[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Hollow triumph

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John Gray: Hollow triumph
The Times Literary Supplement, 98.5.8

    THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. A modern edition. By Karl Marx and Frederick
    Engels. 87pp. Verso. £8. - 1 85984 898 2.

    THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. New interpretations. By Mark Cowling, editor.
    209pp. Edinburgh University Press. £40 (paperback, £14.95). - 0 7486
    1140 1

    THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO NOW. Socialist Register 1998. Leo Panitch and
    Colin Leys, editors. 268pp. Rendlesham: Merlin Press. Paperback,
    £12.95. - 0 85036 473 6

    Why Marx still provides a potent critique of the contradictions of
    late modern capitalism

    In his introduction to the Verso anniversary edition of The Communist
    Manifesto, Eric Hobsbawm comments: "The world described by Marx and
    Engels in 1848 . . . is recognisably that in which we live 150 years
    later." Of many passages that support Hobsbawm's assessment, one is
    particularly arresting. Marx and Engels write: All old-established
    national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.
    They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a
    life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that
    no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from
    the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only
    at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants,
    satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants,
    requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and
    climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and
    self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal
    interdependence of nations.

    If this seems a striking anticipation of the world in which we live,
    it is because unexpected political events have reinforced and
    accelerated the long-established economic developments that Marx and
    Engels describe. Two large political facts that, for most of this
    century, seemed to embody a refutation of Marx's view of capitalism
    have over the past decade melted away. The first was Communism. Less
    than ten years ago, there were two economic systems in the world. Now
    there are only varieties of capitalism. The Soviet collapse was a
    final demonstration that in modern economies there is no overall
    alternative to market competition. The fall of Communism destroyed
    Marxian socialism as a political project. At the same time, it gave
    Marx's analysis of capitalism a new lease on life. By removing from
    the world any alternative economic system, the Soviet debacle allowed
    a truly global capitalism to develop, the destructive consequences of
    which for social cohesion are prefigured in Marx's thought. The
    workings of this new global capitalism have been partly responsible
    for a second large political event - the retreat of social democracy.
    In nearly all the countries in which social-democratic regimes still
    survive, they are on the defensive, struggling in vain with problems
    that, less than a generation ago, they believed that they had solved.
    It is not only that post-war strategies for full employment can no
    longer be made effective; even people in regular work are perceptibly
    less secure than they were. The managed capitalism of the post-war
    period has given way to a more volatile and predatory variety. As a
    result, what long seemed most anachronistic in The Communist Manifesto
    now looks prophetic. As we near the end of the century, we cannot
    escape the paradox that, partly as a consequence of the implosion of
    Marxian socialism, Marx's view of capitalism has been in some crucial
    respects vindicated.

    We must not forget why Marxian socialism collapsed. It could not
    survive the historical experience of central economic planning.
    Centrally planned economies lack institutions for ensuring that
    resources are used prudently. The absence of a properly functioning
    price mechanism and of clear, enforceable property rights means that
    planners have few means of assessing relative scarcities and little
    incentive to do so. The incalculable waste and spectacular
    indifference to human needs that marked "actually existing socialism"
    from start to finish, its inability to match the technical innovations
    produced by market economies, and the catastrophic devastation it
    wrought on the natural environment in all the countries in which it
    was imposed, were not incidental defects. They were unavoidable
    by-products of a political project - the replacement of market
    processes by central planning - that was in the strictest sense
    utopian. In late modern economies, central planning is impossible. Any
    regime that attempts it chokes off the stream of new technologies on
    which the creation of wealth now heavily depends. Even the virtually
    unlimited resources of the Soviet military-industrial complex were
    unequal to the task of keeping up with continuous technical innovation
    in Western market economies. No command economy can achieve the
    steadily rising living standards demanded by people in late modern
    societies. For that reason alone, no centrally planned economy can be
    democratically legitimate.

    It is a mistake to think that Soviet planning failed because it was
    not implemented by a democratic government. The truth is nearer the
    opposite. The Soviet system lacked working democratic institutions,
    because the failings of central planning necessitated tyranny. The
    chronic shortages, endemic corruption and grubby nomenclatural
    hierarchies of Soviet life could be perpetuated only by a
    comprehensive denial of personal and political liberty. By the same
    token, the depth of popular illegitimacy of the Soviet system rendered
    it unreformable. Western observers who endorsed Gorbachev's proposals
    for restructuring the Soviet economy showed that they were unable to
    distinguish feasible reforms from impending collapse. As late as 1989,
    most had not perceived that the Soviet Union, unable to cope with
    economic chaos which Gorbachev's reforms had only worsened and
    threatened with mounting secessionist demands from the nationalities,
    had entered a pre-revolutionary phase. Dissidents such as Andrei
    Amalrik and Vladimir Bukovsky, whose accounts of the fragility of
    Soviet power Western opinion had dismissed as apocalyptic, proved in
    the event to be realistic and reliable guides. Had Gorbachev not
    launched his unworkable reforms, it is conceivable that the Soviet
    Union would still be with us. But it would have been surviving on
    borrowed time.

    Soviet history is scored over with contingencies, but it cannot be
    read as other than a tragedy in which the utopian elements in Marx's
    thought played a pivotal role. In its capacity as a prescription for a
    new kind of society, classical Marxism was a fusion of the Romantic
    yearning for social unity with a Jacobin denial of the need for
    institutions. Marx's vision of a socialist society did not provide for
    procedures whereby conflicting interests and values could be mediated.
    Nor did it contain institutions for mitigating the effect of
    inequality. As a result, it neglected the most important task of
    representative democracy, which is to limit the damage that the
    powerful can inflict on the powerless. Marx's disregard for the
    damage-limiting functions of democracy was inherited by Lenin, who
    compounded it. Except in his own manoeuvres, Lenin was not a political
    realist. He looked forward to a society in which political conflict
    had withered away. In this, he faithfully reflected Marx's utopian
    outlook. As the late Wal Suchting notes in his admirable contribution
    to The Communist Manifesto: New interpretations, edited by Mark
    Cowling, "What Is Living and What Is Dead in The Communist
    Manifesto?", Marx's writings are riddled with ideas that are utopian
    "in the sense of the programmatic entertaining of possibilities in no
    serious sense justifiable by reference to empirical evidence". I would
    go further. The hazy vision of workers' governance inherited by Lenin
    from Marx is utopian in the stronger sense that it contradicts much
    that we know to be true. It is not only that central planning cannot
    be squared with the requirements of a modern economy. More, Marx's
    sketchy remarks on how a socialist economy would be governed say
    nothing about how the conflicting interests and objectives of workers
    are to be negotiated. Marxian socialism is a utopian project, because
    it runs flatly against these enduring realities. In the Soviet
    context, its human costs were beyond measure. The millions who died in
    its famines and terrors died for nothing. The lives of the rest were
    experiments in patience.

    Western Marxists who resist the lessons of the Soviet experience do
    Marx no favours. By defending his thought where it is least
    defensible, they obscure its most powerful insights. This is true of
    most of the contributors to The Communist Manifesto Now: Socialist
    Register 1998, edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, who are so
    concerned to defend Marx's thought against criticism that they fail to
    bring out how it can be used to understand the present. It is in this
    vein that John Bellamy Foster, writing on "The Communist Manifesto and
    the Environment", seeks to rebut criticism of Marx as an
    anti-ecological thinker. Foster ransacks Marx's writings for
    quotations that can be interpreted as showing an awareness of the
    environmental context of economic life, claiming to find in them
    anticipations of late-twentieth-century concerns about sustainable
    development. He is anxious to show that Marx did not share the
    insensitivity to the social costs of economic progress of most of his
    contemporaries. In this connection, Foster maintains that Marx's
    contempt for peasant life has been misinterpreted.

    It is true, as Foster and Hobsbawm maintain, that Marx must be read
    against the background of his time, using what we know of his life and
    beliefs. If we do this, it becomes arguable that when Marx condemned
    "the idiocy of rural life", he was using the classical Greek term
    idiotes to denote the narrow horizons and isolation from wider society
    that he found and deplored in rural life. But this hardly demonstrates
    that Marx did not view peasant life as an obstacle to progress. It
    suggests that this is how he did see it. In fact, along with many
    other nineteenth-century thinkers, Marx despised the social and
    technological immobility of peasant societies. He viewed the abolition
    of peasant farming as an indispensable prerequisite of economic
    progress and regarded the capitalist factory as the model on which
    farming should in future be based. In believing that agricultural
    collectivization was a necessary step in building socialism, the
    Bolsheviks were only following Marx. Peasant farming had to be
    abolished, because the development of industry was a precondition of
    socialism. Aside from anything else, peasants could not be relied on
    to support a socialist regime. In acting on these beliefs - shared by
    Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Stalin, whose views on collectivization
    differed only in matters of tactics and timing - the Soviet leaders
    were authentic practitioners of Marxian socialism.

    To represent Marx as a proto-Green thinker in the way that Foster
    tries to do is absurd. Nowhere in Marx's writings is the natural
    environment seen as other than a resource to be exploited for the
    satisfaction of human wants. Marx thought of technology as an
    instrument whereby humans exercise power over the earth. As his
    frequent dismissals of Malthus testify, Marx was scornful of the idea
    that the natural environment of the human species could set limits to
    its ambitions. He envisaged a future in which nature had been
    "humanized" - which is to say, thoroughly subordinated to human
    purposes. To be sure, Marx was little different from other
    nineteenth-century European thinkers (John Stuart Mill being an
    admirable exception) in this combination of anthropocentric ethics
    with technological Prometheanism. But his attitudes had vastly greater
    practical influence than those of any of his contemporaries. They
    informed the Soviet Union's disastrous environmental policies to the
    very end, when widespread resistance to a megalomaniac engineering
    project that would have flooded vast tracts of Russia and altered the
    global climate was one of the forces that triggered the regime's

    While the passing of Communism killed off Marxism as a political
    project, the retreat of social democracy has revived Marx's analysis
    of capitalism. Conventional opinion in all parties viewed the
    disintegration of central planning as a triumph for the capitalism
    they knew, and believed that it augured business as usual, conducted
    henceforth on a global scale. It seems not to have occurred to these
    observers that a world-historical event of this magnitude was bound to
    transform many aspects of economic and political life throughout the
    world. Few perceived that its larger impact would be to accelerate
    changes in Western capitalism that had been maturing for decades. Even
    fewer anticipated that the free-market economies that emerged would
    have many features in common with the anarchic, contradiction-ridden
    capitalism that Marx foresaw, and which social democrats imagined they
    had long since tamed.

    The most delusive views of global capitalism were to be found on the
    neo-liberal Right. Like classical Marxism, neo-liberal thought
    embodied the Promethean attitude to nature and the contempt for the
    casualties of economic progress typical of late-nineteenth-century
    European thinkers. Neo-liberal thought was (the past tense is
    necessary here, since so little remains of that ephemeral movement) a
    type of quasi-Marxian economic determinism from which the sense of
    tragic historical conflict that distinguishes Marx's best writings had
    somehow been removed. It is impossible to imagine Marx sharing the
    callow faith of neo-liberals that post-Communist Russia would rapidly
    acquire a Western-style market economy and polity. Neo-liberals forgot
    (if they ever knew) the recurring dilemmas about its relations with
    Europe and Asia that have shaped Russian politics and culture. Marx
    would not have been surprised that what has emerged in Russia is a
    sort of criminal syndicalism, presided over by a crypto-Tsarist
    elective autocrat. Possessed by a chiliastic certainty that the end of
    history had arrived, neo-liberals imagined that the disappearance of
    central planning meant the universal spread of a particular, Western
    type of market economy, when in Russia and China it has produced
    varieties of capitalism that express the traditions and recent
    histories of those countries.

    Neo-liberal thought misperceived the most fundamental economic trend
    of the late twentieth century, which is not the spread of free markets
    but the banalization of new technologies throughout the world. At the
    same time, it repressed the contradictions which beset free-market
    economies. It celebrated the death of socialism, without pausing to
    ask what that event implied for the political parties that had helped
    to bring it about. In Britain, the Conservative Party derived its
    rationale during much of this century from opposition to socialism.
    When socialism disappeared as a political force - partly as a result
    of Conservative policies - the Conservative Party lost a large part of
    its identity and began its drift into disoriented marginality. A
    similar fate has befallen the American Right. The disintegration of
    Conservatism in Britain and the United States had many contingent
    causes; but it was not a historical accident. It expressed a central
    contradiction of late modern capitalism.

    Conservative parties seek to promote free markets, while at the same
    time defending "traditional values". It is hard to think of a more
    quixotic enterprise. Free markets are the most potent solvent of
    tradition at work in the world today. As they continuously
    revolutionize production, they throw all social relationships into
    flux. Conservatives glorify the incessant change demanded by free
    markets and at the same time believe that nothing - in family life or
    the incidence of crime, for example - will be changed by it. The
    reality is more like that described by Marx and Engels in The
    Communist Manifesto: Constant revolutionizing of production,
    uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting
    uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all
    earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of
    ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all
    new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is
    solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last
    compelled to face, with sober senses, his real condition of life, and
    his relations with his kind.

    In a lecture which he gave in Mexico City in 1948, Joseph Schumpeter
    pursued a line of thought parallel with that of Marx and Engels, when
    he speculated that the development of capitalism might be incompatible
    with the existence of what he called an "intact civilization". In such
    a civilization, there is a rough coherence of ideals and interests.
    The parts fit together to form some kind of whole. Of course, such
    civilizations always contain conflicts. But their ruling classes
    manage them by drawing on a fund of commonly accepted values that run
    in tandem with prevailing social structures. Using Schumpeter's
    notion, one may say that the high bourgeois society that existed in
    some parts of Europe before 1914 possessed an intact civilization,
    whereas Britain and the United States today do not.

    Free markets undermine some of the central institutions of bourgeois
    societies. Among these is the institution of the career. For many
    people, work was once oriented around a lifelong vocation, the phases
    of which matched those of the normal life cycle. One of the less
    celebrated achievements of free-market capitalism is to have done away
    with this bourgeois relic. Few people today can plan their future in
    the expectation that they will remain in a single occupation
    throughout an entire working lifetime. Downsizing and delayering, in
    which firms strip out whole categories of employment and employees
    find established career structures suddenly vanishing before their
    eyes, have become commonplace experiences. For an increasing number,
    working life no longer means having a job. Free markets are producing
    fewer old-fashioned, tenured jobs, and ever more varieties of
    temporary work. Though most of those who still have jobs are not much
    more likely to lose them than they were in the recent past, these
    tendencies illustrate Schumpeter's - and Marx's - chief insight. There
    can be little doubt that the kinds of security in employment that are
    necessary for bourgeois careers will in future be available to a
    dwindling minority. In some real measure, workers are being
    re-proletarianized, even as sections of the middle classes are being
    thrust into the rackety lifestyles of the ex-bourgeois. Marx's
    expectations of socialism have been disappointed everywhere; but his
    glimpses of how capitalism hollows out bourgeois societies are proving

    Nothing in the development of capitalism ensures that it is compatible
    with an intact bourgeois civilization. The combination of
    slash-and-burn Anglo-American capitalism with unprecedented rates of
    technical innovation is particularly inimical to bourgeois life. When
    a stream of new technologies floods through deregulated markets, the
    result is not social - or economic - equilibrium. It is to throw the
    social division of labour into flux. The upshot is a parodic
    capitalist version of the Marxian utopia, in which fixed economic
    roles no longer govern the working lives of the majority. Liberal
    societies have not come to terms with the tendency of free markets to
    exclude the working majority from the bourgeois life that is promised
    to all. This contradiction - between liberal values and real life in
    market societies - is the enduring truth contained in The Communist

    One need not be a nostalgist for high bourgeois cultures, as
    Schumpeter was, to be concerned about these developments. I know of no
    country in which liberal institutions have renewed themselves over
    several generations where the underlying society has not been
    predominantly bourgeois. Yet the overall impact of the least regulated
    types of capitalism is to break down the occupational and social
    structures on which bourgeois civilizations have in the past rested.
    Whether other varieties of capitalism - in Germany, Japan, or
    elsewhere - can avoid these effects is, at present, an open question.
    We know that, apart from one or two instances such as Norway, Europe's
    social democracies have failed to cope with contemporary capitalism's
    most palpable defect, which is large-scale unemployment. In some
    European countries, most notably France, mass unemployment is
    currently reproducing the classically flawed political responses of
    the inter-war period, with centre-right parties fragmenting and
    sections of them joining forces with racist parties of the
    anti-liberal Right. The lesson of the volatile capitalism of the
    inter-war years is that avoidance of large economic instabilities is a
    precondition of liberal democracy. Today global capitalism is less
    stable than it has been since the 1920s.

    Marx's achievement was to identify a contradiction in liberal
    civilization. His economic theories went hopelessly astray. His
    doctrine of classes is thoroughly inadequate as an account of social
    stratification. His Promethean attitudes towards nature led to
    environmental catastrophes. His political prescriptions were a recipe
    for tragedy. But in illuminating, a century and a half ago, a widening
    gap between the imperatives of capitalism and the prerequisites of a
    stable liberal society, Marx identified a problem to which a solution
    has yet to be found.

    John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of
    Economics. His most recent book, False Dawn:The delusions of global
    capitalism, was published in March.

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