Cosma Shalizi's Comparative-Economic-Systems-Course-in-a-Box
Hoisted from the Archives: A Non-Sokratic Dialogue on Social Welfare Function

Cosma Shalizi: Awakening from the Nightmare of History

Cosma Shalizi's Comparative-Economic-Systems-Course-in-a-Box:

There is a passage in Red Plenty which is central to describing both the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, and vision we are trying to awake into. Henry has quoted it already, but it bears repeating.

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. … And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

There is a fundamental level at which Marx’s nightmare vision is right: capitalism, the market system, whatever you want to call it, is a product of humanity, but each and every one of us confronts it as an autonomous and deeply alien force. Its ends, to the limited and debatable extent that it can even be understood as having them, are simply inhuman. The ideology of the market tell us that we face not something inhuman but superhuman, tells us to embrace our inner zombie cyborg and loose ourselves in the dance. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or running screaming.

But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision7 or through other institutional arrangements8. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

These are all going to be complex problems, full of messy compromises. Attaining even second best solutions is going to demand “bold, persistent experimentation”, coupled with a frank recognition that many experiments will just fail, and that even long-settled compromises can, with the passage of time, become confining obstacles. We will not be able to turn everything over to the wise academicians, or even to their computers, but we may, if we are lucky and smart, be able, bit by bit, make a world fit for human beings to live in.