Monday, March 18, 2013

Values in Politics – an examination of Eric Aarons’ social philosophy


above:  a photo of Eric Aarons at work on a sculpture - art being another of Eric's passions

In the following article Richard Archer provides a deep assessment of the social philosophy of Eric Aarons: one of the most important figures in the history of Australian communism.  But as Archer explains, these days Eric prefers the mantle of an ethical, environmentalist and humanist social democracy.  Broadly agreeing with Aarons, Archer nonetheless insists on basing our social enquiries on actually-existing social tendencies and class forces - including the process of class struggle which continues to emerge in diverse forms in today's capitalist world.  What emerges is a picture of Aarons thought arisng from a lifetime of experience and thought - well-worth engaging with in the search for a framework for Left thinking in the 21st Century.

Nb:  There is a public meeting coming in NSW on April 14th to celebrate Eric's life and work.

The details are as follows: 
The Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre is hosting an event to honour Eric’s wide-ranging contributions to art, politics and political philosophy.

2:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Featuring Guest Speakers
Meredith Burgmann
– ALP and progressive left activist, and former President of the NSW Legislative Council
Professor Steve Keen – author of Debunking Economics
Drew Hutton – President of the “Lock the Gate Alliance” fighting irresponsible mining, longtime environmental campaigner, and a co-founder of the Australian Greens
Margaret West – artist, poet and essayist

Join us – and Eric – for an afternoon of discussion and celebration.
Refreshments provided.

nb also: The publisher of this blog, Tristan Ewins, has also written an extensive commentary on one of Eric's more recent works 'Hayek versus Marx - and Today's Challenges' - and that can be found here:

Debate welcome!!!

Article By  Richard Archer

Eric Aarons, born 1919 in Sydney and now retired to Minto NSW, was a prominent activist in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and for a time its National Secretary. He was also its leading theoretician producing party documents that tackled the wide range of issues challenging not only the working class but its industrial and political organisations.

Later in life, he wrote a number of books covering philosophy, socialism, the environment and neo-liberalism, in particular, the conservative thinker and economist, Friedrich Hayek.[1] Eric’s mature philosophy is best captured in his last three books: What’s Right (2003) [WR], Market versus Nature: the Social Philosophy of Friedrich Hayek (2008) [MVN] and Hayek versus Marx and today’s challenges (2009) [HVM].  Philosophy for an Exploding World: Today’s Values Revolution (1973) [PEW] is an early book where values are first discussed. What’s Left (1993) [WL] is largely an autobiography.

While these books have attracted a degree of favourable notice in Australia, they have not received the attention deserved by academics and activists or, indeed, a much wider audience. This essay attempts to correct this and stimulate the discussion he and others have tried to promote – a post-socialist, post-neo-liberal understanding of what needs to be done to achieve a fair and sustainable future for all.

Recognising values

To begin with a general overview: Aarons’s life reflects a gradual move from Stalinism to a more open Marxism and finally, as the CPA itself gradually declined and came to an end in 1991, an abandonment of revolutionary Marxism – class-struggle and historical materialism – for social democracy and humanism.

This trajectory is marked by his commitment to investigating the truth wherever it may lead and regardless of whom it may offend. The non-dogmatic approach was derived in part from his training in science – he received a first class honours degree from the University of Sydney – but was also supported by the CPA’s own independent stance towards Moscow and Beijing. The party was one of the first of the very few communist parties to condemn the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia at the time. 

The other aspect of this journey – and the one focussed on here - was the growing recognition of the critical role human values play in affecting the way we think and act, the key lesson being if we are to change the world our values must change as well.

Reflecting on his ‘discovery’ of values, Aarons writes

“I then began to understand that unless we articulated those values and incorporated them in our everyday activity and ideological struggles, any victories we pursued would never be achieved.” (MVN, 85)

To take a central concern of his, the environmental crisis, we need to value the natural environment not as something to be exploited with little consideration for present and future generations but as something to be respected, nurtured and enjoyed on that basis.  Just as much as our practices must change to meet this and other social challenges, so must our values undergo reform and development.

As opposed to those who would concentrate narrowly on analysis, strategy and organisation to bring about change, Aarons points to the role values play and the need to focus on ensuring the appropriate ones are there. For example, moral and ethical codes or principles must be adapted to handle the environment in a sustainable fashion. In recent years, the rights and wrongs of treating animals, managing land and dealing with waste have developed in response to the effects of neglect. As one indicator, where previously companies did not report on their environmental impact, nowadays many feel obliged – though not to full effect.

While some would grant the role of values as obvious, Aarons sees changing values as a project in itself, requiring not only real change to the institutions and practices that express them but, especially given the magnitude of the current crisis, a broad philosophical alternative grounding the new set of values. There must be a larger theoretical framework that would draw on our experience of socialism and neo-liberalism but replace them to host the values leading us forward. On top of the social revolution, then, there needs to be a values revolution which a new philosophy brings together. Indeed it is impossible to have a successful social revolution without a values revolution and no values revolution without a revolution in philosophy.

The primacy of politics

All of this is in direct contrast to those who would see history moving on a course all of its own either in a pre-determined or spontaneous manner. An example of the former would be Marxists such as Engels and Kautsky, and, some would say, Marx himself, where the productive forces of the economy are seen as the primary drivers of history leading us ultimately to a world of plenty.

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”

- Friedrich Engels, Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx.

An example of the spontaneity theory would be represented in the neo-liberal thought of Friedrich Hayek. Here historical development is seen as a product of the ‘natural’, spontaneous activity of individuals. Attempts by governments to impose direction on the free market can only pervert this process of growth and prosperity, leading to disaster. Essentially, the only good government is a small one.

Neither of these options passes close examination, but more worryingly they would lead us down a course of destruction with their blithe message of ‘it will be alright on the night’ as long as we play along with the forces and not resist them. However what guarantee is there we won’t end up in a dead planet? There is no evidence given to show that either option corrects itself before it is all too late, just faith and a hope for the best.

Instead Aarons sees humanity capable of taking such active control through deliberate political action. It is politics rather than economics that is primary. All of which means for careful deliberation about our options and a real chance of turning things around we need a “new Social Philosophy” (MVN, 119) that would integrate key disciplines such as philosophy, history, economics, sociology, psychology and biology. In addition to an understanding of what is practically possible, a democratic organisation and a skilled leadership we need the theoretical perspective and values to steer our ship by.

Aarons concedes the task of constructing that philosophy is beyond him as it is probably beyond the ability of any other individual. On the other hand, it is certainly not beyond ongoing public dialogue and reflection.

This dialogue occurs in many locales, within many organisations and across a range of forums – on-line, print and face-to-face, here and overseas. Debates over privatisation, commodification, discrimination, inequality, steady-state economies, to mention a few, are not hard to find. However, to provide momentum for a positive alternative and the ability to set a visionary agenda, the process needs continuous consolidation.

In general, what would the new philosophy contain? Aarons provides a number of suggestions in his later writings and books. The following is a summary of a few key elements. Where required, some of Aarons’ points have been expanded on.

Social democracy, not socialism

To begin with, it is not socialism, defined commonly as the social ownership and control of the means of production and with it a command economy. While sharing the values of socialism such as freedom, egalitarianism, democracy, prosperity and unity, Aarons points to the proven inability of socialist societies to realise those values. This is not to neglect the many proud achievements of socialists but instead to say the socialist project itself has failed and appears unlikely to succeed by its own standards.

Aarons sees two basic reasons for the breakdown, both of them endemic to socialism. The first is the absence of competitive marketplaces and the consequent inability to gather information on supply and demand transmitted by market prices. Without the instantaneous information about supply and demand for goods set in the markets and provided in prices, central planning is blindfolded.

To try and overcome this, an immense task is set before planners. Estimates of supply and demand must be made to decide what is to be produced - how much, of what quality, where, when and for whom - if the entire range of politically agreed individual and social needs are to be satisfied, and then for the entire stock to be priced administratively for exchange and accountancy purposes.

Information must be collected of future demand by consumers for final goods and services together with their quantity, quality, timing and site of delivery. Consumers include not only households but schools, hospitals, defence forces and other public institutions. Information must be gathered from producers of what current stocks they have and future requirements for the energy, material, technology, processes and labour of all forms to provide the final goods and services for consumers. Then there are the needs of distributors for the necessary transport, warehousing, outlets and labour. The list goes on.

Moreover, that immense amount of information however good at the time of collection rapidly becomes out of date as the supply and demand situation changes over the period of the annual plan. As Aarons puts it, “[the] labour involved in such an exercise would then be largely wasted, while in contrast market-established prices are spontaneously generated and are more or less instantly available at negligible cost.” (HVM, 24-5)[2]

In addition, socialist planners encountered another difficulty – the quality of the data collected. Subordinates in a centrally planned economy with bureaucratically administered state firms were tempted not to transmit the information up the line or more often distort it for various self-interested or defensive purposes, such as avoiding blame for production failures. As a result, unreliability was the over-whelming experience of data collection in socialist economies.

The results were inefficiencies, poor quality and shortages on a grand scale with attempts by planners and managers to cover up the difficulties and shift blame for failing to meet targets. Both producers and consumers in socialist economies found that with central planning and administrative pricing “… neither the quantity nor quality of available goods met their requirements or needs.” (HVM, 25)[3]

Furthermore, things did not improve with attempts to reform under Khrushchev, Kosygin and Gorbachev. Nor did they improve with experiments such as market socialism and self-management as in Kadar’s Hungary and Tito’s Yugoslavia. None of these efforts could escape the shadow of the very system they were attempting to change. The contradictions remained in a different form with the standard of living in decline. The collapse when it came there and everywhere else provided the final judgement on the socialist economic model. The people were fed up with the entire system as were the many endeavouring to operate it.[4]

The social and the individual

Secondly, socialism, as the term itself denotes, emphasises the social above the individual. As Aarons puts it, “[socialism] sought to promote, almost exclusively the socially-oriented side in human nature.” (MVN, 87)

In an obvious sense this ranking has merit. Individuals would not survive let alone develop without a society and so individuals should not threaten the very basis of their existence. Likewise if external or internal threats to society are to be tackled, social cooperation – unity – is a must. Altruism and self-sacrifice are to be valued in this respect.

However, the primacy given to the social also leads to a suspicion of individualism as anti-social. Individualism in this sense is associated with private property and profit-seeking or more generally with anarchy. Whereas the public or communal sphere is good, the private sphere is suspect. Consequently, individualism lives in an uneasy relationship with socialism, at best to be tolerated and at other times to be attacked.[5]

While there are good grounds under capital’s rule to suspect anything smacking of the profit-motive, the effect is a bias towards the social and a broader inability to accept and, more importantly, value the natural tendency of all of us to be both self and other-oriented to one degree or another. This meant that policy, particularly economic policy as demonstrated in socialist countries, ruled out or marginalised private property and markets with disastrous social and economic consequences. More generally, individual expression itself was restricted. In the course of which core socialist values were scuttled.

On these two scores, socialism sets itself up for failure, leading to bureaucratic and despotic rule before inefficiency, shortages and corruption trigger its eventual collapse. Aarons presents the fall of the USSR, European socialist bloc countries and the rise of China’s red capitalism as evidence of these basic flaws leading to socialism’s demise. Other explanations such as under-development, lack of a democratic tradition, ‘mistakes’, personality cults, whatever, may have contributed but the two root causes for its collapse remain systemic to socialism.

Economic planning and markets

Instead of socialism, Aarons recommends a political settlement which would see markets restricted to defined areas of the economy and regulated for the common good, in other words, a mixed economy under social democratic rule. Markets - when truly competitive – can generate real-time price information and efficient production, stimulate innovation and harness the business spirit. The resulting cheaper goods and services together with the ability to choose amongst them can benefit everyone.[6]

Acceptance of markets does not mean being naïve about companies or industries acting to rig the system, particularly big ones. Instead it recognises markets as social and historical creations and as such can be made to serve interests broader than those of the market-players themselves.

To avoid human and environmental exploitation, companies – incorporated bodies of any sort, big and small - must be made accountable as corporate citizens to workers, owners and the communities they affect as terms of the settlement. One small step in this direction would be to make the governing bodies, boards, composed of all stakeholders not just shareholders.

Democratic government in turn would be accountable for the design and implementation of market processes, provide the necessary infrastructure, governance and ensure outcomes met social values.  Public measures such as full employment, progressive taxation and national savings programs would build prosperity and equality, iron out business cycles while directing investment towards a sustainable future. The best, though certainly not perfect, examples of this balance of market and planning being the Scandinavian societies.

“… [Human] consciousness and planning will be necessary now to an increasing extent. Or, as is sometimes said, a central task today is to ‘get the balance right’ between planning and the use of markets.” (MVN, 73)

Aarons goes some of the way towards setting out that balance by dividing up the economy according to the degree to which government involvement is needed to ensure the common good and where markets should be allowed to operate.[7] In terms of a scale, at one end of the formal economy you have (‘fast-moving’) consumer goods and services produced for the mass market, being subject primarily to supply and demand and which in large part should be left to the market to organise. Similarly the sector producing capital goods and services for the consumer goods industries – resources, industrials, materials, for example - should be able to use the marketplace.

At the other end, you have social infrastructure which includes not only hardware such as utilities, housing, roads, ports but software items such as education and health that need direct government involvement or assistance of one kind or the other, for example, day-care.

In between these two poles you have industries like information technology, telecommunications, media, finance, entertainment where a mix is needed of direct and indirect state intervention.

However you cut it, a broad set of principles is required from public debate to define the common good and determine how light or heavy government involvement should be and of what kind. Those principles structure the settlement between labour, capital and the community.[8]

Social justice

As standards on which to base such a settlement, Aarons makes a number of proposals about social justice in Market versus Nature which I briefly summarise below:

·         Mutual respect

·         No discrimination based on identity (e.g. race, gender, age) or disability

·         Sufficient minimum wage and social insurance

·         Equal access to the law, health care, education, communication

·         Proper support and training for those disadvantaged by business cycles

·         Full employment

·         Minimum inequality in wealth and income

·         Quality of work and life

·         Intergenerational justice, e.g. the environment to be left in as good as shape or better for the next generation           (MVN, 60ff)

All of these deserve support and ought to be found in a Bill of Rights together with others like fair elections, access to fresh water, air, a clean environment and the right to control one’s reproductive capacities – contraception and safe abortion.

According to Aarons, such principles, rules or standards express more general human values which found his social philosophy – care, integrity, honour, hope, love, fairness, compassion to name a few.  Beneath the hard, prescriptive language of rights, justice and morality, lies the softer tones of human values. Being general, values provide a common ground for interpersonal relations, political solidarity and direction and the basis for cooperation with a global reach.  This insight leads Aarons to explore human values further.


To return to Aarons’ re-discovery of values: it is ironic that holding the core socialist values of freedom, egalitarianism, democracy, prosperity and unity, referred to earlier, compels him to drop socialism.  Yet this is what Aarons and others like him have done.  Indeed, it was a revelation that he refers to in his books.

“I concluded … that values, particularly as they were raised to the level of a more consciously held social philosophy, were a sounder basis than simply class for developing forms of unity. Values, in principle, embraced within themselves the class consciousness on which we had put previously put all the emphasis.” (WL, 190)

Values as he describes them in his earliest formation “involve the whole person”, combining “thought and emotions”, “are involved in what people actually do, not just what they say”, “are not necessarily held in some consciously articulated form, but may be adhered to unconsciously or perhaps subconsciously” and finally, values “refer to the most generalised attitudes as distinct from more particular reactions”. (PEW, 30)

Our personal values develop from the instincts inherited as infants to be shaped by our experience of the particular settings we live in and where pre-existing social values are encountered. But as Aarons stresses, values in turn dispose us to think and act in certain ways to realise them in the world. By motivating us to fashion the world as we would prefer it to be, values – quite literally - make life worthwhile.

As noted earlier, all of this is in direct contrast to a Marxism that relegates values to consciousness as a more or less passive player in the scheme of things. Instead Aarons sees values as bases from which understanding can lead us to think and act in one way or the other. In his case, he says his values didn’t change when confronted by the contradictions of socialism overseas and changes to Australian society but his understanding did as the Marxist world-view made less sense. The passion remained despite the theoretical misgivings.

While this values-perspective of Aarons’ philosophy provides a distinctive approach to politics it also raises questions and points to areas needing development. A few key points are touched on here.

Human nature

Aarons’ concern with human nature derives from his experience of many socialists presuming that human beings could be fashioned and perfected into new socialist men and women as we are basically communitarian at heart. The social potential is there under capitalism. All that is needed is the revolution to realise our essential nature under communism. Here is Maxim Gorky in his novel Mother.

“They will walk with open hearts, and the heart of each will be pure of envy and greed, and therefore all mankind will be without malice, and there will be nothing to divorce the heart from reason.”

Opposed to this conception of human nature is the pre-social egoist of neo-liberalist ideology, the abstract individual beloved by free-marketeers who sees the world in terms of self-interest alone. Capitalism is the natural economic order, the perfect home for economic man. Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, was a popular evangelist of one of the many versions of radical individualism.[9] Amongst her quotes include:

“If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”[10]

Just as worrying is the use to which racists, sexists and homophobes use their versions of human nature to justify discriminatory practices and elitism of all sorts.  In this case there are different types of human natures and a supposed natural social order to correspond. Social Darwinism is another variation of this theme where society is seen as a type of evolutionary outcome in which the naturally superior rise to rule over those who are weaker in nature.

While it is easy to see the pitfalls of appealing to an abstraction reducing us all - or particular groups - to some simple type, the term ‘human nature’ nevertheless plays a persistent role in our everyday attempt to understand human similarity and difference as well as helping us to gauge expected behaviour. ‘Human nature’ is a concept that refuses to die however much criticised as un-scientific and ideological.

Here, Aarons’ approach is more than useful. Look at human nature not as a simple type be it self-centred or social or pleasure-seeking or rational or irrational or power-thirsty, whatever, but as a system of different and often conflicting tendencies that we all share. That is, humanity has no single common disposition that dominates and trumps all the rest but as individuals we share a common set of tendencies pulling us one direction or the other. As discussed earlier we are neither self-directed nor other-directed but both. Collectively, we are neither the sociopaths of neo-liberalism nor the saints of socialism.

Having said that, the question remains to what extent are humans capable of radical change as suggested by some socialists? Is our nature fixed in certain key respects or are we completely malleable? Are we cricket balls or pieces of dough? Again the answer is both.

In terms of needs, we all need safety and security. We have elementary physical needs – food, warmth, water, sex, rest - as well as a set of basic psychological and social needs such as respect, self-esteem, autonomy and love. In this sense our nature is fixed. On the other hand how we meet those needs takes many forms. The ways in which people satisfy their needs, the various types of objects and activities, appears limitless. In this sense our nature is adaptable.

So human nature is fixed and fluid as well – but only to a certain extent. There are limits not only in terms of things available, food, clothing and shelter, for example, but the manner and degree to which our needs can be satisfied at any one time and over a period of time. In our daily lives, most of us recognise such limits without unnecessarily frustrating ourselves or risking our health and future, ‘doing the best we can with the sense we have’.

Undermining this, however, is the unsustainable level of environmental exploitation and pollution being driven on by consumerism, capital accumulation and population growth. Meeting the limits to growth requires reviewing not only production and consumption but distributing the burdens and benefits equitably on a global scale. It is these environmental limits and the social challenges they present that will test the limits of our human nature.

Aarons’ social philosophy then does not assume an ideological platform of what our true nature is nor its ideal habitat but alerts us to contending human needs and values that must be managed in ever-changing, complex situations. Needless to say no one theory of society or history is going to do the trick of understanding and solving problems all along the way. Instead a culture of listening or openness is required to develop and maintain effective, enjoyable social systems – at work, at home, in the arts, at play, in the community.

The ghost of Marx

To be expected, Aarons’ social philosophy represents his considerable experience of Marxism in addressing local and international developments and in particular the role of class-struggle as an explanation or the explanation of social and historical change. As Australia became more prosperous after WWII, it appeared that class-struggle had lost its sting and while inequalities remained they became bearable with an improved standard of living. The many changes in daily life such as television, consumerism and suburbanisation as well as the move towards a service-sector economy changed not only the composition of those who ‘sold their labour-power’ but their consciousness as well. The rise of social movements added to the cast of political agents, complicating matters while overseas, socialism became more and more an acquired taste. Put simply, when it came to buying Marx, you weren’t getting what it said on the tin.

At the same time, we are currently seeing the world economy stumbling over the contradictions of debt-funded capitalism (why not provide everyone a decent income instead?), a North-South divide that Dickens or Balzac would have easily recognised (for “third-world city”, read “slum”), a suite of global crises – water, food, oil, environment – that has doomsday science-fiction writers playing catch-up, the ‘dark’ factories of robotised manufacturing spreading everywhere, the extension of precarious employment in all its forms, and to top it off, each year, a global concentration of unimaginable wealth and power earnestly mounts the stage to preach gospel at Davos.

If the march of history set down in historical materialism appears obscure, class-struggle in its many shapes and sizes doesn’t. Exploitation by the owners of capital whether it is found in the details of the labour theory of value or not remains the reality if not the language of the great majority in the world today. More recently, by focusing on income inequality, the Occupy Movement brought attention to classes and exploitation on a global scale.

In Aarons’ case, class-analysis or some such similar understanding of social forces is by and large left to others, while he focuses on the environmental and spiritual crisis brought on by the market and its ideological companion, neo-liberalism. There is a weakness here which is exposed when we try to identify the forces and strategy for change. Where are the troops? Who is to lead the charge, how and where?

According to a values-approach, we must look to the subjective-side of the coin for the answer, those who are aware and concerned about the direction of history, who share core values. As values are certainly necessary to prompt action, this is unexceptionable and marks a start. However values are generalised attitudes, preferences; they need to be informed by analysis, understanding. Moreover, progressive values need to be developed in the general population. Values must have the required quality or intensity, and those holding them need to be organised, resourced and led skilfully.

All of this Aarons and others like him would agree with, yet there is little indication of where we find the tools for this job particularly when class - or something similar - is absent from the discussion. In this sense the ghost of Marx returns to remind us neither philosophy nor morality can replace social analysis. In the rush away from Marx, important instruments have been left behind.

For example, it was one of the strengths of the communist movement that a discussion of strategy was preceded by an identification and assessment of the social forces at play – classes, movements, organisations, technological developments, and the like – to lead to what business planners term “scenario development”.  While the algorithms of traditional Marxism may not be suitable, some such assessment must be put in its place for a political vehicle or vehicles to drive the analysis and strategy. 

Critically, such analysis must face the need for the world to be run on a steady-state economy. What would it look like? What would be the rules for the market and the market-players? What form would capital accumulation take, if any? What type of growth would be allowed and what should be encouraged?

While the mixed economy in steady-state terms could not be called socialist it would represent the best of socialist values. It would be different from anything we have experienced before, requiring distinctive social and political systems underpinned by a changed set of values. These questions are not new but were foreseen with some interest by John Stuart Mill many years ago.

“...[A] stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the art of living, and much more likelihood of it being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on."

- Of the Stationary State, Book IV, Chapter VI in Principles of Political Economy: With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy.

How we transition to this and the low carbon economy of the future necessitates a clear social analysis of the type mentioned for a ‘battle plan’ to be prepared, perhaps one centring on a nation-wide project involving capital, labour and government similar in grand vision to the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. In this respect, Labor’s ‘Clean Energy Future’ is a small but important step in the direction of such a deeper and wider transformation of society.

Any such analysis would also have to consider other basic concerns such as jobs and general standard of living and build from there. Environmental issues while applying to all of us form only part of the panoply of matters that are found in the world today. More immediate for the great mass of humanity are the core everyday concerns of work, pay, food, housing, health, education and family. Focussing principally on dangers to the environment runs the danger of not being to able to mobilise effectively. To build an effective unity, the links must be drawn between the traditional concerns of labour and broader social, environmental matters. Aarons’ new social philosophy is to be expressed here.

In conclusion, only certain aspects of Aarons’ work have been considered but in the hope that they will stimulate further reading, discussion and activity. His writings provide a human scale to social and political reform that is engaging and practical, devoid of the windy metaphysics and turgid argot of others. They certainly deserve more attention in these uncertain times.


[1] Philosophy for an Exploding World: Today’s Values Revolution (Brolga, Sydney, 1972), What’s Left (Penguin, 1993), What’s Right (Rosenberg, 2003), Market versus Nature: the Social Philosophy of Friedrich Hayek (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008), Hayek versus Marx and today’s challenges (Routledge, 2009).
[2] Perhaps computerised data systems somehow could be devised to update national supply and demand information on a real-time basis and then somehow automatically set prices for each and every good and service. But why bother when markets do this at no charge?
[3] The classic work detailing the problems of socialist central planning is Janos Kornai’s The Socialist System (Princeton University Press, Princeton 1992).
[4] Socialism or forms of it may provide a necessary temporary solution such as in immediate post-revolutionary situations or in wartime, but as a long term position it presents more difficulties than remedies. The modern Cuban experience is a case in point. The overthrow of the corrupt Batista regime and the nationalisation of industry and rich land-holdings enabled Cubans to establish an important measure of control over their destiny. However, even as the devastating impact of the Special Period in which Cuba saw a loss in Soviet subsidised export finance has come to a conclusion, more market-based solutions are being explored in the face of bureaucratic stagnation. 
[5] Socialists sometimes try to identify the social with the individual. ‘Under communism, the social shall express the individual and the individual shall express the social.’ This type of conceptual trick while attempting to remove the tension is potentially authoritarian for who is to decide when the individual is out of step with the social? If the individual can only recognise his or her individuality, only the social has the knowledge to recognise itself and therefore the authority to ensure the convergence.
[6] This does not mean that monopolies are necessarily less efficient than companies operating in competition. Economies of scale, for one, may be achievable by a company, private or government-owned, in a monopoly situation. This depends on the industry or economic sector where so-called natural monopolies may be found or at a particular time or conjuncture, for example, in the early stages of industrial development as Australia experienced.
[7] For the purposes here, households and civil society or the community sector made up of not-for-profit and voluntary organisations – unions, faith groups, charities, clubs, political parties, community associations, advocacy groups and the like – are not considered. The importance of households and not-for-profits to the economy needs constant reinforcement. In addition, the importance of the (financial) independence of civil society to democracy itself cannot be over-estimated.
[8] Besides indicating the level of government intervention, the scale also doubles as an index of the degree of commodification involved in every-day life, how much of our life requires buying and selling things. 
[9] The former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Alan Greenspan, for one, admired her from an early age, even attending her funeral.
[10] These quotations are taken from the website


  1. Thanks for this "intellectual biography" of sorts.

    I've seen a similar article online of a lecture transcript, can't remember exactly who/when but mid-1990s I think, that also argued that Marxism needed to 'embrace values'. Argument was along the lines that neo-liberalism and offshoring of factory work meant that in the developed world there was no longer a clear majority of self-identified working-class solidarity wanting change as a result of a sense of injustice.

    Applying this all to contemporary Australian politics: I wonder what the author or other thinks re the Greens, Labor, and values/class? I.E. the Greens position themselves as a party of values (particularly ecological-inspired but also in terms of compassion to refugees, gay rights etc) whereas labor seems to struggle these days to identify and communicate consistent values or even class-interest, other than economic growth? Can the two usefully work together, if Labor left re-positioned themselves as more social democratic?

    1. From my (the author) perspective, the Greens need Labor and Labor needs the Greens to develop a social-democratic alliance if either set of values is to overcome those of neo-liberalism. As I said in the article, a grand project is needed that would enable both constituencies to prove they can work together.

    2. Thanks Richard. I've also remembered another pamplet/book I think is valuable in this arena and relevant to points you raise in the article. Its called 'Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity', available from

      It talks about people as having values classifiable as more intrinsic (linked to community welfare, self-esteem), and extrinsic (i.e. quest for status, popularity). It posits that consumer capitalism is good at activating the latter, but we need to work out ways to re-inforce the former if environmentalism and community devt. is a goal.

  2. Thanks for this interesting examination of the political evolution of Eric Aarons. A number of former members of the defunct CPA have moved towards a social democratic philosophy, and while this is understandable given the political degeneration of the CPA, I think it is fundamentally flawed. That social democracy was able to be implemented at the national level in a number of European countries was due to the strength and intensity of working class struggle, the example of the social gains in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, and the capacity of trade unions to organise collectively to respond to any attacks on living standards. With the demise of the Eastern bloc and the retreat of the trade unions, social democratic measures are no longer needed, as the capitalist class has become even more exploitative and barbarous.

    I think every political system necessarily creates and reinforces the values that it claims to represent. The capitalist system arose not just because of social and economic forces, but because there was a material basis for its values of the profit-motive and 'entrepreneurship'. Everyday, the corporate-controlled media promotes capitalist values and ideology to the working class, indoctrinating us with the ultimate 'value' of profit-maximisation and consumerism.

    A socialist project must necessarily promote the values of collectivity and solidarity among people of all ethnic groups and backgrounds. It is true that politics is primary, and buttressing politics is political economy. That's why Marx and Engels placed enormous emphasis on the latter. To their credit, the former CPA did strongly participate in many campaigns of social justice, and they were among the first to advocate indigenous rights, even when many on the Labour-movement Left were hostile to indigenous people and even downright racist. The CPA did recognise the intersection of various forms of oppression, and took a strong stand against racism, for the environment, and promoted social justice values.

  3. Though much of Marxism remains accurate and useful. Drawing from the arch-Revisionist, Bernstein, we gather a sense of the Marxist tradition's ongoing usefulness for social democracy.

    Hence Bernstein: “The fall of the profit rate is a fact, the advent of over-production and crises is a fact, periodic diminution of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, the increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact.” (Bernstein, Pp 41-42)

    And while class struggle may appear to be at a low ebb with post-industrialism, I think it would be a mistake to rule it out as an underlying dynamic which can still produce progressive change. I think Archer seems to recognise this - and that is good.

    Also I'm not certain we should adopt the bourgeois understanding of 'socialism versus social democracy'. Sometimes the distinction can be useful - in winning over those who may feel put-off by the term 'socialism' and the connotations that have developed over decades. But there's a radical tradition of Social Democracy that developed in the 19th and 20th Centuries as well. Take the Austro-Marxists for instance. There are many possible interpretations of socialism and social democracy - some of which view the two as potentially synonymous.

    Perhaps another useful term could be "liberal democratic socialism"?

    Though it is certainly true that in neglecting the ethical question of WHY we should fight injustice, ethics was largely left untheorised in Marxism. Aarons returns to this question - which goes all the way back to the Neo-Kantian Socialists. Perhaps it would be worth having a look at Lange and Cohen? I've never studied Kant at length but it could be interesting.

    1. I don't think it is a matter of definition as much as strategy. How do we build a fair and sustainable society? A fundamentalist Marxism - at least on one widespread interpretation - directs us to large scale nationalisation which history has shown produces obscene outcomes in the long term. On the other hand, a non-dogmatic Marxism has lots to say on how we can manage the contradictions of capital and labour at this time in the face of environmental disaster while avoiding dictatorship, stagnation and corruption. The tags for either I leave to others.
      Finally, Aarons' philosophy is based on human values - human well-being. Morals or ethics - how we ought to deal with each other in achieving well-being - follows closely on.

  4. Richard, I think there are still potentially useful roles for nationalisation - without going so far as a (so-called) "traditional socialist command economy". Eric points out the core role of market signals in driving innovation and efficiency. But public enteprise and other kinds of democratic enterprise can achieve the same kind of responsiveness in a competitive market context....

    Take mining for instance. Assuming a competitive global market - and excluding the abuse of any global monpopoly - why not at least 'in theory' support nationalisation of mining, socialising the tens of billions of profits for investment in the social wage, and (for the long term) in a Sovereign Wealth Fund? And why not restore a competitive sector of government business enterprises - which actually ENHANCE competition by mitigating against oligopolistic abuse of market power. For example: in general insurance, private health insurance, banking etc?

    And surely there remain areas of natural public monopoly: large scale energy infrastructure, water infrastructure, communications infrastructure, transport infrastructure... Support for public media is also a crucial component in the fight to promote pluralism and media diversity.

    Finally - why not consider diversifying the democratic sector in the future with joint enterprises - mobilising government investment, co-operative investment and forms of collective capital formation - 'innovative democratic enterprise' which - rather than replicating the errors of the old command economies - actually compete and innovate on the world market? (but that nonetheless promote meaningful economic and industrial democracy) The government stake in such enterprise could be crucial in providing the internally-financed investment necessary to make democratic Australian enteprise competitive with the big transnational corporations on the world market - providing the necessary 'economies of scale' to compete at that level...

    Co-operativism and mutualism deserve to be promoted very strongly. Personally I believe in a Co-operative incentive scheme - with tax breaks, low-interest loans, and professional advice in founding and maintaining co-operatives, mutualist enterprise and the like. But we shouldn't rule out a robust public sector because we are fighting against the tide of intellectual fashion...

    Finally - In 'Hayek versus Marx' Eric looks forward to a future balance between individualism and competition, planning and markets, competition and co-operation... We shouldn't rule out all kinds of future enterprise - run on the principle of co-operation - just because central planning had its limits, and becaue the neo-liberal Ideology is hegemonic... I know that's not what you're saying , Richard - but while there are true benefits to competitive markets - there's the element of Ideology as well.

    A future "democratic mixed economy" remains a possibility - and is a concept around which the Left could regroup and remobilise.

    1. Of course, I agree there is plenty of room for publicly-owned industries, privately-run mutuals, co-ops operating in a (regulated) monopolistic or competitive environment. A key question in getting the mix right is whether the distribution of economic and ideological power undermines democratic debate. Right now it is pretty much all capital's way. So we need to bend the stick back. I don't just mean media reform but the power behind the agenda-setting - capital itself, especially banks and mines in the case of Oz and in some of the ways you suggest.

  5. Did Stalinism represent the failure of central planning for the reasons Aarons is adducing, or the upshot of the failure of the socialist revolution to make headway in the west, resulting in the domination of the earth by a hostile capitalist empire which is still busily rewriting history? Was not Bolshevik mass-nationalisation more a military measure against counter-revolution than a considered economic policy (I think Trotsky later said something to that effect). Nationalisation, in any case, should be a path to social and democratic ownership. Agaionst 'free comnpetition' one might posit 'free co-operation'?

  6. As to the 'primacy of politics', if (like Hayek?!) Marx had thought the development of the productive forces was leading inevitably to peace and plenty, why would he have advocated revolution? The economic factor has long been primary as people have not fully understood the whole system that has grown up over centuries (today, capitalism); the point is to understand it, sieze control of it, and *make* the political factor primary. Like fire, the economy is a good servant but a bad master, but to control fire you must *learn* how it works, or channel into environments where it can be controlled, such as a stove or hearth. It has potential, but not overarching intelligence.

  7. Robert, I think war-time economies and the Swedish Rehen-Meidner model show that a an element of planning can be a stabilising principle in capitalism. But Sweden also shows that the capitalists have their limits when it comes to socialising their prerogatives, and the super-profits they have acquired by forcing wage restraint. Perhaps if anything it shows we need a more steady incrementalism - except in 'watersheds' - as is occuring in Europe - and with the rise of Syriza in Greece. Certainly if wage restraint is demanded in the future we need a strong labour movement ready to demand proportionate compensation with collective capital share.

    1. Affirming the primacy of politics is the base-line for social critique and action. Otherwise we watch from the sidelines, locked in neutral gear - and many do. But whatever lessons we may draw from Sweden, Greece, Venezuela, etc. the starting point of critique and resistance is all about our place in the world and a strong sense of imagination. What would an achievable settlement look like here in Oz? For all their many faults, the Prices-Income Accord had and modern superannuation has held our imagination, on which hope is built and from which we move forward. We desperately need that sort of freshness developed here.

    2. I think that affirming the 'primacy of politics' could suggest a belief that Marx's laws of motion of capitalism, including the things Tristan reminds us that Bernstein accepted, are bunk; and that all revolutionaries or reformists need to do is take over the government and make different policies and all will be well. Rather, we need to change the economic system, which is a supremely political act but acknowledges that the fundamental problem in society is the current division between the ownership of productive property by a minority and the reliance on wage labour for the majority.

    3. In response to Robert; At one point in 'The Primacy of Politics' Sheri Berman writes that 'structure and agency condition each other'. I think that sums things up well. Though since capitalism is a global system of interdependence that makes it incredibly hard to change at a 'root and branch' level. But at the same time international POLITICAL co-ordination is the only way of doing it.. And some significant change IS possible at a national level, also, as the Nordics etc show. Also when Beraman speaks of 'the primacy of the politics' she's also talking about examples such as Sweden... Not that they didn't find their limits - But their political strategies and tactics DID manage to outflank fascim in the 1930s, and establish political and social citizenship so to speak.... Which is better than a 'wait and see' 'fatalistic' approach to politics.

  8. Richard: The idea of a Prices-Incomes Accord is partly derived from Sweden where there was wage restraint at the top end of the wages scale for decades - to contain inflation, but aggressive wage claims by others - especially the low paid. Industries effectively 'subsidised' by low wages were driven out of business. And active industry policies focused on creating higher wage jobs... It was also in the context of an incrasingly comprehensive welfare state. The 'Saltsjobaden' agreement of 1938 also prefigured Sweden's later corporatism. And in Australia in 1983 there was talk of Australia going down the Swedish road.

    But the problem is this: In Sweden by the 1980s the unions were demanding compensation for previous (and future) wage restraint - resulting in 'super profits'. That compensation was to take the form of collective capital share in wage earner funds. It would have resulted in gradual socialisation of production. But after all those decades of wage restraint the Swedish employers would have nothing of it. There was a scare campaign. The initiative failed.

    Hence we must ask - if we go down the road of (liberal) corporatist arrangements - what will workers and unions get out of it? Or will employers demand compromises that further demobilise the movement due to accomodations at the peak level?

    Another problem is that since unions are so much weaker today than then - What kind of bargaining power do they have?

    Let's talk about this. God knows we need something innovative to capture the public's imagination in the face of the Abbott threat. But what form could an 'Accord' take today - which actually delivered outcomes to workers? (also based on the reality that in the past the Accords delivered a falling wage share; and a threadbare social wage despite all the promises...)

    So let's have a debate!

    1. Some sort of settlement between capital, labour and the community is needed which would enable us to deal with a dysfunctional world economy and global order. For labour and the wider community, it would include familiar elements such as a social wage, a guaranteed income scheme, tax reform, industrial planning, full secure employment and so forth as the basis for developing empathetic social systems of various sorts in the workplace, community, arts, sports, etc. In return, capital gets a level of effective demand allowing it to grow within the borders of sustainability and fairness. What is needed are models of how this all might begin to work on the ground. An important starting point here is superannuation funds using Socially Responsible Investment criteria. That on a thumbnail is the general direction.

  9. Richard: I agree with the principle of socially responsible investment criteria for superannuation funds. Though there is a prolem insofar as people are planning for their future security... And as such many will just want to maximise returns rather than consider ethical criteria. Though I still hold to my critique of superannuation - insofar it there are higher borrowing costs, individuals carry the risk, and there are distributive inequitities.

    What you say also reminds me of the Swedish model; But let's remember that the Swedish settlement ultimately led to the demand for wage earner funds as well. So the settlement we're talking about may last decades (potentially) - but would not be 'the final word' on class struggle. The problem also is the balance of class forces, and whether capital has an interest in a new 'Accord'.

    And remembering also that we don't want to make the mistake again - of stigmatising militancy... Because without *active* trade unions which deliver to their members the labour movement will die...

    Agree with you pretty much everything else... Guaranteed income, tax reform, industrial planning, full employment etc....

    Though there is a danger here we need to face... So long as we have welfare - even Newstart whose conditions Abbott actually wants to worsen further - employers have some interest in less unemployment at least in so far as less unemployed means a smaller welfare bill and potentially lower taxes... If Abbott gets his way pensions and welfare will be slashed, with what remains largely taking a punititive footing... Many stand to lose their payments entirely. Reducing the welfare bill in THAT WAY there would arise a greater interest amongst employers in a larger reserve army of labour - to discipline workers....

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