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All Things Being Equal

with 6 comments

It’s Thursday, and it’s obvious to me that Tuesdays and Thursdays are going to be the days I hate the most this term.  It’s not the classes or the students, it’s the elongated schedule.  And I actually asked for the schedule, so go figure.

But…

In terms of the Chambers book, we’re talking about Communists in the Twenties and Thirties, not now.  And although I’d agree that, by now, most people who can read past a third grade level ought to know that there is something inherent in the Communist idea that creates dictatorships and totalitarianisms.

I’m not so sure with socialism, because socialism has only a fuzzy definition.  A lot of people mean by it only an expanded welfare state.  Sweden, they’d say, is socialism.  And Sweden is a lot of things–and not a place I’d like to live–but it isn’t a totalitarianism in the ordinary definition of that term.

It comes down, I think, to the way in which one defines “justice.” 

I get a little nuts over the term “social justice,” because what seems to be meant by it is “justice defined in a way contradictory to the usual,” but I do know a number of people for whom “income inequality” is, on its face, simply wrong. 

I don’t think any of them mean that there should be no income inequality at all.  The fact that some people drink and drug and party instead of doing any work is by now obvious to everybody.  But I do know people for whom large differences in wealth and resources among people going around getting there work done are inexcusable.

This is not something that bothers me at all.  I don’t care that Bill Gates has more money than I do, even vastly more money than I do.  I think he’s earned it, but I wouldn’t care that much even if he hadn’t.  Inherited wealth does not seem like an injustice to me.

What I do care about is that people who do go about doing there work be capable of acquiring the basics of a decent life.  If you live right, work hard and play by the rules–God, I hate that phrase–you ought to be able to have a decent place to live, food for your family, clothing, recreation, health care when you need it and education for your children.

What Chambers is talking about is a world in which that was not possible not only for people on the lowest level of employment, but even for many skilled workers. 

Charity would not have answered to the problem–the issue was not giving your money away but the structure of a society that reduced skilled machinists working ninety hours a week to penury and want in an early old age, with no end in sight for themselves or their children.  

This was, after all, in the days before widespread financial aid for colleges, never mind in the days before state universities with tuitions low enough to make attendance possible for virtually anybody.

I think part of what Chambers joined the Communist Party to effect was a world in which that would not be the case. 

I think part of it was to find some kind of organizing principle for his life. 

And that second thing explains why he didn’t “notice” the purge trails, for instance, or the famines.

There’s a real sense that the change that would be needed to make sure that machinist had a decent retirement and a good future for his children would be resisted at all costs by the powers that were, resisted right down to violence.

And that that meant that building Communism would also have to be taken right down to violence.  What’s the old saying?  You can’t make an omelet without breaking legs.

In the 1890s, the 1920s, and for a while after that, it really wasn’t clear that Communism as an idea necessitated the things it eventually did, and there was quite a lot of argument even within the Communist Party USA about it.

But I think the most important thing is that business–something to live for and something to die for.

Because I think that there are some people who are not able to function without a sort of referential frame for their lives.  In the Middle Ages, these people would have been priests and nuns, or–if prevented from that by circumstances–possibly saints of the Doctor of the Church kind, people who worked with the ideas of Christian doctrine.

In a world where God is assumed not to exist, they became Communists.

I’m absolutely convinced that that is what is at the basis of Chambers becoming a Communist.

And it would explain the fascination for Communism among scholars. 

If you are the kind of person who must have such a narrative frame–and I think that people who are attracted to things like Literary Criticism and Philosophy are very often just such people, just as many people who are psychologically troubled are attracted to Psychology–

Well, if you are that kind of person, and you can’t make yourself believe in God, maybe that is going to be the only option available.

I can’t think of any other option available right now, at any rate.

And then there is my favorite explanation, which has not come up in Chambers at all.

In a world in which every man is free to make of himself what he will, the fact that you’re not Bill Gates is something of a condemnation.  Competition becomes threatening when competition determines not just your net work financially but your worth as a human being.

And I do think the meritocratic state ends up presenting something like that.

And it’s late, and I’d better do the rest of this tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 9th, 2010 at 5:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'All Things Being Equal'

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  1. I think the reason ‘social justice’ grates on me is because it’s a group term that assumes the primary identity of a human being is not as an individual, but as part of a group. I don’t exclude the possibility of group action – unionism, for example, although as subject to corruption as any other form of power, has also leveled the negotiation playing field by giving the workers, working together, a stronger hand. But people who use ‘social justice’ a lot don’t seem to be talking just about this sort of thing; they seem to focus exclusively on the group – starving children in China, as we used to hear about, rather than specific starving Chinese children who might benefit from some specific action.

    It’s true that anyone can be badly threatened by threats to their status as a human being – whether they consider their role as mother/father/lover, their financial well-being, their skill or recognition at work or something else to be essential. That’s another power of religion – it’s hard to lose the conviction that you are of value because you are a child of God, because it’s internal – and in cases where co-religionists insist you aren’t, you don’t have to accept their opinion. You have to accept the fact that you can’t spend as much money as Bill Gates – or that your spouse or child leaves you, voluntarily or through accident or disease. And if that’s what you’ve built your life on, the very possibility will be horribly threatening. It all comes down to what idol you worship – what you chose to use to measure your worth as a human being.

    BBC had an article on ‘fair’ as seen from the US and UK point of view:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-10869722

    (While looking for this, because I hadn’t bookmarked it, I found an article on ‘plus-sized models’ – over US size 12!!!

    That’s not what I call plus-sized!!

    Cheryl

    9 Sep 10 at 6:54 am

  2. I also hate the term “social justice” because I think it really is meaningless. It’s use says a heap more about the user rather than about anything else. Wishy-washy, fuzzy, woolly, emotive, sentimental nonsense – spoken or written oh so very sincerely, of course.

    Mique

    9 Sep 10 at 8:11 am

  3. I thought the State universities started as land-grant universities and always had low tuition. But I could be wrong.

    As for “Social Justice”, I’ve always thought it means “I’ll satisfy my social conscience with someone else’s money.”

    I now have “Witness” on my Kindle and will get around to reading it one of these days.

    jd

    9 Sep 10 at 5:50 pm

  4. I’ll generally cut communists more slack the further back you go–before 1960, that is: I think by then it was pretty obvious. And there were certainly dedicated leftists in the Interwar Period–in Spain, for instance–who risked much for little personal gain. But:
    (1) Whenever Communists have taken power, and the famines and massacres follow, what you don’t see is a large crop of Bolsheviks saying “this isn’t what we fought for.” There are generally a few, but not many. So I think the burden of proof is on those who DON’T think this was a bunch of wannabe secret police, block wardens and camp commandants.
    (2) There was no lack of writing by critics of Communist theory before 1917, which we can now see to have been accurate. This has to undercut the CPUSA’s claims to moral and intellectual superiority. They could claim, at best, one of the two.
    (3) Even prior to WWII, there had been waves of refugees from Soviet rule, newspaper reports of famine and massacre, and books and articles by escaped leftists and anarchists. To continue to believe in the socialist paradise required being willfully blind. Is this better or worse that knowing what was going on and approving? Because those are the choices.

    And it’s worth noting that the material gains the Communists ostensibly sought–higher wages, better working conditions, pensions–have consistently been gained without the single-party state, the confiscation of the means of production, the secret police or the gulags. Sometimes this was done by law, but only sometimes. Sometimes it took capital investment to make the workers more productive. Sometimes it took the UNmaking of government economic controls–abolishing state monopolies or guilds, and permitting trade unions. So either the 1930’s Communists were mistaken about the necessity of revolution to achieve those ends or lying–or, of course, both.

    The “social justice” crowd has another lifetime’s worth of history to demonstrate this–and just that much less excuse.

    robert_piepenbrink

    9 Sep 10 at 5:54 pm

  5. Robert, your date of 1960 seems generous to me. The Berlin Blockade was 1948, the Korean War was 1950 and the Hungarian Revolt was 1955 or 56.

    And by 1948, it was obvious that the Soviet Union wasn’t going to allow free elections in Eastern Europe.

    jd

    10 Sep 10 at 1:50 am

  6. All that needed to be known about Soviet communism was obvious for anyone with eyes to see during the Moscow show trials reported critically by, among others, Malcolm Muggeridge before WWII. There really is no excuse for those who were in denial after that point.

    Mique

    10 Sep 10 at 2:42 am

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