Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chat with Chad

Last night i discussed all this theoretical stuff with Chad Van Schoelandt. Chad is a philosophy grad student at UWM. He's studied many of these things far more thoroughly than i have, from a philosophical angle. The discussion was very useful. We surely didn't agree on things, but Chad's opinions and responses, mostly skeptical, helped to redirect my thoughts. These are my impressions / conclusions, cuz i like to have all this stuff in one place at one time. Chad is largely responsible for many of the ideas contained here, but i may be misrepresenting or mistating them, and i am definitely taking them out of context, so don't expect it to make a lot of sense.

Process: tell a story, non-capitalist system discovers benefits and efficiencies and applies them. Mindset adaptations, not moralizing. The intentions of the producers do not matter, the results matter. The results, per Marx's predictions are that if artists are developing a new mode of production, it will either become capitalism, or will exist alongside but subordinate to capitalism.

Becoming capitalism: artists compete for resources, those that attract and earn the best talent, most fans, highest donations, most downloads, etc etc will succeed economically, regardless of their intentions, and those that do not attract or earn such things will fail. The failing artists will then have no choice but to work for the succeeding ones, or work with them under an arrangement of unequal returns. Any idealistic band that resists this stands to lose in the long term. The market does this automatically. You could avoid it by forcing fans to like and fund everything equally.

My response is that a truely radical mode of production can resist this tendency. That new social norms will allow a less competitive arrangemet. This required much discussion on the definition of capitalism. Chad maintained that capitalism is defined by private property ownership, and a free market. I tried to define capitalism based on a particular labor relationship. Chad cautioned against using Marx's term "exploitation" to describe this relationship, because that word carries technical baggage and is more specific than i want to be. I agrued that Chad's definition of private property was over broad, and didn't leave room for non-private property arrangements. Various examples were used, which got rather absurd and humorous. There's a boomerang collective in washington state somewhere that just makes boomerangs and gives them away, cuz they love making boomerangs and don't need to get paid to make them. But, while they're working on the boomerangs, the half-finished boomerang is "owned" by them under private property rights, so they're still capitalist. capitalism then becomes monolithic and there is no allowance for "not capitalism".

We got into a discussion of social norms. Capitalism maintains itself because private property rights are socially accepted. Capitalism requires "civil society" in which a vast majority of people do not shoplift, or swindle, or bribe, or otherwise con the system. Post-soviet russia and poland are examples of people adapting to this mindset. Shoplifting is possible. The police cannot enforce or prevent shoplifting on a grand scale. The reason most people do not just take what they need out of a store isn't because they're scared of the security guard, it's because that is not done. When you look further at this mindset it's a socially ingrained acceptance of the idea that if everyone stole from the store, then there'd be no store anymore. Therefore i ought not steal from the store. This kind of thinking is automatic and ingrained in social norms.

I propose that a different mindset can be automatic and ingrained in social norms. The post-capitalist mindset can involve the recognition of the system on a broader scale. I shouldn't shop at walmart because when everyone engages in the capitalist mode of production, unpleasant things happen, ie: externalities, inequality, crime, pollution, big government, etc etc etc. or even, I should donate money to this artist even though i could get it without paying, or download the songs for free because i want him to be able to live off creating art, because i want more art created. The post-capitalist mindset includes a solution to the free-rider problem. Not only do we not steal, we pay for things that we could get for free. Or even give away things for free with the knowledge that, if everyone gives things away for free, then i can get whatever i need.

This line of argument is uncomfortable for me, because it's impractical. I don't seek to alter the mindset of everyone, it's more important to discuss how we can get there. Chad also insists on this. Now, it seems to me that mindset shifts of this sort grow out of habits and develop in a mutually reinforcing process with new economic practices. Chad doesn't see these practices developing systemically. he admits that it is within human nature to adopt this sort of mind set 5% of israelis do it in kibbutz. But, kibbutz is not an independent self-replicating system, first of all, and secondly, if it was, that doesn't make it a replacement for capitalism.

This gets into the "alongside capitalism and subordinate" problem. If artists acheive and maintain an alternative mode of production, along with this new mindset, then all we've done is what churches and kibbutzes have always done without at any point challenging or threatening the capitalist mode of production. Replace "religion" with "art". Obviously, this is not what i want. At all.

For art to do more than religion, to actually challenge capitalism, we need to have an amoral reason that we are more efficient or otherwise superior to capitalism. I need to define efficiency quickly here, cuz people often get caught up on this. Efficiency is creating greater value with less resources (materials, equipment, labor, time). In the capitalist approach to efficiency, lesser value is created, but with much less resources, especially less of the most expensive resources: time and labor. Also, capitalism ignores many costs, steals the materials, and creates externalities. So, in today's society "efficiency" is associated with factory production of low quality objects. This does not have to be the case. The post-capitalist mode could be more efficient than the capitalist mode by creating much greater value, at the same or slightly more resources, or a shift of resources: more labor, less materials. As materials become more scarce, such a shift seems likely.

This goes back to the rise of capitalism. When the feudal property relation (divine right of kings) became a fetter on capitalist production, and the capitalism proved more efficient, the capitalists replaced the feudal system in revolutionary wars and created a new legal system based on their property relation (private property). Chad argued that a post-capitalist class won't become revolutionary until they encounter private property as a fetter on their more efficient mode of production.

I disagree. it is possible that the private property relation becomes, rather than a fetter or roadblock to post-capitalist production, simply a competitive disadvantage. It is possible that a transition will not require severe violent over-through, but a slow take over in open competition, given our more open and adaptable political and social systems. It's also possible that our political and social systems will become more rigid on this subject, that new much more prohibitive laws protecting the capitalist property relation will be written, as capitalists recognize that they are being threatened. The RIAA and intellectual property rights law seems to indicate tightening of this sort. Also, in history (i need to check this out) i kind of doubt that the divine right of kings was enforced as a law until merchants became wealthy enough to try and own land. Similarly, an alternative property relation could become outlawed once it is potentially practiced by artists.

Actually, this is kind of happening to some degree. Many artists squat in abandoned buildings, or rent out unwanted buildings for low cost and turn them into studios or performing spaces. The government then comes in and kicks them out or forces them to get an occupancy permit. Street art is another example. Squatting in an abandoned warehouse and transforming it into a vital space, creating events or experiences of value, is sort of like the other side of the free rider problem. Capitalism creates empty spaces on the train and doesn't allow people to put them to use. This is ineffcient. Punks exploit this inefficiency, put the spaces to use, hop the trains and otherwise become free riders. But at the same time, punks create communities that voluntarily support themselves, communities that don't fall victim to the free rider problem, or that manage to sustain themselves inspite of the social acceptance (even celebration) of free ridership. I suppose chad would just say that these punks are free riding on goods that capitalists create. But i think it merits further investigation. The fact that these punks are exploiting the free rider problem whenever they can (dumpstering food, hopping trains, sneaking in to concerts) and still creating small economies, means that there is a significant portion of the population who is actively confronting the free rider problem from both sides. If a solution comes, it seems likely to come from this group. My guts say part of the answer is in connection between consumer and producer.

This connection between consumer and producer is an important part of my theory. This rising consumer demand is, i think, anti-capitalist. The fact that more consumers want a connection, an understanding of where their purchases came from, especially favoring buying directly from the producer, as in hand-made craft fairs, or merch sales at concerts, indicates a distrust with the capitalist producers, and a rejection of commodity fetishism. Chad warns against using the phrase commodity fetishism because it holds a precise meaning for Marx. But i think, in this case it holds. people no longer think of objects as independent of people, as doing things on their own. Consumers today are increasingly curious about who is behind the objects and what that person's intentions and ethics are.

This demand itself gives post-capitalist producers, especially artists, a significant competitive advantage. I beleive there is objective evidence to suggest that:

1. artists are begining to develop a truely non-capitalist mode of production
2. the artists' mode of production taps the above-mentioned, and other competitive advantages
3. these competitive advantages are strong enough that they grant artists leverage to threaten and eventually replace the capitalist mode of production, either through peaceful transition or through violent response to restrictive laws.

Chad does not agree that there is any such evidence, but if there was, then he acknowledges that this is a process through which a revolutionary change could occur.

a quick list of other potential competitive advantages:
- non alienated labor, cooperation can be more efficient than competition.
- less hardwired tendencies for inequality
- fewer externalities (pollution, crime, stress related health problems, etc)
- greater attractiveness for most talented individuals.

No comments: