Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tony The Wonderful.

Ah, I hope that I won't have enough spare time in my lifetime to run out of things to read by Tony Judt.

In his most recent essay in the NYRB, he makes a really interesting link between the unquestioning faith in communism among Marxists of the last century to today's widespread faith in capitalism.

Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgänger—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 may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.

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 was in just such terms that communism was presented to its beneficiaries following World War II; and 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 Miłosz 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.

For Miłosz, “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” This is doubtless so and explains the continuing skepticism of the Eastern European in the face of Western innocence. But there is nothing innocent about Western (and Eastern) commentators’ voluntary servitude before the new pan-orthodoxy. Many of them, Ketman-like, know better but prefer not to raise their heads above the parapet. In this sense at least, they have something truly in common with the intellectuals of the Communist age. One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Miłosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: “his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”

This struck a chord in me. Consider something I wrote almost 2 years ago, as world seemed to be going into a complete meltdown:

Growing up in post-Communist Slovakia, I was a part of a young generation that was never fully indoctrinated with the theories of Marxism and Leninism. Anxious to be as western as possible, we embraced the ideas of the free market like a religion. Capitalism was cool, it was the only way to be. Today, as I listen to Greenspan, and read more about behavioral economics, I am increasingly aware that what may have previously seemed like an axiom was really just a doctrine. Maybe it is right, maybe not, but still nothing more than a doctrine.

Just for the record, my views haven't changed in the last two years. If anything, everything we know now about how the crisis developed further undermines the belief in rational fair markets. Amazingly, this knowledge was not enough to fuel really dramatic reforms. Oh well.

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