Novelist, blogger and Twitter recusant Danyl McLauchlan has been reading about Trotsky. More fool him, I say, although I will confess to having read the book he cites, the Isaac Deutscher biography, back when I did a Russian history paper and I picked up that and Deutscher’s companion book on Stalin, in battered second-hand editions, at Dominion Books.
He ponders the power of Marxism in the first half of the 20th Century and how it has run into the political sand in recent years:
There are various critiques of contemporary capitalism out there. … But there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why. Alternatively:
- There is and I’m oblivious to it
- The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.
- There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint)
- To paraphrase Keynes, the failures of capitalism are not moral (or philosophical) but rather a series of separate technical challenges to be solved=
My own views here are probably closest to his second option. There is a great exchange in letters between David Hume and Adam Smith, which is somewhere in one of my books but I can’t find the damn thing right now, where they talk about opposing ‘systems’ and the idea anyone can come up with an all-encompassing theory for society. They may have been discussing Edmund Burke’s writings.
(And in my own, personal, pantheon of philosophers, a nexus of Hume, Smith and Burke, the three sceptical Celts, is as close to philosophical heaven as is possible in an imperfect and ultimately unknowable universe).
The notion human beings to come up with a ‘central unifying theory’ which explains everything strikes me as being foolish at best and totalitarian at worst. I don’t think it is possible to do this for society or humanity as a whole.
The other false premise is that capitalism is a theory which manages to actually do this.
Capitalism isn’t an ‘ism’. It isn’t a unified theory, arguably it isn’t a theory at all. And calling it a ‘system’ as both defenders and attackers sometimes do, seems to me to be stretching things a bit.
Remember that capitalism, as a concept, was defined not by people who would be considered capitalists, but by people who were opposing what was going on – in that case, the industrial revolution – and were seeking to find a unified theory to encompass what they saw and did not like.
What we have come to call capitalism wasn’t devised in advance as a theory to make society better. Therefore it wasn’t a theory which people had to be made – say, at the point of a gun – to fit.
And nor should ‘capitalism’ be turned into something like this (cf Chile under Pinochet).
What we’ve come to call capitalism evolved out of people doing what comes naturally. As such, it represents all the ingenuity and orneriness, all that is admirable and all that is reprehensible, in the human spirit.
It wasn’t, like Marxism and its Leninist and Trotskyist and Stalinist and Maoist descendants, worked out by some weird social misfits with a grudge against society, as a way of making people better.
There are two notable characterises of unified theories of everything: one is they all too often end up butchering people to make systems and societies fit those theories.
Perhaps the best, most accessible novelist on this is Terry Pratchett in some of the later, darker, Discworld novels. Pratchett’s satire on theocracies, ‘Small Gods’ has torturers, along with the philosopher Didactylos who is a magnificnet enscapulation of the glories of doubt and uncertainty, scepticism and humanity.
Amongst other shafts of wisdom from Didactylos is the pithy ‘We are here and this is now. After that, everything tends towards guesswork.’ This is *real* humility and humanity, I think.
The second characteristic is the religious nature of such unified theories of everything. It is no coincidence, I think, that the rise of these ideologies came at a time the sea of Christian faith was receding rather rapidly, and the desperate hammering to cobble together new, unified theories to explain life and society rose to a crescendo to drown out the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar of retreating certainties.
Oh, and since the starting point of this was a blog post by Danyl McL, let me recommend his latest novel.
I have just started reading it. It looks good.