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A mixture problem

By skepticlawyer

Have you ever made a good cocktail by accident? You know, where you combine various ingredients — including quite a few that don’t seem to go together — and yet finish up with something awesome?

Yeah, doesn’t happen often, does it? Or it only tastes good when you’re drunk. Taste the mix again later — several days later, usually — and you discover that Midori really is as awful as you thought it was, and the whole lot finishes up poured down the kitchen sink. On the plus side, you won’t need Drano any time soon.

I had this thought a fortnight ago when I was reading a post at Bob Carr’s ‘Thoughtlines’ blog (yes, that Bob Carr) on Marx, of all things. Mr Carr was commenting on a piece by Larvatus Prodeo’s Mark Bahnisch (which isn’t online, alas), although in the end his point was separate from Mark’s original article, as the comments thread shows. The essence of Mr Carr’s argument concerned the nasty outcomes attached to Marxism wherever it’s been tried:

Well, there’s been a field experiment since 1917 in societies based on Marxist principles, governed by Marxists. And to my knowledge every one of those societies has had its version of a gulag and its version of mass slaughter. I presume I don’t need to make the case about Russia or China. I presume that knowledge of the North Korean gulag is reasonably well spread, and of the cruel labour camps that caused huge numbers of Vietnamese to risk their lives on the high seas.

The reason is that Marx’s prescriptions for society were these: the defeat of the bourgeoisie and the achievement of collective ownership under the control of the working class. Such a radical program could only be enforced by totalitarian means. And since 1917 so it has come to pass. Where has such a transformation come about through the ballot? Go on. Just one example.

At first, the thread was a straight argument about historical analysis, with Mark arguing in the comments that Mr Carr was guilty of the same historical determinism as Marx (with his ‘historical forces’), but then it drifted, and it drifted in a way I find interesting. (Don’t get me wrong, I find causation in history interesting too, but that’s a different kettle of fish, and not what I’m discussing here.) In the comments, ‘Antonio’ made the following observation:

Mr Carr, in the same way that there is a great deal of difference between the New Testament and the institution of the Catholic Church, there is a substantial difference between Marx’s literary output and movements which described themselves as Marxist. This is an important distinction to make which you are evading. If we took the approach of dismissing a body of literature on the basis of social movements inspired in their name we would throw out the major religious works of humanity! Heidegger was a Nazi, should we ignore his Opera Maiora? Bertrand Russell was a Marxist, should we re-evaluate his oeuvre accordingly?!

It seems a bit lazy to claim that because that Marxists have historically been authoritarian therefore we should bury Marx’s literary legacy without further analysis and engagement. Surely with the end of the Cold War, now is the time for a more sober, mature and critical analysis without needing to cite the hackneyed formula Marx = Communism = Death.

This is something that has been exercising my mind since I studied jurisprudence at Oxford and saw the use that various left-leaning scholars were making of Nazi jurisprude Carl Schmitt. At the time I was horrified, as they were drawing on those components of his thought that a number of leading Nazis used to justify the destruction of the Weimar Republic – an observation Hayek made in The Road to Serfdom. It really did seem as though sundry lefties were playing with explosives in a confined space. (First you blow yourself up, then other people. And then things get really ugly.)

I wondered (and still do): what are we supposed to do with philosophers like Schmitt, or Heidegger, or Lenin? People who were committed to ideologies that were (and are) utterly evil, that killed millions, at the same time as the killings were going on, often with said philosophers’ active connivance? See, while I’m sympathetic to Mr Carr’s view of Marxism, and think that people who take Marx seriously also need to take Marxist outcomes more seriously than they do (something Terry Eagleton utterly fails to understand, as Lorenzo points out very skillfully here), there is a difference between a Marx and a Lenin or a Schmitt. Lenin was a murdering monster. Schmitt helped destroy Prussia’s pro-Weimar government in 1932. Marx sat around (mainly in the British Library), wrote a lot of stuff and grew luxuriant facial hair. Eleven people turned up to his funeral; not exactly a confidant prediction of future influence. The distinction may be a fine one, but it is important to bear it in mind.

My first question, then, is what does one do with thinkers (and ideas) that are ‘contaminated at source’? Does the fact that a given political or legal thinker was a complete dick in his personal and public life make a difference to how we should view (a) that person qua person and (b) any prescriptions for action that person may or may not have made? And (if the answer to both questions is ‘yes’), at what point does someone cross the line from ‘this guy’s ideas are really interesting, but hoo boy what a tosser’ to ‘if this guy’s behaviour is a reflection of his ideas, then it’s probably best we leave his philosophical beliefs in a sealed lead casket marked with the intellectual equivalent of one of those biohazard labels.’

I’ve become interested in questions like this partly thanks to constant reminders from Lorenzo that ‘ideas have consequences’ and partly through reading a lot of Stoicism for my novel, one of the strands of which points out that if the person proposing a given set of ideas is an evil little shit, then their ideas are probably best left alone. Call it the pagan version of ‘by their fruits you shall know them’.

My (very preliminary) suspicion on this is that we need to work out the difference between ‘contaminated at source’ and what I’ve come to call ‘a formidable mixture problem’ before we address what we do with things and people that fall into category one. I’m a lawyer, not a philosopher, but I think I know enough of both to be able to sketch out what a ‘formidable mixture problem’ looks like. This is a legal example, and concerns an institution, not a single individual, but it’s a clear case of someone (a whole lot of people, actually) mixing random alcoholic beverages and coming up with an utterly awesome cocktail. Just don’t look too hard at the ingredients on the bottle, ‘tis all.

The troubled history of the Sale of Goods Act (1893)

Most of the time, when civilians claim that Roman law influenced the common law, they are making it up: lots of people seem unable to understand Hayek’s argument that it is perfectly possible for two different societies in two different periods to evolve very similar legal systems, both equally efficacious, independently of each other. They assume that the later system and people must have imitated the earlier system and people, and don’t appreciate that the reason English law in the late 18th and early 19th century (sometimes later, too) looked like Roman law of the first and second century AD is because the two societies were in some ways similar. Since the (pagan) Romans are our culture’s reference trope for ‘bloodthirsty sex fiends’ and the (Victorian) English are our reference trope for ‘restraint and probity’, this can create cognitive dissonance.

There is, however, one stellar example of genuine Roman influence on the common law: the Sale of Goods Act. And it is the mother of all ‘formidable mixture problems’. See, it couldn’t exist without slavery, combined, of course, with the mercantile Roman obsession about getting their money’s worth (crumbs, now they sound like Scots).

In a Roman contract of sale, the seller had four duties: he had to care for the property before delivery, to deliver it with vacant possession, to warrant against eviction, and to warrant against defects. It all sounds pretty standard, yes? Just what you’d find in a modern contract of sale, especially a land sale, yes?

It’s the warranty against defects that interests me here. In early law, the rule was the familiar caveat emptor — let the buyer beware — but as the Empire expanded, slave dealers acquired the sort of reputation that we now attach to used car salesmen. The Roman slave-market developed a serious case of George Akerlof’s Market for Lemons with its associated information asymmetry. ‘You sold me a Gaul and said he was Greek!’ ‘This one doesn’t speak Latin!’ ‘He doesn’t meet the description, you said he was handsome!’ ‘She’s lazier than a garden ornament!’ (All of these are culled from genuine Roman litigation, by the way).

At first, the Roman law requirement to contract in good faith helped curb some of the excesses. Sellers had to warrant the absence of fraud, and fraud was defined widely enough to take in what now falls under fraudulent misrepresentation [Derry v Peek (1889) LR 14 App Cas 337] and negligent misrepresentation [Hedley Byrne & Co Ltd v Heller & Partners Ltd [1964] AC 465]; see D.19.1.1.1 and D.18.1.43.2. Over time, slave dealers had to provide accurate descriptive notices setting out information on everything from nationality to diseases (if known) to useful skills to a tendency to run away.

However, good faith wasn’t enough when the dealer could plead that he didn’t know about any defects. The law only covered what are known in the trade as ‘patent defects’, that is, defects knowable to the buyer ‘on reasonable inspection’. In practice, this meant that even when a given slave wasn’t being purchased for sexual purposes, he would be stripped naked in front of potential buyers.

Eventually, the sharp practices of slave dealers were dealt with by a combination of incremental development in the courts and an edict by the Curile Aediles, who had general supervision of the Empire’s slave markets. The substance of the edict and various court rulings was to make slave dealers liable for inherent defects, as Ulpian explains [D.21.1.1.2]:

It must be recognized that the vendor is still liable, even when he is unaware of the defects which the aediles require to be declared. There is nothing unreasonable about this; the vendor could have made himself conversant with these matters, and in any case the purchaser is not concerned whether he has been deceived due to the dealer’s ignorance or to his guile.

These ‘implied guarantee of quality’ rules covered things like slaves that were ‘not of merchantable quality’ and ‘not fit for purpose’ or which constituted a ‘failure to meet a sale of goods by description’. The remedies available to the purchaser were rescission (within 6 months of the sale) or what in Scotland is called ‘reduction’ but the Romans called ‘diminution’ (within 12 months of the sale). This allowed the buyer to recover part of the purchase price — ie, the difference between the slave’s actual value at the time of the sale and the price paid. A new phrase entered into the law of contract: caveat venditor, ‘let the seller beware’.

The rules as applied to slave dealers were extended–sometime in the late Republic–to land sales and then consumables. Ulpian notes that the implied guarantees as to quality reached their fullest application–probably also in the late Republic–when extended to all sales of goods or land [D.21.1.63]. This had interesting social effects, some of which archaeologists have noted. Everyday products from the Roman world (their Samian ware pottery, their tools, their buildings, even clothing) are notable for an absence of shoddy workmanship. People–particularly in Italy itself–ate exceptionally well, with no evidence of differential heights based on servile or non-citizen status. They were taller on average than modern Italians. But then, selling addled food or watered milk could land you in court, and the Romans took ‘goodwill’ very seriously. Manufacturers would routinely mark items with distinctive words and symbols, and there was legal comeback if you used someone else’s words and symbols without permission, in an action that resembles the common law tort of ‘passing off’.

Some of the suits brought under the actio redhibitoria (rescission) and the actio quanti minoris (diminution) make interesting and sometimes unedifying reading. There’s the wealthy woman who bought a hundred bottles of ‘best Campanian wine’ for a party, only to discover that it hadn’t been sealed properly and had gone sour (failure to meet a sale of goods by sample; she won), the man who bought a piece of land and the vendor hadn’t known it was subject to a servitude [easement] (‘inadequate disclosure’, but damages were reduced; he should have undertaken a title search).

Then there was the chap who purchased a ‘pretty virgin slave’ and discovered she wasn’t a virgin. He was sent packing with a flea in his ear about his rather adolescent sexual tastes. He tried again, this time amending his statement of claim (formula) to argue error in substantialibus (mistake as to the substance of the contract). Roman lawyers – like their common law cousins — were generally unimpressed by mistake as to substance arguments, with Ulpian making tetchy remarks about the law of contract being evidenced by what parties did, not by what was in their innermost thoughts. This was followed by more ‘and why would you want a virgin anyway’? remarks and the tart ‘if you’d bought a pretty woman and the dealer had delivered you a pretty man, then I’d grant an action, but not for this.’ [D.18.1.11].

Roman law textbooks wax lyrical about the sophistication of this system; liability for inherent defects is taken for granted in modern industrial economies, and for a pre-industrial society to develop it is extraordinary. That much is simple fact, and when the English common lawyers came to draft the Sale of Goods Act 1893, finally overturning centuries of caveat emptor, they produced a remarkable example of a codifying statute: where existing legal principles are drawn into a single, well-drafted whole. Although subjected to a bit of nanny-statish jiggery-pokery over the years, the modern Sale of Goods Act has changed little from its Victorian ancestor. And when it was extended to a relationship not governed by contract [in another Scots case, the famous Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] UKHL 100], the modern law of consumer protection had arrived.

What none of the textbooks acknowledge is the size of the mixture problem built into this wonderful bit of lawyering. Modern consumer protection laws, friends and neighbours, didn’t just emerge within a slave-owning society. They arose thanks to the pervasive, all-encompassing Roman model of slavery, and in response to its particular characteristics and circumstances. Roman slavery–because it was unsupported by Greek or Christian-style natural law arguments or antebellum US racism–depended on the exercise of naked power.

Yes, it was rational. No Roman tried to argue that some people were naturally servile, or that some races were better than others. But because it was utterly bereft of ideology (although one fellow student in my Roman law class did make the rather plaintive observation–which has bite in Scotland–that ‘they were awfully Thatcherite, weren’t they?’), laws like these turned on the common Roman desire to get one’s money’s worth and to make a profit. And while the later developments are all well and good–application to land, consumables, chattels generally–the whole thing kicked off because Marcus and Marcia Average objected to participating in a market for lemons. Human lemons.

The resulting cocktail, you’ll agree, is pretty damn fine. It also contains lemonade (‘if life hands you lemons…’ yeah, I know, bad joke).

What’s a girl to do?

I’d be a whole lot happier if formidable mixture problems like this were acknowledged, not glossed over. This doesn’t, however, mean going the other way, construing everything as some sort of victim v oppressor deal with the devil (something which is terribly fashionable in the halls of academe, as David Mamet points out):

Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.

“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting… view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”

Acknowledging mixture problems means accepting cognitive dissonance as part of everyday life. You get the dodgy Hoover you bought replaced (even though there is no fault on the seller’s part) because Marcus and Marcia Average once bought a slave who turned out to be ugly, or thick, or lazy, and they didn’t like being on the wrong side of the deal. The legal principle, it turns out, has general application.

Maybe once we’ve accepted some cognitive dissonance, we can start asking the more complex questions of cause and effect Mamet raises. Why did Roman slavery lead to this development? Was it to do with their strongly pro-market culture? After all, the Greeks and Persians had just as much slavery during the same period; both also laboured under legal systems that failed to come up with the presumption of innocence, let alone anything like the Sale of Goods Act. Why? Both Greeks and Persians were also beholden to philosophical or religious ideas that held that things have an inherent value, and were not therefore subject to agreement (consensus ad idem) between the parties to a contract. No Roman jurist ever fell for this remarkably silly idea:

All buying and selling has its origin in exchange or barter; there was once a time when money did not exist and terms like ‘merchandise’ or ‘price’ were unknown. Rather, each person bartered what was useless to him for that which was useful, according to the exigencies of his current needs; it often happens that what one man has in plenty another lacks. However, since  it did not always and easily happen that when you had something that I wanted, I, for my part, had something that you were willing to accept, a material was selected which, being given a stable value by the state, avoided the problems of barter by providing a consistent medium of exchange. This material, struck in due form by the mint, demonstrates its utility and title not by its substance but by its quantity, so that no longer are the things exchanged both examples of wares, but rather one of them is termed the ‘price’ [Praetorian Edict: D.18.1.1pr].

The Roman, then–because he wasn’t tied to ideas of inherent value–was freed up to negotiate ‘value for money’ on his own terms, an important aspect of individual autonomy. Now, I don’t know whether this suggestion of mine is true, but Akerlof and Hayek’s research leads me to suspect that it is. In any case, I want to convey the idea that thinking in this way about the Roman role in consumer protection law involves accepting both slavery and the fact that a cherished modern legal development has its origins in slavery without attempting to wish any part of the complex reality away.

As applied to Karl Marx

For modern scholars of Marxism (getting back to Mr Carr’s point), their ‘mixture problem’ (I think Karl Marx falls into the slightly less problematic of the two categories) involves accepting the reality of Marxist outcomes and trying to disentangle those bits of Marx that may still be useful or illuminating (FWIW, I think the Marxist notion of false consciousness still has legs when applied to Muslim women who sing the praises of what is patently a misogynistic religion) from the bits that have led to murder and mayhem. Denying or minimising the latter is absurd, and leads to the situation where it is possible for public figures to confess to youthful Communism but not youthful Fascism (Peter Mandelson, anyone?) and get away with it. Both systems were equally vicious, and conservatives and libertarians are going to hammer at the double standard every chance we get until the point is conceded. Mr Carr may be a Labor fellow, but that does not undermine his argument one whit.

Contaminated at source

Of course, all the above leaves the Lenins and Schmitts of the world unaddressed. I do think it’s fair and reasonable to put people like that in a different category from Karl Marx or the slave-owning Roman jurists and their Sale of Goods Act. Maybe Marx is more problematic in that so little of what he proposed has been useful or efficacious, although I recognize in that statement the Scottish Enlightenment inspired thinker that I am: along with David Hume and his modern followers, particularly Neil MacCormick, I think that outcomes matter, that persistent failure cannot be handwaved away.

Moving beyond ‘formidable mixture problem’ to ‘contaminated at source’ involves the reanimation of an idea that used to be a large part of philosophy, and was then (rather unfortunately, I think) ceded to theology: that is, if a given philosophy doesn’t provide at least some tips for how to live one’s life, then it’s probably not worth much. Yes, I’ve strayed into the realm of virtue ethics, which always makes me want to reach for my revolver, so let me stress at the outset that I am (following MacCormick) most interested in outcomes. I suspect that if people generate terrible outcomes in their private and public lives and then purport to provide moral or political guidance, the latter is contaminated by the former, sometimes irredeemably.

In other words, what people say cannot be neatly separated from what they do, especially when what they do is in the name of what they say. There are, of course, data points along a hypothetical continuum, but I am reasonably sure that Lenin and Schmitt fall so far on the wrong side of the point marking off ‘absolute evil’ from everything else that the best we can learn from either of them is how to be cruel, authoritarian, and violent. When the likes of Chantal Mouffe, for example, mine Schmitt’s division of politics into ‘friend and enemy’ for Marxist purposes simply because she doesn’t like the drift towards the centre characteristic of modern liberal societies, the result is deeply disturbing (although it does at least have the merit of candour; she wants a society filled to the brim with antagonism). It also probably says more about her than the liberal society she purports to criticize.

What would my proposal have for education that does involve the likes of Schmitt, Lenin or Heidegger? These ideas are very preliminary, but are not proposed lightly or without careful thought:

1. First, an open acknowledgement that the individuals in question were evil human beings, and carried out their evil in the name of what they believed.

2. Next, an open acknowledgement that criticisms of our society derived from criticisms they made of their society may have equally deleterious effects if widely disseminated (‘ideas have consequences,’ as Lorenzo always says).

3. Finally, an honest acceptance of failure (something that applies to both ‘mixture problems’ and ‘contaminated at source’ issues). The modern law of consumer protection (and tortious liability generally) has been subjected to statutory or common law limits of one form or another in every modern jurisdiction. Lawyers and the general public are now well aware of ‘floodgates’ arguments, which sometimes means injustice in the individual case (the Hillsborough cases are, to my mind, signal examples of this). Similarly, political proposals that are all about good intentions but that involve terrifying consequences have to be subjected to empirical limits. Political proposals can have ‘floodgates’ arguments attached too.

We all have to drink the cocktail made up of things from our political and legal past (politics and law, alas, have an impact on everyone). Being frank about failure and honest about origins is, I think, the beginning of wisdom. It also means that what we drink will not kill us.

69 Comments

  1. Posted May 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Well on “as a person a complete dick” cf the writings… Newton wasn’t exactly a success as a person (hence retrospective diagnoses of severe mood disorders and aspergers/autism), but that’s irrelevant to the truths discovered.

    And I guess Castro ain’t a marxist, or the lower infant mortality and lower incarceration rates than the US don’t matter. So… not every marxist experiment is a failure. As the market rolls in, I’m expecting morbity and mortality to rise in Cuba, and education levels drop. It’s an interesting experiment that will take 20 or so years.

  2. Movius
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Comparing infant mortality between countries is impossible due to differing definitions. (eg. a stillbirth in one country might be an infant mortalitiy in another.)

    I’m not sure on the exact specifics. But I’d bet good money the definition in Cuba is different to that in the USA.

    And this is assuming accurate statistics from all parties.

  3. Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Movius@2: The statistics are pretty reliable on health issues as there are very tight and detailed definitions in the WHO ICD (Internation Classification of Diseases), supplemented by WHO ICHI (International Classification of Health Interventions), which are expressly collected for accurate epidemiological comparisons. The only confounding elements are administrative and diagnostic incapabilities in backward states. Literacy levels are trickier, and can be fudged by self-serving politicians via “grade inflation”.

    More pertinent to the post, there’s an analogy with the music of Wagner – with a personal life that makes me think he was a right pain in the bum, and usage of his music increasing the power of propaganda by manipulative regimes, thus making it possible to calculate Wagner’s thinking as a nett cause of suffering, with about the only mitigating factor, to my mind, the use in one Bugs Bunny episode – “what’s opera, doc?”

    I can’t see any reason to separate legal and political philosophy from any other human endeavor, where the intent of the original author is the greatest good of the greatest number – “Death Metal” and “Gangsta Rap” being possible exceptions.

    Remember to that philosophies can be /misused/ as justifications/pretexts – Confucius being one example where regimes have implemented completely different actions through different readings.

    I’d relate SL’s thoughts to a parallel case – the use of the results of torture in medicine: nazi experiments providing data useful in later times for relief of suffering.

  4. Posted May 25, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    First, an open acknowledgement that the individuals in question were evil human beings, and carried out their evil in the name of what they believed.

    I’m very reluctant to label individuals as evil, not least because it implies some sort of arbitrary moral standard. I think labelling actions as evil is less problematic, but it remains important to consider the interaction between ideas, people and circumstances that caused the act and its outcome. Understanding why people acted the way they did, and to what extent their commitment to certain ideas drove them to act, is how we can attempt to separate and evaluate the idea(s) and the action(s). Unstated values (and our own unexamined ones) often explain much more than stated values do.

    Next, an open acknowledgement that criticisms of our society derived from criticisms they made of their society may have equally deleterious effects if widely disseminated (‘ideas have consequences,’ as Lorenzo always says).

    This I disagree with strongly. I think the criticism of our society are the most valuable part of any ideology (as I’ve kind of covered in my latest blog post). The problem comes from where alternative solutions are not given enough criticism themselves. It’s not the individual ideas that cause problems but rather an imbalanced mixture of ideas. I think its important to acknowledge that our society is based on a mixture of ideas, any of which could be detrimental if used in naive isolation. Labelling certain ideas as ‘dangerous’ seems to me to be what would lead to dangerous ideological puritanism in the first place.

    Finally, an honest acceptance of failure

    As long as your talking about general failues in all dimensions, and not just some imaginary line between success and failure, then I think this is a good idea.

  5. kvd
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Does the fact that a given political or legal thinker was a complete dick in his personal and public life make a difference to how we should view (a) that person qua person and (b) any prescriptions for action that person may or may not have made?

    Taken from above the cut, but I have read the rest of this very interesting piece.

    Accepting Lorenzo’s “ideas have consequences” as a neat statement of the obvious, I’m a bit doubtful as to the necessity to judge the worth of an idea by the personal ideas, or even personal implementations, of the proponent. Shorter version: good ideas come from all sorts of people; and bad ideas can be proposed by good people.

    I think you’d have to further qualify what you mean for this purpose. At the least I think the “evil” committed would need to be associated with the pursuit of the idea – maybe Einstein cheated on the office footy pool; “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant” etc.

    The ideas matter; the predilections of the proponents don’t.. (much…). Lorenzo’s comment is key: judge the idea by its consequences, not by the frailty or just plain evil-ness of its proposer.

  6. Patrick
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I think I broadly agree with kvd…

    Like LE, I find Marx quite interesting. But a quick diversion on music:

    As to music, I don’t think there is any grounds for making a link between the artist’s ideology and their music. It is akin to disliking a carpenter’s chairs because of his ideology.

    For example, I quite like Bjork, the Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg, Leonard Cohen and even Noir Desir – I promise you that I do not share their ideological viewpoints. I also promise you that I really don’t care.

    A turn by evil:

    Laudable sentiments, desipis, and I do agree that we should be very sparing with the epithet evil. That said, come off it – ther are non-arbitrary moral standards, even if they aren’t readily defined.

    Sometimes a person’s acts are of such magnitude and/or repetition that one can simply short-cut from ‘the person who has done evil acts x, y and z, oh and m, n and o’ to: ‘that evil person’

    I am not, for example, very interested in understanding the revealed preferences or unstated values of repeat child rapists/murderers, just in their being executed as quickly as reasonably practicable.

    Back to Marx: I think that Marx is quite an interesting writer. But I don’t think that binds me to afford any respect at all to people who attempt to build political ideologies on the basis of his theories. I think that, to pursue kvd’s line of reasoning, ‘practical implementers’ of Marxism have always found it necessary to commit such travesties, and more to the point not cavilled from the horrors they inflicted, that we can safely say that only a perverted bastard could espouse practical implementation of Marx’s theories.

    Thus we can extrapolate from the sick bastards that every communist (to take the extreme for illustrative purposes) has proved themselves to be to guess that there is something in believing in communism that requires a sick bastard; thus, if person A believes in communism they are almost certainly a sick bastard.

    Or we can extrapolate from the high percentage of French socialists who are real jerks (Mitterand, Chirac, Hollande, DSK, et al; yes Chirac was a socialist) to concluding that we should mistrust French socialists until proven otherwise.

    Obviously others might disagree with the above moderate and reasonable propositions.

  7. kvd
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    P@7 Bjork?! wtf is moderate and reasonable about that proposition?

  8. Mel
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    SL:

    “FWIW, I think the Marxist notion of false consciousness still has legs when applied to Muslim women who sing the praises of what is patently a misogynistic religion”

    I agree. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome on a grand scale.

    SL:

    “… it is possible for public figures to confess to youthful Communism but not youthful Fascism (Peter Mandelson, anyone?) and get away with it. Both systems were equally vicious, and conservatives and libertarians are going to hammer at the double standard every chance we get until the point is conceded.”

    I’ve made the same point when “stirring the pot” but it really isn’t true. A member of some campus Marxist group who protests against homophobia, racism etc is not the moral equivalent of a youthful fascist who incites hate against those same groups.

    Nonetheless I firmly believe that some of the people who join these groups are “little Stalins” and that in the right circumstances, an actual revolution, their true colors would emerge. Moreover, it is the ruthless and manipulative “little Stalins” rather than the naive but harmless fluffy bunnies who are likely to take control of any revolution. I think that is the true lesson of history.

    I also think at least some of the Cold War Marxists who pressed for unilateral nuclear disarmament were well aware that if they succeeded in their goal the West would have been at risk of being overrun by the Soviets and that this idea appealed to their unsavoury instincts.

    SL: “Maybe Marx is more problematic in that so little of what he proposed has been useful or efficacious …”

    Again the truth is not that simple. It is precisely because Marxists were so successful in organising labor through the unions and the political process in the late 19th century and early 20th century that capitalism, in the West at least, begun to develop a human face. In my university studies I was interested to read accounts of how conservatives during that era were at times quite open about how their concessions to labor (shorter working week, better conditions and workers compensation etc) were a response to the fear of a radicalised and revolutionary working class.

    Ironically, the very success of industrial and political Marxism killed revolutionary Marxism stone dead.

    Last but not least, some of your own heroes had wickedness in spades. They would have been every bit as wicked as Lenin if placed in a similar historical context. It was always clear that both were not comfortable with anyone who was different from them in some way or other- take Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of homosexuals, the tacit and at times overt support Thatcher and Reagan gave to Apartheid (even the Republican Party turned on Reagan en masse in support of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act) , the willingness of Reagan to foment the Iran-Iraq War and various other murderous conflicts in the brown people countries in a manner that probably resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of people. And so and so forth.

  9. Mel
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Sorry- should read : “It was always clear that both Thatcher and Reagan were …”

  10. kvd
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    nyuk, nyuk

    My point exactly.

  11. Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I am waiting for Lorenzo to contribute (paging Lorenzo), but until then, I’m reminded of a comment by the Israeli American Jewish musician Leonard Bernstein: ‘I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees’.

    [Sorry Marcellous, got him mixed up with Daniel Barenboim, who is Israeli and is trying to overturn the 'public performance ban' on Wagner in Israel. There's an interesting write-up on the issue here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123335355844034825.html ].

    As those who know me are aware, my ignorance of culture outside of literature is nearly total; it comes of growing up in a household where no-one went to school beyond the age of 16. By the time one hits one’s mid to late twenties, one is too far behind to catch up.

  12. Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, I guess I tend to judge people by their overall intent rather than their actions. That is I think for someone to be labelled ‘evil’ they have to intend to do harm for its own sake, not to do harm because they perceive it to be a lessor evil, or in pursuit of a greater good, or due to ignorance or disregard for others. I also think drawing conclusions of intent based solely on actions (even patterns of actions) has the potential to grossly over simplify the process of human thought and decision making. This is particularly the case when dealing with the complexity of political action, reform or ideologies.

    But I don’t think that binds me to afford any respect at all to people who attempt to build political ideologies on the basis of his theories.

    For example, I would respect the people but not necessarily their goals or actions. I guess I’m showing my soft lefty side when I say I think that everyone, including child rapists and murders, and even people like OBL, should continue to be considered ‘human’ and thus deserve to be treated in humane ways.

  13. kvd
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, I guess I tend to judge people by their overall intent rather than their actions.

    You’d possibly also be a fan of Bjork on that very same basis?

  14. Posted May 25, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I have no idea whether Bjork actually intended to make good music or not. (I may be showing my lack of age/culture here, but I’m not familiar with her music at all.)

  15. Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I should point out that the term ‘ideas have consequences’ comes from Richard Weaver. I have not read his book (I am profoundly unsympathetic to his specific thesis) but agree with the proposition of the title.

  16. Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    M@9

    Last but not least, some of your own heroes had wickedness in spades. They would have been every bit as wicked as Lenin if placed in a similar historical context. It was always clear that both were not comfortable with anyone who was different from them in some way or other- take Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of homosexuals, the tacit and at times overt support Thatcher and Reagan gave to Apartheid (even the Republican Party turned on Reagan en masse in support of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act) , the willingness of Reagan to foment the Iran-Iraq War and various other murderous conflicts in the brown people countries in a manner that probably resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of people. And so and so forth.

    This is a collection of nonsense on stilts. First, Thatcher was about normal for conservatives of her time and age regarding homosexuals. Sad, but unremarkable. I agree Reagan was retrograde on apartheid, but he gave fighting the Cold War higher priority: one can argue that was wrong, but it is hardly world-level wickedness. Iran and Iraq were perfectly willing to slaughter each other en masse without much American involvement on way or another. (One gets tired of Western moral agency somehow “counting more” than that of brown folk.) As for his other “fomentings” that was based on backing anti-Soviet groups around the globe as part of a comprehensive strategy that, BTW, worked. The world is a much better place for it working.

    Lenin is orders of magnitude worse in evil. He used mass starvation of his own people (by the million) as a weapon/acceptable cost. He ordered executions by the thousands and tens of thousands. He deliberately smashed any hope of Russian democracy, imposed a brutal and vicious tyranny. He set the pattern for a chain of murderous tyrannies (and, BTW, proving the efficacy of a model of political action that Mussolini and Hitler follow up on). Lenin is one of the great evil figures of history: Thatcher and Reagan are not even vaguely in the same category.

    I am reminded of those lefties who were appalled that Mao met a “mass murderer” like Nixon. You have to be really morally twisted to think Nixon worse than Mao, probably history’s greatest mass murderer (even granted than is easier when one rules China). It is not all that much less morally twisted to think them equivalent.

    The same applies to equating Reagan and Thatcher with Lenin.

  17. Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    M@9

    It is precisely because Marxists were so successful in organising labor through the unions and the political process in the late 19th century and early 20th century that capitalism, in the West at least, begun to develop a human face. In my university studies I was interested to read accounts of how conservatives during that era were at times quite open about how their concessions to labor (shorter working week, better conditions and workers compensation etc) were a response to the fear of a radicalised and revolutionary working class.

    Dubious history in the sense that it did not take Marxists to get labour organised. Indeed, Marxism often got seriously in the way. Countries whose labour movement were not seriously influenced by Marxism were much more effective in remaining democratic and not developing major fascist movements. For a range of reasons: first, they did not frighten the peasant/farmers by talking of expropriating land, so did not give fascism, Nazism etc a mass base. Second, they were not allied to Lenin-cum-Stalin’s Soviet Union so did not carry all that murderous, tyrannical and frightening baggage. Third, they did not provide a working model of politics for fascists, Nazis etc to adapt and apply. (Hitler thought ex-communists made the best Nazis, for example.)

    The strength of fascism, Nazism etc was usually directly proportional to the scale/intensity of local revolutionary Marxist parties.

    More generally, it is a longstanding pattern for folk to make concessions to rising groups so as to take the radical sting out. Nothing particularly new about that.

    As for youthful Fascism being about hate politics and youthful Communism not being so: what crap. It is just the hate objects of Communism are “more acceptable” than those of Fascism.

  18. Posted May 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    On the matter of Karl Marx. First, he practised and preached hate politics. Both in identifying whole classes of people to hate, with rhetoric to match, and in the rhetorical and personal viciousness with which he engaged in fights within the socialist movement. A major reason only 11 people came to his funeral is he had spent so much time, ink and energy being so vicious to so many fellow socialists.

    Moreover, his labour theory of value was totalitarian in its natural effect. It took what appeared to be consensual transactions and reconstrued them as both exploitive and unnecessary. So, what people chose was fundamentally de-legitimised. As was what they thought if they did not agree with Marx and his theory.

    Second, it dismissed whole classes of people as evil and superfluous to requirements: indeed, to a decent society.

    It is not surprising that Marx’s theory of value led to murderous tyrannies. What is surprising is that people ever thought it would lead to anything else. Or somehow classed any of this as showing “good intentions”.

  19. Posted May 25, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    SL @ 13

    Since when was Leonard Bernstein Israeli?

  20. Mel
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo:

    “Iran and Iraq were perfectly willing to slaughter each other en masse without much American involvement on way or another.”

    Obviously but don’t be so dishonest by misrepresenting what I said.

    It is well understood that Iraq would have lost the war very quickly and at least half a million lives would have been saved if Reagan had not propped up Saddam’s regime with literally billions of dollars in aide including weapons. Reagan was also drenched in the blood of tens of thousands of central and south Americans, particularly at the hands of the right wing death squads that run amok with Reagan’s blessing and financial aide.

    “Dubious history in the sense that it did not take Marxists to get labour organised. Indeed, Marxism often got seriously in the way. Countries whose labour movement were not seriously influenced by Marxism were much more effective in remaining democratic and not developing major fascist movements.”

    Bullshit. Marxists have been at the very core of the labor movement and it is impossible to understand the history of the labor movement without acknowledging the key role of Marxists within it. No major labor movement was not “seriously influenced” by Marxism. Undoubtedly the West’s most successful industrial and political labor movement is in Sweden and it simply cannot be understood without acknowledging the role of Marxist thought. Social democracy, Swedish or otherwise, has Marxist thought as one of its parents, although today the relationship could best be described as one of estrangement.

    Lorenzo:

    “On the matter of Karl Marx. First, he practised and preached hate politics. Both in identifying whole classes of people to hate, with rhetoric to match … dismissed whole classes of people as evil …”

    Oh quit the theatrics, Lorenzo. Marx did not describe capitalists as personally evil, his beef was with the system of capitalism. Shows us where he incited mass murder or take off that Priscilla gown, my dear boy.

  21. Patrick
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    In fairness to Lorenzo, Mel, there is a reasonably high hurdle you have set yourself to demonstrate that a quick Iranian victory would not have been worse…

    I am broadly happy with your analysis of labour movements as a broad-brush piece, though. I am not sure that it helps us much today, though.

    Also L is exactly right on labour theory of value, that was really dumb.

  22. Posted May 26, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo@21 said “Marx … identifying whole classes of people to hate”

    I’m sure we’d all have ideas about “second spaceship” material – telephone sanitizers are obviously not candidates, but as for PointyHairedBosses and muddle management… Canine beauticians… and anyone who enjoys soaps like Neighbours or Days of Our Lives…

    To argue that a political theory is evil is senseless, unless it is doomed to always get hypocritical “Four legs good, too legs better” bastards at the top of the heap. An absolute monarch can be good, as M.Aur’s “Even in a palace one can lead a good life” indicates, a “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” proponent can chop of lots of heads.

    Any ideal can be twisted by hypocritical megalomaniacs, and such people will use whichever ideal is the most useful to themselves.

    To my mind, there is a simple way to invalidate use of particular examples of regimes when being critical of a political/economic school of thought – ask “how safe was it to be in the inner circle?” Being close to Stalin was like walking a razor-wire tightrope.

    What /is/ valid is to compare politico-economic systems when the rulers did NOT use fear to consolidate power, where there was actual love for and a sense of duty to the people.

  23. kvd
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    ask “how safe was it to be in the inner circle?”

    Dave@25 perhaps another equally valid question is “how were the perceived opponents of the regime treated?”

    To use a term of religion, most of these so-called failures were monotheistic – in that they brooked no opposition, or diverging view. Not say democracy is best, but it sure seems the best system if you don’t agree with the government of the day.

  24. Patrick
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Ok, DB, but challenge (it doesn’t even rise to the level of a challenge!) accepted.

    Communism involves denial of some of the most basic aspects of human nature. Central planning involves substitution of (highly and necessarily) imperfect knowledge for evolutionary process.

    In situations where basic human nature doesn’t change and evolutionary process does deliver unimaginably better outcomes (literally) communism and central planning are evil.

  25. Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Patrick, so if there’s some currently undiscovered system of government that is unimaginably better than capitalism then you’re happy to label capitalism (and yourself) evil when it’s discovered?

    If we take central planning as evil, then all government is evil and you’re essentially advocating anarchy are you not?

  26. Posted May 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    kvd@26 : your question on treatment of enemies is a good one, but it’s a high bar to set for the purposes I was proposing – cut out the worst regimes from consideration when attacking an ideology.

    An example would be not judging monarchy as a system from those instances when it’s More dangerous to be a friend of the King/Queen than a non-entity.

    Hell, even near-megalomaniacs can rule well in the interests of the people – Napoleon being an example. Tito’s communism was a golden age of tolerance compared to what came after. (On Tito, a mate of mine was a military rocket engineer – welcome at NATO gatherings, but never went to Russia. He was /very/ nostalgic for Tito’s communism after having to flee the ethnic cleansing, even though he was a free-market fan.)

  27. Mel
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Paddy:

    “… central planning are evil.”

    I guess that makes all those big multi-nationals evil.

  28. Mel
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Actually the more I think about it the more obvious it becomes that this post falls into the “Al Gore is fat” category.

  29. Patrick
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Not sure why that would be desipis, there is nothing contrary to human nature in capitalism, even if you really truly wish it were so.

    DB, government does not have to plan in the sense of central planning.

    Mel, multi-nationals are not in any relevant way central planning.

  30. kvd
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    DB@29 you referred to “enemies” whereas I was talking about those holding opposing or differing views in a political system. I’m hoping there remains a significant difference in your mind?

    Also, I’m still mulling over your 25

    What /is/ valid is to compare politico-economic systems when the rulers did NOT use fear to consolidate power, where there was actual love for and a sense of duty to the people.

    - and, it must be cynicism or age, but do you have any present examples of such a system – ’cause I can’t nominate any.

    P@32 that’s a lovely big hole you’ve dug there ;)

  31. Posted May 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m not really able to comment properly because I’m using an iPhone and sitting in a house that looks like it’s been hit by a missile (renovations can do that), but I will point out that I did try (very carefully) to separate Marx out from theorists who were actively involved in killing and oppression. To my mind, nasty letters and comments don’t count – if you want nasty, check out Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek – those two did not get on, despite having a great deal in common.

    FWIW, I think Patrick’s point above about the difference between Marx and his followers settles the Marx issue very well.

    To give a rightward example (Mel may even remember this), a few years ago there was an almighty Pinochet thread of doom over at the Cat on the ‘bad person producing good outcomes’ issue, and it turned on precisely this point. Lefties were reduced to spectators as conservatives and libertarians tore the shit out of each other over the subject of this post: is Pinochet an example of a ‘formidable mixture problem’ or ‘contaminated at source’? I remember deciding that he fell into the latter group, despite the good outcomes, due to personal involvement in mass killing. I treat Castro in the same way (so all those clinics don’t count, I’m afraid, except as incidental to the oppression and homophobia).

    Although it’s long since disappeared in the Great Catallaxy Server Crash (iteration #317), I’ve not forgotten it, because it exposed the bones of just about every political or moral cause and effect argument worth having.

    Too often, I think, what could be a useful conversation about formidable mixture problems is closed off because people are reluctant to admit that their heroes have feet of clay, or that meaning well means almost nothing (which is why I consider communism on an equal footing with Nazism). I concede, though, that this may be because I don’t care about inequality very much. The excesses of the Patriot Act (or the anti-terror laws over here in the UK), for example, worry me far more that the fact that some poor Americans don’t have healthcare. I am, however, willing to admit that this is a political position, and it exists because different values are ‘trumps’ for me. I sometimes wonder how many other people are willing to do the same.

    Apologies if this comment is a bit disconnected and ill-expressed; as I say, I’m using an iPhone in a house with angle grinders going in the background.

  32. kvd
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    SL you can spend time deciding the relative ‘worth’ or ‘evil’ of various political systems, while here in Australia we live with one of the most controlling of political regimes, all done in the name of “what’s good for us”. What is worse: Lenin cold bloodedly knocking of a percentage of his population, or a country seeking to control the habits and life choices every day in the smallest of ways of every one of us?

    If you want to smoke, or gamble, or eat fatty foods, or play violent video games, or surf the web, or drive a fuel inefficient vehicle, (or even go rock fishing without a life preserver ffs!) you have gentle Big Brother now deciding what’s “good” for you, and punishing you if you depart from the acceptable mean of what has been decided for this society. None of these activities is illegal; I dare say some of these activities may reduce your lifespan. But all of them should remain the choice of the individual – for better or worse.

    There’s lots of ways to murder people. One of the most insidious ways is to gradually remove their freedoms to do what they wish, when they wish, for as long or as short as their resulting lifespan is.

    (and if you typed all that on an iPhone I’m impressed!)

  33. Patrick
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I too am impressed with iphone typing, although a bit disappointed that you have one – I thought you were a cooler than that ;) .

    I’m just confused by kvd’s comment, I wholly agree that none of those things at all should be illegal or even regulated, but I am not sure why you feel the need to make this kind of category error. I think there is some sort of intended parody, perhaps of people like me who really do agree emphatically with the second paragraph(?) but I don’t get it!

  34. Posted May 27, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I’m dyslexic, Patrick — I can’t work most technology and use an iPhone because it is simple and has a qwerty keyboard with relatively large ‘buttons’ (I can touch-type). I can’t text using a normal phone (and never did, which is why the first texts anyone got from me were after I got the iPhone). The alternatives were either an Android or a BlackBerry. The latter confuses me and at that stage I knew nothing about the former. I’ve since learned that the Android may be easier to use (it has less security features, which I can’t cope with), but it’s too late as The Man has now coughed for the iPhone, so I am stuck with it.

    Needless to say, I hate most computer technology, don’t own a television, completely understand the Taliban hanging televisions from trees and walk out of people’s houses if they invite me to be a guest in their home and don’t turn the bloody thing off. And my card catalogue and detailed memory recall beats your google any day, as my fellow students at the Faculty of Advocates are learning.

    And kvd, if your second par isn’t meant to be in jest, like Patrick I agree with it entirely.

  35. kvd
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    people are reluctant to admit that their heroes have feet of clay, or that meaning well means almost nothing

    Category error? Thought I was simply addressing SL’s very good comment, by pointing out that it equally applies in any democratic system when ‘democracy’ itself becomes oppressive. By all means critique other ideologies – but look behind you for the consequences within your own system as well.

    Perhaps I’m not expressing it very well, and I won’t defend it, but I simply have a feeling that those ideologies less concerned with individual rights and freedoms are most probably also less concerned with “what’s not good for you”?

    Patrick, my verbosity outweighs my parodocity.

  36. Posted May 27, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I think kvd@35 was pointing out that our current ‘liberal democracies’ are also enforcing things against ‘human nature’ as patrick@27 (and @32) was suggesting was part of a system being ‘evil’.

    Patrick, I’m not sure its particularly clear what ‘human nature’ actually is. If you look back at the messy and violent history I’m not sure you can argue that current civilisation (‘liberal democracy’) is somehow inherently a part of being human. If anything I’d describe human nature as ‘violent tribalism’, not exactly something you can base a large society on. The whole reason Marxism spread so much and so quickly was because in some ways it was more compatible with human nature than raw capitalism. In my opinion, if actual human nature is so important compared to ideological convenience, then I find the assumption that humans behave rationally as a pretty big fail.

    And my card catalogue and detailed memory recall beats your google any day, as my fellow students at the Faculty of Advocates are learning.

    The same thing goes for calculators and mental arithmetic, as I used to demonstrate to the maths students I was tutoring. Tools don’t make up for a lack of skills, but the right tool in the hands of someone skilled in its use is a potent combination. However, I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that I have a strong technology background as a hobby, studying for a degree and as a professional, yet I have a 6 year old phone that I use at most once a week.

  37. Patrick
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Not sure it is that hard SL. I think self-interest and socialisation are both part of human nature and fundamental parts of it, in fact they imho they are definitional.

    I don’t think mere specific urges or desires are essential to anything.

    Communism as a system relies on people not having self-interest as opposed to capitalism (and separately, liberal democracy) which ‘exploits’ that self-interest to drive their evolution. I don’t think the point is very hard.

    Also to be clear I’m not suggesting people behave rationally by any universal metric, although I do think they most people behave rationally according to relatively obvious but individual criteria, almost all of the time.

    PS: SL, we are pretty much on a page with people watching tv – at meals, for example, I just turn it off, whether I’m at home or elsewhere. I have certainly lived without one, but I don’t think, in the computer/internet era, it really counts anymore. Also, I love having a big screen for movies and rugby.

  38. Posted May 27, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    although I do think they most people behave rationally according to relatively obvious but individual criteria, almost all of the time.

    To be clear, this form of an assumption of rationality is actually what I was referring to.

    FWIW I agree with the criticism of communism that it makes poor assumptions about human behaviour. I just find that capitalists (perhaps more specifically market fundamentalists) also tend to make poor assumptions about human behaviour.

    I think self-interest and socialisation are both part of human nature

    I think it’s also human nature to be judgemental of others and want to have some control over how the community functions, particularly in terms of expectations of equality and fairness. We need to balance that part of human nature with the self-interest part.

  39. Posted May 27, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    M@23 There was considerable American aid to Iraq, not much of it was weapons though. But almost any US Administration was going to aid Iraq against Iran for the obvious reasons. This was not some random act of viciousness, it was a predictable outcome of previous Iranian actions: most obviously, the seizure of the US embassy in Teheran and taking its diplomats hostage in violation of basic norms of international law.

    Moreover, the notion that a quick Iranian victory would have been “better” even in terms of lives lost is dubious, since we cannot tell what the knock-on consequences would have been (including whether other Arab states would have intervened).

    But even your basic argument that Iran would have won quickly without American aid seems dubious: the French were much more important in supplying weapons, for example.

    Marxism did not play an important role in any of the Anglosphere labour movements. It was always fringe. Marxists (actual and ex) try to big note themselves, but their claims are way overblown. And it remains true that the strength of fascism, Nazism or equivalents was directly proportional to the size and intensity of the revolutionary Marxist movements.

  40. Posted May 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    M@23 Frederick Engels, Neue Rheinische Zeitung January 1849 (editor K.Marx):

    The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.

    If you say a class are exploiters and their role is completely superfluous in a decent society, then there is a natural inference that people are going to take from that. Particularly when your closest collaborator, in a journal you edit, spells out the implication.

  41. Posted May 27, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s also human nature to be judgemental of others and want to have some control over how the community functions, particularly in terms of expectations of equality and fairness. We need to balance that part of human nature with the self-interest part.

    It is this that drives many conservatives and progressives, and it is why their policies often fail in the same way. Anti-abortion and drug laws are deracinated by non compliance and enforcement issues; anti-discrimination law is routed around through informal arrangements and credentialism. Both conservative and progressive nanny-stating require a bloated public sector to maintain, at which point levels of public debt become unsustainable.

  42. Posted May 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s also what drives people to be interested in politics and write political commentary ;)

    The conflict between elements of human nature does explain why the issues are difficult and complex (and ignoring human nature in any policy formation will doom it to failure). However, this complexity doesn’t, in it self, mean that all non-libertarian policies are inherently doomed to fail. While we cannot control others we are able to influence them to some degree.

  43. Mel
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Very lame Lorenzo. In fact all you’ve done is prove my point.

    Charles Dickens was a contemporary of Marx and by the standards of his day a gentle and moderate man. Here talks about the brown people of India, who apparently broke the rules by committing an atrocity against the atrocious British occupiers:

    “”I wish I were the Commander in Chief in India. … I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested … proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth.”

    You and SL can carry on like Lord Haw Haw all you like but it will not change the facts, dear boy.

  44. Posted May 27, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Mel, please read my comment @34 before engaging in shallow name-calling. And I’d like an end to the shallow name-calling, too. You are perfectly capable of making arguments without degenerating into abuse.

    Desipis: note, I said ‘often’, not always. Coercive policies from both left and right do sometimes work. The adoption of nuclear power in France is one that springs readily to mind. That cost the French taxpayer and French corporations a small fortune, but has turned out to be worth every franc. The difficulty, as always, is ‘picking winners’ in advance. There is one law more powerful than all the laws pouring out of the developed world’s parliaments: that is the law of unintended consequences.

  45. AJ
    Posted May 28, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Moreover, his labour theory of value was totalitarian in its natural effect.

    It wasn’t Marx’s labour theory of value. Marx was working in the tradition of classical economics. Smith, Ricardo etc. all subscribed to LTV. In fact there are plenty on non-consequentialist libertarians that still do in its soft Lockeian form. If LTV was true, it seems to me that surplus value would also be true. LTV isn’t true though, but I don’t think you can fault Marx for not being able to see into the future.

  46. Posted May 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Fair point, AJ. Indeed, the LTV is a natural descendent of ideas of goods having inherent value (the paradox of diamonds and water is in Adam Smith, for example). It is a very widespread idea, and is present in every major civilisation I have studied _except_ ancient Rome (hence the long quotation from Servius Sulpicius Rufus’ contribution to the Praetorian Edict above). This is considerably to the Romans’ credit, I might add. Rufus even goes on in that passage to point out that different peoples should consider the fact that different people find different things valuable a good thing, as it facilitates trade. Of course, he makes an exception for gold (an early gold standard advocate, perhaps?), although he has the wit to point out that gold prices are vulnerable to discovery of more reserves and military conquest.

  47. Posted May 29, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    AJ@49 Marx is not using the “classical” theory of value. He does something with it that the classical economists do not, he turns it into a theory of exploitation. That generates very different explanations.

    M@47 You asked me to produce evidence for Marx supporting mass murder: this I supplied. That other C19th folk were inclined to such rhetoric does not change the point.

    Dickens was at least responding to some appalling cruelties (with a rather one-side concern to be sure, but the point applies).

    As for carrying on like a propagandist, may I point out you want to indict Western leaders for killings carried out by other people for their own purposes who were not under the said leaders’ control while mass murders carried out in pursuance of Lenin’s orders and deliberate policies are treated as somehow equivalent. Which is more like the rhetorical games of Lord Haw Haw?

  48. Posted May 29, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Where I wrote ‘explanations’ I meant ‘implications’.

  49. Posted May 29, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    AJ@49 How much Adam Smith had a general labour theory of value is not all that clear.

  50. Posted May 29, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    I think Smith was on the cusp of putting LTV aside, but didn’t quite get there (the passage from Wealth of Nations you’ve linked to is nowhere near as clear as Servius Sulpicius Rufus’ from the Praetorian Edict, for example). Smith’s principle response seemed to be one of perplexity (his diamonds and water story is shot through with the efforts of a clever man trying to work out why something is a bad idea but not being able to pin it down).

  51. Mel
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo: “You asked me to produce evidence for Marx supporting mass murder: this I supplied.”

    Well, no, you provided a quote from someone other than Marx (Engels) that describes what WILL happen rather than what OUGHT to happen. The charge of Karl Marx supporting mass murder utterly fails.

    It is possibly also worth pointing out that Engels, undoubtedly Marx’s closest friend, was a member of the class both of them thought was doomed to extinction.

  52. Posted June 1, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    M@55 Marx and Engels were a double act. Particularly when one publishes something in a journal edited by another.

    If one says disappearance of whole classes and peoples would be “a step forward” then acting to ensure that step forward happens is a good thing, no? Which was precisely the implication that regimes calling themselves ‘Marxist’ proceeded to act on the basis of.

    An implication which came from the notions that:
    (1) entire class(es) were superfluous to the production of economic value
    (2) their role is entirely exploitive.
    So comes directly from Marx. You add in the intensity of his rhetoric and the notion that all public life is “class based” (so there is no independent realm of politics, law, etc) and the implications become that much stronger.

    Yes, Lenin explicitly Jacobinised Marxism (so Lenin is Marx+Robespierre in the way Mussolini is Mazzini+Robespierre and Hitler is Houston Stewart Chamberlain+Robespierre). But another way to put it is that he operationalised it continually to draw directly on the implications of Marx’s system.

  53. Posted June 1, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    That should say ‘continuing to draw’.

  54. Mel
    Posted June 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    “But another way to put it is that he operationalised it continually to draw directly on the implications of Marx’s system.”

    Stop babbling Lorenzo. A member of the capitalist class is no longer a member of the capitalist class once his/her capital is expropriated.

    I also note, contrary to the confected antics of both yourself and Skepticlawyer, that a range of elected communist governments have not run about killing people willy-nilly. If you’ve been reading the papers lately you may have seen stories about how the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled in the Indian state of West Bengal for 34 years until the last election. They did this without the mass slaughter of capitalists and landowners. As far as I can gather, Communist Party of India (Marxist) state governments have not been outlandishly brutal by the standards of that part of the world.

  55. Patrick
    Posted June 1, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t they the ones linked to India’s communist terrorists (naxalites) who are playing a large role in keeping western rural India desperately poor and underdeveloped, Mel?

  56. Mel
    Posted June 1, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    No Paddy.

    You appear to be confusing the CPI (M) with the CPI (ML) which is kind of like conflating the Popular Peoples Front of Judea and the Judean Peoples Popular Front. Utterly inexcusable.

  57. Patrick
    Posted June 2, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    The only good Communist is a dead communist, mel, so nothing conflated at all.

  58. Mel
    Posted June 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Paddy proves once again that the road from Hayek to Timothy McVeigh is very short indeed.

  59. Posted June 3, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    M@58

    A member of the capitalist class is no longer a member of the capitalist class once his/her capital is expropriated.

    Which made all those “bourgeois” executed/starved to death by Leninist regimes a redundant act. We are talking of the actual murder of actual tens of millions of people by scores of regimes calling themselves ‘Marxist’. Not some random set of historical accidents. Perhaps you should read Leszek Kolakowski’s essay on the connection between Marxism and Stalinism, you might find it enlightening.

    that a range of elected communist governments have not run about killing people willy-nilly

    The examples almost all being governments elected in sub-national jurisdictions, so they could not get their hands on the full levers of coercion. (In fact, finding a Leninist Party that was elected as the dominant member of a majority coalition government at a national level and did not proceed to subvert democratic government would be a thin exercise.)

    As your comment at @62 once again proving that you have a widely varying notion of which connections count (and which mass murders count). Very Humpty Dumpty of you.

  60. Mel
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    L@63

    “As your comment at @62 once again proving that you have a widely varying notion of which connections count (and which mass murders count). Very Humpty Dumpty of you.”

    Well, no, actually. That comment was obviously a sarcastic reinterpretation of the Marx = mass murder equation. Try to read between the lines, dear fellow.

    I stand by my thesis. The threat of a radicalised and revolutionary working class created by Marxism is the main reason why Capitalism in the western democracies developed a human face. The capitalists, as a matter of enlightened self-interest, granted concessions to labour, such as more humane working conditions, tolerable working hours and welfare entitlements.

    To put it another way, what we now live in is a superior synthesis of brutalist capitalism (thesis) and radicalised labor (antithesis) and Marx and those influenced directly and indirectly by his thought have helped us arrive at this destination.

  61. kvd
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    So, Mel, to give the devil his due – without Hell there can be no Heaven?

  62. Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Mel, that’s how I read it as well. It’s not that the West avoided or rejected Marxism, it’s that liberal democratic cultures did a much better job of absorbing the lesson and dealing with its radical nature than more authoritarian cultures.

  63. Posted June 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    M@62

    Paddy proves once again that the road from Hayek to Timothy McVeigh is very short indeed.

    Not nearly as short as the trip from Marx to Mao.

    M@64 Gives Marxism far too much credit. I go back to my previous point, the role of Marxism in the Anglosphere was minor and fringe despite relentless big-noting by various academics since. (It is ludicrous that Oz academics have expended far more ink on the role and history CPA than that of the Country Party, for example.)

    Moreover, there were a lot of competing streams of socialism. One did not need Karl Marx for working class folk to agitate. (I go back to medieval examples of rising groups being conciliated with a mixed pattern of mainstream claims and radical competitors.)

    As for frightening folk into reform, that could be very double-edged. The fear of revolutionary Marxism was a great recruiter for Mussolini, Franco and Hitler. In particular, adopting a mechanical Marxist attitude to the landed peasantry (not a group to be recruited but instead be threatened with expropriation) opened up a mass base to be recruited by Franco’s reactionary authoritarianism, Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism.

    France, with its pre-Marxian history of radicalism, the UK and protestant Northern Europe, with their labourist traditions which generally owed little to Marxism, managed to much better in their ordinary politics in not feeding fascism in various forms. (The consequences of Nazi occupation being a dramatic external factor, not of internal domestic dynamics.)

    The Whig interpretation of history may have problems, but at least it insulates one from the nonsense of Marxism being somehow necessary for working class organisation or progress.

  64. Posted June 3, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    There is also a certain amount of class condescension in the “central role of Marxism” thesis — as in “those poor working class folk, they would not have known what to do with or for themselves if middle class intellectuals had not come along and shown them the way …”

  65. Mel
    Posted June 4, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    L@67

    “The Whig interpretation of history may have problems, but at least it insulates one from the nonsense of Marxism being somehow necessary for working class organisation or progress.”

    I don’t believe in free will. Everything that happens in the social world is caused just as it is in the world of physical objects. Whether Marxism was “necessary” or not is immaterial and unknowable; what matters is what actually happened.

    Irrespective of whether you like it or not, Marxist thought has had a vast influence in shaping western democracies, mostly for the better.

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