Monday, January 17, 2011

Truth in politics

I recently had an extended Facebook dialog with a comrade which ranged over the possibilities (or lack thereof) for a genuinely democratic politics, the usefulness (or otherwise) of lessons from history, and many related points. If I had an overall theme for my part of the discussion, it was that a genuinely democratic politics is, at least theoretically possible; that it involves a socialized decision making process based on dialog and debate, which, in contrast to capitalist economic theory, privileges reasoned, considered conclusions, arrived at after due deliberation, over the snap judgments which seem to arise from our instincts or first impulses; that to truly achieve such a decision making process would require a vastly more participatory form of democracy than our modern version, in which participation is largely limited to passively watching the news, then pulling a lever, every 2-4 years, for some candidate; and that classical Athenian democracy, for all its evident faults, had things to teach us about how to structure such a participative democracy.  (Some of these themes will be familiar to anyone who has followed this blog; others I do intend to develop, someday...)

Throughout the FB dialog, my comrade several times in passing raised the question as to exactly what is meant by “truth”.  At the time, I ignored it, because it seemed irrelevant to the current discussion, and because I rather thought, without reflecting, that the “conventional” view of truth sufficed for a political (rather than a philosophical) discussion.  If I say I fell down the stairs when I really got beat up by my spouse, the statement is untrue.  If I really fell down the stairs (and wasn’t pushed, or tripped, etc.), then the statement is true.  This definition seemed to suffice for most practical political purposes.

But I realized on reflection that that is not true, and that thinking about why it is not  makes for an excellent demonstration of my ideas about democracy.

Take a concept like the “value” of a person’s labor.  Marx’s labor theory of value, although useful on an abstract level, cannot, in my opinion, be made concrete enough to objectively yield a precise “dollar” value in specific cases.  The capitalist (aka classical or neo-classical) economic model, which defines value in terms of market price, nothing more or less, always yields a precise, objective value.  (At least it does in cases where it “matters” – where there is an immediate need to come up with a wage rate, here-and-now.  It has more of a problem with hypotheticals.)  But there are so many broad social and political factors that go into determining real-world supply and demand that to take the market price as in any way representing a just price is problematic, at best.

And yet, each of us does have his own opinion, in every specific case we encounter, as to whether a given wage is just, or not.  More importantly, these opinions are not just inexplicable “gut reactions”.  We can adduce reasons for our opinions.  “Capital is giving up present consumption, and deserves a reward.”  “The worker’s children need food, a house, books for their education.  The capitalist’s children already have all these things, and more.”  Some such opinions will be hardened beyond possibility of change, but others will be amenable to counter-argument. This makes the determination of value perfectly suited to democratic decision making – to “government by discussion” – providing unencumbered fora exist where broad and open debate can actually occur (which is not generally true in our own malformed democracies).  In this view, what is “true” (i.e., the true value of a person’s work) is not a simple matter of observation, nor is it arbitrarily determined by objective, impersonal forces, but neither is it just a relativistic matter of individual judgment.  It is a social truth, determined, for a particular time and place, by a participatory, deliberative process.

Devotees of capitalist economics will cry that to set values (i.e., prices) by fiat, even that of a democratic public, will lead to horrible economic “inefficiencies”.  “Efficiency” is an interesting word.  It is usually presented in economics discussion as if it were in-and-of-itself a positive good.  Yet efficiency draws its value from the thing that is being done.  To efficiently murder a large number of people is very different from a moral standpoint than to efficiently save a large number of lives.  And, self-serving capitalist theory to the contrary, efficiency in generating private profits is not necessarily (in fact, not often) the same as efficiently building a more just and prosperous society.

But, although this will be apostasy to many of my socialist comrades, it may not be necessary to do away with market mechanisms in determining the actual price in order to benefit from a democratic social discussion as to what is a just value.  If we can successfully debunk the capitalist theory that says the market price is by necessity a just price, and if we can get most people to see that the actual, market-determined prices at some given time are not just, this paves the way for a social examination of the question, “Why not?”  It is an opening to a discussion of exactly what political and social factors influence supply and demand such that market prices are not just.  “Goods” which could come out of this discussion could include:  increases in the progressivity of the tax code, support for cooperative enterprises and small business vis-à-vis corporate big business, introducing some level of direct social control over big business (e.g., public or union representation on boards of directors), support for universal unionization of the work force, decisions to remove more social goods (e.g., healthcare) from private markets and to better support public goods ranging from roads and education to parks and the arts, radical curtailment of commercial advertising...  Please! Extend the list, yourself.

About all of such goods, I would say to my comrades on the left:  It may not be socialism, but it ain’t hay.

While we can certainly strive to educate people within our present social structures, in order for something like the results described above to really happen, we would need a much more robust democracy than our own; one with real, broad based and open social debates, and mechanisms for such debates to feed into actual political decision making.  How we get from here to there, it is hard, at this time, to envision, although I have some thoughts on what sort of structures the end might entail.  But all I’ll say, right now, is that there are strong reasons why capitalism, oligarchy and plutocracy prefer their formal democracies to be crippled.