One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Some observations on the characterisation of societies according to their position within the historical dialectic.

Just before I went to Sweden last, I read (via a Prospect Magazine article about The Swedish Soul. 'The Scandinavian Exception' has long been a puzzle: how come they manage to do everything right, in terms of heathcare, welfare, education, social inclusion and, above all per capita GDP. (The groundbreaking 'The Spirit Level' discusses the overwhelming, unignorable correlation between societal equality and all these factors).

So how do they pull off what Hobsbawm called (long before Blair filched the term) 'Third Way', the hugely successful alternative to Anglo-Saxon Capitalism and Soviet-style Communism.'s in the blood. A Swedish Trade Union leader points out that their society moved somewhat smoothly from an egalitarian agrarian society and straight into industrialisation and modernity. Unlike in, say, Britain, there was no intervening feudalism. Accordingly, they regard they regard Social Democracy as obvious. To a large extent they didn't have to struggle for the benefits they take for granted - obvious things like the struggle for independent trade union representation which my own mother played a leading role in in the 1970's.

Now, Marx pointed out that the conditions of the previous historic age are carried over into the next phase. The British Industrial Revolution was enabled by its feudal system: landowners were able to enclose their feudal demesnes for the benefit of the mutton and wool industry. Their dispossessed serfs provided a convenient pool of labour for the Dark Satanic Mills they were investing in in the newly forged cities.

And as for America...they still bear the horrifying legacy of the agro-industrial use of human machinery.

So where does this leave us? I would argue that we can characterise societies in terms of how har along they are on the dialectical process from feudalism-capitalism-Dictatorship of the Proleriat-Emergence Into Communism.

  • Scandiwegia: Well, as readers of Stieg Larsson will know, it has a dark underbelly (and a Norwegian of my acquaintance reminds me that the same people who invited Hitler in are still around, still active in society).'d quite like to live there if you were elderly, ill or jobless, no? It's not far off 'To each according to their needs from each according to their ability' And they're all smart techno-cookies who completely get Marx's view that technology is the engine of Growth.
  • America: It is significant that America has a Liberal Left but not (to any large degree) a Socialist Left. The average, American, college-educated liberal is genuinely scared at words like 'Socialism' and 'Marx', for the obvious reason that sixty years of anti-Socialism militates against their studying them. Not if they want to hold down a job and mix in respectable company. So we are told, the Received Wisdom has it, that wheras Britain has a class problem, America has a race problem. Well...I'm sorry...but what is 'Race' other than a convenient device for colour-coding human machinery? The US of A was founded on slavery and its wealthier inhabitants continues to prosper from it. It always has been a class issue - Marxist historian Howard Zinn is excellent on this in his Peoples' History of the United States. It is no accident that the Civil Rights movement was largely instigated by the CP-USA and people like my personal hero, Trade Unionist Bayard Rustin. (J Edgar Hoover was right: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a Commie front organisation). But...while there ave obviously been many good signs of late...America will not make progress in addressing healthcare, poverty, education, drug abuse, social exclusion, inequality or any of the general Happiness issues until they wake up to Socialism.
  • England (yes, we have to take it separately from the rest of the UK): The Class War is over and the proletariat lost. As an English emigrant whose formative years were directly shaped by English Feudalism and the stale hierarchy it implies - I believe I'm in a position to comment that it's seriously failing to fulfil its potential as a nation. England was the engine of the early Industrial Revolution...but it never quite got around to sharing its wealth (attempts to do so were crushed mercilessly, and the bitter legacy can be seen across the Northern coal towns). Indeed, it exported feudalism throughout the world in the form of colonialism, and as as A Bad Name. (An Irish friend told me that the only phrase one needs to learn in a foreign language is 'Oh, god, no! Irish!). And the great crying shame is they don't even get it. Brown is On The Side Of The Angels - but even he is still bought into the idea that Britain (read 'England') can prosper on 'Invisible Earnings'* What part of 'The Crisis of Capitalism' would you like me to explain?
  • Scotland: Now as a Scot-Of-English-Ethnic-Origin (and boy, does that phrase piss people off. It's meant to.)...I'm not going to pretend for one moment that this dreich, Irn Bru swigging, chip-guzzling, proud nation of heroes is paradise. I merely observe that our socioeconomic history is somewhat different to England's. It is unfortunate for us that, at about the time the Industrial Revolution was kicking off, England exported a vicious brand of colonial feudalism which replaced a looser-knit, more consensual Clan system. (eg.up until The Act Of Union there as never a King of Scotland Dei Gratia, but a 'King of the Scots'.) So Scotland's communitarian culture was held in check...but it's always been there. This, combined with the Scots emphasis on education as a moral duty (we have Knox to thank for this: his insistence that the lowliest crofter was able to read The Bible meant that the Scots were able to read Adam Smith, Davy Hume, Burns, McDiarmid, Irvine Welsh, Tables of Logarithms...) means that we are...different. Our greater sense of JFDI coupled with our awareness that we're 'A' Jock Tamson's Bairns' puts us, I argue, in a better position than our stale, colonial masters to cope with the fact that the historical dialectic has simply moved on.

    So what's the plan? Fuck-off big wave turbine generator in the strongest and most reliable current in the world ( Use this to power a hi-speed maglev between Edinburgh/Glasgow and the English cities, so all the people from the defunct Financials industry can commute to where the money is. Or, if they're to dumb to want to come to one of Lonely Planet's Top Ten Cities, the Holyrood government, unlike Westminster, is actively encouraging immigration. We regard asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants and their children as a valuable economic resource. (and this, children, is why, in Scotland, the BNP share of the vote in the EU election was 0.02%. Or, to quote a friend's CPGB father-in law "We beat the Blackshirts off Glasgow Green! the way, I do mean 'beat'.")

    Then...who knows? Maybe start running ourselves as though we were Scandiwegia, with free university education, free medicines, free elderly care...oh, wait. We already have those.

Tiocfaidh ár lá

* 'Earnings' is a misnomer here. The whole financial industry is a massive overhead which serves only to skim of tithes from Production Value. Even more bizarrely, Education is regarded as a 'Tax Burden', ignoring the well-established first year economics textbook teaching that $1 on education yields $1k in GDP. Teachers are the economic engines of society!


Dan | thesamovar said...

Hey Ed, your first post in over a year I think! Glad to see it.

I don't disagree with your descriptions of the various countries, but I'm not convinced that the historical dialectical characterisation of them is useful. I don't deny that there is a lot of useful insight in Marxism, and that the historical materialist point of view in particular is very significant. But, we shouldn't use the dialectical part as a description of present reality, because the predictions based on that view were wrong (and in my opinion, it necessarily can't deal with a lot of important stuff). It would be like talking about contemporary medicine in terms of the four basic humours - you might be able to do it with enough ingenuity, but it's only going to lead to confusion further down the road.

I'll do a post on this sometime I hope.

Edward said...

I don't know which of Marx's predictions were wrong.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Edward. It's interesting to compare the US's class issue with Norn Iron's - there the victims of repression have been RC rather than black, but the parallels are there.

As for your Irish friend's advice, I've been told that Scots in France are well advised to point out that we're écossais. If you're crap at French, you don't want to be taken for English. But if you're fluent in French, but with a Scots accent, you really don't want to be mistaken for a German!

I wasn't sure whether to laugh or despair at this BBC piece on Britain's (or England's) place in the world economy. We no longer do manufacturing, but we can export Strictly Come Dancing, The Weakest Link, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Pop Idol. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

Dan | thesamovar said...

Ed - how about the one about the revolution happening first in the most heavily industrialised countries?

Edward the Bonobo said...

Compare and contrast Scotland, where all the cool kids are building capability in Renewables.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Yes, well spotted, Dan.

Yes, he was foolish to have made that prediction...and he knew it. Probably he missed some stuff about the material comfort of industrialised societies, the greater levels of control their governments are able to exert.

I suppose another thing that he really, really oughtn't to have missed - especially since he wrote about it so extensively in his journalism (ie his coverage of The Indian Mutiny for the NY Times) is the extent to which industrialised economies are global. The revolutionary conditions that pertained in (eg) England, Germany pertained equally in (eg) Mexico, India.

His excuse is Romanticism. His heart was set on a successful German revolution.

Edward the Bonobo said...

btw...Marx's failure to predict history was a running joke between him and Engels. He was too much the Big Picture thinker.

pedro said...

Marx's (OK, Ricardo's) labour theory of value was wrong. Ok, not a prediction, but hey.

As for bankers, their 'real' (or theoretically 'correct' whatever that is..) is to channel money from people who have too much to people who want to invest and generate more wealth, much more efficiently than govts can. Ok, they skim a bit off the top, but why not, so do state-run banks.
No mention of credit default swaps there you'll notice.

And I was wrong too; 1 years schooling increases income by 10%, not $1k - sorry.

Edward said...

No...I should go and look back at that reference again. I've spoken to other economists independently since then. It may not be a 1000% dividend (although one did, without prompting, quote me that figure. She had an MSc from Trieste)...but it ain't 10% neither.

Explain to me again why Ricardo was wrong?

pedro said...
has a nice wee graph of earnings vs education.

"Explain to me again why Ricardo was wrong?"

Cos a theory of value should explain how things are valued, ie why they're priced as they are. Labour isn't a factor in that, it's just supply and demand. Nothing else; basically value is a mental construct or something, merely what we're willing to pay for something and no more.

Remember, economics got post-modern before everyone else.

Edward the Bonobo said...

OK - understood.

So somehere in there we have to factor in some sort of explanation of what happens to the value of the things we need most. Also...Supply/Demand.

I don't think it's quite time to throw the Marx out with the Ricardo, surely? Aren't we just saying that theories all reveal very different facets of a complex, multivariate world?

The problem is possibly with different interpretations of what a 'model' is (and I get this in my own work. So does Dan, who's written a very good abstract for a paper that he really should publish)

'Model' as in 'Airfix' - an accurate representation of something. If you plug in real-world inputs you get out resl-world observations.

'Model' as in something that simplified the real world, accounts for a useful portion of real-world variance. Something like:
'As a first order approximation, all crestures are insects.'

pedro said...

-I don't think it's quite time to throw the Marx out with the Ricardo, surely?-

Yeah, I think it is. It doesn't explain how things get their value, and it really is that simple. In terms of the 'model', it's just not a fair reflection of reality. If I find a gold ingot in my garden, say, it would have exactly the same value as one which was manufactured. The value of the labour input is totally irrelevant.

The only model of value which 'works' derives from the interaction of supply and demand.

The S&D model was developed by the 1870s. It would be interesting to know what Marx made of it, if he'd actually heard of it before he popped his clogs.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Well I doubt that either of us is qualified to atempt a synthesis of Marxism with S/D (though granted - you are more than me.)

If i were trying...I'd be thinking along a couple of lines:

- Are some commodoties more susceptible to S/D than others? Eg materials vs luxuries? Easily manufactured things vs ipso facto rate things?

- Is labour itself a S/D commodity. (Yes, surely?) So what happend when technology is added to the equation.

And btw...if ^everyone^ had a gold ingot in their garden...what would its value be? At least Marx says something about how surplus value becomes extractable from labour by means of ythe ownership of thge means of production.

pedro said...

-- Are some commodoties more susceptible to S/D than others? Eg materials vs luxuries? Easily manufactured things vs ipso facto rate things?--

Yeah, but that's just elasticity of S/D. Demand for oil barely changes with price, cos there's no alternative. If twixes doubled in price you wouldn't buy mars bars though.

- Is labour itself a S/D commodity. (Yes, surely?) So what happend when technology is added to the equation.

Yep it is. Polanyi called labour (ie people) being a commodity one of the contradictions of capitalism (land being a commodity was another. This apparently required a huge change in mindset), but labour markets due follow, with many caveats, laws of S&D. One way they differ though are that wage differentials are usually maintained even while the overall wage rate changes.

As for technology, the number of workers tends to go down but as it gets more complex the builders, technicians, installers etc. need to be more qualified, their productivity rises (in terms of the machines' potential output) and their wages tend to rise.

If you increase the supply, but not the demand, for gold, its price will fall.

To move on from gold, imagine workers making jeans. One brand gets worn by someone 'cool', so everyone wants the jeans and the price goes up. What has that got to do with the worker's input?

Edward the Bonobo said...

Damn you! Someone else to add to my reading list (Polanyi).