Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Things fall apart

I know it's a bit of a cliche to compare the impact of the current economic crisis on free market ideology with the collapse of communism, and to some extent I think it's over-blown. But there a few bits and pieces of commentary that just beg to be classified in this way. Take this quote from a US academic:
"If you bound the arms and legs of gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps, weighed him down with chains, threw him in a pool and he sank, you wouldn't call it a 'failure of swimming'. So, when markets have been weighted down by inept and excessive regulation, why call this a 'failure of capitalism'?"

This, I reckon, is the sort of mirror image of all those arguments you used to hear from Trots about why the rather unpleasant nature of 'actually existing socialism' in no way discredited the communist ideal in general. Those Russians/Chinese/Cubans etc just weren't applying the rules right. Of course if you apply socialism in one country it won't work. And anyway if we'd had the right bloke in charge it would all have been very different.

Similarly it wouldn't be surprising to see a wave of commentary now about how the 'real' problem in terms of the economic crisis is that markets haven't been properly established, didn't go far enough etc. Also it will be blamed by those seeking to avoid a review of the ideology as the fault of a handful of individuals who didn't apply the rules right, even though they too apparently believed in the ideology.

All this suggests to me that we actually have a pretty weak grasp on truth. Clearly debates on the rights and wrongs of different economic approaches are complex, and a small number of people understand them in great detail and can attack or defend a given position very eloquently. But for most of us we understand what is going on through some simple narratives (and I'm sure more complex versions underlie some of the arguments of experts too). Once the ground shifts, ideological frameworks whose explanatory power once sounded legitimate suddenly sound wildly and and obviously wrong. These frameworks are paper tigers compared with a good story. Hence now the popular narrative about capitalism is (once again) that it is inherently and dangerously unstable, the arguments of proponents of neo-liberalism sound a bit barking.

At the time that Yugoslavia was starting to crumble I read an article with some throwaway reference to some institution there that had been studying the nature of social property. A few things struck me about it. First, you could sort of see what the thinking was - how was property different (if at all) when not privately owned? It is a question worth asking. Secondly, it made you realise that right until the end there were people in the 'socialist' countries who genuinely thought they were in a new kind of society and were committed to the ruling ideology. But thirdly, and most importantly, it seemed so obviously out of place in the contemporary evironment, a representative example of a system and way of thinking that was about to be swept away by the changing tide. The quote at the start of this post really reminded me of it.

1 comment:

Charlie Marks said...

Quite clearly, "actually existing socialism" with all its faults was/is better than what had gone before - and what came after, as the crisis is demonstrating to people in Eastern Europe. Universal healthcare, full education available to working people, security in housing and employment - all eroded by capitalist restoration.

I think it's a mistake is to see this as being about competing ideologies. Capitalism is a system of class rule and requires state intervention to regulate the economy and prevent crises getting out of hand. A section of the ruling class has been in denial about this need, and they are coming to realise their mistakes - they believed their own propaganda.