Friday, May 1, 2015

Exploring the superstructure

I recently read a book called New Ideas from Dead Economists, by Todd Buchholz.  As you might guess from its title, it is a witty treatise on Economics for the layperson.

Buchholz's book is a great general overview of Neoclassical economics, with a decidedly (and unfortunately) Neoliberal bent.  He will give you a pretty comprehensive understanding of the important ideas put forth by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, all the way through to Keynes and Friedman.  He also gives some personal and historical color to his accounts, with a witty, entertaining tone throughout.  Sometimes this tone serves to gloss over important complexities in the economists' ideas that may run counter to the gross caricature provided by the Neoliberal narrative.  He spends a page or two of copy in Alfred Marshall's or David Ricardo's chapters dwelling on their personal life, with the rest taken up by adroit explanations of their theories.  In Marx's chapter, on the other hand, there's nary a page describing any pertinent economic theories on the German's own terms, but rather almost an entire chapter devoted to Marx's dysfunctional marriage, slovenly housekeeping, and petty personal hypocrisies.  We get a good bit of detail on John Stuart Mill's intellectual and aesthetic evolutions and phases, even a fair amount about his nervous breakdown, but nothing about his avowed socialism.  Indeed, sometimes it seems that the personal stories and dime-store psychoanalysis serve mainly to distract us from the more difficult nuances of economic thinking that does not fit into the Neoliberal mold.  As it was originally written in 1989 and then lightly revised in 1999 or so, the book is also peppered with a few awkward paeans to supply-side economic policy (the nasty, incoherent mutilation of Smith that has been debunked by most economists ever since the Reaganomics era), subtle digs at immigrants and the poor, 90s-era predictions that private IRAs would be much more stable and secure than Social Security, or that Russia was entering an economic golden age after Communism, and absurd climate change skepticism.  Buchholz even gets in a few good digs at Keynes and Galbraith, essentially insisting that heavy government intervention in the economy had become obsolete by the unbridled laissez-faire growth of the 1980s and 90s (which of course in hindsight proved to be based largely on a series of bubbles and scams).

But despite his philosophical/political biases, Buchholz does a great job summarizing the corpus of orthodox economic theory for the layperson.  I would highly recommend New Ideas from Dead Economists as a primer to get your head around the major economic concepts, and then I'd recommend that people follow it with something by Ha-Joon Chang to throw a bit of heterodox questioning and complexity into your conception of how the world works.

If you really want to explore the nuances of economic thought and different ways of explaining the world, then Socialist Thought:  A Documentary History is the book for you!  As the title implies, it's a great overview of socialist thought, with key excerpts from all the important thinkers from Rousseau and Babeuf up to Gramsci.  Reading it was a real eye-opener for me (and I think a sufficient dose for now of the original sources, which I don't have much desire to read in their entirety!).

I was born during the Cold War.  It so happens that my childhood took place in the waning days of this Cold War, but nobody knew that back then--the Communists were still the undisputed champion bad guys in the US of my childhood.  This was of course confusing to me, since I grew up at once surrounded by the anti-Communist fervor in society at large, contrasted with a pretty radical leftist father, and a devout Catholic upbringing.  As I gradually learned about Communism, through my incomplete (or perhaps remarkably prescient) child's viewpoint, I didn't understand how people could be Christian yet at the same time rabidly anti-Communist.  Every time I asked people what the Communists were or did that was so bad, they would tell me things like, "The Communists think everyone should share their stuff, that no one should have their own things," or, "The Communists take things from rich people."  At least that was my childlike rendering of the arguments people were using to show me how bad Communism was.  And I didn't understand, because in Mass and the Bible and Sunday school, we learned that Jesus believed everyone should pool all their stuff together, and that the rich should give away everything they have in order to follow Him.  Not to mention the constant injunctions from teachers in preschool to always share and not be greedy.  Greed was a sin, so how could you be a capitalist and Christian at the same time?  I guess I still feel much the same way, and my discovery of Liberation Theology in my teens and 20s, crowned by my reading the original book on Liberation Theology just recently, have only strengthened my conviction that there is at least a fundamental tension, if not an outright incompatibility, between Christianity and the free market.

Anyway, as I grew up and started reading and listening more to the things around me, I found that I couldn't blame people for not being too sold on socialism.  The examples given to most of us in the US pitted ugly, sterile, oppressive Bolshevism against a more or less free, prosperous society.  Who would choose the socialist alternative given that dichotomy?  Later on, in college, I even read some Bolshevist writing, and it didn't speak to me at all.  The doctrinaire infighting between long-dead Russians, with a tone at times lugubrious and at times acerbic, was a far cry from the vital solidarity with the poor that could move my spirit.  Furthermore, it seemed like much of Soviet Bolshevist theory aimed to lay down on paper as unmoving laws things that were really just the result of random, fortuitous circumstances.  Lenin's victory in St. Petersburg has never seemed to me the inevitable result of well-understood forces and natural laws, but rather a lucky ball that dropped in the right place and the right time for the Russian Bolsheviks.  The same thing didn't happen in Haymarket Square, or 1848 Frankfurt, or 1918 Berlin, even though these moments seemed to have offered much more propitious circumstances.  So to try to extrapolate iron laws of how certain objective facts will always lead to a successful workers' revolt seemed like a waste of time, which is to say that much of Bolshevik writing seemed like nonsense to me.

Furthermore, the ambience that framed some of my most formative years was the Neoliberal circle jerk that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Never since has there been such an outbreak of self-congratulatory theorizing about why Neoliberal capitalism is the inevitable, natural endpoint to the trajectory of all societies.  Come to think of it, Fukuyama and Huntington's theorizing about the iron laws that result in capitalist victory over state-controlled markets sound a lot like Lenin's lionizing of his group's having simply been in the right place at the right time seventy years prior.  In any case, my formal economic and historical education was filled with seemingly irrefutable demonstrations that collectively-owned enterprise is doomed to failure (while conveniently ignoring the many cases to the contrary, from efficient Medicare to self-supporting Social Security to state-owned enterprises in East Asia to public sector dominance in Scandinavia to major cooperative businesses like Land o Lakes or Fagor).

In short, the one-two punch of having Bolshevism presented to them as the only form of socialism, and having Neoliberalism presented as the only valid, correct way of understanding and running a society, probably predisposed most kids of my generation in the US firmly against socialism.  Even the contrarians who claimed they were socialists seemed to do so more to root for a losing cause, or to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  At least in my eyes, no one took socialism very seriously as a way to organize a society.  How could they?  Neoliberal capitalism (or maybe I will coin a new phrase and call it Ultraorthodox Economics) was an objective science.  It wasn't even a science--it was just what worked, how the world was naturally.  It had nothing to do with human values or preferences or social causes or philosophy, just rational, objective fact.  It was the closest thing to unimpassioned, impartial truth you could find in terms of running a society. 

None of this was true, of course, but this narrative framing of Neoliberalism successfully served to separate the descriptive aspects of economics from the normative aspects, prizing the former and downplaying the latter, as if the economy were some creature like an ant or a meteor, totally independent of human influence and best studied without interference from the observer.  Once you've accomplished this mental separation, it doesn't seem ridiculous to maintain a reverent remove from what is in fact an eminently human creation.  Once you've separated description of economic phenomena from their shaping, it doesn't seem absurd or immoral that some people are served well by the free market and others are not.  It is not ours to change the economy, only to ensure the smooth, oiled functioning of its whirring machinery.  Indeed, once you believe in the sacred ideal of a pure, undistorted market, you will never think to step in and correct market failures and suboptimal social outcomes; you will never even realize that the rules governing the economy are in large part rules that we humans create ourselves, and that we are free to change! 

Neoliberal economics even presented its major weakness, namely an impractical and unrealistic proliferation of abstract models and theories, as a virtue.  Neoliberal thinkers could pride themselves on describing very small pieces of the economy with great precision, even while having few answers for the larger, socially relevant questions of what should or should not be.  (In fact, even the supposedly accurate description of how economies work that Neoliberalism claimed to offer proved itself fleeting in many cases, as country after country collapsed under austerity, privatization, and structural adjustment, instead of experiencing the renaissance the Neoliberals often predicted.)  At the same time, the Neoliberal high priests criticized socialist thought (cynically equated with decadent Bolshevist systems) for not describing the exact technical details of the watchwork functioning of the microeconomy; the high priests didn't concern themselves with the question of whether these same, theoretically imperfect socialist systems actually delivered preferable real social outcomes.  How dare anyone pretend that the economy is in fact intimately linked to other fields like the natural environment, social relations, law, morality, belief, culture, tastes, ideas, propaganda, violence, war, power?  Those things might mess up the divine clockwork of abstract models!

Reading "Socialist Thought" opened me up to a whole world of richness and nuance that I hadn't known existed.  Socialism is NOT only Bolshevism (I knew that before reading the book), but it is neither even just the mixed welfare states of Europe and the US.  There are two and a half centuries of thought that fits more or less under the label "socialist", and while all these different ideas and traditions bear in common certain aspects and a unified spirit, they are a diverse and illuminating pool to delve into.  Within socialism there are abstract musings on the ultimate origins of human inequality, as well as schemes to improve physical wellbeing through technological innovation that hardly touches inequality itself.  There are discussions of how we know and experience the world (even a questioning of Descartes's "I think, therefore I am"), how we change the world and the world changes us, really deep ontological reflections.

The proletariat as a defined, coherent group only comes along after decades of socialist thought, and of course Marx was the one to lay out a unified consideration of what the proletariat is and why it exists.  But even after Marx, whose authoritative works seem to have quelled out some of the prior obscure schools of thought (many of which are very compelling to me, and which I think would have benefited humankind had we explored them further), there are countless differences within the universe of socialism.  There are debates on whether the poor are a benighted class needing outside revolutionary help, or the noblest of classes forging their way to their own inevitable liberation.  Can socialists work within the existing State, or must they destroy or usurp that State and build a new one?  Or maybe any State at all is bad? 

Is Marx correct when he says that capitalism must become exceedingly decadent and oppressive in order to inspire the socialist revolution?  If so, should socialists work not for the betterment of the living conditions of the working class, but rather for their debasement so as to hasten the revolution?  Should we work for change or wait for crisis?  (This last question is relevant for anyone contemplating desperate situations that must change, not just the abuses of capitalism but global warming, racial injustice, even the coming of the Messiah!).  If living conditions are improving, does that mean that capitalism does not in fact hold the germ of its own destruction?  Is gradual, democratic legislation the best way to improve the lot of the downtrodden, or is it sudden, violent action?  If a materialist interpretation of the world is true, that is a belief that history arises from the interaction between humans and their surroundings, what is the place of idealism, of thoughts that arise sui generis, not simply from material conditions?

I hadn't known that all this nuance existed.  It has helped me to learn better how the world works--not as a single, absolute theory, but as different facets that seem to describe certain aspects of what I've seen in my life.  In this sense, socialism can never vie with Neoliberal certainty in terms of accurately explaining the world using a single, narrow criterion.  But I think that socialist thought in all its threads can offer us a good understanding of the world's complexity, because it, like the world, includes not just economic laws but normative philosophy, history, power struggles, and the very mix of objectiviey and subjectivity that defines the human experience.

The last author in my book of socialist thought is CAR Crosland.  He attempts to lay out five factors that are common to the body of thinking that might be called socialist.  They are:
  1. "a protest against the material poverty and physical squalor which capitalism produced"
  2. "a wider concern for social welfare--for the interests of those in need, or oppressed, or unfortunate, from whatever cause"
  3. "a belief in equality and the classless society, and especially a desire to give the worker his just rights and a responsible status at work"
  4. "a rejection of competitive antagonism, and an ideal of fraternity and cooperation"
  5. "a protest against the inefficiencies of capitalism as an economic system, and notably its tendency to mass unemployment"
Crosland, writing in the postwar boom of mid-century Europe, dismissed points one and five, saying that they were responses to the excesses of early capitalism that had since been made irrelevant by economic growth and a redistributive state.  But in the 21st century, as US food pantries do a bustling business and jobs disappear across the developed world, these points seem just as relevant, if not more so, than the other three.  I think Thomas Piketty might agree.

One intellectual thread that runs throughout the socialist writings since Marx is the materialist idea that the economic and social surroundings you live among largely determine your way of experiencing and seeing the world, and even your thoughts and tastes.  I had long known about this current of socialist thought, and it always made intuitive sense to me, but it didn't seem like that profound or powerful of an insight.  But lately in my daily life I've really been seeing a lot of how the social superstructure determines people's actions.  People's race, politics, geographic origins, and economic status are such powerful determinants of how they act and think.  Indeed, it sometimes seems as if people are fully conscious that what they're doing is like a scripted, automatic response, but they almost relish adopting that predetermined role.  Maybe folks are just afraid to break the mold, even when they know it's there. 

I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, and it seems to me that I and others I know really make an effort to go beyond just a narrow, pre-defined set of allowable thoughts permitted to us by our social position.  I guess that is why for a long time I didn't lend much credence to the idea that class is such a dominant, overpowering determinant of outlook.  But as I live longer and meet a broader range of people, I don't think that this open-mindedness is how most folks operate.  Frankly, it may not be the way I myself operate--I may just be giving myself too much credit for free thought, when I too am in fact one more cog in the superstructure.  Or even if I and my friends are in fact true free thinkers that to some extent transcend the rigid limitations placed on the rest of society, maybe this role is itself accomodated within the superstructure.  Maybe I can flatter myself by thinking that we are the source of the shocks and challenges to the superstructure that topple one system and set up another.  For this is part of Marx and Hegel's scheme as well--people and thought are shaped by their material and social surroundings, but they also in turn shape these surroundings, particularly in bursts of change when the social arrangement is no longer a viable way to organize the existent material reality.

Regardless of my own lofty pretensions, for most of us in society, in so many ways and places, it seems that people are preordained to think a certain way, to ask or not ask certain questions, to prefer or not prefer a very narrow range of things.  I've seen this in many parts of the world, but at least in my contact with people from different social strata in Colombia (and more limited contact with people elsewhere), they seem interested and willing to change their ways if someone else shows them a new idea that makes logical sense.  In the US though, the social superstructure seems to be more stubborn--if I do something in a way that goes against the preconceived "right" way of acting, people will not only not be open to discuss the merits of my ideas, but they actively, hostilely reject the very possibility of veering off the well-trodden path offered to us by social norms.  There is at times a paralyzing dread of going off-script.  It's a sad, stark contrast that in Colombia and other developing countries, where for most of their history externally-imposed political and socioeconomic arrangements kept the masses marginalized and muzzled, people who haven't had the benefit of a liberating education are at least capable of recognizing and separating nonsense from sound reason, if they're given a chance; while in the nominally free and egalitarian US, we the people seem to take charge of muzzling and policing ourselves, even to the point of actively restricting our own free thought.

I was reminded of this recently when my wife and I hired a babysitter from a service to take care of our kids on a day when their school was unexpectedly canceled, and we both had to be out of the house.  It turned out that my stepdaughter, who is currently living with us, had her plans unexpectedly canceled that day too, so she ended up staying at home while the babysitter was there.  (In fact, my stepdaughter ended up doing most of the babysitting herself, but that's another story).  My stepdaughter at one point offered the babysitter a mandarin orange or something, and the babysitter sort of chuckled to herself and shook her head, as if it were ridiculous that anyone would think that she would or could eat a mandarin orange.  Now there was no physical barrier to it--the oranges were there for the taking.  There was no objective physiological barrier--mandarin oranges are delicious to everyone I've ever met who's tried them.  I mean, everyone likes sweet flavors, and mandarins are sweet.  But something was keeping the babysitter from allowing herself to eat a mandarin orange.  Something similar happened with the salad my stepdaughter prepared, and even the suggestion that they take the kids outside to the park.  On the other hand, the babysitter was very enthusiastic about showing the kids movies and stuff on her cellphone, despite the fact that there are well-publicized campaigns that little kids need to watch less, not more TV.  Apparently she had a very rigid scheme of "normal", acceptable things to do, like watching TV or having the kids watch it, and other things that were prohibited, like eating fresh food or going outside.  As it so happened, the social superstructure was prescribing for her precisely the opposite of what we value in our family.

My point here isn't to demonize the babysitter, but rather to marvel that certain things in the social structural framework around her were determining what she did or didn't do in life, even to the point of overriding natural impulses like taking kids outside, limiting TV, or following your tastebuds to sweets.  I assume the babysitter was from a relatively low economic stratum--you don't take precarious positions in the on-call, day-laborer staff for a home care company if you're economically privileged.  But many of the idiosyncracies I'm noting in her are not limited to the poor.  Indeed, being stuck to your phone, wary of natural food offered in friendship by others, and reluctant to pursue active entertainment seem to be traits exhibited by many people in the US, from varied economic and racial strata.  But they are very specific to the US, or perhaps to the post-traditional, consumerist way of life that the US is always at the vanguard of, with other developing countries soon to follow.

When I was in high school and college, I used to get really frustrated with these eminently irrational (and ultimately self-destructive) tics I noted in US society.  An attraction to the synthetic, a rejection of simple, human pleasures, an uncontrolled addiction to all manner of consumption and fads.  I ultimately left the States and stayed away for a very long time in large part because of these things.  But the years have perhaps softened my outrage, and now I'm more inclined to see these idiosyncracies not as personal shortcomings, but rather as social afflictions that my fellow citizens are subjected to.  When I think of it that way, my response is no longer to scorn and condemn these people, but rather to sympathize and seek out solutions to the aspects of the sociocultural superstructure that are holding people back from attaining their highest potential.

This framing of simultaneous outrage at unjust, inefficient social arrangements yet sympathy for the brothers and sisters suffering from those arrangements (even as they themselves also perpetuate the arrangements by their own behavior) makes me think of Malcolm X's autobiography.  A constant challenge and dilemma for Malcolm, perhaps the principal challenge of his life and ministry, was how to deal with the collective, widespread shortcomings and pathologies of the people he loved.  He often decried the addiction, the criminality, the aggression towards the weak and submission to (or collusion with) the powerful, exhibited by the black underclass of his Harlem home.  But at the same time he was profoundly aware that these pathologies were not simply personal failures, but rather conditions imposed on his flock by a larger superstructure.  Malcolm is keenly tuned in to which people are ready to hear the truth at a given moment and snap out of their established, oppressive routines, and which ones are still "brain-washed Negroes" that wouldn't be able to hear what he's saying.

Anyway, for a time I was reading the Socialist Thought book on my daily train commute, and reading Malcolm X to my son at night (he's now old enough to make me uncomfortable with questions about white devils).  I saw a lot of commonalities between Malcolm's vision of the white suprmacist superstructure and the socialists' descrition of the economic superstructure.  A recent interview I read with a black post-Marxist philosopher named Charles Mills has further solidified my view that both race and class are part of the superstructure shaping most people's actions in the US.  And the only thing more omnipresent than the superstructure is people's willing blindness to it, what Mills calls an "epistemology of ignorance".

The epistemology of ignorance combines with the meritocratic ur-narrative that we tell ourselves in the US, to yield an ugly trend of blaming the marginalized for their lot.  Whether it's angry white folks insisting essentially that unarmed young men deserve to die simply for appearing black and menacing, or the Neoliberal status quo blaming the poor for their unfortunate lot in life, the epistemology of ignorance leads the powerful to overlook their own shortcomings or flaws while simultaneously emphasizing the foibles of the oppressed, as a way of justifying the way things are.  This from Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb:
"When we have bound the laborer fast to his wheel; when we have practically excluded the average man from every real chance of improving his condition; ... then we are aggrieved that he often loses hope, gambles for the windfall that is denied to his industry, attempts to drown his cares in drink, and, driven by his misery irresistiibly down the steep hill of vice, passes into that evil circle where vice begets poverty, and poverty intensifies vice, until Society unrelentingly stamps him out as vermin.  Thereupon we lay the flattering unction to our souls that it was his own fault, that he had his chance; and we preach to his fellows thrift and temperance, prudence and virtue, but always industry, that industry of others which keeps the industrial machine in motion, so that we can still enjoy the opportunity of taxing it."
But to those who would sanctimoniously scold the victims of an unjust system, Brecht and Weill warn,  
"Your vices and our virtue are so dear to you,
So hear the simple truth of this our song. 
Wherever you aspire, whatever you may do,
First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong. 
For even saintly folk may act like sinners
Unless they've had their customary dinners!"

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