Danyl McL writes:
Thirdly, it turns out that if you have a capitalist economy – even a very basic one like Tsarist Russia – and you take away the market and put the workers in charge of the means of production (and execute anyone trading on the black market) then instead of transforming itself into a utopia because of the scientific laws of history and the malleability of human nature, the entire economy collapses, and people in cities end up eating their own children to stay alive, and everyone who can still walk rises up and joins the capitalist counter-revolutionaries trying to overthrow you.
We are now seeing this occur in Venezuela – as it has in pretty much every other country that has tried this.
The revolution endured, through a combination of extreme ruthlessness, dumb luck and the ineptitude of their enemies and also, humiliatingly, by bringing back an attenuated form of capitalism. It took them a long time to work out an alternative economic system that didn’t involve either capitalism or keeping the population in a state of abject terror by just randomly murdering people or imprisoning and enslaving them for life, en-masse. They got there though, by the 1950s. And the form of communism they wound up with was very materialistic: very consumerist, focused on high economic growth at the cost of extraordinary environmental destruction. Actual communism was all the things the left dislikes about late capitalism, in other words, except it didn’t work as well as capitalism.
Marxist intellectuals in the west didn’t put that much effort into trying to figure out how to make Communism work. For most the assumption was that it did work, because science, and that reports of famine in the Ukraine were obviously western propaganda. So they carried on critiquing capitalism, applying a Marxist analysis to whatever was intellectually fashionable in the west.
When psychoanalysis was in vogue, the theory was capitalism caused alienation and schizophrenia: the traditional family became the agent through which capitalist production repressed the revolutionary desires of the child. When people became interested in colonialism, then Marxists decided that colonialism was caused by capitalism. Now racism, patriarchy and climate change are caused by capitalism. (It’s an endlessly repeated trope on the left that capitalism, with its assumption of infinite growth is the driver of climate change, without discussing why non capitalist economies won’t also seek growth and drive it with greenhouse gas pollution. And why won’t the powerful head of the People’s Coal Miners Union have all the climate change scientists imprisoned or executed as traitors?). Whatever people are upset about is caused by capitalism, and the solution to all our problems is to get rid of capitalism.
The Jeremy Corbyns of this world always see capitalism and especially Western capitalism as to blame.
When the failure of actual Communism became horribly apparent Marxist intellectuals comforted themselves that the revolution wasn’t supposed to happen in places like Russia and China. It was supposed to happen in developed capitalist economies, like their own, so they went on critiquing capitalism. There have been recent socialist revolutions in proper capitalist countries like Venezuela. That would have been a good time for Marxist theorists to go prove their theories correct. Did Venezuelans become less racist? Did patriarchy disappear? Did Venezuela’s policy of paying for their socialist state by selling lakes of oil to capitalist countries address the issue of climate change? But with the exception of hand-waving about droughts and capitalist sabotage, there is near total silence on the left about Venezuela. We don’t talk about Venezuela.
An inconvenient truth.
Instead of envisioning capitalism as a totalising system responsible for everything that annoys you, the removal of which will instantly solve all our problems, I think it’s more useful to see it as a series of kludges that allow complex, high population technological nation-states to function and interact with each other. A kludge is a term-of-art in engineering, especially software engineering: it describes an improvised, inelegant and inefficient solution to a problem. Over time, complex engineered systems tend to accumulate kludges, all creating unforeseen consequences that then proliferate more kludges, which all become interdependent on each other. They create lots of problems, but if you get rid of them then the entire system collapses – just like capitalist countries do when you get rid of capitalism.
Fixing kludges can be really hard. You need to have a deep understanding of the system you’re working with, and come up with realistic improvements, and make them work, and then move on to the next one.
This is basically the day to day work of Government policy making – fixing kludges.
I recently read a book about the history of cancer. For much of the 20th century, the most brilliant physicians and doctors in the world struggled to find cures for cancer. They didn’t really understand what was causing the disease – they thought it radiated out from the centre of the body in a spiral pattern – but they knew that sometimes surgery cured tumours, and sometimes chemotherapy cured tumours, or at least caused them to remiss. The culture of the profession drove them towards more and more radical solutions. Radical surgery, radical chemotherapy. They stopped paying attention to statisticians and molecular biologists, who were telling them that they’re weren’t actually curing anyone, and that cancer didn’t function the way they thought it did. Weren’t they the most brilliant physicians in the world? How could they all be wrong?
But they were. The big lesson there is that a large groups of brilliant people all trying to do the right thing can all be completely wrong, for many decades, and cause incredible suffering and harm, while basically wasting their lives. It seems to me that something similar has happened to left-wing intellectual theory, especially the radical left. That it’s taken a very wrong turn somewhere, and a lot of very brilliant people have been studying, teaching and writing nonsense, for a long time now and that they’re in a deep state of epistemic closure about this, because no one likes to think they’ve been wrong about almost everything. Especially people who fetishise intelligence, like surgeons, or left-wing intellectuals.
This reminds me of a post I did some years ago asking what were the things that the left and the right got disastrously wrong post WWII?
For the right I would say tolerance of apartheid South Africa and opposing welfare states.
For the left I would say socialism/communism and unilateral disarmament