Is Class Real? Some Empirical Contributions from Econophysics

Working class holding up the world of the ruling class.The idea that society is divided into two major groups under capitalism: Working class (or proletarian) and Capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) has been out of favour for quite a while.

There are many more common interpretations of what the import groups in society are. If asked most people would come up with a whole host of important classes:professionals, middle class, skilled workers, public/private sector etc.

There have also been many attempts to talk about social class which see it as a continuum. This idea that social class is simply where everyone has varying social power and so no firm divisions should be drawn. This sort of continuum hypothesis of social strata is given renewed vigour with the substantial and important work of Piketty1 who looks at the effect of wealth on society empirically over long time scales.

However, there are good reasons to avoid being too hasty, and removing class analysis from the picture. For a start, Marx’s two class model can give us tremendous insights into empirical data. However, perhaps more importantly, if it is true, it sheds enormous light on what we should do about inequality and a host of other economic problems which are present in capitalism.
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Why autonomists make good journalists

Much loathed and admired within the leftist community, autonomists represent a small but mixed bunch. With their focus on the daily, small-scale class struggle, their squats and auto-reduction, and their sometimes incomprehensible jargon they elicit both fascination and contempt from other marxists. Yet it is easy to let our view of them be dominated by theoretical considerations alone, thereby ignoring how their ideology and composition molds them to be excellent journalists, offering key lessons for re-igniting a working-class media to counter hegemony.
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Building Revolution — Article from the ‘United Irishman’, May 1971

National OrganiserDuring the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Republican Movement evolved from a conventional nationalist project with a strategic emphasis – if not obsession – with militarism to an explicitly socialist project which placed a premium on mass politics.

That evolution was not uncontested and, under the pressure of state reaction to a militant civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland in 1969, the move to abandon abstentionism, and an adroit intervention by the Southern government to bolster the old school nationalists within the movement, the IRA and Sinn Féin split into two camps: Officials and Provisionals.

Seán Garland’s article from the May 1971 edition of Official Sinn Féin’s newspaper, The United Irishman, is part of the working out of a theoretical perspective of what ultimately would become The Workers’ Party. Written in the context of a serious ratcheting up of the violence in Northern Ireland, which would have had a massive emotional pull on the movement’s activists, the article is part of the process of providing an alternative conception of the way forward, one towards mass, socialist politics.

Although the national question retains a position of importance, the conception of revolution as working class power is notable, as it the distinction between “insurrection” and “revolution”, the necessity for revolutionary organisations, and the need to engage in mass politics and to connect it with the ultimate aim. [J. O’B]

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The Many Prongs That Lead to Ferguson

Bobby Hutton, killed in 1968 by the Oakland Police.

Bobby Hutton, killed in 1968 by the Oakland Police.

There are a number of strands that can be picked up from the recent, much-publicized events in Ferguson, Mo. Ferguson is a suburb on the innermost ring of St. Louis’s quite extensive “fat belt”, a European term for the series of developments and municipalities that co-exist, sometimes symbiotically, more often parasitically, with the larger cities they surround. Though the mass media has, as can be expected, been considering almost to the exclusion of all other questions the issue of Michael Brown’s race — a critical issue in the unfolding events, no doubt, but nothing new in the grand scheme of things in a long chronicle of police brutality and racially-instigated abuse of power by the privileged subclass designated to enforce the laws in the United States – it seems that more fundamental structural, institutional as well as cultural problems are unearthed, if one digs more than at the surface level of these events. Continue reading

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“Tax is the Lifeblood of Democracy”: An Interview with John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network

John Christensen from a Guardian piece

John Christensen from a Guardian piece

Recently, I sat down to talk with John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network, to talk about his organisation and what it does. Topics as wide ranging as state subsidies of corporations and the role of the OECD as “a think tank dominated by the rich countries” were discussed. We got into some of the major work the organisation has done over the years, including the Price of Offshore, the Financial Secrecy Index, International Accountancy standards and more recently, automatic information sharing. I learned alot, including that, if I wanted to set up a shady company of which I wanted no record, I didn’t have to go far: Wyoming is apparently a booming secrecy jurisdiction, part of the new American Wild West. The interview is about an hour in length. Sorry for the bad sound quality, hadn’t quite got the settings right.

The interview audio for downloading or streaming:
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Review: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Thomas Piketty's CapitalThomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, or “Capital” for short, has made a massive impression in the media. He has been elevated to something of an economic super-star status. People who never were interested in economics have joined reading groups of Capital, and an unprecedented number of articles has appeared outside of the “business” pages on the question of economics.

I’m going to review some of the content of this book, and give a brief explanation of what Piketty has done.

I’ll focus on some of the contributions that I think are useful and important. Then I’ll describe some of the problems that I think are inherent to Piketty’s approach.
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Catholic Marxism

Pick your Messiah

Pick your Messiah

At first glance Marxism and Catholicism have little in common: one is thoroughly materialist in outlook, the other a prime defender of idealism.

Whereas Marxism is dedicated to a new social order, the Church has been intimately associated with conservative, even reactionary politics for the last few centuries. And yet there are commonalities: religious figures have engaged in dialogue with Marxists in Latin America, often leading to the establishment of mass socialist parties. Perhaps, Hugo Chavez more than any other personified the gelling of socialism and Christianity. But he is a representative of a trend; his conception was by no means unique.
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Why is the left so obsessed with degeneration?

There is a specter haunting the radical left, the specter of degeneration. Okay, that might sound a bit dramatic but the left today really is scared a great deal of something called various things to various people. Whether we call it reformism, opportunism, or revisionism, it mainly comes down to the violation of what the group and/or individuals in question consider as the core principles of their sub-ideology within the radical left. This phenomenon is a veritable obsession, and not a day goes by without the left bickering over it, leaving bitter factionalism and splits in its wake. Such is our obsession that many of the groups within the radical left point to the struggle against opportunism as one of their main tasks. But is it healthy to focus so strongly on fighting it? Or should we find other tasks to engage with? Surely the fight against ideas that deviate too much from our ideology’s basic principles is warranted? In this article we will consider the value of and the problems associated with this collective obsession.
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Critical notes on the “Manifesto of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism” (MIDS)

iniciativa-za-demokraticni-socializem-logoThis is a critique of the Manifesto of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (Slovenia)

The ideological dominance of capitalism as the only feasible mode of production is coming to an end. In the second half of the 1970s, when rapid and stable economic growth came to a halt in the ‘developed’ world, the forces of capital intensified their attack on workers’ rights that has not ceased to this day. The foundation on which the ideological domination of capitalism was based had started to wither away, and the advocates of capitalism increasingly justified its existence by turning to the mere fact of its existence. The fact that unlike really existing socialisms, capitalism has not collapsed – although it had to be rescued by fascist gangs and military juntas many times – underpinned the claim that there simply is no alternative and that we must accept any sacrifice in the name of capital accumulation. If growing inequality, poverty of the majority of the world population, terror of dictators and devastation of nature are the price to be paid for capital to flourish, then so be it.

The passage above is well phrased in general, however it misses what has been a key ideological point of right wing argument since the 90s, that only capitalism is compatible with democracy, and that the spread of capitalism will lead to the spread of liberal democracy. Explicit support for military junta’s has been much less common since the 90s. So when confronting the post soviet ideology of the upper classes reference to military junta’s misses the main target.
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Notes on Ideology, Power, the Media and the Irish Crisis

An introduction to the study of ideological power structures and their relevance in the Irish economic crisis (Notes from a presentation to the Dublin Left Forum 10/05/2014)

Introduction

Mural: Sunday Morning, Operation Control, Mind Control, Life Control, Operation Mind Control

Since the onset of the crisis that the Irish state thus far has not had to resort to coercion in any serious manner; a co-opted trade union movement alongside a generally homogeneous mainstream polity has meant that all austerity measures, including direct cuts to pay, conditions and the social wage have been successfully introduced. While the Fianna Fail party was almost wiped out in the 2011 election, the Irish system of ‘two and a half parties’ has meant Fianna Fail’s twin party centre right party Fine Gael, backed up by the Irish Labour Party has been able to continue the austerity project without missing a beat. While there have been many defensive protests on single issues such as individual hospital closures and the regressive household tax, some partially successful, the elite have been able to successfully implement a universal austerity programme of cuts and attacks to pay, conditions and the social wage. It is the belief of this author that ideological processes expressed mainly but not exclusively through the media has had an important role in this process. The aim of this paper is to introduce the various concepts of ideology and their role in both economic and political power structures; to apply those concepts to the media sphere and finally to apply the concepts to the role of ideology and specifically to mediated issues of economics and political policy in the Irish crisis.
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What is at stake with the Labour Theory of Value

Image of Labour Bund campaign against child wage slavery.Marx has been getting a lot of media attention recently, with articles exploring his relevance in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time Magazine, Forbes and many others. A quick search on Google trends for “was Marx right” shows a blip after the crisis but a stream of mentions since 2011.

As Marx is known as having given a powerful and substantive critique of capitalism, it’s natural that whenever it is suggested that capitalism may have endemic problems, that his name will be invoked.

Many economists, including Greenspan, were claiming that crisis was permanently a thing of the past. New Labour famously proclaimed on their advent to power in 1997 that they would put an end to the cycle of “boom and bust” capitalism, only to preside over the biggest bust since the Great Depression.

Marx’s critique, by contrast, held that in fact crisis is inherent to capitalism. With two centuries of periodic crisis it’s clear that any analysis which can claim to be predictive is going to have to account for these crises.

However, something which has not been examined very clearly is how Marx’s critique of political economy was capable of describing crisis, or of making any of the other predictions which it has done. It’s important that we take stock of the analytic tools which gave rise to these predictions so that we can evaluate if we should be using them again in order to understand our current situation.

Labour at the Core

Many things in society are historically specific – they do are not time-invariant general features but arise out of particular circumstances – but some aspects of society are more permanent. In particular, one aspect of all human society thus far is that it organises human labour in order for society to continue existing.

The manner in which this labour is organised and allocated is, however, historically specific. Social organisation can be seen as arising out of competition over how to organise social labour. Because this is configured by the environment (a factor which it is important to understand includes the social organisations themselves) we can think about this as a selection process which is in many ways similar to the process of selection which life itself undergoes 2 (For a dissenting opinion, see 3).

In neolithic times organisation of labour was often done at the level of the tribe, with responsibilities being mediated through direct personal relationships.

In capitalism, by contrast, the allocation of labour happens in a deeply impersonal (but nevertheless social) way. Instead of relying on interpersonal relationships, we rely on mediation through money, in markets (For a synopsis of Marx’s Capital see 4). We try to find organisations which will pay us a wage so we can buy the things we need and want, and these organisations are responsible for allocating our labour in order to produce one or some of these commodities which are then sold on the market.

Those of us with the fortune of being successful capitalists will attempt to arrange socially useful labour by finding firms which can produce at profit, or simply invest in organisations who will do this for us.

This system is organised around a number of core features which characterise it:

  • It consists of “generalised commodity production”. Capitalism requires the production of commodities for sale in a marketplace, and that this be the primary feature of social production.
  • It requires “doubly free labour”. That is, a pool of wage labourers who are free to sell their labour power, and free from the capital which would be required for them to sell anything else. It makes me happy that this pun works in English as well as Germany.
  • It requires finance: a system of Banking and Capital investors which can purchase requisite materials from the commodity market to fund current, or assemble new, productive endeavours.

These three aspects interlock to create the conditions for capitalism. The manner in which the general process emerges involves a large number of agents – firms, capitalists, worker, consumers.

These components are organised in what is termed a circuit of capital. Since it is in fact a circuit, a metabolic system which uses outputs as inputs to produce new outputs, there is no actual starting place – but we will arbitrarily jump on the circuit as follows:

First, money (which is obtained from prior investment by capitalists) is used to purchase commodities. These commodities are necessary precursors to some output commodity. Labour is employed in the manufacture and the product is produced for sale on the market. This process is sometimes designated as M-C-M'; that is, money is used to produce a commodity which yields more money.

All capitalists engage in this process, and the process is conducted in such a way that the difference in monies invested to monies obtained is maximised – that is, that profits are maximised.

We can write the process in a more expanded form as:

M-C1-C2-…Cn-L-M’

Where each Ci is an input commodity, and L is the amount of labour from the worker. This L, the labour supplied by the labourer can further divided into two pieces, W (wages) and S (surplus).

If we think of the process in terms of labour, we have some number of hours which are employed in the creation of the commodity C. Each of the commodities that go in as precursors to the production of commodity C, (C1…Cn) similarly had some labour time which was expended in their manufacture. Each, in turn, will have had labour and commodities which involved labour time in their manufacture. If we carry on this investigation into the labour expenditures recursively we arrive finally at total amount of labour expended in the production of a commodity. In this way a good can be reduced to pure labour content.

The central hypothesis of the LTV is that this commodity’s price is related (but not identical) to its labour content. It may be above or below but capitalist competition will have a tendency to move both towards value by giving insufficient returns to those who price below, and allowing competitors to undercut those who price too far above.

Since the system is always in motion we don’t expect these ever to coincide – even in the long run, but neither are they without constraint.

We can imagine it as similar to the concept of temperature of a gas, and the velocities of the particles of a gas. At a given temperature you can find a molecule that has virtually any velocity – but the distribution of the velocities will be dictated by the temperature with a definite peak (most probable velocity region).

This dual character of the theory, which allows a separate notion of value and the price at which something exchanges gives rise to a number of very interesting and useful features. It allows us to talk about something selling above or below its value.

While at first glance the appeal of this might not be so obvious, but even mainstream pundits seem unable to control themselves when calling something “over-priced” or that something is a “speculation bubble”. To what are they referring if the value of something is precisely its price?

It also allows us to talk much more coherently about the way that rentier capitalism actually functions – the use of monopoly or absolute scarcity to appropriate value from one branch of production into some other part of the market.

Finally it gives us a way to think “the full value of Labour”. In a “price theory of price”, where everything is valued precisely at its price, there is simply no way to talk about what the labourer was contributing to production short of what they were paid to do it. That is, by eliminating a dual structure theory one immediately eliminates the possibility of something “unpaid”.

The Historical Specificity of Capitalism

Investment at interest has existed as long as history, we have reports of Sumerians investing in long distance tin trade at interest. The Italians had sophisticated trading banks by the eleventh century for insuring and obtaining capital for shipping.

Similarly, the production of commodities for exchange in the market is likewise ancient. It was present going back to the Roman era and before. Even in agrarian England prior to the rise of capitalism, doubly free labour was common in agricultural production.

The uniqueness of capitalism is not simple the constituent parts but the way in which they interact and the fact that the bulk of economic activity is organised around generalised commodity production making use of wage labour for the purpose of profit and the utilisation of capital for improvements of the productive process. It is only as this bundle – or totality of social relations that we can understand it as historically specific.

Origins

Smith5, Ricardo6, Hodgskin[Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, Thomas Hodgskin], Marx7 and virtually all of the classical political economists of the 19th century took an approach to understanding modern capitalism which looked at the peculiar way in which labour was allocated in capitalist society.

The Labour Theory of value arose from a fairly abstract argument by Adam Smith. He was trying to find a reason that money could be a sensible intermediary for all of the individual valuations of goods in commodity exchange. He asked how it was that I could sell one commodity and purchase another all while utilising some single unit of intermediary (a currency). He reasoned that the thing common to all commodities which allowed an equivalence was labour. From this he formulated the hypothesis that prices reflected the labour which went into the production process.

Smith was antagonistic to the view that prices merely arose from subjective valuations of individuals. To illustrate the idea he put forward the “diamond-water” paradox, to show that valuations could not be merely subjective. Subjective valuations of diamonds could not possibly exceed that of water as water is necessary to continue living, whereas the diamond was clearly utterly superfluous. How could it be that diamonds were of greater value? For Smith, the labour needed to obtain them was the solution to this apparent paradox.

Ricardo extended Smith’s theory and clarified some aspects. He also took a closer look at rent – those elements of absolute scarcity such as land which can not merely be easily extended and those which were subject to diminishing returns, as well as the questions of international trade and taxation.

Hodgskin was among the first to articulate how the LTV could be used to advance a radical critique levelled at Capital and the claims it makes on the output of the labourer which is seen most clearly in the LTV. We see Hodgskin argue against much of the argument which would later be mathematised by the Austrians in the late 19th century. Essentially making the claim that capitals supposed “contribution” is really due itself to other labourers.

Finally we have Marx’s theory of value which draws from these former economists amongst many others in order to create a very sophisticated analysis which he presents in Capital (see footnotes for a more in-depth description of Marx’s theory).

The Problem with the LTV

The apportionment of the labour added in production to capitalist and worker is really a necessary feature of the LTV for the theory to remain consistent.

Austrian economists first attempted to deal with this by arguing that the capitalist is engaged in a special form of labour in acting as the guiding entrepreneurial force which organises all of the aspects into the process of production.

Yet it is seldom case that the entrepreneur and the capitalist are necessarily present in the same individual (Jobs and Wozniak, Serge and Page, required capital investors), and even worse for the theory, a particular genius of the investor is irrelevant to the maintenance of the system of investment.

Studies have shown that investors are often as bad or worse than a random agent at making investment decisions – and yet the system continues to function as the firms which prove a failure die and the successful investment grows. So how can it be that those who have invested in the right productive endeavour can be so highly rewarded?

Of course a theory of political economy that demonstrates that one class of individuals is essentially parasitical is unlikely to be embraced enthusiastically by that class, especially when that class is the ruling class. This meant that the theory had to go, and following on some ideas in Smith, Ricardo and others dealing with the very specific question of rents and marginal land (goods which demonstrate a law of diminishing returns) von Wieser, Walras, Bohm-Bawerk and others developed a general theory called the theory of marginal utility which demonstrated once and for all that each contributor to the production process obtain precisely what their contribution deserved.

It is also the case that this theory requires diminishing returns to production, that each further employment of capital yields less effective output. This situation is very often reversed from what occurs in reality – that is it ignores economies of scale.

Finally, the notion of the contribution which capital provides in terms of physical capital which is employed in the theory makes use of a notion of the value of capital, without reference to the labour used to provide it.

We must therefore obtain a price for the capital without reference to labour. It turns out that this reasoning becomes circular – and we end up with a “price theory of price” in which prices can only make sense in terms of prices already provided coupled with an exogenous rate of profit.

Subjectivity

Marx’s approach to the Labour theory of value takes account of subjective valuations calling them “use-value”. We understand all goods which have sale in the market place as requiring that they have two features – they have a use-value and they are considered to be useful enough by an individual at a price which it sells at. There can be no sale of mud-pies which sell at their labour value as nobody wants them (though I’ve seen tourists literally purchase Moose shit in Alaska).

This subjective valuation however does not (in the long term) change the price in a significant way. If it did rise up to a high level above its value then competition would likely drive it down again, and selling below value is difficult for any length of time if one wants to stay solvent.

By contrast the various Subjective Theories of Value imagine that people define price based on their collective subjective valuations. This is perhaps most elegantly expressed in the Arrow-Debreu theory 8. This theory has enormous technical problems, including foresight of all prices of all future products ever, the need for aggregated personal preferences to remain similar in aggregate to the individual preferences (something which is mathematically absurd). But despite these mammoth problems, it has remained more popular than the LTV.

Some Notes on Misinterpretations

The LTV is a theory of the organisation of commodity production under capitalism. While it is a “totality of social relations” it is not the only way in which labour is organised.

There are families, there are community groups there are churches there are clubs there are individuals etc. All of these perform different types of work to get outcomes which are not aiming for exchange value directly. These exist in a broader context of the core of economics being capitalist and are therefore configured by them, but capitalism does not subsume them – no mode of production has subsummed all social relations (as yet – a truly totalising capitalism would be an interesting SciFi dystopia).

As such there are many realms, including house-work about which the theory says nothing. This is not because Marx, or any of the early socialists were uninterested in housework or the family, in fact their writings show this not to be true at all. Instead it’s because capitalism does not account for this labour in price. The LTV describes hour labour is apportioned only through wage labour for generalised commodity production.

In the LTV housework is like mushrooms which grow in the woods – it is treated as an external resource that is utilised but which is not commoditised. These things however can be commoditised, and in many case childcare, washing, cooking and cleaning have been increasingly commoditised over the last century. Even the reproduction of humans themselves in sperm-banks and surrogate mothers has demonstrated commoditisation.

The confusion of the purpose of the LTV has lead to calls for wages for housework and other such demands that are strikingly similar to calls for commoditisation of the sphere of activity. We should think seriously if what we want is a deepening of generalised commodity production.

Everything which is not in capitalism is organised by something else. These other bits fall into the more general model of historical materialism and the general social organisation of all labour. Part of the task of socialism is to find out how we can generate production on a basis which is not for the sole purpose of profit formation.

But who should I listen to?

But how is the innocent bystander to make sense of all this economic technicality? Wasn’t the Labour Theory of Value defeated? Can it possibly be true that there are no useful innovations since Marx? Why should we care about the LTV? Should we not do as Marx did and pursue the most developed technical theories of the economists of today?

Firstly, we should seek theories which have explanatory and predictive power. There have been quite a number of predictions which have been verified including the fact that returns to capital will tend to outstrip those to labour which eventually leads to crisis.

Further, we have good empirical evidence that the labour content does indeed reflect in prices – and comparisons to other potential “values” such as energy are nowhere close9. There are other theories of crisis that are contingent on the LTV, such as the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall10. Further are predictions of crisis from overproduction11 or underconsumption12.

By contrast, marginalism and the STV have no such capacity to explain price excepting by assumption making them incredibly weak theories in the predictive sense. Further they do not provide us with theories of periodic crisis except to imagine that it’s caused by some “evil” (often state, cartel or monopoly) intervention or distortion. It’s actually quite hard to see what they do provide other than a normative theory justifying returns to capital.

The problems or areas in which the LTV is not much use are largely problems at the fringes of the theory, many of which have technical solutions. There are also many discussions of areas that may be more problematic (The Transformation Problem13 14, General rate of profit15 16).

However, all abstractions will have some data-points which don’t fit the theory precisely because the world is more complicated than any model. It matters more how useful a theory is for prediction and explanation in the regime in which we understand it to work.

The empirical quality of the theory is very important, however the LTV enjoys another importance. The labour theory of value puts labour, the human activity for our own reproduction at the centre. It is therefore a human theory and a theory which explains the world from the vantage point of those who work for a wage under capitalism.

Marx’s investigations in Historical materialism gave rise to the hypothesis that in capitalism the working class is the class which is most capable of being able to take over the productive apparatus and run it in its own interests, thereby abolishing the need for a ruling class. Hence a theory which looks at economics from the vantage point of workers is an important weapon in the arsenal.

Historically we have rarely seen any class which developed so much power and influence over society and was also subaltern. That appears to be slipping now due to the innovations of neo-liberalism, but perhaps this is not inevitable.

In terms of the most advanced economic theories of today, there is truth to the need for the incorporation of new techniques. It is important to remember, however, that the neo-classical school arose specifically because the “bourgeois economists” were terrified of using the “bourgeois theory” of the LTV any longer after Capital began rising in popularity.

This is in marked contrast to the situation of modern neo-classical macroeconomics. This theory is not particularly explanatory, but it has instead been carefully built to justify the returns to capital.

Piketty, the writer of a modern tome also entitled “Capital”17, is now widely talked about in the news. In this mammoth work however he focuses primarily on the absurdity of dynasty and inheritance and appears to have difficulty rejecting the core proposition that returns to capital are justified (though he does make some forays here as well). I believe this is a result of the focus on the tools of neo-classical political economy.

There are however elements of modern economic research that can and, indeed must be adopted. Results from behavioural economics, from econophysics18, from chartalism and MMT19 for instance should be incorporated. Further, research into the LTV as a stochastic multi-agent system has barely even been started and already has very promising results and potential predictions.

Engaging in this type of research is difficult precisely for historical materialist reasons – those who raise up such theories represent a challenge to the legitimacy of the way things are run and tend to get weeded out. It is very difficult to pursue this type of research in economics. Yanis Varoufakis has a very good short work on this subject entitled: “A Most Peculiar Failure – On the dynamic mechanism by which the inescapable theoretical failures of neoclassical economics reinforce its dominance”20.

The economic platforms which might give rise to space for such theories are more likely to come out of cooperatives and unions than universities. We can already see much of the thinking and research on inequality is a result of research by the unions. If we manage to get a network of cooperatives with a political orientation then it could potentially assist in this pursuit.

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Strategy of Attrition: Part II

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus

(Outside of the Church there is no Salvation)

Saint_Augustine_and_Saint_Monica

In order for strategies to become more permanently established they need to be theorised.

Just as the Leninists, from 1919 on, theorised the de facto dictatorship of the Bolshevik party into the theological knots of vanguardism and the Anarchists theorised the workers councils as the vehicle of liberation, Kautsky and the Marxist Centre theorised the mass socialist-labour organisations as the agents of socialist transformation.

The view was brought out in the debates between Otto Bauer and Kautsky over the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s. Bauer argued that there could be a Russian road to socialism; that the backward conditions found there facilitated the crash-course of industrialisation which would pave the way for socialism in the future.

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The Strategy of Attrition: Part I

Conquest or Destruction of the State?

Citizen Engels

St Paul preaches to the Victorians

Right from its beginnings in early 19th century, socialism has been bedevilled by debates over strategy in a way that right-wing ideologies have not.

Would salvation come, as Fourier dreamed, from wealthy benefactors funding new communist colonies or maybe, as Proudhon envisaged, through workers founding their own mutualist enterprises and bypassing politics altogether?

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Democracy and the role of the party

Democracy in Crisis

“In sharp contradiction to the belief that democracy is only a way to Socialism is another viewpoint which is also quite popular in Socialist ranks, namely, that true democracy is possible only in a Socialist society and that what we have now as democracy is an illusion and has only a formal character.”
–Karl Kautsky

Petrograd Soviet, 1917Everywhere in Europe, but with special intensity in Spain, a strong distrust of politicians, parties, and to a certain extent representative democracy, is gaining currency as the feeling of the vast majority. Expressions like “they’re all the same” or “voting is useless”, which were never unheard of, are nonetheless acquiring the social imprimatur of common sense, although paradoxically many of those most likely to utter them will, when it comes to the crunch, show up at the polling station and have a care for what ballot they put into the urn. It’s undeniable, though, that there is a crisis of legitimacy, and the belief that those who in theory represent us for the common good are in fact looking to their own sectional interest (or that of their patrons) not just first, but exclusively, is increasingly widespread.

There are many responses to this situation: resignation (it is inevitable that someone must rule and that they will be corrupted in so doing), depoliticisation (what is required is a neutral, capable, non-ideological government by technicians), relativism (my party is bad but it is not as bad as your party), and of course a number of more rupturist views. The general thrust of these is that what we have right now is not truly democratic, and that some formal or procedural change is required to introduced so-called real democracy. That was the name of one of the primary movements during the 15M, Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now). Likewise, the structure of parties such as Izquierda Unida (United Left) or the PCE is regarded as undemocratic because of their internal structure. Some of these claims have some merit, but many are ultraleft wishful thinking dressed in liberal language.

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Posted in Critique of the Left, Politics, Proletarian politics | 1 Comment