February 28, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the economic of socialism (whether actually-existing or hypothetical), political philosophy, the social organization and intellectual development of literary criticism, or participatory democracy in social movements. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983)
Alec Nove, Political Economy and Soviet Socialism (1979)
Alec Nove, Socialism, Economics and Development (1986)
Alec Nove, Efficiency Criteria for Nationalised Industries (1973)
Alec Nove and J. A. Newth, The Soviet Middle East: A Model for Development? (1967)
Nove was (as these titles might suggest) a British economist, the child of exiled Mensheviks, who made a specialty of studying the Soviet economy, and of advocating market socialism. He's best known for two works: The Economics of Feasible Socialism and An Economic History of the USSR. The former is a personal touchstone which shaped me deeply; the later is merely very good. Looking up something else, I happened to discover that a bunch of his books are now available through our library electronically, so I plunged in.
I'll start with the most important book first. The point of Feasible Socialism is to advocate for, and sketch, a socialist economy "which might be achieved within the lifetime of a child already conceived", i.e., not in some distant post-scarcity future. The first chapter explains why Marxism offers absolutely no useful ideas about how to actually run a socialist economy. (Here Nove summarizes Soviet debates on this matter in the early 1920s --- debates which have been little known since, and so often, in effect, re-run from scratch.) The second chapter looks at the entirely-negative lessons to be drawn from the Soviet experience, and the third at the mostly-negative lessons to be drawn from Cold War-era Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and China. The last two chapters lay out Nove's attractive vision of a market socialism, with lots of public provision of many goods, and workplace democracy where sensible and feasible. (He is sound on seeing that there is a tension between democratic control of an enterprise by its workers, and democratic control of that enterprise by the people-as-a-whole.)
On re-reading, I am relieved, chagrined, and exasperated. Relieved, because I still think this book holds up, and has not been visited by the Suck Fairy. Chagrined, because I've written a lot about socialism and planning over the years, some of it well-received, and on examination I have just been channeling a book I first read as a teenager. Exasperated, because we keep having the same conversations about the same bad ideas, without actually being able to retain and build on the better ones, like Nove's. (I have been making this complaint on this blog for nineteen years now.)
Since I have a weird completist tendency, I then proceeded to read the other four books here, since I hadn't read them before, and they were available.
The first two are collections of academic papers and essays; many of them are effectively studies for Feasible Socialism, not always in very obvious ways: Nove account of more-or-less self-inflicted economic crises facing Allende's government in Chile (observed as visiting faculty in Santiago) clearly informs his discussion of the transition to socialism. I also found very interesting his series of papers on the economic thought of the Bolsheviks (from before the revolution through the 1930s), and later Soviet economics of the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., Kantorovich and co. versus traditionalists).
Efficiency Criteria is a plea to think about why one would want a nationalized industry in the first place, as opposed to just regulating and taxing private firms.
The Soviet Middle East looks at economic development efforts in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The emphasis is on flows of money, machinery and trained personnel from the center to these regions. The environmental costs imposed go largely unremarked. That this was a project of imperial domination is on the other hand made very clear.
To sum up: go track down a copy of Feasible Socialism, if that side of what I write interests you at all. The rest of these are now of just-historical interest, though I'm glad I read them. §
Joseph Heath, Cooperation and Social Justice
This is an essay collection, loosely united by the theme that a (functional) society is an on-going system of cooperation, which has implications for what anything we might want to call "social justice" would look like, and how it might be achieved. (Indeed, Heath would say that principles of social justice are principles that help systems of cooperation work better. [Cf.]) This supposed unifying theme is most evident in chapters 1 and 5.
Chapter 1, "On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures", is mostly a response to G. A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?, patiently pointing out that modes of cooperation which work in a small group of friends on a temporary camping trip do not, in fact, scale up to thousands or millions of people over lifetimes. The logical weakness here is that Heath never really explains why different modes of cooperation have the scales they do.
Chapter 5 is about reasonable accommodation for immigrants: they come to new countries because they want to join that country's system-of-cooperation, so it's reasonable to mostly expect them to conform to its ways, but reasonable accommodations for them are ones which don't, in fact, impair the efficacy of the system. Turned around, this provides Heath with an argument for border control, i.e., limiting who gets to participate in the system of cooperation, in order to keep it going. I'm not sure why this latter argument doesn't allow every city's current residents to restrict who can move there, or indeed any neighborhood. Those are fragmentary systems of cooperation, inter-dependent on larger ones, but so is any national economy.
Chapter 2 argues that the fact that corporations are only supposed to pursue profit doesn't lead them to anti-social behavior; the problem isn't profit, but inadequate regulation, and poor professional ethics. (He knows better than to suppose courses on ethics lead to better behavior.) I sympathize, but don't think he gives enough consideration to (people working for) corporations expending effort to shape regulations in their self-interest.
Chapter 3 is about the importance of status to our social lives, and the dilemmas this creates for egalitarians, since status simply cannot be equalized. Complex societies will have multiple status hierarchies (I once knew someone highly esteemed among his fellow collectors of rare fruit-company banana labels), but it strains credulity to imagine a situation where everyone is at the top of a status hierarchy they find compelling.
Chapter 4 defends stigmatizing bad behaviors, on the grounds that social stigma is actually an important resource people can draw on when attempting self-control. (This idea is briefly touched on, as I recall, in Heath's Enlightenment 2.0.) The question of which behaviors should be stigmatized is left open.
Chapter 6, finally, is about the "dilemmas of US race relations", and our attempts to "achieve Singaporean outcomes using Canadian methods" (p. 299). This is thought-provoking, not least for trying to put our difficulties into comparative perspective. (This chapter is an expanded, more scholarly version of a 2021 essay in a rather odd-seeming little magazine.) On the basis of these arguments, Heath ought to endorse a sort of counterfacctual black nationalism: it'd be a good idea, if only most black people were concentrated in one part of the US where they were numerically predominant, like the Francophones in Quebec.
As my remarks make clear, I didn't come away completely satisfied with Heath's answers or arguments in every case, but I always enjoyed the reading, and found a lot more to chew over than I have time to itemize. §
John Guillory, Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study
This is a wonderfully rich book, but I will just point to Merve Emre's exposition in lieu of writing my own. It makes me want to read Guillory's Cultural Capital from the 1990s. Thanks to Scott Newstok for recommending this to me. §
Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (2002)
The usual knock on participatory democracy is that it doesn't scale to large groups, and becomes increasingly ineffective as the group gets larger. (I have scribbled out thoughts along these lines myself.) Polletta, who sympathizes very obviously and strongly with participatory democracy, especially in its more left-wing * forms, explicitly tries to counter this critique by looking, primarily, at three mid-20th-century movements: pacifists in the 1950s, the SNCC, and SDS. (She's good on the historical inter-connections between her three movements.)
Polletta has extremely astute things to say about the way participants in these movements imagined their relationships to each other, and used those conceptions to help make participation work ** . She makes it absolutely clear that participatory democracy does have heuristic and strategic value. Even more, when it's working, it has moral and morale value; her striking title comes from an SDS members's recollection of what participation meant to her.
Despite all this, Polletta completely fails to undermine the it-doesn't-scale critique. In fact, when both SNCC and SDS did get large, they famously flamed out into utterly dysfunctional wrecks, and Polletta gives honest and insightful accounts of the beginnings of the disintegration in both cases. (She doesn't follow SDS all the way into the LaRouchies and Weather Underground, but she doesn't need to.) The 1950s pacifists, of course, never grew enough to have such problems.
The end of the book covers some contemporary-at-time-of-writing movements: a surviving branch of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas, and anarchists around David Graeber (who features as a native informant) who would go on to be key to Occupy. By Polletta's own account, that branch of the IAF seems like a perfectly ordinary class/ethnic political formation, dominated by the group's clergy --- doing good work for its members, but not really a direct or participatory democracy, whatever motions it might go through. As for what became Occupy, again, its career hardly argues for the scalability of participatory democracy.
To sum up, Polletta makes a strong case for the virtues and powers of participatory democracy in small groups bound by strong ties of solidarity. (I am tempted to say: groups which have 'asabiyya.) She also has interesting observations on the forms those ties can take. But beyond the small group, she is, if anything, underlining that the Iron Law of Oligarchy rules ok. §
*: Right-wing political movements of the same vintage (e.g., Young Americans for Freedom) go undiscussed. Maybe none of them aspired to the same sort of internal democracy as SNCC or SDS --- I honestly don't know enough about them to say --- but if any did, they'd make extremely informative contrast cases. ^
**: She's returned to this theme in later work, which I am eager to read. --- If I were smarter, I would try to connect this to John Levi Martin's mysterious-to-me claims about the need for social structures to be comprehensible to their members. ^

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; The Beloved Republic; Commit a Social Science; The Commonwealth of Letters; Philosophy; Afghanistan and Central Asia

Posted at February 28, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

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