Thursday, May 20, 2010

Einstein was a socialist

Maybe this was common knowledge, but I didn't realize it until I read an essay of his last night called "Why Socialism?" (1949). He is not an ideologue. The essay essentially runs through a series of problems he sees in the economy and in society, and he wraps it up very quickly at the end saying essentially "socialism is the solution, but we should avoid the totalitarianism of socialism". I suppose that puts Einstein in the New Left, but I do want to stress how casual this analysis was, so that we shouldn't read too much into it or get too excitable over it.
At the beginning of the essay it wasn't even clear that he would end by advocating socialism. He starts by discussing how important it is for citizens to comment on society and on economics, particularly on socialism. He doesn't share his own views on socialism one way or another at that point (perhaps they were well known enough that he didn't have to). He then goes through a series of concerns he has, the resolution of which does not necessitate an embrace of socialism. The socialist portions of the essay feel like something of an afterthought, and I actually won't be sharing them explicitly here.

Anyway, that's my defense of Einstein, but here are some snippets of what he wrote:

"I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society."
That is the general framing provided to the rest of the essay. A couple paragraphs later he gets into his economics. I found this particularly notable:

"Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment;"
What struck me was (1.) how the first sentence so creatively and decisively addresses Say's Law, and (2.) how the second sentence transitions so smoothly to the full employment implications of that insight. I don't know how much economics Einstein was actually familiar with, but that was a line I enjoyed stumbling across, regardless of whether he realized all the potential interpretations of what he had to say. He goes on, although reveals himself to be thinking more along the lines of older under-consumptionist theories rather than Keynesian ideas:

"An 'army of unemployed' almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers' goods is restricted, and great hardship is consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before."
He has glimmers of a theory of effective demand here, but attributes it all somewhat haphazardly to "competition among capitalists". Still an interesting read, though.

There were a couple other pieces of the essay that I thought were worth noting. He was also very preoccupied with what has been called "monopoly capitalism". It's hard to overstate the importance of this idea in the public mind in the first half of the twentieth century. I recently read Bertrand Russell's Freedom vs. Organization, which was a history of Europe from 1815 to 1914, and this issue came up again and again with Russell as well. Well informed people who nonetheless thought somewhat casually about the economy, like Einstein and Russell, were very disturbed by the growing size of corporations and the perceived totalizing influence that would have on society. Some reacted more negatively than others, but its a very important thing to note simply because it was such a driving concern back then, while it isn't really a dominant narrative right now. You barely even hear the term "monopoly capitalism" anymore.

The other intriguing element of Einstein's piece was what he wrote on wages. At first I thought he was pedaling a labor theory of value. He wasn't, really. Upon a closer reading, he never came close to a theory of value, but he did quite clearly reveal a preference for piece rates, rather than an hourly wage. It did have the vague trappings of value theorists like Marx - he talked about connecting workers more closely to what they produced. But ultimately it was more a statement about what he thought was the ideal labor contract than anything else. Piece rates, Einstein suggested, would limit the scope for exploitation by employers. He used an interesting term for the current wage system that I liked. He called the wages workers earn "free" wages because they are independent of what the worker produces.

He also notes the difference between economics and physics, and why it's so much harder to draw conclusions in economics than in physics. So it was an interesting and strange read. I'll end with this additional thought from Einstein on the social nature of man:

"The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society - in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence - that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is 'society' which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word 'society'."
UPDATE: Hopefully this won't detract from the post, but while we're on Einstein I was wondering if some Trekkie's could confirm something for me. Kate and I were watching the new Star Trek again this weekend, and something bugged me. Is warp speed supposed to be the same as light speed in the Star Trek universe? When they all leave the assembly to go answer that distress call, they say that they will arrive (from Earth) and come out of warp speed in someting like eight or nine minutes. The way I figure it, that doesn't get them much past Mars if they're going light speed - certainly nowhere near Jupiter. Did I miss something? They didn't mention anything about using a wormhole (indeed - they're surprised when they find out that the bad guys used a wormhole - they made it sound like a shocking thing rather than a routine technology). Am I misunderstanding this, or was that just sloppy writing?


  1. Einstein ascribed to a bunch of silly notions during the latter part of his life.

    "Is warp speed supposed to be the same as light speed in the Star Trek [Star Wars?] universe?"

    No, warp speed is a FTL propulsion system; so it is able to work around the light speed barrier (or really the close to light speed barrier). See here for a practical discussion of a theoretical propulsion system resembling the warp drive as it exists in the ST universe (note that warp drive means different things in different sci-fi universes):

  2. Anonymous -
    Thanks! Very interesting - so does this expansion and contraction of space time have any consequences for people that happend to be in the region that is expanded or contracted? I suppose it doesn't have to as long as they don't move outside the expanded or contracted region.

    Good - I am sated. My wife insisted I over-analyze things, but I thought it was a pretty big plot hole. Apparently I was just misinformed.

  3. Oh - and as for your parenthetical, I was meaning to say "Star Trek"... I'm less familiar with the Star Trek world than the Star Wars world (not that I'm particularly familiar with that either). It was the new version with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto that we were watching.

  4. Well, it took them some time to come to a canonical understanding of warp drive (they no longer go "Warp 10" for example - and still, there are a fair number of inconsistencies between the various post-TOS series); then there is "trans-warp" (which the Borg use a fair amount) and the whole future of Star Fleet as protector of the proper timeline (and thus vast fleets of ships that can time travel).

    I would say that the "science" of what they are doing on ST is a more important aspect of the show/movies than is the "science" involved in the Star Wars universe. One anecdote - I've never met a Star Wars fan who obsessed over how "hyperspeed" works on the Millennium Falcon - I know dozens of ST fans who own various engineering manuals associated with the Enterprise and other ST craft.

    Anyway, I can see why you are not a libertarian,BTW; being a libertarian means having a deep technical understanding of ST. ;)

  5. "Anyway, I can see why you are not a libertarian,BTW; being a libertarian means having a deep technical understanding of ST. ;)"

    All my Keynes talk left things a little fuzzy, but this sealed the deal, huh!

  6. Sci-fi is a source for much of how people get to libertarianism.


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