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Decolonization and Communism: What Can We Do About Settler Colonialism?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 01/08/2021 - 4:36am in

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Decolonization and Communism

 

 

By Nodrada

“We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language.
Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.”
-José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance,” José Carlos Mariátegui: AnAnthology

 

June 26, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Orinoco Tribune — While the turn towards analyzing ongoing settler-colonialism has finally reached the mainstream of North American political discussions, there is still a lack of popular understanding of the issues involved. Settler-colonialism is, ironically, understood within the framework of the ways of thinking brought by the European ruling classes to the Americas. By extension, the conceptions of decolonization are similarly limited. Although the transition from analyzing psychological or “discursive” decolonization to analyzing literal, concrete colonization has been extremely important, it requires some clarifications.

Settler–colonialism is a form of colonialism distinct from franchise colonialism. The colonizers seek primarily to eliminate the indigenous population rather than exploit them, as in the latter form of colonialism. Decolonization is the struggle to abolish colonial conditions, though approaches to it may vary. Societies formed on a settler-colonial basis include the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. For our purposes, we will focus on the United States in analyzing local ideas of settler-colonialism and decolonization.

Among North American radicals, there are two frequent errors in approaching decolonization.

On the one hand, there are the opponents of decolonization who argue that settler-colonialism no longer exists. In their view, to identify specific concerns for Indigenous peoples and to identify the ongoing presence of settler-colonial social positions is divisive and stuck in the past. They believe that settlers no longer exist, and Euro-Americans have fully become indigenous to North America through a few centuries of residency.

On the other hand, there are proponents of decolonization who believe that Euro-Americans are eternally damned as settlers, and cannot be involved in any radical change whatsoever. The most extreme of these argue for the exclusion of Euro-Americans from radical politics entirely.

Settler-colonialism is not over, contrary to the first view. Rather, Indigenous peoples still struggle for their rights to sovereignty within and outside reservations, especially ecological-spiritual rights. Their ostensibly legally recognized rights are not respected, either. The examples of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en, Standing Rock Lakota, Mi’kmaq, and other peoples in recent memory are testimony to this. Indigenous peoples are still here, and they are still fighting to thrive as Indigenous peoples. Capitalists drive to exploit the earth, destroying ecology and throwing society into what John Bellamy Foster calls a metabolic rift. This means that the demands of capital for expansion are incompatible with the ‘rhythm’ of ecology, destroying concrete life for abstract aims as a result.

An atomistic, individualist worldview is what undergirds the view of settler-colonialism as over and of contemporary Euro-Americans as being just as indigenous as Indigenous peoples. When settler-colonialism is seen as an individual responsibility or guilt, we are left with a very crude concept of it.

The denialists of settler-colonialism assume that it must be over, because the colonization of the Americas is apparently over. Thus, they think that modern Euro-Americans cannot be blamed for the sins of their forefathers, since individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for things which happened outside of their lifetimes. Guilt in this conception is an assessment of whether an atomistic individual is responsible for extremely specific crimes, such as participating in something like the Paxton Boys’ ethnic cleansing campaign in 1763 Pennsylvania.

The same ideological approach characterizes the other side, which obsesses over the individual status of “settler” and micro-categorizing the contemporary residents of North America within an abstract concept of settler-colonialism. They argue that having the individual status of “settler” means one is eternally damned, one is marked as a specific person by the crimes of a social system always and forever. This hefty sentence has high stakes, thus the obsession with categorizing every unique case within a specific box.

Neither of these approaches offers a successful insight into settler-colonialism. Instead, they project the thinking of European bourgeois liberalism. The individual is defined in an atomistic way, in their characteristics, rights, crimes, and so on. The individual as a node on a web of social relations is totally out of the question here. Yet, that is how we must think if we wish to understand settler-colonialism and, therefore, abolish it.

To focus primarily on categorizing atomistic individuals, instead of focusing on social relations, loses sight of the true engine of settler-colonialism. It is not that individuals choose one day to behave brutally, or that it is simply the nature of a specific people. Instead, it has very concrete historical motivations in the global system and the rise of settler-colonialism within it. For example, North American settler-colonialism was motivated significantly by the land hunger of capitalists who grew cash crops like tobacco and cotton, which were sold on the world market. Thinking in broad, structural terms is important in order to avoid reductive analyses and approaches.

While the side which focuses on damning individual Euro-Americans certainly have land in mind while thinking about this subject, they have a static and simple concept of land. In their minds, settlers are settlers because they are present in a certain place, to which a specific Indigenous group has an abstract, moral right to exclusive habitation in. To put it simply, their thought process is “if X person is in Y place, which belongs to Z people, then they are a settler.”

They do not understand the social relation of Indigenous peoples to their homelands, which extends into the aspects of ecology, history, spirituality, etc. That is, Indigeneity as itself a social relation. Indigenous peoples explicitly refer to their nations and homelands as relations. Their relation to land is not to land as an abstract thing, but to specific spaces that are inseparable from their specific communal lives.

In the context of describing his people’s history, Nick Estes (Lower Brulé Lakota) said in Our History is the Future:

“Next to the maintenance of good relations within the nation, an individual’s second duty was the protection of communal territory. In the east, the vast wild rice patties and seasonal farms that grew corn, beans, and squash demarcated Dakota territory. In the west, Lakota territory extended as far as the buffalo herds that traveled in the fertile Powder River country. For Dakotas, Lakotas, and Nakotas, territory was defined as any place where they cultivated relations with plant and animal life; this often overlaid, and was sometimes in conflict, with other Indigenous nations.”

Identity and mode of life in communalist societies is specific to spaces, because keeping in the ‘rhythm’ of these spaces is a basic guiding logic of life. Because land is a relative, there was and is significant resistance among Indigenous peoples to the settler seizure of land and commodification of their non-human relative. The European bourgeoisie, meanwhile, was more concerned with what value could be extracted from the land, their worldview being based in abstract concepts of Right, Justice, Liberty and so on.

The faction in question does not understand settler-colonists as part of social relations which seek to negate that communal land social relation for concrete aims. They lack broad perspective, they only see society as a collection of atoms, falling into micro-categories, bundled together.

Having critiqued these two views, we can now give a better idea of how to properly approach the category groupings involved in analysis of settler-colonialism.

Indigeneity is defined by continuity of long-standing communal relations and identities indigenous to a certain region. Relation to a specific homeland or region is important to this, but the loss of direct ties to land does not necessarily negate Indigeneity. Rather, the continuity of belonging to a certain ‘mode of life’ and community is key.

A settler is one who is outside of these relations, and plays an active role in the negation of these Indigenous relations. A settler is not merely a settler because they are foreign. Rather, they are a settler because of this active negating role.

To play an active negating role does not necessarily mean one personally enforces colonial laws. Instead, it means that one directly benefits from their participation in the destruction of these relations, such as by gaining residencies or employment at the expense of those land-relations. An important aspect of being a settler is being a socio-political citizen of a settler-colonial society. This means that, in law and in social practice, one has the full rights of belonging to the settler-colonial nation, and is recognized as such in ideology.

Many analysts of settler-colonialism, such as Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw), use a third category in their analysis: arrivants. Arrivants are those who are part of social structures which dissolve those land-relations, but lack the citizenship and agency of settlers. An example of this would be Filipino debt peons. They cannot fully belong to the settler structures, in practice or in ideology, but they are still part of those structures. In North American history, these groups have at various times been explicitly excluded from the potential to own property or obtain full legal citizenship. Said citizenship was directly defined around whiteness, first de jure, and later de facto.

These categories should be treated in a nuanced way, as tools to understand a concrete society and history. We should avoid trying to bend reality to fit abstract categories. Otherwise, one assumes these categories are destiny. One assumes that Indigenous peoples cannot be part of settler-colonial structures, or that all settlers are eternally damned and cannot overcome their social role.

In history, there are many examples of Indigenous peoples participating in settler-colonial processes, such as with Tohono O’odham warriors participating in the Camp Grant Massacre against Apaches, or the Indigenous Vice President Charles Curtis sponsoring assimilation and allotment of communal lands. There are also examples of people without full socio-political citizenship participating in these processes, such as with Black Buffalo Soldiers fighting on the front lines of Manifest Destiny.

There are also examples of Euro-Americans defecting to Indigenous societies in order to escape bourgeois “civilization.” Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted and adopted as a child by a Comanche war band. Texas Rangers, who had massacred her adopted relatives, had to force her to return to Euro-American society. While adopted Euro-Americans remained Euro-Americans, inclusion in those communal relations transformed them. Instead of playing a negating influence on the part of bourgeois society, they became participants in Indigenous relations. To be a settler is not destiny, but is a status which can be negated through a revolutionary transformation of society. In a word, through decolonization.

To obsess over policing micro-categories is not helpful for understanding or fighting settler-colonialism. Being conscious of it is important, but the key is to focus on broad social structures. The way we alter individuals is by altering social relations, and the way we fight for Indigenous sovereignty is by abolishing the negating forces in society. To successfully treat a disease, one must keep in mind the body as a system rather than a simple collection of parts. The same applies to society.

Settler-colonialism in North America is the conflict of two social forms, one fighting to negate the other. The capitalist system: private, individualist, focused on expanding an abstract ‘god’ (capital). The Indigenous communal modes of life: premised on relationality, collectivist, focused on viewing the individual as a part of a whole.

The bourgeoisie seek exclusive, private ownership of land as property to be bought and sold as a commodity. They do not recognize communal land rights, or anything like having a social relation with a place. Instead, they seek to cut off the nerves connecting every aspect of communal life in order to box things in as commodities, so that they can be abstracted into an exchange-value.

The 1887 Dawes Act, which dissolved Indigenous communal landholdings in the United States, was aimed at forcing this system on Indigenous peoples. In the eyes of the ruling class, this was simply “civilization.” The bourgeoisie had to go to war with these communal ways of life to construct a capitalist system in its place. In the communal systems, unlike capitalism: land itself has rights as a relative instead of being merely a vehicle for value, people live off the land as a community instead of being landless wage-laborers, and exploitation is heavily frowned upon.

The first Red Scare in the United States was not during the 1919–1920 assault on organized labor and anti-war activists, but during the struggle of the government and capitalists against Indigenous communal modes of life.

This war of generalized commodity production, capitalism, against alternative ways of being extended to ways of knowing. When forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools, the colonizers worked hard to destroy languages, religious practices, and cultural practices. In their place, they promoted individualism, bourgeois values, and a future as wage-laborers.

The liberal view of individuals is quite representative of typical bourgeois thinking. Liberalism posits individuals in an atomistic way, without considering them as concrete beings with concrete relationships in a real world. It sees individuals as simply bundles of rights, obligations, and so on. It premises meaning on extremely abstract, albeit universalizing concepts, such as “justice.” The rights of the liberal citizen are rights they have apart from society. Their freedom is a space separate from society, since they see others as fundamentally competitors.

This abstract thinking, individualism, and competitive view makes plenty of sense for a bourgeois. Their well-off conditions and obsession with preserving their private property against others reflect in their lack of concern for positive rights (rights to things, like food or shelter). What they want is to realize their capital, defeat their competitors, and pay as little as they have to for the working class’s living.

They only concern themselves with concrete things as far as they relate to their mission to realize abstract, congealed labor: capital. Capital commands them. If they do not expand their capital through exploitation and investment, they fall behind and decay in the rat race. Thus, the bourgeois is shrewd, atomistic, and anti-social.

By contrast, the communal view of individuals which is characteristic of Indigenous nations is focused on very concrete things. Individuals are part of specific communities with specific histories, who are relatives with specific land-spaces. To preserve balance in one’s real relations is an important value, contrasting sharply to the obsession with satisfying the god of abstract capital by feeding it concrete sacrifices. The key to this worldview is keeping in the ‘rhythm’ of life: the rhythm of one’s human relatives, non-human relatives, the ecology, the spirits, etc.

The latter view has a sibling in the views of Karl Marx. In the sixth thesis from Theses On Feuerbach, Marx said: […]the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Further, Marx was very concerned with the metabolic rift wrought by capitalism. In his view, while capitalism had for the first time linked up the whole world and all people into one global social system of production, it had also unleashed forces it could not control. While everyone in capitalism depends on everyone else, the system is controlled by self-interested bourgeoisie, who have no concern for humans, animals, or ecology.

Therefore, there is a need for a working class revolution, where the people who produce what the world runs on establish social control of this social production. Through that social control, they must restore the balance of humanity and nature, using the planning of production to end the chaos and blindness characteristic of capital. Once they have fully developed this system of social control and planning and brought about a world where all people contribute to the social product instead of anyone exploiting anyone else, they will have established a communist society.

The basis for Pan-Indigenism in North America was laid by the proletarianization of Indigenous peoples during and after World War II. The Federal government explicitly hoped to use this to assimilate Indigenous peoples by removing them from communal life on reservations. Instead, the contact of many distinct peoples in urban workforces and communities led to the development of a new, broad concept of Indigeneity. These proletarians thought of themselves not only as, for example, Standing Rock Lakota or Chiricahua Apache, but also as “Indigenous.”

This had precedence with people such as Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee leaders of a Pan-Indigenous resistance to settler-colonialism in late 18th and early 19th century Ohio, or Wovoka, the Paiute founder of the Ghost Dance movement in the late 19th century. However, it had never reached this scale before. The same forces which sought to destroy Indigenous identity created means of establishing a new political movement in defense of it.

This universalization of identity from particular to general, without necessarily negating the particular, is something which must be done by social revolution as well. Proletarianization unites many distinct peoples into one class, leading to radical contacts between worlds. It lays the basis for a revolution which for the first time establishes a real community of all of humanity.

Decolonization ties directly into this project of social revolution. Capital attacks communal relations to establish and reproduce itself, yet by doing this it lays the foundation for a more universal form of communal life: communism. To decolonize is not to merely undo history and return to the past. We cannot undo centuries of change, of destruction.

Instead, as advocated by anti-colonial theorists like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, we must assert indigenous aims on the basis of the world colonialism has brought. This must take the form of the social revolution, because capital leaves intact the negating force against communalism and the relations of domination between groups of people.

In our theorizing of communism, we must avoid the thought patterns of the bourgeoisie. We must not only avoid individualism, but avoid the denigration of communalist ways of life. Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the defense of bio-diversity. They are staunch protectors of the earth, of their ways of life and of their relation with the earth. They resist capitalist primitive accumulation, defending their sovereignty, daily. Communism cannot be some form of universalized bourgeois society, nor can it carry over the denigrated view the bourgeoisie have of life. Instead, it must be communalism reasserted on a universal scale.

Decolonization does not mean one throws out settlers. It does not mean we send Euro-Americans back to Europe. This belief is premised on a bourgeois, colonial thinking about life. It assumes that behavior is ahistoric, inscribed into the DNA of people. Rather, it is social relations that we must expel, transforming people through incorporation into new ones.

In the past, the adoption of Euro-Americans served as an alternative to their behavior as settlers. A decolonized society can follow this model on a broader scale, while preserving the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their homelands. Indigenous conceptions of land are not based on bourgeois exclusive right, but the right of specific people to have an ongoing relation with specific spaces. Abolishing the negating force, capitalism, and asserting these ways of life while working to establish the universalist form, communism, must be our program.

To put it simply, decolonization should be understood as the indigenization of settlers. This necessitates a social revolution in all aspects of life. It does not mean settlers must immediately “play Native.” Within the context of bourgeois settler-colonialism, that is part of a process of dissolving Indigenous communities, destroying their ability to remain sovereign. Rather, it means that we must destroy the capitalist society which drives these antagonisms.

This decolonization also necessitates a conscious revolution in ideology as part and parcel of social transformation. As discussed, communalist societies have a strong sense of concrete locality, of specificity according to a space and the relations of that space. Capitalism seeks to negate that in favor of universalist abstractions. Communism must take the universalizing capitalism has engaged in and place it on a concrete, conscious basis.

We ought to oppose the negation of local life capitalism engages in, while having the universal goal of revolution. That is, unite the particular with the universal, establish the particular as the basis of the universal. The old, European bourgeois ways of thinking, lacking metabolism or relationality with other humans and with ecology, must be overcome.

Communism is the abolition of the present state of things on the basis of existing premises. The emancipatory project of communism should not be hostile to, but a student of Indigenous peoples. When all people are one kin, when they are not divided by class or other social antagonisms, then we will all be free. That is the relation of decolonization to communism.

Maureen Lipman Shows Us She’s Really A Tory on Gogglebox

Maureen Lipman’s the veteran British actress and comedienne who’s resigned several times from the Labour party whining about anti-Semitism. She did it a few years ago when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party because he was a terrible anti-Semite as shown by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Chief Rabbi and the noxiously misnamed Campaigned Against Anti-Semitism and the British press, media and political establishment. Well, the British Jewish establishment hated Corbyn because they’re Zionists, and Israel had defined Corbyn and Jackie Walker – yep, a Black Jewish academic and grannie, who I don’t believe has a single anti-Semitic bone in her body – the No. 10 threat to Israel. Because they stand up for the Palestinians for the same reason they stood up against apartheid South Africa, the campaigns against real racism here in Blighty. And that included firm opposition against anti-Semitism. One of the piccies Mike put up about the former Labour leader shows him warmly greeting a group of Orthodox Jewish gents, who were there to express their appreciation for his support to stop the historic North London synagogue from being redeveloped. I think it was the first, or at least one of the first Haredi synagogues in the UK. Which the Board of Deputies, the political wing of the United Synagogue, wished to tear down and redevelop. But the good Lord forbid anyone from seeing anything sectarian or ‘anti-Semitic’ in their attempt to demolish what is clearly an historic site dear to another part of Britain’s diverse Jewish community. Corbyn definitely ain’t an anti-Semite by any stretch of the imagination, and neither was ever a Communist, Trotskyite or whatever other bogeyman haunts the imaginations of our right-leaning press and political elite.

Lipman’s claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour leadership are also weakened by the fact that she left the Labour party, again citing anti-Semitism, years before, when Ed Miliband was leader. Yes, Miliband, who’s Jewish, the son of Ralph Miliband, highly respected Marxist scholar and immigrant from Belgium, who fought for this country against the Nazi jackboot during WWII. And who was monstered for his trouble by the Heil, who ran a hit piece against him as ‘the man who hated Britain’. Well, he hated the public schools and the British class system, which is entirely reasonable and proper. Especially when it creates thugs and parasites like David Cameron and Boris Johnson. But Miliband senior actually fought for this country, unlike Paul Dacre’s father, who stayed at home and was the rag’s showbiz correspondent. Or Geordie Grieg’s old dad, who was a member of one of the pro-Nazi appeasement groups. Why did she think the Labour party was ridden with Jew-hatred? Again, Israel. Miliband had offered mild criticism of the Israeli state’s abominable treatment of the Palestinians. This was too much for Lipman’s fanatical Zionism, and she stormed out.

Well, she was on Gogglebox last Friday with Giles Brandreth watching and commenting on last week’s ‘great telly’ (sic). One of the pieces they were watching was Matt Hancock’s resignation because of his Ugandan discussions, as Private Eye calls it, with his secretary. Lipman thought that all the abuse was dreadful, considering how well he’d done as Health Secretary. Yep! She really said that. Well, as Kryton once said about Rimmer on Red Dwarf, ‘Oh for a world class psychiatrist!’ Either that or she’s been taking some, er, heavy duty non-prescribed medication with her evening glass of Horlicks. Because Hancock’s record as Health Secretary has been abysmal. He’s corrupt, giving vital contracts away to companies, simply because his mates run them. He was unable to get proper supplies of PPE, thus causing some of our professional and heroic frontline staff to die unnecessarily and putting the lives of others in serious danger. Especially staff from the Black and Asian communities, who were particularly vulnerable and hard hit. Care homes were left exempt from measures that were in place to protect hospital patients, thus causing even more deaths among the elderly and infirm. He is responsible for running down and privatising the NHS, as part of long term Tory and Blairite policy, so that waiting lists are growing. And it’s thanks to him and Boris that Britain had the worst death rate in Europe and the second worse in the world.

There are three explanations why Lipman believes a glaring incompetent like Hancock has done a good job. The shame at appearing in Carry On Columbus back in 1992 has, after 21 years, finally caught up with her and driven her mad. Arguing against this is that Julian Clary and Alexei Sayle also appeared in it, and although it wasn’t their finest hour, both of them are still mentally hale and happy. On the other hand, perhaps whatever herbal tea she may take contains the active ingredient in Cannabis. There are strong arguments for its medical use, such as to treat the pain from some diseases as well as the sickness some cancer patients experience. But I don’t think Lipman is on it, or anything containing it or other drugs. She seems far too genteel and personally wholesome.

Which leaves the third explanation: she never was really Labour. She may have joined the party or supported it for tribal reasons. Her family, like many Jews a generation or so ago, supported Labour. But as the very Jewish Tony Greenstein has shown, that allegiance changed as the Jewish community became more prosperous. 62 per cent of Britain’s Jews are upper middle class, and accordingly vote Tory. Lipman appears to have been a Blairite Red Tory, who particularly liked Blair because he was an outright supporter of Israel. That changed when Miliband became leader and showed he had something of a backbone when it came to condemning the Jewish state’s atrocities against the Palestinians.

But Blair wanted the privatisation of the Health Service, something no real Labour party member or supporter should ever back. And it appears Lipman supports it too from her comments about how well Matt Hancock has done as Health Secretary.

That bit on Gogglebox tore the liberal mask off, and showed the Tory face underneath. She never was a real member of the Labour party, and the party lost nothing from her loud and mendacious departure.

Unfrequently Asked Questions: Is China Really Communist?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/07/2021 - 8:34am in

Courtesy of the ABC.

On a recent Q&A session on China and the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Bill Birtles (formerly ABC’s China correspondent), Bang Xiao (ABC’s bilingual journalist specialising in China), Stan Grant (ABC’s foreign affairs analyst) and Yun Jiang (Australian National University) answered questions from the public.

Clinton asked: “China’s system of governance seems totally at odds with any definition of communism. Or am I alone thinking this?”


The panel chose Jiang’s answer:

“China’s official ideology is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and it’s the last two words doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

“Officially, the ultimate goal of the CCP is still to realise communism, but in order to reach this goal, it needs to tweak the Marxist-Leninist ideology, hence ‘with Chinese characteristics’.

“Interestingly, one of the threats to the CCP are Marxists who agitate for workers' rights and labour organisers.” (my bold)

But here are additional answers by Birtles, Xiao and Grant (see also).

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Just last week I was talking about the “unusual” or ”surprising” beliefs some Marxists held.

Some of those beliefs are potentially useful. Peter Cooper has some interesting reflections on China and whether it is a socialist or a capitalist economy. However, he introduces a twist that complicates our considerations.

If I understood him well, for him a capitalist economy is one where Marx’s law of value (roughly, what other Marxists call labour theory of value) and especially his law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit holds.

This may seem equivalent to the definition most other Marxists accept (namely, that a capitalist society is one in which the means of production are in private hands); but that apparent equivalence may be unwarranted.

Cutting to the chase: in societies with Governments that issue their own currency, Governments appropriate surplus physical output (as opposed to surplus value). Therefore, those Governments do not act as a collective capitalist and can keep society from collapsing after economic crises.

That doesn’t mean they are socialist, however. In other words, Cooper does away with the capitalist versus socialist binary (which was already weakened after the “state capitalism” category was introduced anyway).

Readers interested in climate change may find Cooper’s brief mention of “ecological limits” suggestive as well.

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Other “unusual” understandings of Marxism and socialism seem less than useful …

(source)

You may not believe me – admittedly it does not sound good for me to say this – but the truth is that I never had much faith in the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution”, you know, the idea of socialism with Venezuelan characteristics. And if the world eventually – at a glacial pace – drifts away from fossil fuels, however insufficiently to save us from climate change, how is that “revolution” going to survive?

Well, let us wait and see.

A French Historian’s Examination of Medieval Slavery

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 27/06/2021 - 7:40pm in

Pierre Dockes, Medieval Slavery and Liberation, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (London: Methuen 1982).

I got this book through the post yesterday from the secondhand book company, World of Books. I ordered it because it seems to me that there is too little awareness of the existence of indigenous White European slavery and serfdom. It very much seems that anti-racist and Black activists are presenting a false view of slavery as something that only White Europeans and Americans did to Black Africans. Its existence in ancient and medieval Europe, as well as in Africa and Islam, is deliberately ignored or downplayed. At the same time, the Tories are also intent on presenting their terribly simplified view of British history as a kind of ‘merrie England’ when everyone was free and prosperous, and the peasants lived happily under the benign rule of the aristocracy and factory masters. Dockes, the author of the above book, was professor of political economy at the university of Lyons. He’s described as a member of the Annales school of French historians. I was taught in the historiography part of the MA history course at UWE that the Annales school is, roughly, the French equivalent of History Today. In other words, mainstream academic history. He seems to be approaching the subject from a left-wing direction, as several sections concentrate on the role of class conflict and warfare.

The blurb for the book runs:

How and why did ancient slavery come to an end in the Middle Ages? In this study, Pierre Dockes, a controversial figure in the younger generation of Annales historians, approaches the question not only from the historian’s legitimate concern to understand the transformations of ancient societies but also out of the belief that slavery is more than merely a simple moment in the past. It is rather the primary relationship of exploitation, from which serfdom and wage-labour have stemmed.

Dockes criticises the deterministic accounts of ancient slavery and medieval liberation put forward by both bourgeois and Marxist scholars. He describes the organisation of the Roman villa and its place in the slaveholding society and in the formation of the imperial state, and goes on to show how it was ultimately slave revolts that erased this form of exploitation. Imperial society was reduced to two antagonistic classes and, the author argues, it was slaveholding which undermined the social base upon which Caesar’s and Augustus’s state was constructed.

The end of slaveholding took centuries to accomplish. Each resurgence of the power of the state meant the resurgence of slavery, which did not end until the late ninth century when slave revolts contributed to the breakdown of the Carolingian political order. Dockes concludes that imperialism and slavery are inextricably intertwined, and that even today, ‘after centuries of struggle, exploitation does indeed continue to exist. Only the form has changed.’

The book contains the following chapters and constituent sections.

Introduction

Definition of slavery

The Role of the Class Struggle

The Class Struggle and the State

Appendix: Note on the Determinism of the Productive Forces in History.

  1. The Villa, Society and the State

Genesis of the Villa Slave System

“Ends” of Slavery

Forms of Exploitation in the Early Middle Ages and Challenges to Them

The Elaboration of a “New” Feudal Mode of Production

Outline of the Following Chapters

2. Questions to Historians about Economism

The Question of the Rationality of the Great Slaveholding Landowner

The Question of Productivity

The Question of the Profitability of Slavery

Reproduction of the Work Force: Razzia and Breeding

Marc Bloch’s “Economic Conditions”

The Moral and Religious Factor

3. Productive Forces and Feudal Relations

The Collapse of the Slave Empire, or the Struggle of the Lower Classes

“Build the Material Foundations of Feudalism First”

“Large” Water Mills: Where Does Technological Progress Come From?

Appendix: The Banal Mill – Advantageous to the Peasant or Not?

Dues of the Banal Mill

The Time “Wasted” in Milling by Hand

Estimation of the Average Costs

A Calculation at the Margin

4. Class Struggles in Europe (Third to Ninth Centuries)

Slaves and the Struggles of Others

Slave Struggles and the State

5. Epilogue: By Way of Conclusion.

I’m sure that in the nearly forty years since its publication parts of the book have become dated. For example, Dockes states that slavery continued in England until the 13th century, while more recent books state that slavery had died out by the end of the twelfth century as serfdom became the predominant form of unfree labour. Nevertheless, I think it’s an extremely useful examination of medieval European slavery and the role of class warfare and struggle in its removal and transformation.

Bill Mitchell’s Uphill Battle (Updated).

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/06/2021 - 4:50am in

Tags 

Marxism, MMT, Politics

 

(source)
It’s a good thing that Prof. Bill Mitchell – one of MMT founders – is as tenacious as he has a sense of humour, for he is fighting an uphill battle.

The passage you see above comes from a recent chat he had with Steven D. Grumbine, host of the Macro & Cheese podcast (audio and transcript). By itself, the fact Grumbine decided to make a meme suggests how much commentary that bit must have caused among Leftists.

Now, why should that comment ruffle anybody’s feathers? After all, what Mitchell says there is not only true, but obviously so: people go into business to make money, lots of it, the more the better.

In fact, that’s been known since forever: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker”, wrote Adam Smith in 1776, “that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”

Self-interest is in the DNA of capitalism. Begging First Nations readers their indulgence for my appropriation of their slogan: “Always was, always will be”.

It’s irrelevant what you call self-interest. Lefties may prefer greed, for example, for it makes it clear for all to see their righteous disapproval. But, paraphrasing the poet, a rose by any other name … and the truth is that whatever you call it, under capitalism, “self-interest is good” means the same as “greed is good”.

Those are the rules of the game. Deal with it.

You don’t have to like it. You may be among those losing in the game. I myself don’t like it a bit. But you don’t avoid the health consequences of smoking by burying your head in the sand or by changing to a lite brand of cigarettes. You need to quit smoking.

It’s up to you. Quit capitalism or quit whingeing about greed (and that “or” is of the exclusive variety).

----------

In our age of vacuous moralising and virtue signalling, it’s comforting to believe those close to us are immune to that kind of boneheaded stupidity. We, after all, have done our best to stamp that kind of thing out.

The problem is that the same idiocy is not uncommon among rank-and-file MMTers, who go around parading their ignorance as bona fide MMT.

I don’t write this with malevolent glee. Trust me, I feel for you, Prof. Mitchell. Any truth, no matter how evident and even trivial or how tactfully stated, is bound to elicit angry reactions among the intentional cretins that populate what passes for the Left.

You have your work cut out.

---------- 

Hoping to undo some of the damage pontificating simpletons inflict on MMT, here is Pavlina Tcherneva on unions and the Job Guarantee.

----------

Go ahead, point your accusing finger at me: I’m being unreasonably cynical. Chastise me because the Biden Administration has just started, so it’s unfairly premature to pass judgement on it. Say that I’m unable to grasp the nuances of American politics. But I suspect that the American liberal/Leftish had just started their next presidential election campaign.

(source)

In 2016 you had to vote for Hillary Clinton because Donald J. Trump was Adolf Hitler reborn, conspiring to seize power in the same way Hitler seized power back then. A Nazi-Fascist takeover of America was just around the corner.

Now it's all about the Republican Party being the NSDAP renamed. A Nazi-Fascist takeover of America is just around the corner. (I hope the similarity between that liberal/Leftish conspiracy theory and the QAnon Storm Right-wing conspiracy theory will not be lost on readers: similar madness, better phrased by slightly more credible people).

----------

UPDATE:

26-06-2021. Eat your hearts out, Left- and Right-wing union bashers. Another union win!

(source)

Ruby, from the Megaphone team (a part of the Victorian Trades Hall Council), informs us that

“After 3 weeks on strike the General Mills United Workers Union members just endorsed a deal that will see all their conditions maintained. This includes a wage increase of almost 9% over three years, a $1500 bonus and protection for all labour-hire casuals and contractors who participated in the strike.”

Join your union. There is strength in union.

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A General Mills worker writing under a pen-name explained the strike to Jacobin.

Discount Rates, Exploitation, and the End of Capitalism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 20/06/2021 - 12:28am in

Alexander Douglas

I don’t often have the opportunity to publicly engage in general speculation about our economic future. I hope you don’t mind my using this event as such an opportunity. Everything I say below is offered as a mere speculation, whose establishment would depend on a great deal of interdisciplinary research. I believe, however, that posing questions and reflecting at this broad and speculative level is valuable once in a while, and I don’t know who should be responsible for doing it if not people in philosophy departments.

In my book on debt, I focussed on debt as an interpersonal relationship between a creditor and a debtor. I left largely out of consideration the intrapersonal analysis of debt, as a relationship between an earlier and a later self. A debt contract is an undertaking that imposes a cost upon a future self. Where an interest payment is required, the debtor will only agree to it if she discounts the future. If, for example, I borrow $100 today and contract to repay $110 in a year, then my willingness to make the exchange implies that $110 in a year’s time is worth the same to me as $100 now: a 10% annual discount rate. The creditor, on this analysis, is simply the intermediary of a deal between an earlier and later self. “Me at this moment and me this afternoon are indeed two”, wrote Montaigne. If you deny this, insisting that my present and future self are one and the same, then you must conclude that I make a fool’s bargain paying $110 in exchange for $100. But if you concede that present and future selves are in some way distinct, then you must concede that the present self exercises an absolute monarchy over all future selves, who are bound by debt contracts to pay whatever the present self agrees they will pay. This has an air of paradox about it, as I have argued elsewhere (Douglas 2020). But here I want to suggest that it provides a useful frame for thinking about economic institutions.

Discount rates can also be applied to the costs and benefits of possible future selves. Michael Otsuka suggests that insurance and pension schemes can be thought of as “transfers within the possible future lives of each individual — as transfers from one’s more fortunate possible future selves to one’s less fortunate possible future selves” (Otsuka forthcoming). Absent any discounting, the rational amount to pay, to insure against a 2% risk of losing a piece of property worth $2000, is $40. But I might be willing to pay more or less, depending on how I discount the avoided cost to my less fortunate possible future self. An insurance firm, pension fund, or casino is simply the intermediary of a deal between a present self and various possible future selves.

We can also extend discount rates beyond the agent, to interpersonal or social preferences. If I would give up only $1 for you to have $20, then I apply a 1900% social discount rate to your welfare. To the extent that we care about others at all, we apply some finite discount rate to their welfare, just as, in standard economic models, we care about our future and thus apply some discount to our future welfare. Economists sometimes merge the two; I once read in a textbook, for example, that the justification for giving infinite lifespans to agents in models is that real-life agents are concerned with the welfare of future generations, though discounted.

Applying the discount rates, we can model a whole economy from the point of view of one agent at one point in time. My current welfare includes everybody’s welfare, even possible future agents, all with various discount rates applied. It would of course be very arbitrary to define the welfare of an economy in terms of the preferences of a single agent at a single point in time. But is it even sensible to define the welfare of a single person in that way — taking the preferences of the agent at a particular point in time and discounting the future or possible future?

It is debatable whether time-discounting is rational. I can justify paying $110 in exchange for $100 if I say that the $110 is a future cost whereas the $100 is a present benefit, and that things in the present are better than things in the future. Spinoza argues that this is thoroughly irrational: the person guided by reason will not value things differently depending on whether they are past, present, or future (Ethics 4p62).[1] In any case, the cost when it is paid will be a present cost. I, as a continuous agent, might contract the cost in future money, but I will pay it in present money. Joan Robinson suggests that the irrationality of time-discounting comes down to overlooking this fact. She calls it: “an irrational or weak-minded failure to value the future consumption now at what its true worth […] will turn out to be” (Robinson 2013, 394). The same debate, I think, could be had over the rationality of discounting more or less fortunate selves merely on the basis of their temporal and modal distance, rather than adjusting costs and benefits to perfect risk-weighted equality (leaving aside cases of genuine uncertainty).

The absolute monarchy exercised by the present self over future selves is absent from many interpersonal cases. It is, however, found where, e.g., a sovereign has the right to tax or fine citizens to pay for public services. More to the point here, we might also want to say, as e.g. James Galbraith proposes (Galbraith 2008, ch.12), that present generations can impose costs upon future generations who, not yet existing, have no say over the matter. But in trying to say this we will run into Derek Parfit’s “non-identity problem” (Parfit 1986, pt.4). We can avoid this by shifting to an admittedly crude way of thinking of an economic system by treating it as a giant agent. Its “decisions” to consume, invest, or risk the resources it has available are determined by its social discount rates, which can be viewed as deals that the society makes with its future self. At this level, any non-zero rate of time- or risk-discounting seems obviously irrational. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies appear to have hunted their megafauna to extinction: they ate their future, as Tim Flannery evocatively put it (Flannery 1994). The future cost was significant: it forced a transition to agricultural societies in which the labour-cost of food production was initially greater (Sahlins 2017; Weisdorf 2003), to say nothing of the deaths that must have been caused by food-shortages during the transition. Supposing that hunter-gatherer societies could have avoided this fate by sustaining a lower level of overall consumption, it would be odd to argue that they did the rational thing on the grounds that the present benefits of extra consumption equalled the extreme future costs — discounted for temporal distance. If we speak of a society, like an individual, as something that exists through time, then we have to say that the society paid in present costs, not in future costs. Of course a society that ends up hunting a species to extinction doesn’t make a conscious decision to enter a contract, the way that I do if I agree to a loan at interest. All the same, we can assess the success or failure of economic systems in terms of how they can avoid discounting the future. The same goes, I think, for discounting risk — whether in an adverse or proverse direction.

Turning to capitalism, it seems possible, though I don’t mean to assert it as fact, that the prevalence of exploitation serves to keep the rate of both time- and risk-discounting down. Capitalism runs on exploitation in a sense that can be quite straightforwardly expressed, as long as we remain at a certain level of analysis. The sense is this: workers consume less output than they produce, and the surplus output is distributed to a privileged capitalist class, to be partly consumed, partly invested, and partly paid out as rent (insofar as the rentier class is distinct from the capitalist class), where again a decision is made to balance between consuming and investing. How much is invested depends in part on the discount rates of the appropriating classes, with respect to both risk and time. This notion of surplus is of profound importance for understanding the long-term social and environmental implications of capitalism. Historically, very important social transformations have been explained in terms of the capacity to generate economic surpluses of various forms (Diamond 1999; Torpey 2017).

A notorious problem arises, however, when we move the notion of surplus to a more precise level of analysis. The problem is in effect an index-number problem. We can define a surplus by saying that workers consume less output than they produce, but what do we mean by “less”? In a complex capitalist system, it is not that the workers consume only a portion of their own products and hand over a surplus to the capitalists. The case is not like that of the agricultural surplus that led, for instance, to urbanisation, the development of commercial and priestly classes, etc. This was simply a matter of the farmers producing more food than they ate, handing over the rest to the urban, ruling, and priestly classes. But under capitalism workers often do not consume what they produce at all — they might be workers in a Rolls Royce factory. To define an economic surplus here, we need to say that the value of what they consume is less than the value of what they produce. The notorious puzzle is: what is the dimension of value here? What is its unit of measure?

Marx famously attempted, like Ricardo, to use labour-time as a unit of value. Unlike Ricardo he used this specifically to define an economic surplus. But, in the first place, it is difficult to measure the labour-time embodied in different commodities. Price, by Marx’s own admission, would only be a reliable guide in a primitive system of “simple reproduction”, not in an advanced capitalist system. Moreover, because of training and education, labour is embodied in labour in differing proportions. The output of an educated worker is really labour squared: the labour of the educators enters into the value of the final worker’s labour. But, as Jon Elster points out, this means that an increase in the relative price of labour power or wage-goods with respect to other commodities will change the labour-values of commodities in different proportions, depending on the level of education of the workers that produce them (Elster 1985, §3.2.1). And this in turn means that labour cannot provide a uniform dimension of value for every commodity. Moreover, as Joan Robinson pointed out (and later G.A. Cohen, without acknowledgement), the ratio of labour-time to a given volume of output can vary, since techniques are always developing and vary from place to place (Robinson 1966, 19–20; Cohen 1979). Therefore labour-time doesn’t solve the index-number problem, which stands in the way of defining an economic surplus under capitalism.

If we think in neoclassical terms, using relative prices, value becomes a dimensionless variable, as Stanley Jevons argued (Jevons 1888, 83–84). It makes no sense to ask what the value of x is; value only expresses a ratio between goods. We cannot then give any content to the independent terms “the value of what is consumed by the worker” and “the value of what is produced by the worker”. The idea of economic surplus drops out altogether.

Alfred Marshall resurrected the notion of surplus in a slightly different way: if each worker is paid the marginal product of labour, while producing (on average) the average product, then the surplus accruing to the capitalist is the difference between the average and marginal product (Marshall 2013, Appendix K). But there are deep conceptual difficulties in defining the marginal product of labour: it is defined as the increment to output from the addition of another unit of labour, keeping capital constant. But the “Cambridge Capital Controversies” showed that it turns out to be much harder than it initially seemed to say precisely what “keeping capital constant” means (Harcourt 1972; Hausman 1980).

Relative prices, in neoclassical theory, are said to be “subjective”; they are determined by the preferences of agents rather than fixed to some “objective” standard. The relative price x/y defines how many units of y one can acquire on a market in equilibrium by supplying a unit of x. The relative price of what workers consume relative to what they produce thus defines how much output the market demands for the input. But since workers consume a heterogenous bundle of commodities, and produce a different heterogenous bundle, we still face the index-number problem in trying to compare units produced versus units consumed. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the value-ratio of input to output is unity: by supplying the inputs into the market system, the owners of the means of production are able to claim the whole output. If we could say that, for instance, the input comprises 40 units whereas the output comprises 50 units, then we would be able to calculate a surplus, e.g. 10 units. But the index-number problem deprives us of such units. Thus, although we can say that the total output has the market value of the total input, we cannot yet say how much of this output is surplus.

Some suggest that surplus can be defined as the excess of output over what is necessary for replacement of commodities. This is distinct from Marx’s concept of surplus as output whose value exceeds that of what is needed for workers to reproduce their labour power, which ran into the index-number problem. Rather, we can try to think about commodities that are not used in the production of other commodities as “surplus” — this is the line taken by Pierro Sraffa (Sraffa 1960, §6). The problem here is with the concept of “being used in production”. If a worker likes to watch sport on television to unwind between shifts, who are we to say that the television, the professional sports teams, and everything else that goes into this apparent “luxury” commodity is not being used in production? We might suppose that the worker could do just as well without it, but are we sure? Perhaps a new apparatus of coercion and surveillance would then be necessary to ensure the worker’s continued contribution, so that the elimination of the “luxury” is not in fact costless. Nor is the observation that workers got by in the past without such luxuries decisive here, unless we believe that technological and social changes leave humans entirely unchanged.

To take another example, Paul Cockshott regards the production of armaments as entirely unproductive (Cockshott 2019, §5.10.1), yet some might argue that they provide a vital good — protection from invasion — that is in fact a precondition of all other productive activity.

Others attempt to define surplus as output beyond what is needed for the simple reproduction of a society. As Michel Aglietta puts it: “To speak of reproduction is to show the processes which permit what exists to go on existing” (Aglietta 2000, 12). But how do we decide when a society “goes on existing”, and what is required for this? There is a clear sense in which colonised indigenous societies continue to exist, but there is an equally clear sense in which they are swallowed up into the society of the colonising power and transformed into something else. Some argue that immigration functions to preserve societies with low birth-rates by replenishing their source of labour; others argue that the replacement of a homegrown labour force with an imported one entails the replacement of one society by another. These debates can be very unsavoury. They are also interminable, since there are no clear rules on how we must define a society.

I propose an alternative, which is to use the notion of a social discount rate to define an economic surplus. Output appears at the end of a productive cycle; input is consumed throughout the cycle. Of course there are many overlapping productive cycles, but let us stylise them down to one, and also propose that input is consumed right at the start of the cycle. Now we can say that the input is equal in “market” value to the output, but we must apply a combination of time- and risk-discounting to the output. The society as a whole discounts the future (or various possible futures), so that its output only equals the value of the input at some rate of discount. The economic surplus is the difference between the volume of output that would equal the input without discounting and the volume of output actually produced. When the society reaches the end of the production cycle, the output that was discounted as possible future output becomes actual present output, and thus exceeds what was demanded as equivalent to the input. This allows a proportion to be wasted, stored, or productively invested.

This notion of the economic surplus as the discount on output can then be used to think about the dynamics of capitalism. By discounting the value of future output, society is motivated to invest in producing more than a mere replacement level of output. This means restraining consumption, so that the surplus thus defined is, in effect, society’s reward for the sacrifice of abstinence. This is the term Marshall used to define the return on capital, but as Maurice Dobb pointed out:

If one uses “sacrifice,” or “abstinence,” in any sense that is at all fundamental, then it is not the rich men of the world who do the “sacrifice” involved in capital accumulation. The “sacrifice” rests in the lowered incomes and narrowed consumption of the proletariat which permits the propertied class to enjoy its privileged income (Dobb 1932, ch.10).

The connection between exploitation and surplus can now be made clear. If capital accumulates in the hands of a privileged class, the discount rate of society will be reduced, for the simple reason that there are natural limits to what one can consume. Those who accumulate wealth, even if they live very large, will reach those limits and be left with a large surplus to invest. Dobb identifies sacrifice with “the lowered incomes and narrowed consumption” effectively forced upon the proletariat by their exclusion from the means of production. If they had more control over the economic process, society’s discount rate would be higher. If this discount rate exceeded what production could yield as a surplus, investment would not occur, no surplus would be generated, and the socio-cultural features that depend on such a surplus would disappear. At the limit, the society itself could be led into a transformation as extreme as the one that led from Paleolithic foraging to Neolithic agriculture.

One might say that this condition has already been reached, since the proletariat are no longer excluded from the means of production. Anyone in a modern economy can in principle access the means of production by borrowing to invest. But philosophers like Lisa Herzog and Jens van’t Klooster have traced how steeply credit markets are skewed in favour of the wealthy, who can supply collateral (Herzog 2017; van ’t Klooster 2018). This rationing of credit is another dimension of capitalist exploitation: it allows a certain class to extract rent through their disproportionate control over supply. Here too it might function to keep a social discount rate low — in this case the rate of risk-discounting. The collateral-rich, having more security, are able to take more risks with a given volume of capital, so that a society in which a wealthy minority controls the means of production will pursue more investment than a more egalitarian society.

Here are two ways in which, in line with Marx’s thinking at the most general level, the reproduction of a capitalist society depends on sustained exploitation. While abstinence is endured by the proletariat, the surplus that is its reward accrues to a privileged class, and only for this reason are the discount rates low enough to make a given level of investment “worthwhile” for the society. This condition continues only insofar as the structures of exploitation remain in place. These, however, are looking weak.

In the first place, the skewing of credit markets in favour of the collateral-rich is largely a matter of policy choice. The banking reforms of the New Deal in the United States transformed the whole financial system from being primarily an instrument of rent-extraction towards being a tool of capital development. These reforms were gradually eroded, but they could be reinstated. I and others have argued that by funding banks on the basis of their underwriting standards, rather than on their control of collateral, governments and central banks could make credit available to worthy investors rather than hoarders of wealth, thus undoing one key process of proletarianization.

It is politically contingent whether or not that happens. What appears more inexorable is a population dynamic. In Marx’s picture, workers under capitalism are paid enough to “reproduce their labour power” by maintaining themselves and giving birth to new workers:

The capital given in exchange for labour-power is converted into necessaries, by the consumption of which the muscles, nerves, bones, and brains of existing labourers are reproduced, and new labourers are begotten. Within the limits of what is strictly necessary, the individual consumption of the working class is, therefore, the reconversion of the means of subsistence given by capital in exchange for labour-power, into fresh labour-power at the disposal of capital for exploitation (Marx 1967a, ch.27).

Marx also proposed that, since capital is formed through the exploitation of the surplus generated by workers, an increase in the population of workers is needed for the increase of capital: “Accumulation of capital is, therefore, increase of the proletariat” (Marx 1967b, ch.25). Cockshott points that in fact capitalism does not function so that workers reproduce their labour power; instead it has always depended heavily on importing labour: “Migrants from the countryside within their boundaries, or colonies without, fed the industrial growth of the great powers” (Cockshott 2019, 172). As capitalist economies run out of peripheries from which to draw in workers, tightening labour markets push up wages on the bottom end, reducing the surplus to be claimed as profit.[2]

Marx believed that capitalism would not long tolerate this circumstance. If the price of labour increases without a corresponding increase in profit, then “the stimulus of gain is blunted”, and the rate of capital accumulation slows down. As a result:

The price of labour falls again to a level corresponding with the needs of the self-expansion of capital, whether the level be below, the same as, or above the one which was normal before the rise of wages took place (Marx 1967a, ch.25, §1).

But in our situation there is another relevant dynamic, involving urbanisation and rent. A general fall in the rate of profit means a corresponding rise in the price of assets, particularly real estate in desirable areas. There is a positive feedback mechanism here, whereby the difference in the rate of appreciation on desirable urban land versus that of peripheral land drives migration into urban centres. This drives the rate of appreciation of the urban real estate even higher and feeds back into the cycle. As a result, an increasing proportion of the surplus that was going to the capitalists goes instead to pure rentiers: holders of urban real estate and other coveted assets.

Rather than a search for profitable investment opportunities, the economy comes to be driven by an attempt to capture some of the wealth flowing to rentiers. Workers move into urban centres and seek work providing for the urban landlords. But the provisions they can offer come largely in the form of luxury services: high-end restaurants, boutique retail, five-star hotels, craft beer festivals, spas, dog groomers, various forms of therapy, etc. In other words, the survival of the proletariat comes to depend on convincing the owners of the means of production to consume at a high level. Rentier capitalism puts upward pressure on the social discount rate. Thus Marx’s “stimulus to gain” does not reappear.

Through very different in political terms, both these developments function to break down one mechanism by which capitalist society could impose abstinence on itself: namely by concentrating an economic surplus in the hands of those who have a strong appetite for investment, meaning a low discount rate, both of the future and of risk. If current technical conditions do not allow for the production of surplus matching a higher social discount rate, society faces the choice of improving these technical conditions or facing a gradual depletion of its productive capacity — a general immiseration of society. This general immiseration might be hidden for a long time by increasing inequality: if an increasingly greater share of output is claimed by those whose voices dominate the media, the arts, politics, and academia, then a general decline in overall output might not be immediately visible.

The other possibility, improving technical conditions, must in practice mean developing technologies that allow for a higher level of current consumption at a lower level of future cost. Renewable energy is a paradigm case, since consumption of wind or solar energy in principle imposes no net cost on the future at all; the death of the Sun is not brought forward by the use of photovoltaics. The use of nuclear power imposes heavy costs on a possible future, though the safer reactors (Gen III-IV) much less so. These are technologies that, for the most part, only governments can provide (Mazzucato 2018). Renewable energy provision is inextricably bound up with infrastructure and requires central planning and metering decisions, while nuclear energy cannot be left to private providers for obvious security reasons.

Keynes believed that a low rate of capital accumulation would create the opportunity for grand, long-term public investments (Keynes 1960, ch.24). Yet to achieve this, governments need access to the economic surplus. Their traditional means of access has been taxation. Taxes, however, traditionally catch flows of capital: they siphon off portions of private income. In the modern rentier economy, however, wealth-accumulation often involves no flows of income; it occurs, rather, through the appreciation of stocks: privileged assets, which tax accounting treats as savings. Psychologically, there is a big difference between the state siphoning off a flow of income and the state dipping into a stock of savings. So far governments have managed to extract the economic surplus locked into assets only by taking a portion of the flow when they are bought or sold.

Some Modern Monetary Theorists propose that governments can spend the money locked up in savings without having to tax it. They can do this by fixing interest rates and running deficits that match the rate at which the non-government sector saves. This is a clever and indirect way of spending savings de facto: creating liabilities to match the assets and occupying the “fiscal space” that is cleared by the withdrawal of income into savings. But it is a dangerous strategy, since if the private sector moves into dissaving and the public sector does not immediately cut back, the result could be a fall in the relative price of the currency, with all the distortion and confusion this might cause. It would be safer be to tax assets de jure, but that, again, involves passing a psychological hurdle that has so far not been passed.

Even if it can be passed, there is the question of whether a government will be motivated to make the investments necessary to achieve sustainability. There is a well-known literature on the alleged subjection of governments, especially elected governments, to time-inconsistency (see for example Carlin and Soskice 2014, §14.5), allegedly leading to excessive consumption. I am sceptical about much of this literature, which strikes me as excessively formal and too clever by half: underestimating the effect that cultural shifts within institutions might have. Nevertheless, if the working theory here is that egalitarian societies run high social discount rates (as the example of the Paleolithic foragers suggests) then it must follow that a society in which investment decisions are subject to democratic choice is liable to run a high social discount rate: since everyone gets one vote and all in principle have equal influence over investment decisions.

What this leaves out, however, is the effect of social transformation. Unless we subscribe to a very strict reductionism, we must admit that social conditions shape the character of the individuals that compose them. Ian Morris proposes that cultural values as well as individual moral beliefs are strongly determined by the energy source a society depends upon, and the social order it must build in order to extract it (Morris et al. 2015). We can hope that a post-capitalist, post-fossil-fuel society will foster individuals whose character and values allow for a lower social discount rate: individuals who value building for the future more and consuming in the present less. It might be that our cultural institutions need to develop in a way that transforms our own psychology: to bring us closer to Spinoza’s model of the rational and blessed agent, who values the future, the present, and the past all at the same level and, regarding herself as eternal, does not run out of concern for the future at a certain point. Those of us who spend a lot of time teaching Spinoza might not be as useless as we seem.

Bibliography

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Cockshott, Paul. 2019. How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor from Prehistory to the Modern Day. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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— — — . 1967b. Capital II. New York: International Publishers.

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Robinson, Joan. 1966. Essay on Marxian Economics. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.

— — — . 2013. The Accumulation of Capital. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2017. Stone Age Economics. London: Routledge.

Spinoza, Benedict. 2020. Oeuvres. Edited by Fokke Akkerman and Piet Steenbakkers. Translated by Pierre-François Moreau. Vol. 4. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Sraffa, Piero. 1960. Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Torpey, John. 2017. The Three Axial Ages: Moral, Material, Mental. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1mtz5rc.

Weisdorf, Jacob L. 2003. “From Foraging to Farming: Explaining the Neolithic Revolution.” 03–41. Discussion Papers. Discussion Papers. University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics. https://ideas.repec.org/p/kud/kuiedp/0341.html.

Notes

[1] (Spinoza 2020, 4:416)

[2] One study suggests that although immigration into the UK yields economic benefits, its depressive effects on wages, as it reduces tension in the labour market, are disproportionately strong on the lower end: https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/the-labour-market-effects-of-immigration/

Unfrequently Asked Questions: Expropriation of Capital?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/06/2021 - 7:46am in

Tags 

Fun, Marxism

(source

I must admit that I wrote this post with hesitancy. There are at least two reasons for that.

Firstly, because I was not elected Great Inquisitor and Defender of the Faith by my fellow orthodox Marxists. As readers should know, we members of the All-Powerful Secret Orthodox Marxist Monolith of Fanatical Intransigence are obsessed with repressing a rag tag band of enlightened commentators bravely fighting for the good of humankind against our evil ways. So my self-appointed position is not specially strong: I lack the legitimacy that one such election (particularly a unanimous one, as you would expect from orthodox Marxists) conveys.


Secondly, because, to the relief of the Rebel Alliance dissidents, I have not been put in command of the Death Star and a fleet of Star Destroyers. I haven’t been given a single squad, let alone a legion or a battalion of Stormtroopers – who are themselves notoriously poor shooters anyway – or a red (see?) lightsaber (but I’m still hopeful!). Dammit! So far, I haven’t even been given my scuba tank regulator, to make the grisly, rhythmic, mechanical sound of breathing my position requires: KHOOOOH PUUUHRR.

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Speaking though in an unofficial capacity, I will certainly bear witness that Marxists believe the expropriation of capital (aka the means of production) is a necessary condition for socialism.

Profit, in a capitalist society, comes from selling surplus output, made with the unpaid effort of the workers, who are forced to work for the capitalists because the capitalists, well, own the capital (pace, Yves Smith). To make a living, workers, whatever specific tasks they perform as condition for employment, make money for their employer, money capitalists can then put to other uses. They can re-invest it; they can also buy themselves nice unproductive things: “the power” and “the women” Tony Montana wanted; the social legitimacy Vito Corleone wanted for Mike.

So, orthodox Marxists aren’t overly concerned with the capitalist’s palaces, jets or even multi-million-buck yachts; neither are Marxists obsessed with capitalists' charitable foundations. While all of that is flashy, it is also unproductive in an economic sense. It may come as a shock, but workers don’t work for a capitalist because the capitalist owns a Rolls-Royce Sweptail (price tag last February: US$12.8 Million); rather the capitalist owns a Rolls-Royce Sweptail because the workers work for him/her.

I used to think of that almost as a matter of mundane common sense. Indeed, the idea of the expropriation of capital based on the greater good is not that different from something accepted the world over under different names and with local nuances: eminent domain.

And we take comfort on the fact that Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and a host of other distinguished orthodox Marxists, who often disagreed – believe it or not – with each other on other matters, sometimes of importance, agreed on that.

We are not alone in that understanding either. Eminent economics professor Barkley Rosser – neither a fan of any kind of socialism, nor a friend of Marxists – agrees that for Marx and Engels the key is “who owns the means of production.”

Both Marxists and anti-Marxists base their claims on what Marx wrote. Say, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (chapter II), we read:

“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property.”

That sentence seems easy enough to understand – to me anyway. Something like this: Communists have no beef with property in general, only with bourgeois property (like the French revolutionaries had no beef with property in general, but only with feudal property, which they abolished without abolishing other forms of property).

That understanding is reinforced when one sees that idea elaborated later in the same chapter:

“We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others.”

And again:

“In one word, you [i.e. the capitalists who have reproached the Communists with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour] reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”

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Let’s recap. Marx and Engels wrote that. Marxists explain in plain English its meaning and why it makes sense. Non-Marxists agree that’s what Marx and Engels believed. You would have thought that that makes for a reasonably good argument, yes?

Well, think again – says Carl Beijer. He finds it all unconvincing. Mind you, it all may well be true and Marx may have written that – Beijer concedes – the problem is that Marx didn’t really, really mean it. What he really, really meant – Beijer says – is that all property, without exception, not just capital or the means of production, must be abolished: from the capitalists’ stock market portfolios and real estate to their expensive prescription glasses and the food and champagne inside their fridges and even their humble “toothbrushes” (believe it or not).

Someone has a “reading comprehension” problem – Beijer aptly concludes. Not him, of course. Everybody else, but mainly the orthodox Marxists members of the Monolith.[*]

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With that he joins the pantheon of immortal thinkers whose brilliant insights are bound to revolutionise our understanding of the modern world. Yves Smith argues that capitalists, in the 21st century, do not own the means of production, only what’s left after paying their debts. Her discovery? In earlier times creditors didn’t ask their money back: equity equaled assets, liabilities be damned.

Byung-Chul Han finds that neoliberalism sets workers free by making of them “entrepreneurs of the self” (aka gig economy contractors): “Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise”. Something like a self-rape or a self-theft, I suppose. Philip Pilkington (once one of Yves Smith’s protegés) says that Marx was a shabby Hegelian – was Marx a Hegelian??? – because Marx’s understanding of Hegel was not Pilkington’s understanding of Post-Modern historian Michael S. Roth’s understanding of French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève’s understanding of Hegel. You know, “the presence of an absence” … or something. Need I say more? As readers can appreciate, it’s a close contest, but this short anthology of greatest hits would not be complete without a reference to mega-awesome Steve Roth, for his unassailable demonstration that workers must shut up and let rich progressive geniuses like himself do all the talking on their behalf. After all what’s wrong with Stevo making “profits based on the sweat of those employees’ brows?” I mean, do you actually expect him to make his profits based on the sweat of his own serially entrepreneurial brow? Like, really?

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Why can’t people be more like Matt Bruenig?

Note:

[*] Beijer accomplishes something truly remarkable: his misunderstanding manages to be more extreme than the one behind the “inevitability of socialism” myth I wrote about last time: at least those behind the “inevitability” thingy could point to one sentence in a written body of over 50 thick tomes in support of their misinterpretation … 

Book on Anti-Capitalism

Simon Tormey, Anti-Capitalism: A Beginner’s Guide (London: One World, revised edition 2013).

Like many people, I’ve been doing some reading during the lockdown. I found this in one of the mail order book catalogues I get, and ordered it as it looked interesting. I got through the post the other day. It was first published in 2004 and was republished in a revised edition nine years later. The blurb for it on the back runs

The financial crisis, bank bailouts, and the dash to austerity have breathed new life into protest movements across the globe, and brought anti-capitalist ideas into the mainstream. But what does it mean to be anti-capitalist? And where is anti-capitalism going – if anywhere?

Simon Tormey explores these questions and more in the only accessible introduction to the full spectrum of anti-capitalist ideas and politics. With nuance and verve, he introduces the reader to the wide variety of positions and groups that make up the movement, including anarchists, Marxists, autonomists, environmentalists, and more. Providing essential global and historical context, Tormey takes us from the 1968 upsurge of radical politics to the 1994 Zapatista insurrection, the 1999 Seattle protests, and right up to Occupy and the uprisings across the Eurozone.

This is a fascinating and bold exploration of how to understand the world – and how to change it.

A biographical note states that Tormey is a political theorist based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. He was the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at the University of Nottingham.

The book has an introduction and the following chapters:

  1. The Hows and Whys of Capitalism
  2. Anti-Capitalism after the ‘End of History’
  3. A ‘movement of movements’1: ‘reformism’, or ‘globalisation with a human face’
  4. A ‘movement of movements’ II: renegades, radicals and revolutionaries
  5. The Future(s) of Anti-Capitalism: Problems and Perspectives

There is a timeline of contemporary anti-capitalism, a glossary of key terms, thinkers and movements, and a list of resources.

Although the book was published eight years ago, I think it’s still going to be very relevant. The world may have been in lockdown for the past year with governments supporting their economies, but the Tories have neither gone away nor changed their stripes. It’s been pointed out that they never let a crisis go to waste. Once the lockdown is lifted, they’ll revert back to cutting the welfare state, privatising the NHS and with further attacks on workers’ rights, increasing job insecurity and lowering wages. We will need to organise again and resist them. The book’s short at 181 pages, excluding the index, but it looks like a very useful and necessary contribution to combating neoliberalism and the poverty and misery it is inflicting on working people across the globe.

Are You Sure You Can Read?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 29/05/2021 - 8:31am in

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Economics, Marxism

(source)

Well, that’s an unusual, even odd, question, isn’t it?

Indulge me.

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In my experience, if you ask a little child to read aloud a children’s tale, without any illustration, chances are at the end of the exercise the child will scarcely be able to re-tell the story. No use asking details like what did the tailor kill when he was at home? How many? What came later, two giants, a unicorn or a wild boar?

I’m no psychologist, but I believe the child to be too concentrated in translating the graphical symbols he/she sees on the paper into vocalisations, to pay much attention to the details of the story. Vocabulary may be another limitation.

Practice, however, makes perfect; mental development also helps and eventually human ability to understand written language improves. One reads with much less effort.

But less effort does not mean no effort at all. There are writings one can safely skim; others require much more care. One thing is to read a fairy tale or a novel or your mobile’s user guide. In our age of fake news, to read a newspaper story or magazine article requires a little more effort; your run-of-the-mill blog post (like this one) requires more effort: what if anything can you believe?

The written language is used to communicate. You read that kind of things essentially to be entertained by its author, to be informed about current affairs or to get the usually basic message the writer tries to convey.

An altogether different thing is to read a textbook or other kind of information-rich texts. They require a lot more effort. In a way, that kind of literature requires you to return to your childhood, when you were learning to read. You see, you read those books to learn from the author.

Information can be measured and there’s only so much information that a human brain can consciously process at a time. Unless circumstances (like a school test for which you are utterly unprepared) dictate otherwise, try to understand things slowly, bit by bit, certainly no faster than you can: make sure that you get what this sentence and this paragraph say before moving on to the next. So, to cut corners when dealing with that kind of writing is not a good idea. Avoid distractions. Use a dictionary, for Christ’s sake! If the text includes examples, invent some additional ones of your own. Writing notes at the margins is often useful. If there are exercises, do them. After you close the book, think about what you have just learned; try to associate that with other things from your own experience.

Textbooks are required readings of courses, so you need to learn what that book teaches you, even if you don’t really buy its message. You are required to know the message.

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Other perhaps even more complex books are not required readings. So, nobody is really forcing you to read them. Often they form part of a discussion between authors with sometimes radically different positions.

Ideally, you approach that kind of book with an open mind. You volunteer to read it to have an informed opinion on the message its writer is trying to convey. Your predetermined goal is neither to debunk the writer, nor to buy his/her message; instead, you are giving him/her a fair chance to persuade you, by hearing what him/her have to say.

In other words, one should approach such books with the attitude Keynes described:

“An economic writer requires from his reader much goodwill and intelligence and a large measure of co-operation … In economics you cannot convict your opponent of error; you can only convince him of it.” (h/t Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, dug up that quote. It’s a good read: Keynes knew virtue, even as he chose not to exercise it.)

To cooperate with a writer, to give him/her one’s goodwill and intelligence, does not mean to forget all about the critical thinking one uses when studying a textbook. 

Critical thinking is not a feverish hunt for a “gotcha!”, preferably early in the book, so that you can leave it aside. That is just a waste of your own time. It’s too easy to blame opposition to your criticism on your opponents’ religious adherence to a dogma. As a would-be critic, you may find this hard to believe, but there’s no theoretical reason why criticism — even your criticism — can’t be idiotic. So, to demand of the targets of one’s idiocy the open-mindedness one denies them is a bit too rich.

Think. If you believe you found a really big, gaping hole in the book’s argument, ask yourself: Is this something real or just a much hoped for mirage? You know what they say about things too good to be true, don’t you?

Too much caution, like too much cockiness, is a no-no. The errare humanum est thing applies as much to you as it applies to writers. Don’t let yourself be overly impressed by names or titles or long words, praise or criticism.

Think of the context, why the writer wrote what he/she wrote, when did he/she write it. Was that text a reply to someone else’s writing? You wouldn’t take sides in a dispute without knowing what both sides are arguing about, would you?

Just because the text has footnotes, it doesn’t mean it was properly researched: check at least some footnotes. Was there better data available at the time? 

Some texts require from the reader a temporary suspension of disbelief (models often fall in this category); but once you understand the story the model tells, disbelief and critical thinking must return with a vengeance.

To put this differently: challenge the writer. After all, if you already believe the author, why waste your time reading that message at all?

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Sorry, I’m just not much of a believer in quick reading. I believe in doing one’s homework. It’s a tricky balancing act: to give the writer a fair chance, without falling into gullibility. It’s time-consuming, hard work. But there’s no way around: if it’s worth doing (and you’ve chosen doing it!), it’s worth doing well.

It has its own rewards. They say modesty is a virtue. Well, maybe. But false modesty is not. Congratulate yourself and feel proud of your work. Allow yourself to enjoy the experience of insight (“Ah! So, that’s what it all means!”). Even if you are ultimately wrong, you did your best and you will learn from your mistake. Either way, give yourself a reward.

You will have earned it.

Nữ quyền Việt Nam — “Cần đoàn kết đấu tranh cho quyền lợi lao động”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 24/05/2021 - 8:30pm in

image/jpeg icon48907790087_2e42b784fa_c.jpg

Trong bối cảnh kinh tế xã hội thị trường ở Việt Nam hiện đại, đấu tranh vị nữ vẫn luôn là một vấn đề hết sức cấp thiết. Đi tìm lời đáp cho câu hỏi liên quan đến thực tế và phương hướng đấu tranh vị nữ tại Việt Nam, nhóm Mèo Mun đã phỏng vấn Nguyễn Ngọc Trân — tác giả từng có bài viết về vấn đề “nữ quyền Tân-tự do” trong bối cảnh Việt Nam hiện nay.
Độc giả quan tâm có thể tìm đọc thêm bài viết “Giải Huyền Thoại Về Hiệp Ước Hoà Bình Oslo” do Nguyễn Ngọc Trân đồng tác giả cùng các thành viên nhóm Vietnam Young Marxists và Mèo Mun.

Là người chịu ảnh hưởng của truyền thống chủ nghĩa Marx, tôi tin rằng phong trào phụ nữ chính là đấu tranh cho phụ nữ đạt được những quyền lợi trong lao động tại Việt Nam.

Nguyễn Ngọc Trân

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