Monday, December 14, 2015

Marxists in the Garden of Eden

Over the years I have learned to consider the Garden of Eden story as an allegory about the agricultural revolution. The serpent speaks to Eve and humans get sent out from the bliss of hunter-gathering into the hard work of plowing and sowing and reaping.

So let's think about the Marxist account of capitalism as a garden of Eden story about the Industrial Revolution. Imagine happy peasants living in collectives enjoying their traditional grazing rights on the Commons. Now imagine rich landowners enclosing the Commons and sending happy peasants into the hell of the proletarian city.

In The Origin of Capitalism author Ellen Meiksins Wood tells a grand story about how this happened and how the innocence of the pre-industrial world and its political and military compulsion was converted into the hell of economic compulsion under capitalism.

But Wood wants to propose an innovation. She wants us to know that capitalism started not with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the factory but 100 years or more earlier when the rich landowners of England started converting their estates from feudal domains into profit-making enterprises. This "agrarian capitalism" was inspired by a culture of improvement that celebrates improving the land under your care in a productive manner and that, she says, goes back to John Locke and his linking of rights in property to the labor involved in improving it.

But there's a sinister aspect to this improving culture because it says that only he who improves the land has the right to own it. Thus the Native Americans in the North American continent that did not improve their land do not deserve it and the industrious white man that does improve it has a right to own it instead. Thus did John Locke and Co. justified  their conquest of the world. This all ties together capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism as one single grand exploitation project. Yay!

Thus does a Marxist enlarge upon the Marxian version of original sin and damn the modern west for everything. But we have to ask what happens next. After all, in the biblical version of original sin mankind somehow manages to carry on and by the time of Christ imagine a way to atone for sin. But what kind of atonement would the Marxists allow for capitalism? Well we know the answer to that. The only possible atonement is of course socialism and nothing else will do.

Let us concede the Marxist indictment but not the atonement. Because now we know two to three centuries later that capitalism yielded an increase in per capita income of something like 30 times the per capita income of the pre-capitalist era and that on a population of 7 billion humans on the planet. And we also know that socialism has yielded misery and poverty and conflict and military and political compulsion of extraordinary ferocity wherever it has been tried.

Yes, capitalism has put everyone on the earth under economic compulsion. But there's another way to describe this economic compulsion. It is that we all live under the principle of serving others before we serve ourselves. What could be more socialistic than that?

If it weren't for Marxists perhaps we'd have to invent them. Otherwise we could not know the worst that could possibly be imagined about the extraordinary world in which we live.

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