Critique of the Gotcha Program, Part I

In good leftist practice, I began the process of writing this essay with a pun, and then tried to work backwards to justify it. Perhaps coincidentally, the essay to which I am responding—Seth Ackerman’s “The Red and the Black”––is also the bearer of a punning title. Ackerman, or his editor, milks Stendhal’s title for its connotations of the familiar flag semaphore of the modern left (red for socialist, black for anarchist), echoed in the author’s review of socialist (variations on social democratic or Soviet-style state planning) and anarchist (“parecon”) approaches to economic planning. At the same time, “the red and the black” of course also refers to the language of the ledger sheet, an evocation equally germane to Ackerman’s project—proposing a socialist vision of a post-revolutionary market economy which retains interfirm competition and a capitalist-style pricing mechanism.

While I have interpolated “gotcha” into my own title for reasons mostly adventitious, I am also hoping to highlight the fact that there is a palpable “gotcha” quality to Ackerman’s piece, in several respects. In this first of several posts addressing “The Red and the Black,”  I try to present some of my frustrations with Ackerman’s piece, and attempt to ponder the essay’s rhetorical position, in particular vis-a-vis the way socialist arguments are automatically contextualized within the framework of right-wing economic thought.

According to Wikipedia, “In programming, a gotcha is a feature of a system, a program or a programming language that works in the way it is documented but is counter-intuitive and almost invites mistakes because it is both enticingly easy to invoke and completely unexpected and/or unreasonable in its outcome.” This glitchiness, I think, is inherent in Ackerman’s proposal. Borrowing so many formal features from modern capitalism, Ackerman’s framework seems destined to produce the wasteful competition, periodic crises, and redundancy of our current system. It also bears no internal mechanisms to guarantee that labor will not be subject to shop-floor abuses in the name of efficiency and productivity. 

 Gotcha is also the name of a 1985 Jeff Kanew film starring Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino, about an espionage-flavored college game of tag that ends up luring its hapless protagonist from the groves of academe to the real world of the crumbling nightmare world of late-period Eastern European Communism. This “gotcha” seems pertinent because Ackerman spends so much time attending to the successes and failures of Soviet economies. By the time Ackerman arrives at the Gladwellian “reveal” that East and West weren’t so different after all, we are left scratching our heads. Didn’t C.L.R. James tell us this in State Capitalism and World Revolution in 1950? And wasn’t there that whole thing about the family resemblance of Stakhanovism and Fordism, and about how the cult of productivity had generalized a system of labor exploitation and domination on a global scale, and about how that was the thing we were supposed to be fighting against?

Ackerman spends so much time on these examples, it seems, to hammer home the point that all complex economies need some sort of central planning agency, or a pricing system that works in an analogous manner. What’s missing from this argument, of course, is the role of the state in capitalist economies. The pricing mechanism manifestly does not work as advertised, as Ackerman recognizes in his critique of the economics profession’s “just-so” stories. Its failures still lead to wars, hundreds of thousands of deaths per year that fall under the category of what Engels called “social murder,” and wide-scale crises of overproduction and underconsumption. Without the intervention, in the US, of the Federal Reserve, and a variety of state-sponsored countercyclical policies (in recent memory, mostly variations on military Keynesianism), it is hard to imagine even the survival of the system in its current pathetic form.

The only way that situating the argument as a defense of capitalist -style pricing under conditions of collective ownership of the means of production, as I see it, is if Ackerman is responding to potential right-wing critics. If one’s debating partner is conceived of as a Hayekian libertarian insisting that any state economic planning necessarily paves the road to serfdom, then, of course, there might be value in pointing out that the US state is already engaged in myriad forms of socialism-for-capital and that the ethical imperative is to orient that state activity in the interests of the many rather than the few.

But is it not a wast of our time to attempt to win over committed Hayekian? As I see it, our disagreements with free market libertarians are not technical; they are moral.

Building a better mousetrap seems a way to disavow this fundamental antagonism, to dance around it, to postpone the inevitable confrontation with our inability to conjure the world, with our adversaries, in common terms.

As such, Ackerman’s claim that the “lofty vision of a stateless, marketless world faces obstacles that are not moral but technical”  is difficult to understand. As I’m sure Ackerman, a surefooted guide to matters economical-historical knows better than I do, there are no “technical” problems of economics that are not “moral.” Socialists and capitalists once agreed upon a great many things: that a labor theory of value, if true, really would justify collective ownership of the means of production; that evidence of adherence to the capitalist work ethic served as a reliable guide to a person’s moral quality; that the needs of an ever-expanding global population required the maximization of productive capacity, the elimination of every inefficiency, and the vaporization of every bottleneck of business; and, for certain discrete periods, even the recognition that the economy was an integrated hydraulic whole, rather than an aggregate of atomistic consumer decisions. We no longer agree about any of this, a reflection, I think (from my admittedly partial and wholly biased perspective), of both the principled self-correction on the part of socialist social movements and intellectuals, and the jump off the cliff into the black hole of a certain brand of satanic individualism on the part of capitalist ideologues. Daniel Rodgers characterizes the moment in which this unfolded as an “age of fracture”; it seems to me much more likely that historical hindsight will regard it as a time of realignment into a stark binary antagonism. Under such conditions, is not class struggle analysis the logical paradigm for socialist intellection?  The time for easy fixes–whether odes to Mondragon, trillion dollar coins, or buying up capitalism from the capitalists–is over. There is going to have to be a fight, and some people will lose their stuff. Let’s at least be honest about that.

Furthermore, if Ackerman was explicitly addressing right-wing skeptics, one imagines that he would say so. A more insidious process seems to be at work: a colonization of the socialist intellectual project by the central image-system of bourgeois economics. There is some irony in the fact that Ackerman quotes Ellen Meiksins Wood on Issac Deutscher on maintaining a sense of humility and scale in the envisioning of socialist emancipatory projects in his article’s conclusion. Not only because Ackerman’s plan is inarguably grandiose (and at some remove from the real world of working people’s politics), but also because stylistically and thematically, Ackerman’s piece immediately called to mind another Meiksins Wood quote. Writing about Rational Choice Marxism (RCM), a movement that, like Ackerman’s market socialism, bore traces of excessive engagement with the arguments of a revivified and theoretically energetic Right, Wood castigated  RCM’s avatars for having developed their “standards of judgment” and “sense of proportion” not from the political arena, “but from the senior common room (or its American and/or Scandinavian equivalent), where the principal adversary is likely to be a professional neo-classical economist.” Under such conditions, it seems difficult, maybe impossible, to avoid getting “gotcha”-ed. This is a dilemma we all face. It is not intractable. But history certainly seems to show that it metastasizes in direct proportion to the degree it is ignored.


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