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Reply to Carl Davidson on my Market Mystification Article < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Reply to Carl Davidson on my Market Mystification Article
By Bertell Ollman

I believe it was Gramsci who said—if in war you attack the enemy where he is weakest, in an argument you must attack your opponent where he is strongest. Otherwise, even if you win, you haven't won very much.

The main point of my article on "Market Mystification in Capitalist and Market Socialist Societies" is that people's experience in market exchanges, particularly in exchanges for finished goods which are the most frequent, produces both a mentality and an emotional state that make socialist relations in any area of life virtually impossible. If—or better, to the extent—this is so, democratizing production relations even when accompanied by major political and cultural reforms will not get us very far in building socialism. Consequently, any workers' revolution will also have to replace market relations of exchange with democratic central planning sooner rather than later (or not at all) as prefigured in the market socialist model. There are many other problems resulting from the operations of the market—though possibly reduced in size—that would continue under market socialism. These include periodic economic crises, widespread unemployment, extensive social and economic inequality, and pervasive corruption. Without wishing to minimalize any of these problems, my focus in the "Market Mystification..." article was on the radical incompatibility between market "personalities" and most of what we ordinarily understand by socialism. It would have been nice if Davidson had deigned to discuss this criticism.

Davidson felt free to ignore the core of my article, of course, because like the rest of market socialists he believes it is possible to detatch the market from the rest of society and in particular from the process by which goods arrive on the market. If the two are separate or easily separable, then it is possible to introduce socialist reforms into production while keeping market relations more or less as they are under capitalism. Didn't the market exist before capitalism, Davidson asks? Why can't it continue under socialism?

To be sure, there were goods exchanged before capitalism, and some of the places where this took place were called "markets"; but not every society that produces a surplus and engages in some exchange can be said to have a market. Barter, for example, whether between individuals or whole societies, does not constitute a market, because the act of exchange in this case is not organically related to the process by which the goods that are exchanged come into being. It has no influence on production; nor does production have any influence on it. To have a market that plays a role in the economy, it is not enough for a society to produce a surplus some of which gets exchanged. Only when a portion of goods are produced with the aim of selling them is it worth speaking of a market, at which point we can also see the first signs of capital emerging in the crevices of this pre-capitalist social formation. For the age of capital is far older than capitalism, the name we give to the civilization in which capital has become the dominant form of productive wealth.

Like most market socialists, Davidson understands capitalism primarily as a society ruled by the capitalist class, so that dethroning this class is sufficient to trigger the onset of socialism. Like most Marxists, however, I understand capitalism first and foremost as a society dominated by capital. Marxists have generally stood out from other kinds of radicals in opposing not just our rulers but the system in which, by which, and for which they rule. As that which gives capitalists their power as well as their purpose and helps to reproduce both, capital stands at the core of capitalism and is the most essential part of what is meant by the capitalist system. Marx, as we all know, entitled his main work not Capitalism or The Capitalists, but Capital. Unfortunately, for the English speaking reader, the distinction he was trying to make was watered down by Engels' mistranslation of the subtitle of volume I, which is Critique of Political Economy—the Production Process of Capital, as The Capitalist Process of Production.¹ In any case, it is clear from the body of this work that Marx's concern is with capital and not with the capitalist class, which he refers to time and again as the "embodiment" or "personification" of capital.

But what exactly is capital aside from the means of production owned by capitalists and used to exploit workers and maximize profits? Abstracting from whomever it is who owns it, capital is self-expanding value, not simply wealth or whatever it is that produces it, but wealth used for the purpose of creating more wealth. The contrast is with wealth used to satisfy need, or serve God, or expand political or military power, or attain glory or status. With capital, wealth becomes self-centered, interested only in its own growth. As a particular function of wealth, capital is expressed in whatever social relations are required for it to work—like the market—and embodied in agents—like the capitalists—who incorporate this function in their practise.

The market, before all else, is a moment in capital's process of self-expansion. It is internal to capital itself, part of what it is and how it functions, and conveyed in the full meaning of its concept. It is the moment of circulation by which the value produced by capital moves in a series of exchanges through the economy only to return as a larger mass of wealth than what it was when it began. Buying and selling is its mode of movement, while money serves as the mediation between each act of exchange and the system of value expansion as a whole. Marx's Capital tries to characterize this entire process in a way that brings out its overwhelming impact on all that comes into its path. It is like a whirlpool, which nothing and no one completely escapes. As a moment in capital's accumulation, the market (and its constituent parts—value, commodity, money) partakes fully in capital's power to embrace and to transform what (and whom) it embraces. Given this internal relation between capital and the market in capitalist society, the two must be viewed as standing or falling together. Once the full power of capital and with it of the market is released, humanity's only respite from all the suffering brought on by capital can come from abolishing it altogether and replacing self-expanding value operating through a market with a rational plan to produce what people need. Anything less, that is partial reforms of either production or exchange, runs the risk of being pulled back into the whirlpool, as the logic of capital, now grown to gargantuan proportions, reasserts itself, destroying all measures intended to control it (various economic regulations and the welfare state today) and transforming even radical attempts to redirect it into new embodiments of its essential function (market socialism tomorrow).

Davidson says nothing about capital. Yet, it is the power of capital that is at stake here, and its ability to expand no matter whose hand is on the rudder, whether it is that of the capitalist class, the state, or workers' coops. Once goods are produced to sell and to make money, which will enable those in control of the means of production to make more goods to sell and to make more money, once this rhythm has been established, it is the rhythm itself that is responsible for the host of ills associated with capitalism and not the capitalist class that currently enjoys its benefits. That's why capitalists can be rehabilitated, whereas capital cannot. And this is why my opposition to the market is so inflexible.

Davidson makes three more important criticisms of my article that deserve a response. First, he cannot forgive me for refusing to draw what he considers to be the obvious lesssons of the failure of the Soviet Union, to wit that centralized socialist planning cannot work. Let me begin by saying that even if the Soviet Union provided the kind of lessons Davidson claims, the lessons of the market in similar societies are such (at least for the classes with whom I identify) that I would still favor risking the problems associated with central planning instead of those associated with the market, i.e. the path of Cuba over that of China (for reasons given in my article). Fortunately, living in a developed capitalist society, the choices before us are very different, and it is not evident that what was called "socialism" in the Soviet Union has anything whatsoever to teach us about how central planning would work in a socialist America. Davidson reacts to this observation by offering an analogy with the history of the automobile and the airplane: "There was a range of different designs in the beginning: weird dirigibles or devices that flapped their wings, three wheeled cars, steam powered devices. Some, like the Zeppelins or Stanley Steamers, even succeeded for a while. But most of the initial range perished in evolutionary cul de sacs or dead ends. Do we want to say these were not true automobiles or airships because they didn't match Henry Ford's or the Wright Brothers' definitions or models? Socialism has clearly produced some evolutionary dead ends; it's much better to dig deep into the lessons, rather than deny their relevance or existence". It's worth quoting Davidson's analogy at length, because his view of the relevance of the Soviet experience is widely shared, even among socialists.

In replying, I will stick with Davidson's own analogy. All the automobiles and airplanes he mentions had at least engines in common. That's why they could be treated as varieties of the same thing. But how would we characterize a contraption that its inventor called an "automobile" but had only horses to pull it? Is it really "Talmudic reasoning" to insist that certain minimum conditions are necessary to qualify as a real attempt to build "socialism"? Perhaps the most basic lesson of Marx's materialism is that you can't make something out of nothing, and after the destruction of World War I and the civil war, Russia—already a third world country before the war— had next to nothing with which to construct a socialist society. Socialism, according to Marx, could only solve the social and economic problems inherited from capitalism because the enormous achievements of capitalism were available as a foundation on which to build. None of these material, social, organizational, political, educational, and psychological foundation blocks were available to Lenin's government. Socialism was never understood by anyone before the l920's as an alternative to capitalism as a way of industrializing and modernizing underdeveloped societies.

These remarks are not meant to deny that most of the people who led the Soviet Union held socialist ideas and goals, or that the society they constructed contained socialist aspects (socialized medicine, for example), or even that in due time it may have become a precursor of socialism, but it was never socialist. Whatever its achievements, and there were many—rapid industrialization, the victory over fascism, the abolition of poverty, Sputnik, and others— just as the alternative paths that were available on which to advance, and there were a few—Trotsky and Bukharin offered two—must be put down on another register. And if the Soviet Union was never socialist, it cannot offer us any lessons regarding the kind of socialism we can build on the basis of the enormous advantages we possess and they didn't (see my article) here and now. When the Soviet Union still existed, many anti-socialists used it as an example to show that socialism could not work. Now that it is gone, some market socialists use its failure to make the same point. They're both wrong. Irrelevance has never been a good argument.

Secondly, Davidson accuses me of "trivializing the transition" to communism by underestimating the enormous work that will have to be done in the socialist period. As examples, he offers, "the creation of a world energy grid powered increasingly by solar sources, a world system of green taxes and standards that would reverse the destruction of the rain forests and the ozone layer, a world education system that enables everyone to learn to the limits of their ability and desire, a world health system capable of dealing with an AIDS crisis about to wipe out a third of Africa. Not only are vast new systems required for the sustainable creation of wealth, new and effective methods for the equitable distribution of resources must be developed simultaneously." This is an excellent list, but I wish Davidson would tell me how his market, with its profit maximizing imperative, is going to accomplish any of this, and it isn't simply a matter—as he suggests—of it taking more time. It is only socialist central planning that can organize our productive capacities in the ways that are required to meet any of these goals. The remnants of the market that persist into the early years of socialism constitute a barrier to what needs to be done, rather than contributing to it in any way. When one notes, too, that most of the tasks Davidson himself lists are very pressing, we are justified in asking—Who is trivializing the necessary work of transition here, Ollman or Davidson?

Thirdly, Davidson also criticizes me for opposing workers' struggles for immediate and partial gains under capitalism. While his other objections did not surprise me, this one did. Where do I suggest that workers are not right to fight for everything that might improve their lot here and now, or that socialists should not support them in this? It doesn't follow, of course, that all such struggles and gains are of equal value in developing an anti-capitalist consciousness, or that our involvement in these struggles should not reflect this fact. What becomes clear from the last few paragraphs of Davidson's response is that he is relatively indifferent to what workers actually understand, except as it contributes to the success of their organizations. He offers us, as he says, a "profoundly practical measurement" of success rather than an "ideological litmuss test". In so far as he separates workers' organizational activity from their political consciousness, however, his measurement of success is neither practical nor profound, but simply reformist. Is a stronger A.F. of L.-C.I.O. or even a few thousand more workers' coops really the best we can do and hope for? It is not a matter of ignoring the necessary work of building workers' organizations but of refusing to choose between such work and raising class consciousness. Granted their dialectical interaction (though not necessarily direct, immediate, or total), success only comes when we can make progress in both areas.

Davidson's relative indifference to the socialist's traditional job of helping raise workers' class consciousness (with its component of socialist consciousness) fits only too well with his other market socialist views. After all, the workers who inhabit his market socialist future are not very different from today's workers. They don't have to be, since the role they are given, that of owners of their enterprise in a market driven economy, brings out the same greed, competition, and indifference to human needs that is so widespread today. It's called behaving "rationally" and being "efficient". Then, as now, people will simply become what they have to in order to survive, let alone win, in the marketplace. While a growth in empowerment inside the enterprise might reduce workers' alienation in some respects, taking on the role of collective capitalist and continuing to function as a consumer in a market controlled by other collective capitalists could actually increase the workers' overall alienation.

Socialism, on the other hand, requires workers who truly want to cooperate with others, including those who don't work with them, who recognize this as being in their class interests, and know how to do so. Some of the qualities that make this possible are acquired over the course of a successful revolution (in what Marx calls the greatest educational experience anyone can have), if the revolution is to be successful. And some of these qualities have to be acquired today as part of the workers' developing class consciousness, or else a revolution will never occur. This is why our struggle to change society cannot take people as they are and simply leave them that way. An essential part of this struggle is helping workers understand what capitalism is and how it works, which means how it exploits and alienates them at the same time as laying down the foundations of a wholly different way of life that they have the power to bring into being. Separating the market off from capitalism, treating it as a neutral mechanism, makes it impossible for workers to understand the full range of capitalism's destructiveness, while at the same time making it impossible for them to imagine a future without the destructiveness caused by the market. Without an adequate explanation of the whirlpool in which they find themselves or vision of the safe haven which is theirs, collectively, for the asking, the workers are being sent into battle without the critical weapons that it has been the whole purpose of the Marxist theoretical tradition to provide. As a strategy for making socialists (and, therefore, advancing the cause of socialism), market socialism gives up before it starts.

Conclusion: the theory of market socialism is worth contesting because it raises many of the right questions. Unfortunately, the answers it offers are not only wrong but in most cases very destructive of the necessary work of helping to raise workers' class consciousness. Can we do better? Humanity will not forgive us, nor should it, if we don't.²

¹ Meszaros, Istvan, Beyond Capital (Monthly Review Press, l996), 980. ² For a fuller discussion of some of the issues involved in this debate, see my edited book, Market Socialism: the Debate Among Socialists (Routledge, l998). I have also taken the liberty of using a few passages from my contribution to this book in the current exchange.