Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The end and the beginning of history

It is not often that one in the process of learning of, or reading, a book develops three different opinions about the book. I have heard of Lea Ypi’s Free after it became an international bestseller. I was even then somewhat intrigued by the topic, an autobiographical story of growing up in Albania at “the end of history”, given that Albania was somewhat of a black box (because of the isolationist policies followed by its long-time president Enver Hoxha). Yet since I had a uniform negative view about any personal reminiscences coming out of Eastern Europe, I was almost sure not to read the book? Why such mistrust?


The reason is as follows. Ich bien ein Easterner: I do not need to be told how it was. Most of what I would be offered to read in English, was, I though, fake. The personal memoirs that, I thought, had a chance to appeal to Western readers, and particularly to become best-sellers,  were such as to reinforce the Western views or prejudices what the life behind the Iron Curtain looked like. It was composed only of political trials, executions of former Bolsheviks, exiles of dissidents, long queues for meat and toilet paper, parading tanks and dour bureaucrats. Everybody wore a fur hat and lived in permafrost. Indeed some of these things were  true, but for different countries and different periods. But practically none of them was true in my life experience and I would say for 90% of other people living in Eastern Europe in the 1970-90s. But writing about how life really was for my generation and those a generation younger, what we and others around us really believed and thought, would not get published nor read by the Western audience. The Eastern stories that would become bestsellers would be, I thought, invariably made-up or would deal with minor special cases. I had no interest in them.


But I was also aware of Ypi’s extraordinarily engaging writings on philosophy and current affairs that I read at the same time.  It did not take me long to see that her views, her thinking, were not of the kind that the French called la pensée unique and that became so ubiquitous among the intellectuals from the former Communist countries. (I intentionally do not use the term “Soviet bloc” because Albania was not part of the Soviet bloc.)


So when I met Lea Ypi, we had a most pleasant conversation, and when she kindly gifted me Free I was already ready to move a bit away from my first approach. On the way back to the hotel, I sat on the bench in a park in London and randomly opened the book composed of 22 short stories about Ypi’s growing up in Albania, from her pre-school days, under a quasi-Stalinist regime, until the post-transition times of democracy and chaos. I read one of the stories  “Brigatista”, which introduced me to the family: father’s solicitous approach towards all those who had less than him, belief in people being essentially good, and poverty resulting from external circumstances over which we have no control; and mother who took a more realistic view that most of the poor, and especially so in a socialist country, are poor because they do not want to work.


As I read the stories in the first part of the book, I thought of Anna Akhmatova’s famous words from Requiem, when she was asked by a woman standing in a queue for delivery of packages to the inmates, and who recognizing Anna, said to her:  "Can you describe this?”  And Anna’s confident reply: "I can."


Although Albania in the 1980s was a far cry from Moscow of the 1930s (as I already said in the introduction), I thought of Anna’s reply because I found Ypi’s description of the life in an intentionally, and proudly (from the point of view of the rulers) autarkic socialist society both truthful and full of insights that were only hinted at and never forced upon the reader.  The children of Ypi’s age were growing up in an orderly country where personal hygiene (checking whether your fingernails were cut and clean every Monday) and adoration of the Party (one does not need to preface it with “Communist”, so omni-present the Party—the only party—was) were instilled in an equal measure. Coca-cola cans were used as signs of relative prosperity, but all houses had TV sets. There was not much to watch on the local one- or two-channels that oscillated between reports of harvests and political speeches, but if the antenna is only slightly readjusted, one can watch Serie A soccer games and Yugoslav basketball, and on most days Italian evening news. The father discusses all international events, celebrates Mandela’s release from jail and Italian leftists—indeed perhaps as a way to not get engaged into Albanian politics, yet it also shows how a dogmatically rigid regime but with internationalist pretensions has awakened among its population interest into the rest of the world. In my many travels, I was often surprised how limited the knowledge of the world (even if you measure it by the simple knowledge of the events taking place elsewhere) was in some countries where access to information was free. Here with controlled access to information and heavy propaganda, Ypi’s family, and we are led to believe those of her schoolmates too, were very interested in the rest of the world, from San Remo to Ronald Reagan.


In describing, through short vignettes, her own ideological education and relating it now to the people who had no experience and no idea of multiple contradictions of life in a Communist country, and then describing the shock of transition to capitalism Ypi is, somewhat counter-intuitively, helped by the specific features of Albania. First, the relative isolation of Albania that followed policies independent of the West since 1945, independent of the Soviet Union since 1956, and finally independent of China since 1978, meant that the abruptness of the transition to capitalism was sharper than elsewhere. The change was more dramatic, from almost full closeness to openness, from everything being done through “collectives” to everything being privatized, from single voice of the Party and “uncle Enver” to the cacophony of parties and “civil society”.


There is an additional element that made Albania unique. It is, with Cuba (and to some extent) Vietnam, the only county that experienced a genuine domestic communist revolution and did not contain different ethnicities. This turned out very important in retrospect. The domestic nature of the revolution made the explanation of communism and everything that went badly with it as being solely due to the Soviet occupation (while totally ignoring the domestic bases of communist regimes), impossible in the Albanian case. Similarly, the orgy of accusations and recriminations, and wars, that followed the dissolutions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was also impossible because of ethnic homogeneity of Albania. One thus had to look at communism with much greater objectivity and with clear eyes. All the negatives could not be, as in most of Central Europe, blamed on the Soviet Union, which has by now morphed into Russia; nor could they be blamed by Ukrainians on Russians, by Russians on non-Russian Bolsheviks, by Serbs on Tito, by Croats on Serbs and so on, forever. In the case of Albania, communism was Albanian-produced, and the exit from communism was also Albanian-produced.


The exit begins slowly: demonstrators (or were they just “hooligans” trying to destroy “people’s property”?) fill the streets in the far-away capital. The news spreads slowly and unevenly. Then things appears to peter out. It is not clear if, in the school or at home, the “protests” should be mentioned at all. For if protests are mentioned, one must define himself or herself to be either in favor or against. Perhaps it is better to ignore them.  One evening Ypi surprises her parents (who thought she has gone to bed) listening, at very low volume, with worried—or perhaps hopeful, who knows?-- faces, about the news of spreading protests.  Even when the multi-party elections take place, and Socialist party (the renamed Communists) wins, the outcome is not assured. We witness all of this not by following the politicians, dissidents,  or through historical description of events, but through how these events are seen at the family’s kitchen table and in the classroom. Because this is how Ypi, a twelve or thirteen year-old, somewhat of a Tom-boy, girl lives them.


Then the chaos takes over. Ideologically, schools make a 180-degree reversal, attendance plummets, everybody wants to leave the country (as one of the vignettes is entitled), the drug dealer, the prostitute, the human trafficker,  the money-launderer, the usurious lender become normal, moreover highly desirable  occupations because they pay the most. The world  simply does a volte-face. Family conversations become open: a cousin who is released from jail is no longer refereed to as having just “graduated”, or those who were killed in camps as having given up on their education—the entire language of concealing the truth, of which particularly the parents are aware when speaking in front of their children who do not know what can and what cannot be said in public—flies out of window. Many old stories of which Ypi, and we too as we read the book, are unaware suddenly come out of nowhere. The book has an almost Agatha Christie-like plot that we slowly discover, first in pieces which may or may not be true, to find out more as the vignettes succeed each other, and to never find out the full denouement.


As we near the end, with thousands of people who without knowing where they are going, board the ships that crisscross the Adriatic, some of them sinking in the sea, with Western nations introducing the cordon sanitaire upon the people whose former government they have bitterly criticized for not letting  people leave the country, and NATO sending a military mission to stop the looting, I moved to the third level of thinking about the book. Neighborhood solidarity in helping each other with hard-to-obtain goods evaporates; money which was much less important than food coupons obtained at one’s workplace, becomes the king; attending the afternoon mathematics club makes no longer any sense when one can jump on a ship, travel to Italy and smuggle cigarettes and cocaine. I then realized that this is not an autobiographical book. Indeed, it is based on one person’s life and experience, but at that points it transcends it. It becomes a book about the human condition. Communism and capitalism, East and West are just the settings, the theater coulisses where the drama takes place.


Ypi’s book has by then left the plane of relating the events and moved to become a work of fiction. In the same way that we know that Proust’s À la recherche was almost entirely autobiographical, but we treat it as a work of art, we should, I came to think, treat Ypi’s as a work of art. Herself, her family, her friends, have by now become characters in a novel, they have moved out of a reality to a different, higher, plane. We know that Macondo is not a real place, existing under such a name, even if it was based on many similar places that did exist. Here too Albania, the transition, Ypi’s family are all metaphors. They are both true, and they transcend what they were in reality.

If I meet Lea in person again, I had firmly decided to not ask her what has become of characters in her book (her grandmother to whom the book is dedicated, family, her first platonic love): I have decided we should talk of them as how we talk of what might have reasonably happened to Elizabeth Bennett after she married Mr Darcy, or whether Rastignac conquered Paris. And perhaps we can speculate on what might have happened to the young woman who in the late 1990s travelled with thousands of refugees across the Adriatic to Southern Italy...

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Marx Truncated

             Shlomo Avineri’s Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution is an excellent introduction to some parts of Marx’s philosophy, but a very truncated book as far as other parts of Marx’s work and biography are concerned.

Marx’s Jewishness. Avineri’s book is part of a series about Jewish lives published by Yale University Press. The book thus needs to address, as far as possible, topics which have to do with Marx and Jewish lives and customs. These are however very limited because Marx’s Jewish origins played almost no role in his life or oeuvre. As Avineri writes “Marx cannot be seen as a ‘Jewish thinker’, and his knowledge of matters Jewish was minimal” (p. x); “Marx was totally ignorant [of Jewish religious practices], never having either experienced them directly or independently studied them” (p. 45).

One would not be able to write a book on Marx and Jewishness simply because such a book would consist of only a couple of pages. The most important part of such a book would deal, as indeed Avineri does, with Marx’s youthful essay On the Jewish Question. The essay has two parts. The first part calls, very liberally, for the emancipation of the Jews regardless of religion; it thus takes a position against conversion as the condition for civic emancipation (written in opposition to the view favored by another Young Hegelian, Moses Hess). The second part of the essay is seen by some as even anti-Semitic because it discusses the connection between Jews, or more broadly “Jewishness” (Judentum), and capitalism. Avineri rightly rejects the anti-Semitic interpretation while mentioning that Marx’s essay was not published in Hebrew until 1965.

The Young Hegelian. The second important topic is what is called today “the young Marx”. There Avineri draws on his excellent book published in 1968 “The social and political thought of Karl Marx”. The chapters about Marx transcending Hagel’s thought and his formative years in Paris and Brussels summarize the views expounded by Avineri in 1968: Marx’s redefinition of materialism, influence of Feuerbach, the publication (together with Engels) of The Communist Manifesto and debates within the circle of the Young Hegelians.  It is there that Avineri goes over texts published sixty or even one hundred years after they were written, such as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,  The German Ideology, The Holy Family etc.  For all of them Avineri provides an excellent introduction and discussion.

Marx as an economist. There is a clear dearth of discussion of the mature Marx who in many peoples’ opinions is associated with the critique of the political economy. In fact, somebody ignorant of Marx’s writings and background could have believed, reading Avineri’s book, that Marx’s writings ceased around 1848 or 1850. The next twenty years are discussed most cursorily. It is remarkable that the second and third volume of Capital (together more than 1,000 pages long) are dealt in half a sentence. The first volume of Capital is treated only as far as the first couple of chapters  concerned with the definition of commodity and commodity fetishism. One would in vain search for even the definition of such crucial Marxist terms as the reserve army of labor, deskilling of labor, creative destruction, the tendency of the profit rate to fall, the (rejection of the) iron law of wages, the definition of the modes of production, under-consumptionism, the balanced growth of the three departments, the minimum wage as a historical category...and one could go on. It seems that Avineri was not conversant with Marx as an economist and therefore that entire part of his work is simply left out.

Marx as a “sanitized” liberal. In The social and political thought of Karl Marx Avineri skillfully tried to present Marx as a liberal, or at most, a social-democratic West European thinker. The same approach is followed here, but in a much cruder form, by arbitrary exclusions or inclusions of different “pieces” of Marx.  Avineri makes the same mistake of which he accuses the proponents of the “revolutionary” interpretation of the political Marx. He generalizes from a couple (literally, a couple) of observations that Marx made regarding the possibility of peaceful transition to socialism in the politically developed countries like Great Britain, the United States and the Netherlands, to claiming that it was Marx’s general approach to the transition to socialism. This requires Avineri to downplay or simply ignore many writings including very significantly Marx’s writings about the US Civil War where Marx argued in favor of violent suppression of an inferior socio-economic formation; Irish and Polish rebellions, both supported by Marx; the Paris Commune, with whose policies Marx almost totally identified in his Civil War in France; and the critique of the Gotha program. Avineri fails to mention most of these writings, or claims, in the case of the Paris commune, that Marx was in private notes written while the Commune was going on critical of the “prise de pouvoir” by the Communards but later, after the Commune was brutally crushed, took the opposite view, in favor of whatever Commune has done. This is a strange interpretation: greater importance is given to unpublished remarks, many of them not even letters but mere notes, rather than to the published book. Similarly, Avineri discounts almost entirely The Critique of the Gotha Program and all of Marx’s statements which allow, or even call for, the use of force to further the transition from capitalism to socialism.

This “liberal” Marx is then used to argue that Lenin and Leninism falsified Marx. The argument is difficult to defend given Marx’s writings and their internal logic. Further, Avineri does not seem to realize that without the Bolshevik revolution it is most likely that Marx would have been rather forgotten thinker, just one of the many also-rans of German social-democracy, and most of his writings (including practically all that Avineri discusses in the first part of his book) would not have been published. So, Marx’s fame depended on this type of interpretation that supported for a transition to socialism in the less developed societies and in a violent way.

The post-Capital Marx. This part of Marx’s writings (post-1867) is all but ignored. This is unfortunate because the last period of his life is in many respects the most interesting for us today because it is then that Marx faced for the first time the problem of capitalist globalization and the question of whether his unilinear scheme of different social formations neatly succeeding each other, based on West European experience, holds for the rest of the world etc. Avineri discussed this very briefly—almost dismissively briefly—through Marx’s relationship with Russian Marxists but does not go any further than that. Books by Kevin B. Anderson Marx at the Margins (reviewed here) or Marcelo Musto’s The Last Years of Karl Marx (reviewed here) are much more informative on this period. 

The lasting influence. In the conclusion, Avineri contrasts the enormous influence that Marx has had on practically all social sciences, comparing him with Plato, and the diminishing relevance of his political program. Both observations are correct with one proviso, however. That proviso comes from an extremely interesting analysis by Avineri of the ten economic policies advocated by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. When one reads Avineri’s sophisticated interpretation of the connections between these policies (Chapter 5) it soon becomes apparent that the country coming closest to having implemented them is….China. For example, Avineri argues that the ten policies of the Manifesto imply a gradual increase of the importance of the state but not an immediate abolition of private property rights. If indeed such interpretation is correct, and if China comes closest to having applied these principles, and given that China’s development in the past fifty years is the most successful development of any country over that period, then the practical importance of Marx’s thought is much greater than what we think. Avineri’s own reasoning may be used to undermine his conclusions.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The life of Maynard K.

             Zach Carter’s biography of Keynes “The price of peace” is not a typical biography. It opens when Keynes was 31 years of age in the Summer of 1914  working on pre-empting the banking crisis in England following the Sarajevo assassination and the near-certain slide of Europe into the war. It ends well past Keynes’ death as it covers the rise of Keynesianism in the United States. Keynes’ posthumous glory far exceeded, not the insignificant one, he had attained during his lifetime. This was made possible thanks to the adoption of his policies in America.      

Carter’s prolonged view, way past Keynes’s physical end, is well justified. Were there no Great Depression and the New Deal, Keynes’ influence, even assuming  that he would have written The General Theory would have been limited. Despite his many political connections, he was not much of a policy prophet in his own land. But with the New Deal and Roosevelt’s policies his glory was assured. In fact, FDR played for Keynes the same role that Lenin played for Marx. Without the politicians, both Marx and Keynes would have been moderately well-known political economists, agitators and pamphleteers. But once adopted by the powers-to-be (in the case of Keynes extending all the way to Reagan), their fate justified Keynes own view on the value of ideas, expressed towards the end of The General Theory: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Even if Carter does not spell it out, the book highlights the fundamental philosophical incompatibility between Keynes and the Austrians like Hayek and Mises. (Both of them play almost no role in the book, but the incompatibility between Keynes and the Austrians, and later Mont Pèlerin society and neoliberals is fundamental for the understanding of Keynes.) The incompatibility is based in the difference in the systems of value. For Hayek, economic mechanism of laissez-faire was a value in itself. Freedom to trade, to hire and fire, the sanctity of private property were values as such and independent of the outcomes to which they led. Indeed, Hayek and Mises believed that they would lead to higher income and thus greater happiness, but even if they did not--even if they led, as they often did, to monopoly and monopsony, depression and unemployment, political corruption and social stratification—they were still to be defended because they were valuable as such. This was freedom for Hayek.

But not for Keynes. Economic activity for Keynes, whether free trade, directed trade, government-controlled or whatever, was not a value in itself. It was a tool. Economic policies and even the economic progress were merely the tools  supposed to bring to the humankind the end of scarcity and general abundance. Abundance was the goal because only under conditions where  material goods cease to matter much can we dedicate ourselves to the finer things in life: to writing novels, going to opera, watching films, or composing verses. The goal of economics was to transcend itself. The more successful the economics the less we need it. The ultimate success of economics as a science is when it becomes redundant, when the society, like a smooth train rolling on a pre-set track, creates opulence without effort, with hardly anyone noticing. Economics’ irrelevance allows us to dedicate ourselves to the things that really matter in human life: beauty, learning, arts and sciences.

The goal of all economics is thus to transcend itself. This view of the world is completely alien to Hayek. If the science of economics is but a tool, and that tool  is more efficient when used by the state, so be it; If the private capitalists handle it better, let the field be open to them. Keynes’ remarkable lack of dogmatic spirit derives from this. Economics is judged on its results, not on its internal consistency.

It is only thanks to his lodestar being abundance, that Keynes could have moved with remarkable ease between the various economic positions he held throughout his life. He supported free trade, laissez-faire and the gold standard when he thought that it was the best combination for a civilized life, but he equally supported state investment, the euthanasia of the rentier, and high tariffs when he thought that these policies were the most efficient. What characterized Keynes was remarkable flexibility as to the policies, and equally remarkable fixation on a goal.

While Austrians were dogmatic, he was flexible, But his flexibility did not derive from unsteadiness of purpose or fickleness. It derived from the view of economics as a tool for the achievement of a “good life”.

Expressed in Marxist terms that goal was the “entry” into the “realm of freedom”. There is a strong similarity between Keynes’ description of the post-scarcity society in Economic possibilities for our grandchildren written in 1936 and Marx’s German Ideology written a century earlier but published only in 1932 in Moscow. (The  German Ideology was not known to Keynes.) Both thought that the real freedom begins when the drudgery of the division of labor and slavery to the Mammon end. Says Keynes: “The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.” Says Marx: “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Ending our slavery to the Mammon is not possible as long as all of us are not sufficiently rich or at least sufficiently happy with what we have so that we can work only the minimal amount of time and spend the rest in much grander and fun pursuits.

Keynes’ own life is an illustration of what that better, grander life should look like. He was an art critic, civil servant, journalist, statistician, designer of international organizations and their most fierce critic, patron of arts, academic economist, stock jabber, socialite, writer of essays, and finally the author of The General Theory. Small people might call him the jack of all trades, but in truth he was a Renaissance man and he thought that the humankind will never be free until everyone could afford a life close to the one  he was fortunate to have lived.