International Trade

April 15, 2016

Recent discussions of international trade – specifically around the UK steel industry, and Bernie Sanders’ recent trade proposals – made me want to articulate some extremely basic points about international trade. I’m going to distinguish three different arguments about international trade, painted here with the broadest of possible brush strokes.

1) The traditional liberal gains-from-trade argument. Efficiency gains from the division of labour, and from comparative advantage, mean that international trade can produce greater overall social wealth and welfare than the same resources would generate if nation states did not trade. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to everyone.

2) The third-worldist critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade is a mechanism for extracting wealth from the world’s poorest and least powerful nations, and channeling that wealth to the world’s richest and most powerful nations. This is the case in both the historical colonial domination of the periphery by the core, and contemporary neo-colonial relationships. In this respect, international trade benefits the core at the expense of the periphery.

3) The labour-aristocracy critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade weakens the bargaining power of labour in the core, by outsourcing jobs and production to the periphery. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to countries in the periphery, at the expense of workers in the core.

All three of these arguments are common. In my opinion, all of them capture important dimensions of the international trade. That is to say, in my opinion, it’s a mistake to deny any of the following: 1) international trade can bring aggregate economic benefits via specialisation and the division of labour; 2) international trade can extract the resources of the periphery to the benefit of the core; 3) international trade can outsource production and diminish workers’ bargaining power in the core, to the benefit of the periphery.

The question, then, in my opinion, is where and when these different elements of international trade occur. This is clearly a complicated empirical question – and much more complicated than the above typology suggests. Still, I think that debates over international trade would benefit if all parties made the specific case for their emphasis, among these three perspectives – and for the consequences of their preferred policies on all three of the dimensions listed above.

What Did Marx Get Wrong?

January 9, 2015

There are lots of criticisms commonly directed at Marx. Most of these I think are misplaced; two of them I think are correct. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but here, very briefly, are some of those common criticisms. (In line with my new blogging practice, I’m not even aiming to argue for these positions here – this is just what I think…):

Criticism: Marx has a teleological stagist view of history.
My view: No he doesn’t.

Criticism: Marx’s labour theory of value is untenable.
My view: Marx doesn’t hold the labour theory of value.

Criticism: Marx’s humanist philosophical anthropology paints too rosy a view of human nature.
My view: Marx doesn’t have a humanist philosophical anthropology.

Criticism: Marx’s narrow economism has no space for agency.
My view: Marx is not narrowly economistic.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of technology.
My view: Marx is right to be optimistic about the possibilities of technology.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning.
My view: I agree with this criticism.

Criticism: Marx’s attempt to provide blueprints for future institutions is dogmatic and utopian.
My view: Marx doesn’t provide such blueprints.

Criticism: Marx ought to provide blueprints for future institutions.
My view: I agree with this criticism.


All that is by way of saying, I see two central flaws in Marx’s work. First – he is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning. His position is – as always – more nuanced than a quick summary suggests, but at base Marx thinks that bringing the uncoordinated and indirectly coordinated actions of the complex system of capitalism under some kind of centrally planned control is the way to eliminate the irrational and coercive aspects of that system. Marx is far too incautious about the concentrations of power that accompany such central planning – he doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the abuses of power and the exploitative dynamics that are likely to result from such massive concentration of political and economic power.

That said, Marx doesn’t spend much time writing about the shape of the more centrally planned society he’d like to see because, second: Marx is of the view that the shape of future society will basically be worked out ‘in practice’ – that it is not the job of intellectuals or political activists to provide ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future’. I disagree with this too. Institutional change comes about because people change those institutions, and they change institutions by thinking about what institutions they’d like better. I believe there’s no reason why such thought can’t take place ahead of time – and I believe it’s better that a lot of such thought take place ahead of time, so that people aren’t having to do that thinking at short notice in incredibly stressful circumstances with catastrophic consequences of poor judgement calls.

So – those are the main areas where I disagree with Marx.

In other news, I have a new comment policy. (It basically just says that I’m going to stop responding to comments, because it takes me forever – like months and months – and really what good is that to anyone.)

Economics as Science

October 29, 2013

The recent Nobel Prize [1] in economics has prompted a fair bit of commentary/discussion along the lines of ‘is economics a science’? I thought I’d add to that commentary. The extremes of the commonly articulated positions are roughly:

“Of course it is – and a stronger, more manful, more mathematical science than your [puny / relativistic / fraudulent / etc.] [psychology / sociology / history / etc.]”

“Of course it isn’t – it’s a series of barely coherent apologies for the interests of the powerful, detached from any reference to or understanding of the suffering inflicted upon billions by the policies it advocates and sophistically excuses”

With of course a range of other positions too.

The former of the two positions above is articulated principally by economists; the latter principally by left critics of economics. I’m in many respects on the left [2] – but I’m also in training to become an economist. Where does that place me? [Well – not to build up suspense: I think economics is indeed a science (that’s why I think it’s worth doing economics). But the longer version follows.]

Prior question: what does it mean for something to be a science? As a first pass, I take a disciplinary research-space to be a science if:

1) The object it studies is a real phenomenon that can actually be empirically studied.[3] [4] (So astrology doesn’t count – because the relationships between celestial objects and human personality is not a real phenomenon; but astronomy does count, because celestial objects are real things.) (What’s actually real is of course itself a scientific question – but so it goes; there’s no paradox there – just the usual Neurath’s Boat principle of there being no discursive ‘outside’.)

2) There exists a set of established norms and research practices for testing claims about these objects against empirical evidence – for an endeavour to be scientific, claims must be vulnerable to rejection in the light of empirical findings.

3) There’s a discursive space, for researchers, within which those norms for testing claims against evidence can themselves be debated, contested and transformed.

Science is therefore a communal endeavour – it can’t exist outside of a community of research. Science relies on the collection of evidence; the positing of claims on the basis of and for testing by evidence; and the collective ongoing assessment of the evidence, the claims, the methodological connections between the two, and the norms governing the whole endeavour, within a community of researchers.

This definition of science does not require the following things:

– That practitioners of scientific inquiry be particularly rational. All else being equal it’s better for practitioners to be reasonable and informed than not, but the ‘rationality’ of the system resides principally in the possibilities made available by the overall institutions of the system, rather than in the virtues of individual researchers. (It is necessary, though, for a sufficiently large number of members of the community to be committed to reproducing those broad institutional practices enumerated above, that the practices are indeed reproduced.)

– That scientific claims be correct. The whole point of the scientific endeavour is that claims (including both empirical claims and the methodological claims that inform empirical claims) are open to revision.

– That members of a research community be capable of predicting the future behaviour of the phenomena studied. Some phenomena are amenable to this, in the current state of knowledge; others are not. It is not a requirement of science that predictions of future events be created, only that evidence (including evidence generated by future events) be capable of modifying our claims.

– Relatedly, that ‘general laws’ be discovered. Science can study unique specificity just as scientifically as it can study general principles; one is not more sciencey than the other.

– That there be broad consensus on most major topics within the research community. One hopes that warranted consensus can be established, but an important part of the mechanism from which it might emerge is disagreement.

None of those things just listed need apply for a community to count as a group of scientific researchers.

In these terms, is economics a science?

I think the answer is: clearly yes, economics is a science. There is a real object of study (the economy, however that’s understood). There are established principles for collecting evidence and testing claims against evidence. There are ongoing (quite sophisticated) debates about the methodological principles involved in these tasks. So I think economics is pretty unambiguously a science, and I’m happy to be a member of and participate in that research community of scientific practitioners.[5]

What about the second objection, though? The objection that economics is just serving the interests of the powerful, etc.?

Well – just because a community of research meets all the criteria for science, doesn’t mean that it isn’t full of bullshit – nor does it mean that the kinds of bullshit dominant in a field are in any way accidental. Here, as often, it’s important to distinguish between best practice and actual practice. Best practice is not something that exists independently of actual practice – it is generated in and emerges out of actual practice. But it is also something that actual practice can be judged against – and often judged severely. Like any discursive space, the discursive space of economics is variegated – it contains many voices in dispute. In participating in that discursive space, we add our own voices and evaluate those voices already in contention. The norms of evaluation – and, therefore, the conclusions – that we take away from engagement in that space may be minority views relative to the space overall.

So it’s important to distinguish between the claim that economics is a science, and the claim that economics in general has things right, or is even on the right path. It’s important to have an account of the many things wrong with economics too – which I’ll start to talk about in a future post.

[1] The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

[2] This post articulates my politics I think reasonably well – although I’m losing patience with left positions and figures sufficiently rapidly that, while I don’t think I’m on the classic ‘Trot to neocon’ ideological trajectory here [not least because I was never a Trot, but you know what I mean], it’s hard not to see why some such view would look reasonable, from the outside.

[3] “What about mathematics?” Well, mathematical objects (whatever their status – as it happens, I have a conventionalist line on the status of mathematical objects, but nothing here relies on that) can’t be empirically studied, so mathematics isn’t a science in this sense. What gives mathematics its objective character (on my account at least) is the degree of consensus that can be (and has been) attained around mathematical norms – math is pretty much unique in this respect. This is what distinguishes mathematics from, say, theology, which also has an object of study of ambiguous status (real? fictional? social? supernatural?) but where the degree of consensus is far lower, even within specific religious communities, let alone between religions.

[4] “What about the SCIENCE OF BEING that myself and three other graduate students in this Heidegger course are developing?” Sorry – that’s not a science.

[5] Note, though, that economics is not a more manful or vigorous science than any other social science, even if it involves a lot of math.

What about alternatives to the market? Are there better ways to organize the signaling and negotiation associated with the distribution of goods, and the production of goods for distribution? Off the top of my head (again, without spending really any time with the relevant literature, so this is all very preliminary) I can think of three broad alternative categories of economic organization:

1) Economies sufficiently local to not involve large-scale trade. These would have to be very local economies. Such a mode of economic organization is feasible in plenty of locations; but by its very nature it can’t ‘scale’ to mass production and the complex division of labour. Such a mode of economic organization is therefore, I think, simply not capable of producing sufficient resources to sustain a global population in the billions, at a decent standard of living. So this is ruled out.

2) Central planning. This was of course the classical socialist solution: the alternative to the anarchy of the market was the rational planning of a benign centralized bureaucratic organization, deputized to serve the interests of the people. This was, for generations, the main thing that people meant by ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. The achievement of centrally planned economies, and the failure of those economies to realize the emancipatory hopes invested in them, is obviously the standard, tragic, and in my opinion basically accurate story of the failure of communist ideals in the twentieth century.

Could an alternative approach to centrally planned economies realize those ideals without replicating the failures of the twentieth century planned economies? It seems relatively clear to me (and to most) that the central failure of those communist states was their authoritarianism. In the absence of democratic institutions, those with power are always very likely to use that power for oppressive purposes, with little in the way of checks and balances to prevent this. So could central planning work if it were properly democratic?

I don’t want to rule this out; it’s worth spending time working on what this would be in more concrete practice. But I do have a reflex skepticism on this (characteristic of my time): the concentration of power required for the fully planned administration of an economy seems extremely vulnerable to abuse, even if much stronger democratic checks and balances are built into it than was the case for the twentieth century communist economies. So my impulse is that much more decentralized modes of organization are preferable – but I don’t want to take this for granted.

3) An alternative signaling system to money. It must, one would assume, be possible to devise an alternative way of fulfilling the information-transmission function of money, using modern computing: some kind of mechanism that enables the signalling of demand without the use of the ‘effective demand’ communicated by purchases and hypothetically projected future purchases, and (further) without the need to centrally manage the information thus communicated (though the problem of how to signal demand is also of course a problem for central planning). I know that there are proposals of this kind out there, but I haven’t actually read up on them; I ought to.


Given that (2) and (3) above both seem at the very least worthy of serious consideration, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that ‘market socialism’ is the best candidate when considering how to build more emancipatory economic institutions. I want to give more thought to the above. But for now I’m still going to take ‘market socialism’ as the leading contender for a credible realisable emancipatory economic system, when reading and thinking more about all this.

Money, Debt and Growth

July 31, 2013

One of the major capitalist institutions that the market socialism sketchily outlined in my last post didn’t address, is the banking system. The banking system plays a fundamental role in capitalism in at least two ways. 1) It creates money. 2) It determines to a considerable extent the allocation of investment resources. Money is obviously a central institution to any system that makes substantial use of the market. And decisions around the allocation of investment determine to a large extent what ‘we’ take to be valuable productive uses of the surpluses our economic system generates.

I’ll take these two functions one at a time. The banking system creates money by lending out customers’ savings to other customers. If I put $10 in a savings account, the bank can then lend this $10 to another customer. If they spend the money on bibles, and the bible-seller pays the money back into a savings account, the bank can then lend it out again to another customer. If this customer then puts the money into their own savings account, the bank can lend it out again; and so on. This ‘duplication’ of ‘the same’ money – in this example, the transformation of $10 into $30 – is how banks create money.

The same process allocates investment resources. Banks’ decisions about who to lend to determine to a considerable extent how the surplus resources generated by our economic system are reinvested. We’re going to need some institution or institutions that perform this function – pooling common resources and redirecting them to places we regard as the most worthwhile locations for investment – if we are going to have any kind of complex and large scale economy. The issue is the principles by which this system will operate. Banks will lend to businesses that they regard as likely to be profitable; so ‘the profit motive’ here determines where our society invests its surplus.

Both these functions are, under capitalism, centrally influenced by the principle of return on investment. What renders the ‘trick’ of banks’ money-creation relatively stable, most of the time, is the growth of the economy underwriting an overall return on investment that allows the banks to, on average, receive back more money than they lent out, even accounting for defaults. (When this goes wrong, and default overruns the banks’ margin for error in their lending calculations, the whole institution can potentially collapse: this is a banking crisis.) So capitalist growth is what enables the banks’ process of money-creation to ‘work’; and the banks’ process of money creation is, at the same time, a central driving force of capitalist growth. (Because money is created as loans that require repayment with interest, the need to valorise capital is ‘baked in’ to the capitalist economy at a quite basic level: the economy must grow, over the medium-long term, or the banking system will fail.)

So – the capitalist banking system binds the institution of money to the social compulsion for economic growth, in a way that strikes me as potentially quite hard to ‘unpick’ through institutional reform. To what extent is this a problem?

Initial thoughts on that question:

1) There’s nothing wrong with economic growth; economic growth doesn’t have to be environmentally destructive, for example (although it is, under our current system).

2) There is something wrong with ‘blind’ growth – growth that is driven only or principally by investors’ sense of the most profitable avenues for investment.

3) The socially destructive consequences of blind growth could possibly be ameliorated by:

3a) the more equitable distribution of wealth (because investment choices would be less likely to overwhelmingly serve economic demand associated with a small elite), and

3b) planning, regulation and/or incentivisation to guide investment in directions chosen through more democratic decision-making

4) A system that operates using a banking system of this broad kind is still going to be crisis-prone; there will just be less severe human consequences of crises, because people will be less reliant on labour for income

5) The system will also involve a strong set of incentives to ‘overide’ regulatory or social-welfare-oriented policy, in order to prevent profit-crisis (this is part of the overall social dynamic that makes left achievements in capitalism so unstable).

6) I’m not sure whether those incentives are stronger or more worrying than the usual incentives people have to screw each other over.

I admit, I am uneasy about the idea replicating this central element of the capitalist system in a proposed alternative economic system. That said:

a) it’s not clear to me that this element of capitalism in fact has to be altered/abolished in order to do away with the negative features of capitalism we’re aspiring to remove; and

b) I also don’t really know how to dissociate the socially useful functions of money from the growth dynamic described above, given our starting-point.

Of course, one could abolish money – but this seems to me to be an extreme step, with very major institutional repercussions; I want to explore the possibilities of less wholesale institutional overhauls, before assuming that such a step would be required to achieve our goals. For these reasons I am – at least for now – going to work on the assumption that we can retain something in the ballpark of a banking system that creates money by turning savings into investments; but I’m also going to try to remain attentive to alternatives.

Alternative Institutions

July 29, 2013

If we were interested in realizing the broad political ideals I wrote about in my post on social democracy, what alternative economic institutions would be required? Here’s a first pass at answering that question[a][b].

1) Guaranteed minimum income of some kind, for everyone, globally. This would go a long way towards providing a baseline standard of living for most everyone. It would also remove one of the major levers of economic exploitation (that is, the fear of poverty).

2) Free movement of people, globally. One could imagine a scenario in which our broad political goals are achievable without this; but free movement of individuals would be a valuable step in the direction of a more liberated global society. This would greatly reduce one major mechanism of global economic exploitation – the enforced international segmentation of the labour market by national class boundaries – and would provide a powerful weight against political oppression at the national (or equivalent) level.

3) Considerable democratic regulation/direction of production. A more ‘socially rational’ direction of productive resources would tend to follow from a more equitable distribution of global wealth; but one would also need heavy regulation/direction to address externalities (such as, for example, carbon emissions), and one would presumably also want a degree of collective decision-making around preferred use of collective resources. These forms of regulation/direction would have to be implemented at least in part through global institutions.

4) Considerable reduction in a typical individual’s lifetime labour, and corresponding increase in leisure/volunteer activities. This would probably follow naturally from a guaranteed minimum income – the institution-building challenge would very likely be the incentivisation of socially useful labour, rather than the reduction of labour hours – but it would be an important goal of our institution-building.

These items constitute a ‘market socialism’. More radical overhauls of global economic institutions would of course be possible – though the institutional changes above are obviously already very substantial. I’d like spend more time thinking and reading about these and other alternative institutions.

[a] This post incorporates content from offline conversations.
[b] I obviously make no claims to originality here, nor do I know the relevant literature.

On someone asked me the following question:

Are you really a Marxist – or more of social democrat with higher standards of social and democracy?

My answer got so long that it exceeded the space provided in an answer box – so I’m posting it here. Apologies for the disproportionate length – I find it helpful though, to articulate some of this stuff…


I’m happy with both characterisations – I don’t think they’re incompatible (with some provisos that I’ll mention below).

W/r/t social democracy: I don’t like the way social democracy is dismissed on the (radical) left, or written out of the history of Marxism. A large proportion of early (and many not-so-early) social democrats *were* Marxists – a large proportion of early (and many not-so-early) Marxists were social democrats. Social Democratic Marxism is one of the major strands of the Marxist political tradition. For some reason, though, social democracy gets treated in a lot of contemporary Marxist discourse as if it’s sort of the opposite of Marxism (within a very broadly understood ‘left’ space) – as if one of the defining features of Marxism is opposition to social democracy. I don’t think that makes much sense analytically, and it certainly isn’t adequate to the history.

I say “for some reason” – but in fact I think this is the result of several different factors:

– The successful right propagandisation against Marxism across the 20th century, such that social democrats themselves increasingly tended to disavow their tradition’s links to Marxism.

– The gradual corruption and takeover from the right of actually-existing social democracy, and thus the collapse of any practical relationship between real social-democratic parties and Marxist political goals, fully accomplished by the last decades of the 20th century. (This roughly parallels a similar transformation in the PRC and USSR, of course.)

– The USSR’s very great influence over Marx scholarship across much of the 20th century. The Soviet Union had the manuscripts; its scholars were regarded as authoritative by most Marxists; and Soviet scholars whose read of Marx put him at too great a distance from Leninism and Stalinism were killed. This most ‘crass’ way of influencing the scholarly reception of Marx has had lasting effects: the ongoing widespread confusion between Marx’s politics and Lenin’s politics owes a lot to those decades of coercive state influence over scholarly endeavour. Official Soviet Marxological positions continue to replicate in the academic literature, because they have the weight of academic ‘consensus’ behind them, even though that ‘consensus’ was to a large extent created under threat of imprisonment and death.

– A tendency towards in-group out-group social testing, and distaste for ideological contamination, in a lot of contemporary self-defining Marxist political spaces.

So, the ways in which I take myself to be a Marxist include:

In terms of analysis:

– I think Marx’s analysis of capitalism is about the best there is. I’ve got various quibbles with ‘Capital’ – mostly related to presentation and emphasis – but I struggle to think of anything of much significance that I think Marx actually got wrong, w/r/t the dynamics of the capitalist system.

[I do have some ‘heterodox’ – though I believe textually well supported – views about what the analysis in Capital is – but this is not the time for Marxology.]

In terms of politics:

– I want the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a more equitable and humane system of global political-economic organisation

– I think that a mass movement of the exploited and disenfranchised is the most likely way to achieve this – which in practice, under capitalism, almost certainly means a movement that is largely proletarian (understood in broad terms).

[It’s not of course impossible that you could get a small ‘vanguardist’ movement gaining power in a coup of some sort and implementing left policies that lack mass support – but I don’t think that a movement that lacks mass support is going to be able to sustain itself in even medium term without turning authoritarian – and an authoritarian state is inimical to the emancipatory politics I take the be the goal here. (Even though, yes, many states that identified as Marxist have, historically, been authoritarian. The authoritarian nature of those states was a betrayal of Marxist political goals – that’s my view.)]

– I think that workers’ movements that valorise labour are often politically essential (in shifting the workplace balance of power towards workers), but are also often conservative in some of their broader political commitments. (“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”)

There are obviously lots of more detailed ways in which I take both my analysis of capitalism and my politics to be Marxist and Marxian – but this’ll do as a first pass.

In terms of social democracy – this is a bit trickier. Marxist critics of social democracy often, I think, couch their opposition in terms of a preference for revolution over reform – so one way to approach this is through that opposition.

Reform vs. revolution means, in much left debate, two distinct things.

First: this opposition is often understood in terms of how to gain power. Reform is taken to be aligned with electoral politics – gaining control over the levers of power through means compatible with the current electoral system; revolution is taken to be aligned with violent and/or mass uprising that either seizes or abolishes the current oppressive levers of power through non-electoral means (this is probably the main thing that ‘revolution’ means, in this sort of political discourse).

A lot of the radical (and Marxist) left is contemptuous of electoral politics, and thinks that revolution (in the mass or violent uprising sense) is the only way to achieve real political change. I don’t agree with this. I think that the choice between electoral and non-electoral politics should be determined in large part by the type of existing political structures in the relevant political unit (usually, in practice, a nation state) – and what this makes possible. In a scenario in which there are no real democratic structures in place, revolutionary politics is likely to be the best – potentially the only – way in which left political goals can be accomplished. This still applies in much of the world. And it applied most everywhere when Marx was writing.

On the other hand, in many countries now – thanks in large part to the past victories of left politics – we have democratic institutions. That is, we have an institutional set-up in which an important segment of the ruling class is elected by popular vote – voters can determine, to some extent, who governs them. In this scenario, I think it is more reasonable and desirable to attempt to gain power by broadly electoral means, than it is to aim for revolution. Reasonable, because it is, for most, easier to vote than it is to participate in mass uprising, so it should be easier to organise the former than the latter. More desirable, because democratic institutions, and the societal norms and habits that support them, are a good thing in themselves, and are weakened every time they are disregarded. It’ll be easier to create a democratic post-capitalist society if those making and implementing policy achieved their positions through democratic mechanisms, than otherwise.

(What about the view that our democracy is a sham, and that therefore democratic change is a pipe dream and existing democratic institutions worthless? I don’t agree. Our democracy is ‘flawed’ (by design, of course) in very many ways – corruption, capture by the interests of a ruling elite, propagandistic media influence, etc. But I do not believe that these obstacles are sufficient to render a left electoral movement an impossibility in the core democracies I’m familiar with. These factors (and others) all have their impact – but if an effective left political movement cannot be built, this is in large part a problem for the left, not just for actually-existing democratic institutions.)

(Finally, what about the view that the policies that need to be implemented will never gain popular assent, and that therefore democracy is not a desirable political outcome at all? I disagree, in two ways. First, pessimistic though I am about ‘human nature’ in many respects, I also believe that emancipatory politics can gain broad, lasting support: I think history shows us that this is possible, even if it’s not the norm. Second, I see no reason to believe that those with power will, on average, be less reactionary than those without; more often the reverse. Trusting a sufficiently enlightened and radical elite to implement plans that the benighted masses would never themselves endorse, is (in my judgement) a reliable recipe for despotism – it fails to understand (or does not care about) the impact of power and interests upon political action. The actions of elites must be dramatically restricted if elites are not to run riot, serving their own interests above those of the great mass of humanity. Relying on a specific sub-elite to overcome this dynamic, without (at the very least) stringent checks and balances on that elite’s own behaviour is, in my view, misguided and naive.)

So – that’s the electoral politics vs. popular uprising side of the reform/revolution dichotomy.

In addition, the reform vs. revolution debate can often refer to another question: how radically do we wish society to be transformed by left politics? Do we need a wholesale abolition of existing institutional structures and a blank-slate start with a new politics and a new economics; or can reform of existing institutional structures achieve the political goals we’re after?

Here, again, I am more on the ‘reform’ than the ‘revolution’ side of the debate (though again see below for elaboration). The changes I would like to see to our political and economic institutions are very substantial, but they do not require an absolute rupture with existing society.

To expand on that:

Some folk on the radical left are of the view that if many institutions from our present society are carried over into our future (purportedly post-capitalist) society, this will be a betrayal of our revolutionary goals – and, indeed, may well render that future society capitalist after all, despite our best intentions. For example, it is not uncommon for radicals to argue that a post-capitalist society should not or cannot involve markets; or money; or the division of labour; or any kind of hierarchical organisation – some or all of these things must be abolished if we are to achieve an emancipated post-capitalist society.

I think this attitude misunderstands the historical specificity of capitalism – all of these phenomena existed prior to capitalism, and therefore there is no intrinsic reason why they could not persist into a post-capitalist society.

At the same time, capitalism can persist through quite dramatic transformations of institutional structures. (“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”) So it is also easy to make the opposite mistake – to think that the abolition of a specific institutional structure will result in the abolition of capitalism, when in fact it will only be a moment in capitalism’s own ‘revolutionary’ dynamic.

This question therefore probably needs to be addressed more specifically. What is capitalism? What’s wrong with capitalism? What would be required to abolish capitalism? And what kind of post-capitalist society do we want instead?

Following N Pepperell’s work on Marx, I define capitalism in the following way: capitalism is a mode of economic production or organisation characterised by a specific dynamic around labouring activity. In capitalism, the great majority of people can only gain access to the means of life via labour performed to serve another’s economic interests. Further, there is, under capitalism, a systemic tendency for labourers to be eliminated from fields of productive activity, heavily restricting or eliminating their access to general social resources, and then be re-employed in new fields of productive activity that are regularly being created. This dynamic – the recurrent expulsion and reincorporation of labouring activity, out of and back into changing economic structures – is the dynamic that differentiates capitalism from all other modes of political-economic organisation.

That’s what capitalism is. What’s wrong with it?

In terms of the ‘economic problem’, these are the most central things wrong with capitalism:

– The creation of incredible poverty in the midst of plenty.

– The coercive enforcement of labour on the bulk of humanity.

And there are also plenty of important oppressive structures in capitalism that don’t fall under either of those categories – e.g. the various kinds of repressive apparatus that maintain class rule.

What is required to abolish capitalism? Well – I define capitalism in terms of this specific dynamic around labour. So to abolish capitalism, one needs to end this dynamic. Assuming one doesn’t want to replace capitalism with a similarly coercive system that simply lacks capitalism’s ‘revolutionary’ character, this means the abolition of labour. And the abolition of labour means the creation of an economic system in which the bulk of humanity’s access to the necessities – and luxuries – of life is not principally mediated by coercively imposed work carried out for others.

Is the abolition of labour an end in itself? Yes – labour is a coercive institution, and so its abolition is a good. But the abolition of labour also serves a broader set of political goals. Those need to be put front and centre when considering the post-capitalist society we envision.

What kind of post-capitalist society is that?

In terms of abstract generalities: I want a free society. That means negative freedom: a society in which people can live their lives without arbitrary coercive constraint – and positive freedom: freedom from want; a decent standard of living for all. These are exemplarily liberal political goals, and often denigrated as such on the radical left. But they are good political goals. A decent standard of living for all; free time to pursue personal interests; respect for human rights; collective self-government; checks and balances on institutions of power – these are the pretty straightforward goals of communist politics as I would wish them realized.

Does all this make me a liberal? Yes, I think so. Does that mean I am not a Marxist? No, I don’t think so (though I’m sure some would disagree). Whether I differ from mainstream left-liberalism is in my evaluation of what transformations of society are necessary to realize these goals.

So – the leisure required to allow the great mass of people to pursue their own interests and lives as they please is simply incompatible with capitalism.

What about poverty? Is capitalism compatible with the provision of a decent standard of living for all?

Here, I must admit, I am less certain. My impulse is that capitalism is incompatible with the eradication of poverty, because I think the defining orientation of capitalism to the reproduction of labour requires that those who do not labour suffer for their non-participation in the workforce. This enforcement of the punishment of poverty on the reserve army of unemployed seems to me key to the reproduction of capitalism as labour-dynamic. I must admit that I haven’t worked this line of reasoning through to my satisfaction, however – or fully considered possible counter-scenarios (is this characteristic dynamic of capitalism compatible with guaranteed basic income?). So my opinions in this area are still somewhat tentative.

This doesn’t matter w/r/t the thrust of the question here, though. That question is how much can be carried over from capitalist to post-capitalist society. My view is – and I think this is very Marxist – a great deal will be carried over. Although the achievement of an emancipated post-capitalist society would involve, in some respects, a sea-change in our institutions, in other respects it would be like the coming of Benjamin’s messiah, “of whom a great rabbi once said that he did not wish to change the world by force, but would only make a slight adjustment in it”. The technologies, institutions and sensibilities out of which post-capitalist society will be built are already present in capitalism – but they need to be rearranged, to serve emancipatory rather than oppressive ends. So the division of labour – for example – should certainly persist into a post-capitalist society; as should mass production (both industrial and agricultural) (how else are we going to feed everyone?) I’m open to the possibility of alternatives to markets and money – but I see no reason to demonise these things, which are millennia old and have no intrinsic connection to capital. At base, if everyone has both a decent standard of living and freedom from unjust coercion, I don’t see why we should flip out if people are still using money or eating burgers, etc.

So – my vision of a post-capitalist society is a vision of a society much like our own, but where everyone has enough resources to live comfortably, enough free time to pursue their own personal interests, and where institutions of governance are not notably coercive. That’s it: a banal vision, if you like. But that banality is good. People can provide their own excitement – we’ve never been short of the ability to do that.

One more thing I should say about this vision of a post-capitalist future: the collective self-governance should involve greater democratic control over the large-scale uses to which our collective resources are put. Capitalism is characterized by an orientation towards growth – but at the level of the global system, that orientation to growth serves simply the valorization of capital. It is ‘blind’ as regards the social consequences of this growth.

I don’t think a post-capitalist society should be anti-growth – some level of economic growth is desirable for its potential consequences for living standards. But an emancipated post-capitalist society should be anti-‘blind’ growth. We should have a higher level of collective self-determination of the uses to which the incredible surpluses of our economic system are put. And this has some obvious connections to environmentalist politics.

Much more that could be said – but that’s probably more than enough already. Hopefully that gives some sense of what I mean when I say that I don’t see a real opposition between social democracy and Marxism…