Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Left-wing Anarchist Pronounces on Capitalism

Dan Goodman, currently doing postdoctoral research in theoretical neuroscience. Previously a mathematician, still a left-wing anarchist, amateur cook, and philosopher, posts at Le Samovar HERE:

I wanted to explain why I think capitalism is a bad idea, and hopefully the reasons above do that. I’ve mostly focused on the present, but perhaps a word or two on the past and on the future. After all this criticism of capitalism, it would seem reasonable to respond that capitalism has done a great deal of good too. As Adam Smith says in the first chapter of Wealth of Nations, capitalism has allowed everyone to live better than kings of the past did (I’m paraphrasing here). I think that’s true. One might question whether or not that could have been achieved more expeditiously, but it’s in the past and the question is whether or not we can do better in the future. The Marxist (and some anarchists) would say that how you should organise society depends very much on the level of wealth. A rich society can in principle choose to organise itself in a much more egalitarian way than a poor one can. As our basic needs are provided for to a greater extent, we can stop worrying about living from moment to moment, and focus our attention on reorganising society to be more like how we wish it would be.

Experiments with Communism in the past largely failed for political reasons (democracy is essential), but also because countries that tried it hadn’t reached the point where basic needs were met, and because central planning was an inefficient mechanism (the planners didn’t understand the effects of their actions well enough, nor what was needed). I believe that the time may have come, or at least will quite soon come, when we will have the necessary means (basic needs satisfied, better understanding of economics, decentralised planning mechanisms such as those of parecon or otherwise) to do better than capitalism.”

Obviously a man who believes that he could re-arrange the ‘wooden pieces on a chess board’ merely by ordaining that it be done, forgetting, as Adam Smith reminds us in Moral Sentiments (TMS VI.ii.2.17: p234), that humans are not wooden pieces easily moved by a some human’s hand; with humans – and there are millions of them -‘each has a principle of movement of its own’.

That road leads to totalitarianism because the ‘man of system’ (in this case Dan Goodman) tries soft, then hard, persuasion, then soft laws and, when they don’t work well or fast enough, imposes harsher and harsher laws, all by necessity delegated to agencies staffed with other humans, who share neither the subtleties nor the shades of humanity that motivated the ‘leader’ in his younger days, and who behave with all the cruelty of the self-righteous on a mission to ‘change the world for the better’ – if only they could see the ‘higher purpose of history’, etc.

It is not democracy that ever fails, should it operate; it is the curbing of Liberty that causes all the problems. Dictators can arrange ‘democratic majorities’ – regular voting took place in all Communist countries, true there were only single party candidates; even Sadam Hussein held ‘elections’ (he ‘won’ them all), as did Mugabe, or his bought and paid for judges said so.

But what no dictator can hide or fool his or her citizens, or the world, about is whether the country is rule by the law, not men, and where Liberty prevails – freedom of assembly, freedom of an independent media, freedom of speech, the right to legal process under an independent judiciary, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and the occurrence of ‘inconvenient’ verdicts – the evidence is beyond doubt.

Dan writes: “As Adam Smith says in the first chapter of Wealth of Nations, capitalism has allowed everyone to live better than kings of the past did (I’m paraphrasing here)”. but, as always, the devil is in the detail.

Smith’s actual quotation is:

Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages”. [WN I.i.11: p24]

Dan should note there is no mention of ‘capitalism’ (a word invented in English in 1854 and therefore unknown to Adam Smith who died in 1790). Smith wrote about ‘commercial society’, not capitalism, which was back-projected onto Adam Smith and the 18th century by modern economists, apparently more interested in politics, disguised as economic theory, than in historical accuracy.

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Blogger Dan | thesamovar said...

What you've written is a gross mischaracterisation of me and of what I wrote. Almost the entire point of what I wrote was, as I made clear at the beginning, to highlight what I consider to be the problems with capitalism and not to set out an alternative. I did make passing reference to one idea for an alternative (parecon) and I did, briefly at the end, suggest that I think we can do better. The inference that I'm a closet totalitarian however, is based purely on prejudice. Nothing I said suggests I think either anti-democratic action or restrictions on liberty are acceptable, nor that I am in favour of top-down forms of revolution. Indeed, on my blog I have consistently made the case for liberty and as an anarchist, and therefore in principle against government, I'm obviously not in favour of a totalitarian one.

"Smith’s actual quotation is..."

I debated putting the whole quote in but decided that what I'd written was long enough and the subtleties of that quote were not really relevant. However, note that I did include a link to an online copy of the relevant chapter. For what it's worth, I think very highly of Adam Smith and agree that modern economists have projected their own thoughts on to him for political reasons.

Finally, your link doesn't point to the entry in question on my blog, and so I am including one below so that readers can judge for themselves:

12:27 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Dan
You are clearly a person with good intentions, and that was my point in part.

Once embarked on changing the world as it is, there is a long and wide road to a totalitatian future at worst and to government failure at best. I should have though a libertarian anarchist would agree with that (and I am neither).

Few totalitarians start like a Hitler or a Mao; most begin as decent improvers of their fellow poors' lot - the failure of the people to comply leads to increasing compulsion by the State.

It's not what they favour that decides the issue: it's what the failure of their 'schemes' that drives them.

There is nothing subtle about Smith's point that a day labourer in Scotland was poor in relation to a European Price, but richer (in material possessions) than an 'African King' (he used a North American 'Indian Prince' previously in his Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1762-63) who ruled the lives of even poorer bretheren.

This actually indicates from where Smith was coming from - his concern for a commercial society that would sprerad 'opulence' to the poorest whatever it did for the already very rich 'Princes'.

I always include a link to a contribution, under the 'HERE@. Click that and a reader gets to a post. I have no objections to a poster putting their own link, if they comment (most don't).

Thank you for your clarifications. Feel free to explain 'parecon'.

7:36 am  
Blogger Dan | thesamovar said...

Trying to change the world doesn't inevitably lead to totalitarianism, and I don't think you can generalise in the way you're doing. There have been historical examples of both top-down and bottom-up changes that have worked out, and examples where they haven't. In general, changes that have been fought for from below have been more successful, but not always. Again, in general giving dictatorial powers to anyone tends to be a bad idea (now there's something any anarchist could agree with).

There's no such as the world "as it is", only the world as we have made it. At the moment, that means capitalism with its entirely unnatural, human made forms of property rights (such as property in land, companies, ideas, and just generally in capital). It's not like there was any inevitability about these things, they had to be fought for too (albeit the people fighting for them were the wealthy and powerful rather than the majority), and they have to be constantly maintained by the power of the state.

Maybe you have something like Hayek's arguments in mind, but they really only apply to central planning which is not what I'm talking about (and it's not the only alternative to capitalism, parecon is an example).

About the link, you included one to my 'about' page rather than the entry itself. About parecon, I wrote previously about it at the page below (which includes further links) if you're interested. Bear in mind, it's supposed to be a starting point for a democratic discussion of alternatives to capitalism, not a finished thing that the masses are going to have to just accept.

11:33 pm  
Blogger adwords said...

Wynand Meyering. The point is in my view that no person should enjoy the benefits of something he hasn't earned. Being born does that give you the right to live off the labors of someone else? Is there some cosmic law that forces an individual to live off others?

I owe you as a stranger nothing. We are strangers. I owe only it to myself to make a success of my life.

2:19 am  

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