Sunday, June 4, 2017

Thoughts on Socialism

The recent political upheavals and the rise of reactionary politics and hatred worldwide, accompanying war, famine and environmental disaster, as well as a massively increasing inequality in life and liberty, lead me to inquire somewhat more seriously about political philosophy - why we are in this mess and potential solutions for the way forward. I am almost done reading Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which I found to be an interesting introduction about several (seemingly basic) economic truths that I had just not bothered to identify clearly before.

I plan to read Marx next, but before I do, I want to sort of flesh out my current line of thinking. Here are the sort of elementary "guiding principles" or axioms that I feel are important to highlight, and influence my subsequent conclusions.

1. Political philosophy should be self-evident and "easy" to understand

The axioms of a political philosophy, have to be obvious and simple enough such that they can be easily evaluated by the average person. Or conversely, one should not have to read volumes and tomes to be able to understand or be convinced of the basis for any such philosophy.

The reasoning here, is that, if there is any such political philosophy whose axioms are not very clearly stated, and easily understandable, and instead are outsourced to and defined by elites, then I reject such a philosophy. I can think of 2 reasons for this.

First, such a philosophy seems to be rooted in arrogance. The idea that elementary axioms that affect and concern every person cannot be understood by them, seems very bizarre given that human beings, as a species, are overwhelming homogenously and sufficiently intelligent enough to go about their day to day lives, raise children and do a variety of highly creative and advanced intelligent work. It seems far more likely that this line of thinking is a defense for spurious and malicious philosophy by saying that those who don't understand it, are too stupid to understand it - it seems like an ad hominem. Note that the salient point here is that political philosophy concerns ordinary people as they are its stakeholders and it concerns them directly - I can contrast this with something like quantum mechanics or some multidimensional geometry whose axioms I do not expect an ordinary person to understand.

Second, is the more obvious problem. Such philosophies that are entirely controlled by an enlightened elite, are far more likely to actually be used as a means for oppression for the benefit of that elite - especially given that these elites already think that the masses are too stupid, and are thus dehumanized and expendable. The perfect example of such a system is the caste system and Hindu theological justifications for it, where the Brahmin elite who have the monopoly on truth, forbade even educating the downtrodden under the naked threat of violence, all the while profiting from the exploitation, enslavement, and the theft of generational wealth of the helpless masses.

Any profound or fundamental truths (about political philosophy) I expect to learn after reading Marx, have to be elementary and obvious. It has to be drawing my attention to something I had just never paid attention to before, out of ignorance or laziness.

2. Self-interest or altruism?

Pigeonholing human behavior or motivation (or any prescriptions) into any one of these seems silly. Someone like Ayn Rand might insist that everything, even the most selfless act (like Thích Quảng Đức's self immolation) is in self-interest, but then the phrase "self-interest" ends up devoid of meaning. Human beings act for both their self-interest as well as other's interest, to varying degrees. This seems obvious just through biology, other primates (as well as humans) are hard-wired to act empathetically. Constraining behavior to merely one of these seems unnecessary and moreover, contrary to human nature. Clearly, we value both. The idea that one should only act in their own narrow self-interest and be selfish, even at others' expense, seems like a dogma that is so far removed from any reality of human experience and their daily interactions with society, and this is quite obvious in my opinion to any reasonable person.

I also don't accept conflating greed with self-interest. To equate getting a second Lamborghini and making enough to feed oneself is laughable. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics and rhetorical trickery to be able to view these as the same. Conversely, taking away someone's second Lamborghini and denying someone food are not the same either.

For example, consider Milton Friedman's extolling of the "virtue" of greed. Primarily, he does 2 things here: conflates greed with self-interest, and treats self-interest vs. altruism as mutually exclusive and a binary choice. He is correct that the elite in various authoritarian regimes have always acted greedily - it seems strange to defend such a system, especially since the differences between his examples (the USSR, PRC and the USA) are virtually non-existent in this respect.

The historical record, also, to me shows quite the opposite. History is rife with examples of people acting with and prescribing altruism - most respected historical heroes, religious figures, and every poor soldier who fought in any war for his family, religion, tribe or country. I could go so far as to say that every moral progress or moral victory has come about by altruism. It is human nature, and as human qualities go, one of the better ones.

Here are some other nebulous ideas that I have come to identify with:

A. There is no real right to Private Property.

The right to possess property is not like the right to free speech. Ideas are infinite, and non-physical. Property is a finite, material resource. If 2 people are stranded on an island, they can have an unbounded right to speech and ideas with no issues. However, it is obvious that a right to possess unlimited property, by any means, is simply not the same, because it denies the other person from using or possessing that property. Speaking about the right to own land, in theory, is as silly as saying the right to own a river.

I think that this will be agreeable to any ordinary person. One can certainly have quite reasonable limits on private property, or control of natural resources, and any such limit is not a violation of anyone's freedom. Will anyone accept if I simply say that I own all the water in the world, and no one else can have it - just because some bits of paper have changed hands between arbitrary parties? Is it reasonable for me to buy out large tracts of rainforest and start clearing them just out of spite?

At the very least, natural resources of the planet like land, rivers, etc cannot be in the hands of a few to do as they please, and any use of natural resources should be accountable to the people. Some random entity like Exxon has no natural right to be able to drill and pollute the planet on a patch of land or sea, just because it has "bought" the land from some other random entity.

B. Capitalism is theft, and is incompatible with freedom.

It is quite strange that I used to equate capitalism with any kind of freedom, in fact, I am now quite at odds to figure out why I had such an impression in the first place. I suspect it is merely a result of indoctrination and without any critical analysis of what capitalism means.

The open secret and daily reality of any worker in any corporate job, is that the company makes more money off of you than you are getting in return. The company's stock price may soar, but your salary stays the same. It is not a secret where that extra money is going, and that's to the shareholders. Literally the people who did no work, blatantly steal the share of the proceeds of what is created by the worker. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos aren't getting their next billion by working, they're getting it because they're just stealing what lots of other poor chaps are producing. This is capitalism - using capital (property or money) to make more money, rather than labor. This is the definition of a moocher's system - especially that the people making the most money are in the least need of it.

Capitalism is also inherently un-free, because every corporation is a tyranny and undemocratic. A worker has no say over anything - not who his boss is, or who the CEO is. Governments across every capitalist country are beholden to these big corporations - agglomerations of huge capital, which have no democratic control or oversight. What is the use of any political freedom for individuals when this is the case? Such a system results in the political climate where the main issues are inconsequential nonsense, like exploiting cultural prejudices or hatred - all available options are vetted and approved by the holders of capital.

The lack of any economic democracy, leads to lack of political democracy. One seems meaningless without the other. The option to leave a company and join another is analogous to leaving one totalitarian dictatorship to another. No one would describe being able to shuttle between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain freedom. It just as un-free to shuttle from Microsoft to Amazon.

The current system of capitalism is designed to create the worst possible product, charging the highest possible price to the customer, extract the maximum from a worker, paying them the least they can get away with, and the biggest beneficiary of all this, is the shareholder or stock market gambler who contributes no labor of their own, and merely accumulates the maximum profits and dividends from this system. Why is such a system considered any good?

At the very least, every workplace has to be democratically managed. Such a system can ensure that the entity is run in the interest of the worker, rather than against their interest as in the current scenario of capitalism. Workers could ensure that the profits and fruits of the labor can go to the workers themselves, and they probably won't have to deal with management nonsense of making crappy products no one needs. Happier workers benefit society - I wouldn't want to be at any hospital where the nurses and doctors are miserable.

I think another aspect is that investment decisions (of collective capital such as natural resources) of a society also have to be democratically controlled and accountable. This is the only way in my opinion out of the environmental catastrophe that capitalism is heading the world towards, with various short-sighted plundering endeavours that inflict suffering on the poorest and vulnerable populations, either directly through war or indirectly through environmental destruction. A population should be able to vote any Exxon or Shell or BP out of business.

These are a high-level of the ideas that I consider to be the basis of a socialism that I support - it is basically applying democracy to an economic sphere. Of course this is not very well fleshed out, but that is also because I am quite aware of my ignorance and paucity of thought in this area. As I continue to read, hopefully I will learn more.


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