Distinguishing social democracy

Distinguishing social democracy:

Under left-liberal (as opposed to soc dem) regimes, organized labor does not participate in mid- to longer-range socio-economic planning. However, left think tanks can contribute mid- to long-range planning analyses.

Conversely, there are a variety of ways in which business leaders contribute to public policy formation, because business (public and private, but not cooperative) is regarded by the lib-left govt as the engine of growth.

This exclusion of cooperatives from the field of perceived contributors to growth indicates that lib-left govts may also be distinguished from social democratic govts by an assumption that growth is a product of “efficient” social-hierarchy-inflating organizational forms.

In lib-left regimes, labor views its role, and the liberal government views labor’s role as (often obstructive) ballast to economic growth initiatives that are seen as the natural concern of business. That’s labor’s negative role. It’s not a leadership role.

Labor’s positive role in capitalist democracy thus largely devolves to delivering votes to the left-liberal govt, because although the lib-left does not regard labor as a central social or economic policy resource, as opposed to conservative govts the lib-left govt will not actively try to break organized labor and it may implement those modest proposals of labor that do not impede the business-driven growth planning.

Hence, with a range of ruling (capitalist) political perspectives that always preemptively block information from labor (except what little leaks obliquely through the market), we repeatedly sink into crisis cycles–crisis of profit begets > capital deregulation and overmobilization, working class overregulation, demobilization, and dispossession beget > speculative bubbles/primitive accumulation beget > underconsumption crisis begets > further primitive accumulation, repeat. We fixate on the speculative bubbles moment in the midst of all this autistic failure, hoard wealth, and laud ourselves endlessly for being such top-notch managers and philanthropistes.

This is why for Rawlsianism to work, socialist politics and the communist horizon must be more highly valued, and even defended– by liberals.
As far as I know, this seeming impossibility has only been (temporarily) accomplished in Scandinavia and Minnesota. (While Latin America leftists tried to forge a left-lib coalition from scratch, the US destroyed this effort and enforced conservative rule in Latin America, see Greg Grandin.)

In “Right-wing Rawlsianism: A Critique” (forthcoming in Journal of Political Philosophy) Samuel Arnold argues that if liberals agree that agency is the essence of justice, then liberals have to pick which side they are on–because economic democracy fosters more agency than Trickledown provides.

Arnold’s is a clever detonation of a bridge from liberalism to conservatism, using some of the bridge-builders’ own ideal theory tools. (Particularly with respect to Rawls’ difference principle: A liberal justice-maximizing directive to choose the political-economic system that maximizes the least-advantaged group’s expectations for an index of primary goods that include income and wealth, but also status (qua capacity for agency in the workplace and self-respect in society).)

Upon deriving the optimal realization of liberal justice (agency) in workplace democracy, Arnold concludes (p. 32),

Milquetoast liberal egalitarianism is unstable: liberal egalitarianism must move far to the left in order to avoid being jerked far to the right.”

We need to keep heaping on the demonstrations that economic democracy fosters more agency than GDP/GNP tumescence.

For one example, insofar as political-economic systems can be said to have intentions, how plausible is it that capitalism does not intend to support social pathologies (Arnold, p.29)? Studies of primitive accumulation, the WEB DuBois tradition, socialist feminists, Harvey et al have a lot to say about how capitalism “intends to” (is built and maintained to) and does depend upon and support social pathologies. This approach apprehends the connection between economic (eg. workplace) tyranny and racism, sexism, colonialism, etc., for a powerpunch assertion that inequality is both fundamental to capitalism (even if it is shifted around across some social groups, over time and space) and fatally (from the perspective of justice) undermines agency (power to).

…& on the matter of historical-materialism’s putative incapacity to deal with difference (from a postmodern POV), from Arnold (p. 29):

Patriarchy, discrimination against the weak or the different, pressure to conform, and countless other social practices that prevent people from realizing their full agential potential: how long can these pathologies withstand the countervailing winds of a social democracy, with its democratic workplaces, its flattened division of labor, its robustly egalitarian public institutions?”

Primitive Accumulation, Negative Externalities and Growth

Over the years, Stefano Bartolini has modeled economic growth, showing that whereas most models of economic growth feature accumulation and technical progress as engines of growth, a third engine is needed to ensure self-perpetuating economic growth. History, the theory of Polanyi & Hirsch, and Bartolini’s models suggest that third engine is 2 negative externalities that combine to drive growth: 1) positional externalities, and 2) externalities that reduce social and natural capital.

Pagano 1999 defined a positional good: consumption by an individual of a positive amount of a positional good involves the consumption of an equal negative amount by someone else. Power and status are fundamental positional goods; others include education and housing.  The positional goods/services/externalities theoretical tradition extends from Veblen 1899/1934 and Hirsh 1976. In addition to Bartolini, Robert H. Frank (“Falling Behind”) has continued to explore this tradition as well as Bowles and Park 2002, Schor 1998, and Corneo and Jeanne 2001.

“Industrial revolutions are the paradigmatic example of this (Growth as Substitution) mechanism: they are the most striking processes of labor supply and accumulation increase because they are the most striking processes of social and environmental devastation recorded by economic history” (Stefano Bartolini, “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth.” 2003: 9).

Williamson 1995, Krugman 1995, and Bartolini et al have shown that the transition to an industrial economy has always been associated with explosive growth in the labor force participation rate.

Such growth-propelling negative externalities are discussed within the Marxist tradition as primitive accumulation. To further explore: The relationship between primitive accumulation and other capitalist strategies of promoting profit-restoring growth to the point of increasing contradiction / social and environmental irrationality.

Bartolini’s growth-model can better explain the failure of conservative economics’ predicted relationship between growth and happiness (Bartolini 2003). Inter alia, political scientist Lane 2000 shows that American growth is not associated with increased happiness.

Taxes are the Thunder of World History

Taxes, according to Joseph Schumpeter, are “the thunder of world history.”

“The spirit of a people, its social structure, the deeds its policy may prepare, all this and more is written in its fiscal history, stripped of all phrases. He who knows how to listen to its message here discerns the thunder of world history” 

(Schumpeter, J. 1918. “Crisis of the Tax State,” p. 101, quoted in Corey Robin’s blog. Robin is writing a book on two foundational modern conservative schools: the Austrian white emigres and Nietzsche. I think. We’ll see).

Dean Baker’s Critique of Capital Rents

I think “The Rent is Too Damn High” is one of Dean Baker’s best arguments.

But still, Desai’s critical examination of the limitations of the conservative Anglo interpretive and political tendency applies. She recalls the limited sociological imagination that emerged in Britain in response to the Great Depression:

“(During the Great Depression) the ‘responsible and judicious’ British intellect saw the new political task and sought to harness all its native (liberal and individualist) resources to its fulfilment…Thus in Britain, as Elizabeth Durbin has shown, the newly founded microeconomics was used to justify state intervention so as to increase social welfare and the Fabians, who constituted a distinct segment of the new intellectual stratum and who had already examined and rejected Marxism, used it in their theory of ‘rents’ and ‘unearned incomes’ to justify socialist goals” (Desai 1994: 47).

Crisis is based in Maldistribution

In “Celebrating Consumption,” Sasha Lilley (“Against the Grain”) interviews (and clarifies) economic historian and “residual marxist” James Livingston’s study of the structural problems of capitalism.

Lilley’s clarifications are integral to this discussion, because Livingston’s project seems to be taking Marxism and rebranding it and making it palatable to Cold War-scarred, pro-capitalist and Judeo-Christian Americans. While this ambition I think creates problems in his diagnosis, on the other hand, it must be said that Dr. Livingston nonetheless seems to be a remarkably gracious gentleman and a scholar. For now, I think it would be unsporting to begrudge him his reframing experiments.

Private investment is not key to productivity or growth in capitalism


Private investment is not historically key to increasing productivity, to growth in the US.
Private investment has been atrophying since 1910.
What has increasingly promoted growth is consumer spending, government spending (officially classified as investment), residential investment.

Against Brenner, the problem with the decline of manufacturing in the US is not the loss of productivity, but the loss of wages and unions, leading to the maldistribution of income and wealth.

In view of the historical evidence (private investment atrophy), what happens when we drop the assumption that private investment is key to growth? What kinds of policies can we work on that move us out of crisis mode?

Livingston’s use value-exchange value discussion (TBD)

To get to innovative policy formation, we need to address a cultural block. Livingston: to advance structural development, we have to address the moral question. We need to move from attaching income to waged work to attaching it to need. The cultural revolution Livingston advocates: Making things should not be so important. “People deserve an income that allows for a decent, humane life, that allows for freedom, mobility, dignity.”

Lilley points out that that’s communist (From each according to her abilities to each according her needs). Livingston would prefer to identify this value as historical religious culture.

Livingston observes that crisis arises in capitalism as we socialize risk but let the 1% decide everything. Where bankers won’t invest, we need to socialize our ability to use the tremendous store of wealth.

Toward market socialism: We collectively decide, will this investment create the kind of jobs that afford everyone a decent, humane and dignified life? Use value re-enters politics.

Talk About Repression: Weber! Nietzsche! Freud! Anybody but M__x!

Crises are problems internal to the economic structure. According to Livingston, the problem is the distribution of income. There is too much surplus capital. Crisis is not a problem of money, monopoly, the Fed’s choices, or morality.

Why do Americans lean so heavily on the morality explanation? Livingston follows Weber, blaming this dependence, this urge to personify the cause of crisis, on the Protestant ethic. But the Weberian approach plays a larger role in Livingston’s explanatory scheme. Repressive protestant culture is the cause of, or primary impediment to Americans’ inability to switch out of crisis-prone economic relations to a more rational, constructive grasp of work and wealth distribution.
What can replace Protestant repression?, he asks. What can transform our characters? His overdetermined answer is a more libidinal culture. Livingston wants to start by valorizing the libidinal culture that currently exists–as is promulgated by advertising and consumer culture.
However, empirically, it’s very hard to say that such libidinal culture hasn’t been emphatically encouraged and harvested–and we have the austerity agenda. If Livingston is attempting a reframing experiment, I fail to understand the strategy in that I fail to understand how a political historian’s weight can modify the trajectory of the great mass of marketeers’ raison d’etre. Consumer spending and advertising have been dominant cultural institutions (See Michael Dawson’s The Consumer Trap.), and they have not freed us from Protestant repression–and I doubt they can be hitched to anti-austerity. I would argue that is because repression and libidinal excess are two sides of the same coin, capitalist culture in dialectic. They do not exclude one another. They constitute each other as two ends of a cultural teeter totter. But it’s possible there’s a strategic grappling hook in there.

Here is Ehrenreich’s alternative theory on what needs changing in US culture (elite belief in and reification of a “culture of poverty”)…that I think could get us to a rational approach to work and distributive justice. (It also contains of story of how neoliberalization happens to good socialists who just want to be heard…but at what a price.)

2nd part of Livingston’s book: It kind of goes off the rails

It is Livingston’s market-aficionado thesis that commercial culture is liberatory and solidaristic. Commercial culture is disfigured utopia, but tells us that after work is when we become unalienated, and advertising reminds us of that. Livingston feels that this is culturally important because work should not define us. Basically, commercial culture, he feels, can lead to libidinal liberation.

Lilley reminds us that advertising touching on and co-opting desires isn’t the same thing as unleashing desires. We can contrast Livingston’s capitalist dichotomy, ascetic Protestantism / libidinal carnival, to Marxist Epicureanism. Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is much, much better than Livingston on the psycho-social / cultural theory of work and making. Perhaps because she’s not afraid of M__x.

Purchasing commodities is social, Livingston insists.

Citing consumer movements, Livingston argues that consumption does not negatively impact the environment. If consumers have requisite income, then they reduce their footprint (modified Bruntland argument). That is not a strong argument, see Jevon’s Paradox, ecological footprint/slaves analyses. I don’t know why anti-austerity should entail abandoning the headway the Left has gotten from Red-Green coalition-building.  That seems unstrategic.

Another Anglo Fabian in want of a Marxist backbone?

Livingston’s arguments can at times seem to be overblown sophistry or excessively solicitous of current hegemons. But he’s trying to do interesting things, seeing ways of looking at capitalism’s problem institutions (the capitalist Protestant Ethic abstemiousness/libidinal commodity consumption–which he doesn’t recognize as intertwined) as potential sites of market socialist development. I think though that James Livingston would be more effective if he re-read Scarry, picked up Dawson, checked out Epicurean ethics, and if he engaged Sasha Lilley as his co-author.

…Or maybe I just need to write an article on the Marxist approach to making / unmaking, production and consumption, as an alternative to the austerity dogma. Eureka.

“Such discrete, theoretically-unintegrated critical impulses attacked the irrationality and inhumanity of capitalism. The common aim was to reform it piecemeal into a more rational and human social order in which inequalitites of wealth and incomes would be drastically reduced and democratic rights extended and substantiated, and in which the still-marginalised and -alienated working class would be integrated into the political system. In a(n Anglo) cultural landscape dominated by laissez-faire Liberalism, these concerns made a shift from individualist to collectivist thought a ‘necessary intellectual adjustment’ on the part of the more socially conscious liberal intellectuals. This was the common temper of the New Liberals as well as the Fabians” (Desai 1994: 47, describing the conservative Anglo inteligensia’s tepid and temporary “radicalization” to Fabianism in response to working class disruption).