If you asked the “activists” running around the corridors of Antifa and Momentum what the Marxist Dialectic is, they’d probably think it was some sort of Left Wing Call Centre. A gratuitous gag at the expense of Corbynistas? Not really, when you consider that young EU Remainers seemed convinced that Brussels had given Britain the NHS. The devotional young supporting the Islington Nazarene are perfectly bright in many cases, but woefully ignorant of almost every detail of political theory and history.
Ideologies depend on such ignorance, much as they depend on a few wonk priests to keep on churning out the irrelevant catechism of belief. The neoliberal model of capitalism is a sieve of ocean-going proportions when it comes to empirical outcomes versus the validity of its bizarre claims, as indeed is the Islamic blueprint of deity and social order. Socialism similarly is in turn based on a structural functionalist view of the social economy, with a bit of liberal democratic lip-service to keep it separate in the contemporary mind from Marxism.
As we are now seeing, the hi-jacked UK Labour Party has reemerged in the clothing of “pure socialism”, but such a concept is indistinguishable from Marxism. The Corbynistas go along with the idea of plurality, but they don’t believe in it – a truth that is obvious from their reaction to “debating” ideas with those outside the Socialist Utopian stockade. Like the feminist and gender identity fanatics with whom they fellow-travel, they’re not pluralist, they’re purists.
Shadow UK Chancellor John McDonnell wears his Marxism as a badge of pride. This alone should destroy his credibility as a potential economic helmsman in the 21st century….in precisely the same way that George Osborne’s GCSE monetarism was doomed from the moment he took office.
The main reason I say this about McDonnell is the spurious nature of the “science” allegedly underpinning pure socialism. The pseudo economics behind his model fall into two parts: collectivist control, and the dialectical theory of history.
What the Labour Party used to call Clause IV (before wisely abandoning it in the late 1950s) referred to the ownership by The People of “the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Or in layman’s terms, manufacturing output, shops, and currency/export trade.
It’s roughly 185 years since Karl asserted this radical goal, and as you’d expect, quite a lot has changed. The UK economy in 2017 has only 8.9% of its output in manufacturing: Marx didn’t foresee the rise and rise of bogus “services” as a huge global business sector.
As for shops, over 40% of them are now virtual, and supported by logistics that include almost no shops and very few people. He didn’t foresee the rise of multiple supermarkets, the growth of catalogue sales in the US, the invention of the internet, the central importance of credit, the electrification of retail banking, or the decline of cash currency. Why would he?
In the 1840s, there was almost no currency exchange system to influence export trading, and no multinational companies at all. Karl Marx didn’t know how to imagine floating currencies, fractional reserve banking, central bank geopolitics, Arab-dominated oil exploration, the shadow banking economy, fiat currencies, televisual media or satellite communications. No sovereign State today can “own” the means of exchange, and a change back to that idea on a global basis is worse than a fantasy: it would be a dystopian nightmare.
Forty years later however, Marx had seen some of this coming, and thus chose to denounce his own economic religion. “Moi, je n’suis pas Marxiste” he said. (For myself, I’m not a Marxist)
To be even-handed here, the neoliberal view of “laissez-faire” capitalism goes back to a time before steamships, dynamite, mass marketing, mass media of any kind, factories of any size, modern democracy (roughly 13% of adults had the vote, all men) and 95% of all mechanisation. When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, the Americans were colonists and France was still being run by a family of biscuits. 78 years would pass before even the term ‘capitalism’ was coined by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in The Newcomes.
Those around Thatcher and Reagan – and especially those who followed later – nevertheless insisted (without irony) that there must be “no turning back” on an ideology already almost 250 years out of date. Establishing this is not a digression on my part: there is more to it than just fair play. I think it important to stress that I happily deconstruct any Believer nonsense right across the politico-economic spectrum of myopia in search of dystopia. Ideology offers certainty, not solutions; by definition, in a constantly changing world, it is unfit for purpose.
Which brings us back to the other RSJ of socialism – the dialectic.
Marx didn’t invent dialectical analysis of history: he borrowed it from Hegel, but applied it specifically to economic change, calling it ‘dialectical materialism’. It sounds quite scientific, but is in fact embarassingly simplistic.
Both men believed that macro-historical trends obey a clearly visible three-stage law: first comes a thesis, then the reaction to it – an antithesis – and finally the perfect stage called synthesis. New Labour guru Philip Gould would’ve called a synthesis ‘The Third Way’. It is all soundbite, Chinese-meal logic.
Dialectical analysis depends entirely on where you start the clock. In Karl Marx’s case, he chose – completely at random – to start it at the agrarian economies of the European Middle Ages. This was his ‘thesis’ stage; it could just as easily have been 2000 years earlier at the start of ancient Egyptian mathematics as applied to shipbuilding, or the pre-Imperial infrastructure developments in Senatorial Rome, or the discovery of fire.
Karl’s antithesis to the agrarian economy was the amassing of capital via non-food industries and banking. The synthesis, he proclaimed, would be the socialist paradise in which all citizens gradually realised how much fairer life was….as a result of which, the repressive organs of the State were “to wither away”.
On every dimension, he was wrong. The reason for this is very simple: he made assumptions based on the knowledge reservoir of the time. These made him at one point or another overly idealistic or cynical about the nature of people.
When Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, both natural and social anthropology were studies in their infancy. The entire idea of psychiatry was unfamiliar. Almost nothing was known about neuroscience or neuroanatomy. For over 90% of the population, creationism was a fact. Cognitive behaviour therapy was a distant dream. Sigmund Freud was twelve years old, Carl Jung was minus seven, the brain itself was a complete mystery, and DNA was an unknown science.
The following broadly accepted realities were thus unavailable to the man who lies buried in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency: as a pack species, Homo sapiens is wired for social segmentation, stockpiling, limited acquaintance circles and negotiation; testosterone encourages aggression and progesterone pragmatism; our attachment to chief-figures is very strong; most humans use at least six personalities to cater for different life situations; for four out of five human individuals, immediate family images produce far stronger brain responses than (for example) workplace, career or conspicuous wealth; and human psychography dooms many mass, one-size-fits-all solutions to failure.
That last point is particularly crucial to systemic success or failure. It is not so much that human exceptions prove the rule, more that exceptional humans refuse to obey the rules.
Even worse, those of exceptional ability innately believe they should always be the exception. This is an extreme example of hierarchical pack behaviour, but it is no less real for all that. There are pyschopaths, sociopaths, applause junkies and power seekers in our midst; their commonality is obsessively compulsive behaviour. Obsessives run the world because their need to control is all-consuming.
Other more general extrapolations from our contemporary knowledge base ensure that Marx’s vision of Utopia was dangerously flawed. Big State collectivism, distant diktats, remotely applied philanthropy and interference in family/close community do not come easily to Homo sapiens. But on the other hand, most of us are suckers for benevolent father figures, schadenfreude, banana-skin pratfalls, privilege and an easy life. If one studies the history of the USSR, the PRC, the DDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Vietnam, Romania, Yugoslavia, Korea and Albania, it quickly becomes obvious that, in every case, the entire construct is kept together by leadership, censorship and apathy….but quickly produces rebellion when the ultimate authority is in doubt.
I am always amused when dedicated Leftists tell me that “pure socialism has never been given a proper chance”. The truth is that pure socialism never had a chance in the first place. But once again at this point, I must stress that I am not throwing mud pies from the conservative corner: the same critiques can be applied to the neoliberal globalist version of capitalism. Its adherents insist that it follows the “natural order of things”, but if they bothered to study higher-end pack species, they would know that obscene inequality leads inevitably to régime change, that Beta males benefit from Gamma discontent, and that Alpha females mate with Betas to “bring it on”.
The obsessively greedy always want more and better than anyone else: just as there is always the 3% in neoliberal economies, so too there is always the Zil lane in collectivist cultures.
For the Left purists, one will never bury dialectical materialism. But for those in possession of an open mind, one can reveal it for the 3-card trick it is.
Here’s my thesis as a just-for-tonight Marxist: Karl got his thesis bit wrong. The real step-change was from rural community to national capitalist culture. Thus on this basis, capitalism becomes the thesis, socialism is the antithesis, and we got quite close to a synthesis in the shape of mixed-economy social capitalism between roughly 1950 and 1970.
Don’t like that one? OK, how about this: social capitalism was the thesis, but it got blown away by trade union, Arab and American corporate hubris. Having been now in the antithesis epoch of globalist neoliberal failure for nearly forty years, the proposed synthesis is, um….the purist socialism that failed and thus got replaced by the post-war synthesis.
And that’s where the dialectic takes us….round in circles until we arrive back where we started: staring through the rear-view windscreen.
The ultimate purpose of ideologies and religions is to close down debate. This is why Monarchies invented the Divine Right of Kings, the Catholic Church produced the Spanish Inquisition, greedy capitalism hijacked Milt Friedman to rationalise corporate monopolism, Islam needs Jihadism to feed its conversion mania, soi-disant contemporary “liberalism” calls all its ideas correct, settled, and progressive, the EU President insists that small things like liberal democracy shouldn’t impede the inevitable Federalist Europe, and globalists assert that There is no Alternative to…er, globalism.
All of these totalitarian systemics want to change humanity to fit us all into boxes they have created out of little more than blind belief and wide-eyed ignorance.
Their greatest ally in this process is the suppression of information, and restricted access to an educational culture that rewards individual creativity and fulfilment more than Groupthink.
That’s why all régimes across the spectrum seek to control the internet, destroy net neutrality, pass laws to discourage dissent, and create faux support through education targets and approved exam answers.
And none of them aspire to maximising human fulfilment at every level.
Jeremy Bentham put forward that last starting point. Like Hobbes, Smith, Marx, Hitler and Stalin, he suggested simply that the aim of all governments should be “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of its citizens”. Unlike all the others, he meant it. For he was a philospher, not an ideologue.
Bentham too was a product of his time: he underestimated the power of innate control freakery and misanthropy present in our species, and he equated happiness with material wellbeing. But at least, his starting point was human fulfilment rather than systemic certainty.
Benthamism is a philosophy one can build upon in order to face our horrifically unpredictable future. It can adapt to every experimental outcome without the need for blanket denial, because it has nothing to defend beyond a soundly-based belief in Man the cooperative competitor, with all the flaws that make us Only Human.
It is, if you like, about a preference for enlightened self-interest over wish-fulfilling belief in unobtainable Utopia. It is about the nobility of thinking for oneself.
If we can compete in the pursuit of excellence and creativity while cooperating with the natural Universe, then we the self-styled sapiens might at last develop the humility and contentment that is, I suspect, the best we can hope for.
But if we fall to our knees in the face of unnatural dead-end ideology, we will destroy ourselves and our planet.