myths about myths

Lee Harris’s article about socialism at Tech Central says some smart things – and puts them at the service of a very dumb thesis.

First, let’s go to the dumb thesis. Harris poses the question: why, almost twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, is there a resurgence of nationalizations in Latin America? One answer would go like this: neo-liberalism, or the Washington consensus, encoded a contradiction at its heart: at the same time that it encouraged massive consumer spending through loans and the selling off of nationalized industries, it stripped the state of its abilities to institute counter-cyclical economic policy. In effect, it speeded up and deepened the effects of the business cycle while attacking the immune system that could mitigate its harsh effects. All of this among nations with pervasive inequality, stagnate working wages, and entrenched poverty. The effect was to systematically de-legitimate capitalism when the bottom fell out of the boom.

Now, this answer is arguable. It is certainly not irrational. But Harris dismisses the petty stats in favor of the grand historic sweep (a sweep that ignores how much twentieth century capitalism has incorporated socialist ideas, and how the U.S., surely one of the purest “capitalist” states, supports its internal economy on a state guarantor structure), and comes up with an answer that was a ringer in 1947, and is a ringer today: Socialism is a religion, depending on a revolutionary myth, a la Georges Sorel:

“… in the introduction to Reflections on Violence, Sorel says that the French thinker Renan "was very surprised to discover that Socialists are beyond discouragement." He then quotes Renan's comment about the indefatigable perseverance of socialists: "After each abortive experiment they recommence their work: the solution is not yet found, but it will be. The idea that no solution exists never occurs to them, and in this lies their strength." (Italics mine.)

"Sorel's response to Renan's comment is not to say, "Renan is wrong; there is a socialist solution, and one day we will find it." Instead, he focuses on the fact that socialists gain their strength precisely from their refusal to recognize that no socialist solution exists. "No failure proves anything against Socialism since the latter has become a work of preparation (for revolution); if they are checked, it merely proves that their apprenticeship has been insufficient; they must set to work again with more courage, persistence, and confidence than before...." But what is the point for Sorel of this refusal to accept the repeated historical failure of socialism? Here again, Sorel refuses to embrace the orthodox position of socialist optimism; he does not say, "Try, try, try again, for one day socialism will succeed." Instead, he argues that it is only by refusing to accept the failure of socialism that one can become a "true revolutionary." Indeed, for Sorel, the whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle -- a band of brothers, so to speak.”

Harris is engaging in a tactic that is almost universal in the social sciences, right or left. The interpretation of social phenonomena is always bumping up against social phenomena that seems either nakedly counter-productive, or immoral, or both. Social science has a vested interest in the rational agent, and so it is important to have a story at hand. The common story is this: on the left, to speak of the fetishism of commodities and false consciousness; on the right, to speak of brainwashing or – as with Harris – an exploitation of the worshipful part of human nature. In fact, the revolutionary ethos that did hold together bands of communists in the 20th century was a wonderful and strange thing. For the conservative, it is natural that the managerial class hold together – its self interest is served by preserving a system in which it can accrue more. (I should say that the rationality of this is only rational from the point of view that takes the getting of more to be the very center of rationality). But the band of brothers, the revolutionary cadre, what are they getting out of it? In the cold war, the answer, at first, was much like Harris’ – partly because the answer was given by intellectuals who were once part of the Communist movement. The Burnhams and Koestlers. The dramas in their own lives they projected upon the history of Communism itself. A longer tradition, one going back to Burke, claimed that the set of motives were purely about power – the theoretician confused justice with those tactics that would put him in power, and so fought for justice as he saw it and gained such power as was unchecked by traditional limits.

If Harris’ explanation for why socialism is not dead seems, in the end, a non-starter, along the way he does say some interesting things. For instance, he takes Marx seriously about creating scientific socialism – which, oddly enough, has been pretty much ignored by Marx’s academic followers. It is as though the latter are ashamed of the claim to science. LI thinks that if Marx was not doing science, in Das Kapital, than no economist or social “scientist” has ever done science. That he might be wrong about this or that is irrelevant – one expects scientific work to be in continual need of revision.

Harris, of course, thinks Marx failed, but he does trace, with as much neutrality as he can muster, the Marxian tradition in socialism:

“For Marx, scientific socialism had nothing to do with what Marx called utopian socialism; indeed, it was Marx's boast that he was the first socialist thinker to escape from the lure of fantasy thinking that had previously passed for socialist thought. Utopian socialists love to dream up ideal schemes for organizing human life; they engage in wishful politics, and design all sorts of utterly impractical but theoretically perfect social systems, none of which has the slightest chance of ever being actualized in concrete reality. For Marx, on the other hand, socialism had to be taken down from the clouds, and set firmly on the ground. Thus Marx, instead of spending his time writing about imaginary utopias, dedicated his life in trying to prove -- scientifically no less -- that socialism was not merely desirable, but historically inevitable. Capitalism, he argued, had been a good thing; a necessary step that mankind had to take to advance forward; but, according to Marx, capitalism would eventually suffer from an internal breakdown. It would simply stop producing the goods. Like feudalism before it, capitalism was inevitably bound to pass away as a viable system of social organization, and then, and only then, would socialism triumph.

But in this case, what was the role of the revolutionary? For Marx, it made no sense for revolutionaries to overthrow capitalism before it had fulfilled its historical destiny; on the contrary, to overthrow capitalism before it collapsed internally would be counter-productive: the precondition of viable socialism was, after all, a fully matured capitalist system that had already revolutionized the world through its amazing ability to organize labor, to make the best use of natural resources, to internationalize commerce and industry, and to create enormous wealth. Therefore, for Marx, there was no point in revolution for the sake of revolution…”

The “inevitable” is one of those hotly contested questions – it depends on what you think Marx thought about the role of the political, and whether he was giving an ideal model of capitalism in Das Capital or outlining a logic to which all real manifestations of capitalism must succumb. Harris’ point, however, is to drive a wedge between the economist Marx and the “revolutionary myth”, which he is sure is the way socialism culturally reproduces itself.

However, even though Harris doesn’t mention the business cycle or inequality in his essay – an odd gap when talking about Bolivia and Venezuela, one big enough to drive an army of socialists through – he does have to acknowledge the poverty. Which is how he lights upon Latin America’s rational man:

“The Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, has argued in his book, The Mystery of Capital, that the failure of the various socialist experiments of the twentieth century has left mankind with only one rational choice about which economic system to go with, namely, capitalism. Socialism, he maintained, has been so discredited that any further attempt to revive it would be sheer irrationality. But if this is the case, which I personally think it is, then why are we witnessing what certainly appears to be a revival of socialist rhetoric and even socialist pseudo-solutions, such as the nationalization of foreign companies?

It should be stressed that de Soto is not arguing that, after the many socialist failures of the twentieth century, capitalism has became historically inevitable and that its expansion would occur according to some imaginary iron clad laws without any need for active intervention. On the contrary, de Soto is fully aware of the enormous obstacles to the expansion of capitalism, especially in regions like South America, and his book is full of dismal statistics that demonstrate the uphill battle against bureaucratic red-tape that is involved in getting a business license or even buying a house in many third world countries. But, here again, the question arises, If capitalism is mankind's only rational alternative, why do so many of the governments of third world nations make it so extraordinarily difficult for ordinary people to take the first small steps on the path of free enterprise?”

Here, it is hard to keep from laughing out loud. Morales was elected precisely because a first world country, out of an irrational fear of markets, has interfered majorly with Bolivian entrepreneurs – the country being the U.S., the market being in coca, and the interference being the wiping out and making illegal of a crop grown for thousands of years, and a mainstay of just those small entrepreneurs so dear to De Soto’s heart.

Hmm, banning a plant that leads to a drug that kills perhaps one hundred times fewer people than alcohol, and two hundred times less than automobile driving. Irrational? Religious? You be the judge.

For a good time, LI urges readers to go to this WAPO discussion with a CIA analyst about the promotion of Michael Hayden from officer in charge of breaking the 4TH amendment at the NSA to officer in charge of breaking the 4TH amendment at the CIA. The CIA analyst in question seems to be a machine programmed to say outstanding things about the outstanding Hayden at intervals of every four sentences or so:

“…Kappes [the deputy director} and Hayden are outstanding intelligence professionals…”

“That is why having experienced intelligence professionals like Mike Hayden and Steve Kappes take the helm of CIA is so important at this time of transformation …”

“Mike Hayden is an outstanding intelligence professional, and he has demonstrated over the years that he is willing to stand up to the SecDef on intelligence matters.”

“Mike Hayden made a number of very important changes at the Fort.[NSA} Did he make everyone happy in the process? No. But strong and innovative leaders never do.”

“I believe he [Mike “Jesus” Hayden] is the right person at the right time. he probably has a better sense of HUMINT than virtually anyone else who has been appointed to head up the CIA “

“Mike’s NSA experience and his experience as DDNI gives him outstanding insight to the HUMINT world and the role that the CIA needs to play in the future.”

“The combination of Hayden and Kappes, in my view, will be a home run for the Agency and for the country.”

And this is only half way through the discussion. It is an outstanding discussion, a home run for the Washington Post and for the nation. I’ve never read answers that fit the high professional level of beyond the call of duty like these highly intelligent answers. High intelligence is always needed to talk about intelligence in an intelligent way, and these strong and innovative answers not only answered all my present questions, but all questions I will ever have about our strength and going into the futureness of our strength in these perilous times.


Magical thinking, or religion? This word, "religion", I do not think it means what they think it means, Roger. Magical thinking comes closer, and is a good substitute for "constant recourse to an orthodoxy for explanations of natural phenomena; the underlying premises of the orthodoxy are not open to question, and indeed so deeply embedded that it might not be possible to question; also sometimes used as a set of handy justifications for actions that consistently violate the Golden Rule". Cult, maybe, is closer to what the dispensers of opprobrium want to say. That's what I use, though it's so overused that I frequently seek solace in lengthy sentences and semicolons. I gather direct psychologizing is out of favor, which is pity because Tech Central Station's writers often remind me of angry, repressed Puritan-Marxists attempting to justify their guilt-ridden purchases of soft toilet paper by sheer force of noise. I want to hug them, sometimes, and tell them, "dudes, it's okay".

Socialism doesn't mean what they mean when they say it either. I think they have it confused with mobs of angry Snopeses improvidently destroying everything in sight in order to get color televisions, which break right away because there's no incentive to make them any good. And sponsored pundits quacking out bogus lists of statistics, like the wretched scribblers of the bad old Soviet Union used to do. And mass immiseration for the "good of collective", drummed up with jingoism and sustained with paranoia.

Rumsfeld, now there's a man who knows how to get soft toilet paper.
Anonymous said…
Charges of religious thinking are pretty rich, coming from people who react to the word "socialism" the way medieval xtians reacted to "a witch".

Is it too much to ask that defenders of market solutions to everything understand and be able to use simple economic phrases like "scarcity rents"? That people who pontificate on the oil industry are familiar with companies like Statoil and Aramco, know who owns them, and have some idea of the relative per-capita GDP of, say, Norway and, oh say, Bolivia?

- msw
roger said…
msw -- I often think the pontificators, here, are simply expressions of the great petro industry extended phenotype. It astonishes me that the discourse in this country has gone on and on for thirty years about the liberal media, whereas there isn't a peep about the fact that, basically, the oil industry financed modern american conservatism and that conservatism has pretty much acted as a proxy to promote the oil industry interests. Which is magnitudes of influence above whatever the media does, or once did.