and attitudes that are widely held about how women should behave; and these beliefs and attitudes are held by *everyone*, both men and women. These beliefs and attitudes are the *cause* of the various inequalities that exist between the genders (again, this obviously only applies to those countries that *don’t* still have inequalities enforced by law).

In order to combat this sexism, we must endeavour to change people’s beliefs and attitudes. Now, because many people will deny that they *do* hold sexist views, this process of changing beliefs will require that we first persuade people that a problem exists in the first place. A great deal of sexism is ‘subconscious’ sexism that manifests itself in things that don’t happen as much as things that do happen (e.g. women’s lower pay may be attributable to men simply not thinking to offer women promotions. While it is difficult to *prove* that a particular woman has lost out, the macro-level evidence is clear.). Once we have successfully persuaded people that a problem exists we can persuade them to change their beliefs and hence change their behaviour.

But here’s the problem: the vast preponderance of sexist beliefs are held by men, and the vast preponderance of sexist behaviour is performed by men. This means that at some point the feminist movement will have to persuade men that a) many men hold sexist beliefs, and b) that these sexist beliefs cause those men to behave in a sexist fashion.

So yes. The feminist movement needs men. It needs to include men. In fact, the victory condition of feminism would be one in which *all* men were converted to feminism, and in which all men were good feminists (i.e. non-sexist).

I think the problem here is that the OP conception of ‘the feminist movement’ seems to be some sort of army or corporation, with hierarchies and bosses at the top – bosses who OP says can only be women – and which does… something, somehow, to combat sexism. Like as if sexism was a foreign army of people that you could defeat on a battlefield. But sexism isn’t like that.

I sincerely believe that we are more likely to succeed if we are polite, and if we make our arguments rigorously and calmly, because we are right. I don’t think feminism will succeed if we insist that feminism is transformed into some kind of ‘no boys’ social club for women.

In which our hero mansplains to feminists

I left a comment at this post on the blog of someone called Jem Bloomfield:

Hum.
So this piece highlights a lot of problems I have with the feminist movement, or at least with the online/Twitter wing of the feminist movement. Take this, for example:

They can’t imagine not being the heroes of the movement.

Or this:

For white cis men, one of the most important things we can realize about feminism is that it is not about us. We can contribute, we can co-operate, but we can’t lead it, win it or set the agenda. We can’t embody it or introduce it to the big time. We can’t be feminism. If we ever did, it would stop being feminism.

This strikes me as a deeply counter-productive position. It seems to imply that feminism is some exclusive club, rather than a political ideology. As such, there is no ‘agenda’. There is no need for ‘leaders.’ A set of moral or ideological propositions constitutes an agenda in and of itself. A political ideology succeeds through persuading as many people as possible to adopt its tenets, and not through the creation of charismatic leaders.
Political movements succeed by building coalitions of interests and coalitions of agreement. If feminism is to succeed it must include men, and it must make itself appealing to men.
I know that this last sentence will probably outrage a lot of people, but the facts are that men are approximately 50% of the human race and represent rather more than 50% of the existing power and wealth of the human race. Is this a good thing? No. In the best of all possible worlds, would it be the case that there existed such an inequality of power? No. Do we live in the best of all possible worlds?

No.
To succeed in making a better world, feminists must co-opt men and ensure that men are ‘on board’ with the feminist movement and with its ideals and objectives. As has already been mentioned, it’s mostly the actions and behaviour of men that results in a need for feminism in the first place. If men feel like feminism is ‘something for women’ they won’t care about, or they will dismiss it, or (perhaps worst of all) they will simply continue to be indifferent to it.
Men like to be heroes. They like to see themselves as heroes. Women probably like to be heroes too. So what’s the harm with encouraging people (including men) that they are the heroes of a morally righteous political movement? It’s the sort of thing that gets the juices flowing. It’s the sort of positive vision that people could actually feel enthusiastic about supporting.

If we[1] don’t have a problem taking into account another person’s special expertise in a setting like that, surely we should be even more keen to acknowledge their right to speak about their own experience.

There is a difference between data (e.g. a woman’s particular experience of sexism in a patriarchal world), and doctrine (e.g. feminists must oppose Page 3). The latter, unlike the former, is the subject of debate and argument, and the quality of an argument is independent of the person making it.
Look: I know that this comment probably sounds incredibly trollish, and I apologise for that; but I’d sincerely like to hear someone explain why I’m wrong, if I am.

I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.

“I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.”

Markets vs. central planning: some distinctions

I left the following comment on Unlearning Economics’ post at Peria:

As I see it, there are three intermingled debates going on here. They are: 1) An argument about the relative information-theoretic and allocative abilities of centralised hierarchical systems on the one hand and decentralised market systems on the other; 2) an argument about the intrinsic ethical and moral status of various types of political economy; and 3) an empirical argument about which nation states have killed the most people, and been responsible for the most suffering.

On the subject of argument 1): Free markets are not the same thing as capitalism. Central planning is not the same thing as communism. There has been a tendency for capitalist countries to exhibit far greater decentralisation of decision making and a greater reliance on some form of market system; but this historical fact doesn’t mean that ‘private ownership of the means of production’ necessarily requires a market system, nor does it mean that the historical tendency for communist countries to adopt central planning means that *all* future communist or socialist economies must be built around central planning.

I would also note that the most economically successful countries have historically used *both* central planning (in the form of large, centralised private firms; large, centralised government departments; and government-directed industrial policy) and decentralised market systems. Markets and hierarchies are tools, and different jobs require different tools.

I recommend ‘The Market System’ by Charles Lindblom on this subject. ‘The Origin of Wealth’ by Eric Beinhocker is also very good.

 

Capitalism vs. communism and markets vs. central planning

Reading the comments under this excellent article by Unlearning Economics, I am struck by the fact that most of the arguments in the capitalism vs. communism debate are let down by the two sides failing to lay out rigorous definitions from the outset. In order for a proper debate to take place, both sides must specify what they consider to be the necessary and sufficient conditions for an economy to be considered ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist.’

I have pointed out before that markets are not the same thing as capitalism; it would be useful now to note that central planning is not the same thing as communism. Historically, most so-called communist states have attempted to engage in central planning, rather than in market-based solutions to problems of resource allocation; but this does not mean that all conceivable communist states must necessarily engage in central planning.

I’ve just realised I used the phrase ‘so-called communist states’ in my previous paragraph; in doing so, I could be accused of ‘special pleading’, and claiming that ‘true communism’ has never existed. This wasn’t my intention, which was to highlight the fact that just because people give something a particular name doesn’t mean that the name is accurate or descriptive.

So what is communism?

I’m not entirely sure. I can think of several highly limited and unsatisfactory definitions off the top of my head. Marx himself was somewhat vague on the subject of exactly what communism would look like. This continuing vagueness is part of the problem; communism can mean lots of things to lots of different people, just like capitalism. All this just shows how important it is to lay out rigorous definitions at the outset.

Form and function in writing

Wittgenstein once wrote that “my difficulty is only an – enormous – difficulty of expression.” I took that quote from his Wikiquote page, and I can’t really look at it without wanting to re-write it as “my only difficulty is an – enormous – difficulty of expression”; that I find it so difficult to avoid such an edit* is one of the many problems I encounter when attempting to write, of which more below. My own problem, however, could be more accurately expressed as “an enormous difficulty of knowledge, understanding, focus, and expression”; after all, I am no Wittgenstein.

What I find most challenging about writing is that it isn’t any one singular cognitive process. It consists of several intertwining processes. You’ve got to know the idea you want to express; you have to understand the idea you want to express; you have to appreciate which elements of the idea are useful and relevant, and which are not; and finally you’ve got to be able to express the idea clearly and elegantly.

Each of these is a distinct type of cognitive activity. Knowing which specific point one wishes to get across is often surprisingly difficult. When writing I often encounter a sort of factorial explosion of ideas – like the polar opposite of writer’s block – in which one thought leads to another thought which leads to another two or three thoughts.

I have only so much RAM in my head. Shortly after beginning writing I often find myself overwhelmed with possibility. I would like to hold a single idea in my head at a time; I picture it floating with crystalline distinction within my Cartesian theatre, without any connections or linkages with anything else; but it seems almost impossible to do this. The crystal grows and mutates and draws in other ideas and concepts and I am left with a head encrusted with nonsense.

Understanding presents another – separate – problem. Oftentimes the reason I am compelled to write in the first place is that I do not yet fully understand an idea, concept, or theory; and so I write long, rambling essays in which I come to no solid conclusions and which express nothing but my own ignorance.

Focus. There isn’t really much to say about this that isn’t already demonstrated by the present document. I find it difficult to focus. This is as true in writing as it is in my wider life; in fact, I find it almost impossible to focus on any one task for more than ten minutes or so. I don’t know if this is an intrinsic element of my personality or simply a consequence of living in a distracted age, but there it is.

The final aspect of writing that I find problematic is that of performance. As Richard Lanham argues in Analyzing Prose, all writing is necessarily performative; you can’t help but strike a pose, even if it is one of “objectivity” or “transparency.” There is a gap – a fascinating gap – between ideas and language and the particular symbolic systems we use to express ideas. Words are distinct from ideas, and arranging words in a pleasing order is a different task to developing pleasing ideas. In my first paragraph I couldn’t help but re-write the original Wittgenstein quotation into what I consider a more pleasing form, whilst retaining the same meaning as the original. But does it really have the same meaning? By placing “difficulty” before “only” in the original Wikiquoted form the emphasis is placed on the difficulty itself, whereas in my altered version placing the “only” before the first “difficulty” deflates the first half of the sentence and places the emphasis on the “difficulty of expression”. This makes it more quotable. Or perhaps not.

*Apparently the quotation was taken from his journal entry, which may well have been in German, in which case reforming the particular arrangement of the sentence might be entirely legitimate as a direct translation of the original text – I don’t know)