1989 and All That

Janet Daley asks why the lessons of the fall of Communism haven’t been learned.

But in spite of the official agreement that there is no other way to organise the economic life of a free society than the present one (with a few tweaks), there are an awful lot of people implicitly behaving as if there were. Several political armies seem to be running on the assumption that there is still a viable contest between capitalism and Something Else.

If this were just the hard Left within a few trade unions and a fringe collection of Socialist Workers’ Party headbangers, it would not much matter. But the truth is that a good proportion of the population harbours a vague notion that there exists a whole other way of doing things that is inherently more benign and “fair” – in which nobody is hurt or disadvantaged – available for the choosing, if only politicians had the will or the generosity to embrace it.

Why do they believe this? Because the lesson that should have been absorbed at the tumultuous end of the last century never found its way into popular thinking – or even into the canon of educated political debate….

Indeed it hasn’t. This is behind not only the fatuity but the confusion of contemporary political debate. The conflict between the Republicans (or perhaps more accurately the Tea Party) and the Democrats in the United States is a contest between free-market capitalism (however imperfectly defined and defended) and —what, exactly? Just what is Obama’s ideology? Conservatives tend to think of him as a socialist, perhaps even as a fascist or Communist. But Leftists mock them for it. Well, what’s the right thing to say? ‘Progressive’? What’s that? How exactly is a progressive different from a socialist? They share a commitment to the conscious, centralized direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends, which makes them all socialists according to Hayek’s definition. But didn’t the failure of Communism show that such a project is doomed to failure? If not, don’t the ballooning deficits of Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and the United States show it now?

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism which followed it are hugely important to any proper understanding of the present world and of the contemporary political economy. Why is it that they have failed to be addressed with anything like their appropriate awesome significance, let alone found their place in the sixth-form curriculum?

Well, the answer to that is obvious: the Left managed to take over the educational systems in every Western country. Students learn that Hitler was a monster; they don’t learn the same about Stalin, even though he killed several times as many people.

The failure of communism should have been, after all, not just a turning point in geo-political power – the ending of the Cold War and the break-up of the Warsaw Pact – but in modern thinking about the state and its relationship to the economy, about collectivism vs individualism, and about public vs private power. Where was the discussion, the trenchant analysis, or the fundamental debate about how and why the collectivist solutions failed, which should have been so pervasive that it would have percolated down from the educated classes to the bright 18-year-olds? Fascism is so thoroughly (and, of course, rightly) repudiated that even the use of the word as a casual slur is considered slanderous, while communism, which enslaved more people for longer (and also committed mass murder), is regarded with almost sentimental condescension….

Good question. Being a Leftist today should be no more respectable than being a Nazi. Would Americans elect as president someone whose posters contained swastikas? Why then did we elect as President someone whose posters were in the style of Stalin’s social realism? Why were they considered “cool” rather than stomach-turning?

But in our everyday politics, we still seem to be unable to make up our minds about the moral superiority of the free market. We are still ambivalent about the value of competition, which remains a dirty word when applied, for example, to health care. We continue to long for some utopian formula that will rule out the possibility of inequalities of wealth, or even of social advantages such as intelligence and personal confidence.

Sadly, I fear the explanation is that human beings, as soon as life gets good, take good times for granted. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented expansion of prosperity, not just among the upper classes, but spread very broadly throughout society. For the first time since the Roman empire, the average person has a significant amount of disposable income and leisure time. Hunger, for those in advanced societies, had become a thing of the past. Why, at just that point, do we get the bitter iconoclasm of Nietzsche, the casual cynicism of Shaw, and the vicious belligerence of Lenin? Among the followers, idealism is surely one of the answers: Why can’t things be even better? But that’s not the attitudes of the leaders of these currents of thought. Nietzsche, Shaw, Lenin, and countless others were not inspired by some positive ideal. Their motivations were purely negative, purely destructive. Shaw honestly thought that anyone who tore down London and then sought to rebuild it could not help but come up with a result better than the status quo—a status quo which was, let me stress again, the best circumstance humanity had known in almost two thousand years.

The idea that no system – not even a totalitarian one – could ensure such a total eradication of “unfairness” without eliminating the distinguishing traits of individual human beings was one of the lessons learnt by the Soviet experiment. The attempt to abolish unfairness based on class was replaced by corruption and a new hierarchy based on party status.

This, of course, is precisely what we are seeing with the Obama administration. While he speaks of everyone being treated equally, everyone having the same chance in life, our society is moving from a meritocracy in which this is roughly already true to an order in which political influence and power replace merit as an organizing principle. The free market is being replaced by an essentially corrupt system of crony capitalism before our very eyes. And no one who knows the history of socialism in the twentieth century should be surprised by that. The central direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends requires a cadre of directors—people who choose those ends and do the directing. They end up being very expensive directors, choosing ends that promote their own wealth, influence, and power and paying themselves handsomely for their work. The fantasy that the people or their representatives will choose the ends and the general means of direction, delegating to agents the actual direction, is only a fantasy. The elite of the old order yield to, or in most cases just become, the “new class,” the nomenklatura who end up oppressing a downtrodden, impoverished public far more than the old elite were able to exploit and relatively wealthy and free citizenry.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Sometimes. But usually much worse.

2 thoughts on “1989 and All That

  1. RE: “Just what is Obama’s ideology?”
    Unlike Socialism, President Obama’s preferred economic model appears to be to keep the means of production in private hands but then have the State control the means of production by controlling the corporations. The desires of private citizens are subjugated to the State for the Greater Good. And he is helping to develop organized mobs in the streets to quell dissent through fear.

    Obama is not a Socialist: he’s a Fascist.

    Hitler called his economic system “National Socialism” because Socialism was popular with the masses. Those who do not learn the lessons of history are either products of the public school system or are just stupid.

  2. Kevino: so true. Let’s call it what it is.

    This is an excellent post. I would add that the reason the people who were appalled by capitalism can be divided into roughly two categories: those who were disturbed by the chaotic reorganization of society from semi-feudal agrarian norms to an urbanized manufacturing economy (and their heirs, who tend to feel guilty about their success on the one hand, or envious of others’). From a distance, this appears to be a big step forward, in strictly economic terms, but up close it was messy, dirty, clamoring. It created a great deal of tension and urbanization presses the poor and their problems into the view of the not-poor. Immediately you see ideas like eugenics and social Darwinism crop up to deal with the poor. The other group were those who saw political opportunity in the aspirations and discontents of working class. Lenin, tyrant though he was, acted on the growing understanding of the masses that their lot in life was unjust, which was true. But the person with the energy and means to effect change did so brutally: in the end, he really had as little respect for the peasants and serfs as the Russian nobility (perhaps quite a bit less, actually.)

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