Author Archives: Eric

There are no recovering alcoholics.

I often refer to myself as a “recovering alcoholic.”  It’s not that this is a completely inaccurate term, and because of common usage, it’s the quickest way I can communicate to others something about myself:  I used to drink, and now (*knock on wood*), I don’t.

But in another, much more important sense, there is no such thing as a recovering alcoholic.

All addictions are fundamentally the same.  They all come from that same dark place inside of us.  That dark place just manifests itself differently in different people.  For some people, it’s alcohol.  For another, it’s tobacco or some other chemical.  For others, it’s gambling, or food, or beating your kids or your wife, or kicking your dog.  Or sex.

I suppose others may have different experiences, but in my experience, once that dark place is inside you, it’s there forever.  I have tried and largely been successful (*knocks on wood*) to deal with the most physically toxic manifestations of my own personal dark place.  But it still comes out in other forms.

While I have not had a drink or used any chemicals in over seven years, I still struggle with comfort eating.  You might look at me and say, “Well, Eric, you’re painfully thin — so what difference does it make?”

If you take nothing else away from this essay, you should probably take this point:  If a thing controls you, and you don’t control it, then no matter what it is, you’re an addict.

As I’m writing this essay, I’m drinking a cup of black coffee.  I drink coffee every day — no cream, no sugar.  And it’s watery coffee to boot.  My doctor knows I drink coffee, and he approves.

But the coffee controls me.  I don’t control it.  I’m still a wet (non-recovering) alcoholic; my addiction has just changed forms.

But I’m honest with myself about it.  Whatever my failings are, and they are myriad, self-honesty and self-awareness have never been my problems.  I don’t have the ability to turn them off.  Even when I was at the height of my drinking and smoking, I was always very honest with myself about what I was doing.  But that awareness, in and of itself, does not enable anyone to make changes.

The tagline of this website — which is ostensibly about politics and not malt liquor — contains the words “necessary and sufficient.”  In some ways, my life is about a constant search for sufficient conditions to guarantee all manner of things.  But sufficient conditions (for anything) are rare and elusive.  The best we can generally come up with in life is a whole bunch of necessary conditions for something, then we follow those.

That’s definitely not valueless.  If you’re an alcoholic and you wish to have any hope of stopping drinking, you absolutely must be able to first admit to yourself that you have a problem.  If you don’t have that, then I can only imagine one fantastical scenario in which you are able to stop drinking:  You are the sole survivor of a plane crash in which 150 other people die and you walk away (you’re not rolled away in a wheelchair and hooked up to a ventilator for the rest of your days).

I can imagine someone in that situation completely unrealistic situation having a religious epiphany of sorts, and stopping drinking as a result, all without ever developing any self-awareness as to their problem.  But if you’re relying on that to get you (or someone you know) to stop drinking, you’re probably going to be waiting a while.

And where does the dark place come from in the first place?  In my experience, both in my own life (certainly) and in what I’ve seen in others, it comes from parental abuse.  Before I say anything further, I do want to emphasize the crucial role of the defining institutions of society as well.  I’m going to talk about both, because they are both operative.

Before the women’s movement became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic party back in the 70s, it had a saying:  “The personal is political.”  Any real, honest left would still be repeating this today, because nothing has changed and, in fact, everything has gotten worse in the last 50 years (exactly as we would expect in a private-enterprise market economy like the United States).

What “the personal is political” means is that each of us feels pain, and we internalize that pain and blame ourselves for it.  We think our pain is our own fault, the result of our own failings and failures.  What we don’t see is the effect of our dominant social institutions on our own behaviors and personalities.  We live in a society that is systemically classist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian.  Institutions like corporations (workplaces), the government, the media, universities, churches, and families themselves structurally have classism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism built into them.

This unavoidably and inextricably damages us psychologically.  What early, pre-Democratic-party-whore feminists meant when they said “the personal is political” is that we are not personally to blame for situations — the bad institutions of society are.  Our personal issues are actually political in nature.

What these feminists were really getting at is the notion of social responsibility.  I completely concur with the notion of personal responsibility.  I also believe in other forms of responsibility, and I will get to those in a moment.  But first, some anecdata.

I was watching an episode of Cops many years ago.  This episode was shot in Las Vegas.  The police were arresting an 18-year-old young woman for prostitution.  They were actually being gentle with her, probably because she was white, blond, and good-looking.  She had hit bottom and she knew she needed help.  She asked the cops what she could do.  She was asking for help.

The cops said, Can you go back to your family?  Can they do something?

She said, No, that won’t work.  I need another option.

The cops said, Well, can you go back anyway?  There’s really nothing any of us can do.

While I am an enormous believer in personal responsibility (a fact to which I will return momentarily), the fact is that when right-wing types bleat about it, they’re not serious and just looking for an excuse to gut social welfare problems so that “those people” don’t get any free shit.

This girl was asking for help.  What more could she do?  She was, in fact, absolutely exercising personal responsibility.  She knew her limitations and weaknesses and was asking for help which she knew she needed in overcoming them.  What the fuck more can she be expected to do?

But in the United States, there is no help available even to people who know they need it.  I myself had a similar experience at one point when I sought help from the system (though no police were involved).  I knew I needed help and I asked for it.  I got none.

Social responsibility is a very real thing, and it is non-existent in the United States.  Social responsibility means, at a minimum, social-democratic welfare programs.  No, church charity doesn’t cut it.  Charity is just a way for one group of people to exercise power over another.  Real social responsibility means actual, functioning, well-funded government programs.

Our money is emblazoned with “In God we trust.”  But this does not belong on our currency, and I’m being serious.  Now, I have been an atheist since 1990, but my argument against under God being stamped on our bills and coins has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

If you’re a personal-responsibility-touting theist, how can you fail to understand the concept of the Least of These?  Having “In God we trust” on our money is a privilege, not a right.  Do you seriously think Jesus Christ is going to return and have no issues with us abiding a society where a young woman can ask for needed assistance and not receive it?  Are you going to tell me next whom Jesus would deny help to?

We haven’t earned the right to act as though we give a shit about God as long as we pretend the poor are undeserving and should be grateful for the crumbs we deign to allow to fall to them from our ample plates.  The U.S. is anything but a Christian nation, and it is on that basis that we should remove under God from our money immediately.

That is not to say, however, that personal responsibility isn’t real.  Ultimately, all the social responsibility in the world can’t get anyone to quit drinking.  Literally, every single person on the planet can want to help you stop drinking, and they can devote limitless material resources to the project of getting you to quit.  But ultimately, only you can keep from putting that bottle to your lips.

I say this as someone who has put quite a few bottles to his lips.  Until you look in the mirror and start the process of understanding that you are responsible for that act, you will never be able to stop.

Personal and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive.  They should work together.  A society which structurally and institutionally does not help its own is a society that is making it a hundred times harder on someone who really does want to stop.  What we do collectively matters.  But only what we do personally can actually get us to stop.

And as long as I’m discussing the topic of responsibility and working in references to an Almighty in which I do not actually believe, if there is a God, then there is also Divine responsibility.  Religious types act like there is no responsibility but personal responsibility.  But to riff off of fundamentalist themes, if God created us, then he (sorry, I’m not capitalizing pronouns) is responsible for what he created.

So God made a bunch of sentient beings and dropped them into systems he knew would be hierarchical.  When you do this, you know you are going to end up with some people abusing others.  If there’s a God, then God has to be at least as smart as I am.  Just because most religious people (or any people) don’t understand the influence of institutional structure on human behavior, I do.

If I understand it, then God understands it.  God didn’t create people giving them the free will to not create suffering.  He dropped them into a system that he 100% knew, or should have known, was going to create suffering.  Zimbardo had to end the Stanford Prison Experiment early because of the abuse its subjects began perpetrating on one another.  This is knowable and predictable, it’s not a by-product of free-willed humans refusing to accept the Lord’s love, or some horse shit.

At best, this makes God an accomplice — the getaway driver for a large collection of killers.  At worst, it makes him the worst mass murderer in history.  Of course, the simplest explanation is that there is in fact no Divine responsibility because there is in fact no God.  However, if there is a God, then I can’t wait to have an actual conversation with him in front of every person who has ever lived, and I’m being serious about that.  Sure, he could consign me to the fires of Hell for getting mouthy with him (what would happen if you told your boss off in front of the other employees?), but that would just be an admission of weakness on his part, and proof positive that I was smarter than him, which again should be logically impossible.

Screw this crap.

I said I was going to talk about where the dark place comes from.  I said it comes from parental abuse.  I also said I believe in personal responsibility.  I also said that if you remember nothing else from this essay, remember that if you’re not in control of a thing, then you’re an addict.  I’d like to revise that, and suggest another point you should remember:  Fault and responsibility are not the same thing.

My mother was viciously and violently abusive, but she never laid a hand on me.  The abuse she inflicted on me was, in my opinion and experience, the most pernicious kind there is:  emotional abuse.  Physical and sexual abuse are the ones that get all the headlines, but emotional abuse is the most common.  It’s the one you can literally see when you go to the grocery store.

My mother was such an effective abuser that I could not see it until I was in my 30s.  When people first become aware of abuse that has been inflicted on them, they invariably and not unjustifiably become very angry (they were likely already very angry before — certainly, I have no small amount of experience with the emotion).  They not uncommonly will confront their abuser if they can.

What we victims of abuse are really looking for is an apology.  We want our abusers to accept responsibility for what they have done.  Generally, we are angry when we confront them because we are at the beginning of the cycle of dealing with the fallout from what was done to us.  This anger gets used against us by our abusers, though.

Our abusers will tell us that they are not responsible for our poor life choices, or whatever.  And in a strict sense, our abusers are right.  By the point that we are actually confronting our abusers, the damage is done and in fact our abusers are no longer responsible for what happens to us.  We are responsible for ourselves whether we like it or not, because as I said above, no one — not least of which our abusers — can keep that bottle from our lips but us.

But our abusers are still at fault for what they did to us.  Like with the concepts of sex and gender, where sex should really mean the biological quality of having either XX or XY chromosomes and gender should really mean the sociological quality of a biological male or female seeing themselves as socially a man or a woman, yet we constantly conflate sex and gender in our everyday conversations — so too do we conflate fault and responsibility.

It’s not my fault that I have demons, but it is my responsibility.

It’s my mother’s fault that I have demons (and to a lesser extent my father’s and everyone else in my family, but the actual details aren’t really important here).  It’s in-bounds for me to confront her on that score.  I have, and you can guess the results.  Abusers almost universally will never accept responsibility for their abuse.

Prospects for change

Why am I discussing any of this on a site that is ostensibly about leaving capitalism and all forms of socialism in the dustbin of history and replacing them with something called participatory economics?  First, let me introduce the concept of learned helplessness.

Psychologists once performed an experiment with dogs.  They would put a dog in a box divided into two halves.  The box was constructed so that the dog could jump from one half into the other and back, but the dog could not escape the box.  The floor of the box was electrified and the current could be turned on or off in each half.

The experimenter would electrify the box, and the dog would jump to the other side.  But this side of the box would be electrified too.  So the dog would hop back and forth seeking to escape the current.  Eventually, the dog would realize its situation was hopeless and it would give up, accepting its fate to lie on an electrified grid from which there was no escape.

The dog had been inculcated with learned helplessness.

Understanding alcoholism as I have defined it, we are truly a nation of Adult Children of Alcoholics.  It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “Everyone has issues.”  We are all born as butterflies, but for most of us, our parents damage our wings to some extent or another (or even pull them off outright).

The resulting difficulties in our flying (or even its impossibility for us) would be bad enough as we seek to negotiate our way through life, but it is made worse by the fact that we live in a society whose defining institutions work against us, making us have to fly through wind turbines with one wing, or walk across hot coals to get where we are trying to go.

Addicts have a higher rate of learned helplessness than non-addicts.  The U.S. population, and really the population of the entire world, has been (and continues to be) put through a training and indoctrination program designed to imbue them with learned helplessness.  This is true whatever is their relationship with alcohol.  Elite populations in any society are always extremely concerned about keeping their control over the rabble, and preferably enhancing and increasing it.

If you take a baby elephant and tie it to a post with a rope that it cannot break, when it grows up, you can keep it tied to the same post even with the same rope, which by this point the elephant can easily break.  But its learned helplessness will prevent it from realizing this.

Whether to win Medicare for all, end U.S. imperialism or stop U.S. wars against Russia and China, or address environmental devastation, any effective left is going to have to address people’s feelings of powerlessness against the ruling-class and the ubiquitousness and perniciousness of the system over which elites rule and from which elites derive their power.

In the psychologists’ experiments with dogs, they discovered that learned helplessness can be unlearned:  If you unelectrify the half of the box on which the dog is not sitting, and then help the animal to that side from its position in the shocked half from which it has been trained to think it cannot escape, it will eventually learn that the other half of the box is no longer electrified and that it can indeed win by hopping to the other side.

For political movements, I believe that overcoming this learned helplessness requires the threat of a good example.  People need to see that another world really is possible by actually seeing that other world and, like Doubting Thomases, being able to actually touch it.  I believe the left itself must become that threat.

Capitalism and all forms of socialism are systems that are intrinsically classist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian.  There is no way to have any society whose economic activity is organized around capitalism or any form of socialism that can fail to be classist, racist, sexist, or hierarchical.  At an intuitive level, people correctly understand this.

If nothing better is possible, why bother to fight to change anything?  If I’m the dog and I know (or “know”) that the other side of the box will shock me, there’s no point in attempting to escape my current predicament.  People in society operate by the same logic.  It’s not unreasonable logic, and attacking people for being too stupid, lazy, or apathetic to try to escape is both immoral and poor strategy if one truly wishes to win, say, Medicare for all.

To become that threat of a good example, I believe the left must grapple with the implications of pareconish theory.  I don’t expect this to ever happen, mind you, because I believe classism is too deeply ingrained in our societies and cultures to ever be uprooted.  But I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Regardless, as a matter of pure theory, I believe my approach represents a sufficient condition to achieve radical social change — an actual sufficient condition, not just a necessary one.

Sun Tzu writes:  “The victorious army wins first and then goes to war, while the defeated army goes to war first and then seeks to win.”  The left has flailed about for decades and managed to win precisely squat.  It has no theory, no vision, no strategy.  All it can do is engage is meaningless tactics with no larger goals in mind.  Then it feels sorry for itself and wonders why it can’t win anything and no one cares about it.

What I’m proposing is an approach designed to facilitate offense.  I’m proposing a strategy that would allow the left to finally impose its will on the ruling class, as opposed to the other way around, which is now and has basically always been our default position:  They dictate terms, and we respond.  I’m proposing a way to dictate terms to them — terms that they will never be able to accept that will force them to finally concede on national health care in the United States (and whatever else we wish to force them to submit to).

And as for all the alcoholics out there like me?  Even if the left succeeds in replacing capitalism and all forms of socialism with a pareconish system, we will still ultimately be responsible for getting a handle on our own drinking.  But the job should be much easier, or least not be made so much artificially harder.

Everyone on the left knows how much mental illness there is in this country.  Much, if not most, of the left has its own mental-health issues it must contend with daily.  I think it should be incumbent upon us to realize that we all have a vested interest in seeing the defining institutions of our society replaced with better institutions.

Economically, that must mean the final end to the capitalist system as well as all forms of socialism.  We have seen in both best-case theory as well as worst-case practice that capitalism and all forms of socialism are structurally debilitating to the human condition.  If the left can’t grapple honestly with the implications of pareconish theory, then while it may be satisfying to say that such a left won’t deserve to win anything (and it won’t), it’s also true that it will be everyone else (as well as the left itself) that pays the cost.

It’s immoral for the left to not have a critique of capitalism and all forms of socialism, particularly when pareconish theory has been around for over thirty years, and still the left refuses to take it up.  One of the things alcoholism has taught me is that, “No one is coming to save your ass.”

Well, capitalism taught me that too.  But the point is that no one is coming to pull the left’s chestnuts out of the fire.  If you want Medicare for all (or whatever), Left, you’re going to have to do it yourself.  No one is going to do it for you.  You will never be able to back into it.  You’re not going to get it by accident.

To quote Hobson (John Gielgud) to Linda Marolla (Liza Minelli) in the 1981 film Arthur: “Young woman, this is a tie you cannot steal.  This is a tie I’m afraid you’re going to have to work for.”

Unfortunately, the left has yet to start.

The loud status quo in welfare economics

Before Michael Albert became a Democrat-supporting shitlib, he did some amazing work.  I may now be the owner of his old domain, and I am absolutely still a passionate supporter of participatory economics and pareconish theory.  But in 2022, his (and Robin Hahnel’s) most important work isn’t parecon — it’s Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics.

I can’t help but be continually amazed that the learned, well-read, educated left — which has read every book ever written, and wrote half of them anyway — has no idea that Quiet Revolution even exists.  The book was published in 1990, and contains several theorems relating to markets, central planning, and private ownership.

If you’re not familiar with mathematics, a theorem is a mathematical fact.  You may have experience with proving theorems if you took a geometry class in high school.  Most people hate doing proofs.  That’s fine, of course.  People are allowed to like different things.

The theorems in Quiet Revolution rely essentially on only one assumption:  that preferences are endogenous.  A person’s preferences are endogenous to the extent that those preferences are formed by a person’s circumstances.  To the extent that a person’s preferences are innate and unchangeable, we would say those preferences are exogenous.

People that say that preferences are exogenous will say that markets give people what they want.  They use this as part of a justification for capitalism, which is a market-based economy.  Albert, before he became a Jimmy-Dore-smearing shitlib, liked to say — quite correctly — that he could easily prove that markets do not give people what they want.  After all, literally one hundred percent of the population wants commercial-free television, but markets don’t give that to them; quod erat demonstrandum.1

As he always did, Albert had other good analogies, but here’s mine:  Think about the food you today:  probably things like Hamburger Helper, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Ragu spaghetti sauce, or Ramen noodles — you know, poor people’s food.  You eat store-brand ice cream.

Now suppose you win the Power Ball.  Suddenly, you’re no longer drinking Milwaukee’s Best or Steel Reserve to wash down your pork chops.  Now you’re eating filet mignon and washing it down with a fine chardonnay, with Häagen-Dazs for desert.

If preferences were exogenous, you’d keep eating cheap food,  But if you won the lottery, cheap food would be the last thing you would want.  You’d develop a taste for the good stuff.  You’d think the old food you ate was horrible and you’d wonder how you ever managed to stomach it.

Until, like most lottery winners, you blew through your stash and had to declare bankruptcy.  Now, no longer able to afford the good stuff, Steel Reserve and Pyramids would suddenly become appealing again.

Preferences really are endogenous — or certainly much more endogenous than anyone cares to admit.

Given that preferences are obviously highly endogenous, this makes the mathematical work of Hahnel and Albert in Quiet Revolution factually true.  So what does that work say?

Private Enterprise

Hahnel and Albert prove two theorems related to private-enterprise economies.  By private enterprise, we mean, “who owns the workplaces?”  For instance, Jeff Bezos owns Amazon.  If Amazon existed in the former Soviet Union, which was a public-enterprise economy, it would have been owned by the government.

Quiet Revolution states the following:

THEOREM 8.1: BIASES IN WAGES UNDER PRIVATE ENTERPRISE.  Under private enterprise production, unless there is 100 percent labor turnover each time period, any kind of laboring activity that generates employee-empowering traits will have an actual market wage that is less than the socially optimal wage and be undersupplied.  And any kind of labor activity that weakens employee-empowering traits will be paid more than the socially optimal wage and be oversupplied.

This is followed by:

THEOREM 8.2: SNOWBALLING NONOPTIMALITY OF PRIVATE ENTERPRISE PRODUCTION.  Not only will production under private enterprise fail to deliver optimal job mixes in some initial time period, oversupplying work conditions that empower employers vis-à-vis employees, but there will be a cumulative divergence away from optimal allocations in future time periods as individuals “rationally” adjust their personal characteristics to diminish their need for work opportunities that are underpaid and enhance their preference for work opportunities that are overpaid.

The first theorem says that in any workplace that is privately-owned, the owner will always seek to disempower the people that work for him.  He doesn’t want them taking over his business.  It’s why workplaces tend toward Taylorism.

The second theorem says that, no matter what point of workplace-deskilling you are at, from the standpoint of a worker, things are always going to get worse.  Further, working people will warp their own psyches over time to actually want to be disempowered.

I would like to say that, to its credit, the left tends to oppose private-ownership economies.  And indeed, the left does.  However, the left doesn’t do this because it wants workers to be empowered.  The left does this because it’s a managerial-class (or coordinator-class) left, and it resents having to answer to owners (capitalists).  It seeks to overthrow the capitalist class and take over the economy for itself.  Concern for workers’ well-being does not enter into left calculus at all.  Indeed, no one really hates working people more than the managerial-class left.


Regarding market economies, like those of the United States (capitalism) or the former Yugoslavia (market socialism), Quiet Revolution says:

THEOREM 7.1: MARKET OVERCHARGES. Markets overcharge purchasers of goods with greater than average positive external effects.


THEOREM 7.2: SNOWBALLING NONOPTIMALITY OF MARKET ALLOCATIONS. Not only will markets misallocate resources in some initial time period — undersupplying goods with greater than average positive external effects as compared to goods with less than average positive external effects-but there will be a cumulative divergence away from optimal allocations in future time periods as individuals “rationally” adjust their personal characteristics to diminish their needs for goods with positive external effects and expand their needs for goods with few external effects and negative external effects.

These theorems discuss what economists called externalities.  The classic example in economics of an externality is pollution.  For instance, if I buy a car, that car is going to spew carbon monoxide into the atmosphere and aggravate the breathing problems of asthmatics in my neighborhood.  Costs will be incurred by these asthmatics as they now have to seek additional medical care.  However, these costs are not included in the purchase price of my car — they are external to the transaction, paid by asthmatics and not paid by either me or the dealer who is selling me the car.

This makes the car artificially cheap to me to buy, and artificially more profitable for the dealer to sell.  In any market economy, whether one with private-enterprise workplaces like the U.S., or public-enterprise workplaces like the former Yugoslavia, externalities are the rule, not the exception.  By Theorem 7.1, polluting goods will always be underpriced in any market economy.  This means any and all forms of environmental devastation are necessary, systemic, “baked-in” facts of any market system.  And Theorem 7.2 says that this will only get worse over time, as economic actors learn to prefer polluting items to non-polluting ones.

This isn’t just true for pollution, but for all externalities like noise, unsightliness, or even lethality.  But the point about pollution is particularly acute.  The left likes to pretend it’s concerned about the environment.  And contrary to what those on the right may think, the left is actually correct about the dangers of global warming and environmental destruction.

However, what Quiet Revolution shows is that, again, environmental devastation is baked in to any market economy.  Therefore, anyone who is a true environmentalist must also be a market abolitionist.  However, in 2022, market abolitionists are essentially nonexistent (though I myself am one, though I am not a socialist — I am a pareconist).  Certainly, in the environmental “movement,” the next market abolitionist you find is going to be the first.

Central Planning

I’ve intentionally saved central planning for last.  Here’s Quiet Revolution:

THEOREM 9.1: CENTRAL PLANNING BIAS AGAINST SELF-MANAGEMENT.  Centrally planned economies will “charge” individual job seekers more for self-managed work activities compared to other activities than is socially optimal, resulting in less self-managed work being performed than is socially optimal.


THEOREM 9.2: SNOWBALLING AUTHORITARIANISM IN CENTRAL PLANNING.  In a centrally planned economy not only will self-managed laboring activities be overpriced and undersupplied at some initial point in time, but the degree of divergence from optimality will be greater than indicated by traditional welfare theory and grow, or “snowball” over time. Accompanying the snowballing nonoptimal allocations will be a “snowballing” apathy consisting of “warped” human characteristics which undervalue self-managed work activity.

Self-management is the principle that one should have a say over the decisions that affect one’s life to the degree that those decisions affect one’s life.  If an economy violates self-management, this means that someone is making decisions that affect another person, but that the other person has inadequate say over what’s being decided — a condition most people would describe as authoritarianism (except for the people who are actually making the decisions, of course).

Theorem 9.1 says, though, that in centrally-planned economies, this sort of authoritarianism is the norm.  And Theorem 9.2 says that this authoritarianism will worsen over time, and that workers in centrally-planned economies will warp their own psyches to actually prefer the condition of being ruled over as opposed to being able to decide their own fates.

I saved central planning for last because there was a time in the United States when the left trumpeted central planning as an alternative to markets.  They pointed to the Soviet Union as an alternate way to organize economic, one they claimed was more efficient and more just.  When the USSR went out of existence, there ceased to be an example of an alternative to markets.  The left went from being critics of markets to being mostly agnostic on the subject.

While the left’s praise of central planning was not warranted, its criticisms of markets were generally on point.  It recognized that markets destroy solidarity, that they have their own tendencies toward authoritarianism, that the destroy diversity, and that they are inequitable.  But once central planning ceased being seen as a viable alternative, the only way to criticize markets would be to propose an allocation mechanism that was neither markets nor central planning.  This is what Albert and Hahnel did with their theory of participatory economics.

But the left hates — absolutely hates, loathes, detests, and despises — parecon.  The reason is because the managerial left has zero interest in giving up its managerial class privileges.  It doesn’t want to get out in the fields under the hot sun and do its fair share of picking the cotton.  That’s for the field slaves (the working class), not the overseers (the managerial class — of which the left is inextricably a part).

But I think that one day, environmental break down will be so apparent and damaging that significant segments of the capitalist class will seek to convert to a centrally planned economy.  Note, contrary to what elements on the right like to fantasize about, the United States is not presently a planned economy.  In a planned economy, prices are determined directly by the planners — there is no market component determining what they are.

When the Fed creates money to artificially inflate asset prices for the rich, that’s an admission that we operate under a market system.  If the U.S. economy were planned and the planners wanted asset prices to go up, they would just change them in a spreadsheet and dispense with the show of throwing money to influence prices.

When that day comes, the left is going to party like it’s the 1930s once again.  They’ll be extolling the benefits of central planning to an audience that no longer remembers anything about what the Soviet Union was — an audience that will also be reeling from climate catastrophe and desperate for anything different.

The solution is not to replace one bad thing (markets) with another (central planning).  The solution is for a real, worker-oriented left to begin asking basic questions about what a just economy would look like in a good society.  As always, my claim is that that economy is participatory economics, and that any other model will always necessarily oppress workers.

The theorems of Quiet Revolution prove this.  Even in best-case theory, let alone worst-case practice, neither capitalism, market socialism, nor centrally planned socialism can ever do anything but mismanage economic activity and oppress workers.

I have zero hope that any left will ever take up the implications of pareconish theory.  I know I’m wasting my time with this.  Or, my shitty attitude just means I’m not the right person to do this.  That could be too.  Regardless, any economy with either private ownership, markets, or central planning will produce predictable outcomes.  Alcoholics (of which I am one) cannot stop drinking until they are able to see that they have a problem.  So too, the human race cannot stop avoiding certain outcomes until it is able to answer a simple question:  In a good society, will everyone do their fair share of shit work?

Levels of strategy for social change

Journalism is the lowest-common denominator of left-wing activity. This is not the same as saying it’s valueless, or not indispensable. Journalism is crucially valuable and necessary. But by itself, a left based on pure journalism will never be strong enough to win even a minimum wage increase, much less Medicare for all, much less the overthrow of the capitalist system itself.

In many cases, journalism is telling people things that, deep down, they already know to be true, even if they weren’t clear on the particulars before you filled them in. But everyone appreciates good reporting, and plenty of people are willing to donate money to fund it. That’s a good thing. However, it being a good thing also leads to issues.

The United States is a market economy. Market economies, with or without private ownership of workplaces (meaning capitalism or market socialism — capitalism being a private-enterprise market economy, and market socialism being a public-enterprise market economy), are always fundamentally gargantuan fights over money. Put in other words: Do you ever worry about money? If you answered yes, which you did, then you should know that the reason you worry about money isn’t because of some act of God, but because you live in a market economy.

In any market economy, people without money die and firms without money go out of business. The left is a collection of small firms operating in a market. They either make money or they go out of business. This doesn’t make left-wing business owners money grubbers or bad people. It’s just how the world of market economics is.

In any market economy, firms must gravitate to the lowest-common-denominator offerings in order to be viable. This is what causes market economies to tend toward homogeneity. Markets make everything look and feel the same because of the structural need for firms to compete in order to survive.

These market presses affect the left as well. And since everyone agrees on the need for good reporting and appreciates it (even while they may differ on what actually constitutes good reporting), the left becomes a repository of generally good information, while offering not much else in the way of meaningful strategy to achieve social change like, say, Medicare for all.

I call journalism first-level strategy. It’s basic, indispensable, crucial, and necessary — it truly is a necessary condition to achieve meaningful social change. But clearly, it is not sufficient to achieve social change.

To me, second-level strategy to achieve social change is that expounded by Jimmy Dore when he says, correctly in my view, that everyone on the left needs to stop voting for Democrats and stop donating to Democrats. I believe this strategy is also necessary to achieve social change. The jury is still out on whether this will be sufficient to achieve change, but I don’t think it will be, at least not on any grand scale. Basically, I think his strategy might be able to win a minimum wage increase, but I don’t think it will prove powerful enough to win Medicare for all.

However, as it pertains to this essay, his strategy is not a “lowest-common-denominator” approach. There are many on the left who disagree with it. There are still many on the left — in fact, it’s probably still the majority of the left — who are either unable or unwilling to completely and totally break with the Democratic party.

These lefties can be identified by the ease with which they criticize establishment Democrats like Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, or Hillary Clinton — yet engage in constant excuse making and defenses for “progressive” Democrats like AOC, Bernie, or the Squad. It’s tempting to say these lefties do this only for financial reasons, as establish Democrats (or people with ties to establishment Democrats) do fund a great deal of left-wing activity in the United States.

Criticizing Pelosi while defending AOC or running articles by Ro Khanna1 does not incur the wrath of Democratic funders. Pelosi might suck, but if you are making excuses for Bernie’s votes for war, you are still serving to funnel support into the Democratic party. You are therefore not an actual threat to the Democratic establishment, and you may therefore still safely receive financial support from them.

However, I don’t think the financial angle totally explains what’s happening here. I think that these outward-critical-but-subliminally-still-supportive-of-the-Democrats businesses are run by people who, ideologically, really are Democrats. They’re not cynical, or just acting like they support AOC in order to keep the money rolling in. Such people would not be religious true believers — they’d be people you could actually have a meeting of the minds with and say, “You’re just doing this for money, right?” and they’d agree, “Yeah, but what else can we do?”

Rather, these people — whom in my experience have in common that (1) they are all children of the managerial class, not the working class, and (2) they all have adequate disposable income, and don’t actually need Medicare for all or any other type of social safety net for themselves2 — seem to really ideologically identify with the “progressive” wing of the Democratic party.

That is, rather than be cynical, self-aware, self-conscious business people (or even money grubbers), they’re actually dyed-in-the-wool Kool-Aid drinkers with a secular religious belief that, if only we would just love progressive Democrats a little harder, then they will stop beating us. As I see it, these people are the embodiment of Malcolm X’s “white moderates,” and while they may make pretty-sounding noises on issues like Medicare for all, the reality is that they are your enemy and, in the long run, if you ever begin to have any organizing success, they will be the first and most enthusiastic people to oppose you, because you represent an existential threat to their existences both financially and, particularly, ideologically.

In any case, I have so far identified two levels of strategy: (1) journalism, and (2) a break with the Democrats. I have said that level-one strategy is ubiquitous because of its minimal offensiveness and utility in left-wing business operations. I have said that level-two strategy is more contentious, partly for financial reasons, but even more so for ideological ones.

I have further said that both are necessary to achieve social change, but that level-one strategy (journalism) is clearly not sufficient to achieve change, while level-two strategy may be sufficient for “small-scale” items like a minimum-wage increase, but will not prove sufficient for weightier changes like winning a true national health care system in the United States.

So if I’m right, how then do we actually win Medicare for all? To that end, I’m going to propose my level-three strategy: Acknowledge the existence of pareconish (participatory economics) theory.

Without discussing parecon here, the strategy is simple: Pareconish theory says things about what a good society should look like. Basically, in a good society, will everyone do their fair share of shit work? To that, we might also add: What determines how much people get paid? But if that’s the kind of world we think constitutes a good society, then why aren’t we doing those things now, in the present? There might be legitimate reasons, of course. But why are we not even grappling with the questions?

The reason for the strategy is equally simple: You need an actual sufficient condition to win Medicare for all (or whatever), not a collection of necessary ones. Pareconish theory is the trump card, the ace up your sleeve. It’s the hammer, because it’s the only weapon strong enough to threaten the roots of the capitalist system itself.

You can disagree with this, of course. Most will and do. Everyone loves and agrees with level-one strategy. An okay number of people are warming up to the idea of level-two. But everyone hates level-three, or at best simply can’t see its utility.

Nobody makes any money talking about participatory economics. Indeed, you should ask yourself where I get my money from, and realize that it’s not from talking about parecon. But you should also ask yourself if you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that we’re really that close to winning Medicare for all.

None of the three strategies I’ve outlined contradict one another. They can all be pursued concurrently, and in my view should be — must be. You can disagree because you don’t like the implications of parecon. Fine. But can you honestly say the left has anywhere near the offensive power necessary to compel fundamental changes in the United States? You know in your heart the answer isn’t just no, but hell no.

To me, the left is the alcoholic who just can’t admit he has a problem. The first step, as I see it, is to honestly grapple with the implications of pareconish theory. To me, this step is necessary. But more importantly, it’s also sufficient. I can’t prove that, of course. But I’m not asking for money. And any left that was truly sick of losing and ready to do anything to climb out of the bottle would be hungry for conditions sufficient to bring about the social changes the left always says it really wants.3

What are you really for?

Caitlin Johnstone tweeted the following:

The correct response to “Ah shit the ecosystem is dying” is not “therefore we’d better entrust ruling power structures with even more power so they can fix it,” it’s “therefore we’d better overthrow the ruling power structures whose madness created this problem so we can fix it.”

Johnstone is very smart, creative, and insightful. She is successful and has a large following. And on its face, I have no objection to what she’s written.

The problem — and it’s not just her, this is really the entire left — is that she’s basically saying, “capitalism is the problem, so we’d better replace it with something.” I agree that capitalism is the problem. But what exactly is it we’re proposing to replace it with?

If pressed, most of the left will argue in vague terms for socialism. But there’s never any specificity as to what socialism means to them.

Does socialism mean a society that looks more like Sweden, the former Yugoslavia, or the former Soviet Union? The word socialism has been used to describe all of these.

The problem with the word socialism is that it’s not well-defined. It’s not a technical term. When I say “technical term,” what do I mean?

If I’m walking down the street and someone puts a gun to my head and says, “Give me your wallet,” I could say to the police that someone forced me to give him my wallet. Or I could say he made me give him wallet. In this context, the word “force” is not a technical term, which is why I could say, “he forced me,” or “he made me.” It makes no difference.

However, if I go to a physics convention and I use the word force, now I’m talking about something very specific — the product of mass and acceleration. To a physicist, force is a technical term — it means something very specific.

Likewise, if I go to a “Star Wars” convention, the word force is also a technical term — it means something very specific. To a physicist or a “Star Wars” fan, when I use the word “force,” I mean one and only one thing. And if I wish to refer to that thing, I have to use that word (force), or else I can’t talk about that thing at all.

“Socialism,” however, is not a technical term. Rather, it’s a catch-all word like “widget.” It means whatever the person using the word wants it to mean.

Imagine I’m in front of an audience of hundreds of people, and there’s a whiteboard behind me. I could get any five-year-old out of the audience, hand them a marker, ask them to draw a circle, and they could easily draw something we would all recognize as a circle (even accounting for the fact that the artwork might not be great). Everyone, even five-year-olds, knows what a circle is.

Now, in front of that same audience, if there were a someone who had a Ph.D. in molecular biology and I brought him up and asked him to draw a widget, his first question to me would be, “What’s a widget?” because no one knows what a widget is.

Geometric shapes like “circle” and “square” are technical terms, and everyone knows what they are, what they mean, and what they refer to. But talking about socialism is like talking about widgets. No one has any idea what it is — it means whatever the person using the word wants it to mean.

Saying capitalism is bad and should be replaced, without saying what is supposed to replace it, or simply making references to replacing it with “socialism” is like talking about widgets. It’s meaningless. It’s also not even remotely threatening to the existing power structure.

What is socialism?

To some people, Sweden is socialist. Now, if you are the one using the word socialism, you may use it any way you wish since it’s not well-defined. So you can certainly use it to describe Sweden if you want. But then how do you describe the former Soviet Union? Do you call it communist? Okay, then how do you describe the former Yugoslavia? At this point, you are probably out of terms, since you probably have no idea what you’re talking about anyway.

Sweden has a private-enterprise market economy, like the United States. I think it makes the most sense, therefore, to call Sweden capitalist. What Sweden has that the U.S. does not is a real social safety net. The technical term for capitalism with a social safety net is “social democracy.” Again, you can use different terms if you want, but this is what makes the most sense to me: Sweden and the U.S. both organize economic activity using capitalism. But Sweden is a social democracy, while the U.S. is not.

What the former USSR and the former Yugoslavia had in common was that workplaces — the means of production — were not privately owned. They were owned by the state. That makes both of these public-enterprise economies, not private-enterprise ones. But Yugoslavia used markets for allocation (“allocation,” in this context, is a technical term that I have yet to define), while the Soviet Union used central planning.

That is, Yugoslavia was a public-enterprise market economy, while the Soviet Union was a public-enterprise centrally-planned economy. I think it makes the most sense to refer to public-enterprise economies as socialist ones. That is, I think it makes the most sense to define “socialism” as any public-enterprise economy.

Using this definition, I would say that Yugoslavia was a market socialist economy, while the Soviet Union was a centrally-planned socialist economy. Now I have terminology that allows me to usefully compare and contrast all of Sweden, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

What are you for?

So back to Johnstone’s tweet. What is she, or anyone on the left, calling for us to replace capitalism with? If she, or anyone on the left, is calling for capitalism to be replaced by socialism, fine. But then what do you mean by socialism? I’m entitled to ask you that question, and if you’re a serious activist, you’re obligated to answer.

The problem is that no one on the left — I mean, really, no one — has an answer to this question. Everyone on the left just engages in hand-waving, but no one will really think about the question and provide a specific answer. We’re all just supposed to agree that, because capitalism sucks for most people, then any entreaty for anything that is “not capitalism” must be good.

The problem is, it’s not. It is useful for fundraising, of course, since once you start to toss specific ideas around, your money will dry up. Lots of people can agree they hate capitalism and they’re happy to fund you if you say so too. But if you start to call for specific replacements for capitalism — you know, like participatory economics, which is neither capitalism nor any form of socialism — then you will start a fight and many of your donors will start drifting off.

The problem is the left can’t discuss what it wants. The reason is because, deep down, what the left wants really is socialism — in the sense that I use the word: The left wants a public-enterprise economy, of any description.

The left doesn’t care if it’s market socialism or centrally-planned socialism. The left just wants to get rid of the capitalist class by hook or by crook, and either market socialism or centrally-planned socialism would do this.

The problem is that the left can’t be honest about what it wants — not even with itself. The reason is that neither market socialism nor centrally-planned socialism would actually represent working-class liberation. Rather, they both simply involve putting workers under new management — the left’s management.

Because arguing for any form of socialism is such a weak message, the left can’t trumpet it. You can’t really try to organize millions of downtrodden people by saying to them, “Take off your chains, and put these new ones on instead.”

And like an alcoholic who can’t admit he has a problem, the left can’t look in the mirror and see honestly the fundamental immorality of what, deep down, it really wants. That’s why the left loses and can’t win anything, and why it’s never going to win anything. Its core message is fundamentally self-serving, and even though no one on any side is consciously aware of that, everyone can feel it, and they react accordingly.

If the left really wants to win anything, it’s going to have to make a choice. Unfortunately, it already has. Most alcoholics never quit drinking. The left, too, will never figure this out. That means, sooner or later, the only place for us to end up is hard fascism.

To turn it around would mean answering a very simple question: In a good society, will everyone do their fair share of shit work? Left-wing brain cells have no capacity to even begin to process this question, though. Just like alcoholic brain cells have no capacity to see that the real problem is in the mirror.