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.

One sign of the instability of a hegemonic position is the need to keep reasserting it, such as ‘eternal capitalism’ in the face of its latest crisis. Since it expresses the core of human nature – self-interest, greed, the desire to acquire – it has and will always be with us. So Michael Onfray:

Is this the end of capitalism? Absolutely not. The key feature of capitalism is that it’s malleable. It has been through antiquity, feudalism, the industrial era, it has worn the guise of fascism and now it’s wedding itself to the ecology cause. After this latest event, it will take on a new form. It is indestructible and works like the Hydra of Lerne, cut off one head and another grows in its place. Is this the end of society’s obsession with money and credit? Not at all.

A nice concealment of the historical emergence of that specific mode of production known as capitalism.

Stalin has not had a great press, although I have suggested once or twice that the man was a little more ambivalent than the standard accounts would have it. So something more to add to the mix. It comes from a book called Towards a New Socialism by W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell.

They argue quite persuasively that the full implementation of a communist economic system happened under Stalin. Through the five year plans beginning in the late 1920s the capitalist mode of extracting surplus value was replaced by a planned economy, in which surplus was controlled and allocated by the planning mechanism.

Under Soviet planning, the division between the necessary and surplus portions of the social product was the result of political decisions. For the most part, goods and labour were physically allocated to enterprises by the planning authorities, who would always ensure that the enterprises had enough money to ‘pay for’ the real goods allocated to them. If an enterprise made monetary ‘losses’, and therefore had to have its money balances topped up with ‘subsidies’, that was no matter. On the other hand, possession of money as such was no guarantee of being able to get hold of real goods. By the same token, the resources going into production of consumer goods were centrally allocated. Suppose the workers won higher ruble wages: by itself this would achieve nothing, since the flow of production of consumer goods was not responsive to the monetary amount of consumer spending. Higher wages would simply mean higher prices or shortages in the shops. The rate of production of a surplus was fixed when the planners allocated resources to investment in heavy industry and to the production of consumer goods respectively (pp. 4-5).

The key to this momentous shift was the old issue of compulsion: how do you encourage workers and peasants to engage in the new system? Under the circumstances of such rapid change and in the face of a sustained threat from international capitalism, that compulsion took the form of carrot and stick. Genuine revolutionary fervour characterised much of the effort, but for those less inclined to engage, forced labour, exile and ‘terror’ were deployed. Crucial to this process was the personality cult of Stalin, who embodied the sheer grit (thereby making up for what he lacked in oratorical skill) of the revolutionary ‘miracle’ required to adopt such a radically new economic system. Stalin was thereby able both to promote a deep sense of ‘participation in a great historic endeavour’, but he was also the ‘stern and utterly ruthless liquidator of any who failed so to participate’. I would add that this combination, along with the deep strength of the communist economic system, enabled the extraordinary recovery during the Second World War and the eventual victory by the USSR over Germany and fascism. Interesting bloke, our Stalin.

One to stir up the romantic Western Marxists full of resentment at successful socialist revolutions in the East:

Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without planned state organisation which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution. We Marxists have always spoken of this, and it is not worth while wasting two seconds talking to people who do not understand even this (anarchists and a good half of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries) (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 334, 1921).

Does make you wonder whether the Chinese have read this stuff …

According to the tired old battle lines, a ‘left’ position is in favour of social welfare, of a system in which the less ‘fortunate’ are supported by the altruism of all. So if you are a lefty, you are supposed to hold to some form of the welfare state, which some deluded people equate with socialism. By contrast, a ‘right’ position (neo-liberal) holds that the state is a hindrance to the smooth working of the market. Therefore, the welfare state, or ‘nanny state’ as they like to call it, should be dismantled, so that the utopia of unconstrained market relations may realise its full potential.

Yet, these battle lines take place on a ground determined by the bourgeois state (the one-party state of liberal democracy), which ensures that we believe we are engaged in real debate, in a real struggle of ideas, but we are actually all playing the same game.

Various arguments have been put forward for the rise and establishment of the welfare state. One argument is that it was a response by capitalism to the growth of communism, a way of appeasing worker demands for medical cover, education, unemployment benefits and so on. Another argument is that the welfare state was the autonomous achievement of working class action in capitalist states. In this scenario, workers sought to reform the system to make life more bearable.

But what if we developed a properly left criticism of the welfare state? It would need to begin with a telling observation by Alain Lipietz; the welfare state ‘ensured that any person who could not earn his or her living could still be a consumer, because he or she could go on having a money income’. For Lipietz and others, the welfare state was a feature of post World-War II ‘Fordism’, a reconstruction and re-regulation of capitalism to ensure continuing and increasing consumption of the products of industry. If you work, we’ll give you occasional pay rises; but if not, we will ensure that the state pays you enough to keep on consuming.

Add to this the fact that the welfare state was initially conceived as operating within a nation-state and was thereby predicated on the fact that most people in the world are excluded from such a state. So you get situations now, in Scandinavia, as Christina points out, where xenophobia is based on the sense that new immigrants are coming to bludge on what is left of the welfare state. That is, the welfare state actually encourages xenophobia and racism. Thus, the populist right-wing position, in which support of the welfare state and xenophobia are part of the party platform, is entirely consistent.

Of course, what was envisaged as the welfare state in the 1950s and what operates now are quite different, and yet the modified welfare state remains a feature of political struggle. Yet the point remains that the welfare state is a product of particular formations of capitalism. That would mean a left position would then entail the dismantling of the welfare state as part of the destruction of capitalism.

With thanks to Christina (Germany), Susan (Bulgaria) and, virtually, Alain (France) for talking some of these things through.