Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"What If Stalin Had Computers?"

So there I was, trying to remember if Russia was actually going to develop nuclear train locomotives [emphasis on loco] when I was pointed toward this little bit of weirdness.

From The New Republic:
When will capitalism end? It’s not a new idea, and even the capitalists suspect it will happen. After all, every other mode of production has fallen, and capitalism isn’t a steady-state system. It simply isn’t built to stay the same. As firms incorporate new technologies, capacity increases per-capita, and jobs change, so too does the nature of commodities and consumption. It happened with the assembly line, and it’s happening again with information technology. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted these trends would reduce everyone’s daily toil to part-time by now, while Karl Marx thought the same developments would compel workers to seize the whole system and abolish wage-labor in general. But the system still lives.
If the history of postcapitalism so far is a repeating chorus asking “Are we there yet?”, then the new book from Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, is a reassuring “Almost!” from the front seat. Like a good co-pilot, Mason keeps his eyes on his indicators, and he has the end in sight. Or at least on his graphs. How the transition might occur is less important than that it must.

Marxist economics is not a vibrant field within the anglophone academy or public sphere. Even Thomas Piketty’s best selling import, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, didn’t take much more than a good title from the communists. Mason is an oddity, as an economics commentator of some stature (at least in the UK, where he has been an economics/business editor since 2001) who believes that labor is the source of all value. He spends much of the first half of Postcapitalism redeeming the work of heterodox Soviet economist Nikolai Kondtratieff, whose model of 50-year four-phase market cycles is Mason’s preferred historical gauge.
The Kondtratieff wave explanation is an intuitive way to look at 200 years of economic history: In Mason’s telling, industrial capitalism has completed four cycles since 1790, driven by the interrelated processes of technological innovation, global expansion, capital investment, and not least by labor struggles. The story a cycle goes more or less like this: Capitalists incorporate new productive technology, sharing the proceeds with workers; profits slow and workers fight with their bosses as firms try to depress labor costs; when capitalists can’t find any more savings, they’re forced to incorporate new technology and start the cycle over. Despite its Soviet origins, mainstream British and American economists have found the model useful for describing how capitalism manages to persist. 
The problem is we seem to have broken the cycle. Where workers should have been able to leverage their power for higher living standards, capital instead outsourced production, smashed unions, captured the regulators, and expanded money supply by unpegging the dollar from gold. Mason calls this counter-cyclical move “neoliberalism,” and it’s a helpful definition for a term sometimes used carelessly to refer to anything bad and capitalist. Kondratieff described a dance between capital and labor that was theoretically sustainable—a heresy that did not go over well with Stalin, who felt that the proletariat was only days from halting the waltz.
As it turned out, Stalin was wrong and capital broke up with labor, not the other way around. Mason calls our current situation the “long, disrupted wave”: The lights are on, and Kondratieff’s dance is over. This isn’t the only relationship that’s broken; capitalist economics is incompatible with information technology, Mason claims. As the supply of some commodities (like music files) becomes infinite, price-setting becomes arbitrary and unsustainable. How do you measure the amount of labor in replicable file? The adaptable system of production that Kondratieff saw from the other side is sinking. “The most highly educated generation in the history of the human race, and the best connected,” Mason writes, “will not accept a future of high inequality and stagnant growth.” 
Postcapitalism really begins here, at the bargaining table with capital and labor looking for a plan that will settle their differences once and for all. If the world is headed for imminent ecological collapse, then to continue on with our current capitalist mode of production is suicide. Maximizing actors don’t kill themselves, so the operative question is what to do next. How can we maintain people’s standards of living while socializing production, reducing labor, saving the environment, and making the best use of new technology? Mason has some ideas. 
The book really comes into its own when Mason addresses the possibilities of contemporary planning. He does not go as far as to endorse “cyber Stalinism” but at the very least poses its thesis: What if the problem with the Soviet Union was that it was too early? What if our computer processing power and behavioral data are developed enough now that central planning could outperform the market when it comes to the distribution of goods and services?...MORE
Yes, that's the problem, the Soviet Union was simply too early.