Saturday, 18 July 2015

Yes, Neoliberalism Is Bad, But Socialism Won't Save Us

Going through my Twitter stream today I saw this article by Paul Mason in the Guardian tweeted by Glyn Moody. Half-expecting a sophistry-ridden paean to Basic Income or variants thereof (I half expect him to end up there eventually), I actually found him gleefully predicting the end of capitalism — and markets altogether — because of pesky old innovation, or something. Cue Utopia. Or not...

Here are four reasons why I disagree with Mr. Mason's assessment.

He's caught up in a pet philosophy  

The man is a socialist who has acknowledged that the 20th century model the pro-Corbyn faction of the Labour party are championing doesn't actually work in the connected world. However, he does love the egalitarian principles thereof and clings to them heedless of their impact in the real world; you can't centrally plan an economy and you will never be able to eradicate market forces. Here's the problem:

Where blue-skying fails

You can try to centrally plan an economy, by all means, but how are you going to make it work effectively for the greatest number of people? That, in a nutshell, is the problem; all the benefits tend to accrue to the ruling elite when the system is centralised, and the rest of us end up having to pay for it. Local people tend to know what works best where they live so diktats from a distance aren't going to work for them, particularly when they're ideologically-driven. There's also the question of the variables, e.g. natural disasters, fluctuations in the prices of imported goods, and external market disruptions. This is the problem I have with collectivism: it's not about the sharing as such, it's that my share would be smaller than Comrade Up-and-coming Party Member's. And these people do not tolerate dissent. They might not set up gulags but you might find that holding unapproved opinions affects your prospects in the new regime.

How would a system that requires full control exert it?

This is where he comes off the rails:

The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial.

Say what, now? Okay, where are these free, abundant goods and how can I get hold of them? Property rights over land and farms, etc., mean I can't just rock up to someone's potato field and take what I want. Okay, it's different with data but people are collating and creating the data so we need to be working on ways to remunerate them.

You can't automate everything! And how are the un-automatable jobs going to be done absent employment? Who is going to do the work — Chappie? And he hasn't taken the needs of the disabled, long-term sick, and other need groups into account. They are unrepresented in his calculations because there is no place for them in a blue-sky scenario.

Human nature being what it is, there will still be crime in this glorious future. And if the people find this shiny new system incompatible with their needs they will surely interpret it as damage and route around it, i.e. the market will be used to compensate for its shortcomings. To my vast amusement, I predict an "education" campaign to try to persuade people to accept the new system instead of returning to their natural market-based ways of thinking.

His proposals violate the Twofold Principle

The Twofold Principle goes thus:

The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected.

You mess with that at your peril. Transitions do indeed take place when the old system breaks down and we need to create a new one, but the individuals and groups need to do this of their own free will, not as the result of state-sponsored control orders. He hasn't told us how his new Utopia will feed and clothe us. What does that remind me of?

Freedom is built on facts

The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).
Present throughout the whole process was something that looks incidental to the old system – money and credit – but which was actually destined to become the basis of the new system. In feudalism, many laws and customs were actually shaped around ignoring money; credit was, in high feudalism, seen as sinful. So when money and credit burst through the boundaries to create a market system, it felt like a revolution. Then, what gave the new system its energy was the discovery of a virtually unlimited source of free wealth in the Americas.

There is so much wrong here...

1. We have always had tradeable wealth, even on a large scale. It was one of the reasons for the Norman conquest in 1066. This was mostly done via barter.

2. The Normans and their descendants did not create tradeable wealth as a result of the Black Death, they just found innovative ways to develop trade after it upset the social order by freeing people from feudal constraints.

3. We have always had navigation. In fact, our Neolithic ancestors were highly mobile and used boats all the time. Okay, the new freedoms enabled innovation but we've always had boats and trade.

4. Money and credit have always been around, we just called them different things at the time. In an honour/shame culture integrity is highly prized so it's reasonable to assume that the (admittedly fictional) Samaritan knew the innkeeper due to staying there regularly. The point is, I.O.U.s of one kind or another have always existed. Debt certainly has.

5. Credit was never seen as sinful, usury was. The merchant class was reviled mostly for not knowing their place; the possibility that one could work one's way up from being a servant to becoming the master was intolerable to them. The fact that the more successful ones supplanted the nobility in the corridors of power, on occasion, offended the the most and those who did so were often severely punished for their presumption.

6. We've always had a market system, it was just a lot more simple and mostly based on barter.

7. Okay, the wheels have come off. Virtually unlimited free wealth? That's where the American Dream "You didn't work hard enough!" nonsense comes from. The truth is, there's only gold in some of them thar hills and once the land was apportioned the possibilities of gaining wealth from it were restricted by what it could produce. And it cost good money to buy slaves, feed them, clothe them, and control them. There's also the matter of paying for other goods and services required. Nobody has ever been truly self-sufficient: what they couldn't buy or trade for they did without. That's not self-sufficiency.

The feudal class-based system Mr. Mason rails against is being replaced by its neoliberal equivalent in which the usurers and opportunists are held aloft and the inherited nobility and clergy are despised for presumption and not knowing their place while the peasants still get a raw deal. Same dance, different tune. Our freedoms are eroded by rent-seeking and the over-application of property rights but the controls required to bring market forces fully and completely under the control of the state would be as likely to quash innovation as the most superstitious feudal Luddites of the past. Innovation requires personal freedom and the new socialism proposed by Mr. Mason would stifle it.

People will always be people

Putting this new market-free system in place, which denies thousands of years of human social evolution, is going to require people to do what they're flippin' well told. Well here in Police State UK we're not doing it now so how are they going to enforce it? The last thing we need is another authoritarian regime imposed for our own good.

As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other. If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models.

Would an open source economy work?

Okay, he clearly doesn't get Open Source. Does he really think that putting ideas our in the wild can lead to increased innovation? Yeah, but only if people are interested in it. Different people working on projects at different speeds with relative autonomy from each other tends to result in a slower way of getting things done. It doesn't work with web design so how would it work in facilities management? What about building an actual building? Ah, "Relative" autonomy... we're doing that already. The only thing I agree with him on is the idea of an open source economy. We've had that before and it's always resulted in an explosion of innovation. It gave us the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. The state, in those cases, just got in the way by trying to exert control, so people looked for other places to go where they could be free.

The role of the state

Given that people will always be people it will always be impossible to create Utopia. It'd be a lot easier to reform the system we have organically in response to peoples' demands and needs and let the state be an enabler of innovation, not a foot stretched out to trip people up by increasing the scope of IPR, etc. I am very skeptical of Paul Mason's beliefs, as sincerely held as they are, because people being people, they will always seek to exercise control over the rest of us, to lock things off and charge rent for access to it. and to enrich themselves even if it's at the expense of others. And we'll always want That Shiny Thing.

Because it's MY Shiny Thing. How in the world are we going to move people away from that? An open source capitalism tempered by a robust welfare state sounds very Middle-out, doesn't it? Can we do that, please? I know it'd work, it's working now.

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