Monday, August 5, 2013

Social Democracy versus Marxism

This post from Stumbling and Mumbling really made me think:
Social democrats seem to think leftist objectives can be achieved to at least some degree if only Labour could win control of the state and show the courage of its convictions. Marxists are more sceptical. We think the state is captured by capitalist interests either directly, through cronyism, or indirectly because governments must maintain business "confidence". We also fear that, even without these constraints, governments can do less to improve the condition of working people partly because some economic problems - such as how to increase trend growth - are intractable, and partly because the state has inherently repressive features; when we see blacks and immigrants being harrassed, we see the state acting in character.
In similar vein, whereas social democrats are apt to see social change as being implementable by government, we Marxists conceive of it differently, as the complex outcome of interactions between technology and social norms.
Marxism vs social democracy. Worth reading in full.

I’ve never thought of myself as a Marxist, but reading the above, I’m starting to think I am. I admit that, in the past, it’s true that I’ve supported incremental government reforms, similar to the New Deal of the 1930’s, that made this country much better off and created the middle class and safety net we enjoy today, threadbare though it is. I also look to social democracies and mixed economies of Europe and Asia and see how much better they provide for their people, and how much more stable their societies are than the naked capitalist jungle of the United States.

Places like Denmark and Canada manage to have governments that are not despotic, so is it true that governments are inherently despotic? People in social democracies also tend to have less fear of their governments, but as we’ve seen, even Britain, France and Germany have been collaborating with the U.S. to spy on their citizens. But what examples can we point to of an alternative?

I still believe that to some extent, but at the same time I have no illusion that this in any way will fix all of the problems we have today, or that it will be anything more than a band-aid for the major issues of our time. I know many people who are considered “left” on the U.S. left/right political spectrum have abandoned any hope of the government ever providing any sort of reform, either because they distrust the institution itself, or because they believe it is irretrievably captured by special interests, and no force can undo that. Unfortunately, what that means is that they are impotent to effect any real change, as the Occupy Movement demonstrated. It is perhaps true that divide and conquer is now so powerful, that no centralized opposition to the status quo will ever emerge, and that all we can do is sit idly by and watch the old system slowly collapse and decay, and try to salvage something from the rubble. But it’s hard to accept collapse as anything but a last resort.

It seems like taking into account social/class/power relations, technology, natural resources and history makes Marxism a much better way to understand an economy that the "there is no alternative" cheerleading coming from mainstream economics. Unfortunately, Marxism comes loaded with a lot of unfortunate baggage. Then again, I inherently dislike being labeled an "ist" of any stripe. It seems a lot of this is just common sense.

I wish they had delved into anarchist thought a little bit - it seems like there is a lot of overlap with Marxism as described in the article.

ADDENDUM: Social Democracy For Our Time (Jacobin). A counterpoint of sorts.


  1. From May 6th of this year:
    Fascism Is The Victor

    I have been thinking about the 20th Century struggle between Democracy, Communism and Fascism. I have come to the conclusion that Fascism is the victor.

    The reasons for that victory are many, but here are the basics:

    Democracy followed the money and aligned itself with Industrial Capitalism, thereby allowed Fascism in through the back door. It also requires a level of communal selflessness and personal commitment that most humans are simply not capable of. Its ebullient exhortations constantly annoyingly remind of us of that harsh fact.

    Stalin devoured the Communist Dream of a Workers Paradise and vomited up a totalitarian nightmare that has poisoned Leftest politics throughout the world, in all probability forever. First all the Useful Idiots who sang his praises and then, when faced with that truth, the Western Left's retreat into Bourgeois complacency and impotent faux-pacifism.

    Nazism, the most effective form of Fascism ever, addressed both Euro-Sapian arrogance and fears, plus had absolutely fabulous design aesthetics. It was also brutally honest in ways that Twenty Century Communism never was and of which Democracy is systemically incapable.

    Ultimately the primary reason for Fascism's victory is that, as Norman Mailer once observed, “Fascism in the most natural from of human government.” It gives people very clear guidelines about how to behave and what to believe. And most importantly, it allows people to openly hate that which they fear. That is tremendously liberating.

    This is also why everyone hates the Jews. Even Jews hate other Jews. I have personally observed that quite often. It's not because they are arrogant, though God knows they are, a 'stiffed necked people'. It's not even the Christ Killer thing, the perfect example of Jews hating Jews.

    No, it is because of their greatest strength and their greatest gift; Talmudic thinking, the Jew's literally inbred capacity to examine every single thing from every single angle, endlessly. While that has yielded amazing intellectual, spiritual and scientific results in all fields of human endeavor, it also sows the seeds of doubt everywhere and in everything.

    That is why we really hate the Jews; the Jews are The Fathers of Doubt. And we [secretly] love Fascism because it promises us the certainty that in our hearts we all crave.

    1. Nebs, I saw the one comment to this entry and clicked to read it, fully expecting it to be you. This is exactly the kind of thing that would elicit a response from you. I'm glad to write that I was not disappointed.

    2. I don't like using the term Fascism, since it refers to a very spcific political program designed for a set of political and historical circumstances that existed in the middle of the twentieth century in large industrial economies. Thus, it's often used as a negative for both sides of any issue. For example, is fascism pro or anti-union? Cases have been made for both. Is it pro or anti- corporate? Pro or anti-gun? Econmically leftist or rightist? Same deal. Perhaps you've heard of the book "Liberal Fascism?" The word just obviates rational thought.

      I prefer the term Authoritarian instead. Authoritarian movements are very diverse, but they all have the essential features you describe - a desire of an elite to control the masses for their own benefit, and using violence and propaganda to do so. That's why I constantly try to bang through peoples' heads that it's not a Marxist thing - capitalism is moving in an authoritatian direction where things like democracy and free speech are increasingly hollowed out (see the concept of the Hollow State - you can search the blog)

      If you Google Authoritarian Capitalism, you'll find a lot of articles about China. True, but I would argue (as Zizek has) that authoritarian capitalism is the dominant form across the world now. The political situation in The U.S., China, Russia, Western Europe, the Commonwealth, are all variations on authoritarian capitalism - a banking elite controls the course of society, holds sham elections, controls all information dissemintation, and crushes all dissent. Just about every industrialized country has been associated with mass surveillance, free-speech zones, corporate-friendly trade policies, banker bailouts and mass propaganda. That, not democracy or "free" markets has become the dominant political paradigm.

      I would have a hard time associating Marx's thought as descibed with what occurred in the Soviet Union. Marx analyzed those large industrial economies, and predicted that they were unsustainable - that they would sew the seeds of their own demise due to their inherent contradictions. I think this essential insight is being proven correct as we speak; whether his specific claims were correct or not is a subject of debate (and it is debated endlessly).

      The question then becomes, what do we do about it? A classical Marxist might say that things like the sharing economy, worker-owned co-ops, local economies and 3-D printing is creating an antithesis to capitalism, and that they will merge to form a new synthesis.

  2. 1. About Marxism: The only program Marxists ever have, the one Marxists enact whenever they've had the power to do so, is to take control of everyone's lives, similar to recruiting everyone into the military, deciding where they will live, what they will eat, what they will wear, and what work they will do. That qualifies as Marxism to Marxists if some accounting is done according to the labor theory of value about how resources are allocated.

    The only form of social organization left under the Marxist program is by default military dictatorship. Of course that leads to the most ruthless dictating officers rising to the top and consolidating their power by fear of executions and reassignments to harsher work camps. (All of a fully Marxist ruled area is work camps. Your fate is just a question of how harsh the conditions are in the camp you're assigned, whether it's a former city, still largely the same in layout, or more like an isolated concentration camp.) So it's misunderstanding the nature of Marxism to blame Stalin for it being that way.

    2. About democracy: There are complaints that democracy has failed, or is not doing well. Even if that seems to be generally agreed, it's not exactly true, because failure of democracy means completely different things to different people.

    To leftists allied with Marxists, democracy has failed because it hasn't chosen leaders and laws that put everyone into complete subjection to the government, causing the use of money to be obsolete. Most leftists are in spirit allied with Marxists. They're bothered by any difference in people involving money, as their definition of injustice, and pleased by any similarity of experience involving shared reliance on government, as their definition of justice.

    To ideological imperialists, democracy has failed so far, since it hasn't yet taken over every country by military alliances between democracies defeating countries with other forms of government and setting up election systems everywhere. Ideological imperialists have been around at least since the earliest surviving recorded instance where Socrates discussed designing a form of government that would prevail and refused to answer the question why as beneath him. ("The End of History" is an ideological imperialist conceit in which history would no longer be interesting to them, because the one successful prevailing form of government would have been already decided.)

    To absolutist capitalists, democracy has failed because it very often allows non-capitalist forms of social organization, such as government redistribution and local commons and a public domain. According to absolutist capitalists, democracy has the weakness that people are insufficiently educated to recognize that capitalism is the only good thing, and government educational systems under democracy don't teach capitalism enough. Therefore, many absolutists capitalists advocate market anarchism instead.

    To people who value local people and customs, including the customary freedoms of various cultures, democracy has failed because it has been used to provide what leftists and absolutist capitalists and ideological imperialists and every other sort of imperialists want. Elections are all bought out by the biggest interests in revolution or imperialism through democracy, and if that isn't done through money, it's still done by the parties that have an interest in using democracy for forceful change having much more motivation than other parties. Sometimes there's a party named as if it's conservative or for tradition in a democracy, but it always gets taken over by more energetic interests.

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