The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Month: December, 2019

Speculative presence – 11

Our exploration has taken us to the edge of what is likely the minimum requirements of a fully communist society: a working day of three hours. Keynes predicted this three hours labor day based on a two percent growth rate and then existing technological trends. He assumed it would be likely to emerge by 2030. The Soviet Union, basing its projections on a much higher ten percent rate of growth, projected a three hours working day would be achievable fifty years earlier in 1980.

As we know, neither projection has come to pass thus far.

Nevertheless, I am engaged in creating an alternative world, a speculative fictional alternative future communist society that, at least so far, has never actually existed. I do this in order to describe how such a society might operate. This question is constantly posed by people who are skeptical such a society could ever exist.

***

So, let’s jump ahead for this post and assume we now have arrived at Khrushchev’s professed goal of a three hours day in 1980.

Have we solved all the problems facing mankind? Are we now in my communist utopia? Has history ended? Perhaps not.

Why not?

Well, remember what I said back in post seven:

Essentially, communism itself would be knowledge objectified, an extension of the human mind.

I used those terms for a reason. Marx used both of them to describe machines.

Another way to say the above is that, in contrast to capitalism, which is essentially a mode of production for squeezing surplus labor out of wage workers, economically, communism can be conceptualized as a massive machine, an intelligent machine. Communism is the creation of an artificial (machine) intelligence.

Initially, we would create that machine, maintain and supervise it. But, as time goes on, the machine would maintain and supervise itself, design its own improvements and mostly function without significant human intervention. It is even possible that this machine might one day (perhaps sooner than we expect) eclipse human beings in intelligence.

Cool, right?

Well, maybe not. In 1993, in an essay titled, Technological Singularity, Vernor Vinge gave some thought to this idea and decided this could lead to our extinction as a species.

It turns out that what I call “the material foundation of communism”, Vinge calls a “technological singularity”. The term carries an echo of Keynes own neologism, “technological unemployment”, which Vinge actually refers to in his 1993 essay. In that essay, Vinge defines what he means by the term and why he thinks it may be a threat to mankind’s future.

According to Vinge, the accelerating technological progress has been the central feature of this century. It has not only eclipsed the employment of human labor in production, it has produced a change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth — the imminent creation by technological means of a consciousness with greater-than-human intelligence. We can expect that, in one form or another, a superhuman intelligence will emerge. Vinge thinks this is a certainty by 2030 — the date by which Keynes predicted the emergence of a three hours working day.

Once this superhuman intelligence finally emerges, technological progress will be even more breathtakingly rapid. That progress will involve the creation of still more intelligent entities, on a still-shorter time scales. While the evolution of intelligent life through natural selection took billions of years on Earth, human beings have been able to accomplish it in a matter of centuries. Now we stand on the precipice of new stage that is as radically different from our own as we are from lower animals.

Vinge states his conclusion:

This change will be a throwing-away of all the human rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye — an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. It’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the Singularity” for the purposes of this piece). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules, a point that will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs until the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens, it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.

In Vinge’s opinion, if a technological singularity can not be prevented or confined, the physical extinction of the human race is possible. But, he warns, physical extinction may not be the scariest possibility: mankind could be reduced to mere livestock, employed for specific useful functions in a larger AI environment:

Think of the different ways we relate to animals. A Posthuman world would still have plenty of niches where human-equivalent automation would be desirable: embedded systems in autonomous devices, self-aware daemons in the lower functioning of larger sentients. … Some of these human equivalents might be used for nothing more than digital signal processing. Others might be very humanlike, yet with a onesidedness, a dedication that would put them in a mental hospital in our era. Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.

This is pretty much the concept behind the movie, The Matrix. Mankind has been reduced to a power source for an AI. It is digitally fed a simulation to keep it sane. What Vinge has done here is conceptualize the post-apocalypse in such a way as to make it appear to be the inevitable result of technological innovation.

Or has he?

Read this passage carefully:

I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology.

Vinge would have us believe that whatever threat of physical extinction hangs over the head of humanity today results from technological innovation. This technological innovation will in the very near future produce an intellectual runaway, an exponential explosion of machine intelligence beyond any hope of human control.

But examining his argument closely, it is obvious that there is no control over technology at present. Technological innovation is driven solely by competition.

According to Vinge:

  • “I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (so human competition would favor the development of the more dangerous models).”
  • “We humans have millions of years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light.”
  • “The competitive advantage –economic, military, even artistic –of every advance in automation is so compelling that forbidding such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.”
  • “[Intelligence Amplification] for individual humans creates a rather sinister elite.”

Vinge suggests, perhaps without realizing it, that his chief symptom of a technological singularity — technological runaway — is not a future concern, but a constant reality under the existing mode of production. And it has been a threat since capitalist competition-driven technological innovation triggered the first depression — perhaps as early as 1819 in the United States.

First, technology displaced human labor in production, creating the Great Depression; now it threatens to make human beings superfluous even to the design and supervision of the machines they have created to replace human labor.

If Vinge’s argument about competition and technological innovation sounds vaguely familiar to you, it should. The same discussion has been raging among communists for decades now, under the rather awkward question: “Where is the revolutionary subject?”

Speculative presence – 10

While Keynes relied on crude back of the envelope calculations to arrive at his conclusion that hours of labor would shrink to no more than 15 hours per week by 2030 in the areas of the world market hit by the Great Depression, Khrushchev and the leaders of the Soviet Union proposed an actual timetable to get the USSR to the shortest workweek in the world by 1968.

Beginning in 1956, the Soviets announced they were undertaking a transition from a 48 hours workweek, established after World War 2 to recover from the catastrophic global conflict, to a 40 hours workweek by 1962.

Starting almost immediately in 1964, the Soviets would begin a transition from the newly established 40 hours workweek to a 35 hours workweek. The transition was scheduled to be completed by 1968, at which time the Soviet Union would be able to boast having the shortest workweek in the world.

But the reductions of hours of work would not end there: Khrushchev publicly claimed that the USSR would continue reducing the working day over the next decade or so, to achieve a three or four hours working day by 1980. In other words, the Soviet Union claimed it could reach Keynes’ speculative 2030 target of a three hours working day fifty years ahead of his crude, back of the envelope schedule!

Was Khrushchev talking nonsense?

Not really.

Key to the credibility of Khrushchev’s claim is the fact that Keynes relied on estimated annual increases in productivity of two percent in his conservative 1930 calculations, while the USSR was estimated, at least by the CIA, (hardly a source given to revolutionary hyperbole) to be expanding output at an annual rate of ten percent in the first nine months of 1960.

Moreover, whether you are in the camp of communists who think the Soviet Union was socialist, or in the camp that thinks it was capitalist — or even stuck somewhere in between — you have to admit that, essentially, this was planned production, in which the entire infrastructure of production was managed as if it consisted of a single enterprise (or capitalist firm, if you are so inclined). Thanks to central planning, this massive enterprise, according to reliable sources, was accumulating additional surplus at a rate of ten percent a year, without the usual disruptions of periodic capitalist crises.

So, assuming no more than the conditions in existence at the time of Keynes back of the envelope calculations, the Soviet Union was roughly doubling in size every seven years, not increasing by half in twenty years as Keynes figured. As Keynes says, think of this in terms of the total capital infrastructure of the Soviet Union — houses, transport, and the like — the capacity to produce everything.

To understand the implications of the Soviet timetable for reduction of hours of labor, we need only mention that 1968 would have opened with the spectacular defeat of US aggression in Vietnam and the collapse of the Johnson presidency into disarray; and, closed with the Soviet Union announcing establishment of the shortest official working day in the history of mankind.

Over the next decade, the world market would have seen the collapse of Bretton Woods and the collapse of the global economy into the then unimaginable simultaneous eruption of hyperinflation and hyperunemployment, leading to the rise of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the United States, as the Soviet Union was progressively reducing its working day from seven hours to three hours, fully fifty years ahead of Keynes prediction.

As in the case of Keynes’ prediction, a good speculative fiction writer could have taken Khrushchev’s timetable and speculated on what a world where, essentially, the Soviets solved “the economic problem” might look like.

Of course, we already know what it looks like if that timetable wasn’t met — that’s what the picture above shows.

Speculative presence – 9

I like this statement by Le Guin regarding speculative fiction, although I am pretty sure I don’t agree with it:

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.

–Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to the Left Hand of Darkness

***

Contrary to Le Guin, I think speculative fiction can be extrapolative.

We can, for example, take Keynes statement in 1930, which extrapolates from the social conditions of the Great Depression.

Let me see if I can patch it together from one of Keynes most interesting essays on the depression, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930):

If capital increases, say, 2 per cent per annum, the capital equipment of the world will have increased by a half in twenty years, and seven and a half times in a hundred years. Think of this in terms of material things—houses, transport, and the like. … All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is. … I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race.

And what were the implications for society of this technological trend according to Keynes?

We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

This latter bit is a piece of speculative fiction; it is extrapolative as well. Keynes simply takes then existing trends of technological innovation, extrapolates them 100 years into the future and arrives at a society markedly different than the one he observed in his day.

A good speculative fiction writer could have taken Keynes ruminations and speculated on how a society where “the economic problem” has been solved might look like. Indeed, Keynes provides some interesting hints along this line:

  • “We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.”
  • “We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”
  • “All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.”

But, an even better speculative fiction writer might have asked herself,

“What would it take to frustrate Keynes vision?”

Or, more relevantly:

“What would the world look like if Keynes vision wasn’t realized and and ‘the economic problem’ was actually solved, but hours of labor still remained unchanged? What would these poor crazy bastards who worked for no reason do for work?”

Speculative presence – 8

Okay, I don’t want to literally blow up the world.

But I do want to establish an alternative timeline that ends with the Soviet Union realizing a fully developed communist society before 1990, rather  than collapsing into an oligarchic-gangster-fascist state run by former KGB operatives or whatever the latest pop theory says happened there.

To remove the collapse of the Soviet Union from my timeline, naturally, I have to remove the benighted leadership of General Secretary Gorbachev and his program of perestroika.

But this means I have to remove about two decades of economic stagnation in the Soviet Union from the timeline under the incompetent management of General Secretary Brezhnev, which made the benighted leadership of General Secretary Gorbachev appear historically necessary, i.e., the necessary form, in hindsight, taken by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Which brings me back to General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, (born 15 April 1894, died 11 September 1971), revisionist, tankie extraordinaire and the proverbial “drunk uncle in the middle of my wedding” of modern communism.

***

If few communists want to be identified with Stalin today, it’s because of Khrushchev, who, in 1956, gave a secret address detailing what he said were the crimes of Stalin. So it is odd that, despite Stalin’s infamy, no one identifies with the guy who denounced him.

That is, it’s odd until you realize that a lot of the things people claim to be the crimes of “stalinists”, like the invasion of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Berlin wall, etc., were committed not by Stalin, but by the people who denounced Stalin.

The tankies, like those who hate them, hate Stalin.

Stalin never invaded anyone who didn’t attack the Soviet Union first.

But commies fight over complete bullshit. And commies will still fight even in my speculative fictional alternative future communist society over complete bullshit.

That’s another thing that makes my speculative fictional alternative future communist society interesting: people just do dumb shit that makes no sense because — dumb.

But back to Sergeyevich. Yes, he denounced Stalin, but I don’t hold that against him. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I wasn’t there. He invaded Hungary and I wasn’t there either. It probably was the wrong thing to do, but he did it. Proletarians don’t always do the right thing. Sometimes they do evil shit too.

Which  is why proletarian women will tell you to never leave your drink untended when you use the bathroom at the club.

My reason for saving Sergeyevich is rather selfish. I need Sergeyevich in this story because he seems to be the last figure in the Soviet Union’s leadership who realizes the connection between labor and communism. After he is removed from his position as General Secretary, things quickly go down hill to collapse.

After Sergeyevich is removed, the Soviet leadership reneges on its commitment to reducing hours of labor and its stated goal of a fifteen hours work week by 1980. The reason for this about face may be that the workers gain increasing social power to resist the demands of the enterprise management.

It is possible that both the management of the enterprises and the military are concerned that emphasis on heavy industry will be lost as workers demand more consumer goods.

This is just speculation on my part, of course. But I can use it to fill in the gaps in the narrative.

I want a different outcome. I want the Soviet leadership to stick to its commitment to reducing hours of labor. This means the military has to stand down. Sergeyevich, who was present during the Great Patriotic War, can force them to stand down.

Moreover, the Soviet Union has the weapon to guarantee its survival in the face of US military aggression. To prove it, Sergeyevich orders a full scale demonstration of Tsar Bomba.

Although it won’t be known for decades, the event creates two world timelines.

In timeline one, history unfolds as we know it and the Soviet Union collapses.

In timeline two, the Soviet Union goes on to create the first communist society, with all the implications that event has for the world market.

The narrator follows timeline two, of course. So we get to spend a lot of time watching the Soviet Union develop into a fully communist society. Then, quite by accident, the shocking discovery of timeline one occurs in 2020. The discovery is not a surprise to us, of course. We know we are here. But what will they make of us? How will they explain what has happened.

And what, if anything, will they try to do about it?

Speculative presence – 7

So, what is a general intellect?

To be honest, no one seems to know.

And don’t try to consult the Wikipedia on the term; the entry there is worse than useless:

General intellect, according to Karl Marx in his Grundrisse, became a crucial force of production. It is a combination of technological expertise and social intellect, or general social knowledge (increasing importance of machinery in social organization). The “general intellect” passage in the Fragment section of Grundrisse, shows that, while the development of machinery led to the oppression of workers under capitalism, it also offers a prospect for future liberation.

The Wikipedia entry references the writing of some guy named Paolo Virno. This idiot academic claims Marx got the concept of the general intellect completely wrong!

As is usual in the long Marxist tradition, Marx coins a term to capture a concept, then some third-rate Marxist academic comes along and claims the term Marx invented captures a meaning other than the meaning Marx invented the term to capture.

The sheer cheek of this guy is astonishing.

***

The general intellect is Marx’s term for the general state of science and technology (i.e., the application of this scientific knowledge to production) as it is physically hardwired in the total productive infrastructure of society. It describes both the actual revolution in knowledge as mankind taps the secrets of nature and the practical application of that knowledge to production as mankind unleashes the forces of nature and employs those very forces to press their mastery over nature itself.

The archetypal element (unit, component) of the general intellect is the machine.

Some people confuse machines with tools, but I think they are not the same thing. With a stone axe, you can split wood, but it takes a machine to split atoms. Moreover, machines are not extensions of the human hand. Marx makes clear that machines are actually extensions of the human brain, scientific knowledge materialized in the form of industrial processes:

They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

The machine is knowledge objectified!

The general intellect is the total sum of mankind’s scientific and technical knowledge given objectified form in the total productive infrastructure of society. In this form, scientific and technical knowledge has become both a direct force of production in its own right and immediate organs of social practice generally.

This is the force Stalin indicated Soviet society would unleash to realize communism. Essentially, communism itself would be knowledge objectified, an extension of the human mind. Labor would have to go away to make room for this new organ of the human brain.

I can paraphrase Marx’s fragment on the machine to better describe what is taking place in our speculative fictional alternative communist society.

The creation of communism would progressively depend less on the expenditure of human labour and more on the controlled application of the natural forces set in motion during production. The focused application of natural forces in production, in turn, would depend on the general state of science and on the application of this science to production, as it is hardwired (physically embodied) in the continuously evolving infrastructure of production.

Since production of the material foundations of communism would directly involve unleashing processes of nature that have been transformed into industrial processes, the workers themselves would not be directly involved in the production that created communism. Rather, they would merely supervise the machines that actually created the material foundation of communist society.

But this is only the first stage.

In the second stage, we could imagine the first Ivakhnenko-class machines would begin to emerge with the capacity to supervise themselves. These new generations of machines will learn on their own. Later iterations might even begin to maintain themselves, and design and build better machines.

In the third stage, it is possible that machines will act as advisers to human society!

***

This point will mark our departure from the actual historical record, but before we can get there, we have to save Khrushchev from early retirement and blow up the world.