Liberalism and Radicalism

December 6, 2015

Circling once more around what seems to be this blog’s only real topic of late – radicalism versus liberalism. Nothing revelatory here – just the solidification of what seem like fairly commonplace ideas. Starting with the concept of a collective ‘subject of history’, and moving on to alternatives.

If your politics is based on the idea that if the appropriate collective subject of history attains political power then domination and oppression will cease, your politics will predictably result (should it succeed in attaining power) in domination and oppression. That last sentence is the standard critique of the strand of Marxism that believes in some form of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It’s a correct critique, in my now quite firmly held opinion. But it doesn’t just apply to that strand of Marxism – it also applies to strands of feminism, of postcolonial politics, of anarchism (where ‘gaining power’ may be understood differently, but still) – and indeed to strands of would-be emancipatory movements of all kinds. Problem: one group of people is being oppressed by another. Solution: switch roles, get rid of the oppressors and replace them by the oppressed. The oppressed are the good guys, so problem solved. That’s the approach I’m criticising.

Obviously, I am caricaturing, and in a familiar way that is often used to criticise emancipatory movements as a whole – that is of course not my intention here. Nevertheless, I think this caricature accurately captures the core of a significant portion of left politics. What’s wrong with this approach? A range of things. One of them is using the collective as the unit of analysis. Why is using the collective as the unit of analysis a bad idea? Because doing so makes it harder to see how different elements of the collectivity have different interests, preferences, politics, etc. – and how oppression can operate within the collectivity, not just against it. This lack of critical insight into the internal dynamics of the collectivity means that would-be emancipatory movements that understand themselves in this way frequently and predictably fail to adequately plan for holding power – as well as failing to adequately moderate existing internal power dynamics. More precisely, they fail to adequately consider how to limit the power of those within the collective who end up wielding it. Thus would-be emancipatory movements frequently and predictably end up producing new forms of oppression and domination, rather than any kind of lasting emancipation.

Contrast liberalism. Liberalism is of course an extremely diverse political tradition, so there are major exceptions to what I’m about to say. Still, one of liberalism’s major unifying interests is the way in which diverse individual actions which may be individually self-interested can, with the appropriate institutional structures, create positive collective outcomes. This idea unites economic liberalism (where despite following individual self interest we are led, as if by an invisible hand…) and political liberalism (in which incompatible interests and perspectives hammer out some compromise in the negotiations of non-absolutist government). The radical left is often impatient with / hostile to this approach, for a range of different reasons, some good, some bad. But this liberal perspective is in my opinion a much better starting point for thinking about politics than any concept of a ‘subject of history’ or ‘collective will’.

That is to say: One of the things this liberal approach is good for, is not taking it for granted that with the right people in charge, or with the right collective will expressed, the right political decisions will made. Liberalism tends to assume, instead, that people won’t reliably look out for each other in solidarity, but will rather engage in conflict, disagreement and, potentially, oppression at all levels of the body politic – and that a core political problem is setting up the institutions within which people operate, such that those conflicts can function as checks and balances to produce positive, rather than negative, overall outcomes. In its approach to institution design, therefore, liberalism is a better starting point for thinking about abuses of power than many forms of radicalism.

OK – so drop the radicalism and embrace liberalism? Not altogether, no. There are, obviously, a range of problems with liberalism – or, at least, with ‘actually existing liberalism’ (including most ‘actually existing’ articulations of liberal political ideals). As I have done before on the blog I want to focus in this post on those emphasised by Charles Mills, in his The Racial Contract and other works. That is to say: liberalism’s ideals – including the ideals of institution design I was just talking about – are severely limited in their application. In particular, they are limited by a hierarchy of the human, in which the principles of liberal politics only need be applied to those near the top of the hierarchy – those humans who are fully human, fully adult, in full possession of their own individuality, which individuality can be given voice by the institutions of the liberal polity and economic order. As we move down the hierarchy of the human, people become less and less entitled to have voice or power within liberal institutions, because, from the liberal perspective, they are not real people. This describes the system of global racial oppression – but also many forms of gender oppression, and other forms of systematic domination.

So we have on the one hand a system of checks and balances that aspires to transform varied and conflictual individual preferences into acceptable collective outcomes, without presupposing an unrealistic degree of harmonious or self-sacrificing solidarity or collective will – then on the other hand we have those excluded from full participation in this institutional space, who therefore do not enjoy those liberal checks against oppression, coercion, violence, etc., and do not find their preferences accounted for within the system of liberal negotiations and exchanges. Here the ‘space of liberalism’ itself functions as a form of collective subject – the human, the civilised – contrasted with another collective non-subject – the inhuman, the uncivilised, the childlike brutes, the Other. And this is of course a way of justifying the actually-existing systematic oppression or domination of the latter by the former.

One way of narrating the history of liberalism is as a series of assaults on this charmed circle of the human, in which excluded groups, through the use of collective action, seek to challenge the existing liberal order, and extend the scope of liberal freedoms and rights. These assaults on the liberal circle of entitlements must use methods that are not permitted by the existing liberal order – in that sense, these movements are not liberal ones. But the end result of many of these movements has been the incorporation of their demands into an expanded liberal politics – a liberalism that includes, rather than opposes, workers’ rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, LGBTI rights, etc. – at least within some limited, but meaningful, political and economic field. These achievements should be regarded as (incomplete) political successes, in my opinion.

Now, the hierarchy of the human I just described is not the only problem with ‘actually existing’ liberalism – hopefully I’ll come back to all this again one day. Still, I think all this is enough of a starting point to make the case for a form of liberalism. This liberalism should take a ‘cynical’ approach to the problems of political and economic life – it should presuppose high degrees of social conflict and self-interested action at all scales of social life, and aim to design institutions that use this social discord to provide checks and balances against the abuse of any given group of individuals by any other. It should aspire to the traditional liberal goal of achieving positive overall collective outcomes by ensuring, through institution design, that where possible the individual and diverse interests of many diverse individuals interact in broadly socially beneficial ways. But this liberalism should be alive, in a way that actually-existing liberalisms have traditionally not been, to the systematic exclusion of the bulk of humanity from full participation in and representation through actually-existing liberal institutional structures – one major way, though not the only one, in which actually-existing liberal institutions cannot fulfill their (purported) political goals.

As I say, none of this ought to be very earth-shattering – I’ll aim to come back to all of this in greater depth, one day.

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.)

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.

Back on the Brandom beat briefly, with a long-promised post (if anyone besides the omniscient gods keeps track).

Brandom is a rationalist – but in what sense is he a rationalist? Well, Brandom believes that what distinguishes sapient creatures (like human beings) from “merely sentient” creatures (like, presumably, caterpillars) is that we (we sapients) participate in the space of reasons. What does it mean to participate in the space of reasons? Well, Brandom explains his views on that matter in enormous detail, but they more or less boils down to: participating in the social practice of asking for and giving reasons.

As any regular readers of my blog will know, I disagree with Brandom about the centrality of specifically linguistic practice to the account of sapience his work offers. I think that non-linguistic communicative practices are more than capable of being understood as social practices of asking for and giving reasons: enormously complicated communication is possible at a non- or pre-verbal level, and I see no reason to restrict sapience to those creatures whose communicative acts happen to make use, in part, of the particularly idionsyncratic skill of language. Nothing of central importance in this post hinges on that disagreement, but I want to keep it somewhere in mind.

So – we are sapient if we can ask for and give reasons for our beliefs and actions. So far so good. But what are reasons? Well – reasons are anything that can be offered in the game of asking for and giving reasons; less tautologously, they are anything that can be used as a premise in an inferential chain. Roughly speaking, in any sentence, proposition, thought or bodily intuition of the structure “If X then Y”, X is a reason. Reasons are, as it were, an entirely formal category.

The point I want to make, in this post, is that we must take great care not to confuse reasons with good reasons. Anything at all that can occupy this communicative role is a reason – whether or not we regard it as having any persuasive or normative force at all, is neither here nor there. It suffices that it could, conceivably, be taken as potentially having such force.

Put otherwise – bad reasons are reasons too. The rationalism that Brandom advocates is, therefore, an extremely slimline rationalism. It is not a rationalism that dictates that anyone, anywhere, actually be reasonable. (Though of course if Brandom’s arguments for all this are good ones, one can presume that at least some philosophers and readers of philosophy have their wits about them, at pain of performative contradiction.)

Furthermore, even the overt statement that there is no reason for something is itself the offering of a reason. If I ask “why is there something rather than nothing?” and you reply “that is just how things are”; or if I ask “why must we continue suffering?” and you reply “because I say so”, these may not be good reasons, but they are reasons. “Because I say so”, “just coz”, “no reason”, “if you disagree I’ll hurt you” – these are all reasons. If we refuse to treat them as adequate reasons, this is because we are ourselves participating in the challenge/response game of asking for and giving reasons – not because there is anything un-reason-like about the statements themselves, ‘as such’.

By the same token, if “I’ll hurt you if you do” is a reason (which it unambiguously is, on Brandom’s account), so – by my lights – is the actual act of violence that this linguistic act threatens. Violence is communicative; if I ask “why can’t I?” and you draw back your fist – this is the offering of a reason (it is the same propositional content expressed by “I’ll hurt you if you do”). By the same token, if I ask “why can’t I?” and you simply punch me to the ground – this is also communicative – it clarifies the consequences of the action I was proposing, and in so doing offers a reason against this action.

I don’t regard this as a weakness of Brandom’s theory. Brandom is not committing us to the absolute dominance of force, by advocating for this vision. We do not have to accept the legitimacy of these reasons – we do not have to take them as good reasons. Indeed they are bad reasons – the worst. But if our acts of violence communicate in this way, we are still inhabiting the space of reasons; there is nothing formally irrational or irrationalist here, no matter how substantively irrational we may take these reasons to be.

I believe all this is a consequence of Brandom’s theoretical framework – but Brandom himself does not agree. These remarks take me back to my very first, uncomprehending post on Brandom, from – my goodness – July 2010. There I was puzzled by the discussion, in Making It Explicit‘s first chapter, of “beating people with sticks”, as an examplification of the kind of ‘naturalistic’ explanation that Brandom opposes. I now, I’m sure, have a much more nuanced sense of what Brandom means by ‘naturalism’ and ‘anti-naturalism’ (see this post) – but I remain perturbed by these passages. Indeed, more than perturbed. I’m now convinced that Brandom gets this wrong – something has gone wrong in Brandom’s comprehension of his own theory, in these early passages of Making It Explicit. More ‘diagnostically’, I think – Brandom’s commitment to rationalism, in a substantive sense, has led him to confuse that substantive sense with the much more formal definition of rationalism that his work elsewhere articulates and defends.

To be both ‘diagnostic’ and a little simplistic: Brandom wants reason, not force, to be the driver of human affairs. Brandom wants to rescue reason from the clutches of force. He wants to liberate a form of rationalism from the naturalistic, materialist, pragmatist, social-theoretic tradition whose insights he nevertheless does not wish to abandon. He succeeds in doing this, I am sure. But in these pages of Making It Explicit, Brandom’s desire is visible, in that his claims overreach the degree of ‘autonomy’ he can in fact grant reason. Brandom shows us some of the ways in which ‘the force of the better reason’ can emerge from the ugly, violent, contingent, banal, unredeemed world of everyday social practice. But Brandom cannot, as he here wishes, fully differentiate the administering of beatings from that social structure of reason. What differentiation we find here must take place ‘downstream’, in our own enacted and contingent politics. The rejection of force as warrant cannot be ‘baked in’ to our philosophy. We have to draw and reproduce this difference in practice.

Forms of Conservatism

June 25, 2013

[This very much a ‘clearing headspace’ post rather than a ‘considered informed opinion’ post.]

What is conservatism? Well – see provisos at the bottom, but one could say:

– It’s the view that things (social and political things, I mean) ought to stay more or less as they are.


– It’s the view that things ought to have stayed more or less as they are – and now things ought to be changed to get them back to the way they used to be.


– It’s the view that there is a ‘natural’ way for things to be, and even if things have never been that way in actual fact, we ought to work at getting things that way.

Why should things stay more or less as they are (or be returned to a former or natural state)? Well, maybe:

– Things are in fact extremely good as they are/were – possibly unimprovable. Here a substantive argument is offered for the specific virtues of the current/past state of affairs. This substantive argument might in principle have ended up endorsing any social/political arrangement at all – but as it happens, it ended up endorsing the current (/past) one.


– Things are not exactly fantastic as they are/were – but neither are they utterly catastrophic, and given the human propensity to fuck things up we’re better off leaving well alone in fear that political intervention or innovation will produce something even worse.


– Tradition is itself a virtue, for more or less ‘formal’ reasons – e.g. it creates bonds of community and social stability, which are goods in themselves – and therefore that which is traditional is worth conserving more or less regardless of its social/political content


– There is an immanent order (of divinity or of nature) working its way out through our current (or past) modes of social organization, and social or political intervention will upset this order.

These are some of the forms of conservatism, or of conservative argument, off the top of my head. And, of course, it goes without saying that these arguments can (like any argument) be a mask for or expression of much more direct interests. We may advocate the politics we do because the achievement of those political goals would benefit us or our milieu – materially, socially. And this may be the case, even if the justification offered for that politics has nothing to do with material or social interests.

The categories listed above seem very general – indeed, they seem far too general to be of much practical analytic use. For example – any of my first three ‘formal’ characterisations of conservatism are in fact compatible with ideological content that is extremely non-conservative.

This may mean that my theoretical categories are just inadequate. Or it may also mean that analysis of conservatism (as of any ideology) should be first and foremost an analysis of its history. Perhaps there is a limit to the extent to which the complexity of the strange alliances that form family-resemblance political ideologies can be treated at this degree of generality at all.

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…