Published online 30 March 2015.
…if we lived in the 6th century. Do we live in the 6th century still?
Well, the residents of what Robert Frank called “Richistan” might like to style themselves as the new nobility, but “flexible” wage labor in the 3rd world’s labor camps is clearly more profitable than scooping up the surplus produced by peasants reduced to serfdom, and having the government print up money so you can claim a profit has definite advantages over hiring knights so you can try to increase the size of your duchy at the cost of your neighbor’s land holdings. And why bother with the divine right of kings when you can count on a public trained to vote for the lesser of two evils and worked over by propaganda in every election run-up? (Romney version) (Obama version)
So no, nobody really wants feudalism anymore. Every once in awhile, though, you see the word “feudalism” bandied about as if had an application in the politics of the 21st century. One thing the Internet did was to free up the great plethora of history-free analysis, the vast numbers of “thinkers” who imagine that politics and economics are like flavors at the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store — choose from the 31 flavors of historical example, mix and match. It’s amusing stuff — but it’s all noise and no signal.
It’s easier, I suppose, to borrow from the past than it is to imagine the future, especially when you live in a world in which (to quote Slavoj Zizek) “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world — an asteroid destroying all of life, and so on — but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” What we need, however, is real thinking about the future.
I’m sometimes amused, then, by the “political economy amateur hour” that I see on the Internet. Let’s talk about systems of political economy as if they have no relation to history!
As someone who wants a collective solution to the climate change problem, I’m especially fond of pseudo-libertarians who want to obsess over the Cold War. Omigod communism! Yes, all of us commies want to bring the Soviet Union back. We’re just like Stalin y’know. Concentration camps for everyone! The horrors of communism, perhaps, started two millenia ago with that most evil of documents, the Bible. It’s reported in Acts 4: 32-35, in which the Apostles are depicted as a bunch of commies:
32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
You’re terrified, right? I didn’t think so.At any rate, at some point in the future of abrupt climate change it will be plain and evident that even the worst of Stalinism was better than what we will be facing with the coming droughts, famines, plagues and heat waves. Russia under Stalin had a future for those who could avoid the massacres, whereas climate change will deny us all any future worthy of the name. (This is not meant to be a compliment to Stalin — it’s certainly not his fault that his Russian Empire Soviet Union had a future.) The pseudo-libertarians will tell us, nonetheless, that we must fear commies while paying no heed to the climate disaster which is already starting and which shouldn’t take too much time to complete its dissipation of planet Earth. Applying their doctrines to the worst-case future would be like worrying about the “civil rights” of the fictional characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
At any rate, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which supposedly took power in 1917 wasn’t really a dictatorship of the proletariat. (“Dictatorship of the proletariat,” then, is another case of where bad use of historical terms comes back to bite a group of people, in this case the Leninists.) Rather, Lenin presided over a dictatorship of a small portion of the intelligentsia, ruling a peasant nation that barely knew of a proletariat. Lenin succeeded a caretaker regime, the regime of the February Revolution, which itself succeeded a (Romanov) regime based on the 4th-century Roman Empire. Do we have any regimes in the world, still, whose politics is based on that of the the 4th-century Roman Empire? I don’t think so.
Almost all of the serious communists/ socialists living in the world today moved on from the old authoritarian “socialist Left” a long time ago. (There are still a few authoritarian “Leftists” in the world — they are, of course, as much a joke today as the so-called “Socialist Parties” of Europe became when they endorsed austerity planning.)
Instead, the serious global attempts at communism/ socialism (and here it must be called an attempt, given the general triumph of global capital) supports small-scale organizations to help people, and small groupings of people acting in their own self interest — basically the sort of social arrangements we’ll need in confronting the future. “Communism” persists as a bogeyman-term within a pseudo-libertarian dog whistle politics, unfortunately.
There’s also a history-free application, now, of the term “fascism” floating about in the free-speech paradise that is the Internet. Certainly it bears some merit to be concerned about authoritarianism in the future. However, the term “fascism” refers to a form of 20th-century corporate-government partnership which attempted to induct the masses for the cause of national development. In the 21st century, however, the nations have already been developed plenty (outside of a few isolated cases), and the current corporate-government partnership is more or less a scavenger operation, picking the country clean of what’s left of profit opportunities before the next economic collapse. The present-day corporate-government partnership cares far less about you than the Fascists cared about Italians, or than the 3rd Reich cared about the “master race.” Hitler tried to take over the world for the sake of a sort of genocidal activism, whereas the current US government fights wars in dozens of countries in order to keep the revenue streams going to the weapons interests.
A survey of the general misuse of historical terms (such as one can briefly read here) would point to the need for focused thinking on what the future will really be like. The future will not be like the past. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to imagine the future as if it were going to be some great return to the past. We can do better.