Sunday, May 07, 2006

I MISS RUSSIA. At Tech Central Station, Lee Harris asks "Why Isn't Socialism Dead?" His short answer is that stupid people are stupid and Lee Harris and his buddies are smart. In long form, there is much elaboration on the point that "capitalism is mankind's only rational alternative," and a lengthy analysis of some ancient socialists' theories, though the relevance or popularity of these dead letters among the rabble of Venezuela and Bolivia -- whose support for quasi-socialist states seems to have stimulated Harris' essay -- is not proven here.

Harris concludes that socialism is beyond the reach of capitalist rationalism because socialism is a sort of religion:
...even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn't want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs?
The myth, thus described, does sound familiar and indeed religious, though Marx and Sorel were well behind Jesus Christ in promoting it.

Harris postulates a "myth gap" between socialism and capitalism, and proposes that capitalism produce a "transformative myth of its own." He does not say who would be best suited to this task of myth-production. Maybe he expects the Parallax Corporation to farm the job out to analysts in Bangalore.

He certainly seems unaware that one sort of capitalist myth has been promulgated for over a century by our own entertainment media, via movies, music, glossy magazines, videos, etc., which have offered the world countless enticements to the splendors of a market economy, with resounding success wherever it has been encountered -- or rather, wherever their promise has been even slightly realized by a substantial number of the population; it tends to be less successful in places where the people despair of gaining these blessings by ordinary means, e.g., Venezuela and Bolivia.

Harris' ignorance of this observable reality is perhaps understandable, as modern conservatives are bound by blood-oath to consider the Western media treasonously unhelpful. Besides, it better serves the professional purposes of right-wing pundits to portray themselves as messengers of the capitalist Good News to Modern Man.

They don't seem especially qualified, though. In the same edition of TCS, Harris' colleague Pejman Yousefzadeh talks down the notion that CEOs are criminally overpaid. Shareholders alone should make that decision, he argues, and accuses those who disagree of "scoring... political points by tapping into people's frustration and envy."

Yousefzadeh argues well on capitalist terms, but I doubt his argument will make deep inroads among those whose "frustration and envy" are excited by the ever-escalating profits of global capitalism's top dogs -- especially in a time of rising gas prices. (I don't believe many of the disaffected in this case are students of Marx or Georges Sorel.)

I am in some sympathy with Yousefzadeh. I am no socialist, and I understand his logic, dreary as it is. But in his capitalist calculus he has included no place for the human factor. Yousefzadeh is as convinced as Harris that his way is the only rational one, and expects invocation of the iron law of his philosophy -- to each according to what he can get, from each according to what we can get out of him -- to sate the punters, or at least shoo them away.

For years this has worked fine for them, and may do so for years to come. Here is one reason why I sort of miss the old Soviet Union. They were wrong, of course, but the threat of their existence offered a screen and bank against the predations of capitalism within our own side of the Iron Curtain: so long as the global dominance of capitalism was not a settled matter, even in the Age of Reagan its avatars were compelled to throw the working people of this country a bone every now and then, lest we lose our Cold War resolve. The welfare state was accepted as a necessary evil, and even in hard times we got our government cheese and food stamps and extended unemployment benefits.

Once Russia was reduced to another rapacious capitalist state, though, all bets were off: the Welfare Queen was dethroned, America became a happy hunting ground for consumer loan sharks, and downsizing evolved from a cyclical to a constant threat. Security vanished, productivity rose. The U.S. became what it had been in the Gilded Age: a sandwich of striving pressed between the desperate poor and the arrogant rich.

Between the socialists, whose faith in the people is unshakable, and the capitalists, who faith in themselves is ditto, stand I, equipped only with cynicism. Spiritually it seems by far the best bet.

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