Category Archives: Politics

Marx the Prophet


BBC Radio 4 panel discussion on Marx

It seems to be a discernible trend: since the collapse of the financial market three years ago, Karl Marx is increasingly being cited once again as the prophet of capitalism’s self-destruction. From the BBC:

As a side-effect of the financial crisis, more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right. The great 19th Century German philosopher, economist and revolutionary believed that capitalism was radically unstable.

It had a built-in tendency to produce ever larger booms and busts, and over the longer term it was bound to destroy itself.

Marx welcomed capitalism’s self-destruction. He was confident that a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.

Marx was wrong about communism. Where he was prophetically right was in his grasp of the revolution of capitalism. It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.

The whole article here.

Previous posts on Frye on Marx here, here, here, and here.

Continue reading

Chart of the Day: Rich, Richer / Poor, Poorer

If Greece defaults, if the euro collapses, if the world spins into a second deep recession in just three years, these kinds of charts ought to be kept in mind.

We have posted others here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The poor and the middle class have been screwed to an almost unimaginable degree. Virtually every penny of profit across thirty years of increased productivity has gone to the top 10%, most especially the top 1%. These include the people who oversaw the crash of the financial market three years ago, destroying tens of millions of jobs and wiping out tens of trillions dollars of wealth. They then required a few trillion more in taxpayer-funded bailouts to keep the world’s financial system viable. Having secured that, they were very quickly once again giving themselves billions of dollars in bonuses and making record profits.

But where are the new jobs? There are none because they evidently aren’t needed anymore, not in North America, and not at a decent working wage. The jobs at much lower wages have gone to places like India and China.

Quote of the Day: “It’s the impossibility of Layton’s career that makes him such a remarkable person”

The national mourning for Jack Layton has caught the attention of the foreign blogosphere. A Quebecer wrote in to Andrew Sullivan today with a heartfelt explanation (below) of Layton’s improbable appeal in Quebec. Layton’s political accomplishment is a singular one in Canadian history and may have realigned the Canadian electoral landscape for a long time to come. This is something the Conservatives really need to worry about, and their response will not likely rise above the debased standard they have set for slander and intimidation. Layton demonstrates what a decent person can bring to an otherwise toxic political environment. Like the old school leftists, he was a happy warrior with an antiquated notion that politicians should serve the interests of people instead of corporations.

First of all, a caveat: I’m a French-speaking Quebecer and it’s the first time I write a political comment in English. So I want to apologize in advance for the incoming grammar and syntax errors and gallicisms. (Oh, and another one: I didn’t vote for the guy. I’m not a party hack either; I’m an independent.)

There’s a huge something left unsaid in the passing of Jack Layton, either in your reader commentary or Mr. Horgan’s. It’s the impossibility of Layton’s career that makes him so remarkable as a person. This man was what we call in Quebec a “maudit anglais” – a damn Englishman. A scion of one of the great colonial families that ruled Canada from the Golden Square Mile in Montreal, whose forebears were ministers for the Conservative Party. He became a leftist in the ’70s and surged as the leader of the NDP (the Canadian version of the Labour) in the last decade. In the last election he gave the NDP its best results ever AND was able to beat the nationalist Bloc Quebecois on its own turf. He ended the career of the most popular politicians in Quebec, Gilles Duceppe, son of the great Quebecer actor Jean Duceppe. He broke the back of the Liberal Party (which was still called the Natural Ruling Party of Canada three years ago).

This is awesome. This is incredible.

The political pundits in Canada were still wrapping their head around this when Jack Layton passed away. The only way I could explain that is by offering two weak analogies: imagine in the UK a charismatic Protestant defeating Gerry Adams and winning almost the Catholic ridings in Northern Ireland PLUS giving the Labour such a beating that it would fade in third party status. Or imagine a Castillan becoming the popular leader of the Basques. It doesn’t make sense!

In all the history of Canada, Quebecers NEVER gave a majority of their votes to an  ethnic English party leader (and a Protestant to boot, even if religion doesn’t hold much sway anymore in Quebec politics). Never. Irish, Scots – rarely. English, ha! People say that politics are civil in Canada. They don’t know Quebec, Layton_Parliament-highreswhere the toxicity level is quite high and identity politics and class warfare are part of the game (it’s not Arizona, but frequently things are said here that would give the creeps to many pundits).

But the guy had this super smile, and said things like “When I’m Prime Minister, I’ll hold China accountable for its treatment of Tibet” with a willful look. And people tended to believe him because he got results, however seemingly impossible the objectives. He also had dignitas without unnecessary gravitas.

So this idealist (quixotic?) bloke from uptown, who speaks a hesitant French, with a moustache and a cane, changes the face of politics in the spring and dies by the summer, leaving us with a dream of purpose and appealing to our better selves. And leaving the left decapitated in front of the most conservative and ideological government Canada ever had.

I’m still shocked.

I tried all day to find an historical character to give a reference to a stranger to Canada. Perhaps a mix of Wilberforce and Zola, with a touch of RFK? A Gracchus without the anger? A Nick Clegg with a spine? Al Gore for the principles but without the stiffness, Ted Kennedy for the political acumen but without the sleaziness, likeable like Joe Biden but with speech discipline (for lack of a better word) and facial hair.

I hope this gives some perspective on this remarkable man.

(Drawing by Colin White)

Quote of the Day: “Financial intermediation run amok”

Nouriel Roubini, the economist who correctly predicted years in advance the collapse of the financial market and was roundly mocked for it by Wall Street shills, considers Marx’s prediction that capitalism will collapse on itself:

Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proved wrong). Firms are cutting jobs because there is not enough final demand. But cutting jobs reduces labor income, increases inequality, and reduces final demand.

I have just read Francis Wheen’s Das Kapital: A Biography (excerpt here), which details the decades long development of Marx’s life’s work (most especially its nuanced literary dimension which is ignored by hardline ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum), as well as its demonic afterlife as the Bible of Marxist-Leninism. It’s difficult to ignore while reading the book that Marx’s critique of capitalism can still be regarded as prophetic. His account of how capital must ultimately be hoarded by a plutocratic elite remains relevant.

Frye consistently cited Marx as one of those nineteenth century thinkers who upended the traditional mythological conception of social authority. A typical example:

[I]f we look at the thinkers who have permanently changed the shape of human thought, such as Darwin, Marx, Freud, or Einstein, we find, naturally, that their books are complex and difficult and require years of study. Yet the central themes of their work are massive simplicity. Evolution, class struggle, the subconscious mind, are all things that have been staring mankind in the face for centuries. It’s the ability to see what’s straight in front of his nose that marks the thinker of first-rate importance. (CW 11, 271-2)

Frye on Fundamentalism: “God has been replaced by the devil”


Frye’s final posthumously-published work, The Double Vision, is remarkably perceptive on the rise of religious fundamentalism and its potential dangers. A decade ago the overwhelming concern on the American scene was Islamic fundamentalism, or “Islamism,” as it came to be known. In remarkably short order (thanks to the presence of George W. Bush in the White House, setting a standard for incompetence, intellectual dullness, and a Christian agenda in purely secular matters of governance), we have seen the rise of a toxic Christianism in American politics represented by at least two current Republican candidates for the presidency, Rick Perry of Texas, who as governor oversaw the execution of a man who was probably innocent to make some kind of point, and Michelle Bachmann, who, like Sarah Palin, is a serial liar and demagogic provocateur. Perry and Bachmann appear to be not just Christianists but “Dominionists” who believe that American government should function exclusively according to “Biblical” principles — a manifestation of what Frye in The Double Vision and elsewhere calls “pseudo-literalism.” Here he is calling our current events in the air:

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always mean that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of literalism. At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less assuring than our own. As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Muslim world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief. The same principle of demonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave the order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses. In our own culture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is still there. (CW 4, 177-8)

That potential twenty years after Frye characterized it is now much closer to being an actuality. In the Republican Party, it is already a prevailing element in its political ideology — if it can even still be called that. This kind of noxious belief is dangerous because it becomes more difficult to curb the more it spreads. When we see how far it has advanced in just a few years, it is cause for concern. Even Canada’s prime minister has links to American-style fundamentalism that divides the world not into voters with different political views but into sheep and goats. This is why religion has no place in politics. It breeds not just intolerance but contempt for whole segments of the population by public servants who are supposed to serve the whole of society and not just the portions of it they have decided in advance are “saved.”

UPDATE: More on false literalism here; on Rick Perry here; on Michelle Bachmann’s insistence on repeating lies even when they’ve been exposed as lies here.

Frye on the “Crisis of Confidence” in Democracy

FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights

Frye in an interview conducted on 13 October 1976. Four years later we had Ronald Reagan and the thirty-years-and-counting nightmare of crony capitalism. Things apparently had to get much worse. However, we can hope that the expectation Frye articulates here will prove correct in the long run. The symptomology he lays out very accurately describes the general collapse of democratic values, political discourse, and economic opportunity since the scorched-earth administration of George W. Bush:

In this North American complex that we’re in there’s a crisis of confidence perhaps in our own liberal and democratic values, and I think that that’s partly a political and economic thing. It’s almost a repetition of what happened after 1929 when I was a freshman here. There was a great wave of buoyant confidence which was really infantile, based entirely on credit. Then there was a great stock market crash. Then there was a tremendous reassessment of the values of capitalism and out of that emerged the Roosevelt period. I think that something like that is happening now. We’re going through a crisis of confidence not so much in capitalism as in democracy. (CW 24, 322-3)

Society, Individualism, Laissez-Faire, and Eighteenth Century Sensibility

As we’ve been following the laissez-faire thread for some time, it’s nice to end up seeing it as part of a larger social and literary pattern.

From “Varieties of Eighteenth Century Sensibility”:

The feeling of an intensely social view of literature within the Augustan trend has to be qualified by an interpenetration of social and individual factors that were there from the beginning. The base of operations in Locke’s Essay is the individual human being, not the socially constructed human being: Locke’s hero stands detached from history, collecting sense impressions and clear and distinct ideas. Nobody could be less solipsistic than Locke, but we may notice the overtures in Spectator 413, referring to “that Great Modern Discovery . . . that Light and Colours . . . are only Ideas in the Mind.” The author is speaking of Locke on secondary qualities. All Berkeley had to do with this modern discovery was to deny the distinction between primary and secondary qualities to arrive at this purely subjective idealist position of esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” If we feel convinced, as Johnson was, that things still have a being apart from our perception of them, that, for Berkeley, is because they are ideas in the mind of God. It is fortunate both the permanence of the world and for Berkeley’s argument that God, according to the Psalmist, neither slumbers not sleeps [Psalm 21:4]. But Berkeley indicates clearly the isolated individual at the centre of Augustan society who interpenetrates with that society.

The same sense of interpenetration comes into economic contexts. In the intensely laissez-faire climate of eighteenth-century capitalism there is little emphasis on what the anarchist Kropotkin called mutual aid: even more than the nineteenth century, this was the age of the work ethic, the industrious apprentice, and the entrepreneur: the age, in other words, of Benjamin Franklin. A laissez-faire economy is essentially an amoral one: this fact is the basis of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, with its axiom of “Private Vices, Publick Benefits.” The howls of outrage that greeted Mandeville’s book are a little surprising: it looks as though the age was committed to the ethos of capitalism, but had not realized the intensity of its commitment. (CW 17, 29-30)

Frye: “Democracy is in essence cultural laissez-faire”

A perhaps unexpected but delightful inversion of values: Laissez-faire may be anti-democratic, but democracy is culturally laissez-faire. From “War on the Cultural Front,” (written in August 1940, when the war was going badly for the British Imperial forces, including Canada):

Democracy is in essence a cultural laissez-faire, an encouragement in art, scholarship, and science. The list of people tortured and banished by Hitler includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Freemasons, homosexuals, and sponsors of rival brands of Nazism like Strasser. No one can be equally sympathetic with all these groups, but in the last century English culture has received contributions from Jews (Disraeli), Catholics (Newman), Protestants (Browning), Freemasons (Burns), homosexuals (Wilde), and a spokesman of potential English Nazism (Carlyle). Obviously there has been some considerable anarchy in English culture, a hopelessly inconsistent inclusiveness about it, and that large inconsistently is the basis of democracy. For it implies the acceptance and practice of the scientific attitude on the part of the people as a whole: the inductive suspending of judgment until enough, not only of the facts and discoveries and techniques, but of the viewpoints and theories and gospels and quack panaceas, are in, before changing the direction of social development. Opposed to this is the crusading religious temperament of the dictatorships working with a partial and premature cultural synthesis. Out of this inclusiveness of outlook springs everything else we associate with democracy, and it is on that basis that democratic countries rest their claim to be more hightly civilized. (CW 11, 186)

Frye: “Laissez-Faire is Anti-Democratic”

The trillion dollar bailouts of just three years ago demonstrated that we now have a “too big to fail” oligarchy who fleece citizens by whatever means necessary. It has nothing to do with democracy; it is kleptocracy

Laissez-faire is as anti-democratic is as it is “anti-Christian“:

The geopolitical America, unlike the European countries, was able to add its colonies to its own body, and hence was a kind of proving ground for all the expansionist energies of its age, economic laissez-faire, political liberalism, and religious individualism included. The belief that men can be and have a right to be equal and independent is the growing point of this expansionism and the source of everything vital in it, and that belief, rather than any political modus operandi, is what is usually implied first of all by the word “democracy.” As the conception of democracy has matured, it has separated itself from its vague background of Utopian optimism. Many Americans still believe that laissez-faire is the economic aspect of democracy, but there is a growing realization that laissez-faire by itself does not lead to democracy, but to oligarchy, and thence to managerial dictatorship. Laissez-faire by itself is antidemocratic: all progress in the conditions of the working classes has been wrung from it in a kind of cold civil war — not always so cold, as it has included lynchings, sadistic beatings, systematic starvation, and an occasional massacre. (CW 11, 251)