Tag Archives: capitalism

Milton Friedman, hack

Milton Friedman - Capitalism and FreedomMilton Friedman has constructed an airtight bubble of neoliberal thought where freedom is the greatest value, and everything makes sense and fits together rationally only because it has no connection whatsoever to any kind of historical context, much less the current social and political realities of our time. None. Period. It is as though neither history nor reality as it is experienced by the poor exist, an astonishing tour de force to explain why those with extreme wealth should feel happy and content and not the least bit guilty because exploitation really is to the benefit of all.

It depressed me to read this, and made me go back and give Hayek more credit. Much as I disagreed with him and was saddened by his reduction of all socialist thought to what was essentially Stalinism, I could at least see him grappling with the very real issues of our world with some kind of integrity.

There is no integrity here I’m afraid. Instead Friedman says absurd things like

“This is a role of inequality of wealth in preserving political freedom that is seldom noted — the role of the patron.” [17]

With these ideas he’ll never lack one.

“children are at one and the same time consumer goods and potentially responsible members of society” [33]

Consumer goods…I don’t even have a comeback to that one. Luckily I don’t need one.

“It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a ‘taste’ of others that one does not share.” [110]

Good god, don’t get me started on his views on race and why white people shouldn’t have to interact with a Negro in their local store if they don’t want to.

How unions harm the world at large [124]. The end of child labour and the 8 hour day are enough to start with as a riposte I think…

The evils of requiring medical doctors to be licensed. [149] Yep. Apparently one in a thousand quacks is actually on to something, and licensing reduces their abilities to experiment [157]. But now I begin to see why we need a large pool of really poor people.

And of course, the old familiar and expected standbys lifted directly from this book into attempts at policy — the evils of public housing, minimum wage causing poverty (and sadly not in the correct sense that in the US working for minimum wage leaves you under the poverty line), social security as an invasion of our lives…and etc. To be fair, I did expect the unions are evil bit. But the rest was an enlightening surprise.

To cap it all off he writes

Humility is the distinguishing virtue of the believer in freedom… [188]

Believe me, the last thing this book is characterised by is humility.

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Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]

James

No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]

Wright

Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

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C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. [283] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

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Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney's representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney’s representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Golden GulagGolden Gulag is written by an activist trying to answer questions asked by mothers fighting for the lives of their children in prison, and grappling with the theory behind her work, so you know I loved it. I found it quite challenging though, and I’m still thinking about how she frames the political economy of prisons and how that intersects with race.

In a nutshell, she argues that “…prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” [26]. She draws on the work of Hall and Schwartz in how she thinks about and defines crisis: “Crisis occurs when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” a very technical definition I must confess. But essentially it means that change has to happen, the system of social relations or the social formation must shift. She argues that one way (maybe the only way, I’m out of my depth but I imagine one way) for society to find itself in such a crisis is through the build-up of surpluses. Capitalism depends on a cycle of accumulation of goods and their sale at a profit, it goes into crisis when goods simply accumulate. This crisis is not simply economic, but also political and social. In examining the political economy of California, she find four key surpluses provoking crisis. The state could have chosen different ways to resolve these surpluses, but instead they chose to embark on the largest prison building program the world has ever seen.

So this is the crux, the four surpluses are (in highly simplified form)

finance capital: investors specialising in public debt were having a hard time getting bonds through, they had money and couldn’t lend it to a very large and wealthy government

land: given drought, debt and development, farmers have increasingly been withdrawing irrigated land from production – ceasing to invest in irrigation infrastructure as it is no longer economically feasible. In addition there are large amounts of surplus land in and around depressed towns throughout California, together with high unemployment.

labour: manufacturing left, and hit poor communities of colour the hardest. The increasing number of prisoners has kept pace, and in many ways controlled, the rising levels of unemployment, and the highest percentage of prisoners comes from those areas with the highest levels of unemployment

state capacity: with the tax revolt that took place in California in the 1970s, the state was forced into crisis by lack of funds and lack of mandate to redistribute wealth through programs and services, while still maintaining it’s bureaucratic architecture. The State needed some other way to maintain that architecture.

And thus, prisons. More of them than anyone has ever seen. The rest of the book is looking at why these surpluses resulted in this particular solution.

It’s certainly a deeper and more complex argument than many of the prevailing ideas that she outlines: crime went up, we cracked down; drug epidemic; structural changes in employment opportunities; privatization of prison functions and the search for profit; provision of rural jobs and development; reform. It accounts for all of these things really, drawing them all into a more complex story.

She also draws on Hall and Gramsci to analyse perceptions and changing definitions of crime. I like her take on ideology:

Such change is not just a shift in ideas or vocabulary or frameworks, but rather in the entire structure of meanings and feelings (the lived ideology, or “taking to heart”) through which we actively understand the world and place our actions in it (Williams 1961). Ideology matters along its entire continuum, from common sense (“where people are at”) to philosophies (where people imagine the coherence of their understanding comes from: Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Marx, Malcolm X, the market).” [243]

Her invocation of race is also interesting:

As the example of racism suggests, institutions are sets of hierarchical relationships (structures) that persist across time (Martinot 2003) undergoing, as we have seen in the case of prisons, periodic reform. Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. [28]

I have often seen this quoted, but usually in addition to other definitions. It is curious that she relates it solely to premature death, I’m trying to wrap my head around that, why you would limit it to that, whether that doesn’t leave important things out. I suppose life and death is the most important question after all. She also includes a chapter that tries to grapple with the lived experience of how such a political economy of prisons and race intersects, what that means to people over and above it’s roots in political economy:

From the mothers’ vantage point, we can see how prison expansion and opposition to it are part of the long history of African-Americans and others whose struggle for liberation in the racial state has never achieved even a fully unfettered capacity to be free labor. The development of political responses to legal dilemmas indicates how profoundly incapacitation deepens, rather than solves, social crisis. This chapter … personalizes and generalizes the morally intolerable (Kent 1972) to highlight objective and subjective dimensions of the expansion of punishment and prisons, the demise of the weak welfare state, and the capacity of everyday people to organize and lead themselves. [185]

I like how this is done, but found it hard to connect it theoretically to the sections that preceded it on political economy, it almost felt like a world and story apart. But that might be a reflection of my own experience in how hard it is to bring these two worlds together.

I am also thinking through her comments on activism and scholarship, activism and power. She uses Gramsci in a way I hadn’t thought of and like immensely:

On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. [27]

grassroots organization should be the kind that “renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement (Gramsci 1971: 330-31)

Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setip were really a matter of “it” (Structure) versus “us” (agncy). But if the structure-agency opposition isn’t how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations. But that’s not enough, becayse all an individual organization can do is tweak Armageddon. When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined toward ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the grounds. In other words, movement happens. [248]

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Friedrich von Hayek: The Road to Serfdom?

Friedrich von Hayek's Road to SerfdomFriedrich von Hayek is a huge figure in economics and of immense influence on neoliberalism, and reading this I was struck by just how deeply and completely neoliberalism goes as a theoretical framework. I know many would not agree with that (though many would), but Thatcher claimed him as her own and that is enough for me. There are also those conversations in the Mount Pelerin Society with Milton Friedman. It fascinates me that this resonance is true not just of the ideas, but also in the way language is used and in its underlying sense of victimisation, a sense that continues even as so many neoliberal policies have waxed victorious over Keynsianism across the world.

The Road to Serfdom was written in 1944; I found it so chilling to see the same arguments in so much vogue today used in the context of WWII, Hitler, and Stalin. The chill comes from the fact that so little of the rhetoric has changed in over sixty years, and that really, Hayek saw the world in the same stark black and white that George W. Bush did, and both benefited greatly from it. Below are what I believe to be some of the principle strands of thought found here that were entirely familiar with present day rhetoric:

  • Socialism inexorably leads to fascism, liberalism is the only alternative
  • Glorification of the individual but a fear of the masses
  • Necessity of limited democracy
  • Money as the measure of all things
  • Competition in a free market as the best regulator of society
  • Growing the total wealth rather than redistribution of wealth as the solution to poverty (trickle-down economics)
  • A return to ‘traditional’ individualist values
  • The sacredness of private property
  • The selfishness of organised labour
  • Necessity of government intervention to favour the market

What struck me most forcibly was undoubtedly this claim: “Few are ready to recognise that the rise of Fascism and Nazism were not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies” (p 4). This equation of socialism with fascism seems only to have grown through the years, you have only to witness the immense outcry against “Obamacare”. I wondered where the hell that came from, now I know.

Hayek sets Socialism up essentially as a straw man by first equating it with some brand of what I would call Stalinism (though I’ll never deny that too many calling themselves socialists supported many of these totalitarian ideas), and then insisting that any kind of government effort to achieve a more just world will lead to totalitarianism. To disagree with a critique of an Orwellian system of mind control is something I would never do; to claim that there are only two choices before us, totalitarianism or Hayek’s vision of liberalism, is equally absurd. But going back to the “Obamacare” debacle, that is clearly what many people think.

Hayek in some ways comes off as the more reasonable and kinder face of liberalism when you look through the ages; life for him is not brutal, nasty and short, and he insists that liberalism does not argue that all men are egotistic or entirely selfish (and I use ‘men’ deliberately, the only woman mentioned in the book is the poor plain girl with the futile wish to be a salesgirl in a shop). Men are simply limited in their knowledge and imagination, and it is impossible for them to agree on any but a handful of very general things. This agreement can never stretch to values of any kind. Sad but true.

Read on and there is a darker side to this. Side by side with the glorification of individual choice and freedom, there exists also the characteristic contempt for the masses. Hayek says on page 168:

Probably it is true enough that the great majority are rarely capable of thinking independently, that on most questions they accept views which they find ready-made, and that they will be equally content if born or coaxed into one set of beliefs or another. In any society freedom of thought will probably be of direct significance only for a small minority.

This of course means that any kind of mass movement requires organising the worst elements:”It is, as it were, the lowest common denominator which unites the largest number of people” (p 142). In spite of his statement that democracy cannot exist without capitalism, he wants it in its most limited form. He states tellingly: “We have no intention, however, of making a fetish out of democracy . . . . Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom. As such it is by no means infallible or certain” (p 73).

Thus it is not ‘the people’ who should ultimately control things, but something else. And again there is no room for alternatives here, there is only a stark choice between totalitarianism and the market (never mind that people control and manipulate the market in myriads of ways, just look at centuries of stock market scandal). Hayek argues that in claiming man’s ability to regulate his life and society, one “fails to see that, unless this complex society is to be destroyed, the only alternative to submission to the impersonal and seemingly irrational forces of the market is submission to an equally uncontrollable and therefore arbitrary power of other men” (p 210).

Money becomes the measure of all things, the only way we can be motivated to our full potential and know what to value. He writes on page 129,

It is not merely that if we want people to give their best we must make it worth while for them. What is more important is that if we want to leave them the choice, if they are to be able to judge what they ought to do, they must be given some readily intelligible yardstick by which to measure the social importance of the different occupations…

This yardstick is salary. It is absurd to me that I should view a Wall Street trader as a thousand times more valuable to society than any teacher, fireman, nurse, or even the latest winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, but so Hayek argues.

Competition becomes the great regulator, the only possible regulator in the face of human fallibility. Hayek equates competition with justice in that neither favours one person over another, and success is based only on capacity and luck. Even he is forced to admit that this more true in theory than in fact given a system of private property and inherited wealth, but in spite of this, competition is the best we can hope for. And indeed, under a competitive system and with money as the measure of all things, we are able to find the perfect tool for recording all individual actions and guiding them, and that is prices.

So precise a tool is it, Hayek compares entrepreneurs to engineers watching the hands of a few dials and adjusting their activities to the rest of humanity. To rely on anything other than competition to regulate society, even for the best of ends, will inexorably result only in fascism as it substitutes a moral rule of law (controlled by a democratic majority and we’ve already seen where that will end given the lowest common denominator belief) for an arbitrary and predictable one. I’m beginning to understand the zealousness of neoliberalism’s proponents, it’s like a rewriting of the Lord of the Rings really, a saga of good against most absolute evil. And everybody hates fascism.

Rounding it up, we have trickle-down economics: “Perhaps no less important is that we should not, by short-sighted attempts to cure poverty by a redistribution instead of by an increase in our income, so depress large classes as to turn them into determined enemies of the existing political order” (p 214-15), and what is undoubtedly a good line: “It may sound noble to say: damn economics, let us build up a decent world–but it is, in fact, merely irresponsible” (p 215).

We have the return to traditional values:

If we are to succeed in the war of ideologies and to win over the decent elements in the enemy countries, we must first of all regain the belief in the traditional values for which this country stood in the past, and must have the moral courage stoutly to defend the ideals which our enemies attack (p 224).

The values are familiar too, as compassion and kindness are thrown out the window in favour of

independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary co-operations with one’s neighbours (p 218).

Of course there is the sacredness of private property as the most important guarantee of freedom, not just for those who own it, but somehow for those who do not. Organised labour is bad and constraining capitalism only hurts everyone.

To the worker in a poor country the demand of his more fortunate colleague to be protected against his low wage competition by minimum wage legislation, supposedly in his interest, is frequently no more than a means to deprive him of his only chance to better his conditions by overcoming natural disadvantages by working at wages lower than his fellows in other countries (p 231).

I’ve read this so many times before it’s as though it has been copied verbatim into every report and article justifying the existence of exploitation around the world. The necessity of limited government intervention to favour the market is here too (which David Harvey would argue is one thing distinguishing neoliberalism from liberalism), as he argues strongly against a pure laissez-faire position, though you could argue that the interventions we have seen are rarely to make “the best possible use of the forces of competition as a means of coordinating human efforts”.

It’s not just ideas, but attitudes that have continued strong. The way that the right-wing always perceives itself as the underdog, as under attack. Hayek bemoans the fact that socialism is dominant while liberalism is in fact the motor of progress, so taken for granted that people can no longer recognise it. As he states, “It might be said that the very success of liberalism became the cause of its decline” (p 19). There might have been some truth when he was writing, but the rhetoric continues long after the years of Reagan and Thatcher completely turned it around.

There is also the same clarion call to sacrifice, “It is essential that we should re-learn frankly to face the fact that freedom can only be had at a price and that as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve our liberty”, when the growing gap between rich and poor since these policies have become victorious make it so clear just whose sacrifice is required. It is hard to see why sacrifice should still be necessary after so many decades of it. The good times never arrived for most people I’m afraid.

The interesting things that don’t quite mesh with the neoliberal world today? He does admit that some kind of basic safety net may be necessary, even a good thing, as long as it doesn’t inhibit competition. There is also the railing against monopolies. Hayek argues that they also lead to totalitarianism, not quite purposefully but in effect. I think possibly he might not be happy with the giant corporations we see today, it’d be an interesting question and one I’d quite like to ask him. The outcome of policies self-described as neoliberal has, in effect, been the death of competition; I would claim that this is inevitable in a system where the only measure of value is wealth and the only regulatory mechanism is competition, but it would be interesting to hear Friedrich von Hayek’s response.

And the ultimate irony? He also states quite clearly that democracy works best in very small nations, smaller even than the UK…what would he make of America, the country which has done more to promote his views in theory than any other?

All this said, this book reads with a certain sort of integrity, written by someone who has struggled to some extent with ideas and how to bend them to create a better society. I only appreciated this after reading Milton Friedman.