Thursday, July 19, 2018

Capitalist Haircut: Socialism or Barberism?

This article does a good job of surveying the intellectual landscape of modern democratic socialism, even if it sort of ignores the material organizing and  community building being down on the ground*.  It comes so close to being a fairhanded depiction of the ideas and reasons why socialism is so poised in this moment to present a real challenge to ingrained hegemonies, the limitations that challenge may have, and why it’s still a legitimate practice even if its implementation in a world all-encompassed by capitalism will prove incredibly difficult.   Then, it veers off into an odd sideline about the core essentialism of competition and the righteousness of the Open Markets Institute and New Brandeis movement, an anti-monopoly project named after a supreme court justice who tried to limited corporate and moneyed powers, in order to scold socialism for being short-sighted about the continued viability of a more restrained capitalism. 

I don’t oppose on principle to the idea that New Brandeis movement and DemSoc bear some similarities, nor am I obviously opposed to a more ethical capitalist system as one infinitely preferable to the legitimate hellscape we currently have.  However, Edelman ascribes a naivety to today’s thinkers that can only read like bad faith after the cogent presentation of actual DemSoc principles that precedes it.

Incidentally many of the precedent of Louis Brandeis (who himself was a millionaire) which set restrictions on the brutal and nakedly corrupt robber barons (many of whom could put Trump to shame) were eventually rescinded in tandem with the growing power of neoliberal global corporations**, which speaks to the major critique of why competitive markets driven by the profit motive always betray the people; the easiest way to compete is to not compete.  So anytime a corporation or a capitalist enterprise can eke out a competitive advantage in the form of tax breaks, loopholes, or lobbying for rule changes that disenfranchise or threaten millions of people, it will always gravitate towards those things because the danger of not doing them will put you at a competitive disadvantage. 

New Brandeis seems to think that regulation and intervention will quell this impulse by driving too-big-to-fail enterprises back into an equitable competitive marketplace and “save capitalism” as Robert Reich puts it. There’s a few problems with this, but two major ones. The first is that no it won’t.  History bears this out from Brandeis to New Deal to the post-war boom on to neoliberalism.  As Pikkety proves in Capital in the Twenty First Century, inequality is a feature and not a bug of capitalism. So, yes, controls are necessary but they are far from inevitable.  And when they are eventually dominated by capital that is tenacious, decentralized, and international in scope, the collateral damage from externalities is massive (hunger, imperialism, environmental devastation, et al).  A great small-scale example of this can be seen in the Open Markets Institute itself, which once received massive funding from the more liberal-leaning wing of the 1% via the New America Foundation think tank until the entire project was terminated at the behest of Google execs who didn’t think they needed to come under the microscope.

What folks like Barry Lynn, Elizabeth Warren, and Robert Reich like to imagine is that they can dial back individual corporations to a point where they are no longer political organs, essentially atomizing them to individual units just as laborers and consumers are themselves alienated under capitalism.   But business has always been aware that its designations and classifications have always been fundamentally political in nature, and through its use of lobbying wings, think tanks, and PR campaigns, can turn collectivist when industry goals are threatened.  Indeed, at the superstructural level, business’s main form of competition has never been between separate firms lobbying for market share, which is why mergers and acquisitions are hardly acrimonious for anyone but labor, the “human capital” that gets shaved off in the proceedings.  Instead, business’s main competitor is the federal government.  This is a race in which capitalism will always win because while a federal economy based in capitalism relies on strong markets to create taxable revenue to fund its endeavors***, enterprises don’t need strong, disciplinary government monitors to survive.  Which is not to say they don’t require regulation, particularly under neoliberalism.  Neoliberal institutions do require regulators, but ones that can serve common interests- to moderate inflation, dissuade bankruptcy, bailout mismanaged assets, quell labor uprisings, privatize public services the government can’t support, and ease any hindrance to trade movements.    And with no wall between the public and private sectors, there’s always a steady continuity of principle that flows openly from Ivy to market to polity and back and forth and onward from estate to estate. 

The second problem with the notion, however idealistic, that governments can ensure fairness in markets through the correct cocktail of shackling, investment, and social welfare is that the strongest regulations, the kind that actual have teeth and exert a measurable power over their subjects- those ARE socialism.  Democratic socialism tips the scale in the relationship between publicly accountable bodies (labor unions, consumer unions, worker co-ops, representational government, regulatory and watchdog agencies, juries, et al.) and their now subordinate but still limited accountability corollaries (executives, stockholders/stakeholders, institutions, incorporated tyrannies, intellectual property, supply chain, et al.) with the reserved right to nationalize or eliminate aspects deemed to be against the public interest.   You can tax into existence all of the capitalist offsets you want, but ultimately you’re not creating ethical capitalism.  You’re temporarily inconveniencing capitalism with a watered-down simulacrum of socialism that doesn’t have the market strength to compete with unbridled clout of the business world.  Sure, a wider safety net will give consumers and labor more power to navigate the marketplace, but as long as there’s money to be made the means of survival will always be commodities available to sell or scale to the right bidder, particularly in a system with a tiered class system of haves and have-nots.  There’s a reason that despite the best efforts of the civilized world, slavery has never fully disappeared.  Slavery and poverty and exploitation are natural states in a system where the distribution of all resources have to be bartered in order to be quantified at all.

If your fundamental worldview though is that monopolies arise only because people become “unprincipled” and “greedy”, it may be hard to reconcile that things won’t be different if you just realign the musical chairs of millionaire CEOs.  It was once the vision of techno-libertarian-utopians in Silicon Valley to create a world where mere access to democratizing tools and information sets would somehow liberate the masses, who could then insert themselves into the free market and, with Ozymandias-like zeal, found empires that could live by the mantra “don’t be evil”****.  But as soon as the difficulty of restrictions challenged the wide-eyed techbros’ bottom line, their true colors began to show.  And they could attend all the burning man festivals, infuse their ethos with the simplistic minimalism of the Buddha, and even hang-wring hard for UBI; the end goal of a capitalist is always more capitalism.  Competitive institutions animated by self-preservation are wont to take on a life of their own like any other species competing for resources. When this occurs, even the most altruistic and benevolent of the managerial class will fall in line for the greater good of the company.  Here, ego death means complete absorption into the machinery of the market.  So then the more classically liberal/enlightenment aspects of capitalism do not solely get ruined or compromised by the presence of “cronies” or “casino capitalists” or by decadence or corruption or any other modern day corollary to Catholic vice (sorry, Scorcese), though there’s certainly a fair share of real scumbags and sociopaths who gravitate to positions of private power.  Societal villains also encompass a host of really nice philanthropic people who mean well and are trying hard to make the world a better place, but who also operate vast networks steeped in human suffering and misery who seem to have no choice but to pull the levers in the way the board votes.

The final point is that it’s only cooperatives and collectivization that can bring together marginalized groups in a system founded on white supremacy and male supremacy without a complete reset of all existing power structures. Absent that, the fundamental societal drive of competition under capitalism will only encouraged splintered tribalism, which will be ripe for exploitation by those whose position is at the top of the class hierarchy.  Protection in the form of ideology in the form of alienation from the ruling class in the form of friction- be it white vs brown, young vs old, men vs women, documented vs undocumented, passing vs not, light-skinned vs dark-skinned, authentic vs synthetic- pre-existing tensions can be bottled,  distributed, and exacerbated in the detritus of mass culture and reinforced institutionally.   Parity and equity and interdependence and striving for equality may not ever undo the damage already done, but a fundamental realignment can redistribute power in a way that can address and begin to restructure these relationships. Reparations under capitalism are still just offsets. Reparations under socialism model the ideal structure of societal formation.   And without massive reparations- for all underclasses who’ve been underserved by the preservation of inequality- what good are well-regulated markets to those who continue to be crushed under the gears of a business culture whose country club networks or even vaguely meritocratic hiring practices require either preexisting privilege or affirmative intervention as a point of entry?

Socialists these days face an uphill battle and are constantly finding themselves answering the question: why is socialism still relevant?  Why go back to these ideas after the failures of the 20th century?  How can we learn from those mistakes?  Though there’s sometimes a bit of bad faith associated with these questions, I do believe they are important to answer and worth the hard slog it may take to reintroduce these revolutionary concepts back to a culture dormant to class and other double consciousness.  I think the core question no capitalist ever seems to want to answer though is- why is capitalism salvageable?*****  Can we really not produce innovation or foster creativity or achieve the great feats we’ve accomplished under capitalism without the incentive of a make-pretend monetary system that’s at times insulting, degrading, alienating, exploitative, dehumanizing, and also willfully abstruse and arcane to boot? The things we value in capitalism rarely pertain to the structural confines nor the ideological pedagogy of the ism itself, but byproducts that any humane and just system could reproduce or even improve upon.  So, why not strive for a better world undergirded by principles actually worth believing in, which aims to support people whether they’re in need or thriving, rather than continue to put Band Aids on an economic system predicated on a perpetual reification of power struggles? 

*And though he’s probably noted most for his philosophical concepts, Marx was first and foremost a materialist.

**notably Olmstead vs United States, a landmark legal precedent for the “right to privacy”, which as we now know has been surpassed by a massive corporate and government surveillance state, which reserves the right to collect and stores personal information to a nearly unlimited extent

***though modern monetary theory may dictate that this relationship could be reversed, particularly in countries like the U.S. where money is ephemeral and virtual rather than backed by a fixed standard

**** Patents and even corporations themselves were oddly enough once part of the same utopian vision.  It was thought that by incorporating or protecting intellectual property, millions of individual inventors and entrepreneurs could compete in an equitable commons.  While this did drive a great deal of innovation,  its externalities exploded exponentially to the point where patents could cover things like the human genome and corporations surpassed the GDPs of entire countries and were legally anthropomorphized into a kind of homo superior that nested atop the legal food chain.

***** In the Rolling Stone interview linked to above, Robert Reich merely concludes that capitalism is the world we’re all moving towards so we better save it, but makes no case for what its fundamental value is   

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