Friday, June 03, 2016

The Revolution (with Stu)

Trev:
I have been surprised by some of the positive posts going up about Gaddafi and Hussein etc. I recently saw a clip where Mandela was criticised for who he was friends with. A lot of 'villains' were on the right side of history in the fight against Apartheid. Looking at why they don't get criticized now seems like a lesson in the Cold War and the web of relationships that led to. The big conflicts 'Christianity v Islam', 'Islam v Israel', decolonising etc. all seem connected. In the Communism v Capitalism clash, you seem more keen to get people to come right out and say Communism was evil. Can you see why that is hard?


Stu:
I absolutely get that it is hard. Plenty of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century found giving up on the Soviet Union extremely traumatic and some never did. Communism seems to be an appealing ideology and they were on the right side of some really important battles. But too often this leads people to make excuses for communist crimes or arguing that they actually weren’t so bad in the first place. The real world is messy in ways that resist neat moral categorisation, but attempts to achieve communist goals repeatedly had awful (and after a while, predictable) outcomes. Given how many attempts were made to do it, I blame the system.


Photos from Jammie Steps, UCT


Trev:
When I was in first year, the was a course called TAB - 'Thinking About Business'. Some friends and I called it FMI - 'Free Market Indoctrination'. We added the suffix -inofsky or similar to each others nicknames. My understanding is that Marx didn't proposed many actual solutions, he was more focussed on pointing out holes. Others who followed created the -isms. There is something deeply appealing about the ideals of a society that looks after everyone. You recommended 'The Future and It's Enemies' to me which changed my views on central planning vs. empowerment of local decisions. Still, for students, there also systemic concerns with the mortal enemy of communism. Mercantilism, Colonialism and intrinsic hereditary class/privilege have also led to awful outcomes. Do we need to label them as evil? Or do we need to get more comfortable resisting the categorisation and looking to pull the best bits out of histories stuff ups. A slow unwinding of prejudices and improvement of the system.



Stu:
When I argue that communism is evil, I mostly mean actual communist governments. I think the balance of bad over good is so extreme that evil is the right word. I do think we should apply the word to some other systems/governments like fascism and apartheid etc too. We can still acknowledge and learn from the good bits but that doesn’t absolve them morally. I get the impression that you think communism doesn’t deserve to be called evil because it was inspired by noble motives or that it’s not bad in its idealistic, unimplemented form? Even in theory I don’t think communism is so great (though maybe not evil). For example, to my eye, “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” has a menacing quality, like you’ll be forced to work. I also don’t think extreme material equality it a good goal at all. So where do we disagree?


A Memorial to the victims of Communism in Prague
(Including those who were not arrested or killed)

Trev:
I think we disagree most on the use of the word Evil. I use it very sparingly and specifically. I am more keen to use it to describe individual actions rather than people or ideologies. Evil for me requires a malicious intent I seldom see. I think most people believe their underlying drives, assumptions and goals are noble. I understand that Marx wrote either his graduate or PHD thesis on Epicurus. Epicurus seemed more interested in the idea of communes or shared spaces. He founded lots of monasteries which only later became religious places. The ideas were more around simplicity and what is the good life. I think that is the romantic seed that attracts people to the idea of Communism. Equity more than equality. Caring rather than distribution of surplus. The later -isms were failed big government autocracies also accompanied by Nationalism, Patriotism, Xenophobia and us learning to work with people who disagree.



Stu:
I don’t really mean to make this about the nature of evil. Maybe it’s enough to look at outcomes and see if they’re good or bad. I think of a *bad* system as one that you can plug good people into and it generates bad outcomes and a *good* system can take bad people and spit out better outcomes. My “communism is evil stance” = “when people try to implement communism, there are bad outcomes”. In the future, when everyone is allocated enough capital that they can live off the income. Is this communism? If so, sign me up. I’m not against shared spaces, caring, equity or critiquing our current modes of life to be less rat-racy/consumerist etc. Maybe this is part of the appeal of communism but I don’t think you can abandon talk of overthrowing the bourgeoisie and workers seizing the means of production and still be left with communism.

Trev:
I agree that Revolution is strongly linked to the word. There is a romanticism to fighting for what you believe in. Banging out the theme tunes to Les Miserables. I don't know of revolutions that didn't turn into terrors. The School of Life has two relevant sections in looking at Goethe and a shift from 'Romanticism to Classicism' and Hobbes, who lived through the English Revolution, looking at whether it is worth while trying to overthow government. Pragmatism and 'the middle way' is much less exciting, but I think much more effective. It also seems to be the broad consensus, and perhaps the reason for the great enrichment and the decrease in violence over the last 50 years. But it is boring. We can't just bang on about X being better than Pop Music. The masses still have power, and labelling Communism as evil allows popularists an entry point. The question is, how do we convince those shouting from the roof tops, that Capitalism isn't evil! That we can build enough capital for each individual to live the good bits of the Communist ideals.


From Romanticism to Classicism

Stu:
Can you elaborate a little on this please "The masses still have power, and labelling Communism as evil allows popularists an entry point." I don't quite follow. 

Trev:
A lot of people get very angry about capitalism. A lot of people get very angry about being left behind by globalism. A lot of people generally get very angry rather than listening. Pitchforks and fists. If we label something that people believe in as evil, they stop listening. For me the rise of Corbyn, Trump, Sanders, Farage, Le Pen, Malema etc. is partly because people don't feel listened to, or are told they are stupid, or they are evil. I think we need to consider everyone, not just get our thoughts represented. Lots of people shouting from the roof tops think Capitalism is evil. That the system isn't working. Many of those people believe in a Communist world despite the bad outcomes you have talked about. I think we would be better off if we didn't consider evil. If we could continue getting better at talking to each other. The masses have power and that can either be anger through attacking ideologies or inclusion through listening.

Stu:
The way I see it is that my “communism is bad” stance is my conclusion after considering it. There are different approaches to making the case and I think this is more your focus? Like, not putting people who might be sympathetic to communism on the defensive etc. I don’t disagree with you, but that doesn’t change my opinion on communism and I don’t want to be unclear about what I really think. Let me turn it around a bit. You’re very straightforward about your views on immigration restrictions (as you should be!). But plenty of people feel threatened by immigration in a similar way to those who feel left behind by globalised capitalism. Isn’t there still a place for bluntly speaking out against borders?

Trev:
I am a deep pragmatist. I don't think my views matter that much. I certainly believe the views of others matter more. Speaking bluntly may give a sense of moral high ground, or at least a feeling that 'at least you spoke out', but I think what we do matters more than intentions. I don't have the answers but I suspect a debate approach only works once there is a relationship. Once there is a lot of common ground. I do speak out bluntly about borders. That is definitely a whole conversation on it's own. I don't feel like I am putting myself against anyone in that debate. I also don't think I am winning in that debate. I also don't think there are enough voices in that conversation. I think the heart of people who still shout for communism is the idea of community. I think that is something we can all agree we need to continue to work at getting better at building. Hopefully whatever people think there can be less shouting and more building.

Stu:
I know my views don’t matter and a lot of what you see online really is virtue signaling, but it’s ok to have opinions about stuff. I don’t really see myself as arguing with anyone in particular, let alone winning. I think too many smart people and intellectuals romanticize communism. It’s part of the same vibe that gets people excited about the next socialist/hard left thing, like Chavez or Syriza (a party where some people happily call themselves Maoists) when I think we should know better. Maybe unlike you, I think that communist ideology itself is partly responsible for the terrible outcomes (collectivization and antagonism to people from certain classes). Of course we should try to understand why the idea has had such enduring appeal. One of the reasons communism/Marxism etc are worth thinking about is because it appealed to many of the most impressive and interesting people of the past 150 years. But I think there are plenty of other movements/ideals that want more community and the word communism should be dropped altogether as something worth striving for, because it’s tainted. That doesn’t mean shouting or shutting down on discussion about how to do better.
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