Saturday, March 6, 2010

Parallels between Trotsky and Paul

Yes, I am reading the final volume of Isaac Deutscher's excellent biography of Leon Trotsky, and it is inspiring me to utter things like "Proletarians, to horse!", and "death to the imperialist capitalist running dogs!", and "all hail the international revolutionary vanguard".

It also reminded me strongly of the biography of the semi-apostle Paul, oddly enough!

Both sent epistles far and wide to cult members urging loyalty, good behavior, settling squabbles, and urging a world-wide revolution (Trotsky during his final decade of exile, which this book covers).

Both proselytized on behalf of prophets from two generations before, who had been beaten down and ignored in their own time.

Both were outsiders to the power centers of their cult (the Jerusalem church in the case of Paul, the Soviet Union under Stalin in the case of Trotsky). In response, both took their message to an international audience.

Both believed in a second coming of their ideology- changing the world through revolutionary means towards a glittering future of righteous harmony.

Both are recognized as animating spirits and organizers of what ultimately became totalitarian institutions that lived on long after them- eighty years in the case of the USSR, and 1300 years in the case of Catholic hegemony in the West. Institutions that, incidentally, spent generous portions of their energies spinning "orthodox" doctrines and hounding and killing heretics.

Both were ultimately executed for their pains- by, or with the connivance of, their own cult leaders.




And, of course, both believed unshakeably in an ideology that makes no sense whatsoever in the rational light of day. One remarkable aspect of Deutscher's work, for instance, is his  constant valorization of struggle. His hero is in constant political struggle, hurling thunderbolts of epistolatory brilliance, dashing off books, pamphlets, and articles. The proletarian revolution is always on a knife's edge, whether from its enemies like Hitler, or from its friends, like Stalin. He had fought a civil war to defend the revolution, and now from exile fought on to the end to preserve its principles, amidst ever fewer followers and dwindling interest from the larger world.

One would think that the philosophical core of Marxism would take this heroism and constant struggle into account, as do, say, evolutionary biology and conventional economics. But no- the wiki page on communism sums it up as ...
"Pure communism" in the Marxian sense refers to a classless, stateless and oppression-free society where decisions on what to produce and what policies to pursue are made democratically, allowing every member of society to participate in the decision-making process in both the political and economic spheres of life.
It is hard to tell what relation this has to the titanic struggles, not to mention deception and force of arms, involved in establishing every actual communist state, or with the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or to human nature at large. Democracy is a wonderful thing, when honestly implemented. But it is no way to run smaller and more personal affairs, where personal ownership and initiative are the more effective and natural principles. So the idea of extending democracy -writ large- to questions like how to run one's farm or office, is completely counter-productive, especially when the democracy in question is of Stalin's (or Trotsky's) ilk.

All this is richly reinforced by Trotsky's own career, since he gained power not through democratic means, but at the head of an armed worker's insurgency, had little use for democracy after gaining power, relied on (capitalist) royalties on his published works for income during exile, ran his household along conventional autocratic lines, and employed all means at his disposal- charisma, discipline, and intellect, for one aim, which was power. The true communist society was just as much a mirage as the second coming and last judgment of Jesus, now almost two thousand years overdue.

In theory, the communist ideal was predicated on an over-abundance of material goods, so that all would get according to need, and material competition would be a thing of the past. But this completely misreads human psychology. Not only are human material needs bottomless, (witness the ability of billionaires to spend their money endlessly and want still more), but in the end, material objects become symbolic of desires that lie closer to our hearts- status and power, with which Trotsky was so familiar. Society benefits from policies and structures that promote egalitarianism, but not from the erasure of all differences and distinctions, which requires oppression in very large doses.

Man does not live by bread alone. Indeed, the less plausible the ideal, the more devoted and fanatic the followers. In our time, it is Al Queda that carries the banner of world revolution, in hopes of a dream world of totalitarian Islam. Yesterday, it was Communism with its dictatorship of the proletariat. And the day before that it was Christianity with its messiah coming back from the dead to rule the earth and separate the believers from the damned. The pattern is clear, from these and many other movements- that millennial visions are humanity's deepest and most persistent danger, which needs to be perpetually opposed by cosmopolitanism and true democracy.

  • Early warning gives a stunning climate report the once-over.
  • Even honest right wing economists can figure out Keynesianism.
  • But the Chicago school has no shame whatsoever, apparently.
  • Track your electricity.
  • Watch a minicooper being built, using lots of robots.
  • Brave words from the NYT about economic recovery... 
"But those very overreactions may have set the stage for a recovery that will turn out to be stronger and faster than those after the two previous downturns."
I will put my understanding of macro-economics on the line and say that this isn't going to happen. Mr. Norris is simply guessing at trends, and not showing his data, other than saying that "order books are filling up", rather hopefully. Indeed, the statistics he charts indicate that we are at bottom, not that we will be going up any time soon.

Unless the US returns to the debt binge days of the mid-2000's, we are in for a protracted slump of high unemployment and capacity under-utilization. Commercial real estate has yet to bottom out, for instance. This is due to an overall demand implosion, driven by loss of wealth and higher savings desires, combined with a continuing strong dollar and trade balance deficits, combined with insufficient federal deficit spending to offset the first two. Many banks, including the largest, remain insolvent, rigging accounting rules to hide that fact. So another debt binge is hardly in the cards.

  • Mitchell quote of the week, on the Russian default of 1998, after interest rates were raised to >100%, and the central bank had spent almost $30 billion defending the ruble's dollar peg against speculators.
"On September 2, 1998, the government floated the ruble.
First, this was not a bank crisis. It was the result of the currency peg and the massive exposure to foreign-denominated debt.
Second, at any time they wanted to they could have floated which would have stopped the need to hike interest rates and kill their economy.
Third, they never needed to default on domestic debt. That was the act of sheer stupidity and the poor advice they were getting. There was never a solvency risk in their own currency. The IMF were in there telling the Russian government that they had to implement an austerity plan and convincing them that they needed to “raise money” to fund the deficit – both erroneous propositions."

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