How to be a Nonlinear Progressive

In the most basic sense, to be a progressive is to believe that human beings are capable of progress. For example, if you believe that human beings can be “civilized”, live in “civilizations”, and are not entirely subject to the animal nature of primates, then you may be a progressive. But progression implies a linear movement. We progress from point A to point B along some path and the very idea of a path, suggests we are moving toward a destination. Somewhere we believe we can go. To be a progressive then is to have an idea in mind and strive to achieve it.

If you’re anything like me this notion seems to fit most human projects, but not humanity itself. There is no ideal human just as there is no human ideal. I take an existentialist bent on this idea of progress. We exist first, then we decide on what it means to exist. If this is the case, then we struggle to understand progress. How can we progress toward a better civilization–a better us–if starting places and destinations are impossible. Perhaps, I’ve gone too fast here. Perhaps civilization is one of those human projects and not really substantive of humanity itself. We should ask, does society shape our being? Unfortunately for “progress”, I think it must. The society we are born into will dictate many parts of our being. It will set the bounds of our potential, our understanding–both of ourselves and the world around us. It will form our reason, our logic, even our imagination. Whether we are wealthy or poor, white skinned or black skinned, Hindu or Jewish, Midwestern or Tujia, an anglophone or francophone, highly educated or illiterate or aliterate or one of thousands of more distinctions, our civilization will have great impact on the meaning you make of your life, even on your physical existence.

If society shapes us, as I suggest, then the project of progressing toward an ideal state of existence seems doomed. There seems to be no ideal state to progress toward, only suggested states. One person’s Utopia is very likely some other person’s living hell, and vice versa. The problem with progress, however, is not that we have no ideal state of existence, but that we have too many. We have utopias aplenty. The idealists of the world all have their own utopia, and guess what so do the realists! Everyone has a vision of the right way to act, the right way to think, the right way to be, and when they imagine that vision as dominate in a society, they imagine utopia. More radically still, each and every one of them has the right utopia. The Nazi and the Israeli both have utopian ideals, as much as the capitalist and the Marxist, the pastor and the scientist, the technophile and the Luddite, and they are all right; all of them. Right for them alone, anyhow. What we really are interested in then is a shared Utopia, not an iconoclastic one.

But of course, a single shared vision of society cannot move in all directions at once without tearing itself apart. And while I have argued elsewhere sometimes tearing society apart is what is best for everyone involved, many times the situation is not so drastic. If an idea can be settled on, then we can mark progress toward or regress away from it. Say you were an American just before the advent of the Civil War. You would likely have an opinion of slavery, and that opinion would likely be shaped by the then important social distinction of living either north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. If you grew up north, you were most likely an abolitionist, especially after the attack on Fort Sumter, while if you grew up south, you were most likely pro-slavery. Depending on your side then, progress looked different. The issue could only be settled by force, the vision of who and what America is, was what was at stake. The battles were all real enough, even if the war was really over ideas. That one side won set the standard for progress but had the other side won, the idea of progress would have been the same, just reversed.

Libertarian philosophy offers us no outs here. There is no way to settle such disputes except war and compulsion. Libertarianism is a subjugated political philosophy; one dependent on the unity of the political order. It cannot give us our rights or guide our morals in discord or disagreement. It has no way of settling issues of rights or membership but only of recognition of member’s rights, taken as given. Libertarian socialism, on the other hand, does not necessarily place the individual as sovereign and recognizes the importance of group unity as the primary question of politics. 

The question for libertarian socialists is “can we have progress that doesn’t look for any final end?” If there is no ultimate telos or end of history if each end is maybe just another beginning, is there really progress? I think so. Let’s look at the swinging pendulum of politics in the United States. Every four years or so, the country lurches right or left. A miserable back and forth that almost everyone hates and almost everyone blames their opponents for. This oscillation is not merely an effect of systems of election or the American political architecture, although these contribute to it, no doubt. It is really the effect of a shared ideal with two radically different paths to its attainment. The ideal is prosperity. The paths are social and individual, and those come with an entire host of corresponding belief systems making it virtually impossible for either to see the other’s perspective. Progress has hung up again over economic prosperity, just like it did over slavery.

But the stakes seem much lower this time. Slavery is fundamental state of being that brings with it different laws for different people, hierarchies based exclusively on permanent attributes outside of one’s control, and even a difference in the very humanity of some individuals. Our modern hang up is more like a difference of opinion about the shortest route to the airport. It most likely will not take a civil war to figure this one out. However, it will take some serious philosophic and political effort. What is important for us is that the lower stakes stem from the real fact that both “paths” are sometimes right. Unlike with slavery, this is not something we really want to be decided once and for all: we want to sometimes emphasize individual effort and sometimes emphasize social securities, and nothing says we can’t do both. In this case, progress is possible, but it must be nonlinear or plural.

Nonlinear progress feels strange, like being able to move forwards or backwards and still be going the right way. The strange sensation is cleared up at once if we realize that “moving” is the wrong metaphor to be using here for our idea of progress. We should be thinking of progress as adapting. In this metaphor, the situation changes and we change with it. What is wisdom one minute is folly the next and vice versa. More like putting on a coat or taking it off depending on how the temperature fluctuates.

I think of this in terms of a social version of Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle didn’t have a universally right answer for every situation. In fact, he disavowed the very idea that one could have a single right answer. But neither did he argue that any action was as good as any other. A virtue must be identified before an action can be judged as in accordance with its approach to that virtue. Aristotle focused on the pragmatic task of adapting the self to the situation in this way. More of this or that action is called for, depending on two things: who you are–or more specifically what you’re capable of–and what situation you find yourself in. Perhaps it’s the time to stand up and fight your enemies or perhaps it’s time to run like hell. To know if you should stay and fight or head for the hills you need to know your abilities and exactly what you’re up against. The goal then, according to Aristotle, is to find the sweet-spot in the middle of the two options. To not be foolhardy or cowardly but appropriately brave. If the situation changes, a revaluation must also take place.

If the target is always moving then our aim ought to be also. There is no time when utopia will be reached and we can sit back, kick up our heels, and rest on our laurels. It’s just not the way the world works. Utopia is not a place, it’s a process, and progress is actively processing. Seen this way, we only stop progressing when we get hung up. Like now. Dangerous gridlocks, like over slavery, or prolonged squabbles are equally progress-halting. The goal of progressives then is to build bridges, level obstacles, and keep the ball rolling. This doesn’t mean giving up on pushing the ball the direction you believe it should go, but it does mean demanding of yourself that you have to give the other side it’s due and equally demanding that they give you yours. We all fail when the ball stops moving, and it takes so little to give in some, compromise a bit, and roll in a new way.

Marx, Markets, & the Major League

For Bob Weick

Economics is hard. Political economy is even harder. In order to structure and justly award and distribute material goods in a society, we must have at least some idea of the nature and determination of value. No theory thus far has managed to get it all right. Arguably, no theory thus far has gotten enough of it right to understand political economy. Today the division between theories usually breaks into two camps: the classical economists and the Marxian. On the neoclassical side, we find brilliant economists like Alfred Marshall, who discover fantastic formulas like the law of supply and demand, but who are dismally ignorant of whatever it is exactly that supply and demand consist of. On the Marxian side, we have Karl Marx himself, who paints economic vistas into the broad landscape of human society, but who–along with his followers–fails to satisfactorily provide us with a pragmatic economic model for the conduct of individual life.

The division between theories leaves a crack in academic economics a mile wide. The big questions upon which all economic knowledge rests seems to have slipped through that crack: Should we have private property? Is money a boon to or a flaw in a just economy? What is the source of poverty? Trying to understand economics today is like trying the solve the word jumble in the daily newspaper, only it’s written in a lost language, with innumerable symbols that no one, not even the experts, really knows what they mean. At the bottom of this well of confusion is the simple fact that after more than three hundred years of economic theory, we still don’t know how material things come to be valued in human societies. The Marxians will say it’s labor, just the labor that goes into production, nothing more, nothing less; but when you try out that theory, it falls flat. The classical economists have a theory that doesn’t fall flat. It does have predictive power, but it consists of units of measure that are mysterious and ineffable.


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Our situation is a little like being lost in the wilderness: we keep trekking, despite not being sure where we are going and without bothering to really ask why. And our leaders in this trek, the economists, are the least sure of us all. This would be bad enough, but to make matters worse, value theory, that is economic value theory, the search for a what gives material things the prices they command, has all but been abandoned by both camps; Marxians because they think they have it and neoclassical economists because they think they don’t need it. Sometime in the 20th century, capitalist businesses realized they don’t really need to know where value comes from to turn a profit, and in fact, it might be dangerous for business to find out. Thus, they prefer their economic explanations to be functional but not terribly explanatory. It’s the economic equivalent of going to a doctor to treat the symptoms: “Doc, my whole left side hurts.  I don’t want to know why and I certainly don’t want to have to do anything differently, but can yeh gimme something for the pain?” Economics departments the world over dole out drugs like corner boys around a west Baltimore high-rise. To be fair, they can’t really do any more than that, it would be beyond the scope of their science. Economics, you see, is a political function and just as there is a world of difference between politics and political science, so is there between political economy and economics. Where the former questions the nature of human relations through material things and worries about things like justice and group cohesion; the latter is the comforting realm of science, merely observing how nomological systems operate and reporting the patterns that are useful.

The first thing we’ll need to understand is that politics is primary and economics is derivative. Marx, according to his partner Friedrich Engels, over-emphasized the economic component of his theory because economics were the intellectual fad of his day. Marx then presents the material necessities of human society shaped their ideologies, including their politics. It was the available means of production that determined if a society was to be primitively communist, feudal, capitalist, socialist, or communist; and those dominate economic relations would determine if that society would have a monarchical, oligarchic, aristocratic, or democratic government. Things only moved from the material to the ideal for Marx, who was reversing Hegel on this point. However, ideas shape what we desire, and its that which truly determines our needs, and our needs which determine our labors. Ideas shape materials, and materials, in turn, reshape our ideas. The pattern is cyclical. For example, we have yet to develop mass production techniques for the “artificial appendix” as we have for the horseless carriage.

“AH HAH!” the orthodox Marxists triumphantly shout, “You’ve misunderstood Marx! A thing without use-value has no value at all, accord to him. So, of course, the ‘artificial appendix’ being useless, would have been a waste of labor, because it wasn’t socially necessary! That is why we never build one.” But Marx’s belabored theory of socially-necessary labor is precisely the problem. It’s a long walk he had to create because he had to discount the role of use in determining price.

Marx’s error–to put it playfully–was the assumption that there is no use for use-value in determining price. A commodity either has a use or it does not, according to Marx. Use-value then functions as an economic data bit; it’s either 0 or 1 and nothing in-between. It has no quantifiable distinctions. On this bold assumption, Marx launched the armada of his economic theory, which held some striking conclusions: 1) consumers don’t matter one tiny bit in the creation of value (outside of determining whether labor is socially necessary labor or not), 2) production, specifically the labor units of production, is the only input of value, 3) labor, measured in units of time, can be counted objectively and so the value of everything should be able to be calculated objectively, 4) markets are unnecessary for determining value, 5) money, as a lubricant of exchange, is only necessary if markets are necessary, so given four it’s also unnecessary, and 6) without the need for markets, money, or consumers, we could eliminate private property as vestigial organ of economics, an invention of the bourgeoisie, which we are now free to evolve beyond. As anyone who has read Capital Volume I will attest, Marx does nothing small.

But if Marx was wrong and use-value is quantifiable then all six of his conclusion given above are suspect. And sadly, the quantifiability of use was staring Marx right in the face; he even said it himself: the value of capital to the capitalist is its ability to reduce the need for labor. He just didn’t take the next step and realize then the use of all commodities is their reduction of the labor of the consumer in the tasks they employ them for. Marx didn’t see this, because he couldn’t see it. It would make his theory subject, a subjectively determined value, which in his mind would threaten his theory of surplus-value and thus the idea that laborers were being exploited by capitalists. It’s a very forgivable mistake.

Nevertheless, if every commodity, even food, can be reduced to a sort of “labor-savings” or negative labor it can be quantified just like labor can, and what is more, the units will exchange with labor in exactly the way a negative integer, exchanges with a positive one. Thus we can weigh labor-savings against the labor required to produce a commodity and determine a subjective value, but the result of this equation is still necessarily a labor theory of value. Marx cleverly pointed out that in order for things exchange for one another some common substance must be present in both. For example, for seafood to exchange for say taxi services, something must be a common denominator of both. And Marx rightly deduced that this common substance was human labor. He just didn’t understand that the labor savings of the commodity play a role in quantifying its value. The implication of this undoes a good deal of Marx’s later economic theory, so that: 1) consumers are in fact necessary to determine value, 2) markets are thus required, 3) so then is money. But the one theory of Marx’s that is not undone; rather, is actually confirmed by this insight, is that labor and only labor is the source of value of things. And the implications for that… well, let’s just say that employers, landlords, investors, lenders, or in a word, the bourgeoisie, will not be happy.


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This is the beginning of a brave, new socialism, but before we get to that, we should make sure that Marx was actually wrong about the role of use-value. To do that, we’re going to reconsider use-value from a purely materialist standpoint. For his theory, Marx’s needed to solve the “use paradox”, that is the problem of understanding why water, which is so useful, is so cheap, whereas a diamond, which is so useless, is so expensive. Marx did so by eliminating it. But this masterstroke blinded him to what his own method of inquiry, regarding material necessities, should have laid plain. Use-value is a fancy name for simply being able to consume a commodity, that is, actually use it; and here’s the kicker, we can’t consume any material commodities communally.

Non-material commodities, like the music that streams over the radio, can be shared by consumers within earshot simultaneously; we can all sit around and listen and no one loses out on enjoying the music just because I am listening to it. The radio device itself, on the other hand, is a material thing, and can only be set to one station at a time. But who gets to decide where it’s set? The owner, of course. This is what we mean by “owner”, whoever gets to determine where the radio is set. Unlike music, it cannot be simultaneously enjoyed. Individual owners are necessary to determine the use of any material thing, from your toothbrush to the means of production. So, at the same time, individual owners determine use-values.

This suggests that ownership is a necessity of use and so, contra Marx, private property turns out to be necessary. Let’s call this the consumer theory of private property. When it comes to material goods, private property is an essential fact of human existence because those goods cannot be consumed without an exclusive right to them. While it’s true that Marx overlooked this, he was right that use plays no role in determining the productive labor that goes into a commodity. The error was to think that consumers play little to no part in determining a commodity’s full value. Productive labor confronts consumers as a burden, a cost which decrease the labor-saving value of the commodity to them. That’s why we would all rather pay less for the same good if we can. If producer A can get a commodity for you for $10 and producer B for $12, then we will buy it from A. Let’s say that we think this commodity will provide us $X labor-savings. Then the actual value of the commodity to us is either X – 10 or X – 12; X being constant, and -10 being higher than -12, producer A’s commodity is more valuable. Producer A’s commodity is literally worth more to us. 

Compare this to Marx’s theory that suggests that the amount of labor time that went into each producers commodity would determine its actual value. In this case, producer A and B should be charging the same amount. The fact that they are not is evidence that something shady is going on. But that is not necessarily the case. Perhaps the metal used in the manufacture is hard to extract for producer B than for producer A. Thus it took more labor for producer B to bring his product to market than producer A. The question then becomes, can Marx’s concept of socially necessary labor time save it. Yes, it can. But it is a costly intervention. By determining that producer B has wasted some labor time by extracting less attainable ore, Marx has spun his entire system around. He has reversed the order of price determination and now is using the relative market prices as fixed, in order to prove that some labor was socially unnecessary. This is a serious problem because using Marx’s system we never would have been able to get those market prices in the first place, so how could we rely on them to tell us when labor was socially necessary or just a waste of time? 

So, we cannot share the things we consume, at least not as we consume them, and we need private property. If we need private property we need all the trappings that come with them: markets, money, trade laws, etc.. This has resounding implications for the remainder of Marx’s theory, but at the same time it certainly doesn’t justify capitalism. Marx’s intuition that capitalism is highly exploitative, unfair, and unjust is still intact. What has changed are the reasons why those things are true. The trouble with capitalism is that it also fails to recognize the role of use in property, but from another side, another angle. If you are reading this as a classical economist, I imagine that last line strikes you as something very odd. Isn’t use inessential to determining price? Well, no, and that’s why your profession has struggled to understand anything for the last two hundred years. Price, for the consumer, is how much labor you would have to expend to acquire a property right in a commodity, its value is the amount of labor that commodity saves over and above that cost. No one buys anything that costs them more than it’s worth or is worth to them individually at least.


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So you might be thinking, “okay, but really who cares!?! How is the role of use, not some economic pinhead on which a thousand angels dance?” Well, including use shows that while the Austrian school might have the math right, it’s the socialists and the Marxists who have the moral right. They’re both right, just about different aspects of economics. And that means we can finally understand where injustice enters in our system of economics. We can synthesize the labor theory of value with the subjective theory of value and arrive at a subjective labor theory of value. Doing so is certainly anathema to Marx’s theory, but it is not a vindication of capitalism because it firmly establishes the role of use in justifying ownership over a particular piece of property. This is to say, that in order to claim we “own” something, we must demonstrate our exclusive need to use it, not merely the labor we expended or traded to acquire it. This delegitimizes many of the so-called “uses” of private property that socialists condemn as a matter of course: namely rent, interest, and profit, all three of which can be shown to be anything but exclusive. Without these three, capitalism loses its exploitative element. This is certainly a step in the right direction and what I have elsewhere argued is the essential step in transforming capitalism into socialism. However, it not the last step. This libertarian socialism will still face other problems inherent in any private property and trade based system. 

To see this problem we need to go back to the idea that political economy is a subsection of politics. You might say that if politics is the study of human relations in groups, then economics is the study of human relations through material things. Politics surrounds economics on all sides and channels it. Even the quasi-sacred law of supply and demand is really only relevant inside a community, it does nothing to describe the economic decisions of Robinson Crusoe, alone on his little island. This is best understood through an extended analogy, so let’s introduce one.

Major League Baseball can be imagined as a microcosm of our political economy. There is a league that oversees the rules, just like a government that oversees the laws. There are teams and players, just like there are businesses and laborers. There are club owners just like there are investors. There are competition and cooperation. There are incentives and disincentives. The whole thing seems sometimes chaotic and sometimes orderly and well understood. MLB differs from the political economy mostly in impact and relevance. Far fewer people suffer extreme poverty at the hands of a misguided club owner than at the hands of a misguided Federal Reserve Board. But the most important difference is that every now and again, MLB resets everyone back to zero. That’s important! That’s really, really important! In baseball, unlike the real economy, you can’t just keep riding on your laurels indefinitely, games and seasons eventually end, and you have to start all over from the beginning again.

But why? Why does professional baseball reset at the end of a “season”? They could just take a break and then pick back up right where they left off. Why don’t they just keep chalking up victories and defeats? Well, mostly because that’s boring to watch. But it’s boring because the cooperative elements of the sport are essentially ruining the competitive elements. It doesn’t matter if the league decides to just declare the Yankees the winners of every game they show up at (like a totalitarian regime) or if they just allow them to start every game with a merit run for every world series they’ve previously won (like a capitalist regime); the end result is boring. And it’s boring because it’s unfair. We want victory or defeat to be the exclusive outcome of the efforts (dare I say labor) of the players on the field, not some privilege for previous labor. Each game and each season requires the teams to start as equals in order to ensure that it is this effort that leads to achievement, this is what it means to be fair.

It’s the same with economics. Competition between businesses is supposed to lead us to the best products, the best production methods, and the best law and regulation. This is what we mean by a just economy. But competition has to be fair in order to provide these results. So, we want a political economy were the profits and losses are a result of the efforts of the laborers, not the merits held-over from some bygone era. Imagine two restaurant owners in the same area. Producer A starts their business with a loan and producer B with a grant from family. Even if producer A offers better fare and earns more patronage, they may still lose to producer B who has lower-overhead. This is not a natural law of economics but is a choice at the political or “league” level. The choice is between two goods: one is protecting competition which tests out differing methods allowing us to determine the superiority of one or the other, while the other is allowing people to benefit directly from their efforts. The two goods at some point come into conflict. This is the problem of capitalism: it ceases to progress and be a good for society the more it allows individuals to benefit from their efforts and it ceases to be a benefit to individuals the more it insists on competition. We can see it’s different from the problem with state socialism which solves the problem with an ax, eliminating both the individual benefit and competition. Such a solution is accompanied by different, and arguably worse problems, which is beyond our scope here.

Capitalism, then, is like the league that allows teams to horde up runs for use in other games. We allow businesses to save profits by reducing wages to less than the full market value of their products, either voluntarily or exploitatively. But this “forced savings” is not necessarily a problem; what is a problem is that the beneficiaries of those savings are not the people doing the saving. The horde of runs is not for the players benefit, but for the club owners. Eliminating profit, making all business would merge the class of club owners with that of player, thus making those who save, those who benefit from the savings. However, what that solution does not do is protect society from the ill-effects of private monopoly. For that, we need something else, specifically something that will counter-balance the self-interested tendency to dominate a market by growth. One solution accompanies the loss of rent, interest, and profit, which is the great reduction to the interest to make income beyond a certain finite amount. This is the real result of putting use-value back in economics. But what we really require is something like the league equalizing the teams after every season.

We need a “league” that will maintain a healthy competition between “teams” and fair play amongst the “players” without micro-managing the games either, the way Keynesian economics do. The league cannot maintain competition through laissez-faire practices, so the league must set rules that foster competition, then and only then can we step back and let the umpires enforce the rules. The goal of any political economy then, is to set the right rules to maintain a healthy competition between businesses and fair and equitable treatment of all participants while allowing as much individual benefits from effort as possible.

The occasional forced economic redistribution that brings everyone back to some kind of equality before setting them loose again to follow their self-interest would do this, but I have nothing so ham-fisted as a yearly revolution in mind. Instead, I suggest we think about the other type of cooperation in baseball, that between teammates. Teammates work together in competition with other teams who are all cooperating together in the league for the good of the sport. Understood this way, competition is really just a different kind of cooperation or cooperation at a higher level as Hegel might say. In this case, even competition with winners and losers still benefits everyone in the long run. This Rawlsian, pro-capitalist line, has long been used to justify capitalism, I’m well aware. But without the exploitative element, we discussed above removed, we can actually be sincere about it. Competition can be benevolent, it just has to be fair in order to be so. Players in baseball, show up and do their best only because they believe the game isn’t rigged. If they knew they were being cheated, they would just stay home and there would be no game for anyone. The whole system then relies on everyone involved in it believing that it is fair and if I may be so bold as to say if everyone believes something is fair it is fair.

The solution then is a guaranteed income, preferably one that is pegged to some general economic indicator, e.g. providing a quarter of the per capita distribution of the GDP to everyone who doesn’t make more through labor. This simple solution allows for the social benefits of competitive experimentation in production while still allowing the benefits of large-scale productive activities that result from self-interested reinvestment in the enterprise. Not to mention countless other social benefits elaborated by better authors than myself, see a list of them here. I have argued other reasons why such a system of compelled taxation to finance a guaranteed income is necessary, but this one alone would be sufficient.

In sum then, I tried to lay out the basic economic theory that undergirds a theory of libertarian socialism. This theory calls for the abolition of rent, interest, and profit and the provision of a guaranteed income to every citizen. These two changes convert capitalism into stable libertarian socialism by maintaining the trade-based private property system of capitalism but removing its ability to be exploitative individually or socially. There is no doubt in my mind that other problems with libertarian socialism will appear if it is established and the hegemonic economic order. However, I cannot anticipate these and thus I have no solutions to offer. I leave that to other thinkers.

Socialism, What’s the Difference?

Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Vladimir Lenin walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll it be?” Lenin immediately climbs up on a stool and loudly proclaims, “We, the intellectual vanguard of the people, shall seize the means of production in the name of the people!” Bernie Sanders gently replies, “No, my dear Lenin. It is the freely elected government of the people who must seize them.” To which, Noam Chomsky quickly retorts, “Not at all, it’s the individual people themselves, who must seize them.” The bartender picks up the phone, “Officer, I got a trio of thieves at my place. Come arrest ’em.”

In the eyes of the doctrinaire capitalist, all sorts of socialism are the same, they are all theft. Internally, there is a good deal of division. The media has what I’ll call the short-division understanding of political economy. Remember learning short-division? Where five divided by four was one, remainder one. It’s like that, but with economics. This elementary-school version of political economy has capitalism on one end of a short spectrum and socialism/communism at the other. Essentially, it boils decades of diverse economic and political theory into capitalism and others. Obliterated are the intricate nuance and subtle variety that separates even pro-capitalist thought into over a dozen distinct theories. There are a few, ill-defined buzzwords that get carelessly banded around the information superhighway like drunks on the freeway. Terms like “neoliberal”, “neoclassical”, and “democratic socialism” take on a loose association with a political side like “neoclassical” = right-wing and “democratic socialism” = left-wing, or falls helplessly in between them confusing most people who hear them like “neoliberal” and “libertarian” and “libtard”. Are those that left-wing or right or good or bad? How should I feel about them? The point here is that the names don’t matter, but the theoretical positions do. So I want to take the next five minutes of your life and give you the gift of understanding the difference between “libertarian socialism”, “democratic socialism”, and Soviet-style communism.

Soviet Russia is indisputably the icon of socialism the world over. It’s not the original socialist theory and you’d probably be surprised to learn that it is a dubious successor to Marx’s theory. The Bolsheviks claimed descendancy from Marx and Engels, but Leninism grossly over-emphasizes economics, twisting Marxism into something ideologically self-defeating in order to make it negotiable under the labyrinthine socio-political climate of Czarist Russia. Leninism agrees with Marx that the bourgeoisie illicitly own the means of production and that it would only be through revolution that they can be used for the betterment of all rather than for the eternal enrichment of a few. And that’s where the important similarities stop because Lenin had to invent a practical scheme to bring about what Marx said would occur naturally. There is little dispute that the first Russian revolution, the February revolution was a spontaneous occurrence, revolting from tyrannical Czarist and oppressive aristocratic rule. The October revolution was not so spontaneous, in fact, it wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a coup d’etat. The freely elected government of Russia was seized by the Bolshevik party and democratic rule was supplanted for autocratic rule of the communist party. This, according to Lenin, was necessary because the people, having labored so long under the false-consciousness of bourgeoisie propaganda–what today would be called “fake-news”–could not be trusted to follow their real interests. His evidence for this was the fact that his party failed to win a majority in the general election. Lenin determined that socialism would need to be guided from above, structured by a cabal of intellectual elites who were not deceived by false consciousness. This vanguard would centrally-plan and command the economy for the people without any input from those people.

It seems obvious, now, when I put it this way, that Lenin traded economic freedom for political enslavement. He would enslave the people to free the people and then, maybe, someday, when they proved themselves ready, return them their freedom. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. We needn’t trouble ourselves with why not, because the next alternative cannot work the same way at all on principle. Democratic socialism is an alternative to the Soviet-style communism in that it believes it is the people who ought to decide on what uses the means of production are put to. In this version, the state still controls the means of production, but the state is necessarily a democratically controlled one. Myriad questions ensue, such as at what level will they be determined: nationally, communally, etc.? Or will the particulars be determined the people directly or through representatives or the appointees of representatives? Or how will the workers be paid, by the state on a fixed scale, by production rates, or by contract negotiation? How will prices be set or will products be doled out on some scheme? But these questions don’t really affect us here. The point is that democratic socialism hopes to overcome the difficulties of Soviet-style communism by bringing in the voice of the people, that is allowing them to weigh in on how socially controlled economic mechanisms are run.

Is such a system possible? Of course, it is. Take central planning, one could “centrally plan” an economy democratically by taking orders from every individual and making products to correspond with the orders. Technically-speaking that’s not a market, it’s a centrally planned economy with a single producer. Would it be efficient? Hmmm, that depends on what you mean by “efficient”. Would we overproduce, no, it would never produce anything for which there was not already an order (at least not in theory)? But it would be terribly inefficient having to wait for your order to be made and difficult to anticipate your needs well in advance. Plus, fairly limiting how much each consumer could order at a time. Still, it could all be worked out. The real question is, “is it more desirable?” I’m not so sure. Such a market would be like letting Amazon take over everything and then nationalizing Amazon. Monopolies are unquestionably efficient but they are also condensers of power. By reducing options to one, they eliminate choice to everyone except the one who decides on what to produce. Maybe we could all decide, but how? It’s unfeasible to think we’re all going to vote every time there is a decision at “National Amazon” and even if we did, how should we count the votes? Majority rules hardly seems fair. The logistical encumbrances quickly swamp the advantages the democratic socialist system provides.

A point should be made here about the so-called Nordic socialist countries. To be clear, they’re not really socialist at all. These countries share a strong devotion to welfare-state policies. We might add a fourth type of socialism in here, “welfare-state socialism” but this would be more confusing than illuminating. Capitalism, as I have argued elsewhere, should be defined by the legal determination that the owners of an enterprise or an estate be the owners of the capital in that enterprise or estate. These countries economic systems fit this description and therefore are best classified as capitalist. They simply use these myriad social programs to buttress capitalism and hedge in its worst tendencies the way the United States used to under Keynesian economic policies from the nineteen forties to the nineteen seventies. The best term for these countries then would be “welfare-state capitalist” and not socialist at all. It has been a rhetorical deception of laissez-faire theorists to classify such systems as “socialist”.  

Returning to our main discourse, we’re not stuck choosing between democratic socialism and unfettered capitalism; we might choose libertarian socialism. This oxymoronic sounding theory is unlike the others in that it disagrees that market mechanisms and private property in the hands of the bourgeoisie are the root cause of the problems with capitalism. Libertarian socialism holds that the problem of capitalism has to do with the organization of private property and not the existence of it. In this case, we can imagine a principled order that allows for private property, market exchanges, and most of the other staples of capitalism, but removes the exploitative rules regarding rent, interest, and capitalist profit as contradictory with private property ownership itself. With these exploitative elements eliminated, many attributes of capitalism change form, e.g. the overwhelming and incessant need to accumulate more wealth. This desire is capped by the concept that you cannot make money from money without rent, interest, and profit, so there is a finite amount of labor you’re willing to do beyond what you need to meet your needs. The desire to come to dominate all other businesses, the desire for monopoly, the desire for ruthless business practices, all have their teeth pulled. Included also is a guaranteed income which is required to prevent anyone in a society from forcing anyone else into a life of servitude in order to attain one of unearned leisure; in order to remove the one, the other must be dispensed with as well.

Libertarian socialism differs from other forms of socialism in that it emphasizes the freedom of individuals to make individual choices. It differs from libertarianism by arguing that societies have rights and privileges that individuals do not. The basis of this argument rests on the needs of groups to foster a sense of unity, without which there can only be lawlessness. The preservation of unity is a responsibility of societies which cannot be reduced to the individual members who make them up. This disagrees with libertarianism which assumes that all rights and responsibilities of groups can and do reduce to individual rights and responsibilities. There is a thing called society from which we are each individuated. Another way to imagine it is that the rules cannot be set with any particular individual or association in mind and be just, in the same way, that a baseball league cannot create rules favoring any particular club, either explicitly or implicitly without those rules being unfair. Libertarianism, which is a close cousin to anarchism, asserts that such a league would be unnecessary except as guarantor of the rules the clubs themselves agreed to. There is the possibility of fairness here, as long as we can assume that each club was equally well off when the bargain was struck, which is a pretty remote possibility. Libertarianism is simply unlikely to turn out to be fair.

Libertarian socialism offers us our greatest chance at a sustainable, just, and fair economic system. It is the most likely to produce the massive economic requirements of our modern large-scale societies and do so in a manner that is sustainable and harmonious with our natural environment and is at the same time compatible with human dignity and our political sense of fair play or justice. Libertarian socialism is the most feasible economic system, requires the least amount of change from capitalism, and could be produced without a bloody revolution. It is quite simply our last, best hope for a better world.