Mike Nelson here.
Heh I'm on my old macbook and here's a post from my blog from February 2006, which is like just when I was starting to read about leftism. I'll post it and THEN read it for extra fun.
Things Not to Say on a Date
Over the past day I've been writing long responses to various people about Communism, anarchism, democratic socialism and the like. I really don't know that much about it, but I figured there might be one or two people out there interested in my thinking. And really, again, what's the Internet for other than narcissism? Oh. Well, other than *that*. Anyways, here are my attempts at broad responses to a few questions I was asked.
On Communism not requiring a dictatorship
Words are stretched all over. But let's say that big-C Communism refers to the Russian Social-Democratic Party changing its name to the Communist Party after the seizure of power, to distinguish itself from parties that wanted to achieve power through non-revolutionary means. So Marxism-Leninism, but this extends widely enough that you could include all extra-parliamentary Marxists.
In such a case, Communism requires a dicatorship. It requires a dictatorship of the proletariat. In some places, in the course of the global revolution, this dictatorship can be achieved through the seizure of political power through elections. But the state must then be turned into an instrument of class war against the bourgeoisie. This includes a rejection of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Marx specifically says that it appeared the proletarian revolution would take a democratic form in countries where democratic forms existed to such an extent that could allow them to - such as the US or England. But once there was a demonstration of such democratic power, it would be expected that the bourgeoisie would shut down democracy and then have to be shown as illegitimate and given the boot. ("If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal." - Emma Goldman.)
Personally, I think that is correct to a certain degree. The basic analysis is correct that bourgeois democracy presents dangers to the permanence of socialist revolution. This danger exists only insofar a Communist party is unable to continually convince people not to choose capitalist restoration. Likewise, the alternatives to democracy are incorrect on both sides. On one side it denies the worker comprehensive control over their own conditions and is therefore antithetical to the development of socialism. On the other side, through the lack of real democratic federation with comprehensive and universal control over property within an anarchist (libertarian socialist) system, a person is denied control in favour of the arbitrary and rapidly changing power of the work-unit. So I think you can tear what is called "liberal" democracy down in theory only to build it back up again as the only legitimate system for the construction of socialism.
I haven't thought it fully through, though. Foucault may well be right that this could amount to a "new anarchism" sort of angle if we restrained democracy to the control of objects instead of people. But in my mind that would simply be a strategic retreat of law instead of its abolition.
On Communism limiting economic opportunity
Most of the people in the world, especially earlier in the 20th century, had virtually no freedom as a consumer and even less as a producer (let alone as a political citizen). So the systems that displaced the old ones gave most people relatively more economic freedom on both ends. Just less for the people most concerned with their own privilege / exclusive freedom. And of course it industrialized some of the repression that had existed before. Most people in Communist states believed that with the transition away from Communism they would maintain relatively full employment and social welfare systems with simply the addition of a greater supply capitalist consumer goods and political freedoms. Generally both have not come together. Over time I think they will within a more democratic socialist system, though.
On the question of whether Communism is inherently totalitarian
The achievement of communism is supposed to basically be a situation of maximized individual freedom. That is, a classless situation where each person chooses exactly how to spend their time. Scientific administration of the economy advances to the point where needs are met through relatively spontaneous and limited effort. Commensurate with this would be the abolition of the state apparatus which exists solely to repress the working class. Product fetishism, greed, corruption and other products of capitalist systems would minimize both the drive to supply and the demand for many consumer goods. (Fromm calls this the shift between a mode of having towards a mode of being.) Beyond this, most people would produce because they wanted to produce, and they would derive the greatest happiness from this when they were meeting some obvious need (instead of compelled to do so by economic forces). In Marxist terms this would be the real maximization of freedom on all fronts - end of class war, totally liberated producer, global satisfaction of needs, peace, the end of the state and the final construction of Communist man.
One way to see it is to remove general obligation from hours of the day by first distributing that obligation fairly. Stop the idleness, luxury and profit-mandess of capitalist class and the idleness of workers (or women) now waiting for their turn at the capitalist's whip or otherwise underutilized, and you'll be able to sharply cut down on the average obligated work week. Likewise, workers would (under socialism, the transition stage) receive compensation equal to what they really produced, not minus some profit for the capitalist class (although still less taxes).
Swaths of all that are junk and it depends really on the abolition of scarcity or some incredible shift in how we conceive of an individual's utility. But perhaps under constraints it might be better seen joining hands with a sort of Rawlsian approach. Erich Fromm makes this point by targeting the first goal of communism as breaking the survival bond between worker and capitalist employer - that is, a guaranteed and predictable universal welfare system. Which is why, in part and in addition to my specific criticisms of dictatorship and violence and whatnot, I think that communism is wrong although some advanced form of (democratic) socialism is probably correct. Although, because I think that an advanced form of socialism, worked out over a long enough time (hundreds of years), will probably approach to some degree what is called communism, I still think Marxian analysis is useful. (Even early 20th-century democratic socialists often used communism and socialism interchangeably, and referred positively to the Communist Manifesto.)
For his part, Marx would probably roll his eyes, call me the worst combination of mindless and ahistorical bourgeois and utopian socialism, totally unscientific and conveniently unwilling to use the same violence that the ruling class uses without second thought, singing soothing songs to the victims as I lead them to their slaughter. If, that is, anyone would listen to me, which they wouldn't, so that would be the end of that. After that I would stare blankly at him and then do the chicken dance from Arrested Development. Caw-ca-caw-ca-caw!
On "Market Mechanisms"
I think the real "Neo: Whoa" difference between socialism and liberalism, though, is that such mixture of market and directive incentives can be developed within a system where capital is ultimately held in collective hands, and preferences shake out towards democratic ownership and management of firms underneath that. I think that this grows naturally out of the liberal idea of "the commonwealth" and the seeds are obvious even in Adam Smith and flow through any other thoughtful capitalist writer. Socialism is the natural extension of political democracy into economic democracy.
On the construction and administration of socialism
Well, I think that the key starts with admitting that all allocations of property are collective decisions within any democratic model. And if we want to continue allocating property in a way that maintains high concentrations of wealth and highly uneven levels of consumption, we need to have a pretty damn strong trickle-down argument. Especially when the global imbalance isn't "some rich, some poor" as much as "some individuals commanding the resources of entire nations, hundreds of millions certain to die earlier than if they had access to quality basic health and social services". So I think that we should be shifting our economy towards such basic services within a publically-administered model. Here there would be a consensus between left-liberalism and socialism. That decision alone would transform the character of the world economy.
A concurrent change would be to stop framing every problem as a security problem and begin to dismantle parts of the security-industrial complex. A radical decrease in prison population, a decrease in military operations, a move away from strategic weapons and the like. With that should be a move away from polluting industry and greater consideration for how public decisions related to transportation and other basic infrastructure really define the communities in which we live. This is to say, admit we live in a society that is already, at its core, full of planning. Currently that planning is skewed towards corporate and security power. With the shift in thinking away from that, we can better subsidize the kinds of life most of us find more appealing and assert better control over industries or arrangements that might create problems.
Now, let's say that beyond all that there really is a trend in the corporate world to flatten costs through the creation of a global labour market and the use of advanced information technology. Soon they'll be outsourcing more "white collar" parts of multinational operations, turning more and more managers into workers. They'll have robust new logistical models that continue to cut costs through just-in-time delivery and efficient demand prediction with computers. This will be combined with a growing disconnect between management goals (status, compensation, market share) and shareholder goals (high stock price, high profits) - see Galbraith's "Economics of an Innocent Fraud" for a brief overview of this point. In any case, over time we could see where this would take socialism from breadlines to just-in-time. Over time, cooperative forms of WalMarts could emerge that cut out parts of management and corporate-overhead costs. They could have more flexible and cooperative allocations of work.
This is all to say that the core of the economy - health care, education, transportation, security, some housing, core resource extraction, core energy production, some industry and some distribution/retail could all be held quite efficiently in public hands without great fears of unacceptable inefficiency. There would be struggles in there but this could all be coordinated in a way that is superior to the status quo and could exist in either a sort of work-sharing or market-taxed model. A good share of this would also be non-market oriented public research.
Beyond this core, we would extend towards a more flexible area of tastes. You can't scientifically plan everything in our changing world because people don't have an obvious monoculture of tastes. The poorer a society is, the less of a problem it is, but I would expect a modern socialist system to have a very wide range of demand and potential supply. This could be handled largely through a mixed system of public ownership. First, the core parts of the economy extend out towards the market part due to economies of scale (no need to have public power plants to power the core public system but then not use them to power most of the more market-oriented parts, no need to have extensive parallel transportation systems, etc.). Beyond this, capital held in trust by the state could be managed through a system of subsidiaries that operate on a profit-seeking basis. The goal for this would be to (somewhat) efficiently allocate this capital in a way that is responsive to consumer tastes and raises enough profit to meet like a general interest rate. For example, a run-down on Post-Lange Market Socialism can be found here. In theory, this acts as a system of checks and balances on decisions concerning capital. There will still be failures and inefficiency, but things would probably shake out okay over time. (The capitalist market pretends that these decisions are somehow neutral and asocial by delegating almost absolute authority over them to corporate systems, but this is in part simply a way of shielding them from democratic control and public scrutiny.)
Beyond that publicly-managed, firm-oriented capital there would be a system of sort of humble and secondary markets. Here we are talking more about rights of possession and personal consumption, of limited entrepreneurship and price discovery. Connected closely with this would be those sideline industries that provide things that perhaps the public is unwiling to condone on a profit-basis but are permitted out of individual liberty. This should emerge both out-of-pocket and again through personal loans and the like. Although progressively taxed, some of these people may be able to amass a significant amount of money by finding gaps in the system. That is, generally, until public capital moves in and displaces or otherwise co-opts them.
Over time, parts of the economy would become predictable enough to allow for what some anarchists call "job complexes" - that is, labour demand will be predictable in a way that we know pretty well what needs to be done. Management is then a task like any other, and there is no need for real hierarchy within that particular economic unit. So more workplaces could move towards a flexible system where tasks are divied up between equal workers that decide things much more democratically.
Now, that's how the model might work. But moving from capitalism to socialism might look to some like trying to take an omelette and make it back into an egg. But there are obvious reforms that we can do along the way that express democratic control and ownership, I think, once you start using that as a model.
On anarchist governance
Well, I would still say that - whatever their bluster or eloquence - they wanted a government. They just didn't want to call it that. Bakunin wanted to use weapons to tear down anyone trying to build up a government. But then he wanted a federation of others willing to do the same... To come together to protect and organize collective property... Hmm, that's a government to me.
My concern with anarcho-syndicalism, in its crudest sense, is that its organization depends on the preservation of the division of labour. A factory worker is given more control over their workplace, but they are still a factory worker. They are sort of frozen into that role. The workplace itself may federate with others, but the individual is not given comprehensive and fluid control over all property. It conversely separates out people as clients in a way that further alienates them from production. The only way to “solve” this problem, I would say, is to generalize control over objects into an overarching system of power that is continuous in the face of changing patterns of production and consumption. That is to say, with a government. This sort of makes the democratic control of each worker more perfectly portable.
In turn, collective control over ownership is not easily facilitated by the sorts of “consumer councils” that some have suggested. There needs to be some combination of planning and flexibility for impulse. The only way to rapidly meet impulses is either to deliberately build in waste in expectation that consumption may be higher on some random occasion or to build in incentives that can quickly shift. That is to say, a price system within a market. Here we trade the supposed freedom found in absolute submission to a plan and substitute the dangers and benefits of money.
On the use of violence in the construction of socialism
The current economic system is already backed with force and, in many cases, violence. Personally, though, I have come to believe that the use of violence is almost always inefficient or immoral. I think that we can compel a person to be in a particular location for security and procedural reasons, or otherwise prevent them from resisting democratic decisions (with some degree of humility and discretion), but in the vast majority of cases there is no need for violence (as in causing them harm) there.
The cases where violence may well prevent serious problems are very rare compared to the dangers of the state regularizing the use and threat of use of violence, and are incomparable to the scale of social problems related to inequality or pollution. To be more specific, I think that there is a fallacy of composition associated with violence. In some given case, it may appear that violence is a legitimate response. But once you aggregate those cases you start to see that if there had been some consistent policy tending against or rejecting violence that the overall outcome would be much better. This is especially true given a sort of broken window problem - violence is contagious.
Well, at least I found it fun to type.