1990s >> 1998 >> no-1130-october-1998

Book Reviews: ‘The Compassionate Revolution’, ‘Economic Cycles’, ‘Autonarchy’ & ‘The Algebra of Revolution’

Buddhism-a big zero

The Compassionate Revolution: Radical Politics and Buddhism by David Edwards, Green Books, 228 pages, £9.99.

It is well worth reading this book, or at least around two-thirds of it. Much of Edwards’s work revolves around an incisive analysis of US foreign policy and the nature and operation of the media industry.

The sheer scale of what successive American governments have done to further the “national interest” (i.e. the creation of market-friendly world conditions overseen by effective client states) is exposed at some length. From the installation by military coups and coercion of murderous regimes throughout the South and Central Americas, to the subsequent official training and funding of the state death squads of those regimes, to the more indirect support given to other “friendly nations” (Algeria, Indonesia etc) who maintain conditions favourable to US capital through mass murder; the whole story of America’s fight for “democracy and freedom” is shown in all its bloody reality. Indeed, if you were so inclined, you could write a whole new chapter on it every month of every year. You could include the headings “Panama” and “Somalia”, two other parts of Planet Capitalism where the World’s Copper has recently been to restore Law and Order. In both, atrocious destruction and loss of civilian life was the result. However, for public consumption these onslaughts were labelled “removing dictatorship” (installed, incidentally, by the US) and “peace-keeping”-labelled and packaged for the proles by the media, that is.

Which brings us to Edwards’s analysis of the role of the media, which he credits largely to Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model. Essentially, hideous acts of state terrorism are generally presented as noble quests for justice, not because of some conspiracy or official state censorship, but because of the basic operation of capitalism. It’s all about money after all: the ruthless securing of markets, trade routes, raw materials to make the world safe for the profit system-and the media (as it is vaguely termed) is part of that system. Edwards puts it well:

“The modern mass media is not, as some . . . like to remark, controlled by corporations; it is corporations. Businesses do not control the car industry; the car industry is big business. Likewise, the media is made up of large corporations, all in the business of maximising profits . . . This immediately suggests that, at the very least, media corporations might have a tendency to be sympathetic to the status quo, to other corporations, and to the profit-maximising motive of the corporate system . . .” (p.62).

Far from some Orwellian vision of state control ITN, the Guardian, and pals are voluntarily “on message” because this is in the long-term interest of their product. Although the odd “exposé” of “scandals” is acceptable (the cleaning up of the system’s image can only make it more secure after all), an attack on the foundations of their system is unimaginable. As Edwards puts it, the media operates in such a way as to ensure that “something remains ‘missing in the middle'”. By their very nature media corporations could hardly provide their consumers with the missing analysis that links corporations and western governments with massacres in Guatemala and starving children.

Sad to say that after an approach such as this the final third of Edwards’s book is so infuriating. The contrast actually seems disconcertingly odd, but then this reviewer is a socialist. I will restrain myself from actual anger if only because Edwards informs us that the “real enemy . . . is anger itself”. Earlier he identifies problems, such as the rape of Latin America, and their cause: capitalism. His conclusion, though, is not the abolition of that system; and therefore the book’s title is misleading. Edwards counsels that we, as individuals, practice compassion and meditation in the Buddhist tradition. Rather than urging us to relieve the capitalist class of their power to oppress and destroy us he advises us to pity and nurture them, because then they will surely stop their anti-human activities.

To summarise, he argues that “rich and poor are united by suffering” and that if the rich became a bit kinder by way of the individual promotion of “compassion for . . . both rich and poor”, then our problems would just melt away.

So what has Buddhism got to do with revolution? Nothing at all apparently, as Edwards sees nothing wrong with the rule of a parasitic elite, just as long as they are nice about it, and the approach he suggests can only lead to the continuation of the abusive system he has previously bemoaned. Compassion for the bosses? This book itself contains enough reasons why we should give the lot of them the boot immediately.


All academic

Economic Cycles by Solomos Solomou, Manchester University Press, 1998. £10.99

What should be a fascinating book about capitalism’s enigmatic trade cycle is marred by the academic pretentiousness of the author. How could it be otherwise with a writer whose egocentricity extends to the point whereby the citations for his own works on economic cycles are greater in number than those for Marx, Keynes, Schumpeter, Kondratieff and Kuznets added together? That this book is part of Manchester University Press’s Insights From Economic History series makes this all the more remarkable and fantastic.

Solomou’s own particular insight into the boom-slump economy is that “the idea that business cycles can come to an end seems naive. Today we realise that economic fluctuations are part of economic life. Moreover, as we have a better understanding of concepts of equilibrium in economics, it is clear that the path of business cycles is not predictable”. Quite an “insight” indeed, only 150 years or so after Marx first said just about the same thing!

Students of the business cycle and of economic history would, frankly, be far better off reading some of the original texts of the various business cycle theorists, or, at the very least, some of the serious works written about them and their analyses. They would be better off too with a spread of the more intelligible contemporary accounts rendered by authors like Galbraith, Kindleberger and Beckman than with this scramble of convoluted academic-ese. They should also remember that while the precise course of the boom-slump cycle of capitalism is notoriously unpredictable, this does not mean that there are no observable tendencies about the development of capitalism at all, or for that matter, that the trade cycle and its devastating impact on human lives will be with us for evermore. The trade cycle can be abolished once and for all when the working class consciously organises to abolish trade, money, prices and profits altogether.



Electronic democracy

Autonarchy, the Ultimate Democracy. By Akiva Orr. Pamphlet can be downloaded from: http://www/autonarchy.org.il

Autonarchy, a word coined by Orr himself, means literally “self-rule” which in his view can be achieved by instituting what he calls “Magnetic Card Direct Democracy”. Every citizen would have a magnetic card and their own PIN number and all telephones, public as well as private, would be equipped with a device to read these cards. This would enable people to register their votes, which could be counted almost instanteously, on any policy issue put before them (Orr in fact argues that all policy decisions should be made in this way). Questions requiring a policy decision would be drawn up as a range of options by experts in the particular field concerned or proposed by a minimum number of citizens. A special TV channel would be devoted to discussing the pros and cons of the various proposals for policy decision which citizens could look at before deciding which way to vote.

Orr adds some other refinements but the basic idea is clear. Modern communications technology has opened up the possibility for mass participation in decision-making:

“The revolutionary changes in communications technology make it possible, for the first time in history, to sum up millions of decisions taken far apart into a single total in seconds and to display this continuously on millions of TV screens. Political decision-making by millions of people is now possible”.

This is undoubtedly true and some socialists have suggested that it could be used extensively in socialism. Certainly, socialism would be the best framework for such an “electronic democracy” and no doubt this will be incorporated into the democratic decision-making procedures which will be a feature of socialism. Whether people will want to go as far as Orr appears to and have “magnetic card direct democracy” as the only such procedure appears more doubtful as “indirect” elected delegate democracy also has its advantages. Not all decisions can be reduced to a simple “yes-or-no” question, nor can people spend all their time voting.

Orr puts forward his proposal as a move “beyond capitalism, socialism, anarchism”. While he understands the drawbacks of capitalism and anarchism well enough, he misunderstands socialism as “state ownership and rule by a socialist party”. This is not what we would recognise as socialism but is rather state capitalism.

The Algebra of Revolution

The Algebra of Revolution. The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition. By John Rees. Routledge. £14.99.

We in the Socialist Party have always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards “dialectics” mainly because of the use that was made of it by the old Communist Party to justify its policy zigzags on the grounds that “progress proceeds through contradictions”. On the other hand, it was a term used by Marx and Engels.

The concept was first introduced by the German philosopher Hegel who died in 1831. This was as part of his religious view of the world. However, shorn of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo Hegel surrounded it with, dialectics means that, in analysing the world and society, you start from the basis that nothing has an independent, separate existence of its own but is an inter-related and interdependent part of some greater whole (ultimately the whole universe) which is in a process of constant change.

This is a fairly widespread view today (sometimes called “holism”) and can even be said to have been incorporated into mainstream scientific method. “Holism”, however, is only partly the same as “dialectics” as dialectics brings in another factor: contradiction. Hence Rees’s definition that it is “an internally contradictory totality in a constant process of change”.

Hegel was, in philosophical terms, an Idealist who saw social systems as being a reflection of the “spirit of the age” as he called the dominant ideas of the people living in them. Applying his theory to the development of society, he argued that social change came about as a result of internal contradictions within the “spirit of the age” leading to people developing a new such spirit and a corresponding new system of society.

Marx took over this idea of social development through contradiction but, as he himself once put it, he turned Hegel upside down (or rather put him back on his feet again) by making the basis of society, not the “spirit of the age” but “the way in which people are organised to produce society’s means of life”; as this changed-through the internal contradiction of conflict between classes with antagonistic interests-so did the social system.

This of course is the materialist conception of history which Marx and Engels first worked out in 1844-45 in some notebooks published after their deaths as The German Ideology and which Marx summarised in the 1859 Preface to his A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy.

Rees’s discussion of the influence of Hegel’s ideas and terminology on Marx and Engels is competent enough. As to the others, our criticism would be of his selection of those to include in “the classical Marxist tradition”. As a leading member of the SWP Rees is not in this tradition himself. Anyone who adheres to Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party-which is such a fundamental departure from Marx’s own view both of the intellectual capabilities of the working class and of how workers should organise to establish socialism-puts themselves outside the Marxist tradition. They are Leninists not Marxists.

This means that the last of those discussed by Rees to come into the Marxist tradition were Rosa Luxemburg (who Rees specifically criticises for not supporting a vanguard party) and Karl Kautsky. If the book had lived up to its sub-title, Lenin, Trotsky, Lukacs and Gramsci (the last two thinkers constructed convoluted philosophical defences of the supposed need for a vanguard party) would have been replaced by Joseph Dietzgen (who was the first to use the term “dialectical materialism”), Antonio Labriola, (whose Essays in the Materialist Conception of History only gets a brief mention because Trotsky happened to have read it) and Anton Pannekoek (author of brilliant criticism of Lenin called Lenin As Philosopher which Rees dismisses in a footnote). All three had interesting and relevant-and different-things to say about dialectics.

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