Marxism vs. social democracy

Whilst re-reading Straw Dogs by John Gray, I came across this remark on the post-war consensus:

The welfare state was a by-product of the Second World War. The National Health Service began in the Blitz, full employment in conscription.

Look back to the nineteenth century, to the time between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of the First World War. That great era of peace in Europe was also a period of great inequality. The majority of the population lived from hand to mouth, and only the very rich were safe from sudden poverty.

In affluent, high-tech economies, the masses are superfluous – even as cannon fodder. Wars are no longer fought by conscript armies but by computers – and in the collapsed states that litter much of the world, by the ragged irregular armies of the poor. With this mutation of war, the pressure to maintain social cohesion is relaxed. The wealthy can pass their lives without contact with the rest of society. So long as they do not pose a threat to the rich, the poor can be left to their own devices.

Social democracy has been replaced by an oligarchy of the rich as part of the price of peace.

It is worth reminding ourselves that William Beveridge originally conceived of the British welfare state as a system to “keep men fit for service”.

I have suspected for a long time now that the post-war consensus was an historical one-off. A confluence of global and national factors enabled the creation of a relatively peaceful and relatively prosperous world, at least in the western democracies. Adam Posen argues that we are returning to the Victorian ‘old normal’ of a highly unequal, globalised, and multi-polar world. The world founded on what Cosma Shalizi calls the “useful work of mid-century optimism and intelligence” in monetary policy has collapsed, and been replaced with a world of floating exchange rates and neoliberal trade policy; a policy which benefits the global 1%, and results in stagnant or falling living standards for the majority – at least in the western democracies.

But of course, humanity as a whole has been made better off. The new working classes of China and India are massively wealthier than they were during the so-called ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Essentially, the last thirty years has seen a transfer of wealth from the middle and working classes of the developed world up to the global elite, and down to the Chinese and Indians. What I don’t understand is whether this transition could have been handled better; could it have been possible for politicians to ‘ease the fall’ as jobs went overseas? Is it true that many people in ‘post industrial’ countries are simply surplus to requirements, as Gray implies?

Chris Dillow is fond of pointing out that social democracy faces many inherent limitations in what it can accomplish, because it attempts to reach an accord with a capitalist system that is inherently hostile to the interests of most working people. I don’t know if Chris is right; after all, what was once achieved may again be achievable, but I agree that there are many systemic reasons to be sceptical of social democracy.

Subjective experience, language, Husserl, and MacLeod

The following quotation is from Literary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton:

For phenomenological criticism, the language of a literary work is little more than an ‘expression’ of its inner meanings. This somewhat secondhand view of language runs back to Husserl himself. For there is really little place for language as such in Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl speaks of a purely private or internal sphere of experience; but such a sphere is in fact a fiction, since all experience involves language and language is ineradicably social. To claim that I am having a wholly private experience is meaningless: I would not be able to have an experience in the first place unless it took place in the terms of some language within which I could identify it.

[emphasis mine]

I actually disagree with the emphasised part of this. Animals probably have experience. Small children have experiences. People who were raised by wolves and have no language nevertheless have experiences. I find the idea that subjective experience requires language to be a little odd. There is so much about the world as I experience it that is so utterly beyond language that I really don’t know where to start with disagreeing with it.

Ken MacLeod holds a similar belief:

Subjectivity is inseparable from language. Although emerging from animal sensation, animal emotion and animal signalling, conscious reflection and self-awareness are unique to human beings. We can name the prey, but they don’t name themselves.

Again, I disagree. Or at least, I would argue we cannot (yet) be so certain. Dogs and cats experience things; they certainly experience pain. The point is we don’t yet really understand the nature of subjective experience; but for the time being I remain un-persuaded that animals do not experience pain in a similar fashion to people. Animals are not automatons (or perhaps they are, and perhaps we are, but we are still automatons that possess qualia and intentionality, whatever these things may be). In Straw Dogs, John Gray tells us that:

Plato and Descartes tell us that consciousness is what marks off humans from other animals. Plato believed that ultimate reality is spiritual, and that humans are alone among animals in being at least dimly conscious of it. Descartes saw humans as thinking beings. He declared he knew he existed only because he found himself thinking – ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) – and that animals were mere machines. Yet cats, dogs and horses display awareness of their surroundings; they experience themselves as acting or failing to act; they have thoughts and sensations.

Despite an ancient tradition that tells us otherwise, there is nothing uniquely human in conscious awareness.

This is one of those areas where I find myself more in agreement with John Gray and Montaigne than with MacLeod and Eagleton.  But the dispute ultimately returns to the gap between the subjective and the objective, between what we feel and what is true, between the object and the subject. This gap between the subjective world of individual experience and the “real world” that (we suppose) exists “out there” is the mystery. I look forward to further progress in this regard.