Socialism?

Freddie DeBoer asks me if I think socialism is an alternative to capitalism, or is merely an ameliorative bandage that repairs the devastation wrought by capitalism. He also insists on a “coherent definition” of socialism, presumably to sort out the real deal from the pretenders, like Sanders. As Sanders fans, Bhaskar Sunkara and Connor Kilpatrick agree from a distance, suggesting that socialism must represent a break from capitalism. Timothy Burke and Carl Dyke claim that trying to define socialism is a fool’s errand because it distracts us from the political and intellectual tasks at hand.

Let me respond by announcing what capitalism is not. It’s not reducible to markets, to private property, to profit motives. These have been with us since at least the 5th century B.C. As Max Weber noted, greed isn’t specific to capitalism; in fact, he showed, capitalism couldn’t develop unless its proponents limited the scope of the commodity form, by limiting the time available for the exploitation of labor. And as Karl Marx pointed out, the convergence of modern corporations and modern credit in the late 19th century produced what he called a “socialized” mode of production—indeed it “abolished private property within the bounds of capitalist production itself.” (see vol 3 of Capital, chs 27-32)

That’s so 19th century, Michael Berube would say. And he’s right, the 20th century isn’t teeming with big thinkers who could grasp the ambiguities of a “mixed economy.” But his invocation of Stuart Hall (and Raymond Williams) does point us in the right direction, toward the study of social formations as against modes of production—or rather, the study of how different modes of production co-exist and interpenetrate. “The area of a culture,” Williams once said, “is usually proportionate to the area of a language rather than a class.” Just so with socialism—it’s not the exclusive property of “the” working class, not any more than capitalism is sustained only by the allegiance of capitalists.

In these terms, socialism is not necessarily a movement dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism, although of course it can be, and has been. It’s more broadly and consequentially a matter of everyday social relations of production, whereby what Marx called “the historical and moral element” in the calculation of the value of labor power (wages) comes to contain, and finally to determine, the value of all things. It doesn’t mean the end of work, of markets, or of profits, it means the redefinition of all three.

That doesn’t sound as robust and radical as I would like, because I don’t think of socialism so much as a break from capitalism as a culmination, a continuation that is also a creation of something brand new—an organic product of capitalism, in the same sense that capitalism was rooted in and yet broke up the soil that was feudalism. Because it is this organic creation, we don’t notice its manifestations, or can’t put them into words, just as the inhabitants of Elizabethan England didn’t, or couldn’t, until very late in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, on the eve of revolution itself. Shakespeare had to invent new words to convey the enormity, and the intimacy, of the social changes he lived. So do we.

OK, Freddie says socialism means the “end of markets.” To me, that’s like saying socialism means the end of democracy. Why? Two instances, or episodes. And notice I’m talking history here, not theory, except as the labor theory of value becomes the device—the language—people needed to explain what was happening to and in the material circumstances of their lives, as they created as well as experienced those circumstances.

First, the creation of a market in labor. According to every sentient being except Werner Sombart and his progeny, who can’t distinguish between slavery and capitalism, this is the detonating event in the development of modernity: the commodification of labor power. Consult them all, from Smith and Ferguson to Hobbes and Locke, from Marx and Weber and Polanyi to Macpherson and Lindblom. Same result.

The creation of a market in labor permits a labor theory of value. It permits, meanwhile, two remarkably opposed and yet conjoined phenomena. On the one hand, a workable, practical notion of equality. On the other, a workable, practical method of exploitation that is not slavery. The market in labor is the groundwork, in this sense, of universal democracy, because you can’t have democracy without a fundamental belief in and commitment to equality.   Marx said as much, many times. It is also, and by the same criteria, the groundwork of local tyranny, because the workplace under capitalism is arranged according to ownership rather than control of the means of production.

Our choice is not, then, between a market in labor and the end of markets, but how to manage a transition that is already underway. Ownership and control have long since parted ways—capitalists have become superfluous beings because of the corporation, as Marx and I have argued (!)—so the question is not how to expropriate private property, but how to turn the managers of existing corporations into public servants, on salary, in other words how to control the means of production, not own them. Moreover, the market in labor has long since decayed, to the point where information is free—the “producers” of “content” cannot be compensated for their labor, whether they’re musicians, journalists, or adjunct professors. The end of capitalism is upon us.

The banking system is a good example of what I mean. We, us taxpayers, already own it, through the FDIC, TARP, etc. The question is how to control it. Now if you say, well, you’re only talking about regulation, you’re right, because the property in question has already been socialized.

Second, the intellectual continuum of Eastern Europe, from Oscar Lange and Michal Kalecki in the 1920s and 30s to Wladzmiericz Brus and Radoslav Selucky in the 1960s and 70s. These great theorists showed that political pluralism, and thus the possibility of democracy, resides in and flows from markets—Brus went so far, in 1961, as to say that a larger dose of commodity fetishism was good for socialism—because we have no other mechanism by which to register the preferences of individuals (and their associations) in their everyday lives. The ballot was an exceptional moment, they suggested, and in any case it was compromised by the lack of choice in the remainder of existence.

These pro-market, Marxist, and socialist theorists were, not incidentally, in sometimes fierce argument with Friedrich von Hayek and his heirs, who believed that markets were inviolable because they distributed information, and thus undergirded freedom, in uncontrollable ways.

A humble but coherent definition of socialism, according to these antecedents, would amount to this. It’s a way of taking the principle of political obligation that guides modernity—I will abide by this law because I have participated in its making through my elected representatives—and turning it into an imperative that governs all other spheres of life, even unto the most mundane moments, like the workplace and the household. It’s a way of insisting that the sovereignty of the people—not the state, the parliament, the executive, the cabinet, whatever—is an inviolable axiom. It’s a way of claiming, accordingly, that markets are indispensable means to the end of democratically decided social goals.

It’s a way of saying that capitalism is the necessary but woefully insufficient condition of social democracy. There you go.

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One response to “Socialism?

  1. Isaac

    I took a seminar with you Spring 2012–Capitalism and Catastrophe–I believe it was called: have followed your writing ever since. As regards the statement: “I will abide by this law because I have participated in its making through my elected representatives—and turning it into an imperative that governs all other spheres of life”: this seems a blithe disregard for the well-deserved cynicism that these millennial old-style socialists feel for the legitimacy of representative democracy and their (maybe reactionary) ideals of direct democracy.

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