I know next to nothing about the history that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that seems to be on everyone’s minds these last couple days with the 20th anniversary. Many on the more radical left seem to be approaching the event with a great deal of caution. I don’t know if I’m a member of the radical left, but I’d at least like to advance the case that today’s retrospectives bear an intellectual and pedagogical relevance.
Before we get into that, I think it can be established that counterarguments of the left generally seem to fall along the lines of, “socially and politically, people are more free, but economically, they are poorer than before.” Sean has some nice postings at Cultural Perspectives. He quotes an NYT op-ed by Slavoj Zizek:
When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy…people aspired to something that can most appropriately be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this attitude deserves a second chance.
Here’s another perspective from someone who was the teenage daughter of left intellectuals during the Fall:
To this day, my parents are convinced that the Reagan-Thatcher variety of free-market capitalism, which they believe led to growing income inequality and today’s financial crisis, flourished because of the absence of an alternative. The term reunification grated with them. They felt that West simply swallowed East and in the process discarded 40 years of mostly bad but some good policies.
Mainstream thought tends to see the fall of the Wall as the final condemnation of an economic and political system that curtailed freedom and ensured destitution. This view motivated Fukuyama’s “End of History” narrative. The repeated crises of capitalism, however, have caused even him to rethink this determinist stance.
I believe it is intellectually shaky to hold on to the Fukuyama view of the Berlin Wall twenty years later. The fall was a great triumph for democracy, but its economic consequences are as dubious as ever. An honest approach must admit that capitalism’s merits should at least be questioned, both for the former USSR, and for contemporary economies.
And speaking of questioning, a marginalized (at least in the U.S.) group of scholars met in Amherst, MA this week at New Marxian Times, a conference hosted by the journal Rethinking Marxism. Some might argue that such a conference could only lead to a ham-handed, groupthink/nostalgia-induced delusion about what the Soviet regime could have been. However, as Ruccio notes, these conferences are attracting a new generation of radical thinkers. Hopefully, Marxism can continue to attract enough people who at least attempt to think about it clearly so that it is no longer seen as anti-Catholic, anti-freedom, anti-human nature, and malevolent ideology.
I hope I’m not building up a straw man here, but most who criticize Marxism on its face have not spent much time thinking about it, much less rethinking it. However, just as during a time of crisis we are called to rethink Wealth of Nations, The General Theory, and Capitalism and Freedom, we would be remiss not to rethink Capital. Anyone who deems this exercise unnecessary for economics students is being willfully ignorant. Demarginalizing the denizens, present and future, of conferences like RM, is necessary to ensure honest discourse about the future shape of the global economy.
A postscript for those who find anything other than neoclassical/Keynesian economics useless: I learned the mainstream stuff even better by learning the critiques. And I haven’t been brainwashed by either. Defensiveness does not stimulate learning. [end rant]
Read Full Post »