“That’s Not Real Socialism.”

I presented Why Not Capitalism? at the College of New Jersey this past week. In the book, during a parody of G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, I describe what might happen if the anarcho-capitalist Mickey Mouse Clubhouse villagers suddenly started acted like real-world socialists. E.g.,

a. Donald decides to forcibly nationalize and control all of the farmland, murdering millions in the process, and causing a massive famine that murders tens of millions more. He uses terror tactics to assert his control…

b.  Things do not go as well as Donald planned, and the other villagers begin to resist. Goofy stifles dissent by creating gulags in the coldest reaches of Disney World. Anyone he deems an enemy is sent to the gulag to be tortured and worked to death…

c. Mickey Mouse stifles free speech, crushes all political opposition, and installs himself for life as the Premier. He becomes increasingly paranoid. At one point, to assert his control, he murders nearly all members of the governing party…

In my parody, I show that some of Cohen’s complaints about capitalism work equally well or better as complaints about socialism. Here, e.g., I take Cohen’s criticisms of capitalist societies and just substitute some socialist societies.

In the USSR, Venezuela, or Cuba, cooperation is based largely on greed and fear. A person does not care fundamentally, within socialist interaction, about how well or badly anyone other than herself fares. They cooperate with other people not because they believe cooperating is a good thing in itself, not because they want all people to flourish, but because they seek to gain and they know that they can do so only if they cooperate with others, or because they worry they will be punished or murdered if they do not do as they are told. In the mutual provisioning of a socialist society, we are essentially indifferent to the fate of the farmer whose food we eat: there is little or no community, respect, or beneficence among us, as those values were articulated above. In this kind of system, what we tend to find is that the people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay.

During the Q and A, a faculty member in attendance (a literature professor, for what that’s worth), made something like the following objection:

The USSR, Cuba, Cambodia, were not socialist societies. Calling the Khmer Rouge socialist just seems crazy to me; it just seems like such a fantastic stretch to call them socialist. [I don’t remember his exact wording, but that was the gist.] These aren’t socialist societies, but totalitarian ones.

My response:

I don’t think you’re using the word “socialism” properly. “Socialism” just refers to collective ownership of the means of production. The USSR was not a nice or just socialist society, and it’s not the form of socialism any decent socialist would advocate today, but it was a form of socialism.

However, if you insist on saying that the USSR, Cambodia, China, etc., were not socialist because they don’t match the moral ideal of a socialist society, keep in mind that this same move is available to capitalists. If you complain about bad behavior or injustice you see in real-world commercial societies, I can just respond, “Oh, that’s not real capitalism, because that kind of thing would never happen in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village.”

Some socialists–including Gerald Cohen at times–try to define socialism in terms of values or moral principles instead of terms of institutions. But that’s bad lexicography:

We must be careful not to equate socialism with moral virtue or community spirit. Capitalism and socialism are simply ways of organizing the ownership of property. In capitalism, individuals may own the means of production. In socialism, they may not—the means of production are owned collectively (or by the representative of the collective, such as the State). Socialism is not love or kindness or generosity or oceans of delicious lemonade. Socialism is not equality or community. It’s just a way of distributing the control rights over objects.

Cohen asserts that capitalism runs on greed and fear. Yet Cohen cannot simply assert this as a conceptual claim. Capitalism is not analytically tied to greed and fear. Whether a regime is capitalist or not has nothing to do with people’s motives. A fearless, greedless capitalist society—like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village—is no less capitalist than a fearful, greedy capitalist society—like Denmark or Switzerland. A social system is capitalist to the extent that it has private property in the means of production, decisions about the use of property are made by owners rather than by governments or society at large, people may make contracts as they please, legal monopolies and subsidies are absent, and so on.

So, if Cohen had said, “By ‘capitalism’, I just mean a predatory system of greed and fear,” that would be no stronger a condemnation of market societies than if Adam Smith said, “By ‘socialism’, I just mean a system of bloodthirsty dictators who starve and slaughter peasants.” We cannot just decide to insert evil motivations into the very definition of capitalism in order to argue that capitalism is evil. That would be both bad philosophy and bad lexicography.

Cohen would respond, I suspect, that we can imagine capitalist economies free of predation, greed, and fear, but real capitalist economies are not free of greed and fear. He would be right. Yet, a defender of capitalism could retort that we can also imagine socialist economies free of greed and fear, but real socialist economies are not free of predation, greed, and fear. Quite the contrary.

  • TracyW

    It’s interesting what a common impulse that is.

  • anarchopac .

    I agree that we shouldn’t define socialism in terms of moral values given that its just a form of organising property and the economy. But I take issue with your definition of socialism as just collective ownership. Historically socialism was understood as collective worker ownership and self-management of production and not just collective ownership.

    The USSR was thought to be state capitalism by Anarchists and Libertarian Marxists from 1917 on wards. Even Lenin himself admitted that it was state capitalism. He wrote in 1922 that, “The state capitalism, which is one of the principal aspects of the New Economic Policy, is, under Soviet power, a form of capitalism that is deliberately permitted and restricted by the working class. Our state capitalism differs essentially from the state capitalism in countries that have bourgeois governments in that the state with us is represented not by the bourgeoisie, but by the proletariat, who has succeeded in winning the full confidence of the peasantry.”
    https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/nov/14b.htm

    Lenin’s talk of it having a proletarian class character is just Lenin being a politician, given that Lenin noted at the end of 1917 that “we passed from workers’ control to the creation of the Supreme Council of National Economy,” which was to “replace, absorb and supersede the machinery of workers’ control”. In 1918 Lenin wrote that “Unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labour processes that are based on large-scale machine industry…today the Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process”. So its pretty clear that Lenin opposed worker control, that is socialism, and implemented state capitalism by his own admission.

    • TracyW

      Lenin’s NEP was a reintroduction of capitalism after war and War Communism resulted in economic collapse and mass famine. It led to living standards returning to those of pre-WWI Russia.

      After Stalin seized power in 1928, he dropped the NEP and pushed for full central planning of the economy. Thus collectivism in farming, in which millions died, and the Five Year Plans.

      So, yes, Lenin, after a bit of experience with Communism, fled back to Capitalism. Unluckily for the Soviet people, Stalin did not follow Lenin’s leadership.

      Historically socialism was understood as collective worker ownership and self-management of production and not just collective ownership.

      Not by any one who spent at least five minutes thinking about the problems implied by “self-management of production”.

      • anarchopac .

        State capitalism means when the state acts as the capitalist class and owns means of production and hires the labour power of the working class who do not own the means of production. This is hardly capitalism in a sense that a right-winger would desire, as individuals do not own means of production.

        State capitalism was implemented from late 1917 on wards and so since war communism was implemented in 1918 the implementation of state capitalism was not a reaction to the failures of war communism. The NEP was a reaction against the civil war and war communism.

        • TracyW

          State capitalism in the sense you define it is a made up label applied to explain the failures of socialism. The logic behind it went:

          1. Socialism can’t fail. It’s capitalism that must fail.
          2. The Soviet Union failed.
          3. Therefore the Soviet Union must be capitalist of some form or another.

          Even you admit that no right-wing capitalist would desire “state capitalism” (AKA communism). The amazing thing is that people come onto libertarian, pro-capitalist sites like this, proclaiming this nonsense about “state capitalism” and expecting it to convince anyone here.

          The quote you supply from Lenin about ” a form of capitalism” is in relation to his 1922 introduction of NEP. You are trying to pretend Lenin’s statements about what he was doing in 1922 applies to 1917, which is unjustifiable.

          • anarchopac .

            My claim was that a) the Bolshevik run economy was thought to be state capitalism from 1917 onwards by anarchists and libertarian marxists, and that b) Lenin said it was state capitalism in 1922. I’m not saying that Lenin thought it was state capitalism in 1917. Him not thinking so was an error.

          • TracyW

            So, some unnamed anarchist and libertarian marxists back in 1917 that the Bolshevik run economy was “state capitalism”. And we are expected to take the political and economic analysis of these people seriously, despite that we don’t even know their names, let alone what they knew about Soviet Russia at the time, nor how coherent their thoughts were on socialism and communism. For all I know, these unnamed individuals were the Marxist/anarchist equivalent of the guys who try to design perpetual motion machines and think the world is being run by a shape-shifting race of alien lizard people.

            Lenin said it was state capitalism in 1922. I’m not saying that Lenin thought it was state capitalism in 1917.

            Uh, huh, you merely said: “The USSR was thought to be state capitalism by Anarchists and Libertarian Marxists from 1917 on wards. Even Lenin himself admitted that it was state capitalism.”

            I suppose to be strictly literal, you didn’t say that Lenin thought it was state capitalism in 1917, you merely tried to imply it by the close association of sentences.

            Him not thinking so was an error.

            I never thought I would wind up defending Lenin, but, you, know he was actually living in Russia for much of 1917, and he was a self-identified socialist. I think he might well have had a better idea of what he was trying to do than some unidentified anarchist and libertarian Marxists.

    • Jason Brennan

      Yep, that’s what Lenin said, but I don’t see this as any reason to modify what I wrote above. I just think Lenin’s making the same mistake the lit professor did.

      • TracyW

        No, while I don’t think that highly of Lenin, I think he did have a pretty fair idea in 1922 that he was reintroducing some form of capitalism. But that was sadly only for a brief time of Soviet history, so the lit professor still is wrong.

      • UserGoogol

        The problem with equating socialism with the collective ownership of the means of production in general is that privately owned corporations are collectively owned: they’re owned by their shareholders, instead of by the government or their workers, but that’s still just another collective. No individual owns Walmart, or Apple, or Exxon-Mobil. Even without the formal organization of incorporation per se (which many libertarians of a bleeding heart persuasion have their issues with) capitalist business is organized into firms which are rarely just an individual deploying their capital how they see fit.

        Of course, such relationships can still maintain the premise that they’re just individual owners deploying their resources towards a common goal, so corporations and the principle of individual ownership can exist side by side. But if individual owners deployed their resources towards organizing into a worker’s cooperative (as people occasionally do), that would be socialist and also capitalist.

        Socialists shouldn’t be able to get off scot free regarding the mixed results of “actually existing socialism,” if only because if people often aim for ideal socialism and then fail and get this horrible other thing, that’s still bad news for socialism. But the conceptual difference between workers’ control of the means of production and state control of the means of production still seems like a fair one.

        • ted

          You’re misunderstanding the term “collectively owned”. It doesn’t mean that it’s owned by a plurality of people (e.g. shareholders). It means that it’s owned by literally everybody, which is the same thing as being owned by the state.

          In capitalism this is not so. And while no one person could own Walmart, that could and does happen (see IKEA). The reason it’s not common is that there’s usually a big incentive to sell parts of a successful business.

          One last thing about collective ownership. Having grown up in socialism, collective ownership was widely identified with no ownership, at all. Being owned by everybody meant being owned by nobody. One side effect was that workers stole heavily from the enterprises they worked for, and the higher up you were, the more you could steal with impunity.

          • ted

            Sorry, early morning: “while no one person does own Walmart”.

        • TracyW

          The “collective ownership of the means of production” is terminology that comes from socialists and is the most convenient short version I know to capture their particular economic ideas about how a socialist economy would work. Socialists are generally pretty vague about what socialism actually is, as such vagueness helps them to ignore criticism, but if you read their writings, they’re pretty clear that socialism isn’t just some form of capitalism. Well, they’re pretty clear up to the point that an attempt to introduce socialism fails, at which point they switch tactics and claimed that whatever failed was a form of capitalism.

  • “No true socialism.”

  • Obvious

    Wow. The same response works against the same objections as it did 40 years ago. Such progress.

  • johnbarri

    For a long time (some 50 years or longer) I have always recognised, or believed, that there has never been any true socialism, but rather a brand of capitalism (communism) where the state owned the means of production and controlled the market place, and by contrast, a brand of capitalism where the private sector owned the means of production and the market was a free market place, where producers and other owners of capital vied for access to the market through bone fide competition for their shares of that market.

    The rub is that in that so called capitalist society, the means of production is overwhelmingly owned by an oligarch class who just coincidentally also control the market place and the legislative process and therefore government, so we are back to a situation where there is centralised control of the means of production and the market place. So, in any meaningful economic sense the similarities between the two systems are greater than the differences.

    My belief is that both systems are hijacked by the same class of power-hungry and greedy persons who take control of their societies through taking control of government and, for obvious reasons, both these systems failed and continue to fail the proletariat or the common and garden citizenry. It is also my belief that until such time as a system is in place whereby that citizenry has a meaningful say over the creation of the laws by which they are governed and at the same time there is a more equitable tax system where all are taxed equally in relation to their activity in an economy, rather than according to whatever measure of profit is legally recognised, there will be no such thing as a just and equitable society.

    Such systems are proposed here http://ddforum.co.za (look for TEAL and Senate proposals on the site). These systems are not proposed as a key to an egalitarian or libertarian society but merely as a step toward those ideals.

    The reality is that if some form of managed change is not accomplished, another form of unmanaged change, probably violent and nihilistic, will be forced on society, and the results will not be pretty. Such has happened before and it has never been pretty.

    So society at large has a single simple choice ahead of it. Fix it or lose it.

    • TracyW

      I have always recognised, or believed, that there has never been any true socialism, but rather a brand of capitalism (communism) where the state owned the means of production and controlled the market place

      No state has ever controlled the market place. There were black markets in every Communist country. And, in Western countries, look at how ineffective drug prohibition has been.

      The rub is that in that so called capitalist society, the means of production is overwhelmingly owned by an oligarch class who just coincidentally also control the market place and the legislative process and therefore government

      Out of curiousity, is there any possible evidence that could convince you otherwise?

      • johnbarri

        ‘No state has ever controlled the market place. There were black markets’ No, but they tried. That they failed is evidenced by long queues of needy consumers and the black market and corruption that occurred in response to those needy consumers..

        ‘Out of curiosity, is there any possible evidence that could convince you otherwise?’ Always willing to be convinced. Please bring on the evidence. But it is not I that needs be convinced, it is all those who are left feeling irrelevant and manipulated and deprived of jobs, education and opportunity. Words are cheap in the face of experiences that contradict the words.

        • TracyW

          That someone has experienced bring deprived of education, jobs and opportunity doesn’t tell us anything about what did the deprivation. For example I’m fairly confident that if I was given control of the legislative process I could generate large-scale deprivation of education, jobs and deprivation without owning any means of production nor controlling the market place. It’s a lot easier to stuff something up than get it working well.

          So what evidence could convince you otherwise.

          • johnbarri

            Hi Tracy – speaking of the general condition of the deprived, wherever they are, I think some evidence of political, economic and social stability along with the ability of a vast majority of a population to live prosperously or at least free of poverty, would convince me that an economy was working well, and that, I think, is what I am writing of, economies that work well for the vast majority of the population, and not only for a thin slice of the overly affluent. I could sit down for a month or even a lifetime to list all the economic injustices I am aware of and we wouldn’t have the time to discuss even a few of them.

            Just to be clear, I think of myself as a libertarian with a social conscience. I believe that at whatever level you are in the pecking order, you will thrive better in a sea of prosperity than in a sea of poverty. That is being pragmatic. I believe that the wealthiest of the wealthy will ultimately die in a sea of poverty. Wealth and laws and social conventions will not protect you when the ordinary folk have had enough and just turn on you in a blind rage. All rules and conventions are then cast aside and everybody loses and it is back to the dark ages.

            I assert in as many words that the oligarchs are too few and too influential. They control or seek to control too many aspects of the social tapestry in the pursuit of their own profit. I also argue (and I am not the only one with this point of view) that this is economic and social suicide and that when the fabric of society starts ripping apart these oligarchs, when they lose, will most likely plead innocence and cry foul.

            And to be fair, not all oligarchs are so blinded by their own wealth and seemingly invulnerability that they don’t see the dangers. Some do and they are deeply worried.

            You respond, what evidence would convince me otherwise? And I answer, evidence of general prosperity rather than general poverty.

            There is a danger in these sorts of debates, for participants to talk past one another rather than to one another. Is this what you and I are doing? So can you provide such evidence of general prosperity in the economy of your choice (are you in the USA?)? Maybe we can then start addressing some specifics.

            I wish I could respond more effectively and hope you will forgive my inadequacies..

          • TracyW

            As far as I can tell, you are assuming that the only reason there is poverty is because there is oligarchic control of the means of production, legislative process and the market. While I think that poverty could have numerous causes.

            You also appear to have switched from your original claim about oligarchic control to a claim that the economy isn’t performing that well, which is quite a different thing and one I’m not minded to dispute.

          • johnbarri

            I did not shift my position. My position remains and is that I am convinced that the oligarchs are trading exclusively for their own profit (not necessarily a bad thing in itself) but to the exclusion of the welfare of the economies in which they trade and that this has a detrimental effect on those economies, and this is a bad thing. Other factors may also effect poor economic performance but it is all interrelated. It may not be planned (that is, it may just be boys behaving badly as apposed to being some sort of conspiracy) but it is all connected.

            By way of evidence (you like evidence I think) I point to the vast disparity of wealth in th USA where 1% of the population (The oligarchs) hold 99%, or whatever, of the wealth, while the remaining 99% of the population hold 1% of the wealth (and before you round on me, those numbers are illustrative of the disparity and not necessarily absolutely accurate). I also point to the way the oligarchs were bailed out of the consequences of their bad behaviour which behaviour led to the most recent bankers crash of, when, 2008, and the man in the street was hung out to dry, Good stuff that. Bound to cement loyalty and national pride.

            If you think there is no connection between the disparity of wealth and response to the crash of 2008 and the unhealthy state of the US economy, then I really don’t know how to respond to that position as it would seem to me to be an irrational position.

            And just to keep on topic – the discussion is about the nature of socialism. Well, a point I was trying to make was, or rather is, that while the Muslim faith epitomises all that is bad about bad socialism, it is none the less the fastest-growing religion, or perhaps more accurately stated, the fastest growing political and economic alternative to the failing systems of democracy and capitalism, that is around at present, and that the gods of democracy and capitalism really need to sharpen their pencils as a matter of urgency and put things right. or else, apart from anything else, you will soon be wearing a burka.

            You may choose to disagree with me, by all means, but why don’t you come up with some counter arguments? I would be interested to hear your views.

          • TracyW

            Other factors may also effect poor economic performance but it is all interrelated

            Everything may be connected to everything else, but that doesn’t mean that every connection is important, or causal, nor does it tell us which way causal reactions flow.

            If you think there is no connection between the disparity of wealth and response to the crash of 2008 and the unhealthy state of the US economy,

            Again, that is quite a different hypothesis to your original one that “the means of production is overwhelmingly owned by an oligarch class who just coincidentally also control the market place and the legislative process and therefore government”.

            For example, let’s say, “the government is independent of this “oligarch class”, but controlled by a bunch of people who don’t really know what the financial sector does, and were more focused on raising money for their next election than worrying about future potential economic crashes” could explain a lot of bad policy without any oligarchic control of market places.

            I also point to the way the oligarchs were bailed out of the consequences of their bad behaviour which behaviour led to the most recent bankers crash of, when, 2008, and the man in the street was hung out to dry,

            Actually the objective of the bailouts was to help the “man in the street”. See for example Megan Mcardle on this: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/08/looking-back-at-the-bailouts/23771/
            http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/09/why-we-need-a-bailout-even-if-not-this-bailout/4152/

            Bank failures are bad for people with money in banks.

            while the Muslim faith epitomises all that is bad about bad socialism

            I find this hard to believe, what with all those inheritance rules I have the distinct impression that the Muslim faith was pretty serious about private property.

            it is none the less the fastest-growing religion, or perhaps more accurately stated, the fastest growing political and economic alternative to the failing systems of democracy and capitalism,

            It’s a religion, not a system of government or economic arrangement.

            And the situation of countries like Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia don’t strike me as very attractive examples of Muslim rule.

            Personally I think some Islamists will get into power and their actual attempts at rule will prove so bad that the general population and intellectuals will react against it as the English reacted to the Puritans under Cromwell. The USA and other western powers could probably best help this process along by making statements of support for the Islamists and against their opponents.

            You may choose to disagree with me, by all means, but why don’t you come up with some counter arguments?

            I have. I note that you have already agreed with me that indeed, no state has ever managed to control the market place, even though, as you point out, many tried.

          • johnbarri

            You don’t see the causality between the fact that too few own too much wealth and have too much influence and too many have too little wealth and too little influence, and the state of the US economy (amongst others). The oligarchs must be as much victims of the ailing economy as are the poor and destitute. What a tragedy for the oligarchs. I had never thought of that before. In any event, I see that causality and we are just going to have t agree to disagree.

            “the means of production” & etc. I believe that to be factual, not a matter of opinion.

            As to the bankers’ bailout intending to help the man in the street. That is just sophistry intended to rationalise the fact that as the poor got poorer the rich are bailed out from the mess they created and continued to get even more rich off the bail out process. I’m surprised you believe that the welfare of the man in the street was foremost in the minds of Washington and the Federal Reserve. I haven’t believed it for one moment. Many agree with me, particularly amongst the men in the street who were hung out to dry.

            There were many more ways of bailing out the economy than bailing out banks that were conveniently labeled being too big to fail.

            No, it may be a religion but it is also a system of government. Have you heard the word caliphate? That is how they plan to govern, drawing on sharia law. You need to look at all of that more closely before you have to order your burka.

            And yes, some will get into power and fail and be tossed but the damage done in the interim will be monumental – like back to the dark ages. Do you know what the issue with Boko Haram in Nigeria is? They don’t want western education. The same goes for all of militant Islam. Education undermines their belief system.

            And Islam need not be attractive, it just has to be feared.

            Let me relate a story about the power of fear. Italians during WWll were reputed to be cowards. These are the same people who had conquered a large chunk of the world. Why that dichotomy? The story related to me by an Italian who lived through WWll was that when Mussolini’s bully-boys said join the army and fight our enemies or we will kill you, you joined the army. The first opportunity you had, you surrendered.

            He also asked me if I knew why Italian tanks had 6 gears. One forward and six reverse gears for tactical retreats, he said. Gallows humour.

            Point being, when told to convert to Islam or have your head lopped off, you convert to Islam. Bullies and fear can be amazingly persuasive.

            Thank you for responding with something different. I regret I cannot spend more time on this fascinating exchange than I already have, so adieu, at least for now.

          • TracyW

            You don’t see the causality between the fact that too few own too much wealth and have too much influence and too many have too little wealth and too little influence, and the state of the US economy (amongst others). The oligarchs must be as much victims of the ailing economy as are the poor and destitute.

            This is a non-sequitor. Victimhood (or lack of it) doesn’t tell us who caused something. To give an example, during WWII people living in the USA escaped the suffering of those living in Europe or in Asia, that doesn’t mean that Americans caused WWII.

            In any event, I see that causality and we are just going to have t agree to disagree.

            I don’t know if you intended this phrasing or if it’s a typo, but it strikes me as amusingly apt.

            “the means of production” & etc. I believe that to be factual, not a matter of opinion.

            If you can’t say what evidence would cause you to disagree with a position, then your belief in it is not based on facts.

            I’m surprised you believe that the welfare of the man in the street was foremost in the minds of Washington and the Federal Reserve. I haven’t believed it for one moment.

            This is a red herring. Avoiding another Great Depression could well have been the underlying objective of the minds in Washington and the Federal Reserve even if it was not foremost in their minds during that time. (I suspect that the operational problems were foremost in their minds.)

            There were many more ways of bailing out the economy than bailing out banks that were conveniently labeled being too big to fail.

            Uh-huh, you also think that whether someone is a victim of something has some bearing on whether they caused it. That doesn’t exactly impress me with the quality of your analysis.

            No, it may be a religion but it is also a system of government. Have you heard the word caliphate? That is how they plan to govern, drawing on sharia law.

            Who is they? The Muslims operating in Malaysia, or Maldavies, or Iran? All of those are democracies of some sort or another.

            They don’t want western education. The same goes for all of militant Islam. Education undermines their belief system.

            On the other hand, hordes of non-militant Muslims are actually studying at Western universities.

            Your story about Italy during WWII illustrates the limits of conversions achieved by fear. Italy lost WWII. Bullying people into things only obtains lip service, which falls apart as soon as people have the possiblity of escape.

          • johnbarri

            There has been a systemic and persistent campaign in the USA, since the days of Kennedy and then Reagen through to the present, for the state to empower the wealthy and entrench their wealth. Successive presidents lent impetus to those moves by deregulating the big $ economy (Reagen) tax breaks for the rich (Kennedy, Reagen and Bush) and encouraging globalisation (Clinton), all in the name of the free market and economic stimulation, relying on a trickle-down effect to stimulate the economy (which I don’t believe materialised to any meaningful degree), with little consideration for the effect these initiatives would have on America’s middle class, the backbone of the economy, who largely did not benefit directly or indirectly from the tax breaks and certainly did not benefit from globalisation, and thus with little consideration for the effect on the US economy. So the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and where did the middle class disappeared to? I believe the USA is now suffering the consequences of those initiatives.

            As to the power of terror – your own response should answer your own criticism of my position. It took the world going to war to counter the fascist and national socialist aspirations of the early 20th century – but it seems from what you say that the cost was irrelevant as terror failed in the end. So bullying doesn’t pay but it sure costs but the costs don’t matter. Tell that to those who paid the costs. And failure of yesterdays bullies is going to dissuade today’s bullies from trying what previous generations of bullies failed at? That is arrant nonsense.

            I don’t get your point about victimisation. I wasn’t trying to prove anything from the existence of victims. But while on the topic, I believe it makes sense, if only from a perspective that victims often turn around and inflict serious damage on society, to minimise the extent of victims and victimisation.

            I come back to my earlier opinion that the failure of the present systems to tend to the needs of the masses adds fuel to the aspirations of terrorists of all sorts and that big $ capitalism, aka the oligarchs, are playing right into the hands of terrorists. I see militant Islam at the forefront of today’s terrorists. It could be any other group of the disaffected but for now and probably for the foreseeable future, they (militant Islam) are it.

            I also come back to my earlier response to what evidence would I need to see to change my opinion that the present system as driven by the oligarchs is not working (and I do believe they drive the system and it isn’t working). Overall evidence of prosperity for entire societies with a reduced wealth disparity between the haves and have-nots. I don’t care that the oligarchs are affluent. That is not the problem. The problem is the wealth disparity and the levels of poverty.

            That might just do. It won’t solve all the world’s problems but it would be a step in the right direction by removing poverty as a motivation for violent change. A cause without moral justification is a lot weaker than a cause with moral justification, and poverty is one powerful moral justification for change.

          • TracyW

            On the argument about deregulation, may I refer you to Scott Sumners on this point?

            I don’t get your point about victimisation. I wasn’t trying to prove anything from the existence of victims.

            You wrote: “You don’t see the causality between the fact that too few own too much wealth and have too much influence and too many have too little wealth and too little influence, and the state of the US economy (amongst others). The oligarchs must be as much victims of the ailing economy as are the poor and destitute.”

            The positioning of your second sentence implied to me that it was intended to support your “argument” that the poor performance of the US economy meant that it must be controlled by an oligarchy, who control the means of production, legislative process and the market. If you weren’t trying to prove anything from it, why did you write that sentence in the first place?

            but it seems from what you say that the cost was irrelevant as terror failed in the end.

            I think you are now mostly arguing not with me but with a figment of your imagination.

            . Overall evidence of prosperity for entire societies with a reduced wealth disparity between the haves and have-nots.

            And the problem with this continues to be that there are plenty of other reasons why a society might be poor, apart from oligarchic control.

  • stevenjohnson2

    The OP writes ” “Socialism” just refers to collective ownership of the means of production. ” “Capitalism and socialism are simply ways of organizing the ownership of property. In capitalism, individuals may own the means of production. In socialism, they may not—the means of production are owned collectively (or by the representative of the collective, such as the State).”

    This is not quite right. Capitalism is characterized by markets for capital and labor, not just private ownership of means of production. (Which by the way is why black markets don’t make socialist economies capitalist and why “state capitalism” really can be a thing in principle, if not necessarily in fact.) Socialism is characterized not just by collective ownership of the means of production but by production for use and egalitarian non-wage distribution, what might grandly be called the abolition of classes like capitalist and wage laborer. (The common misperception that welfare states are socialism focus only on the redistribution in consumption.)

    But, the real point is not the minimalist definitions given, which after all are not exactly wrong. The real point in the OP is that both capitalism and socialism must be defined by socioeconomic structures, not moral/social/political/aesthetic notions found largely in one’s preconceptions. The OP got that exactly right, and I applaud his success. And I urge all libertarians to accept this principle.

    The consequence of course is that capitalism isn’t just in the US and western Europe. Capitalism is what is in shantytowns in Sao Paulo and Johannesberg and Chennai. Capitalism is what is found in villages in Haiti and Burkina Faso and the altoplano of Bolivia and the desert of Mali. Capitalism is there with Colombian death squads and Israel’s endless siege of Gaza and the Saudi monarchy. Capitalism was the system that brought us World War I (celebrating its hundredth birthday this year.) The OP’s point shows us that talking only about the nice parts of capitalism is “bad philosophy and bad lexicography.”

    • johnbarri

      ‘Capitalism was the system that brought us World War I’

      I’ve heard similar arguments for the start of both world wars but could you please elucidate.

      • stevenjohnson2

        The short version is that all previous capitalist societies arose in civilizations with states, which were crucial to establishing domestic capitalist property relations to begin with; needed to expropriate property from other societies or states; needed to defend the capitalist property from other states. Capitalist competition to establish a world market’s economies of scale and profits was also conducted by state actions to create some sort of empire. (The British Empire’s free trade version or the US’ minimally colonialist version count.) The resulting complex world system was necessarily prone to crisis (Ageciras, Fashoda, even the Venezuelan crisis of 1895, et al.) As I understand it, there was a world depression on foot in the early teens of the last century,which was probably the essential prerequisite to the final culmination in world war by aggravating domestic political difficulties as well.

        • johnbarri

          Is it fair to extrapolate from what you have outlined that economic crises predict wars, civil or international? If that is so, aren’t today’s economic crises (the many of them that exists around the world) a set of very disturbing circumstances?

          • stevenjohnson2

            The best predictor of war is the prospect for an easy victory. This does not directly align with economic crisis.

            In principle, capitalist competition does not have to be carried on by warfare. Further, war is generally bad for most businesses not directly engaged in war production, with any benefits contingent upon victory. (This is why individual businessmen commonly oppose war upon pragmatic grounds…and why ideally the state is manned by agents who try to consciously direct affairs to the benefit of the whole system, instead of just one interest. In a class society any supposed benefits are never equal.)

            But in an economic crisis, the effects on a given society are never equal and the harder hit states become less able to resist aggression. The current example of Syria should suffice. A years long drought strained the ability of the Assad regime to contain its domestic political forces. It was both less able to earn support from larger groups it could no longer satisfy/pacify and its repressive forces also were weakened. The result? Vulnerability to attack, the condition listed in the first paragraph of this post.

          • johnbarri

            How would you explain Russia’s current aggression and bridge building (BRICS) etc.? Is there no connection between Russia’s socio-economic circumstances, the resurgence of Russian nationalistic sentiment, spurred on by Putin, and what Russia is attempting geopolitically? Or is Putin just driving this to try and create a second soviet union because, as he is on record as saying, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major disaster for mankind (or words to that effect) and perhaps he is simply taking advantage of Russia’s socio-economic circumstances to fuel those ambitions, much as Hitler did for pre-WWII Germany?

        • TracyW

          The world saw empires long before the British one. Were the Roman, Persian, Spanish, Inca empires really all capitalist?

          Plus Adam Smith makes a good argument that the British empire was not only terrible for the colonised but also made the British people worse off than if the British had instead pursued free trade with independent states. He outlines in detail how British merchants used empire to lower the prices at which they bought things and raised at which they sold, thus making both sides worse off than under free trade. This for example is the first time I’ve heard someone describe the British empire’s approach to the Americas or India as “free trade”. Adam Smith supplies an extensive listing of British policies that were flat out mercantilist.

          • stevenjohnson2

            And no true capitalism has colonies, yes, yes.

            jAnd I’ve seen libertarian arguments that Diocletian’s Roman Empire and the Incas were socialist for whatever that matters.

            I’m trying to get what your point really is, other than to mutter “gotcha” to yourself. That empire isn’t capitalist? It’s not certain that any empire was ever profitable for the imperial nation, as opposed to specific interests. But Adam Smith’s attempt to demonstrate the overall net loss for England is no more relevant than Norman Angell’s attempt to demonstrate world war would be an insane waste.

            The profits from the Asiento or the sugar islands of the West Indies were unfairly distributed. But capitalism runs by asymmetrical rewards and punishments, so that’s not a refutation. The imperial seizure of wealth was as essential to capital formation and subsequent economic development of the British Empire as seizure and redistribution of Amerindian lands was to US economic development. The British Raj attacked Indian textiles, opening markets for British textiles, the historic motor of the industrial revolution. The treaty of Methuen established the conditions which David Ricardo proclaimed were the natural foundations for international division of labor, which is to say the War of the Spanish Succession opened the Portuguese market for British textiles.

            Whether or not you finally decide you can explain all these and much more away, the implication that the imperialist/colonialist wars and threats of war are rrelevant to the nature of capitalism as an economic system is flagrantly wrong. Which I guess is about the only point I can get here.

            As to your PS, I was writing of crises in the business cycle sense. China didn’t break apart every five to ten years, or even twenty years.

          • TracyW

            Hmm, I find it implausible that the seizure of wealth via empire was essential to capital formation because capital formation happened also in countries like Sweden and Switzerland, which didn’t try seizure of wealth alongside, and also in Italy which tried it and got a bloody nose (Ethiopia).

            Plus if you look at the history of empires there was a lot of destruction of capital instead of seizure.

            The distinction between “true capitalism” and “true socialism” is the problem socialists have in finding a real world example of a socialist country that wasn’t poor and dictatorial and facing locals heading for the exits.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Sweden and Switzerland are not major economic powers either. But what economic development they have had is inseparable from profiting from WWI and WWII. Italy’s checkered economic history is not a good case for the unneededness of primary accumulation of capital. (Particular when you think of united Italy as the House of Savoy’s “empire.”)

            As for destruction of capital, I should have thought my mentioning the British destruction of Indian textiles a classic example. You’re still just playing “gotcha” instead of reading, much less thinking.

            And there’s no shortage of poor and dictatorial capitalist countries people aren’t itching to leave either. It’s just that you have no problem with that. But people like you have a problem with socialism and have therefore invested billions and billions of dollars and inflicted millions of deaths to make sure that socialism can’t work. Violence is your only real argument.

          • TracyW

            To be a major economic power you need either a very large population or a large very economically successful population. Sweden and Switzerland are very economically successful, the reason they are not major economic powers is that their population isn’t that large, and thus a counter-example to any claim that seizure is necessary. Your “major economic power” is a red herring.
            The “profiteering from WWI and WWII” hypothesis is implausible, as firstly those wars involved a lot of destruction of capital, making Sweden and Switzerland’s trading partners considerably poorer and secondly the two countries’ gdp per capita started growing well before WWI..

            Italy’s economic performance may be patchy, but it saw a massive period of post-WWII economic growth despite a lack of seizure of capital.

            Britain’s destruction of Indian textiles: imagine the counter-factual world where that had not happened. Indian incomes would be higher, as would the incomes of British cotton consumers. This extra income could have been invested in a quicker expansion of railways, or maybe English wool or retooling of English factories to make full use of new steam engines or developing scientific research into electricity faster. The whole world could have been better off. To argue that a country is richer because it destroyed capital is a tough case to make, and you’ve not even suggested an argument as to why.

            On the conspiracy theory point, that people like me have spent millions of dollars opposing communi

          • TracyW

            I don’t follow what your point is about China: yes it didn’t break apart every twenty years, but neither has the USA. Nor Britain.

          • TracyW

            As for business cycles, Ancient Rome apparently faced famine about 1 year in 9. And famines appear to have been common (link to pdf) across Europe and Asia long before the Industrial Revolution.

        • TracyW

          The idea also that capitalism introduces a world order that is prone to crisises also seems deeply implausible. History is full of crisises. For example China’s habit of breaking apart into warring states, the rise and fall of The Romanian Empire, the Crusades.

          • johnbarri

            Are not the collapses of these various empires the result of those empires growing just too large to control, given the technologies of their times? And what does one say to the cohesion of Islam in its ambitions for a single world-wide caliphate and is that not too driven in part by a popularity arising from the failure of the Western world to deliver a general state of prosperity to all or at least most of its people? So, many needy persons in capitalist societies, who believe that capitalism and that the mighty dollar is failing them are attracted by the alternative messages of Islam?

          • TracyW

            I suppose it’s possible that’s the case. It’s not like we can do lab tests on these things. Out of curiosity, why do you think it was that cause?

            As for the cohesion of Islam, I haven’t really noticed it. What with the Sunnis and Shias killing each other. Or the civil war in Syria at the moment. As for prosperity, I remember the historical argument that revolutions arise not where things are terrible, but where things have been improving, then stop.

          • johnbarri

            If you haven’t noticed the cohesion of Islam, I have personal experience that the same mantra is in vogue today that was in vogue 50 years back when some imam fellow tried to convert me to Islam,

            His arguments were very persuasive and inviting and kind of made one feel all gooey and hopeful that he could be believed. But even though I was seeking some religious truth, at the time I was far too cynical then to be taken in, as I am still too cynical today. Yet their message is the same today as it has been for hundreds of years even thousands of years and many people are buying into the fantasy.

            To put it in the words of a cleric in Belgium, Islam needn’t lift a finger to conquer Europe. Non Muslim Europeans are procreating at a rate of about 1.6 children per couple, and Muslim families at a rate of about 8 per couple. Similar stats exist for the USA. It is merely a matter of time before sharia law prevails. He also pointed out that Islam and Sharia are two words for the same thing, the law of god and that there is no such thing as a democratic Muslim. Such would be a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, if you like.

            Just as Christ is thought of by some as the original socialist, Islam appeals to many as a desirable alternative form of socialism, where all are equal before god except for the imams, who are more equal than other Muslims.

            Yes, one sect may butcher another and they may all indulge in honour killings and all sorts of behaviour that many westerners regard as barbaric, but there is a consistency to their behaviour that currently the non-Islamic world seems to have no answer for.

            Which brings me to my argument that the west, and particularly capitalism, needs to sort itself out quick quick and make itself more broadly appealing than it presently is. We need a new slant on capitalism and a new slant on democracy so that social justice can prevail without appealing to religious extremism for that justice.

            And that doesn’t take account of the possibility of a simple old fashioned revolution occurring for very much the same sorts of reasons.

            We really are somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, as the saying goes.

          • TracyW

            This is the second time on this thread that I’ve been told that I should believe something because some unnamed person or persons decades ago reportedly said something.
            This prompts me to test whether you believe your own line of argument. You see, three decades ago, someone (who, in honour of your own approach I will leave unnamed) told me that you would give me $1000 in current US tender. If you regard anonymous people as a reliable source, you will fulfil your obligations and send me a grand. Pony up!

          • johnbarri

            Hi Tracy

            I respond to your comment “This is the second time on this thread that I’ve been told” if only for the benefit of other readers who may be interested.

            As to my assertion that a mullah tried to recruit me over 50 years ago and that in the conversation he asserted that the goal of every Muslim was that the Islamic faith would rule the world, take my word for it or not, I care not. I did not have that conversation reduced to writing or some other record, signed and sealed by the good man of god but it was certainly etched in my mind, if only for the enormity of his assertions. Even if I were to provide you a sworn affidavit attesting to the content of that conversation, my sense is you would not be swayed, so please, don’t be swayed.

            As to my assertions that, essentially, the 50 year old conversation is playing itself out in modern times, the links below may remove some of the anonymity you perceived but which I did not intend.

            http://www.cbn.com/tv/embedplayer.aspx?bcid=1509282970001

            https://www.youtube.com/embed/6-3X5hIFXYU

            I can say that, almost without exception, my occasional conversation with Muslims on the question of the end-game of their faith pretty much bears out what I was told 50 years ago and what the stories of the above clips relate.

            As to your $1000: Good luck to you on that one because I believe I am more in need of the $1000 than you are, so you won’t be collecting from me any time soon. Perhaps you shouldn’t be so gullible. :=)

          • TracyW

            Hmm, so you expect me to believe a line of argument, even though you don’t believe the same sort of argument yourself?

            I am sorry to have been so gullible as to have thought that you might feel inclined towards consistency. Or at least that you might feel a bit embarrassed by the gap between your rhetoric and your beliefs.

          • johnbarri

            I don’t really care what you believe and am not the least bit embarrassed as I see no inconsistency between my reasoning and my beliefs. I have invited you to make counterclaims. Instead you seem content to try to trash my intellect. No matter.

          • TracyW

            I have invited you to make counterclaims.

            I did. I pointed out that the conflict between Sunnis and Shias, and the civil war in Syria conflicted with your claim about Muslims acting cohesively. At which point you responded with your story about something some anonymous person said over 50 years ago. You’ve never responded to my points about Syria or the Sunnis.

            as I see no inconsistency between my reasoning and my beliefs.

            I never said there was. I said there was an inconsistency between your rhetoric and your beliefs. You expected me to believe something based on “evidence” you do not find remotely convincing when applied to yourself.

            Instead you seem content to try to trash my intellect.

            Actually I’m pretty confident that you do indeed recognise that the line of argument you made was very silly, your pride is just stopping you from admitting it.

          • johnbarri

            The conflict between Sunni and Shia is minor detail in the bigger conflict between Muslim and non Muslim. The fact that militant Islam see their moderate brothers as betrayers of the faith should not make you feel comfortable that there is a preponderance of moderate opinion that is going to save your comfortable life from the attentions of extremists but instead it should be scaring the living daylights out of you because in this world in any age and particularly in this age, the unthinkable has already happened and could well happen again and again. If you don’t believe there is a real and present danger to whatever you hold dear, enjoy your comfort zone while you can because you could lose it all in the blink of an eye.

            You are nit-picking in what seems an extreme effort to trash my arguments. Makes me wonder what you are defending. My rhetoric, as you so disparagingly label my words, is perfectly in line with my intellect. That you don’t agree with any of it is no reason for superciliousness on your part. You have no monopoly on truth.

            As to pride – I am 69 years old and approaching my sell-by date. To what end would I be prideful. I tell the truth as I see it from a 69 year perspective even if it makes some people uncomfortable or even if it makes enemies for me – I don’t give a shit. Pride is for idiots who think they are infallible, immortal and indestructible and believe they actually have something to defend, and, as the saying goes, it comes before the fall. Perhaps you should examine your contributions to this exchange. Might even develop some humility yourself, though I doubt it.

          • TracyW
        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          your view seems to make little of the classic reasoning for WWI, hyper nationalism, imperial disputes, Ethnic consciousness, and of course fear and pride.

    • Theresa Klein

      what might grandly be called the abolition of classes like capitalist and wage laborer

      I heartily agree with the concept of abolishing classes like capitalist and wage laborer, but it seems to me that it is the socialists who are doing the most to enforce the existence of those classes today. Particularly with the way they are regulating financial and labor markets, and via the tax code. They make it extremely difficult to be a self-employed freelancer, and extremely easy to work for a large corportation. The public policies adopted and advocated by today’s “progressives” are geared towards getting everyone to work for heavily regulated large corporations, and to use those corporations as tools of public policy. The ACA is a primary example.

      • CT

        Theresa … I’m not sure you fully comprehend what Stephen means by “abolition of classes …”

        He doesn’t just mean the blurring of lines between capitalist and labourers. He means the complete elimination of people hiring other people (either by some kind of revolution or by legislative order). He also most likely means the complete elimination of the division of labour under the marxist/socialist belief that everyone is equal in terms of skills and human potential. Furthermore, he most probably wants the elimination of money.

        So when a marxist/socialist is referring to socialism, this person is referring to a society without any workers or employers, no division of labour, and no money (and obviously no private ownership). If these conditions are not met, most marxists/socialists will refer to the society as either ‘capitalist’ or ‘right-wing’.

        Now this doesn’t make their position any less absurd, but I think we Libertarians have to understand their language. The problem, in the end, is not that there have been groups which actually established socialist societies (as they define them), but that they attempted to do so leading to devastating results (totalitarianism, economic and societal collapse, death, starvation, etc. etc. etc.).

        • Theresa Klein

          Fair enough. The idea of no division of labor just seem ridiculous to me. And these days the “means of production” is a laptop and an internet connection, so almost anyone is capable of owning it. I think the libertarian idea of everyone being essentially self-employed actually comes closer to acheiving what many socialists think of when they imagine a society without capitalist and labor classes. They just aren’t pursuing the right polcies to get there.

        • stevenjohnson2

          Economic planning is a formal division of labor. There are anarchist influenced socialists who therefore reject planning, even seeing planners as a new class. But this is to reject objective economic criteria for moral/political ones and is wrong.

          Inheritance of property in the means of production is something like hereditary monarchy. The king is the king even if he’s an idiot. Abolition of classes then is something like instituting democracy. Somebody has the job because they can do the work, not because they were born into a certain position.

          In fact, the economic benefits of division of labor are why most socialists reject independent commodity production (which seems to be the default image held by most libertarians.) It is too inefficient to compete against the centralization and concentration of capitals. Further, the notion that “we” will all share in the capitalist system’s success by starting our own business or owning a few shares of an ever expanding economy founder on the facts of capitalist economic instability and necessary unemployment, the feature which regulates labor costs.

          Nor does socialism require abolition of money. It just requires that you can’t use your money to buy a factory like you can buy a loaf of bread.

          When capitalism leads to devastating results they are always regarded as either inevitable tragedies of life, or a breakdown imposed by something else. As in, WWI just sort of happened but didn’t have anything to do with capitalism (aka imperialism,) nosiree!

          • Theresa Klein

            So, given that the IT economy depends on computers as the means of production, would you also require collective ownership of all desktops and laptops?

          • stevenjohnson2

            I hope that not even a libertarian would want the computer controlling gas flow in a pipeline to be sitting in its private owner’s house. Computers used in production belong at the production site.

            As for the IT economy, I strongly suspect you’ve been reading too much science fiction. Home desktops and laptops are largely means of communication and toys, not instruments of production. Like telephones and television, internet is a natural monopoly that should be regulated in a capitalist economy (contra libertarians,) so yes, the system should be provided by the collective. At least we would know who’s spying on us when the system is subverted, unlike now.

            But I suspect that you’re daydreaming about some sort of “work” like advertising that uses computers? In the sense that such workers should be provided with computers to do their work, rather in the way an office worker is provided a copier and paper, and printer and paper, and so, sure. I suppose a socialist government could well decide to distribute laptops to everyone, starting with students in schools.

            Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it seems that you fantasize about everybody buying a computer, then contracting with employers to get, well, who knows how rich? Sort of like a guy who buys a truck, then sets up a hauling business? On an individual scale this might seem plausible, but across an entire economy, this kind of computer use is trivial.

          • TracyW

            I know something about gas transmission. The computers controlling that don’t sit at the production site. They sit at a separate control centre, or its backup. I know even more about electrical transmission systems and I’m pretty confident the NZ computers that do that are in office space rented from a private owner. It seems to work pretty well.

            The notion that there is some difference between “means of communication” and “instruments of production” is just silly. How much production do you think would take place without any means of communication? Yes computers and other means of communication can be used for fun, but so can tractors and trucks and arc welding systems.

            The notion that TVs and telephones are a natural monopoly is also silly, particularly now with the existence of cellphones. TVs can be and are made by multiple manufacturers. There are multiple frequencies available to transmit on. And TVs compete with multiple other entertainment options.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Gas transmission is through a network, which doesn’t have a production site per se. But insofar as they do have a production site, that includes the company offices, even if those are rented spaces. You’re just nitpicking here.

            The point about means of production isn’t quite nitpicking. I even thought about raising the issue myself, but decided not to because I was afraid your head might explode. Hint: There is no such thing as a separate consumer, which annihilates most of libertarian economic analysis right there. Fortunately this is just a red herring (or anti-red herring?) When I mentioned copiers for office workers as analogues to computers, I already anticipated your point, which doesn’t actually have nay consequences to your cause. None of this makes private computers the key to a universal at home contractors’ path to prosperity.

            But even if your point was irrelevant to your quest for a glib reply, it does explain that one aspect of socialism is simply advocating that social production (something carried out by a bunch of people) should be socially controlled. Owning a factory isn’t like owning a toothbrush. Public ownership of a toothbrush is a public health hazard, but private ownership of a factory is a social health hazard. They’re opposites in a way, and your shtick is confusing that.

          • TracyW

            So when you said “computers used in production belong at the production site,” did you mean “wherever the computers are is a production site”? If so, how is this a response to Theresa’s original claim?

            Out of curiosity, which libertarian analyses precisely are annihilated by the idea that there is no such thing as a separate consumer? Because I can’t think of a single one. (And is it really true that there is no such thing as a ” separate consumer”? Newborn babies are pretty unproductive, even commercials want them when they’re interactive and smiley, which happens months later.)

            As for advocating social control of factories – what does this mean? In my experience society can’t agree on anything. There are even breatharians who dispute the idea that you need food to survive.

          • Theresa Klein

            What about the computers used by engineers to design the pipeline, the transmission control, and the safety system?

            I’m an engineer. I work on a laptop that has a docking station, I can take the laptop home with me or on business trips. Also there are many engineers who work as independent contractors that work from their personal desktops. And many scientists that work from their personal computers as well. There isn’t a glimmer of doubt in my mind that the work done on those personal laptops is far more important than the control machines physically hooked up to factory production lines. Nobody develops on those machines. They just load software upgrades to them.

          • TracyW

            What is independent commodity production?

            And why would unemployment be necessary to regulate labour costs? Supply and demand strikes me as doing a perfectly adequate job. Labour costs seem to manage quite well with long periods of very low unemployment, in say Australia or Switzerland, or in a ski town during the season.

            As for capitalism leading to devastating results, the same is true of democracy.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Independent commodity production is a dream world in which every individual is a small capitalist who produces commodities for sale to obtain other necessaries for survival. Socialists reject this as a necessarily inefficient form of division of labor that foregoes economies of scale. Peasant production is something like this and it is notorious that small holding agriculture tends to be very inefficient. Even peasant societies however do not engage in true independent commodity production because the families seek not just to satisfy consumption needs, but to acquire land.

            Your implied belief that capitalism is compatible with full employment strikes me as deliberate deception. Long term high wages historically have been associated only with low population, prompting emigration, sometimes by the millions from regions with….yes, high unemployment. The way capitalist apologists covertly switch from the capitalist system to a conveniently selected particular country inspires great disrespect.

          • Theresa Klein

            Is software a commodity?
            We live in a world where people produce all sorts of stuff on their personal laptops that is more valuable than the commodities themselves. You could make a design improvement to an oil refinery on your personal laptop that would be worth billions of dollars by marginally increasing the efficiency of gasoline production. It happens all the time. Almost all real “production” today isn’t found in physically operating a factory. It is in developing software and engineering design improvements that make the factory more efficient.

          • TracyW

            Well, if you ever come across someone who argues for “independent commodity production” as you define it, you can argue back with them. Also, how are you defining “commodity”?

            What strikes me as more preferable to your described dream world is a world in which everyone has the possibility to switch to making goods or supplying services for sale (for luxuries, as well as necessities!), even if many people never take this. This admittedly also requires dreaming a medical solution to every disability. The opportunity to switch to another role improves people’s bargaining power.

            You also overlook the problem of inefficiencies of scale. May I suggest the book “The Mythical Man-Month”, for a description of those, particularly in software?

            Long term high wages historically have been associated only with low population, prompting emigration, sometimes by the millions from regions with….yes, high unemployment.

            Switzerland has had an unemployment rate below 5% every year since 1991. Its population is 8 million and its population density is about 64th in the world, a bit below Italy’s. Switzerland is also part of the
            Schengen Area, which allows free migration from neighbouring countries. The Netherlands and Japan have also seen generally very low unemployment, they are not small countries in terms of size.

            Emigration from regions with high unemployment is a very logical response to differing demand for labour. And of course, the immigration increases the demand for labour in the receiving area, because all those newly arrived people can be sold new services. I don’t follow what point you are trying to make here.

            . The way capitalist apologists covertly switch from the capitalist system to a conveniently selected particular country inspires great disrespect.

            If the capitalist system inherently produces certain results, we should expect to see such results everywhere capitalism is tried. The cases of particular capitalist countries that don’t display that behaviour is thus a rebuttal to the claim that capitalism causes this.

            That some people get upset by being confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and thus resort to disrespectful behaviour such as insulting the provider of this information, or throwing around accusations of deception, is unsurprising, but it doesn’t make the counter-arguments go away. And, I do not think your disrespectful behaviour is a necessary consequence of you being confronted with arguments you don’t like and can’t rebut. I think you could manage to respond in a politer way, with a bit of effort.

          • CT

            “Your implied belief that capitalism is compatible with full employment strikes me as deliberate deception.”

            And your supposed ignorance of the libertarian explanation for unemployment strikes me as deliberate deception.

          • CT

            Never had a discussion with an anarchist socialist who rejects planning. They just embrace planning in a very decentralized manner. Perhaps you could provide a few links of these types of socialists so I can get a better idea?

            I know not all socialists demand the elimination of money, which is why I qualified my statements.

            As for war, no comment. I’ve read the complete absurdities socialists dream up to attach markets to war.

    • TracyW

      Causality is a very difficult concept. Eg capitalism may have caused WWI because the increase in production made it far cheaper for politicians to move large masses of men around and supply them over large distances and a long war. But, just because you have the ability to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it, it’s quite possible that with different political leaders WWI might never have happened.
      (Also by the same logic you can blame modern medicine for WWI, I vaguely recall reading that before then, more soldiers died in camps than in battle.)

  • If capitalism is defined as the private ownership of the means of production (which also implies markets for capital and labor), then how can state ownership of the means of production ever be classified as any form of capitalism?
    State ownership implies monopolistic control of market whereas private ownership implies competitive markets.

    “State capitalism” is self contradictory.

    • stevenjohnson2

      Peasants owned the land in the period when the term “state capitalist” was used by Lenin. Relations with the peasantry were conducted on a market basis. Also, publicly owned companies that hire workers on a labor market, that buy raw materials on a market, that get loans at interest from a bank (even a state bank) and that regulate volume of production and capital investments are operating as state capitalists.

      In such a case, the rationale is that the working class as owners of the capital are receiving the profits, therefore there is no exploitation in the old regular capitalist sense. Perhaps the state would tax only corporate revenue instead of worker income and fund consumption for workers. Quite aside from the difficulties in turning the idea of state representation into a working reality with meaningful distribution of the profits in such a system, the difficulties involved with unemployment in a system still subject to the business cycle and unemployment are significant. Further, relations to the world market or other sectors of domestic economy are fraught with difficulties. High social spending and efforts toward full employment tend to act to raise labor costs, lowering profit and destabilizing the state capitalist economy.

      In real life, the radical decrease in marketable grain after the redistribution of the estates in Russia, the notorious scissors crisis, threatened the very existence of the NEP regime. Yugoslavia and Romania both had versions of state capitalism. Yugoslavia’s was touted as market socialism. Ceausescu’s program to pay off foreign banks was apparently inspired by Korean juche, autarky as national independence.

      State capitalism is not conceptually incoherent in the sense claimed. It does seem to be inherently unstable, serving as a transitional stage, mostly back to full capitalism when elites seize assets by privatization.

    • johnbarri

      State capitalism, as I understand it, is a mixed economy, where the state owns significant chunks of an economy, either directly, or through its nominees, and where the state engages in capital markets and in defining and satisfying large chunks of the marketplace through ownership of large chunks of the distributive processes.

      It may seem like a contradiction in terms but state capitalism has existed and continues to exist around the world. I have lived in such an economy most of my life (South Africa) and it exists around the world in many neo fascist / socialist societies. Think of China. I think China probably qualifies. To a lesser extent, France may qualify. Pre-Thatcherite Britain probably qualified. Any country will qualify where the state interferes in the market economy to a greater or lesser extent.

      It is entirely possible, if you buy the idea that oligarch USA owns Congress, body and soul, lock, stock and barrel, and also owns the means of production and controls the marketplace, that the US could qualify as a state capitalist or socialist society. It is a reversal of the nominee process of ownership in paragraph 1 (above).

      • I’ve always read/heard that called “mixed economy”, one in which portions are under private control and the rest under state control.
        I think the delineation is important.
        Anything under state control cannot be capitalist unless it is competitive and unsubsidized (a beast that does not exist).

        • johnbarri

          Hi Sam,
          In my neck of the woods (South Africa) it is pretty much the done thing that whatever can be privatised and owned by the state or their nominees, is privatised, so the private companies or corporations thus created may trade for profit in a captive market place to the benefit of the owners, viz the state and their nominees. Competitiveness has nothing to do with it.

          A classic and recent example is the fiasco of e-tolling certain state owned motorways in the Gauteng province (the old Transvaal) in South Africa, something that has the whole country up in protest, to no effect. E-tolling prevails. Similar stories regarding other state enterprises abound.

          A recent article in some e-rag put it very well, when they defined the “economics of scarcity” as where artificial shortages are created and then access is made opaque and unfair and those in charge benefit as do those with connections. Apparently this is a common tactic in India and I am sure it occurs all over the world.

          I call it gate-keeping. Those who kept the gates in olden-times were called highwaymen and pirates and were hung if they were ever caught. It appears not so today.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            not sure why you call it any sort of capitalism. it is simply a keptocracy.

          • johnbarri

            Yes, kleptocracy. How remiss of me. I guess we live in hope.

  • TheBrett

    I made a similar point to that over at Crooked Timber recently. If you’re going to claim that the Soviet Union and its ilk weren’t really Socialism (even though they explicitly tried to follow socialist precepts, including initially the abolition of private property and so forth), then you can easily say the same thing about modern Capitalism. There’s never been a “pure” Capitalist society – all of the existing ones are mixed economies of capitalism, socialism, legacy feudalism, and so forth.

  • Gordon Barnes

    Collective ownership of the means of production requires collective control of the government that owns the means of production. So if the people, collectively, never control the government that owns the means of production, then they never own the means of production either. The people in the USSR, China, and Cuba never controlled their governments, which owned the means of production, and therefore the people in those countries never owned the means of production. Therefore those countries were never socialist countries. There shouldn’t be any doubt about that. Now, I agree that you can make a similar move in defense of capitalism: “There has never really been any truly capitalist society.” But now let’s think about the cost for you. How about all those arguments that you want to make about how “capitalism is the most productive form of economy,” and “capitalism works better than any other form of economy, is more efficient, etc.” All of those arguments just went up in smoke, because those claims are empirical claims, and empirical claims require empirical support, but now that you admit that there has never really been any capitalist societies, you have no empirical evidence to support all of those claims about your favorite form of capitalism. If they are honest, socialists have to admit that they have no direct empirical evidence for their claims about the feasibility of socialism. The support has to be indirect — based on very abstract research in the social sciences. That is the cost of admitting that real socialism has never been tried. But capitalists are very fond of extolling the success of capitalism as an economic system. So if you go the “utopian capitalism has never been tried” route, then you lose quite a bit of the support that you have been claiming for a very long time. The truth is this: to the extent that both anarcho-capitalists and socialists are proposing something that differs significantly from any system that has ever existed, they both have to admit that the consequences of such systems are heretofore unknown, and the only way to know them is to try them. To some extent, we’re both in that same boat. However, I think that there are empirical reasons to think that capitalism and selfishness are mutually reinforcing. Very roughly, here is the argument. Given the differences in natural talents between people, capitalism has an inherent tendency, over time, toward great inequality. But great inequality erodes social relations of trust and cooperation, and encourages selfishness as a response to a perceived threat to one’s social status. (See The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett.) So capitalism has an inherent tendency, over time, toward selfishness. I think that the empirical evidence that we currently possess makes this hypothesis more probable than its denial.

    • Rocinante

      >selfishness as a response to a perceived threat to one’s social status

      I’m inferring selfishness here to mean “benefiting yourself at another’s expense.” If it means benefiting oneself while benefiting others, as in even unequal trades (one trader benefits more than the other), maybe a better word is mutualism or symbiosis.

      Do we have any reason to believe humans ever have or ever will abandon social status, or that if threatened, they will respond something other than selfishly? At least under utopian capitalism, people will try to regain their social status by enticing other people to buy their product or service. Under real capitalism, this is a considerable part of what goes on. Under most other systems of government, it is becoming better at the use of lethal force or better positioned to direct it, including “real socialism,” feudalism, absolute monarchy, fascism, and hunter-gathering (well, against other tribes/outgroups).

    • TracyW

      What do you mean by collective control of government? I don’t see how collective control is possible. People have different preferences and different views of the good life and of what risks to take and the like. Any collective control would fall apart into endless argument.

      It’s no coincidence that all communist states have tended to suppression of dissent and most have been flat-out dictatorships.

  • martinbrock

    So Cohen disputes a cardboard cutout “Capitalism” with fat, greedy monopolists smoking fat cigars while conspiring to swindle common folk, and you respond with Mickey Mouse somehow, single-handedly murdering nearly all members of a governing party to somehow, unilaterally install himself as totalitarian dictator for life. What am I supposed to learn from this exchange?

    • Jason Brennan

      I use my parody to point out he’s making the following fallacious argument:

      1. An ideal version of social system S is better than a realistic version of system C.
      2. Therefore, S just is better than C.

  • Gordon Barnes

    While we’re talking about this book, Jason’s justification of private property on page 74 is based on the same false dichotomy that David Schmidtz has been committing for years. “Either we have private property in natural resources, or we have an unregulated commons, and the tragedy of the commons.” This is a false dichotomy, since there are many, many ways of regulating the use of resources, and forms of collective ownership that fall into neither of these categories. Just think about the proposals of left libertarians, in which private parties pay the people for the use of natural resources, and what they pay is determined by what the resource is worth in the present market. Is this a form of capitalism or socialism? Technically speaking, you would have to say it’s a form of socialism, since it involves collective ownership of the means of production. Nevertheless, Brennan, like his teacher Schmidtz, manage to dismiss this option in a simple false dichotomy.

    • Jason Brennan

      That’s not a proper account of Schmidtz, but even if it were, it has nothing to do with me. I very clearly state in the book that we *can’t* use tragic commons-type arguments when doing ideal theory, because these rely upon bad motivations. In ideal conditions, tragic commons don’t occur.

      So, you’re attributing to me an argument I’m telling people can’t be used given Cohen’s ground rules.

      Oops.

      • Gordon Barnes

        I’ve read Schmidtz very closely, and I know exactly what he says, and that’s the argument. From the early 1990 paper right up to the present, he goes on and on about how private property avoids the tragedy of the commons, and hence it is justified. (All those anecdotes about fisherman who save the reefs by privatizing them tacitly suggest the same false dichotomy.) So, yes, that’s the argument.. It’s not advertised as a fallacy, of course, but that’s what it is. In an exchange with him, in which I made that point in every way I could, he had nothing new to add, except to say that some sort of regulation is better than an unregulated commons. Of course, that does nothing to support private ownership as he, or you, would understand it As for your own view, the quote that I read from page 74 of your book said something that sounded just like Schmidtz’s argument. But if not, then I stand corrected. The bigger problem with your objection to Cohen, under discussion here, is that it ignores a much more charitable reading of Cohen. You know as well as I do that, historically, the defenders of capitalism have always emphasized their “realism” about human nature and human motivation. The idea has always been that capitalism takes human beings as they are — self-interested to the point of egoistic, and turns that into something positive. So Cohen sees his opponent as someone who holds this fairly pessimistic view of human nature, and he is using the camping trip, and much of the rest of the book, to argue against that view. In a book as short as that, he isn’t going to have the space to address a view like yours, which, until recently, was relatively rare among libertarian capitalists. And as for the history of countries like the Soviet Union, and their relevance to socialism, Cohen had a lot to say about that in papers that he published elsewhere. It would be nice to see you respond to those first, rather than just take shots at a book that was written for non-philosophers.

        • TracyW

          But if you are using a fairly pessimistic view of human nature as your starting point for analysis, you need to apply that pessimistic view to both capitalism and socialist societies. That’s what Brennan noticed Cohen doesn’t do. Cohen uses two views of human nature: the cooperative one for his socialist argument and the realistic one for his communist argument.

          If he couldn’t have used a realistic view for his socialist argument in both cases given the shortness of his book, he should have written a longer book.

          It would be nice to see you respond to those first, rather than just take shots at a book that was written for non-philosophers.

          In other words, you’re complaining that Brennan focused his writing on a book that’s accessible to a wide audience?
          Sounds to me like you can’t refute Brennan’s arguments, and don’t want to change your mind, so you’re trying to sweep them under the rug.

        • Jason Brennan

          No, you don’t have Schmidtz right. Schmidtz has read and understands, e.g., Ostrom, quite well. You’re painting a caricature of Schmidtz. And of me, too.

          By the way, I’ve read literally every paper Cohen wrote, and this was all passed around in front of 200 or so philosophers, including Cohenites, before it was published. You’re the only one who’s told me it’s unfair.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            I edited the Barnes-Schmidtz exchange in Reason Papers. If you think Barnes misrepresented Schmidtz, feel free to make the case in print.

            Barnes 1: http://reasonpapers.com/pdf/342/rp_342_12.pdf

            Schmidtz: http://reasonpapers.com/pdf/351/rp_351_12.pdf

            Barnes 2: http://reasonpapers.com/pdf/351/rp_351_13.pdf

          • Gordon Barnes

            You’re completely wrong about Schmidtz, but it’s not worth the time. I’m going to quit with this one, and leave you to responding to all the other worthy interlocutors on this blog. Here is a challenge for you: write a response to something that Cohen wrote for a real academic journal, and then get it published in a real academic journal, not in a popular book that gets accepted because it doesn’t have to meet rigorous academic standards in order to get published. No, a real journal. And no, I don’t mean the safe haven for libertarians that is by invitation only, and then invites big names in order to look legit. Publish it in a real journal. If you get that far, then there will be something worth responding to.

  • ThaomasH

    I would argue that a society of morally perfect but cognitively limited beings would organize themselves into a “capitalist” society characterized by decentralized ownership and control of production with prices set in markets. Their “capitalism” would also need a government that besides enforcing contracts and suppressing violence and fraud would also tax or regulate some externalities. I don’t know about collective consumption projects like space exploration (beyond what is justified as supplementing private research that produces positive spillovers). Likewise I do not know if such a society would need the government to redistribute income; this may depend on what kind of “morel” perfection is postulated.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Probably best to assume of any society that it consists of morally imperfect and cognitively limited beings.

      • ThaomasH

        Agree, but my point was that socialism would not be chosen not be good even for morally perfect beings, let alone imperfect ones.
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  • mnm

    By allowing the Totalitarian societies to count as (admittedly morally flawed) examples of socialism aren’t you conflating the issue of economics and political systems — you’re burdening the socialist with defend anti-democratic systems of government, but isn’t the issue of democracy (at least prima facie) orthogonal to the dispute over socialism and capitalism. I think you at least owe the socialist an argument that it is not.

    • TracyW

      Isn’t the problem the killing of millions of people under socialism, not whether the government carrying out the killings was democratic or un-democratic?

      In my experience both socialists and libertarians tend to agree that the democratic nature of the USA does not excuse the American government’s human rights violations. And the disagreements I can think of come from people who dispute whether the USA is really democratic.

      • mnm

        My point is that socialists will (I think justifiably) blame the undemocratic government, not the socialism, for the killings.

        • TracyW

          Many socialists do respond that way. Some go even further and blame the killings on capitalism under the name of “state capitalism”!
          But the problem socialists have with that line of argument that the lack of examples of democratic socialist countries. The lack of socialist democracy is consistent with Hayek’s arguments that socialism is incompatible with civil liberties and democracy.

          • mnm

            So are you agreeing with me that in the context
            of Brenan’s argument about what examples should be considered in the realm of
            ideal theory, strictly speaking the examples of totalitarian governments should
            not be considered (absent an argument like Hayek’s, which unless I’m very
            mistaken Brennan has not made)?

          • TracyW

            Brennan’s point is that Cohen was comparing ideal world socialism to real world capitalism to come to the conclusion that socialism was better. So Brennan flips Cohen’s argument around and compares ideal world capitalism to real world socialism and unsurprisingly finds capitalism to be better. Brennan does that switch to point out that Cohen’s comparison is illogical.

            So yes, in ideal theory you’d ignore the murders and other crimes committed by Communist regimes. But you’d also ignore the murders and other crimes committed by capitalist regimes. Brennan also makes separate arguments in his book that under ideal theory, ideal capitalism is better than ideal socialism.

        • TracyW

          On the other hand, the absence of democratic socialist governments is rather consistent with arguments from Hayek and others that socialism is incompatible with democracy and other civil liberties.

  • JD Mussel

    Two questions.
    1. How do you distinguish between socialism and communism?
    2.Someone I spoke to argued that North Korea is not socialist, as they abolished the institutions meant to redistribute wealth to the people through welfare, while virtually everything goes to the military. This seemed to me as a fair point – surely not every form of command economy is socialism?

    • JoshInca

      The textbook definition of socialism is a system of collective ownership of the means of production. It’s advocates imagine that said ownership will result in an equal distribution of the benefits of that ownership to every member of the collective. But, there is no real world reason to believe that. So yes, North Korea with collective ownership, treating the average person as slaves and giving all the benefits to the ruling party and military is still socialism.

  • j_m_h

    Would have been a much easier read if one simply posted:
    “The the ‘No True Scottsman falacy'” and have been done wit it. As other point out, this behavior has been going on for a long time.

  • somberjellyfish

    Many socialists define socialism in terms of control over the means of production rather than ownership. Something along the lines of socialism = democratic workers’ control of the means of production and the production process. By this definition, the USSR etc. were not socialist because the economy was controlled by a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

    • TracyW

      Many socialists define socialism in terms of control over the means of production rather than ownership

      What does this distinction between “control” and “ownership” mean? Does it mean that the workers have control over the means of production, but are somehow banned from benefiting from that control? If so, how does this match with complaints from socialists about how under capitalism workers aren’t paid the value of their labour?

      Something along the lines of socialism = democratic workers’ control of the means of production and the production process.

      The problem with democratic control over the means of production and the production process is that the production process needs to match up in a lot of points. Eg, if your farming plans call for 200 new wheelbarrows, but your manufacturing plans call for only 100 new wheelbarrows to be produced, and you only have 50 new wheelbarrows already in storage, then something somewhere needs to be adjusted.

      What’s more, the production of those 100 wheelbarrows require some inputs in the forms of things like steel, rubber (for the wheels), grease, etc. So the plans for the production of steel, rubber, grease, etc have to match up with all the wheelbarrows you’re planning to produce and in turn those require their inputs, etc, etc.

      Anyone who has seriously thought about “control of the production process” has come down to either a market of some system, or a computer solving a massive linear optimisation problem and everyone then carrying out the results of the mathematics.

      To quote Lenin:

      unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry

      By this definition, the USSR etc. were not socialist because the economy was controlled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

      The USSR economy wasn’t really controlled at all. No economy is, because economies involve people, who have their own ideas and interests. The Soviet Union’s government couldn’t stop black markets, it couldn’t raise production and consumer goods to the level of Western countries. In the end, the government couldn’t even sustain the economy.

      . Socialists of this sort aren’t saying “USSR wasn’t socialism because it wasn’t very nice”, they are saying “the USSR wasn’t socialist because the Bolsheviks deliberately suppressed the very institutions that define a society as socialist”

      But these socialists have to deal with many other socialists who praised the USSR for its socialism, even during the 1930s. Such as Beatrice and Sydney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Satre, right up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, and some beyond.

      • somberjellyfish

        What does this distinction between “control” and “ownership” mean?

        It’s commonly acknowledged that there can be a separation between formal ownership and control. This is in evidence in large modern corporations, for example. It’s also in evidence in the USSR, where the means of production may have formally been the property of “the people”, but were in reality controlled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

        Shifting a little bit, to talk about control over production, it’s very clear that ownership and control over the production process are very different matters. For example, if I have a widget machine, two things can happen. I can hire workers to work with it, appoint managers to direct the workers, pay them a wage, and sell the widgets for a profit. Or, I can hire out my widget machine to a group of workers, who pay me rent for the widget machine. They can organise themselves however they like, maybe electing managers, and they sell the widgets and keep the profit. In the first situation, I both own the machine and control the production process. In the second, I own the machine but I don’t exercise control over the production process.

        David Ellerman has some interesting things to say on this score.

        The problem with democratic control over the means of production and the production process is that the production process needs to match up in a lot of points.

        I’m not sure why we’ve gone from discussing the definition of socialism, to discussing comprehensive central economic planning. I’ve not argued that socialism needs to be centrally planned, and your definition doesn’t specify central planning either.

        these socialists have to deal with many other socialists who praised the USSR for its socialism, even during the 1930s. Such as Beatrice and Sydney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Satre, right up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, and some beyond.

        Sorry, I’m not sure why I have to “deal with” people I completely disagree with, just because they use a similar label. Why should people who trace their views back to Bakunin, for example, apologise for the mistakes of Marxists?

        • TracyW

          I’m happy to acknowlege that there can be a separation between formal ownership and control. I just don’t know what you mean by making that distinction in this case. You give examples of distinctions, but you don’t explain how these examples apply to the definition of socialism as “control over the means of production rather than ownership.”

          I’m not sure why we’ve gone from discussing the definition of socialism, to discussing comprehensive central economic planning.

          To break it down.

          1. You introduced a definition of socialism as “socialism = democratic workers’ control of the means of production and the production process.”

          2. I pointed out that the problem with democratic control of the means of production is that the production processes need to match up at a lot of points, because many outputs from manufacturing processes are inputs into other manufacturing processes (I’m defining manufacturing broadly, to include things like farming and services).

          3. I observed that solving this requires some sort of coordination process, either markets, or some form of central planning.

          If you have some other solution to the problem of coordination, beyond markets of some type, or central planning, please let us know.

          So if I pass a law saying that all CEOs have to be members of my political party, how would we describe this?

          Anti-democratic? Insane? I don’t follow what point you’re trying to make. Requiring people to join a political party doesn’t make them agree on anything. I don’t know how political parties operate in your country, but in NZ and the UK the Prime Ministers have enough problems with the party members who joined entirely voluntarily.

          Sure, the Party isn’t omnipotent, but there is definitely an oligarchy exercising a huge and overriding amount of power over the economy.

          Apart from the fact that it all came crashing down around their ears.

          Sorry, I’m not sure why I have to “deal with” people I completely disagree with, just because they use a similar label.

          Because you’re arguing that the USSR wasn’t really socialist *after* the USSR has collapsed entirely. The temptation to fall into the No True Scotsman Fallacy is extremely high. It’s like a true believer in psychics coming up with rationalisations for why the experiment failed to show psychic abilities.

          Why should people who trace their views back to Bakunin, for example, apologise for the mistakes of Marxists?

          An apology would be entirely inadequate at this point. A good starting point instead would be a comprehensive analysis of why the Soviet Union failed at installing socialism, and why it, and so many other regimes, failed so badly, and how you plan for your socialism to avoid that outcome, and then be willing to debate it extensively. All this “oh, the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist, it was state capitalist!” gives the distinct impression of someone who would naively lead a country into a similar disaster.

        • TracyW

          I’m happy to acknowlege that there can be a separation between formal ownership and control. I just don’t know what you mean by making that distinction in this case. You give examples of distinctions, but you don’t explain how these examples apply to the definition of socialism as “control over the means of production rather than ownership.”

          I’m not sure why we’ve gone from discussing the definition of socialism, to discussing comprehensive central economic planning.

          To break it down:

          1. You introduced a definition of socialism as “socialism = democratic workers’ control of the means of production and the production process.”

          2. I pointed out that the problem with democratic control of the means of production is that the production processes need to match up at a lot of points, because many outputs from manufacturing processes are inputs into other manufacturing processes (I’m defining manufacturing broadly, to include things like farming and services).

          3. I observed that solving this requires some sort of coordination process, either markets, or some form of central planning.

          If you have some other solution to the problem of coordination, beyond markets of some type, or central planning, please let us know.

          • somberjellyfish

            In terms of inter-firm coordination mechanisms, I’m very happy to say “any of the above, whichever is most conducive to sustainable political and workplace level democracy”.

          • TracyW

            So, you don’t have any idea yourself of what you mean by your distinction when applied to socialism?

            You also don’t know much about the Bolsheviks. They most certainly did think that control-over-the-production-process mattered. To quote from Lenin: ” Until workers’ control has become a fact, until the advanced workers have organised and carried out a victorious and ruthless crusade against the violators of this control, or against those who are careless in matters of control, it will be impossible to pass from the first step (from workers’ control) to the second step towards socialism, i.e., to pass on to workers’ regulation of production.”

            They therefore ended up creating the same hierarchical dominance structures we see in a capitalist corporation, except ten times worse, because larger, more centralised, and impossible to escape from.

            Yep. And socialists kept doing it, whenever they got into power. Again and again. That current socialists try to dismiss this as “state capitalism” makes me strongly suspect that said socialists would wind up doing the same thing again if they got into power again.

          • somberjellyfish
          • TracyW

            Note in case anyone else is still reading this: somberjellyfish has still not said what they mean by their distinction when applied to socialism.

        • TracyW

          So if I pass a law saying that all CEOs have to be members of my political party, how would we describe this?

          Anti-democratic? Insane? I don’t follow what point you’re trying to make. Requiring people to join a political party doesn’t make them agree on anything. I don’t know how political parties operate in your country, but in NZ and the UK the Prime Ministers have enough problems with the party members who joined entirely voluntarily.

          Sure, the Party isn’t omnipotent, but there is definitely an oligarchy exercising a huge and overriding amount of power over the economy.

          Apart from the fact that it all came crashing down around their ears.

          Sorry, I’m not sure why I have to “deal with” people I completely disagree with, just because they use a similar label.

          Because you’re arguing that the USSR wasn’t really socialist *after* the USSR collapsed and turned out to have been an economic and environmental disaster. The temptation to fall into the No True Scotsman Fallacy is extremely high. It’s like a true believer in psychics coming up with rationalisations for why the experiment failed to show psychic abilities.

          Why should people who trace their views back to Bakunin, for example, apologise for the mistakes of Marxists?

          An apology would be entirely inadequate and pointless. A good starting point instead would be a comprehensive analysis of why the Soviet Union failed at installing socialism, and why it, and so many other regimes, failed so badly, and how you plan for your socialism to avoid that outcome, and then be willing to debate it extensively. All this “oh, the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist, it was state capitalist!” gives the distinct impression of someone who would naively lead a country into a similar disaster.

          • somberjellyfish

            A good starting point instead would be a comprehensive analysis of why
            the Soviet Union failed at installing socialism, and why it, and so many
            other regimes, failed so badly, and how you plan for your socialism to
            avoid that outcome, and then be willing to debate it extensively. All
            this “oh, the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist, it was state capitalist!”
            gives the distinct impression of someone who would naively lead a
            country into a similar disaster.

            But the Soviet Union didn’t fail to install THEIR DEFINITION OF SOCIALISM – at least, not if we ignore the eventual collaprse of the regime. They failed to achieve what I see as socialism, but I don’t think they were ever really aiming at that.

          • TracyW

            But the Soviet Union didn’t fail to install THEIR DEFINITION OF SOCIALISM

            Yes, they did fail. First, in 1922 Lenin pulled back to the “New Economic Policy”, which allowed for small-scale private production. To quote Lenin again:

            “I cannot say that we pictured this plan as definitely and as clearly as that; but we acted approximately on those lines. That, unfortunately, is a fact. I say unfortunately, because brief experience convinced us that that line was wrong, that it ran counter to what we had previously written about the transition from capitalism to socialism, namely, that it would be impossible to bypass the period of socialist accounting and control in approaching even the lower stage of communism.
            …..
            In substance, our New Economic Policy signifies that, having sustained severe defeat on this point, we have started a strategical retreat. We said in effect: “Before we are completely routed, let us retreat and reorganise everything, but on a firmer basis. “ If Communists deliberately examine the question of the New Economic Policy there cannot be the slightest doubt in their minds that we have sustained a very severe defeat on the economic front. ”

            Secondly, there was the pull-back from collectivism in farming and allowing individual plots under Stalin.

            They failed to achieve what I see as socialism, but I don’t think they were ever really aiming at that.

            I disagree. I think that they, like you, had some vague idealistic aims but had never really thought through what this might mean in practice until they were actually called on to do it. I strongly suspect from our discussions here that if you ever wound up in a position to install socialism in a country, you’d head down the same terrorist dictatorial route that socialists have kept heading down, all the while proclaiming your devotion to democracy and human rights.

          • somberjellyfish

            Do you have a definition at all? Earlier I asked you how that distinction you were making between ownership and control actually applied, and you replied “I’m very happy to say “any of the above, whichever is most conducive to sustainable political and workplace level democracy”.”

            That was an answer to the question of what was my preferred method of coordination between firms, not an answer to any question about the distinction between ownership and control. By “any of the above”, I was explaining that the most important thing to me is the authority structures within firms, and coordination between them is secondary to this. Hence “whichever is most conducive to sustainable political and workplace level democracy”.

            Do you have a definition at all?

            I don’t have a strict and complete definition. That is, I don’t have necessary and sufficient conditions. I have necessary conditions however, the most important of which is workers’ self-management in the enterprise. Social ownership, if necessary at all, is only instrumentally necessary in order to achieve this.

            The logical conclusion of a capitalist monopoly is that it gets fat and lazy and someone swoops in and disrupts it and grabs customers.

            That may or may not be the practical conclusion. It isn’t the logical conclusion.

            Actually, it’s probably not even the practical conclusion. If one person owns everything, for example, how is anyone to compete?

            Imagine a world where one person owns a corporation which owns every particle of property in existence. Does it make a blind bit of difference if he calls himself “the owner” or “the king”?

            Capitalism, as the defenders, or dictionaries define it, is not a “capitalist corporation” but a system of organising an economy, one where “trade, industry and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit.”

            So what is an economy of small artisans, with no wage labour?

            The Anarchism link you provide asserts that “Anarchists see little distinction between “private” ownership of the means of life and “state” ownership. ” This implies that said anarchists are blind. When the state owns everything, the state runs into massive problems of knowledge and incentives. When a resource in private hands is being badly managed, under capitalism people who can manage it better can out-compete the original owners, or raise money to buy out the original owners. This is not a possiblity under state ownership such as the Soviet Union tried. The distinction between private ownership and state ownership is massive. It is a fundamental change in social and economic relations.

            You’re confusing state ownership with central planning. States can and do own corporations which compete in a market. The point is that from the perspective of the employee, it doesn’t make much difference whether their boss is appointed by shareholders or by politicians.

            Equating the USSR to a capitalist corporation and then on that basis claiming that the USSR was “state capitalism” implies that you’ve spent ages criticising something you’ve never even tried to understand.

            We don’t really need to “equate” it. We just need to point out that the authority structure within the firm is precisely the same under both systems. This hierarchical enterprise structure is something both capitalism (in practice, if not necessarily according to your definition) and Soviet “socialism” share. This wasn’t an accident, it was deliberate policy on the part of the Soviets.

            “They failed to achieve what I see as socialism, but I don’t think they were ever really aiming at that.”

            I disagree. I think that they, like you, had some vague idealistic aims but had never really thought through what this might mean in practice until they were actually called on to do it.

            So are you telling me that the Bolshevik’s tried to institute democratic control of enterprises by those who work in them?

            Lenin used slogans about “All power to the factory committees” opportunistically, but his vision of socialism was one of highly centralised state control, with that state dominated by a “vanguard party”:

            “One of the first decrees issues by the Bolshevik Government was the Decree on Workers’ Control of 27 November 1917. By this decree workers’ control was institutionalised . . . Workers’ control implied the persistence of private ownership of the means of production, though with a ‘diminished’ right of disposal. The organs of workers’ control, the factory committees, were not supposed to evolve into workers’ management organs after the nationalisation of the factories. The hierarchical structure of factory work was not questioned by Lenin . . . To the Bolshevik leadership the transfer of power to the working class meant power to its leadership, i.e. to the party. Central control was the main goal of the Bolshevik leadership. The hasty creation of the VSNKh (the Supreme Council of the National Economy) on 1 December 1917, with precise tasks in the economic field, was a significant indication of fact that decentralised management was not among the projects of the party, and that the Bolsheviks intended to counterpoise central direction of the economy to the possible evolution of workers’ control toward self-management.” [Silvana Malle, The Economic Organisation of War Communism, 1918-1921, p. 47]

            [Lenin] never developed a conception of workers’ self-management. Even after October, workers’ control remained for him fundamentally a matter of ‘inspection’ and ‘accounting’ . . . rather than as being necessary to the transformation of the process of production by the direct producers. For Lenin, the transformation of capitalist relations of production was achieved at central-state level, rather than at enterprise level. Progress to socialism was guaranteed by the character of the state and achieved through policies by the central state – not by the degree of power exercised by workers on the shop floor.”[S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd]

            there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers’ control or of democracy in the soviets, or at least referred to these losses as a retreat, as Lenin declared with the replacement of War Communism by NEP in 1921. In fact . . . the very opposite is the case. [Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 44]

            While he [Lenin] supported the calls for ‘workers’ control’ he no doubt did so in the knowledge that it would lead to chaos and thus strengthen the need to return to centralised management methods under the party’s control.[Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p.504]

            Back to what you were saying:

            You also don’t know much about the Bolsheviks. They most certainly did think that control-over-the-production-process mattered. To quote from Lenin: ” Until workers’ control has become a fact, until the advanced workers have organised and carried out a victorious and ruthless crusade against the violators of this control, or against those who are careless in matters of control, it will be impossible to pass from the first step (from workers’ control) to the second step towards socialism, i.e., to pass on to workers’ regulation of production.”

            They may have used the term “workers control”, but it was mostly a slogan. They didn’t care about democracy, and they certainly didn’t care about democracy within individual enterprises, as we can see from the following quotes.

            “It would be a most crying error to confuse the question as to the supremacy of the proletariat with the question of boards of workers at the head of factories. The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the supremacy over the whole soviet mechanism of the collective will of the workers and not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered” [Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism].

            “We have been more than once accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the soviets the dictatorship of our own Party. . . In this substitution of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class…” [Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism]

            “They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy! . . The Party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship . . . regardless of temporary vacillations even in the working class . . . The dictatorship does not base itself at every moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy.”[Trotsky, 10th Party Congress, 1921]

            “The trade unions must go over each decree of the Factory Committees in the sphere of control, explain through their delegates at the factories and shops that control over production does not mean the transfer of the enterprise into the hands of the workers of a given enterprise, that it does not equal the socialization of production and exchange.” [Resolution of the First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, 7-14 January, 1918]

            This doesn’t sound like a party which advocated workers self-management at the enterprise level, but failed to implement it. It sounds like a party with a party that equated “socialism” with nationalisation, plus the right party (their party) being in power.

            I strongly suspect from our discussions here that if you ever wound up in a position to install socialism in a country, you’d head down the same terrorist dictatorial route that socialists have kept heading down, all the while proclaiming your devotion to democracy and human rights.

            I won’t end up in a position to “install” anything, and I don’t want to. Socialism can’t be “installed” from above by politicians taking power. The closest thing to socialism in the early USSR were the factory committees, which were set up on the self-initiative of workers, not on the orders of the Bolsheviks. All the Bolsheviks did was co-opt, strange, and ultimately destroy them.

          • Guest

            Until workers’ control has become a fact, until the advanced workers have organised and carried out a victorious and ruthless crusade against the violators of this control, or against those who are careless in matters of control, it will be impossible to pass from the first step (from workers’ control) to the second step towards socialism, i.e., to pass on to workers’ regulation of production.

            More quote fun.

            Communism demands and presupposes maximum centralisation of large-scale industry throughout the country. The all-Russia centre must, unconditionally, therefore, be given the right to place all enterprises of a given branch under its direct control. The regional centres will determine their functions depending on local, everyday and other conditions in accordance with the instructions and decisions of the centre.

            To deprive the all-Russia centre of the right of immediate control over all enterprises of a given branch in all parts of the country, as is
            implied in the commission’s draft proposals, would be regional anarcho-syndicalism, and not communism.[Lenin, Remarks On the Draft “Propositions Concerning the Management of Nationalised Enterprises”]

            Wow. What a strident advocate of workers’ self-management.

          • TracyW

            Yes, that sort of behaviour by Lenin, and so similar behaviour by all the other socialists that have got into power means that I have problems trusting socialists now when they tell me that they really believe in democracy or democratic control.

            And it’s not like said socialists tend to do anything to alleviate that fear, by, say, really engaging with why real-world socialism turned out so badly. Instead they so often try to dismiss it as state capitalism.

          • TracyW

            somberjellyfish, rather than reply with quotes, I think I will just summarise some points. Basically, you are not engaging with the definition I have provided of capitalism at all. Instead you keep focusing on the “hiearchical enterprise structure”. But, this is not the key difference. Soviet Socialism and capitalism had radically different outcomes. Contrary to your assertion that it makes no difference to employees whether their bosss is appointed by shareholders or by politicians, people persistently moved from soviet socialism to capitalist countries, some even risking their lives to do so.

            If two things consistently produce different results, then there must be some difference between them. My argument is that the difference is in how the economy is organised between firms.

            Secondly, capitalism in practice incorporates many other forms of structure, such as joint partnerships, independent contractors, and workers cooperatives. Thus your claim is wrong as a matter of fact. Related to this point, a society of small artisans with no wage labour would be capitalist if it had trade, industry and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit. If it didn’t have this private ownership, then it wouldn’t be capitalist, by the definition I gave.

            Thirdly, yes, if one person owned everything then it wouldn’t make a difference if they called themselves the owner or the king. I am fairly darn confident though that that person would be materially better off if they shared their ownership, because they can’t monitor everything in the world themselves. I’ve worked for the NZ Treasury and I assure you that the NZ government has massive knowledge and incentive problems in monitoring the activities of its various businesses and organisations. And the further the activity is removed from markets, the worse those problems get.

            As for the conclusion of capitalist monopolies, again and again they disappear under the weight of competition. See for example IBM, or the Detroit car manufacturers, or cellphones disrupting telephone companies or the “robber barons” in the 19th century. That does rather imply that some logic is involved.

            Basically, your theorising would be much improved by some study of the real world and actually trying to engage with the arguments of the defenders of capitalism. It’s noticeable that you’ve not quoted a single defender of capitalism during this debate, you’ve only linked to self-defined socialists.

            On the quotes you provide about Leninism in action, these are all from during or after the revolution, once the Bolshevists were faced with the problems of actually trying to implement their half-baked ideas about how the economy would be run. It’s all very well to believe in impossible things when you’re just writing pamphlets or blog comments, but when it comes to implementation, the problems emerge.

            , I was explaining that the most important thing to me is the authority structures within firms, and coordination between them is secondary to this.

            Coordination between them is, however, vital for a functioning economy. If your democratic workers’ production plans call for 200 new wheelbarrows to be used, but only 100 will be produced (and only 50 in storage) then something’s going to break. That you don’t think that this is important is a reflection of how little you have thought about this.

          • TracyW

            Do you have a definition at all?

            I don’t have a strict and complete definition. That is, I don’t have necessary and sufficient conditions. That is, I don’t have necessary and sufficient conditions. I have necessary conditions however, the most important of which is workers’ self-management in the enterprise.

            So, on the one hand, you don’t have a “strict and complete” definition, and you don’t even have any “necessary and sufficient” conditions. On the other hand, you expect me to believe that, despite your lack of a clear definition, the Soviets “failed to install anything resembling MY definition”.

            This is typical of socialists. When I try to get a definition from them, I get handwaving and vagueness. But, when I point to real-world experiences of socialism, I get told, that, no, what the Soviet socialists were doing had nothing to do with the “MY definition” of socialism. It’s a way to try to protect against criticism and it’s intellectually dishonest.

            Lenin used slogans about “All power to the factory committees” opportunistically, but his vision of socialism was one of highly centralised state control, with that state dominated by a “vanguard party”:

            Maybe, maybe not. Another hypothesis is that Lenin did truly believe it up until he started trying to actually run a real revolution. But, note, it’s not just Lenin, numerous other Bolsheviks went along with Lenin’s imposition of highly centralised state control. This was more than just one man lying his head off, none of his fellow revolutionaries stopped him.

            And, if the Bolsheviks were opportunistically using slogans they didn’t really mean, then how can I be confident that you’re not doing exactly the same thing?

          • somberjellyfish

            Basically, you are not engaging with the definition I have provided of capitalism at all. Instead you keep focusing on the “hiearchical enterprise structure”. But, this is not the key difference.

            I’m not engaging with your definition because I don’t agree with it. You’re not engaging with my definition (as provided in the David Schweickart quote a while ago) because you don’t agree with it. How to get past this, I’m not sure.

            We could try wikipedia?:

            “Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labour.”

            To my mind, the hierarchical structure of capitalist enterprises is entailed by the “wage labour” bit. Selling your labour to someone else necessarily entails awarding them the power to command that labour. That’s the nature of the employer-employee relation.

            Soviet Socialism and capitalism had radically different outcomes.

            On that we agree.

            Contrary to your assertion that it makes no difference to employees whether their bosss is appointed by shareholders or by politicians, people persistently moved from soviet socialism to capitalist countries, some even risking their lives to do so.

            You’ve misinterpreted me there, or perhaps I’ve not explained myself well enough. What I meant was that nationalisation does not represent any improvement for workers. On that much, I think we can agree.

            I think, however, that you’re conflating the issue of nationalisation with that of central planning. There are companies which are owned by governments but compete in markets like private firms, for example. Some of them are perfectly well managed (as economist Ha-Joon Chang – broadly a “liberal”, not a socialist – has argued persuasively). These do not cause people to flee, but they also don’t represent any improvement over privately owned firms as far as their employees are concerned.

            If two things consistently produce different results, then there must be some difference between them. My argument is that the difference is in how the economy is organised between firms.

            I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here. The difference between what? Between capitalism and socialism? What of “market socialist” proposals like that of David Schweickart? Are they capitalist because they use a market to coordinate between firms?

            Please don’t worm out of answering the question by denying that “market socialism” is possible in practice. This may or may not be the case, but it’s not a valid logical move. When talking about definitions, the point is “WERE this to exist, would it be an example of X”.

            Secondly, capitalism in practice incorporates many other forms of structure, such as joint partnerships, independent contractors, and workers cooperatives. Thus your claim is wrong as a matter of fact.

            My definition, borrowed from David Schweickart, said the following: “Most of the people who work for pay in this society work for other people who own the means of production. Most working people are “wage laborers.”

            This does not preclude other forms of structures existing, it just precludes them from being dominant. If it just ended up being the case that more people were members of workers cooperatives than were traditional employees, I would say that we don’t have capitalism any more.

            My definition of capitalism is different from your definition. Again, I don’t know how we resolve a difference in definition.

            More broadly, no actually existing economy is completely “pure”, is it? Capitalist economies contain, to varying degrees, nationalised industries and some degree of central planning, and thereby come closer to your definition of socialism. Most economies which you would classify as socialist have had some degree of private ownership etc., if only on a small scale.

            Related to this point, a society of small artisans with no wage labour would be capitalist if it had trade, industry and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit. If it didn’t have this private ownership, then it wouldn’t be capitalist, by the definition I gave.

            We just flat out disagree on our definitions then. I’m not sure how to resolve this, or even whether it matters. Should we take it in turns, and have one debate based on your definitions and one based on mine? What fun that would be!

            Thirdly, yes, if one person owned everything then it wouldn’t make a difference if they called themselves the owner or the king. I am fairly darn confident though that that person would be materially better off if they shared their ownership, because they can’t monitor everything in the world themselves. I’ve worked for the NZ Treasury and I assure you that the NZ government has massive knowledge and incentive problems in monitoring the activities of its various businesses and organisations. And the further the activity is removed from markets, the worse those problems get.

            I’m not sure I have much to add here. Since my thought experiment was not meant to engage with that question of what is most efficient, you seem to have conceded my point that there are, in principle if perhaps not in practicality, cases where private monopoly and state monopoly are virtually indistinguishable.

            Hence Robert Nozick [Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 270]:

            If one starts a private town, on land whose acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression], persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision procedures for the town which the owner had established.

            As for the conclusion of capitalist monopolies, again and again they disappear under the weight of competition. See for example IBM, or the Detroit car manufacturers, or cellphones disrupting telephone companies or the “robber barons” in the 19th century. That does rather imply that some logic is involved.

            I don’t think we disagree here. However, I’m also not sure whether you’re really engaging with the point I was trying to make, which wasn’t about the practicality of such a monopoly. My point was that, WERE a universal monopoly to exist and persist, it would be hard to distinguish it from centralised state socialism. The only difference is state ownership vs. private ownership, yet two societies can hypothetically be practically indistinguishable despite one having only private property and the other having only state property. To me, this suggests that an emphasis on who owns is misplaced, and what matters is the social relations created by particular rules and patterns of ownership.

            My position is summed up by Maurice Brinton in [The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, pp. vii-vii]:

            “[We] hold that the ‘relations of production’ – the relations which individuals or groups enter into with one another in the process of producing wealth – are the essential foundations of any society. A certain pattern of relations of production is the common denominator of all class societies. This pattern is one in which the producer does not dominate the means of production but on the contrary both is ‘separated from them’ and from the products of his [or her] own labour. In all class societies the producer is in a position of subordination to those who manage the productive process. Workers’ management of production – implying as it does the total domination of the producer over the productive process – is not for us a marginal matter. It is the core of our politics. It is the only means whereby authoritarian (order-giving, order-taking) relations in production can be transcended and a free, communist or anarchist, society introduced.

            the means of production may change hands (passing for instance from private hands into those of a bureaucracy, collectively owning them) without this revolutionising the relations of production. Under such circumstances – and whatever the formal status of property – the society is still a class society for production is still managed by an agency other than the producers themselves. Property relations, in other words, do not necessarily reflect the relations of production. They may serve to mask them – and in fact they often have.”

            Basically, your theorising would be much improved by some study of the real world and actually trying to engage with the arguments of the defenders of capitalism.

            What to say to this? I’ve spent more of my life than is healthy engaging with defenders of capitalism. Usually we end up talking past each other, as we appear to have here.

            I’m not sure what evidence would prove to you that I’ve “studied the real world”. Probably agreeing with you. Would it help you if I send you a catalogued list of all the books I’ve read on economics, sociology, politics, empirical studies of workers coops etc., and you can write back and tell me which ones you consider to be about the real world? I could state that I’ve read plenty of works by people who aren’t advocates of socialism, but would you believe me? So confident are you of your self-evident rightness, that it seems axiomatic to you that anyone who has actually “engaged” with defenders of capitalism will end up agreeing with them.

            It’s noticeable that you’ve not quoted a single defender of capitalism during this debate, you’ve only linked to self-defined socialists.

            I’m not sure of the political affiliations of all of the people I have quoted. However, I’m pretty sure that Orlando Figes and Robert Service are some variety of liberal, not socialists. David Ellerman, who I’ve also referred to, doesn’t consider himself a socialist, although he is anti-capitalist by my definition (although interestingly, perhaps not by yours). I’m sure there are others if you look for them. I quoted Robert Nozick earlier.

            On the quotes you provide about Leninism in action, these are all from during or after the revolution, once the Bolshevists were faced with the problems of actually trying to implement their half-baked ideas about how the economy would be run. It’s all very well to believe in impossible things when you’re just writing pamphlets or blog comments, but when it comes to implementation, the problems emerge.

            I’m not going to engage with your “impossible things” quote here, let’s save that one for another day. Suffice to say, if a social system based around workers’ self-management is impossible, then by my lights socialism is impossible. That would rather conflict with your assertion that the USSR was socialist, however. The most you could say (although it wouldn’t be true by any definition of socialism that includes self-management) is that the rulers of the USSR were socialist, but failed to implement socialism (defined to entail self-management) because it is or was impossible. That might be a good debate for another day. However, the article upon which we’re commenting did not argue “the Bolsheviks were socialists”, but that “the USSR was an example of socialism”.

            For the avoidance of doubt, if the only choices available to us are capitalism or Soviet style communism, I’ll choose capitalism every day of the week.

            “I was explaining that the most important thing to me is the authority structures within firms, and coordination between them is secondary to this.”

            Coordination between them is, however, vital for a functioning economy. If your democratic workers’ production plans call for 200 new wheelbarrows to be used, but only 100 will be produced (and only 50 in storage) then something’s going to break. That you don’t think that this is important is a reflection of how little you have thought about this.

            It’s not that I haven’t thought about this, it’s just that I don’t think the answer to this is part of the definition of socialism, which is what we were originally discussing.

            Obviously, any practical vision of socialism has to address these questions. I think a number of mechanisms may be possible and compatible with the a definition of socialism that includes democratic enterprises. I don’t in principle see why markets are incompatible with such a definition. However, in the interests of keeping discussion narrowly focussed, I haven’t advocated any one particular mechanism here. If you want to have that debate, we can have it, but maybe another time? It’s very tiring trying to debate 10 different questions at the same time.

            So, on the one hand, you don’t have a “strict and complete” definition, and you don’t even have any “necessary and sufficient” conditions. On the other hand, you expect me to believe that, despite your lack of a clear definition, the Soviets “failed to install anything resembling MY definition”.

            Well, as we’ve seen, coming up with an uncontested definition can be a tricky business. I have stated that any definition will contain, as a necessary condition for a social system to count as socialism, workers self-management at the enterpise level. That’s not at all “handwaving and vague”. It’s a very significant test, and one that the USSR fails.

            Adding more necessary and sufficient conditions to come up with a complete definition might be useful and desirable, but it will do nothing to change the structure of my argument. My argument is neither helped or hindered by the absence of these other criteria, since my current argument rests entirely on the absence of workers’ self-management in the USSR.

            “Lenin used slogans about “All power to the factory committees” opportunistically, but his vision of socialism was one of highly centralised state control, with that state dominated by a “vanguard party”:”

            Maybe, maybe not. Another hypothesis is that Lenin did truly believe it up until he started trying to actually run a real revolution. But, note, it’s not just Lenin, numerous other Bolsheviks went along with Lenin’s imposition of highly centralised state control. This was more than just one man lying his head off, none of his fellow revolutionaries stopped him.

            I’ve not just referred to Lenin, but to Trostky, and to others. I’m perfectly happy to condemn the whole Bolshevik party. But obviously, it’s rather easier to find Lenin quotes than it is to find quotes from other more obscure Bolsheviks.

            And, if the Bolsheviks were opportunistically using slogans they didn’t really mean, then how can I be confident that you’re not doing exactly the same thing?

            You can’t. How do I know you mean anything you say? It’s all very regretable that none of us are mind readers.

          • TracyW

            You keep asking how we can get past our lack of agreement on definition.

            Much earlier at the start of this debate between us you told me “the point remains that if we don’t address each other’s definitions we will be arguing at cross purposes.”

            How about you follow your own advice? I’ve already explained that I am not going to use David Schweickart’s definition because it is slanted against capitalism. But you haven’t at all addressed my definition. So. why not use my definition in this debate between us?

          • TracyW

            On some other points:

            Should we take it in turns, and have one debate based on your definitions and one based on mine? What fun that would be!

            That sounds like a good plan, particularly as you proposed you go first. I look forward to you making comments based on my definitions.

            You can’t. How do I know you mean anything you say?

            I try to make my arguments so their validity can be assessed independently of your trust in me. I have laid out my logic, I have provided links, or I have referred to what I think is common knowledge (eg Detroit car manufacturers losing market share to Japanese competition.) If I have made any points that you can only assess based on whether or not I believe them, please let me know, so I can fix that in the future.

            Since my thought experiment was not meant to engage with that question of what is most efficient, you seem to have conceded my point that there are, in principle if perhaps not in practicality, cases where private monopoly and state monopoly are virtually indistinguishable.

            Interesting wording. “Conceding” implies I that earlier I was trying to take the other position, when in fact, the moment you raised this possibility I blithely agreed with it.

            But, anyway, if it makes you feel better, yes, you got something right. Well done! Have a gold star!

            However, I’m also not sure whether you’re really engaging with the point I was trying to make, which wasn’t about the practicality of such a monopoly. My point was that, WERE a universal monopoly to exist and persist, it would be hard to distinguish it from centralised state socialism.

            This may be because you keep changing how you write your point. Your first statement was about monopolies in general. You only made your point about a universal monopoly after I responded to the earlier statement about monopolies. So, I’m disagreeing with the general comment on monopolies, and agreeing with your specific comment about the situation of a universal monopoloy.

            On the universal monopoly, I note that centralised state socialism has not persisted. Instead, the leaders of the state have permitted some private markets and private ownership – from the Soviet tolerance of some small-scale personal farming, to the Chinese and Vietnamese tolerance of rather more extensive private enterprise. This is consistent with my outlining of the likely logical outcome of one private person owning everything: that the owner/king would wind up sharing some of their property rights in order to increase their material well-being. (In the Soviet’s case, protecting Stalin from Nazi aggression was a strong motivator for this). Univeral monopoloy is not a persistent situation, in logic or in practice.

          • somberjellyfish

            A good starting point instead would be a comprehensive analysis of why
            the Soviet Union failed at installing socialism, and why it, and so many
            other regimes, failed so badly, and how you plan for your socialism to
            avoid that outcome, and then be willing to debate it extensively.

            But the Soviets didn’t fail to install THEIR DEFINITION OF SOCIALISM. They failed to install anything resembling MY definition, because they were never aiming at anything resembling my definition. So the explanation will be absurdly simple – like explaining that someone failed to play tennis because they were trying to play badminton.

            All
            this “oh, the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist, it was state capitalist!”
            gives the distinct impression of someone who would naively lead a
            country into a similar disaster.

            I think the most honest users of the term “state capitalism” use the term to draw out the fundamental similarities between the USSR and capitalism. For example, the way in which the USSR didn’t really change the hierarchical and non-democratic enterprise structure that one finds in the capitalist corporation. They simply changed who was at the apex of these structures. So the state takes over from capitalists, and we have a change of ownership, a change of bosses, but not a fundamental change in social relations.

            That sounds like a bit of a waffly. I may not be explaining myself well. If you’re genuinely interested in understanding my position on “state capitalism”, rather than just trying to win a random online debate, this article basically sums up my view in better words: http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secH3.html#sech313

          • TracyW

            But the Soviets didn’t fail to install THEIR DEFINITION OF SOCIALISM. They failed to install anything resembling MY definition

            Do you have a definition at all? Earlier I asked you how that distinction you were making between ownership and control actually applied, and you replied “I’m very happy to say “any of the above, whichever is most conducive to sustainable political and workplace level democracy”.” Which comes across as very vague. But now you appear to be implying that you have quite a precise definition in mind.

            This in my experience is fairly typical of socialists. On the one hand, they claim that what the Soviets did was not socialism. On the other hand, when I ask them for specifics of what their definition of socialism is, I get all vague handwavy answers, that implies that the writer has never thought through what their definition is. Efficient I suppose for protecting your own ideas from debate, but yet another thing that makes me think that if you ever got into power, you’d wind up repeating the Bolshevik’s route to totalitarian disaster out of sheer naivety.

            It was like the logical conclusion of a capitalist monopoly.

            The logical conclusion of a capitalist monopoly is that it gets fat and lazy and someone swoops in and disrupts it and grabs customers.

            I think the most honest users of the term “state capitalism” use the term to draw out the fundamental similarities between the USSR and capitalism. … The USSR didn’t really change the hierarchical and non-democratic enterprise structure that one finds in the capitalist corporation.</blockquote?

            Reading this, and the link you provided, I think that most users of the term “state capitalism” have never read any defender of capitalism, or indeed, any dictionary definition of capitalism. Capitalism, as the defenders, or dictionaries define it, is not a “capitalist corporation” but a system of organising an economy, one where “trade, industry and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit.”

            The Anarchism link you provide asserts that “Anarchists see little distinction between “private” ownership of the means of life and “state” ownership. ” This implies that said anarchists are blind. When the state owns everything, the state runs into massive problems of knowledge and incentives. When a resource in private hands is being badly managed, under capitalism people who can manage it better can out-compete the original owners, or raise money to buy out the original owners. This is not a possiblity under state ownership such as the Soviet Union tried. The distinction between private ownership and state ownership is massive. It is a fundamental change in social and economic relations.

            Equating the USSR to a capitalist corporation implies that you’ve spent ages criticising something you’ve never even tried to understand. I think that’s intellectually dishonest.

            If you’re genuinely interested in understanding my position on “state capitalism”, rather than just trying to win a random online debate

            Thank you, your link was indeed useful. I note that I win online debates by understanding other’s positions and the reasoning for them, or lack thereof, better. That makes it very hard for me to lose. It also means that both of us can win.

          • somberjellyfish
          • TracyW

            If anyone’s following this apart from me and somberjellyfish, surprise, surprise, somberjellyfish still hasn’t given his definition. Somberjellyfish even says “I don’t have necessary and sufficient conditions”.

            Typical of socialists in my experience.

          • TracyW

            But the Soviets didn’t fail to install THEIR DEFINITION OF SOCIALISM. They failed to install anything resembling MY definition

            Do you have a definition at all? Earlier I asked you how that distinction you were making between ownership and control actually applied, and you replied “I’m very happy to say “any of the above, whichever is most conducive to sustainable political and workplace level democracy”.” Which comes across as very vague. But now you appear to be implying that you have quite a precise definition in mind.

            This in my experience is fairly typical of socialists. On the one hand, they claim that what the Soviets did was not socialism. On the other hand, when I ask them for specifics of what their definition of socialism is, I get all vague handwavy answers, that implies that the writer has never thought through what their definition is. Efficient I suppose for deflecting criticism, but yet another thing that makes me think that if you ever got into power, you’d wind up repeating the Bolshevik’s route to totalitarian disaster out of sheer naivety.

            It was like the logical conclusion of a capitalist monopoly.

            The logical conclusion of a capitalist monopoly is that it gets fat and lazy and someone swoops in and disrupts it and grabs customers.

            I think the most honest users of the term “state capitalism” use the term to draw out the fundamental similarities between the USSR and capitalism. … The USSR didn’t really change the hierarchical and non-democratic enterprise structure that one finds in the capitalist corporation.</blockquote?

            Reading this, and the link you provided, I think that most users of the term “state capitalism” have never read any defender of capitalism, or indeed, any dictionary definition of capitalism. Capitalism, as the defenders, or dictionaries define it, is not a “capitalist corporation” but a system of organising an economy, one where “trade, industry and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit.”

            The Anarchism link you provide asserts that “Anarchists see little distinction between “private” ownership of the means of life and “state” ownership. ” This implies that said anarchists are blind. When the state owns everything, the state runs into massive problems of knowledge and incentives. When a resource in private hands is being badly managed, under capitalism people who can manage it better can out-compete the original owners, or raise money to buy out the original owners. This is not a possiblity under state ownership such as the Soviet Union tried. The distinction between private ownership and state ownership is massive. It is a fundamental change in social and economic relations.

            Equating the USSR to a capitalist corporation and then on that basis claiming that the USSR was “state capitalism” implies that you’ve spent ages criticising something you’ve never even tried to understand.

            If you’re genuinely interested in understanding my position on “state capitalism”, rather than just trying to win a random online debate

            Thank you, your link was indeed useful. I note that I win online debates by understanding other’s positions and the reasoning for them, or lack thereof, better. That makes it very hard for me to lose. It also means that both of us can win.

          • somberjellyfish