By Andy Duncan, Vice-Chairman of Mises UK
I possess three brain cells. One is concerned with food and beer, particularly Sam Adams light, the black stuff from Guinness, and any full strength export lager originating from Sweden. The second brain cell is concerned with personal visions of a possible future in a couple of thousand years. The third brain cell, God bless it, is concerned with music, philosophy, chess, politics, writing, art, fine Pinot Noir wine, provocative Stilton cheese, good conversation, and, when it has the chance, the brown-eyed charms of Penelope Cruz.
I have just read Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. That poor old overloaded third brain cell has just been fried. And it’s going to take more than a Sam Adams to bring it back online again.
This book, available freely online as a PDF file, is essentially a description of everything around us in the political world, and a superb platform for any aspiring Austro-libertarian to base their world view upon. Personally speaking, it has quite shaken my world, and finally caused me to sever any hope I once held for the world’s two major conservative parties, the Tories in the UK, and the Republicans in the US, to help bring the rest of us towards a prosperous happy future containing much greater liberty.
Unlike the Professor’s later books, such as Dmmocracy: The God That Failed, and The Myth of National Defense, this older book is written with much less tempered anger, and with much more cool rationalism. Indeed, the Professor could be a chemist discussing the physical properties of hydrocarbons, for all the hearty emotion he displays on his sleeve.
But this book is all the more powerful for this cold-blooded analytical approach. The hydrocarbons the Professor discusses are the ingredients necessary to blow up the ideology behind every political ruling class in the world.
In the style of Man, Economy and State, this time beginning in the Garden of Eden rather than Robinson Crusoe’s castaway island, the Professor first of all defines socialism (boo, hiss, etc.) as an institutionalised policy of aggression against property and contractualism, and capitalism (yay, hurrah, huzzah, etc.) as an institutionalised policy of the recognition of property and contractualism. So far, so what, you may be wondering? We all know the bad guys wear red hats, sing the Internationale, and wear Che Guavara T-shirts, right? Well no, for the chapter that really blew me away was the one on conservative socialism.
But before we get there, the Professor next discusses Russian-style socialism, the one we all know and love from the days of East and West Germany, with all of its barbed wire trickery, poised tank divisions ready to sweep across Belgium, automatic machine guns to murder insane escapees from the utopia of socialism, and graffiti-covered Berlin walls. Honest socialism, as I like to call it myself, is a no-brainer for the Professor, as he dismembers it without mercy by pulling down its shoddy toothpaste-like concrete. Out of the many areas he covers, with an immaculate broad comprehensive sweep, the point which struck home the most for me was his particularly vivid description of the slavery Russian-style socialism hid so well in its despicable Gulags, places of inhuman horror still often apologised for by western socialist fools.
Starting with a premise that hardcore socialism always leads to an overutilization of economic capital, because of the lack of property ownership, Hoppe makes it seem obvious why the Gulag slave camp commandants had so little regard for their slaves: because as political caretakers they needed to maximise their profits in the here and now, with absolutely no regard to the future. This made the commandants drive their charges to early graves, because as the commandants didn’t own their slaves, while possessing a continual pipeline of prisoners being pumped into the camps, the commandants viewed their slaves as both expensive to maintain and expendable, and therefore overutilized them to create the goods the commandants needed in order to meet their targets, to enjoy a relatively good living as state bureaucrats, and to stay out of the camps themselves in the next jealous wave of state retribution on happy citizens, usually driven by the petty animosities of rival bureaucrats. Meet your targets anyhow you please or die, is the constant refrain from the centre, so if 60 million or more serfs have to die to achieve these targets, then 60 million or more dead serfs it is, comrade. Please sign here.
This continual sacrificing of the future to achieve the immediate needs of the present, along with the complete inability of a closed socialist system to calculate the most effective use of limited resources, led to hard communism’s eventual collapse. However, communism could have lasted forever. But only if it could have avoided the hope of ‘The West’ being continually thrust down its malignant collective throat. West German television used to beam a far better life into the evening homes of East Germany, so much so that mountainous regions of East Germany in western broadcast blackout zones suffered depopulation, as happy citizens moved to where they could actually see the commercial filth of the West, if only for educational purposes you understand.
So does this make democratic socialism or democratic conservatism any better, the twin rival creators of this superior western alternative?
Not in the Professor’s view. Democratic socialism, or as I prefer to call it myself dishonest socialism, is merely another facet to the rancid prism of socialism, which seeks both to destroy property and contract. Under democratic socialism, which some see as being Marx’s preferred variant to that of revolutionary socialism, two classes of people emerge: those who generate tax and those who live upon tax. The state takes upon itself the right to take any amount of anybody’s property it deems necessary to prop itself up, much in the same way that the Normans raped Great Britain in 1066, and does this mainly through the mechanism of buying off groups of democratic supporters to enable a tiny parasitic elite ruling class to hold sway over the much larger general population, with particular emphasis on buying off the support of the intellectuals, with sinecures in Universities, various government organs, and institutions like the BBC. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the regular arguments here, so I won’t labour the point. But the Professor dissects all of these regular issues brilliantly, almost to the point where in any future Blog debate, you may just want to say, ‘Please refer to page X of The Theory of Socialism and Capitalism‘, in confident refutation of anybody else’s ideas opposing your own, if of course you should happen to agree with Herr Professor.
And then we get to the really interesting chapter, from my point of view, the one on conservative socialism. As far as the Professor is concerned there is hardly any difference between the basic actions of the democratic socialists and the conservative socialists. Both think the state has the right to steal any amount of anybody’s property, including their lives, it deems necessary to sustain itself, often calling this either a sound tax base or military service to defend freedom; both forms of socialism tend towards taking control of health and educational systems, in order to control the bodies and the minds of their various subjective populations; and both forms of socialism are always keen on strengthening all the other usual monopolistic apparatuses of state necessary to maintain a parasitical elite in power, though this is for our own good obviously, such as the police, the army, the legislature, and the judiciary.
The only real difference the Professor sees between the two socialisms is that where democratic socialism aims at taking from the ‘haves’ to give to the ‘have-nots’, using taxation as its main redistributive weapon, conservative socialism, as the true disguised heir of European feudalism, aims to take from the ‘have-nots’ to give to the ‘haves’ ? hence why poor city dwellers, under conservative socialist governments, usually have to pay hidden food taxes to subsidise much wealthier farmers, to keep these farmers in the manner of relative wealth to which they have become accustomed, no matter how useless these tax-privileged farmers have become at keeping their land economically productive in the face of world competition.
The other major difference between conservative socialists and democratic socialists is that the conservative socialists want to keep themselves and their friends in high places as rich legally privileged elites, so conservative socialists prefer to use state regulation, rather than state taxation, to keep the rest of us feeble peasants in our places. For example, if I, as a mere prole, come up with an idea which is going to bankrupt the friends of a conservative socialist government, the government will bring out a new regulation to cripple me in my efforts to serve the consumer better and to preserve their big corporate friends in the big corporate business, no matter how inefficient these friends have become in serving the consumer. And if the conservative socialist government itself doesn’t spot the danger, those 60,000 professional lobbyists in Washington, and numerous others in London and Brussels, will be sure to let the rich people’s friends in government know all about it.
Again, this is just a flavour of the Professor’s superb writing on the subject. But if you’ve ever felt uncomfortable with your personal support of the Tories, or the Republicans, and thought that maybe something crucial was amiss, that perhaps you couldn’t quite put your finger on, this chapter may nail that feeling for you. As I said earlier, it certainly did the trick for me, explaining how Soviet Communism and Nazi Fascism could end up using the same brutal methods to control their populations, while both still retaining obvious differences, especially in their early stages. The Soviets were bent on destroying the Russian aristocracy to replace it with themselves, and the Fascists were bent on preserving the autocracy of Bavarian and Prussian aristocrats and themselves. The only real difference between the two types of socialism is that one group tries to institute a new ruling class, whereas the other group tries to preserve an old ruling class, with both groups stealing the life and property of everyone else within their state boundaries in order to do it.
The book also helped explain to me why the BBC, that venerable British institution, can be seen in one generation as supporting the Tory Party, and in the next generation supporting the Labour Party, or why one generation of the Labour Party hates the EU and the Tory Party loves it, and in the next generation the Labour Party loves the EU and the Tory Party hates it. Because both the Tory Party and the Labour Party are in fact both socialist parties, both in favour of state taxation and regulation, with essentially the party in power, regardless of whichever it is, being supported by the BBC, and the party in power, whichever it is at the time, supporting the EU, the very font of taxation and regulation, and the usual scapegoat for all that is bad about taxation and regulation. It’s hilarious, isn’t it, how political parties always seem to say they hate taxes and regulations, always seem to find someone to blame for them, but then always somehow manage to actually sign yet more taxes and regulations into effect? It’s that Art of the Possible thing.
And if you think you in the US are immune from conservative socialism in the Republican party, and can detect no whiff of its descent from European feudalism, ask yourself if there are many large corporations in the US or large farming concerns, which would still be in business if not supported through subsidy, taxation, and regulation, by your various levels of government? Or if you may be developing families of elites who hand garnered privileges on from one generation to the next? Give it a couple of hundred more years and I think the European feudalism you escaped from may finally catch up with you, much as the return of the regal elites finally destroyed the Roman republic after 500 years. But I still have hope that you will eventually give rise to the foundation of a truly state-free world.
Meanwhile back in the book, the Professor isn’t finished.
After ripping apart conservative socialism, he then tears into the welfare socialism of social engineering, particularly that supported by Karl Popper loving rationalists, and that used by democratic socialists and conservative socialists, especially since World War I. The basic problem Herr Hoppe sees here is that the proof never ever comes in as to whether a particular social engineering measure worked out or not, which is a bit like the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai quote to Henry Kissinger, in 1972, that it was too early to tell if the French Revolution was a good thing or not.
Essentially, according to Hoppe, social engineering measures can never be falsified, which as any student of Popper will know, is something of a basic contradiction in basic Popperian ideology. Go figure.
No matter how badly a social initiative program goes wrong, the social engineer can always say that all the evidence isn’t all in yet, or that ‘The social housing program we instituted would have worked, if we had also taken measure X ? let’s institute that measure now and see if it works.’ And when measure X also fails, usually making a terrible situation infinitely worse, the answer is again either ‘All the evidence isn’t in yet’ or more likely, ‘The social housing program, with measure X, would have worked, if only we had also instituted measure Y too’. And so we go round the houses again, screwing up the lives of yet another generation before anybody dare repeat the hopeful question, ‘Did it actually work?’. Though of course, once again this question is ignored, and measure Z is instituted, to cover up the earlier failures of measures X and Y. Whereas Hoppe claims that from the basic a priori principles of Austrian thinking it can easily be discerned that, say, forcibly fixed housing rents will fail to meet the noble goals ascribed to this action. And all this without the need to experiment on anyone to find out.
I won’t say anymore, as some of my best friends are Popperites. But if you love the great anti-historicist yourself, you might want to check out this chapter on Popper, especially if you’ve ever wondered why all this anarcho-capitalist heat seems to be coming your way these days, as to the irrelevance and danger of following Popperian piecemeal engineering solutions. Let me misquote Morpheus from the first Matrix film, you know; the good one:
Have you ever had a dream, Herr Popper, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? Piecemeal social engineering is the world that you pulled over your eyes to blind yourself from the truth. You’ve been living in a dream world, Herr Popper. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You avoid reading this chapter – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You read this chapter – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Your ideology was socialism all along, Herr Popper, and used as such by all your enemies. Welcome to the real world.
To round off the book, Professor Hoppe concludes with four chapters which I think are essential reading for any aspiring anarcho-capitalist. The first concerns the moral superiority of capitalism over socialism; the second concerns the psychological foundation of all the various flavours of socialism discussed above, that of threatened and real violence; and then the book is rounded out with two necessary technical chapters on monopoly and public goods. It’s a good dessert to round out a splendid main course. And a splendid book.
Don’t leave home without reading it.
(This book review, by Andy Duncan, first appeared on Catallarchy.Net in 2004.)