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Monday, May 17, 2010


I got up at 2 a.m. and spent some time idly surfing the web. [Us old guys do that a lot. I never sleep through the night]. On a lark, I decided to read the op ed column of one of the NY TIMES' resident right wingers, Ross Douthat. Properly understood [but of course not the way Douthat intended it], the column is right out of Karl Marx. I loved it. Douthat is complaining about the fact that for decades and more now, every time those in power in the United States or Europe screw things up really badly because of the unwisdom of their decisions, their response is to further consolidate their power as a way of "fixing" what they have done. The next time they screw up and plunge the world into disaster, they respond by yet another round of consolidation. He gives as examples TARP, Health Care Reform, the Euro Zone and the current Greek meltdown, the concentration of executive power in the hands of the President, and so forth.

I have analyzed this tendency in my paper "The Future of Socialism" [on line at UPenn Law School -- Google it]. It is exactly what Marx meant by the new system of social relations of production being born in the womb of the old. The reason those in charge do not react to their failures by going backwards to a less centralized time is that, by their conception of rationality, the rational thing to do is to take greater control of what seems to be out of control, which is to say to centralize. Oh, mere self-interest plays a role, but it would be a big mistake to suppose that is all that is at play. Why does Obama ratify the seizures of executive authority pioneered by George W. Bush? Because, confronted with terrorist incidents, it is the rational thing to do. Why does a progressive like Krugman call for greater regulatory oversight? Because that is the rational way to deal with an economic system that is "out of control."

In short, the technical and systemic pre-conditions for socialism are being born in the womb of world finance capitalism, for socialism requires the very highest level of rational management of the entire economy, something that nineteenth century capitalists were completely incapable of attempting, and that even twentieth century capitalists could only achieve fitfully. This is the deeper reason why the right cries "socialism" at the actions of the Congress and the proposals of the President. Although they do not really understand what they are saying, they are, in an odd way, on to something. This is also why the very people who think of themselves as Masters of the Universe celebrate a "free market" while they devote their lives to enslaving it. These people are not stupid.

So, as I ask in my essay, if this is so, why aren't we on the left having any fun? The short answer is this: the ever greater establishment of central control over the world economy is being carried out in the interests of the haves, not of the have nots. Now, those interests are not totally opposed. Both the haves and the have nots have an interest in avoiding economic crashes, because both suffer from those crashes [although the have nots may starve to death as a consequence of the crashes, whereas the haves simply must pause in their endless accumulation of wealth]. But Marx was, alas, wrong in believing that the consolidation process by those at the top of the economic pyramid would, as an unintended consequence, also consolidate the power of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Marx was almost certainly right in expecting ever greater instability -- greater crashes. But though he saw that this would provoke ever greater consolidation of capital [what Douthat is calling consolidation of power, because of course it is not polite on the right to speak of "capital"], Marx failed to anticipate the fragmentation and collapse of the working class movement that was being born in his day.

None of this makes for happy reading, I am afraid. We must all fight as hard as we can to ameliorate the injuries inflicted on the many by the depredations of the few. But I cannot find it in my mind [though I can easily find it in my heart] to hope that the future holds the promise of a humane socialism.


Bobcat said...

Just out of curiosity, do you think there is any wisdom to be had in the liberal (Rawls, Locke), libertarian (Hayek, Kant(?), or conservative (Oakeshott, Burke) traditions?

I don't really do political philosophy myself, so I'd be interested in hearing your view on the matter.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oddly enough, of the six people you mention, I find Oakeshott far and away the most interesting. [leaving aside Kant, who is in another league altogether]. It would take me a long time to flesh out this snap answer.

Ann said...

Krugman's Op Ed today suggests that the Tea Party will remain in power as long as the economy remains weak. To me that suggests that we will be seeing more along the lines of such neo-Fascism.....for some time.

Andrew said...

I read this article from a link on Crispin Sartwell's Eye of the Storm blog, and found your piece via a link in the comments there.

I've thought for a while now about the fact that in recent years the left has shouted about the corporate takeover of the public sector while the right has shouted about "socialist" nationalizations of private industry. These seem completely contradictory, but if we are seeing the wall between state and corporate capital finally being obliterated, either side seems equally valid from the vantage of their respective ideological presumptions. Many writers (including me) see us heading for something roughly like China. I also think of cyberpunk literature when I see it in both China and the emerging order.

And speaking as a philosophical dilettante, I really can't stand liberal social contract theory. It always seems to me like they use a "thought experiment" (read: imaginary place) called the "state of nature" to set the ground rules for political theory. In this fairy tale they impute their existing prerogatives onto the state of nature, they start with assumptions that guarantee their preferred result.

For example, on p. 10 of Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick quotes Locke: "The bounds of the law of nature require that 'no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty , or possessions.'" Notice how this "state of nature" already includes property. I have heard anthropological information on many "primitive" tribes which suggest that ideas such as individual possessions don't compute there. Liberals ignore this so that they can claim that the only "natural" political system is one which puts protection of property at the forefront, equating it to human life. Of course a corporation has human rights in our liberal order: capital equals our lives, our liberty. Might this have something to do with the aforementioned fusion reaction going on now?

And I dig Hayek's Road to Serfdom. I don't agree with everything in it, but I haven't seen his challenges thoroughly met by socialists of really any party.

Andrew said...
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Matias Vernengo said...

It might be interesting to note that Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis are NOT radicals these days, and I would argue not even heterodox economists. I've was at a talk by Bowles here at Utah, one the remaining left of center econ depts in the US, that basically showed that he converged. He said that Arrow and Marx are fundamentally saying the same thing. A very strange research program (particularly if one read Sraffa).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Matias, That is very, very upsetting to hear. I am not an economist, but I think the theoretical development of the modern interpretation of Marx is one of the most exciting intellectual developments I have ever encountered. What sort of work do you do?

Matias Vernengo said...

I teach history of economic thought in the PhD program, and do research in history of thought. But being from Latin America, a good chunk of my research is on development issues within the Latin American structuralist tradition (which is heavily influenced by Marxism). I should say that I benefited greatly from your Understanding Marx.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I took a look at the Utah Econ department on line. It looks quite interesting. Not a place where I would expect that range of people!