The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Does Capitalism Exist? Did Socialism?

Somewhere in the vast archives of the Journal of Libertarian Studies the question is posed: Did we ever leave the state of nature? Now, I can't be arsed looking it up, but as I recall it the obvious question is asked: given that, you know, these social contracts we hear so much about were never actually signed and even if they had been they are not binding on us (who never actually signed them) ... what ethically differentiates our situation from that of the postulated savages in the imaginary state of nature? Nothing. (OK, apart from our lives being less nasty, brutish, and short, but hey.)

A similarly bracing perspective-shift can be seen some recent post-Marxist examinations of the world we actually live in. Moshe Lewin, in his new book The Soviet Century, analyses (with a mass of empirical and archival material) 'formerly existing' socialism as a bureaucratic statism, a domain not so much of a 'new class' as of a very old one. Chinese sociologist Qin Hui, drawing on his own extensive investigations and lived experience of Mao's 'socialism' and Deng's 'capitalist restoration', comes to a similar conclusion - and finds political inspiration for dealing with it in Marx, Plekhanov, the early Lenin, and Robert Nozick. (Lenin and Nozick! Studied by a Chinese social democrat! Who knew?) The late Andre Gunder Frank, towards the end of a lifetime's research on capitalism and socialism, concluded that neither actually exist. He argues both capitalism and socialism are in fact - as they are in theory - ideologies, or (to extrapolate that insight) are indeed mere illusions, which obscure the reality that we actually live in a world system and (in our most personal relations of family and gender) a household system, each of which long predates such fancies, and in which relations of power over-ride and physically exploit the supposed relations of production as imagined by the ideologues of (both) systems. The persisting 'pre-capitalist' relations, as well as the bureaucracies of actually existing socialism and the state interventions of actually existing capitalism, are thus their defining, rather than deforming, features. What if, in short, the theoretical imperfections of each system are the system(s)?


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