Comments: The 20th Century, Now in Reruns

If you're ever tempted to read Marx, I recommend his writings on the Civil War. In 1861, he saw with remarkable clarity that the war was over slavery, not states' rights.

Most of the rest of Marx's points can be figured out by anyone who knows anything about Jesus or Robin Hood.

I'm pondering your point about industrialization. Must note that Hitler and Stalin had one big thing in common: they hated democracy. Whether democratic industrialization is possible, I dunno; it might be met everywhere with NIMBY.

Posted by will shetterly at January 2, 2011 06:26 PM

You make some excellent points. Just a couple factors you haven't explicitly mentioned, one currently operative and one waiting in the wings:

1)the computerization of the capitalist casino - allowing hypercomplexity, hyperspeed and hypervolume of "markets", hyper-unreality - leading to the construction of not just a house of cards, but a Manhattan made of digital pixels

2)the impending iceberg - the end of cheap oil - which will negatively impact not just corporate profits, but global food production, with all this implies

But of all miracles, the greatest is that anything exists at all, and perhaps the 21st century will confound all expectations and be another stepping stone toward the enlightenment of all potentially sentient beings

May the Creative Forces of the Universe smile in our general direction

Posted by mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at January 2, 2011 07:52 PM

Repeat the policy mistakes of the 20th century? First as tragedy, then as farce, as they say.

Posted by Troy Polidori at January 2, 2011 07:56 PM

If Jesus can't get YOU to love YOUR Neighbor, the greedy&stupid POS's that run this world sure as hell won't. I'm thinking WWI ain't over yet.

Posted by Mike Meyer at January 2, 2011 08:00 PM

There's much wise in that post, but of course it's too simple and some of the statements go historically awry. The implicit tribute to the wisdom of Averill Harriman the old man is particularly hard for me to stomach. Harriman wrote what he did in 1970 for public consumption, not because his views changed so much. He was a conniving elitist prick in the end too, and probably as much a fan of eugenics when he died as he had been fifty years earlier when that strain of thought was fashionable. Harriman just became a politician.

Heilbroner is well worth reading, but he was a popular writer of economic history and certainly wasn't a thinker of Marx's caliber, so people real should give the old master a little time if they have it. There have been plenty of very smart secondary authors like George Lichtheim to help (just to pick one I once liked) who can make Marx a little more comprehensible to a modern reader.

Stalin was about as much of a communist as Hitler. I suppose Mao was closer, but those guys were anti-imperialists and nationalists and probably collectivists because the only real power that was at their disposal was anti-capitalist. What went by the name of communism arose in the nations of the world most exploited by capitalism first for obvious reasons, and it spread when the capitalist classes of Europe showed how craven they were by capitulating to fascism too eagerly. Per authorities like Marc Bloch, the French elite hated the Popular Front more than Hitler and proved it by their shameful conduct.

But still a very thought-provoking post. Good job.

Posted by N E at January 2, 2011 08:23 PM
The implicit tribute to the wisdom of Averill Harriman the old man is particularly hard for me to stomach. Harriman wrote what he did in 1970 for public consumption, not because his views changed so much. He was a conniving elitist prick in the end too, and probably as much a fan of eugenics when he died as he had been fifty years earlier when that strain of thought was fashionable. Harriman just became a politician.

I'm not arguing that he was a benevolent sage, just that he'd changed sides from the Insane Evil Billionaires to the Sane Evil Billionaires.

Though granted, the charm of the Sane Evil Billionaires may be more apparent during times such as now when they've gone almost extinct.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at January 2, 2011 08:59 PM
Capitalism had even less to fear by this point from its equal-and-opposite-reaction, communism, since communism had proven itself to be just as capable as capitalism of committing genocide and oppressing huge swaths of humanity. (This suggests to me at least that the real villain in both cases is industrialization, and that it can't happen under any system without gigantic bloodshed.)

Incorrect. The real villain is a persistent economic aristocracy resulting in the centralization of power via rent collection and antipopulist legislation (which is called capitalism, but isn't really) or via the concentration of power "necessary" to guide a socialist republic into a state of true freedom for the proletariat (which is called communism, but isn't really, but since communism-on-paper has problems that can't be solved I'm not really that concerned about that failure).

Given that parallel, I agree with the "equal-and-opposite" reaction concept partially, though I don't think the two systems are actually opposite. What's actually called capitalism is really an oligarchical kleptocracy that happens to run a capitalist system. We aren't capitalist. If we were, the citizens of the U.S. would all have capital. Many of us don't even have real assets. We are not capitalists; we are consumers, living in an oligarchy kept stable due to minor popular inputs.

Capitalism done correctly is the enemy of the state. Now, I'm not glorifying capitalism and the free market -- far from it. It is an excellent tool. It does not exist in contradiction with any variant of democracy or socialism I've ever heard of -- this is because it is a tool, not an ideology. As such, I don't believe it even can be used to directly compare to communism; it's apples and oranges.

Right now the common person and his or her values are all considered capital for our oligarchs -- in other words, they're playing a capitalistic game with us. We're capitalists in the same way that a chess piece is playing chess. Give the population real capital (which pretty much necessitates eradicating poverty), pull government services out of the commercial marketplace, and make the market serve the public rather than our aristocracy, and capitalism works just fine. . . which is why it's the enemy of the state. With a fair referee managing a fair market ("free" market being a meaningless phrase -- if I like it, the market is "free," period), oligarchs couldn't rely on rent collection, courtiers and parasites couldn't take as much advantage of inefficiency, and the middle class, being wealthy and fairly affluent, wouldn't tolerate an antipopular faction in the government. It's doubtful even extreme concentrations of wealth would be tolerated; it's certain political manipulation using such would be considered a grave crime.

Capitalism isn't really as important as most of the planet makes out. With it or without it, our problem is aristocracy.

If you recognize this, you realize that we aren't repeating the mistakes of the 20th century, or the 19th.

We're actually still duplicating 5th century mistakes, and 1st century mistakes, and I can show you bits of the Bible and the Iliad that remain pretty accurate as far as social commentary and political science go. . .

Posted by No One of Consequence at January 2, 2011 10:56 PM

Jon:

I don't think Harriman was ever really among the Sane Evil Billionaires, and probably most of his high-stationed ilk aren't, not that there isn't such a thing. I think Harriman was really a switch hitter in that regard, which the cynical might confuse with crass opportunism, but since he was one of the Medici of his era, his clock-work oscillations between political sycophancy and political betrayal took opportunism to the level of grandeur that commonly impresses journalists and pundits.

But, ya know, I take your point. Nice post.

Posted by N E at January 2, 2011 11:22 PM

Capitalism, Marxism, Socialism, Communism, Facism, THEY'RE ALL out to steal YOUR chickens, in the NOBLE struggle to liberate YOU, one(pick one) from the other(pick one).

Posted by Mike Meyer at January 2, 2011 11:46 PM

You've never read Marx? Not even the very basics? What the fuck? Are you for real?

Posted by Mikhail Emelianov at January 3, 2011 12:37 AM
You've never read Marx? Not even the very basics? What the fuck? Are you for real?

I'm not completely for real. I read the Communist Manifesto. But I haven't and almost certainly never will read Das Kapital. Too dense, too much about conditions that don't exist anymore. But I think I've picked up the gist elsewhere, for instance from Robert Heilbroner.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at January 3, 2011 12:48 AM

The villain is not industrialization, except that industrialization was one great step, like agrarianism before it, that furthered and concentrated the actual villain, which is hierarchy. Marx was a moderate, and his views, rather than being distorted by Stalin/Mao et al, never pointed to anything else but totalitarianism. Bakunin predicted that as a contemporary of Marx, Kropotkin predicted that as the Russian Revolution unfolded.

I think you will find this quite relevant to modern times:

http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/ANARCHIST_ARCHIVES/kropotkin/revpamphlets/lawandauthority.htm

There are no sane billionaires. Insanity is an automatic consequence if not a prerequisite of having such wealth.

Posted by marcus at January 3, 2011 01:27 AM

Great posting, Jon. The one thing you didn't mention is (as you've called it) impending global cataclysm—which means our rerun of the 20th century will make the original seem like a long lost golden age.

Posted by John Caruso at January 3, 2011 01:35 AM

Hey Jon, jinx!

I bought 2 of heilbroner's books on the recommendations of Max Sawicky, proprietor of the late lamented Maxspeak


one of them you mentioned, the worldly philosophers and the other that went unmentioned - The Nature and Logic of Capitalism - which appears to me a more useful book, given that most of what it states is still valid 20+ years after it's implementation. I have been plannign to do a series of excerpts from that book, but not yet found the time to do so.

Hope the new year is good to you...

Posted by almostinfamous at January 3, 2011 03:22 AM

Jonathan, not to be petty, but go back and have another look at Capital. For one thing, Marx's invective is some of the most brilliant I've ever read, and for another, the guy actually gives you a basic course in economics and what it's really about. It is long, and sometimes repetitive, but it's unmistakably worth the trouble.

I didn't read the guy for years and years (just had his books prominently on the bookshelf in case any lefty cadres dropped by to be impressed) but finally dipped in and got hooked.

Lenin's also worth reading, by the way, if you want to understand power-politics. And he wrote the original book on how to demonise your opponents.

Posted by The Creator at January 3, 2011 04:49 AM

Why would you quote the founding fathers or our beloved golden era corporate oligarchs when you could quote from Karl Marx, the beloved American icon? What are you thinking! Your pledge of idle innocence is clearly a backhand of inappropriate disdain and an insult to all Marxist Americans. Your views will never get anywhere in this country if that's your attitude.

Posted by buermann at January 3, 2011 06:30 AM

for more info:

THIRD WORLD TRAVELER is an archive of articles and book excerpts that seek to tell the truth about American democracy, media, and foreign policy, and about the impact of the actions of the United States government, transnational corporations, global trade and financial institutions, and the corporate media, on democracy, social and economic justice, human rights, and war and peace, in the Third World, and in the developed world.

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/

Posted by mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at January 3, 2011 07:21 AM

Among the excerpts available at Third World Traveler is the following from George Soros, The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998):

The functions that cannot and should not be governed purely by market forces include many of the most important things in human life, ranging from moral values to family relationships to aesthetic and intellectual achievements. Yet market fundamentalism is constantly attempting to extend its sway into these regions, in a form of ideological imperialism. According to market fundamentalism all social activities and human interactions should be looked at as transactional, contract-based relationships and valued in terms of a single common denominator, money. Activities should be regulated, as far as possible, by nothing more intrusive than the invisible hand of profit-maximizing competition....

There is a widespread presumption that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand. In fact the relationship is much more complicated. Capitalism needs democracy as a counterweight because the capitalist system by itself shows no tendency toward equilibrium. The owners of capital seek to maximize their profits. Left to their own devices, they would continue to accumulate capital until the situation became unbalanced.

Marx and Engels gave a very good analysis of the capitalist system 150 years ago, better in some ways, I must say, than the equilibrium theory of classical economics. The remedy they prescribed-communism-was worse than the disease. But the main reason why their dire predictions did not come true was because of countervailing political interventions in democratic countries.

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Global_Economy/Crisis_Capitalism_Soros.html

Posted by mistah charley, ph.d. at January 3, 2011 07:43 AM

I agree with the many commenters who note that JS didn't really give Marx his due. Most of Capital was too much of a slog for me too, but Marx had a wicked pen and should be read to appreciate it, whether or not he was a "moderate" (that gave me a chuckle) compared to Bakunin. Biographies of old Karl are good too, because then you can learn that he married a Princess who lived in poverty with him, and though Engels provided some money most of their kids still died of childhood diseases, and then Karl seems to have faltered and banged the maid, so the story is a good cautionary tale for other young princesses whose heads are turned by brilliant passionate rhetoric. Marx knew whereof he spoke when he in later life told a younger admirer and would-be revolutionary thinker that the sacrifices are great. Then again, I suppose life is not for cowards.

Mistah Charley, I like the Third World Traveler site too, and George Soros has an unusually penetrating mind for a money guy. I don't think he is right to tag old Karl and Friedrich as having authored "the remedy" that became communism, but I guess almost nobody cares about that argument any more. Oh for a dry argument about real existing socialism!

Somebody should find old Karl's pen and start examining and describing the present-day contradictions of this latest stage of capitalism, because people seem to have become a bit numb to what is happening and turned to stress eating. I guess our minds would all explode and we'd scream like a Munch painting if we could actually take it all in.

But maybe it's better for Karl's future apprentice to make a bunch of movies since almost no one will read a book now, let alone a depressing one. And to come full circle, I guess that's sort of what Jon has helped Michael Moore try to do.

Posted by N E at January 3, 2011 11:16 AM

Yes, industrialization. Specifically, division of labor, specialization, that's what causes alienation, and all the rest of it. Marx had something to say about that too.

19th century anarchists' concept was an agrarian, small village living; you consume what you produce.

Posted by abb1 at January 3, 2011 11:24 AM

The mistake is trying to fit THE AMREICAN WAY as it is today into a box of Capitalism, Marxism, or whatever when its straightup PAPER HANGING, fraud,writing bad checks,robbing the corner liquor store. Great when they "take the check", not so great when it won't "clear".

Posted by Mike Meyer at January 3, 2011 12:42 PM

Yeah, everyone interested in the workings and history of capitalism should read Capital. You'd be surprised. (It's also much easier going than you think. It might help to read along with David Harvey's excellent and freely available lecture series. It helped me.)

Posted by Richard at January 3, 2011 01:12 PM

David Harvey's excellent and freely available lecture series

Speaking of whom, here's an illustrated 11 minute summary of a half-hour talk on the Crises of Capitalism by David Harvey

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0

Posted by mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at January 3, 2011 02:22 PM

It's very odd that you don't have any time for Marx considering you just used an explicitly Marxist political economy framework for explaining 20th century history.

Posted by DS at January 3, 2011 02:24 PM

One can only applaud, with some degree of puzzlement, your virtuous refusal to read Marx at first hand to rely instead on secondary sources. Collecting his ideas at second hand is better than total willful ignorance.

Posted by Steve R. at January 3, 2011 02:40 PM

Why would you refuse to read Marx, who had such a huge influence on the study of economics? Are you afraid you'll be forced to agree with him about more than you have decided(without reading him) tha you should??Or are you afraid of being denounced and dismissed as "unserious"?

Posted by Blackplates at January 3, 2011 04:31 PM

Blackplates: I think it's because it's long and dry and boring. He already is in agreement with at least some of Marx'ideas, as has been pointed out above. And outside of the odd troll, pretty much everyone who posts on this blog is UnSerious.

Posted by No One of Consequence at January 3, 2011 04:47 PM

buermann: an insult to all Marxist Americans.

I like that. I think I'll steal it.

Posted by Duncan at January 3, 2011 06:42 PM

Anyone who clicks on Jon's link related to not having read Marx, and reads the comments, will see that he admitted to having read The Communist Manifesto. I myself plan to live a long and happy life without ever listening to anything by Bob Dylan -- except his albums from 1961 to 1966, which is only 1/10 his recording career, after all.

I'm not as well read in Political Economy as I ought to be, but last summer I did read the late Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism, which besides having a good title was highly informative about Marx's superiority as an analyst of capitalism to 'free market' economists.

Posted by Duncan at January 3, 2011 06:50 PM

when the spring blooms red
fresh young marxists demonstrate
their forbidden love

Posted by hapa at January 3, 2011 08:17 PM

anything by Bob Dylan -- except his albums from 1961 to 1966

dylan wrote this song in the 1980s, but this is a performance by james raymond smith

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRayUWkKX50

Union Sundown

Well, you know, lots of people complainin' that there is no work.
I say, "Why you say that for
When nothin' you got is U.S.-made?"
They don't make nothin' here no more,
You know, capitalism is above the law.
It say, "It don't count 'less it sells."
When it costs too much to build it at home
You just build it cheaper someplace else.

Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.

Democracy don't rule the world,
You'd better get that in your head.
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that's better left unsaid.

Posted by mistah charley, ph.d. at January 3, 2011 08:42 PM

I've seen it before, but that David Harvey video really is fantastic enough to study.

Posted by N E at January 4, 2011 01:43 AM

Americans are still busy puzzling Von Mises's main "man," Ayn Rand, as is evident from what passes for "libertarian" ideology here. I believe Noam Chomsky has pointed out that it's not so much Marx that is even really read (unless, perhaps, your teacher assigns it) as much as Proudhon, especially in in South America. Considering their history with Israeli guns I'm sure they're fine letting his Antisemitism slide.

"Schlemiels in reverse" find ways to swallow those lovely traditions and stamp them on a plastic lunchbox. When I hear the racists screaming about how my synagogue is part of a worldwide conspiracy, I realize the Marxian "blind alley" that they come from, and reflect on their pathological labeling and displacement of their own powerlessness which they coddle and reinforce with narcissistic envy of shadowy "red spectre" groups. I've been told the Russian Tsars who wrote the anti-Semitic touchstone "Protocols" were primarily basing their work off of a satirical commentary on France, keeping the essence of the story while changing "French" to "Jewish." If it's not Jews and Communists, it's Freemasons or something.

The real questions are "what are you going to produce for capitalism to swallow?" and "what traditions do you want to see go?"

Because until these problems with capitalism are sorted out internally, you're going to find the same irrational patterns throughout history. This is because revolutions aren't sustained through faith in stuffy old traditions your Grandmother told you about. (She was dealing with her own time, and is probably convinced the highways were built for national security reasons.)

Revolutions must find form and serve a spiritual purpose in society. They needn't take the form of war, and American exceptionalism is something I wouldn't mind leaving behind too, with actual democracy and liberty filling the void.

Posted by LT at January 4, 2011 01:28 PM

Ahhh, I see, there are no conspiracies because the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was perhaps the worst and most catastrophic slander ever and Mel Gibson's fan club still thinks Jews are running the world. That's a very psychologically understandable view, but it's really not a logical conclusion. (By the way, does anybody know that Henry Ford bought into and distributed the Protocols or that Hitler had a picture of him on the wall of his office back in the 20s?)

All that aside, actual democracy and liberty would be pretty nice.

Posted by N E at January 4, 2011 01:44 PM

The greatest conspiracy is staring you right in the face every time you turn on the news. Rich people write the laws and tell you they'd get away with it too if it weren't for you pesky kids.

Posted by LT at January 4, 2011 02:23 PM

N E:
Slander against the Romani, though not so organized, probably has anti-Jewish slander beat. Romany is actually trying to take away the name of that minority, even now. Anti-black slander is pretty rough, too, and involves some of the best contradictions ever. (Blacks are supposed to be stupid and lazy but nevertheless will take white jobs -- so how smart and productive must white people be? Note that latinos have been graciously granted the same meme by white supremacists.)

The Protocols have a lot of competition. I can't even grant them a sure win in the Best Edited Racist Crap category -- The Bell Curve probably has it beat. (Though the Protocols have better footnotes.)

Posted by No One of Consequence at January 5, 2011 01:18 AM

Reading this reminded me of the experiments carried out by Bob Altemeyer described in his book The Authoritarians. This is a fascinating account of the analysis and results of a game he devised for small teams to represent a country or region. The teams choose leaders and negotiate deals for their people. It's a sort of offline version of Microsoft's Age of Empires where 100 years is played out in less than a day. The experiment, carried out thousands of times in US, European and Russian universities and colleges pitches two distinct types of groups against each other; Right Wing Authoritarians (think politicians, leaders, businessmen, petty tyrants) and Liberals (everyone else). With few exceptions, RWAs always end up completely destroying the world. In many cases, the game was stopped early to advise RWAs their course of action would lead to global destruction, and given the chance to restart the game. Guess what happened? Yep, they destroyed the world again.

Posted by Leon Benjamin at January 5, 2011 03:06 AM

NOOC:

I sure didn't mean to suggest a lack of competition in that area. I remember as a boy on the plains four decades ago being called an "Indian giver" by a neighbor's dad--why I don't really remember--and as I was about 6 and hadn't heard that term before, I remember learning at that time that an "Indian giver" was someone who gave you something and then took it back.

What you wrote reminded me of reading, I think in Perry Anderson's book about slavery in Greece and Rome, that back in the Roman Empire, the Roman slave-owners bitched about their lazy German slaves.

Posted by N E at January 5, 2011 06:15 AM

x2 what Leon Benjamin said.

Get The Authoritarians here:

http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Reads easy but is extremely informative.

And N E: "Indian Giver" actually triggered my first revelation on how racism works -- it's pure, spiteful, fucked-up and sick projection. The faction that stole everything, unequivocally, labels the other faction a thief. I actually think we should teach that phrase to kids just to let them know how a stereotype works.

And to help them learn to despise a certain football team.

As for those Romans vis-a-vis Germans: it couldn't have ended better for all concerned.

Posted by No One of Consequence at January 5, 2011 08:45 AM

@NOOC

A thousand times yes at your elucidation of the tired capitalism/communism dichotomy. I have argued these points with friends and family so many times that recently I've started thinking that I at least need to write an essay about it.

Zizek is on the ball when he calls socialism state sponsored capitalism. He says that we have never had actual communism in the actual world. I am not sure what actual communism would look like, I think it would look very much like direct democracy perhaps, I think the internet gives us a chance to implements political structures whereby the average citizen is informed and has their hand on the wheel of power (if they so want) and where openness and transparency and accountability are built into the machine of state.

Then you have the anarchists (and libertarians) who think that money is the root of all evil and rail and rant against money and want to abolish it and say that how in our future utopia we'll have figured out how to live without money and we'll have abandoned filthy lucre and peace and love man.

Look at the royal wedding shenanigans in Britain this year. The public in 2011 are paying for these leeches to get married when marriage is one of the most expensive outlays of anyone's life and the aristocrats can already afford it! Do you smell a rat? The French revolted against the strait-jacket of the aristocracy. The newly rich plutocracy are just another aristocracy in the making or the aristocracy renewing itself. I am not saying that you can't make a heap of money, I'm just saying that most of those that have made a huge amount have played dirty, generally through racketeering, force, trickery. Rarely through virtuous labour (though it can happen, I don't see why not.) Remember folks, it's _the love of_ money that is the root of all evil. Or wealth for its own sake. Or plain old greed.

The problem is that these issues are a lot more nuanced than people care for and so we get, Ug: Capitalism Good, Communism Bad or versi visa, grooooan.

Posted by Not Errol Flynn at January 7, 2011 02:17 AM