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Why You Never Hear Anyone Say “That Wasn’t Real Capitalism”

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Der heimliche Aufmarsch” (“The Secret Deployment”) is an old socialist revolutionary song from the Weimar Republic. It calls upon the workers and peasants to arm themselves, rise up, and smash the system.

Thirty years later, a modified version of the song was re-released in the GDR. It was now called “Der offene Aufmarsch” (“The Open Deployment”), to reflect the fact that there was no longer any need for secrecy. The workers and the peasants had already risen up (with a little help from their Soviet comrades), and the working class, as a whole, was now collectively in charge. This, at least, was the official narrative, codified in the East German constitution:

The German Democratic Republic is a socialist state of the workers and the peasants. It is the political organisation of the labourers in town and country under the leadership of the working class.

You don’t have to be a socialist to “get” the appeal of songs like “Der heimliche Aufmarsch” at a visceral level. It is gripping, it is stirring, and it is full of righteous rage.

In the GDR’s sanitized re-release, however, not much of that energy survives. The original version is revolutionary, the newer one is fundamentally conservative. Workers and peasants are no longer implored to rise up, but to double down, to fulfill their duties, and to defend the status quo.

Where the old version says

Then from the ruins

Of the old order Shall arise,

the Socialist World Republic

the new version just says:

Today, socialism is a global power.

Why am I telling you this?

It’s got to do with some of the responses to my book Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies. The book shows how Western intellectuals have long had a habit of lauding socialist experiments as long as they were in their prime, only to disown them later, now claiming that they were never “really” socialist to begin with. One of the most common responses I have been receiving lately is:

But you could say the exact same thing about capitalism! Is your next book going to be called “Capitalism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies”

It reminds me a bit of playground spats, where children whose verbal abilities are not that well developed yet often respond to taunts by simply redirecting the same taunt back: “No, you are!”

This, of course, only works in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation, where your opponent is indeed guilty of the same thing they are accusing you of. And this really isn’t the case here. You could not say the same thing about capitalism. Show me an example of free-market liberals acting in the same way as the socialist intellectuals I am citing in the book. Name a country that free-marketeers used to praise to the skies, and that they now dismiss as “not REAL capitalism.”

You can’t. Because this does not happen.

Quite the opposite. I recently reread a few passages from Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, which was first published in 1980. In terms of the places Friedman singles out as positive examples, I was struck by how little has changed since then. Friedman was very positive about the economy of Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent, the other “Asian Tigers,” such as Taiwan and Singapore. He described Switzerland as “a bastion of capitalism.”

He was cautiously optimistic that Britain’s then-new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would change the country for the better. He did not mention Chile in this book, presumably aware that any positive statement about the Chilean economy would be misconstrued as support for the Pinochet dictatorship. But we know from statements he made elsewhere around that time that he was also optimistic about Chile’s future economic prospects.

That was four decades ago. If you asked a free-marketeer today to name a successful capitalist economy—what examples would they pick? Why, more or less the same ones that Friedman picked in 1980. Switzerland would presumably come up. Socialists are novelty-seekers. They have to be because socialist experiments never age well.

Almost certainly, so would Hong Kong and Singapore, and Taiwan might get a cameo appearance as well. They might point to Chile’s relative success. They might be lukewarm about the situation in Britain today, but they would certainly judge post-Thatcher Britain much more favorably than pre-Thatcher Britain. And they would probably mention how New Zealand has been catching up since the pro-market reforms of the 1980s.

In short, free-marketeers are consistent to the point of being bores. If there is an economic model that we already praised forty years ago, there is a high chance that we are still praising it today, and if there is an economic model that we are praising today, there is a high chance that we were already praising it forty years ago. It’s the exact opposite of the socialist utopia-hopping I describe in the book.

Socialists are novelty-seekers. They have to be because socialist experiments never age well. It is very easy to become a socialist. But if you want to remain one for long, you need the ability to quietly drop, and selectively forget socialist experiments when they turn sour, and quickly move on to the next one. You need to be able to quickly un-pin your hopes from the latest failed experiment, and pin them on the next one instead.

Socialists are at their best when they can describe their projects in diffuse, abstract terms. This is why the most popular socialist movements are always those that are either in the ascendant, but not in power just yet, or those that have come to power very recently, but that have not fully settled yet, so everything is still in flux. Socialists are at their worst when they have to answer mundane questions, when they have to spell out, in tangible terms, how a system based on their high-minded ideals would work in practice.

Actually existing socialist regimes, of course, have to do this eventually, and since this cannot be done, they can never keep the initial enthusiasm alive for long. The above-mentioned contrast between “Der heimliche Aufmarsch” and “Der offene Aufmarsch” is a good illustration. The GDR regime evidently tried, unconvincingly, to extract, bottle, and store the energy contained in old revolutionary songs.

And we’re not looking for excitement, novelty, or an adrenaline rush from political ideas anyway.

But socialism needs the thrill of the novel, the excitement of smashing things up, the buzz of overthrowing an established order and starting from scratch again. It no longer works once socialism is the established order, once it becomes clear that that order falls far short of the initial expectations, and once it dawns on you that it is not going to get any better than this.

Liberals don’t have that problem. The economic models we hold up usually do deliver, or at least, they get a seven out of ten. So we can praise the same models for decades in a row. And we’re not looking for excitement, novelty, or an adrenaline rush from political ideas anyway.

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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness

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Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.

How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.

Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.

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Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.

In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.

We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.

The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.

This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.

No more buyers for the escapism Top Billing is selling

Of all the feasts and feats of Top Billing in the past 23 years, there are perhaps not enough Gucci slides that can quite help it dodge its flip and …Opinion1 month ago

One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.

Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.

It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.

Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.

Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London

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