It’s the *political* economy, stupid!

We live in an era where there is a deep desire to view humans as machines. Humans are not machines — they are free beings who can do surprising things for a variety of reasons or no particular reason at all — but our whole society is set up to hide that fact. Public policy is now the art of “nudging” “incentives,” setting up conditions where human-machines will respond appropriately. Important social choices are outsourced to something called “the market,” which is presented as a kind of naturally-occuring decision-generating machine despite being a product of human choices that runs on human choices.

It makes sense that people would turn to such impersonal, supposedly a-political models of our shared life. Politics has always been traumatic, particularly in the 20th century. We’ve all heard it before: “You think people can take collective control of their destiny in a deliberate and purposeful way? So did Hitler and Stalin!” But politics in the sense of purposeful human decisions about the distribution of power and resources is irreducible. Even if there were a supercomputer perfectly calibrated to distribute the best possible outcomes to everyone, the decision to entrust it with this responsibility would be a human decision — as would the ongoing decision to continue to submit to it. We like to pretend that something called “the market” effectively is that supercomputer, but it isn’t. All it does is cover over the human decisions that are being made.

The irreducibility of actual human decisions holds even at the level of the global market. In the immediate post-war era, Western and Eastern policymakers alike developed international economic policies that, by and large, resulted in a net transfer of resources from the large, powerful nations to the less developed nations (not that it was all sweetness and light, of course…). Then the US reneged on that model, and ultimately the Soviet elites decided to “cash out” rather than maintain their economic system. As a result of those choices, the world economic system is now structured very differently. And I’d remark that all of these huge changes happened before the “tech revolution” that supposedly changed everything but effectively served only to reinforce and entrench the policy trends that were already in place when the Mosaic web browser was still a glimmer in its creator’s eye.

One often hears that Marxism is a form of economic determinism, but I view it as an attempt to escape economic determinism. The hope is that through very rapid development of the material conditions for human production and reproduction, we could begin to make radically different kinds of political choices — choices that were not constrained by a logic of scarcity. It seems likely to me that at some point in the postwar era, the world had actually collectively created something like “the material conditions for full communism” — but powerful people made choices that led to a voluntary continuation of the logic of scarcity even when we were no longer physically constrained by actual-existing scarcity.

The result has been a squandering of those resources in such a way as to set up environmental catastrophes that will almost certainly return us to a condition of real scarcity. It’s no mistake that the only faint glimmers of some kind of hope of avoiding these catastrophes come from state-driven investment in Europe and especially China. We now see what is happening to that state-driven investment as European nations are forcibly submitted to “market discipline.” And although there are good reasons to be skeptical that China will be able to retool its economy in ecologically sustainable ways, I’m willing to say that it would be absolutely impossible to imagine such a thing happening if the Communist Party fell from power and was replaced by something more like a Western liberal democracy — because contemporary liberal democracy effectively means disclaiming any kind of responsible human planning in favor of compulsively repeating the kinds of choices that we have come to call “the market.”

18 thoughts on “It’s the *political* economy, stupid!

  1. Reminds me of Derrida’s aphorism that only when a question is undecidable is a decision possible. Policy-making in electoral-capitalist societies seems to be generally aimed at making all questions “decidable” and therefore removing the need for a decision. I would compare this to Leibniz’s dream of a logical calculus using which we could resolve philosophical disputes by calculating, and therefore never need to make a philosophical decision. I know you’re not a big fan of Badiou, but I think his argument that even in mathematics “calculative reason” is not sufficient, and rational thought requires making a decision in the “undecidable”, is valuable. Overcoming the equation “political decision=irrationality” is obviously one of the key tasks for political philosophy on the 21st century. What I wonder though is how do we go from ontological inquiries into set theory and mathematical logic, to making a case that “the common man” would understand or be interested in? How do we undo the commonsense consensus that “the market”=rationality=no need to decide?
    Maybe a decade of austerity while China colonizes Africa will help.

  2. Eventually the entire Sahara Desert will be one big solar panel….

    I agree with basically everything you say here. There’s a sense in which any actual political decision is viewed as irrationality, which inevitably means violence and destruction. It’s the same logic that produces the notion of religion as the primary source of violence — of course it is, since religion is irrational, and irrationality is inherently violent.

  3. But wasn’t it the capitalist, neo-liberal order that created the current “material conditions for full communism.” How are we so sure that such material conditions will remain in the absence of the very order that created it?

  4. That begs the question that any version of capitalism created the current standard of living. Would a monarchism that tapped the tremendous energy available in fossil fuels be all that different than what we have today? Why assume it wouldn’t be?

  5. Well, that’s very speculative. I mean, historically, all we know is that the current capitalist system has allowed the greatest unprecedented creation of wealth and consumer goods. Previous economic systems have failed to do so. One can blame the lack of technology, but I think there’s more to it than that. Could a Henry Ford have existed outside of American capitalism? How come the Soviets never achieved the material conditions for full communism despite having more or less the same technological capacities of the West? There must be a reason why we only find such conditions in the neoliberal capitalist West.

  6. Because there was no such thing as technological or industrial revolutions prior to modern American capitalism? Puh-lease. And then to defend one’s proposition by claiming only the alternative thesis proffered is too speculative? Ha! Excellent troll, my friend!

  7. I think we should not egg on Huol any further. Obviously we have very different presuppositions, which are not going to be changed or (most likely) even productively hashed out and clarified in this particular context.

  8. “The material conditions for full communism” — for everyone, everywhere? And isn’t it a function of capitalism to continually move the goalposts so that what may have once been considered the “full conditions” no longer begin to suffice (what, no air conditioning? no supersmartphone5?)?

  9. For instance, I assume a sensible planning regime would determine that the norm of each household having its own private car is both wasteful and dangerous. Presumably people also wouldn’t be allowed to waste hundreds of gallons of water keeping their grass green. Etc.

  10. Well, I didn’t mean to be a troll. I understand I’m out my league here as I am not as well versed in Marxism and the critiques of neoliberalism as all of you are. I suppose my comments are rather trite and merely reflects the tired and lazy narratives most Americans have about themselves and the world. But that’s partially why I come here, to see other ways of understanding it all.

  11. Your comments did not come across in that way. It seemed as though you already had a very firm view and were arguing against me, rather than asking for clarification or seeking further understanding.

  12. The missing piece here is the precondition for political decision-making, which is solidarity. Various forces (not just neoliberalism, but also and relatedly liberal identity politics delegitimizing old forms of authoritarian solidarity) have drained away community resources that legitimized political decisions. The neoliberal market reduces the need for political solidarity because it allows difficult distributional decisions to be ascribed to an impersonal ‘market’ instead of being seen as voluntary exercises of domination of one group by another. To put it another way, we see actual political decisionmaking as potentially violent and destructive because we have so little underlying social solidarity that we suspect that we would descend into civil war if we really loaded more decisionmaking pressure onto our political system. As it is it seems like people want to kill each other over giving some people vouchers for health insurance, or raising marginal tax rates by two percent for incomes over $250K, or whatever.

  13. Good point, PDG. Also, I think that as the “market” model replaces “old forms of authoritarian solidarity,” people can no longer imagine who it is that would be making political decisions in line with their own desires. Identity politics doesn’t seem to have sufficiently replaced those old lines of solidarity, and so we’ve become an increasingly atomized constellation of subjectivities–though each increasingly legitimized.

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