Published on 26 Dec 2014
Narrated by ORSON WELLES (O.W. bonus: voice of Christ)
May 17, 2015
April 26, 2015
I first read the short stories of Giovanni Guareschi when I was about ten years old. Much of the political content flew right over my head, but I enjoyed the interplay of the two main characters, Don Camillo and Peppone, in their never-ending battles in the un-named tiny Italian village somewhere in the Po valley. From the beginning of this post, you can tell that Sarah Hoyt is also a fan:
Years ago on this blog I talked about “Technique of The Coup D’Etat” by Giovanni Guareschi and I typed the beginning in here. I shall copy that. (Assume typos are mine.)
At ten o’clock on Tuesday evening, the village square was swept with wind and rain, but a crowd had been gathered there for three or four hours to listen to the election news coming out of a radio loudspeaker. Suddenly the lights went out and everything was plunged into darkness. Someone went to the control box but came back saying there was nothing to be done. The trouble must be up the line or at the power plant, miles away. People hung around for half an hour or so, and then, as the rain began to come down even harder than before, they scattered to their homes, leaving the village silent and deserted. Peppone shut himself up in the People’s Palace, along with Lungo, Brusco, Straziami, and Gigio, the same leader of the “Red Wing” squad from Molinetto. They sat around uneasily by the light of a candle stump and cursed the power and light monopoly as an enemy of the people, until Smilzo burst in. He had gone to Rocca Verde on his motorcycle to see if anyone had news and now his eyes were popping out of his head and he was waving a sheet of paper.
“The Front has won!” he panted. “Fifty-two seats out of a hundred in the senate and fifty-one in the chamber. The other side is done for. We must get hold of our people and have a celebration. If there’s no light, we can set fire to a couple of haystacks nearby.
“Hurrah!” shouted Peppone. But Gigio grabbed hold of Smilzo’s jacket.
“Keep quiet and stay where you are!” he said grimly. It’s too early for anyone to be told. Let’s take care of our little list.”
“List? What list?” asked Peppone in astonishment.
“The list of reactionaries who are to be executed first thing. Let’s see now…”
Peppone stammered that he had made no such list, but the other only laughed.
“That doesn’t matter. I’ve a very complete one here all ready. Let’s look at it together, and once we’ve decided we can get to work.”
Gigio pulled a sheet of paper with some twenty names on it out of his pocket and laid it on the table.
“Looks to me as if al the reactionary pigs were here,” he said. “I put down the worst of them, and we can attend to the rest later.”
Peppone scanned the names and scratched his head.
“Well, what do you say?” Gigio asked him.
“Generally speaking, we agree,” said Peppone. “But what’s the hurry? We have plenty of time to do things in the proper style.”
Gigio brought his fist down on the table.
“We haven’t a minute to lose, that’s what I say,” he shouted harshly. “This is the time to put our hands on them, before they suspect us. If we wait until tomorrow, they may get wind of something and disappear.”
At this point Brusco came into the discussion.
“You must be crazy,” he said. “You can’t start out to kill people before you think it over.”
“I’m not crazy and you’re a very poor Communist, that’s what you are! These are all reactionary pigs; no one can dispute that, and if you don’t take advantage of this golden opportunity then you’re a traitor to the party!”
Brusco shook his head.
“Don’t you believe it! It’s jackasses that are traitors to the Party! And you’ll be a jackass if you make mistakes and slaughter innocent people.”
Gigio raised a threatening finger.
“It’s better to eliminate ten innocents than to spare one individual who may be dangerous to the cause. Dead men can do the party no harm. You’re a very poor Communist, as I’ve said before. In fact, you never were a good one. You’re as weak as a snowball in hell, I say. You’re just a bourgeois in disguise!”
Brusco grew pale, and Peppone intervened.
“That’s enough,” he said. “Comrade Gigio has the right idea and nobody can deny it. It’s part of the groundwork of Communist philosophy. Communism gives us the goal at which to aim and democratic discussion must be confined to the quickest and surest ways to attain it.”
Giggio nodded his head in satisfaction, while Peppone continued: “Once it’s been decided that these people are or may be dangerous to the cause and therefore we must eliminate them, the next thing is to work out the best method of elimination. Because if by our carelessness, we were to allow a a single reactionary to escape, then we should indeed be traitors to the Party. Is that clear?”
“Absolutely,” the others said in chorus. “You’re dead right.”
“There are six of us,” Peppone went on, “And twenty names on that list, among them the Filotti, who has a whole regiment in his house and a cache of arms in the cellar. If we were to attack these people one by one, at the first shot the rest would run away. We must call our forces together and divide them up into twenty squads, each one equipped to deal with a particular objective.”
“Very good,” said Gigio.
“Good, my foot!” shouted Peppone. “That’s not the half of it! We need a twenty first squad, equipped even better than the rest to hold off the police. And mobile squads to cover the roads and the river. If a fellow rushes into action in the way you proposed, without proper precautions, running the risk of botching it completely, then he’s not a good communist, he’s just a damn fool.”
It was Gigio’s turn to pale now, and he bit his lip in anger, while Peppone proceeded to give orders. Smilzo was to transmit word to the cell leaders in the outlying settlements and these were to call their men together. A green rocket would give the signal to meet in appointed places, where Falchetto, Brusco and Straziami would form the squads and assign the targets. A red rocket would bid them go into action. Smilzo went off on his motorcycle while Lungo, Brusco, Straziami and Gigio discussed the composition of the squads.
“You must do a faultless job,” Peppone told them. “I shall hold you personally responsible for its success. Meanwhile, I’ll see if the police are suspicious and find some way to put them off.
Don Camillo, later waiting in vain for the lights to go on and the radio to resume its mumble, decided to get ready for bed. Suddenly he heard a knock at the door and when he drew it open cautiously, he found Peppone before him.
“Get out of here in a hurry!” Peppone panted. “Pack a bag and go! Put on an ordinary suit of clothes, take your boat and row down the river.”
Don Camillo stared at him with curiosity.
“Comrade Mayor, have you been drinking?”
“Hurry,” said Peppone. “The people’s Front has won and the squads are getting ready. There’s a list of people to be executed and your name is the first one!”
Spoiler alert, though this is not one of the stories that you read for the denouement: by the end of the story, the entire cell except Gigio is crammed in Don Camillo’s closet, as each successive comrade shows up to try to save him and is shoved into the closet as the next one comes along.
Then it is revealed that they didn’t in fact win the election, but more importantly, the entire cell, which had lived in fear of the Stalinist *sshole who pulled book and fervor on them every time and made everyone of them live in terror of being denounced as insufficiently fervent, now knows who the enemy really is. That is, each individual now knows he is not an isolated individual surrounded by good party members who will turn on him, but one in a collection of decent individuals kinda sorta following an ideology but not so far it blunts their humanity and ONE isolated *sshole turning them against each other for the power.
At the end of the story, Peppone finds Gigio proudly waiting to send up the red rocket and kicks him all the way to main street.
Gigio’s power is gone, because he’s revealed to be ONE individual working for himself and only that, and a hateful, little one at that.
If you’d like to know more about Guareschi and his work, you could do worse than to read the entries at The Little Blog of Don Camillo, which unfortunately hasn’t been updated for a few years, but has lots of details both about the Little World and its author.
April 8, 2015
- Gun control. Liberals are completely wrong about this. A fair number of them know better, too, but they sponsor lies about it as a form of class warfare against conservative-leaning gun owners.
- Nuclear power. They’re wrong about this, too, and the cost in both dollars and human deaths by pollution and other fossil-fuel side-effects has been enormous.
- Affirmative action. These programs couldn’t be a more diabolical or effective plan for plan for entrenching racial prejudice if the Aryan Nations had designed them.
- Abortion: The liberals’ looney-toon feminist need to believe that a fetus one second before birth is a parasitic lump of tissue with no rights, but a fetus one second afterwards is a full human, has done half the job of making a reasoned debate on abortion nigh-impossible.
- Communism. I haven’t forgiven the Left for sucking up to the monstrous evil that was the Soviet Union. And I never will.
- Socialism. Liberals have never met a tax, a government intervention, or a forcible redistribution of wealth they didn’t like. Their economic program is Communism without the guts to admit it.
- Junk science. No medical study is too bogus and no environmental scare too fraudalent for liberals. If it rationalizes bashing capitalism or slathering on another layer of regulatory bureaucracy, they’ll take it.
- Defining deviancy down. Liberals are in such a desperate rush to embrace the `victimized by society’ and speak the language of compassion that they’ve forgotten how to condemn harmful, self-destructive and other-destructive behavior.
- William Jefferson Clinton. Sociopathic liar, perjurer, sexual predator. There was nothing but a sucking narcissistic vacuum where his principles should have been. Liberals worship him.
- Liberals, by and large, are fools.
Eric S. Raymond, “Top Ten Reasons I’m Neither a Liberal Nor a Conservative”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-19.
March 17, 2015
Properly understood, all economic values are subjective. Some items have useful applications, but the relative value of those applications is itself subjective; there’s nutritional value in a pound of cauliflower, and there’s nutritional value to an ounce of Beluga caviar, and the difference in the price between the two is based on no objective criterion. Even scarcity does not explain the difference: There are more diamonds in this world than there are autographed photos of Anthony Weiner, but try giving your wife the latter for your anniversary and you’ll get a short and possibly violent lesson in the subjectivity of value. In fact, it is the subjectivity of value that makes exchange possible — if our values and preferences were perfectly aligned, we’d never trade anything for anything else, because we’d all value every item and service at precisely the same level, and there would therefore be no incentive to engage in commerce. That our preferences should be non-uniform ought not be surprising — our lives are non-uniform, too. If I operate an apple orchard, I am probably not going to buy apples from you at any price, unless perhaps they are a different sort of apple than the ones I grow. The rancher and the fisherman each assigns a different value to beef and fish than does his opposite number. Disagreement is fundamental.
The crude version of exchange — which is, unhappily, the common version — is inclined to suspect that there is an objectively correct price for a good, and that profit comes from duping somebody into paying more than the correct price for it. That error is fundamental to Marxism and other anti-capitalist philosophies, and it is implicit in such social phenomena as the anti-advertising movement, “Buy Nothing Day,” and similar political tendencies. But that bias does relatively little harm in the heads of greying Marxists, peddlers of “profit is a crime” banalities, and Occupy riff-raff. Where it is truly destructive is in the disorganized thoughts of the large majority of ordinary people with no particularly strong political commitments or economic orientation. Consider these phrases: “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” “just wages,” “fair price,” “obscene profits,” “price gouging,” “excessive executive compensation.” For any of those phrases to have any intellectual content, then there must be a price that is in some non-subjective sense the correct one. But if economic values are subjective — and they are — then “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” can only mean one thing, that being the payment of an agreed-upon wage for an agreed-upon performance of labor, with “honest” referring only to the fulfillment of the agreement and saying nothing substantive about the terms of the agreement itself.
Kevin D. Williamson, “The Profit Police”, National Review, 2014-06-30.
February 1, 2015
Rick McGinnis on the steadily reducing relationship between the class system as described by Karl Marx and the modern world:
I blame Karl Marx for a lot of things, but after inspiring some of the most destructive and blood-thirsty governments in modern history, his most abidingly destructive legacy is hobbling our understanding of the word “class.” For as long as I’ve been alive, when almost anyone talks about the class system they end up invoking images frozen somewhere in the middle of the European 19th century.
Arrogant entitled aristocrats and heartless mill owners; upright bourgeois, dispirited workers and peasants. It’s a world of frock coats and cloth caps and sunless terraced slums under smoke-filled skies, and while it’s a useful image if you want to start a discussion about the Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t do much to help describe the fluid, amorphous, endlessly adaptable way that class works in the modern world – and probably always has, even if one writer managed to fix the word to a tether at a spot roughly between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Which is why I don’t have much hope that Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict (Telos Press, 220 pages) will do much to budge our discussion of class to a point somewhere closer to the world of suburbs, computers, megamalls, and package vacations. It’s not that Kotkin’s book doesn’t struggle – mostly successfully – to make a discussion about class relevant, but that decades of framing class in antique trappings has made the word and everything it invokes seem anachronistic, or even irrelevant, to modern people and especially Americans.
Whether intended or not, Kotkin points out that encouraging people to live in crowded cities not only stifles the ownership of private property that’s been a mark of increasing mass material prosperity for two centuries, but it re-creates a renting class at the mercy of moneyed landowners that he describes as a “new feudalism.”
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
January 22, 2015
Ah, well, I haven’t ridden this old hobby horse for a while, so let’s just let Tim Worstall explain why this time, we might be able to get a bit of perspective from the otherwise unreliable official Chinese government economic figures:
Many observers have been slightly sceptical of Chinese GDP numbers for some years now. Regional GDP numbers don’t seem to quite match with other regional numbers (say, oil consumption, other proxies for economic activity) and national numbers don’t necessarily reflect the sum of all of those regional numbers either. There’s absolutely no doubt at all that the place has been getting richer but whether quite so much or quite in the manner being reported is another matter. And then there’s another group of observers (this one including myself) who have some experience of how communists report economic numbers. There’s a plan, the Communist Party is in charge of executing that plan and, amazingly, the plan is always reported to have either worked or been exceeded. Anything less would reflected badly on said Communist Party. As I’ve also been exposed to the old Soviet accounting systems I’m more sceptical than most on this point.
So, there’s that slight worry that a slowing China (or one not growing at the former breakneck pace perhaps) will also lower growth in other countries. We’re pretty sure that’s going to happen. But we’ve also got this other thing to ponder. If the Communist Party is allowing the reporting of numbers that don’t meet the plan then what’s going on with that?
Is this some sea change in the management of the numbers? They’re actually reporting the correct numbers? Or are those suspected massages of the numbers still going on but they underlying reality is so bad that they just couldn’t get up to the planned target? This is, I agree, all wild surmise. But it is a surprise that the numbers came in below target because that’s just not what we’ve come to expect in such a political system. And that could be very bad news indeed.
December 15, 2014
You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.
A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Singer on Marx”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-13.
November 30, 2014
In Britain’s Weekly Worker — subtitled “A paper of Marxist polemic and Marxist unity” — Yassamine Mather argues that the demand for “safe spaces” is insulting to women and denies their legal and moral equality with men:
In her speech to LU conference the Communist Platform’s Tina Becker, arguing against the proposed ‘safe spaces’ document, said it was patronising and bureaucratic. What did she mean by these two adjectives?
The idea that women in leftwing organisations need ‘protection’, as opposed to ‘empowerment’, is what is patronising. No doubt Felicity Dowling’s extensive work in dealing with child abuse cases and fighting for children’s rights is commendable. However, time and time again when she speaks about safe spaces she starts with abused children, before moving swiftly to the need for safe places for women, gays, blacks in society and, by extension, in the organisations of the left. I disagree with such a classification of women, gays and blacks as weak creatures — actual and potential victims who constantly need ‘protection’ from the rest of society.
On the contrary, as adults they need a progressive culture that encourages them and everyone else to challenge sexism, homophobia and racism. Comrades in Left Unity are not weak creatures: they are conscious individuals who recognise capitalism as their enemy — that is why they are in politics. They do not need protective legislation of the type social workers use when dealing with vulnerable children.
Here the example that comes to my mind is the struggles of Iranian women over the last 35 years. They had to fight misogyny not only at home, but in every aspect of social, political and economic life. The state claimed that their ‘safety’ was best maintained by segregation — in the home, or beneath the hijab in the street. But women rejected this from the first days of the Islamic Republic. They took to the streets and fought against misogynist legislation and, although there are still many battles to win, they have made great strides against all odds — to such an extent that the women’s movement in Iran is by far the most significant social movement of the region. Would they have been able to achieve this if in their battles against misogyny they had retreated to ‘safe spaces’? Of course not. On the contrary, it is precisely the ‘safe spaces’ provided by the clerical regime that they are rebelling against.
On the left the most effective way to fight sexism and racism is to make sure we battle against privileged positions and the abuse of power, against secrecy and cronyism. It was not lack of safe spaces that led to the disastrous situation in the Socialist Workers Party. It was secrecy, the power of those in authority, their ability to use ‘confidentiality’ to suppress reporting. A ‘safe spaces’ policy cannot protect women from a ‘comrade Delta’.
H/T to Natalie Solent for the link.
October 29, 2014
Charles Stross wanders in a Britain of today in a world where Stalin won World War 2, taking all of western Europe into the control of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s:
Here’s a brief thought-experiment for you: imagine what the UK would look like today if the outcome of the second world war had taken a left turn early in 1940, and the whole of western Europe somehow ended up under Soviet control by 1946. (No nuclear weapons or gas attacks need apply: this speculation is about outcomes, not processes — so discussion of precisely how the British People’s Democratic Republic comes about is left as an exercise for the reader (and is not to be explored in comments)).
Let us further postulate that Stalinism passes with its creator, much as happened in our own experience of history: that the Soviet empire eventually undergoes the same fiscal crisis and collapse (alternative discussion of the same process by a former Soviet minister — you can forget the urban legend that Ronald Reagan did it) much as we remember, except possibly somewhat later — as late as the early 21st century, perhaps.
What interests me, in view of recent revelations about police spying and the extent of the British surveillance state is: How would the practice of internal suppression of dissent and state surveillance have differed in a post-Soviet Britain from what we appear to be living with right now?
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: as we have no way of knowing when the regime of the British Democratic People’s Republic fell, or what level of technology was available to them, purely technical aspects of the Communist surveillance state of the British Isles must be excluded.
However, we know the general shape of the ideological envelope within which Warsaw Pact regimes operated (or were allowed to operate, before the Kremlin jerked their choke-chain), and so we can speculate as to the structure and objectives of the British regime under Actually Existing Socialism.
September 8, 2014
When Mao died, The Economist wrote:
“In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.” (emphasis mine)
The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death. Critics questioning that figure have suggested that the number might have been as low as two and half million.
I am curious — has the Economist ever published an explicit apology or an explanation of how they got the facts so completely backwards, crediting the man responsible for what was probably the worst famine in history with creating a state “where nobody starves?” Is it known who wrote that passage, and has anyone ever asked him how he could have gotten the facts so terribly wrong?
David D. Friedman, “A Small Mistake”, Ideas, 2014-09-07.
September 2, 2014
One of the problems that Western politicians have in dealing with Vladimir Putin is that they can’t decide what he wants or even why he wants them. They’re struggling because they keep misreading individual actions as being either nationalistic or ethnic, when they should really be described as “imperialistic”. Putin is trying to recreate the old USSR, but without the Communist Party running things — he’s trying to recreate Imperial Russia:
Americans have been grasping to find explanations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s serial aggressions in Europe. We keep searching for bumper stickers we can understand, so we gravitate to simple explanations like “geopolitics” or “nationalism,” not least because such notions promise solutions. (If it’s about geopolitics, cutting a deal with Putin will stop this; if it’s about nationalism, it’ll burn itself out when Putin has recaptured enough ethnic Russians around his borders.)
And, of course, there’s always “realism.” In this month’s Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer argues the Russo-Ukraine war is basically the West’s fault. (We expanded NATO, we supported the Maidan protesters, we were generally just mean to Russia, etc.) It’s a classic Mearsheimer piece: a beautifully-written, attention-seeking exercise that insists on the brilliance of realists while bucking the innate moral sense of most normal human beings. (Consider, for example, his 1993 Deep Thoughts about how maybe it would be good for Ukraine and Germany to develop active nuclear weapons programs.)
That doesn’t mean I disagree with the overall evaluation that America’s Russia policy since 1992 — insofar as we’ve had one — has been remarkably obtuse. (That pretty much describes most of our foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, but I will not digress here.) I, too, objected to expanding NATO, deplored the arrogance of people like Madeleine Albright, and lamented the repeated lost opportunities to bring Moscow closer to the Western family to which it belongs by both heritage and history.
Very little of what’s happened in the past 20 years, however, has much to do with what’s going on in Ukraine right now. And nothing excuses Russia’s war against a peaceful neighbor, especially not arid theories of realism or flawed historical analogies.
Putin is not a realist: very few national leaders are. Realism is much loved by political scientists, but actual nations almost never practice it. Nor is Putin a nationalist: indeed, he hardly seems to understand the concept, or he would not have embarked on his current path.
June 21, 2014
In 1939, Bruno Rizzi, a largely forgotten Communist intellectual, wrote a hugely controversial book, The Bureaucratization of the World. Rizzi argued that the Soviet Union wasn’t Communist. Rather, it represented a new kind of system, what Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” What the Soviets had done was get rid of the capitalist and aristocratic ruling classes and replace them with a new, equally self-interested ruling class: bureaucrats.
The book wasn’t widely read, but it did reach Bolshevik theoretician Leon Trotsky, who attacked it passionately. Trotsky’s response, in turn, inspired James Burnham, who used many of Rizzi’s ideas in his own 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham argued that something similar was happening in the West. A new class of bureaucrats, educators, technicians, regulators, social workers, and corporate directors who worked in tandem with government were reengineering society for their own benefit. The Managerial Revolution was a major influence on George Orwell’s 1984.
Now, I don’t believe we are becoming anything like 1930s Russia, never mind a real-life 1984. But this idea that bureaucrats — very broadly defined — can become their own class bent on protecting their interests at the expense of the public seems not only plausible but obviously true.
The evidence is everywhere. Every day it seems there’s another story about teachers’ unions using their stranglehold on public schools to reward themselves at the expense of children. School-choice programs and even public charter schools are under vicious attack, not because they are bad at educating children but because they’re good at it. Specifically, they are good at it because they don’t have to abide by rules aimed at protecting government workers at the expense of students.
Working for the federal government simply isn’t like working for the private sector. Government employees are essentially unfireable. In the private sector, people lose their jobs for incompetence, redundancy, or obsolescence all the time. In government, these concepts are virtually meaningless. From a 2011 USA Today article: “Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.”
May 19, 2014
It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps,” “contradictions,” “the interpenetration of opposites,” and the rest.
The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation…” Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.
Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.
Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)
May 11, 2014
Innovation often leads to challenges to established markets. Existing players in those established markets have three choices when faced with a disruptive new competitor or technological change: they can innovate themselves, they can retrench and avoid direct competition, or they can do what most incumbents do — get the government regulators to fight their battles for them.
Market incumbents do not like disruption. Uber, the ride-sharing service that has loosened the stranglehold of the taxi cartels, has been the object of government attacks and vigilante attacks both. Various regulatory agencies have tried with varying degrees of success to shut it down, London’s taxi drivers are even as we speak promising “chaos” in response to the firm’s success, French vigilantes have attacked its drivers, and in Seattle — blessed Seattle! — self-styled anarchists are targeting its cars and drivers. “Anarchists” for state-enforced cartel economics to increase private profit — somebody is unclear on the concept, it seems.
A great deal of the program of the old Left — from its full-on Marxist wing to its Proudhonian anarchist wing — is in the process of being accomplished by 21st-century capitalism. The means of production have been radically democratized, with multi-billion-dollar firms springing up out of garages and dorm rooms. The privileged position of dominant old-line financiers is being undermined rapidly by innovations such as Kickstarter, which blurs the line between the altruistic and the consumerist. The life expectancy of large corporations has collapsed, from about 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years and declining today. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “a war of labor against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege,” he certainly did not have in mind Uber or Outbox; his most famous motto was, after all, “Property is theft.” (I think there is rather more to his idea of property than that simplistic formulation communicates, but this is not the place for that particular essay.) But the characteristics of those firms — relatively modest capital requirements, subverting various kinds of political authority in the form of licensure and regulation enacted in the interests of market incumbents, empowering efficient producers to compete with rent-seeking non-producers, and, above all, undermining the privileged place of state-sanctioned monopolies and cartels — looks a lot more like what the 19th-century revolutionaries had in mind than the USPS does. If what you mean by “capitalism” is the East India Company, then capitalism is not very attractive; if what you mean by “capitalism” is Kickstarter, then it is.
Not that a man transported from the 19th century to our own time would recognize that. If we could transport M. Proudhon or any of his contemporaries to the here and now, their eyes would not register any economic system with which they were familiar at the sight of the daily wonders we take for granted. They wouldn’t see capitalism; they’d see magic. But the DMV, the USPS, the housing project, and the prison would all be familiar to their 19th-century eyes. Our choice is not really between neat ideological verities with their roots in Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but between the DMV and the Apple store. Each model has its downsides, to be sure, but it does not seem like a terribly difficult choice to me.
March 19, 2014
Jonah Goldberg asks everyone to stop talking about a new Cold War, because the old one was a unique event (or event-chain) and what we’re seeing now is more like history unfolded before the Cold War came along to freeze geopolitics for a few decades.
… the Cold War was far more than a conflict with Russia. Everyone should agree on that. Communism, anti-Communism, and anti-anti-Communism divided Americans for decades, particularly among academic and media elites. Right and Left may still argue over the merits of those divisions, but no informed person disputes that the topic of Communism — the real version and the imagined ideal — incited riots of intellectual and political disagreement in the West for a half-century.
Meanwhile, Putin’s ideology holds little such allure to Americans or the populations of the European Union. With the exception of a few cranky apologists and flacks, it’s hard to find anyone in the West openly defending Putin on the merits. And even those who come close are generally doing so in a backhanded way to criticize U.S. policies or the Obama administration. The dream of a “greater Russia” or a “Eurasian Union” simply does not put fire in the minds of men — non-Russian men, at least — the way the dream of global socialist revolution once did. And that’s a good thing.
Many have called the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and the attacks of 9/11 a “holiday from history.” The truth is closer to the opposite. The Cold War years, while historic in a literal sense, were something of a great parentheses, a sharp departure from historical norms. Communism was a transnational ideology imposed on nationalist movements. That’s why every supposedly Communist movement eventually became nationalist once in power. Still, the rhetorical and psychological power of Communist ideology, combined with the fear of nuclear war, made international relations seem like a sharp break with how foreign affairs worked before 1945 — or 1917.
It turns out, the Berlin Wall wasn’t blocking us from a new world order, it was holding back the tide of history. Western Europe was especially slow to realize this. Its politicians and intellectuals persuaded themselves that they had created a continental “zone of peace” through diplomacy, when in reality they were taking U.S. protection for granted. They let their militaries atrophy to the point of being little more than ceremonial.
The end of the Cold War fostered the illusion that the “guns or butter” argument had been permanently settled and we “wouldn’t study war no more”. The peace dividend was always an illusion — a very attractive illusion to politicians who wanted to spend money on things that would get them re-elected — and voters rewarded them appropriately. It’s going to be psychologically difficult for the countries of the West to come to terms with the return of the traditional forces of history.