August 19, 2004

Why Not Talk About the Elephant in the Living Room? (Bush Administration Incompetence Department)

Another very strange column from the Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray. He talks about two big objections to George W. Bush's "ownership society"--the fact that it is almost surely nothing but cover for another round of right-wing class warfare, and the fact that Bush has been "happy to give away candy but [has] little stomach for administering the medicine."

But he leaves out the third reason--the big reason, the Elephant-in-the-Living-Room reason--to run screaming into the night at the thought of a big Bush initiative. Even if it were well-intentioned (and not just cover for another round of right-wing class warfare), even if Bush were willing to make difficult choices (which he has never shown any ability to do), the Bush administration is still incompetent, and its attempts to make policy have almost invariably been horrible botches.

As Daniel Davies wrote a year and a half ago:

Can anyone... give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics:

  1. It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration.
  2. It was significant enough in scale that I'd have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it).
  3. It wasn't in some important way completely f***** up during the execution?

There is no point in ignoring the Elephant in the Living Room: no point without complete wholesale personnel change in pretending that any Bush proposal might turn into a worthwhile policy initiative.

WSJ.com - Political Capital: The big economic-policy challenge facing the next president isn't how to boost job growth -- that will happen in time -- or how to boost wages -- they will inevitably rise with productivity. The big challenge is how to survive the retirement of the baby boomers, which begins in just five years, without dramatically altering the nature of American society. Left untouched, Social Security and Medicare could cause the U.S. government to swell to 30% or more of the economy from 20%. The welfare state that the U.S. held at bay through the final quarter of the 20th century would expand with a fury. And make no mistake about it: Social Security and Medicare, as now constituted, are a form of welfare.

President Bush's ownership agenda offers the beginnings of a different direction. Social Security could be transformed, at least in part, from a welfare program to a savings plan -- providing all Americans a nest egg that they could own and either use in retirement or pass on to their heirs. The nation's health-care system, which has been insulated from the benefits of the marketplace by a third-party payment system that leaves employers and the government picking up the bill, would be turned into a real marketplace, with consumers owning their own health-insurance plans, making their own decisions about how to spend their health-care dollars, and reaping the benefits of any savings.

Can President Bush sell the American public on such a bold agenda? It won't be easy. With the economy weak and stocks in the doldrums, Americans have lost their enthusiasm for the wonders of the marketplace. Four years ago, more than 40% of voters considered themselves members of the "investor class" -- a sign that a mentality of mass capitalism was already taking hold. Today, says Mr. Zogby, that is down to just 29%.

To succeed, President Bush will have to do a better sales job. And he will have to overcome two strong impressions left by his first term in office.

He will need to show his vision is truly capitalism for the masses, not just capitalism for his cronies. Americans don't like class warfare. But increasingly, they suspect President Bush may be waging it. There is a fine line between eliminating policies that penalize success and embracing policies that unduly benefit the successful. The president is listing over that line.

He will need to show he is willing to make the tough calls necessary to implement his vision. Telling people they can keep some of their payroll taxes in private accounts is easy; telling them the Social Security retirement age is going to rise and cost-of-living adjustments are going to be cut is harder. In his handling of Medicare during his first term, George Bush showed he was happy to give away the candy but had little stomach for administering the medicine. That approach will doom his ownership agenda.

A Question

Kieran Healy writes:

...the horrors of Stalin don’t invalidate the fundamental insights of Marxists...

which reminds me of a question I have long wanted to ask: Just what are the fundamental (valid) insights of Marxism?

I ask as someone who is. I think, more inclined toward "Marxism" than anybody else on the Berkeley campus. That is, I believe that in the process of going about the business of making, using, and consuming the things people need and want to continue their daily lives, humans enter into social and economic arrangements of production, association, exploitation, and exchange that form patterns and have consequences that none of them have willed, and that these arrangements of production, association, exploitation, and exchange--these "modes of production, as it were"--form the base, the soil in which the rest of society is rooted and out of which it grows. This is what Marx believed, and if I'm not the only one on the Berkeley campus today who believes it, it's certainly true that we are scarce on the ground.

But what valid insights does Marxism draw and develop from this starting point? The "dictatorship of the proletariat" stuff is the worst political idea in human history save for perhaps Naziism. All the stuff about the labor theory of value and the transformation problem is unhelpful. The claim that any price system in which land earns rents and capital earns quasi-rents is ipso facto exploitative and unfair is simply completely wrong. The stuff about the Asiatic mode of production is wrong. The claim that the Orleanists represented commercial capital and that the Legitimists represented landed capital is wrong. The claim that the transition from the Roman Empire to medieval feudalism can be well-understood as some Hegelian dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis process is profoundly unhelpful, as is the claim that the transition from feudalism to modernity can be well-understood in Hegelian terms.

The writing of western European history as the rise, fall, and succession of ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production is a fascinating project, but the only person to try it seriously soon throws the Marxist apparatus over the side, where it splashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Perry Anderson's _Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism_ and _Lineages of the Absolutist State_ are great and fascinating books, but they are not Marxist. They are Weberian. The key processes in Anderson's books concern not modes of production but modes of domination.

So can someone please come up with a short list--five one-sentence bullet points, for example--of the fundamental insights of Marxism considered as an intellectual enterprise?

Posted by DeLong at August 19, 2004 08:37 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

Marx articulated the logic by which everything, being commodified, can be exchanged with everything else--absolutely everything (time and space included). This commodification democratizes all things, and thereby desacralizes all things--which is not to say that Marx denies the value of the sacred. My life, for example, even though it's radically commodified, is also radically sacred. Which is why I have to protect it, and join with others in its protection (as in the protection of the theirs). We could go on about these points, but everything flows from them.

Posted by: alabama on August 19, 2004 09:32 PM

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It was Daniel Davies, and not Drezner, who wrote that a year and a half ago, wasn't it?

Posted by: Simon on August 19, 2004 09:55 PM

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I'm with you Brad. I used to ask my anthro profs the same question, and they'd just get irritated.

I eventually decided that Marx is viewed not as a thinker, like Adam Smith and Max Weber, but as a prophet, and the rules for prophets are different than rules for thinkers. And if you have no use for prophets, then Marx is useless.

I think of Marxism as one of those beguiling ideals that leads to ruin, just like religious fundamentalism: we can solve all our problems if we just change human nature.

Also, Marx wrote the kind of class stereotyping that we now associate with Jeff Foxworthy and David Brooks.

Posted by: c. on August 19, 2004 10:13 PM

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You've so prejudged Marxism that it would make no sense attempting to answer your question Recall your screed on Paul Sweezy's death. On this subject, you're as ideologically fantasized as our neocons are on "terrosism."

Posted by: Dick Fitzgerald on August 19, 2004 11:12 PM

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You've so prejudged Marxism that it would make no sense attempting to answer your question Recall your screed on Paul Sweezy's death. On this subject, you're as ideologically fantasized as our neocons are on "terrosism."

Posted by: Dick Fitzgerald on August 19, 2004 11:13 PM

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1- Dialectical and historical materialism: Shit happens. When shit happens, other shit caused it. The shit that happens only makes sense in light of the shit that caused it, the shit that happened around it, and the consequences of that shit happening. Sometimes, those consequences lead to shit being undone, but when it is, things never go back to the way there were before that shit happened. Shit changes over time, because it has an effect on the world and the world has an effect on it right back. Eventually, shit changes enough that it turns into other shit.

Application: Capitalism happened because of the way the world before capitalism worked. Capitalism has a profound effect on the world, changing the context it operates in. Capitalism changes in nature as a result of the changing world. Its nature - and the nature of its interactions with the world - forces capitalism to change its nature and interact with the world differently. This, inevitably, will bring about the end of capitalism, as surely as death, taxes and the sun rising in the east in the morning. Consequently, capitalism will inevitably be replaced by something else, which in turn will be different from the pre-capitalist order.

2- The material roots of the human sciences: The core postulate, the central dogma of all human sciences is the paramount necessity to produce and reproduce human existence.

Application: The most important, most determining thing about a person's life is their relationship to the means of production, because it is their relationship to the means of production that most determines whether and how they will be able to continue to exist.

3- The unity of theory and practice: Categories, theories, bodies of thought, abstractions of all types are rooted in the need to actually accomplish something by manipulating them. They are not holy, they are not inscribed into the fabric of the universe. They are the works of man, validated and defeated only by the success of failure or practices they engender.

Application: There is no basis in natural law for property, money, or hierarchal relationships. The only basis for the existing order is its success, and the only justification for attacking it is its failure. It is not natural law and not holy writ and there is no reason to think it cannot be replaced by a different order which works just as well or better.

4- The paramount importance of economic structure in the understanding of history: To see domination as something separate from economic structure - to see it as the physical manifestation of ideas instead of seeing ideas as the mental manifestation of economic structures - is unhistorical. This is precisely the opposite of those who trace the history of ideologies in a vaccuum and then claim they are the true causes of material conditions.

Applications: Need I list them?

5- The workers can live without the bosses, but the bosses can't live without the workers.

Applications: If you organise, you don't have to take shit from people just because social convention makes them the owners of the means of production, and you the owner of nothing. You support them, not the other way around. If you really get your crap together, you can make sure that the political apparatus supports you, and not them. This is called "the dictatorship of the proletariate" - the empowerment only of the interests of those who don't individually own the means of production, to the exclusion of those who do.

How's that for five insights?

You can, of course, disagree with all of them. I run into people all the time who think Jesus appointed the capitalists to benevolently rule over us, or who think that natural law means the guy with the biggest bank account should call the shots, or that property is a sacred relationship between a man and the thing that he - like a cat pissing on your sofa - has marked as his own. But I'd like to think you're not one of those people Professor Delong.

You can think that the universe is a place that tends towards stability instead of constant change, in opposition to all human experience. You can think that the world as it is, with its particular cultural constraints and institution, is at or near the final apex of human progress, rather than seeing them as a set of contingent institutions, arising in particular circumstances. You can think that Yahweh personally gave the Delaware Commerical Code to Moses on stone tablets. But that strikes me as pretty dumb.

You can believe, I suppose, that great men make history, and that the propagation of ideas is independent of the material conditions they are propagated in or the material effects they have. But again, it seems awfully silly to make such a claim.

You can, I suppose, think that economic conditions are a minor element in history, but that would be pretty weird for an economist.

And I suppose you can believe that people who don't own significant productive assets should rightly be ruled by those who do. But you will have to forgive me if I differ.

You can disagree with all of those things. But you can't claim that they are nothing. And you can't claim that they aren't essential, core, fundamental Marxist insights.

Posted by: Scott Martens on August 20, 2004 05:23 AM

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I think your own first para gives the fundamental insight. The rest is details. If Marx (or anyone else) got the details wrong, that doesn't invalidate the insight. A couple of questions:

The "dictatorship of the proletariat" stuff is the worst political idea in human history save for perhaps Naziism.

Could you explain what you understand Marx to have meant by 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'?

The claim that the transition from the Roman Empire to medieval feudalism can be well-understood as some Hegelian dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis process is profoundly unhelpful, as is the claim that the transition from feudalism to modernity can be well-understood in Hegelian terms.

They're unhelpful alright, but I'm curious to know where Marx made these claims.

Posted by: Ken MacLeod on August 20, 2004 05:37 AM

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Two paras in the above are quotes from the initial post. I imagined I'd italicised them. Please imagine I did.

Posted by: Ken MacLeod on August 20, 2004 05:41 AM

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Professor DeLong,
I hope you address Scott Martens's points!

Posted by: Jackmormon on August 20, 2004 07:12 AM

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The bosses, in an age of virtual companies, and robot production, can live without the workers, and the workers can be replaced, to some extent, by machines or computers.

Does it count as an "insight of Marxism" if it is absolutely false? I hope not. If you like Marx, then you can't handle history, psycology, sociology, economics, logic, or ethics.

Marx thought that if you just turned all the products of people's work over to "the right people" that good things would happen. It is from this notion that the Dictatorship of the proletariat springs.

Another absolute false statement. People, when faced with the chance of doing things for themselves, will, if sane, do things for themselves. Marxists are either evil liars, or truthful crazy people.

Posted by: Don Meaker on August 20, 2004 10:07 AM

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The bosses, in an age of virtual companies, and robot production, can live without the workers, and the workers can be replaced, to some extent, by machines or computers.

Does it count as an "insight of Marxism" if it is absolutely false? I hope not. If you like Marx, then you can't handle history, psycology, sociology, economics, logic, or ethics.

Marx thought that if you just turned all the products of people's work over to "the right people" that good things would happen. It is from this notion that the Dictatorship of the proletariat springs.

Another absolute false statement. People, when faced with the chance of doing things for themselves, will, if sane, do things for themselves. Marxists are either evil liars, or truthful crazy people.

Posted by: Don Meaker on August 20, 2004 10:08 AM

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The bosses, in an age of virtual companies, and robot production, can live without the workers, and the workers can be replaced, to some extent, by machines or computers.

Does it count as an "insight of Marxism" if it is absolutely false? I hope not. If you like Marx, then you can't handle history, psycology, sociology, economics, logic, or ethics.

Marx thought that if you just turned all the products of people's work over to "the right people" that good things would happen. It is from this notion that the Dictatorship of the proletariat springs.

Another absolute false statement. People, when faced with the chance of doing things for themselves, will, if sane, do things for themselves. Marxists are either evil liars, or truthful crazy people.

Posted by: Don Meaker on August 20, 2004 10:09 AM

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The masses can live without the bosses, sure -- but all they'd be doing is digging holes and dropping seeds in them, all by themselves.

At least, until someone with the knowledge, foresight and ability to organize co-operative production comes along and convinces John to do X, Bill to do Y, and Fred to Z, so that together they can produce the much more valuable product XYZ. Oops, that would be a boss.

Posted by: RT on August 20, 2004 01:28 PM

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