Tuesday, 2 October 2012

TV Personality Hid Dirty Secret

It turns out Eric Hobsbawm was a member of the Communist Party. Who'da thunk it? The death of the cuddly historian coincided with Stephanie Flanders' TV think-piece on Marx, following her earlier musings on Keynes and Hayek. The common theme is the vexed issue of Marxism, which has enjoyed something of an intellectual resurgence since the financial crisis, though one that has been building since the contrarian starting pistol was fired in 1989.

Hobsbawm the historian is a relatively poor subject for a critique of Marxism as the bulk of his work is firmly in the English tradition of Macaulay, Trevelyan and AJP Taylor: panoptic, well-written, essentially Enlightenment Whig. His Age of ... tetralogy is an excellent survey, but his more interesting work is to be found in The Invention of Tradition and the studies of marginal, working class communities, which he and EP Thompson pioneered in the 1960s. The critique therefore focuses on his long membership of the CPGB, notably after the Hungarian Rising of 1956 when many other members quit, and his statements to the effect that he did not regret his commitment. Some of this was simple truculence, a refusal to condemn his own past, some a rather callous mischief. He is dead now, so he isn't going to apologise, any more than Jimmy Saville is. Of course, that won't stop the debate about how he got away with it, or whether he was justified at all. Hobsbawm I mean, not Saville. The "outing" of the latter as an abuser has prompted many erstwhile colleagues to admit his behaviour was well known. Much the same happened when Jonathan King got nicked, I recall. While we shouldn't succumb to crass stereotypes, I can't have been the only teenager watching TOTP in the 70s thinking "that bloke looks well dodgy". I mean both Saville and King.

The Flanders series has been rather frustrating. The producers presumably fear that a programme about ideas will be boring if it has too many ideas, so we get the usual sequence of pointless location shots and human interest marginalia. If Keynes hadn't been an economist, we wouldn't be interested in his involvement with the Bloomsbury Group or his chairmanship of the Arts Council, so why burden us with it now? Hayek was a trickier TV subject, because the man was so personally boring and spent most of his life doing very little outside academia. A quick shufty at his collection of gongs, and a dull letter from Margaret Thatcher, made up the highlights. Marx, by contrast, was a dream gig, allowing Flanders to open with contemporaneous comments about the arrival on British shores of the most dangerous man in Europe, a sort of reverse Abu Hamza. We got the usual tropes of student excess, luxuriant facial hair, meetings in London pubs, retirement to Hampstead respectability, and Tankies singing the Internationale in Highgate Cemetery.

As others have already noted, Flanders skipped a lot of the interesting ideas in Marx and misinterpreted others, focusing on simplistic class antagonism and wages (i.e. demand management). There was one shot, presumably from a Soviet propaganda film, of a frock-coated, top-hatted plutocrat wielding a whip and carrying a sub-machinegun. What larks. At one point, brandishing a bundle of sticks, it looked like she was about to broach the theory of surplus value, but she copped out with (something like) "if you really want to know, you can plough through hundreds of pages yourself". The writings of Keynes, which are more technical and challenging, did not get this high-handed treatment. I began to get the sense that the BBC were worried they might be criticised for giving airtime to "the most dangerous man in Europe". This probably explained their choice of various right-wing polemicists, like Madsen Pirie, who added nothing to an understanding of Marx's ideas, but meant they were inside the tent pissing out. She even got Peter Hitchens on to demonstrate hegemony: he thought an alternative to capitalism was as conceivable as an alternative to weather.

Despite some self-mockery, in the form of a skit on the Marxist Broadcasting Corporation (which probably shot the Daily Mail's fox), the programme devoted a lot of time to linking Marx and the gulags, while insisting that there was of course no such direct link. We got tours of East German jails, footage of marches in Red Square, and the storming of the Winter Palace. Capital was published 3 years before Lenin was born. You'd think they'd give it a rest. After all, no one blames Hobsbawm's The Forward March of Labour Halted for Tony Blair and Iraq, though you might find it easier to make the case. I don't recall Hayek's visit to Chile and his supportive words for the murderous Pinochet regime being similarly foregrounded by Flanders, though I may have blinked.

The whole Masters of Money series was oddly lacking because it tried to fillet the three thinkers' ideas in terms of their usefulness in understanding the current crisis. This inevitably gave Keynes the edge, but that in turn meant there was no real discussion as to why the proponents of austerity were in power, or why neoliberalism remains hegemonic. It also failed to address the yawning gap between free markets and capitalism, and the conflicts between corporations and spontaneous order, which is where Hayek might have been useful, and it didn't get to the nub of Marx's point that capitalism is insatiable. The externality of environmental damage was conspicuous by its absence. This unstable dynamic is ultimately the product of human nature: curious, enterprising, footloose, hedonic. Without it we'd still be sitting under trees eating raw meat. But this is also what makes capitalism prone to crisis, and equally capable of overcoming crisis through change and reinvention, until the next crisis. The centrality of equilibrium as a concept in capitalist thought, and its elevation to a quasi-spiritual role (the invisible hand as Holy Ghost), is testament to the fear of crisis as a manifestation of a lack of control. The conclusion of the series appears to be that we must manage capitalism better: "there is no alternative". Sound familiar?

1 comment:

  1. The interesting thing about the Neo-Austrians i.e. followers of Mises and Hayek is their willingness to admit that crises are an in built feature of Capitalism. Actually, they do so in a way that Hayek and Mises didn't. Mises, original arguments against planning, for instance, relied heavily on claims about it causing gluts and shortages, because of the lack of allocative prices. But, the implication of that was that Capitalism is NOT prone to continual gluts and shortages due to a lack of planning and co-ordination!

    The modern neo-Austrians embrace crisis, and say its the way the system works in clearing out the dead wood, and the people who made wrong decisions - for example, people like Peter Schiff, or the people over at Mises.Org argue the bankers and their shareholders should have been allowed to go bust, and that would be a lesson for banks not to engage in such reckless activities in future, and would teach shareholders to keep control over the bueaucrats controlling the companies they own. Of course, they don't bother to think about the effects of all the banks workers who might lose their jobs, and who had no say in any of those decisions.

    Also, if you look at Hayek in the "Road To Serfdom" he does not argue for a complete law of the jungle. He argues that a civilised and wealthy society can provide minimum levels of social security for people. What he says cannot be provided is absolute guarantees for everyone that their standard of living will be above a certain level. Regulations can be imposed provided they apply equally to all, in other words, all Capitals must have a level playing field.

    Neo-Austrians would disagree with that, because they see all State inteference, which would be necessary to provide a minimum level of social security, and to introduce regulations as inherently bad, and distorting. Their argument is that crises are an inevitable and healthy part of Capitalism, and allowed to happen result in the crisis being less bad than it would have been if the State tries to prevent it, and also create conditions for stronger growth when the crisis ends.

    There is no evidence this is true. As I said in Part 2 of my post you linked to, the crisis of the 1840's led to thousands of workers in Britain starving to death. Their willingness to accept almost any wage, in conditions where there was no minimum social scurity, did not lead to the market for labour power clearing. Nor did that crisis, at the height of the Liberal era looked to by the Neo-Austrians as Nirvana, end quickly. The same was true of the First Great Depression that ran on for 20 years in the first part of the second half of the 19th Century. The same is actually true of the 1920's and 30's. Crises tend to clear themselves in periods of Long Wave Boom, in periods of Long Wave downturn they tend to simply fester, from one crisis to the next. The same happened in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's.