Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Socialists' Novels and Plays: The Dogmatism of Progressivism

I got the idea for the title of this article from chapter 3 of Ludwig von Mises' book, "The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality." In this chapter, Mises discussed about the "Literature Under Capitalism" under six separate sections where he mentioned about "The 'Social' Novels and Plays" in section 6 and the phrase "progressive dogmatist" (p. 61) under "The Bigotry of the Literati" in section 5. In this article, I plan to focus on the last two sections particularly the fifth one, and just give brief comments on the first four sections. 

The First Four Sections

After giving the basic feature of capitalism, Mises introduced that a broad market for literary products occurred with the advent of capitalism. Such market did not exist prior to the advent of capitalism. As a result of this development, a new profession emerged, people who make a living from writing.

Under feudalism, one vital prerequisite to devote time in writing was financial independence. It was never a source of livelihood. Writing "was a noble pursuit of wealthy people, of kings, grandees and statesmen, of patricians and other gentlemen of independent means," and "it was practiced in spare time by bishops and monks, university teachers and soldiers" (p. 50). Mises discussed this under section 1. 

Sections 2 to 4 deserve brief attention. In section 2, Mises explained the meaning of "Success on the Book Market." By this, he distinguished between popular reception of the writer and the dissenter. The books of the dissenter are considered of primary importance, but the public fails to appreciate their value. Majority of the people does not buy such books perhaps because the dissenter is "by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental, irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries" (p. 51).

When we come to section 3, "Remarks about the Detective Stories," Mises mentioned that the emergence of this literary genre was a result of anti-capitalistic mentality. Investigations have been made to explain this phenomenon. Mises thinks that the works of Professor W. O. Aydelotte was the most profound among those investigations. Professor Aydelotte found the value of detective story in providing a reader who failed in his ambition an avenue to identify himself with the detective in exposing the misdeeds of those at the top, who are crooked, but rewarded in a capitalist society. 

"Freedom of the Press" is the subject in section 4. Here I stumbled for the first time with two important books on civil liberty, "John Milton's Areopagitica, 1644, and John Stuart Mills' On Liberty, 1859" (p. 55). According to Mises, private property is a necessary prerequisite for freedom of the press to exist; it cannot exist under a socialist society. In a free society, "Everybody is free to abstain from reading books, magazines, and newspapers he dislikes and to recommend to other people to shun these books, magazines, and newspapers" (p. 56). But to threaten people "in case they should not stop patronizing certain publications and their publishers" (ibid.) is an indication that a society is heading towards socialism. 

Socialists' Novels and Plays

In section 6, "The 'Social' Novels and Plays," Mises describes that since both the public and the authors are under the spell of socialism, the usual plot of popular novels and plays evolves around the evil of capitalism. Class conflict is a favorite theme where the wickedness of the exploiting class is punished and the virtue of the exploited class is exalted. Two classes of authors write about this type of novels and plays, those who were raised in a "bourgeois" background and those who came from a "proletarian" family. 

Mises observed that due to the "elite" background of the first class of authors, "the enviornment in which they place the characters of their plays and novels is strange" (p. 66). And this happens despite of the fact, that this class conducts prior research. On the other hand, the second class of authors doesn't need such reasearch for "they can draw from their own experience" (p. 69). 

The methodology of the first class of authors has already been predetermined. "They know beforehand what they will discover" (p. 67). They select materials that confirmed their prior notion, and avoid those outside of their preconception. They have been trained to think that capitalism is evil. "Their novels and plays are designed as case studies for the demonstration of this Marxian dogma" (p. 67).

The error among this class is that they misrepresent what's really going on in the society. Due to socialistic mindset, they are incapable to see that economic deprivation of the poor is due to "the absence of capitalism, the remnants of the pre-capitalistic past or the effects of policies sabotaging the operation of capitalism" (ibid.). They could not understand that capitalism is exactly the economic system that could wipe "out penury as much as possible" (ibid.). They omitted the fact that a "proletariat" is not only a worker, but also a consumer. 

The claim that these authors simply write the pure facts of society is not true. "They interpret these facts from the point of view of the teachings of Marx, Veblen and the Webbs. This interpretation is the gist of their writings, the salient point that characterizes them as pro-socialist propaganda" (p. 69). "Everything they convey in their books depends on the validity of the socialist tenets and pseudo-economic constructions" (ibid.). 

Turning to the second class of authors, their personal experience shows a different data from those of the socialists. They have proven from their own experience that industrious and skilled workers can climb up to the social ladder. They know the reason for their success. And as they meet the "bourgeois," they now realize that the resentment of the socialists is wrong. They discover that many of the businessmen "are self-made men who, like themselves, started poor" (p. 70). After this discovery, if this class of writer persists "in writing what is in fact prosocialist homiletics, they are insincere. Their novels and plays are unveracious and therefore nothing but trash. They are far below the standards of the books of their colleagues of 'bourgeois' origin who at least believe in what they are writing" (ibid.).

The businessmen are the favorite target of socialist writers. They usually associate them with the " 'financial gangsters' " and " 'robber barons' " taken from history books (p. 71). And when it comes to private life, businessmen are perceived as barbarians, gamblers, and drunkards (p. 72). They spend their days at the race tracks and their nights in night clubs and with their mistresses (ibid.). This is the popular picture of American businessmen in novels and plays. 

The Dogmatism of Progressivism 

In the early part of chapter 3, under the first section, Mises described the "literati" as the "people making a living from writing" (p. 49). In standard English dictionary, the word refers to "persons of scholarly or literary attainments" or the "intellectuals." Here under section 5, I understand the term as pertaining to the "progressives" or the socialists. 

The original sub-title of section 5 is "The Bigotry of the Literati." Under this section, Mises discussed about the internal strife among three dominant schools, and then he singled out the "progressives," and then he finally identified three fundamental errors in the idea of those who advocate for "mixed economy."

1. Internal Strife. Mises was referring to communists, socialists, and interventionists as the three dominant schools during his time. He argued that these three schools together with diverse sects under them were quarreling against each other. Such quarrel diverts the attention from the basic dogmas that are common among them, which are centralized economic planning and various statist economic policies. "On the other hand, the few independent thinkers who have the courage to question these dogmas are virtually outlawed, and their ideas cannot reach the reading public" (p. 58). This indicates the success of the propaganda machineries of the "progressive" "in enforcing its taboos" (ibid.). At this point, Mises mentioned a very unusual and unpopular concept. He talks about the dominance of "the intolerant orthodoxy of the self-styled 'unorthodox' schools" (ibid.). He describes it further as " 'unorthodox' dogmatism" (ibid.).

2. The Progressives. "Unorthodox dogmatism" is Mises' summary description of the taboos of progressivism. He described it as "self-contradictory and confused mixture of various doctrines incompatible with one another" (ibid.). Concerning sources of dogmas, it is eclectic "at its worst, a garbled collection of surmises borrowed from fallacies and misconceptions long since exploded. It includes scraps from many socialist authors, both 'utopian' and 'scientific Marxian,' from the German Historical School, the Fabians, the American Institutionalists, the French Syndicalists, the Technocrats. It repeats errors of Godwin, Carlyle, Ruskin, Bismarck, Sorel, VebIen and a host of less well known men" (pp. 58-59).

The basic dogma of progressivism declares that economic deprivation of the masses is an outcome of unjust social institutions based on private property that gave birth to capitalism. Under this economic system, the masses are doomed to povery, and only the selfish interests of "rugged individuals" or "greedy exploiters" are being served. And therefore, it is the role of the State to intervene in economic affairs to create prosperity for all and convert profit motive into service motive (p. 59). It further teaches that "central planning is inevitable" for it is "in accordance with the inexorable laws of historical evolution" (ibid.). 

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The progressives advocate "credit expansion and increasing the amount of money in circulation, minimum wage rates to be decreed and enforced either by the government or by labor union pressure and violence, control of commodity prices and rents and other interventionist measures" (p. 60). These measures have long been refuted by economists, and "no 'progressive' pseudo-economist ever tried to" answer those arguments (ibid.). Here is Mises' summary analysis: 
"Credit expansion results in the recurrence of economic crisis and periods of depression. Inflation makes the prices of all commodities and services soar. The attempts to enforce wage rates higher than those the unhampered market would have determined produce mass unemployment prolonged year after year. Price ceilings result in a drop in the supply of commodities affected" (ibid.). 
The progressives' basic accusation "against capitalism is that the recurrence of crisis and depressions and mass unemployment are its inherent features" (ibid.). Exposing these economic problems as products of government intervention silence the progressives, and since they cannot give a credible response to "economists, they try to conceal them from the people and especially also from the intellectuals and the university students. Any mentioning of these heresies is strictly forbidden. Their authors are called names, and the students are dissuaded from reading their 'crazy stuff' " (pp. 60-61). 

Concerning the "moderate" position of the progressives, it emerges as a result of contention about the distribution of profit between the "management" and the working class. The intellectuals took advantage that "the majority of the working class is moderate enough not to indulge in excessive radicalism" (p. 61). And so the essence of the progressives' moderate stance is to go for "mixed economy" characterized by central planning, welfare state, and socialism (ibid.). Notice how Mises described the subtle role of the literati:
"In this controversy the intellectuals who allegedly do not belong to either of the two opposite camps are called to act as arbiters. They-the professors, the representatives of science, and the writers, the representatives of literature-must shun the extremists of each group, those who recommend capitalism as well as those who endorse communism. They must side with the moderates. They must stand for planning, the welfare state, socialism, and they must support all measures designed to curb the greed of management and to prevent it from abusing its economic power" (pp. 61-62). 
Based on the foregoing observation, Mises and those who advocate policies rooted in sound economic analysis are considered heretics. What's difficult to believe is the noise created by the above intellectuals who are advocating for economic reforms and their audacity to call themselves "progressives." Due to their refusal to submit their proposal to economic scrutiny, they are unaware that the answers they propose are far worse than the problems they aim to solve. 

3. Three Fundamental Errors. Instead of giving a detailed analysis of the mentioned "moderate" stance, Mises just focused on giving an overview of the three fundamental errors inherent in it. 

a. The first mistake is related to the erroneous diagnosis of the nature of ideological problem in our time. "The great ideological conflict of our age" (p. 62) says Mises is neither about the distribution of business profit, nor about class warfare. Instead, it is about the struggle "concerning the choice of the most adequate system of society's economic organization" (ibid.). Mises explains the nature of this struggle: 
"The question is, which of the two systems, capitalism or socialism, warrants a higher productivity of human efforts to improve people's standard of living. The question is, also, whether socialism can be considered as a substitute for capitalism, whether any rational conduct of production activities, i.e., conduct based on economic calculation, can be accomplished under socialist conditions" (ibid.).
This is the reason why I think Mises described the progressives as dogmatic. They do not want to subject socialism under economic investigation. For them, the issue has long been settled "that capitalism is the worst of all evils and socialism the incarnation of everything that is good" (ibid.) And any "attempt to analyze the economic problems of a socialist commonwealth is considered as a crime of lese majeste" (ibid.). 

b. The second error is the failure to see the similarity of the economic system of both socialism and communism. Yes, it is true that under socialism, the "anticommunist bourgeois" are not assassinated and that the secret documents of a nation is not submitted to a "superior" socialist nation. In this instance, socialism is more moderate than communism. But besides this, there is no difference between the two especially when it comes "to the ultimate goal of political action;" both socialism and communism are aiming for "public control of all the means of production" (p. 63). 

The confusing aspect in the similarity of economic system of both socialism and communism is the hostility between them. Mises elaborated both the commonality and the nature of hostility between these two systems. Concerning commonality: 
"The two terms, socialism and communism, are synonyms. The document which all Marxian socialists consider as the unshakable foundation of their creed is called the Communist Manifesto. On the other hand, the official name of the communist Russian empire is Union of the Socialist Soviet Republics (U.S.S.R.)" (ibid.).

"Neither do the terms 'planning' and 'welfare state' as they are used in the language of economists, statesmen, politicians and all other people signify something different from the final goal of socialism and communism. Planning means that the plan of the government should be substituted for the plans of the individual citizens. It means that the entrepreneurs and capitalists should be deprived of the discretion to employ their capital according to their own designs and should be obliged to comply unconditionally with the orders issued by a central planning board or office. This amounts to the transfer of control from the entrepreneurs and capitalists to the government." (p. 64).
And then about hostility between them: 
"The antagonism between the present-day communist and socialist parties does not concern the ultimate goal of their policies. It refers mainly to the attitude of the Russian dictators to subjugate as many countries as possible, first of all the United States. It refers, furthermore, to the question of whether the realization of public control of the means of production should be achieved by constitutional methods or by a violent overthrow of the government in power" (pp. 63-64). 
Therefore, expecting that socialism with its central planning and welfare program will provide us a better economic system than the one offered by communism is believing in a false hope. It is a serious mistake, and contrary to the message of the progressives, it is not a remedy to communism.

c. The third error is the naive belief about the possibility of a third economic system resulting from a combination of both socialism and capitalism. Affirming this possibility springs from an ignorance to understand the real nature of both socialism and capitalism. They "are two distinct patterns of social organization" (pp. 64-65) for socialism is based on public control of the means of production, whereas capitalism can only exist if "private control of the means of production" is protected. There cannot be a reconciliation between these two. Economists call this form of economic system as "interventionism" (p. 65) and for Marx and Engels, when they "advocated definite interventionist measures, they did not mean to recommend a compromise between socialism and capitalism" (ibid. ). Mises perceives them as stepping stones on the way to "the establishment of full communism" (ibid.). Therefore, "the social and economic philosophy of the progressives is a plea for socialism and communism" (p. 66). "Mixed economy" or "a middle-of-the-road solution" (p. 65) does not exist. Expecting it to be so is to believe in illusion. 

Source: Mises, L. (2008). The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Auburn, Alabama: The Ludwig von Mises Institute.