Orthodoxy and Economism.

            At the end of the Nineteenth Century, European Socialism had become theoretically Orthodox Marxist, but practically Revisionist.  Revisionist Socialism saw the spread of representative government, the legalization of labor unions, and the expansion—rather than contraction—of the middle class as evidence of a new world.  Reforms could be achieved through politics and union bargaining with employers.  Higher pay, shorter working hours, medical insurance, affordable housing, old age pensions all were within reach.  Not everyone wanted to toss overboard the idea of Revolution.[1]  Critics, notably Vladimir Lenin, argued that this “Economism” deluded and diverted the working class.[2]  The debate continues to this day. 

            Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party has argued that a single-party state offers a more efficient management of society than does a multi-party democracy.[3]  In effect, they said “Just look at the United States.”  Western businessmen responded “OK, whatever, so long as I don’t have to live there myself and can get my money out when I want.”  Chinese businessmen responded “Sounds good, so long as I do have to live here anyway and there isn’t any other choice.”  Decades of increasing prosperity followed, so it seemed to be true.  For that matter, it may even have been true—for a developing economy like China’s anyway.  The essential issue lay in the government keeping its mitts off a large sector of the economy. 

            Then came Zi Jinping.  He started by locking up the levers of power: control of the government, the Party, and the military.  He moved on to re-asserting government primacy in economic decision-making by publicly bullying leading businessmen and pursuing his “Zero Covid” strategy regardless of the economic harm.  Now, at the start of his third term in power, Zi has really started to scare the bejeezus of China’s business elite.  His almost endless speech to a Party Congress to mentioned “security” seventeen times more often than he did “markets.”  On top of that, he has stacked the national leadership with people who represent—in the language of the Cultural Revolution—“Redness” over “Expertise.”  That is, they’re his creatures.  China’s “age of economism” is over, at least for now. 

            The thing is that Economism as originally defined in Europe meant material benefits for the industrial working class.  The middle and upper classes already had a nice life.  In China, Economism meant material benefits for both the rural and urban working classes AND for a rapidly growing middle class.  It especially benefitted the entrepreneurs.  Now it is the entrepreneurs who fear getting it in the neck. 

            How will they respond?  One answer is flight abroad.  Several recent stories have related anecdotes of businessmen suffering from “political depression.”  Some of them say they will apply for permission to migrate to Europe or America or anywhere, really, where they and their families can exchange some money for passports.  China’s loss would be the world’s gain.    

            Another is what is currently known in the United States as “quiet quitting” and in other places as “work to rule.”[4]  Do exactly what you are told, but no more, and go home when your shift ends.  That approach isn’t what built China into an economic giant. 


[1] Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism (1955). 

[2] See, fir example, Lenin: A Talk With Defenders of Economism (marxists.org) from 1901. 

[3] Li Yuan, “Xi Is Scaring Away China’s Business Elite,” NYT, 8 November 2022. 

[4] See Quiet quitting – Wikipedia  But see Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk (1921-1923). 

My Weekly Reader 8 November 2022.

            In the Nineteenth Century, the German philosopher Hegel popularized (among intellectuals) the concept of the “dialectic”: an idea (thesis) generates opposition (antithesis); their struggle produces a new idea (synthesis); and then the cycle begins all over again.  On the surface at least, the idea seems to hold up for the history of Economics.  Economic Liberalism met disaster in the Great Depression.  This led to the creation of Neo-Liberalism (sometimes referred to as “Keynesianism”) which met disaster in the 1970s.  This led to an experiment with “Monetarism,” which met disaster in the financial crisis of 2008.  Now we are living in a period of angry, messy uncertainty.[1] 

            Such an account may serve as a bare-bones or thumbnail sketch of ideas interacting with policy in a key area of public life.  Inevitably, it leaves much of importance in the shadows.  To take one example, where do the ideas come from?  Ideas don’t emerge fully developed from the forehead of some deity.  They are formulated, expounded, and revised by human beings.  They take time and effort on the part of someone to triumph (or fail) in society at large.  So, who produces them in what context of personal experiences and public events?  This, in turn, raises the problem of whether ideas inspire action that would not otherwise have happened OR merely provide the rationale for the impulses of certain individuals or groups.[2] 

            Paul Krugman[3] uses a book review to address, if not to resolve, this problem.[4]  He begins my limning the position of Paul Samuelson.[5]  In a nutshell, “markets can work, but only with government-created guardrails” and “changes in government spending and taxes can be used to manage the economy.”  However, Samuelson was “an economists’ economist” for whom “politics was never more than a peripheral concern.” 

            Krugman devotes much of the review to a critique of Milton Friedman,[6] the University of Chicago economist who provided key arguments for what Krugman labels the “pushback” against Keynesianism since the 1980s.  He writes that “it’s hard to avoid the sense that Friedman viewed his professional research,.., [as] a way to establish his academic bona fides and hence add credibility to his free-market crusade.”[7]  In Krugman’s view, the crusade for Monetarism and de-regulation ended in failure.  That failure came at a high cost to millions of ordinary people. 

            Krugman concludes by asking of the “pushback”: “Was all of this just a grand, ideologically driven detour away from sensible economic theory and policy.  And why did that happen?”  Perhaps the high tax-high regulation economy that was acceptable to the trust fund heirs of the great industrialists proved unacceptable to a later generation that aspired to build a new economy.  Perhaps they sought a rationale to help free them of unions, taxes, and regulation. 


[1] See: Keynesianism and Monetarism | waroftheworldblog 

[2] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776) provides an interesting way of getting at these issues. 

[3] See: Does Paul Krugman eat lunch alone? | waroftheworldblog 

[4] Paul Krugman, “Market Watch,” NYTBR, 22 August 2021, a review of Nicholas Wapshott, Samuelson Friedman: The Battle Over the Free Market (2021). 

[5] On Samuelson, see: Paul Samuelson – Wikipedia  His textbook on Economics is still on my bookshelf, heavily underlined and annotated in places. 

[6] On Friedman, see: Milton Friedman – Wikipedia 

[7] This is a little rich coming from someone who has been an Opinion Columnist for the New York Times for twenty years. 

Rush to Judgment just before the election.

            The New York Times recently offered an interesting exposition of “stochastic terrorism” and its relationship to individual acts of political violence.[1]  “Stochastic” comes from a Greek word.  In the current understanding, it is used to denote the “random determination” of who will act in response to inciting language.  Formulation of the term by scholars began a decade ago in an effort to understand the “lone wolf” attacks by “jihadists” wound-up by Islamist propagandists like Anwar al-Awlaki.[2]  Such language divides the world between a demonic “them” and an angelic “us”; it creates a sense of impending danger; and it provides “disturbed individuals” with a way to impose meaning on their troubled lives. 

It has been objected that the “connections between mental illness, conspiratorial thinking, right-wing rhetoric, and violence are made in our heads, not [in those of the perpetrators].”[3]  Proponents of the “stochastic terror” thesis dismiss such objections, essentially insisting that Correlation is so Causation.  Today, the source of inspiration is said to be the “dehumanizing and apocalyptic language by prominent right-wing figures,” which is “helping to drive the rise in far-right violence.” 

            History, in that awkward way it has with theories, both supports and challenges the theory.  In support of the theory one can point to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation.  The age abounded in engaged theologians who portrayed the troubled questions of the day as a fight to the death between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil.  Unsurprisingly, the times also abounded in seemingly demented assassins.[4] 

            On the other hand, the list of attempted American presidential assassinations is mostly made up of mental cases acting violently in not-polarized times.  Richard Lawrence, who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson in 1835, was sent to mental hospital for the rest of his life.  Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield in 1881, was believed to be mentally unbalanced or suffering the effects of neurosyphilis.  James Schrank, who wounded Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, got sent to a hospital for the criminally insane.  Giuseppe Zangara, who may have tried to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt and did kill Chicago mayor Anton Cermak in 1933, certainly talked afterward as if he was crazy.  Samuel Byck, who planned to kill Richard Nixon in 1974, had a history of mental illness.  John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981, went to a mental hospital for 35 years. 

            The main incident of right-wing violence inspired by extremist language is the 6 January 2020 riot.  Whatever the rioters were, they weren’t “disturbed loners.”  There were thousands of them; none has tried an insanity defense; they don’t fit this particular theory. 

            Finally, there were four attacks on Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020.  What are we to make of Presidential-candidate Hilary Clinton’s labeling of half of her opponents as “deplorables”?  Or of President Joe Biden’s recent denunciation of Republicans as semi-fascist and of his insistence that Democracy is in danger?  Does this sort of talk add to a possible psychological climate crisis?  A good theory explains most examples, not just one side’s view. 


[1] Max Fisher, “The Messiness of a Motive in the Attack on Paul Pelosi,” NYT, 5 November 2022. 

[2] On whom, see Anwar al-Awlaki – Wikipedia  On “lone wolves” he is thought to have inspired, see People linked to Anwar al-Awlaki – Wikipedia 

[3] Jay Caspian Kang, “The Futile Race to Label Paul Pelosi’s Attacker,” New Yorker, 30 October 2022. 

[4] See: List of assassinations in Europe – Wikipedia; France, Netherlands,