Saturday, March 9, 2013

Socialism with English characteristics

Can't we all live together?

I've been watching the first few episodes of Downton Abbey, and honestly, it reminds me of Glee, with its machine-gunned melodrama. One is left in a tizzy trying to follow it all. But one plot line in episode 4 was intriguing, where the head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes entertains a marriage proposal from an old flame, a widowed farmer from Scotland. She says no, with reluctance and some wistfulness for the freedoms he offered.

But she does live in a castle, after all- not a bad spot, even if one is downstairs in service. It made me think about the ecosystem the show portrays, vs the pioneer homesteading ethic we so commonly hold in the US, madly rushing into debt and overwork to stake our claim on a single-family home, proudly isolated from the rest of humanity.

The Edwardian estate was a communal living arrangement, with a large population cheek-by-jowl, all serving each other's needs. Washing was done, meals cooked, grounds kept, bills and employees paid. Very few communal living schemes have had such durability, certainly not more idealistic ones forsaking hierarchy in the name of communism or socialism.

The right/Republican end of the human temperament spectrum certainly has an important point to make in this respect, that hierarchy is an essential part of the human condition, putting the order into "the social order", putting each member in a place with a known role, from which they hopefully have a structured route for ascent depending on luck and talent, as evaluated by other members of the collective.

The conceptual revolutions of the enlightenment, and finally Marxism, began to see this hierarchy as intrinsically oppressive. As a matter of humanity, no person had the right to order others around, or to be fussed and dressed by a simpering valet- certainly not by birth. The capitalist and estate proprietor was seen not as the orchestrator of a complex community that provided roles and sustenance for all its members, but a parasite who skimmed off profits and labor-value from the powerless worker-bees who, if only they could shake off the chains of a socially programmed hierarchy, could earn their full value and enjoy a life of personal freedom.

But sometimes that life is less rich than one within the communal hive, however constricted. Even if the servants get only a fraction of the good food, and rudimentary dormitories, even if they experience the daily sting of inequality, they have other creature comforts and social comforts that might well make up for it. Some of our greatest literature has arisen out of the complex communities of the estate. (Though admittedly, rarely from downstairs.)

In our day, the corporation is perhaps the most dominant social community, leaving its members to a freely atomized personal life, even as it imposes hierarchy of a very traditional sort on their daily working lives. The recent dustup over Yahoo's renunciation of telecommuting touches on the heart of this power structure- how closely should the corporation dominate its slice of our lives?

Is this modern division of work and "life" the final solution, or will the future bring other modes of social organization? Work is a central human value, so even if we don't need to do anything- once robots take care of all our mundane needs- we will still live in hierarchies of some kind, and work to make each other's lives better, in some, hopefully higher, more artistic, more humane, way. Perhaps that is what Marcel Proust saw in his fin de si├Ęcle time, running from one Parisian Salon to the next, scrambling up the social ladder with no greater goal than to be loved.

  • Temperament, politics, and social order, continued...
  • Suicide bombings OK.. or not OK?
  • Afghanistan- the good news.
  • As markets go up, labor keeps getting screwed.
  • In Japan, finally the prospect of an exit to normality, via more spending.
  • We, too, need a fiscal kick in the pants.
  • Our libraries, our homeless shelters.
  • Economic quote of the week, from Friedrich Hayek, on equilibrium methods and assumptions in economics:
"The assumption of a perfect market then means nothing less than that all the members of the community, even if they are not supposed to be strictly omniscient, are at least supposed to know automatically all that is relevant for their decisions. It seems that that skeleton in our cupboard, the 'economic man', whom we have exorcised with prayer and fasting, has returned through the back door in the form of a quasi-omniscient individual.
The statement that, if people know everything, they are in equilibrium is true simply because that is how we define equilibrium."
"Clearly there is here a problem of the Division of Knowledge which is quite analogous to, and at least as important as, the problem of the division of labour. But while the latter has been one of the main subjects of investigation ever since the beginning of our science, the former has been as completely neglected, although it seems to me to be the really central problem of economics as a social science."


  1. Burk, I greatly enjoyed this post, and I've been meaning to comment all day (too busy!).
    I think there is a significant difference between the corporation of present, however, and the estate (or even the business) of the past, and it is not solely one of size. Of course, an increase in the size of the "community" exacerbates this difference: the relative autonomy/responsibility of the individual members. Sure, then as now, there was some level of freedom for all involved. But with huge corporations come a loss of accountability between the bottom and the top. If the bottom is so far away you can no longer see it or even directly feel its effect, then you no longer feel any responsibility to its operation or welfare. A proper English estate might have a dozen or two servants, any one of which could not be replaced without some discomfiture to the others; a multinational corporation has thousands of employees, many of whom have never met the others.
    I think this is just a manifestation of something that modern research seems to be indicating - that there is an optimum size for a functional social group (for primates as well as humans). Human beings have the capacity to handle the social interactions of a group of 100-300, with smaller subgroups (on the order of maybe half a dozen to two dozen) allowing for even greater efficiency (at least with respect to publishing scientific papers!). So if a corporation exceeds this size, how can we expect it to perform in the same way as a country estate which was below that threshold?
    Of course, in theory I love the ideas of socialism, but the early French revolutionists had it right from a practical standpoint - socialism before the law, not socioeconomic socialism as later proponents desired. All men are created equal as far as justice is concerned; in any other arena, men must fall into some form of hierarchy based on ability and desire.

  2. Thanks for your appreciation, Kelly!

    Yes, I completely agree about group size and how the corporate world is sort of flying centrifugally apart for lack of oversight and proper organization. Decades ago, the corporate world tried to solve this problem bureaucratically, through the GM/IBM model of boring, intensive organization and process management. But then they got the greed religion of Ayn Rand et al., and the rest is written in disaster after disaster.

    But I wouldn't claim the country estate as some kind of model of efficiency either. That is in part the point, that it had many other organizational goals, other than squeezing the last drop of blood out of its "employees". Or did most of the time... each owner had pretty wide latitude, of course. So one thing I was sort of trying to get at was that corporations, (to beat a dead horse!) need further regulation, for all the financial and prudential reasons commonly discussed in economics, but also for the different topic of making them a more congenial social setting, by easing the gulag aspects many have internally. And at the same time enriching our outside lives by demoting TV as the central cultural touchstone of our social lives, etc., etc.., etc...

    1. Of course the estate wasn't a perfect model, but you're correct that we can still learn something from it. In the real world, nothing is perfect!