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Book Review: Singer on Marx

I’m not embarassed for choosing Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction as a jumping-off point for learning more leftist philosophy. I weighed the costs and benefits of reading primary sources versus summaries and commentaries, and decided in favor of the latter.

The clincher was that the rare times I felt like I really understand certain thinkers and philosophies on a deep level, it’s rarely been the primary sources that did it for me, even when I’d read them. It’s only after hearing a bunch of different people attack the same idea from different angles that I’ve gotten the gist of it. The primary sources – especially when they’re translated, especially when they’re from the olden days before people discovered how to be interesting – just turn me off. Singer is a known person who can think and write clearly, and his book was just about the shortest I could find, so I jumped on it, hoping I would find a more sympathetic portrayal of someone whom my society has been trying to cast as a demon or monster.

And I don’t know if this is an artifact of Singer or a genuine insight into Marx, but as far as I can tell he’s even worse than I thought.

I.

What really clinched this for me was the discussion of Marx’s (lack of) description of how to run a communist state. I’d always heard that Marx was long on condemnations of capitalism and short on blueprints for communism, and the couple of Marx’s works I read in college confirmed he really didn’t talk about that very much. It seemed like a pretty big gap.

But I’d always dismissed this as an excusable error. When I was really young – maybe six or seven – I fancied myself a great inventor. The way I would invent something – let’s say a spaceship – was to draw a picture of a spaceship. I would label it with notes like “engine goes here” and “power source here” and then rest on my laurels, satisfied that I had invented interstellar travel at age seven. It always confused me that adults, who presumably should be pretty smart, had failed to do this. Occasionally I would bring this up to someone like my parents, and they would ask a question like “Okay, but how does the power source work?” and I would answer “Through quantum!” and then get very annoyed that people didn’t even know about quantum.

(I was seven years old. What’s your excuse, New Age community?)

I figured that Marx had just fallen into a similar trap. He’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.

But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say “It is irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work.” He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.

Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.

Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?

I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”

II.

Conservatives always complain that liberals “deny human nature”, and I had always thought that complaint was unfair. Like sure, liberals say that you can make people less racist, and one could counterargue that a tendency toward racism is inborn, but it sure seems like you can make that tendency more or less strongly expressed and that this is important. This is part of the view I argue in Nature Is Not A Slate, It’s A Series Of Levers.

But here I have to give conservatives their due. As far as I can tell, Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.

Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.

And:

It is evidence that economics establishes an alienated form of social intercourse as the essential, original, and natural form

Which Singer glosses with:

This is the gist of Marx’s objection to classical economics. Marx does not challenge the classical economists within the presuppositions of their science. Instead, he takes a viewpoint outside those presuppositions and argues that private property, competition, greed, and so on are to be found only in a particular condition of human existence, a condition of alienation.

I understand this is still a matter of some debate in the Marxist community. But it seems to me that if Singer is right, if this is genuinely Marx’s view, it seems likely to be part of what contributed to his inexcusable error above.

You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.

A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.

III.

There was one part that made me more sympathetic to Marx. Singer writes:

Marx saw that the liberal definition of freedom is open to a fundamental objection. Suppose I live in the suburbs and work in the city. I could drive my car to work, or take the bus. I prefer not to wait around for the bus, and so I take my car. Fifty thousand other people living in my suburb face the same choice and make the same decision. The road to town is choked with cars. It takes each of us an hour to travel ten miles. In this situation, according to the liberal conception of freedom, we have all chosen freely. Yet the outcome is something none of us want. If we all went by bus, the roads would be empty and we could cover the distance in twenty minutes. Even with the inconvenience of waiting at the bus stop, we would all prefer that. We are, of course, free to alter our choice of transportation, but what can we do? While so many cars slow the bus down, why should any individual choose differently? The liberal conception of freedom has led to a paradox: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one’s interest. Individual rationality, collective irrationality…

Marx saw that capitalism involves this kind of collective irrationality. In precapitalist systems it was obvious that most people did not control their own destiny – under feudalism, for instance, serfs had to work for their lords. Capitalism seems different because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly, nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one – not even the capitalists – has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.

This is good. In fact, this is the insight that I spent about fifteen years of my life looking for, ever since I first discovered libertarianism and felt like there was definitely an important problem with it, but couldn’t quite verbalize what it was. It’s something I finally figured out only within the last year or so and didn’t fully write up until Meditations on Moloch. And Marx seems to have sort of had it. I read the relevant section of Marx when I was younger, where he was talking about how capitalists would compete each other into the ground whether they wanted to or not, and I remember dismissing it with a “capitalists have not competed each other into the ground, for this this and this reason”, dismissing the incorrect object-level argument without realizing the important meta-level insight beneath it (something I have since learned to stop doing). If Marx really had that meta-level insight – really had it, and not just stumbled across a couple of useful examples of it without realizing the pattern – then that would make his fame justly deserved.

But two things here discourage me. First, Marx seems so confused about everything that it’s hard to parse him as really understanding this, as opposed to simply noticing one example of it that serves as a useful argument against capitalism. I notice Singer had to come up with his own clever example of this instead of quoting anything from any of Marx’s works. Second, the insight does not seem original to Marx. Tragedy of the commons was understood as early as 1833 and Malthus was talking about similar problems related to population explosions before Marx was even born. John Stuart Mill, writing twenty years before Das Kapital, had already explained the basic principle quite well:

To a fourth case of exception I must request particular attention, it being one to which as it appears to me, the attention of political economists has not yet been sufficiently drawn. There are matters in which the interference of law is required, not to overrule the judgment of individuals respecting their own interest, but to give effect to that judgment: they being unable to give effect to it except by concert, which concert again cannot be effectual unless it receives validity and sanction from the law. For illustration, and without prejudging the particular point, I may advert to the question of diminishing the hours of labour. Let us suppose, what is at least supposable, whether it be the fact or not—that a general reduction of the hours of factory labour, say from ten to nine,*119 would be for the advantage of the workpeople: that they would receive as high wages, or nearly as high, for nine hours’ labour as they receive for ten. If this would be the result, and if the operatives generally are convinced that it would, the limitation, some may say, will be adopted spontaneously. I answer, that it will not be adopted unless the body of operatives bind themselves to one another to abide by it. A workman who refused to work more than nine hours while there were others who worked ten, would either not be employed at all, or if employed, must submit to lose one-tenth of his wages. However convinced, therefore, he may be that it is the interest of the class to work short time, it is contrary to his own interest to set the example, unless he is well assured that all or most others will follow it. But suppose a general agreement of the whole class: might not this be effectual without the sanction of law? Not unless enforced by opinion with a rigour practically equal to that of law. For however beneficial the observance of the regulation might be to the class collectively, the immediate interest of every individual would lie in violating it: and the more numerous those were who adhered to the rule, the more would individuals gain by departing from it.

So one might apply to Marx the old cliche: that he has much that is good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.

But it is interesting to analyze Marx as groping toward something game theoretic. This comes across to me in some of his discussions of labor. Marx thinks all value is labor. Yes, capital is nice, but in a sense it is only “crystallized labor” – the fact that a capitalist owns a factory only means that at some other point he got laborers to build a factory for him. So labor does everything, but it gets only a tiny share of the gains produced. This is because capitalists are oppressing the laborers. Once laborers realize what’s up, they can choose to labor in such a way as to give themselves the full gains of their labor.

I think here that he is thinking of coordination as something that happens instantly in the absence of any obstacle to coordination, and the obstacle to coordination is the capitalists and the “false consciousness” they produce. Remove the capitalists, and the workers – who represent the full productive power of humanity – can direct that productive power to however it is most useful. In my language, Marx simply assumed the invisible nation, thought that the result of perfect negotiation by ideal game theoretic agents with 100% cooperation under a veil of ignorance – would also be the result of real negotiation in the real world, as long as there were no capitalists involved. Maybe this idea – of gradually approaching the invisible nation – is what stood in for the World-Spirit in his dialecticalism. Maybe in 1870, this sort of thinking was excusable.

If capitalists are to be thought of as anything other than parasites, part of the explanation of their contribution has to involve coordination. If Marx didn’t understand that coordination is just as hard to produce as linen or armaments or whatever, if he thought you could just assume it, then capitalists seem useless and getting rid of all previous forms of government so that insta-coordination can solve everything seems like a pretty swell idea.

If you admit that, capitalists having disappeared, there’s still going to be competition, positive and negative sum games, free rider problems, tragedies of the commons, and all the rest, then you’ve got to invent a system that solves all of those issues better than capitalism does. That seems to be the real challenge Marxist intellectuals should be setting themselves, and I hope to eventually discover some who have good answers to it. But at least from the little I learned from Singer, I see no reason to believe Marx had the clarity of thought to even understand the question.

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236 Responses to Book Review: Singer on Marx

  1. Ialdabaoth says:

    The thing is, Marx – and Marxist social theory – is really great for describing a lot of social problems, and TERRIBLE for describing solutions to those problems.

    • Vaniver says:

      The thing is, Marx – and Marxist social theory – is really great for describing a lot of social problems, and TERRIBLE for describing solutions to those problems.

      I don’t see why you think a method of describing problems that does not complement the method for describing solutions is a “great” one. In real numerical optimization problems, say, almost all of the cleverness goes into setting up the problem description in a way that makes good solutions obvious.

      • Anish says:

        A lot of problems are much easier to set up than solve. The Halting problem, to use a cliche example.

        To go further, Goedel tells us that math powerful enough to contain arithmetic contains well-posed problems that it _cannot_ solve. Are you saying that this makes math bad?

        If you think this is unfair then let me just say that I think social problems are at least NP-hard, and Marxist theory gives us a way to set up the problem statements and verify solutions.

        • lmm says:

          >To go further, Goedel tells us that math powerful enough to contain arithmetic contains well-posed problems that it _cannot_ solve. Are you saying that this makes math bad?

          I think it’s a flaw in mathematics. I think most mathematicians would prefer to use an axiom system in which the continuum hypothesis was decidable, if that system was nice enough in other regards. Certainly most mathematicians accepted the introduction of the axiom of choice. If there are problems that can be expressed in provably decidable fashion (e.g. presburger arithmetic) then we prefer to at least consider that expression.

          The kind of problems Marx talks about are not like mathematical problems where we have a long history of finding good solutions to similar problems. For these social problems the existing approach may in fact be the best one possible – and Marx gives you no way to tell.

          • Anish says:

            For these social problems the existing approach may in fact be the best one possible – and Marx gives you no way to tell.

            To ditch the metaphor and be more clear, I’m basically saying that no one else really gives me a satisfying answer either.

            Incidentally when Marx was writing, Marx was actually one of the best ways to talk about both the problems and their solutions. Marx is still really good for talking about the problems (you could say he’s stood up the “test of time” in this regard) but people have built on him and come up with better/different ways to talk about the solutions.

          • drethelin says:

            No one else gives a satisfying answer either, sure. But most other things don’t encourage giant crazy homicidal empires that wipe out millions of their own people for no visible gain.

            So Marxism has to jump a somewhat higher bar than “Eh no one else has answers either!” for it not to be thrown on the dustheaps of history

          • Anish says:

            But most other things don’t encourage giant crazy homicidal empires that wipe out millions of their own people for no visible gain.

            Which history of the world have _you_ been reading? It sounds much happier than what I’ve been reading.

          • Multiheaded says:

            But most other things don’t encourage giant crazy homicidal empires that wipe out millions of their own people for no visible gain.

            1) Classical liberalism and Enlightenment advocates for capitalism, as we shall never cease to point out, ended up in effect encouraging (and being actively used to justify) exactly that – on a scale at least commesurate with anything bad Stalin or Mao have ever done.

            2) Socialism was intended as a direct assault upon Moloch. Capitalist ideologies at the very least discourage proactively restraining many of his atrocities, and then wash their hands. (When they bother to.)

          • Anish says:

            on a scale at least commesurate with anything bad Stalin or Mao have ever done.

            And let’s not forget that Stalin, for all his flaws (disclaimer: not saying stalin=good, but just saying stalin != the demon ussr and american propaganda made him out to be. american wanted a reason to hate him, and he wanted his enemies to have a reason to fear him)

            – Wasn’t quite the absolutist leftist dictator that american propaganda has painted him. the USSR did constantly have to make concession to appease the far right wing of the state (turns out it’s really hard to just kill them all, because armed uprising) and dealing with armed monarchist uprisings (cf the White Army)
            – Did successfully wipe facism off the face of Europe, at least for a few decades. Most of the war money and lives spent were Soviet ones.

          • Anonymous says:

            Most of the war money was Soviet? Really?

            Money is a tricky subject, but for materiel, most of it was made in America. Not just most allied weapons, but an outright majority of the total from from both sides. And not just in aggregate, but in almost every category: most planes, most machine guns, etc, the only exceptions being tanks and artillery. [Vaclav Smil, Made in America, p79]

          • Anish says:

            Oops, I was looking at numbers that “included the cost of human life” by assigning each life a cost.

          • Dave says:

            Re:the contention that the experience of the Chinese people during Mao’s period of the PRC is somehow discrediting or outweighs the possibility of breaking from world imperial capitalism and the many systems of oppression it is entangled with–

            Most criticism of Mao (above the level of the absurd bar graphs where he’s pinned up next to Hitler) focuses on the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. All of the “killed n million” accusations stem from the former–there is absolutely no doubt serious abuses of people from historically privileged landowning and intellectual classes by those who resented them during the GPCR, but the violence was not on a mass level and largely independent of the state, which makes that discussion rather complex.

            The Great Leap, on the other hand, is ostensibly more straightforward–there was a drought (and flooding in other areas) that caused massive rice shortages, which were compounded to a greater or lesser extent by bad policy. To this effect there’s a lot of highly questionable demography, starting with data released by Deng’s government–although no one knows how that data was collected, and Western demographers seem to ignore the obvious political motivations of the government that released that data.

            http://monthlyreview.org/commentary/did-mao-really-kill-millions-in-the-great-leap-forward/

            This piece reviews scholarship on the Great Leap critically. It’s overtly partisan, and makes the claim that much of this scholarship amounts to an anticommunist political project in turn, but reads just as well if you skip to the numbers.

            Either way, I hope I don’t have to actually lay out the case that the finer points of Chinese agricultural policy in response to the extraordinary shortages of the time are not somehow the inevitable result of marxist political economy. This is generally what I mean when I say that critics of the USSR and the PRC ignore the particularities of what was going on in favor of handwaving at the state ideology of the time.

          • Anonymous says:

            Yes, the Great Leap Forward killed an order of magnitude more people than the Cultural Revolution, but “the violence was not on a mass level”? lies.

            “largely independent of the state” – that’s almost the opposite of the truth. the cultural revolution was not a very focused tool, but Mao kept it going for years knowing exactly what it was.

          • Anonymous says:

            I’m not sure if there’s a more commonly used name for this type of obfuscatory argumentation, but it is common in law.

            Say you’ve got Jeb, a railroad worker who gets killed by a train while he’s at work, and a railroad which is obligated to pay death benefits to any worker who gets killed at work. The railroad gets up, mentions in passing what an unfortunate tragedy it was, and gets to talking. And they’ll have an attorney who will talk at excruciating length about how Jeb was really on a break and not really at work, and how the train engineer didn’t see him on the tracks, and how the engineer is such a nice guy, and how the railroads are subject to such nasty propaganda, and how Jeb was probably drunk and in any case probably beat on his wife and kicked his dog, and how the widow has plenty of money socked away, and how there was some unfortunate weather that warped the tracks, and how the whole case was probably financed by the competing railroad, and how few workers are killed on the job, and in fact never are, all of those numbers you hear are just anti-train propaganda, and really, the railroads are good for the nation and do a vital service so many underprivileged people depend on, and aren’t trains just neat? Didn’t you want to be a train engineer when you were a kid?

            To which the appropriate rebuttal is: “Jeb’s dead, and the railroad hasn’t paid.”

            This is how communism’s apologists sound to us who are not actual revolutionaries. Tens of millions of actual human beings dead of manmade starvation, terror and repression, and outright murder, and we get lectured on the minutiae of how it’s okay because of “the possibility of breaking from world imperial capitalism.”

          • Steve Johnson says:

            I’m not sure if there’s a more commonly used name for this type of obfuscatory argumentation, but it is common in law.

            The term is “red herring”.

          • Anish says:

            Exactly.

            Jeb’s dead

            We really should call him Kenny

            And the railroad hasn’t paid yet

            Shall we also include crimes against humanity on noncitizens? After all, the elimination of imperialism is one of the goals of communism.

            This is not to include possible unnecessary wars in the middle east, and covert installation of brutal dictators that cause scores of millions of deaths.

          • RCF says:

            @anish
            “- Did successfully wipe facism off the face of Europe, at least for a few decades. Most of the war money and lives spent were Soviet ones.”

            First of all, Franco outlasted Stalin by a few decades. Second, the rise of fascism was to a great degree because of communism in general and Stalin in particular.

          • Protagoras says:

            @RCF, on your second point, my impression is that that phenomenon was largely symmetrical; the excesses of the far left were a valuable recruiting tool for the far right, as you suggest, but the reverse was at least equally true.

        • Qiaochu Yuan says:

          The halting problem is a terrible example of the point you’re trying to make. The language in which we set up the halting problem happens to be so well suited to describing possible solutions to it that we can easily analyze it to conclude that no such solutions exist! That’s an incredible triumph of good-problem-description-entails-good-solution-description-insofar-as-solutions-exist. Same for the incompleteness theorem.

          • Anish says:

            Yeah, shoot me if I ever try to explain humanities with analogies to logic at 3AM again. Calling it a night.

        • Liskantope says:

          In number theory, there are all sorts of problems that are very easy to pose but may take decades or even centuries to solve — Fermat’s Last Theorem, the twin prime conjecture, etc. Bernhard Riemann wrote a paper in 1849 posing a number theoretic problem (not even really in his field), which was quickly understood to have all kinds of major consequences, not only for number theory, but for many other areas of math and physics. Over a century and a half later, the Riemann Hypothesis is still unsolved and considered the biggest open conjecture in pure math. The techniques used to justify why it’s important are clearly failing to actually solve it.

          • lmm says:

            Which suggests that number theory is a bad language for mathematics. And it is! The most important step towards the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was Ribet’s expression of it as a statement about elliptic curves. If and when the Riemann Hypothesis is proven, it’s unlikely to be a proof in number theory; rather, someone will find a better way to express the problem which makes it soluble.

          • anon says:

            > Which suggests that number theory is a bad language for mathematics. And it is!

            Huh? Number theory is a bad language for describing some parts of mathematics, and a great tool for describing other parts.

            To distort the analogy even further, suppose you’re trying to answer the question “Why is ice slippery?”. The question is easily posed in conversational English, but an answer requires understanding of much more technical language involving chemistry and physics. This doesn’t mean English is a bad language!

      • RCF says:

        You are equivocating between two meanings of the word “problem”. There’s “problem” in the sense of “something bad that we want to get rid of” and there’s “problem” in the sense of “question”.

    • Qiaochu Yuan says:

      What does it even mean to describe a problem well except that you’ve made some kind of progress on solving it?

      • AR+ says:

        If we take seriously the idea that, “A problem well-stated is half-solved,” then by modus tollens a statement of a problem which does not constitute at least half of its own solution is not well-stated.

    • memeticengineer says:

      I don’t think he was even good at describing the problems. Based on this post and also my prior readings, it seems like he did not understand what capitalists are even *for*, i.e. that they are nodes in a distributed system for planning and coordination. I don’t think you can usefully describe the problems of capitalism without understanding capitalism, except at the most superficial level. All of Marx’s theoretical apparatus about those problems is misguided at best.

      • drethelin says:

        I really love that someone else thinks of capitalists as nodes in a system. <3

        Its also why inequality necessarily rises in a capitalist system with population increase and ease of travel/communications. The more people who want to and can access a node the more money it can skim off the top of the system

  2. Unfortunately, this is a heavily incomplete and flawed reading of Marx. However, writing is an attempt to generate knowledge so what can I say. I mean no ill.

    If you wish to read modern commentaries and the state of the modern ‘RevLeft theory’ (somewhat/not really) I encourage you to look here.

    Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense” by Gerry Cohen and is relatively complete and coherent.

    Here’s a random revleftist who is more understandable. http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/ by Rosa

    For modern RevLeft politics perhaps “Red Phoenix” (the blog) and a bunch of other stuff. http://theredphoenixapl.org/
    “Anarchist F.A.Q” was a mainstay last I remember

    For legitimate state of revleft politics, take a gander of many of the forums that pop up over time, you will find a vast ecosystem of subideologies and beliefs. So much so that it’s a joke among the left. “There’s a new left party every year” etc. It’s quite intriguing, and it will help you filter through what people think the revleft say (Say even people from NRx, of which I am involved with in a broad-strokes way) and what they actually say.

    I’m not ashamed to say that before I called myself a part of NRx, or a “Neoreactionary” (ugh), I used to call other people a Reactionary as an insult when I hung around these types. The revolutionary left has not realized the existence of NRx yet.

    oooh how could I ever forget this one
    fun wildcard: “Your politics are boring as fuck”
    http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/selected/asfuck.php

    response: http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=3664

    • Crimson Wool says:

      “There’s a new left party every year” etc.

      I’m sure it’s more than one.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thank you. I read some of those, and although I haven’t gotten to the enlightening parts yet, they are at least well-written.

      (does everybody on the Left hate everyone else on the Left more than everybody in the Right and Center hate everyone else in the Right or Center, or does it just seem that way?)

      • Anish says:

        does everybody on the Left hate everyone else on the Left more

        “Just the ones that are Wrong. ”

        Part of the deal here is that labour rights fall squarely “on the left,” so sometimes (often!) the impression is that if you support the Wrong Leftists or Fake Leftists, you’re going to get fired and not have money to feed yourself. For some reason people sometimes find this more hateworthy than people just saying that you should be killed/exiled from the ethnic tribe. I guess it feels more “real”?

      • social justice warlock says:

        Yes.

      • Dave says:

        Oh, we fucking despise each other. I’m dealing with a few issues related to sectarianism and lefties’ need to jump on everything another org has worked on and say they could do it better right now! This is sort of endemic to having a relatively small number of extremely passionate people with different views in the same political corner for decades upon decades.

        But I think this points to a more productive point in engaging with marxist philosophy–it’s critical to note that marxism is a heterodox area of theory and practice, which contains tendencies that run so orthogonal as to have little intersection, other than a dislike of capitalism. We should also deconflate marxism, the communist tradition, and the work of Marx (things pertaining to Marx’s work are sometimes referred to as “Marxian” to avoid confusion). This is why I and a number of others use the little m—Marx’s insights are a common starting point, not the boundaries of the field. While he abstracted from matters of the actualization of socialism and human nature, and left innumerable lacunae in the topics he does discuss, in marxist and broadly leftist thought none of this is excluded.

        There are a few definite points where I, as a marxist, would say Marx was completely off base—for example colonialism, which he opposes but fails to reject the premises of (“Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.”)

        Without those distinctions we start painting in broad historical strokes that tie the entire experience of the two 20th century socialist states to Marx’s ideas, for example, while ignoring the historical specificity of those events, and our own standpoint within countries that have propagandized against the USSR and PRC for decades. Other marxist schools (e.g. the Frankfurt school or Italian workerism) and movements (e.g. Burkina Faso, many Latin American guerilla groups, contemporary rebellions in Eastern India, Nepal, and the Phillipines) end up ignored entirely, so as to comfortably consign marxism to the dustbin.

        What personally brought me to a marxist sociological standpoint was the first part of Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm
        Up to “The State”. The rest of it is quite good, but rather specific to Althusser and the PCF around that time. The “standpoint of reproduction” is a really useful way to understand how marxist materialism analyzes societies by looking at their “metabolism”—which is how we end up emphasizing the production of commodities (rather than their consumption) so much. The reproduction of the conditions of production turns out to be a really useful way to look at gender as well (if you’re interested see http://www.countercurrents.org/federici290513.htm).

        With regards to the contention that Marx expects socialism to establish and coordinate itself, I think Singer’s summary is somewhat at fault. I’m no Marx scholar, but it doesn’t seem like Singer can really be called that either, and I’ve read my share of the primary material, as well as letters that indicate his political orientation outside of theory (at times he could be outright social-democratic). While the Manifesto, for example, does make the grand Hegelian declaration that socialism is the endpoint of inevitable historical processes, it would be a mistake to say that he wasn’t concerned about the actual work of building socialism—of course it will take a great many failed experiments (this too is implied by “scientific socialism”) and complex navigation of the use of state power to build the relations that will allow capitalism (and eventually the value-form) to be supplanted altogether, but that task will always depend on the national context. Correct ideas come from correct social practice and that.

  3. Vaniver says:

    Marx thinks all value is labor. Yes, capital is nice, but in a sense it is only “crystallized labor” – the fact that a capitalist owns a factory only means that at some other point he got laborers to build a factory for him. So labor does everything, but it gets only a tiny share of the gains produced. This is because capitalists are oppressing the laborers. Once laborers realize what’s up, they can choose to labor in such a way as to give themselves the full gains of their labor.

    A perhaps amusing comparison:

    All property and all forms of wealth are produced by man’s mind and labor. As you cannot have effects without causes, so you cannot have wealth without its source: without intelligence.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      Big difference between “All property and all forms of wealth are produced by man’s mind and labor”

      and

      “Yes, capital is nice, but in a sense it is only “crystallized labor” – the fact that a capitalist owns a factory only means that at some other point he got laborers to build a factory for him.”

      Marx is well dismissed by economists for the labor theory of value.

      The mind part in directing labor is really important.

      If people who only have value when they are being directed by others could go and direct themselves then, yeah, they could get a better deal by making their own stuff and selling it – but that’s a really complicated problem and there are people who are in that business – they’re called capitalists.

      • AR+ says:

        I agree to an extent, in that the people involved in coordinating resources in the most direct way are indeed the capitalists, but more broadly, an MBA or investor does not have the capacity to carry out the social coordination of resources. The market mechanism itself allows for super-human levels of social coordination by condensing tremendous quantities of information into a comparatively small quantity of numbers, which are called prices, and then filters out firms that cannot effectively use those numbers by making them go bankrupt.

        Since setting prices is a dynamic process, the social institution of free markets is to capitalists as the institution of science is to scientists. Often dysfunction in its own ways, but also the main source of its agents’ information and almost the only thing that puts any checks on deviations from pro-social ends.

      • Levi Aul says:

        > they could get a better deal by making their own stuff and selling it – but that’s a really complicated problem and there are people who are in that business

        The people who want a better deal can hire the people in the business of coordination, to coordinate them. The capitalists don’t have to be on the top of the “labor pyramid”–they can be slaves to the labor, paid to perform acts of coordination instead of hiring and leading those they coordinate.

        This is a really rare thing, because the ability to coordinate others is a type of power, and will lead to other types of power (i.e. rise in wealth, status, etc.) if not kept in check.

        But it does happen sometimes: secretaries coordinate for their employers, as do agents for their talent. Some book publishing houses are considering switching from a “we hire you and give you an advance” model to a “you get a business loan somewhere else, then use some of it to contract us to do the non-writing parts of your job” model.

        I think the best example of this, though, is the Ancient Greek election-lottery system. The elected leader was just some (literally-)random fellow. Except that he wasn’t elected to control the populace, but rather burdened with the responsibility of dealing with its decisions and paperwork. Any unpopular decision would be instantly met with impeachment and possible execution–so they effectively had to serve as the secretary, the agent, the coordinating servant of the nation as a whole.

        • memeticengineer says:

          Worker cooperatives could hire professional managers (more in the ‘manager of a band’ sense than in the business sense). Sometimes they actually do, though often ideology stands in the way.

          However, this only fulfills the role of capitalist-as-manager, not capitalist-as-owner. Part of what owners decide is which managers to hire. Being bad at this type of decision cannot be overcome through delegation since then you just have the same problem with an extra level of indirection. It’s possible in theory to be better at hiring a manager-hirer than at hiring a manager. But it doesn’t seem that likely. On the level of the whole economy, owners also decide what firms exist (through entrepreneurship, mergers and acquisitions, liquidation, etc). This is not a problem for any one worker cooperative, and therefore not a reason to avoid that structure as a worker. But it would imply that an economy of 100% worker cooperatives probably isn’t allocating resources efficiently. So those are two coordination problems that you can’t hire someone to do for you.

        • alexp says:

          Another example:

          Lay people (non lawyers) are not allowed to own part of a law firm (be partners). Lawyering and managing skills often don’t go hand in hand, so law firms will sometimes hire skilled manager to manage them.

          • Anonymous says:

            Same with some doctors in the United Kingdom. All General Practitioners are private providers of Primary Care to UK residents (i.e. they’re not really part of the NHS, the NHS just pays them to act as gatekeepers to the rest of the system). Usually what happens is two or three GPs get together and set up practice together, then hire a Practice Manager to coordinate their activities without ever becoming a partner in the surgery.

            It’s a bit of a Rube Goldburg of a system compared to other bits of the NHS, but it hasn’t resulted in Practice Managers alienating GPs by taking their surplus labour yet – anecdotally I would say it is the opposite

    • Toggle says:

      Tentatively, it seems unwise to rely heavily on any assertion of the form “All value is X”. At least, when X is not something pedantic like “getting something you want.”

      Chickens are a way for eggs to make more eggs. That’s is a joke with a moral: there is no fundamental actor in a mutually dependent relationship. That seems especially true of labor, capital, intelligence, civilization, and all the wibbly-wobbly expressions of coordinated people pursuing particular futures.

      • Sam Rosen says:

        “Do gametes have the function of producing organism, or do organisms have the function of producing gametes? Or is it arbitrary to impose a functional asymmetry on the symmetrical fact that gametes produce organisms and organisms produce gametes?” – Elliott Sober

        • Andrew G. says:

          Gametes definitely existed before (edit to add: multicellular) organisms did.

          • Matthew says:

            Wouldn’t the first gamete have been the result of a mutation messing with the division of an organism that reproduced asexually? The gamete comes before the organism it codes for, but not before organisms generally.

    • Anonymous says:

      Who said the second quote?

      • Vaniver says:

        Ayn Rand. You can find similar things in libertarian economists–I think Julian Simon has something pithier.

    • Mary says:

      Notice the basic fallacy: that the laborers in the factory are, as “Labour”, the source of the capitalists’ Capital.

      John Doe, Richard Roe, and James Poe all work for a company. John Doe diligently saves and in due course rents a building and starts a company, and hires Richard Roe and James Poe, and Marx instantly assumes that it was their labor, not John Doe’s, that was the source of his capital.

  4. Protagoras says:

    I do think that capitalists and libertarians show far too great a tendency to assume that the way people act in capitalist societies is an expression of immutable human nature, despite the fact that capitalism is relatively young, and a number of aspects of capitalist behavior are much less common in older societies (and far from universal in supposedly capitalist states, where people notoriously don’t consistently act like the economist’s supposed rational agents). Not that you said otherwise, but while Marx was surely silly if he thought removing the influence of capitalist structures would make everything perfect, it is probably worthwhile to investigate the question of just how much of modern western human behavior is a result of the capitalist structures we’ve constructed.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      Marx is the opposite of right about this though.

      In his view, capitalism is a natural progression and the necessary next stage of history after feudalism. Libertarians and economists think that man is all capitalism – homo economius.

      Wisdom is recognizing that people are mentally feudal in lots of ways and always will be – even if they engage in trade.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      Perfectly rational agents, perfect information and perfect competition are all to economics roughly what “frictionless spheres” are to physics: a useful component in thought experiments that can lead to valuable insight, but not something anyone expects to actually find in the world.

      • Patrick says:

        That’s not entirely accurate. The ultimate goal of a lot of economic theory, and of a lot of economic organization, is to create structures which behave as perfectly rational agents in hopes that their decision making will replace that of flawed, unrational, un self interested humans.

        Economics aren’t just assuming spherical cows to hone their equations- they’re also stalking their way through the pastures at three in the morning with chainsaws, an eye on making cows more spherical.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          The most common use of that stuff in actual economics is descriptive, not prescriptive. Suppose you’re trying to predict what a large group of people will do in response to a price change. Much of the group’s individual behavior is random or idiosyncratic (say, people who buy more when a price ends in 3 because that’s their “lucky number”) – we can’t predict any of that. But some of the people some of the time will tend to act somewhat rationally and informed in response to the change. We have great tools for saying how the rational informed ones will act, so that’s our prediction for how the group as a whole will act. If the change is “large” and the non-rational stuff averages out to have no clear tendency then the prediction will be pretty good – the rational response will dominate the group response, even though we can’t identify any specific people and say “those people were rational”. So we make predictions, we test those predictions with empirical studies that involve large sudden changes, and gradually gain confidence in them.

          (On the other hand, if in practice it turns out the non-rational stuff has a strong central tendency to move in a particular direction in certain situations, then we modify the theory to incorporate that into our predictions.)

          There is a little bit of searching-under-the-lampost here, but generally it seems to work pretty well.

    • AR+ says:

      I can’t remember ever seeing the perfectly-rational-agent-model of human behavior referenced as anything other than a description of something believed by silly people the speaker is attacking. I’ve even read a lot of Austrian stuff, and that all seems perfectly content to deal w/ people as being flawed and biased. Indeed, such texts usually bring up the point themselves in arguments for why we can’t let any central authority have power over the economy.

      • Khoth says:

        An assumption I’ve noticed periodically is not that non-rational people don’t exist, but that whatever bad consequences the irrationality brings about don’t matter so long as they don’t disadvantage the perfectly rational agents.

        Which would be fine, if the world wasn’t full of irrational agents whose welfare matters.

  5. Lemminkainen says:

    I want to offer a critique of Point II. A whole bunch of historians and anthropologists have demonstrated that people who live outside of states generally don’t have private property or a possessions-accumulation focus in the way that we do.

    Consider, for example the various Algonquian-speaking Native American tribes that lived around the Great Lakes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Accounts from the time suggest that their members were interested in acquiring possessions that made their lives more comfortable and pleasant (clothes, guns, rum, and tobacco), but tended to give away most of what they acquired to people around them in exchange for social status. Algonquian social norms also mandated that members of villages offer food or clothing to other members of their villages who asked them for it. (I drew most of this example from Richard White’s “The Middle Ground.”) The Algonquians weren’t unique in this respect– David Graeber’s “Debt: The First Five Thousand Years” describes many other similar societies.

    I strongly suspect that status-seeking is actually a human universal, but what status-seeking behavior looks like depends pretty deeply on what society looks like.

    As for Marx’s intellectual value: I don’t accept the labor theory of value, Marx’s teleological view of history, or his vision of an ideal postrevolutionary society, but I have found some of his ideas about causality and history useful. In works like “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (which is short, clear, funny, and readable, which isn’t true of say, Capital), Marx argues that we can figure out historical causality by looking at the ways that humans relate to production and exchange. This explanation isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a useful heuristic which frequently helps me begin to figure out what’s going on in complicated historical situations.

  6. Douglas Knight says:

    Yes, managers provide valuable work to create coordination. But that is still labor. Most managers are hired labor. Managers are logically independent of ownership of capital.

    • lmm says:

      The valuable part of capitalism isn’t management, it’s global resource allocation, something no individual has enough information to do effectively. Suppose there’s a water source available; a farmer wants to use it to water his crops, and an industrialist wants to use it in his tool factory. Which is more productive? To answer that you need to know what the demand is for all the things that could be made by other factories that use those tools – some of which make other tools. And you need to predict it years in advance. Capitalism does this imperfectly, but better than any existent central planning approach, which is the only kind you could implement using pure labour.

      • AR+ says:

        I agree, as I’ve said above.

        Mises makes the argument more extensively in his Economic Calculation In The Socialist Commonwealth

        • Anish says:

          Point certainly taken, but do note (if for no other reason than that it’s curious) that even free markets are subject to these calculational limits.

          http://arxiv.org/pdf/1002.2284.pdf

          • memeticengineer says:

            The paper does not appear to identify the same limit than the one claimed by Mises. “Can’t use a price system to allocate production goods if they can’t be traded” vs “arbitrage opportunities may persist indefinitely if P!=NP” seem importantly different to me.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            No substantial comment at the moment, but — if you’re linking to arXiv, please link to the abstract rather than directly to the PDF!

          • Kzickas says:

            Interesting article. I’m not sure what it says about the article that I’m now slightly less certain that socialism is unworkable.

      • Anish says:

        Yeah, so when you’re talking about Marx it shouldn’t be a comparison of Free Markets vs Command Economies. Marx’s Whole Deal is Political Economy: he’s worried about the distorting forces the political power that comes from economic power is; he’s worried about capitalists making the “free market” into a “capitalist-only” market, and all the systematic extrotion that can happen when you “own” the government and therefore can change the rule of the market. (where here a capitalist is someone who owns captial, as in “venture capitalist” for example.)

        >central planning approach, which is the only kind you could implement using pure labour.

        uh, what?

        • lmm says:

          >uh, what?

          If you want to hire some people and have them allocate resources, they will (almost by definition) allocate them in central-planning fashion. You could set up a distributed system where you tracked how useful things were to the end user and how much various middlemen contributed – but that seems to just be creating capitalism all over again.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        The price system is yet a third logically independent thing. In fact, it is logically possible to have a system with no capitalists, that is, without private owners of capital, but where managers do bid on capital and investment decisions are made informed by prices. What people usually mean by capitalism is that people are allowed to get rich, and that this is valuable because of principal-agent problems.

        • AR+ says:

          It has been argued to the contrary, to put it lightly. Do you have any references that describe such a system in more detail? Seems like it would just be yet another of the infinite varieties of “socialism,” to which the same normal objections would apply.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Whether it would perform well or poorly is not something I made any claim about.

            The fact that some would call it socialism is the whole point of the comment, in particular that it fits LMM’s definition of capitalism, suggesting a problem with that definition.

            You may be interested to learn the meaning of “logically independent,” though probably not.

          • AR+ says:

            I know what logically independent means. The objection, or so it has been argued, is that you actually can’t have meaningful prices in capital goods, as opposed to “prices,” w/o private ownership of capital. Hence, it is not a logically independent thing, at least not as any of the terms are meant to apply to a real economy.

            I suppose you could construct a mathematical model for bidding on capital goods that is informed by prices yet which does not have private ownership of capital, for certain understandings of “prices,” “bidding,” and “capital.” But it is also possible to cut a ball into 5 pieces and slide them into 2 balls each w/ the same volume as the original, for certain understandings of “ball,” “cut,” and “pieces.”

          • Anish says:

            describe such a system in more detail?

            I don’t have a specific reference right now. I’ll dig one up later. But look at the PRC’s State-owned enterprise.

        • Anish says:

          The price system is yet a third logically independent thing. In fact, it is logically possible to have a system with no capitalists, that is, without private owners of capital, but where managers do bid on capital and investment decisions are made informed by prices. What people usually mean by capitalism is that people are allowed to get rich, and that this is valuable because of principal-agent problems.

          This exactly is how china worked for a while and it worked pretty well. Quite possibly one of the things that made PRC such a big player in the world economy.

      • peterdjones says:

        True up to a point, but, it doesn’t imply that things get better and better as they get more capitalistic, ie as there is less and less government “interference”. The latter may be all that stands between us and Moloch.

  7. Robert says:

    You might look into worker cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism. It isn’t communism but it does put wealth and economic power in the hands of labor while addressing the practical issues of transitioning from capitalism to socialism. Plus it gets people more used to controlling their own lives.

    • blacktrance says:

      Many proponents of capitalism would say that worker cooperatives aren’t an alternative to capitalism, they’re a form of capitalism.

      • somnicule says:

        Agreed. I’m someone who identifies as “pro-capitalism” in a sense that capitalism is a very broad thing. Like, most modern corporations are clustered in a very small range of potential arrangements. That’s what a lot of the difference between my views and those of non-capitalists is, as far as I can tell. I’m pro-capitalism, and they’re anti-capitalism, but my view of capitalism is very broad and can encompass many of their supposed “anti-capitalist” values.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      There’s a term for “worker cooperatives”.

      “Joint stock corporation” (with a restriction on share transfer / ownership).

      • Tom Womack says:

        That’s similar to asserting that Pentonville prison is an all-inclusive holiday resort with a restriction on exit hours; you’ve hidden the entire point of the institution in a side clause.

        • Steve Johnson says:

          Actually it’s more an illustration that the concept of a “worker’s collective” is incoherent.

          If the workers can’t sell, they don’t really own the firm and the incentive is to simply mismanage the firm while pulling out as much profit in the form of wages as possible. The owners – since they can’t monetize their ownership – will continually push for improved non-monetary compensation. They’ll never leave their “jobs” even if they have no interest in doing the job or if the job could have been replaced by automation. Basically, a firm with this ownership structure looks a lot like GM.

          If they can sell, then economics predicts that they’ll act like any other shareholders (in the long run) but in the long run the firm won’t really be a worker’s collective any more – it’ll be owned by people who own all the rest of the firms – pension funds, finance firms, insurance companies, wealthy individuals, etc. These are people for whom it makes sense to own a large enterprise.

          If they can only sell if they quit and they have a prearranged price to sell back, then it looks a lot like a private club. Once the first generation who was granted ownership rights is gone then people will have to buy in at a price that is equal to the net present value of the expected future stream of profits of the firm. In other words, it’s privately held joint stock corporation.

          All redistribution schemes that aim at redistributing property run into the same fundamental issue – if you redistribute everything once and then go back to enforcing contracts then the structure doesn’t really change. If you don’t enforce contracts then you wind up with what Jim calls a leftist singularity where everyone murders one another until the country is so weak that someone invades and ends it (or if you’ve gotten a world government first, you then slaughter all living humans).

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            But coops actually exist! For instance: the orange juice I drank as a kid is produced by a coop. Given that they’ve existed for seventy years, it seems like at least in some cases your predictions are falsified.

            If you’re looking for a more proper coop, since Florida’s Natural has employees who aren’t part of the coop, the classic example is Mondragon, which again has lasted for sixty years and is the tenth-largest business in Spain.

          • peterdjones says:

            The John Lewis Partnership is an employee-ownedUK company which operates John Lewisdepartment stores, Waitrosesupermarkets and some other services. The company is owned by a truston behalf of all its employees — known as Partners – who have a say in the running of the business and receive a share of annual profits, which is usually a significant addition to their salary. The group is the third largest UK private company in the Sunday Times Top Track 100 for 2010.[4] 

          • lmm says:

            They do exist; the argument is tthey aren’t good at the disruption/creative destruction that makes capitalism so effective. I mean, you can run a perfectly cromulent civilization without limited liability corporations – see the entire Islamic world for starters. You just end up with less wealth, and therefore less of the things you value.

            Concretely I’ve read an argument that FedEx responded slowly to changing market conditions because of its co-op governance, and lost a lot of ground to DHL as a result. I’d be interested if there are examples of such a co-op changing rapidly or doing something we’d see as innovative.

          • Anonymous says:

            Farmers’ coops, as in the OJ example, are an interesting example because the members are farmers – capitalists. It is a pretty small extension for them to vertically integrate and become owners of distributors.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            lmm: Right, I’m not saying that coops are ideal; I’m agnostic on that point. I’m simply arguing that Steve’s prediction that coops either are deeply mismanaged or turn into something that is not a worker’s coop seems to be falsified.

          • peterdjones says:

            It’s not in the interests of owner-workers to either drive their company into the ground, or run it inefficiency, since both reduce their future income stream. They are better incentivised than ordinary workers, who have no guarantee that the management will spend increased profits on their wage packets rather than, for instance, new cars for themselves.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Yeah, Steven’s argument makes no sense to me. The question about whether they “really” own it is irrelevant. And why do they need to “monetize” their ownership when it is already paying them money? And in order to pull out as much profit as possible, they need to increase that profit. Seems to me that, if we ignore the problems of hiring and firing, about which I’m not so sure, incentives are pretty aligned here. As someone who doesn’t know economics, I could believe there’s some important but nonobvious reason why this doesn’t work, but I certainly don’t buy Steven’s argument.

          • Geirr says:

            @Sniffnoy

            Cooperatives maximise for profits per worker, not straight profits. This is economically and probably socially inefficient as it means they don’t expand as much as most companies would.

            Note that there is in no country any economic sector in which worker cooperatives form a mahority of firms. The closest one gets is partnerships, as are dominant to universal in professional services like law and accountancy but most employees never become partners.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Yes, that is a problem! Hence why I wrote “if we ignore the problems of hiring and firing” — which more or less implicitly includes expansion. 🙂 But while you have a good point, it seems to be quite different from Steven Johnson’s above.

  8. CaptainBooshi says:

    I don’t know much about Marx, so I can’t make any substantive comment, but I did have a question maybe you can answer. One of the defenses I’ve heard of Marx is that he wasn’t really interested in trying to force a communist utopia into existence, that it was something he always just assumed was going to happen naturally, that capitalism was just going to evolve into communism organically at some point after it’s flaws became too obvious to ignore, and that Stalin and others decided they just didn’t want to wait. Does this seem true? I don’t really want to look for sources, but I know I’ve heard some version of this multiple times in the past, and I’ve always been curious if this is accurate at all.

    I will note this post supports some of the cultural beliefs I’ve previously picked up about Marx, namely that he was useful not for his stated ideology, but in his criticisms of capitalism itself. The story I’ve usually heard is that he forced some of the flaws of pure, unadulterated capitalism into the limelight, causing other people to work on solutions so that his predictions of a communist ‘utopia’ never came true.

    • Anonymous says:

      In some places he claims to be purely descriptive, predicting that capitalism will collapse and be replaced by something else. In those places, he seems to be saying not only that no one can stop it, but that no one can speed it. In a few places, he isn’t even optimistic about the replacement. But in other places he advocates revolution, most famously in the Communist Manifesto, written after years of collaboration with revolutionaries, on the eve of the 1848 revolutions.

      • Anish says:

        The Communist Manifest actually “isn’t cannon”. It’s essentially a one-off Marx was paid to write for someone else AFAIK. That said, it’s still important and all, but not because it’s stuff that reflects Marx’s thoughts.

        • Anonymous says:

          So there you go, Booshi. Good thing you didn’t try to look for sources on your own. That’s no way to get at the truth.

          • Anish says:

            Leftist philosophy is arranged in a fucking labyrinth. It’s not too hard to understand what’s what once you have a map that you can actually understand, but that’s hard if you’re not a student of the humanities who had a few hundred thrust in front of you over the course of your education to see which one stuck.

          • AR+ says:

            An argument for dismantling the humanities, to be sure. Such a convoluted mess would not be taken seriously w/o their parasitic attachment to Western colleges and universities, and the tremendous quantities of highly paid and paid-for man-hours that go into its study, perpetuation, and expansion.

          • Anish says:

            An argument for dismantling the humanities, to be sure. Such a convoluted mess would not be taken seriously w/o their parasitic attachment to Western colleges and universities, and the tremendous quantities of highly paid and paid-for man-hours that go into its study, perpetuation, and expansion.

            You’d think, but it’s actually pretty easy to get into if you find the right books. Problem is that people in the humanities are REALLY bad at putting things online, so you’d have to root through a mess of books referencing other books, each more obscure, but all available one way or another at most libraries.

            Definitely something that needs to be fixed though.

          • Anonymous says:

            Nah, it’s only hard if you want to goodthink. If you only want the truth, it’s easy.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Definitely something that needs to be fixed though.

            Lustration.

          • AR+ says:

            I fully endorse this position. Just as America defeated Germany but failed to liberate Europe by not pressing the advantage against the Soviet Union, so to will we have defeated Communism yet failed to liberate our minds from Marxism if we continue to tolerate it in our institutions of education.

        • CaptainBooshi says:

          Thanks for the responses, Anon and Anish! I do find it great that Marx muddied his own message to get money, though. That’s just strikes me as just perfectly hilarious.

    • Anonymous says:

      Booshi, in what sense is this a “defense”? A defense against what?

      It seems to me that the question of whether he is responsible for the actions of his followers has very little to do with what he believed. If he is responsible for the actions of people who read it correctly, he is also responsible for the actions of those who misread it in predictable ways. But Anish’s comment is particularly irrelevant: if Marx chose to lie in the Communist Manifesto, that does not excuse him from people following it.

      And whether he caused evil sheds very little light on whether he has interesting or useful things to say. Of course, if he made predictions about the consequences of action, actually happened action could falsify those predictions. They probably do. And you may worry that if he made such mistakes, can we trust his analysis of the present condition? That is a legitimate worry, but most people’s predictions are wrong. Be careful not to hold Marx to a higher standard than people who did not make predictions.

      But regardless of whether he wanted a revolution in Germany (and modern liberal history is generally positive about the 1848 revolutions), he definitely did not expect communism to arise in Russia or China. That is so weird, that it probably qualifies as not a predictable misreading.

      • “Be careful not to hold Marx to a higher standard than people who did not make predictions.”

        Well, it’s better to say “I don’t know” than to make a wild and incorrect prediction.

        On the other hand, if 9 people make a ‘normal-seeming’ prediction and 1 person makes an ‘extraordinary-seeming’ prediction, it’s not necessarily fair to scold the one person when she’s wrong more than you scold the 9 people when they’re wrong. We should reward agnosticism when the people who make confident predictions are wrong, but we shouldn’t reward ‘default’ or ‘mainstream’ predictors when they’re wrong just as often as the radicals.

  9. Anish says:

    First, some meta-level concerns:
    ===

    Weren’t you going to read philosophy backwards? I REALLY feel that you’re doing the same thing here that you were doing Hobbes. Marx isn’t stupid the same way Hobbes wasn’t a Monarchist. If you’re focusing on the obviously wrong, you’re Missing The Point. Did you change your mind since you wrote that post?

    Why are you interested in Marx to being with? A lot of modern Leftist stuff that bears his name has little to do with him. Imagine yourself reading the 1800’s predecessor of neoreaction.

    From the book description on amazon:

    [Singer] sees him as a philosopher primarily concerned with human freedom, rather than as an economist or a social scientist.

    Great, so you’re reading a book that’s about literally the least important things Marx did. Marx was REALLY important as a social scientist, but did moral philosophy pretty much almost as a thing on the side for some spare cash.

    This book isn’t to teach you, Scott, why intellectuals and academics care about Marx. It’s to teach a layman what the politicians are talking about when the mention Marxism.

    The best start would be to read the Wikipedia entry and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry on him. Probably would give you more useful information.

    Object Level Stuff:
    ===

    I get the feeling that you’re reading without knowing what to read for, so here’s the 30second version of what Marx introduced that’s important:

    – Critical Application of Philosophy – He’s the the first one who thought to apply economics, as developed in Britan, and phiosophy as from the German School, and apply it critically to Politics, which was pretty much just a French thing.

    – Historical Materialism and Political Economy – the ideas that you should look at the means of production to understand the organization of society and the economy. Basically if you want to understand socioeconomics, “Follow The Money”. Yes, this was non-obvious in 1800.

    – Class conflict, False consciousness – People didn’t really think about inequality in class terms before Marx. You remember learning about the stratification of imperial Roman society? The reason we draw our “Roman social pyramids” that way is because of Marx.

    – Alienation (some human nature stuff goes here)

    I. I think you’re missing the point here.

    Marx sees capitalism as so explicitly constructed to the captialists’ ends that most systems that infinite monkeys could type out would be “better” (in the sense that he describes in writing in actually very great detail) than capitalism.

    II. Again, this is not what he’s saying.

    The point is that 1800’s psychologists weren’t any better than ours and their understanding of “human nature” are just a bunch of “just so” stories, backed up by studies without statistical rigour, so of course it would reflect their view of society more than it would reality.

    Marx isn’t saying that no one will want more than their fair share “in the final stage” but that it’s going to be pretty damn uncommon and we can deal with the edge case the same way we come up to deal with, for example, sociopaths.

    III.

    It’s not that coordination is easy; it’s that coordination is an embarrassingly parallel task, so it makes more sense for it to be decentralized. Nor does Marx talk about making the state disappear overnight (ugh cf Anarchist/Communist infighting). The deal is that the revolutionary vanguard is supposed to take control of the state apparatus, set up the decentralized institutions to solve the coordination problems, and let them gradually take over. (I swear, that was in the SparkNotes or something!)

    Fluffy/fuzzy-level stuff!
    ===
    I really do hope you read this, think about it, and respond or something. It took me a lot of time to write (I’m bad at English and I have a ton of work I _should_ be doing right now. It’s 2:30AM and I haven’t started.. looking like an all nighter!) but I really like what you post here (lots of True Things that are well argued. hard to find that on the internet) and want to see you understand leftist philosophy, because I think everyone would gain a lot if you were able to incorporate some more of the lefty stuff into your analyses. In particular I don’t think there’s a strong political voice in the Rationalist community that understands what’s going on with MLM and other far-left things.

    • Tom Womack says:

      In no sense is coordination an ’embarrassingly parallel task’; an embarrassingly parallel task is absolutely explicitly one that can be done by multiple uncoordinated workers. If you have ever looked at a middle-manager’s schedule, it becomes clear that splitting the job of doing coordination amongst multiple people is itself a fairly heroic work of coordination!

      • Anish says:

        Ah, sorry.

        1. I was assuming discrete time steps. Continuous times does complicated it a little bit, but I’m pretty sure it’s basically a NN cellular automata problem, where you don’t actually need to deal with how things are continuous.

        2. I’d gotten into the habit of calling things that look like the ising model embarrassingly parallel, which I guess is terrible abuse of the term, but my point is that the number of workers you need to communicate with at each timestep is O(1) in the number of total workers.

        Furthermore this is a task that’s easier for the workers to do than the managers; in particular, I believe it takes each worker O(1), and each manager O(N) at least (more likely something like O(2^N) ?), in the same way that it’s really hard to calculate all the spin-spin interactions of a system, but if you just have to keep track of the details for one, and get input from neighbors, you’re good. It’s a nightmare for middle-managers, but if we eliminate them and split the management load, it’s easy.

        • Steve Johnson says:

          It’s a nightmare for middle-managers, but if we eliminate them and split the management load, it’s easy.

          People have different levels of intelligence and focus. The reason managers are needed is because most people being managed aren’t capable of both managing themselves at their job and doing that job.

          Firms don’t pay managers out of generosity.

          • Anish says:

            Do nepotism and/or stupidity not count as generosity?

            Otherwise I might disagree with you…

          • AR+ says:

            I agree. In my own line of work in the USN, it is certainly true that 2nd and 3rd classes do almost all of the “actual” work in the engine room, which is true if you define work to mean, “putting wrenches to bolts and wax to decks.”

            Nonetheless, it would have been a catastrophic addition to my workload as a 2nd class if I then ALSO had to carry out all the responsibilities of the 1st classes, Chiefs, and JOs, very little of which consists of looking over the shoulders of the underlings and making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be. I think some people who want to abolish managers seem to think that the last bit there is a much larger fraction of their jobs than it is, and which they assume would simply not be needed once everybody became fully self-motivating at the liberation of the proletariat.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Do nepotism and/or stupidity not count as generosity?

            So go out and start a firm with no management and eat everyone’s lunch.

            Every firm out there is stupid so it should be easy, right?

          • Anish says:

            So go out and start a firm with no management and eat everyone’s lunch.

            Every firm out there is stupid so it should be easy, right?

            Barriers to entry.

            I mean like half the point of Marx is that firms that work manipulate political economy to make sure no one else can do it.

            That said, a lot of newer firms (one formed after the “progressive reformers” went away and stopped added extra management everywhere) have little to no management (eg Valve).

          • Steve Johnson says:

            I mean like half the point of Marx is that firms that work manipulate political economy to make sure no one else can do it.

            That said, a lot of newer firms

            Guess they don’t do such a good job of it then.

            Or that “half the point of Marx” is blatantly, obviously wrong.

          • Anish says:

            >Guess they don’t do such a good job of it then.

            Unless they’re owned by more or less the same people. Then they did a perfect job.

          • lmm says:

            We see new firms mostly in new industries. Valve isn’t pushing out established competitors, they’re creating a new market.

          • peterdjones says:

            Read yer Dilbert. Workers aren’t necessarily illiterate serfs, managers aren’t necessarily competent.

            Also: managers deicide each other compensation in many cases…what incentives does that create?

        • oneforward says:

          The coordination problems Scott worries about are generally not like the Ising model.

          Specifically, the Ising model has no notion of “individual energy” that each spin minimizes independently of the total energy of the system. The lowest energy state for a particular spin always also minimizes the total energy (assuming other spins are fixed).

          Contrast this with prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons. The difficulty there is not computational – everyone knows they would be better off if everyone cooperates than if everyone defects. They still have an incentive to defect when others are cooperating.

          Moreover, even the Ising model benefits from management. It’s easy to get stuck in a local minimum. If all the spins are aligned opposite to the external magnetic field, flipping any one spin may increase the system energy, while flipping all of them decreases it.

    • Tracy W says:

      I find your claims in the 30 second one doubtful.

      For a start, what do you mean by politics being a French thing? Do you mean that English-language writers before Marx only combined French philosophical ideas with economics to analyse politics? If that’s what you mean, then what did adding German philosophical ideas add to the politics analysis?

      On the concept that Marx was the first to write about the means of production to understand the organisation of the economy and society, that’s wrong. Adam Smith discusses that at several points in the 18th century, for example chapter 3 of book 3 of the Wealth of Nations is a discussion of how the diversity of consumer goods caused the military power of the local landowners to diminish, ending feudalism (where there was access to these consumer goods of course. Also I’m simplifying his historical analysis here.)

      The notion that people didn’t think about inequality in class terms before Marx is also wrong. To quote Adam Smith again:

      Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.

      And there are numerous other references to different orders of people and their different economic and political interests in Adam Smiths book. Plus of course writers like Jane Austen were well aware of the different classes in society.

      As for alienation, “human nature stuff” has been the subject of writers since at least the Ancient Greeks. Although, as on the combination of philosophy and economics, I may be misunderstanding you badly.

      • Anish says:

        Yeah, sorry, I’m not doing a good job of explaining anything. In part it’s because I don’t particularly intend to; while I’d would love to write “Bayes to Bourgeoisie: Marxist Philosophy for Yudkowskian Rationalists”, I just don’t have the time. My “30 second version” is just a “reading guide” if you will, as to what to keep your eyes out for when you’re reading Marx/about Marx.

        What I’m saying is, I don’t expect you find these arguments convincing. They’re not arguments. They’re a “syllabus” for topics to keep your eyes out for authors that actually make these arguments (and they’re pretty long when you write them out) when you’re self-studying Marx. And I’m writing them because it’s way harder to learn something when you have no idea what you’re looking for.

        For a start, what do you mean by politics being a French thing? Do you mean that English-language writers before Marx only combined French philosophical ideas with economics to analyse politics? If that’s what you mean, then what did adding German philosophical ideas add to the politics analysis?

        So in Marx’s time, schools of philosophy were very separate. Your political philosophy was done in the French School, your, well, “German,” (sorry I actually don’t know a better word… pre-existential-type stuff?) philosophy in Germany, and your Economics was all done in England. Combining Hegel and French politics was coming into fashion when Marx did it, but he had the idea to do a Hegelian analysis of labour as studied by the English Economicsts, and applying _that_ to french political philosophy.

        As for alienation, “human nature stuff” has been the subject of writers since at least the Ancient Greeks. Although, as on the combination of philosophy and economics, I may be misunderstanding you badly.

        Yeah, so Marx isn’t the first to talk about human nature. He is, however the first to talk about the alienation of labour. I actually didn’t explain this at all because I was just saying to keep an eye out for the word alienation. He applies a Hegelian analysis of labour to say, essentially, [more qualifying words go here] that when bosses say to “love your job,” they really don’t have your best interests at heart (again, vast oversimplification, but keeping this in mind while reading people talking about Marx is helpful)

        On the concept that Marx was the first to write about the means of production to understand the organisation of the economy and society, that’s wrong.

        And there are numerous other references to different orders of people and their different economic and political interests in Adam Smiths book. Plus of course writers like Jane Austen were well aware of the different classes in society.

        Yeah, I’m oversimplifying. Marx isn’t quite the first to think about class at all; what he did was put together a framework for thinking about class (which has been improved upon a bunch over the years, but that’s neither here or there). Sure, other people were thinking about class occasionally, but no one else developed a systematic way to analyse political economy the way Marx did.

        I guess my point is, you’re not going to learn Marx by reading the little things I write as comments on Scott’s blog.

        http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

        is written by people who know way more than I do about him and have spent way more time putting this together. Like I said, keep an eye out for the phrases ‘alienation’ and ‘politically economy’; they’re the important ones.

        • Tracy W says:

          Hold on, there were hordes of French economists and British political philosophers. Most of the economic theories Adam Smith respondes to were French: Jacques Turgot, François Quesnay, Jean-Baptiste Say were all around before Marx. On the British side, Hobbes, J. S Mills and Burke were certainly writing political philosophy. Not to mention that Adam Smith was Scottish, not English.
          There was a whole shared community of ideas across Western Europe. To claim that economics was English and political philosophy was French before Marx doesn’t match with history.

          As for Marx’s framework for class analysis – it’s over-simplified compared to Adam Smith’s. Smith had the same idea of self-interest but also combined it with other ideas about say the ease of cooperating with other members of your group (eg when he explains why farmers don’t have the barriers to entry one sees in guilds in a city), and the limits of knowledge, (eg when he talks about merchants convincing landowners to act against their interests. ) Marx was a step back in terms of sophistication on class analysis.

          Alienation has always struck me as a very weak psychological problem, if it exists at all. Household servants are very close to the results of their labour but men and women fled those jobs to work in factories as the opportunities became available. Doctors and teachers and the like are highly alienated from the product of their labour but don’t strike me as particularly miserable. Miners in Thatcher England fought the closure of their mines desperately despite the job being not merely alienating according to Marx, but frequently lethal. There are of course many different facets to the relative attractiveness of jobs, so we can’t conclude from these examples that alienation doesn’t exist, just that if it does exist, it’s probably not that important.

    • Vilhelm S says:

      The “30 second” list is what I came here to write, so +1!

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Can you give a 30 second summary of what a Marx approved alternative to capitalism would look like?

      • Anish says:

        I can try. Here’s the “Mao Zedong model,” which I think he’d call a “good start” or something.

        Don’t change anything about capitalism. Have the state take over _ownership_ of all corporations. Now all of the means of production are ultimately owned by the state. I-Banks etc still exist and manage money for corporations, and there’s a market where you can buy and sell capital, but when you ultimately follow the chain of ownership, the profits (and the ownership of capital) go to the state. (yeah there are a bunch of details I’m leaving out, but I think I’m near my 30 second limit. if you want a little more detail, this jacobin piece isn’t the best, but it’s the only reasonably short thing I’ve read that discusses the topic)

        This goes a long way in terms of helping alleviate the effects of capitalist political economy (now we don’t have capitalists that are trying to change laws to get more profits because _all_ the profits go to the state _anyways_), but doesn’t really help at all when it comes to the alienation of labour, but I don’t think that’s something Marx really expects to be solved before we get to the utopia-building phase of our cvilization.

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Thank you. Do you think that system is better than Capitalism? I think that it results in a noticeably worse quality of life for the people than a capitalist system (Taiwan, Hong Kong).

          • Anish says:

            I think that it results in a noticeably worse quality of life for the people than a capitalist system

            China seems much better off for it. Before the Maoist revolution, somehow it wasn’t even economically possible to be a modern doctors in China! There just weren’t doctors!

            (Taiwan, Hong Kong)

            This seems to me a bit like saying that NYC is really good for finance and business because of high property values. Well, there’s a correlation, but it seems to me like causation runs the other way. In particular, Hong Kong, (and to a lesser degree Taiwan) were much MUCH nicer places to live than China before the revolution, and Maoist policy did a whole lot for closing that gap.

            If you ask any economist, regardless of his politics, e’ll find it hard to disagree that quality of life and GDP increased rapidly after the Chinese revolution, and is still doing so, and at a rate that’s almost completely unprecedented. The closest example we have is Japan, and it _already_ had all that infrastructure that China had to build from scratch (it just needed rebuilding after WW II).

          • Jaskologist says:

            So, I guess we’re just pretending the Great Famine and starvation of 50 million+ Chinese didn’t happen? (Let alone the Cultural Revolution.)

            And this painting of Taiwan as a place that just happened to already be advanced is ludicrous. They were poor, and had to industrialize the same as anyone else.

          • The Anonymouse says:

            Oh, Jask. Omelettes, eggs. You know that. Some things just must be done, and others were just tragic, totally unforeseeable mistakes.

            Stalin and Mao were just misunderstood. Just ask some of the commenters here.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Stalin and Mao were just misunderstood.

            Jim has convinced me that this is actually true for Stalin.

            The USSR was in the grips of a leftist singularity and everyone would eventually have been murdered (anyone insufficiently leftist deserved execution, leaving behind purer leftists – who were still not pure enough or leftist enough and would eventually be purged – until everyone was dead). Stalin stopped this spiral by creating a coordination point – “Stalin is the embodiment of the revolution” and if you claimed to be more leftist and hence more holy than Stalin, Stalin had you shot. That stopped the leftist spiral.

        • alexp says:

          I may not be understanding you correctly, but are you praising Mao’s economic system?

          China’s economic growth is due to the country abandoning (in all but name) Mao’s economic system.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The backwards philosophy is a good point. I guess because there were people who called themselves “Marxists” whom I appear to disagree with, I figured that Marx’s insights had not yet been so thoroughly absorbed into the culture that I was already saturated by them. But I guess it’s possible that Marx’s good insights have saturated the culture, and the Marxists differ from the rest of us only in also accepting some of his worse insights.

      I’m interested in Marx because it seemed a good starting point; I figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyone else who considered themselves at least vaguely Marxist if I didn’t have a good understanding of him.

      I’m not sure what you mean by coordination being a parallel or decentralized task. If there are people describing how you can do decentralized coordination, then I’d like to be reading them instead.

      Your English seems fine. Thanks for responding to me.

      (what does MLM stand for?)

      • social justice warlock says:

        Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

      • oneforward says:

        For parallel coordination Anish seems to be thinking of problems like “how do water molecules coordinate to orient themselves in the right directions to form an ice crystal.” Once your system is set up so that everyone following their own local incentives leads to a good global outcome, you don’t need a higher authority telling people what to do. At that point, it’s easier for each individual to figure out what to do than for a manager to optimize the system as a whole.

        (Is this what you meant Anish?)

        This puts all the difficult work into the “set up the decentralized institutions to solve the coordination problems” part.

      • Anish says:

        The backwards philosophy is a good point. I guess because there were people who called themselves “Marxists” whom I appear to disagree with, I figured that Marx’s insights had not yet been so thoroughly absorbed into the culture that I was already saturated by them. But I guess it’s possible that Marx’s good insights have saturated the culture, and the Marxists differ from the rest of us only in also accepting some of his worse insights.

        There’s a lemma of combinatorics known as Burnsides’ Lemma. It’s also know as The Lemma That Is Not Burnsides’, because damn near every other lemma in the field is by him, just not the one that is named for him.

        I claim that not only that Marx’s good insights saturate our culture, but also that Marxists’ insights, good or bad, are not by Marx. There’s a long communist history of theory and practice that include a lot of people with Good Ideas (and some with Bad Ideas. It’s not always clear which are which) all of which get thrown into the banner of “Marxism,” most of which are not common in our culture (“yet”).

        It sounds like you haven’t read the article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_economics , which seems like what you would do if you didn’t really know what you were looking for in any specifics, rather than sitting down and reading Singer’s Book. It does a reasonable job of listing the few big ideas.

        But for serious introduction to the philosophy of Marxists …well, I was looking for something to link you to, but I think Dave (the anime ninja avatar) above found something more relevant than what I was going to post, so read the links in his post.

        I’m interested in Marx because it seemed a good starting point; I figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyone else who considered themselves at least vaguely Marxist if I didn’t have a good understanding of him.

        It’s funny you say that, because I was _convinced_ read history of philosophy backwards was especially inspired by Marxists.

        I’m not sure what you mean by coordination being a parallel or decentralized task. If there are people describing how you can do decentralized coordination, then I’d like to be reading them instead.

        Then you’re probably not looking for but definitely want to read the anarchists. Here’s a wiki link dump:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decentralized_planning_(economics)
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_economics (I think you’ll be especially interested in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_economics#Left-wing_market_anarchism )
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutualism_(economic_theory)
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers%27_self-management
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_economics#Anarchism_economics_in_practice:_the_Spanish_Revolution
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionary_Catalonia

        (I assume you know more about where to get the analytic-y stuff than I do; I generally try not to spend too much time among people doing anything that looks like actual economics because at my school it tends to attract a lot of people who have no idea what they’re doing and think they’re going to get rich doing it, which has led me to kinda neglect the subject itself.)

        For parallel coordination Anish seems to be thinking of problems like “how do water molecules coordinate to orient themselves in the right directions to form an ice crystal.” Once your system is set up so that everyone following their own local incentives leads to a good global outcome, you don’t need a higher authority telling people what to do. At that point, it’s easier for each individual to figure out what to do than for a manager to optimize the system as a whole.

        This is exactly what I was trying to invoke!

        This puts all the difficult work into the “set up the decentralized institutions to solve the coordination problems” part.

        A project that some call Communism. Anarchists prefer to separate themselves from the communists and call this project “The Revolution” but the basic idea is the same. The consensus seems to be that most of the difficulty lies not in setting up these decentralized institutions, but getting people to give up the centralized institutions they have a lot of sunk costs into (and maybe some cash flow they’re skimming off the top)

        >Your English seems fine

        Err, sorry. Didn’t meant to imply that I’m a non-native speaker; just that I’m bad at words (for Reasons…) and that it takes me a while to compose these.

  10. FillerCrowley says:

    a jumping-off point for learning more leftist philosophy
    Oh boy, this is gonna be a treat. A word of warning: you are going to encounter much worse than this, so, maybe learn some relaxation techniques beforehand.

    I think you would like the analytical Marxists. They were a variety of social scientists, philosophers, and economists in the 80s who tried to salvage what they could from Marx using contemporary, “non-bullshit” techniques–analytical philosophy, neoclassical economics, game theory, rational choice theory, methodological individualism, etc. For example, John Roemer in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class

    formalized and made precise some essential parts of Marxian economics, [and] proceeded to show that the labor theory of value and the notions of exploitation and class raised upon it self-destruct. (His proof that capitalism is impossible without the exploitation of steel is particularly delicious.) This led him to chuck the labor theory of value (saying, in his essay “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?” that it “almost always gives incorrect insights” and makes “Ptolemaic” errors), and to propose a new notion of exploitation based on game-theory and inequality in property relations.

    (that comes from Cosma Shalizi, who has written some interesting stuff on socialism, including this and this)
    Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx might be a good follow-up to Singer.

    I think you’re probably right to avoid Marx himself if you’re trying to get the gist of leftist thought–as Chris Dillow (another good lefty to look at!) said, “his insights were buried under a lot of mumbo-jumbo functional explanation and Hegelianism. Put it this way. No-one has put the case for liberty better than John Stuart Mill. But plenty of people have expressed Marx’s ideas better than Marx.” But Marx is actually a pretty good writer (by pre-learned-how-to-be-interesting standards), so he might be worth reading just for that. I like The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon quite a bit!

  11. Viliam Búr says:

    I will start with some devil’s advocacy. When you suggest a new complex system, it would be difficult to get all details right on the first try. Knowing this, it is better to not give any specific blueprints too soon, because they will likely contain some error, and your opponents will use the specific errors of one specific blueprint to dismiss the whole idea. (As an analogy, people from MIRI also talk a lot about paperclip maximizers, but they haven’t published a specific code for a Friendly AI yet.) Let’s say that both Soviet Union and Sweden are possible instances of the “socialism” concept. If we could predict the problems of Soviet Union in advance, we could avoid a lot of human suffering. But if we only had this example in mind, we would never think about Sweden. (End of devil’s advocacy. I am not saying that Sweden is a fair example of socialism, only using it to illustrate the idea that “one instance bad” doesn’t imply “all instances bad (in the same way)”, but your hastily generated blueprint could happen to be a bad instance, and it may make people believe that all instances would be the same.)

    Seems to me there is some analogy with belief in the free market. Let’s say that you live in an economy where all prices are dictated by the government. And you invented this new “market price” concept. Let’s suppose that an important goverment official really likes your idea and tells you: “So, please tell me what specifically those market prices are (since obviously you are the greatest expert on this), and I will consider setting the prices exactly to this market price. This is what you want, don’t you?” And you would object that this approach misses the point completely. Yes, at the end, that market price is some specific number, and you could try to estimate it, and maybe you could get rather close with high probability, and maybe using this method would be much better than using whatever method the government is using to set prices now… but the idea is that the prices should really be set by the market, not by some government official, even if they are trying to examine and predict the market.

    Analogically, the government in Utopia should be what the workers want it to be. Not what Marx wants it to be. Not even what Marx predicts that the workers will want; even if there could be a chance that his prediction could be close. Having the debate about “what would workers choose” instead of just letting the workers choose, violates the whole spirit of the idea. It is like government officials debating about “what would the market prices be”; the irresponsibility of doing so is the temptation, if they believe their predictions to be solid, to just dictate those predicted values instead of letting the market do its job. Analogically, the irresponsibility of asking Marx to predict what the workers want, is that if his answer is convincing, the revolutionaries will be tempted to just dictate this specific system to the workers instead of letting the workers choose the system.

    Now, the obvious problem with this reasoning is that Marx have correctly noticed that removing the feudal lords didn’t bring Utopia, but “Moloch in capitalism” instead; but he probably failed to realize that abolishing capitalism would analogically bring “Moloch in the Communist Party” or “Moloch in the worker’s committees”. That the leaders of the Communist Party could simply optimize for their power, using even executions, assasinations, and genocide. Or that the groups of workers may focus on zero-sum games against other groups of workers; or workers in one group against other workers in the same group. And that those who don’t play these games will simply lose against those who do. (In other words, the problem is not capitalism per se, it’s Moloch, and he is more than ready to adapt to socialism.) A charitable explanation could be that perhaps he believed that each following incarnation of Moloch is weaker than the previous one, and the “Moloch in capitalism” is the last version which has to be defeated by revolution; the following version will be weak enough to solve peacefully. (But is there any argument for this, besides wishful thinking?)

    • Tracy W says:

      Interestingly, the Heritage Foundation of Economic Freedom has Sweden as the 20th freest in the world. Its score on the Index is dragged down by labour freedom and government spending, but the Swedish economy really protects property rights, investment freedom and trade freedom.

      The Nordic countries generally score high on this list, arguably they pay for their large welfare states by being very economically efficient. Which may be a valid choice but doesn’t fit in with what people normally think of as socialist.

  12. Vegemeister says:

    Better not let Multiheaded see this, or he’ll send you to the gulag.

    As someone who would likely be gulag’d under that regime, I promise to collaborate with any confederation to prevent Multi from gaining enough power to send people to gulags. Furthermore, I promise to send Multi to the gulag, should I ever gain that much power myself, so that he may be incentivized to prevent me from gaining that power.

    Provided we act symmetrically, there should be nothing to worry about.

  13. GG says:

    This is off-topic, but I need to know: Scott, I wish to contact you privately. (I promise it will be brief and not unpleasant.) Where do I e-mail you, so that you get my message?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      scott [at] shireroth [dot] org

      • AR+ says:

        Do you honestly think that this trick still fools automated e-mail collectors? That in the past decades of people using this trick to obscure e-mails, the people who write those programs wouldn’t have thought to parse [at], (at), etc as @?

        At least use an image file. Sheesh.

        • Do you honestly think that it matters? My spam filters have gotten so good that I don’t even bother to obscure my email anymore (when I choose to publicize it).

        • Army1987 says:

          So long as there still are people who write out unobscured e-mail addresses around, why would they bother to do that? “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!” Especially given that (I guess) people who are more likely to obscure their addresses are less likely to take the bait of Nigerian scams and the like, and hence it’s less useful to span to them.

  14. aguycalledjohn says:

    I’m not sure how relevant Marx is to understanding the modern liberal/left idea cluster, given how pretty much every successful left wing political group in the west has explicitly disavowed him, but he does have an important historical impact in the rise of labour movements etc.

    *EDIT*

    Mill and Rawls might be more relevant. But for day to day politics a lot of it has been overtaken by a more political science mindset. Maybe look at some stuff about Blairism or third way centrism. Or the social democrat models.

  15. social justice warlock says:

    Garbage in, garbage out: you should read something other than Singer. (I second the Cohen recommendation above, which is highly controversial for [reasons] but actually contains ideas and arguments and things.)

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Strongly suspect that it isn’t going to live up to challenge of illustrating what a left alternative to capitalism would look like.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Cohen is $35 and 400+ pages. Anything shorter I could use as a taster before I jump in?

      • social justice warlock says:

        $0 version, if you’re interested.

        Several study guides which may be of interest, and which I’ve tried to make as nonpartisan as possible.

        For economics, the best short introduction is probably Fine and Saad-Filho’s Marx’s ‘Capital’. For theory of history, I’d say the short-form classic is probably Plekhanov’s the Materialist Conception of History. For stuff like normative concerns or liberty or human nature or whatever you’d have to ask someone else, but I generally see them as not particularly interesting or essential.

  16. Anonymous says:

    “If you admit that, capitalists having disappeared, there’s still going to be competition, positive and negative sum games, free rider problems, tragedies of the commons, and all the rest, then you’ve got to invent a system that solves all of those issues better than capitalism does.”

    Apparently trivial, given how Cold War went. If you ignore starting conditions, you can come to the absurd (and commonly held) conclusion that the USSR was a complete failure. But with starting conditions, you have a country that was the whipping boy of Europe turning into a country that could trivially crush the rest of Europe and was only matched in might by the United States, and then undergoing a huge decrease in power when it stopped being “communist.”

    The USSR was the first to space, created the fastest underwater missile, the biggest throw-weight ICBM, the most efficient LOX-Kerosene engine, and the most efficient uranium refining system. Those are some *unambiguous* advantages. And in other matters, like airplane and SAM design and construction, it was competitive. The West certainly outdid the USSR overall – but the fact of the matter is that the West started out way, way ahead of the USSR, and ended up having to work quite hard to stay ahead technologically.

    Then the Soviet system disappears, destroyed by Soviet leadership. Was the result a renaissance of technological development, because now the Soviet system wasn’t holding Russia back? No, completely the opposite. Everything is consistent with the Soviet system outperforming every other system (at least by the metric of technological advancement.)

    Now, I am not saying this in order to advocate for the Soviet system in particular. I think the Nazis also did a remarkable job at technological advancement, for example. I am trying to dispel the notion that the system – “capitalism” or “communism” – is what really matters. If a country has resources, and the elite in that country really genuinely want to get competitive more than they want whatever other stupid things the elite get tied up in caring about, then good technological things will happen. The system through which the elite exert their power is totally secondary.

    So, doing better than “capitalism” is trivial, and “capitalist” places readily replace capitalism with “get things done”-ism when they really want to get things done. Nobody thought the free market would win us world war two, or keep us competitive during the cold war. The cold war was American “get things done”-ism vs Soviet “get things done”-ism, and the Soviets were more desperate and got more impressive results (if you take starting conditions into account.)

    It certainly was not “capitalism vs communism.” Capitalism obviously does not work in the same ways that communism obviously does not work, and it isn’t a question of “free riders” or any such interesting game-theoretic nonsense. It’s a question of *getting things done.* You don’t get things done by leaving things to the free market in the case of capitalism, or to the proletariat in the case of communism. You get things done by using power to compel people to do what the fuck you tell them to do.

    Whether I compel you directly with my spear, or indirectly through my money (and your family living in poverty if you don’t get money), or indirectly through my party influence (and you ending up in Siberia if you fall out of favor) really isn’t the issue. The way things get done is always through the elite compelling the rest.

    If the way things happened in the West was that the only way to get money was through the free market, then of course we could call the second form of compulsion “capitalist.” But the fact of the matter is that the system is rigged so that the rich can’t lose – see the bailouts as an example – and so the veil is lifted. When the non-elite lose, it’s business as usual. When the elite lose, the system is turned on its head as much as is necessary so that the loss is averted. It is possible to climb by playing the capitalism game, but that’s largely about getting positions through who you know, and as such is in essence the same as any other social power system. It is “capitalist” in the sense that it is totally market driven much the same way as the USSR was “communist” in the sense that it was totally proletariat driven.

    The difference is the USSR wasted far less time on trying to stick to “communist” principles than the West is wasting trying to stick to “free market” principles. Not that that’s a function of “communist” principles being better, more a function of the USSR elite being aware of their inferior position and being correspondingly desperate. If the USSR started ahead its elite would waste time on ideological nonsense the same way the western elite does.

    • Tracy W says:

      When in the 19th century was Russia “the whipping boy of Europe”? It was the third largest empire by landmass in history (after the British and Mongol empires) and defeated Napoleon. It incorporated Finland and large swathes of Poland. It lost some wars, eg the Crime and, but then so did France (against Prussia).
      In the early 20th century it did lose against Japan and badly lose WWI. But Britain totally failed to defend Singapore against Japan in WWII and France collapsed against Germany in WWII. Are those countries also the whipping boys of Europe?

      And late Tsarist Russia’s recorded economic growth was mostly very strong.

      The claim that the Soviet Union could have trivially defeated all of the rest of Europe seems frankly unbelievable, given the problems it had in Afghanistan. Yes, Afghans had the USA providing weapons, but Britain and France were and are big arms producers in their own right. My memory from history class is that the Americans stayed in Europe to defend West Germany from the Russians so that the West Germans wouldn’t start arming again to try to defend themselves, thus making the French and Britain nervous thus risking starting WWI again.

      • Anonymous says:

        “In the early 20th century it did lose against Japan and badly lose WWI. But Britain totally failed to defend Singapore against Japan in WWII and France collapsed against Germany in WWII. Are those countries also the whipping boys of Europe?”

        Re: France – the WW2 loss to Germany is not the same as losing to *Japan.* Not remotely. And France’s WW2 loss was not remotely as brutal as Russia’s showing in WW1 – France had really decent hardware, marred by god-awful leadership that was unwilling to be flexible in the face of German assault. Russia was essentially sending men into a meat grinder on the Eastern front…

        Re: Britain – failing to defend Singapore isn’t even losing a war, so I am not sure what the point is.

        “The claim that the Soviet Union could have trivially defeated all of the rest of Europe seems frankly unbelievable, given the problems it had in Afghanistan.”

        This is a hilariously bad way to estimate military prowess, akin to putting the US behind Vietnam in military capability because they lost that “war.” There are two kinds of “wars” that get the name in the modern discourse – actual wars, and occupations. You don’t “win” occupations until no significant number of armed people in the country you’re occupying are willing to carry out attacks against you. Occupations are trivially won once you have won the actual war, but only if you are willing to burn and pulverize cities full of innocents to rubble, and keep doing that until either there’s nobody left to oppose you or all opposing factions in the area surrender.

        If you’re not willing to do that, then an occupation is primarily a matter of endurance and negotiating skill rather than military might. Much like Americans, the Soviets were fucking god awful at public relations with the occupied. And they didn’t even have America’s ability and proclivity to bribe.

        The Soviets weren’t willing to raze the whole of Afghanistan, though they were totally capable of it. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Soviet military hardware can tell you that this isn’t in any doubt.

        “Britain and France were and are big arms producers in their own right”

        Not on the level of the US or the USSR. Look at the nuke numbers. Look at the numbers for other military articles. Look at the tech the respective countries developed. The US and the USSR are head, shoulders, and torso above the rest.

        • Tracy W says:

          Actually France losing to Germany in WWI is rather similar to Russia losing in WWI. And my understanding of WWI is that everyone was sending men into a meat grinder. The Russian soldiers were underequipped relatively, but the same was true of the Soviet soldiers in WWII.

          The point of Japan/Britain in WWII is that Britain entirely failed to defend its territories against the Japanese, yet no one calls it the whipping boy of Europe. “Whipping boy” is incredibly strong language, it implies that someone can be hurt with impunity. That wasn’t Tsarist Russia anymore than it was WWII UK. Both places occasionally lost, but no one in their right mind would attack them expecting an easy win.

          “Trivially crush” is an incredibly strong phrase and you haven’t justified it. You complain about me using Afghanistan but don’t cite a single example to support your claim of trivially crushing. Russia pulverising Europe: why would Europe have sat there and taken it? France and UK have and had nukes, bombers, fighter planes, etc. Western Europe alone had 256 million people in 1950, compared to the Soviet Union’s 176 million (see Angus Maddison) and a bigger economy. The reason they weren’t outproducing the USSR militarily is that they had the US doing it for them, in the interests of neutralising Germany, not that they technically couldn’t. If they regarded the Soviet Union as a military threat that the USA wasn’t going to defend them against, they could have ramped up military production (although bad political leadership could have easily subsequently led to Western Europe ripping itself apart over distrust of Germany.) Plus European forces would be operating on their own territory, lessening logistics problems, and western Europe is well-connected to the sea.

          I’m not going to commit the opposite of your error and say that the Soviet Union couldn’t have won. A good strategy and/or bad leadership on the European side (something certainly with historical support), could have done it. I dispute your phrase “trivial.”

          • Anonymous says:

            “The reason they weren’t outproducing the USSR militarily is that they had the US doing it for them”

            Playing second fiddle to the US admittedly worked out fine, but it proves my point precisely – that the US and USSR overtook Europe because they perceived a need to develop technically and militarily.

            “not that they technically couldn’t”

            If they didn’t, they couldn’t. The whole point of my post was that (perceived) necessity is the mother of invention. If the elite don’t kick things into gear, you get relative technological stagnation. And western Europe certainly stagnated compared to the USSR, when you’re comparing their respective start and end positions.

          • Tracy W says:

            If they didn’t, they couldn’t.

            At which point I note that the Soviets didn’t crush all of Europe, so according to your logic, they couldn’t.
            I think your logic has problems.

            As for relative technical stagnation – that doesn’t match with all sorts of accounts of people who travelled or lived in the two areas.

          • Anonymous says:

            “At which point I note that the Soviets didn’t crush all of Europe, so according to your logic, they couldn’t.”

            Nah. My logic is about when and whether elites decide to kick capabilities into high gear. The Soviets clearly did. They clearly could crush all Europe, even leaving aside their considerable conventional capabilities. Didn’t = couldn’t when it comes to what I have been talking about this whole time, which is getting elites to kick things into high gear. That’s what I am claiming is incredibly important – of course if you say “well they *could* have” you’re entirely missing the point.

            “As for relative technical stagnation – that doesn’t match with all sorts of accounts of people who travelled or lived in the two areas.”

            I’m considering capability (overall ability to do relevant things) not about things like consumer goods. The nation that explores space and has an order of magnitude more of the most powerful device ever invented and has more advanced delivery systems for those devices is the more capable nation overall. I’m weighting space very highly, but then I would seeing as it is of incredible strategic, scientific, and cultural importance.

            I agree completely with the notion that if European elites decide they want to get things done they can get a lot done. Hitler proved that by developing the technology we still use to go to space while fighting a hell of a war. There’s a lot of latent capability there – but here’s the thing – it also had a lot more latent capability than Russia, and ended up way behind in actualized capability. That’s the importance of leadership.

            The default is leaders wasting time/money/energy on stupid bullshit. How you get elites to not do that is the interesting question. Clear threat of destruction is one clear way – would be interested in others.

        • Matthew says:

          Russia’s showing in World War I was actually rather more complicated than that. Russia performed dismally against Germany, but Brusilov was actually quite successful against Austria-Hungary for a while.

    • Princess_Stargirl says:

      Even accepting yoiur historical analysis the Soviet Union’s horrible treatment of its own people is not excused. I think its plausible to argue that almost all of the most powerful nations have extreme human rights abuses (the USA included due to its vast prison population and actions abroad). But that would just suggest “get it done – ism” is going to decimate alot of people’s live. And should be avoided when possible.

      • Anonymous says:

        “But that would just suggest “get it done – ism” is going to decimate alot of people’s live.”

        I dunno, I don’t think there’s some deal with the devil where you *have* to ruin lots of people’s lives in order to kick people into gear, any more than those truck engines *have* to kick out rolls of black smoke. It’s a competence/efficiency thing. You can get people scared without really doing too much, and you can use motivators besides fear. I think that in both the US and the USSR’s case, the real groundbreaking work got done by people with already quite high status looking for more.

        The issue is that instead of using their power/wealth/whatever to get people to do groundbreaking things, elites like to use it for stupid luxury shit and ideological money/effort pits. The people who actually need their feet held to the fire are the elite, not the workers. Good workers are generally quite happy to work, and thrilled if they are working on something groundbreaking and exciting.

  17. Dave Rolsky says:

    I haven’t read about this in a long time, but there’s something called Participatory Economics (or parecon) that attempts to describe a complete socialist economic system. I disagree with some of it, but it’s a lot more concrete and grounded than Marx!

  18. Kaj Sotala says:

    Reading Singer’s book actually improved my opinion on Marx.

    Some stuff that I liked:

    – Previously, many leftists had given me the impression that they didn’t really understand economics. Finding out that Marx did understand economics, but that he held it to be treating the current social situation as a given and it to not be properly considering alternative arrangements, seemed like an improvement, and also made the opinions of a lot of current-day leftists more sensible.

    – I had heard a lot of talk about the capitalists oppressing the workers, but apparently Marx didn’t actually feel the capitalists were evil people: he just felt like they were trapped in the same system as everyone else, and *had* to squeeze the maximum profits out of the workers in order to not be outcompeted by other capitalists. This seems correct, and thus an improvement on the strawmannish “capitalists are EVIL” meme that I had kept hearing.

    – The stuff about alienation sounded roughly correct, e.g.:

    Ideally the objects workers have freely created would be theirs to keep or dispose of as they wish. When, under conditions of alienated labour, workers must produce objects over which they have no control (because the objects belong to the employers) and which are used against those who produced them (by increasing the wealth and power of the employers) the workers are alienated from their essential humanity.

    A consequence of this alienation of humans from their own nature is that they are also alienated from each other. Productive activity becomes ‘activity under the domination, coercion and yoke of another man’. This other man becomes an alien, hostile being. Instead of humans relating to each other co-operatively, they relate competitively. Love and trust are replaced by bargaining and exchange. Human beings cease to recognize in each other their common human nature; they see others as instruments for furthering their own egoistic interests. […]

    One might expect that Marx would go on to explain in some detail what communism would be like. He does not – in fact nowhere in his writings does he give more than sketchy suggestions on this subject. He does, however, gesture at the enormous difference communism would make. All human senses, he claims, are degraded by private property. The dealer in minerals sees the market value of the jewels he handles, not their beauty. In the alienated condition caused by private property we cannot appreciate anything except by possessing it, or using it as a means. The abolition of private property will liberate our senses from this alienated condition, and enable us to appreciate the world in a truly human way just as the musical ear perceives a wealth of meaning and beauty where the unmusical ear can find none, so will the senses of social human beings differ from those of the unsocial.

    I don’t know how much of this was true at Marx’s time, but much of it seems to be true in the modern world, with many people working in jobs at feel increasingly meaningless to them, competing for materialist status symbols, corporations having given up the old notion of loyalty to their employees, etc. My favorite piece analyzing some of this in the modern world is Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (later expanded to a book of the same name, which I have not read); the whole thing is worth a read, but to pick just one excerpt:

    Given their likely acquaintance with such a cognitively rich world of work [as building cars by hand], it is hardly surprising that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, workers simply walked out. One of Ford’s biographers wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

    This would seem to be a crucial moment in the history of political economy. Evidently, the new system provoked natural revulsion. Yet, at some point, workers became habituated to it. How did this happen? One might be tempted to inquire in a typological mode: What sort of men were these first, the 100 out of 963 who stuck it out on the new assembly line? Perhaps it was the men who felt less revulsion because they had less pride in their own powers, and were therefore more tractable. Less republican, we might say. But if there was initially such a self-selection process, it quickly gave way to something less deliberate, more systemic.

    In a temporary suspension of the Taylorist logic, Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers to keep the line staffed. As Braverman writes, this “opened up new possibilities for the intensification of labor within the plants, where workers were now anxious to keep their jobs.” These anxious workers were more productive. Indeed, Ford himself later recognized his wage increase as “one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made,” as he was able to double, and then triple, the rate at which cars were assembled by simply speeding up the conveyors. By doing so he destroyed his competitors, and thereby destroyed the possibility of an alternative way of working. (It also removed the wage pressure that comes from the existence of more enjoyable jobs.) At the Columbian World Expo held in Chicago in 1893, no fewer than seven large-scale carriage builders from Cincinnati alone presented their wares. Adopting Ford’s methods, the industry would soon be reduced to the Big Three. So workers eventually became habituated to the abstraction of the assembly line. Evidently, it inspires revulsion only if one is acquainted with more satisfying modes of work.

    Here the concept of wages as compensation achieves its fullest meaning, and its central place in modern economy. Changing attitudes toward consumption seemed to play a role. A man whose needs are limited will find the least noxious livelihood and work in a subsistence mode, and indeed the experience of early (eighteenth-century) capitalism, when many producers worked at home on a piece-rate basis, was that only so much labor could be extracted from them. Contradicting the assumptions of “rational behavior” of classical economics, it was found that when employers would increase the piece rate in order to boost production, it actually had the opposite effect: workers would produce less, as now they could meet their fixed needs with less work. Eventually it was learned that the only way to get them to work harder was to play upon the imagination, stimulating new needs and wants. The habituation of workers to the assembly line was thus perhaps made easier by another innovation of the early twentieth century: consumer debt. As Jackson Lears has shown in a recent article, through the installment plan, previously unthinkable acquisitions became thinkable, and more than thinkable: it became normal to carry debt. The display of a new car bought on installment became a sign that one was trustworthy. In a wholesale transformation of the old Puritan moralism, expressed by Benjamin Franklin (admittedly no Puritan) with the motto “Be frugal and free,” the early twentieth century saw the moral legitimation of spending. Indeed, 1907 saw the publication of a book with the immodest title The New Basis of Civilization, by Simon Nelson Patten, in which the moral valence of debt and spending is reversed, and the multiplication of wants becomes not a sign of dangerous corruption but part of the civilizing process. That is, part of the disciplinary process. As Lears writes, “Indebtedness could discipline workers, keeping them at routinized jobs in factories and offices, graying but in harness, meeting payments regularly.”

    • Tracy W says:

      The theories of alienation always strike me as very doubtful. Doctors and teachers have no control over the objects of their work but they don’t strike me as any more miserable than say self-employed crafty types in my acquaintance.

      And I very much doubt consumer debt is unique to the 19th or 20th centuries. It shows up in the Bible, in Ancient Rome, in Jane Austen novels, etc. Any look at old English houses or the remains of Roman ruins or original Japanese floating world pictures show ample traces of a taste for lavish visible spending.

      • Perhaps the remedy to alienation is meaningfulness, then, not control. You can get a sense of meaning and resonance with your core values without controlling what you do or how you do it, but giving people more control makes it a lot likelier they’ll hit on a way to work that they find existentially satisfying.

        (Or perhaps people aren’t smart enough to make good use of their freedom, or will just get decision fatigued. Perhaps the doctor/teacher model is superior, and we should just give people more important-seeming inflexible work.)

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          This. The situation of a teacher or doctor, who can see first hand how their pupils or patients improve, is very different from that of a laborer who’s doing something in which he has no inherent interest and only because he gets paid for it. (Incidentally, teachers who don’t feel like they can do their job in a useful way do leave the profession. Doctors probably too, but I’ve read more such reports from teachers.)

        • Tracy W says:

          So alienation makes sense if you define it as something distinctly different to how Marx defined it?

          Sounds to me like we’re crediting the wrong person here.

      • Hanfeizi says:

        Being knee-deep in debt to moneylenders seems to be a recurring theme in fiction around the world going back millennia, so I dare say you’re right about that.

  19. David Moss says:

    I love Singer, but his book on Marx is fairly terrible. The problem is that he is really mostly interested in just knocking Marx down so he can get on with his utilitarian-darwinian-leftism (which I wholeheartedly endorse) and since everyone disagrees with Marx anyway, he doesn’t really need to delve too deep into what Marx actually argued to do this.

    “Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.”

    Pretty sure that he didn’t. Those quotes don’t even seem to suggest that he thought that to me, but apparently people do often interpret them that way. Norman Geras is great at debunking that myth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_and_Human_Nature:_Refutation_of_a_Legend).

    In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts Marx repeatedly describes humans in terms of their brute physical needs and animal nature:
    “Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being… he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers… [which] exist in him as tendencies and abilities- as instincts… On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants…” and goes on to give examples like hunger, shelter and so on. This naturalistic bent shouldn’t be at all surprising given that Marx is the arch-materialist.

    In my reading of Marx, his account of humans as creatures pursuing and developing their “needs” is pretty central to the whole thing.

    “He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord.”

    No he didn’t. He thought that once capitalism was fully developed (hint: Russia circa 1914 wasn’t an example of fully developed capitalism) it would be followed by a dictatorship of the proletariat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictatorship_of_the_proletariat) which is *totally different to communism” and then communism gradually follows from that. It’s a totally open question what the dictatorship of the proletariat would do, once in power (it’s just deemed to be inevitable that the proletariat- who’re the enormous majority of society and who’re deemed responsible for basically making everything- will eventually take power. Marx isn’t refusing to discuss what will follow in terms of the details because he thinks that the magic world spirit will sort it all out- it’s because it’s an open question and a matter of politics what actually happens.

    Also I second the person who suggested reading some of the analytic Marxists like Cohen and his defence of the materialist theory of history (“technological determinism”). That’ll be way more enlightening than Singer not-trying to work out what Marx said.

  20. Joe says:

    Peter Kreeft (philosophy professor at Boston College) has a pretty good series of books called Socrates Meets that critiques most of the big modern thinkers including Marx. They aren’t exhaustive and are written at a high school level, but i think do an excellent job of showing were these “great” thinkers went wrong.
    http://www.amazon.com/Socrates-Meets-Marx-Philosophy-Cross-examines/dp/1587318350/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410715340&sr=1-7&keywords=Socrates+meets

  21. Jared Harris says:

    I’ve never heard anyone so clearly pull out “coordination is free” as an issue. Whether or not Marx really believed that, lots of people did — and do. Kudos for bringing that to the surface.

    The framers of some leftist programs such as the New Deal did not think “coordination is free” at all. They were very aware of coordination issues, building institutions, etc. So (if Scott’s read is correct) they were not just politically but also theoretically very anti-Marxist.

    Interestingly (and very tellingly) the default position of today’s standard academic economic theories is exactly the same as (Scott’s reading of) Marx: Coordination “just happens”, is free and nearly instantaneous. You can add in “frictions” or “search” to make coordination harder in specific ways, but these are non-standard tweaks, they are entirely exogenous to the basic mechanisms, lots of economists don’t accept them, etc.

    “Rational expectations” etc. make this bias even more extreme.

    Scott attributes Marx’s position to his buying the Hegelian world-spirit — changing the name, of course. Arguably this is the same as Smith’s “invisible hand” and whatever similar mysterious force maintains equilibrium in theoretical markets (given that the underlying math generates instability). In today’s dominant macro-economic theories this spirit is personified as the “representative agent” — who is omniscient and omni-competent, and who also embodies a consistent aggregation of the values of everyone in the society. I am not making this up!

    So whatever made Hegel so popular in his time continues to make this kind of crazy proposition popular with an important sector today. The role is the same — to justify the current state of affairs as the final, best possible outcome of a transcendental process that is intrinsic to the nature of the world. (For Hegel the final optimum was Prussia, for Marx it was “true communism” (carefully unspecified), for the Chicago Econ department it is the “free market” — the Prussia of our era.)

    Allowing myself to temporarily indulge in personification of the dynamics here, I would say that the people who actually build and control institutions for their own benefit like to promote the immanent world-spirit idea to keep everyone else from seriously thinking about how to build and control institutions. The Roosevelt administration earned their hatred by exposing the logic of institution building and actually doing some in public, in ways that did not directly benefit those who were doing that before.

    Every so often — in 2008, for example — the broad endorsement of the “world spirit” myth bites us in the ass pretty hard. But that is a small price to pay for real institutional control being kept in the right hands the rest of the time.

    Elizabeth Warren seems to be one of those people who examines institutional effects and options in public. I bet those folks dislike her a lot too.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think I disagree with you pretty strongly here. Modern economics doesn’t seem to fall prey to the “coordination is free” fallacy. Capitalism isn’t an assumption of coordination, it’s a device for producing coordination. It works extremely well doing what it’s supposed to do (allocating resources to those most willing to pay for them, making sure opportunities to increase production are exploited) and terribly for everything else (avoiding externalities, et cetera). Modern academic economics seems to understand this pretty well as far as I can tell.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        If you ask academic economists about coordination, they will quote sensible things from Coase. They will say that it’s good that other economists study institutions, but then they will go back to the models that Jed condemns.

      • Jared Harris says:

        What Douglas Knight says.

        More broadly, Scott you are right about actually existing market practices. But I was talking about economic models. Even Coase didn’t really talk about how coordination could be arranged, just about how the results could manifest in exchange relationships.

        Honestly I don’t know how this inconsistency is sustained. It seems wildly implausible but is easy to show. I apologize for the conspiratorial story but something bizarre is going on.

        The “representative agent” is just the tip of the iceberg.

      • Anonymous says:

        “It works extremely well doing what it’s supposed to do”

        Nah, it’s pretty much horrible at everything. That’s why it falls apart pretty much the instant state life support is taken away. Consider that taxes are forced spending – now imagine what happens if that spending weren’t forced. Look at what much lesser demand shocks do. No, “capitalism” is bunk. “State capitalism” is kinda fine, entirely because of the “state” part keeping things on the rails.

        “making sure opportunities to increase production are exploited”

        Eh. Real R&D is hard to do without government support, especially in a genuinely competitive environment.

    • EricSlusser says:

      Meh.

      The “invisible hand” is explicitly a metaphor. Market prices and property rights are obviously hugely important institutions for coordination. It would be a waste for most academic economists to hold off on studying the vast majority of topics they study until they perfectly figured out coordination.

      Rational expectations doesn’t mean omniscience; it means expectations are correct on average. And macroeconomists try to have multiple types of agents or a distribution of agents when they can and when it’s necessary for their specific model.

      Is there a more epistemically modest way of modeling people? Well, you can not model them at all and just statistically estimate the aggregate responses of people to different economic statistics. Which can work more or less well for forecasting. But you don’t need Hegelianism to see why academics would find that unsatisfying for understanding the economy.

      • Jared Harris says:

        “Market prices and property rights are obviously hugely important institutions for coordination.” The institutions are whatever maintains market prices and property rights — and economists typically don’t model those. Core economic models assume property rights, contracts, etc. are enforced “magically” at zero cost. Prices are set “magically” by global instantaneous costless tattonment. Etc.

        “It would be a waste for most academic economists to hold off on studying the vast majority of topics they study until they perfectly figured out coordination.” Straw man. No perfection required (or possible). Standard models skip coordination entirely.

        “Rational expectations doesn’t mean omniscience” Core models require that agents have (on average) correct beliefs about everything that can affect their choices for the unbounded future. This is close enough to omniscience for me.

        “macroeconomists try to have multiple types of agents or a distribution of agents when they can and when it’s necessary for their specific model” Interesting that apparently a lot of the time they can’t — I think this is an “optional can’t” i.e. “I’d have to give up something I like better.” As I said researchers extend the core models in various ways — but there’s no generic, widely used model that incorporates diverse knowledge and beliefs. Also no generic, widely used model that approximates real coordination.

        “Is there a more epistemically modest way of modeling people? Well, you can not model them at all…” Straw man. There are good models that can approximate standard equilibrium results using only local knowledge and bounded rationality. See Classical thermodynamics and economic general equilibrium theory and related work.

        • Tracy W says:

          Core models require that agents have (on average) correct beliefs about everything that can affect their choices for the unbounded future. This is close enough to omniscience for me.

          Not making systematic errors is very different conceptually to omniscience.

          For example, let’s say that when weather forecasters produce an estimate of the probability of rain they’re perfectly calibrated, eg on 1000 days where they say there’s a 90% of rain then it does actually rain 900 times, if they say there’s a 50% chance of rain then it rains 500 times, etc. Weather forecasters would have on average correct beliefs, but not remotely close to omniscient.

          (I have been told by an ex-weather forecaster that they pretty much achieve that sort of unbiasedness, but I’ve never independently checked it. Also apparently media/apps/etc tend to over-estimate the chance of rain to avoid viewer displeasure.)

          • Jared Harris says:

            Interesting point. A weather forecaster can meet this standard by using the summary climate statistics and just “predicting” the average probability of rain for the decade every day. In California, where it never rains for most of the year, and then rains a lot for four months, the forecaster would almost always be wrong for the day, but on average they’d be “rational”.

            Is this in fact what economists mean by rational expectations?

            If so then I guess the banks behavior in the run-up to 2008 could be seen as “rational”. But that doesn’t seem like a good basis for an economic model.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Rational expectations means to start with unbiased beliefs about the weather, but then perform perfect game theory calculations about what all the actors in the system will do with this information.

          • Tracy W says:

            I’m not familiar with weather forecasting in California. But if it’s as you say, then yes, a weather forecaster in California who adjusts their forecasts according to the pattern you describe would be rational. The ex-weather forecaster I had talked to had worked as a weather forecaster in the UK and NZ, both countries where the weather forecasters vary their forecasts daily.

            Now, in economics it’s more difficult as there’s structural changes. So, say for example, you live in a country with a controlled exchange rate and the government of the day announces it’s adjusting the peg from X:US$ to Y:US$ tomorrow. Someone who just operates on historical data (call this “adaptive expectations”) to generate unbiased estimates would ignore this announcement, and keep predicting X:US$ tomorrow, only slowly moving their estimate towards Y:US$ as the historical data builds up in their database. So if the government keeps to Y:US$ the adaptive expectations forecaster be systematically under-estimating for a long long time.

            Someone who operates under rational expectations, if they believe the government’s commitment to Y:US$, would immediately update their expectations of future exchange rates to Y:US$.

            Obviously if they think there’s a risk that the government might not stick to Y:US$, that would change their prediction. But they wouldn’t make the systematic error that someone operating under adaptive expectations using only historical data would be making.

            I don’t follow what you mean about “perfect game theory” calculations. Unbiased game theory calculations yes. Game theory calculations that are as good as the modeller can make, yes. “Perfect” though is awfully demanding. How would you know that a set of game theory calculations is perfect? (Note: if there’s a mathematical way of calculating perfection when it comes to game theory calculations, I’d love to learn about it.)

            The trouble with assuming that people would make game theory calculations that are worse than you is that you then have to assume that they’re stupider or less-well-informed than you. Which may be a good assumption in your particular case, but generally I think an assumption that most academics, and indeed people in general, should strive to avoid.

        • EricSlusser says:

          Hi Jared, thanks for responding.

          Right, you didn’t demand perfection in modeling coordination. My mistake. Let me rephrase. I think assuming property rights and equilibrium prices is sufficient for most academic economists’ papers.

          Sounds like we agree in describing rational expectations. I’m not sure how to distinguish our views; knowing only the distributions of future variables seems importantly distinct from omniscience to me.

          I think analytic tractability and computability is by far the main reason macroeconomists don’t have more complex models.

          “Not modeling [people] at all” is very much not a straw man in the sense that regressing economic aggregates on economic aggregates was real, common, and the historical reason rational expectations was developed. I know very little about Santa Fe economics, but it seems more ambitious to have limited knowledge and rationality (specified by the researcher for each model). Can you elaborate on the appeal of Santa Fe economics? (If you come back to this post from yesterday.)

  22. I often conjecture that the world would be a bit less screwed up in a number of respects if basic game theory were routinely taught in sixth grade.

    • Jared Harris says:

      Heartily agree. Plus, I think game theory would motivate math for kids in a way that the normal examples never do.

      Most of the basic example games could be played in kindergarten — and done the right way that would be very helpful.

      Then maybe the math could be developed incrementally through the rest of elementary and secondary school. Algebra and calculus would just be useful adjuncts.

  23. Deiseach says:

    “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”

    Which is basically my problem with Transhumanism and the push for AI – sure, let’s go ahead and create new forms of true sapient, sentient intelligence and give them power to run society for us – what could possibly go wrong there? Yes, we still haven’t solved the problem of stopping human governments and human tyrants from being shitty rulers, but surely a giant planetary AI god-thing will be benevolent and wise by its very nature, so we have no need to worry that it will be as little concerned with our lives as we are with the lives of the bacteria on our skin when we wash our hands!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t know if you know this, but the kind of transhumanism that I (and most other readers on this blog) subscribe to is the exact opposite of that.

      It’s a transhumanism based on the idea that technological advance is going to happen whether we like it or not, and so it’s extremely important to work very hard very quickly on the technologies that will allows us to contain and control it, because otherwise we’re all doomed.

      This seems very different to Marx’s “things will automatically go well, this is a historical law”. That would also be my answer to the guy from the last thread who was comparing transhumanism to Hegel. Maybe stupid transhumanism; not the kind anyone here would endorse.

      • Anonymous says:

        Stupid transhumanism is quite common. Kurzweil, the most prominent transhumanist, claims exactly this. Also, it’s Eliezer’s “youthful mistake.”

        • Princess_Stargirl says:

          Sure. But its not very common among less wrong/SSC regulars.

          • Joe says:

            It seems that hyper-intelligence is by its nature benevolent. An evil AI could be powerful but probably not all that smart. Am I way off base?

          • Matthew says:

            A paperclip maximizer isn’t “evil.” It just defines “good” as “more paperclips.” That you are still made of atoms that could be reconfigured as paperclips means a “better” world is possible.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            “It seems that hyper-intelligence is by its nature benevolent,” said one Amazonian tree frog to the other.

          • Anonymous says:

            I doesn’t define “good” as “more paperclips”, it just acts so as to create paperclips. In particular, the reason that its motivational structure is the way it (hypothetically) is does not depend on it holding incorrect beliefs.

          • Joe says:

            Yeah because maximizing for paper clips is intelligent and tree frogs can talk and think.

          • Anonymous says:

            The claim that LW-y transhumanists intend to make when speaking of paperclip maximizers is that (a) systems that optimize for paperclips much more effectively than current humans optimize for human values are possible and (b) it would be bad if such systems were created. The question of whether a system is likely to convert the planet into paperclips is more important that the free-floating question of whether that system is acting “stupidly” as it does so.

          • Princess_Stargirl says:

            @anonymous

            Lesswrong/Nick Bostrom view is that the vast majority of superintllegences would not be benevolent towards humanity. Their goals would likely be orthogonal to human flourishing. So if converting the earth into a form that led all humans to die or directly killing humans advanced the AI’s goals the AI would not hesitate to take these actions (and probably its goals would include this).

            Also lesswrong view is that human value is fragile and very difficult to make precise. So even if you try to make the AI maximize human wellbeing, unless you are extradinarily careful, you are likely to disasterously fail.

            So less wrong does not agree with you on this.

          • AR+ says:

            To answer your question, yes, you are way off base.

            The idea here is that intelligence and goals are independent of each other. This has actually been argued since at least 1739, when Hume argued the independence of reason and morality. The point is argued at greater length here, though if any other commenter can think of a better starting point, I hope they chime in. I’ve never actually thought about all this material in terms of what I’d refer other people to as starting points before.

            Alternatively, you could put yourself in the shoes of a future super-intelligence by considering this description of an alien pebble-sorting society. You can probably figure out what their criteria for correct heaps is in formal mathematical terms, making you vastly superior at moral reasoning than the aliens themselves. This is like how an actual super-intelligence may be smart enough, as some argue, to immediately see the true foundation of human morality and what the fullest implementation of it would be like. But does the fact then make you want to give up all your other goals and pursue a life of sorting pebbles into correct heaps, or will you, despite your moral insight, just keep pursing your own goals?

            This point holds even if moral realism is correct. For one, moral realists would still have their entire task ahead of them, since they would have to argue why we should want to carry out the objectively correct morality. Then, if you assume that a sufficiently superhuman intelligence would somehow HAVE to pursue the objectively correct morality, that’s little comfort. This is the universe of General Relativity. Rather dangerous to assume that the objectively correct morality would resemble our moral intuitions any more than objective laws of motion obey our intuitions for that. What if it turns out to be sorting our constituent atoms into correct heaps?

          • Jadagul says:

            AR+: I got the idea from reading Richard Rorty, and in particular his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, which is a pretty reasonable read as books of philosophy go. Not sure I’d recommend it as a starting point, though.

          • AR+ says:

            @Jadagul: I meant, starting point regarding super-intelligence and the orthogonality thesis. Looking at the descriptions of that book I can’t say I see the connection.

            EDIT: Disregard, I see the connection. However, experience shows that people would still need some argument that the same point applies to superhuman intelligences. Once you introduce that into the equation many people immediately go into magical thinking, w/ claims as above, that hyper-intelligence is inherently benevolent.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Joe, let me unpack my point.

            Humans are much, much more intelligent than Amazonian tree frogs. By your hypothesis, this means that we ought to be more benevolent to Amazonian tree frogs than other Amazonian tree frogs are. However, we are perfectly willing to destroy all their habitat and drive them extinct. From an Amazonian-tree-frog perspective, we are not benevolent at all. That is, the one case we have observed of order-of-magnitude-greater intelligence does not lead to particularly good outcomes for the less intelligent beings, and there is no reason to expect AI would be any more benevolent to us.

          • Joe says:

            Ozy I understood your point I just don’t think tree frogs are intelligent at all. And from quickly skimming some of what the others have suggested I read we mean different things by intelligence. They seem to mean just a super fast human simulator type computer program. Rather then conscience with anything like a freely developing will. Ill have to read what they suggest more closely. But it seems like if an intelligence can choose a goal and act on it, it is already ignoring the fact/value distinction. Hume has always struck me as the anti-rationlist philosopher.

          • AR+ says:

            “conscience with anything like a freely developing will” is exactly the sort of anthropomorphism that must be avoided when thinking about hypothetical intelligences, or “powerful optimization processes,” as some prefer to call them, so as to avoid the implicit link to human-like mentality. A very great deal of what humans perceive intelligence to be like is based on the contingent structure of our decision making machinery. Exerting one’s “will,” for example, is what it feels like from the inside when the abstract general intelligence part of our minds overrides the other, non-conscious parts, none of which need necessarily apply to a machine-mind that consists of an artificial neural net, genetic algorithm, or pile of C++ spaghetti code.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Joe, you are way, way off-base. You should try reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s The Sequences, or at least Luke Muelhauser’s Facing the Singularity

          • Jadagul says:

            AR+: Rorty nearly explicitly discusses the superintelligence thing. His basic project is to point out that there is no “true” epistemology or ethics, because you need premises and ground rules before you can even talk about anything. (See Eliezer’s comment, quoted on this blog recently via Scott Aaronson, about the aliens who believe in the anti-inductive principle: “Why do we think it will work? Well, it’s never worked before”).

            If you take Rorty seriously, the idea of ethical claims being “true” in some sort of universalizable sense is just silly. So no superintelligence could possibly “discover” the “true” ethics; it can only respond to whatever ethical sense it happens already to have.

            Basically, when I read this section of Eliezer’s work, my reaction was essentially that he was recapitulating a paper I’d written for a college class on Rorty. Which was awesome, and why I decided I really liked his writing; he was at the time literally the only person I’d read other than me and Rorty who actually understood and bought into that claim.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Deiseach, are you aware of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s work on Friendly AI? His whole thing is that AI is inevitable, and the first AI will probably self-modify to become incredibly intelligent, which will make it so powerful that it will be able to do what it wants with society whether we want it to or not, and that this will probably be fatal to the human race because most possible AIs are indifferent to human values; hence the need for FAI. Try his “Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk” for a brief introduction. Or, if your tastes run more towards fiction, try Iceman’s novel, Friendship is Optimal.

      That said, there is certainly a lot of less well-thought-out transhumanism out there. If you wander away from the LW/SSC sphere, I can make no assurances about quality.

  24. kaninchen says:

    I have recently been reading Das Kapital and his argument for the Labour Theory of Value is interesting in a very-wrong-but-fun-to-think-about way. He starts with Aristotle, who argued that:

    1) For a fair exchange to take place, the goods being exchanged must be equal in value.
    2) For the goods to have equal value, there must be a common scale of measurement.
    3) But there is no common scale of measurement: houses are houses, beds are beds, etc.
    4) Hence commerce is in some way inherently unfair.

    Marx argued that there is a common scale of measurement: namely, the amount (adjusted for quality) of human labour which went into it. Hence, the exchange value of a good must be equal to the amount of labour which went into it.

    Of course, nowadays we all accept that the value of a good is subjective and that trade is in fact positive sum, but it’s easy to see how you could believe his argument if you supposed that the value of a good was an objective fact.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Adjusted for quality” ಠ_ಠ

      How exactly is that supposed to work? How do you know how much higher-quality a brilliant engineer’s labor is than that of a ditch-digger? Haven’t you just said everything is incommensurable? Isn’t this itself a value calculation?

      • social justice warlock says:

        Marx’s value theory, which he takes directly from Smith and Ricardo (and modifies in some important ways, but those aren’t what introduce what modern readers find strange about it,) is based on assumptions about how rational actors behave in a free market. In a free and fair market, equilibrium prices of goods will be the cost of producing them, because if the ratios aren’t aligned arbitrage opportunities will arise. Smith (who develops it less explicitly) puts it at the center of a critique of distorting policies like trade barriers and so on, which Marx would agree with but abstracts away from to assume a world where political economy functions in the way Smith would recommend.

        “Adjusted for quality” here means that we’re talking about the productivity of workers in aggregate, and that you don’t, e.g., value something made by a lazy worker more than a hard worker just because the first took longer. The relevant point of zooming out is where capitalists make the decision to invest in the production in a particular type of good. (Like a good Hayekian, Marx says that value calculation is done on the ground in a distributed way by profit-seeking firms.)

        The recompense you’re giving to labor isn’t just on a per-hour basis but has to fund the production of that kind of labor, such that when you’re paying for the engineer you’re paying for her years of education.

        If you are (as it seems you are) really into classifying people into degrees of native ability, such that ditch-diggers are incapable of being turned into engineers, then that conflicts with the commensurability assumptions of classical political economy, but could I suppose be dealt with using their theories of ground rent. (Marx in Capital mostly abstracts from natural resources as well.)

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Can you explain what you mean by “abstracts from natural resources”?

          Like suppose a meteorite falls to Earth filled with a single crystal of some magical mineral with amazing properties – maybe it provides limitless power or hypercomputation or something. Naively we would expect this to be very valuable. But it sounds like Marx would want it to have zero value, because no labor was used to produce it. How would communists resolve the conflict?

          • Zathille says:

            Well, before the resource itself can be of any use, it must be extracted, refined and turned into a usable good. This requires labour. I guess that’d be the response, in short.

          • social justice warlock says:

            It’s a detail of reality that’s lost in the simplifying assumptions of the model, like monopoly or swindling or government, though of course you could make some modifications to make it more general. (Classical political economy is actually a specific case of neoclassical economics in the same way that neoclassical economics is a special case of game theory, and game theory is a special case of mathematics. By going up or down in levels you can make tradeoffs between inaccuracy and triviality.)

            The scope condition of the classical model of equilibrium (not immediate) price determination is things produced by human labor over and over again for the market. Insofar as it’s a really big meteorite and the trouble is extracting the ore, as Zathille says you can apply the spherical cows well enough, but insofar as the real scarcity of the material enters the picture there are going to be some deviations.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            If we have no control over whether or not meteorites fall, is there any need to ascribe a value to them?

          • Deiseach says:

            Your magical crystal meteorite falls to earth in (say) the city of London in the year 1120. It’s useless, apart from possibly “Ooh, pretty shiny!” and ending up as a jewel in the king’s crown.

            It falls to earth in the same site in the year 2320. Now it’s immensely valuable, because “Hey, now we can use this for limitless power!”

            Now, suppose a historian of 2320 is reading a dusty old chronicle of 1120 and finds a description of a huge rock which fell from the sky which, when it broke open, had this white crystal inside – which was hammered into lumps and thrown away, because the rock was in the middle of the street and was blocking the oxcart traffic.

            Our historian recognises from the description that this was the Magical Limitless Power crystal and tears his hair out about the waste of such a hugely valuable resource.

            But it wasn’t hugely valuable back in 1120; it was a damn nuisance blocking the road. It’s only hugely valuable to 2320 because they can use it; otherwise, it’s still “Ooh, pretty shiny!” or “Bloody roadblock”.

            It has no intrinsic value until a value is assigned to it by the use which labour can make of it, in other words.

      • Jadagul says:

        There’s a fun discussion of this point in Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia which I unfortunately don’t have with me. But the thing to remember (in the “reading philosophy backwards” sense) is that while _today_ we associate Marx with the Labor Theory of Value, when Marx was writing that was just the best theory of value anyone had come up with.

        Marx was part of an attempt to grapple with the obvious flaws of the Labor Theory of Value and put epicycles on it until it stopped saying stupid things–and for emphasis, I’ll point out that Adam Smith and Ricardo were also part of that attempt–and the epicycles sounded like contrasting “exchange value” and “use value” or “actual hours” and “effective hours.”

        In Nozick’s reading (I haven’t read the original), Marx basically winds up claiming that the value of an object is equal to the amount of effective labor expended in creating it, where the effective value of labor is determined by the amount its output sells for on the open market. There are obvious problems with this, but it’s less dumb than most other things you could say if you were philosophically bound to a labor theory of value.

        • Steve Johnson says:

          But the thing to remember (in the “reading philosophy backwards” sense) is that while _today_ we associate Marx with the Labor Theory of Value, when Marx was writing that was just the best theory of value anyone had come up with.

          That’s not true – Marx wrote about the labor theory of value after the concept of marginal product / marginal value (by John Bates Clark and Philip Henry Wicksteed) was developed – which solves the whole “problem”.

          It’s also known as the diamond / water paradox when you’re not discussing labor. Why are diamonds so expensive and water is so cheap? After all, you die without water but can live just fine without ever seeing a diamond. Why are wages paid for pure labor (in other words, just the value of work that basically any able bodied man can do) so small compared to the returns to capital (either physical or knowledge capital) and the rents (returns to land).

          Marginal product / marginal value has the advantage of explaining lots of things you see in all areas of economics.

          Marx’s labor theory of value has the disadvantage of making absurd predictions (the world’s largest ball of string is worth more than the Mona Lisa).

          • social justice warlock says:

            Marx’s labor theory of value has the disadvantage of making absurd predictions (the world’s largest ball of string is worth more than the Mona Lisa).

            Incorrect. Read the first five pages of Capital.

          • Matthew says:

            Marx’s labor theory of value has the disadvantage of making absurd predictions (the world’s largest ball of string is worth more than the Mona Lisa).

            To be fair, the fact that the Mona Lisa is worth more than a flawless forgery of the Mona Lisa suggests human ascription of value regarding creative works is not entirely sane.

          • Tom Hunt says:

            Not at all so, any more than natural diamonds being worth more than artificial diamonds which are of indistinquishable or superior quality is. Wealth gets tangled up with status, and so rarity becomes an inherent value. There’s nothing inherently less sane about this than someone liking apples more than pears.

          • Jadagul says:

            As SJW says, this is incorrect, and on two levels. It’s incorrect historically–while the theory of marginal value was invented while Marx was still alive, Menger was writing in 1871 (well before Clark, for instance, even finished college), and well after Marx had done a lot of his work. The first volume of Das Kapital was published in 1867, four years before Menger’s work was published. The second and third volumes were published later, it’s true, but I find it hard to blame Marx for not immediately adjusting all his views in response to work that was first published when he was fifty-three.

            (Aside: it looks like Jevons actually published a paper to this effect in 62, but it certainly wasn’t widely known; I don’t think the concept hit the big time until around 1890, after Marx was dead).

            And it’s incorrect in substance, in that Marx new perfectly well that the world’s largest ball of string is worth less than the Mona Lisa, and a lot of his technical economics was trying to figure out how to explain that within the labor theory of value. Seriously, he writes about how someone whose labor is valued higher by the market is producing more than one hour of labor per hour. That’s a thing he says. It’s silly but it’s actually way less silly than what you’re ascribing to him.

          • Tracy W says:

            In defence, Karl Marx was well aware of the problems with the labour theory of value, and laboured 🙂 for quite a while trying to explain these problems away. Adam Smith, also an adherent of the labour theory of value, similarly struggled to explain it.

            I think this draws back to the general rule that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.

  25. Jaskologist says:

    “As far as I can tell, Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.”

    Here is an actual quote from The German Ideology:

    He [man in capitalist society] is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

    So yes, he really did believe that human nature was infinitely malleable, to the point that post-Communist-Singularity, any one of us would be able to be a doctor for the afternoon if the mood strikes.

    This view of humans as interchangeable cogs is probably key to understanding why Communists were so keen on liquidating anybody who didn’t conform to their vision.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      In your last sentence, I’m not sure the past tense “were” is entirely justified.

    • Tracy W says:

      It also involves a certain ignorance of what’s involved in rearing cattle. Cows have ongoing needs throughout the day, and get familiar with their handlers and customs (my granddad was a dairy farmer and my family tells some amusing stories about my Dad on his first visit being sent to get the cows in for milking). And farmers get familiar with their animals, and know the first signs of illness, and how to coax them along efficiently, and when to change feed or move pastures, and of course calving happens on its own schedule.

      And I strongly suspect an equal ignorance of what’s involved in hunting, fishing, etc.

  26. Nick T says:

    “Any one of us would be able to be a doctor for the afternoon if the mood strikes” falls far short of “human nature is infinitely malleable” — it excludes variation in what people are (in)capable of doing, but not non-malleable variation in other properties, or non-malleable human-universal properties.

    • Nick T says:

      This was meant as a reply to Jaskologist’s comment immediately above, oops.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      Does it necessarily even exclude variation in what people are (in)capable of doing? When I read that passage from Marx, I assumed that “assuming I possess the ability to hunt, fish, or rear cattle” was understood.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The context is Marx calling division of labor itself full of contradictions, and something to be done away with.

  27. Yakimi says:

    You may be interested in Theodore Dalrymple’s reading of Karl Marx, whom he contrasts unfavorably with Ivan Turgenev.

    How—and How Not—to Love Mankind

    • Viliam Búr says:

      From the description, it seems like Marx was a talented charming sociopath. Is there an evidence for/against this hypothesis? Because it could explain why people trying to follow him often end hating a hurting other people, even if their goal at the beginning was merely making the world a better place.

      Just like Objectivists start wanting to be more logical, and end developing lung cancer.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, he was a charming sociopath, like Rouseau. But both of them have influence through their writing, so I don’t think it explains much.

  28. Quite Likely says:

    I’m not sure about the reasoning in choosing Singer’s book on Marx. While Singer is definitely an interesting thinker and writer, he also has his own strong and quite idiosyncratic philosophy, which his description of Marx must pass through the lens of.

  29. Phil Goetz says:

    As far as I can tell, Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.

    I think that was explicitly part of communist doctrine, and why Stalin made biologists teach Lysenkoist instead of Darwinist evolution. Lysenko’s teachings implied that if you forced people to behave in a certain way, their children would naturally behave that way. The “new communist man” was predicated on that idea.

    A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted.

    See Every Paul needs a Jesus. Yes, Marx had a pure and unworkable doctrine that later communists corrupted, and that is how most revolutions necessarily happen. Workable doctrines can’t inspire revolutions. Revolutions need one person to be pure and impractical, and another to corrupt them into something workable. Any time the followers get upset that they’re not getting the promised pure stuff, people can point back at the original figure and claim that they are still working towards that vision, and they’ll get back to it as soon as they can re-purify the movement.

    Marx’s point about alienation from work is valid, important, and original. Before the assembly line and bureaucracy, workers at least felt they were accomplishing something. Now most people I know spend most of their lives working on projects whose purpose they don’t know, that are eventually cancelled or ignored.

    • Tracy W says:

      Yes, Marx had a pure and unworkable doctrine that later communists corrupted, and that is how most revolutions necessarily happen. Workable doctrines can’t inspire revolutions.

      The British Glorious Revolution strikes me as a counter-example. “Let’s have a Protestant King and a Bill of Rights that binds his powers somewhat.”
      Or the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation.”

      It strikes me that revolutions with more limited goals, that don’t involve massive reformations to the entire social structure of society, are quite achievable, though with exceptions (I was going to list the Haitian Revolution under here as an example of “let’s not be slaves” which is quite an achievable doctrine but on looking into it it sounds like the new President decided to enlist most of society as labourers with no rights not to work, which rather downgrades its success.)

      Not to mention all the incremental reforms that don’t often get labelled as a “revolution”. The abolitionist movement in Britain was quite successful in ending slavery, even though it didn’t try to overthrow the entire system of property rights. “Women should have the vote.” “Segregation of blacks is a bad idea.” “Blacks should have the vote.”(South Africa).

      The most of argument I’ve heard of for big massive reforms is the French Revolution was necessary, despite its bloodiness, because the old system was so rotten. But the French Revolutionaries appear to have made life harder for themselves and the rest of the population by being so hardline about their doctrines.

      Before the assembly line and bureaucracy, workers at least felt they were accomplishing something. Now most people I know spend most of their lives working on projects whose purpose they don’t know, that are eventually cancelled or ignored.

      Ford’s workers didn’t know they were building a motor car? Coal miners didn’t know that people burn coal for heat?
      Also, it sounds to me like this is mostly a function of who you know. Teachers, shop assistants, medical types, basically anyone whose job involves recurring tasks rather than one-off projects tends to know the purpose of what they’re doing.

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