Archive for July, 2012

No Godwins, Left or Right

It seems like the starting point in any serious political activism these days (especially anarchist-flavored) is the acknowledgement that the Soviet Union was a failed model and that we shouldn’t replicate that model. Is the Soviet Union so terrible such that any consideration of emulating parts of it must be immediately discounted?

I don’t think that any consideration of the Soviet Union should be immediately discounted. A communist version of Godwin’s law is just as bad as a Nazi one; the only thing worse than embracing such dark episodes of history is to refuse to ever consider them in full horrendous detail. Thought stares into the pit of hell and is not afraid!

The “Soviet Union”, whatever it was, was a very complicated thing. A sixth of the land mass of the earth, nearly 300 million people by the time it dissolved, for three-quarters of the most tumultuous century of human history. If we’re serious, it’s not something to be dismissed in a sentence. It encompassed vast apparatus of state repression, massive bureaucracies, and an attempted hierarchical central planning mechanism covering the entire project. One can easily argue that the rise and fall of the Soviet Union was the central development around which the whole history of the century turned. No small thing, and not something merely to be wished away.

I know people, especially left libertarians and the like, tend to say things like we don’t want a repeat of the Soviet Union. That’s a kind of shorthand I think, and necessarily sloppy. After all, any language is sloppy when talking about social affairs; and it’s usually an offhand statement; the main place you will hear a specific discussion on the Soviet Union, outside a university or think tank, is at a Trotskyist party meeting or the like. Anyway, depending on context, this shorthand of “we don’t want to replicate the Soviet Union” might be a shorthand for something like “I don’t want to scare you off, new activist, we’re not crazy bolshies!”; or “we must avoid having a repressive State apparatus like the USSR did”; or “we must avoid planning the economy”. I suppose it could mean many other things too.

Well, the first suggested interpretation is just a socialization/comforting mechanism mostly devoid of content; the second is pretty obvious political common sense; but the third, which I think is equally commonly intended, I am not entirely comfortable with. Because I think we need to think hard about what economic systems are possible and what system we would like. It’s by no means an obvious question, to me at least, and the USSR is a useful, even crucial, historical data point. It’s a hard question, in which history, economic data, scientific modelling, political-economic theory, anthropology, and philosophy all have a role to play.

One does often hear that the USSR was a “failed model”. And in almost all, perhaps all, respects it was. And it was so terrible, not just “failed” but epically calamitous, that we need to be quite careful in saying anything positive at all. Saying anything positive without mentioning the mass repression, the mass famines, the civil war, the second world war, the purges, the show trials, the paranoia, the assassinations, the rewriting of history, the propaganda and censorship, the gulags, the destruction of socialism, the brutal collectivizations, the extermination of the Kulaks, the anti-Semitism, the crushing of national rebellions, the geopolitical aggression, the lunatic nuclear brinkmanship, and everything else, is morally impossible. We cannot gloss over a near-century full of these horrors. The weight of history still hangs like a nightmare over the minds of the living, and we cannot overlook it.

Having said all that, however, I think it is possible to isolate some aspects of the economic system of the Soviet Union which are not entirely catastrophic — even though they were deeply intertwined with the political and military situation. Or at least, even if still entirely catastrophic, these aspects are things to consider as we ask what sort of economic system we would like to build.

Because there is a certain sense in which the USSR was a great “economic success story”. This is a limp and insipid phrase applied today by the IMF and its approving mandarins to approved pupils, and by those same pathetic neoliberal third-world governments baying as lambs to the corporate slaughter. As a left third-world government falls under the weight of external pressure (or the US embassy) and is followed by a “sensible” neoliberal government, the World Bank and establishment press will cheer on any positive economic growth figures as evidence of this spectacular “economic success story”, even if it means that families are thrown off their farms as trade liberalization wipes them out, even if it means that indigenous peoples are thrown off their traditional land by mining interests, even if it means that inequality skyrockets as an elite corporate/expat/bureaucratic/patronage class accrues that growth to itself.

So the above is a disgusting usage of the word “success”, to be sure: in standard neoliberal-economic-necrophiliac style we fall in love with a number which increases, while the human beings suffering behind it are invisible. But so it goes, and so it was with the Soviet Union; if any of the received stories of economic success are to be believed, the Soviet Union must be many times over. This massive country, a sixth of the earth, achieves massive economic growth and development and industrialisation, from “backwards” peasant society to leading industrial power and #2 military power in the world — in a generation. Those tractors and steel plants, and the now-amusing 5-year-plan over-excitement and Stakhanovites and “communism = Soviet Power + Electrification of the whole country!” — there actually was something material behind it. It scared the shit out of Western elites. So in this very specific sense — possibly a terrible sense, but a sense which is widely used by elites — the USSR was, at least for its first 50 years or so, an economic success story. It was not a failure.

I think one can fairly easily see, at a broad level, how this was possible: having a powerful central government that can order people what to do can get a whole lot of things built and produced. Capitalism had not really developed to a great extent before the revolution, and so once having cleared away the relics of feudalism and having won the civil war, the Bolsheviks were able to impose new economic structures on something closer to a blank slate. Capital-intensive development of heavy industry and infrastructure was possible since the state could impose deprivation by force on the population — indeed, starving unfavoured elements of the population in the process.

There’s not much at all to admire here. The central planning mechanism was crude, violent, and brutal. It was used as a political weapon, to the extent of exterminating whole classes by force and starvation. Nor is it even really accurate to say the economy was planned: certain parts were, but certain parts (especially in agriculture) continued on their own accord. Even in the industrial sectors that were supposedly following plans, shortages and bottlenecks choked production regularly. Shortages of consumer goods were endemic. And there wasn’t much socialist about it, if by socialism we mean something about economic democracy. The worker in the Soviet factory was on similar terms with his “employer” as a worker under capitalism; except perhaps without the ability to form an independent union. The old saying went “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Nor was the planning mechanism democratic: rather, managers provided information to the top, and orders came back down. Nor were planning goals particularly progressive: they altered a bit as theory shifted, but usually were based on production targets or “profit” maximization (as calculated by some accounting mechanism). One can easily argue that the Soviet economy was State capitalist rather than socialist in any form.

Still, at a very broad level, I think there is support for a very weak proposition: that planning mechanisms — even ones such as the present case, which are horribly incompetently administered, enforced without democratic consent, setting impossible tasks, not followed in practice, and prioritising favoured classes and military- and capital-oriented heavy industrial development over the general wellbeing — can develop an economy in a very short period of time. One can certainly argue about it, and how desirable it is, but this is one way to look at it.

Indeed, as I recall, the USSR barely suffered from the Great Depression: many elites and intellectuals in the west were convinced that the depression had showed capitalism was unworkable, that some form of planning was necessary, at least for economic stability, if not more. And the USSR, despite all the above massive problems, not only managed to avoid the depression and to industrialise rapidly; there were also some minimal economic safeguards put in place, such as guaranteed (enforced) employment, and food security (famines and kulaks and Ukrainians etc aside). General standards of living were rising. These are not insignificant matters.

Later on, the economy stagnated more and one can argue — seems to me pretty credibly — that the Soviet economy was collapsing by the 1980s, quite independent of Reagan chest-thumping and the like. Central planning and heavy industrialisation only gets you so far; any argument one can apply to a capitalist economy about a declining rate of profit leading to stagnation applies also to a State capitalist economy. Except that a capitalist economy can get out of it by various crisis mechanisms (austerity, Keynesian spending, war, emerging new technologies, squeezing the workforce); while a State capitalist bureaucracy, where political authorities run the economy but are bankrupt in all of technology, finance and authority, is much more vulnerable to a total political collapse. Which, of course, is what happened.

So, it’s a (slightly) mixed picture. To regard the historicalexperience of the Soviet Union at the broadest level, it must be considered an unmitigated catastrophe on any political/economic/moral level. But as it is the modern world’s greatest experiment yet in a large-scale economic system other than corporate capitalism, then if we want to find an alternative to corporate capitalism, we have to pay attention. And when we do, I think we see not only lots of indications of what to avoid, but also some small morsels of information and suggestions about how to proceed in the next experiment.

I should add that I have not said anything about ideology. Hysterical and by now intuitive anti-communist propaganda, “communism doesn’t work”, et cetera ad nauseam, is now not a historical relic of McCarthy but something deeply buried in the contemporary psyche. But these are just content-free slogans, and for our purposes here we should put them aside and just look directly at the experience of the USSR by what happened there. It’s a whole separate question how to deal with the legacy of this propaganda. But one important conclusion of the above is that the most recognisable imprint of that propaganda — “communism doesn’t work” — is precisely the wrong criticism to make, at least if we apply the same (despicable) standards of economic judgment as we do to other nations. In which case, about the only positive thing we can say is that Soviet communism did work, and was an economic success story, for half a century.


Written by dan

July 30th, 2012 at 5:09 pm

A Dialectic of Mathematics in Culture

Three links from today form a lovely trilogy.


A very poor one! The New York Times today asks the awesomely bad question: Is Algebra Necessary?

Of course I will not stoop to answer the question.

Rather we might ask why this occurred. Provocative shitstirring to increase profits, following a familiar capitalist ideological pattern? A trial balloon fishing for levels of outrage at implementing current ideological trends? Probably both, but either way not to be taken seriously; although a good smashing of it is always welcome. Which brings us to…



Not that much is required. Still it is therapeutic. Here is A Modest Proposal.

But the triumph is…



That is why you need algebra and mathematics, m*****f*****.


Written by dan

July 30th, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Words better than what they say

(A note on Hedges’ recent essay How to Think )

Wonderful in spirit, so much so that one can almost excuse the particular words he uses. But unfortunately the words, in keeping with a long-standing tradition of left strategic suicide, equate logic and rationality with conformity and complicity. Logic is treated as a separate category from thinking. Tell that to all the radical, artistic, creative, imaginative hackers, scientists and mathematicians out there. As it turns out, the world we live in is tightly constrained by logic and reason, and we ignore that fact at our peril.

Being intimidated by right-wing economics and think thanks and surrounded by conformism does not entail rejecting logic and reason. The left needs some backbone to stand up for itself, say that it is sure about what it knows, say that it is convinced of what it thinks it knows, and is confident about what it knows and does not know. Even more important is not only to oppose morally bad positions of opponents, but also to call them outright wrong when they are. Above all, we must reclaim the idea that we can use logic and reason to our advantage — they are not the enemy. We are living in a world where “faith has ousted fact” in social affairs — that is not a goal, as Hedges urges, and that is a good reason to put fact back in. Emotion and passion are excellent and good, but even they deserve rational scrutiny occasionally. We need to think, indeed — not retreat to pure romanticism and mysticism.

But I don’t think that is what Hedges means, it’s just what his words say. And his words are better than what they say.

Written by dan

July 11th, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Wikileaks and History

What I said at the rally for Julian Assange, 1 July 2012, outside the State Library of Victoria

Thank you all for coming here today.

Being a founding member of Wikileaks, though not involved for many years now, I want to say something about the background and history of Wikileaks and where we are today.

Some of you here today may be coming to a rally for the first time. Some of you, maybe for longer; some involved for a long time.

Much activism starts afresh. But it always comes in a context, it always has a history, even if we are unaware of it. And Wikileaks’ struggle for a more just, transparent and free world comes in a context of history. It lies squarely in a long tradition of peoples’ struggles to understand their world, to come to terms with their world as it is, to participate meaningfully in their own lives, to control their own lives and create a better world. As Milan Kundera said, “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

How much have we forgotten?

We are standing right now in front of the State Library of Victoria — a wonderful institution. I was in there this morning. I recommend going in and picking up a book sometime! — well, not now, after the rally…

Today is a Sunday. And the library is open. But the very fact that the library is open today is not a given. That was a struggle. That was fought over. People went to jail for that. The trial of the anti-Sabbatarians — see if you can find that in a history book. It is buried, but it is known, and it is true.

The anti-Sabbatarians were fighting for the people’s right to knowledge, to have access to information about the world. Anyone working a full-time job can understand why libraries should be open Sunday. But it was not. Adherence to the holy day prevented people from reading and learning. And so the anti-Sabbatarians fought for their right to library access on a Sunday. At the trials of the anti-Sabbatarians they were denounced for all sorts of crimes — atheism! socialism! anarchism! My goodness. All sorts of ideas that one might come across if one reads a book!

But in the end they won, and as a result this glorious library is open today. It contains its own history, which we can learn.

Julian Assange has spent a lot of time in this library. And there is a direct historical line from those struggles — people’s struggles for reason, for science, for knowledge — to the struggles of Wikileaks today. In founding Wikileaks, we understood that people have to become aware of important facts about their world: “not just to interpret the world; the point is to change it”. And we have progressed from wanting to open the library on a Sunday, to wanting to open governments and corporations from time to time.

But the world today is so interconnected and swift-moving that struggles for information and knowledge are necessarily on a global scale. The stakes are far higher. Julian faces much worse than anti-Sabbatarians did. The need for popular support is greater than ever.

In a democracy, the people have a right to know what powerful institutions are up to. And when abuse of secrecy becomes too great, justice demands that information be liberated. For this, we need whistleblowers, journalists and intellectuals. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, electric light the most efficient policeman.” But mainstream journalism has not done a good job in an age of increasing secrecy, crumbling revenues, and Rupert Murdoch. And Gina Rinehart! Academia too often wallows in obscurities, science too often absorbed in the service of power, and writers too often far from the truths that are stranger than fiction. And so it has fallen to heroic whistleblowers like Bradley Manning — if he did what he is accused of — to liberate information; and to groups like Wikileaks to fill the gaps — the intelligence agency of the people, and the publisher of last resort.

For that, for audacious, courageous actions shining sunlight into the darkest places, Wikileaks, and Julian Assange, deserve our support. But we should not be here just for passive support, we should also learn and actively work together ourselves.

In 2007, as Julian, I and others laid the foundations for Wikileaks, Julian wrote the following, expressing some of our hopes and motivations:

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.

If we have brains or courage, then we are blessed and called on not to frit these qualities away, standing agape at the ideas of others, winning pissing contests, improving the efficiencies of the neocorporate state, or immersing ourselves in obscuranta, but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.”

As Julian wrote, who we are, what we see, all our social conditions, are a product of their own history. We are products of our history. Wikileaks has opened up that history. And when we can see that, when we can see how things came to be, we can ask what is really necessary and what we would like to change. We can then make our own history. Most of our social institutions are historically young. They can be remade, and perhaps they should be.

But Julian’s adventure has taken him, at this moment, to a critical juncture. Much rests upon the actions of the governments of Australia and Ecuador, and that in turn rests upon the political pressure that people can bring to bear on them.

So let us support Wikileaks, let us support Julian and his crucially important journalistic work. Let us demand the Australian government behave like any government should and protect its own citizens. Let us urge Rafael Correa and the people of Ecuador to make their own daring adventure, to take a position for justice, to take courage and stand firm – for hell hath no fury like a great power scorned. And let the people of Australia affirm their solidarity with the people of Ecuador in the cause of justice, freedom and transparency. Let us assure them that their courage will be contagious.

And to all of us: let us create our own daring exploits. Let us win over the opponents of love. In Australia there is no shortage of opponents of love. There is no love in extending the methods of 19th century colonialism against the indigenous peoples of the Northern Territory and rightful owners of this country. There is no love in turning away boats full of refugees in breach of the solemn duty of non-refoulement in international law. There is no love in the bombing of Afghanistan. There is no love in carbon emissions producing a 4-degree warmer world. There is no love in consumer capitalism. And of course there is no love in abandoning Julian Assange with specious talk of empty “consular assistance”.

There are many opponents of love. There is much to do. So let us express our support of Julian Assange, and let us follow his advice, and let each of us start our own story which begins with our own actions and ends in a world we can bequeath without shame to our children and their children after them.

Written by dan

July 1st, 2012 at 11:37 pm