Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Other Red Pill: A Touch of Class

Friedrich Engels wrote:
The materialist conception of history has a lot of [dangerous friends] nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late 70s: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist." (...) In general, the word "materialistic" serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. 
In short, historical materialism is not a master key to understanding all of history and society, and is not a shortcut to understanding the complexities and nuances of each individual society and era.  Marx and Engels, though they had insights sufficient enough to merit rescue from "the more savage travesties of his critics", were not infallible or omniscient.  No one ever is.

The usefulness of historical materialism as a means of analyzing the way societies worked, and just how powerful a critique it was (and to a considerable extent still is) in criticizing capitalism, combined with with the almost apocalyptic nature of Marx's predictions on where capitalist society was headed (predictions that were overwhelmingly wrong the vast majority of the time) and the resulting romanticization of revolution for its own sake, led to Marxism becoming a kind of surrogate religion for many of its most devoted followers.  Especially since Marxism naturally entailed kicking one's opium (of the masses) habit, and a similar kind of belief system was needed to fill the void.

This resulted in all of the evils of religious fanaticism that were carried out under the cross or the crescent over the centuries being carried out under the hammer and sickle in the 20th century.  These "communist" states carried out countless atrocities and disastrous policies which were driven in large part by a religious fervor towards Marxist ideology, or what these fanatics thought Marxist ideology was, which is very often very different from what both its supporters and opponents thought it was.  Think critically at all times, even towards otherwise good ideas.

It's worth touching upon the age old debate of whether or not the USSR was actually socialist.  This depends on how one defines the term.  What we do know, however, were that the "soviets" - democratic councils of workers established to manage factories and local economies - for which the USSR was named, were taken over, often by force, by the central Bolshevik state as soon as they had the power to do so.  Like the "state priests" of the "Bonapartist State" of the early 19th century that Marx himself criticized, and like the regressive left SJWs in media and academia in our time, the Bolsheviks regarded themselves as a kind of "intellectual" elite who, by virtue of their superior insight into the one true faith, had the right to capture popular democratic institutions and use them to rule over the plebs with an iron fist.  For their own good, of course.

In materialist terms, what we know is that the Soviet state had utter and complete control over the means of production.  Compared even to monopoly capitalism, ownership was more rather than less concentrated under the USSR system.  Of course, even totalitarian states knew the value of good PR, and so described themselves in ideal socialist terms.  The arrangement was also useful, if in an ironic way, to the capitalist elite in the west, who could then point to the monstrosity that was the Soviet state and claiming that was what socialism really was all about, kill any interest in the materialist outlook that its working classes may have had.  Even western leftists were drinking this Kool-Aid, especially after the Soviet state unraveled, with results I've discussed elsewhere.  

Any Soviet citizen who complained about any aspect of it could expect to find themselves sent to that part of it known as the gulag.  If socialism or communism can be defined as kinds of democratic citizen's or worker's control over the means of production, the USSR and its copycats and sock puppets were as far away from that as you can get.

Perhaps more significantly, is full blown democratic citizen's or worker's control over the entire means of production feasible or even desirable?  Perhaps they were when Marx put pen to paper in the mid 19th century, but are they now?  Are they now that the joint stock or limited liability corporations have become the primary organization in capitalist production and distribution, doing away with the strict dichotomy of bourgeois tycoon vs. propertiless proletariat that so much of Marx's theory depended on?  What would Marx, or Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes for that matter, make of an incorporated entity in which the employees, customers, parts of the broader community or even the state were in part or in whole, the shareholders?  These all seem to be vastly superior models to classic Marxist-Leninism if you ask me.  If we were opt to "in whole" as opposed to "in part" ownership in the above cases, how would these organizations raise capital?

Marx's critique of capitalism relied heavily on the labor theory of value, and the claim that profit resulted from surplus value: the workers receiving less than the value of what they produced, and the difference going into the capitalist's pocket.  I doubt that this is always necessarily true, though it can be, and without a proper regulatory structure, economic forces most likely will result in the kinds of economic meltdowns that Marx believed would eventually destroy capitalism, such as the market crashes of 1929 and 2008.  

If the capitalists compensate themselves for their own work in organizing production, if they compensate shareholders for the risk the run in investing in the business in the first place, if they invest in capital that increases the productivity of the business, resulting in more revenue and allowing for higher salaries across the board, wouldn't this admittedly ideal (meaning not always the really occurring) scenario be, in many ways preferable to the physical laborers simply taking it all as income, while allowing the capital assets to deteriorate?  I've often suspected that this is why real existing socialist societies - from Russia a century ago to Venezuela today, start out so well for the commoners, but the standard of living then deteriorates to a point where capitalist systems surpass them in terms of living standards.  

And don't get me started on the economic calculation problem, demonstrating the almost total lack of feasibility for any system of planned economics.  Societies that romanticize revolution and demonize capitalists pay a heavy price for doing so.  The thing to aspire to, I think, is not a retread of revolutionary socialism, but a capitalism wherein all, or at least most can profit, not just a few.

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