Friday, February 4, 2011

Say Ya Want a Revolution?

I've been ruminating on our last class discussion on Marx, a philosopher that provokes uniquely strong reactions, given that his uncompromising indictment of capitalism provides a focus point for our own criticisms the existing social order. Given the manifest and manifold shortcomings of American capitalism, particularly in regard to the least fortunate, the question was raised: We don't we revolt?

There are the relatively prosaic answers, of course: Americans are too comfortable, some will say, though this very fact seems somewhat at odds with Marx's prediction of the growing misery of the proletariat. Alternatively, one may take the globalist view that the real proletarians of today are to be found in the developing world, though these are typically precisely the places that are experiencing material improvements at the fastest rate (as Hans Rosing's data will indicate below). Others have argued that the myth of the "American Dream" creates unrealistic hopes of fabulous wealth for the downtrodden (Marx would call this "false consciousness"). More fundamental however, would seem to be the question of whether a radical alternative to capitalism is at all plausible. For all the miseries that exist in modern society (and I would not deny they are many and grievous), it makes a great deal of difference what the character would be of the system  with which we would propose to replace it.

I will not waste time by pointing out the hideous shortcomings of past and present socialist states; it is true enough to say that no nominally "communist" state has perfectly replicated Marx's ideas. Marx's view of communism itself, after all, entails a gradual "withering away" of the state in favor of a classless worker's paradise. The perrenial argument among various stripes of Marxists (Trotskyites being the most insufferable) is that if only the right people had taken power, if only the revolution had not been sidetracked by Stalinism, or revisionism, or dogmatism, or nationalism, etc., etc., , then things would have come up roses. They miss the point. It is cliché to remark that communism "never works in practice", but the truth is that no advanced society could ever reach the blissful state of Marx's worker's paradise, (and it has not been for lack of effort).

The reason is relatively straightforward. Economic activity in a modern industrial society involves countless interactions among people with no personal connection to one another. No one individual can possibly know what everyone else in society wants or needs. Yet we still manage by and large to secure these wants and needs through the coordinating effect of the market. Of course, it doesn't have to be done this way. Instead, a central authority can use its supposed expertise to mandate what will be produced and consumed. Naturally, such an authority will require coercion (actual or threatened) to maintain its ability to issue binding decisions on the economy. Such regimes are typically human rights disasters, but you can indeed run an advanced society this way (the Soviet Union did it for 70 years), however badly.

These are the choices: supply and demand, or state control (in reality, nearly all countries operate under some combination thereof). What is utterly impossible is the existence of a sophisticated society operating without either private property or the state, as Marx imagines communism. Under capitalism, self-interest determines economic behavior; under socialism, obedience to the state. In a society lacking both motivators, there is no force able to coordinate economic activity beyond the individual and his immediate neighbors. One may indeed labor purely for the benefit of his or her fellow human beings, but only if one knows who they are. If each is to recieve "according to his needs", there must be some way of knowing what those needs are and providing for them. On a large scale, this is utterly beyond the power of the individual without either the "invisible hand" of the market or the sterner hand of the state.

Marx's vision of communism would essentially require a sort of spontaneous collectivism in which everyone works purely for the benefit of their fellow human beings. It would be, in essence, an economy based on love. But this is precisely the problem. No one can love (in the active, agape sense) a person of whom they have no knowledge. Our ability to act out of charity is restricted to the limited circle of persons with whom we may actually have some kind of meaningful interaction. But as already noted, an advanced industrial society requires commerical interactions among people who are otherwise total strangers. It requires specialization, and a means of conveying those specialities to the customers who desire them. Individual altruism simply cannot accomplish this.

Communism can indeed work in practice; it occasionally works satisfactorily in communes (not to be too obvious), kibbutzes, etc. However, such projects are possible precisely because they involve communities small enough to maintain personal contact between members. An agrarian village can accomodate communism; an automobile plant (with thousands of workers and suppliers of goods like rubber and steel from around the world) cannot. Rejecting both private property and the state means a return to medieval economic conditions.

Some of course, would gladly give up the inequalities and neuroses of modern capitalism in favor of a simpler lifestyle. Such a desire is perfectly understandable (and no one looks down upon, for the example, the Amish, for living out of synch with modern social and economic mores). What must be abandoned is the notion that all the material wealth produced by capitalism could be fairly distributed and society would eventually bask in harmony if only the common man would rise up. Such uprisings reach the "socialist" stage of development but never quite seem to manage to obtain communism, precisely because an advanced society is incompatible with it (Pol Pot seemed to have figured this out, oddly enough). There is no escaping the trade-offs that define human existence; communism is the ultimate free lunch. 

To recapitulate, the choices are capitalism, socialism, or medievalism. Marx has much to say that rings true about the cruelties of the capitalist system, and nothing in my argument is intended to urge quietism in the face of real injustices that may be corrected. But what must be repudiated is the utopian revolutionary project. Communism is a chimera, one that has left a trail of blood in the wake of every attempt to advance it. Anyone who wishes to advance human rights ought to recognize it for the malignant illusion it is.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're absolutely right in stating that our two choices are either market control or state control. On a state-level or international system-level, people do not have the capacity for such cooperation and homogeneity of thought and goals. There are, however, many successful, small communities that are founded on and operate under ideal Marxist-like principles (communes or religious communities, for example). But within these communities, each individual has a personal dedication to the lifestyle in which they live.
    On a larger scale, I guarantee that there will always be dissenters.
    It's like Rousseau's stag hunt image: Several men go out on a stag hunt; they start out in cooperation. If an individual hunts a stag, he must have the cooperation of his partner in order to succeed. There is also a hare, which an individual can hunt by himself, but is worth less than a stag.
    Rousseau concludes (and game theoretic analysis supports) that the men will not cooperate, but rather defect and chase the hare. This is essentially the question of social cooperation vs. self-interested competition. As realist scholars and theorists have asserted for centuries, we cannot view the world through the lens of what ought to be, but rather through an accurate lens of how it truly is.


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