I Seem To Have Misplaced My Mean Of Production
February 14, 2012, 4:32 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Don Boudreaux asks is Obama a socialist? and says, correctly,

The answer is no, if by “socialist” is meant someone who advocates government ownership of the means of production.

Boudreaux goes on to talk about something else, but I wanted to stop here. This government-ownership-of-the-means-of-production definition of socialism is a popular one, a comfortable standby especially in online debates. I wonder why, because it’s meaningless.

What in the heck is a ‘mean of production’? I suppose this term made some sense in the middle of the 19th century, when people were bandying about these concepts, in the same way that ‘proletariat’ made sense. But what on earth does it mean now?

Facebook is a gigantic private company that rumor has it is worth about $100 billion. What, I ask, are its ‘means of production’? Some Macbooks, cubicle walls and Red Bulls? If the government came in and took those things, would it ‘own the means of production’ and thereby control Facebook? Seems like that curly haired nerdy kid could just buy everyone more Red Bulls. On the flip side, is the government non-socialist and free-market as long as it stops short of doing that?

What this illustrates is that your brain is a ‘mean of production’. Your time is a ‘mean of production’. And yes, your money is also a ‘mean of production’. Increasingly, these are going to be the main ‘means of production’. Factories my ass. Yet the 19th century definition of socialism is silent on these things because it arose in a world of newly-conspicuous factories and giant machinery, and ‘capitalists’ from non-noble families getting wealthy off their use, in a way that revulsed and frightened some envious, good-for-nothing Nth generation semi-noble reactionaries (whom we call ‘socialists’) into a propaganda-and-terror response to try to restore their former social standing.

There’s almost no such thing as a ‘mean of production’ today. Yes, there are still factories, but it is not there that the locus of industry resides (and arguably never was; from our vantage point the socialists’ obsession with ‘means of production’ almost seems like forest-for-the-trees, cargo-cult style thinking). Thus, applying the ownership-of-the-means-of-production definition of socialism literally, you can practically never conclude that anyone or anything is ‘socialist’.

But of course, perhaps that’s exactly the point.

14 Comments so far
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And does Government really need to physically own the “means of production”, when it has absolute control through regulations?
Think about Exxon. They face enormous regulatory hurdles, alone with special taxation that is levied if they make too much profit. Post-bailouts the goverment owns large shares of stock and can approve executive compensation.
Regulators have more power than the Boards of Directors.

Comment by Jason Waggoner

In the case of Facebook, the means of production would be the servers, which produce (in the same way that printing presses print) content every time you connect.

Jason Waggoner’s comment is coming from some weird alien alternate universe. In the reality of everybody else, regulators are usually part of a revolving door and government regulation as it is right now is a total joke. The worst possible thing regulators do to a company is give them a fine which is a tiny slap on the wrist. Just look at Obama’s bank settlement. If THAT’S socialism, it must be difficult to find a single non-socialist government in all of human history!

Comment by Xamuel

Ok Xamuel, thanks. My next question though would be, why would whether or not the government “owns Facebook’s server farms” be a useful delineation of a political ideology? Is that really an apt description or litmus test of an actual real-world political fault
Iine? As long as you don’t want the government to own Facebook’s server farms, you can’t be socialist?

Clearly by that metric, no one is socialist. (how weird would it be for some to “want the government to own Facebook’s server farms.) Which of course is the point, to semantically enforce an empty definition to avoid the label.

By the way, what if Facebook rented their server usage from someone else? Would they then be a company with no “means of production” at all thus immune to any effects of “socialism”, or is there maybe something wrong with your construct?

I do agree with you though that it’s difficult to find a “non-socialist” government in human history. That is because all governments are by definition at least somewhat socialist, the question is not whether but how much. And of course “how socialist do you want the government to be” is a far more useful and realistic metric/descriptor of genuine and interesting political fault lines than some bogus 1800s construction involving “means of production”.

P.S. your statements on regulators can only have been made by someone with (fortunately) no tangible experience of them and their effects… ;)

Comment by Sonic Charmer

If Facebook rented servers (like I rent a server from Linode), that would be analogous to a very small newspaper renting a printing press. The press is still the means of production, and yes, that small newspaper does not own that means in that case. If that small newspaper wanted to run an article which the press owner didn’t like, the press owner could refuse in principle (just like Linode could in principle pull the plug on my blog for political reasons).

Now, as for wanting the government to own Facebook’s servers. It’s a more complicated question that it appears on the surface. Suppose, hypothetically, that Facebook lives on for thousands of years during all of which time it plays an integral part in human interaction (let’s pray this isn’t what really happens). At SOME point, it ought to pass out of private ownership and become owned by humanity: just like things like fire, the wheel, writing, agriculture, seafaring, etc. cannot be eternally owned by the estates of the ancients who first discovered them. Especially in Facebook’s case, where 99.9999% of the actual content is user-generated anyway. (Strictly speaking, I’m not advocating government ownership at all, but rather that if enough people use something for long enough, it should enter the commons, which I think is a purer form of socialism anyway rather than just “Gubmint owns everything”)

Comment by Xamuel

You are being myopic (unless you are going to say it is just an artifact of the example).

“The servers” per se are not all that important to what Facebook is and does, as surely you realize. Let’s say that according to Xamuel’s Made-Up Principle, at some point in the future the government (calling themselves – as you do – ‘humanity’) says “We own your servers [or, the servers of your server-provider] now, Facebook.”

You know what Facebook could do? Buy more servers. Rent from a different provider. Set up a server farm on Flinders island. Substitute something else (quantum computer? interstellar dust-based computer? who knows, by then) for whatever ‘production’ that server farm had been providing.

Meanwhile the government is sitting there holding “the servers” thinking they control Facebook. Well, no, that doesn’t quite work, does it?

But obviously that’s not what they will have done. Obviously what happens instead is that the government, in trying to carry out your Made-Up Principle, rather than simply going after “the servers” goes after Facebook. They don’t let Facebook rent or buy servers from anyone else (and if they do, they take those too). They don’t let Facebook pursue substitute technologies. They unleash regulators on Facebook’s lawyers and make rules about what Facebook can and can’t do or use in order to create what it creates. They would necessarily have to do these things, in order to truly carry out your Principle. All of this necessarily involves telling Facebook what it can and can’t do with its money, its physical plant, its capital, its employees.

In other words, the important aspect of this story/example is that in your ideal future, the government controls Facebook. Not these or those ephemeral and replaceable “means of production”, but the company itself (in the name of “the people” or “humanity”).

And that is socialist, as you point out. But it has little to do with any particular ‘means of production’ as such and everything to do with collective ownership and/or control of, ultimately, the capital that makes up what we call “Facebook”. In other words, as you’ve helped illustrate, socialism is collective ownership/control not of any particular “means of production” but, ultimately, of capital.

And Barack Obama does a hell of a lot of it, and on all occasions has sought to do more.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

The “means of production” for facebook is their code, databases of user information and dns entries that point at servers that are under the control of facebook employees.

From a practical perspective if I were nationalizing facebook I would take one of a few routes:

1) Physically control the employees who run the corporation. Conscript them to now operate facebook as the Department of Homeland Information. Everything stays as is but the employees now take orders from some appointed head of the agency (well, in reality the employees of facebook now own the place because they’re federal workers and can’t be fired and the head of the agency is powerless to do anything to someone with a GS rank – but we’ll ignore that).

2) Physically seize the servers and repoint the urls to some government server farm. In time you copy over the seized code and data. This will never work.

3) The tongue in cheek option – QE3 but only buying facebook stock. Stop when USG owns 100% of it. The tongue in cheek part? This implies that every “private” enterprise that is purchasable in dollars is already owned by the USG. After all, USG has the right to print infinite dollars. Anything it doesn’t control (nothing) can simply be purchased.

Of course its only used this option twice and those cases were extraordinary. I’m sure it will never do so again.

Now, our government isn’t actually doing any of those things so under one definition it doesn’t control facebook. On the other hand, it can force facebook to fulfill any whim that the bureaucracy comes up with. By that standard it is at least a majority partner in facebook.

Comment by Steve Johnson

Regulators seem to have little power because no one defies them.

Why do no corporations outside the NFL use formal IQ testing to screen employees?

Why are there no insurance companies that will provide insurance rather than a combination of insurance and pre-paid medical services?

Why didn’t any of the big 3 auto makers just refuse to deal with employee unions at all and offer at will employment contracts?


You might argue that these are all good things but you sure as hell can’t pretend that there isn’t something that stops corporations from doing these obvious things.

That something is a government that doesn’t own the corporations in name but controls their internal processes and external products.

But it doesn’t “own” the “means of production”. It just exercises total control over all large organizations.

Comment by Steve Johnson

Right. It’s basically a variant of the seen vs. unseen. People can’t see most of the power the regulators have, because it involves not regulators overtly Going After anyone, but companies on a day to day basis being scared to death of attracting government attention and thus ‘voluntarily’ aligning all their internal processes and behavior to regulator wishes (or even merely in anticipation of them!). But this won’t be understood by people who have never seen or experienced it.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

I guess this makes sense. You’ve changed my outlook.

Comment by Xamuel

Hey, they call it “dialectical materialism” for a reason….:)

Marxism has always been absurd, even in the 19th century. It appeals to people not because of its conceptual utility — few things are more obviously absurd than the labor theory of value — but because it gives people with a certain mindset a vocabulary to vent their gripes.

You know how kids playing online games throw around all kinds of recondite military jargon because they think it makes them sound badass? Marxism works the same way. “Means of production,” “proletariat,” “the bourgeoisie,” “alienation,” etc. are just words venal people use to disguise their envy. “I’m not greedy, I just want social justice!” If you feel that life is somehow, someway screwing you over, and you’re certain it can’t possibly be your fault, then Marxism has a whole fraternity made especially for you, with secret handshakes, passwords, uniforms, the works. “Means of Production” and phrases like that are the secret decoder ring.

Comment by Severian

Heck, let’s go with the strict definition. You’re not a socialist unless you advocate/advance state control and/or ownership of the means of production. So we have the adorable two-step waltz going on here, step one is to look up socialism in the dictionary and find the above; step two is to declare Barry O outside of this…look, I just proved Obama’s not a socialist, aren’t I knowledgeable & cute?

I have never understood step two. In Obama’s administration, we have seen a steady pattern of people who produce things, having to take orders from people who do not. Rick Wagoner has to quit his job. Doctors have to find out what Washington thinks about a treatment. Even the Cambridge police can’t arrest someone for disturbing the peace without being second-guessed by His Eminence for “act[ing] stupidly.” Solyndra. Stimulus. S&L bailouts. Cash for Clunkers. The list goes on, and on, and on…this stuff could rightfully be categorized under state ownership or control of the means of production, could it not? I’ve never been clear on why not. I don’t think anyone is.

Comment by Morgan K Freeberg

[…] Charmer is confused, but in a good way. About socialists & socialism. This […]

Pingback by House of Eratosthenes

If 100% of all assets are owned privately, and the government taxes all income at 100% then redistributes it, this would not be called sociallism under this, rather anachronistic, definition.

Comment by stephen

I can’t believe I’m ending up being the most New-Agey one here, but I’m a bit surprised that no one has mentioned (what I think are) Facebook’s (and that of many other businesses) primary ‘means of production’ –

Its employees! Its human capital.


“Servers”? Please.

So okay, if the ‘means of production’ definition of socialism indicates an ideology that wants the government to control the machines, physical plant, capital, and people – all of which, as discussed, can be ‘means of production’ – then I guess I wouldn’t have such a problem with that definition after all. What I would have a problem with is the claim that Barack Obama is not one.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

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