Guest lecturer, this week, on tvo's Big Ideas program was Gaspar Tamas,
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
His topic was "The Failure of Liberal Democracy in Eastern Europe and Elsewhere."
The thesis was that, whereas in the past since the second world war, people have generally spent their lives in institutions starting with hospitals, then schools, then the military and then a job, marriage family and death, much of it financed by government, governments today have to make choices about who they are going to "support".
If one is old, (and he points to a frightening bias against the aged which also demonstrates a significant change from 'before' when the young respected the elderly) or infirm, if one is unemployed and therefore not producing anything the society needs, and there is a rapidly growing cadre of such people, then governments may be inclined to pass over such people in favour of both the young, the healthy and the employed.
Ironically, according to Tamas, the world could provide the basic necessities of home, food, shelter to all its people, there is no political will to do so. So while the old order is fading, and along with it many of the basic premises, such as we are all equal as persons, there is no evidence of a new paradigm replacing that old one.
He foresees a serious and unpleasant upheaval in this forthcoming period of history, and as a socialist, who has studied and experienced much of Eastern Europe, he notes that the impact of the change is being experienced in those countries both because they are poor and because the governing structures are failing.
Here is a quote from Gaspar Tamas, from an interview with International Socialism, Issue 123, June 29, 2009, in which the interviewer is Chris Harman:
What was important in hindsight was that in the first two years I spent in the highest chamber of my country as a lawmaker two million jobs were lost—and I don’t think I noticed. That is one of the greatest shames of my life. I don’t think it figured in political debates at that time. There were important debates concerning constitutional rights and republican versus monarchist symbols, fights over control of state radio and television. I won’t say political conflicts were not important but compared to the economic disaster they were of less importance, and we did not see the interdependence between the two. Why did the ruling class need the centralisation of media power? Because it was losing majority support from the population that were getting impoverished. We were totally naive and our discourse at the time was that of classic liberalism and pretty ineffective. This liberal party will probably now, and quite deservedly, disappear from parliament.
I began to realise what was going on around me by the time that legislature came to an end and I decided not to stand again for parliament. It was not only a Hungarian problem. From Siberia to Prague and from Alma Ata to East Berlin there was the same problem. What happened was not the transformation of the economy but the destruction of the economy. We did not come up simply with a new capitalism but with a black hole. It was one of the great demonstrations of the destructive power of capitalism.
The methods were the same you can witness in other parts of the world—downsizing and outsourcing, privatisation and social dumping. Foreign capital arrived in search of consumer markets, closing down manufacturing industry it had bought for a song—but the difference was in the dimensions. Everywhere there has been a great loss in workforce, especially in manufacturing, but here a total way of life was lost. The quite successful cooperative agriculture practically disappeared; the new family farms did not prove commercially viable. Unemployment in the countryside is endemic. I remember well during the miners’ strike in Britain, when people all of a sudden realised it was not only the mining industry that was going to go but the culture of hundreds of mining villages, so that Wales could never be the same afterwards. But here we have had a qualitative change, a situation in which a whole culture is gone. From the 1920s the Stalinist system—however monstrous, tyrannical and state capitalist it was—had through urbanisation and industrialisation created the livelihoods and life forms of hundreds of millions of people. They may have been disappointed and dissatisfied with the way of life but nevertheless it was theirs. And nobody had prepared them for what was to replace it. It was not something better, not something we might call “change”, but instead the end to economy as such.
In large parts of Eastern Europe and the Eurasian landmass there was the loss of what we knew of as civilisation, which was very much dependent on the state. The state has barely started to function again in Putin’s Russia—in a very unpleasant way—but it is starting to work regularly, making records, collecting revenue, paying civil servants, answering letters, receiving citizens with complaints. But in the early 1990s even that was not available: it was a total disaster. Meanwhile we, the froth at the top of it, were celebrating the triumph of freedom and openness and plurality and fantasy and pleasure and all that. That was frivolous, and I am deeply ashamed.
Somehow I knew there was trouble. This was reflected in my writings. But the analysis I offered was of a superficial political kind. There were signs—for instance, American policies towards the Balkans, the Gulf War, general dissatisfaction that things were not going well. But these were viewed as transitory phenomena: the transition was difficult but in the end everything would be all right—just the same approach as the “right believing” Communists had had to Stalinism. Terrible sacrifices for now—and then the radiant future, “les lendemains qui chantent”.4
But everything was not and was not going to be all right. As someone as it were professionally engaged in theoretical research, I felt I had to understand it. So I started to read and re-read theory and economic science, and empirical sociology and history, and tried to understand what was going on, trying to find out what was wrong in the foundations of our thought and trying to find some way out. I even had a detour in conservative literature critical of liberalism and from there was a leap to Marxism. (Funnily enough, conservative criticism of liberal pieties such as that of Michael Oakeshott and of Leo Strauss eased my way towards Marxism.) So I spent long years in learning—rather than re-learning, for I had never been before a really knowledgeable Marx reader—and went back to school. I tried very slowly and thoroughly to understand the character of the former regime, why the transition to the market was the way it was and why market forms were not sufficient either in general or for the local endemic problems of East European state capitalism.
It took a long time, and an even longer time to formulate this publicly and articulate it politically and to change my discourse, my language, my vocabulary. It was like a long illness and a long recovery. But I think I may be finally at the beginning of a new life.
During his tvo lecture, yesterday, Tamas noted, sadly even tragically, that while people vote, witness the Arab Spring, they do not expect anything to change so they are paying lip service to the right to vote without holding out hope that their vote will make a positive difference in their lives.
So, he really focussed on the demise of hope, as well as the disintegration of public institutions, at the same time as the numbers of unemployed are exploding and the governments' capacity to provide what was once considered the basic social net is evaporating, with no new political theories or political philosophies emerging on the horizon that would suggest some new way forward.
He also pointed to the fact that governments are already moving toward making decisions that support the inner circle, while closing off support for those on the outside of the circle.
Today, Greece will vote on whether to remain inside the European Union, or whether to leave and return to their traditional 'drachma' currency. The proposed austerity program that guts public pensions, requiring people to work longer into their senior years, among other features, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Greeks. The young socialist who proposes to leave the European Union could conceivably win the national vote. And there is considerable speculation that if Greece leaves, that will set off a domino effect potentially resulting in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy also leaving the European Union. And that could start an economic tidal wave from which no country would be immune, including the precarious U.S. economy.
Using the perspective of Tamas, and reading some of the 'tea leaves' of the reports of world unrest, government impotency, growing impact of global issues like the environment about which so little is being done, there is no doubt that we are passing through a very difficult period of history, from which the outcomes do not look either inviting or welcome.
Should food shortages, opportunities for authentic work, government failures, international collaboration failure and the spectre of starvation and the erosion of hope all converge, there will be violence, bloodshed, turbulence of an order that will make the Arab Spring look like a summer picnic, and the vaccuum that will emerge, in political terms, could propel the kind of power grab by those who can least be trusted with power...and that could lead to places no one would even consider contemplating.