Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Until the Men of the Night Come for Them

On (a radical ‘Marxist’ offering from Wood Hole, Massachusets, USA) Doug Dowd proclaims ‘consumerism’ is a social disease. He also writes nonsense about Adam Smith:

“Not for nothing was the opening chapter of Marx's Capital entitled "Commodities," for commodification is among the defining characteristics of capitalism. First was land and labor; now, everything is a commodity; everything is for sale.

Adam Smith provided the analytical basis for commodification. In his Wealth of Nations (1776). (sic!) He argued that free market competition, warts and all, would take us to "the best of all possible worlds." What he sought to replace was the corrupt and power-drunk mercantilist state of his time; he would be horrified by the corrupt and power-drunk monopoly capitalism of our time.”

Smith never knew the word, nor the phenomenon, “capitalism”. It was not invented as a word until 1858, when Marx was introduced to it.

If the real wages of labour were low in 1820 (asserted later in Dowd's article by his quoting another Marxist), they were even lower in the mid-18th century when Smith wrote. But these low wages were also higher in 1750 than they were in 1700, and, a fact that Dowd does not mention, both life spans and real wages in the USA and Britain continued to rise in the 19th century and the 20th century. Life expectancy in the US is the highest in the world, a factor not unrelated to its economy, “warts and all”.

Smith did not write about “commodification” (whatever that is). He wrote about the re-appearance of commerce following the 1,000 years of the barbarian/feudal interregnum experienced in Western Europe after the Fall or the Roman Empire. He did not write about the ‘best of all possible worlds’, a powerful satirical phrase of Voltaire’s, whom Smith knew personally and admired from his visit to him in Geneva in 1765,from his writings.

Dowd may not be acquainted with Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, nor have read Karl Marx’s views on the progressive role of capitalism. Indeed, Smith was, perhaps, more critical of “merchants and manufacturers” than Marx was of capitalists.

What Dowd means by Smith arguing for “free-market competition warts and all” is not clear. The phrase “warts and all”, of course, is attributed to Oliver Cromwell – does Dowd just pluck out of a mangled sense of history anything to stick on whomsoever he writes about?

Whatever Smith might feel about the “monopoly capitalism” of our time, “corrupt”, “power-drunk”, or even sober, it would probably be mild compared to his views on those who wish to replace markets by state planning, bureaucratic direction and the inevitable accompanying totalitarianism of the “men of system” (“Moral Sentiments”, 1759, VI.ii.2.17, page 234).

These men, said Smith, are wise in their own conceit and the supposed beauty of their systems, they believe that society is a giant chess board, but they forget that humans are not wooden chess pieces, moved about by the hands of small bands of revolutionary fanatics; they are subject to principles of motion of their own.

If the men of system never realise this until after they seize power, they will find out quick
enough that the ‘masses’ do not share their enthusiasm to obey revolutionary orders, and those among them who do not become suicidal and depressed as they realise this, will forget all they ever proclaimed about the rights of workers as markets, 'warts and all' are replaced by poverty inducing commissars and their gulags. If they protest about this consequence of their revolution, the ‘men of the night’ will arrive to take them away for disposal as ‘ideologically unsound’.


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