Saturday, September 12, 2009

Homer Simpson: “Communism Works..In Theory”

These days, one is liable to miss an era when people still believe in an alternative to “things as they are.” After the fall of the Eastern Bloc, there really is no clear alternative to radical socialism. There are varieties of capitalism, or variety of the welfare state mixed model of capitalism if one prefers to avoid the term, but there are no real alternatives.

In more theoretical terms, people say that we’ve experienced the death of the “meta-narrative” or the “end of history.” Whether wrong or right, Marx provided us with an incredibly rich mode of imagining alternatives to the status quo. The world was filled with exploitation, bourgeois warfare, sexism, racism, and colonialism, but there was also a clear road map to something better. There was optimism; there was bravery in the face of the bourgeois exploiters; there were positive historical trends.

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As late as the 1940s, one could perhaps be forgiven for still believing in the dream that there was a real possibility that the future could be better—much better—than the present. As it turned out—and as many historians convincingly argue we all should have admitted to ourselves much sooner—Communism could be almost as vicious as capitalism even in its fascist iterations.

But how hard must it have been for many thoughtful people to admit as much? If Communism was worse than capitalism—which signified drudgery, pollution, child exploitation, and a variety of other abuses—than what exactly should one be working for? Right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, many reasonable people maintained that a middle road was possible, and that Communism remained a viable alternative to alienation and materialism and gross wealth disparities.

In Eastern Europe, they might have looked to still-debatable Origin Myths associated with the positive attributes of Lenin and Trotsky and Bukharin. They might have merely blamed Stalin for what went wrong. They might have gone further and said that while Lenin himself deserved blame for Bolshevik despotism, Homer Simpson was right: “Communism works… in theory.” And the theory, especially espoused by Rosa Luxemburg, which combined democracy with communism, still made a lot of sense to many people around the world.

In the 1990s, we had apparently reached what Francis Fukuyana called the end of the history. The results of socialism were so uniformly bad, in terms of ethics, freedom, equality, or economic happiness, that people no longer even said that “Communism theory.” Perhaps we’ll be in this post-Utopian place for many decades to come. It’s impossible to tell. However, with the recent economic crash and recession, and other more acute problems in various parts of the developing world, one remembers that nothing lasts forever.

Critiques of capitalism could blossom dramatically, as indeed they might have had the recession turned into a more serious economic crisis or depression. This makes it a good moment in history to go back to the Soviet experiment. Could something like this become attractive again? Was there anything about it worth keeping? What other kind of alternative could arise that fulfilled the same European or global needs?

Recently, I was asked why I was reading something about Soviet history. I said that the Soviet experience was fascinating because it failed so utterly. One was tempted to wonder how it was that the system survived so many decades when it seemed almost designed to create economic lethargy or even chaos, to say nothing of political oppression. She agreed. But after a moment, I contradicted myself, saying that I understood even today how somebody could point to our present system and say that it was designed for gross inefficiency. The market remained deeply flawed. We had seen what a lack of regulation could do to undermine economic planning as well as the safety and stability of the general population.

Everyday people were re-making their retirement plans based on the market fluctuations of a few months. The housing bubble made basic planning assumption obsolete overnight. And the economy had overproduced on a massive scale while the environment suffered from a system that rewarded short-term thinking from almost all individual or institutional actors. My colleague was surprised, calling attention to the fact that I had been arguing both sides.

I suspect others will feel some ambivalence in the years to come. I don’t dare to say that the re-evaluation will come very soon. The catalog of crimes committed by Soviet leaders is far too long to allow for any easy reconciliation with the “God That Failed.”

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