Reply to comments on scale and planning

I have received very thoughtful comments on my scale post.  It’s going to take me a while, but I’ll do my best to address them.  This will help me state ideas that I obviously couldn’t get across clearly in my previous post.

What do you mean by freedom?

I view freedom as recognition of necessity.  Necessity as what is essential, regular, or stable in a phenomenon — as opposed to merely contingent.  In other words, we are free insofar as we know our environment and ourselves — the “laws” of nature, the “laws” of history, and the “laws” of cognition.  By knowledge I don’t mean anything mystical, but a workable, approximate and tendentially improving understanding to help us grapple with the world in practical terms.  So knowledge is relative, historically contingent.

If we know the world — ourselves included — then we are free, we have more powers, because we are more able to circumvent or limit the adverse effects of physical or social necessity.  Marx and Engels described communism as a society where the free development of each one was precondition for the free development of all.  Essentially equivalent descriptions of communism are: a society that promotes the universal development of our human capacities, human potential, or human powers.

I am aware that each of these terms is suggestive in different ways, but a bit of reflection shows that they refer ultimately to the same thing.

Say the goal of socialism is to maximize human freedom.  What does that have to do with maximizing output or being efficient?

Freedom is a product.  It has to be produced, and reproduced.

At the Left Forum, we argued whether efficiency was or not a good term for us to use, because it’s been associated with the use and abuse of people for the sake of private profit, etc.  I don’t know if the term is utterly polluted and we need to discard it.  The meaning of words shifts over time, and we should care about that.  But, as I said at the Left Forum, if we discard the term efficiency, which among economic theorists has a very clear meaning (achieving a goal at minimum cost compared to alternatives), then we will have to coin another term to the same end.

Because, as Marx noted in Grundrisse, the law of (or, if we prefer, the need for) the economy of time (which — Marx added — is to what all economies ultimately reduce themselves to) had to hold even more strictly in the “communal society” — i.e. or e.g. under communism.   Obviously, we want to use our productive powers judiciously.  We don’t want to waste our conscious active time, because each minute of it wasted is an irretrievable loss of our humanity.  We want to get a certain amount of freedom (output) at the least expense of freedom (input).  Or, alternatively, we want to get the most freedom (output) at a certain expense of freedom (input).  That is what efficiency should mean to us.

The capitalists have their own notion of efficiency: maximum capital (stock) or, equivalently, maximum profit (flow).  But that just goes to show that establishing the semantic social currency of terms like “efficiency,” “good,” “wealth,” “income,” “welfare,” “consumption,” etc. in a given society is part of our struggle.  It is part of the “war of ideas.”  We, working people, have to articulate and impose our own notions of freedom, good, wealth, welfare, etc.  Marx and Engels (in the German Ideology, if I remember well) said or implied that our “real wealth” is the wealth of our human relations, i.e. our “real wealth” is the social structures that we build.

They made other statements, which are — if you think about it —  essentially equivalent, namely that our “real wealth” was us as “socialized individuals.”  Or that our “real wealth” was our “free conscious time,” time beyond what is merely necessary, time we could devote to develop our capacities and express our individuality.  In other words, freedom is wealth and wealth is freedom; freedom is (productive) power and (productive) power is freedom; etc.

Again, this is not the prevailing notion of wealth or freedom in our society.   But, as I said, it is up to us to dispute the content of these notions.  For us, a livable relationship with the natural environment and a workable socialist society are the most precious pieces of wealth, and they won’t just happen.  We will have to produce them and reproduced them, just like we lift a heavy object.  Producing wealth — in whichever way we may define it — will be subject to the same general laws of material production that govern the production of heavy object displacement.

By the way, if we want a livable natural environment, then we have to think of it as a deliberate product.  Because if we don’t aim at producing it, it won’t just happen.  But then, strictly speaking, if a livable natural environment becomes increasingly a product, we cannot say that it is “natural” anymore, because it will increasingly be as “artificial” as an iPod, which won’t make them any less beautiful, enjoyable, etc.

What does the maximization of human freedom means in empirical terms?  How could the concept of freedom be operationalized so that a society can aim at maximizing it?

This is not as bad an objection as another idea some people express often: that freedom is not measurable.  In that view, freedom appears as quality dissociated from quantity, which is logically untenable.  After all, as Hegel put it, “quantity is quality sublated.”  How can anything have a quality (a stable self identity) without that implying its quantitative determination, the fact that certain variation can happen to that thing without altering its quality and that variation beyond a threshold alters its quality?  The trivial case is of course the state of a bit (binary digit).

Human freedom, like any other concept, is difficult to operationalize and measure precisely.  But that is a practical challenge.  Historically, operationalizing and measuring time, weight, lengths, etc. was practically hard for our ancestors, but they managed.  As a result, we now view time, weight, length, etc. as the paradigms of measurable entities.  We seem to forget that before space, time, and gravity were perceived as “separate” aspects of the physical world — so much so that modern physicists had to “re-unify” them — they were experienced by humans as a single undifferentiated flow.

A workable socialist society will have to find processes by which to continuously define, redefine, and operationalize freedom, wealth, welfare, power, etc.  That entails that we open the conceptual black boxes, that we disentangle their content.  The specific processes remain to be designed, experimenting and also digesting the historical experience.  We have to aim at processes that are as transparent as possible.  If the outcome (our processed notion of public good, freedom, wealth, etc.) is going to be a sausage, at least we would like to be able to recognize the main ingredients that go into it.

How much weight to give to a clean environment, quality housing, workplaces, public areas, transportation, recreational facilities, food, education, health, civic and communal life, etc.? Which of these items is a means to which end, etc.?  We will have to figure that out in each specific context.  What civic mechanisms will we use to aggregate individual choices into our collective decisions?  Whatever works, given resources and historical context.

We just need to do better (and we will, I believe) than capitalism on a consistent basis.  As things look in this early spring of 2011, it may not be so terribly difficult, especially if we are serious about absorbing the historical experience.  But how we will use surveys, polls, elections, referenda, popular assemblies, and other mechanisms of civic interaction, and technology, as needs and issues may arise, that we can safely leave to historical contingency.  And yes, even markets could be used!  Of course, not the same markets as in a capitalist society, but markets in a different overall socio-economic framework, markets in the sense of what paraphrasing David Laibman I’d call “parametric” forms of cooperation, where parametric means that we use social analogs of market mechanisms (yes, as Oskar Lange envisioned) to determine the proper rate at which social labor is to be allocated in specific areas.  If it is more costly to do it otherwise, then we should do it that way.  Understanding under which conditions the scale of ownership can and should be expanded and which cases it is overreaching is but another way of posing this same issue of deciding what to leave to private decentralized exchanges.

Here again, I’m with Lenin in his arguments after the civil war.  There is not much to fear by allowing these arrangements to exist, insofar as we cannot dismantle them and replace them with more efficient mechanisms.  Yes, they are a compromise with the conditions that exist.  They are imposed on the associated producers by what we inherit.  Yes, they result from a certain underdevelopment of the productive force of labor.  Yes, they should not be viewed as the ultimate, but as temporary solutions, but that doesn’t mean that they will be short lived.  Lenin was very adamant in arguing that we should not fear these social structures, that we should focus on the areas of the economy that will help us pull the whole together more economically.  And I believe that is the correct approach.

A propos of the discussions on Doug Henwood’s list about the labor theory of value, I will say here that the issue of operationalizing freedom, etc., is closely related to the issue of operationalizing value.  Marx didn’t argue that socially necessary labor time was quantifiable in operationally precise terms.  He didn’t have to.  His argument was that, regardless of what people may think, social labor time is effectively being quantified in our societies — one way or another.  The question is not whether we measure (precisely or not is a different matter) expenditures of purposeful human time (or freedom), but how we measure it.  We do one way or another.  The real question is: Do we measure the chunks of social labor (or of freedom) that go to the various alternative uses in the public light, with individuals negotiating on equal footing, or do we measure it behind the backs of people, below the thick veil of markets or of vitiated political processes that only disguise the abuse of the weak by the powerful?

Unless we believe in extra-natural forces to which we owe reverence and obeisance, what is the point of anything if not us?  What is the point of a having “an economy” if not us, our powers, our freedom, our ability to express and realize ourselves in the world?  But if Protagoras was right and we humans are “the measure of all things,” then we the measures must of necessity be measurable.  What quantifies is quantifiable, what measures is measurable.  Necessarily, the standard shares the same quality with the items that are the object of measurement.  We measure the human content in our stuff, because our stuff is the objectification of our humanity.

The value of life cannot be infinite (except as a tendency), because we will never spend an infinite amount of productive force to produce and preserve life.  And that is because we will never have an infinite amount of productive force to spare!

The question is how much do we effectively value life in our society?  How much does it really matter to us?  Not in our minds, but in our practice. The answer to these questions we reveal by the actual amount of productive resources (of freedom, of productive force of labor) that we spend enhancing our lives, making them worth living, etc. — as opposed to protecting or reinforcing a status quo that degrades and destroys life on earth.

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