Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 7, 2007

Erik Olin Wright replies

Filed under: Academia,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

(This appeared in the comments section underneath my original post. Since there were a number of glitches that make it somewhat difficult to read, I am posting Wright’s comments here in an easier to read format. I will reply to this shortly.)

There is, needless to say, much with which I disagree in the evaluation of my work by Louis Proyect. I will here only address of few of the more important points:

1. Concerning my exposition of Marx’s theory of the destiny of capitalism, especially “the self-destruction thesis”:

I do not disagree with the basic point that most Marxist economists in the last half century or so have dispensed with the crisis-intensification thesis or the claim that the laws of motion of capitalism have a tendency to destroy capitalism’s conditions of existence. My characterization of this theoretical argument was directed at classical Marxism in general and Marx in particular, not to ‘Marxism’. My assessment in these terms is entirely in keeping with the quote of Braverman, which also criticizes Marx’s formulations. I presented this account because Marx’s theory of the destiny of capitalism offers such an elegant solution to the problem of showing that an alternative to capitalism is possible. The indeterminist view of the trajectory of capitalism in which there are no tendencies which increase capitalism’s vulnerability puts much greater burden on the argument that a viable alternative to capitalism is possible. Once you acknowledge that capitalism may be an indefinitely robust, dynamic form of economic organization, then one has to directly engage the issue of how to convince people that an alternative is possible, viable, and desirable.

2. The criticism that “there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.”:

The argument and analysis in the book is not meant to be a political proposal geared to the United States today. Nor is it meant to provide clear coordinates for formulating specific strategies of transformation anchored in specific historical-political contexts. Rather the idea is to provide some principles for thinking about strategy and context. The central thrust of those principles is that the guts of a socialist alternative to capitalism is radical egalitarian democracy ­ which I refer to as a socialism of social empowerment. What the book proposes is a variety of different ways in which we can move in that direction in any society/economy/context dominated by capitalism. Now, perhaps this is a useless enterprise and somehow a distraction from more important problems. Perhaps there is no need to provide general clarification of the logic and foundations of our understandings of alternatives to capitalism. But I do think this is important, and I think it is important to elaborate these issues in a way that is not narrowly anchored in a particular time and place. My experience in discussing these issues around the world with people in very different contexts is that everywhere it stimulates good debate and discussion, and that suggests that it is worthwhile.

3. The critique of the use of ideal types:

The purpose of formulating clear concepts with specified meanings is so that when we debate issues and grapple with the difficult problems of figuring out how the world works and how it might be transformed we know that we are talking about the same things. Perhaps the expression ‘ideal type’ is suspect because of its association with certain strategies of theory building, but I do not see how it implies ‘accepting the formal logic straightjacket of bourgeois social science.’ Marx elaborates ideal type ­ formal abstractions ­ all the time when he tries to identify the salient mechanisms within capitalism. The term ‘ideal’ in ‘ideal’ type just means ‘abstractly and systematically conceptualized’. It is a contrast to other kinds of concepts, for example the notions of an ‘average type’ or a ‘modal type’, which are more descriptive concepts. Take the problem of capitalism. The ‘modal type’ of capitalism would be defined by the most typical form of capitalism we observe in the world. The ‘ideal type’ on the other hand, abstracts from all of the forms of variation and tries to identify those mechanisms in capitalism which are most systematically generative of its common properties across these variations. These are the mechanisms which make all capitalisms varieties of capitalism. If we are to talk about modes of production or systems of production ­ capitalism, feudalism, socialism, etc. ­ then we cannot dispense with such abstractions, whether or not they are called ‘ideal types.’

4. My use of the example of the kibbutz:

The example of the Israeli Kibbutzim is used to illustrate the viability of quite radical forms of democratic egalitarian economic organization. While the fact that the land for the kibbutzim was appropriated from local inhabitants is certainly relevant to the historical process by which this institution was created, in and of itself it is not relevant to the evaluation of its institutional form and progressive implications (unless for some reason you believe that the democratic egalitarian features of an agrarian cooperative can only have occur on stolen land, which does not seem plausible.) Also, the fact that by the 1980s the democratic egalitarian properties of many kibbutzim had already begun to seriously deteriorate does not necessarily undermine the usefulness of the empirical case for understanding democratic egalitarian forms of economic organization. All experiments of democratic egalitarian economic organization that occur in the capitalist world experience great pressures and have difficulty in reproducing their most radical elements.

5. My analysis of “statism” and the fate of statist economies:

Contrary to the characterization of my argument, I believe that any viable socialist project of transformation will have strong statist elements. The proposal for a socialism of social empowerment is not an anarchist, anti-statist proposal. At its core is the idea of hybrid forms. The problem I address is the extent to which statist forms of economic organization are or are not effectively subordinated to social power rooted in civil society (or, equivalently, whether they are subjected to meaningful democratic accountability). I do not believe that this was the case in general in the statist, centralized-administrative economies. Thus does not mean that such economic structures had no socialist aspects ­ they did. Nor does it mean that they contained no potential of evolving in a more socialist direction through a process of social empowerment through civil society. I am pretty skeptical that this is really on the agenda in Cuba, but I could be wrong about this and the framework I propose certainly does not preclude this in any way. Indeed, the framework is precisely designed to allow for such a pathway towards social empowerment.

6. On the Porto Alegre participatory budget and its relationship to the problems of Brazil:

I completely agree that the problems of Brazil cannot be resolved at the local level ­ they are bound up with both the national structure of power and domination in the country and the location of Brazil in the world capitalism system. I would not suggest that the PB itself is a plausible basis for a transformation of capitalism. But I also disagree that it is just a nicer way of allocating resources: it is an experiment in a new form of participatory governance, and for all of its problems is an advance in our understanding of how democracy can be deepened. It is in these ways dramatically different from past versions of “sewer socialism” because it involves a transformation of the form of the state. To be sure this is limited ­ it is at the local level and it only concerns one aspect of local governance (although one should add that other forms of participatory governance have been developing alongside the participatory budget). But it is real, it is happening, and we can learn from it.

7. The critique of my use of Bruce Ackerman’s proposal for electoral financing:

The fact that Ackerman supported the war in Afghanistan does not demonstrate that his proposal for public financing of democratic competition is undesirable, unworkable, stupid, or anything else. Now, perhaps one could argue that in a socialist society elections between competing parties would disappear, or even that elections are no longer needed. This has sometimes been suggested by revolutionary socialists. But more plausibly, if we are serious about socialism as a profoundly egalitarian democratic society, then there will be a problem of how elections would be organized, how parties would get resources, and all of the other issues connected with this dimension of democracy, since even if direct democracy becomes more important, there will still be need for representative processes and institutions as well. The Ackerman proposal is an interesting one in this regard and should be evaluated, not dismissed through ad hominem arguments. The character of the attack on my use of Ackerman reflects a lack of serious intellectual commitment to these problems.

8. The accusations that my cases are mainly “gimmicks”:

It is easy to dismiss without discussion various institutional designs, such as randomly selected empowered Citizens Assemblies as simply ‘gimmicks’. I take a different stance: these are real-world experiments and innovations which we need to study and understand in order to increase our repertoire of possibilities. To derisively reject such analysis and say we have no need to understand these cases is to impoverish the imagination of people engaged in struggle for social justice and social change. Even if it is the case that alternatives to capitalism will only arise when ‘conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality,’ it is still crucial what kinds of models, designs, experiments, innovations are part of the menu of political debate. I suppose if you believe strongly that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ and ‘necessity is the parent of invention’ then there might be no need for a prior exploration of democratic-egalitarian institutional designs, but the historical record of the failure to build democratic egalitarian alternatives in the aftermath of system-challenges is not very encouraging. Furthermore, if you skeptical that a transformation of capitalism in developed capitalist countries will take the form of a “revolt against the system in its totality” leading to a massive ruptural break, then it becomes even more important to understand such cases and to worry about how the spaces for them can be enlarged.

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