May 23, 2010
Doubling Down on Failure

Ross Douthat complains that governments respond to their own screw-ups by grabbing even more power for themselves. Robert Paul Wollf explains that Karl Marx had it all figured out. Almost, anyway—

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…


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at May 23, 2010 09:07 PM
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I have enjoyed reading that particular blog of late, although I must profess to having very little if any knowledge of Marxist ideology in regards to philosophy or economics. However, I think I get the point here and would just add a comment that Marx could never have foreseen the ability of what he might call the capitalist class and how it might use the mind numbing and brainwashing device that we call a television. My wife and I have given ours up completely, something I had done previously myself. I can become as attached to my television set as much has Joe Bageant currently is while in Mexico, as he recently confessed to on his blog. Therefore, the best way for me to escape its mind numbing capabilities is to eliminate it from my life and we have done that here. However, I recognize we are distinct minority in this country these days. In the golden days of yore, however golden or not golden they were, the means of escape for literate societies was by reading and the Gutenberg process was available to any man that owned a printing press or who could convince a publisher to take on his writing. In those days even a printing press didn't cost billions or millions to acquire. However, in this modern age, however backwards it might be compared to the more literate days of yesterday, the television is king. What has changed is that the television set is available to any man, but only recently has there developed the means by which a own a television transmitter at a reasonable cost - assuming one envisions Youtube as any kind of alternative.

The television set itself is simply a benign object, but the ability of the corporations which own the means of transmitting a signal to listeners might be compared to that of the radio and movie theaters of yesterday. However, even then the movies or radio can offer up 24 hour "entertainment" these days and the television has taken the place of the radical book or the radical newspaper in a manner that could never have been envisioned by Marx. Never before in history has that device and the 24 hour news cycle threatened the literacy of entire populations. Marshall McLuhan, whether you think him a media guru or else a wholesale fraud, was certainly on to something in the 60s and 70s and I think we are bearing the fruit of some of what he was talking about 40 years ago. The media has now become able to brainwash the average man into becoming an automaton - whether through complex study of viewers reactions and programming their machines accordingly or simply through repetion. Ideology has been replaced by brainwashing through programming . And that is something that Marx or most anyone else except perhaps science fiction writers from 19th and early half of the 20th centuries could never have imagined.

Posted by: Buck on May 24, 2010 4:15 AM
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