Marxism

The Internationalist Communist Tendency

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 23/02/2020 - 1:13am in

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Marxism

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The International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party was formed in 1983. In order to give clearer expression to our existence as a united international organisation we decided to change the name of the organisation to the Internationalist Communist Tendency in 2009.

Revolutionary minorities reflect the actual conditions of the class consciousness of the proletariat at a specific time. We do not live outside the working class or the real movement of history.

ICT

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The Current Crisis and the Tasks of Communists

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 16/02/2020 - 11:13pm in

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Perspectives for the CWO as discussed in its AGM, November 2019.

In this context of capitalist economic and political sclerosis, a new generation of political ‘truth-seekers’ is beginning to study and accept the revolutionary programme of the Communist Left.

CWO-ICT

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Understanding Income: You Can’t Get There from Here

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 10:44am in

You can’t get the right answer when you ask the wrong question.

This truism, I’ve come to believe, explains much of what is wrong with economics. When it comes to studying income, economists ask the wrong question. Economists, I argue, have mostly asked: is income fair? The problem is that this is a moral question, not a scientific one. It has no scientific answer.

When the wrong questions get entrenched

You can’t get the right answer when you ask the wrong question. This principle seems trivial. Of course you need to ask the right question! The problem, though, is that when you do science it’s rarely obvious which question is right. Compounding this problem is the fact that scientists are, well, human.

Once we (scientists) pose a question, we get engrossed with answering it. The problem is that it’s not easy to answer a question while simultaneously being skeptical of it. It’s like adding two numbers while you think about multiplying them instead. It’s an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Here’s how you can make this exercise even more difficult. Join a group in which everyone else asks the same question. This, in a nutshell, is what it means to belong to a scientific discipline. A discipline is a group of people who agree on the questions they’re asking. Particle physicists, for example, agree to ask “what are the fundamental constituents of matter?” Evolutionary biologists agree to ask “what are the determinants of evolution?” Economists, I’ll argue, agree to ask “is income fair?”

When you join a discipline, you get indoctrinated in its central questions. If you absorb these questions readily, it’s easy to join the discipline. But if you contest these questions, it’s much harder to join the group. You risk being labelled a ‘crank’.

So although it may seem easy (especially in hindsight) to know when you’ve asked the wrong question, it’s actually not. There’s a strong social pressure to ask the same questions as everyone else in your discipline. That’s how the wrong questions get entrenched.

You can’t get there from here

Back to economics. In his book The Neighborhood Project, biologist David Sloan Wilson recounts his horror as he learned more about mainstream economics:

The more I learned about economics, the more I discovered a landscape that is surpassingly strange. Like the land of Mordor depicted by J.R.R. Tolkien and portrayed so vividly in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, it is dominated by a single theoretical edifice that arose like a volcano early in the twentieth century and still dominates the landscape. The edifice is based on a conception of human nature that is profoundly false, defying the dictates of common sense, before we even get to the more refined dictates of psychology and evolutionary theory. Yet efforts to move the theory in the direction of common sense are stubbornly resisted.

… Neoclassical economics provides an outstanding example of the “you can’t get there from here” principle in academic cultural evolution. It will never move if we try to change it incrementally. It must be replaced wholesale with a more realistic conception of human nature.

(David Sloan Wilson, emphasis added)

I love Wilson’s principle: you can’t get there from here. It nicely summarizes how scientists get themselves into dead ends. With Wilson’s principle in mind, let’s dive into how economists study income.

When it comes to understanding income, neoclassical and Marxist theorists have both gone down a dead end. And they’ve done so, I believe, because they’ve asked the wrong question. Both schools of thought have asked: is income fair?

The neoclassical appeal to reciprocity

Neoclassical theory proposes that in a competitive economy, each person earns income in proportion to what they produce. Here’s how the principle architect of the theory, John Bates Clark, described his work:

It is the purpose of this work to show that the distribution of the income of society is controlled by a natural law, and that this law, if it worked without friction, would give to every agent of production the amount of wealth which that agent creates. (John Bates Clark in The Distribution of Wealth)

On the face of it, Clark appears to ask the following question: why do some people earn more than others? His answer: because some people are more productive.

I argue, however, that this isn’t Clark’s question. The problem is that Clark doesn’t really explain why some people earn more than others. Instead, he passes the buck. If income is proportional to productivity, then the question of income is transposed onto productivity.

It’s like if you asked — what makes people have different height? I answer: “Height is equal to skeletal length”. You respond: “Thanks Sherlock, but what explains skeletal length?” In the same way, Clark’s explanation of income just shifts the ball to productivity. But what explains differences in productivity?

Here economists offer only hand waving. Search the literature for a list of mechanisms that determine productivity. You won’t find them. Instead, you’ll find hand-waving arguments about ‘human capital’ — a concept so vague that economists agree on little else except that it ‘increases productivity’.

This lack of interest in actually measuring and understanding differences in productivity is revealing. It shows that Clark (and the neoclassical economists who followed him) weren’t interested in explaining why some people earn more than others. Instead, they were responding to a different question: is income fair?

Their answer was a definitive yes.

The genius of Clark’s theory lies in its appeal to reciprocity. All societies expect individuals to contribute to the group. But in pre-capitalist societies, what you contributed to the group (and what you received in return) wasn’t explicitly quantified. But in capitalism, this changed. Suddenly what you received from the group (your income) had an exact quantity. Clark’s genius was to ‘prove’ that what you received was exactly proportional to your contribution to society. So all is fair in capitalism.

Marx’s appeal to reciprocity

Like neoclassical theory, Marx’s theory of capitalism seems to answer the following question: why do some people earn more than others?

Marx responds by observing that capitalist societies have two classes: capitalists and workers. Workers, Marx argues, are the sole source of value. But because capitalists own the means of production, they are able to steal part of what workers produce. That’s how they earn a profit.

As with Clark, it seems like Marx explained why people earn what they do. But similarly to Clark, Marx’s explanation mostly passes the buck.

If capitalists earn their income by exploiting workers, then the size of this income hinges both on the rate of exploitation and on the productivity of workers. Like neoclassical economists, Marxists have spent almost no time investigating what makes workers more productive. And while they have thought a lot about the rate of exploitation, Marxists have never developed a way to measure it independently of income. At best, they offer hand-waving arguments that the rate of exploitation is determined by ‘class struggle’.

If Marx (and his followers) were seriously trying to explain why people earn what they do, then this hand waving makes no sense. But it makes perfect sense if Marx was actually answering a different question: is income fair?

Marx’s answer was a definite no

As with Clark, Marx’s genius was to appeal to reciprocity. Marx ‘proved’ that workers do not receive back from society what they put in. Capitalists take an unearned cut from workers’ contribution. So all is not fair in capitalism.

An unanswerable question

Marxists and neoclassical economists have erred by asking ‘is income fair’? This question has no scientific answer.

The problem is that fairness is fundamentally a moral issue. We want our interactions with other humans to feel reciprocal. I emphasize the word ‘feel’ here because reciprocity has nothing to do with an underlying equivalence. It is a feeling and nothing more.

Take the simplest type of reciprocity — an exchange of services. Suppose I fix your car. In return, you cut my hair. Is this reciprocal?

It is if we both believe it is. Nothing underlies reciprocity except a belief that it occurred.

Marxists and neoclassical economists err by looking for something quantitative under this belief. Marx argued that an exchange is reciprocal if the same amount of labor time is involved. But this is a moral proposition, not a scientific hypothesis. Neoclassical economists, in contrast, argue that an exchange is reciprocal if both people derive the same utility from it. But this just adds (meaningless) quantitative lanquage to our simple truism. An exchange is reciprocal if two people believe it is reciprocal.

Here’s the crux of the matter. “Is an exchange reciprocal?” is the wrong question. Instead, we should ask: “why do people believe that an exchange is reciprocal? The same thing goes for income. “Is income fair?” is the wrong question. We need to ask: “why do people believe that income is fair?”

When we ask this new question, it becomes clear that to explain income, we have to understand beliefs. More than that, we have to understand how the beliefs of one person relate to the beliefs of others, and how this plays out when they divide the resource pie.

Here’s an example. Suppose Bob is a low-ranking worker in a large company. His direct superior is Alice. In which scenario is Bob more likely to receive a raise?

  1. Bob thinks he’s underpaid, but Alice does not.
  2. Alice thinks that Bob is underpaid, but Bob does not.

It’s obvious that Bob is more likely to get a raise in scenario 2. That’s because as Bob’s superior, Alice’s beliefs outweigh his. Put bluntly, Alice has power over Bob. So when it comes to income, beliefs mix with power. Power determines the extent that someone can impose their beliefs on others.

It gets even more complicated when we realize that power itself rests on beliefs. Hierarchies work because subordinates believe that superiors have the right to command them. (If subordinates don’t believe this, they must at least choose not to act on their insubordinate ideas.)

Beliefs all the way down

A theory of income distribution, then, is fundamentally about beliefs. It asks why people believe that income is (or is not) fair. And it asks how people are able (or not able) to act on these beliefs.

When posed this way, we can see why neoclassical and Marxist theories of income distribution are scientific dead ends. They’re in the business of shaping our beliefs, not explaining them! Neoclassical economics tells us to believe that income is fair. Marxism tells us to believe that income is unfair.

Neither has anything to do with the truth, which is this: when it comes to income, it’s beliefs all the way down.

Notes

Cover image source: Pixabay

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The Internationalist Communist Party

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 08/02/2020 - 12:19am in

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Italy, Marxism

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For the Party to live a real life – in, with and for the class – well, this does not depend only on our will and abilities, on the contrary, it depends on the class itself.

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The Italian Communist Left

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/02/2020 - 10:43am in

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Italy, Marxism

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Via this red thread, which involved the interpretation, application and defence of revolutionary Marxism against various denials and betrayals, the Italian Communist Left in 1943 formed the Internationalist Communist Party.

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On Historical Experience, Legitimacy, Conventions and the Spirit of Experimentation in Locke

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/01/2020 - 5:48am in

Sect. 50. But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men, whereof labour yet makes, in great part, the measure, it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out, a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor. This partage of things in an inequality of private possessions, men have made practicable out of the bounds of society, and without compact, only by putting a value on gold and silver, and tacitly agreeing in the use of money: for in governments, the laws regulate the right of property, and the possession of land is determined by positive constitutions.--John Locke Second Treatise of Government

The quoted passage is at the end of chapter 5 "Of Property" of Locke's Second Treatise. Much of the philosophical interest is in the earlier articulation of the principle known as the 'Lockean proviso' (in, recall, section  33) and the labor mixing argument grounded in self-ownership (sect 27). On re-reading the chapter recently (with expert guidance of Bas van der Vossen and Katharine Gillespie), I noticed, perhaps for the first time, that the very chapter that justifies property is also a polemic against (feudal) land-owning society (in favor of an economy focused on growing  numbers and economy). 

Earlier in the chapter, Locke had noted that "the invention of money, and the tacit agreement of men to put a value on it, introduced (by consent) larger possessions." (Sect 36). There are five important claims lurking here. I) (the right to) property precedes the invention of money. II) The invention of money facilitates accumulation of property (and of itself; see also sects 48 & 50 quoted above). (III) This generates inequality (this is made explicit in sect 50 quoted above). IV) The value of money is a convention. V) This convention is tacitly consented to. 

As an aside, according to Locke the conventional use of money can in a growing economy itself make other things scarce and so valuable, "(where the increase of people and stock, with the use of money, had made land scarce, and so of some value)" (sect 45). There is a complex issue lurking here: in Locke, unlike Hume and later economists, scarcity is itself not a condition of the possibility of property. But that's for another time. 

Now, interestingly enough, that the use of money is consented to is a refrain repeated through the chapter: e.g., "amongst that part of mankind that have consented to the use of money," (sect 45); "thus came in the use of money, some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life," (sect 47). And again in the passage quoted above.

So, one may be tempted to think that Locke's account of the legitimacy of money as an institution is grounded in a consent theory not dissimilar to his account of the social contract. But I am also reminded of his account of toleration, where (recall) the institution of (true) a church is grounded in voluntary association, that is, mutual consent ("A church...I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord"). But it is crucial to Locke argument in his analysis of the nature of a church that it produces a positive social consequence: piety, that is, obedience to the law. This positive consequence is conducive to social order and, to connect it to the present argument, respect for property.

Let's now, finally,  turn sect 50 quoted above. First, it clarifies that (IV) "the value of money is a convention" is imprecisely formulated. It would be better to say, (IV*) that money is valuable is a convention. For, the exact value of money can vary. And (VI) of  this particular value labor is the measure. How Locke's version of the labor theory of value is supposed to work is not my present concern.

Second, and more important, Locke's account of the legitimacy of the convention of money as a social institution is not just  grounded in  (tacit) consent. It is also grounded in what we may call historical experience over time. They have learned to appreciate ("found out") the social utility ("made practicable") of the convention despite some of its equally evident drawbacks -- that is, others become richer than you do. That is to say, social utility is a matter of judgment about social costs and benefits. This two-staged for of legitimation (first) tacit consent then, after a period, (second) continued consent based on historical experience of positive social consequences. 

This two-stage approach to legitimacy is, I think, capable of being extended to, appropriate for other social institutions (and conventions) in a Lockean approach. As noted above, he comes close to offering it in his account of toleration of certain churches. Obviously, it means that initial legitimacy of a social institution is always conditional on the continued proper effectiveness of the institution over historical time. This analysis of costs and benefits may well involve comparing incommensurables and so will involve good judgment, and it is not impossible that different communities and ages will come to different conclusions.  For some the lack of a clear and objective decision procedure will be thought a problem for Locke; for others, this (almost Aristotelian) contextual variability will be thought a proper feature.

To put the last point provocatively: the Lockean can now respond to (say) the Marxist or Environmentalist critique of (one element of) capital accumulation as follows in the spirit of adaptation/experimentation: sure, the institutions of the status quo have serious drawbacks (as all institutions are wont to do). Why not propose, or better yet, with your comrades, try out an alternative institution or set of institution that can generate consent from its participants and that generates good social outcomes over time worth living by? 

What's striking about all this is that in one sense Locke comes closer to Spinoza for whom all social contracts are never final but always dependant on continued utility of the contract to the parties; and in another sense he now clearly anticipates the more consequentialist style of justification of social institutions found in Hume and Adam Smith, while still remaining distinctly (ahh) Lockean. 

Classic Reply to Criticism of Socialists for Having Communist Supporters and Activists

The right-wing scumbags were after America’s Bernie Sanders last week. Having succeeded in defeating Labour in the elections over here, and Corbyn’s campaign to bring prosperity, dignity and empowerment to the British working class, they’re trying to do the same to America’s working people. They’ve started attacking Bernie’s cause of Medicare for All, whereby American people’s medical bills would be paid by the American state. 40 million people in the Land of the Free can’t afford medical insurance. 40,000 people every year die because they can’t afford medical treatment. In some states, people are hoarding medicines, including those prescribed by vets for animals, because they can’t afford drugs. But the Republicans and their corporate masters once again have started attacking Medicare For All in the interests of keeping the private healthcare companies’ profits high, and America’s working and lower middle class poor and sick. And they’ve also launched a few more personal attacks on Bernie himself. Last week several videos appeared on YouTube claiming that a member of his campaign team was a violent Communist.

I’m not surprised that a Communist would work for Sanders. The American Communist party seems to have a history of joining mainstream left-wing movements. Sometimes its to try and take them over, as Marxist parties have tried to do elsewhere in the West. And sometimes it’s simply to help them in their attempts to improve conditions for working people. In the 1950s and ’60s, I think, a number of Communists were found working for the Democrats.

They tried similar tactics over here with Jeremy Corbyn. Apart from smearing him as a Trotskyite and Stalinist, they also attempted to discredit him through one of his campaign team, Seaumas Milne. Milne really is a Stalinist, who continues to support the old thug. His views on Stalin are genuinely disgusting, but that doesn’t discredit everything else he does. His books and articles tearing modern capitalism to shreds are still excellent. And just because Milne admires the brutal dictator, it doesn’t follow that Corbyn does, and the chance of Milne setting up a similar dictatorship in Britain, even if he wanted to, is absolute zero.

There have been similar attempts to discredit other socialist parties and leaders through their employment of or work with Communists. I’ve been reading Bhaskar Sankara’s superb The Socialist Manifesto. This is his call for radical change in America, and its transformation into a genuinely socialist state in which workers actually manage the companies in which they work, share the profits, and enjoy a welfare state comparable to those of Europe, only rather more expanded. The first few chapters are a history of socialism in various countries from its Marxist roots. This covers the rise of Social Democracy in Germany, Communism in Russia and China, social democracy in Sweden and socialism in America. America has, surprisingly, a very long tradition of socialism and working class parties. But these failed to make it into mainstream politics through factionalism, inept leadership, missed opportunities and violent opposition from the American state and capital. Private corporations hired armed thugs to put down strikes, along with the police and army. The Communist party also contributed to this through its factionalism, its blind obedience to the Comintern line even when this conflicted with the local party’s and American people’s own interests in favour of that of the Soviet state’s, and attacks on rival socialist parties. They caused the collapse of one working class, socialist organisation by infiltrating it in order to turn it into a Communist satellite. At which point everyone else in the organisation left. The Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party did the same thing in Britain in the 1970s when they infiltrated the Anti-Nazi League.

But there also were instances where Communists and reformist socialists attempted to work together. This happened in the Congress of Industrial Organisations, founded in the 1930s by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers’ union. The CIO had a large rank and file, but needed skilled leaders and organisers, and so drew on those from other socialist organisations. When it was pointed out to him that a large number of them were members of the Communist party, Lewis replied, ‘Who gets the bird? The dog or the hunter?’

Quite.

American Communism’s actually rather interesting, as it saw itself as firmly in the tradition of the American Revolution. And in contrast to the dull, crushing boredom of the Soviet Communist party, it also seems rather fun. The Party had a very strong social side to it, holding youth dances and other social events. It was also very strong on reaching out and defending Black Americans, which explains how Jackie Walker’s parents met. Her mother was a Black civil rights activist, and her father was of Jewish Russian descent. They met at a Communist civil rights event, if I remember properly.

They also revered the American Revolution and were, in their way, as patriotic as other Americans. When the Daughters of the American Revolution forgot their annual commemoration of Paul Revere’s ride, they had a man dress up as an 18th century minuteman and ride down Broadway in New York. They proclaimed ‘The DAR forgets, but the Communist party remembers!’ Another of their slogans was ‘Communism is 20th Century Americanism!’

Bernie Sanders is very far from being a Communist. His views are far more like those of mainstream European social democrats. There isn’t much about nationalisation in his book, Our Revolution, though he does favour worker cooperatives. He also doesn’t want to nationalise American healthcare. He just wants the government to pay people’s medical bills – hardly a radical suggestion from the European perspective. The Germans have had it since Bismarck’s Socialist Laws of 1875. But that, and Bernie’s concern to expand the American welfare state, restore union power and give working people proper employment rights – in effect, to undo forty years of Reaganomic misgovernment – is too much for American capital.

Communism fell in the 1990s. But socialism is alive and reviving. The world as well as America needs Bernie in the White House.

So let’s making Socialism 21st Century Americanism and Britishism!

 

An end to capitalism. An end to cash!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/01/2020 - 4:00pm in

Review by Tony Sutton The UK working class lost much sympathy after its stunning rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist manifesto in last December’s general election. That they chose to be influenced by a three-word slogan – Get Brexit Done – from a Tory party that had savaged them with a programme of vicious austerity over …

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 10:06am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

January 16, 2020 James Meadway, former economic advisor to the UK Labour Party, on the British election, how to fight political cynicism, and ideas for reindustrializing busted regions • Katherine Moos on the costs of social reproduction and who pays them (paper here)

Trotsky on the Failure of Capitalism

I found this quote from Trotsky on how capitalism has now outlived its usefulness as a beneficial economic system in Isaac Deutscher and George Novack, The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology (New York: Dell 1964):

Capitalism has outlived itself as a world system. It has ceased to fulfill its essential function, the raising of the level of human power and human wealth. Humanity cannot remain stagnant at the level which it has reached. Only a powerful increase in productive force and a sound, planned, that is, socialist organisation of production and distribution can assure humanity – all humanity – of a decent standard of life and at the same time give it the precious feeling of freedom with respect to its own economy. (p. 363).

I’m not a fan of Trotsky. Despite the protestations to the contrary from the movement he founded, I think he was during his time as one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution and civil war ruthless and authoritarian. The Soviet Union under his leadership may not have been as massively murderous as Stalin’s regime, but it seems to me that it would still have been responsible for mass deaths and imprisonment on a huge scale.

He was also very wrong in his expectation of the collapse of capitalism and the outbreak of revolution in the Developed World. As an orthodox Marxist, he wanted to export the Communist revolution to the rest of Europe, and believed that it would be in the most developed countries of the capitalist West, England, France, and Germany, that revolution would also break out. He also confidently expected throughout his career the imminent collapse of capitalism. This didn’t happen, partly because of the reforms and welfare states established by reformist socialist parties like Labour in Britain and the SPD in Germany, which improved workers’ lives and opportunities, which thus allowed them to stimulate the capitalist economy as consumers and gave them a stake in preserving the system.

It also seems to me that capitalism is still actively creating wealth – the rich are still becoming massively richer – and it is benefiting those countries in the Developing World, which have adopted it, like China and the east Asian ‘tiger’ economies like South Korea.

But in the west neoliberalism, unregulated capitalism, certainly has failed. It hasn’t brought public services, like electricity, railways, and water supply the investment they need, and has been repeatedly shown to be far more inefficient in the provision of healthcare. And it is pushing more and more people into grinding poverty, so denying them the ability to play a role as active citizens about to make wide choices about the jobs they can take, what leisure activities they can choose, and the goods they can buy. At the moment the Tories are able to hide its colossal failure by hiding the mounting evidence and having their hacks in the press pump out favourable propaganda. But if the situation carries on as it is, sooner or later the mass poverty they’ve created will not be so easily hidden or blithely explained away or blamed on others – immigrants, the poor themselves, or the EU. You don’t have to be a Trotskyite to believe the following:

Unfettered capitalism is destroying Britain – get rid of it, and the Tories.

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