My new e-book has been published on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Wolfgang-Werewolf-Erotic-Horror-Novel-ebook/dp/B01HYNIX0O/
My new e-book has been published on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Wolfgang-Werewolf-Erotic-Horror-Novel-ebook/dp/B01HYNIX0O/
The Godfather is a trilogy of films by Francis Ford Coppola, written by him and Mario Puzo, based on Puzo’s 1969 novel. As a trio of crime dramas, its depiction of the mafia is understood to symbolize general corruption in American politics, though I will be carrying my analysis far beyond just that. I will be focusing on the first two films, generally considered to be two of the greatest films ever made; while Part III, being good only in parts (and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion), will be touched on more lightly. I’ll also discuss parts of Puzo’s novel.
In general, the social, political, and economic critiques in The Godfather are those of hierarchy and authority. Mafia families represent competing capitalists, and the Corleone family in particular represents the traditional patriarchal family. Mafia Don Vito Andolini, who would change his surname to Corleone (‘Lionheart’), the name of the town in Sicily where he was born, has “all the judges and politicians in his pocket,” as so many US billionaires do in today’s neoliberal world. Here we see the source of corruption in American politics, or the politics of any other country: capitalism’s use of the state to protect its interests.
Here are some famous quotes from all three movies:
“Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then that scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.” –Don Corleone
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” –Don Corleone (ranked #2 in American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations.)
“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” —Tessio
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” –Clemenza
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” –Michael
“Times have changed. It’s not like the old days when we could do anything we want. A refusal is not the act of a friend. Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York, and he must share them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly, he can present a bill for such services. After all, we are not Communists.” –Don Barzini
“Only, don’t tell me you’re innocent, because it insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.” –Michael, to Carlo
“There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” —Michael (the bolded portion is ranked #58 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations )
“If I could only live to see it, to be there with you. What I wouldn’t give for twenty more years! Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without Kefauver, the goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away, in partnership with a friendly government. Ninety miles! It’s nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be President of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” –Hyman Roth
“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” –Michael
“Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother. You’re not a friend. I don’t wanna know you or what you do. I don’t wanna see you at the hotels. I don’t want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won’t be there. You understand?” –Michael
“Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael! Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil. I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son, Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael… no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years!” –Kay
“Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” –Michael
“No, I don’t hate you, Michael. I dread you.” –Kay
“Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.” –Don Lucchesi
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” –Michael
“Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know you do not believe that. You will not change.” –Cardinal Lamberto, to Michael
The first movie begins with Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker whose daughter has been beaten by two men who attempted to rape her. Though he begins by saying, “I believe in America” (i.e., ‘the land of the free’), he quickly learns how corrupt the judges are when one of them gives her attackers a suspended sentence, allowing them to go free that very day. Now that he knows that might makes right in America as much as it does everywhere else, he comes to the mafia for ‘justice’, to have them killed.
This corruption of justice is similar to how social services offered by the state decline in effectiveness due to corruption or insufficient funding from taxes, then (as Noam Chomsky once pointed out) we go to the private sector for these services, which are given only for a price, as Don Vito will expect a favour in return one day from Bonasera for beating up his daughter’s attackers. After all, Vito is only a moderate mafioso/capitalist, who knows that killing the “scum that ruined [Bonasera’s] daughter” isn’t justice, since she’s still alive.
Bonasera, in his naïveté about how the mafia does things, assumes he can simply pay Vito to have his soldiers murder her two attackers. Having unwittingly insulted Vito, Bonasera learns the importance of getting Vito’s “friendship”, which leads to the beating up of the two men “as a gift on [Vito’s] daughter’s wedding day.” This friendship shows the hypocrisy in the Corleone family, in how they try to pass themselves off as decent people, always keeping up appearances, the way the bourgeoisie does in general.
The juxtaposition of Bonasera’s failed attempts at protecting his daughter with the wedding day of Vito’s daughter Connie, is an interesting one. In the traditional patriarchal family, a girl’s marrying into another family involves her father giving her away to her husband-to-be, an old protector being replaced by a new one. Throughout most of this scene, Vito is so busy granting requests that he can rarely, if ever, leave his office and participate in the wedding party outside. After all, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day, symbolizing the honour and love he has for her.
Here we see the contradictions inherent in the patriarchal family: the overzealousness with which ‘our girls’ must be protected leads to a failure to protect them; Vito’s symbolic honouring of his daughter by granting all wishes on her wedding day leads to his hardly ever being with her until the end of the party, a symbolic failure to protect. Similarly, he does nothing to help Connie when her husband Carlo beats her later, rationalizing (in the novel, Book IV, Chapter 16, page 238) that she should submit to Carlo’s authority, and saying the rest of the family shouldn’t interfere with her and Carlo’s private business (an attitude Vito’s wife, Carmela, agrees with).
Bonasera has been very lax in his protection of his daughter, allowing her to stay out late drinking with the two men who assault her; but the failure to protect Connie, coupled with overzealous protectiveness, is symptomatic of the failure of the Corleone family to protect themselves in general, as we’ll explore later.
The corruption that the mafia represents extends to Hollywood, where movie producer Jack Woltz is intimidated into giving a role to Johnny Fontane, a singer/actor the producer hates for having made him look bad. The corruption Woltz represents is seen in his lecherous taste in underage girls, one of whom we learn has been in his bedroom when consigliere Tom Hagen has visited (this lechery is evident in the novel, Book I, Chapter 1, pages 62-63, and in one deleted scene in the movie).
All of the mafia families represent competing capitalists, but Don Corleone is only a moderate capitalist, wanting nothing to do with the heroin business Virgil Sollozzo wants to bring into New York. The Tattaglia family, as well as that of Barzini, wanting Corleone to share his political and police protection so they can get in on the new heroin business, represents the expansion and accumulation of capital, and its growing evil.
The conflict of interests between the Five Families, with Corleone’s on one side and the other four opposing him, represents the contradictions inherent in capitalism. The war that erupts between the Corleone and Tattaglia families symbolizes those contradictions escalating into an economic crisis, for indeed, as the war continues, Tom warns Sonny, who is acting Don while Vito’s in hospital, that business is suffering. Similarly, Clemenza tells Michael that these wars have to happen every (five or) ten years or so…the same time period that, sans Keynesian state interventions, usually comes between economic crises. The violence and killings can thus be seen to symbolize the suffering caused by capitalism’s instability.
Capitalists typically deny malicious intent, as do these gangsters. Sollozzo tells Hagen,”I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” Sonny, Tom, and Michael all repeat the mantra that this mob violence is nothing personal–it’s just business…when Michael’s wish to kill Sollozzo for trying to have his father killed, as well as the corrupt cop McCluskey for breaking his jaw, is clearly personal (see also the novel, Book I, Chapter 11, page 145).
Indeed, bringing Michael into “the family business”, when he was originally intended by Vito to be a senator or governor in the “legitimate”, respectable part of society, shows how capitalism seeps into everything, a corruption we’ll continue to see spreading through the rest of this movie/novel and its sequels.
Michael goes into hiding in Sicily, where he wishes to see the town of Corleone, to get a sense of his family roots. Here we see beautiful countryside as well as simple town life, a pleasant contrast to the harsh modern life of New York City. This idyllic life suggests how the world was before capitalism grew into the monster it is today.
Still, there are dangers in Sicily that Michael must be wary of. Apart from all the deaths from local vendettas, the Italian-American mafia is trying to find and kill him in revenge for Sollozzo and McCluskey. This symbolizes how capitalism, in an earlier stage of development, is creeping into rustic Sicilian life, as it had in the enclosures of the Commons in 18th-century England. On the other hand, a deleted scene in the movie shows a group of communists marching about Sicily, hoping to recruit new members. Fleeting references to communism appear here and there in the first two movies, like a spectre haunting Europe, America, and Cuba. The class war is growing.
Meanwhile, back in America, Sonny learns that Carlo, sore that he’s being excluded from the family business, has beaten up Connie. Though Sonny has previously been warned not to interfere by his mother, echoing Vito’s insensitivity to Carlo’s increasing abusiveness, the hothead beats up Carlo, warning he’ll kill him if he ever hurts Connie again. The intensity of the beating that Sonny gives Carlo shows the dangers of zealous over-protection, since violence only begets more violence. Indeed, Carlo plots with Barzini to have Sonny gunned down, and beats up Connie to lure Sonny to his death.
Vito, still the moderate gangster, wants no revenge, but instead arranges a meeting of the Five Families to end the war. Barzini and Tattaglia complain about Vito’s refusal to cooperate in the new heroin business, which would have resulted in giving the other families police protection. But we learn that “times have changed”, and police and politicians now can be bought to ensure safety from prison in the new drug business. At one point, Barzini reminds us that the mafia “are not communists.” Of course not: mafia are capitalists…and capitalists are mafia; that’s what The Godfather is all about.
One significant part of the class conflict caused by such systems as capitalism is racism. Earlier, Sonny mentioned how “Niggers are having a good time with [Corleone] policy banks in Harlem”. During the meeting of the Five Families, Don Stracchi says his men leave the drug trafficking among “the dark people, the coloureds. They’re animals, anyway, so let them lose their souls.” The others at the meeting seem to agree to this arrangement, and ‘peace’ is achieved between Corleone and Tattaglia.
Michael returns to America, and is now the new Don of the Corleone family, Vito having retired. Michael meets Kay, his old American girlfriend, and asks her to marry him. While he gives an empty promise that the Corleone family will be “completely legitimate” one day, he also tells her the cynical reality that senators do have men killed, just as the mafia does. Of course they do: politicians do much of the dirty work of capitalists, because the state works for capitalism…even though right-libertarians promise that a laissez-faire form of capitalism will purify the market of state corruption. But instead, when Michael has the other heads of the Five Families all killed, and he becomes the sole mafia head in New York, we see symbolically how laissez-faire, in wiping out competition (thanks to the tax cuts and deregulation that give large corporations an unfair advantage over small businesses), leads to the very crony capitalism, or monopoly capitalism, it claims it will eradicate. (For a thorough discussion on how that happens, look here.)
The killing of all those men happens in a particularly chilling way: Michael is standing as godfather to Carlo’s and Connie’s baby, telling the priest in the cathedral that he does “renounce Satan”, and that he believes in God the Father, Jesus, His Son, and the Holy Spirit! ‘Godfather’ is a perfect name for this movie, as well as for Vito and Michael, for it exemplifies the authoritarian nature of the mafia, of capitalism, of religion, and of the traditional patriarchal family, all in one fell swoop. This scene, in which Michael ruthlessly pretends to be a good Christian while knowing full well that a bunch of people are about to be brutally murdered (Stracchi, shot in an elevator by Clemenza; Moe Greene with a bullet in his eye; Cuneo, shot by Cicci in a revolving door; Barzini, shot by Al Neri-who’s dressed as a cop [in the novel, he’s a former cop who used to beat people with a large flashlight–Book VIII, Chapter 30, pages 413-414]; and Tattaglia, shot in bed with one of his prostitutes, by Rocco Lompone), starkly shows the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in its pretence of virtue.
To top everything off, when Michael tells Carlo these men were all killed by his orders, he tells Carlo that he has “settled all family business.” Just like a capitalist. And having promised he won’t make Connie a widow, Michael has Carlo garrotted by Clemenza.
With the Corleone move to Las Vegas, hence the killing of Moe Greene, we see how capitalism expands and accumulates, wiping out the competition. First, there was the Genco Olive Oil business in New York; now, there’s the gambling business in Nevada.
Though one would imagine Connie to be grateful to her brother for ridding her of her abusive, adulterous husband, she’s in tears and furious with Michael. When she tells Kay about the murders of the other heads of the Five Families, saying, “That’s your husband! That’s your husband!”, frowning Kay asks him if it’s true. He lies and denies it, of course, and the first movie ends with her frowning, suspecting the lie. An outtake shows Kay in church lighting candles, and the novel ends with her praying for Michael.
Part II begins with Vito Andolini as a nine-year-old boy in Corleone, Sicily. His whole family gets killed by the local mafia, whose chieftain is Don Ciccio, and he must leave before they find and kill him. He emigrates to New York.
The smaller mafia of Corleone, like the family Vito establishes in New York, can be seen to represent the early stages of capitalism. The scenes that follow his rise (also in Puzo’s novel, Book III, Chapter 14) alternate with scenes of the continued story of Michael as Don of his father’s family. These contrasting scenes symbolize capitalism’s seemingly benevolent beginnings and ugly maturation.
In late 1950s Nevada, we see Michael’s growing business empire. We also see more of the pretence of respectability in the party celebrating his son’s First Communion at Lake Tahoe. Michael meets with Senator Pat Geary about getting a gaming licence. In a combination of prejudice against Italians and a disgust with mafia corruption (though he’s no better), the senator wants an exorbitant bribe for the licence; he also bluntly insults Michael’s family to his face. Michael, always one to defend his family and their honour, insists that the hypocrisy of his business and Geary’s government doesn’t apply to his wife and children. Their innocence is always protected: that’s why the family business is never discussed around them…even though they know full well that Michael’s business is anything but innocent.
Geary’s wish “to squeeze” Michael could be seen to represent the agenda of left-leaning or social democratic governments, which tax capitalists as much as possible. Indeed, the post-war world seen in The Godfather, Parts I and II, and continuing up till the 1970s, saw the rich being taxed much more than they are today. Geary’s later hypocritical praise of Italian-Americans during Michael’s trial can be seen to indicate the phoney, would-be egalitarianism promoted by the politically correct aspects of the left, always expressing sympathy for the darker-complexioned, but typically leaving the Third World in the lurch.
When Geary is caught in a Fredo-run whorehouse with a bloodily murdered prostitute (apparently killed by Al Neri to blackmail Geary into helping the Corleone family), he is assured by Tom Hagen that he is safe. From then on, Geary is fully on Michael’s side. Here we see a symbolic indication of how the capitalist class can get even ‘left-leaning’ politicians to represent right-wing interests, as would happen increasingly with the Clintons and the Democratic Party in America, and with Tony Blair in the Labour Party in the UK.
Meanwhile, we have the usual capitalist contradictions symbolized in the competing families of Michael, Pentangeli, and Hyman Roth, as well as the Rosato Brothers. Racism and capitalism tend to go hand in hand, hence Pentangeli’s antisemitic attitude towards Roth and his use of racial slurs against blacks and Hispanics.
When an attempt is made on Michael’s life, in his and Kay’s bedroom, he quickly crawls over to her, covering her body with his. Here we see one of the main purposes of sex roles: the male obligation to protect women, the nucleus of matriarchy within every cell of the traditional patriarchal family, which is seen elsewhere in Michael’s preoccupation with whether or not the unborn child in Kay’s womb is a boy.
We see the spread of capitalism represented in the presence of mafia families in Nevada (Corleone), New York (young Vito and Pentangeli), Florida (Roth), Sicily (Ciccio), and Cuba, where Michael and Roth meet with Fulgencio Batista, who felt no discomfort allowing foreign capitalists, including the American mafia, to exploit his impoverished people. Interestingly, this visit to Cuba happens when Fidel Castro’s communists take over.
On the night when the Cuban Revolution prevails, around midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day in 1959, all the capitalists, including Michael and his older brother Fredo, must get off the island. Music (<<at 2:30) reminiscent of an early section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (a ballet about a human sacrifice) is heard, suggesting the brutality of the material conditions necessary to bring about revolution: the brutality of the extreme contradictions of capitalism that cause the whole system to come tumbling down.
And indeed, brutal contradictions reach even to the extent of the Corleone’s family’s integrity, for Michael has learned who the traitor in his family is, the one who made a secret deal with Roth and Johnny Ola–Fredo. This indicates one of the main themes of Part II: betrayal.
Pentangeli feels betrayed by Michael, since Michael’s business dealings with “that Jew” Roth undermine Pentangeli’s ability to deal with the Rosato Brothers; Roth feels betrayed by Michael, his business partner, when he’s learned that Michael gave the order to kill Moe Greene, a fellow Jewish gangster. Michael feels betrayed not only by Fredo, but by Kay when she tells him the unborn male child in her womb didn’t die of a miscarriage, but was aborted (the look of rage on Al Pacino’s face here is, in my opinion, some of his very best acting). Michael ultimately betrays his whole family by having Fredo killed by Al Neri, who mercifully allows him first to do a ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer.
Once again we see, in the Corleones’ overzealous wish to protect the family, they end up killing their own.
Kay aborts the son out of a wish to end the mob violence; Michael has Fredo killed out of a wish to punish and therefore deter treason. This self-destructive cycle of violence and revenge can represent the contradictions of capitalism: the excessive lust for profits (a wish to protect oneself financially) creates huge wealth inequality and imperialist wars (symbolized by all the mafia violence), resulting in the poor not being able to buy much of anything, stopping the circulation of money and commodity exchange, and leading to financial crises.
Going back to the story of young Vito, he must deal with Don Fanucci, The Black Hand, who can be seen to represent either a competing capitalist or the feudalism that preceded capitalism. There was never any feudalism in American history (apart from British hegemony over the early American settlers, provoking the American Revolution), of course, but we’re discussing the language of symbol here. Vito’s killing of Fanucci (who, like feudal lords’ taxing of their vassals and peasants, wants a cut of Vito’s money in exchange for his ‘protection’) can thus be compared to bourgeois uprisings like the French Revolution in 1789, or the one that brought about the Republic of China in 1911.
As Vito’s mafia family rises in power, including the creation of his Genco Olive Oil Company in the 1920s, we see his benevolence towards an old lady whose landlord wants to evict her. This kindness and growth in power are comparable to the generosity that the bourgeoisie claims to have; they justify their class privileges by pointing out the raised standard of living they create (while neglecting to mention how they alone enjoy the vast majority of the benefits of that economic growth); they also talk about donating to charity, instead of trying to change society’s material conditions, such that charity becomes no longer necessary.
Estes Kefauver’s investigations into the mafia in the 1950s are reflected in Michael’s trial. The state’s attempt to put him in jail can be compared to the postwar period in American history when greater state regulation, including higher taxes for the rich, reduced income inequality and produced a large middle class. But Michael manages to beat Questadt, who is working for Roth, by implying a threat to the life of Pentangeli’s brother (who has just flown in from Sicily) if Pentangeli testifies against Michael. Symbolically, this shows that, even when capitalism is regulated by the state (or because it is regulated, because of competing interests–i.e., Roth), it is still corrupt to the core. Nothing can reform it.
In spite of this ever-present capitalist corruption, some communists have acknowledged the necessity of a capitalist stage superseding feudalism, before the world is ready for socialism. The temporary period of young Vito’s benevolent bourgeois rule can be seen in this light; but by the time Michael takes over, the oppressiveness of capitalism can no longer be ignored.
In Part III, we see Michael about twenty years after the end of Part II, racked with guilt and trying to redeem himself by going completely legitimate at last, after years of failing to keep this promise to Kay, whom he’s divorced. His wish to control International Immobiliare, a real estate holding company known as “the world’s biggest landlord”, must have no mafia connections at all. To his dismay, he learns that those involved in Immobiliare, such as Lucchesi, are either mafiosi or are connected with them…including the Vatican. A cigarette-smoking archbishop named Gilday, who attempts to swindle Michael out of his money, symbolizes Church corruption.
Elsewhere, Michael meets a good man of God, Cardinal Lamberto, who receives Michael’s tearful confession; though, like Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, Michael cannot repent, since to do so necessitates giving up his money and power, as well as being incarcerated for his crimes. Lamberto is Pope for a brief time, then a plot by Archbishop Gilday, Lucchesi, and Keinszig results in him being served poisoned tea.
Michael’s gifts to charities, as generous as they are, also cannot redeem him. Kay watches his show of goodwill, and is disgusted at the hypocrisy she sees. She actually prefers him as a common hood; his pretence as an ‘honest’ businessman makes him even more dangerous now. As we can see, all attempts to reform and legitimize capitalism fail, for it is inherently criminal. It always has been, and it always will be.
And again, try as Michael might, he cannot protect his family from danger; he tries to get out of the mafia, and they pull him back in. He wants Vincent Mancini to stay away from his daughter Mary, Vincent’s cousin, for her safety, but she is shot and killed. Finally, Michael dies alone in the garden of a Sicilian villa as an old man. The self-destruction of capitalism and authoritarianism is complete.
Mario Puzo, The Godfather, Signet Fiction, New York, 1969 (30th anniversary edition)
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1948 and published the following year (the title of the novel seems to come from a reversing of the last two numbers of the year he was writing it). It is a political satire whose main target is the Stalinist USSR, but it can also be seen to satirize any totalitarian society, such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Francoist Spain, or even contemporary neoliberalism and the intrusive state apparatus that protects today’s capitalist class.
Given the current geo-political climate, I find it irresistible to compare Orwell’s Hell with ours today; and because this story is so rich with possible political interpretations, I will explore many of those here. Not all of these necessarily reflect my own personal political beliefs, but they’re here to show all the interpretive possibilities in such a literary masterwork.
Some right-libertarians like to misuse this novel, as well as Animal Farm, to suggest that Orwell was attacking socialism as a whole (while, adding to that, idiotically saying that Fascist or Nazi totalitarianism was also a brand of socialism, of which it was really the opposite). Actually, Orwell was committed to the ideal of democratic socialism; these two literary criticisms of Stalinism really show his anti-authoritarianism, not anti-socialism. His book, Homage to Catalonia, clearly shows his sympathies for a worker-ruled society.
In the 1930s, however, neither Stalin nor the leftist media, which propagandized for him, was very sympathetic to the Spanish Revolution, on the Republican side of which Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War; indeed, they denied that a socialist revolution was even going on there, because Stalin wanted to control the Spanish Republicans and purge them of Trotskyists and anarchists. Instead, Stalin’s meagre support of the Republicans against Franco‘s right-wing coalition of Nationalists was in the name of ‘defending liberal democracy’, not socialism, in order to appease Britain, France, America, and he hoped, get their help in fighting Nazi Germany later on. This Soviet betrayal of the Spanish leftists was what embittered Orwell against Stalin.
So, the ‘socialism’ that Orwell was criticizing in Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t really socialism per se; rather, Stalinism, as Orwell saw it, was a perversion of socialism, a bureaucratized bastardization of it, as symbolized by the Newspeak corruption of Oceania‘s ‘English socialism’ into ‘Ingsoc’ (this ‘socialism in England’, as opposed to worldwide socialism, suggests Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country‘). Similarly, Eurasia‘s political system is called ‘Neo-Bolshevism‘, implying a corruption of Leninism; and Eastasia‘s system is a kind of ‘Death-Worship’, or ‘Obliteration of the Self’. This religion-like quality brings to mind aspects of Juche in North Korea, with its infallible ‘Great Leader’, who does all the masses’ thinking for them. In other words, Orwell was satirizing authoritarianism, not socialism.
In fact, the Ingsoc short form resembles the Nazi short form for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. This suggests the state capitalism of fascism rather than socialism, since all left-leaning Nazis (except Goebbels) were purged from the party when Hitler came to power, propped up by big business. Moreover, the first people put in Nazi concentration camps were leftists. So Big Brother’s moustache may not only represent Stalin’s, but also Hitler’s. Not only Big Brother, but also BIG BUSINESS IS WATCHING YOU.
Another interesting concept in this novel is doublethink, in which two contradictory ideas can be simultaneously true. It can be considered a corruption of the notion of Marxist dialectics, when contradictions in material conditions are contemplated, and a unity seen in the contradictions leads to a refinement of one’s philosophy, then to be contradicted and refined, again and again. But where dialectics bring out a refinement, or improvement, in philosophy, doublethink uses contradictions for the sake of self-serving politicians.
Winston Smith‘s name was deliberately chosen by Orwell, suggesting the character’s everyman quality through Smith, a common English surname, and his anti-totalitarian stance (Winston, i.e., Churchill…not that Churchill is any kind of hero to self-respecting leftists, mind you; and just as we shouldn’t idealize Stalin, nor should we ignore Orwell’s faults). Indeed, the juxtaposition, Winston Smith, could be seen as an example of doublethink in itself: Winston Smith indicating that, if you will, IMPERIALISM IS POPULISM; after all, for all of Orwell’s faults, he always despised British imperialism, of which Churchill was its personification at the time, despite his anti-fascism.
As members of the Outer Party, Winston and Julia are in a position analogous to the middle class (the Inner Party being the ruling class state capitalists, and the ‘proles‘, or proletarians, being the working class). Oddly, the Outer Party members are the most repressed in this society, since they are the biggest potential threat to the Inner Party. The proles, on the other hand, are given more lenience, since they, in their ‘low-class’ ignorance of political matters, are more easily controlled through pleasurable distractions (pornography, beer, football, etc.).
This acute repression of the middle-class Outer Party seems to presage the near-annihilation of the middle class by neoliberalism over the past thirty to forty years. Though Orwell’s novel has only a totalitarian state as the collective antagonist, we must remember the principles of doublethink. Since WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, then, if you will, the FREE MARKET IS STATISM, too.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, deregulating capitalism and giving tax cuts to the rich allows them to accumulate obscenely large amounts of wealth, enabling them to buy corrupt politicians; elsewhere, they can use free trade deals (more deregulation) to get cheap labour overseas instead of paying local, unionized labourers; and endless imperialist war means profits through the sale of weapons, and through the plundering of Third World resources. All of this results in more private property that needs protection, hence the state expands rather than contracts, contrary to the fantasies of right-libertarians. The ‘free market’ (of which there really is no such thing, anyway) creates crony capitalism, or another kind of state capitalism.
Winston Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth–whose short form, Minitrue, suggests the half-truth nature of the propaganda it spreads (TRUTH IS LIES, if you will)–is to eliminate all elements of the past considered politically troublesome to the Inner Party. He will eliminate all evidence of the existence of anyone guilty of thoughtcrime, those now rendered unpersons, just as Stalin used to take old photos including people considered enemies of the state and eliminate them from the pictures, so no memory of the hated people remains.
Similarly, today’s capitalist class can rely on us to forget the past provocations (e.g., the CIA giving money and weapons to Bin Laden and the mujahideen in the 80s, America and other Western countries aiding Iraq by helping develop chemical weapons during the Iran/Iraq War, the US creating the conditions out of which ISIS arose) that have led to the ‘War on Terror‘. Instead of blaming Western imperialism, we blame Muslims, just as the people of Oceania spit out their hostility to Emmanuel Goldstein during the Two Minutes Hate, then swoon in ecstatic adoration of Big Brother, whose Inner Party is their real oppressor.
Interestingly, the remaining part of the globe that isn’t a part of Oceania, Eurasia, or Eastasia–the disputed area where most of the war is going on–is most of Africa, much of the Arab world, and all of southeast Asia, or the Third World, which is the area most oppressed by Western imperialism today. How little things change.
The people of Oceania shout so loudly at the video of Goldstein–a Jew just like Leon Trotsky, so hated by Stalin; yet also a man representative of all the Jews, so hated by Nazis and today’s antisemites among the conspiracy theorists–that not one word of his can be heard. This is like how so many people today, so committed to one ideology, hate its antithesis so virulently that they won’t listen to its despised ideas. The ruling class, like the nomenklatura or the fascist totalitarian state, always makes sure we hate the wrong people.
The cult of personality surrounding Big Brother–just like that of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, or even, arguably, Obama–makes him into a Godlike figure in opposition to the ‘devil’ Goldstein. Here we can see a critique even of religious authoritarianism: Jesus is Lord, but the liberal left are the spawn of Satan; Allahu Akbar, but the West is the Great Satan; etc. Accordingly, we aren’t even sure if Big Brother exists (or Goldstein, for that matter), as with God or the Devil. Big Brother is like a kindly older brother who protects us from bullies, but we sometimes forget that an older brother himself often bullies us, too.
The notion, ‘Who controls the past…controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’ is pregnant with thought-provoking interpretations. It expresses the essence of propagandistic white-washing of the past. The current regime is free to vilify whoever was in power previously, comparing the present state of affairs favourably to that of the past by showing only the light side of now and only the shadows of yesterday. And in perpetuating this propaganda, the current regime will ensure that future generations have the ‘correct’ opinions.
Consider how synagogues, churches, and mosques have all blackened the memory of their pagan or secular predecessors or enemies, to ensure that the flock remains faithful. And not only did Stalin’s regime denigrate the names of ‘revisionists’ and ‘reactionaries’ like Trotsky to ensure the survival of his rule, but today the capitalist class portrays socialist states like the USSR (misusing Orwell, as we know) as evil dictatorships to discourage any reconsideration of socialism in today’s neoliberal society.
Similarly, the memory of the Black Panther Party is vilified to deter anyone in the struggle against white racism. Conservatives stereotype feminists as all being like Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon to discourage any move away from traditional sex roles; while, on the other side of the coin, radical and third wave feminists propagandize about the past and about ‘patriarchy’ to justify current gynocentrism. And apologists of Western imperialism exaggerate the jihadist history of Islam to deaden sympathy for Muslims. The list of examples can go on and on.
Everywhere in Airstrip One, a deliberately dull choice for a name for England, there are telescreens, or two-way televisions through which the Inner Party and the Thought Police can watch everyone 24/7 in order to catch ‘thought criminals’. Today’s telescreen is the ubiquitous internet surveillance, through not only the NSA and other government organizations out to get any subversive types they can find, but also through capitalists who monitor all our online shopping and other interests to present us with products they hope we’ll waste our money on and fatten their wallets. Consumerism distracts us from activism.
Marriages and other relationships are bereft of affection in Orwell’s Hell, as they are in much of today’s society, with almost half of Western marriages ending in divorce. People would rather stare at a smartphone, tablet, or computer than communicate face to face with people; the emotionless conversations of all Outer Party members, including the public chats of Winston’s and Julia’s, reflect this grey reality. And while Winston is already guilty of thoughtcrime from the first word he’s written in his journal (actually, from when he bought it), it’s not until he and Julia have become lovers, copulating for their mutual enjoyment (‘sexcrime’) instead of for the sake of producing offspring for the state (‘goodsex‘), that they are finally arrested.
And when they are arrested, the symbolism is powerful. Winston and Julia–made to hold their hands behind their heads–are completely naked in the second-floor room of Mr. Charrington’s shop (he secretly working for the Thought Police). The lovers’ nakedness symbolizes their vulnerability and powerlessness, their secrets all known while their fully-clothed intruders needn’t worry about their own secrets being known.
Held in the Ministry of Love (a place of torture), Winston sees not only the usual police rough-housing of prostitutes and other common criminals among the proles, but also the detainment of Tom Parsons, a character known for his sycophantic adherence to Big Brother. Even a bootlicker like him can be a thought criminal! Parsons, a man who happily incorporates the corruption of English known as Newspeak into his speech, has been betrayed by his own daughter, a member of the Party Youth, who are like the Hitler Youth, or like today’s Social Justice Warriors, typically being young university students who have been fully indoctrinated in political correctness by the mainstream corporate media and the corporately controlled universities.
Newspeak is in itself a fascinating concept. Syme speaks of the beauty of the destruction of language. If no words exist for a concept, for example, freedom, then that idea won’t exist anymore, either. This is comparable to how political correctness tries to eliminate bad ideas by doing away with all those words associated with unacceptable ideas. Apparently, if we dispense with words associating a job with only one sex–businessman, stewardess–and replace them with ‘gender-neutral’ language–businessperson, flight attendant–social attitudes will change such that people won’t be tricked into thinking that these jobs are exclusive to one sex or the other (Never mind that at least a whole generation using politically correct English has gone by, and there are still far more businessmen than businesswomen, and far more female flight attendants than male ones.). Similarly, if we do away with ‘ableist’ language–‘retarded’ as a synonym for stupid–it seems that people will stop showing contempt for mentally handicapped people (Never mind that the still-used words idiot, cretin, imbecile, and moron were once words used for mentally disabled people.).
In today’s world, we hardly need a totalitarian state to condemn someone for thoughtcrime. Merely use the ‘wrong’ vocabulary, or tell a politically incorrect joke, and the masses will go mad on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, doxxing and shaming you, or destroying your career and reputation by spreading the word about what a ‘bad person’ you are. Though today’s militarized police are certainly frightening, we the common people are our own Thought Police. And remember: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death, thoughtcrime IS death”.
Winston’s next shock is seeing O’Brien, the man who gave him Goldstein’s book (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a parody of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed), come into the room. But the greatest shock is knowing that O’Brien hasn’t been helping the resistance (which, incidentally, is called The Brotherhood), but has been working with the Thought Police all along. Like O’Brien, so many of us only seem to be against the system: ‘anarcho’-capitalists, who oppose the state, but support an economic system that can’t exist without the state; bickering leftists who get hung up on minor ideological differences instead of building solidarity, and betray each other in the manner described in the above paragraph; or ‘Democratic’ leaders like Obama who at first claim to want to ‘spread the wealth around’, then end up serving the same ruling class as eagerly as the Republican Party.
Along with the physical torture that O’Brien subjects Winston to, there is also psychological manipulation in the form of gaslighting. This includes bullying Winston into acceding that 2 + 2 = 5. Those in power can coerce or trick us into accepting all kinds of nonsensical beliefs, including the notion that more capitalism (the ‘free market’) is the solution to the evils of our current capitalist system, which apparently is so merely because the state is involved in it. Just minimize or remove the state and its regulations, and capitalism will be ‘purified’, demagogues like Ron Paul tell us. This is also what the Koch brothers have always said; and instead of liberating society, all their political influence has intensified our troubles. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
O’Brien burns pictures of the unpersons Aaronson, Jones, and Rutherford by dumping the photos down a memory hole, saying the men never existed, the lack of extant evidence of their existence being ‘proof’ of their never having existed. That they still exist in Winston’s mind is evidence only of his ‘mental illness’. This is like how authoritarian societies of all kinds, whether left or right-wing, disregard all memory of past offences, pretending they never happened, then pretend that defiant people are mentally ill (i.e. oppositional defiant disorder). “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever,” O’Brien tells Winston.
Finally, Winston must be brought to ‘love’ Big Brother. Of course, to love Big Brother is to be a traitor to oneself, as loving Stalin was betraying the working class (from the anti-Stalinist point of view, at least), or loving Hitler was betraying Germany. To make Winston betray himself and Julia, he is brought to Room 101, with the cage of hungry rats strapped to the front of his face.
Earlier in the novel, he shrieked at the sight of a rat in Charrington’s second-floor room, when he was with Julia; later, Charrington revealed himself to be a rat, having informed the Thought Police of Winston’s and Julia’s affair. Now, Winston sees terrifying rats right before his face.
While, on the surface, his fear is of having his face destroyed by the rats, on a deeper level, his fear of them symbolizes his fear of himself as a rat, about to betray Julia. Seeing those rats is Winston looking at his own mirror reflection (all of which raises the question of how self-conscious Orwell may have been of his own ratting out of pro-Stalin communists). Those in power, whether they be Stalinists, fascists, religious fanatics, or capitalists, always stay in power by making us betray ourselves. Winston the anti-authoritarian is Churchill the imperialist.
We all long for freedom, but when the pressure is on, when we’re taken out of our comfort zone, our spirit is broken, sooner or later, as Winston’s is. We lack the necessary backbone; we are too complacent, especially in the First World; we lack true revolutionary potential. We all give in, and then everything is all right, we’re finished with the struggle, and we resume our obedient following of authority.
We love Big Brother.
Animal Farm is a novella written by George Orwell and published in 1945. Written in the form of a ‘fairy story’ with talking farm animals, it is a satirical political allegory of the first twenty-five years or so of Soviet Russia. It has been said that almost every detail of the story allegorically represented something of political importance from early Soviet history.
Orwell was prompted to write Animal Farm (and Nineteen Eighty-Four) by his disquieting experiences as a Republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War, fighting with the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist group who were slandered by the Stalinists as Trotskyist, and, more fantastically, as sympathizing with Franco. In Homage to Catalonia and numerous letters, he wrote of how inconsistently the USSR was ‘helping’ the Republican side, who should have been their allies as fellow leftists. Stalin seemed more interested in making alliances with the capitalist West (i.e., England, France, and America, whose ‘neutral,’ non-interventionist policy actually aided the Fascists) against the growing threat of Naziism, and in crushing any manifestations of Trotskyism among the Spanish communists, than in helping his comrades in Spain. Hence, the leftist media, following the Stalinist agenda, denied the socialist revolution going on in Spain at the time, insisting instead that the struggle against Fascism was about preserving ‘liberal democracy’. Indeed, what Stalin really wanted was to crush the Spanish revolution. Hence, Orwell’s bitterness against the USSR. Now, let’s look at the allegory of Animal Farm.
Mr. Jones, the owner of the Manor Farm, represents Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian capitalist class. The Manor Farm, therefore, represents Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, up until World War I.
Old Major, an aging pig that hasn’t long to live, represents Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, Lenin (later in the story, Old Major’s skull is reverently put on public display, recalling Lenin’s Mausoleum). So his speech, in which he describes the deplorable state of the overworked, underfed farm animals, represents the conditions of the disenfranchised working class in 19th century England, as described in Capital, as well as autocratic, tsarist Russia in Lenin’s writings. Old Major’s prophecy of a day when the animals will revolt against Jones and take over the farm represents Marx’s prophecy of the eventual collapse of capitalism and the workers seizing control of the means of production in a communist revolution.
When Old Major warns of the danger of the animals adopting human vices, and becoming as oppressive as man is after emancipating themselves, this can be seen as a reflection both of Orwell’s and Marx’s later anti-authoritarian stance (in the Grundrisse and The Civil War in France), as opposed to his more statist stance in The Communist Manifesto.
After Old Major dies, the animals prepare for the day of revolution, with the pigs in leadership positions; this represents how, after Marx died, Lenin and his vanguard party, the Bolsheviks, led the working class in Russia in preparation for revolution there.
Jones is kinder to Moses, a raven that promises ‘Sugarcandy Mountain’, a kind of animal heaven, to all hardworking animals on the farm. Moses thus represents the Russian Orthodox Church, an authoritarian structure propped up by the tsar and ruling class, to placate the frustrated workers and keep them under control.
Finally, on a day when Jones has got too drunk to remember to feed the animals, they rebel against the farmhands and kick them off the farm. Even Jones and his wife run off, with Moses flying close behind her. This moment represents the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power.
The feeling of freedom is exhilarating for the animals, as it must have been for the Russian communists in 1917. The animals change the name of the farm, from the Manor Farm, to Animal Farm. A green flag, with a white hoof and horn crossing each other, is hoisted on a flagpole; it obviously represents the red communist flag, with the hammer and sickle.
The pigs being the smartest of the animals, just like the educated Bolsheviks, have the animals go into the fields to begin the harvest after the pigs have milked the cows. Later, it is discovered that the milk has gone missing. The Seven Commandments, painted on the barn wall, suggest a religious-like idealism for the new values of ‘Animalism,’ which represents communism, but which may also be a pun on anarchism, since full communism includes a withered-away state; also, the Bolshevik bureaucracy hadn’t developed in Russia yet. Finally, there was Nestor Makhno‘s anarcho-communist Free Territory in the Ukraine.
Not accepting defeat easily, the humans mount a counter-attack, just as the capitalist class did in Russia in 1918. The Battle of the Cowshed, which involves men from other farms helping Jones retake his farm, thus represents the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922, in which the White Army of the capitalist class included help from capitalists from other countries, like the US. The farmers lose the Battle of the Cowshed, being chased off the farm thanks in particular to the bravery of the pig Snowball; just as the White Army lost the Russian Civil War thanks to the leadership of Leon Trotsky (whom Snowball represents) and the Red Army.
Before this battle, the pig Napoleon has already secretly taken in a litter of puppies to rear them. This represents the secret machinations of Stalin (Napoleon) and his rise to power. Later, we learn that not only the milk but also the apples are being eaten by the pigs rather than shared by all the animals. This privilege represents the continuing bureaucratization of the Soviet Union, with the Bolsheviks creating a hierarchy of power, as well as advocating working with reactionary unions and bourgeois parliaments (though only when considered justified and necessary), the kind of thing that German and British Left Communists were complaining about even under the rule of Lenin, who dismissed his critics as having ‘an infantile disorder‘.
Mollie doesn’t like living on Animal Farm; she prefers the old days when men ran the farm and gave her sugar and ribbons for her mane, to make her look cute. She’s been caught by her animal comrades taking secret gifts from humans, and she eventually leaves Animal Farm to live on another farm. She represents how women can be as bourgeois as men; and even though Orwell was unlikely to have known Ayn Rand, Mollie can be seen to represent such pro-capitalist women, who left Russia with their noses firmly out of joint.
Ideological struggles begin to grow between the pigs. Snowball advocates encouraging animals all over the farms of England to revolt against their human masters; for if all farms become like Animal Farm, there will be no need to defend them against humans, since the revolution will be complete. Napoleon, on the other hand, prefers focusing on protecting Animal Farm alone, getting firearms and learning how to use them. This discord represents the ideological rift between Trotskyism and permanent revolution on the one side, and Stalinism and ‘socialism in one country‘ on the other.
Similarly, Snowball proposes building a windmill to provide electricity for the farm; this, he promises, will reduce the workload for the animals and make their lives much easier. In this, we see that Snowball, though mostly based on Trotsky, also has a bit of Lenin in him, since Lenin wanted to promote electrification in the USSR; one need only read Lenin’s writing, ‘Communism and Electrification’, from 1920: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” [Lenin’s emphasis] (Tucker, p. 492-495). As S.A. Smith says in The Russian Revolution: “Productivism was evident in Lenin’s enthusiasm for electrification, which he avowed would ‘produce a decisive victory of the principles of communism in our country’ by transforming small-scale agriculture, by eliminating drudgery from the home, and by dramatically improving public health and sanitation.” (p. 104)
(Incidentally, I find it interesting how Lenin, represented slightly in Old Major and here in Snowball, doesn’t have his own pig to represent him in full. Odd.)
Napoleon rejects Snowball’s idea, even pissing on his windmill drawings; but after having his now-fully-grown dogs (which represent the secret police of the USSR) chase Snowball off the farm, he later pretends that the windmill was his idea all along.
The chasing off of Snowball represents the exile of Leon Trotsky after he lost the power struggle with Stalin in the mid to late 1920s. Napoleon’s adoption of the plan to build the windmill, and the three attempts to build it, represent Stalin’s three Five-Year Plans to industrialize the Soviet Union, carried out mostly during the 1930s.
The animals are getting suspicious of the pigs, as were many communists of the bureaucracy in the USSR. Napoleon is now doing business with humans, namely, Mr. Whymper, trading hay, some of the wheat crop, and the chickens’ eggs for urgently needed things in order to build the windmill…but later on, also to obtain such things as booklets on brewing and distillery, for liquor. Weren’t the animals forbidden to drink alcohol, according to the Seven Commandments? Wasn’t the whole reason for ridding themselves of their human masters that the animals were to keep all the products of their labour? Weren’t all humans the enemy (‘four legs good, two legs bad’), never to be associated with?
The end of the regular animal meetings on Sunday mornings represents the fading of the influence of the Soviets, or workers’ councils, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat‘ replaced by a dictatorship of the vanguard. Napoleon doing business with the humans represents Stalin doing business with American capitalists like Ford Motor Company.
During one bitter winter, the animals’ food falls short, and they are faced with starvation. This represents the Great Famine of 1932-33.
Unwilling to part with their eggs, the chickens revolt against the pigs, and are rounded up by the dogs. The chickens, along with other animals said to be guilty of ‘treason’ against Animal Farm, are executed. This killing represents the Great Purge of the 1930s, which killed such high-profile communists as Nikolai Bukharin, and also Stalin’s use of state terror to keep his people in line. Napoleon even has the song ‘Beasts of England’ replaced with one praising him.
Napoleon is doing business with Whymper and other farms, making deals with Frederick‘s farm and Pilkington‘s (or trying to), as Stalin did with Nazi Germany (i.e., the non-aggression pact, purging the USSR of Jews, etc.) and tried to do with England. Clearly, Animal Farm isn’t so much different from other farms, as Stalin’s regime was much like any other.
The Seven Commandments are being increasingly modified, and thus discarded: the pigs are sleeping in beds, they have given themselves licence to kill any animal that is a threat to them, and they can even get drunk if they like.
Orwell is often criticized on the grounds that he never set foot in the Soviet Union; but his observations were largely confirmed by Milovan Djilas (who personally met and worked with Stalin on several occasions) in such books as The New Class and Conversations With Stalin. A new Russian elite was replacing the old, tsarist one; capitalist imperialism was traded in for Soviet imperialism. This would explain such things as the meagre help Stalin gave the Spanish communists and anarchists in the late 1930s.
In Conversations With Stalin, Djilas noted, “It is time something was said about Stalin’s attitude toward revolutions, and thus toward the Yugoslav revolution. Because Moscow abstained, always in decisive moments, from supporting the Chinese, Spanish, and in many ways even the Yugoslav revolutions, the view prevailed, not without reason, that Stalin was generally against revolutions. This is, however, not entirely correct. He was opposed only conditionally, that is, to the degree to which the revolution went beyond the interests of the Soviet state. He felt instinctively that the creation of revolutionary centres outside of Moscow could endanger its supremacy in world Communism, and of course that is what actually happened. That is why he helped revolutions only up to a certain point–up to where he could control them–but he was always ready to leave them in the lurch whenever they slipped out of his grasp.” (pp. 92-93)
Now, the erosion of animal rights needn’t symbolize only the erosion of workers’ rights in the USSR: this erosion can also represent such things as the change from liberation movements in the 60s and 70s into such mutant forms of today as political correctness, postmodernism, social justice warriors, and identity politics. The struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., was carried out with much more solidarity forty years ago than it is today. Interestingly, forty years ago, neoliberalism hadn’t quite gotten off the ground yet, either. Hmm…
The decision by farmers led by Mr. Frederick to go in and take back Animal Farm for human control results in the violent Battle of the Windmill, so called because the second windmill has been dynamited (by Mr. Frederick and his men). This battle represents the Nazi invasion of Russia during the Second World War, since Frederick represents Hitler, who, contrary to right-libertarians’ portrayal as a ‘socialist’, was as much a whore to big business as any other capitalist politician. The violence of this battle corresponds to that of the Battle of Stalingrad, often considered the bloodiest battle in military history.
A third windmill is finally built, at the cost of Boxer‘s life: its construction represents the completed transformation of the Soviet Union from an agrarian country to an industrialized superpower. But all the benefits of the windmill go to the pigs, who are now wearing clothes and walking on their hind legs! No longer do the sycophantic, mindless sheep bleat ‘four legs good, two legs bad’; now, it’s ‘four legs good, two legs better‘! The Seven Commandments have been replaced with one: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ This chilling commandment can be seen to represent not only the New Class, the nomenklatura of the Soviet bureaucracy set up and bloated by the Leninists and Stalinists, but also the reverse discrimination championed by politically correct-thinking social justice warriors.
That said, however, Orwell was not trying to attack all forms of leftism, as the right-libertarians like to think. Indeed, the political right is fond of misusing Orwell for their own propagandistic purposes, as this CIA-funded cartoon movie of Animal Farm shows. This movie’s depiction of the Soviet Union, as with every right-wing distortion of socialism, paints a much darker portrait of Stalinism than even Orwell had intended.
Ironically, the Stalinists and Maoists also seem to think Orwell was opposed to all of socialism. Actually, he was opposed only to authoritarian forms of socialism, as well as to Fascism.
Now, sometimes Orwell’s antipathy to the USSR went too far, and the attitude he had towards blacks, gays, and Jews does him no credit at all. Furthermore, one shouldn’t be too negative towards Stalin. After all, his Red Army marched into Berlin and defeated the Nazis. And his transformation of Soviet Russia, from a backward agrarian country into a modernized superpower, within just a few decades, can only be described as impressive.
The vices of Bolshevik rule tend to be exaggerated, too. Not all of Leninist authoritarianism can be so simplistically reduced to government corruption. Much of the bureaucratization, especially in the wake of the Russian Civil War, was inevitable, as S.A. Smith observes in The Russian Revolution–A Very Short Introduction: “The massive problems of recruiting, feeding, and transporting the Red Army, of squeezing grain from an unwilling peasantry, and of overcoming parochialism and inertia at the local level created irresistible pressures to centralize decision-making at the apex of the party. Moreover the constant emergencies of war fed the pressure to take instant decisions and to implement them forcefully, with the result that the party came increasingly to operate like an army.” (p. 66)
What’s more, polls have been taken in Russia, repeatedly indicating that the majority of Russians would prefer a return of the USSR. Surely, Soviet Russia wasn’t as bad as Orwell was portraying it. All this said, though, apart from the collectivization of the farms, was the USSR genuinely socialist?
Orwell’s opposition to the USSR was based on the Stalinist reality that he’d experienced in Spain (i.e., the repression of the POUM), and it wasn’t a condemnation of socialism as a whole. Consider what he had to say about anarchist Catalonia:
“It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal…All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” (Homage to Catalonia, from Orwell In Spain, pp. 32-33)
“As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists.” (Homage to Catalonia, p. 116–not from Orwell in Spain)
These are hardly the words of an anti-socialist.
His point about the pigs being indistinguishable from the humans was that the Soviets were indistinguishable from Western capitalists. Soviet ‘socialism’ was really just state capitalism, with the state–rather than the workers–controlling the means of production. This is why the Marxist state never withered away, or even approached such fading.
As Milovan Djilas explains in The New Class: “In the course of industrialization, the property of those elements who were not opposed to, or even assisted, the revolution is taken over. As a matter of form, the state also becomes the owner of this property. The state administers and manages the property. Private ownership ceases, or decreases to a role of secondary importance, but its complete disappearance is subject to the whim of the new men in authority.” (p. 30)
The pigs’ meeting with the humans at the end of the story represents the Tehran Conference of Stalin with Churchill and Roosevelt. Calling the farm ‘the Manor Farm’ (note the pun on man in Manor) again shows the reality of state capitalism rather than real socialism. Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington accusing each other of cheating when they both play the ace of spades simultaneously is an anticipation of the troubles of the Cold War.
Now, Orwell’s criticism of authoritarianism isn’t limited to the bullying of the Stalinists. He was also pointing out the weakness and conformity of the animals, who blindly follow whatever propaganda the pigs throw at them. Boxer, though loveable, isn’t very smart. His motto, “I will work harder,” is noble, but foolish. His getting up earlier and earlier in the morning to lift heavy rocks for the building of the windmills is what causes his death. Even more foolish is his saying, “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.” We mustn’t idealize our leaders, or be too willing to sacrifice ourselves for them, expecting a reward that will never come. Boxer never gets the retirement he’s deserved.
And whenever a commandment on the barn wall is altered, the animals passively accept it, imagining they have just forgotten that it has always said what it only now says. Indeed, those in authority often exploit our tendency to forget what has happened even as little as, say, ten years ago; thus, they trick us into making the same mistakes we’ve made so many times before.
Part of ending authoritarianism is the vigilance of the people to root it out whenever it’s seen. There will always be power-hungry people out there, ready to subvert justice for their own selfish ends. We, the people, have to keep watch against such demagogues, never letting their guile get the better of us.
Indeed, a similar corrupting of the ideals of personal liberty can be seen in the rise of contemporary neoliberalism. In the 1970s and 80s, right-libertarians (a kind of ‘Old Major’ in their own right) promoted the idea of the ‘free market,’ insisting that too much government regulation was bad for the economy, and akin to Stalinism. Deregulation and tax cuts ensued, allowing the rich to grow into the super-rich of today.
Ironically, instead of resulting in greater liberty, all we’ve seen is the kind of centralization that comes from capitalist accumulation, which Marx wrote about in Capital. Instead of less government, we have more of it, thanks to the excessive influence that the super-rich have over politicians (consider Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street).
With the growing of capitalism has come the growing of imperialism and the ‘War On Terror.’ Now the state interferes with our lives more than ever, but the right-libertarians propagandize that the problem is too much ‘socialist’ government, rather than too much capitalism. Today, Napoleon and the pigs aren’t the state capitalists of the USSR; now, they’re all just plain capitalists, pretending to be anti-statists.
Today, Orwell’s story is more relevant than ever, if for reasons totally different from the original ones.
S.A. Smith, The Russian Revolution: a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002
Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975
An odd thing often happens whenever I post a meme on Facebook to raise awareness–and, I hope, concern–about suffering in the Third World. Comments are often made to the effect of distracting people from the issue raised. When the Ice Bucket Challenge was a trend last year, I posted memes criticizing the frivolous waste of water, and reminding First Worlders of how difficult it is for people in Africa to get access to potable water.
People responded with the usual snark, like advising saving water while showering, or saying it’s bad to guilt-trip people who are trying to ‘make a difference’ by raising awareness about ALS. The notion that people can save water by just donating money to the cause, without making soaking-wet buffoons of themselves, apparently was too difficult for them to grasp. But of course, that was all beside the point: raising sympathy for Third World suffering isn’t about making people feel guilty for dumping freezing cold water on themselves; nor is it about distracting us from other charitable work. The reverse, on the other hand, seems very true to me. Criticizing the memes’ criticism of the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to shame those who would raise sympathy for the Third World, and to distract us from focusing on how we can try to end the suffering of people in developing countries.
Another meme I posted was of two emaciated Africans, a mother giving her child water to drink. The caption read, “So, you think you have problems?” Here’s another one with the same in-your-face message.
Some may say this kind of caption is tactless and poorly-worded, but I still consider its message valid, for as I interpreted the meme, it was referring to these kinds of problems. One response I received was from someone who obviously reads too much right-wing propaganda. He spouted the usual ignorant nonsense: “They [i.e., the poor in the Third World] should stop breeding!” That these people earn so little a day they’re forced to reproduce just to help them survive (i.e., to have their sons and daughters raise money as child labourers for their families) was lost on this guy, as was the reality of Western imperialists exploiting Africa for resources. He blamed their woes on their local, corrupt governments, ignoring how those dictators are simply the puppets of Western imperialism.
Now, I expect such twaddle from conservatives. Far more depressing it is, however, when fellow Leftists and anarchists deflect us from the needed focus on the plight of the poor in developing countries. Comments I received on one of the anarchist pages I manage on FB included a statement to the effect that one shouldn’t guilt-trip others about being preoccupied with things like “crippling depression” by making them seem insignificant compared with Third World suffering.
To assess this comment fairly, the person in question acknowledged the seriousness of poverty in the developing world: also, it would be wrong to reduce to nothingness such problems as depression, the plight of LGBT people, etc., just because many of these sufferers live in the First World. That said, however, the purpose of the post was not to make those people feel guilty: it was to tell all of us in the West, regardless of how large or small our problems may be, to put our suffering in perspective.
A Brief Digression, If You’ll Indulge Me
Perhaps my mentioning the following won’t convince the reader that I don’t have a dismissive attitude towards depression or the troubles that transgender people go through; but recently I found myself having lengthy conversations with two FB friends of mine, one from Iceland who was struggling with a chronic depression, the other having bravely revealed to me that she is a trans-woman. The time I spent listening to these two women tell me what was troubling them, and the effort I made to encourage them certainly deepened my friendship with them.
The Icelandic woman, actually quite a photogenic model, was unhappy because she felt she hadn’t done much with her life; she told me she has repeatedly had these self-doubts over quite a long period of time. I reminded her of the many impressive modelling photo shoots I’ve seen of her, and of her beautiful daughter, I’m guessing about 8 or 9, someone my sad friend can only be proud of as a mother. Judging by her more recent posts, she seems much happier now. I don’t know how much my little pep talk helped in this overall recovery, but by the end of our IM chat, her spirits seemed much raised.
As for my second friend, her problems seem much more serious. She suffered terrible physical and emotional abuse from her religiously conservative guardian, hardly any kind of a father, who insisted she was a ‘boy’.
Since then, she–quite a talented guitarist and singer, whose music I’d gladly share here for you to enjoy, except that I don’t want to expose her identity to trolling from bigoted cyberbullies–has been in the middle of sexual reassignment surgery, and hasn’t enough money to finish it. She is extremely unhappy because she wants to move to France, but her passport says she’s ‘male,’ and she can’t get the authorities to change the sex on the page. She’s already too feminine-looking, in physical appearance and mannerisms, to fake looking like a man while going through customs.
While my chats with her have hardly brought a solution to her problems within reach, they have certainly made us become closer friends; they have also helped me appreciate the unique problems that transgender people go through day to day.
Now that I have acknowledged such issues as regrettably affect many in the developed world, let’s have some real perspective. Let us begin by considering this: did my meme’s critics consider that some people in the Third World are transgender, too? That many there also suffer from crippling depression? I assure my readers that the impoverished have much more to be depressed about than, say, people in G8 countries. And women’s oppression? Consider women in the Third World, suffering such problems as genital mutilation, honour beatings, denial of education, and the like. With regard to issues concerning the sexes, what do people in the First World tend to complain about? Men sitting on NYC subways with their legs spread too wide! (I plan to deal with issues of this sort in my next blog entry; its complexity is beyond the scope of this essay.)
But let’s consider some real problems, those suffered in developing countries. People starving to death by the millions each year (especially children under five), when we produce enough food to feed the whole world, easily–food that often goes to waste in G8 countries. Consider the inaccessibility of potable water in, for example, much of Africa. Consider how children are forced to work instead of going to school, just so their families have enough money–barely enough–to live on? We in our well-lit, air-conditioned rooms tend to forget this. Again, my purpose in saying all of this is not to ‘shame’ First Worlders (after all, I’m one of them): it is to provide perspective on our problems. And maybe to teach us a little humility.
Consider Third Worlders, including children, those who are lured into lives of slavery, for example, those in Ivory Coast who make chocolate or coffee for us as we sit in comfort in such places as Starbucks, which, though it doesn’t (to my knowledge) have slave labour produce its coffee, does exploit child coffee growers in the Third World to produce their coffee cheaply. Women and girls who are forced into prostitution. Imagine the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they are subjected to; I was subjected to emotional abuse and gas-lighting by a bullying bourgeois family when I was young; but I realize that the poor in African, southeast Asian, and Latin American countries suffer far worse when they’re subjected to the same abuse, and they haven’t the money or wherewithal to escape as I had. I don’t shame myself when I realize their greater suffering–I enlighten myself with that realization.
Consider the lack of medicine in the Third World: AIDS victims in Africa who die out of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. How many die of diseases, perfectly curable diseases, provided one has access to proper medical care, mind you? With the trillion dollars that the US spends building up its military to kill people, imagine how all that money could be spent to save people. Because we must remember that all this pillaging of the Third World is done to ensure our comfort in the First World, a comfort that allows us to delude ourselves into thinking that a ‘shaming’ meme causes a suffering worthier of our attention than a suffering caused by poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Apparently, ‘shaming’ is a worse fate than death.
Indeed, another ‘comment’ made about that second FB meme, one made on both of my anarchist pages, was made by someone who actually had the presumptuous arrogance to say that such memes “invariably” are made to shame people, and that such memes’ distraction from other forms of oppression are a form of oppression in themselves. That’s extraordinary: raising awareness of poverty in the world is “invariably” a form of oppression, rather than an attempt to fight it. (Seriously: the commenter used the word “invariably”.) Frankly, I must say that the kind of self-absorption the commenter showed, pitted against the plight of millions of starving people, is genuinely deserving of a good shaming. But that’s none of my business…
To be sure, there are all kinds of suffering and oppression in the world, all problems that need remedying as soon as possible. But some problems are clearly more urgent than others, and those people who simply point out this reality don’t deserve to be shamed for saying so, let alone have their perspective ignored. When (I hope when, and not if) a socialist revolution finally happens, regardless of it being one of libertarian socialism (as I’d prefer) or of the Leninist variety, our comrades’ first priority will be to get food, medicine, and proper educational institutions to all developing countries. They need these things as soon as possible. They. Are. Dying.
We must also remember that, while helping those in the Third World is a must, leaving the Third World alone is, too. Western imperialism is what caused the Third World: all the plundering and exploitation of cheap labour is what caused their poverty in the first place. Some like to blame the victim (like that right-wing dolt I referred to earlier), and claim their problem is just their own supposed backwardness. Nothing could be farther from the truth: their people thrived and did well before the white man came along and ruined everything for them. One of the best ways we can help them is by getting out of their countries, and letting them develop for themselves.
I’m no Third-Worldist or Maoist, and I hope my all-too-easy conflating of concepts like Third World, developing countries, First World, and developed countries (or G8 countries, for that matter) doesn’t irritate the reader too much. If my terminology isn’t too precise, I hope that doesn’t distract too much from the general message.
We must always be mindful of the fact that, though we in the West are irked by the hegemony of the 1%, we First Worlders are the 1% of the world. Our global privilege, all at the Third World’s expense, has made us so comfortable and complacent that our own revolutionary potential is severely crippled, if not virtually nonexistent. The wars that imperialism fights may benefit the super-rich most of all, but we in the developed countries also benefit, if to a lesser extent, from the looting of natural resources from the Third World. Even the poor and the starving in, for example, America, though admittedly in a terrible plight, aren’t anywhere near as bad off as those in the least developed countries of the world. Informing us of this isn’t shaming: it’s an opening of our eyes, and a turning them away from our navels.
About half a year before the beginning preparations for this essay, I published another called The ‘Right’ Definition of Socialism? I received a generally positive response to it (from the few who actually read it); about the only criticisms I got from it at the time were my clumsy conflating of the terms ‘social democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism,’ as well as my far-too-facile description of the Nordic model as socialist (social democratic was what I meant), when the Scandinavian countries’ political and economic systems would be more accurately described as hybrids of capitalism with strong welfare states. Oh, well: no blogger is perfect.
I did get one other criticism, though. It came from a free marketeer who, in a brief rant, called my arguments “silly”; apparently fond of that word, he used it several times in the paragraph he typed. From what I gather, he’d read only to the passage where I said, “we’ve been drowning in [laissez-faire] for over thirty years,” and decided that what I’d been arguing was so “silly” that he didn’t need to read any further, where I would eventually explain what I meant, namely, that the ‘free market’ has been increasingly dominating world politics and economics since the 70s and 80s. No criticism of what I said later was ever mentioned. So, he probably read about one-fifth of my essay, and felt he knew my entire argument just from having read that much. Hmm…
What was the basis of his judgement that my line of argument was “silly”? As any ‘anarcho’-capitalist will tell us, it is “impossible” (his word, I must emphasize) for the free market and the state to coexist; bear in mind that later in my essay, I not only explained how they can coexist, but also must coexist. He addressed none of that section in his rant, hence my very safe assumption that he never read that far (unless his cognitive dissonance conveniently blotted out that part from his memory).
He then accused my writing style of having been full of “histrionics”: now I’m aware that I’d used exclamation marks and italics occasionally, but I’m not aware that my arguing had involved histrionics (just as I suspect he wasn’t aware of his own histrionics in his rant against me). I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to judge whether my writing of that essay, as well as this one, is a flurry of “histrionics”.
He finished off his rant by dropping a number of names of writers for me to read, and therefore enlighten my terribly uninformed mind. I’m afraid I never bothered to commit those names to memory, so I suppose I’ll never enjoy that enlightenment (perhaps if he’d simply told me what insights those writers had for me, instead of just giving me a reading list, I would have been more convinced of his point of view, one that, frankly, was even more weakly argued than the one I’d got from the Facebook troll who inspired my last essay). Therefore, still shrouded in ignorance, I will respond to his position in this essay. After all, the following arguments, already largely dealt with in my previous essay, obviously must be given with more emphasis and elaboration to cut through all that cognitive dissonance.
I: Not a Laughing Matter
It is easy to laugh at right-libertarians and their naive, ill-informed opinions, but there’s actually a danger with so many people thinking the ‘free market’, with its ever-increasing deregulation and ending of provisions for the poor and disadvantaged, is the solution to contemporary problems. More chimeric still is the idea that the free market will end crony capitalism instead of intensifying it. This delusion of free marketeers only adds to the neoliberal agenda.
On Facebook pages like Still Laughing at ‘Anarcho’-Capitalism (SLANCAP) and Ancap vs. Ancom Debate, anarcho-communists (an-coms) and anarcho-syndicalists like me, indeed, laugh at the ideology of ‘anarcho’-capitalists (an-caps), who really should just call themselves capitalists or free marketeers, since, as I explained in my previous essay, and will again explain below (for such is an-caps’ adamant refusal to listen that these explanations must be ever repeated), anarchism and capitalism cannot coexist.
Now, Martin Luther used to propose laughing at the Devil to make him go away; but the advocacy of capitalism is a kind of ‘devil’ we leftists cannot get rid of merely by laughing at it, as the admins of SLANCAP have observed of every annoying an-cap troll on that page.
However clownish my comrades and I may find the free marketeers’ feeble attempts at logic, churned out like so many fetishized commodities, we must remember that those fools are really the useful idiots of the very cronies they claim to be opposed to, as I will try to prove. It doesn’t matter how well we can out-argue them: they are unwittingly helping the mindless capitalism that is destroying everything.
II: The Relationship Between the State and Capitalism
An-caps dream about a stateless capitalist society, but anyone with a brain knows such an idea is beyond utopian. Capitalists need the state, its laws, and police enforcement to protect private property. This isn’t rocket science: it’s common sense, and it is why many socialists are also, like me, anarchists…the genuine kind.
On the other side of the coin, if the state seizes control of the means of production (nationalization), instead of the workers taking control (as we anarcho-communists would have it), capitalism still wouldn’t disappear. Instead, the state would simply become the new capitalists. The socialist state might use government revenue generously and create universal healthcare and education, as well as other welfare programs to help the poor, but the state would still be the new boss. Indeed, Milovan Dilas’s New Class theory is all about how the bureaucratized Soviet Union created a new ruling class (the Nomenklatura) in spite of its promise to create a classless society. Similarly, countries with mixed economies can each be seen as a kind of state capitalism, with their mix of private and state control of the means of production.
So as we can see, the state and capitalism are always together in some form or another. They are eternal lovers, and so to get rid of the one, we must get rid of the other. Both Romeo and Juliet must die. Even Marxist-Leninists, in a way, imply an acknowledgement of this reality in their theorizing. Once all capitalist societies around the world are annihilated, all the transitional socialist states–set up to replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat–will become superfluous. The state won’t be abolished, Marx and Engels say, it will die out. It will wither away. No more capitalism, so no more state.
The common explanation given by the average an-cap to explain our current–and ongoing–political and economic woes is to claim that the cause isn’t capitalism per se, but rather ‘crony capitalism,’ or ‘corporatism.’ To leftists, such verbiage is redundant. Now for the an-cap, the solution isn’t to eradicate capitalism, but to ‘purity’ it somehow. As the free marketeer sees it, the current incarnation of capitalism is controlled by the state, and therefore corrupted. What he cannot see is that he has the problem upside-down: it is capitalism that is directing the state; this is how things have been ever since capitalism emerged and began replacing feudalism several centuries ago.
An-caps imagine that the solution to our problems is to have free market capitalism, something they bizarrely think has never truly existed. Supposedly, if the state exists, and with it taxes, regulation of the economy, and the like, then ‘real’ capitalism never has existed. This is a would-be clever evasion of responsibility for all the havoc capitalism has caused around the world, except for the fact that no leftist is buying such a disingenuous excuse.
Of course, every benefit of the modern world that we enjoy–every convenience, our smartphones, our computers, and all our other forms of the latest technology–is the creation of a capitalism that ‘has never existed,’ rather than made by over-worked, underpaid factory workers; so we socialists are hypocrites, apparently, for making use of such technology (the fact that socialists need to participate in this economic system in order just to survive, apparently, is no excuse). But I digress…
More to the point, though: why should we believe that the solution to our woes is an intensification of the same neoliberalism we’ve already been increasingly enduring for the past thirty-five to forty years? Now we must understand what the ‘free market’ really is.
III: What Is the Free Market?
An-caps subscribe to a predictably simple-minded definition of the free market, and therefore of capitalism in general: the total absence of a state, leaving businesses to buy and sell freely, and to compete fairly, without any government favouritism. We would thus have a level playing field, where employers and employees make ‘voluntary’ agreements: bosses can pay their workers as little as they like, and make them work as long a set of hours as they wish. Workers would be content in this Never-never land, or if not, they would be ‘free’ to quit and perhaps start their own businesses…though how they would get such an opportunity, with such small scraps of a salary, is never explained. Still, we’re expected to buy into this idea uncritically and think, What joy! What bliss! Indeed, I can see Julie Andrews now, twirling in an Austrian (!) field, singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of markets!” (I hope my histrionics aren’t irritating you too much, dear reader.)
What makes this definition so ridiculously obtuse is not so much its Randian utopianism, but also its dichotomous absolutism, with black capitalism on one side and white centralized government on the other. The truth is that the free market and regulation exist on a continuum of varying shades of grey: sometimes more regulation, sometimes less.
Furthermore, it isn’t a matter regulation per se: regulation is a matter of which things ‘ought’ to be regulated, and which not. Is it regulation for the sake of workers’ rights? Is it regulation to stop businesses from harming the environment? Or, as in the case of regulating against monopolies, is it regulation for the sake of fairness in the market? That latter kind of regulation can prevent the crony capitalism that an-caps claim only an absolutely free market can prevent.
What must be emphasized, ultimately, is that there is no one objective definition of the free market. With varying extents of regulation or deregulation appealing to different capitalists’ or socialists’ needs, how could there be only one?
I don’t subscribe to this writer’s proposed solutions to our economic problems by any stretch of the imagination, but as Ha-Joon Chang relates in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, regulations are like the invisible strings holding up kung fu fighters in movies: we don’t see them, but they’re still there (see pages 3-6, Penguin Books, London, 2010). Many of the laws that we consider humane today, such as those against child labour, were considered unjust from the point of view of free market advocates in the 19th century. Do an-caps want to return to that kind of barbarism? Judging by the not only callous but outright bizarre comments made by an-caps about allowing rape or murder in a stateless society, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to assume that many of them do want such a return (In my previous essay, The ‘Right’ Definition of Socialism?, scroll down to the SLANCAP meme to see what I’m getting at.).
Unlike the regulations analogous to the invisible strings of movie kung fu fighters, though, there are other regulatory strings that are more like the strings on UFOs in low budget movies: strings obvious to most people, but always missed by an-caps, those Ed Woods of politics. How would a stateless capitalist society be able to protect the capitalists’ private property? Regardless of one’s attitude towards the validity or invalidity of ‘property rights,’ surely common sense would cause even advocates of private property to realize that a state, its laws, and police would all be necessary to keep the capitalist system intact.
IV: The Free Market and the State Must Coexist
An-caps make all kinds of absurd counterarguments in their vain attempts to invalidate this simple fact, ranging from weird ideas like getting their guns and firing at all thieves trying to break in and seize their property (I wonder if the an-caps plan to take amphetamines and stay awake 24/7 so they’re always on guard. Will their employees do it for them? How do the an-caps know their hired guards won’t turn on them?), to employing security services of some kind (privatized police, in other words). With this latter idea, the ‘free market’ will ensure, apparently, that ‘rational self-interest’ will motivate these competing businesses of capitalist cops to do a much better job of protecting property rights than state police, with its monopoly on force and, therefore, lesser incentive to do a better job. We pay the cops, and they curb crime. This might work…if you’re rich.
How are the poor supposed to get protection with such a system, when their pay is so low (no more state-enforced minimum wage, not even a shitty one) they can barely even support themselves? This question remains unanswered. And what of the benefits of privatized police for the rich? How will that pan out? This should not be too difficult to figure out. These hypothetical security services will either be each preferred by each of the many competing companies, making them essentially the soldiers of rival mafias, or the most successful of them will be the shared police force of all Big Business in Ancapistan, the less successful police companies being merged with and/or acquired by the top one. Laws will evolve, giving structure and justification for the new system…and voila! We have a free market STATE.
Police in their present incarnation are already contemptible as it is. In fact, they’ve always been contemptible. They’re bullies with bullets. Can one even begin to imagine how thuggish they would be in Ancapistan?
Here’s the thing about an-caps: the particularly stupid ones clearly haven’t carefully thought through how their utopia will be; the more intelligent (and thus more disingenuous) ones secretly know that it was never their intention to pulverize the state–they merely want to privatize it. Put another way, they want to do what successful right-libertarians have already largely done. They want to be the cronies of their own corporatism.
That ‘real’ capitalism would result in a level playing field, with perfectly fair competition, is false both to capitalism and to human nature. The very competitive nature of capitalism not only makes rival businesses want to come out on top–using any sleazy method they can possibly come up with, including taking advantage of state favouritism–but also compels those businesses to do so. Companies not only want to win in competition, they need to win; and considering all the difficulties a company may have in achieving a victory, it isn’t surprising that many would use quick, easy ways to get that victory, including government regulation in their favour at the expense of their rivals.
Still, an-caps can’t imagine how their idealized conception of ‘true capitalism’ could possibly have a state propping it up. Of course, they have it all arse-backwards, as they do so many things. They imagine that the state has capitalism in chains. And of course, these chains are generally some variety of an abhorrent tyranny called socialism!
Apparently, not only communism, social democracy, and anarchism (the real kind, mind you) are examples of the socialist despotism of the state (Gosh: anarchism, too?), but, according to right-libertarians, so are Fascism, Nazism (whose National Socialist German Worker’s Party is a name taken too much at face value), and, bizarrely, the Obama administration. Ergo, the state and capitalism must be mutually exclusive. Bollocks.
V: The Free Market and the State Can Coexist
Firstly, the state is frequently oppressive, enough for anarchists like me to oppose it, but it isn’t always so in an absolute sense. Some are clearly worse than others. While Salvador Allende’s vision of a socialist Chilean state is far from my own ideals, I would have preferred it over Augusto Pinochet’s free market, authoritarian nightmare any day. The worst states are generally right-wing monstrosities, like his, Hitler’s, Franco’s, or the Bushes’. The best states may be socialist, or quasi-socialist, but are unreliable, as the hopes of creating a just society tend to degenerate into bureaucracies that either result in some kind of Stalinism, or create a Nomenklatura New Class.
Secondly, socialism needs to be clearly defined, and free of right-wing propaganda. Socialism advocates a worker-ruled society. Some socialists advocate using the state to make a transition from capitalism to classlessness (either through a revolutionary vanguard, as the Leninists would have it, or through gradual nonviolent voting, as the social democrats would have it). Others, like me, want a revolution, then complete anarchy immediately afterwards. We all want liberation; we don’t want anything redolent of tyranny.
Many right-libertarians subscribe to the ideas discussed in Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism, which contends that there is much that was left-wing in Mussolini’s Fascism, and in Nazi Germany, and much that has been fascist in the American Left. Goldberg’s weakly-argued thesis was actually meant as a kind of devil’s advocate rejoinder to the Left’s frequent labeling of conservatives in general as ‘fascists’. Now, admittedly, the Left does tend to use the label of ‘fascist’ too…liberally…to describe our ideological enemies. Fascism does refer to a more specific ideology than the popular use of the term does.
But to describe socialism as synonymous with fascism is patently absurd. Painting all conservatives with the same fascist brush may be a stretch, but to paint all leftists with it, even those of the authoritarian variety, is just plain wrong. There have been times when demagogues like Joseph Goebells spoke the language of socialism, and fascism in theory may mix elements of left and right; but this all must be put in its proper political context.
Fascists were essentially political opportunists. In the 20s, Hitler indeed railed against capitalism (as well as communism) to steal as much of the vote of the Left as he could, and gained the following of left-leaning men like Goebells, Ernst Rohm, and the Strassers. But when he came to power, and had the backing of Big Business, he moved the German state decisively to the Right, and purged the Nazi Party of all left-leaning members, including Rohm and the Strassers, during the Night of the Long Knives. The only remaining left-leaning Nazi, Goebells, was deeply saddened to see only the Nationalist agenda fulfilled, but not the Socialist aspect. Rohm and the Strassers were similarly disappointed: hence their assassinations. And the first people to be put into the concentration caps were socialists: communists, anarchists, and social democrats. If Nazis were socialists, they were pretty strange ones.
Predictably, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany backed the right-wing coalition of Nationalists led by Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939; this coalition combined Catholics, monarchists and the fascist Falange party, all of whom felt it was their mission to ‘save’ Spain from the influence of new, modern ideas like…socialism! When the Francoists won, all communists and anarchists were brutally repressed.
Since Fascism is supposed to be a Third Position between capitalism and communism (the closest it really comes to being socialist, which isn’t saying much), the Falangists were opposed to free market reforms. But in 1959, Spain was forced to adopt such reforms because it was facing near bankruptcy, and while there was economic liberalization of a sort that right-libertarians love (the Spanish Miracle), all other aspects of Francoist repression and state brutality remained intact. The free market and an oppressive state went hand in hand.
Francoist Spain isn’t an isolated case of the free market and a tyrannical government existing side by side. Another noteworthy example is when the democratically elected Chilean socialist government of Salvador Allende was toppled by a CIA-backed coup that brought the brutally authoritarian Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973…the other September 11th. Pinochet’s political opponents suffered terribly: between 1,200 and 3,200 people were killed, up to 80,000 people were put in concentration camps, and as many as 30,000 were tortured while he was in power. Through the influence of the Chicago Boys, Pinochet’s government (1973-1990) also introduced free market reforms, which resulted in the ‘Miracle of Chile,’ but also created terrible economic inequality: wages decreased by 8%, budgets for education, health, and housing decreased by over 20% on average, and trade unions were restricted. In 1988, 48% of Chileans lived below the poverty line, and a referendum paved the way for the reestablishment of democracy in 1990.
Finally, we must look at how Reagan’s and Thatcher’s economic reforms show the growth of the free market in the context of the state. The four pillars of ‘Reaganomics‘ were a reduction in the growth of government spending, reductions in taxes, less government regulation, and a tightening of the money supply to reduce inflation. He wanted a return to the free market economics that had preceded FDR’s New Deal and Keynesian economics. As a result, there was a rise in homelessness during Reagan’s first term and a sharp rise in it just after his second had ended.
Free market ideas grew under the administrations of George W. Bush, Clinton (aspects of his administration, anyway–i.e., NAFTA, the Welfare Reform Bill of 1996, and the subsequent budget compromise of 1997), and Obama (the so-called ‘socialist’), in spite of (rather because of) Big Government. Bear in mind NAFTA, which had its roots in the free trade agreement between the US and Canada in 1988, then came into full form, including Mexico, in 1994. This sort of thing has ballooned into globalization, in which worldwide free trade benefits only the wealthy in all countries. Indeed, free trade is really just thinly-disguised capitalist imperialism.
Thatcher similarly introduced free market reforms in the UK, restraining government spending and giving tax cuts to the rich. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown largely continued these policies despite being of the Labour Party; indeed, the name of that party seems historically to have been little more than just a name. This kind of catering to the capitalist class is the essence of the neoliberal agenda, and an-caps are willfully blind to all the evil it causes.
These free market reforms have also been made, to give a few examples, in Australia under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s and 90s; also, in New Zealand under Finance Minister Roger Douglas since 1984, continuing in the early 90s with Ruth Richardson; and in Japan under Koizumi from 2001 to 2006. Also, free market influences came in the 1990s in the form of the Washington Consensus, forged by the World Bank and the IMF; free market ideology is also espoused in prominent media such as the Financial Times and The Economist. There were a few moderately Keynesian changes in the 2000s, but things have nonetheless remained largely laissez-faire.
What again must be emphasized is that free market ideals like deregulation and tax cuts don’t have to be absolutes in order to exist in essence. These laissez-faire ideas can, however, increase incrementally over the years, as they most obviously have. Only someone who is either ignorant of history, or unwilling to have his or her an-cap biases challenged by simply doing some reading to see the abundant proof, would not be aware of the monster that laissez-faire has grown into over the past three or four decades.
The problem with an-caps is their absurd notion that the free market can only exist with absolutely no state. No credible proof is ever given that such a state of affairs must be: it is ‘true’ merely because an-caps say it is true. This sort of thing is the essence of religious dogma. One must accept the idea of stateless capitalism on faith. The idea cannot be tested or falsified, because it is only theoretical. Like ‘praxeology,’ there is no empiricism used to verify its validity.
To anyone with a modicum of common sense, however, the free market, as opposed to heavy regulation and high taxes, exists on a continuum from a minarchist black to a Keynesian dark grey, then a social democratic light grey, then a Marxist white, if you will. Minarchism, or capitalism with minimal state involvement, is the closest an-caps will ever come to realizing their chimerical dream…and even the realization of as little as that is highly doubtful. For what is minimized in ‘minarchy’ isn’t the state’s monopoly on force per se, but socialist safety nets for the poor.
VI: As the Free Market Expands, the State Expands
Capitalism is all about growth and expansion: that’s why it’s called capitalism. The capitalist is ever trying to acquire more and more capital. Commodities are sold as exchange values, profits are made, there is reinvestment, and more factories, more branches of businesses, and more commodities are produced and sold, starting the cycle all over again. This cycle goes round and round, and there are no limits to capital’s growth, or at least there mustn’t be any limits.
With this increase in the amount of private property, there must be a proportionate growth in the state apparatus to defend the capitalists’ gains. Not that I agree ideologically with Lenin, but he was right to point out that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. When capitalists have run out of markets in their own countries, they must seek out new markets in other countries. This is the basis of modern-day imperialism. It isn’t the state all by itself that causes all these horrible wars; it is the corporations, for which the state is a whore, that cause them.
Capitalist countries create, or propose to create, free trade deals like NAFTA, TTIP, and TPP to do such things as procure cheap labour from Third World countries. Wars are fought because there are profits to be made off of them. Small wonder America has military bases in countries all over the world: this is the state in the service of capitalism.
So, we have all this economic liberalization all over the world, laissez-faire capitalism with a fully intact state, and that state is expanding into the size of a monster in a Japanese kaiju film. Hence the perpetual ‘War on Terror,’ NSA spying, and militarized police brutality in America.
VII: So, What Can An-Caps Hope For?
An-caps need to understand that unfettered capitalism is the problem, not the solution. The free market is not the ‘liberating’ utopia they think it is. Laissez-faire doesn’t free us from the state’s monopoly on force, it brings the state into existence, more and more. They imagine that it’s a choice of either the free market or the state, so if one is opposed to capitalism, one must be a ‘statist.’ I don’t know how many times we an-coms have held our heads in our hands in sorrow from hearing such a ridiculous false dichotomy.
Though I consider a Keynesian-style mixed economy to be preferable to the grotesque income inequality caused by the free market, that is only because anything is preferable to laissez-faire. An-caps seem to forget that the high standard of living enjoyed in the First World during the Golden Age of Capitalism in the mid-twentieth century was to a great extent due to Keynesian capitalism, not the free market variety.
That said, I don’t ultimately want Keynesianism, either, because it allows the ruling class to stave off revolution by throwing a few bones at the poor. I worry that if Keynesianism is revived, and the wolf of the working class is kept at bay for a few decades, another economic crisis, like those of the 1970s, could bring the free marketeers back, reviving the neoliberal nightmare for ensuing decades. For, regardless of whether Keynesian or laissez-faire, capitalism is still capitalism, resulting in wealth inequality and economic crises. I want liberation from that roller-coaster forever, and I see anarchism as the cure.
Here’s what the an-caps miss: capitalism is an inherently unstable system, given to frequent economic crises or recessions, over and over again. It may cause a rise in the standard of living, but this is enjoyed largely by the ruling class; those underneath get very little.
Also, the tyranny the an-caps fear of communism is largely the fault of state socialists (i.e., Leninists), who frequently went after other communists (i.e., anarchists, Trotskyists, etc.) as rapaciously as they did after capitalists. The Bolsheviks didn’t just kill the tsar’s family and capitalists during the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1918-1921: they also went after Nestor Makhno’s anarcho-communists. The Bolsheviks also put down the anarchist Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921. Finally, there was Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s, again killing off or imprisoning large numbers of communists, as well as pro-capitalist reactionaries. Almost all the crimes of communism can be attributed to Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, and the like. Extra-judicial shootings by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT/FAI during the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much smaller death count, and those were far more justified: after all, they were fighting fascists, who were guilty of much greater brutality when they won.
We anarchists do not advocate a transitional state to smooth over the shift from capitalism to communism: Leninists do. We do not want a vanguard to lead us, as we consider such a thing too authoritarian, leading to the tyranny an-caps fear. We want a revolution, but we don’t want anyone having power over us, financially or politically.
An-caps claim that, in the victory of anarchy (by their definition), they will allow an-coms and anarcho-syndicalists to coexist with them; but we see how disingenuous this claim is, considering how compulsively capitalism grows, trying to snatch up everything around it in its quest for more and more profit. Whenever large groups of people live together, there will always be some element of making others conform, to some extent at least, to the community standards approved of by consensus; but anarchism at least strives for an egalitarianism (no racism, no sexism, no homophobia or transphobia, or any other forms of discrimination) that most an-caps couldn’t care less about. We are the ones who want fairness and freedom, not them.
Still, if the an-caps are so terrified of the advent of Stalinism, and they want to debate with those who genuinely advocate authoritarian socialism, my suggestion to them is this: take it up with the tankies, not with anarchists. People like Jason Unruhe (Maoist Rebel News) will go to the mattresses defending Stalin, Mao Zedong, or even North Korea. Go debate with people like him; I promise you a lively discussion. (I may have used some material from Unruhe, since I find his critiques of capitalism and the like useful for my purposes, but don’t be mistaken: I don’t agree with half of his ideas about implementing socialism.)
Don’t equate us anarchists with Leninists, though. Stop painting all socialists with the same brush. Put an end to your closed-mindedness and actually learn a few things about socialism; such an education will effect a much-needed cure to your prejudices. Socialism is not ‘gummint, gummint, gummint.’ Socialism is worker control, sometimes attempted through the aid of the state, sometimes not, as is the case with anarchism.
And capitalism will not lead to the horn of plenty you an-caps think it will. Capitalism is, in fact, a tyranny all its own. Apart from overworking and underpaying workers in countries around the world, especially those in sweatshops in the Third World, capitalism–particularly the free market variety–has either directly or indirectly caused the deaths of at least ten times as many people as the highest estimates given to communism. (For a fuller examination of this, please see my previous essay, The ‘Right’ Definition of Socialism?, under the sub-heading, ‘IV–Capitalist Crimes‘.) The number of people, especially children, who’ve starved to death, in the Third World in particular, over the past twenty to thirty years–all preventable deaths, given how we can easily produce enough food to feed the whole world, but don’t because of the profit motive–is already a higher statistic than the highest estimate of deaths blamed on communism.
So my suggestion to an-caps is that if they really hate the state that much, they should rethink their support for ‘property rights,’ and understand that as long as private property (not personal property, which will remain as such under communism) continues to exist, so will the need for a state. Abolish private property, and the state will either ‘wither away,’ or be abolished, too.
Here’s a secret: I used to be an an-cap (for about half a year or so), then I came to realize that private property had to be abolished in order to smash the state, and I opened my mind to the socialist criticism of capitalism. I went from right to left (I’m not the only former an-cap, either), and I haven’t regretted it. I suggest you an-caps consider doing the same: then you’ll be real anarchists.
The notion that the state and ‘true’ capitalism are incompatible is complete nonsense. A state must exist to protect private property, and deregulation and tax cuts needn’t exist in an absolute sense, though there can always be fewer regulations (or fewer of the sort that are inconvenient to the more successful of capitalists, anyway) and more tax cuts for the rich. Capitalism is always about more for us and less for everyone else.
Working for free is actually something some capitalists want to encourage. Evil. What will be next, I wonder: legalized human trafficking? You see, here’s the thing that capitalists simply don’t want to admit–they’re selfish. An-caps may want to be the bosses pushing for free labour, but I don’t think they’ll want to be the workers in such a situation.
Right-libertarians will never abolish the state, but they can keep on shrinking it, or more accurately, shrink those aspects of the state that serve the poor, while the other aspects of the state–those needed to protect private property at home and abroad (i.e., those of imperialism)–get more and more bloated.
An-caps say they’re anti-state. How adorable: so do the Koch brothers, two of capitalism’s cronies who have been contributing to (right-) libertarian think-tanks and campaigns ever since the late 1970s. Charles Koch actually co-founded the Cato Institute with Edward H. Crane and Murray Rothbard in 1977! David H. Koch was a (right-) libertarian vice-presidential candidate in 1980. They have advocated doing away with such things as Social Security and public schools, and lobbied against universal health care and climate change legislation. They also fund and support organizations that contribute to Republican candidates. David even supported Mitt Romney in 2012.
So all of this ‘anti-state’ but pro-capitalist thinking not only keeps the state alive and well, but it also reinforces the insidious neoliberal agenda. We anarchists may find a lot to laugh at in the ideology of an-caps, but their support of the status quo and its intensification is no laughing matter.
[NOTE TO READER: Though I personally am an anarchist, the following is a defence of socialism in general. In particular, while I mention social democracy and anarchism, my focus is on defending communism against right-wing bias. My criticisms are mostly of neoliberalism, but in general I am writing here against all forms of capitalism.]
Several months before the time of this writing, on a Facebook page for debates, a question was asked: what is the definition of socialism? The answer I gave was that the means of production are to be put into the hands of the workers, as opposed to being owned privately or by the state. I felt that this was about as objective a definition as one could come up with: I still do.
Then I started getting trolled by someone who is obviously stridently anti-socialist. (For the sake of discretion, I’ll refrain from revealing his name.) So much for objectivity in the discussion. The usual straw-man arguments were used, including the use of force to try to realize the unrealizable: utopia ‘at the point of a gun’.
Apparently, the anti-socialist troll wasn’t aware of the existence of democratic socialism, let alone its remarkable success in such places as Scandinavia (in Sweden, they’re actually experimenting with the idea of a six-hour workday). Still, imagine his response had I brought that up. He would probably have responded by saying the capitalists there are being ‘forced’ into paying high taxes–a kind of government robbery. The notion that overworked, underpaid workers are being robbed of the full fruits of their labour presumably doesn’t exist as a concept to him, nor that the taxes just give back what was taken from the poor.
Anyway, I responded to his cliche critiques by sharing a YouTube video called Why You’re Wrong About Communism. Perhaps this video, with its rather brief, seven-minute defence of what’s considered a more extreme form of socialism, wasn’t the best choice for a rejoinder. [The communist speaker, Jesse Myerson, gives a fuller treatment of his argument in this Salon article, Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism).] Still, to anyone who is reasonably knowledgeable about labour issues, the video was a fair response.
This was my troll friend’s word-for-word response to the video:
First there is a difference between capitalism as it is today and free market capitalism.
The capitalism that we have today is a top down government directed sort, which moves money and power to the elite, same as communism. The proletariat are merely the worker bees for the elite.
“THE TYRANNY OF WORK”, What an ass. You don’t work you don’t eat. If enough people stop working how there will be enough of anything for anybody. They can fire you, you can also quit, I don’t hear anyone raising arms to protect the employer about that.
What a stupid, stupid man, such a dreamer, how do you make it function so that there is enough supply for everyone. Answer a top down, government controlled police state. Orwell was right, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face…FOREVER.
His demeanor belies his belief is nothing more than a dream.
Communism is the dream the eventually becomes the nightmare.
The ironic thing about what the troll said is that, as recent as about two years ago, I would have eagerly agreed with him, more or less 100%. I have, however, since learned more about labour issues and therefore now understand that whatever is ‘impressive’ about his argument is only superficially so. Looked at with greater scrutiny, his response shows appalling straw-manning and ignorance, to say nothing of its callousness toward the plight of the poor.
My response to his argument, given below point for point, was not posted on the Facebook page for him to read (nor do I wish it to be) for several reasons: first, it is too long, and would read like a rant (for indeed, there are so many weaknesses in his logic that such a lengthy response is unavoidable); second, he is obviously so biased against my position that he’ll never listen or open his mind to it (right-wing propaganda will do that); and finally, his kind of opinionated, obnoxious attitude (“what an ass…What a stupid, stupid man…”) is something I have little patience for, and what follows below would assuredly just be answered with more of his aggressive, closed-minded rudeness and straw-man arguments. Thus, I write this response for those willing to listen and open their minds.
I–The Free Market
By contrasting “free market” capitalism against “capitalism as it is today”, namely, “a top down government directed sort”, he is suggesting a number of utterly absurd ideas: the free market isn’t a top-down sort of capitalism, it doesn’t involve government at all (or involves only a minimal amount of government intervention), and what we have today isn’t laissez-faire capitalism.
He also, fantastically, more or less equates the crony capitalism of the Obama administration with communism, showing his obvious ignorance of even the most basic of Marxist ideas (it’s always amusing to know that those most hostile to socialism are those totally ignorant of its most elementary ideas). Socialist governments do not redistribute wealth and power to the rich, unless they’re so corrupt as no longer to deserve to be called socialist; they redistribute it to the poor–the point should be obvious. What we have today in America is the exact opposite of communism, in almost every conceivable way. More on that later.
Communism is a system involving a classless, stateless, and money-less society; socialism, according to the definition given by Marxist theory, is the transition between capitalism and communism, using a socialist state (the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat‘) to effect that transition. This transition is what socialist states like the USSR and China under Mao tried to achieve. Anarcho-communists like me, on the other hand, want full communism immediately after the proletarian revolution, with no transitional state in between.
This stateless preference is, as I see it, for two reasons: first, because the state capitalism of socialist states tends to be self-perpetuating rather than effecting a real transition to full communism (the state becomes the new capitalists); either this self-perpetuation occurs, or we have a relapse into capitalism (i.e., Russia in the 1990s, or China from Deng Xiaoping onward). The second reason for preferring no transitional state is to avoid the kind of totalitarianism my trolling friend is so terrified of, but can’t imagine existing in the free market, which I must examine now.
The so-called ‘free market’ is something fetishized by many Americans (including my American troll friend), more than a few British, and sporadically others (i.e., Stefan Molyneux in Canada), people who either allow themselves to be taken in by right-wing propaganda, or try to con others with it. These people imagine that an unregulated, or at least minimally regulated, economy will result in prosperity for all. In their world (as well as that of the conspiracy theorists), government is apparently the only evil to be vanquished. Capitalism, on the other hand, is perfectly OK and should be left alone. Minimized taxation, ‘freedom’ to pay lower wages, and reduced benefits for workers will result in maximized profits (of course!), which will in turn result in maximized reinvestment, creating more jobs. The wealth of the rich will therefore ‘trickle down’ to the poor. (Notice how, apparently, ‘trickle down‘ economics is in no way connected to a “top down” sort of capitalism.)
This idea is not merely ridiculously untrue; it is an outright lie. Wealth inequality is now reaching levels comparable in many ways to those of the 19th century, largely because of neoliberal policies advocated in the 1970s and begun during the Reagan and Thatcher years. We aren’t lacking in laissez-faire capitalism: we’ve been drowning in it for over thirty years now. Only readers of right-wing propaganda would have missed that fact. I once did, because I used to read conservative agit-prop; I, indeed, was once a right-libertarian, much like my troll friend seems to be–but like Will Moyer, I’m not anymore.
[NOTE TO READER: My use below of a book by economist Ha-Joon Chang–who advocates a ‘reformed’ capitalist economy with extensive government regulation of a sort essentially like the kind advocated by mainstream liberals or social democrats–must not be misconstrued as an endorsement of such suggestions for a solution to our present economic woes. I want absolutely no compromises with capitalism. I use Chang’s book only to show the hopeless flaws of free market capitalism, for his book gives a devastating critique of it. He himself considers capitalism to be “the worst economic system except for all the others.” (his emphasis) So, like Keynes, who allegedly once said capitalism is, “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds,” Chang can be seen as an example of how even some capitalists admit that capitalism is a terrible system.]
23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang (Penguin Books, 2010), is a timely book that thoroughly examines how the free market is not only responsible for all the appalling wealth inequality we’ve been suffering, but is also ineffective in improving the economy–the one rationale for adopting laissez-faire. The one virtue it supposedly has, which its advocates claim will compensate for wealth inequality, even that virtue is lacking.
To keep the economy going, people need to have money to buy things; they can’t do that if the vast majority are so poor that they can barely subsist. During the mid-twentieth century, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ (between 1950 and 1973), when the economy enjoyed the highest-ever growth rates in most of the rich capitalist countries (Chang, page 142), unions were strong, there was rapid growth in progressive taxation and social welfare spending, and wages were higher. The free market had nothing to do with this prosperity.
What Chang’s book shows (page 145) is how, with the rise of neoliberalism from the 80s to the present, economic growth in the top capitalist economies has actually slowed. The free market is clearly bad for the economy, and bad all around. It is clear to all thinking people that laissez faire benefits the rich, and only the rich. It’s also easy to see that free market advocates, who routinely dupe ‘anarcho’-capitalists with their anti-government (and only anti-government) rhetoric, are not only wrong, they’re outright lying.
It is so sad to know that many people are still deceived by these lies, to this day, even after the 2008 economic crisis (which prompted Chang’s book). To say that a freer market, or a non-governmental, absolutely free market (of the sort that the ‘anarcho’-capitalists propose), is the solution to the world’s ills makes as much sense as saying that Naziism would have benefitted the world had it been allowed to run its course, with no resistance at all!
There are, of course, some examples of badly planned economies in socialist countries: for example, the Soviet-type planned economy, with its systemic undersupply, anti-innovation bias, and low quality of goods, among many other problems; and the disastrous Great Leap Forward of Maoist China. Social Democrats in northern European countries, however, have proven much more capable (see Chang, pages 104-105, to learn how Norway, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, and Sweden all had higher per capita incomes, in US dollars, than the US in 2007. Remember that these countries are largely social democratic).
Just as there are different kinds of capitalism, there are also different kinds of socialism, as opposed to the troll’s straw-man characterization of them by painting them all with the same brush. Now, which ideology’s differences are more significant, and which more negligible–those of socialism, or those of capitalism? These differences we will now explore.
The troll’s notion of a “top down government directed sort” of capitalism is crony capitalism, or ‘corporatism’, where certain big, powerful corporations are given preferential treatment over other businesses, such as Mom and Pop ones–in other words, favouritism through government regulation. I assume he imagines that the ‘free market’ will result in a level playing field in which all businesses compete equally. Then happiness and harmony will reign. Speaking of utopian dreaming…
Since capitalism requires a state to protect private property, and since capitalism’s driving motive is always gain–no matter who among the poor gets hurt, then it is easy to see how capitalism quickly degenerates into cronyism. If the state can benefit certain companies against others–for a price–by regulating in the formers’ favour, then those richer companies will gladly forsake fairness to make even greater profits. With capitalism, the key word is profit, not freedom.
Also, as Chang explains in his book, there is no such thing as an objectively defined ‘free market’ (pages 1-10). What some consider necessary regulations, others consider hindrances to the free market. Some regulations are ‘invisible’, as it were, and taken for granted, but are absolutely necessary to hold a capitalist society together.
Capitalism requires state protection of private property just to exist (I’m sorry to disillusion the ‘anarcho’-capitalists, but if they had their way, the capitalists would become the state, more or less immediately), and where there’s a state, there will always be regulations of one kind or another. That is part of the state’s raison d’être.
So the question shouldn’t be whether there should be government regulation at all, or none at all, but rather how much–or how little–regulation there should be. Put another way, how far shall we take deregulation, if government–and government alone–is such an evil bogeyman? Shall we, for example, legalize child labour, or even child pornography, just for the sake of the free market? What about slavery, when human trafficking already exists in a huge way, if illegally? Won’t decriminalizing those moral monstrosities maximize profits and boost the economy? It is ‘job creation’, after all, isn’t it?
Just to give you an idea of how scary some ‘anarcho’-capitalists envision a stateless capitalist society, remarks were made on a page called ‘AnCap 101’ on Reddit.com: on the comments page answering the questions of ‘Left Anarchist here, can somebody give me some answers?’. Scroll down to where it says “Are laws different from town to town?” Thanks to SLANCAP for bringing this to my attention:
Here we see how the free market is a dream that eventually turns into a nightmare.
When free market advocates promote deregulation, they aren’t talking about ending government oppression (quite the opposite, as we’ll see): they just want to hog as much money to their avaricious selves as they can. They wish to annihilate only those aspects of government that they find inconvenient, i.e., socialism.
II–The Tyranny of Work
The next thing my free marketeer friend took issue with was the notion of “the tyranny of work”, as described by Jesse Myerson in the YouTube video. The quintessential trolling tactic for stifling dissent and ‘winning’ an argument cheaply–through rudeness and emotion instead of through a carefully constructed counter-argument–is epitomized in this cocky retort: “What an ass…what a stupid, stupid man, such a dreamer…”
What can I say, but that I love the smell of ad hominem attacks in the morning. To the troll, I suppose it smells like victory.
When Myerson spoke of involuntary employment and involuntary unemployment, and of the need to liberate ourselves from that, he wasn’t advocating a world where people don’t have to work at all. He spoke of coupling the idea of a guaranteed minimal income with guaranteed work, so under socialism we wouldn’t have droves of people living in total idleness, while everything is being produced for them like magic. Myerson’s idea could be compared to what is being experimented with in Sweden, with the six-hour work-day.
Myerson was advocating a more flexible lifestyle where, of course, people work, but they don’t have to find themselves so chained to their job that they can’t even leave it alone on weekends (e.g. the boss calling you on your smartphone over and over again when you’re trying to enjoy a relaxing weekend with your family).
No socialist in his or her right mind imagines that communism will create a perfect society where we never have any problems. The way I’ve heard some right-libertarians [i.e., Molyneux] speak, on the other hand, of how free market competition–free of government interference–will naturally cause us [via ‘the invisible hand’] to drift away from buying the products of any companies that we suspect are, for example, racist or exploitative, sounds a lot more utopian…and stupid…to me.
As Myerson says in his Salon article: “For me, communism is an aspiration, not an immediately achievable state.” Most socialists and communists agree that our ideal is ultimately something far off in the future, when better conditions (i.e., better technology, a post-scarcity economy) will finally be available for the society we want.
The troll imagines that if one doesn’t like one’s job, one can simply quit; and since no one is “raising arms to protect the employer about that”, the bosses are presumably the ones to be pitied in such a situation.
Given the miserable state of the economy over the past six years since the 2008 economic crisis, out of which the world is still only slowly crawling, and may crawl back into if we’re unlucky, the troll’s cockiness–about workers simply quitting undesirable jobs–is bizarre in the extreme. Is he not aware of how difficult it is to find decent work right now…in his own country, America?
One does not simply quit one’s job during a bad economy, when replacement jobs are scarce. Even during a strong economy, if one has a limited skill set, quitting a job exposes one to the risk of not finding an adequate replacement, and therefore to the risk of homelessness and starvation. Socialists knew this reality during the 19th century; socialists know this now; we’ve always known this.
Millions of people in such G8 countries as the US, the UK, and Russia–where the free market is in full swing–are living on subsistence wages; if they even can make ends meet (which they frequently can’t), they can only barely eke it out. These are people, real people, not just “worker bees for the elite”.
These people do not just work eight-hour, five-day-a-week shifts; they are frequently over-worked and underpaid. Those working for the current sorry excuse for a minimum wage, far below what they need to earn to survive, are forced to take on extra jobs just to make ends meet. Then there are those working in sweatshops in the Third World, a world I suspect my troll friend doesn’t know even exists.
Many people in the world work ten or twelve-hour days, if not more, and often on weekends, too–without compensation. I see engineers in Taiwan, where I’ve lived for almost two decades now, who are experiencing this ongoing problem. Quitting at best leads to another such miserable job; at worst, quitting leads to starvation, homelessness, and death.
My free marketeer friend is probably thinking about straightforward jobs in the First World, like working in a bookstore; he probably never thinks of how the smartphone or computer he uses to type his anti-socialist rants was put together by overworked, underpaid Chinese, or southeast Asians, in sweatshops, those “worker bees” who barely make enough money to feed their families, and are terrified of being fired.
No one rushes to protect the rights of the employer who must replace workers who quit because, often enough, there are others from the reserve army of labour, eager to take the quitters’ place (an eagerness that comes only out of desperation to find a job). My parents owned a pancake restaurant back in the 80s, and whenever an employee quit (which was not infrequent), getting a replacement was admittedly a pain. But to compare that inconvenience to the plight of workers under capitalism is a sick joke.
That plight, as I described above, is essentially what Myerson meant by “the tyranny of work”, or what other socialists call wage slavery. Capitalists like the troll only scoff at that tyranny, though: they care more about the tyranny of Stalinism and Maoism (more accurately, they gleefully point it out to make straw man arguments and generalizations about all socialism, in order to invalidate it). Now I must come to my next point.
III–The Sins of State Socialism
Anyone who has done at least a cursory learning of the history of communism has read about the atrocities of the various socialist governments, especially those of Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot. Estimates of the total death toll range from 85 million to 100 million, as the political right portrays it.
It is beyond the scope of this article to do a detailed analysis of what happened during, for example, the collectivization of the USSR during the late 20s and early 30s, and such events as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields. For Maoist and Stalinist perspectives on these events (largely not my views), you can look at Raymond Lotta Takes on Lies about Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Also, you can read this article in the Monthly Review: Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward? A video by Jason Unruhe (Maoist Rebel News) deals with Stalinism: On The Alleged Deaths in Stalin’s USSR. Here’s Unruhe’s perspective on the Cultural Revolution. Here’s more on the Cultural Revolution. Finally, there’s Unruhe’s video, Truth about Pol Pot and Maoism.
Back to my main argument.
It is not at all my wish to whitewash, trivialize, or rationalize away the deaths that did occur during the above-mentioned regimes, which make up the bulk of the death toll attributed to communism. For me, socialism is about human rights and justice, the opposite of totalitarianism. Still, there was a lot of ugliness that occurred during those years.
Victims were executed, overworked in labour camps (a chilling irony for a movement dedicated to ending the tyranny of work), or starved to death (though generally as a result of unintended consequences). These sad chapters in the history of socialism will always embarrass the Left, with the added feature of right-wing propaganda and its Schadenfreude over that embarrassment.
While admitting that terrible things happened, we must nonetheless put these tragedies in perspective, not to excuse them in the least, but to give them a context for better understanding what happened and knowing the world they came from. Such an understanding will not only show that such evil is neither exclusive nor essential to socialism, it will also, I believe, improve our chances of not repeating those horrors.
First, we must consider the perpetrators; let’s start with Stalin. He was hardly a garden variety communist: he was a paranoid psychopath, not much different from the despots who preceded him in feudal history. Many of his victims, by the way, were dedicated communists; Stalin had whole communist parties executed during the Great Purge. A lack of psychopathy in him would have been a huge improvement, undoubtedly.
Stalin grew up in a Russia inured to tsarist tyranny; autocratic authoritarianism was a norm against which there was hardly an egalitarian alternative to emulate. Knowing this, we shouldn’t be too surprised that his rule would be gripped with the same fear of losing power as the tsars of the past had. Any suspicion of treason or counter-revolution would thus inevitably lead to many killings. The problem is that Stalin, in killing communists as well as wealthy kulaks, took his suspicions way too far.
Furthermore, he deviated from Marxism/Leninism in such striking ways that, in the opinion of many on the Left, he wasn’t a real communist. (In anticipation of being accused of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, I will say that yes, I do believe real socialism did exist at one time at least: among the Catalonian anarcho-syndicalists of the Spanish Revolution of 1936; incidentally, Stalin–in his paranoia of the spread of Trotskyism, as well as in his belief that Spain had first to go through a capitalist phase before embracing socialism–betrayed the Spanish communists, hence their defeat by Franco and the forces of Fascism.)
Among the non-communist elements of Stalinism were his use of American private enterprises (such as the Ford Motor Company) to industrialize Russia, under strict state supervision; once the firms had finished their stints, they left, and the USSR took over. In the opinion of many on the Left, what Stalin and, earlier, Lenin were doing wasn’t real communism–it was a kind of state capitalism.
The most notably non-communist element of Stalinism, however, was the notion of ‘Socialism in One Country‘. This idea–involving focusing on socialism only in the Soviet Union, while the rest of the world had first to be industrialized and subjected to a capitalist phase before embracing socialism–runs totally against the socialist idea of promoting proletarian revolutions around the world.
Small wonder that the much more genuinely communist Leon Trotsky (the lesser of the Bolshevik evils, in my opinion)–with his notion of ‘Permanent Revolution’ contrasting with Stalinism, as well as Trotskyism’s somewhat more democratic nature–was defeated and even murdered with a blow to the head from an ice ax, held in the hand of a Soviet agent.
Whether Stalinism is genuinely communist or not is a major point of contention among the various factions of the Left: what is of little doubt is that psychopaths’ jealous love of power, a Machiavellian trait, is far from being an exclusively socialist vice.
It is interesting to note that, despite Hitler’s fanatical hatred of communists, he considered the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s to be strikingly similar to the Nazi way of doing things (thanks in no small part to Stalin’s purging the Communist Party of Jews like Trotsky, of course). Mussolini, too, spoke well of Stalin’s ‘Slavic Fascism’. The similarity to Naziism is not hard to see: totalitarianism, state capitalism, focusing on one’s own country rather than on internationalism, and the purging of political dissidents and Jews were all hallmarks of Naziism.
Contrary to what some right-libertarians like to believe, though, Naziism and Fascism were not socialist–certainly not in practice. (Years back, I read Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, and even then wasn’t convinced of his arguments, back when I was sympathetic to conservative ideas.) The National Socialist German Workers Party may have had left-leaning members in Joseph Goebbels, Ernst Roehm, and Otto and Gregor Strasser, but all left-wing elements were purged from the Nazi Party as soon as Hitler came to power. With the backing of big business in Germany, Hitler naturally moved the Nazis to the far right; indeed, the first people to be put in the concentration camps were communists, social democrats, anarchists, and other leftists. National Socialism was capitalist in practice, and that’s what really matters. Indeed, capitalists on many occasions in history have used Fascism to further their agenda.
And who played a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, thus ending the rising death toll in the concentration camps (which included the deaths of 3.3 million Soviet POWs)? Stalin’s Red Army, strengthened by the rapid industrialization of his three Five Year Plans!
This leads us to another indispensable point: the good that Stalin did. His modernization of Russia helped bring the country from a backward, agrarian one to a superpower in a matter of decades (so much for the stereotype of communists who never work). America, in contrast, took much longer to grow as strong as it did. Naziism similarly strengthened Germany economically, industrially, and even environmentally, but Hitler’s reckless pursuit of lebensraum, which caused WWII, made this strengthening so short-lived as to be negligible in the face of Nazi atrocities. Stalin’s successes offset his evils far better, if imperfectly.
As for Chairman Mao, much of the failures and deaths that resulted from his rule can be explained by bad harvests in the late 1950s and early 60s, and by power struggles between his leftist faction and the rightist faction led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who made the implementation of Mao’s plans very difficult to say the least. The death toll, though probably exaggerated by right-wing propaganda, was surely in the tens of millions at least. That said, we must ask: were the catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution the fault of communism per se, or of the particular rule of one idealistic but failed leader?
Regardless of whether one chooses to judge these failures as harshly as the Right does, or to mitigate them as many on the Left do, one thing cannot, and must not, be denied (though conservatives always deny it): capitalism’s death toll, by the most conservative of estimates, is at least ten times higher than the highest estimates of the communist death toll.
Now for some real perspective.
If socialist governments have caused famines, so has capitalism–ultimately, on a much larger scale, in spite of what Steven Rosefielde, author of Red Holocaust, thinks. An important aspect of capitalism is imperialism; Lenin pointed this out in his essay, “Imperialism: the Final Stage of Capitalism”, as well as in his efforts to get socialists to oppose WWI. In order to find fresh, new markets, the capitalist must go out to other countries, plunder their resources, and exploit local labour. America has always done this, as did the British and other European empires in the last few centuries.
In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis shows how laissez faire and Malthusianism exacerbated food shortages caused by El Nino in the Third World, resulting in famines that killed 30 million to 60 million locals in such countries as India, China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, back in the late 19th century. Capitalists gave food only to those with money. Here’s the free market: a dream for the rich, which turned into a nightmare for the poor.
Also, there was the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which 1.5 to 4 million people died of starvation, malnutrition, or disease. This happened during the last years of the British Raj, when British authorities refused to help, assuming hoarding was the cause. Churchill had food diverted from the locals to British troops and Greek civilians.
On top of these and other famines caused by imperialism, millions die of starvation every year, when enough food can be produced to feed the whole world. This starvation is preventable, and has been preventable, for decades at least; yet food producers don’t want to reduce profits, so the food goes only to people with money. Ergo, capitalism causes starvation.
(It has been noted in several online sources that there’s enough food produced to feed the whole world, but instead it just gets wasted in the First World. Here is a Wikipedia source: scroll down to where it says ‘Starvation Statistics’; here’s another source; as I said, there are many other online sources confirming this fact. This should answer my troll’s question of how it is possible to provide for everybody. He thinks socialism will result in scarcity, through people living in idleness; but it’s actually capitalism, with its private property, that creates an artificial scarcity. He says, “You don’t work you don’t eat”, but many work, or try to work, and still don’t eat…or don’t eat enough, anyway. He may think only a government controlled socialist police state can provide for everybody, and that, apparently, only socialist governments are police states; but many of us on the Left realize that many laissez faire governments have been authoritarian police states: the Pinochet government, the Franco regime, and the US under Bush [with his tax cuts for the rich], and Obama, who may have talked the socialist talk, but is anything but a socialist. Anyone who thinks Obama is a communist or socialist is clearly, visibly stupid.)
If one calculated the preventable deaths of starvation of the past twenty or thirty years alone, one would already have a death toll much higher than the highest estimates of those who died under communist rule, be they of famine or of execution. According to this site, over 7.5 million people died of hunger in 2013. The total number of hungry people gets lower year by year, so in other words, the total number of deaths would have only been higher before 2013. Check this link (scroll to the bottom) to see how many children have died of hunger over the 1990s.
These are not, however, the only deaths directly or indirectly attributable to capitalism.
We have to consider the many imperialist wars fought over the years, wars exploited by capitalists through various forms of war profiteering. These profiteers include international arms dealers, scientific researchers (corporations and the state profit from the demand for military technology modernization), commodity dealers (who take advantage of shortages, thereby setting higher prices and getting higher revenues), politicians (who take bribes from corporations involved with war production), civilian contractors (think of Bechtel, KBR, Blackwater, and Haliburton, who’ve supplied coalition forces in the Iraq War and were accused of overcharging for their services), and black marketeers, among others.
Indeed, in his book War Is a Racket (1935), Major General Smedley D. Butler drew on his experiences as a career military officer to explain how business interests commercially benefit from war through war profiteering. This problem is an old one that’s lasted for decades and decades, thus indicting capitalism further.
With that knowledge, let’s look at some more statistics. In World War Two, 50 million to 85 million people died. The number of Iraqi deaths due to the 2003 US invasion are over 1.4 million. Add to these all the other capitalist imperialist wars after the Russian Revolution, as well as all the deaths from starvation mentioned above, and you already have a much higher total than the 100 million estimate for the victims of communism.
Let’s add to this all the deaths from tobacco; according to the WHO, 100 million people died of tobacco over the course of the 20th century, and 5.4 million deaths in 2004. Also, according to the Surgeon General’s report of 2014, 20 million people died of smoking over the past 50 years. This is after a clear link was made between smoking and cancer in 1950 in the UK. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry seems to think too much about its own profits to care about those addicted to their products.
In other health-related news, since the creation of anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS, the drugs have been denied to millions of AIDS sufferers in Africa, because Big Pharma cares more about profits than people. 10 million Africans died between 1997 and 2003 because they did not get the needed drugs.
We must also consider the cost of capitalism on the environment, something for which there are sources all over the internet and in volumes of books to back up this dire fact (and remember the consensus in the scientific community on global warming); but alas, capitalists experience nothing but cognitive dissonance and denial about these facts. Despicable.
If executions disturb my troll friend’s sense of morality, he might want to consider how the CIA-backed Suharto regime killed 500,000 to 1 million communists in the mid 1960s.
Now these are only a selection of the many millions of deaths attributable either directly or indirectly to capitalism. There are also millions more, prior to the 20th century. I’ve already mentioned the ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’. There was also the Atlantic slave trade, in which about 10 million blacks died over the course of four centuries; they died of disease on the boat ride across the ocean. This was all so the plantation owners of the South could profit off of blacks’ totally unpaid, backbreaking labour.
Then there was the killing off (through disease or massacres) of as many as 100 million aboriginals due to European settlement of North and South America between 1492 and 1900. Capitalism has to expand in order to develop new markets. Anyone who gets in the way, dies.
Finally, there have been all the strikers and unionists who have suffered violence and deaths over the years (remember how strong unions strengthen productivity, a fact the free marketeers ignore). One example was the Banana Massacre of 1928 in Colombia, in which 2,000 to 3,000 workers were killed. Anti-union violence in general can be read about here. Here we see capitalism growing out of the barrel of a gun. If socialism uses force, capitalism does so even more.
(Now, any capitalist reading this may doubt whether these deaths I’ve described can justifiably be all attributed solely to capitalism, as opposed to other factors. Such critics may want to remember that while they can make excuses for these deaths, and in attributing non-capitalist factors to many of the deaths, they can thus reduce the total, Leftists can play the exact same reduction game with the 85 million to 100 million death count blamed on communism.)
V–Ignorance Is Strength
Of course, no anti-socialist diatribe can be complete without quoting George Orwell out of context. (It is indeed nauseating how the Right misuses Orwell to advance their agenda.) Since the anti-socialist troll wasn’t letter perfect in his quote, I’ll correct it here: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.”
Yes, I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-four, too (twice, actually; I’ve even lectured on the novel). I’ve read (and lectured on) Animal Farm more than once, too. I’ve also read another of Orwell’s works: Homage to Catalonia. In that non-fiction book, Orwell recounts his experiences fighting against the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. When he got to Spain, he was quite impressed by what he saw–a town where socialism was being practiced:
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists…Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized…There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
When Orwell wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, he wasn’t attacking socialism per se, which he ardently supported. He was attacking Stalinism, Fascism, and totalitarianism in general, which he had just experienced in a big way not only during the Spanish Civil War (see above for Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish leftists), but also saw during World War Two, with the onslaught of Nazi Germany. Orwell was a believer in democratic socialism, which has always existed alongside communism. Yes, my free marketeer friends, there actually is something called democratic socialism. Now I’m no supporter of social democracy any more than I am of state communism; but the very existence of social democracy should ultimately show how wrong-headed my right-wing friend’s understanding of socialist ‘totalitarianism’ is.
Furthermore, if it’s government that is the real evil, and if that troll insists that socialism always equals government, then I have one word to say to him: anarchism. This form of socialism is the one I espouse, and like Orwell, I too am impressed with the anarcho-syndicalist socialism I’ve read about during the Spanish Revolution.
As an anarchist, I’m opposed to all forms of authoritarianism. I oppose the authoritarianism of government (the tyrannical sort, or the pampering sort social democrats offer, often at the expense of the Third World). I oppose the authority of vanguardism (hence, even if the Right is correct to damn Stalinist and Maoist communism as harshly as they do, it makes little difference to me). I oppose the illegitimate authority of one sex or racial group over another, and that of any privileged group over another, especially that of bosses!
I believe that the means of production should be held firmly in the hands of the workers, neither in those of private owners, nor in those of the state. And that brings me back to my definition of socialism: it isn’t totalitarian tyranny, it isn’t about extensive government intrusion in our lives, and it isn’t any more about forcing one’s agenda on the populace than capitalism is. It’s about social justice. It’s about sharing. It isn’t the right-wing definition of socialism, but it is, by any reasonable standard of objectivity, the right definition of socialism.
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It’s great to talk about anarchism with people who already agree with us, but how about persuading all those people out there who don’t agree? With all the government and corporate corruption, which is spreading like an infection all over the world in various forms, causing so much disaffection among the people, there seems, paradoxically, no better a time than now to convert as many people as possible to the anarchist cause…and not just to agree, but to take action.
So how do we do that?
I don’t have anywhere close to all the answers to that question, but I’d like to suggest a number of ideas we can use.
1. Appeal to the workers. A no-brainer, of course. Still, I’ve noticed some ‘anarchists’ on the Facebook discussion groups who seem more interested in ‘theory’ and politically correct orthodoxy than in dealing with this all-too-obvious concept.
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith says, “If there is hope…it lies in the proles.” (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, New York: Penguin Group, 1981, p. 61) The proletarians have the sheer numbers to overpower the elites. They need to “become conscious of their own strength.” (ibid.) The rich and powerful know how to control them, with distractions: “films, football, beer…filled up the horizon of their minds.” (ibid., p. 63) You can get the people all worked up about nonsense like that, but how is it “…they could never shout like that about anything that mattered?” (ibid., p. 62)
Unionism has been flagging recently, in no small part due to corrupt union bosses. We need a resurgence in legitimate syndicalism. If we can swell up the membership of the IWW (to my understanding, a much better organization), that would help in a big way. We need to pluck up the workers’ courage (especially in Asian countries, where there’s far less unionism of any kind), and get them to strike more, including in the offices. We all must remember that the ultimate goal is to seize control of the means of production, not just put pressure on bosses, and certainly not suck up to the State, even if the government is left-wing. The workers must become the bosses.
2. Avoid divisiveness. Anarchism is about equality for everyone, without exception. No one gets preferential treatment of any kind. It’s contrary to the principles of anarchism to say that one sex should have privileges over the other, or that certain racial or ethnic groups should have entitlements over others, or that there should be any special treatment based on age, sexual preference (of consenting adults), religion, or physical or mental disability. (The examples I’ve given are not meant to be exhaustive, so please forgive any oversights here.)
Not only is such favouritism obviously unfair (regardless of whether rationalized by supposed superiority, which no anarchist believes in; or by a bogus compensating for past grievances, for the establishment of total political and economic equality for all should be sufficient to redress wrongs), but it will cause resentment and division in the anarchist community.
A lot of people seem to think ‘avoid divisiveness’ is a cleverly-worded excuse to tolerate or even encourage such unacceptable nonsense as ‘manarchy’ or ‘anarcho-capitalism’. Though some supporters of that rubbish use those kind of honeyed words, I’m not doing anything of the sort here. I assure the reader that I am not one of those slick-talking phoneys. I understand that anarchy means no ‘archy’ or any kind: no patriarchy (or theoretically possible ‘archies’, like matriarchy, for that matter), no capitalist exploitation, no hierarchies of boss/employee, nor of any based on race, ethnicity, religion, creed, or sexual orientation.
That said, we must eliminate our enemies or rivals through reasoned argument and persuasion, getting them to give up their irrational attachment to capitalism, sexism, racism, or any other form of bigotry. Hostility, personal attacks, four-letter words, and name-calling will be counter-productive, as it will harden their hearts against us, and make our job more difficult. We want to convert them to our cause, not strengthen and ossify their resolution against us.
The mainstream media are masters in manipulating public opinion and stirring up divisiveness to distract us from the more pressing matters in the world. The Zimmerman trial, for example, deftly swayed people’s attention from the trial of Bradley Manning , whose conviction was the elite’s retaliation against him for exposing their war crimes in the Iraq War, etc. I don’t like verdicts that are biased in favour of whites over blacks any more than any other anarchist; but we’ll do a better job of helping the black community by focusing on bringing down the whole system, government and corporate, that hurts African Americans, than we will by letting the media get the masses mad at each other. The elite is the enemy; they conquer us by dividing us.
Similarly, the media used the gay marriage issue to distract millions of people from noticing the passing of the Monsanto Protection Act several months ago. Again, I want gays to have the freedom to love their partners in every way straights do, as does every other reasonable person, but we mustn’t let the media distract us and polarize us. Gay rights will be best protected after–not before–the anarchist revolution finally happens, when we won’t need a government to give gays, or anyone else, permission to marry.
One other thing: don’t feed the internet trolls on anarchist Facebook pages, etc., when they say bigoted things. A lot of them work for the governments and corporations to undermine us and the work we do. We mustn’t let them bait us, as I’ve seen them do many times online. They thrive on our indignation and anger. Ignore them, delete their posts/comments, and ban them from our discussion groups.
3. Plan the revolution. We must learn from the mistakes of anarchists in the past, and also plan how best to prevent the misfortunes that befell the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune, the Free Territory of Ukraine, and anarchist Catalonia.
The points I wish to make here are by no means exhaustive, and for many readers, this will be little more than review of what they’ve already read many times before; but it isn’t enough merely to know of these cautions–we must always be mindful of them. May my repetition thus be a helpful push in that mindful direction.
Plentiful food and supplies must always be available, to satisfy the needs of all when the revolution disrupts normal daily business for an extended time, as Kropotkin discussed in The Conquest of Bread. (Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, New York: Dover Publications, 2011, pp. 61-95)
The revolution must be global in reach, and it must be permanent, until worldwide anarchy is attained. The anarchist Catalonians and Ukrainians were defeated in large part because they didn’t go far beyond their domains. Also, their attempts to associate with Bolsheviks, Stalinists, and other state socialists led to their downfall. Compromise with their left-wing rivals, paradoxically, led to more divisiveness, and to their defeat.
Seize not only the means of production and the government buildings, but seize the banks, too. The Paris Commune didn’t do that.
Get the police on our side. If we can somehow convince them that the authority they’re loyal to is illegitimate, we can get at least some of them on our side, and reduce their ability to brutalize us when we protest.
OK, these are just a few thoughts of mine. I’ll understand if you don’t agree with some of what I say, but in any case, I hope this can help in the fight against capitalism, the State, and all forms of inequality. Peace and love, comrades.
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I am an anarchist: recently, I’ve come under the influence of the anarcho-communist ideas of Peter Kropotkin. I consider the State and capitalism to be the two great evils of society, and greed is the worst of the deadly sins.
A truly good society, and a good world, would be made up of federations of freely associating communities that rule themselves. Thus no one would have power over others. No hierarchies or power systems would exist: in other words, there would be no boss/employee, royalty/peasant, bourgeois/proletarian, or leader/follower relationships. Businesses would be collectively owned. As far as religion is concerned, though all religions would be tolerated, there would be no coerced belief in a monotheistic God who would rule over us or judge us. No gods, no masters.
With the end of capitalism would also come the end of the wage system and of money: a gift economy would replace it. With the end of private property would also come the end of a need to pay rent to landlords. A society of competition would be replaced by one of cooperation and mutual aid.
By eliminating money and its seductive power over mankind, there’d be little incentive to start wars, since war is essentially a racket anyway (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_is_a_Racket), a plundering of foreign lands for oil, etc., to fill the pockets of the rich with money. With the end of hostilities against foreigners would come the end of racism, or at least a drastic reduction of xenophobic feeling. Indeed, with the end of all hierarchies, fully realized in every conceivable way, one could quite possibly see the gradual withering away of patriarchy, since the political and monetary basis of male domination (the State and capitalism) would be annihilated. But even if some inequalities were to linger, I’m confident that eliminating them would become much easier without the divisive propaganda of the media, which is controlled by the State and the corporations.
Instead of monotheistic religion, perhaps people might find pantheistic mysticism more appealing, its monism more catering to an egalitarian mindset. Still, conventional religions would be tolerated, as long as they don’t try to impose themselves on those who don’t share their beliefs. Atheism and agnosticism would also be fully respected. People’s beliefs would be no one’s business but their own.
The evils of capitalism and government continue to exist because their minions have learned clever techniques to keep the people in line. Unhealthy food and time-wasting online nonsense saps the people of their energy and sense of purpose in life. Charismatic leaders lull the masses into submission, making them love and hate whomever Big Brother wants them to love or hate. The media selectively presents world events in a way to make the people believe what it is required of them to believe. Heroes are vilified, and scoundrels are celebrated.
And when the people rebel? Militarized police, those bullies with their bullets and batons, thrash the masses. Innocent people are incarcerated for the smallest of misdemeanours, or for habits, such as the recreational use of marijuana, that shouldn’t even be deemed crimes. It’s all a depressing spectacle to see on the news.
For these reasons, I see no hope in any future government or in any reform of capitalism. Those two villains have been lovers throughout history: they’ll never be separated. State socialism is no answer–the failure of the Soviet Union, as well as that of the European State-generated social programs, many of which have crumbled in the present economic crisis, proves that Bolshevism, in whatever guise it comes, moderate or extreme, is a fool’s idol. But neither is so-called ‘anarchist capitalism’ an acceptable alternative. Its supporters imagine a cleaning up of corruption in the free market, but under such a contradictory way of doing things, I predict the speedy build-up of a plutocracy, a government to protect the nouveaux riches and their coveted privileges.
No, one can’t have the one power structure without the other: capitalism and the State are like conjoined twins, sharing one avaricious heart. If one wants the one to stay alive, the other must live, too. If one truly wants one of them to die, one must accept the death of the other.
These beliefs of mine come from years and years of watching one corrupt government after another, on both the Left and the Right, as well as everywhere in between on the ideological continuum. I’ve never seen a government, or a corporation, or a church, sufficiently without fault that I could wholeheartedly stand behind it.
Anarchist communism, brought about by the trade unions seizing control of the means of production, is the only answer. May a repeat of the 1936 Spanish Revolution come, and soon; and may it not be crushed by the forces of Fascism, as it so tragically was in the Spanish Civil War. Let us unite, comrades, and free ourselves. As Marx and Engels said years ago, ‘You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win. WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!’
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