Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Marxism and the crisis

Last night there was a debate at King's College London between the King's academic Alex Callinicos, a respected Marxist thinker, and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, considered one of the best analysts of the economic situation. Both were spoke clearly and effectively with no fudges, making only sparing use of notes -- indeed, it wasn’t obvious that Callinicos had any.

Apart from one rather cheap crack at economics (a good thing that King's didn’t have an economics department because economic theory was so blind to obvious realities -- is it *still as bad as that? I thought there had recently been lots of promising developments in the subject), Callinicos came across as straightforward and humane. Wolf was rather unpleasant, patronising his largely student audience by saying their questions were just what he’d anticipated and implying we were all unthinking egalitarians.

Though completely engaged by the opening two speeches, I began to feel during the answers to questions that this was a non-event and I wasn’t learning anything. The speakers weren’t engaging, so it wasn’t even going to be a draw. (I left half an hour before the end.) Callinicos put the basically familiar argument that capitalism is intrinsically a lousy system and we shouldn’t give up trying for a better alternative just because the USSR had failed, the one serious though flawed experiment in socialism: capitalism, after all, had taken five hundred years to develop -- foolish to judge socialism after only a few decades. Capitalism, as Marx had observed, though now (for reasons he elaborated) in possibly terminal crisis, was the most productive system there had ever been (to which Wolf added that it had spectacularly increased the wealth of many ‘undeveloped’ countries, most notably China). *Planning as an essential concept could no longer be dismissed so readily since dealing with climate change obviously necessitated it; the argument then needed to be about what *sort of planning: planning by elites in the interests of profits, or democratic planning in the interests of well-being?

Wolf said capitalism was here to stay as the least bad system; it was impossible to ‘fix’ it, once and for all, and there would always be periodic failures like the present one (with huge human costs), but, as before, capitalism would always recover because it was the only known way of co-ordinating the ‘de-centralised initiatives of millions of people’, a task too complex for any planning system--even in the relatively simple economy of the Soviet bloc.

It was this point that Callinicos critically needed to address but by the time I left he hadn’t, except to say that developing a democratic alternative would take time (five hundred years?) and that a few academics had done some solid investigation of the forms such democratic planning might take.

He picked up the observation by Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Israel Emanuel, that ‘this was too good a crisis to waste’. He didn’t say what he had in mind in practical terms as the way to exploit it but I thought Wolf’s point (from Popper) about the need for ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than utopian schemes had force: this might be an opportunity for such engineering. What Wolf didn’t register, however, was that such engineering, no less than utopian planning, must always be in some *chosen direction -- fixes aren’t *just technical -- and why shouldn’t that be the direction of greater well-being and democratic control? Slavoj Žižek in the current *New Statesman advocates strong support for Obama’s health reforms because, though imperfect, in the absence of any grander possibilities they’re *something and they meet the right criteria. Until Callinicos’s academics produce a clear model of a planning system that will work, perhaps this sort of piecemeal initiative is the only option.

Callinicos was, of course, absolutely right in his critique of capitalism. Wolf was absolutely right that no system has been discovered that’s not worse at co-ordinating vast numbers of individual choices -- in the interests of wealth production. He simply didn’t address the question, what about producing well-being rather than the wealth that’s measured by market price? What we needed was a debate about how to get from here -- Wolf’s capitalism which has all the strengths he describes but is inhumane and destructive -- to Callinicos’s democratically co-ordinated economy that aims at well-being.

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