Useful Tigress Blog

A better world is possible, and we can make it real.

The Impossibility of Both Planning and Purportedly Free Markets 🐯

This is a long-ish piece, as the Attention Conservation Notice at the top attests (~7800 words), but it’s definitely worth your time if you want to be thinking seriously about critiques of capitalism-as-we-know-it because it carefully illustrates two things that are relevant to the discussion:

  • Efficient planned markets are infeasible to compute in roughly the same way that the Travelling Salesman problem is, and
  • Free markets are not neutral: they are a choice of community values as much as planned markets are, and some of those values are utterly repulsive.

There aren’t easy solutions for these things, but they’re important to contemplate. I’m also very fond of the way that this bit reads:

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when […] the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on.

[…] There is a fundamental level at which Marx’s nightmare vision is right: capitalism, the market system, whatever you want to call it, is a product of humanity, but each and every one of us confronts it as an autonomous and deeply alien force. Its ends, to the limited and debatable extent that it can even be understood as having them, are simply inhuman. The ideology of the market tell us that we face not something inhuman but superhuman, tells us to embrace our inner zombie cyborg and lose ourselves in the dance. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or run screaming. But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends.

Superhuman forces partake of the uncanny that way, and we have surrounded ourselves with them. I bet there’s quite an essay to be had there about comic-book superhumans and their recent representations. Maybe we can inflict a Kickstarter on Alan Moore to write about that.