Technocratic communism is not the answer

I read with great interest the December 27, 2019 Project Syndicate column of Yanis Varoufakis, titled Imagining a World Without Capitalism. While I think that Varoufakis’ heart is in the right place, and his critique of capitalism as essentially anti-market is spot on, I cannot subscribe to his technocratic outlook.

What Varoufakis outlines as an alternative to the established order is yet another form of gigantism. It requires a massive, omnipotent state apparatus that would need to have access to vast amounts of data in order to perform the function of ironing out inequalities between people. The notion of a central bank overseeing everyone’s income implies that there must be commensurate checks in place: a counter-party treasury, a government, a legislature… A super-state, much like the USA, Russia, China, and, increasingly, the EU.

What historical communism proved, what past and modern capitalism confirms, and what leftists in the mould of Varoufakis blithely ignore, is that the concentration of power is a source of mischief, abuse, corruption, no matter the initial motives for gathering all ultimate authority in a single locus.

Historical communism was enacted as yet another highly-stratified imperium rather than a distributed network of communes. It turned into a totalitarian regime exactly because the only way to control every aspect of life, in the name of the much-vaunted communal good, is to create a robust hierarchy, with supreme authority trusted at the top.

Whether it is party apparatchiks, professional central bankers, or ostensibly enlightened scientists in charge of managing everyone’s life, the underlying assumption is that gigantism is not bad per se. It just is a matter of changing the policies, not the state architecture. This is why today’s leftists offer no sustainable solution to the problems of our world. They see the epiphenomena while ignoring the underlying mechanics of institutionalised power. Should they get things their way, history will just repeat itself.

In the capitalist system we witness the symbiotic relationship between the state and the capital owners who control critical infrastructure; “platformarchs” as I call them. This type of plutocracy maintains a two-tier system that has nothing to do with the idealised free market of competing agents over a level-playing field that is taught in economics textbooks. Platformarchs hold disproportionate power, which they use to mould politics/law in their interests, to undermine their potential competition, and to consolidate their {oligo,mono}-polistic status. The “free market” only exists in the half spaces left unoccupied by platformarchs; the spaces where concentrated power is not [yet] focused in.

This is not a decadent form of some true capitalism, a far cry from some supposed golden age of free markets. No, this is a necessary result of the concentration of power: the intertwined agendas of economic and political interests, the control over resources and its weaponisation as an instrument for preserving the status quo. Those who have power seek to keep it and expand it. Not controlling some aspect of life can potentially lead to the undoing of the entire edifice. It is why a hierarchical system always has the tendency for absolutism (and why modern representative democracies are, in fact, oligarchies).

Gigantism cannot be turned into some kind of benevolent totalitarianism. That would require a technocratic elite that consists of purely altruistic beings who only care about the common good, assuming there is such a one-size-fits-all good to begin with. We cannot expect such an exalted, omniscient class to come to the fore—and to always be there in the long term—when it is highly unlikely to ever meet a single human who is perfectly non-egoistic. Put bluntly, it is naive to expect people in power to consistently behave unlike their nature and their role.

The other major problem of gigantism is that it can only be instituted in opposition to organic societies; “organic” in the sense of naturally exhibiting solidarity between their members. Organic societies are families and small communities. The opposite of what an empire is all about. Gigantism cannot be communitarian because it would then have to deny itself of the power over those communities.

When we think about alternatives we should always prefer the theory that makes the fewer assumptions about human nature. Do not base your ideas on the presence of the perfect moral agent. Your endeavour is bound to fail miserably. Instead work with the knowledge we have about the imperfect people we all are. Take it as a given that there will be competing forces, recognise that corruption and power go hand-in-hand, and do not expect the human kind to behave much differently than other pack animals (the idea that humans are higher beings is another hubris of ours, a form of anthropocentrism).

I hold that the opposition to capitalism must also assume the form of a radical departure from gigantism. That is the constant, the historical midpoint. Whereas capitalism is just its current emanation, with actualised communism being another one. We must turn our attention to organic societies, local communities that are allowed to be self-governed, without interference from some bureaucrat who purports to know better while operating aloof from the fray of local quotidian life.

Corruption at the community level is far smaller in scope than the abuse of power at the gigantist centre. It also is easier to spot and address in a timely manner, given that at the local scale people can practice genuine, participative democracy, while having full access to the information that concerns their public good.

We should not entertain a romantic view of humanity. Forget about the chimera of the selfless technocrats who take care of all of our needs while we blithely go on with our frivolous lifestyle. But also dismiss the equally baseless belief in “the people” as an integral whole that expresses a singular will; a will that the career reformist claims to grasp and express in its fullest, purest way. These magnitudes of people, nation, etc. are artificial constructs. Expedient abstractions, whose treatment as actual beings all too often facilitates gigantism’s quest for total control: to weaken people, to place them in precarious conditions, divide them and disempower them by means of displacement, solitude, and detachment from their natural and cultural milieu.

Let us remain realistic, cynical: expect the worst and plan accordingly. To go down the path of mainstream leftists is to throw to the wind everything that history and everyday experience teaches us.