Sunday, February 8, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Halftime

In keeping with an RBR tradition, this halftime report on In Praise of Idleness comes well after the halfway mark of the book – though more than half of the chapters lie in the future.

One of the themes that comes through to me in the first “half” of In Praise of Idleness is how much of the thinking is consonant with Marxian ideas. I guess this should not be a surprise when reading an openly socialist thinker like Russell (who has much good to say about anarchism, too), but Russell’s direct comments on Marx tend to be rather critical. What are some Russellian echoes of Marxian ideas? The ethical positions of society, according to Marx, are those notions that suit the ruling class – and Russell claims that the idea that hard work is virtuous is one such position – as long as the hard work is done by others. (And the education system will attempt to sustain support for the existing order.) Even the Soviet Union, with its praise of the proletariat and its campaigns to enlist young people for manual toil, offers Russell a case in point. The reserve army of the unemployed is a feature of capitalism that, for Marx, helps keep the demands of laborers in line; for Russell, unemployment makes it appear that leisure time cannot possibly be evenly distributed. For Marx, work under capitalism is just a means to an end, as opposed to being what it should be, life itself, manifesting the human need for purposeful labor. Further, workers are required to work such long hours that they have no room for active leisure pursuits. Russell concurs on both points, along with the Marxian (and Millian) observation that machinery has not lightened the load for workers. Property ownership largely stems from military prowess, according to Russell, a’ la Marx’s primitive capitalist accumulation. (As Marx puts it, “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.”) Academic economists tend to be stooges of the rich and powerful, according to Russell. Marx was there first: “Though he [a capitalist] chanted to us the whole creed of the economists, in reality, he says, he would not give a brass farthing for it. He leaves this and all such like subterfuges and juggling tricks to the professors of Political Economy, who are paid for it.” The state apparatus itself is captured to serve the interests of rich industrialists, according to Russell. For Marx, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Marx and Russell share views about other features of the capitalist economy, too. They both recognize the capitalist tendency for large swings in the business cycle and pressure to extend the working day, while they both also seem to believe that economies of scale in production are always available, so that larger producers can out-compete small producers (p. 100). [It turns out that is not always the case.] Of course, Marx and Russell differ on many points. Marx has little good to say about the profit motive within an advanced capitalist system (though the early stages of capitalism create wonders). Russell is more nuanced, suggesting that there are areas where free enterprise delivers the goods and other areas where it does not. For instance, the fact that housework lies outside the profit-oriented economy leads to worse conditions for women. But those areas where the unregulated pursuit of profits fails society are legion for Russell:

(1) The profit motive does not inspire the type of architecture that promotes wellbeing. Desirable architectural reform cannot take place without shielding design from the profit motive, that is, without a species of socialism in this realm.

(2) Relatedly, the profit motive ruins the aesthetics of suburbs. Along with the ugly suburbs, the chase for profits produces anxious wives and unhealthy children.

(3) Profit-seeking in the financial sector leads to anti-social behavior. One element of this anti-social behavior is the promulgation of self-serving myths (which, as noted above, are parroted by academics and other influential people). The policy ideas of people in the financial sector are as divorced from social wellbeing as are the policy ideas of people who are proficient in the military arts. [This is reminiscent not only of Marx but of Adam Smith’s analysis of the disconnect between the interests of capitalists and social wellbeing: “The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it."]

(4) Speaking of the military arts, war is promoted by the profit-seeking of industrialists. [And Smith again on the colonies: “A great empire has been established for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers all the goods with which these could supply them. For the sake of that little enhancement of price which this monopoly might afford our producers, the home-consumers have been burdened with the whole expence of maintaining and defending that empire. For this purpose, and for this purpose only, in the two last wars, more than two hundred millions have been spent, and a new debt of more than a hundred and seventy millions has been contracted over and above all that had been expended for the same purpose in former wars.”]

(5) The unemployment that comes from the volatility of investment represents a social cost that is not taken into account by profit-maximizing decisions within heavy industry. Society does not thrive, then, when the commanding heights of the economy pursue profit in an unregulated fashion. Indeed, poverty is perpetuated by excessive devotion to profits.

(6) The profit motive has not been a major influence on education, but to the extent that it has had an influence, the tendency is for that influence to be detrimental.

(7) The arts cannot thrive when they are driven by profit considerations alone.

Russell’s case for socialism is non-Marxian, it does not follow from class war or even conceptions of fairness to workers. Rather, Russell sees socialism – which includes state control of the commanding heights and some income protection for the poor and unemployed – as being a necessary part of a rational response to the conditions that accompany large-scale industrialization. Why should willing workers suffer because of macroeconomic forces over which they have no control? [Once again, I am reminded of Engels: “Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the bourgeoisie, are really his road to happiness? No one. He knows that he has something today and that it does not depend upon himself whether he shall have something tomorrow.”] Surely the unavoidable risks of unemployment should be spread through society, not forced to be borne by the few (in relative terms) who are unlucky. Also for Russell, wealth differentials are tolerable, as long as they do not translate into power differentials. Russell’s vision brings to mind the views of the philosopher Michael Walzer, who in Spheres of Justice (p. 127), also finds that income differentials become a problem when they allow for people to become powerful outside of the economic sphere: “If we succeeded absolutely in barring the conversion of money into political power, for example, then we might not limit its accumulation or alienation at all. As things are, we have strong reasons to limit both of these – reasons that have less to do with the marginal utility of money than with its extra-mural effectiveness.”

Russell is perhaps most stridently non-Marxian (or at least non-Leninist) in his belief that socialism cannot be established in a sustainable fashion through force; persuasion is the route to the rationalization of capitalism that Russellian socialism represents.

Another thinker who came to mind on a few occasions in the first half of In Praise of Idleness is (Bertrand’s friend) John Maynard Keynes. Russell echoes Keynes’s views on the unnecessary and perverse severity of the Versailles Treaty. Russell is prescient in foreseeing another European war on the horizon, stoked in part by the German reaction to the Versailles Treaty. Russell also predicts that the war will be a losing one for Germany, despite initial German victories, and that neglect of America will once again be the cause of German military over-reaching – pretty impressive for an essay published in 1935.

Perhaps the most famous quote of Keynes’s is: “…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Russell’s essay “The Ancestry of Fascism” seeks to trace out those political philosophers whose ideas helped spark the rise of fascism. Among the many names that Russell identifies, Johann Gottlieb Fichte seems to hold what, in other contexts, might be termed pride of place.

One fun Russellian nugget from the first half of In Praise of Idleness involves a story of how a town’s butcher is so spiteful towards his competitors that he converts the town to vegetarianism – and thereby destroys his own livelihood along with those of his competitors. This story has a Keynesian, beggar-thy-neighbor flavor, and it occurs within the Keynesian context, too, of foreign trade controls.

A second memorable moment is yet another rather depressing depiction of domestic life. Suburban existence even provides fertile ground for fascist ideologies to flourish, as the lack of public life in suburbia combines with hierarchical structures at work to preclude other outlets for men to exercise power. (In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Russell compares human suburban existence unfavorably to that of jungle-dwelling monkeys.)

A third small point that I think I will remember from the first half of In Praise of Idleness is that fascism, for Russell, is diabolical both in what it hopes to achieve and how it hopes to get there. [Elsewhere, Russell similarly characterizes Marx as someone “who substituted Prussian discipline for freedom as both the means and the end of revolutionary action.”] And while Russell correctly foresees its eventual military defeat, he also sees as fascism’s intellectual opponents two rather different bodies of thought, Bentham-style utilitarianism and Russell-style socialism. If Russell is right about socialism, however, then utilitarianism and socialism are quite closely allied: socialism brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

On to the second half of In Praise of Idleness

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