parecon, part 1

James Devine jdevine at
Thu Sep 10 08:57:37 PDT 1998

Robin Hahnel writes a lot of stuff I agree with. But I missed where he wrote about how the capitalists (and other elite groups) would use dirty tricks and violence to undermine and wipe out the mass democratic movement for socialism that he (and I) advocate. (I recommend "How the Change Came" in William Morris' utopian novel NEWS FROM NOWHERE for a prescient sketch of a socialist revolution from below. Many of its events presage actual revolutions, as in Chile in the early 1970s.)

Further, he writes:
>Moreover, we can find no solace in old left doctrines of inevitable
collapse. Many twentieth century progressives sustained themselves emotionally and psychologically with false beliefs that capitalism's dynamism and technological creativity would prove to be its weakness as well as its strength. Grandiose Marxist crisis theories -- a tendency for the rate of profit to fall as machinery was substituted for exploitable living labor, or insufficient demand to keep the capitalist bubble afloat as productive potential outstripped the buying power of wages -- buoyed the hopes of the faithful in the face of crushing defeats of progressive causes.<

I've studied crisis theory a bit (and seemingly a bit more than Robin). Some of the theories are wrong, some are right, often in different situations. In my work, I've tried to synthesize the valid aspects of them. I won't bore people with the details. But the key point is that (1) capitalist crises _are_ inevitable (in a sense that is explained below) but (2) socialism is not. The latter actually requires activist intervention, because it requires the growth of a mass movement of the sort that Robin writes, a movement that does not arise -- or win -- automatically in any way.

Crises involve capitalism fouling its own nest -- a nest in which we have the misfortune to live. What some or many people from the Old Left missed was that they don't imply the end of capitalism, only opportunities for change, either progressive reform or revolution (or regressive changes, as in Hitler's Germany). The oppressed don't always have it together to take advantage of those opportunities. In the MANIFESTO, Marx & Engels' prediction of inevitability was based on an optimistic extrapolation of the self-organization of the working-class movement, but their theory really doesn't predict that continuation of the growth of parties and unions. Despite the optimistic tone, M&E admit that revolution can lead to the mutual destruction of the two classes (rather than to socialism). This is what Luxemburg later summarized as "socialism or barbarism" (while the experience of the East Block indicates a third alternative: socialist barbarism). Marx's politics were also much more complicated than in the MANIFESTO, as indicated by Draper's multivolume KARL MARX'S THEORY OF REVOLUTION.

(what I mean by inevitability, which follows Luxemburg: the timing of the crisis can't be predicted, but successful efforts to delay the crisis make it worse when it comes. For example, Keynesian policies worked for quite awhile in the US, but contributed in a big way to the stagflation crisis of the 1970s.)

>Marx's prophesy of economic emiseration did not prove true for the first
world. <

I wish leftists wouldn't imitate the right's labeling of Marx as a prophet and his predictions as "prophecies." Marx's prediction of _relative_ immiseration was very abstract, being along the lines of an "everything else equal" prediction. (Economists are always making these kinds of predictions without being labeled "prophets." One thing that distinguished Marx from the crowd is that he didn't limit his predictions to small issues.) As Paul Sweezy pointed out in the first chapter of THE THEORY OF CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT, it's a prediction for abstract capitalism, ignoring such matters as imperialism and trade unions which can counteract the prediction's working out in specific countries. If capitalism doesn't fit Marx's abstract capitalism, the prediction doesn't work very well without bringing in all of the complicating factors into the analysis. But if capitalism fits Marx's abstract description, the prediction works better. It seems to be working pretty well these days, even in the "first world."

Though I generally agree with (or at least learn from) the work by Robin and his usual collaborator, Michael Albert, I wish they wouldn't denigrate other traditions on the left as much as they do. It smacks of product differentiation -- a common oligopolistic marketing technique -- or of academic sectarianism.

Jim Devine jdevine at &

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