Final round on Wojtek’s comments

So what that technology is a public good?

That is an essential fact.  It follows from it that the social cost of private ownership tends to increase compared to conceivable alternatives.  That’s what being a public good entails, namely that it is more socially costly to provide it privately than publicly.   It is clear that, as history progresses, the weight of technology in our society expands.

If we, as a society and as individuals, are the ultimate product of human history (far from being intentional, true, but not even the making of microchips in the most tightly controlled facility can produce perfectly intentional outcomes), then our productive infrastructure, the extant wealth (physical and human), etc., all that is embodiment or objectification of a huge, layered technology set.  We, as a society and as individuals, are a blob of raw physical stuff drawn from the rest of nature shaped up by technology.

Clearly, the more history progresses, the greater our productive powers, the bigger our subjective imprint on nature; the bigger the embodied technology set.  That thing needs to be managed properly (with relative efficiency) if society is to persist.  Conflicts of interest have to be deactivated and the negotiation of our individual differences has to be channeled in a manner that prevents our expanding powers from being used destructively.  Ultimately, this is not an appeal to fairness, but an appeal to efficiency or, if you prefer, to survival.

This again, by the way, suggests why efficiency, and not equity, should be the main grounds in the argument for socialism.   An equitable society has to be able to sustain itself, i.e. it has to prove itself to be efficient in the management of its resources, if it is to survive the reactionary backlash.  At the end of the day, only societies that prove to be comparatively efficient in the allocation of their productive forces will be able to prevail.   The equity parts is important, in that it provides the idea or design that a society may strive to collectively materialize in its social structures.  But ideas are “cheap” (or, actually, the opposite!) if they cannot be implemented at the least cost in human labor.

Now, if technology (and my notion of technology encompasses all kinds of subjective content, so it is a lot and it keeps expanding much faster than the natural stuff on which we leave our subjective imprint) is a public good, then it has to be provided publicly.  Providing it otherwise is grossly inefficient, socially speaking.  Social cooperation cannot be confined to that perverse kind of cooperation where my helping you is dictated by the rate of mutual help that individuals pursuing their narrow self interest deem appropriate as it results from mutual haggling and backbiting (what we call prices, interest rates, return rates, etc.) in the market.  No.  That form of cooperation fails with technology.

With technology, an ever expanding area (and not only there), my helping you and your helping me has to be turned around.  We have to help each other as humans.  Yes, we are (and have to be) objects, instruments to each other’s ends.  But we are also subjects, with our unique individualities, and we help one another for the sake of it.  This recognition of one another as individual subjects is sine qua non to liberating the management of our resources from (if we think about it) a very stupid constraint — the more stupid, the more our productive powers grow.

Consider the situation in Europe now.  The Germans, as they are (ruled by the capitalists), with the political institutions that they have, cannot contemplate the fact that it is in their best interest to allow for the Greeks to expand their economy, to have more jobs, etc.  If German banks want their money back, then the Greeks have to generate the resources to repay them.  Why are the Germans not relenting?  Because they have made narrow-minded calculations that tell them that if they keep giving credit to Greece, then they may risk some of that money.  So they better loose some of their money by not allowing Greece to expand!  Result: massive unemployment, underemployment, and decay of Greece’s productive wealth.

It’s like this: for you to cooperate with me, I must reciprocate to you to the extent dictated by the market (all of us haggling, buying and selling our mutual help).  Otherwise you withdraw your cooperation.  Then I fall sick.  An accident, whatever.  You stop cooperating with me, which makes it much harder for me to recover from the accident, and impossible for you to benefit from the cooperation that I could provide you with if I were allowed to recover and maintain my side of the ongoing relationship.  Prisoner’s dilemma traps.  But as Elinor Ostrom suggests in her Governing the Commons, the trappings of this dilemma — and the escape from them — are of our own making.

That is, at the end of the day, the beef with markets.  That they are a messed up form of social cooperation.  That is not a way to keep up a workable society in our times.  And that is what I’m trying to show.

Now, how about the incentives that people may have for wrecking the public provision of goods — e.g. free riding, tragedy of the commons, etc.  All those problems are real.  There is no point in denying that.  But these problems can also be solved, in theory and practice.  Again, this is something that Ostrom’s work (and others along that same line of spotting actual historical experiences where people cooperated and build social structures that enabled them to manage commonly held resources with a relative degree of success) has shown amply.  I hope to say more on this later.

You argue that non-excludability is not a property of goods but that of social relations. I would extend that claim to rivalry as well. Rivalry is a function of supply, which in turn is socially determined. For example, food can be rival if it is in short supply but non-rival if it is in ample supply. Same thing for education, housing, health care,  transportation, etc.  Even goods that are non-fungible ( of art)  can be non-rival under certain social arrangements (e.g. public  ownership and free public access to all works of art.)

My point, which was not clearly made, is that “excludability” and “rivalry” are different in a sense exactly analogous to the difference between an orange as a product or use value, on the one hand, and an orange as a commodity (privately owned good) or as capital (privately owned good used to extort unpaid labor from workers) on the other hand.   It is true that a product or use value stands in a relation to us, but that relation is one of those that Marx called “material” relations.

This distinction between the “material content” of social life and its “social form,” which is central to Marx’s critique of capitalism, is a refinement — as Gerald Cohen noted — of the Greek sophists’ distinction between “nature” and “convention,” the former being something we have to manage (because it is a given, as far as we humans are concerned) and the latter being something we can discard and replace with something more fitting to our purposes.  (I believe Cohen was referring to Plato’s dialog Protagoras, where Protagoras, in arguing with Socrates, refers to this distinction posing it in terms of “what is given to men by Prometheus,” i.e. convention, and “what is given to men by Zeus,” i.e. nature.  Or maybe Cohen is referring to some other source.)

So, back to my analogy: An orange can be viewed as a physical thing, and as such it has a hard-wired degree of objectivity (independence from our thoughts).  An orange can also be viewed as a use value, and as such it relates to us humans as an object of consumption.  It is objective in a “material” way in the sense that basically the same orange can remain a use value under slavery or communism.  Yet, if we humans weren’t around and had needs (or if we were to change our tastes and, for whatever reason, abandoned the consumption of oranges), the use value of the orange would vanish.  That is not as hardwired as the sheer physicality of the orange.  Moreover, an orange can also be viewed as a commodity, a privately owned thing, exchangeable in markets, etc.  As such, “its objectivity is purely social” (as Marx put it).  It is independent of our thoughts in any market society.  Because it doesn’t depend on one individual’s will.  I may not like that oranges are commodities, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are commodities for the time being.  But this is not as hardened an objectivity as the objectivity of the orange as a use value or, even more hardened, as the objectivity of the orange as a physical thing.  If we all replace markets with another social arrangement or — more simply — if we just buy that orange, put it in the fridge, then it stops being an object of commerce, because we are not selling it to our family; the logic of resource allocation inside a family is different.

We can push that further.  The objectivity of oranges as commodities is much more robust (in that they are more likely to withstand historical upheavals; since markets have been around for a very long time, chances are they will survive way into our socialist future) than their objectivity as capital (e.g. as inventories in Tropicana, Minute Maid, or the supermarket).  With an act of expropriation, we could begin to dismantle the fundamental basis of capitalism (large sources of social inequality and markets as dominant), but dismantling commodity production and exchange in general is a tougher proposition.  Etc.

So, when you say that rivalry is “a function of supply,” I can agree with that.  But then we have to say that supply is not exclusively a matter of social relations.  It is also a matter of our relation with the rest of nature as producers, regardless of whether or not excludability (private ownership) exists.  Rivalry is a material fact of human life, regardless of our specific social structures.  Excludability results from our specific social structures — it is a fact in existing societies, but it doesn’t need to be.  The key point here is that, if our societies start to spend more productive force in locks and cops and lawyers than the wealth those locks and cops and lawyers are supposed to protect, then private ownership and markets are doomed.

Ultimately, rivalry results from the finiteness of our productive force.  We can rearrange our social life any way we wish, yet physical inputs will continue to be finite and, hence, at some point, become rivalrous.  On the other hand, in choosing ownership arrangements we have more degrees of freedom.

You start from an individual and try to make a case for social organization by showing the necessity of cooperation. That is a very bourgeois way of thinking (not that it is inherently  wrong, it just does not rub me the right way.) An alternative way is to start with assumption that the basic unit of production and consumption is not individual but collectivity. That is to say, virtually all thing the humankind have ever produced have been produced collectively, not individually. Collectivities  differ in the division of labor and distribution of surplus, which determine what  individuals do and receive under different social arrangements.

That  assumption will make it much easier, in my view, to make the case for the original goal of your piece – namely to show how socialism can maximize  human well-being. Moreover, you can do so without having to claim that more production is better. Instead, you can argue that more balance is better.

I didn’t spell it out, but the first individual that I assumed is a product.  She has to be produced first.  A society produces her first.  She has language, etc.  That is all implicit.  Now, when you’re presenting that idea, you have to start somewhere, which requires that you break the chicken-and-egg cycle at some point.  If you start with all the producers together as the basic unit of production/consumption, where do you go next to show how cooperation underpins that basic unit?  You cannot bring in sentients from another planet.  You have to break your basic unit into even more basic or elementary components.

There is, I believe, an issue with the Marxist critique of methodological individualism (in general).  It is wrongheaded if it refers to what Marx called the “method of presentation” (as opposed to the method of investigation).  When you present, you open with a quick reference to the factual issue, “stylized facts,” or what have you, but then you go and develop your abstract model, hopefully with the essential pieces in place.  Then you tweak it, extend it, etc.  But your actual starting point is an analysis.  The synthesis comes afterwards, when the elementary particles have been examined.

Aside from Capital, my role model is Oparin’s origin of life theory.  Or Minsky’s origin of mind theory (“society of mind”).  (And, please, do not get me wrong; this is not about whether these particular theories are valid or not, but rather about the pattern they follow.)  You have to explain an extremely complex totality — e.g. capitalist production, life on earth, or the existence of the human mind — because you need that understanding to meet practical needs, prosaic or not.  Of course, the challenge is, if you are not going to invoke extra-natural forces, to explain that totality as the emergent property of elements that in and by themselves are not the phenomenon in question, property that emerges when those elements combine and interact.  E.g. you have to explain capitalism as emerging from the combination of elementary cells that in and by themselves are not capitalist; life as emerging from the combination of elements that in and by themselves are lifeless; the mind as emerging from the combination of elements that in and by themselves are mindless; etc.  You start with the elements.  Otherwise it’s idem per idem.

This is different from the way in which one arrives at the conclusion of which these individual elements are and how they interrelate leading to the emergence of the phenomenon one’s trying to explain.  That is what the investigation is about.  You start with the totality and disentangle it.  The presentation reverses the direction.  You start with the pieces and then you re-assemble them as a coherently explained totality.


1 Comment

  1. Interesting series of posts.

    As you might know, there is a range of people thinking carefully about this ‘tendency of technology to increase and be valuable as a public good in opposition to capitalist excludability’ :- arising out of the political economy of the open source / free software scene, e.g.:

    The first of these concentrates more on the idea that “peer production” is a more effective mode than current capitalism & thus able to challenge it.
    The second is more concerned with the problem of setting up alternate structures to resist capitalist expropriation of value created using these shared commons.

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