Freeman

ARTICLE

Where Have All the Marxists Gone?

DECEMBER 01, 2002 by JAMES PERON

From the early days of Marxism until its collapse, the Left pretended that socialist central planning would lead to greater productivity and advanced technological progress. No one seriously entertains that illusion any more. So how is it that so many Marxist ideas still hold such influence? Certainly the modern "Green" movement is filled with Marxists of one stripe or another.

While Marx was pro-science and pro-technology, his Green stepchildren deride such ideas. Instead they have announced that technology and science are, in fact, evil. They cling to the egalitarianism of Marx, but abandon any support for science and technology. Dismayed because socialism couldn’t produce the goods, these socialists suddenly discovered that producing goods was an evil that needed to be avoided. This was a psychological coup. In one fell swoop the failure of socialism became its most endearing feature. Strip socialism of its pro-science, pro-technology viewpoint and you are left with today’s Green movement.

This is made clear in "The Jo’burg Memo," a report produced for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a front for the influential German Green Party.1 The 16 authors include Hilary French of Worldwatch Institute; Anita Roddick, left activist and founder of the Body Shop; and Sara Larrain of Greenpeace. The Memo argues that the "environmental crisis" proves that technology is no longer a solution to human problems. Before the "environmental crisis . . . one could still attribute a certain degree of superiority to the technological civilization which had emerged." Of course, since the Green movement started predicting disasters "it has become obvious that many of [technology's] glorious achievements are actually optical illusions in disguise" (p. 18).

For these Greens, market solutions don’t exist either. "[A]ny expansion of the market . . . hastens environmental degradation in the end. No wonder that forests disappear, soils erode, and the sky fills up with carbon. The surge of economic expansion, spurred by trade liberalization, has largely washed away the modest gains, which have materialized in Rio’s wake" (p. 13). (In 1992 the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro.)

What is important in that sentence is the admission that markets and trade liberalization do lead to economic expansion. For decades the Left has denied it. But the Left, especially the Green Left, has abandoned the desire for economic progress. It is literally seeking the stagnation that socialism produced.

Old-time Marxist egalitarianism still inspires these authors. As the Memo argued: "Neither all nations nor all citizens use equal shares [of the planet]. On the contrary, the environmental space is divided in a highly unfair manner. It still holds true that about 20 percent of the world’s population consume 70-80 percent of the world’s resources. It is those 20 percent who eat 45 percent of all the meat, consume 80 percent of all electricity, 84 percent of all paper and own 87 percent of all the automobiles" (p. 19).

Such claims have a veneer of truth. But the underlying premises are where the problems exist. The planet is not "divided in a highly unfair manner." Why? Because no division ever took place. No one decided to condemn some people to live in the Arctic, while others were assigned to live where coal was plentiful and others where sunshine was a daily occurrence. There was no initial division of resources that intentionally favored some people over others. The planet simply is, and humanity evolved all over the planet at different times. It is no more unfair for one group of people to live in one place than it is for humanity to live on this planet as opposed to others that might be more hospitable. Fairness applies to how human beings deal with one another. It does not, and cannot, apply to the initial random distribution of resources on the planet.

The Myth of Resources

There is something even more fundamentally wrong with this claim. Resources, in a very real sense, are not distributed anywhere on the planet. A resource is a material good that we can use. Before the discovery of refining, petroleum was not a resource. It was a liability.

If we recognize that a resource is a natural material that is endowed with value through the application of human knowledge, then the fact that some people have, or consume, more resources than others is not relevant. The real question is what can we do to help those who have access to fewer resources obtain access to more resources. But that is completely opposite of what the Greens want.

Yes, the 20 percent own 87 percent of the automobiles. At one point they owned 100 percent. Automobiles were invented in the West. It wasn’t that Fords were equally distributed throughout the world until colonialists confiscated the cars of Third World peoples. And maybe the 20 percent consume 80 percent of all electricity. Again, they once consumed 100 percent of it. If anything, the trend indicates that resources discovered in the West are transmitted to other parts of the world. What Henry Ford did in Detroit 100 years ago now benefits people in the most remote regions of Africa. Billions of Third World people benefit because Thomas Edison existed.

At first one could get the impression that this talk about equality means Greens want to raise the living standards of the world’s poor. But this is not true. Paradoxically, the Greens argue that all people are equal owners in the planet, yet these people have no right to use those resources. They state, according to the Jo’Burg Memo, "every inhabitant of the Earth basically enjoys an equal right to the natural heritage of the Earth" (p. 36).

That would be typical socialism. But they go one step further to announce that this equality of rights means no rights at all: "it still does not equally imply a positive right, i.e. an entitlement to maximize the use of nature on the part of the less consuming world citizens" (p. 36). They make it clear that the poor, whom they call "under-consumers," are not to become wealthy at all. "While the over-consumers are not entitled to excessive appropriation, the under-consumers are not to catch up with the over-consumers" (p. 36).

True to their egalitarian roots, the Greens complain that the West consumes too much of the world’s resources. But they do not want the poor of the world to have access to the riches of the West. While they condemn the unequal distribution of production and consumption, they do not want to raise up the poor but tear down the wealthy. That’s what socialism has accomplished in practice. But while equal poverty was an unintended consequence for the Marxists, the Greens explicitly seek it.

The Memo makes this quite clear. "Reduction of the ecological footprint of the consumer classes around the world is not just a matter of ecology, but also a matter of equality" (p. 20). Note that they want the so-called consumer classes to reduce their wealth. They condemn the "globalized rich and the localized poor," but oppose globalization as a way to enable the poor to increase their wealth. "There is no point in sacrificing people’s lives in the present for speculative gains in the future" (p. 21).

They argue that "it is not at all certain that the marginalized shared in these benefits" (p. 20). But that is a false argument. Even if new wealth were evenly distributed to everyone on the planet, the Greens would still oppose it. They use the fact that people are unevenly productive as an excuse to forbid production itself. This is merely a smokescreen meant to divert attention from their agenda: the end of wealth production by humankind.

The Memo argues that the only way to eradicate poverty is to eradicate wealth! "Poverty is the Siamese twin of wealth. Both develop jointly and neither can be fully understood without reference to the other. Usually, the poor are conditioned by wealth, and the rich thrive on benefits drawn from the poor. Hence in our perception, no calls for poverty eradication are credible unless they are accompanied by calls for reform of wealth" (p. 35).

Green "Logic"

Again, Green logic is a wonder to behold. For millennia humankind thought that poverty existed as man’s default status. Effort, energy, and thinking are used to create wealth. Where most people saw wealth creation as an evolutionary process by which we left poverty behind, the Greens say this is false. Poverty was created at the same time wealth was created. But what existed before poverty and wealth? We see poor people become rich all the time. We see man’s evolution as moving from a state of deprivation to a state of relative plenty. But if poverty and wealth developed jointly, what came before them?

This Green logic, however, is necessary to achieve the real agenda: the eradication of wealth. If you accept that wealth created poverty, then the destruction of wealth will destroy poverty. In the Memo, the authors merely say they want to "reform" wealth. But they do become more explicit.

As they see it, the problem is wealth itself, not its unequal distribution either in consumption or production. The idea of lifting the Third World out of poverty and despair is the wrong policy, according to the Greens. Such developmental ideas "advocate remedies for raising the living standards of the poor"(p. 35). What’s wrong with that? The Memo answers: "In short, they work at lifting the threshold-rather than lowering or modifying the roof. . . . Poverty alleviation, in other words, cannot be separated from wealth alleviation" (p. 35).

Thus the real Green agenda is "wealth alleviation," and all the movement’s policies are intended to do just that: reduce the wealth of Western "consumer classes." And it doesn’t mean reducing it by the piddling amounts envisioned by the Kyoto Protocol on alleged global warming. It means the destruction of the bulk of wealth in the world today. The Memo makes this clear: "the global North will need to bring down its overall use of the environmental space by a factor of 10, i.e. by 80-90 percent, during the coming fifty years" (p. 36). Memo author Roddick, once gushed about Castro’s Cuba, saying that it amazed her "how quickly you could fall in love with the economics of less."2 But then she’s a multimillionaire.

Wouldn’t this mean a return to a primitive state? Of course it would. But this is precisely what the Greens want. They are advocates of primitive tribalism over Western science and development. As far as they are concerned, science is a form of colonialism, an arrogant Western invention that diminishes the true value of "traditional" societies and their deeper understanding of the planet. That primitive communities still cling to existence in backwaters and remote regions of the world is alluded to as proof of their ability to create genuine knowledge. "[T]he success and long term sustainability of traditional strategies of generating and communicating knowledge" proves they are useful.3

The idea of a primitive paradise has Old Testament roots and it eventually evolved into the secular myth of the "noble savage." Rousseau’s idea of the "state of nature," where man lived in perfect harmony with nature, has long been a favorite with the radical Left. For Rousseau, such a state was one where man is "wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech, and without home, an equal stranger to war and to all ties, neither standing in need of his fellow-creatures nor having any desire to hurt them and perhaps not even distinguishing them one from another."4 That such a state never existed is irrelevant to leftwing theology. Rousseau, like all good leftists, argues that it was private property that destroyed man’s paradise. Private ownership, he says, resulted in war and misery and the destruction of the mythical garden of social equality.

The Greens have merely adapted Rousseau’s secularized version of Eden and proposed public policy based on this imaginary state. In his book Wild in the Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage, Robert Whelan provides many quotations showing that the Greens, like those who wrote the Jo’burg Memo, believe that "indigenous" primitive groups lived in a perfect state with nature before the arrival of the evil westerners.5

Roddick used her chain of Body Shop stores to promote this kind of false history. A bag for her expensive soaps and fragrances had printed on it: "The wisdom of the world’s indigenous peoples is the accumulation of centuries of living not just on the land, but with it."6

But the "indigenous peoples" were terribly wasteful and destructive. Around the globe, including North America, tribes routinely slaughtered animals without concern for replenishing the stock. (See Larry Schweikart’s "Buffaloed: The Myth and Reality of Bison in America" in this issue.) Whelan notes that in Australia the arrival of the aborigines led quickly to the demise of several "’giant’ macropodids (kangaroos and related species). Within 15,000 years, all were extinct."7 In Madagascar natives drove several species of giant lemurs to extinction. The Maoris of New Zealand, science writer Matt Ridley said, "sat down and ate their way through all twelve species of the giant moa birds."8 The Aztecs of Mexico managed to deplete their soil. These are only a few of many such examples, all of which prove that the Greens are merely creating another false story to promote their agenda.

Such "traditional" methods of living are destructive to life itself, and that’s one reason that the vast majority of humanity has abandoned them. The Green anti-science bias is really behind this glorification of traditional societies. For that movement, the question is whether "modern agro-science [will] replace all other systems of knowledge."9 As the authors of the Jo’Burg Memo wrote, "Should this new generalizable system of knowledge [science] which is in conformity with the global market, replace all other systems of knowledge? Respect for cultures as well as prudent skepticism about the long-term effectiveness of science suggest a negative answer" (p. 44).

Science as Colonialism

In fact good old-fashioned egalitarianism, writes the Böll Foundation, is another reason for dismissing science and embracing folk wisdom. The Jo’Burg Memo says, "Fairness and unmitigated emergencies both demand that community systems of knowledge be given a chance" (p. 45). Of course these "community systems of knowledge" not only were given a chance, but they dominated human thinking for millennia. They were abandoned because they didn’t work. But for the Greens, "Modern science has been described as a late form of colonialism because it assumes the power to define what is rational, innovative, and relevant across cultures" (p. 45).

What does this mean? At its root the authors are saying there is no such thing as objective reality. Colonialism decides what is rational, innovative, or relevant. In fact, it is nature, the very thing the Greens pretend to worship, that determines all this. True science is consistent with reality and not with anyone’s presumptions or values about reality. A good scientist discovers facts that correspond with what is real.

Again, this part of the Memo exposes a fallacy about the Greens. When they predict disasters and doom they use "scientific" terminology like bio-systems and ecology and give long, convoluted arguments about how these bio-systems work and how human intervention inevitably leads to disaster. Although sounding scientific, these arguments are fundamentally anti-science. More important, they are often ignorant about science. This was illustrated when the office of a Green Party member of Parliament in New Zealand said the MP would be willing to help a campaign to ban dihydrogen oxide. That’s water.

So what explains the Greens’ desire to eradicate wealth? One answer is found in The Totalitarian Temptation by Jean-François Revel. He argued, "the totalitarian temptation is really driven by a hatred on principle of industrial, commercial civilization, and would exist even if it were proven that people in that civilization were better fed, in better health and better (or less badly) treated than in any other. The real issue lies elsewhere: money is sinful, the root of all evil; and if freedom was born of economic development, then it too suffers from that original sin."10

Jim Peron is editor of Free Exchange, a monthly newsletter, and the owner of Aristotle’s Books in Auckland, New Zealand.


Notes

  1. Wolfgang Sachs et al., "The Jo’burg Memo: Fairness in a Fragile World," Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, 2002. Until otherwise noted, quotations are from this document.
  2. Allan Levite, Guilt, Blame and Politics (San Francisco: Stanyan Press, 1998), p. 56.
  3. Sachs et al., p. 43.
  4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (London: Everyman’s Library, J.M. Dent, 1997), p. 61; quoted in Robert Whelan, Wild in the Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage (London: The Environment Unit, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1999), p. 16. The Social Contract was published in 1762.
  5. Whelan, pp. 22-23.
  6. Paper bag, "Who Do We Think We Are?," produced by The Body Shop; quoted in Whelan, p. 23.
  7. Whelan, p. 35.
  8. Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue (London: Viking, 1996), p. 219; quoted in ibid.
  9. Sachs et al., p. 43.
  10. Jean François Revel, The Totalitarian Temptation (Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 279.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

December 2002

comments powered by Disqus

EMAIL UPDATES

* indicates required

CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF

PAST ISSUES

SUBSCRIBE

RENEW YOUR SUBSCRIPTION

Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)

By HENRY HAZLITT

The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


By FREDERIC BASTIAT

Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


By F. A. HAYEK

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


By JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


By LEONARD E. READ

No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)