Jesus in Mosul

On his way to Good Friday, Jesus is lingering in Mosul this week to comfort the dead. Mosul of course was the site of horrific fighting and extensive war crimes in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today it is a shell of its former self. And now video footage has surfaced in which representatives of ISIS, the Islamic State, are shown taking hammers to history itself and to its memory.


The gruesome footage shows members of ISIS in the City Museum taking hammers to a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity dating back to the 7th century BC. A spokesperson for ISIS explains:

These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. . . . The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices. . . . The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.

Apparently the spokesperson for ISIS never considered that the Holy Prophet might have been referring to idols that actually oppress and harm God’s people, not historical museum artifacts in which no one any longer believes. But no one is crediting ISIS with theological sophistication. And if the dead are remembered only so long as evidence of their lives persists among us, then perhaps destroying the artifacts relegates the ancient Assyrians to that outer darkness where everything, including memory itself, is forgotten.

(The mission to destroy memory is an act of profound hostility toward and denial of God. It naively believes that there is a place where God is not, when transparently “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there” (Psalm 139.8). Which may explain why Jesus descended into Sheol and why this week he is in Mosul, to comfort those whose memory these theologically naive members of ISIS mistakenly feel they have snuffed out.)

But surely Jesus is dividing his time between these long dead and more recent victims of irreligious extremism, such as the Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy, a blogger hacked to death by radical Islamists for his outspoken atheist views. Jesus of course reserves special sympathy for atheists since it was with this epithet — ἄθεος — that both the Roman Empire and first century religious officials labeled Jesus’ earliest followers. They applied the label both for Christians’ refusal to honor the Roman pantheon (in whose name Rome’s imperial army conquered the world) and their outlandish belief that God himself had died resisting both religious and secular domination. Wherever we find similar-hearted men and women, such as Avijit Roy, suffering for their resistance to domination by gods and empires, we can be assured that Jesus is not far off.

And is Jesus not also with the extremists themselves, urging them to drop their hammers and swords, comforting them for their many losses? Assuredly, as he makes his way to Good Friday, Jesus is with them as well.

Jesus in a War-Torn World

A conceit widely published and held among members of a certain generation (mine) is that peace and justice are more prevalent today than they were one hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago. One of my favorite websites for testing this popular hypothesis is Matthew White’s Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, whose value comes not only for its documentation of wars and atrocities in the 20th century, but, in a section gruesomely titled “Necrometrics,” covering centuries back to Ancient times.

0_d849f_8ac31a24_XL-2Not, of course, that Peace on Earth is impossible. It does not take too much imagination to imagine a world where communities share their efficiencies with one another, allowing more of the world to live without want and without fear than is possible today. In a world where efficiencies are hoarded by the top centile and where competitors are more than ready to make war over a drop of oil and ounce of diamonds, peace is not likely to break out in the near future.

For those not into wading through Matthew White’s pages upon pages of morbid facts and figures, however, The Independent has recently published a piece identifying the eleven (11) countries in the world that are not at conflict (“World peace? These are the only 11 countries in the world that are actually free from conflict”).

The jejune conceit of ever-emerging peace and justice is reminiscent of those in the first century CE who mistook Rome’s imperial power and military might — not to mention their own personal peace and affluence — for evidence that the world was at peace.

As he makes his way to Good Friday, Jesus is not making plans to attend any New Age retreat centers. He is instead making the rounds of the many war-torn regions around the globe. And he is not simply offering comfort to American GIs. As the global system shows ever more signs of general systemic chaos, Jesus is visiting all of those who sorrow, are in fear, are injured, dying, are mourning, and who are praying and working for peace.

Praying and working on behalf of peace in these war-torn regions does not detract from, but supplements the view that real, lasting, and sustainable peace can only arise when communities recognize their dependence on and their obligation to serve one another. It is another Lenten practice.

Jesus in Red States

We might think that, on his way to Good Friday, Jesus is only visiting Blue states whose governors and legislators share his values of spreading the social franchise and welcoming all to his table. While this might be a good campaign strategy, Jesus for the most part is boycotting states where citizens are reasonably well-fed, well-educated, and well-cared for. In his journey to the cross, Jesus is therefore spending most of his time in Red States whose governors and legislators believe in punishing the poor for their poverty and rewarding the wealthy for the hard work their money is performing on their behalf.

DSC_0744The latter was illustrated by a recent column in the New York Times (Feb 13, “States Consider Increasing Taxes for the Poor and Cutting Them for the Affluent”). The column documents how governors and legislators from Red states are shifting the tax burden away from the wealthy and onto the shoulders of the poor. “Favorite targets for the new taxes include gas, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general.” Since the tax rate is the same for all income brackets, the tax burden falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor.

The beauty is that, in theory, raising taxes on the poor allows Red state governors and legislators to ease the tax burden from their wealthiest citizens.

At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina and John R. Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. They say that tax policies that encourage business growth provide more jobs and economic benefits for everyone.

Nor does it seem to be a problem that state revenues have plunged since these lawmakers took up their war against the poor. (Who wants to live or do business in states with crumbling infrastructures, ill-funded schools, and no one wealthy enough to purchase the goods they are producing?) Small government is good. Right?

Which is why citizens in South Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and Mississippi should be lining up for their audience with Jesus who is making a b-line to those states whose mission, it would seem, is producing “the least of these” about whom the Lord spoke so eloquently in that speech. Oh, yes, and he is promising hell fire and damnation to the good governors and legislators promoting this atrocity.

Mother Russia, Again

If you have not yet read the article on Vladimir Putin in the latest issue of The Economist, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping and chilling read.

Not surprisingly the article tilts strongly toward western Europe, the United States, and NATO. But what I found most interesting are President Putin’s reasons for challenging “the West”:

The EU and NATO are Mr Putin’s ultimate targets. To him, Western institutions and values are more threatening than armies. He wants to halt their spread, corrode them from within and, at least on the West’s fragile periphery, supplant them with his own model of governance. In that model, nation-states trump alliances, states are dominated by elites, and those elites can be bought. Here, too, he has enjoyed some success. From France to Greece to Hungary he is cultivating parties on Europe’s far right and left: anyone who might lobby for Russian interests in the EU, or even help to prise the union apart (see article). The biggest target is NATO’s commitment to mutual self-defence. Discredit that—by, for example, staging a pro-Russian uprising in Estonia or Latvia, which other NATO members decline to help quell—and the alliance crumbles.

“We see how many Euro-Atlantic countries are in effect turning away from their roots, including their Christian values,” said Mr Putin in 2013. Russia, by contrast, “has always been a state civilisation held together by the Russian people, the Russian language, Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox church” (Article).

Far-right groups are seduced by the idea of Moscow as a counterweight to the EU, and by its law-and-order policies. Its stance on homosexuality and promotion of “traditional” moral values appeal to religious conservatives. The far left likes the talk of fighting American hegemony.

We may be inclined to embrace half of Mr Putin’s rationale, that part that faults western and US hegemony, but to reject that half that promotes Russian nationalism and hegemony. What is good for the goose is good for the gander; and NATO, the West, and the US are encroaching upon Eastern Europe and threatening Russia’s sphere of influence.

These distinctions seem to make good sense, but they assume that NATO, the West, or the US have a deliberate, premeditated, strategy to spread western culture and values throughout the world when, in fact, their principle interest is in global markets. To these global interests, Mr Putin opposes the particularities of Slavic and Russian culture, values, and religion.

That is to say, where NATO, the West, and the US set their interests and concerns on what they take to be global markets — which favor no particular culture, values, or religion — Mr Putin and his nationalist supporters set their interests and concerns on the nationalist particularities of pan-Slavism and Russian Orthodoxy.

From this vantage-point, the conflict would appear to be between the global “universal” and the particularities of Slavic culture and history.

Know your audience. The strength of Mr Putin’s argument — the strength of nationalist rhetoric wherever it is found — is that it makes common cause with the members of his audience who are suffering and traces the cause for this suffering to the existential hatred outsiders bear towards his audience. The “West” hates and wishes to destroy that which is most particular and individual about Slavic culture, religion, values and history.

July16_6174This rhetoric will be most familiar to US readers as the rhetoric of the mainstream (no longer the fringe) Republican Party in the US. Through it Republican candidates divert the attention of their audience away from the ways Republican backed policies have directly caused untold hardship and suffering for members of their political base, and redirect their attention towards the existential threat posed by homosexuals, undocumented immigrants, advocates of women’s choice, and defenders of social welfare. Whether in Russia or in the US, it is the same rhetoric. And Mr Putin is its master.

But let us suppose Mr Putin is at least partially correct. Let us suppose that the global system, without intending to, would sweep pan-Slavic culture, values, and religion from the face of history and replace it with the same bland, homogeneous, universal culture, values, laws, and institutions that have swept the individualities of most peoples around the globe into the dustbin of history. Let us suppose that a full and transparent openness to global markets would put an end to Mother Russia. But let us also suppose therefore that the agent or mechanism behind this existential threat is less sinister but more ominous than Mr Putin would have us believe.

Defenders of the global system from A Smith to R Lucas Jr are in full agreement that the global system works only to the extent that its laws, regulations, and institutions become universal. And they agree that in order to become universal it must destroy the particularities that stand in its way.

And yet particularities survive. One way to slow or reverse the spread of this universal is to rope off safe havens that will not be subject to market forces. These can be common, universal institutions such as health, education, and welfare, which, at least since the 5th century BCE have been universally identified as values shared by everyone; or they might be particular “national” treasures: literature, music, the arts, monuments, natural resources, religious practices, or language groups. The inefficiencies that such exceptions introduce into the market are paid for by efficiencies earned elsewhere. So long as minority rights are preserved, there is no harm.

So, for example, the Russian Parliament could identify those “national” treasures that it will protect from global market forces; as in fact it already does by offering state subsidies to its national ballet and symphony.

The existential threat in Russia comes not from the global system itself, but from the national oligarchy and political class that feeds off that global system. Here the parallels to the US case are remarkable. Just as in Russia, the US oligarchy feeds directly off the efficiencies it has stolen from the lives and work of its own political base, feeding them in return platitudes about how they are existentially threatened by minorities, women, undocumented immigrants, and the “homosexual lifestyle.” (With good reason does the Republican base in this country find Mr Putin attractive, see Sarah Palin.)

But this also highlights a line of analysis to which defenders of the global system are seemingly oblivious. In this analysis, depriving social actors the substantive means of self-government, independence, and pride creates the very conditions to which nationalism is a natural response. The neoliberal policies promoted by agents of the global system in the 1980s and 90s are returning to haunt its defenders. And if emerging conflicts on the fringes of this system are any indication, we are just at the beginning of our troubles.

It may already be too late; too late to cultivate the political will to shift the efficiencies hoarded by the top centile of the income hierarchy back down to where these efficiencies were created so that they might nurture citizens who are well-educated, well-fed, well-housed, and well-prepared to make responsible public decisions.

Privatization and deregulation left Eastern Europe and Russia a shambles. They created Mr Putin’s base not only in Russia, but throughout Eastern Europe, and increasingly in the EU as well. But (and Mr Putin surely knows this) the enemy is not anything so specific as “the West,” or “American values.” The enemy is a global system that is now truly universal and so transcends and defies the restraints that any single international agent or actor might wish to place on it. As a consequence, the inequalities and, hence, the nationalism expand.

The existential threat is real. The reputed agent of that threat — the West — is not.

Jesus in Oakland

Yesterday I published the link to an article exposing hunger in Brooklyn, NY (Jesus in Brooklyn). According to the study, 17% of children in Brooklyn are “food insecure.” But, get this. According to a report in the San Jose Mercury News, it would take 176 million meals to make families in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties food secure (Silent Epidemic).

Which means that, as Jesus makes his way to Good Friday, he is visiting families in Santa Clara and San Mateo. Perhaps he is telling them, as the Apostle Paul told Christians in Corinth, to

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are (1 Co 1.26-28).

And perhaps some of those reading this blog are among these chosen ones through whom God is bringing the powerful, wise, and noble-born to nothing. But, let us say that you, like me, are a good Episcopalian. What is God saying to us?

Episcopalians are the second wealthiest religious group in the United States, behind Jews, and the second wealthiest Christian denomination, behind Unitarians. Twelve per cent of us are millionaires: that’s twelve out of every one hundred. (The numbers for Baptists and Catholics are 2% and 4%.) Which means that, if they so chose, Episcopalians on their own could solve the problem of hunger in the United States.

So I have a strange feeling that what Jesus might be saying to us — to me — is something like “‘truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:45-46).

poor_2374166bIt is estimated that it would cost $30B annually to solve world hunger (Borgen Project). (Just as a point of comparison the US defense budget in 2012 was almost twenty-five times that, $737B.) The average annual income of the world’s 2 billion Christians is roughly $10,000. (The median income is $1,225, which means that Christianity’s 1%, many of them Episcopalians, skew the average not a little.) Let us say that each Christian household contributed $15.00 anually to a common fund to rid the world of hunger. Or, even better, let us say that all Episcopalians contributed $15,000 annually, on average. (We could ask the 12 % of us who are millionaires to contribute a bit more.)

Economists will tell you that feeding families for free — essentially guaranteeing a nutritious diet to all human beings — would upset global markets and bring on the very food shortages that aid to hungry families was seeking to eliminate. However good Jesus was, they tell us, he was not a very good economist. Better to let markets determine prices; and better to let hunger drive markets.

So, what if we were to pay for the food at market prices?

The reason we have not solved world hunger — much less hunger in San Mateo or Santa Clara counties — is not because it would undermine world food markets. It would not. The reason we have not solved world hunger is because we have chosen not to. While Jesus is spending his Lenten Season with these families, we are rushing on ahead to Jerusalem to get the “best seats” to catch the “big show.”

But did it ever occur to us that these families are the big show, that it is here with them that God is being revealed?

Jesus in Brooklyn

God is among the hungry in Brooklyn, NY.

As we make our way to Good Friday, Jesus has made it clear that his community comes from a very different place and looks very different from ours. In Jesus’ community, an alarmingly large number of faithful are depriving themselves of nutritious food and entire meals, not because they are observing a Lenten fast, but because they cannot afford nutritious food — in the United States of America, in Brooklyn, in 2015.


The economics of nutrition and malnutrition are well-known and well-understood. Since big agriculture receives huge public subsidies to cultivate high sugar, high starch grains, and since over the course of human evolution, these quick sources of energy were rare and coveted, and the human body is not built to signal when we have consumed enough, the food industry can make a far greater killing off these quick sources by selling them to the poor than they can more nutritious foods, foods that tell us when we are sated. And, as any economist will tell you, this is a magic formula for huge, unending, returns on investment. We will not consume healthy foods in unending quantities. We stop when we are full and that means a decline in possible returns.

This helps to explain how hunger and malnutrition can exist side-by-side with obesity, in the United States of America, in Brooklyn, in 2015. Yet, there are many (17 percent according to the study) who are “food insecure” in Brooklyn; and a surprising 80 percent of school children come from families sufficiently impoverished to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school.

As Jesus makes his way to Good Friday, he is with these families. And he is asking that we join him. Is it possible that we are not where he is? Is it possible that we are instead waiting for him in Jerusalem to do him and his community violence?


When asked what kind of a Christian I am, more often than not I am inclined to tell people that I am a “Good Friday Christian.” Lent is my favorite season in the Christian calendar. Not that I am opposed to Easter. But Easter without Lent is simply a magic show — a comedy — “but seriously folks, I’m back!”

What surprises me is that Lent may always have been the most revered Christian season; the season during which God most closely identifies with human and divine suffering. So that while no one is particularly surprised when relatively well-to-do practitioners deprive themselves of some pleasure or another for a season, it is interesting that not-so-well-off religious practitioners from the very beginning found consolation in this season. And, no wonder. For it is during this season that God most closely identifies with their condition. It was, Jesus will repeatedly remind those who ask, why he came. Yes, there will be a party later. Yes, there will be a feast. Yes, everyone will be invited. The attendants will park your cars. Its an open bar. Kick up your heals. Dancing until the wee hours of the morn.

But, we are not there yet. We are not even close.

Descente_de_croix_du_retable_Stauffenberg_(_détail_),_oeuvre_du_Maître_du_retable_de_Stauffenberg,_actif_au_15ème_siècle_(Musée_d'Unterlinden,_Colmar)Which is why for the next forty or so days, I will be posting links to some of the places I believe God is spending Lent; not at the country club; not at the night club; not at the book club. God has turned and is facing “Jerusalem,” which is where God is not wanted, where God should not go. But before we mistake this Jerusalem for the historical city or, worse still, a future city, the New Jerusalem, we should bear in mind why Jesus is going there and what will happen when he gets there.

Jerusalem is the religious community. It is my religious community. Jesus has chosen to conduct his ministry among those who are not members of my religious community, not members of my church. He has thrown himself into a ministry of healing, caring, feeding, and praying among the poor, the widows, the hungry, the naked, the blind, and the ill; which is to say, he has thrown himself into a ministry outside the community of faith. But now he has squared his shoulders and he is now determined to come to my church, even though (or perhaps because) he knows what I will do to him when he gets here. He knows that he and his associates are not wanted, not welcomed.

Why? Because he is impure. He has performed miracles on the Sabbath. He has made light of our laws surrounding male and female relationships. He has shared meals with outcasts and sinners. He conducts his ministry with women, single women, of doubtful reputation. If “bad company corrupts good morals,” then we know where this man’s morals lie. And now that he has stirred up trouble in the hinterland and built up a substantial following, he is bringing his trouble into my community.

Not on my watch.

Lent is an accusation. It is a verdict against religious communities. Everywhere. Jesus is coming to visit our communities. But we are going to lock our doors and shutters to him and to his kind. None of this turning the other cheek, or giving both shirt and coat away. None of this “when you failed to do it to the least of these” guilt-tripping. And, so, when he gets here, we are going to turn him away. And then we are going to kill him.

This is the message that transfixed religious practitioners for Christianity’s first three centuries. Lent hailed the cosmic turning of tables, the welcoming of the outcast, the redemption and emancipation of those without hope. And Easter? Easter is at best the first-fruits, the foretaste, the promise — not its fulfillment. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 8, shows that he understands this; only when all of creation and all creatures are caught up into the emancipatory project — only then will the promise be fulfilled.

But, Lent. We do not have to wait for Lent to be fulfilled. It is here already. God among the poor, homeless, victims of war and famine, orphans, widows, sick and sorrowful. God is already among the victims of hate crimes and ignorance, the victims of the Koch brothers and Citizens United. The dead in eastern Ukraine are not rising to their feet. The victims of ISIS are not rejoining their families. The hungry in Sudan are not sitting down to feast. The lion is not lying down with the lamb. The lion is eating the lamb. This is not an Easter story. It is a Lenten story.

No rabbit in the hat, no card up the sleeve, no handkerchief. No magic at all.


The Birth of the Socialist System

We have now completed Week Three of Economies in Transition: Eastern Europe, which means that we are in the thick of comprehending socialist coordination, money, and investment, at least as these were practiced in Eastern Europe. Our principle text is János Kornai’s Socialist System, published in 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Professor Kornai’s principle objective is to show why reform is impossible and why therefore a complete transition to market capitalism is necessary. To fulfill this objective he will show not only why the system forms a rational, practical, and systemic totality so that the removal of any single feature of the system must lead to systemic failure, but that it was the proper and anticipated functioning of the system that provoked systemic failure in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, Kornai will show why only the capitalist system replaces those mechanisms within the socialist system with mechanisms that promise success.

Yet, in order to make his argument, Professor Kornai must background or ignore the social and historical constitution of the system. Yes, the socialist system arose during a period of war and social and political turbulence. Yes, it emerged not where K Marx anticipated it would emerge, in the most advanced industrialized capitalist social formations, but in the most backward social formations that had barely if at all liberated serfs from their feudal obligations. This helps Professor Kornai explain why socialist planners felt compelled to hasten the process of industrialization and collectivization (Taylorism and Fordism) from which Eastern Europe’s semi-feudal social and economic relations had been insulated.

TsarNicolasFamily_468x438No sooner has Professor Kornai placed this account on the page, however, than he quickly shifts focus. Were it not for the revolution and the imposition of the socialist system, Eastern Europe would have enjoyed a more natural development toward free market capitalism in the absence of significant state intervention. Professor Kornai points here to the predominance of small freeholder plots managed by independent families prior to the socialist system. It is only a matter of elaboration to move from these small, independent, freeholder estates to the capitalist free market, as happened elsewhere in Europe and the Americas.

But, of course, this is not at all what happened in Europe and the Americas. And so we discover that Professor Kornai has “drunk the KoolAid” so to speak.

In this respect historians have always received short shrift from economists who prefer their idealized version of how capitalism emerged in western Europe to the well-documented version advanced by historians. Yes, local markets ruled the world prior to the 14th century; local markets constrained by myriad layers of local laws, customs, and practices, along with a handful of regional markets dealing primarily in luxury goods. One thinks of Ghent or Trieste here. But as yet there was no overarching set of laws and regulations that could lend rationality, consistency, and uniformity to these isolated, purely local markets. To bring about this great transformation (K Polanyi), two things were necessary: the invention of time (D Landes, M Postone, EP Thompson, J Lough) and the rise of absolute monarchs and strong centralized governments in Western Europe.

The invention of time was necessary in order to reduce the value of all commodities to a recognizable, measurable common denominator: abstract, homogeneous, undifferentiated time. The invention of time tore value out of the hands of clergy, tradesmen, and noblemen, who until the 14th century had negotiated value in complex, purely local, political formulas; it set value on a stable foundation independent from any explicit political meddling.

But it was the strong centralized governments of Western Europe that in the 17th and 18th centuries saw in the coordination of dispersed, local markets an answer to their revenue shortfalls. The creation and protection of national and international markets, which also required the regulation of these markets and the creation and maintenance of passable highways and trade routes, enabled strong centralized governments to monitor and tax the wealth that passed through these markets. But the rationalization and universalization of these markets served another valuable function as well. It made it possible, for the first time, for European investors to accumulate uniform, exchangeable, measurable, alienable capital — in amounts hitherto fore unimaginable.

In short, if from Tsarist Russia, feudal Eastern Europe, or Habsburg Austria-Hungry, we were to cast our eyes toward France or England what we would notice is the emergence of a state-imposed, highly regulated and constrained international market, an independent peasantry, a wholly dependent industrial workforce, and economic growth inconceivable in predominantly agricultural and still feudal Russia, Poland, Rumania, Serbia and Bosnia. Simply allowing these regions to develop “naturally,” absent any “state intervention” would lead not to the emergence of “natural” free market capitalism, but rather the persistence of feudal and semi-feudal relations.

Professor Kornai’s image of small, independent freeholders is drawn not from semi-feudal Eastern Europe or Russia, but from an idealized, Jeffersonian vision of Virginia or the Carolinas. Even here, however, we need to close our eyes to the millions of acres dominated by plantation estates enjoying the benefits of dependent slaves — not least on Jefferson’s own estate — in order to preserve our idealized vision. Yet, even if we cast our eyes north to Massachusetts or New York, what we will find is the sprawling estates in the agricultural heartland and dependent workers whose freeholder titles were not worth the paper they were printed on; thus provoking Shays Rebellion, which revealed the glaring inadequacies of the anti-federalist Articles of Confederation, setting the stage for the federalist US Constitution of 1787. In short, nowhere, not even in North America, did free market capitalism unfold in the idealized manner Professor Kornai imagines in his text.

But this also means that we need to search elsewhere for the social and historical mechanisms that gave rise to the socialist system or that prevented “natural” free market mechanisms from taking root and growing.

Free market capitalism is evidently not so free as Professor Kornai imagines. It arises out of a complex web of state-imposed regulations, restrictions, and interventions. But nor does compliance with or accommodation of this system arise normally or naturally in the breasts of free men. Peasants are peasants. There is nothing natural whatsoever in their movement from self-sustaining fields or the protection of feudal relations to the mines and factories of industrializing Europe. The expectation that privatization and deregulation will “naturally” lead to the birth of a new freedom is nothing short of fabulous. This is not what happened either in Western Europe or in the Americas. It took strong, centralized state imposition of regulations, laws, restrictions and taxes to bring about the capitalist system.

And when VI Lenin and J Stalin inherit feudal Eastern Europe, they are not immediately taken by a Jeffersonian sense of the Virginia plantation owner. Even if they had been, Russia is not Virginia, and to expect Russian peasants to embrace Jeffersonian ideals is pure fantasy. Instead, comrades Lenin and Stalin went about generating Russia’s industrial revolution using the only tools they knew and, in any case, the only tools at hand: the bureaucratic centralism and paternalism of the semi-feudal estate.

Of course, for a whole variety of reasons, this will prove impossible. Productivity explodes in western Europe and the Americas not because entrepreneurs aim at producing more things for consumers. They do not innovate in order to accumulate more things, more material wealth. Productivity explodes because entrepreneurs are driven by maximizing the returns on their investment; they are driven not by things but by zeros, more and more zeros.

Abstract value mediates social relations and constitutes social subjectivity in the capitalist world. Absent abstract value — absent capitalism — the rationality necessary for economic growth is entirely lacking. This is because the compulsion to produce ever more stuff, which arises out of the compulsion to add more zeros, is not natural. There is noting in the human constitution that — left to their own devices, absent intervention — compels human beings to pursue ever greater amounts of immaterial value.

But this means that when comrades Lenin and Stalin crack their whip over their subject populations, demanding that they do in the absence of free markets what workers in the capitalist world only did under the domination of free markets, they are imposing an impossible mission on their subjects, because the object of this mission can only be achieved when strong, centralized states impose free markets on subject citizens.

This, incidentally, also means that Professor Kornai has placed matters on their head. He argues that it is only as state mechanisms are removed, public assets privatized and sold off, and industry is deregulated that free market mechanisms can emerge. Yet, clearly, it is only these legal and regulatory mechanisms, imposed by strong, centralized states, that permit free market mechanisms. The removal of state mechanisms leads not to freedom, but, as we have seen, to the emergence of a strong, independent oligarchy subject to no law, regulation, taxation, or containment.

Democracy and Markets, Still, Again

In his Socialist System (1992), J Kornai faults the socialist system for the absence or gross distortion of market mechanisms and democratic process. So, it is at this point that I call attention to G Becker’s 1958 article “Competition and Democracy” written before the world “drank the KoolAid” so to speak. G Becker, of course, along with M Friedman and R Lucas Jr., is one of the fathers of the Chicago School. All stand upon the shoulders of F Knight and J Viner, their professors in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

51E4mFBrqBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The importance of G Becker’s piece in this context is that in it we learn why markets are far more efficient than democratic process distributing goods and satisfying desires. I say that this article appears before the world “drank the KoolAid” because it will not be too long, 1962, before G Becker’s colleague M Friedman will, by not so subtle slight of hand, use the term democracy and free markets almost interchangeably. M Friedman lays the foundation for this substitution of terms by noting, correctly in my view, that democratic process frequently subverts or undermines free markets, diverting efficiencies from private investors to communities where the public has determined resources are lacking but necessary. The slight of hand consists in moving from this correct observation to the conclusion that, therefore, markets, because they are more responsive to consumer demands and investors’ decisions, are also more democratic.

This was also the conclusion G Becker less subtly introduced in his 1958 article.

What has this to do with J Kornai? Professor Kornai wants it both ways. He is an eastern European, booted from the Party and from government on account of his unorthodox views. He knows what it is like to live and work in a non-democratic society. His criticism of the socialist economic system therefore includes a heavy dose of pro-democratic rhetoric. And, yet, so closely intertwined is this rhetoric with his defense of free market institutions that we can never be certain that he is not advancing something like G Becker’s argument: i.e., Markets=Democracy. That is to say, J Kornai at times seems to be suggesting that actual democratic processes, where citizens vote to tax wealth in order to fund public institutions or projects, are (as Becker shows) inefficient; and at times he seems to suggest that such inefficiencies are a welcomed cost we pay for democracy. And, at times, he seems to completely overlook the inefficiencies entailed by democratic processes. For example:

As far as the allocation of resources for public services is concerned, this is subject to the democratic political process, at least in a parliamentary democracy. The public service sphere cannot be neglected so long as the parties representing the majority of the public are willing to vote the sums for developing such services. By contrast, the allocators under the classical socialist system are not subject to any democratic control. Moreover, they have to make numerous allocational decisions that under capitalism are ultimately in the consumer’s hands (Kornai 172).

Is J Kornai advancing two distinct (though mutually contradictory) arguments here; or is he advancing only one? Favorable mention of “parliamentary democracy” would appear to lean towards two arguments, but his emphasis on decision-making ultimately resting in “consumer’s hands” seems to favor the consistent, but devious, one argument theory. Does parliament override markets? Do private consumers hold primacy over democratic process even when market decisions undermine public institutions? In the 1930s, following the Crash, F Knight said “Yes.”

More to the point, if J Kornai was advancing the one argument theory, then the rise of anti-democratic oligarchic, though free market, economies in Eastern Europe is consistent with his interpretation. If, however, J Kornai was arguing that free markets and parliamentary democratic interventions are mutually reinforcing, then this points up a flaw in his grasp either of parliamentary democracy or of market capitalism, or both.