Criticizing Capitalism: A Thought Experiment

You know, I was just thinking about this thing people do, where you point out something terrible that capitalism does, and they say, “Communism wouldn’t be any better!” Let’s look at that for a minute. Let’s ignore the fact that, sometimes, it doesn’t even make sense in context, and let’s also ignore the fact that it almost always indicates someone whose study of political philosophy hasn’t advanced since high school social studies. Let us, as a thought experiment, pretend that this is literally true.
Okay, now what? Do we stop criticizing capitalism? Do we lie about it and say that it is perfect in all details? Anyone with a shred of decency will realize that even if—especially if—convinced that capitalism is the ultimate answer to how to produce and distribute human wants,  insofar as there are problems, we should try to understand them, in order to, at least, attempt to alleviate them.  Isn’t that, after all, the essence of reformism?  “This will be here forever, so let’s make it as good as we can.”
But this requires study. This requires an understanding of the mechanisms of wage-labor, the generation of surplus value, capital investment, market forces, competition, efficiency of scale, &c &c.  And if, in the course of this study, we were to come across something that is inherent in the very nature of capitalism, or is a natural result of the inevitable domination of finance capital over industrial capital, or the inextricable ties between capital and the state, or of the nation-state system that is so closely tied to commodity production, we ought to point it out. How else can those who see capitalism as permanent hope to improve it?
This, however, we never get from these people. When you make the observation that financial catastrophes, that destroy countless lives, happen with appalling regularity, you do not get anyone saying, “No, that doesn’t happen!” which I admit would be a hard case to make. And you don’t get anyone saying, “That’s because they’ve been doing it wrong for the last five hundred years, but I know how to fix it.” You also don’t get anyone saying, “Yes, that is true, and it is inherent in capitalism, so we should figure out how to alleviate the harm as much as possible.”
No, what you get is, “Communism would have the same problem!”  It is the political equivalent of the schoolboy’s cry, “And you’re another!” and does just as much to advance human knowledge.
Exactly what this says about the defenders of capitalism I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

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45 thoughts on “Criticizing Capitalism: A Thought Experiment”

  1. I don’t care *what* label people are arguing against (and it usually is the label, not the substance). That argument is a losing argument.

  2. You ever encountered hardcore defenders of the Communist Party of China? What you mentioned is definitely annoying, but those guys are a special kind of irritating.

  3. Sadly, I have heard all three of those responses to critiques of capitalism. I think the basic problem is that if people have to admit that capitalism isn’t perfect, they have to re-evaluate all the effort they’ve put into supporting capitalism — like having to face the math of buying lottery tickets every week. This is not a randomly chosen metaphor, because many people treat capitalism the same way they treat the lottery. “I put in enough pocket change/labor,” they think, “and eventually I’ll strike it rich.” And many people (I would argue most) have never been trained to critically evaluate themselves and do not want to learn, because that would puncture the fiction that they are the heroes of their life’s narrative.

  4. Does this happen with people who don’t know and don’t have reason to think you’re a communist?

  5. There’s a story that somebody asked Ghandi what he thought about American civilization. He replied something like “I think it would be an excellent idea.”

    Ask me about American Capitalism and I say “It would at least be worth a try.”

    Most people who want to defend capitalism have only a vague idea what it is they think they’re defending. What they are in fact defending is the status quo. If they were fully honest they would be saying something like “I don’t understand it. You don’t understand it. I doubt anybody understands it. Let’s try not to mess with it because we’d probably break it worse.”

    The status quo does not particularly fit capitalist theory. It doesn’t particularly fit anybody’s theories. It grew by accident. Adam Smith and Ricardo tried to imagine what was going on and made up theories to explain how it worked. Marx tried to imagine what was going on and made up theories to explain why it would quit working.

    There is no particular reason to trust any of these theories. Some of them may look so compelling that people WILL trust them. But would you bet three billion lives on them?

    My view is that we have no particular reason to assume that the evolving world economy will be stable or reliable. It lurches along. It could fail drasticly at any time, and if people believe it is reliable that’s only because of theories that might not apply.

    We have no particular reason to assume that we know what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. More theory.

    So we very much need to reduce our dependency on the world market. Get more local self-sufficiency. That costs. If you consistently get the best deal you can from anywhere in the world, your expenses will be lower and your “efficiency” will be higher. But your risk will be higher too. So try to arrange to have what you need locally, and then trade on the world market for luxuries and special deals that you could get by without.

    If we can arrange thousands of local economies, then we can experiment. We can change around the system some places, and find out which changes work in practice. There’s always the chance that something which works one place will fail elsewhere — local cultures vary, and culture matters when you try to change behaviors. But each place we make changes, we get to look for the hidden relationships that our theories have not noticed before.

    What we have is a ramshackle evolved system that is evolving fast, not by natural selection among thousands or millions of alternate economies but by chance. Things that let some people make money faster get done, unless other people stop them. A random walk. We are betting our lives that it keeps working. Nobody understands it. Nobody knows how to fix it.

    Imagine the whole world was using and depending on a complex, buggy piece of software. Let’s give it a name, like say Windows 3.1. Everybody could see that it had problems. It sometimes broke down spontaneously. And it was susceptible to viruses that sometimes let some people steal from others. And there were people who were officially supposed to be maintaining the system, who were making a whole lot of money off of everybody else. Alternative systems were getting nowhere because to communicate with the rest of the world you had to be Windows-compatible.

    And imagine in this world you met somebody in a bar who argued that Windows was shit. He said he could redesign it and create a system which would not have the flaws. He knew a bunch of other smart people who all agreed that their approach would be better after they wrote it. They had talked it over and they knew where the problems were in Windows and they had a completely different approach which was guaranteed to work. He wanted you to agree to convert the whole world over to their system, which they would write later.

    How would you respond to that?

    What we have now is some ways worse than Windows 3.1. It has well over a hundred years of evolutionary cruft. Nobody has the source code. And there is no alpha-testing. Great big changes happen when teams of politicians talk it over and reach agreements based on their personal judgement and that of their staffs, with at best some desk-checking. Bretton Woods, NAFTA, TPP, you name it. We’re lucky to be alive.

  6. Steven,

    While I can’t speak to your core premise — I’m one of those people you reference whose political philosophy studies didn’t get much past high school — I wanted to express my surprise at your generalization about the defenders of capitalism. It reminded me immediately of something Vlad said (that I really enjoyed, in that context):

    “I’m generalizing from one example, here, but everyone generalizes from example. At least, I do.”

    Based on your posts here, you obviously have tremendous knowledge on the topic. It would be really surprising to me that you couldn’t find similarly educated and passionate people to engage in a meaningful discussion on the topic. It sounds like you’re ranting about “discussion” you see on Facebook or Twitter or a similar platform and lamenting the lack of informed commentary.

    Surely someone of your knowledge and rhetorical skill can identify worthy opponents on the capitalism side without resorting to a “we never get from these people” statement.

  7. I’m not sure how you can say that I’m generalizing about defenders of capitalism when the post is clearly aimed at those people who use that particular phrase. Nowhere do I say, imply, or even hint that all defenders of capitalism use that phrase. I’m baffled about how you got that, unless you skimmed the whole thing and only read the last sentence.

  8. When you have these conversations, are you trying to identify the failings of capitalism, or are you using the conversation as a prologue to why communism or socialism would be superior?

  9. It seems like their response is an appropriate shortcut. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Yes, capitalism is not perfect, but it is at least as perfect as socialism.”

  10. Kukuforguns:No, it is equivalent to the following–
    Me-“Forks have problems when eating soup.”
    Capitalist-“Well spoons would be no better.”

  11. Steve:
    If someone knows skzb is discussing the weaknesses of capitalism as a prologue to advocating for the superiority of communism, why bother talking about capitalism’s weaknesses? Why not discuss how/whether communism is superior to capitalism?

  12. Kukuforguns:Because having a discussion about a particular problem may result in gaining knowledge about fixing that problem or alternatives to pursue.

  13. I don’t think so. If I were in a conversation with someone I perceive to have an ulterior motive, I would be disinclined to engage in an meaningful conversation. SKZB is a well known Trotskyist. If he started talking to me about the failings of of capitalism, I would anticipate he really wanted to advocate for the superiority of communism. I also might conclude that by beginning the conversation with capitalism’s weaknesses, he was trying to manipulate me psychologically. I also would strongly believe he was not interested in improving capitalism. So, if I doubt whether skzb is interested in fixing a problem in capitalism, maybe other people also have similar doubts.

  14. Kukuforguns:I mentioned fixing a problem. This might involve a fix in capitalism or it might be that the problem cannot be fixed within the bounds of capitalism. As skzb noted above, the particular people he is talking about aren’t interested in advancing human knowledge; they are generally terrified at the concept and so lash out.

  15. Steve: skzb has identified the class as people who haven’t studied economics/communism “since high school social studies.” Is anyone surprised this class of people is not willing to engage in meaningful debate? Why is skzb trying to advance human knowledge by having debates with people who have not studied the issues being debated? Why would skzb want to have a meaningful debate with someone who hasn’t studied the issues?

    If I want to listen to someone who knows more about socialism than I do, I’ll visit the dream café. Otherwise, I’ll shut down the debate … potentially in the exact manner skzb described.

  16. Kukuforguns-“Forks have problems when eating soup.”
    Capitalist-“Shut up and eat your soup.”
    Marx-“We will quickly find better ways when we aren’t required to use forks.”

    That actually sounds perfectly reasonable.

    If we didn’t have to eat soup with forks, we could sip it from the bowl.
    We could get something shaped like a little can, and scoop soup into the can and then drink it from the can.
    We could sip it through a straw.
    We could have a spongy bread. Tear off a bite of the bread, dunk it in the soup where it absorbs soup like a sponge, and then stick it with a fork and eat it.
    Have a utensil like a paintbrush. Dip the brush into the soup, then put it in your mouth and suck the soup off.
    Add enough gelatin or cornstarch or agar to the soup that it congeals, and then eat it with a fork like eating jello with a fork.

    There are lots of good ways if social convention didn’t require us to eat soup with a fork.

  17. We’ve been trying to improve civilization ever since Ghun convinced Nuud to share his marrow bone by using the rock to brain pan argument. We’ve made substantial advances (mind you, the rock to brain pan argument is still commonly used). Advances will continue to be made (e.g., armed tax collectors). I harbor strong reservations those advancements will come by way of debates with people uninterested in the issue.

    Please do not suggest slurping from the soup bowl. My wife has ruled I need no encouragement in this area.

  18. Here is a thought experiment for you, too, Steven. This takes a classically trained Communist to answer.
    Communists believe that the Proletariat Communists will rise against the Bourgeoisie Capitalists in revolution.
    What happens if things start differently, such as…
    Can a Bourgeoisie Communist revolution overthrow a Proletariat Capitalist nation?
    This got stuck in my head and I just needed to get it out. Consider it or not. I will check back in a week to see if you did. I won’t be debating the answer, disagreeing, or in any way presenting my own opinion. There is no ulterior motive.
    As for your thought experiment above, the answer is simple. Things change. The Darwinian market theories of Capitalism encourage and promote adaptation to that change, forcing the Bourgeoisie that fail to adapt to lose their capital and thus be replaced by a new Bourgeoisie that understand the new markets better. Of the 100 wealthiest individuals in the UK, all are either first or second generation wealth (excluding the Queen if she is on the list). Old money controlled by a hereditary elite is dead. The first generation makes the money, the second spends it since they lack the savvy of the first, and the third generation is back in the lower or middle class.
    Communist theory places the means of investment in the hands of a bureaucratic intelligentsia that has no need to adapt, since their positions are secure. When a business fails under Communism, it is the fault of the workers not working hard enough, not the bureaucrat that overlooked details which made the business impossible to succeed and who should not have devoted capital to it.
    During my conversations with Russian engineers that emigrated after the Wall fell, several bureaucratic failings were revealed that the USSR Communists were never able to overcome. These are problems that any Communist must find a solution to, or the same failure is inevitable. The Russians were not stupid and failed repeatedly over seven decades, so these are fundamentally not trivial.
    1. Being able to regurgitate Communist theory was the primary measure of merit.
    Bureaucrats in charge of production, when interviewed for advancement, were grilled on Communist theory, not on the means of production or the products they were already responsible for, and had no need to demonstrate understanding of what they would become responsible for if they became the successful candidate. Consequently, anyone that understood production and demonstrated merit in management, but disagreed with Marx, was not advanced to a higher position and increase productivity for a larger region. Promoting a non-Communist to a position of responsibility would, of course, give a possible counter-revolution increased power, when such people clearly needed to be suppressed. Productive merit is, consequently, crushed under the weight of political merit and paranoia, with the clearly obvious consequence of decreased production.
    Conversely, under Capitalism, managers are reviewed on proven productivity, and if the individual happens to be a closet Socialist, management doesn’t care. Prove yourself, and usually you get more responsibility: politics are irrelevant to merit. Yes, croneyism exists so sometimes merit does not advance, but Capitalism has a reply to that, too. Where that does happen, production drops, the company either suffers and corrects the mistake or fails entirely, to be replaced by another, more hopefully merit oriented company, and if not, it gets to be replaced until merit succeeds.
    2. Since bureaucratic managers do not have an understanding of the means of production, but are only an egotistical intelligentsia convinced of their own political, intellectual, and moral superiority because others of identical thought agree that they are, false conclusions are drawn about increases and decreases in productivity.
    One Russian engineer I spoke to described a good year. Production at his factory was ahead by 20%, and yearly quota was going to be exceeded. The manager told everyone to stop working so hard, and quota was only met precisely, not exceeded by even an iota. When questioned by the engineer, the manager explained thus (paraphrased of course), because he knew the truth would not be passed on by this particular engineer:
    “This year’s high quota was due to a higher than normal rainfall. That probably won’t happen next year. The regional supervisor (who sets quotas) expects that any excess quota demonstrates an increase in worker efficiency, so since we must have raised efficiency, he can raise next year’s quota to match this year’s. If the rain is only average next year, that quota will not be met, and I will be brought before a committee to explain why worker efficiency dropped, while this year’s increase will be ignored entirely as irrelevant. That will see me demoted, because rainfall is not an acceptable reason for a good year. Actually, we could produce 10% more than our current quota every year, but a drought costs a large amount of production. I hold back production every year in subtle ways by 10% so that I do not get sent to a Gulag because of a drought.”
    You may recognize that fundamental ignorance of reasons for changes in productivity from Chapter 1 of Marx’s Das Capital. It states that all changes in prices are due to increased labour efficiency by workers. That conclusion denies, utterly, that random environmental factors can hinder or help a worker, largely because it was developed from a view of industrial production instead of agriculture, where a drought makes all of a farmer’s labour irrelevant.
    Rainfall driving production is easily understood by the Bourgeoisie, since they have a need to understand all aspects of production in order to invest wisely. Watch Shark Tank sometime, and notice as the Sharks direct those seeking capital investment to the Shark that is most educated in any particular market. They don’t invest in what they do not understand. Under Communism in the USSR, the entrepreneur was always appealing to someone that understood only Communist theory, not the specifics of the market that was being addressed.
    So there are two questions that Communism has to answer which Capitalism inherently has solutions for, and which destroy your equivalency of the two systems, and both come down to recognizing and promoting merit of achievement instead of merit of political belief. The Russians did not solve these, but they must be solved if Communism is to ever work. Adding meritocracy to Communism puts the system at risk by placing counter-revolutionaries in positions of power, but also risks demonstrating that non-Communist systems may be more meritorious and consequently forcing the dismantling of Communism. If that cannot be risked, then merit can never be implemented under Communism, and the reduced efficiency creates a demand that can never be fulfilled and a need of the meritorious to be recognized that also results in dissatisfaction, resentment, and counter-revolution.
    While parallels can be drawn between many aspects of Capitalist and Communist systems — both systems will suffer periodic economic downturns (drought was partially responsible for the Great Depression and Communism is not immune to drought), both systems require entrepreneurs to appeal to someone to fund their idea if they lack sufficient capital to invest, and so forth — not everything has a parallel. One detail can defeat an entire system (and did so in the USSR), if it is not addressed and allowed to fester.
    “You also don’t get anyone saying, “Yes, that is true, and it is inherent in capitalism, so we should figure out how to alleviate the harm as much as possible.””
    We do. The people that determine those solutions are called Economists.
    Example: the lessons learned in 1929 taught us how to handle 2008, reducing what could have been another Depression to a Recession. We have learned how to alleviate the harm. Unlike in 1929, banks slowly repossessed homes over years instead of all at once, and forgave many of the mortgages instead of forcing bankruptcy. Everyone got hit to a certain degree especially the banks, since the banks now have government monitors on their Boards of Directors to ensure 2008 doesn’t happen again (which really only needed the regulations taken down by Clinton in 2000 to be reinstated).
    Economists study and learn from every financial disaster, which strengthens Capitalism. Since it is still learning and adapting, and its Darwinian nature ensures that will always be true, Capitalism can and will improve the system with every disaster.
    Communism cannot learn from the disasters of the USSR, Eastern Bloc, China, Venezuela, et al., since it’s defense is always, “They did not implement true Communism.” That ignorant defense ensures Communism will repeat its failures, eternally.
    Been a while.

  19. There are different types of defenders of capitalism. There are those who benefit by capitalism. There are those who hope to benefit by capitalism. There are those who defend whatever label they believe applies to themselves.

    We don’t step outside and analyze different economic systems without emotion, evaluating all of the plusses and minuses (costs and benefits?) to have a rational reason for picking an economic starting point, then adjust the theories with experiments and observations.

  20. Kreistor, I like your theory. Our economic system should be an evolutionary one, where we find improvements and do them more when we test that they work.

    I knew a software engineer who used to work at a small Texas subsidiary of a big company. Of course they had good years and bad years. But they fudged their reports, always reporting about the same income. The company considered them a reliable cash cow and completely ignored them for 12 years. Partly because they were boring. Partly because — Texas. Nobody wanted to visit them or get involved with them.

    Then the big company was getting sold. The buyers did investigate. It turned into an item of contention for the sale. They have a pile of money that was worth something, but they weren’t worth much because their income was not all that steady or reliable. It got settled quickly because neither side wanted to risk the sale.

    That sort of thing is not limited to communist regimes. It can happen anywhere that some people try to avoid attention.

    “Communist theory places the means of investment in the hands of a bureaucratic intelligentsia that has no need to adapt, since their positions are secure.”

    US theory often places the means of investment in the hands of Harvard Business School graduates. But their positions are not secure. At any time they could lose to the office infighting. If something goes wrong unrelated to them, they could still be sacrificed to propitiate the gods. Sometimes it may seem safer to try to look good and skip to another better job before they get fired. But that only works if they can arrange to look good. Do they actually apply HBS skills? PERT analysis, linear optimization, genetic algorithms, marketing simulations, etc? I dunno. Maybe they hire people who actually studied those things to use them. It doesn’t help the MBAs much, because actual corporate strategy will follow a random walk, and it’s more important not to get the blame when things go wrong than to try to keep things from going wrong.

    “Under Communism in the USSR, the entrepreneur was always appealing to someone that understood only Communist theory, not the specifics of the market that was being addressed.”

    Under Capitalism in the USA, engineers etc often wind up appealing to someone who understands only business management, not the specifics of the market being addressed. If you want to call it capitalism. It makes sense to say that what we have is no more capitalism than the USSR under Stalin etc was communism.

    “both come down to recognizing and promoting merit of achievement instead of merit of political belief.”

    To some extent, in our system people must officially believe in capitalism, which is a political belief. But belief in capitalism plus personal connections is not enough, and there’s room for achievement to play a role too. Often though, achievement is measured quarter by quarter, with no thought for the long run. This may be inevitable since if you wait for the long run to show its results, that will likely be too late. Managers are lucky when the things that look good this quarter are also good for the long run.

  21. Anyone who can use the term “bourgeois communist revolution” with a straight face has proven thereby such a deep and profound ignorance of politics, economics, and sociology that speaking with such a person is an utter waste of time.

    Kreistor: Weren’t you banned for trolling? How did you get back? Do I have to ban you again? Go away; you add nothing of value to conversations.

  22. Kukuforguns: I use sales as a marker for desirability of products.

    People want MacDonalds products more than any other food.

    And they want Walmart products the most. Walmart’s US sales were more than 1.5% of total US GDP, and I’m sure there aren’t many companies that’s true for.

  23. kukuforguns:A full migration has three components. There is the leaving of the place of origin (emigration), the movement proper (migration) and the arriving at another place (immigration). The markers for emigration are quite often more about various undesirabilities of the place of origin rather than as the desirability of the destination–other than it being better (perceptually) than the origin.

  24. Steve: Yes. My only reservation about your comment is “perceptually”. It suggests the destination is not (or may not be) better than the source. I believe the immigrant is the only person qualified to make that determination.

    So, look at countries with high emigration. This review will suggest several factors that many people (but not all) find undesirable. Then look at countries with high immigration. This review will suggest several factors that many people (but not all) find desireable. Countries with a strong capitalistic tradition are well represented in destination countries.

  25. No, what you get is, “Go away; you add nothing of value to conversations.” It is the Facebook equivalent of the schoolboy’s cry, “And you’re another!” and does just as much to advance human knowledge.

    I valued Kreistor’s post, as well as Jonah’s reply. I also like to think I’m a reasonable person and that there are other humans like me who’s knowledge needs advancement.

  26. “Countries with a strong capitalistic tradition are well represented in destination countries.”

    I have an idea about that which I haven’t tested at all. It’s just an idea.

    Maybe some countries have a labor surplus and try to get jobs for their own people first, and tend not to allow foreigners to work in their countries because they think that results in fewer jobs for their own people. They track employment closely and don’t allow illegal immigrants in cases that the government can find out about it.

    And maybe some other countries also have a labor surplus and allow lots of immigrants so that wages will be low. Because they want to be nice to their capitalists. So they allow lots of H-1B equivalents, and lots of technically illegal immigrants. Because they have a strong capitalist tradition. They get rid of illegal immigrants that cause trouble, but do nothing to their employers. Sometimes employers report them just before the last paycheck so that one less paycheck needs to be written.

    In a world where labor is a buyer’s market, people might tend to immigrate to places they can get jobs, even if those jobs aren’t as good as the jobs reserved for citizens.

  27. Nate, when someone says, “Maybe police do shoot armed people, I honestly don’t care that much,” you are welcome to have a nice friendly debate with him on your blog. I choose not to on mine. And when this behavior is compounded by unrelenting efforts to create a toxic environment that makes conversation difficult, I make it go away. That’s how I roll. I have, if memory serves, banned two people during the entire time I’ve had this blog, and threatened one more. That should tell you something.

  28. Jonah: I don’t have any problem with your hypothetical countries. My comment to improve your theory is that there are n number of countries with varied elements (e.g., stability, wealth, social services, liberty, opportunity, etc.) and that emigrants have some choice about destination.

    By reviewing the choices emigrants make (and which ones are less frequently made), the reviewer will begin to identify factors that have broad appeal to emigrants.

    I am not saying that any destination is better than any other destination. That is for the emigrant to decide. I don’t know what will work best for any emigrant and won’t presume to decide for them individually or as a whole.

  29. Nate: “I valued Kreistor’s post, as well as Jonah’s reply.”

    Thank you.

    This is skzb’s blog, and he gets to have it his way, to the extent he can arrange that. If he doesn’t want some particular conversation here we can have that one somewhere else.

    He doesn’t have to justify his choices to anybody but he can do that if he wants to.

    We tried letting anybody post whatever they wanted to. That was Usenet. It didn’t work very well. Unless you had a lot of people posting a lot of interesting stuff on a group, the spam drowned out everything else.

    We tried having moderators who read everything and decided whether to send it out to everybody else or not. Moderated Usenet. That didn’t work very well either. The moderators usually felt like they were overworked and under-appreciated. They maintained an attitude of blase superiority to other users, and they censored whatever they felt like, and there was no recourse if you didn’t like what they were doing.

    I don’t see anything wrong with having some places that are owned by individual people who can manage them as they want. Particularly when there are alternatives available. If you don’t like the way somebody does that, then don’t come back. Let’s try out everything that looks promising and find out what works for us.

  30. kukuforguns:” I believe the immigrant is the only person qualified to make that determination.”

    Yes, that is what I meant by perceptually. The migrant picked a direction to go. They may or may not have had a lot of choices in factoring that decision.

    Here’s a couple of examples from my past ancestors:
    In a few cases, 1620 – 1650, they arrived seeking religious freedom and economic possibilities. There wasn’t particularly an economic system in place–the old one just wasn’t very good.

    In another case, having been in support of King Charles and after said kings execution, he was granted license to go to Virginia in 1649. In other words, get out of here and don’t come back. Not a lot of choice.

    In another case, having had a son die at Sevastopol and another in the military, my Great-great grandmother decided she had had enough of France and choose to send the family to America in 1868. An interesting time to decide that America was going to be more peaceful than France in general, but the choice there was one of military risk.

  31. Steve:
    kukforguns asked it well:

    “Why is skzb trying to advance human knowledge by having debates with people who have not studied the issues being debated? Why would skzb want to have a meaningful debate with someone who hasn’t studied the issues?”

    I’m one of those, and I am doing this:

    “If I want to listen to someone who knows more about socialism than I do, I’ll visit the dream café.”

    With regard to Kreistor, it essentially it boils down to this:
    “Adding meritocracy to Communism puts the system at risk by placing counter-revolutionaries in positions of power, but also risks demonstrating that non-Communist systems may be more meritorious and consequently forcing the dismantling of Communism. If that cannot be risked, then merit can never be implemented under Communism, … and a need of the meritorious to be recognized that also results in dissatisfaction, resentment, and counter-revolution.”

    I would be interested in seeing commentary on that.

    Minor quibbles:

    Data on weather old money is dead (it isn’t, but I’m not learned).

    Commentary on how well we handled 2008 as a result of lessons from 1929 – I find that entire thing dubious, along with “Capitalism can and will improve the system with every disaster.” My gut tells me that our system’s main improvements have been in its ability to disguise and redirect our attention from the ground that is rushing up to meet us. (but I’m not &c)

    ““They did not implement true Communism.” That ignorant defense ensures Communism will repeat its failures, eternally.”

    Seems dumb at first, but I fear that in essence it may be true. SKZB wrote, (IIRC) that he doesn’t believe in the human condition and that greed is a learned behavior (refer to any hunter gatherer society). That very well may be true. However, I think arguments could be made that history is the story of egoists overpowering altruists, and that the ‘human condition’ (as it relates to capitalism vs. communism) is that the percentage of people who act on egoism vs. altruism is a number > 0, leading us from hunter gatherer to present day. I also seem to recall a post on absolute power a while back that this would apply to – SKZB seemed to address the issue on a personal level whereas I felt the real problem is # of greedy people in line of succession over X time > 1.

    Again, I’m here to read the words of people more knowledgeable than myself – my original post was made from that perspective. Jonah may be assured that I comprehend GRRM is not my bitch.

  32. I guess what I’m really after is ELI5: “How does communism reward and promote merit while also weeding out greed?”

    I recognize that the real answer is something along the lines of “go read a fucking book”.

    ETA (I regret my use of weather in the previous post, but it does add some flavor, no?)

  33. Nate:Good questions. It isn’t necessarilly about having a debate–sometimes people just have questions. Sometimes people will just throw out a catchphrase (the subject of the post). For historical purposes, Kreistor has shown himself to be discussing in bad faith before (i.e. trolling).

    Here’s a small isolated example of a system of reward. Suppose, that we live in a system where the base needs (food, housing, medical, etc) are taken care of by default. Suppose that you like to do something that requires a certain amount of resources to perform. Let’s say designing computer systems. You join a project and figure out a brand new way of optimizing memory fetches. The other members of the project go, “Hey, that was cool.” As a result, on the next project, people are happy to have you participate and you get to do even more of what you like.

    Getting to do what you like, well, without needing to worry about starving seems like a pretty good reward to me.

    Some brief points:
    As to capitalism learning and rewarding merit; anyone who has participated in corporatism, knows that this is a wildly idealistic position that doesn’t reflect what actually happens. Random walks, survivorship bias after the fact and political infighting are the norm.

    Russia did get overwhelmed by an entrenched bureaucracy hand in hand with the Stalinists. There’s a whole post about that here.

    One thing to note is that the statement ““They did not implement true Communism.” is quite literally true. We (humans on Earth) aren’t yet advanced enough to get to a true endpoint. What we could get to is a much more socialized system. There are a number of areas (healthcare for example) that work very well in a socialistic fashion and not so well under a hyper-capital intensive system.

    Also, there are lots of different thoughts on the various ways to “get more socialism” into the system

  34. Steve:

    In your system of reward, I’m not concerned about the successful people who get to do more of what they want – I’m concerned about all the rest of the people who might want to [design clothes to conceal pointy things] but since they aren’t very good at it or since that particular need is already filled, they must instead [work the earth] to take care of everyone else’s basic needs. Let us assume (for the sake of argument) that the professional desires of the populace do not correspond to the survival needs of the populace. What makes one till the earth with the required vigor?

    Capitalism [wouldn’t be any better!] obviously hasn’t solved this either, but your successful computer system designer living in the USA today doesn’t need socialism in order to cover his/her basic needs while doing what s/he wants to do. Why does s/he fight for socialism?

    I suspect that the answer is good old fashioned altruism in both cases. The problem, as I see it, is that history is on the side of egoists, who remain annoyingly present.

    I remain cautiously (perhaps stupidly) optimistic that automation/robotics may alleviate the required vigor of tilling the earth such that your system of reward could apply to everyone equally. Maybe we can design altruistic machines [or CRISPR egoism, F-U-N!] to help the process along.

  35. Nate: There are a lot of people who like tilling the earth/working with animals. A lot of those people either aren’t able to or don’t make a very good living at it because the capital costs of land and machinery under capitalism are prohibitively high when starting out.

    A few points —
    0) The stress of needing to find work or starve/be homeless/go without medical care/… must be removed.
    1)As you say, automation will increasingly make “non-enjoyable” (in quotes because there are people who enjoy things that many people find non-enjoyable) labor increasingly obsolete. Coercing people to perform work they don’t want to do should be unneeded. (Note that the current system strongly coerces people to do all sorts of things they don’t want to do)
    2) Education/training would be one of those basic provided for things. If you really enjoy doing something but currently don’t do it very well, then perhaps more training will help. Or maybe there is something else that you would also like that you could be educated in and then do that.

    For truly awful jobs that no one wants to do, increased focus on automation would seem to be the path. All of this is a process, not just something that would just happen overnight.

  36. Steve answered the meritocracy argument well—or, at least, as well as I understand it; I’ve never fully understood what meritocracy means.

    About, “they did not implement true communism.” Okay, let me tackle this. I’m going to assume, based on past interactions with you, that this is a real question and not an attempt to score points. If so, it is valid question.

    “They did not implement true communism” is a distillation and drastic over-simplification of Marxian analysis of various states, and the result of various revolutions. It is, in fact, an inaccurate summation; I don’t believe I have ever heard a Marxist say it. I have, in the past, discussed the Russian Revolution (so far, the only socialist revolution to have occurred) in a whole series of posts. I can direct you to them if you’d like.

    But let me try to answer what you’re actually asking about in as succinct a way as I can:

    There are many kinds of revolutions; not all of them are socialist or communist. Most common are bourgeois national revolutions (throwing out foreign oppressors and turning control over to local capitalists). But here’s the thing:

    After 1917, in order to arouse popular support, pretty much all revolutionaries of many stripes (Mao, Ho Chi Minh) —as well as many, many people who were not in the least revolutionaries (Allende, Maduro) would use Marxist phrases and rhetoric to generate support for their goals. Whatever your opinion of communism, I hope you recognize that there’s more to it than phrasemongering. Stalin often called the Soviet Union of which he was dictator a democracy. That didn’t make it one.

    When we analyze an economy—what is it that drives the production of goods, how are they distributed? &c—I think we can at least agree that if you only look at the rhetoric of the leader, you aren’t likely to get useful results.

    What is even more significant, however, and vital to understand is: what social class has control of the state? This is why we use the term workers state to describe a nation in which the working class has taken power. If you reject the idea that the state is the tool of oppression of one social class by another, then this will probably make no sense to you; but then you’ll have a lot of trouble understanding a great deal of what is going on today. We have to look at, and try to determine, which social class holds power. And sometimes—because history refuses to form itself into nice, neat boxes—the answer is complicated and contradictory. But in trying to understand a given case, we, at a minimum, need to go beyond whatever the leader says about himself.

    This brings up the next question: why is it that, so far, there has only been one socialist revolution (or two, if you count the Paris Commune, which we probably should)? That is another valid question, and one I can take a crack at if you wish, but it is another question.

    TL;DR: In trying to understand a political economy, and which class holds state power, we have to look beyond the phrases its leader uses. If those phrases are the only thing that defines it as socialist, then calling it socialist is wildly inaccurate.

  37. I appreciate all the comments, and fear I may be leading us off into the weeds. To clarify something, when I referenced Kreistor’s comment:
    ““They did not implement true Communism.” That ignorant defense ensures Communism will repeat its failures, eternally.”

    And said it sounded dumb at first, I meant that it was so obviously true that ‘true communism’ had not been implemented that it need not be said, and I was doubtful that a reasonable person would ever utter that phrase (added later – unless what they were trying to say was “You idiot, THAT wasn’t a socialist revolution.”) There are several layers of socialism that need to be navigated in order to begin thinking about communism, let alone arguing over it’s ‘true’-ness, etc.

    The fearing that it in essence may be true was meant to allude to the egoist/altruist stuff I wrote – we [humanity] have stumbled hard trying to attain some form of socialism, and I fear that we will continue to stumble hard simply because it’s hard for me to imagine the solution to keeping egoists out of power over a time frame long enough to progress from developed capitalist through socialist and into communist. (Steve: yes, not happening overnight.)

    The method of keeping egoists (or opponents to the revolution, whatever you call them) out of power (or better still, happy enough with communism to go along) is what I’d like to learn.

    It’s easy for Steve to posit a system where S. Macdonald, an intelligent computer system designer with good ideas (who has definitely never run out of 1s) is able to thrive – what’s hard (for me, at least) is to imagine sustaining a communist country where enough successful people with valuable skills choose NOT to move to a capitalist country, and where the unsuccessful people are healthy and happy with their lot in life. (Yes, capitalism also fails.) To me, it all comes down to egoist vs altruist which is why I don’t generally argue this type of stuff.

    Your point about inaccurate phrasing is well taken – I hadn’t actually taken the phrase to be correctly describing anything in particular, but I see that Kreistor’s initial use of it was based in this.

    I assume your posts on the Russian Revolution can be found in the history tag or via search (assuming they were published on this site) ? I’d be grateful for links, if convenient. (The way the ‘categories’ links display only 5 articles before ‘older posts’ is kind of annoying – there are over 100 items in ‘writing’…..aaaaaaand there’s ‘A Revolution Betrayed’ and ‘The Wealth of Nations’ so never mind about the links.)

    I would of course be interested in reading what your thoughts are with regard to the small # of socialist revolutions, but I’m just here to read people smarter than me, I don’t mean to try to direct debate – my initial post was trying to preserve debate, and was misguided.

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