One of the challenges, when deciding to post a blog, is to decide on a single issue to post about. I usually have a host of issues I’m thinking about at any given time and struggle to decide which is going to rise to the top as something to blog about. This time isn’t any different. I have some issues which I put on a list to blog about at another time. Rising to the top of my list are some thoughts I had been mulling over about the popular resurgence of communism/socialism as an effective response to our economic malaise and widespread economic inequality. In the meanwhile, I found myself insulted by a video shared in a group about anarchy and wanted to respond to it. Actually, I wasn’t really insulted, given that I wasn’t part of the original audience. But what to do when you’re listening to someone who’s convinced himself that he’s smarter than he is? The better part of the video was an attempt to clarify the philosophy of anarchy through an etymology lesson; a misleading clarification, at best. So I’m still left with settling in on a subject matter. Okay. I’m settling with my original choice. I’ll address anarchy later.
Shortly after the collapse of the economy and the start of the Great Recession, both socialists and communists were out in force on the streets in certain neighborhoods hawking their ideas. They hadn’t been that aggressive in marketing in the U.S. since the 1930s/1940s? Marxism (Communism and socialism are related, but not interchangeable, terms. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m just going to say Marxism. What I’m discussing is present in both, so there is no need to use both or bounce between each.) has never died out in academic circles in the U.S., even if it did loose popular force as a popular idea. But economic desperation lent new hope for some to propose it as a solution again. I know some old-guard socialists from the mid-twentieth century who are still alive. But what stood out for me among those socialists newly hawking their ideas on the streets is how young the adherents are. Every single one of them was, without doubt, born after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. I sometimes wonder whether they even know what the Iron Curtain was. I find a lot of folks on both the left and the right of the political/economic spectrum more ignorant of history than they will admit.
I know one elderly gentleman who earlier in the twentieth century identified as a communist, but who now professes socialism (yeah, I guess, for this point, I have to allow the distinction). He was a proponent of the rise of the communist revolution in Russia. But then, in time, he saw the brutality and repression of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That marked his self-professed conversion from communism to socialism. He strongly insists Marxism (the philosophical root of communism and socialism) has never really been tried; that what Russia did was something other than Marxism. Um, yes Marxism was, even if it did unfold differently from Karl Marx’s vision.
The first problem with how we approach Marxism as an economic model is that it isn’t just an economic model. It’s also a theoretical model of history with roots in the dialectic theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. While economists in the West ridiculed Marxist economic theory, it’s Marx’s theory of history they scared the common population with. It would be a bit much to try to lay out both the economics and the historical model of Marxism here. But I’ll suffice to say that Marxism envisioned both to be more than they are: forces independent from and superior to human agency that determine how humans interrelate with each other. And, as a dialectical theory of history, it assumes inevitable and innate conflict in human interrelations.
Karl Marx also turned Hegel’s theory on its head and assumed that he could know in advance, through “critical analysis,” the final outcome of an epochal conflict. Hegel’s dialectical theory of history involves three steps: a thesis (historical state as status quo), an antithesis (people feel burned out or oppressed by the status quo, so act to change the state of things), and a synthesis (the resulting state of things after the ‘thesis’ and the “antithesis” clash. Marx, through the arrogance of his “analysis” assumed that his “antithesis” was the “synthesis”; i.e. communism was the perfected state of a human economy. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. Or just maybe history is more fluid and less dialectical than Marx (or Hegel) thought it is. For the record, those who assume that capitalism is a perfected economic model are just as arrogant, historically speaking.
I say all this because the renewed ideological conflict unfolding between Marxism and capitalism detracts from the real moral problem we’re experiencing in our society. The editors of “First Things,” though shills to capitalist elites, hit the nail on the head when they assert that economics – whichever model you esp0use – is amoral. Their reasoning is that in order to be moral or immoral, you have to be an agent capable of acting morally or immorally. On that point (and that point alone), I agree with them. However, economics is a framework through which agents (human and corporate persons) act. We’re seeing that now as those empowered to do so use the tools of the capitalist economic model to effectively steal national and global wealth. We saw it in communism when, under the Soviet Union, people were oppressed and made to be mere instruments of the State, empowering elites in a unitary, all-powerful political Party. Either way, human beings are deprived of their own agency – and moral accountability – in servitude to overriding systems.
If it’s true that systemic frameworks, and not personal agents, are the cause of immoral economic activity, then there’s not reason to think that individuals need to be held personally accountable. Change the systemic framework and the problem goes away. I argue it won’t. The “problem” is not, at its root, a problem of economic models, it’s a problem of personal and social integrity. I don’t care which framework – capitalism, Marxism, or any other kind of -ism – is put in place to guide economic activity. Whenever any personal agent is inclined to self-empower at the expense of others, the personal agent will, regardless of the framework. That will has to be countered and put in check. And, socially, a generation needs to be trained to act morally.