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a recent conversation i had with a friend about my political views

July 22, 2011

I don’t know who in the hell would ever be interested in this, but here’s a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine over Facebook about my political views. I began the conversation by writing:

Annie told me you think my political views are essentially anarchistic. To clarify, I identify as a democratic socialist, which essentially means that my politically and economic views are more or less democratic in nature. In essence, I’m not completely against government, nor am I a statist in the sense of advocating for a strong central government; I advocate for a more decentralized form of government, as well as a more decentralized and democratic economic system. My philosophy of government is fairly positive, actually. The way I see it, civil society is the establishment of a cohesive social structure in which the interests of the community as a whole are weighed against that of the individual in an effort to maintain social stability. Government, then, is the physical manifestation of community interests. It creates stability through the establishment and enforcement of laws, and acts as a mediator in disputes between groups and individuals within the community. Of course, like most people, I think it’s preferable if a balance can be struck where individual freedoms aren’t too restricted and the continued survival of the community is reasonably assured, and how far the government should go in meeting the needs of the community is an open question.

The problem is that, for the most part, our government is a manifestation of ruling class interests, that is to say, those who own and control the means of production, finance, natural resources, etc., and not that of the entire community. In fact, the interests of the ruling class, the interests of capital, are often in conflict with those of average citizens. And one of the main issues I have with the current economic system is that its entire legal and political edifice is built upon private property rights. While this may not seem like a bad thing at first glance, it’s has the tendency to lead to an extremely top-down structure, with often overpaid owners and CEOs and underpaid workers (the average CEO now makes roughly 275x that of the average worker); and, philosophically, it links private property to liberty, and through private property rights, secures the liberty of the propertied. Consequently, the greater one’s property, the greater one’s means of self-determination. It should be made here that by ‘property,’ we’re not talking about personal property such as cars or homes, but private property, i.e., means of production, finance, natural resources, etc. Moreover, it tends to idealize and promote greed (self-interest) over altruism (common good), competition over cooperation, privatization over public ownership, etc.

While ‘liberals’ try to reform the system, they generally don’t see anything inherently wrong with system itself. They fail to see that Keynes and Hayek are two sides of the same coin, and that the system has contradictions which naturally lead to boom and bust cycles and financial crises, especially what Marx calls the ‘crisis of overproduction,’ i.e. the tendency to produce too much of a commodity or too efficient a service for it to be profitable. For example, industrial farmers can produce too much wheat for them to sell at a profit, even though there’s no shortage of demand for food (and some people are actually going hungry or starving). According to Hayek, boom and bust cycles are natural and must be endured, and interfering will generally just prolong them or make them worse, unemployment being an unfortunate yet contemporary consequence that’ll eventually take care of itself when things recover naturally. Keynes, on the other hand, thought that by pumping money into the system, the government could stimulate aggregate demand and help put people back to work, and their subsequent spending would further help recovery. Both ideas have pros and cons, but they’re based on the assumption that capitalism is the the best possible system and should be preserved at all cost. The difference is that Hayek basically believed it’d be fine if left alone, whereas Keynes believed that government could (and should) help it in times of need. They disagree about other things as well, but the real problem is people and their unpredictability.

If people are unemployed, having their homes foreclosed on, unhappy and generally disillusioned with the present system, there could be instability and eventually some kind of revolution. If trying to help by pumping money into the economy and creating work projects makes things worse, not doing anything could lead to lots of really pissed off and unhappy people. This has happened time and again, from France and Britain, to the Colonies, Russia and India just to name a few. I don’t think that socialism can be forced onto people through a violent revolution by a small band of professional revolutionaries and their followers, however. Like democracy, for socialism to have any chance of being successful anywhere, it must be an experiment conducted with the consent of the majority of the people. Positive change rarely comes from the barrel of a gun, and not all revolutions are violent, e.g., think of Gandhi’s nonviolent challenge of British rule, for example. Hence, my position is to advocate for a move towards socialism via democratic means, meaning that I think it can only be a successful experiment if it’s done with the consent of the majority of people (unless, of course, shit hits the fan and things collapsed on their own).

I also tend to border on being a social democrat (or a reformist) in that sense, but I think pure reformism has its own limitations in that the we can do our best to enact reforms and try to limit their power and the damage done by the ‘enlightened self-interest’ of capital and powerful corporations, but it’s essentially a lost cause seeing as how corporations themselves are now considered ‘natural persons’ and have managed to acquire certain constitutionally protected rights. A company and a CEO can get away with things no average working class citizen could, and that’s because the legal superstructure is built decidedly in their favour—always has been considering that the Founding Fathers themselves were mainly wealthy, ruling class elites, and the ‘aristocracy of the moneyed corporations’ that Thomas Jefferson was so worried about was simply the next evolutionary step in a long line of wealthy, ruling class elites. Basically, all this is really saying is that the game is rigged. To fix these problems, we need to change the rules; and to change the rules, we need to change the system.

And while I’m not entirely sure how such a system could be successfully implemented, I like David Schweickart’s ideas on what he calls ‘Economic Democracy’ (e.g., see “Economic Democracy: A Worthy Socialism That Would Really Work“). I also think like Peter Kropotkin and Edward Bellamy have some good (albeit slightly outdated) ideas in works like Conquest of Bread and Looking Backward. I’ve also seen some promising examples of successful worker-owned companies whose dynamics are a lot different than the typical top-down structure, e.g., Alvarado Street Bakery, Big Carrot, Brainpark, Cooperative Home Care Associates, MONDRAGON and, to some extent, Weirton Steel, even though it eventually went out of business.

Another issue I have is the potential exploitation inherent in the system itself. In the Marxist sense, at least, exploitation refers to the worker’s lack of ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour. (That’s why Marx defined slavery, feudalism and capitalism as exploitative systems of production, i.e., in each, the producers/workers have no ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour). In this sense, exploitation is an inherent part of the capitalist mode of production, which in turn, ties into Marx’s theory of alienation. It’s rather complicated, and I don’t fully understand everything Marx wrote on the subject as much of it is very abstract, but in short, exploitation is the idea that the capitalist profits far more from a worker’s labour than the worker does, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s voluntary or not.

Adam Smith et al. assumed that labour creates wealth (surplus value). But according to Marx, in a capitalist system, labour itself becomes a commodity, an object that’s bought and sold on the market. Moreover, due to private ownership of the means of production, the product of the worker’s labour doesn’t legally belong to them (alienation), nor does the surplus value their labour creates (unpaid labour), which is kept by the capitalist. Consequently, the product of the worker’s labour becomes a commodity that’s divorced from the labour expended on its production, thereby obscuring the social relationship between producer and consumer (commodity fetishism). Furthermore, the employer has the ability to increase their profit exponentially by reinvesting the surplus value extracted from the worker’s labour into their company while the labourer is forced to spend their (more often than not) meager wages on the necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, etc.

I should stop here, however, and note that proving this kind of exploitation is rather difficult, especially when it comes to the various labour theories of value (the idea that commodities have an objective value that’s relative to the amount of socially necessary labour-time involved in their production) vs. the marginal utility theory (the idea that the value of commodities are determined by their marginal utility). Marx’s theory of exploitation is derived from his labour theory of value, which is itself a critique of both Smith’s and Ricardo’s labour theories of value; but the labour theory of value itself has since been challenged by the marginal utility theory. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about either yet to declare a winner in this particular debate; although I will say that I think even if Marx’s theory proves to be incorrect, his dialectic method of analysis still has a great deal to offer our modern understanding of economics. Critiques, by their very nature, reveal weaknesses, and can help open up discussions on subjects that otherwise would go undiscussed.

As for anarchism itself, it’s true that I’m sympathetic to certain aspects of it as a political philosophy. For example, I agree with its anti-authoritarianism and the idea that citizens shouldn’t be coerced into any kind of ‘social contract.’ This type of free association is in direct contrast to the Hobbesian idea of the social contract, in which, by way of your birth into that particular state, it’s assumed that you’ve entered into said social contract. (Hobbes thought that people are naturally aggressive and violent and that they should give their obedience to an unaccountable sovereign in exchange for relative security.) It’s little more than an abstract ideal, however, and not an actual contract since it’s assumed that one’s morally obligated to obey the state without any actually agreement on the part of the citizen. Anarchists, on the other hand, believe strongly in the right of free association and self-determination, and strongly distrust an armed state that’s ready to take away their freedom whenever it likes (e.g., imposing ‘laws’ that restrict their movement, associations, certain behaviours, etc.). There are many different kinds of anarchists, however, and some, such as certain ‘philosophical anarchists,’ aren’t so much against the existence of a state as they are an expansive, authoritarian state, i.e., they’d be content with a more decentralized and minimalist state that was more directly democratic and recognized that it could be eliminated via revolution if it became too oppressive and over-stepped its bounds; while others see the state as a necessary evil that they’re not morally obligated to obey when its laws conflict with their individual autonomy, etc.

Whatever the case, I wouldn’t classify myself as an anarchist simply for the fact that I’m not inherently against a state per se; although I’d definitely like to radically change the organizational structure of the present one, and I hope that one day we can eliminate the need for such a social structure in the future. In that, I suppose I’m closer to the philosophical anarchist or the anarcho-syndicalist than I am the purely anti-state anarchist. Like most philosophical sophisticated anarchists, I’m not against organizational structures as much as I am inherently authoritarian and repressive ones that are designed more to protect property from people than people in general.

My friend, James, who’s fairly well-educated, relatively successful and leans more towards libertarianism, replied with:

I must say, this was quite the insight. I don’t agree with all points but I have a firmer understanding of where you stand with regard to government and economics. […] I think the capitalist and worker dynamic you allude to is alive and well but I don’t really see any problem with it. Without the capitalist, in general, I don’t think that most workers would have a way for their labor to be utilized. The capitalist sets up the system/factory/whatever and people have the option to work for the capitalist (or not).

Pure capitalism puts far too much power in the hands of the capitalist. We’ve come up with a controlled and regulated form of capitalism that puts rights back in the worker’s hands (minimum wage, standards of treatment, etc). Workers offer their services to capitalists and capitalists can choose to accept or not (and vice versa).

It’s not a bad system (not perfect either) but socialism itself I don’t know is the answer. Eurosocialism isn’t the answer either. I don’t know that there is a perfect system out there, to be honest, that could work on a massive scale. But capitalism so far seems to work the best. We’ll see if that’s true in the long run.

To clarify my position a bit further, as well as address some of the counterpoints that were raised, I responded:

I figured you wouldn’t agree with much of it, but I’m glad that it’s given you a better understanding of where I stand. I should also mention that I don’t hate capitalism; I appreciate the level of economic and technological advancements it’s fostered, and it’s only through these advances in equipment, methods and overall efficiency of production that socialism is possible. Marx was the first to admit that.

I also don’t believe there’s a ‘perfect system’; all economic and political ideologies are going to be flawed in some way, and even socialism would have its own contradictions (dialectic relationships are inherent in any kind of system characterized by change, nothing is ever truly static). The issues I have with the present system are what I’ve mentioned above, along with other things I didn’t have time to touch upon, such as capitalism’s need for constant growth (which is inherently unsustainable) and how it actually creates structural unemployment, which hardly existed on a mass scale before it became the dominant mode of production.

So while I think they you make some valid points in regard to how the system current operates, I’d say that it’s not working as well as you might suppose. For example, you say that most workers wouldn’t have a way for their labour to be utilized without capital, but one could just as easily argue that their labour isn’t able to be full realized precisely because of capital since (1) capital dictates most of the terms and (2) capital benefits from high-unemployment (i.e., it creates an insecure labour pool that can be hired and fired at will, at whatever wage the employer deigns to give). Moreover, if capital wasn’t so concentrated into such few hands, it’s possible that more workers would not only be able to utilize their labour, but would have more of a chance to profit from it.

To put it another way, under the present system, opportunity is essentially privatized along with everything else the capitalists and free-market advocates can get their hands on, making it just as concentrated as wealth (and, if you’ve noticed, income inequality is rising while median family income is lower now that it was 30 years ago). Sure, things have improved since the 1900s, when workers (which included large numbers of children) essentially had no rights whatsoever, and were forced to work over 12 hour days in absolutely appalling conditions, but that’s been due to the struggle of workers themselves, not due to the benevolence of capitalism. Moreover, there’s been an on-going and relatively successful push by the agents of capital to strip labour of their hard-won gains, most visibly (and successfully) against unions.

Capitalism isn’t a ‘bad’ system, but I think we’ve definitely outgrown it, just like we did feudalism. And while socialism isn’t going to be a perfect replacement if it ever takes its place, I think it has the potential to revolutionize society much the same way feudalism and capitalism have. For me, socialism isn’t so much about the equality of wealth or outcomes as it is the de-privatization (i.e., socialization) of opportunity and the weakening of class antagonisms and hierarchies arising out of social relations unique to capitalism and other predominately exploitative systems. As Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

In this, you may think I’m some naive and uneducated idealist who blames ‘society’ for my misfortunes and lack of opportunity, but I can assure you that my views are as educated and rational as they are conditioned by personal experiences living and working in four states across the US; and it’s out of an optimistic hope that humanity will eventually get its collective head out of its ass before its current infatuation with greed and competition destroys itself that I take such a position. But as you say, we’ll see if that’s true in the long run.

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