Pieria: Unlearning the History of Capitalism

I have a new, long overdue post on Pieria, following up on the argument over capitalism and communism which was recently reignited by Jesse Myerson:

Imagine if every time somebody expressed support for capitalism, they were immediately screamed down with death tolls from Colonial India, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the worst of US foreign policy. Those who argued against them, rather than engaging any of their arguments directly, informed them that they were “psychotic“, heartless apologists for some of the worst crimes in history, then proceeded to catalogue these crimes as if that settled the debate. Perhaps the incredulous anti-capitalists would go so far as to tell the capitalist that they were insulting the victims of these crimes, and even that if they ever met those victims, they’d probably get beaten up or something. Sound stupid? Well, this is where debates about communism lie today.

…it is entirely possible for somebody to support communism or socialism as an idea but not support specific governments or movements that carry its banner. Which supporter of capitalism supports every (or any) capitalist politician, country, business leader, political party or other major capitalist institution? Presumably none, and for good reason: there are significant differences within movements and systems as well as between them; there are bad policies or mistakes; there are harsh historical circumstances from which we should be careful of drawing general inferences about a system. Endorsing an idea doesn’t mean you endorse any interpretation of it, or everything done in its name, under any circumstance. People understand this when they’re talking about capitalism: we have social democracy, both left and right neoliberalism, anarcho-capitalism, minarchist libertarianism, European union-business alliance capitalism, and many more specific iterations of these. Yet when Myerson defended communism in general, he was immediately accused of arguing the USSR was a “utopia”, despite doing nothing of the sort.

As you might expect, I go on to discuss the history of capitalism – in particular US foreign policy – and respond briefly to Mark Harrison on the history of communism. (FWIW, I also responded to him at the time in the comments, saying much the same thing and also highlighting some of the other points he made, most of which I considered pretty weak, such as responding to the charge that McCarthyism was ridiculous by saying “no. McCarthyism was ridiculous”).

The further I get into this debate, the further I realise how specious the whole obsession with Stalin and Mao actually is, and also how well obfuscated the history of our own countries is. Sadly, since Myerson’s critics are the kind of people who actually think the Vietnam War should have continued, I doubt there’ll be much progress with this debate any time soon. Still, it’s good to have a narrative that is neither Stalinist nor ‘true communism’, as both of those require a lot of hand waving and have resulted in the self-destructive left we see today. The historical context argument allows us to acknowledge the obvious failings of existing communist regimes, but still endorse the ideas behind socialism and understand how they could work under different circumstances. I sincerely hope that this – rather than accusations of Stalin apologetics – is what people will take away from the piece.


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  1. #1 by Steve on March 19, 2014 - 12:56 am

    It just so happens I was just having a conversation with an old friend who has gotten into the habit of mouthing right wing platitudes. Communism is not the problem. Ignorance and indolence are the problem.

    Relying upon the government is a mistake but acting like they have no role or thinking that a popular revolution can displace them, as seems to be happening in the Ukraine, is only possible where the conditions are so bad that folks are willing to act. Don’t count on it here during “March Madness”, the basketball tournament.

    The alternative to the government is the corporate oligopoly. Do you think they will give us a better deal? Not as long as they can buy the government at bargain rates. If you are talking about Stalinism, that is not Communism. Maoism? Another variant. Castro’s, a personalized version of it under the American gun the whole time. Latin America is breaking free of more than a century of total US domination and it is difficult. The elites are in place and not anxious to give up their privileges, which result in the misery of millions of poor people who they see as servants if not slaves. Castro helped to inspire liberation movements in every country, some fairly successful. Was that a bad thing to happen? Was the Capitalism and mafiosas that preceded it a better way of life for the people?

    Current 1% inflation does not represent the debasement of the currency. Where are the facts? Yes, staples are more expensive and more so when the California drought clocks in, but this is not hyperinflation. They are more worried about deflation. Everybody broke and lots for sale. No, the government is not the answer, more engagement by lots of people might help. Read my blog pieces on EVWorld. I talk about these issues in my own way.

  2. #2 by Steve on March 19, 2014 - 1:08 am

    Part of my comment was deleted. I closed telling you I thought your post raises important points that deserve more attention.

    • #3 by Unlearningecon on March 19, 2014 - 12:31 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I agree completely with your assessment of existing socialism and your prescriptions. Ultimately, the goal should be local populations managing their own affairs: economic, political or whatever else. Some areas of Latin America seem to be moving toward this. We can call it ‘communism’ or not – it makes little difference.

      PS That’s bizarre about your comment, as I didn’t edit it and rarely do so. Nor can I see anything in my spam filter.

      • #4 by Steve on March 19, 2014 - 5:33 pm

        Something on my end cut off the the last few lines of my first comment. You got the important parts.

        Economics todays dictates many of our choices. The economists seem to analyze problems much the same way a corporation analyzes a problem — several levels removed from the individual. I think Marx had the right idea about this. Economics is coercion. I wonder what you think about this.

        You seem to have the right idea. You have been analyzing what these other people have been writing about for a while now. I guess at this point in your studies you come up with your own theories and see what you can add. I write about it in the context of American ground transportation. Did you have a chance to look at my posts? Disregard the titles of my posts. I did not choose many of these. People tell me the titles do not relate to the underlying subjects.

        I tell people that Marx was an investigative reporter. He went places to observe conditions and then he wrote about what he saw. You probably know why he ended up in this role. This might be why what he wrote was more credible than what we read from the economists that are several levels removed from the individual and also why he was able to coordinate local engagement even about events taking place in other parts of the world. Do you think we would be better off if the economists today used a similar methodology?

        I don’t think too much about these words that end with “ism” for the reason that putting oneself into one category or another can be too limiting and in worse cases, coercive. Marx talked about progression through stages. I pay attention to the words he used to describe various events. Revolution, Counter-Revolution. You get the idea. We might be witnessing similar activities around the world today. Will we find the right level of political engagement? How?

      • #5 by Unlearningecon on March 26, 2014 - 7:23 pm

        It’s absolutely true that economists are far too removed from the problems they study. I recall that Robert Shiller (or someone) recently commented that most economists shy away from data, preferring to comment on policy. And there’s is this excellent quote from Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef:

        …across from me, a guy was standing in the mud – not in the slum, in the mud. He was a short guy … thin, hungry, jobless, five kids, a wife and a grandmother. And I was the fine economist from Berkeley. As we looked at each other, I suddenly realized that I had nothing coherent to say to that man in those circumstances, that my whole language as an economist was absolutely useless. Should I tell him that he should be happy because the GDP had grown five percent or something? Everything felt absurd. Economists study and analyze poverty in their nice offices, they have all the statistics, they make all the models and are convinced they know everything. But they don’t understand poverty.

        I do agree in abstract about isms but I am also one of the worst culprits for using them – both with myself and my adversaries. I find it a convenient way to organise and understand political views, as long as you’re careful not to make too many generalisations. Obviously, using an ‘ism’ as a self-evident swear word, the way many use communism and even Keynesianism, is just a lazy way to avoid actual debate.

        Will we find the right level of political engagement? How?

        I am not an authority on this, but here’s my 2c: people don’t care about politics and for good reason. The best way to engage with people is a no nonsense dismissal of the current system and everyone involved in it. People will generally agree with you on that; what they won’t bother about is if you start waxing lyrical about inequality, greed and the environment. These things are definitely important, but the standard ‘earnest progressive’ approach is just white noise now and the media have successfully managed to paint everyone who does it as vegan hippies – just look at occupy. Basically, I just think the left need to get their act together and replace the traditional whinging with a more aggressive approach.

        PS I don’t know to which blog posts you are referring. I have not seen you provide any links? Were they cut off or something?

  3. #6 by Arkadi on March 20, 2014 - 10:59 am

    I know this is random, but what’s your opinion of capital as power? You mentioned it in your previous post ( I think ). Readable?

    • #7 by Unlearningecon on March 26, 2014 - 7:10 pm

      I’ve been reading a blogging slowly recently (workload, life etc.) but so far I’m really enjoying it. Their notion of capital as power grows more and more intuitive every time I read it, and they provide some good statistics and historical context to back up their arguments. Definitely recommended (if you send the pdf to an eBook, it’s readable, although the graphs are gone).

  4. #8 by Grey Paper on March 26, 2014 - 8:51 pm

    Cheers for that. The links on your blog never disappoint.

  5. #9 by Steve on April 6, 2014 - 12:27 am

    Time is short at the moment. I will leave a more thoughtful reply in a few days.

    For now, I have a few questions in response to your comment. What forces keep us from doing what is in our best interest? The institutions that are in place do enable us to act in our own best interest. Notice I use unable and not unwilling. I think people always want to do what is in their own best interest. I have a few posts that will better convey my own thoughts.

    I will put a list together for you. I appreciate your interest. I have been writing for about 6 months. I get tons of view, but hardly any comments. Almost none. I would appreciate feedback and the chance to further discuss my posts.

    Another question I have for you relates to this portion of your comment:
    “Basically, I just think the left need to get their act together and replace the traditional whinging with a more aggressive approach. ” What type of response do you recommend? Are you referring to the left as the “other?” Isn’t the left inclusive? Isn’t the term left meant to include you and me? I know what the right means. That means acting for yourself. I know I do not fit in that category. I guess left and right create the same problems as “ism” words. We divide everything in the least real way. In the end we are left standing outside, we know we belong with the left, but we don’t really feel like we can stand beside the left because it too seems to take a an approach contrary to what we really believe. I guess I am pushing you to the next level, from description to prescription.

    • #10 by Unlearningecon on April 13, 2014 - 12:39 pm

      Yes, the left is inclusive – my somewhat disparaging comments are made from the perspective of a self-critical insider, rather than an outside critic.

      I think existing institutions enable us to do “what is in our best interest” through certain channels: namely, consumption. Other forms of effecting change (protest, unionisation etc.) have become quite outdated and ineffective – just look at OWS. Sadly, I do not have any prescriptions because I have no experience in organisation and so do not have any concrete thoughts.

      • #11 by Steve on April 15, 2014 - 8:35 pm

        I thought so.

        You might not be giving yourself enough credit. You are not alone. There is a large healing process needed for the whole planet, to get off of this ultra-low opinion of ourselves and our capacities and begin to recognize the amazing amount of talent floating around, rootless and not functional. It is all about adjusting people’s self-worth. If you lower people’s self-worth, the masses will use consumption as a replacement for the natural pride that comes from contributing and knowing, something which we have lost.

        If there were any great organizers or organizations there would be someplace to go but there are not any that come immediately to mind. OWS correctly determined that structure is the enemy of access and participation, that “spokespeople” soon become celebs and incapable of expressing the feeling of the movement’s own 99%. Finding a way to communicate and exert influence without these structures, without hierarchies, is essential but very hard to do. There are always going to be insecure individuals, who act out and disrupt no matter how productive the work taking place is. It takes real-world experience in channeling all that energy into positive directions, to allow for diversity but not endless, time-wasting and energy-draining contention with no real results. Think that’s easy when we’ve had hardly any exposure to, or training in these vital skills? Only participatory democracy can work; representative democracy is an oxymoron of the first order. Lead is toxic and so are Leaders.

        I think participatory democracy is something Marx understood quite well. Too few focus attention on how he was directly involved in organizing groups of workers to effect political change in places around the world at a time when the idea of representative government first came to life. It helped that he studied the issues so extensively, the way you have done, because that knowledge gave him the ability to organize targeted protests that had hugely significant impacts on events of global and historical significance. Too few know that Marx organized worker protests in England at the time of the US Civil War, which had the effect of ensuring that England did not adopt a position that favored the South. I have been reading articles in the Guardian, which I distributed in New York for many years, about a group of students in England who are challenging the economics curriculum at various universities there. You may be interested in what these guys are doing.

        Did you have a chance to read my posts? My most recent post from this week includes a link to the Snell Report. The post is called “Who Killed the Streetcar? The ‘Snell Report'” and you can access using this link http://evworld.com/blogs.cfm?blogid=1243

      • #12 by Unlearningecon on April 17, 2014 - 5:53 pm

        That’s very interesting about Marx – I’ve actually just come across some of the lesser known books he wrote on issues of worker democracy and the events of his time, such as the Paris Commune, and am looking forward to seeing his more practical ideas.

        I missed your comment linking to your blog posts, and have read some. While I’m not knowledgeable on the history of the automobile, it’s both interesting and plausible that auto-companies lobbied and colluded to make the use of private transportation more widespread. I also agree with you about conspiracies in general (though again I’m weak on the specifics such as MLK). ‘Conspiracy’ is too often a lazy word that people who don’t want to accept grim realities (or just want to defend the powerful) use when it turns out that, surprise surprise, those with money and influence do tend to steer things in their preferred direction!

  6. #13 by Steve on April 6, 2014 - 12:29 am

    That is “the institutions that are in place do NOT enable us to act in our own best interest.” What structural changes could change this situation?

  7. #14 by Steve on April 6, 2014 - 2:38 am

    Okay, I have picked a few posts which I think align with what you are writing about. I talk about these issues in the context of transportation. This is what I have studied for my entire life. I believe you are familiar with these issues because you have taken on Milton Friedman. Let me know what you think about the ones I selected for you.

    I talk about freeloading in the context of transportation, but it is applicable to many issues. Here is an excerpt to that post, which leads up to my comments on transportation. http://evworld.com/blogs.cfm?blogID=1179

    “Nobody likes the person who expects to slide, the mooch, the freeloader. Yet, when the opportunity exists to avoid having to do your part in some burdensome task, especially when you are going to enjoy the benefits of someone else’s efforts regardless of what you do or don’t do, being held accountable for your actions is often the only reason that the right thing gets done. We may not like to admit it but getting away with something carries with it an almost visceral thrill. … We all have a touch of this fever to be sure but there are those who are simply consumed by it. Our task is to keep ourselves from being consumed by them. …
    I think economists fail to realize that people are a complex mix of good intentions and bad impulses, secret-holders working on being real. No two people are exactly alike of course, but we all learn to conform from the earliest days, give into peer pressure like it is nature itself and most of us never develop the ability to seriously resist and so are drawn into the “consensus” which is really just another name for the the void, the opinion-less, infinitely-shapable raw material loved by marketers everywhere. We are so vulnerable to flattery. Who can resist being declared the “winner” in this game without rules… Whether it is deserved or not or even wanted or needed is beyond the question. Nobody wants to be left standing in this game of musical chairs. If the solution becomes a matter of strapping the chair to your backside to guarantee your place in the picture, that seems a rather awkward way to cement a sense of belonging, but that’s how we do it. There is no aspect of our lives that has been subject to more manipulation than transport….”

    You might have an interesting reply to the question I ask in my post: Why Conspiracies Are Almost Always True
    http://evworld.com/blogs.cfm?blogID=1219, I ask: “if something this well-proven can still be considered marginal and off-center, the mad ravings of conspiritologists, how many other widely-regarded “truths” are really just well-maintained myths.”

    There is a fellow I mention in this post you might like to know, William Pepper. His book “An Act of State” provides incontrovertible evidence that the death of Martin Luther King was as the result of a criminal conspiracy. This friendly collaboration included elements of the Memphis Police Department, the FBI, Military Intelligence and the Mafia. It was engineered due to their common worry that the multiracial “Poor People’s March” scheduled for that summer, had the ability to galvanize a true merging of political interests among numerous disparate communities.

    The other fellow who may interest you is Bradford Snell. I think you touch on some of these issues in one of your posts on Milton Friedman, with respect to American railroads. “Until the Snell Report, “American Ground Transport”, was published in 1974, it was the popularly held belief that the public transit systems of the country self-destructed, and were fortunately replaced, by the far superior, private automobile system.” This is a paper worthy of your attention. It is a point by point refutation of everything you state in your Milton Friedman rebuttals. You may like my post Corporate Collusion: The Snell Report http://evworld.com/blogs.cfm?blogID=1205

    Rough Justice
    “Downscaling or de-economization, the retreat from the anti-ethic of over-consumption and materiality and its conversion into humanism and respect for the natural world, is essential to our survival.” And I think you might have something to add to this given your study of economics.

    And these two are some of the others you might find interesting:

    Why We Are Where We Are

    Human Energy and Our Love of Waste

    You can leave a comment or e-mail me at meetme@theautomat.com.