You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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The Social Language of Ideas

8 May 2008

On Communicating Notions of Change

Edinburgh on the hill 1... by Today is a good day, with Creative Commons licenceBig ideas are tough going. They don’t occur to most people because abstracts are often unwelcome intrusions into practical, steady lives. The best ideas tend to flow into situations where rapid change is necessary, like business or medical science. Commerce is a hotbed of new ideas because profitability is never permanent – forcing change quite simply helps a company outpace the market. And medicine, tied closely to the business of drugs, patents and health management, also has the added burden of ethical concerns. Change must happen because it ensures profitability, saves lives, improves lives. That’s enough to get a lot of people thinking. But what about social problems that don’t seem as urgent? After the age of ideologies, how can big ideas make people think again?

Despite its promise to rectify social ills, Marxism failed because it couldn’t find a suitable form of government. Karl Marx’s profound insights into political economy became ruthless dogma in the hands of state communism, a beast that he and Friedrich Engels failed to envision when describing post-revolutionary governance in their Communist Manifesto. So we have capitalism, which is less an ideology than an assumption – a belief that the market works and everything in it will find a good and proper place, as long as governments don’t overly interfere.

Morning Meeting at the Fish Market, by Lucas Jans, with Creative Commons licenceThat might sound naïve, but we should never forget that the market isn’t a thing, much less a thing manipulated by all-powerful corporations or scheming individuals. Sure, there’s manipulation, but it’s of people. The market is a self-regulating social framework – a network of people interacting with other people. Paul Seabright describes it as the meeting place of strangers in pursuit of self-interest, which is not all that different from how I described the importance of familiar strangers to communities in a recent post. And even in its most negative manifestations, this market – our mega-community – can tell us something about the social language of ideas.

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