If ‘propaganda’ can’t be refuted using legitimate debate methods, then what you are calling propaganda looks an awful lot like truth. Caitlin Johnstone.
The dominant view of the past five hundred years, imbibed by generations of schoolchildren in the West, is Eurocentric and idealist. With some plausibility, it sees history as an ideas-powered march not only to a flourishing of arts and science but to greater humanism too. Interrupted by the demise of Pax Romanica but regaining its footing through Renaissance and Enlightenment, that march went from strength to strength. It shouldered the White Man’s Burden by batting for God on the darker continents before harnessing steam – its potential epiphanically laid out for a twelve year old Scot by his aunt’s vigorously boiling kettle – to change the world forever.
After two centuries of struggle between and within the European powers – culminating in the millions slain by two global conflicts whose very material drivers are to this day airbrushed as fights between Good and Evil – civilisation’s centre of gravity moved from Western Europe to America. Itself founded on Enlightenment values (aided by ethnic cleansing and slavery) this the stronger of two super-powers borne of WW2 would, by the sheer size of its economy, take on the role of global engine for capitalist recovery.1 It would also keep in check – and in less than half a century check-mate – the Red Threat and, through an evolving doctrine of Exceptionalism both underpinned and exemplified by dollar hegemony, police the planet.
And now? The West peers out on a fast changing world, its rulers unsure of what happens next but prepared to defend to our death their privilege in the name of lofty ideals laced with a dog-whistle orientalism every bit as anti-Slav as it is anti-Arab,2 while conflating their own decidedly unpatriotic concerns3 with The National Interest.
That, with the odd lapse into the sardonic on my part, is an idealist and woefully potted history of half a millennium of Western ascendance. The materialist version does not flatly negate it. Rather, it subdues such idealism (with its onion layered racism) by relegating but not ignoring the importance of ideas. Conferring primacy on the material underpinnings of said ascendance, the materialist version, mine at any rate, goes as follows.
Europe’s growing mercantile capitalism of the late middle ages, premised initially on the wool trade and increasingly answerable to the counting houses of Antwerp and Florence rather than feudal barons, funded exploratory voyages by land and more especially sea. This new maritime age opened up five continents for trade, exploitation and finally direct rule by the Great Powers: England, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain.4
During this period of what Marx – to distinguish the very different workings of mercantile from industrial capitalism – called ‘primitive accumulation’, eye-watering fortunes were amassed by self made men: the slavers, sugar nabobs and copper kings whose sons and daughters married those of disdainful but down on their luck aristocrats to give us the Fossington-Smythes of this world. More importantly, such fortunes, and the joint stock/credit mechanisms5 created along the way to facilitate their accrual, provided seed capital not just for those dark satanic mills but the great infrastructural projects of canals, railways and turnpike roads not even the wealthiest individuals could fund single handedly. Thus was the industrial revolution kick-started.6
Marx’s dialectical7 materialist account of that industrial revolution in its vanguard nation is not widely taught in schools and universities. This is to be expected, and those courses that speak of it at all – their tutors’ knowledge rarely extending beyond the Communist Manifesto and the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – have a dull predictability … Week 4, Emile Durkheim … Week 5, Karl Marx … Week 6, What is wrong with Marx … Week 7, John Stuart Mill …
Had these sages actually read Marx’s opus magnum, which as any switched on twelve year old can tell us is Capital, they’d be less inclined to intone smugly, pace Karl Popper, that marxism is a textbook case of circular thinking. (Popper’s other examples are psychoanalysis and astrology – both good at plausibly explaining the past but weaker on the more exacting test of predicting the future.)
I haven’t space to defend a great if irrascible man from his legions of lesser statured critics. I’ll simply point out that two predictions, derided at the time, arising from Marx’s theory of political economy have been borne out. One is capital’s tendency to monopoly through merger and buy-out. The other is a tendency for overall rate of profit to decline. Each has a bearing on those war drums now beating at such alarming volume and tempo.
The case for the first is both logical and empirical, validly inferred from the frequent necessity of measures to dampen that tendency to monopoly. These are always contentious and, as with the Glass Steagall Act, prone to repeal as moral panic fades away, public amnesia sets in and bull markets beckon. This too is to be expected when such measures transgress the hallowed tenet of non interference in markets deemed – in a glorious triumph of vested interest over oceans of evidence – self regulating.
The case for the second, a tendency for overall profitability to fall, is too theoretically based and lengthy to set out here. But since we are discussing predictive power, empirical proofs will do. For these we need an indirect approach of the kind routinely adopted in the natural sciences to validate theories. We can’t, for instance, directly ascertain whether or not those pretty pictures of neutrons and protons orbiting the insides of cut-away atoms bear any resemblance to what is going on. We can, however, assess the quality of prediction, high as it happens, such models beget. To use a legal analogy – and it’s no accident the terms of science draw so much on those of law – when smoking guns are few and far between, we look to circumstantial evidence. That, a learned judge once observed, is not inferior evidence. It just has to be studied with extra care.
Marx foresaw several outcomes of his discovery that, unchecked, overall profitability must fall. One is capital’s encroachment on spheres hitherto outside the profit cycle. Irritated we may be at yet another once free loo monetised, the withdrawal from our parks and public spaces of free water fountains, and a Stonehenge fenced off and toll-boothed. And incensed we may be by a privatisation model – underfund .. blame practitioners for worsening services .. hail the inflows of new capital via sell-off – transparent to all but the blinkered and/or easily bribed, but most of us take too small a view of things. As I said in a recent post:
privatisation is privatisation – a shot in the arm for profits by transferring wealth from the many to the few – be it in the UK’s NHS, a dismantled USSR or an Iraq in smoking ruins.
Idealist socialists, often and not always pejoratively referred to as utopian socialists, tend not only to see privatisation in parochial terms, but as driven by greed. Dialectical materialists may well agree, but prefer the less emotive diagnosis that it is one of the three responses to falling profitability set out here.8
A second being war.
Besides opening up new markets for the victors, and besides the size and centrality to the US economy of its for-profit arms sector making it a war motive in its own right, war serves the objective function of destroying capital to allow accumulation to start over at higher rates of return. I say ‘objective function’ because marxists are more focused on drivers and outcomes than subjective motives, least of all those couched in metaphysically reductive terms of greed and bloodlust. Arms profiteers would weep and rail with the rest of us if they only knew of the Yemeni children – some just as photogenic as the Syrian child placed on page one because her agony, not Yemen’s, is what our rulers need us to focus on – taken out by Saudi pilots in Rolls-Royce powered Tornados.
A third mechanism to offset falling profit rates is economic crisis. Since capitalist production is driven by profit not human need, it ceases or slows down when profits fall. Various factors then kick in – falling wages via rising unemployment, weaker firms bowing out, demand picking up as discounted goods go under the hammer – to restore profitability and stimulate investment.
These three mechanisms are by no means exhaustive. Other responses are the suppression of trade unions and, in extremis, fascism. Still less, as we have seen, are they mutually exclusive. All three, of course, have wretched consequences for really existing people. And all three are germane to understanding why the West – by which I mean its rulers – is fixed on its currently perilous course vis a vis Russia. I’ll get to how and why in part 3, but must here return briefly to Popper’s demand for predictive power.
It’s all very well, he would quite rightly say, to posit some future occurrence, x. It’s another thing altogether to posit x‘s occurrence next Tuesday, next June or within three years of the onset of other factors; y and z. Only then can we have a sporting bet on the matter, confident it will be settled one way or another.
It’s true Marx failed to put a date on the next war, next crisis. But then, climate scientists can’t say precisely when tipping point will occur, nor criminologists when burglary rates will fall. As for economists, which of them foresaw the month, year or for that matter the slightest chance of Lehman Brothers failing? The problem, even for natural sciences when asked to apply their combined understandings to real world issues in non lab conditions, is too many variables. So too for the human sciences – but now with that arch confounder, subjective intent, thrown in.9
We’re no longer speaking of what will happen when water is heated to 100°C, or sulphuric acid added to potassium nitrate. Not speaking, in sum, of stable configurations of molecules which to the best of our knowledge lack intentionality, and display high predictability. So how narrow a view, and selectively so, of predictive power are we willing to take, to bury a dangerous idea?
In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper, understandably if myopically repelled by Stalin’s USSR, made two big errors of causal attribution. One was to suppose implicitly that ‘marxism’ and ‘open society’ capitalism existed in parallel universes, thereby failing to see that the USSR was warped through its containment by the West’s thoroughly rattled but extraordinarily deep pocketed rulers. The other was to see in the West’s freedom of expression, which he accurately linked to its prospering sciences, the product of choices open to all nations in the ideas driven world of his imagination, rather than the exclusive fruit of centuries of colonial and neocolonial enrichment for a handful of nations at the expense of the global south.
Which brings us to Marx’s central predictive failure: that revolution would occur in an advanced capitalism; in Germany or England. Well a miss is as good as a mile, and the struggles between communists and fascists in the Germany and Italy of the twenties – more close run affairs than is commonly realised – do not negate the fact it was only in Europe’s most backward country that a tiny working class seized state power. Even then it took Lenin’s addition to marxism of a vanguard party model, and early work – as much polemic as theoretical – on the implications of an imperialism Marx had not foreseen, to drive through that palace coup in St. Petersburg.10 And it took the very different organising abilities of Stalin the bureaucrat, Trotsky the Red Army architect, to hold its gains through the five years of blockade, invasion and counter revolution known as Russia’s Civil War.
Marx was wrong. Yes, workers’ uprisings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the face of capitalism’s totalitarianism11 (which has not ended but has in the West had a make-over long underwritten, as I never tire of saying, by the imperialised world) did carry the ring of historic inevitability. No, there was no such inevitability of outcome. Marx did not foresee the degree to which organised struggles for higher wages and social reforms in the global north, and ability of capital to concede them via super profits extracted in the south, would defuse tensions he’d thought must lead sooner rather than later to breaking point. That breaking point, he’d further supposed – not without naivete, hubris and no small idealism – would see a proletariat, armed with his very real theoretical insights, free itself and humanity at large from material, mental and spiritual enslavement under the law of value and its attendant commodity fetishism.
This failure, gleefully seized on by successive generations of politicians, journalists, economists and professors, has been central to the view that Marx Got It All Wrong. He didn’t though, did he? Indeed, the sysyphean necessity of ‘refuting’ his work with such monotonous regularity – the man lacking the simple decency to lay back, refuted once and for all, in his Highgate coffin – pays backhanded tribute to its ongoing relevance. Of course, all manner of daft or threadbare ideas can have enduring appeal. But what distinguishes marxism from astrology is that we can grasp the Zodiac basics in seconds, while engaging with Marx’s ideas takes effort. And yet the brightest minds of successive generations, outraged by the egregious turpitude of a world run for profit, have repeatedly shown themselves willing to make just such an effort.
But that’s quite enough for one post on the philosophy of knowledge. Early on, I set out a core predicament in which:
The West peers out on a fast changing world, its rulers unsure of what happens next but prepared to defend to our death their privilege in the name of lofty ideals laced with a dog-whistle orientalism every bit as anti-Slav as it is anti-Arab, while conflating their own decidedly unpatriotic concerns with The National Interest.
The implications of that predicament, for the West’s current and terrifying nadir in its relations with post Soviet/post Yeltsin Russia, will be explored in part 3.
* * *
- The first sign of this was the Marshall Plan, at the time bitterly resisted both within America and by its allies as rewarding the aggressor nations – Germany and Japan having been identified as essential pillars of Bretton Woods, New Deal and Global Plan. See Chapter 1 of The Global Minotaur, Varoufakis, 2011.
- This orientalism sheds no small light on our willingness to believe Assad and Putin capable of deeds inexplicable except as comic book, evil-for-evil’s-sake villainy.
- While the export of capital, and with it jobs, by the West to extract super profits from low wage economies in the global south is the most obvious and persistent testifier to that lack of patriotism, more egregious yet is its batting for both teams in the shape of Barclays and HSBC funding Trident and Russia’s nuclear program.
- Conspicuously and with hindsight ominously missing from this list are Prussia and – squeezed in NE Asia by Russia; in the Pacific by a resource hungry USA – Japan.
- One cause of the fall to second class colonialist status of Portugal and Spain is that cheap silver and gold from the Americas held back their development of such credit mechanisms and the regulation of joint stock companies.
- Kick-start is apt. Motorbikes were once fired by downward kick (cars by crank handle) into self-perpetuating internal combustion. So too did mercantile profit accumulation, a buy-cheap/sell-dear affair, fire industrial capitalism’s very different self perpetuating basis for profit. Alas, my analysis of that basis, long promised as key to so much else, must wait a while longer.
- Dialectical not because, as is commonly taught to politics and philosophy students, the young Marx had been a follower of Hegel’s dialectical idealism, but because he found in his materialist analysis of the commodity an interplay of opposites: use-value with exchange value, exchanges of labour as those of things; really existing social relations, underpinned by armed force, as reified markets.
- So too were the nationalisations of Attlee’s 1945 government, in keeping not only with the Keynesian spirit of the times but with realities more specific. Coal, steel and rail were needed by British capitalism but insufficiently profitable. Solution? Transfer to the tax payer, on terms generous to former owners, then reprivatise once public investment restores them to profitability. (NB I assume no machiavellian, down-the-ages connivance: just the inner logic of capital accumulation, played out in political circumstances that preclude any other way of organising social relations to meet humanity’s material needs. Says Marx, in one of those eminently quotable flourishes, this one in the Eighteenth Brumaire, he so often went in for: “Men make their own history, but not as they please .. not under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances given and transmitted from the past.” )
- Economists have the added burden of an ideologically driven refusal to see the source of profit, hence the dynamic Marx recognised, in capital’s historically unique way of exploiting labour to syphon off the surplus value it creates.
- The horrors of WWI and rallying cry of Peace, Land and Bread helped.
- I don’t use the t-word lightly. ‘Totalitarianism’ was coined in 20th century response to an absolutism earlier despots could only dream of, opened up by industrialisation and exploited by Hitler and Stalin. The relative prosperity enjoyed by labour sellers in the west blinds many to capital’s iron law that pursuing highest returns must override all other considerations. That’s why reformists often struggle to see that hard won gains – wages, union rights, welfare provision – they’d assumed permanent have proved, as profits at home are squeezed and organised labour weakened, anything but.