Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Stories of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht

Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner (Stories of Mr. Keuner) is a series of short stories, aphorisms and commentary written by the great dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht from about 1930 to his death in 1956.  They give advice and comments about all aspects of life and go far beyond the purely political  themes one usually associates with Brecht.  The advice is often simply about how to relate to other human beings and how to live ones daily life. Politics is however of course not absent at all and is a prominent recurring theme. The stories are very short, ranging from one sentence or a paragraph to two pages at the most.

The stories are both about and told by Mr. Keuner (therefore the ambiguous title) and serve to illustrate the points made by the title character. Keuner is a clever, if not wise man, a humanist and a thinker, who has opinions on most things and is most often seen in the role of the teacher and sage.

The advice given is often contrary to and directly challenges percieved and common "wisdom" and is often odd in a way that is hard to describe, if it's understandable at all. At times Keuner's comments resemble Zen koans. Humour is another important element and are present in many, if not most of the stories. The stories is often inspired by the author's Marxist worldview, but also by the Chinese philosophy that inspired Brecht as well.

But one should also keep in mind that the stories are more supposed to act as incitement to further thinking, than an infallible guide.  Keuner is far from always a sympathetic character. For all his non-conformist and revolutinary thinking, Keuner also advocates a cowardly submission to the powers that be when necessary, something that Brecht practiced in real life at times.

The Keuner stories are despite this very much worth reading. The advice given is often very wise and thought provoking and even if one doesn't agree or understand, the story is often interesting or funny nevertheless.
The stories have been translated into English by Martin Chalmers. The Swedish translations I read was by Ulf Gran and a complete collection of them was released last year. Many of the stories can be found on the internet. Here is a page with some of the stories in english.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Why I am a socialist

Part 1: Definitions


If I going to justify why I call myself a socialist, a definition of the word "socialism" is in order.
The definition that is most commonly used and that I hold is simple: "a system of economic organization in which the means of production are owned socially or collectively; or the ideology that supports such a system" (essentially similar definitions can be found in most dictionaries).
The "means of production" are simply the physical things used to produce goods and services (tools, buildings, raw materials and so on). In the present system, called "capitalism", the means of production are owned by individuals.

Part 2: The problem with capitalism, or the author bemoans the present state of the world.


The Lack of Democracy 


The basic problem of capitalism is that it is undemocratic. With the means of production under their private control, capitalists have enormous power over everyone else, and they use this power to control and exploit the workers. At work democracy ends, and there the worker has about the same self-determination of a thrall in the age of slavery. Terminating an employment is for the capitalist at worst an hassle; for the worker it often means destitution.

This naturally leads to awful working conditions of early industrialism. Thanks to unions and government legislation, these conditions have at least have been ameliorated in the west. But this prompted capitalists to move production to the third world, where they collaborate with local dictatorships to exploit workers there.

Not that things are fine in the west either. Employers still retain considerable powers over their employees, and as the Keynesian policy of full employment has been abandoned, this power has only increased.

Sadly, as we shifted to a service economy, employers now not only demand that you do your job well, but also confirm to their social standards. They do not only ask for a specific skill-set, but a specific personality as well. (and that personality is almost without exceptions the personality of a psychopath). And with modern information technology, it can be hard to keep your interests and opinions secret.

This has of course a oppressive effect on employees freedom. For example, the reason I'm writing under a pseudonym is not because I'm afraid of the government, but of what prospective employers might think (The call to end internet anonymity is understandable, due to all the abuse it can facilitate, but one should always keep in mind that it also enables many to express their opinions and interests without fear of reprisal).

Of course, this lack of economic democracy also adversely affects our political democracy. The ownership of most media is concentrated into a few, very rich, hands, such as The Bonnier group or Rupert Murdoch. The news, opinions and political candidates that are favoured by this media are therefore overwhelmingly those that are in the interests of the rich owners. As the functioning of our democracy depends on the information supplied by these media channels, this distorts democracy in favour of the rich.

Grow or die


Before I go on, let me reiterate some basic economics. This is basic stuff, that's supported by nearly all mainstream economics.

Capitalism supposes economic growth.  It's driving motor is market competition. This means producers must compete with each other in selling products. Each capitalist must make their production more efficient than their competitor, by either cutting the cost of raw materials or labour, raising productivity through better technology or simply expand production to take advantage of economies of scale.

This means "grow or die" is the law of market competition. As productivity and output rises, one must find new markets for this increasing output. Growing big also enables the firm to take advantage of economies of scale and gives one more resources to pour into research for better and more efficient technology to use in production. Big corporations are thereby able to to out-compete smaller competitors, and thus every corporation tries to grow as big as possible.

Also, today the predominant form of economic organization is the corporation, which is owned by shareholders. These seek to maximize profits and therefore compel or pressure the corporations to grow. Profit must be bigger than last year, otherwise the corporations risk their share's losing value and their stockholders abandoning them, or worse. Sure, the corporation can increase it's profits by inventing new methods of production which lower labour and resource inputs, but competitors will adopt these as well, leaving them with no option but to increase production and take a bigger market share or invent new markets (see Smith 2010).

This is the state of world. Practically all economists, left and right, accept this explanation of things. The problem with this is that you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet. While there is possible for the economy to grow by producers "making more with less", the above argument demonstrates that capitalism also requires quantitative growth.

We all know the effects of this: widespread ecological destruction, over-use of non-renewable natural resources and climate change. All this, while statistics show that growth doesn't make us happier (Schweickart 2008).

There have been plans laid out to stop growth within a capitalist system, but even if such a thing was possible, we all know what happens when a capitalist system stops growing: it's called a depression. That is why governments, while claiming to be trying to create a sustainable economy, are so reluctant to create legislation that would actually put an end to capitalist exploitation of nature. A capitalism with no growth could perhaps be made ecologically sustainable, but the wide-spread unemployment that would entail is certainly not economically or socially sustainable.

The solution is clear: we need another system, one that doesn't rely on growth.



Before I go on, there is one final argument I will make against capitalism. There are certainly many others that can be made, including the wide-spread poverty and starvation the capitalist system entails, but this is not and can not be any final judgement on capitalism. The issues I chose to point out are ones that are very dear to me, and this is why I will chose this to be my closing criticism.

Marx observed that capitalism has destroyed the old feudal, national and religious ties between men, leaving "no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest".  While Marx and Engels more or less accepted this development, and one can certainly see their point, it is a horrible world to live in.

To view other human beings as merely competitors in the struggle for life, as one must in today's society, is de-humanizing and alienating in the extreme. Feeling of loneliness and lack of meaning dominate, especially when unemployment is high and work can not give people meaning (though the meaning given to people though work is of little worth). Often, and particularly for young men, fascist groups sweep in to fill the void.

Capitalist consumerism only adds fuel to the fire. Hollow material values can not fulfil human needs, and the pursuit of them is an exhausting hamster wheel, as advertising keeps on giving you new things to buy, due to the demand of eternal growth.

While art and culture is able to provide some vital comfort and meaning, culture is increasingly becoming commercialized, just another product among others. With aggressive advertising, purely commercial cultural products crowd out non-commercial art in the public consciousness, if not directly attacking it (for example, think about how classical music is portrayed in pop culture)

In a similar way, the experience of the natural world is vital for the human mind, as research proves, yet capitalism in it's relentless pursuit of profit as explained above removes us from nature. Forests and fields are replaced by ugly grey concrete cities.

To sum up, capitalism is obviously unable to fulfil the basic human needs we all have, and even destroys the ways of fulfilling them we used to have.

Part 3: The alternative


The alternative to capitalism that socialists advocate is as said an economy in which the means of production are owned in common. Perhaps the most comprehensive model of how such a society would look like has been developed by American philosopher and mathematician David Schweickart, who call his model, "economic democracy".

Schweickart's model has three features: firstly, productive enterprises are common property and run democratically by those who work there, who share the profits.  Secondly, the democratically-managed firms sell products and services on a market in order to make a profit and prices are set by supply and demand.  Thirdly, investment is socially controlled. The state creates investments funds, from money gained through a tax on capital assets, which is invested in new enterprises.

This is of course a very rough summary of that model. It's more fully explained in Schweickart's book "After Capitalism". A good introduction to his thinking is this article, though is over 20 years old and Schweickart's thinking has naturally evolved since then. There is also this powerpoint presentation.
The great advantage of this model is that it retains the market economy, unlike the more traditional socialist model of economic planning. It is therefore rather immune to the traditional criticisms of socialism, which really are criticisms of central economic planning. The incentives (to innovate, among other things) and information (about prices, for example) the market provides are still fully present in the market socialist system, yet without the democratic deficit and unsustainable endless growth mechanic inherent in capitalism. 

All firms would be democratically run and workers would all receive shares in the company's profits instead of wages, given everybody more than sufficient motivation for them to work and innovate, yet without much incentive to grow (See this article by Schweickart for an thorough explanation for why this would be. A central passage: "if the owners of a capitalist firm can make $X under present conditions, they can make $2X by doubling the size of their operation. But if a democratic firm doubles its size, it doubles its workforce, leaving its per-capita income unchanged.").

Schweickart's model has of course not been put into reality yet, though a somewhat similar system of worker's management functioned in Tito's Yugoslavia (with some success, as Schweickart points out), though it was of course very different from the democratic system Schweickart advocates. A similar system of investment has also existed in Japan.

Though, to play devil's advocate, I'm not entirely convinced that economic planning is entirely out for the count, despite criticisms of Schweickart and others. Modern information technology would make things much easier for planners, we don't know how such a system would function in a democratic nation (as the soviet states were all dictatorships) and planning is much easier in a steady-state economy without economic growth (which as explained above, must be our goal for a sustainable society). It just speaks to the many alternatives we have to capitalism, despite the constant neo-liberal refrain of "There is no alternative".

Part 4: How to get there?


While we may have established that capitalism is undesirable and that socialism is perhaps the better alternative, the question remains: how are we to reach socialism; what should we do to get from one state of affairs to the other?

I really don't have a good answer to that question. There have been broadly two alternatives proposed: gradual democratic reform or violent revolution. The former has led to the reformers being bogged down in compromises with capitalism and eventually forgetting about the goal of socialism, (but we should never forget the tangible good such reforms have brought about: it is the reason why most people in the west aren't living in poverty.) The latter has only lead to repression by the well-organized and better armed state or, when successful, dictatorship, as the leaders of a violent revolution by necessity are brutes, who rule by violence.  Lenin, Castro and Mao are good examples.

That doesn't leave good prospects for a democratic socialism. The only possibility one can see is some form of non-violent revolution.  I'm open to the possibility of socialism being impossible, either though capitalism being impossible to overthrow or socialism simply not working; that the only possibility for mankind is a road towards ruin though capitalist eco-cide. "Socialism or barbarism", declared Rosa Luxemburg, and it may very well be that humanity is only fit for barbarism.

I still believe in keeping on fighting though. In the ancient Norse myths, Odin and the other Aesir keep on struggling. despite knowing that their struggles are fated to end in defeat. Humans must be like that, keep on fighting, though their struggles will always end in their death and may very well be without consequence.

And thankfully, unlike Odin's, our future isn't set and known, but instead filled with possibility and hope. Socialism, though un-realized, has acted as a ideal and guiding light for reforms that has made our lives much better and may very well do so again.  And one should remember that the myths tell that in the wake of the god's struggle with evil and the end of the old world, the world is re-born:

Now do I see | the earth anew
Rise all green | from the waves again..
(trans. Henry Adams Bellows)


Smith, Richard, 2010, "Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism", real-world economics review, issue no. 53, 26 june 2010, pp. 28-42, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue53/Smith53.pdf

Schweickart, David, 2008, "Is Sustainable Capitalism an Oxymoron?",  Synthesis/Regeneration, issue 47 (fall 2008), http://www.greens.org/s-r/47/47-03.html

Schweickart, David, 1992, "Economic Democracy: A Worthy Socialism That Would Really Work", Science and Society, vol. 56, no. 1 spring 1992, p 9-38, http://www.luc.edu/faculty/dschwei/economicdemocracy.pdf