TCS Daily

Manifesto for a Capitalist Revolution

By Stephen Schwartz - March 16, 2004 12:00 AM

I recently had the honor of being the target of criticism by one of the world's most chic, contemporary philosophers. His name is Slavoj Zizek and he is a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana, the small, elegant, and otherwise rather boring capital of Slovenia. (This judgment on my part is based on several visits in recent years.) He wrote jeeringly, in an article titled "Iraq's False Promises," in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Policy, that the U.S. under George W. Bush "has moved from 'containing' the enemy [i.e. Communism] to promoting a 'capitalist revolution,' as Stephen Schwartz put it in February 2003." He summed up, "The United States is now, as the defunct Soviet Union was decades ago, the subversive agent of world revolution."

Mr. Zizek's article was accompanied by distasteful caricatures of Richard Perle, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Donald H. Rumsfeld as cavemen, and of none other than the very intellectual Paul D. Wolfowitz as King Kong; so I got off easy. I have followed Mr. Zizek's career since he first came to global attention, around the time the former state of Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was a constituent "republic," began to fly apart. He seemed to represent the declining end of the intellectual bell curve in the central and east European countries ruled by Marxism-Leninism.

In the 1930s, nations like the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as Romania, were swept by the novelty of French surrealism, and all of them produced imitators -- some quite talented -- of that style. In the 1970s and 1980s, something very different happened. After the Soviet occupation of Prague in 1968, Czech and other writers, film makers, and similar creative folk -- of which the novelist Milan Kundera and Milos Forman were the most famous -- came to the forefront of world culture. Their messages and techniques partook of the international "youth revolution" but were more advanced than anything happening in Western Europe or the United States, in terms of moral seriousness and artistic quality.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, Communism ended from East Berlin to Bulgaria, and the European borderland of capitalism and socialism dropped out of the front rank in worldwide intellectual output. Suddenly thinkers and writers in cities like Prague and Belgrade had a lot of catching up to do. In the case of ex-Yugoslavia, the lack of anything meaningful to bring to the table of globalization was fatal for the country, and for hundreds of thousands of its citizens, the former war of ideas was replaced by a competition in horrendous atrocities.

Just as I escaped the full weight of his wrath, Slovenia, home of Slavoj Zizek, got out of Yugoslavia with little damage: about 70 people were killed in a brief 1991 conflict with the Yugoslav People's Army, before Slovenia gained independence. And Slovenia has also gotten out of the "self-managed socialism" of which the Tito regime was proud with few serious consequences. The Slovenes have the highest level of income of any ex-Yugoslav "republic," superior to most other ex-Communist states, with per capita gross domestic product around $20,000, closer to that of its neighbors in Italy ($25,000) and Austria ($28,000) than those in Croatia ($10,000) and Hungary ($14,000).

Mr. Zizek is known for his elliptical, elaborate style of writing, imitative of the French commentators of a quarter century ago. In the article cited above he begins with a comment on Freud, comparing the vision of President Bush with "the weird logic of dreams." He goes on, again in a French manner now seriously passé, to equate film criticism with sociological analysis, decorating his discourse with misinterpretations of American movies like The Searchers (1956) and Taxi Driver (1976), which according to him, "provide fundamental insight into the naïve benevolence of Americans." (In a sidebar, he adds Fight Club (1999), which he claims offers "insights on some of the more troubling forms of resistance to global capitalism." By this logic, which many Western academics have embraced, watching movies is as useful or even better an exercise in understanding the world than reading boring tomes by Adam Smith, Robert Michels, Joseph Schumpeter, F.A. von Hayek, or James Burnham. It certainly requires less time and effort.)

Also according to Mr. Zizek, "naïve benevolence" drives the present American commitment to importing democracy and Western freedom to areas of the world presently lagging behind in this pattern of development. He predicts that the American intervention in Iraq will have effects opposite our government's intentions, and that "U.S. intervention only makes more likely the outcomes the United States sought most to avoid." His view is hardly novel or substantial, however flamboyant its presentation.

This column is not intended as a polemic against Mr. Zizek, who is welcome to enjoy his position as an academic superstar in the West and, currently, as Slovenia's best-known export product. Only two million people live in Slovenia, and until the rise of M. Zizek, the country had little in the way of recent creative achievement to offer outsiders, aside from some poets who wrote in an idiom distinctly imitative of American academic verse.

But that is, in its pretzel way, the point. Mr. Zizek chooses to condemn America, our vision of democratic transformation, and the concept of capitalist revolution even though his own country, and he, have benefited enormously from these phenomena. Slovenia survived Yugoslav Communism as a prosperous enclave precisely because of U.S. involvement in Europe after World War II, which included political support to anti-Soviet politicians in Italy, military assistance to Tito once he had broken with Stalin, and, in general, the same umbrella of security, combined with incentives to local entrepreneurs and advocates of popular sovereignty, that has been extended over Iraq.

I plead guilty to the charge of supporting "capitalist revolution." I believe that we will now see the irresistible extension -- however delayed -- of a strong free-market commitment to contract, private investment, and improved savings rates, as well as institutions embodying democratic principles, throughout the Islamic world. America is not the architect of this phenomenon, but, nonetheless, fulfills it.

How can anyone believe that Islamic countries will forever elude the global impetus that has swept through such formerly impoverished nations as South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia (the latter, by the away, about as Muslim as a country can get)? The information revolution and such items as satellite communications have contributed enormously to the advance of financial and political accountability. A little more than a century ago Friedrich Engels, the confrere of Karl Marx, wrote of the "invading socialist society," referring to an inevitable and observable transformation of capitalism from within, by which the goals of the old socialism -- greater prosperity and equality of access to it, and a general sense of common purpose throughout society, would be realized.

The revolutionary left did not pay attention to Engels when he made that observation, and for two generations thereafter, until 1945 and the appearance of American power, in the precincts of old Europe, their radical successors staked their hopes on the proposition that capitalist development had ended. Indeed, they believed capitalism had completely exhausted its possibilities for new investment, innovation, and expansion.

They were wrong, which is one reason the old, labor-based socialist and anarchist left, with a vision of planetary unification, gave way to the contemporary, limping, academic and pseudo-intellectual left, which aligns itself against globalization. History did not forgive the mistake of those who thought capitalism was moribund.

A Marxist colleague of mine has observed, somewhat sourly, that rather than a decline in the rate of capitalist development, we are now in a period of accelerated capitalist development. Let me state the case rather more directly: the past century and a half have seen a speedup in the rate at which countries become stable, prosperous, democracies. It took 150 years for Spain, once the richest country in Europe thanks to the gold and silver of the New World, to become what it is today, and the true "new Spain" did not emerge, bright and beautiful, until the death of Franco in 1975. Germany required 75 years, from 1880 to 1955, and the presence of American troops; Japan needed 60, from 1900 to 1960, also with direct American help. But for South Korea the process took only 30 years, from 1953 to 1983, and suddenly the country was ripe for transformation into the democratic state we see today. In 15 years from Pinochet's seizure of power to his resignation, in 1998, Chile was equally transformed. And in Zizek's Slovenia, the years from the end of Titoite dependency to economic success were so short they are difficult to measure. The country came out of Yugoslavia in 1991, ready to bloom.

I will not deny that bloodshed accompanied all these processes: Spain suffered two civil wars and countless rebellions, over two centuries, and Germany and Japan fought in both world wars; South Korea was devastated by aggression from its northern neighbor; Pinochet was hardly an admirable figure, and, yes, 70 people died when Slovenia decided to go its own way. Yet the worldwide capitalist revolution continues, and produces positive results, with America in its vanguard. And it will end up victorious in Iraq and elsewhere a Muslim majority resides, from Morocco to Indonesia, from Albania to Tanzania. The terrorism of al-Qaida and other Islamist reactionaries cannot stop it; nor can window-breaking by anarchist teenagers at Starbucks or McDonalds; nor the reactionary leftism of a Chavez in Venezuela; nor the irritable wit of intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek. As for the enthusiasts of sociological film criticism, I recommend putting The Searchers aside, and watching My Darling Clementine (1946) and High Noon (1952). Sometimes, even in the real world, the good guys win.

Stephen Schwartz last wrote for TCS about trouble in Macedonia.


TCS Daily Archives