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Double Trouble – capitalism and communism (Aidan Rankin)

Double Trouble – capitalism and communism

Aidan Rankin


IN EASTERN EUROPE, during the Cold War years, a popular graffito adorned the walls of Communist capitals. It ran like this: `Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is the opposite: the exploitation of man by man’. Irony was a potent weapon for dissidents in the lean years between the Prague Spring and Glasnost. It was loathed by the authorities, because although they lacked humour, they knew that powerful truths were being expressed that no people’s censor could ever obscure. In this case, the truth was that exploiters the world over resemble each other. The ideologies and systems through which they justify their power are not opposites, but run parallel to each other. They are based, as Norman Mailer once observed, on `any people hurting many people, but it is just who does the hurting that is forever in dispute’. Capitalism and communism diminish the status of the peoples.

The symbiosis between `monopoly capitalism’ and state-controlled communism was recognised by George Orwell, who like most men ahead of his time was deeply unfashionable with the liberal elite. In Animal Farm, he notes the resemblance between the once rebellious pigs and the farmers they overthrew. Orwell’s tale is widely interpreted as a parable about the failure of revolutions, those of the leftist variety especially. In the era of globalised conformity and resistance to it, we may discern a more profound meaning. For it is becoming ever clearer that communism and capitalism have the same ideological underpinnings. They are not rivals, after all, but quarrelsome bedfellows.


The drive for change

Communism and capitalism both claim to be `modern’ ideologies above all else. Yet their roots lie in the same 19th century `liberal’ world view. Both believe in the inevitability — and the desirability — of continuous `progress’ and permanent change. Both believe that humanity is subject to universal laws, regardless of cultural and historical variations, distinctions of ecology and climate, or differences between individuals themselves. Both elevate abstract rights above freedom and responsibility for individuals and communities. Both favour the material over the spiritual and both believe in homo economicus: the human being in thrall to economic forces, outside of his or her control. This is why the targets of capitalist and communist scorn are so often the same. They hate tradition, ridicule enduring values, despise the stability of family life, belittle the richness of friendship and deride all spiritual aspirations. These areas of human activity are seen as forces of conservatism, standing between mankind and material progress, `mystifying’ us and making us hostile to change. And in the secular morality of communist-capitalism, hostility to change is the worst of the New Sins.

I am writing this article in a spring-like central London, but I have recently returned from frost-bound rural Yorkshire. An historic `North-South divide’ once governed economics, culture and voting patterns. It is still reflected in the jokes of my London friends about flat caps, whippets, Tetley’s beer and working men’s clubs, or the jokes of my Yorkshire friends about croissants and caffe latte in Islington, home of bien pensant political correctness. Yet the North-South divide is yielding quickly to a larger economic and cultural chasm: town versus country.

Most readers will know that the British countryside is in increasing crisis, reeling from an outbreak of foot and mouth disease amongst livestock and an impending rural recession. Much loved footpaths are closed to walkers, hotels and bed and breakfasts are empty, cafes deserted. The delicate, human-scale economy of agriculture, tourism and local craftsmanship is fighting tot its survival.

In upland Britain, we could be witnessing the disappearance of an historic, deeply traditional way of life. For the hill farmer is, it seems, post-modern society’s Red Man. He is resilient, independent of the state and big business and conscious of nature, both as ally and enemy. He has his own mythology and his own ethical code. They are based on loyalty to friends, distrust of authority, a history that is largely unwritten and a rigorous sense of fair play. Like the Red Man, he is the target of urban prejudice, from corporate planners who consider him a temporary inconvenience and settlers who wish to implant a `civilised’ monoculture. The culling of healthy livestock, under the pretext of disease control, is sinisterly akin to the slaughter of the buffalo herds.


The organisation of economy

Foot and mouth is not exclusively the Blair government’s fault. It does, nonetheless, raise larger questions about the way our economy is organised. Global capitalism has no interest in local production for local needs. Its champions, be they in London, Brussels or Beijing, think nothing of transporting livestock and foodstuffs for hundreds, even thousands, of miles — in the name of `consumer choice’ for a relative few. Self-sufficiency, to them, is wasteful, insular and outmoded. The disempowerment of our rural communities is part of the process of economic globalisation. It is accompanied by an upward devolution of power: from local to central government,   the regional economy to the World Trade Organisation. Intensive farming for export and quick profit brings to agrarian life the values of the urban sweatshop. Pigs who sleep on concrete or metal, never seeing the light of day, are economic pawns, like women and children toiling in Third World factories to make shoddy designer goods for the West. `Napoleon and Snowball, where are you now that your species needs you?’ the more rhetorical of our porcine cousins might ask these days. But from Cumbria to Ladakh, traditional farmers surely have equally just cause to rebel. Global `free trade’ means social security for them if they are lucky, grinding wage slavery if they are not.

Agribusiness is an urban invention, disrupting the rhythms of country life and imposing the `targets’, `strategies’ and management jargon of the city. It will suffer less from the consequences of foot and mouth that the small, independent farmers. This is both because of its wealth and because of its utilitarian view of agriculture. Livestock are commodities to make more commodities. Like sweatshop workers, they are expendable because they can always be replaced. The land Dears no cultural associations or personal memories. It is also a resource to be exploited, whether to grow genetically modified crops for export or to plough over and make way for tracts of identical houses, serviced by uniform shopping malls with indoor sports facilities.


Rural ruin

For Britain’s rural communities, meanwhile, foot and mouth is the latest in a series of tragedies, presided over incompetently by far-off politicians and bureaucrats. The Labour government is blamed, because it is perceived as anti-rural. It is more interested in banning country sports than helping country businesses survive, more interested in Balkan separatists than its own rural minorities. Multiculturalism, it seems, stops at the city limits. The government does not represent the countryside, as a democratic administration should. Instead, it merely exercises power and issues decrees. Rural communities, in turn, do not reflect the tidy New Labour vision of the future. For they are made up of self-reliant men and women well used to taking decisions for themselves. They do not wish to have their thoughts and words controlled by politically correct edicts or their property rights encroached upon by the state.

Rural communities are suspicious of outside influence but welcoming to strangers. What they lack in `internationalism’ they compensate for in human-scale economics. Farmers and traders know each other and depend on each other, skills are transmitted from father to son or, quite frequently, from mother to daughter. Women are independent and resourceful, which means that true feminists should be ruralists, too. Men are more forthright, less neurotic, than their urban counterparts. Whilst narrow-mindedness exists, there is a great practical tolerance, especially for eccentrics and `characters’. Livestock are individuals with well-remembered pedigrees, not mere statistics. Above all, country life is still based on continuity. In the Yorkshire town where I live, there is a man who can relate the family trees of every local to anyone who will care to listen. This sense of history is anathema to New Labour’s ideologues. It is just as alien to the other parties as well, for shire Toryism is all but dead, the Greens are the most urban movement of all and the Liberal Democrats believe devoutly in a pan-European state, which would ride roughshod over local culture and custom. The function of modern government, it seems, is to forge a people without memory. Bertold Brecht, the communist playwright, proclaimed in a moment of rare insight that `the government has dissolved the people and elected another’.

We are looking, then, at something far larger than an urban-rural divide. The division is better understood in terms of two ways of looking at the world. One is human-scale, based on continuity and communal endeavour and respect for the past as well as the present. The other is based on mass production and consumption, change as an indicator of `progress’ and abstract charters of rights. In party terms, this means a divide between `conservers’ and `progressives’, in economic terms between the global and the local.

Capitalism and communism are both unequivocally `progressive’ ideologies. Marx realised this in The Communist Manifesto. He admired capitalism for its vitality, its polarisation of classes and its assault on `the idiocy of rural life’. Perhaps this explains why China, Maoist so recently, has embraced capitalism with such fervour whilst preserving its communist state.

Closer to home, New Labour apparatchiks, products of our own 1960s `Cultural Revolution’, called themselves socialists until the word embarrassed them. Today, they recite the mantras of globalisation with the same irrational zeal with which as students they mouthed left-wing slogans. For they see in free-market fundamentalism the same antipathy to tradition, the same contempt for `old-fashioned’ sentiments like patriotism or community spirit that they found in the 1960s Left. Neo-liberal economics and `New Left’ politics are both collectivist in spirit and practice. To one, `the masses’ are but passive consumers, to the other they are `liberated’ zombies who live and breathe for the state. Through political correctness, the two schools of dogma overlap. They find common enemies and hence common ground.

In the utopias of global capitalism and world communism, there is no place for the independent farmer, the shopkeeper or the craftsman. They are unwelcome reminders of a past when individuals might have counted for something.

That is why county folk are fast turning into the kulaks of Brave New Britain. By their very existence, they defy the iron law of `progress’.

Aidan Rankin is deputy editor of New European magazine. His book The Politics of the Forked Tongue: Authoritarian Liberalism will be published later this year.


[The Ecologist, June, 2001]


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