The Dim-Post

June 7, 2016

Trotsky! And the lack of a canonical contemporary left-wing ideology

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:29 am

I’m still reading about Russia; I’ve started Isaac Deustcher’s biography of Trotsky, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. And what’s struck me is something I thought about a bit when I was reading Figes’ book: the power of Marxist thought to convert and radicalise huge numbers of people in the late 19th, early 20th century. People read books by Marx or Engels, or pamphlets by Lenin or heard speeches by Trotsky or other thinkers in the Marxist tradition and their lives were transformed. Which demonstrably isn’t something that happens when any contemporary left-wing thinker or politician makes their case today. True, circumstances were a lot worse back then. It was easier to make a case for change. But again, left-wing politicians aren’t asking people to rise up against the Kaiser or the Tsar, and risk torture and death. They’re simply asking for their votes, and mostly not getting them.

I think that’s because the Marxist ideology seemed so comprehensive. It was grounded in economic theory, and philosophy and history. It seemed to explain the world at a very deep level, and why it was broken and how to fix it. And we know that the solutions went catastrophically wrong, and much of the economic theory is outdated and demonstrably false. So the ideology is widely discredited.

But, yet, post-industrial capitalism obviously ‘doesn’t work’, in many vital ways, and left-wing politicians and intellectuals spend a LOT of time pointing out these failures but it all seems so piecemeal. There’s no comprehensive, unifying body of thought beneath it all. At least, none I can see. Yes, it’s terrible that – for example – rest-home workers get paid so poorly even though many agree that their work is of great social value, and that so many in the finance industry are paid so well even though they appear to create little value, in economic terms, and actually, if anything, they routinely destroy it in other sections of the economy. But what are the deep structural causes of the systems inability to value work in ways that most of us feel are moral? What are we going to do to fix it, instead of just mitigate it?

There are various critiques of contemporary capitalism out there. There’s the Spirit Level argument, which has made inequality a live political issue. There’s Piketty with his demonstration of the long term consequences of capitalism. The environmental movement. Feminism and racial justice. In academic terms there’s critical theory, which claims an intellectual lineage from Marx and also claims to be such a radical indictment of capitalism it can only be communicated in dense, incomprehensible academic jargon but which, now that the sun is going down on it, looks more and more like a cross between a hoax and a cult. But there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why. Alternatively:

  • There is and I’m oblivious to it
  • The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.
  • There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint)
  • To paraphrase Keynes, the failures of capitalism are not moral (or philosophical) but rather a series of separate technical challenges to be solved

Any thoughts?

49 Comments »

  1. Under any system, we’re all lemmings and the world is full of cliffs. So we attempt to devise systems that keep us away from the cliffs. But they typically require cooperation and trust and some integrity (don’t iie about a cliff or cliffs for advantage).

    Monarchy didn’t work. Egos and war and greed all the time. A system of organised gangs. Dictatorship of any kind seems doomed to fail on the rocks of the personality flaws of the individual dictator.

    So we seek to spread power. Prevent any one person or group from having it all their own way. But we accept many things (the list is debatable) do need doing and we have devised a means of selecting representatives who agree to form government. We (ACT and Libertarians excepted) agree to obey this ogvernment provided it is ultimately accountable to us through the selection process.

    But this assumes enough of us are paying attention. It all falls over if we don’t….or we collectively become such a bunch of naifs that we’ve effectively lost our ability to understand If we ever had it – debatable) what’s going on around us and decide which course forward is the one to pursue. That defacto insecurity about direction leaves many of us just wanting to keep doing whatever it is we THINK we’ve been doing…and it shouldn’t get any worse, right?

    Lemmings. Cliff.

    Someone(s) needs to see the cliff. The rest of us need to trust the cliff is there.

    Climate change is just one example of ‘cliff-calling’…..and it runs up against the emotional need to carry on doing whatever we did yesterday because nothing bad happened yesterday. We’re at an awkward time, too, as the Baby Boomers who’ve been running things are now at a stage where they aren’t mentally flexible or adaptable….and the do-it-like-yesterday approach is particularly firmly engrained there. I can’t see that changing until they are dead and the people now voting for Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour / Greens here are in the ascendant.

    Systems? Well….a rigorous, rational, evidence-driven approach wrapped around humanistic / sustainable values seems like the best way forward…..embeded in that system of spreading power that keeps one group from overwhelming the rest.

    MMP. A good start.

    But the lemmings need to be awake. Too many aren’t. All systems fail when the elements within them become effectively incompetent.

    Comment by truthseekernz — June 7, 2016 @ 10:02 am

  2. “But again, left-wing politicians aren’t asking people to rise up against the Kaiser or the Tsar, and risk torture and death. They’re simply asking for their votes, and mostly not getting them.”

    This reminds me of the story about the abbot who asked the novices whether they would be willing to lay down their life for Christ. When they all assured him they would be willing to pay the ultimate price he smiled and replied “That’s fantastic, but what I need right now are some volunteers to wash tonight’s dishes.”

    Comment by Liam H — June 7, 2016 @ 10:13 am

  3. I saw a great BBC panel discussion some years ago on capitalism. One of the speakers pointed out that capitalism and the welfare state don’t exist in competition but symbiosis. The welfare state is an adaptation which capitalism has made to survive in an environment of democracy, it softens capitalism’s hard edges and worst excesses. Capitalism generates wealth to fund the welfare state, the welfare state provides capitalism with the broad political consent that it needs to exist.
    In terms of the next big idea. I think the one to watch is the basic income movement. It seems to me to be the next adaptation to some of the problems with our particular flavour of neoliberal capitalism, specifically worsening inequality and the growing pool of unemployed, underemployed and ‘flexible’ workers. The policy is neither left nor right in the traditional sense, it just solves the problems of work, welfare and taxation in a fundamentally different way to the dominant model.
    The Scandinavian countries, the perennial social policy innovators, have a few basic income experiments running over the next few years. If the results are positive then a tipping point towards acceptance of capital taxation funded basic income as a policy response to neoliberalism could come relatively quickly.

    Comment by Richard29 — June 7, 2016 @ 10:46 am

  4. Surely the Left is now far too diverse to be captured by a single ideology?

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — June 7, 2016 @ 10:52 am

  5. post-industrial capitalism obviously ‘doesn’t work’, in many vital ways

    There’s about a billion people, in the developing world, who could point out a lot of ways capitalism has worked pretty well.

    Comment by Phil — June 7, 2016 @ 11:45 am

  6. I think you’re falling down the typical hole that people do with Marxism. It failed to grapple with some fairly fundamental parts of the human existence; sex/gender and ethnicity. Capitalism to a certain extent doesn’t need to care about those factors to work.

    Comment by Robert Singers — June 7, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

  7. •There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values.

    Which is exactly what the right does.

    Comment by unaha-closp — June 7, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

  8. What reason does anyone have to believe that there is a nice utopian solution to life’s problems? That’s wishful thinking of a religious nature. The world is what it is and there’s no guarantee there’s going to be a desirable way to solve every problem thus I’m pretty much in a camp that combines Danyl’s last two thoughts; there’s no single ‘right’ way to organise, and the problems with what we have aren’t always moral failings but a moving hodge-podge of adjusting situations often only amenable to ad hoc solutions and our appetite for cooperation is a shifting and adjusting quantity.

    Life is change.

    Comment by Fentex — June 7, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

  9. “People read books by Marx or Engels, or pamphlets by Lenin or heard speeches by Trotsky or other thinkers in the Marxist tradition and their lives were transformed. Which demonstrably isn’t something that happens when any contemporary left-wing thinker or politician makes their case today.”

    There’s also that even in translation, the polemic (particularly Trotsky’s) is electric, particularly given that apparently a lot of it was off the cuff when speaking.

    I can’t remember who it was that noted that setting aside the material, Trotsky was probably Russia’s greatest writer.

    Lastly, as well as being political theorists these guys were practitioners. Also their lives depended on them being credible.
    That probably counts for a lot.

    Comment by Gregor W — June 7, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

  10. I have been thinking that, while Deutscher’s biography is pretty great, he’s picked arguably the best subject to write a biography about like, ever.

    Comment by danylmc — June 7, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

  11. These two books by Trotsky are worth a look and are available online:

    My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1930) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/

    The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (1936) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/

    Comment by Kay — June 7, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

  12. The closest I’ve come is Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism – he proceeds in a very considered way to critique capitalism from a Marxist base, while being very clear-eyed about the limitations and structural failings in the classical Marxist tradition. It’s not exactly a Grand Unified Theory of why capitalism is broken and what to do about, but he does nod in the direction of a whole systems approach. There are a lot of very interesting ideas, so well worth a look IMHO: https://www.amazon.com/PostCapitalism-Guide-Future-Paul-Mason-ebook/dp/B00WFN1UEA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1465279554&sr=1-1&keywords=paul+mason

    Comment by Economic Illiteracy Support Group — June 7, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

  13. Yep, number 3: “There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left [err, all of us?] can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values”

    As Richard says “UBI for everyone”.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 7, 2016 @ 8:49 pm

  14. Monbiot released a new book recently, and I was hoping it would offer some coherent alternative ideology to what we have now. Apparently (after reading the sample and looking at the reviews) it’s just more of the same ranting about how the current system sucks. I think everyone on the left knows that already.

    There will be an alternative to the current capitalist system, and it will not be a rehashed Third Way. It will come as climate change gets worse, and people release conspicuous consumption is unsustainable. I think it will probably be some form of eco-modernism, but more radical than what that means now. That’s my (probably wrong) prediction, anyway.

    Comment by Seb Rattansen — June 8, 2016 @ 2:04 am

  15. Why can’t environmentalism fulfil this need? Given that its about the planet as a whole integrated ecosystem, it certainly seems to meet the need for a thorough approach to all aspects of human life – even moreso than Marxism, which was only ever concerned with human beings.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 8, 2016 @ 2:42 am

  16. To first order I’m a materialist (after that I think the measure problem has some interesting things to say) and basically think we’re stuck with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. That’s where I think the problems of life ultimately arise. Not class etc.

    If one put together Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene then I think one could get an updated version of scientific materialism informed more by what we now now about our evolutionary history.

    Comment by NeilM — June 8, 2016 @ 3:46 am

  17. Both 2 and 3:

    The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.

    That one’s been demonstrated pretty conclusively over the last hundred years. Human society is too complicated for any particular clever-clogs to come up with a correct unifying theory of it, and the incorrect ones are lethal.

    There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values.

    Marx accurately described capitalism, and fortunately no society’s been mad enough to try it. We aren’t so much mitigating capitalism’s flaws as running a capitalism/socialism hybrid, with the proportions varying according to local taste. NZ’s taste has gotten worse over the last 30 years.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — June 8, 2016 @ 7:38 am

  18. Yet, as you point out, as a totalising body of thought Marxism was put to use in various separate political circumstances. I think the legacy of Marxism is more to do with the way in which it was used by different nationalisms or sectarianisms. The danger in leaving the analysis there is that it only resolves fragmented, separated tribes – trade and technology means perhaps has already ‘redistributed’ that resolution globally.

    Comment by MDZW — June 8, 2016 @ 9:00 am

  19. “But there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why.”

    There’s no modern central unifying theory of the physical universe, either. Just two totally incompatible ones that work at different scales, and can’t describe things you can see through a modest telescope. We shouldn’t expect politics to be more advanced than physics.

    Comment by Gareth Wilson — June 8, 2016 @ 9:05 am

  20. By the way, Gareth, are you an esteemed public servant living in Wellington?

    (Absolutely no obligation to respond of course)

    Comment by Antoine — June 8, 2016 @ 9:41 am

  21. No, to all three.

    Comment by Gareth Wilson — June 8, 2016 @ 9:59 am

  22. Never mind then. I suppose it’s a common name

    Comment by Antoine — June 8, 2016 @ 10:08 am

  23. “NZ’s taste has gotten worse over the last 30 years.”
    Indeed, we (or at least our, err, betters) have developed a taste for crony capitalism, aka corporate welfare, aka corruption.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 8, 2016 @ 12:28 pm

  24. Maybe I’m blinded by the smoke and mirrors of critical theory (which is actually still doing an awful lot better than Danyl seems to suppose, even at Vic), but I think the second position listed above has to be taken seriously. I’m alarmed by political thinkers who want a political theory to look like a scientific theory (or at least a certain type of scientific theory): a tautologous theoretical system that can explain away everything we observe in the world in its own terms and tell us exactly what we should do to achieve a desirable outcome. For all its faults and its impenetrable jargon, critical theory has at least tended to be tolerant of complexity and ambiguity, and therefore sceptical of ideological systems that claim to explain everything for us. With all respect to Uncle Karl, “totalising systems” are generally not good politics; they’re not even good science or good religion. They’re more like “a cross between a hoax and a cult,” and unlike critical theory they frequently wind up with a substantial body-count. I’m not without sympathy for the predicament of the left in liberal democracies, but nostalgia for the certainties of Marxism is misplaced. Marxism was a product of its age and its intellectual climate; in an era less rigorously systematising and more pluralistic (or, if you prefer, more atomised and less socially cohesive) we may need just to accept that there are lots of different positions from which to criticise contemporary capitalism – from the old left, from the old Tories, from the Christians and the Islamists, from environmentalists and feminists – and that they all may be useful (even if they are not all idiots).

    Speaking of ideological diversity, doesn’t reading Figes on the Russian Revolution and then Deutscher on Trotsky give you vertigo? It’s hard to think of two historians who are further apart ideologically in their interpretation of the Revolution and its consequences.

    Comment by Higgs Boatswain — June 8, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

  25. doesn’t reading Figes on the Russian Revolution and then Deutscher on Trotsky give you vertigo?…

    Hegelian dialectic in action!

    Comment by Gregor W — June 8, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

  26. NZ’s taste has gotten worse over the last 30 years.

    Strangely high regard Sir Rob Muldoon’s legacy is afforded nowadays, can’t remember his government being much respected at the time.

    Probably in 30 years your contemporary will be pointing out how marvellous the twenty teens were under the government of Sir John Key.

    Comment by unaha-closp — June 8, 2016 @ 2:49 pm

  27. It’s unlikely to provide a comprehensive ideology, but I think there’s a lot of interesting, very influential and potentially useful work been done in development economics particularly Amartya Sen’s ideas of ‘Development as freedom’. I think a lot of his ideas around freedom, the individual and empowerment from a definitely left wing perspective could be made applicable to post industrial societies. He’s heavily influenced by Adam Smith, but reaches very different conclusions to usually libertarian takes of the ADI.

    Sadly, the left seems keener to just reheat bits of stale Marx or even worse disappear down the doomed cul de sac of a regressive communitarian identity politics ( as a privileged, cis, white male I would say that wouldn’t I) .

    Comment by harvardreferences — June 8, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

  28. This is on my reading list once I’ve finished The Stack (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/stack), https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1784780960/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1 Apparently it’s an attempt to articulate some kind of world with automation and UBI and freedom and such.

    Comment by chris — June 8, 2016 @ 11:06 pm

  29. Off topic, I just can’t understand how people can simultaneously think of the future as
    (i) a nasty resource-depleted runaway-greenhouse dystopia, and
    (ii) an automated UBI utopia where robots do everything and no one has to work.

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — June 8, 2016 @ 11:09 pm

  30. Maybe I’m blinded by the smoke and mirrors of critical theory (which is actually still doing an awful lot better than Danyl seems to suppose, even at Vic), but I think the second position listed above has to be taken seriously. I’m alarmed by political thinkers who want a political theory to look like a scientific theory (or at least a certain type of scientific theory): a tautologous theoretical system that can explain away everything we observe in the world in its own terms and tell us exactly what we should do to achieve a desirable outcome. For all its faults and its impenetrable jargon, critical theory has at least tended to be tolerant of complexity and ambiguity, and therefore sceptical of ideological systems that claim to explain everything for us.

    Scientists don’t think that their theories ‘explain away’ reality; everyone understands that they’re a model, and that the model approximates reality but is flawed and needs to be refined or maybe replaced. But the models (general relativity, natural selection) are demonstrably awesomely powerful ways to identify and solve problems.

    And when ‘the right’, or the capitalists or whoever look to their intellectuals they have a model or series of models that explains how society and the economy should work: rational markets, shareholder value, maximising individual freedom etc. But when ‘the left’ looks to our own academic intellectuals what we mostly get is nihilism and gibberish about how reality is performatitive and the signifier dominates the signified.

    Comment by danylmc — June 9, 2016 @ 6:19 am

  31. Those are primarily economic ideas. Are you looking for some left wing economists who arent Marx or Piketty?

    If so, Im sure that there are people here who could refer you to some good reads. But would it satisfy you? Economic theories will never have the predictive power achieved in the physical sciences…

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — June 9, 2016 @ 7:09 am

  32. @Danyl: You’re judging left wing intellectuals very harshly, and right wing intellectuals very leniently. Or rather, you seem to be taking a relatively narrow slice of neo-liberal intellectuals (who, as Antoine says, are really more economists than anything else) as representative of right wing intellectual thought in a way that’s probably quite flattering to right wing thought as a whole, at least by your criteria. What about the quasi-mystic conservative intellectualism of people like G.K. Chesterton or Robert Scruton?

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 9, 2016 @ 7:41 am

  33. Or the New Testament

    Comment by Antoine — June 9, 2016 @ 8:14 am

  34. “And when ‘the right’, or the capitalists or whoever look to their intellectuals they have a model or series of models that explains how society and the economy should work: rational markets, shareholder value, maximising individual freedom etc”

    Yep, and have the same mix of humility and hubris about these as scientists, with most acknowledging their flaws and need for refinement while recognising their utility in analysing the world and developing policy (which is also flawed and inevitably needs refining.

    “You’re judging left wing intellectuals very harshly, and right wing intellectuals very leniently.”

    Well, probably because the performance of left wing intellectuals, especially in an NZ context, over the last 30 years has been pretty mediocre. At the beginning of Labour’s reforms they were bombastic and over confident in their ability to defeat the infidel and since then their contributions to social and economic thought have been unsophisticated and overblown. When the nation’s leading left wing intellectuals are Martyn Bradbury and Jane Kelsey neither of whom seem to be accurate about anything, is it any wonder?

    Comment by Tinakori — June 10, 2016 @ 8:35 am

  35. Jane Kelsey’s actually been given $600,000 of public money to develop exactly what the original post was complaining we don’t have.

    Comment by Gareth Wilson — June 10, 2016 @ 10:05 am

  36. You’re judging left wing intellectuals very harshly, and right wing intellectuals very leniently.

    I’m judging by results. It’s not just a New Zealand problem. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, ever since I read Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’, which argues that we HAVE to get rid of capitalism to SAVE THE WORLD but has no idea what we should replace it with.

    Comment by danylmc — June 10, 2016 @ 10:08 am

  37. “There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint)”

    Part of the problem is that they don’t appear to acknowledge – as you seem to do – the role of capitalism or more precisely markets in generating cooperation that has resulted in removing so much of the world’s population from poverty in the last 200 years. Unless you start from here you are not going to be very good in creating an alternative that does not mean a regression to command and control and a totalitarian world.

    Comment by Tinakori — June 10, 2016 @ 10:34 am

  38. Left wingers without any answers are simply wreakers. It used to be about rights, for everyone. But SJWs these days seem to be all about denying the rights of others and getting a kick out of it. I don’t expect many to watch this video, but if you do, you’ll see how the left are viewed by those on the right (albeit, some of those on the right may be Jesus freaks). It’s only 8 minutes of your time, and it may give you a laugh. (WARNING, some people may be triggered by the content.)

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 10, 2016 @ 10:37 am

  39. Liberation theology is a kind of coherent left wing ideology / agenda. Of course, the god-botherer stuff is problematic, and it has some socially conservative ideas.

    Comment by RJL — June 10, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

  40. @danyl: What are the results of right wing intellectualism that are so impressive?

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 10, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

  41. @danyl: I mean, I see at least three distinct critcisms of left wing intellectual ideology coming from you . that it’s ‘gibberish’ and insufficiently practical, like the critical theorists; that it’s all deconstructive and not constructive, like Klein; and that it’s unsuccessful because capitalism and nationalism remain dominant.

    I think the first two criticisms apply to right wing intellectual ideology as a whole – not to every right wing thinker, but then, you can’t proxy Naomi Klein for the left in general, either. The last one doesn’t, but I don’t think the dominance of either right wing economic or social ideology is down to its intellectual vigour – I think they come from capitalist and nationalist forces having lots of real-world power to enforce their dominance which exists independent of its intellectual force. Nationalism is a famously ideologically vapid concept, and yet it dominates, if anything, even moreso than capitalism.

    So you can then say “well what good is it if it can’t achieve anything”, but that’s very binary – it’s essentially saying any intellectualism that isn’t dominant right now is impractical and therefore worthless. If you’d used that argument 50 years ago you’d be telling us that left wing ideology was incredibly great, because whatever its flaws communist governments covered 40% of the world’s population and were steadily increasing.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 10, 2016 @ 4:53 pm

  42. Not that I’m arguing capitalism and nationalism are going to have a reverse like the Soviet-style governments did – although they might. I’m just saying this “What have you done for me in real life” approach to intellectual currents is very limited.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 10, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

  43. “because capitalism and nationalism remain dominant.”

    Anyone interested in a left-wing case for Brexit?
    https://heatst.com/uk/kate-hoey-the-left-wing-case-for-brexit/

    (I reckon she’s wrong early on with her claim “[Remain] Propaganda by the big capitalist interests – the IMF, the OECD, the US President, the World Bank – threatens economic disaster.” These people are CRONY capitalists, supporters of mercantilism and big business, not true (or grass-roots!) capitalism.)

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 11, 2016 @ 10:42 am

  44. “39.Liberation theology is a kind of coherent left wing ideology / agenda.” Comment by RJL — June 10, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

    Liberation from what? A change from capitalism to communism/socialism isn’t Liberation, it is simply a tighter form of dictatorship. Only anarchy is true Liberation. And who wants to live like Mogadishu?
    As is often pointed out when “socialists” point to the Scandinavian countries to “prove” socialism: these countries aren’t socialist, they are capitalist countries with strong social programmes. Only capitalism provides something to be taxed in order to fund our collective needs.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 11, 2016 @ 10:47 am

  45. I explored this puzzle, Danyl, back in 1971. The global youth revolution was still fizzing at the time, but socialism was devoid of content, so it became obvious that both establishment parties were the problem. I decided that the solution was to reject both the political left and the political right.

    Re “there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why” – yes, this does indeed remain the situation today. You’d think 45 years of continual failure would be a wake-up call for the left, eh? Perhaps leftists are a peculiar subspecies of the human race that are unable to learn from experience?

    “Alternatively: There is and I’m oblivious to it”. There’s not, and the reason why is that leftist pathology induces an oppositionist stance in relation to the powers that be. Not a problem for those able to also co-create a positive alternative. Leftists, however, are averse to being that positive, and even more averse to doing the intellectual work required. Why work together for the common good when you can spend all your life wallowing in sectarianism?

    “The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.” You bet! State control is an enduring reality for us, even if moderated by escalating personal freedoms. The disciples of Marx sought to exalt the former and eliminate the latter. The ongoing devolution of state power seems inevitable. Time is proving the little-known theory of anarchism to be more in tune with human nature.

    “There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint).” Admirable pragmatism, flawed solely by ignorance. Workable alternatives have been proliferating globally. Best known is Mondragon. When alternative-minded folk were inspired by them in the ’70s the left failed to catch on or deliberately chose to reject the clever option. Still looks like leftist politicians prefer to make political careers for themselves as lapdogs of the capitalists. Roger Douglas etc, Clinton & Blair…

    Still, we await the dysfunction of the magic money machine. Imaginary money has been successful in stabilising the global house of cards for 8 years but even establishment cassandras keep warning that the reckoning is nigh. Mainstreamers won’t freak out unless there is a crash-precipitated collapse, which is the point at which positive alternatives will be sought by all & sundry.

    “To paraphrase Keynes, the failures of capitalism are not moral (or philosophical) but rather a series of separate technical challenges to be solved”. Hmm, both really. The resilience of capitalism derives primarily from market forces and the lack of support for a systemic competing alternative. It is immoral for the owner/operators of the system to exploit the rest of us. However, they would argue that we allow it; they use democracy to provide a credible mandate. The ongoing collusion of the left validates their view.

    “Any thoughts?”

    Well, as a centrist I would welcome the left finally getting its act together and exercising discipline in creative collaborative endeavour. But they still haven’t told us why the Occupy movement failed. Clue: centrists are never impressed by the spectacle of opposition alone – they say “yeah, but then what?” and wait for the positive alternative (that never shows up). I’d be surprised if the 99% were to continue to play the part of the helpless, hopeless victim. In the early ’80s the profit share as employee bonus seemed to provide the right incentive to shift employee identity from wage-slave to stakeholder. Too bad everyone turned out to be too thick to adopt that strategy.

    Lateral-thinking is still the missing catalyst in the political arena. That’s because our 19th century democracy is a lowest-common-denominator design: the thickest portion of the electorate dictates the outcome. We have to finesse the situation. Sure it’s a strait-jacket on the body politic, but I think there’s enough wiggle room that we can get free. Just need enough people brainstorming solutions to the problem. Forget about the left – they’re fixated on protest still. Incapable of making a constructive contribution. Whining, bitching & moaning in the streets will never shift the political center. Only swing-voters produce changes of government, and you have to present them with a feasible alternative to shift them sideways.

    Einstein’s famous definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing while expecting a different result. The left’s surrender to capitalism was unnecessary because all they actually needed to do in the ’80s was admit that socialism was mere idealism and devise something better. Learn from market forces: the incentive structures induce individual choices and drive group behaviour. You want different choices & better behaviour? Change the incentives…

    Comment by Dennis Frank — June 13, 2016 @ 9:50 pm

  46. “Change the incentives…”
    Still thinking like a totalitarian, though, aren’t you? The natural order of things is for individuals to better themselves. Which is why capitalism works: it is the best system for this. We have to accept that we can’t get equal outcomes, but we can support equal opportunity through a level of universal access to education.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 14, 2016 @ 10:37 am

  47. Tempted to respond `takes one to know one’, CF, but I’ll let the opportunity slide on by… : )

    Statism is a dead duck, headed for Trotsky’s “dustbin of history”. Devolution is where we are heading – I see the Texans have decided to see if they can beat the Scots to independence. Re education, Paul Simon spoke for my generation in ’73 when he hit number one with the song that started “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all”.

    I have a younger brother so right-wing he’s long dismissed ACT as a joke, and a couple of years ago he told me that, riding atop the Ak bubble mortgage-free in my own home, I oughta admit to having morphed into a capitalist. Much merit in that view. Too bad I lack the requisite tiny brain, moral corruption, lack of conscience & public-spiritedness, etc.

    My early intense antipathy to communism delayed till ’85 my research of the Bolshevik coup. Turns out Trotsky is the true hero (albeit with Shakespearean character flaws). I commend Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Also there’s a good comparative account: the Socialist Revolutionary Sukhanov wrote a seven-volume memoir of the Russian Revolution of 1917 published under that title in 1922 in the Soviet Union, available in condensed version from the Ak public library. The yank journalist John Reed was there at the time, and Ten Days that Shook the World is an excellent preliminary overview.

    The big revelation for me was the method Stalin used to sideline all those above him and take control. Trotsky explains that since Stalin was regarded by the other revolutionary leaders as the most innocuous and least-accomplished of the inner circle, he could take the notes at their meetings. As general secretary, Stalin sussed that he controlled the information flow of the party. Don’t like a group decision? Subtly rewrite or reframe it in the document. Think one of the leading primadonnas is getting too influential? Make sure that the problem individual isn’t notified when the inner circle meets to decide an important issue. Makes them seem irresponsible when they fail to show. If they protest later that they weren’t informed of the meeting, explain that notification was sent to all, and they must have misplaced it amongst the papers on their desk, or forgotten about it. Then they seem incompetent. Worked a treat…

    Comment by Dennis Frank — June 14, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

  48. “I oughta admit to having morphed into a capitalist… Too bad I lack the requisite tiny brain, moral corruption, lack of conscience & public-spiritedness, etc.” What mean things to say about the folks who run your local vegan café.

    Being a homeowner doesn’t make you a capitalist. Is that the standard of the Standard’s understanding of how things work, eh?

    “Tempted to respond `takes one to know one’” No, just like spotting ducks, you just need to know how one walks, talks, its habitat, etc. So I read what you write and look at your website. Lots of anti-capitalist stuff which totally misses the point that: in a vacuum, a form of capitalism will rise. It doesn’t even require money. No one will receive a wage or state benefit if society crashes. Other than growing it yourself, the only way to put food on the table will be to provide goods or services that someone else wants. Then you will exchange. Hippies call this barter, but it really is… capitalism.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 20, 2016 @ 8:40 am

  49. Absolutely. The historical roots of capitalism lie in trading, which arose from mutual-benefit exchanges. Many writers also point to a different source: agriculture, and the storing of surplus wealth. Thus walls appear around the first towns 10 millennia back, dominance hierarchies rapidly escalate, rulers & merchants can afford to hire more guards etc. Businesses are wealth-generating systems. The left keep refusing to devise a better way, despite that Mondragon provided the model long ago.

    My website was created post-gfc due to the likely global system crash that the imaginary money produced by quantitative easing has been able to prevent so far. So my focus was on ways to survive the dark side of capitalism. Doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge the up side of the system. I read those famous Ayn Rand novels in ’76, realised the politics of envy was a substantial achilles heel in leftist thought…

    Comment by Dennis Frank — June 20, 2016 @ 9:37 am


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