In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Saunders displays the atrophy of the anti-communist argument since it had to deal with real live communists.
Following a travesty of Raymond Williams and Marcuse, the basic argument goes like this: (1) capitalism is synonymous with material progress, (2) socialists don’t want you to have the stuff you like, (3) let’s show them by enjoying ourselves this Christmas and drinking some wine!
Let’s start with number one:
Capitalism has certainly performed better than any alternative system. In 1820, 85 per cent of the world’s population lived on less than a dollar a day. Today it is 20 per cent. This dramatic reduction in human misery owes nothing to socialist engineering, nor even to ageing rock stars demanding we make poverty history. It is due to the spread of global capitalism.
Plus, if capitalism had stopped in 1977, we wouldn’t have the internet or cellphones. This reminds me of the stock giggle in countless pieces coming to terms with ‘the anti-globalisation movement’ (or whatever) after Seattle: They wear Nikes! Ha! They organise over the internet! Ha! Not really anti-capitalist, now, are they?!
Alas, this kind of argument could equally be applied to Soviet Russia: ‘Russia’s industrialisation and the dramatic reduction in human misery it brought owes nothing to capitalist markets, or even to self-satisfied entrepreneurs. It was due to the spread of global communism.’ And: ‘They went to tear down the Berlin Wall in public transport? Their shoes were made in state-owned factories? Not really anti-communist, now, were they?!’
Here’s the fallacy: if a society is capitalist, everything about it is capitalist in essence. Criticise the relations of production, and you are criticising production tout court.
Which brings us to point two. Saunders may be right about Clive Hamilton. Hamilton does indeed see the consumption as the primary problem of today’s capitalism. (This is perhaps why he is the favourite ‘anti-capitalist’ of the mainstream, and certainly the only one to get in the op-eds.) But this is far from the arguments of Williams or even Marcuse. The problem was never the consumption as such, but the way our lives are dominated from cradle to grave by the alienated labour necessary to produce and acquire the stuff. Technological progress is full of potential for a reorganised society to liberate us from necessity and take real democratic control of the productive machinery.
Number three, the punchline:
So enjoy the prawns and the chardonnay, and don’t feel guilty about the money you spend on the children’s presents. Download Bing Crosby from iTunes, phone the relatives in London at a couple of cents a minute and have yourself a really good Christmas!
What does a socialist say to that? Hell, enjoy the prawns and chardonnay, get your kids presents. (Fuck iTunes, though, steal the Bing Crosby – if that’s your thing – with filesharing software.) But give a thought this Xmas to why you can’t relax and enjoy yourself all year round – and for that matter, why the holidays are so bloody stressful when they only come but once a year.
As a postscript: it’s funny to read this kind of thing despite the total absence of a radical critique in the mainstream. What is Saunders so worried about? Where does he hear these people complaining? The Herald op-ed page runs a rabid reactionary almost every day of the week: Miranda Devine, Gerard Henderson, Paul Sheehan, Michael Duffy, Miranda Devine again on Sunday… These people are always lashing out at some outrage from the left. Which is where? They are haunted by ghosts (or should that be ‘spectres’?).