Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The hidden dangers of Fukuyama-like triumphalism

Tomorrow, I am attending a conference that deals with the decline of Western “liberalism capitalism” and how it should be arrested. In the past year, I have been submerged with articles and books that discuss the same topic. They come from all parts of social sciences: economics, politics, sociology, anthropology, geopolitics…It seems that you cannot write anything meaningful today unless you first address “populism” and the crisis of “liberal democracy”.

Throughout all of this I have had a strong feeling of “unreality”. Not only because the  people who write about the crisis live the lives that are, by far, the best lives in the history of humankind, but that the talk of the crisis seems vastly exaggerated. And I was wondering where does this extravagant fear, “the end is nigh”, come from. The cause I think, is twofold: lack of knowledge of history and more importantly the Fukuyama-like narrative of post 1989 triumphalism.

The post-1989 narrative that was, often for self-serving reasons, promulgated in both the academic and popular circles in the West (and in the former Eastern bloc for obvious reasons) saw the period after the end of World War II as a victory of liberal capitalist democracy that was not allowed to take place in some parts of the world because of the imposition of Soviet “glacis”. Once the Soviet pressure relaxed all these countries, and of course all the others (according to the triumphalist narrative) from Iraq to China, saw, or will soon see, the advantages of liberal capitalism and adopt the system. It was a very simple and seductive narrative. While Fukuyama’s original essay was based on important, Hegelian historical and ideological precedents, it gradually got watered-down into a simplified  Hollywoodesque story of a battle of good and evil—where it was even incomprehensible how the “evil” (except for its intrinsic “evilness”) was able to put up such a good fight for decades.

In reality, as even amateurish students of European history know, that narrative is deeply flawed. Europe, as it emerged after the World War II with fascism defeated in Germany and Italy, but its many tentacles present all over Europe, was internally deeply divided between the democratic and Communist factions. The former eventually prevailed but after having to keep in check, and often by very brutal and undemocratic means, one-quarter of the electorate in France and Italy, large organized trade unions linked with communist and socialist parties in most of Continental Europe, all the while supporting capitalist dictatorial regimes in most of the Mediterranean Europe and in places as far away as Chile, Guatemala, Taiwan and South Korea. And not to mention fighting innumerable colonialist and post-colonialist wars where the “liberal democracies” invariably and not accidentally supported the “bad” guys : from Mobutu in Congo to Holden Roberto in Angola.

“Liberal democracy” was in a continual crisis, fighting for its mere survival, buffeted domestically by strikes, wage demands, RAF and Brigate Rosse, and internationally by the challenges of the Third World emancipation and Soviet influence. It fought off all challengers and survived, not because everybody, as the triumphalist narrative would have it, saw that it was a more “natural” system but because it used power and intimidation on the one hand, and superior  economic performance for the masses on the other. In 1945, the chances of democratic capitalism winning over the Soviet system were 10% (read Schumpeter), in 1965, they were 30% (read Samuelson, Galbraith and  Tinbergen), in 1975, they were 60%, by 1985, they were 90%, and in 1989, it won. So at the end, the system that, up to the mid-1970s, did not even dare mention its name (“capitalism”), because it was used only by the left and only as a term of opprobrium, could openly declare what it was and hyphenate it, dubiously, with the adjective of “liberal”.

When you have in your mind this (I think) much more accurate narrative of the past half-century, the current crisis can only be seen as one of the many crises of capitalism. Like a swimmer that at times goes down under water when  the winds are high and then reemerges when the winds die down, liberal capitalism is now going through one of its periodic episodes of withdrawal and weakness. There is no guarantee that it will emerge victorious from this one—it did not in 1917, nor in 1922, nor in 1933—but it allows us to think of the problem much more clearly than if we view the world through the misleading lenses of a continuous and conflictless march toward the chiliastic reign of democracy and “liberalism”.

This is where unfortunately the vulgarizers of Fukuyama terribly misled the young Western generation. Having had no direct experience of attractiveness and importance of nationalism, Fascism, populism, or Communism (the Orwell of “Homage to Catalonia” is never mentioned but the Orwell of the “Animal Farm” is known by all) they imagined that no rational human being could ever entertain such views.  The imagined that such beliefs had to be imposed from without—by  the use of extravagant force. So, they believed (in part because it also economically suited them as many of them came of age in the last decade of the 20th century), that the foreordained teleological march toward the system about which their parents and grandparents entertained serious doubts, could no longer be forestalled. When the march deviated from the planned course, they panicked. But they should not. They should look back at history: historia magistra vitae est.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lenin in his time: Review of Tariq Ali’s “The dilemmas of Lenin”

I bought this book less than a week ago planning to take it with me on vacation. But I “made a mistake” of reading the first chapter and was so captivated that I finished it in just several days.

Tariq Ali has not written a standard biography of Lenin. It is not a book that follows its subject every step of the way. He has not written a full intellectual biography either. “The dilemmas of Lenin” is something in-between: a book for the general audience that covers Lenin’s entire life but is organized thematically and discusses topics such as the rise of terrorism in Russia, the ideological reasons for the break-up of the Russian Social Democratic party, the collapse of the Second International (all topics that have been studied in extenso), but also the military strategy used by Trotsky, Frunze and Tukhachevsky during the Civil War (a chapter where Lenin does not appear at all), and ends with a very interesting discussion on the position of women before and during the revolution and on Communist attitudes towards sex (including Lenin’s love affair with Inessa Armand).

Who is a better person to write such a book than Tariq Ali, who (by his own telling, p. 34) at the age of seven recited by heart, at a meeting of left-wing intellectuals in Lahore, Pushkin’s poem celebrating one of the Decembrists’ heroines who decided to join her husband in Siberian exile; a person who spent his life being engaged in progressive politics in Britain and the US, and participating in a number of ideological disputes?

Ali brings another advantage too: a “Third World” outlook which is especially important for the understanding of the evolution of the Third International (under Lenin and afterwards). His point of view is radically different from that of Bill Warren (discussed here). While Warren criticizes Lenin for having fused the anti-capitalist struggle with anti-imperialism, to the detriment of working-class movements, Ali shows both how that was inevitable (after the failure of revolutions in Germany and Hungary) and desirable as it made Marxism attractive to many “Third World” workers, peasants and intellectuals and opened huge new vistas to the socialist movement. It may be even argued that it was that decision that made Communism a global movement, and probably lay the groundwork for the formation of strong nation-states in Asia (China, Vietnam) that were needed to regain national independence and to develop economically.

This is therefore a very different narrative of Lenin’s life from the more usual, Euro-centric narratives where the spread of Communist ideology to Asia (and the specific problems it had to overcome to appeal to the Muslim populations in the Central Asia and the Caucasus) get treated only parenthetically.

Even in the parts that are well-known, and have been much written about, Ali’s book is useful especially for the younger generation of readers because Ali does not shy away from pointing out to the shallowness of some contemporary historians like Volkogonov (a “vulgarian”, p. 151), Richard Pipes (“The Unknown Lenin” is “a horror movie version” of his earlier books; p. 337), and even to some extent Robert Service. They all, reflecting the post-1989 Zeitgeist, see Lenin as a blood-thirsting tyrant and the revolution as a coup. Ali (relying mostly on Sukhanov who wrote the only existent day-to-day chronology of the revolution) shows that while the last “strike”, the seizure of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, was (obviously) a bloodless “coup”, it simply crowned a long period of Bolshevik’s increasing popularity and thus control of the Soviets, both in Petrograd and equally importantly among the soldiers on the frontline.  But that “coup”, conducted against the well-known opposition within the top Bolsheviks (Zinoviev and Kamenev), set the stage for what Ali sees as leading to a one-party, and ultimately one-man, dictatorship. The “coup” irrevocably separated Bolsheviks from even the left-wing Mensheviks, and while the first Soviet government was a coalition of Bolsheviks and left SRs, the SRs were dropped and banned after their opposition to the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement.

Thus, at the end of the book, Martov (perhaps with Trotsky, Lenin’s most trusted—or liked—collaborator—that is, when they were not at loggerheads) makes a sudden reappearance as a person whose views might have saved the revolution from its decadence under Stalin. Did Lenin recognize this? Ali makes perhaps too much of Lenin’s last article, severely critical of the bureaucratization of the party (but very timid in suggesting any real solutions to it), and of Lenin’s expressed desire to meet Martov and his grief at learning of Martov’s death (which preceded his own by nine months).

The reader is left thinking that—as all evidence, not only here, points out—there would have been no revolution without Lenin, but also that the methods that he in part chose, and those that were in part imposed on him by the Civil War and the Entente and US military interventions, destroyed all democratic potential of the revolution. And that on that last issue Martov (and many others) were right.

It is worth also pointing out to three excellent chapters on the role of women in Tsarist Russia, where, as Ali writes, they legally had almost as few rights as women in Saudi Arabia have now, but where they were extremely active in the political life (10 out of 28 members of the People’s Will Central Committee were women), in education, health and liberal professions. By many numerical indicators, “the self-liberation” of women had gone further in the Tsarist Russia than in Western Europe and America at the time. It was also politically much “deeper” than the suffragette movement. The “self-liberation” then took another big step forward with the Revolution. Women and men were legally equal, Church marriage was no longer legal, marriage only required a “registration” (and even that for many revolutionaries was too much because it legalized state involvement), homosexuality was decriminalized, children born out of “wedlock” were treated equally as those born in “registered” marriages—and even special trade unions for sex-workers were organized.

Reading this book on your vacation will make your life better and your mind broader.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is “neo-imperialism” the only path to development?

As is well-known (or should be well-known) Marxism has gradually developed two approaches to imperialism. Marx’s own position was (until the very last years of his life) essentially and unbendingly positive: imperialism, however brutal and disruptive, was the engine whereby more advanced social formation, namely capitalism, was introduced in and transformed more backward societies. Marx’s own writings on the British conquest of India are fairly unambiguous in that respect. Engels’ writings on the French conquest of Algeria are  (as is usually the case when one compares Engels’ and Marx’s writing styles) even more “brutal”. In that “classical” view, Western Europe, the United States and the “Third World” would all develop capitalistically, may relatively quickly come to the approximately same levels of development, and capitalism will then directly be replaced by socialism in all of them.

This view  depended crucially on two assumptions: that (1) the Western working class remain at the low level of income (subsistence) which would then (2) assure its continued revolutionary fervor. Assumption (1) was common to all 19th century economists, was supported until the mid-19th century by the observed evidence, and Marx was not an exception. But towards the end of the century, Engels had noticed the emergence of “workers’ aristocracy”  which blunted the edge of class conflict in Britain, and possibly other advanced countries. The increase in wages was “fed”, Engels argued, from colonial profits realized by British capitalists. Although the increases were mere “crumbs from capitalists’ table” (Engels) they exploded the theory of the “iron law of wages” and, collaterally, the revolutionary potential of the working class in the West.  Thus the seeds of the idea that imperialism may undermine class struggle in developed countries were sown and that had far reaching consequences.

Bill Warren’s “Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism” (published in 1980; unfinished due to Warren’s death) credits Lenin of the post-1914 vintage for the change (or rather criticizes him for it). In Lenin’s “Imperialism…” the monopoly capitalism having lost the vigor of free-market capitalism and having become “decrepit” was seen in need of foreign expansion (to maintain profits at earlier levels). This in turn led to imperialist struggle for territories that ended up in World War I.  At the same time, working classes’ relative material ease in developed countries made them abandon the revolutionary path and support “opportunistic” and nationalistic social-democratic parties (and their leaders, notably the “renegade” Kautsky). The struggle of the “peoples of the East” (as they were called in the first congress in Baku in 1920) against imperialism become integrated into an overall struggle against capitalism, and imperialism ceased to be seen as a dynamic precursor of the forthcoming socialism, but rather the extension of moribund capitalism. In Warren’s words, “it is now not the character of capitalism that determines the progressiveness…of imperialism, but the character of imperialism that determines the reactionary character of capitalism” (p. 47).

This change of position had far-reaching consequences for the thinking of the left  that Warren excoriates. It led to the theories of “core” and “periphery”, “structural dependency” etc. (Frank, Amin, Cardoso, Prebisch). These theories, Warren argues, were wrong because they predicted faster growth if countries were to disengage from the dominant global system (which all proved to have been illusions—Warren is less sanguine on that than we can be now), and they had nothing to do with workers’ struggle in the emerging economies because they reflected the interests  of nationalist Third World bourgeoisies.

Now, I wish I could write a very lengthy review of Warren’s extremely stimulating book—which also contains many infuriating sections—but I will have to leave it for another time. (In the “infuriating area”, Warren, for example, celebrates the increase of inequalities in developing countries such as the concentration of land ownership into the hands of latidundistas because he regards it as an indicator of adoption of more efficient capitalistic methods of production in agriculture, p. 207). His celebrations of inequality throughout the second part of the book—dealing with post-1945 developments—would make Friedman and Hayek blush!)  But my point is not Warren’s book as such but its very contemporary implications.

It is directly relevant for the understanding of the rise of new capitalist economies in Asia. Richard Baldwin’s recent book (reviewed here), even if Baldwin does not make any allusions to either the classical Marxist position or to the dependency theory, clearly shows that the economic success of Asia was based on the use of  capitalistic relations of production and inclusion in the global supply chains, that is in active participation in globalization. Not passive—but a participation that was sought after, desired. It is thus no accident that China has become the main champion of globalization today. Therefore, Asian success directly disproves the dependency theories and is in full agreement with the classical Marxist position about the revolutionary impact of capitalism, and by extension of “neo-imperialism”, in less developed societies.

This has enormous implications on how we view and try to explain dramatic shifts in economic  power which have occurred in the past half-century (whence the origins of this transformation? the role of the nation-state and imperialism? the role of the bourgeois-led independence movements?) and how we see the developments ahead. I will not develop these issues now because my thinking is still evolving and I plan to lay it out in a book, but I think that, in trying to understand the changes in the modern world, the best we can do is to go to the literature and the debates from exactly one hundred years ago. (And Warren’s book although of course much more recent has its roots in what was discussed then). Short of that I cannot see any broader narrative that makes sense of the epochal changes we are living through.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

The unknown Tocqueville in America

Several years ago, a friend presented me with a small volume entitled “Quinze jours dans le désert” written by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 when he visited (the only time ever) the young United States. This is a short book of some 100 pages, on his travel to the then extreme confines of “civilization”, Flint (the city which in the 1989 was the subject of Michael Moore’s famous documentary “Roger and me”) and Saginaw, both of them situated on the eponymous rivers.

The book is written in the recognizable limpid prose that we associate with Tocqueville and although it has no depth or pretension of his “Democracy in America” it is interesting and worth reading—for the reasons which I hope to explain.

“The desert” in the title does not refer to the physical “desert” but to the civilizational desert. The level of development (if that term has some meaning in the context of these areas in 1831) is so low, the amount of physical difficulties that beset the traveler on all sides is so huge, the forests  almost impenetrable, the mosquitoes omnipresent, the log cabins so few and so uncomfortable, the people barely existent, that the story reads like the adventure of explorers penetrating the deep Amazon. Indeed, the landscape offers, at the rare times when the traveler can relax, some astonishing sights of beauty (“la beauté sauvage” as Tocqueville terms  it, the word “sauvage” occurring probably 100 times on 100 pages of the book) felt in presence of intact nature. As Tocqueville mentions, there was absolutely nothing similar in Europe and the Mediterranean at the time. Perhaps only Siberia, parts of Africa or Brazil’s Northwest come close to such a complete dominion of nature over civilization and absence of practically any trace of human activity that Tocqueville and his companion (Beaumont) witnessed in the 1831 Michigan.

This naturally leads economists to think that perhaps no part of the world had seen such a dramatic transformation from where it was in 1830-1850 and today like the American Midwest and the West. It would be hard to put a number such as modern GDP per capita on what the level of income was in the Midwest then. While the production of anything was very low, so was the population, and while Indians clearly lived at the level of subsistence, European settlers were better-off perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3.  The scale of relative incomes was clearly established with “colonists” of English and French extraction at the top, the Indian-European mestizos in the middle,  and the Indians on the bottom. However, if we (tentatively) put GDP per capita at the frontier at $500 in PPP terms (note that the Maddison project update gives GDP per capita for the eastern board of United States in 1830 at $1600), income per person has then increased in Michigan by almost one hundred times in less than two centuries. This gives an astonishing average rate of growth of 2.5% annually which I doubt to have been “bested” anywhere in the world.

Tocqueville is interested in Indians as a prototype of people who had not developed much of what is (was) considered “civilization”. He is to some extent testing the hypothesis of the “noble savage” and gives what seems to me a realistic portrait of the situation of Indians at that time. When he meets Indians the first time, in Buffalo, as they queue to receive US government money for the land they had sold, he is disappointed by their physique and general looks that bear little resemblance to the idealized free warrior living in the state of natural freedom. They looked, Tocqueville writes, “like the lowest layer of population in our great European cities” (p. 10).

But that perception changes later when Tocqueville and his companion are led by two Indians through the wilderness of forests between Flint and Saginaw. He appreciates their incredible stamina (the two Indian guides lead the two Frenchmen, riding on horses, by running ahead of them), knowledge of nature, resourcefulness and honesty. Indian honesty (and what to a European seems like a naiveté) is several times contrasted with European cupidity. When the two Indians are introduced by a European settler to Tocqueville and Beaumont as reliable guides, Tocqueville asks how much they should be paid for their work (one day of guiding the two through quasi impenetrable forests). The settler says that two dollars would be enough but that since Indians do not know what to do with money, he (the settler) would give them instead goods worth two dollars. Tocqueville notices that what the Indians did get could not have amounted to even one dollar worth, the settler clearly taking 50% as his “fee”.

Here is how Tocqueville describes the settlers he met: “It is not only Indians whom the American pioneers take for fools. We were ourselves every day victims of their extreme avidity for profit. It is true that they never steal. They have too much of intelligence to do such an impudent thing. Yet I have never seen the owner of a hotel of a big city [in Europe] overcharge with such shamelessness as these inhabitants of the desert in whom I expected to find primitive honesty and patriarchal simplicity of manners” (p. 57). 

The contrast between the external polish of civilization and indifference to the lives of “others” is brilliantly drawn: “In the midst of this [American urban] society, so well organized, so prude and full of morality and virtue, one meets complete insensitivity, a sort of cold and implacable egotism whenever indigenous population is concerned. The inhabitants of the United States do not chase these Indians freely as the Spaniards did in Mexico. But it is the same pitiless sentiment that moves the Europeans here as it does elsewhere.” (p. 13) We are indeed far from “Democracy in America”.

Later in Saginaw Tocqueville also notes that Indians are “swindled” by being overcharged, although to an economist the charge of trumpery is not easily defended since Indians (one would expect) paid for the moccasins, clothes etc. what they believed was an acceptable price in the goods they produced. The issue is rather, I think, that Tocqueville uses the European prices: at these prices, the trinkets European sold were evidently much less valuable than the goods they received in exchange from the Indians. But at Indian prices, the trade might have been equally advantageous to them. So, Tocqueville’s example may rather convince an economist of the value of trade then of European duplicity.

Indians seem indifferent to comfort and to many of the commodities of “civilization”. The only thing that attracts them are European rifles. Interestingly, alcohol, often used in the stories of American Indian decadence and fall in the encounter with the Europeans, is never mentioned in the book. 

This small book comes to us like a piece, a remnant of a great monument. In it are recognizable many of the traits that have made Tocqueville famous, precursor in a number of social sciences. The great themes of civilization, colonization, imperialism, and development are opened—the themes that will become so pervasive in the next one hundred years with European expansion to the four corners of the globe.