I was reminded of this great little story by an email request, since I mention it in an article in Philosophers for Change. Engels used it in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist system is:

Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests?

MECW 4: 246-47.

Loathe as I am to join the flood of material on Mandela after his recent death, it seems as though everyone wants a piece (and is able to get it) from Mandela. It is oddly reminiscent of the death of Tolstoy a little over 100 years ago. Conservatives, aristocrats, church leaders, liberals, anarchists, and socialists all sought to claim him as one of their own. So also with Mandela. In that light, I can’t help approving of this great piece by Tom Bramble in Red Flag (sent by CP). It begins:

The death of Nelson Mandela closes the life of a heroic resistance figure who devoted his very being to the struggle against apartheid even though this came at immense personal cost. Mandela was, also, however, the saviour of South African capitalism, which condemned so many of his countrymen and women to continuing terrible hardship even after the destruction of the apartheid regime. His broad popularity in South Africa, ranging from the pauper to the plutocrat, cannot be understood without comprehension of both these facts. (more here).

Following on from my earlier post on social democracy as the natural partner of the free market, I read with interest Guy Rundle’s recent piece in the Arena magazine (also found here). Interesting argument: Kevin Rudd had an emancipatory vision of Australia that owed much to his experience in Sweden and China (as if the two are similar) that was simply to big for the Australian Labor Party, if not the country. While in government, the party might have enacted pieces of that vision, but they couldn’t communicate the vision that lay behind it. These include the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, and the education reform. The catch is that Tony Abbott basically agreed to all these main points in order to become prime minister, thereby being dragged leftward and betraying everything that had inspired him to enter politics.

As usual, Rundle makes you think. But the argument begins to become unstuck when he suggests Rudd was more like Lenin and Mao than any traditional Labor leader. This makes the basic mistake of assuming that communism and social democracy in our day are of the same ilk. As a colleague from Nanjing asked me recently, ‘why do western commentators make the mistake of equating social democracy and communism?’ But Rundle’s argument really falls to pieces when he closes by adopting the old line that Labor had betrayed its vision by yoking its reforms to ‘unargued economic growth’. That is, the supposed vision of emancipation and a better society was tied in with an alienating and impersonal vision.

Gonski [the education reform] was oriented to human flourishing, but also to integrating education into productivity. The NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] was designed to alleviate the horror of many disabled people’s lives, but also to provide passages back to work. The NBN [National Broadband Network], it was hoped, would open huge new possibilities for difference and new ideas, but would also yoke Australia more tightly into an online world dominated by capital, and, as we now know, monitored by the NSA. Thus, at its heart, there was much that was contradictory with the ALP’s originating social vision (p. 19).

This simply misses the point that social democracy has always geared its reforms to the flourishing of capitalism. Under their guidance, education reforms ensure greater job participation; welfare like the disability scheme is designed make people producers and consumers for longer; technological advance provides yet another angle for market expansion and integration. These are not anomalies but very much part of the social democratic vision.

A new post on Arminianism and Calvinism (challenging Weber’s dodgy thesis) is up at the Political Theology blog. If you accept Weber’s premises (which I do not), then it was Arminianism, not Calvinism, that provided the enabling ethic of capitalism. Already a debate is on, with none less than the manager of the blog, Brad Littlejohn.

Who said capitalism is good for you? According to a recent study (passed onto me by Christina), the effect of rapid privatization and the ‘shock therapy’ of imposing capitalism on Eastern Europe in the 1990s led to a spike in the number of deaths – one million working-age men, and about 3 million in all.

The reasons:

a. 56 percent unemployment.

b. removal of extensive health and social care.

c. destruction of social networks (at its most basic level, this was the assumption that all workers are together).

In other words, had capitalism not been imposed, these people would not have died.

The source of these statistics is that dreadfully left-wing journal known as The Lancet, and the study was written by scholars from the havens of communist agitation, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

So we can add another 3 million to the death toll directly attributable to capitalism, which stands at over 1.5 billion.

To recap the more significant items in that figure:

100 million in India, with the instigation of the ‘democratic capitalist experiment’ from 1947 to 1979, with tens of millions more after that date
17 million killed by the British Raj in India
18 million slaves killed during the Atlantic slave trade
5-10 million native peoples during the invasion of the Americas
8 million by King Leopold’s forces in the Congo
10 million in the Nazi slaughter of Jews, gypsies, communist and gays
15 million slaughtered in the First World War’s ‘reordering’
55 million killed in the invasion of Europe by Hitler and then the Second World War (of which 8 million Russian soldiers and 16 million communists killed behind the lines after the invasion of the USSR)
3 million killed by the US led forces in Korea
3.5 million killed by the USA in Vietnam
1 million killed in the US bombing of Cambodia and Laos
1 million slaughtered in Indonesia by proxy by Suharto (helped by the CIA and MI6)
1 million slaughtered by pro-US dictators throughout Latin America
1.3 million killed in sanctions on Iraq
1 million killed in current invasion of Iraq
… and on and on.

Is it time to recover Georg Lukács’s observation?

A bad communism is always better than good capitalism.

Capitalism normalises, destroys, kills …

as some of the areas of the old east Berlin are turned into grungily trendy places for 40-something white couples with big teeth, worn faces, tractor strollers and a pampered well-dressed brat or two, the production of which is their great contribution to the human race.