First as tragedy, then as farce: Communism and neoliberalism

The twentieth century saw the advent of two heavily state-driven strategies for capital-intensive economic development: communism and neoliberalism. The difference is that communism focused on the development of fixed capital (above all, “heavy industry”), whereas neoliberalism focuses on fictitious capital. Both demand extraordinary amounts of effort and sacrifice on the part of the majority of the population — but where communism held out an ostensible goal of very rapidly creating the conditions for a vastly improved quality of life, in neoliberalism there is no promised end to the sacrifice. The pile-up of fictitious capital in the hands of a few cannot conceivably benefit the masses in the way that improved industrial capacity could. It serves only to increase the power of the elites over the masses, which brings me to another distinctive trait of both movements: the creation of a “zone of indistinction” between the economic and the political. Particularly under Stalinism, the “economic forces” at play were literal forces of violence, and the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by a dramatic reemergence of violent repression as a key form of political control — most emblematically in Pinochet’s Chile, where neoliberal reform was achieved by means of a horrifying campaign of state terror.

There are fine-grained similarities, too. Take the much-lauded idea of “disruptive innovation.” Surely if there was ever a disruptive innovation, it was the communist project of collectivizing agriculture! They took a system that, though it was certainly not operating up to the highest possible productivity, basically worked most of the time in the sense of keeping the population fed, and they very rapidly replaced it with a radically new and different system that they believed would produce better results. We can see a similar logic at work with the disruptive innovation afoot in the education system. For all its faults, the U.S. education system does provide a certain baseline education for those who complete it — the literacy rate, for example, is very nearly 100%, and the vast majority of people can do the basic math necessary for everyday life — but the thought-leaders (a term that’s always struck me as somewhat Maoist) have decided it’s inadequate and needs to be replaced with a radically different one. In both cases, the short-term results proved to be devestating. Collectivization of agriculture led to famine and starvation, while de-collectivization of public schools has led to an active degradation of the quality of education. In both cases, the short-term damage caused by the rapid change is deployed as evidence that we need to move all the more quickly.

I’ve already written on the striking similarity between Stalinism and neoliberal corporate governance, so I won’t belabor that here. Suffice it to say that the same bizarre cocktail of lock-step historical necessity and voluntarism are at work in both systems. In communism, there was an attempt to immanentize the eschaton, to force their way through the necessary steps of historical progress in order to reach the promised land as quickly as possible. All that’s different is that in neoliberalism, there is no historical telos, no equivalent to the dream of “full communism.” We must continue cutting costs and disruptively innovating and giving 110% — forever, for its own sake. It is our ineluctable fate, and our only space of freedom consists in preemptively imposing our fate on ourselves. We must cut the budget, or else circumstances will arise that force us to cut the budget — this is how we express our amor fati.

The historical failure of Soviet Communism and the ambiguous status of Chinese Communism may have made all the sacrifices endured under communism seem pointless — but neoliberalism is inherently pointless, forthrightly and avowedly nihilistic. Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism. Perhaps we missed our chance to cash out of capitalism and turn its amazing productive forces toward constructive human ends. Now all we can do is watch as the machine destroys itself, and us along with it.

10 thoughts on “First as tragedy, then as farce: Communism and neoliberalism

  1. Ok. This is beautiful. Thank you.

    “Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism.” Abandonment?

    We failed communism.

  2. If only we could communize the entrepreneurial spirit and incorporate a thousand flowery revolutions for non-violent competition in the global marketplace of human endeavor. Or are there already people out there doing that?

  3. On a fundamental level this observation is not that new, I forget the source but I remember reading that firms (specially older big ones) are small spheres of socialism within a capitalist society (there was a time when workers worked all their life for a single company) and the metaphor that was used was pieces of butter in milk. Isn’t this a supercharged version of the same dynamic: the culture inside each firm has changed considerably from the pre-1980 era. Is there an insight here? I am not sure but here is a try using the milk & butter metaphor: the milk has been skimmed in recent years (loss of social safety net, …) but the butterfat in the pieces of butter has gone up (the devolution from socialism to stalinism).

    The new dynamic of the labour market has had some surprising consequences, for example despite all the perks (free gourmet food) and good salaries Google employees are the least loyal. It turns out that people have taken the capitalist message to heart and if they find a better offer they have no qualms about leaving, the same way a CEO has no problem firing people. I understand that the number of people who are in that position is very small but under the right circumstances the same logic that companies use to downsize could be used to empower workers, the question is can we change the landscape in a way that would make that happen for a majority of workers … I am going to stop here since this comment is pretty long already.

  4. Excellent post. I’d only add that the content of neoliberal reform is essentially just the dismantling of the gains of the social democratic legacy from which communism was born – as its highest form and response to its deepest crisis. Neoliberalism is essentially capital without labor constituted as a collective subject, pure grist for the mill, whereas Soviet communism tried to be the converse, unfortunately without success.

  5. Reid is correct regarding the absent subjectivity of our time. This is why, even more so than in previous moments, leftists experience the present course of events purely as a spectator.

    I’ll have to read up on your post regarding the similarities between Stalinism and neoliberalism at the level of governance. My first reaction is to be skeptical, but I’ll see where it takes me.

  6. I think the difference between Stalinism and Neo-Liberalism is that the former is optimistic about the future, while Neo-Liberalism is profoundly pessimistic and defensive, no matter in what rhetoric it is cloaked. It seems to me that calls for neoliberal reforms are deeply connected with larger narratives about Western decline, deindustrialization, etc. Social cuts, austerity are not necessarily presented as means to a better, more prosperous future, but as the only way to desperately stabilize the status quo. At least that’s how it was in Germany. In a similar way, isnt the demand for education reform connected to the idea that a “breakdown” of the school system is nigh, that the system has become totally unworkable and unfunctional?
    The case of Germany is instructive also because in a sense the neoliberal “reforms” of 10 years ago were indeed successful: Deregulation of the labormarket, privatizations, tax cuts, etc. did indeed help to grow the economy, reduce unemployment and all that. Except that nonetheless for the big majority their economic situation has more or less stagnated, if not worsened dramatically, in the past decade – which is almost all you can ask for if you accept the doomsday-scenario of neoliberalism, and accordingly is accepted by most in the name of “economic realism”.

  7. So I wouldnt say Neoliberalism is nihilistic, but rather part of a deeply pessimistic view of the future and humanity’s potential. But of course the pervasiveness of this view could also be described as “our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism.”

  8. It’s interesting that with the rise of neoliberalism came the rise of primitivism: all this stuff about “organic” and the allergy to genetic anything, folk music, Mumford & Sons and guys with beards and trucker caps playing acoustic instruments, the manufactured organic veneer of places like Whole Foods, everything is handmade and artisanal, machines are bad, science is bad, and so on and so forth.

    Part of that is obviously in response to things like Monsanto, but, well… it’s almost as if Americans have given up on the future!

    It’s profoundly disappointing to me that, a century later, Marinetti’s critique still completely hits the mark. Marinetti’s critique of preindustrial Italy.

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