Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Secular Religions: Marxism and Free-Market Capitalism

Religion provides comforts to believers at a number of levels.  It provides a feeling of belonging to something bigger than themselves; it makes available a framework in which all things can be explained; decisions which otherwise might be difficult to make are predetermined.  However, as history has so often illustrated, religious belief can also provide justification for discrimination and murder.

Tony Judt provides a discussion of the manner in which intellectuals can be caught up in secular belief systems that provide the same comforts and the same justifications for discrimination and murder as organized religion.  What follows is based on the chapter Captive Minds in his book TheMemory Chalet.

The chapter title is taken from the book of the same name by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz.

“….in 1951 he defected to the West and two years later he published his most influential work, The Captive Mind.  Never out of print, it is by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.”

“Milosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fall prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’ need for ‘a feeling of belonging’.”

To make reasonable to the modern reader the notion of Marxism as a secular religion, consider this description from Wikipedia:

“According to Marxist analysis, class conflict within capitalism arises due to intensifying contradictions between highly productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and private ownership and private appropriation of the surplus product in the form of surplus value (profit) by a small minority of private owners called the bourgeoisie. As the contradiction becomes apparent to the proletariat, social unrest between the two antagonistic classes intensifies, culminating in a social revolution. The eventual long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism – a socioeconomic system based on cooperative ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one's contribution, and production organized directly for use. Karl Marx hypothesized that, as the productive forces and technology continued to advance, socialism would eventually give way to a communist stage of social development. Communism would be a classless, stateless, humane society erected on common ownership and the principle of ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.”

When this sort of speculation is combined with the concept of Darwinian evolution, mere speculation can take on the appearance of a natural history of human development to those inclined to believe.  Similar to religions based on a deity, it provides an end sufficiently desirable that just about any means to that end can be justified.  In one case God is on our side; in the other, History is on our side.

In the postwar years when Milosz published his book, this capture of intellectuals by political and social theories was familiar to everyone.  It had occurred with both communism and fascism.  Judt began teaching Milosz to his students in the 1970s and watched how the appreciation of his students varied over the next few decades.

“….when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students why a ‘captive mind’ was not a good thing.  Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one?  By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist.  A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach.  When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.”

Judt suggests that his students—and the rest of us as well—are captured by a secular faith without even realizing it.  He compares the status of free-market economics today with that of Marxism in the postwar era.

“Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelg√§nger—the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress and History.  Just as the hapless British Labour chancellor in 1929-1931, Philip Snowden, threw up his hands in the face of the Depression and declared that there was no point opposing the ineluctable laws of capitalism, so Europe’s leaders today scuttle into budgetary austerity to appease ‘the markets’.”

“But ‘the market’ like ‘dialectical materialism’—is just an abstraction: at once ultra rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question).  It has its true believers—mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers—who might privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially….proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.”

As with any religion, the believer is relieved of the need to justify the beliefs, and an end can be used to justify the means to attain that end.

“Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives.  We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently the ‘Washington consensus’ in vulnerable developing countries—with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation—has destroyed millions of livelihoods.  Meanwhile, the stringent ‘commercial terms’ on which vital pharmaceuticals are made available has drastically reduced life expectancy in many places.  But in Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, ‘there is no alternative’.”

It is difficult to appreciate from today’s perspective how powerful Russia and communism appeared after World War II. 

“….it was because History afforded no apparent alternative to a Communist future that so many of Stalin’s foreign admirers were swept into intellectual captivity.  But when Milosz published The Captive Mind, Western intellectuals were still debating among genuinely competitive social models—whether social democratic, social market, or regulated market variants of liberal capitalism.  Today, despite the odd Keynesian protest from below the salt, a consensus reigns.”

Judt did not go there, but he could have continued the religious analogy by comparing university economics departments to cloistered monasteries where swearing belief in dogma is required for entry, and a lifetime is spent surrounded by people of identical beliefs.  Once one accepts the dogma, to reconsider its validity is grounds for expulsion.

“One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Milosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: ‘his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself’.”

The essays in The Memory Chalet were produced by Judt while he was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  This malady gradually eliminates muscle control. He found himself at a stage where he was a quadriplegic.  Fortunately, his mind remained clear and he obtained some satisfaction in spending the long nights of solitude reconsidering his life, his experiences, and his acquired knowledge.  He said he discovered himself arranging these reminiscences into topics and finally into what might be called essays which he could dictate to an assistant during the day.  This is a remarkable feat.  The professor could not stop trying to educate his students…,his readers.


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