Did Somebody Say Socialism? (No, strangely, nobody said that)
"It seems likely that our rulers will have to make considerable use of falsehood and deception for the benefit of their subjects. We said, I believe, that the use of that sort of thing was in the category of a medicine." --Plato: Republic V:459e
Long ago and far away, a young man went to college to study law, because that was his father's wish for him. But he had his own ideas; he was a lover of literature and philosophy, and so skipped the jurisprudence lectures to read through philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Hegel. He also did a fair amount of arguing and drinking, spiced up with a touch of dueling, and after cleverly arranging a last-minute transfer to another university in order to diffuse the effects of the aforementioned activities, Charles, as he later called himself, finally came away with a PhD.
He intended to marry his childhood sweetheart, and settle into a teaching gig in one of those quaint German college towns where time has stopped, life is orderly and predictable, and there is a good brewery. But, alas, he had a talent for shooting himself in the foot, and upon graduating, rather than getting his c.v. in order and kissing up to various fusty authorities, he immediately destroyed any prospect he would ever have of a professorly career by publishing an article critical of the government.
His only immediate option was a career in journalism. He had an acquaintance who worked for a new rag in an old mercantile town that had become a center of industry. The emerging entrepreneurial class of manufacturers needed a new kind of news outlet, one that reflected their interests, so they started one. Charles got hired on as a reporter. The editor-in-chief of the paper drank and slept at his desk; Charlie drank and worked like a demon, and within a few months, he found himself in charge.
Running a news outlet on behalf of the new class of industrialists under a politically backward, conservative Christian regime, was tricky. He had to please his businessman readers, who were liberal by the standards of the day, and still manage to get by the censors. Some of the reporters and critics on the paper were interested in a new kind of political economic theory that had emerged in France after the Revolution, called "socialism." Charlie figured he'd better read up. He spent the next four decades reading economic and political theory and writing about it. A hundred years later, half the world's population lived under regimes that claimed to subscribe to his findings.
Charlie described the history of political/economic systems on the model of a conversation, a debate. But it's not primarily a contest between ideas, it's a struggle between economic forces. Social change is driven by this oppositional dynamic. One set of ideas tends to dominate, and these are the ideas of the dominant class, but they are not stable because, as I just said, ideas are not driving the game, the economy is. Conditions on the ground tend to change faster than the players' capacity to understand them. Ideas are always playing catch up with conditions, particularly among the rulers, who become more clueless as the changes in the system speed up. (Has McCain figured out how to turn on his Mac yet?)
Charles said that every system contains the seeds of its own destruction; every economy contains contradictions which, over time, wear on the machinery, until they eventually jam it up. Feudalism didn't give way to capitalism because somebody thought it would be a good idea. It gave way to capitalism because feudalism didn't work anymore. And when the contradictions in capitalism finally approach critical mass, that system too will appear increasingly absurd, and finally be paralyzed, and then we will have a new system. The system that will follow capitalism, said Charles, is socialism.
The contradictions in capitalism, and the requisite cluelessness of the rulers in its decadent phase, have finally reached the height of absurdity with the current administration, so that now, the free marketeers in the White House are demanding that the congress enact socialism, right now, this week! Only they're not calling it that. That's because they can't see that far ahead. To them, the solution is not socialism, it's fascism, which is socialism for the few, the proud, the financiers.
Actually, somebody did mention socialism this week, and it came from an unlikely source. The former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, appeared on television the other night, and to my surprise, he said what must be avoided is socialism for the few, leaving the rest of us holding the free market bag. But this week's prize for bizarre assertions goes to the Bushists' mouthpiece at the New York Times, David Brooks who, in his Tuesday (September 23) column, at the end of a longish editorial fairy tale in praise of the good old days when a few gray haired gentlemen in banks and "white shoe law firms" pulled the strings and took such good care of us all, cheerily invoked a euphemism for the proposed resurgence of fascism. He called it oligarchy. Ah, that has a nice classical ring to it. The word is Greek for "rule by the few."
"Oligarchy is predicated on the conviction that the rich, even though they are no more than a segment of the body politic, preserve its financial assets best, and that their superior intelligence makes them the best councilors; the main objection to oligarchy . . . is that it gives the majority of citizens no share in the profits but only the risks" (Martin Oswald: Oligarchia: The development of a constitutional form in ancient Greece. Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag: 2000).
The original oligarchs were the "Thirty Tyrants" who briefly ruled Athens prior to the restoration of democracy in 403 BCE. Plato was related to two of these venerable gentlemen, and when Democracy dawned, he opposed it. Democracy pretends that everyone is equally worthy of a voice in civic affairs. Democrats are flighty and unreliable. They flip-flop on the issues. And to top it off, they sentenced Plato's teacher to death. That's why in his great work on politics, the Republic, Plato described the ideal government not as a democracy but as rule by "the wise few," an educated elite.
Among the present Republican leadership, those who can read at any rate, Plato is very popular. Plato says that it's OK for the elite to make up "noble lies" to get people to follow them, it's even acceptable to rig the lotteries by which marriages are to be arranged, because it is in the best interests of the state. People like the idea that they have a voice, and that their choices matter, so you let them think that they do, but when the people are wrong, or you get the wrong sort of people, the wise few have to put in a fix.
The looming Great Depression and the last one have a lot in common. The collapse of capital markets in the 1930s fostered two approaches to recovery: social democracy, and "national socialism" (Nazism for short). In Germany, the social democrat factions variously fled, were shot in their beds, or were rounded up and shipped off to die in the camps.
I was never one for camping, myself. So I'm hoping to keep my apartment in Brooklyn. And I'm hoping that Charlie Marx was right about the revolution coming first to Western Europe and America. He's been right so far, because capitalism never really collapsed anywhere yet. The Russians blew their shot at socialism more than fifty years before Reagan took credit for "the collapse of communism," and the European social democracies never went all the way, and are now slowly taking the welfare state apart. (Remember when welfare meant the public good, and wasn't a dirty word?)
Anyhow, I'm laying in canned goods and bottled water, and waiting for the final collapse of it all. Once that happens, say, next week, let's hope "our leaders" (what happened to our representatives?) don't get it "right" and we'll be "left" to organize a system that works.
Photo by h.koppelaney, courtesy of Ctreative Commons license.