Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

DSC01475

Peggy M. Hart, The Magic of Coal (1945)

As I have argued many times on this blog, representations of the economy are produced and disseminated in many different spaces (in addition to academic economics departments) and through many different media (in addition to the usual, mostly mainstream economics textbooks).

One example of this proliferation of economic representations is children’s literature. Children are the targets of educators and writers, most of whom (at least these days) are determined to make sure children get the “correct” understanding of key concepts and institutions. And, for the most part, they mirror the kinds of knowledges produced by mainstream economists, albeit with language and illustrations appropriate for children.

Scholastic offers such a list (which features Homer Price by Robert McClosky, through which students learn the “law of demand”). So does Choice Literacy (which includes Tomie dePaola’s Charlie Needs a Cloak, “good for discussing the four factors of production”). And then there’s the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, which groups books by concept (such as Markets and Competition, Opportunity Cost, and so on).

Motoko Rich’s view is that “By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center” (and that may be true of books that teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving) but, at least for the books on the lists provided by economics educators these days, the tendency is much more mainstream, if not purely neoclassical.

That was not always the case, as Kimberley Reynolds [ht: ja] explains, in the Soviet Union but also during the interwar period in the United Kingdom.

The fact that children’s books can have a strongly formative influence upon the young has often attracted the attention of new leaders and regimes. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his followers harnessed the power of children’s books to shape culture. Some of the artistically vibrant work that resulted from co-opting leading writers and artists is currently on exhibit at London’s House of Illustration with the title, A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. In interwar Britain too, a group of socially and aesthetically radical children’s books underpinned the work of making Britain a progressive, egalitarian, and modern society. But unlike their Soviet counterparts, these books have since remained a largely hidden secret, with most scholars of the period overlooking them altogether.

A good example is Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal, which was published as a Puffin picturebook in 1945. It was the British equivalent of the Soviet “production books.”

Production books detailed the production process of economically essential resources such as coal or steel. Emphasis was placed on the difference between the capitalist and communist machinery used to create these resources; where capitalist machinery was shown to feed greed and overproduction, communist machinery provided a helping hand in creating a prosperous future everyone could enjoy. Thus production books clearly directed the child reader’s attention to a wider political narrative beyond the specificities of the text.

Production books were aesthetically modernist, combining ideas from abstract painting with typography to create a visual language strikingly different from what had gone before. Pictures held a machine-like appearance, using straight lines and elementary forms. By championing newness, it was conveyed to the child reader that they had the potential to be aesthetically innovative. Rather than simply encouraging them to learn to copy what was already seen as beautiful, aesthetic modernism puts more at stake for the child; if whatever they create has the potential to be considered beautiful, there is more incentive for them to attempt to create. Similarly, if a transformed communist society is shown to be a plausible alternative to today’s society, there is a greater incentive for the child to become an activist to help bring this society about.

Apparently, the Magic of Coal contained all the features of a production book:

Reference is made to, ‘our gas works’ and ‘our community, implying collective ownership, and all images are aesthetically modernist. Thus it is an example of the attempts of a popular front of left-wing publishers to bring the production book genre and its associated radicalism to Britain in the interwar period.”

As such, it was quite different from what passes today for children’s economics literature:

Taking the child on a journey, it tells not only of the production of coal but also elevates the miner as an important and  respectable member of society. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards a political goal.

The text focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism.

The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ before or after work, challenging class boundaries as it suggests that before he enters the mine, a working-class man looks like, and therefore is like, any other man going about any other business. The text also tells us of the miner’s life outside of work, mentioning societies, theatre visits and higher education, indicating that the miners are not only important members of coal-fueled, modern society, but also respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture.

I don’t know if children’s economics books of this sort—whether about coal mining or Wall Street—are being written and produced today. If they’re not, they need to be. If they are, then they need to be included in the lists that promote the economics education of children.

There is—and there needs to be—a lot more than mainstream economic ideas in representations of the economy, both inside and outside the official discipline of economics.

utopia_now_graffiti_p_maton_12-10-14

500 years after Thomas More’s powerful critique, the interest in utopia seems not to have wained.

In fact, you can make the case, as Tobia Jones [ht: ja] does, that the end-of-history realism of the 1990s has finally given way to a new search for utopia:

Everything looks different now. George Bush Sr’s new world order is frightening and deeply disordered. Religion, which sociologists predicted would slowly slide out of view, is the dominant political issue of the early 21st century, a form of utopianism that just won’t go away. Meanwhile capitalism, which was the motif of triumphalist freedom, seems less noble after Enron, Madoff, Libor and RBS. If anything, people are even more fed-up with the laziness, injustices and profligacy of consumerism than they were back in the 1990s.

It is precisely the combination of ongoing economic instability and grotesque levels of inequality that has undermined capitalist triumphalism and created the space for new kinds of radical dreams.

That’s why I am curious to see what will emerge from Julia O’Connell Davidson and Neil Howard new series on utopia thinking and “Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility” currently being staged by Somerset House, King’s College London, and the Courtauld Institute.

The question, as always, is where the new utopian inspiration will come from. More, while replete with criticisms of the existing order, never attempts to offer an answer. But Ursula Le Guin does, repeatedly throughout The Dispossessed (pdf):

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

That “shared pain” is the precisely the ground for utopian critique.

Addendum

3052

It just so happens a new London exhibition, Things Fall Apart, is based on a series of posters from the 1930s designed to criticism racism and colonialism and to attract Africans and African-Americans to the racial harmony promised by the communist utopia.

Art of the day

Posted: 2 October 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I guess we’re far enough away from the Cold War that a socialist can make a serious for the presidency—and for the art that was produced in the early decades of the Soviet Union to be appreciated in the United States.

Yesterday, Kristin M. Jones reviewed the Jewish Museum’s exhibit “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film” for the Wall Street Journal.

In Dziga Vertov’s exuberant “Man With a Movie Camera” (1929), the camera dances, spins and materializes on rooftops, before an oncoming train and even on stage. Combining electrifying editing, naturalistic scenes and trick photography, the film evokes 24 hours of Soviet urban life, beginning with humans and machines awakening at daylight. Vertov envisioned an all-seeing “cinema eye—more perfect than a human eye for purposes of research into the chaos of visual phenomena filling the universe.” Filmmakers explored various aesthetic approaches during the era, but it was a period of startling cinematic invention.

And, of course, that same startling artistic invention can be seen in the original poster for the film (created by the Sternberg brothers).

Man_with_a_movie_camera

RedMenace

Branko Milanovic has put forward an idea he thinks “will gradually become more popular”:

The idea is simple: the presence of the ideology of socialism (abolition of private property) and its embodiment in the Soviet Union and other Communist states made capitalists careful: they knew that if they tried to push workers too hard, the workers might retaliate and capitalists might end up by losing all.

The idea reminds me of an argument Etienne Balibar made many years ago (unfortunately, I can no long remember or find the original source but here’s a link [pdf] to one version of it)—that the “European project” was more progressive during the Cold War in the sense that the welfare state was constructed, by forces from above and below, as a response to the Soviet model of socialism, in order to prevent the working classes from adopting a communist ideology. (Since then, as Balibar has recently argued, the European project has fundamentally changed, as it has been assimilated by globalized finance capitalism and, under German hegemony, a strategy of industrial competitiveness based on low wages.)

Milanovice discusses some recent empirical work on three channels through which socialism “disciplined” income inequality under capitalism: (a) ideology/politics (e.g., the electoral importance of Communist and some socialist parties), (b) trade unions (some of which were affiliated with Communist or Labor parties), and (c) the “policing” device of the Soviet military power. He then offers his own analysis:

Communism, was a global movement. It does not require much reading of the literature from the 1920s to realize how scared capitalists and those who defended the free market were of socialism. After all, that’s why capitalist countries militarily intervened in the Russian Civil War, and then imposed the trade embargo and the cordon sanitaire on the USSR.  Not a sort of policies you would do if you were not ideologically afraid (because militarily the Soviet Union was then very weak). The threat intensified again after the World War II when the Communist influence through all three channels was at its peak. And then it steadily declined so much that by mid-1970s, it was definitely small. The Communist parties reached their maximum influence in the early 1970s but Eurocomunism had already expunged from its program any ideas of nationalization of property. It was rapidly transforming itself into social democracy. The trade unions declined. And both the demonstration effect and the fear of the Soviet Union receded. So capitalism could go back to what it would be doing anyway, that is to the levels of inequality it achieved at the end of the 19th century. “El periodo especial” of capitalism was over.

He admits the implication of such a story may be rather unpleasant:

left to itself, without any countervailing powers, capitalism will keep on generating high inequality and so the US may soon look like South Africa.

This is not to suggest we need another Cold War for the United States not to move even closer to looking like South Africa. But it does mean there will be a significant move from above toward more democracy and less inequality only if there’s a real threat to move outside of capitalism from below.

inequality-014

After learning that Joseph Stiglitz had been invited to give a lecture on inequality at the University of Oxford, I asked my friend Stephen Whitefield, Professor of Politics, University Lecturer in Politics, and Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, to offer his sense of Stiglitz’s lecture. I am pleased to publish his comments here.

It was a huge pleasure for me and my college (Pembroke) and my Department (Politics and International Relations), with the support of the UK Fulbright Commission, to welcome Joseph Stiglitz back to the University of Oxford to deliver the 4th Annual Fulbright Distinguished Lecture. Stiglitz had been Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford in the 1970s. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize for his work that shows, as I understand it, that when markets don’t function with perfect information—that is to say, almost always–then there is also always room for government intervention to improve welfare outcomes. That was a huge turn in the debate, even if many mainstream economists and their political allies/masters have yet to catch up.

Stiglitz was in Oxford to talk about “The Causes and Consequences of Inequality and What Can Be Done About It,” which topic marks another great turn in the debate about what kind of political economy we want, from thinking that inequality is irrelevant, since all boats are rising, to thinking that inequality matters, because it makes just about everything worse, at least when it is at very high levels. Stiglitz was of course also central to shifting the current of academic opinion on this topic. And he demonstrated in a brilliant talk—which everyone can link to here (as a podcast or video)—that he is not averse to turning that scholarship into powerful and persuasive accessible language. I have also to add that Stiglitz is a great person to talk to. As Ngaire Woods, his old friend, said in her introduction to his lecture, Stiglitz listens to people.

So, I know he will not be at all put out if he reads me to say that, while his dissection of the causes and consequences of inequality was outstanding, his discussion of what can be done about them was rather light. I told him that myself at dinner afterwards, as did others. I am sure that a lot of that would have been sorted out if he had had more time to talk. After all, he is not at all short of policy prescriptions, as are others like Thomas Piketty, who advocates a global wealth tax. But the problem is not that there is a lack of policies to put forward. In my view, the main problem is with the lack of a clear vision about how to build the political alliances that are necessary to enact those prescriptions. Maybe Stiglitz is right that things look better in places like Brazil and that we can learn things from its experience. Becoming Swedish, however, even if we thought that an attractive proposition—and I still have Per Wahloo in mind when thinking about Swedish Social-Democracy—is just not an option. So, how do we create a winning coalition against inequality that looks plausible and appropriate to our national conditions?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now. But here is a gesture in that direction. First, an irony—that he gave this talk in Oxford where we are of course constantly seeking the support of the 0.01-percenters, including to fund a chair to commemorate Senator Fulbright in my college and department. There were a number of such people in the lecture theatre. But note next something we all know (or strongly believe since Wilkinson and Pickett), that in highly unequal societies even the richest 1 percent appear to have worse health outcomes compared to their counterparts in more equal societies. Stiglitz did not offer a very convincing explanation as to why this is the case. He put it down to stress, which is possible but not very plausible on the face of it. Susan Kelly, who is a medical sociologist at the University of Exeter, puts a more likely hypothesis to my mind: over-treatment. There is apparently a negative correlation at the top end between numbers of physicians and health outcomes. But, who knows? A good question to research. . .

But, to return to my point about the political coalition to implement a reduction in levels of inequality, what we need to know is this: who are the political actors interested in doing this? This was not addressed in any explicit way by Stiglitz, and it seems to me a characteristic of even progressive policies presented by scholars that the questions of who will implement them and in whose political interests they are enacted are seldom on the table. There is talk—just—in analyses of inequality of class but not much about class interests or class actors. Now, there was an implicit answer in Stiglitz’s talk. Perhaps it is the enlightened rich who will use their massive power to reduce inequality, because they will come to see that it is harmful to their interests. Maybe. I have my doubts. Certainly I would not expect inequality to come down to the levels that I would find economically, socially, or politically appropriate if those were the political forces driving it.

But if not the rich, then who? By the admission of all involved in the analysis of inequality, the period from around 1930 to 1980 was one of declining inequality and of course in the post-WWII period of rapid economic growth as well. A time also, not coincidentally, of strong organised trade unions and a mobilised working class. All that is recognised. Less so is the counterpart in international relations, the existence of the Soviet Union and then the Communist bloc and the international communist movement, which presented an alternative to capitalism that many working-class people found attractive and the rich found terrifying enough to make significant concessions. I suspect it takes a stick as well as a carrot to make the rich see their self-interest differently.

Almost all of that historical moment is gone now, and not all for the bad. As a student of the Soviet system, I only lament it when thinking about the appalling kleptocracy that emerged from its womb, to use Marx’s kind of metaphor—a kleptocracy that aspired to be as rich as our own oligarchs. But we should remember that the creation of unions and left movements was the work of generations of intellectuals—I mean that in the broadest Gramscian terms—to create not just policies but first and foremost social and political actors. Perhaps that is what we now need to concentrate on imagining, not to mention doing.

We’ll fulfill five-year plan in four years!

Neoclassical economics has long been structured around the dichotomy between markets and planning as alternative mechanisms for the efficient allocation of resources. And, of course, neoclassical economists have long concluded that decentralized markets are better at that task than central planning.

The problem with that formulation is that it presumes there’s one essential economic problem—the efficient allocation of scarce resources—and that markets and planning are just different ways of accomplishing the same objective. In other words, it’s an approach that denies the role of history and social conditions, that different economic institutions—such as markets and forms of planning—arise under (and in turn serve to create) different historical and social conditions.

Now, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson want to modify the discussion but keep the same method. In their view, “central planning is not about the efficient allocation of economic resources, it is about control.”

Central planning maximizes the extent of control that the state, and the people running the state, exercise. The desire to control others is a constant in history and is part and parcel of the construction of states. If the state can grab all the land and resources and control who and on what terms people get access to them, then this maximizes control, even if it sacrifices economic efficiency.

This sort of economic and political control — not Marxist ideology — is what central planning is all about.

What they do is substitute one essence—the efficient allocation of scarce resources—with another—control by the elites through the state. The result is that planning remains a singular phenomenon, which they find throughout history: in the Greek Bronze Age, among the Incas, and in the Soviet Union.

Many additional issues can be raised about their approach. Let me mention two. First, I actually think they let Marxism off the hook too easily since, as Jack Amariglio and I argued in Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics, while central planning may not be mentioned in Marx’s writings, there is a long tradition of modernist Marxism that has preferred the presumed order of central planning over the disorder of markets. As we wrote:

The relativism (one-sidedness), uncertainty, and disorder of capitalism are overcome by rational planning whose objective basis—the victory of the proletariat, with its full appreciation of the totality—guarantees in advance the superiority of its knowledge and practice.

Postmodern Marxist economists could not but regard this view as unhelpful and ultimately damaging in distinguishing between capitalism and socialism. For it is clear, to postmodern Marxists at least, that socialism has been and will be beset with the multiplicity of knowledges and the radical uncertainty that goes along with the contingency of events and the persistence of ideology. The debilitating effects that, as many Marxists have pointed out, have been visited both on peoples living under socialist regimes and on the very concept of socialism can be tied directly to the claim by the party or state to have privileged (and not partisan) objective knowledge has been considerable. Socialist planning, in our view, will always be marked by the mediation of different knowledges and subjectivities, and the resulting plan, a contingent act if there ever was one, may need to declare itself as partisan, provisional, and uncertain of its effects if it is to avoid the disasters that have befallen planning mechanisms that have been infused with modernist explanations and ideals, utopian though they may have been.

In this sense, the totalizing promise of rational centralized planning is a modernist one. The declared partiality, relativism, and disorder of planning are, in contrast, postmodern.

And there’s a second issue: while I have no doubt that, in particular instances, state planning has been used to enrich elites, when will Acemoglu and Robinson discover that markets, too, under different historical and social conditions, have been mechanisms whereby elites “control and extract resources from society”?

What’s going on?

First, the Art Institute of Chicago hosts an exhibition of Soviet TASS posters. Now, London’s Royal Academy of Arts is hosting a new show, “Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-35.”

The word “revolution” has become discredited, and this show thoroughly re-energises its meaning in art and architecture. The key fragments of Russian revolutionary creativity still glow like radium, living on in its remaining art and buildings, and hard-wired into the imaginations of some of the 20th and 21st century’s most influential architects.

Could it be that, now that the Cold War is over and in the midst of the Second Great Depression, the revolution that was all but dead and buried is now being rehabilitated?