On the Calculation Problem

30th May 2015, 01:50

With few exceptions that I have been unable to properly divulge in, and from what I have seen consider rather inadequate to the larger problem at hand I have yet to see a proper Marxist criticism of the neoclassical argument regarding the calculation problem. The argument is hardly infallible, but for some odd reason this seems to be the solely argument wherein you find Marxists arguing in retreat. One example is how de-centralized economic planning, something which is absolutely ridiculous with all the factors considered in the 21st century (and even more ridiculous in the 20th century, with the chaos of feudalism's disintegration) is used as a counter-argument to the notion that a planned economy is not only inefficient, but impossible. Even if, for example, one would attempt to put forward a decentralization as the best means of coordinating a society, it is shameful and a sign of ideological weakness to concede to the enemy a criticism of the possibility of a socially self-conscious society because their criticism is ultimately based not on scientific, but ideological grounds. So even if one opposes the notion of a planned economy being feasible, to accept the Misean criticism and merely opt for de-centralization is to vitalize and reinforce the ideological foundations of neoclassical economics.

Other arguments, which are useful, are those which are Cockshott-esque in nature, which suggest that Mises may have been correct in the 20th century, but due to advances in computing and cybernetics, the calculation problem is essentially solved. The underlying problem with this is that, as you may guess, it concedes the argument but merely throws a curve-ball - in other words, it trivializes and reduces to futility the various Communist struggles of the 19th and 20th century. What does this mean? Computers did not exist during these times, so essentially even if the Communists were victorious, even if the German revolution succeeded in 1919, even if the Paris Commune was defended and spread across all of western Europe, socialism would have been doomed to failure because of the absence of computational techniques in allocating and distributing resources. While I do not deny that this would most likely be pivotal, or immensely helpful today, one cannot help but construe this as a spiritual affront to the legacy of Communism - that in other words, the ideas of Communism are trivialized so much that they hinge upon our faith in modern computational technologies. But as we should know, Communism is not sustained merely by this - and the power which sustained Communism one hundred years ago as a movement will be the same power that sustains it today - not any kind of convenient curve-ball.

What I am saying is that there is something innate to the spiritual essence of Communism which is lacking in any of the criticisms of the Calculation problem. It is testament to an underlying ideological weakness of many Marxist academics:

The underlying premise of the Calculation problem is that it assumes that in a planned economy, the wants, desires and needs of the population couldn't be adequately calculated consciously in a way that is similar to a "free market" economy. But this is tautological insofar as it is unable to recognize the fact that demand, or "subjective" desires of individuals in capitalism are only unique insofar as they reproduce the conditions of production! This is a central point to Marx in capital which has left many puzzled in the midst of why Marx did not pay much attention to the fluctuating "demands" of the consumer: Because the reference point for society's workings is not some kind of abstract notion of 'demand', because as we all recognize what people demand is relative to its approximation to their lives. In other words, what people desire and demand is largely what they desire and demand insofar as it reproduces the "market" itself! Hence the dynamic nature of capitalist production and our "consumer" economy. So it is tautological to claim that the goods which are produced in a market society which reproduce market societies will not be "rationally" allocated in a Communist society.

A counter argument, of course would be that the magically "subjective" demands of people can actually change the nature of capitalism insofar as it completely restructures the nature of production. But what examples in any meaningful sense confirm this? For example, neo-liberalism did not arise because of the popularity of computer technology - on the contrary, computers became increasingly useful to people in an information oriented economy. Sure, it's true that the technological development of computers in the first place made the information economy possible, but this new epoch of capitalism is definitely not REDUCIBLE to it, i.e. it was only a factor, regardless of whether it was a pivotal one or not. All the major fluctuations in consumer demands today, from smartphones to popular shoes, ultimately reproduce the present de-industrialized consumer economy. It is only the hunger of capital which drives the changes in capitalism, not the ever-malleable, historically relative desires of a population.

That is the reason neoclassical economics will never attempt to ask the basic question: What shapes the wants of the consumer? This is a question they assume to be unanswerable and unknowable, and yet they designate it anyway ideologically. We know that their wants are shaped systemically, ideologically. In a society where things are produced for profit, and not for their use-value, the use-value of something is only consequential to the primary motivation to make profit, to end with more money than you started with. As a result, we know today the phenomena of artificial demand - the deliberate manipulation of consumers in order to sway them to buy things they would otherwise not even think of wanting. So it's not that calculating what people want in Communism will be impossible, it's that the framework for conceptualizing the wants of a population are construed almost on a superstitious, rather than scientific level. What people needed to live during feudalism, or slave societies, for example, was radically different from what they need or even desire in capitalism. We know that the steam engine was technically created thousands of years ago, and it was never of any consequence because no one could ever even fathom what they would use it for. So why didn't people "desire" it?

One could ask: Then why were the consumer demands in Communist states more or less identical to those in the west? In Communist states, what people wanted was similar to their wants in the west only because these societies more or less spent their entire existence trying to catch up with the west in all domains, i.e. in eradicating feudalism and so on. The predispositions to capitalism were already present, because of this anti-feudal tension propelled solely by bourgeois romanticism - and thus, the "culture" industry of the west simply consumed the east, which remained stagnant solely because in negating feudalism, and attempting to sustain themselves, they could only do this insofar as it was in contrast to the west, rather than being predisposed to superseding it. It is not simply that the Western mode of production was superior. It was that these states more or less were WITHOUT a real affirmative mode of production. They were societies of negation and nothing more - even in East Germany and Hungary, for example, they already lagged behind historically in contrast to the West in that they were already more or less capitalist societies attempting to cope with the west, because the breathing space, as well as the material foundations (i.e. a Communist movement) for building Communism was simply an impossibility, even solely from a geopolitical perspective. For example, consumer goods in these countries had no organic basis of want. Many of them were copied from the west - it's not that they were merely scarce, but that the ability to want it was largely scarce, because their only standard to compare themselves with were the advanced capitalist countries in this field. People don't want an iPhone if they don't know it exists, or that it is possible. To keep up with these countries, such consumer goods were copied and distributed - obviously with great degrees of popularity, creating a field of want that might have not existed before.

This begs a fundamental existential question regarding the nature of Communism: What will a Communist society look like, i.e. and why will it continue to reproduce itself? How will it do this, and why?

One problem many Marxists fail to grasp is that they conceive this solely in terms of present capitalist production - indeed, if things are only going to be produced SOLELY for their use-value, what will guarantee that the wants of a population will ever change? In other words, how would a society advance if it remains static? Mises himself touched upon this question by acknowledging that a static state would not have a problem quantifying the demands and wants of people. He then, quite correctly asserted that this is beyond unrealistic, because there is variance in what people want in approximation to uncontrollable changes in the world. The problem, however, is that Mises fails to grasp what the causation for these changes will be, and if we understand this - if we are able to even imagine what could motivate a Communist society to regularly change, then we solve the problem of calculation. We could imagine that perhaps the endless pursuit in the name of scientific discovery will guide society, but this raises tough existential questions: Why would people be motivated to do this? Are humans 'naturally' curious about the world? And we know this to be faulty. We know this to be wrong because it's not a matter of curiousness that plunges scientific innovation forward, it is the ability to fathom the right questions in the first place. All societies were curious, but for the Ancient Greeks the problem of quantum physics would never even be a problem , because they wouldn't know how to fathom it. Even then, what were the first, most creative pursuits which arose in the Soviet Union during its early years? The phenomena of cosmism, which included but which was not limited to god-building, this fascination with space exploration. Was it just a fantasy, a kind of escapism, or was it contingent upon a society, freed from the barriers and restrictions of the hunger of capital, to express this freedom through the spontaneous desire to reach for the stars?

This is why a Communist society, unlike primitive societies is socially self-conscious. Because, for example we know why the Greeks wouldn't have been able to fathom such ideas - for social reasons. It is the dialectical tension between ascending classes that create the linguistic space to challenge ruling ideas and their respective ruling classes that has propelled advancement forward, but in a classless society such tension would be eradicated, and that raises alarming questions about whether scientific discovery, or any kind of technological innovation would simply remain stagnant. The reference point could not simply be the ability to sustain the subsistence survival of the population, because more or less capitalism has been able to do this. It also could not be the necessity to accommodate for a growing population, because if peoples needs are largely fulfilled the source of "over-population" would be eradicated.

To not contradict myself, the answer could already lie within the framework of capitalism itself. Capitalism is the predecessor to Communism precisely because it constantly revolutionizes the means of production as a result of the infinite antagonisms it creates, and responds to. Communism is a society of problems, one with definite, let's call them - technological, constructive antagonisms that can never be perfected, with the only difference being that it is able to address those problems in a conscious manner. There will always be antagonisms that concern the social, but they will not be of the social itself, i.e. class struggle. What if the antagonism between consciousness and the world around us is enough? In a socially self-conscious society, the absence of social antagonisms does not mean the end of history, but the beginning of a history wherein antagonisms do not concern the struggle for power. We Communists do not deny that the demands of people will be ever changing. We only claim that the foundations of production in such a society will not be reduced to regularly fulfilling the hunger of capital, but the various expressions of creativity by men and women building upon themselves infinitely, beyond their mere desire to survive and sustain themselves, but the drive to master the world around them. We do not have a single idea of how this would work, but we know it is possible, for only the superstition of bourgeois theologians fosters doubt that it is possible. And thus my conclusion: Communism is a future that is knowable only insofar as what it is not characterized by. It is the ideology that sustains Marxism, the unknowable designated ideologically merely through the struggle against the class enemy. The basis for this struggle, this Communist struggle, is already within the premises of capitalist society. It requires no justification with grand utopian narratives, for it is the ideology of the ruling class, not we sinister Marxists, that generates a standard for the masses that it itself fails to abide by.

The contradictions are there independently of us Marxists. From the outgrowth of capitalist society does Communism become possible, from its material basis. That we do not know just how is of no consequence - the essence of this real movement derive from premises within capitalism (for example, if we could achieve in capitalist society full employment, a decent standard of living, and so on for everyone there would be no problem. But this is impossible and the more the working people struggle, the more they will realize only one thread separates them from their demands: Private property!). Of course disparity between our ideological designation of a post-capitalist society, and what it actually will be, is inevitably going to be different. But that is the point. The struggle is only relevant insofar as it concerns the NOW. It takes more to limit the endeavors of a working class movement than to propel it forward - think of all the major failures in the past 10 years and ask yourself this question: Was it not because of the absence of a recognition that this does not HAVE to exist? We cannot think outside of capitalism. We cannot imagine a post-capitalist society in any varying degree. To talk of the details of a Communist society would be a bourgeois fantasy - we can only struggle in relation to the demands of working people now and, through a Communist movement, allow these demands to build upon themselves until they culminate in the demand for the conquest of state power. The ideas of Communism derive from the intricacies of capitalism itself.

To add, there is also an apocalyptic side to Communism: We know the reality of these contradictions in capitalism, because they have spontaneously generated the most vile filth. People are NOT satisfied within the present framework of production, and one way or another the chickens will come home to roost. The question is whether the solutions wrought out from capitalist barbarism will solve the contradictions of capitalism. And we know that they cannot. It is either the destruction of the world, or Communism.
They [existing economies] are not all consciously planned, however. They are only holistically planned retrospectively.
[cyu: Kind of a long thread in the Economics subforum: http://www.revleft.com/vb/economic-c...814/index.html]
Essentially my criticism of the arguments in such threads, is that they do not take into account the relative nature of society's demands. I claim that if we are talking about a definite change in a mode of production, then the standards of want, the standards of desire would be so radically different than to attempt to compare them to how commodities are allocated in present capitalist society is impossible. Ultimately what the calculation problem concerns isn't simply the ability to allocate what we already know people need - for example, bare subsistence of life, electricity, running water, housing and nutrition. It's the fluctuations of demand, things like consumer goods. I claim that consumer goods are only desirable in capitalism because they are necessary in coping and living in capitalism, specifically. They are, so to to speak, products of socially useful labor - socially useful insofar as reproducing the social relations.

We don't really know what people would want in Communism, because we have no idea how exactly it will function. I made this thread so we can all discuss precisely this - these hard questions.
From the personal, outward, these general categories are 'art', 'literature', 'cooperation / competition', 'social science', and 'science':
These are nothing more than abstractions. Yes they have been present, for the most part in all societies, but as definite categories these were not conceived, or projected onto all societies before capitalism. We can assume they would persist, but how they would isn't something anyone can know.
Originally Posted by Kill all the fetuses! View Post
In other words, how, without the law of value, one is to decide between the trade-off of producing now and at some point in the future. How one measures all these things, how one measures the trade-offs in space and time - that's the essence of the Calculation Problem. It seemed to me that this was missing from your conceptualisation of the problem, although, maybe it was implicit in your post, I don't know.
That is the point. As another user pointed out, the problem isn't that, with already having in mind what to produce and in what quantity - how to calculate the production and distribution of goods, but the initial problem of being unable to know what to produce, and in what quantity in approximation to the "fluctuating" demands of both the population and society as a whole, or in other words, how to prioritize the needs of a society in approximation to resources and the like. If needs and wants could remain static, so Mises contends, there would be no calculation problem. The issue comes precisely in attempting to predict, or understanding the "dynamic" changes in the needs and wants of society. Basically, Mises arrogantly argues that Socialism fails at properly addressing the wants and needs of a capitalist society. He assumes that the wants and needs of people, like any bourgeois ideologue, are the ends-in-itself basis of all capitalist production, something that cannot be subject to any scientific evaluation. But we Marxist know better: What people want in capitalist society is largely determined by how well it is going to help them adjust to capitalist society.

The problem with this is that it fails to take into account the needs of a society are necessarily needs that exist in approximation to a definite, given mode of production. For example, in capitalism one needs roads in order to move workers to their workplace, and consumers to stores. This is necessary in the reproduction of capitalism. Mises's error is assuming that the standards of demand are somehow universal and will remain as such, even with a radical change in the mode of production - or even worse, that there cannot possibly be a standard of demand in a post-capitalist society at all. My point was that some "Marxists" feed into this nonsense by providing false alternatives like market socialism or rule by worker's cooperatives, in order to remain within the framework of capitalist production, rather then recognizing that a complete overhaul of society's productive relations goes far beyond a "mere" switch in whose deciding what to make and how to make it, but a complete overhaul of society in every possible domain.

Hence: if we are able to even imagine what could motivate a Communist society to regularly change, then we solve the problem of calculation. This is the real abstract question that Mises struggles to know, and no one can ever truly know it. We can, however, guess.