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Apr 15 2013

Marx’s revenge

I’ve always thought the communists made a big mistake, especially the Soviets. Well, they made a bunch of mistakes in retrospect, not the least of which included the transfer of power. That was never worked out very well, paving the way for allegories like Animal Farm and real-world tyrants like Stalin. But another mistake — purely from an experiemtnal history view mind you — was the exclusion of religion. Suppose, instead of becoming the global face of a perverse form of atheism, Lenin and Marx had embraced those elements of religion that supported their ideology in the same way fundamentalists here and elsewhere have done for capitalism? Suppose, instead a state sponsored link had been established and heavily hyped between the Sermon on the Mount or analogous words found in the Koran, uniting the teachings of Jesus and Mohammed, bearing on the benefits of socialism as seen by down trodden peasants, promising social justice and economic equality for all? It might have been a very different cold war, leading to a very different outcome.

We’ll never know … or will we?

Time Mag Online — The class conflict that Marx believed determined the course of history seemed to melt away in a prosperous era of free trade and free enterprise. … Capitalism appeared to be fulfilling its promise — to uplift everyone to new heights of wealth and welfare.

Or so we thought. With the global economy in a protracted crisis, and workers around the world burdened by joblessness, debt and stagnant incomes, Marx’s biting critique of capitalism — that the system is inherently unjust and self-destructive — cannot be so easily dismissed. Marx theorized that the capitalist system would inevitably impoverish the masses as the world’s wealth became concentrated in the hands of a greedy few … A growing dossier of evidence suggests that he may have been right. It is sadly all too easy to find statistics that show the rich are getting richer. A September study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted [...] Between 1983 and 2010, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline, the EPI calculated. No wonder some have given the 19th century German philosopher a second look.

For my mother and father’s generation, having grown up in a depression and then winning World War II, there was a time lasting decades where hard work was richly rewarded. My father went to school on the GI Bill, he became a mechanical engineer and joined a growing company in the 1950s that had recently added International to its older name of Business Machines, to become Big Blue aka IBM.

These opportunities themselves were not equally distributed, women didn’t do nearly as well and minorities were systematically excluded in many ways and places. But for millions of rank and file workers, the opportunity was there, they took it, the spoils of corporate conquest were more equitably shared: on an inflation adjusted basis my dad made over 150K in 1972 as a mid level engineer. Even more revealing, my step mother made almost 100K on the same adjusted basis as a tenured secretary. They are both loyal to IBM to this day and I don’t blame them, by the time I was born we had become solidly entrenched in the middle class and, looking back, my childhood was one of suburban privilege as a result. Sharing the prosperity is the path to building a dedicated, permanent workforce in any company, a practice which lasted for decades and paid enormous dividends.

But along came Ronald Reagan and Gordon Gecko, greed became good, real wages began falling, white collar employees were squeezed, hourly workers were decimated as the great outsourcing of US jobs to third world companies began in earnest, benefits began to flow, more and more, to a tiny sliver of pampered CEOs, the billionaire class was created and large estate grew and passed on, the class and loyal acolytes which now sucks the workforce dry under the guise of “share holder value”.

(On shareholders, as a former portfolio manager for a large Wall Street firm I can tell you, shareholders are diverse, far more so that your manager understands if s/he pitches you that tired justification. Some have a conscience, others owuld be happy to chain ten year-olds to workstations if they can get away with it, and there’s everything in between. But one thing shareholders universally dislike are executives making zillion dollar bonuses while the company falters, and especially as the stock lingers or falls. How odd that we never hear about shareholders when the corporate jet is acquired and equipped with golden parachutes during a time of flat to down earnings …)

Those kinds of middle class salaries are for the most part, long gone, a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is no more for the vast majority of America’s overworked underpaid workforce. Tax payer resources are expertly driven to the coffers of the worlds’ most profitable corporations, social safety programs are dismantled, regulations relaxed or eliminated, and the end result of this economic shift is now plain to see. The middle class is collapsing, after we signed a trillion dollar loan to bail out the executives that brought it on. In these times, our rickety corrupt rotten system is one more collapse away from a great depression or economic chaos.

The last global collapse in 1929 produced a severe backlash ultimately culminating in the USSR and Nazi Germany. Maybe Marx will have his revenge after all. If so we can only hope the outcome of any future collapse and backlash won’t lead us down the dark path my father and mother lived through, because this time a big all out global war won’t leave much of a workforce, nay much of a civilization, behind to rebuild in a single generation.

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  1. 1
    auditorydamage

    Arguably, the Bolsheviks and their successors did implement a religion, one that placed Marx, Lenin, and for a time Stalin as the unquestionable deities among humans, whose pronouncements could not be challenged or critically analyzed, merely repeated and decontextualized to fit whatever policy the leadership of a given time wanted to enforce. Mao enjoyed this status in China for a time, until the country nearly destroyed itself fighting over what he may or may not have wanted.

    A common failing of vanguardist movements is to effectively deify individuals and promote unattainable, moving-target ideological purity, thus removing themselves from the people they supposedly represent and wish to save from whatever is perceived to be the cause of their suffering. The Objectivists are the capitalist equivalent to socialist vanguardism, elevating Rand and her works to holy status and treating the fictional John Galt as some kind of saviour figure. Vanguardism fails because the humans who are supposed to be that shining vanguard are merely more fallible people, never as perfect as promoted to the populace, with that initial lie casting doubt on everything else the core cadre wishes to implement.

    The upshot is that some of Marx’s ideas, as this very post notes, are still quite applicable today. His analysis of power was incomplete and, ultimately, prone to failure when implemented as policy, but the idea that power and class could be dissolved via seizure by the correct, supposedly enlightened group was a common error, one still made today by damn near everyone; even the anarchists and their ideological cousins haven’t quite sloughed off their vanguardist roots, though they’re/we’re working on it. Dump the perscriptive garbage about “dictatorship of the proletariat”, regular purges, etc., and stick to the socioeconomic analysis, and many of the things Marx wrote about distribution of wealth and power in the mid-1800s are still useful as an analytical lens, even if they seem rough and incomplete; well, they kind of were at that point, in that place and time.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    Actually, the name you want is Friedrich Engels. He was a social scientist who wrote a number of papers on the conditions of the working class in England in the mid 1800s, and he was the first to document that radicalism trailed closed behind economic and social insecurity. Engles noted that the inequities of the Georgian era were getting worse under Victoria, and that if they were not headed off, Europe would see a rise of radicalism such as the bloodbath of the French Revolution.

    We can see this today, quite easily. Compare the parts of the US that are doing well economically, where people have food security, high home ownership, good schools, good medical and dental coverage, and high employment rates, with areas that are doing poorly in one or more of these areas. Then overlay that with survey results showing level of religiosity: you will find a close correlation between economic insecurity and religiosity. Now overlay with a survey showing attitudes towards people of different races, religions, sexual orientations or backgrounds: you will find a close correlation between economic insecurity and intolerance. You will find this close correlation at just about every level of granularity: state, county, municipality, neighborhood.

    You will find that it holds true by country, as well: nations with a high level of economic security are mostly secular and mostly tolerant, while the most religious and intolerant nations typically have very high rates of poverty, poor educational systems, chronic hunger, etc. The few exceptions that have both high security and high religiosity — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Singapore — are all nations whose former insecurity installed dictators and oligarchies that have controlled the country since: Wahabbism and the House of Saud took absolute control of the Arabian Peninsula in the late 18th century, when Arabia was a wasteland desireable only because of its strategic uses in war; the theocracy of Iran was a response to the absolute authority of the Shah; and the centralized, absolute power of the Singaporean government arose out of the struggle to get and keep its independence from the UK in the 1960s. There are no countries that would rank as both insecure and secular.

    Marx’ contribution in all this was to propose a way of harnessing the radicalism that Engles saw as inevitable to reshape society.

  3. 3
    johnbrown

    At one level, I think you are correct that a Marxism that embraced a Christian religious message would be more attractive in this country. It is certainly a lot easier to find support in the Gospels for something like socialism or communism than for the kind of dog eat dog capitalism we currently have in this country. However, in much of Europe, Christianity is mostly a historical tradition, not an active part of the life of most societies.

    Marx’ major predictions are certainly looking better in retrospect. The existence of an alternative to capitalism (however, flawed) certainly constrained the ruling class to offer a better deal for the working people than they would have been inclined to offer. Without that check, well, the result is the last 20 years. Democrats who act like moderate Republicans and the worst of the Republicans are scarcely distinguishable from facists.

  4. 4
    kraut

    Another post from someone without any clue as to the premises of Marxism.
    The Soviet Union and it so called communist allies had never anything to do with Marxism or Communism, it was a state capitalism, where the state – or better one party – held the economic and political reigns.
    i really do not want to get into the reasons why that is so and what are the actual conclusions of Marx – read his “Critique of the political economy” for instance to get some idea what Marx ideas are about.
    One has to actually know the subject before someone can let fly with comments about a topic that was distorted beyond recognizing by years of cold war ideology.

    “Marx’ contribution in all this was”…a body of thorough critique of capitalism, of ideas how to go forward, developing the idea of a truly democratic society by establishing that no society can be truly democratic where the economic power is accumulated in the hands of the few and the so called “democratic state” acts solely in the interest of the owners of the capital…sounds somewhat familiar?
    him recognizing that capitalism was necessary to “unleash the power of human productivity” and that capitalism can only be superseded by a democratic revolution when capitalism is at the height of this development of productivity and the interests of the capital and the state are completely overlapping as a result of capital concentrated in only a few hands.
    If you want to read more..there is a body of about a few dozen works by Marx out there, and as Brecht says: about 20 000$ (in 1950′s money) buys you a good Marxists education.

  5. 5
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Kraut your opinion is well noted and respected, by starting off a post with “doesn’t have a clue” is not a good persuasion tactic, people who get maligned like that will just tune you out, or look for you to make a minor error and pounce. But I did read enough further along to see you start on a thesis that there was null intersection between Marx and the communist states that arose, and that’s a bit of a stretch I think.

    Folks this topic could create a heated discussion, I’ve seen it before, people come form all over, then wingnuts show up, it’s quite a jamboree and I’m all for it. But please regs, if it happens remember not to feed any trolls that show up, and keep in mind that if someone acts like a giant asshole more than twice in the same thread, they are probably a giant asshole all the time.

  6. 6
    kraut

    Clueless is not a statement of value, it is simply a statement of fact and is true for almost any American that I encountered, where the theories of Marx are behind a Planck wall of not knowing created by decades of cold war and the convenient labeling of any capitalism critique as similar to supporting so called communist nations.

    Again – read what Marx actually said about the communist revolution, and you will see that the USSR as well as any other country that attempted a “communist revolution” did it without the primary principle that Marx established – the development of capitalism to its highest level of productivity and concentration of capital.

    Neither conditions applied to any of the so called communist regimes, and the result was that they had to be state capitalists by necessity, ruled by a party far away from Marx principle of a true democracy where the proceeds from production are shared equally between the producers, permitting a true democratic society because no one owns more than another and therefore has more power than another. Please also understand that the final stage of communism is anarchy, where free people act freely without an overarching government.

    We all know that democracy never was established in those countries, that the party had all the power and actually suppressed any influence into their politics by labour, that there was no free organization of labour, that any attempt to criticize the party’s from outside its power structure was actively suppressed – and you dare tell me that the non intersection between “communist” i.e. state capitalist states and Marx is a bit of a stretch? T
    I am sorry bud, I have studied that stuff a long time ago as a several year member of a German ML fraction (Marxist Leninist) and our worst enemies according to Marx own theories were not the capitalist states, but what they called themselves communist nations, who were anything but.

  7. 7
    kraut

    BTW – this is one reason why i left Marxism behind: the realization that nothing in human affairs is ever complete, at its highest level or that capitalism will ever concentrate to an extend where the revolution becomes a historic necessity – as Marx put it.
    I became more interested in practical solutions to social, environmental and political problems, and have no more truck with any and all ideologically based party. I am what you might call a technocrat in the political realm, someone is interested in how problems can be solved without an ideological frame of reference, based on the rule of law, achieving the well being for the majority without neglecting the rights and benefits for the minority, be they well fare recipient or capitalist.

  8. 8
    brucegee1962

    It’s too bad that it’s unethical to perform social experiments upon entire societies. Because that would be the ideal way to figure out whether free-market capitalism or a state-run economy is better for the welfare of its citizens.

    What you’d want to do is take an entire country that is relatively culturally and racially homogenous, to reduce as many variables as possible. Then you would want to split it down the middle and have half follow free-market principles and half follow a state-run economic system. Ideally you’d want to do this more than once in widely separated parts of the world, to get the full benefits of the experiment. Maybe split up one country east and west, and a different country north and south, just in case there’s any correlation between industriouslness and latitude or longitude.

    You’d want to let the experiment run for at least several decades, so as to have a full generation grow up in each system. Then you’d want to test each country, and figure out if there are any measurable differences between the health and welfare of the citizens in each half of the country.

    What’s that? Something about Germany? Something about Korea? Sure, those would be fairly good places to try an experiment like that. Somebody should try that someday.

    Seriously, the wealth disparities and middle class devastation we’re getting these days are absolutely serious problems. We’re already seeing some of the companies doing all the outsourcing regretting their decisions, though. Marx definitely got the problem right, but the answer wrong — let’s hope we’re able to come up with a better answer using the system we’ve got.

  9. 9
    johnbrown

    Anyone who reads science fiction and is interested in Marxism should read Mac Reynolds. He wrote a number of novels that were serialized in Analog during the 1960s which were quite definitely inspired by Marxism. Interesting because Analog more usually embraces the libertarian right.

  10. 10
    Emptyell

    Speaking as clueless American…

    There is always that perhaps overhyped quotation “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” (What is certain, I am not a Marxist). While it is certainly not definitive I have never thought of Stalinism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, etc as being Marxist. Especially considering their totalitarianism. I always understood Marx’s position to be that socialism is the inevitable end result of capitalism not something that could be imposed by authority. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read much economics.

    Has anyone here read the book “Marx’s Revenge” by Meghnad Desai? I quite enjoyed it but am curious what othe more knowledgeable folks think of it.

  11. 11
    composer99

    Quick historical correction, Andrew:

    Rather than:

    The last global collapse in 1929 produced a severe backlash ultimately culminating in the USSR and Nazi Germany. Maybe Marx will have his revenge after all. If so we can only hope the outcome of any future collapse and backlash won’t lead us down the dark path my father and mother lived through, because this time a big all out global war won’t leave much of a workforce, nay much of a civilization, behind to rebuild in a single generation.

    The USSR formed as a result of the events surrounding the 1917 Revolution and follow-up civil war in Russia/USSR, and a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for the formation of Nazi Germany was the particular circumstances surrounding the German defeat in the 1914-1918 Great War, and the disjoint between the moderate ancien régime society of pre-1914 with the rather liberal Weimar Republic that followed. At least IMO, the Great War/First World War is more important in producing Nazi Germany than the Depression was, and of course the USSR’s existence pre-dated the Depression by an entire decade.

  12. 12
    Enopoletus Harding

    real wages began falling,

    For two years in the eight-year Reagan era. Couldn’t you have just typed “fell for a short while”?
    https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/people/

    The last global collapse in 1929 produced a severe backlash ultimately culminating in the USSR and Nazi Germany.

    -Couldn’t you have just typed “World War II” instead of this ambiguous sentence?

  13. 13
    Leo Buzalsky

    @12 Enopoletus Harding

    I looked at your table. Technically, you are correct. However, the rates at which wages had been increasing dropped quite remarkably. This table shows a 40% increase over the period of 1967 to 1980. But during the Reagan years? 18%. Nothing here really contradicts the point Stephen was making, even though it shows his precise wording to be inaccurate.

  14. 14
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    brucegee1962 #8:

    What’s that? Something about Germany? Something about Korea? Sure, those would be fairly good places to try an experiment like that. Somebody should try that someday.

    I love how people can act like democracy isn’t a necessary component of a society where the people are supposed to control the system. It’s as if we slur socialism in such ways that it seems horrible when it really isn’t even at only a cursory glance.

    PROTIP: declaring that only a select group of people are qualified to make all decisions, including who is allowed to join such a group, is not conducive to a system controlled by the people at large. this disqualifies, umm…a lot of the popular straw-socialist states, including East Germany and North Korea.

  15. 15
    steffp

    Beg to differ: North Korea these days can’t be regarded socialist or communist at all. The official state doctrine, Juche, may have started as an application of Stalin’s “Socialism in one state”, when preparing to severe ties with the Soviet Union and especially with the “Council for Mutual Economic Assistance”in 1972. Later, following the sino-soviet split and the ruin of the USSR, all references to Marxism-Leninism were dropped. The 1998 Constitution (yes, they have such a thing) does not mention either of those ideologies, and the last reference to Communism was purged from the Constitution in 2009.
    In contemporary Juche, the revolutionary subject is not the working masses (“proletariat”), but the armed forces – an organization marked by a chain of command.I would not go as far as Chr. Hitchens in calling Juche a religion, but he’s close…

  16. 16
    Enopoletus Harding

    @ Buzz Saw
    -Why compare a 13-year period with an 8-year period? One’s almost twice as long as the other.

  17. 17
    Enopoletus Harding

    @Buzz Saw and the author:
    My bad. Incomes are not wages. See http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/ERP-2009/xls/ERP-2009-table47.xls
    However, real hourly wages have had their best days in 1972, so the author is still wrong.

  1. 18
    Around FtB » Pharyngula

    [...] Stephen is advising the Commies. [...]

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