some thoughts on mandela and apartheid

I don’t have anything as eloquent as Tim Burke to say about Mandela and the discourse around his death. Like many politically-active people of my generation, I found great inspiration not just from Mandela in particular but from the grand struggle against apartheid.

Apartheid was the great moral struggle of the late 20th century. In part the monstrous last gasp of European colonialism, and in part the oh-so-modern hybrid of capitalist extraction and scientific racism, it was impossible by the early 1980s to form a morally defensible claim for its support. Mandela became the international symbol of the struggle, and deservedly so, but his ANC was but one piece of the struggle that included allies in the trade union movement (COSATU) and the Communist Party (SACP). Remarkably, this coalition was multiracial and fostered a remarkable leadership including Mandela. An important rival was Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, which looked from outside like a piece of the coalition but was in fact a crucial competitor for ways of thinking about racial justice in South Africa.

It is a huge moral failing of the United States, and an enduring shame, that the Reagan Administration, Congressional cold war hawks, and envoy Elliott Abrams became, de facto, the global sponsor of the apartheid regime. Thousands of people died and thousands more suffered and were brutalized because they considered Cold War geopolitics a priority so overwhelming as to write off the human rights of the subcontinent.

I spent a year or so in Namibia just after its independence, writing for The Namibian and working on my undergraduate thesis. I visited Johannesburg, Soweto (thanks Chris Benner), and Cape Town, as well as Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe while I was there, and came away deeply moved by the imagination, creativity, dedication, and commitment of the people who fought for an authentic vision of democracy and freedom. Mandela certainly was a great man, and the movement he led is one of the triumphs of the last century.


  1. Posted December 7, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    It’s fascinating how Mandela is being Lionized in political discourse now. This stamps of the re-creation of the German genocide and naming of it as the Holocaust in historical memory (Jeffrey Alexander’s essay on the matter is extraordinary). It’s interesting how such historical events and global events like the South African apartheid were actively reframed and negotiated in the late 20th century as part of the codifying of social justice politics.

    Like any social narrative, these stories require transcendental myths of archetypal evil and good guys and bad guys, but the material details are not so simple.

    I’m not an apartheid-booster, but I think it’s interesting that you frame our lack of support for a demonstrably vicious and chaotic socialist revolution, that made a business of burning its opponents alive in gasoline-filled car tires, pace Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a “moral failing.”

    Will we one day look back on the trouble in Syria and declare that there were crystal clear good guys and bad guys? The details on the ground at present pretty much point to both sides of the struggle using extraordinary brutality to oust one another, and that’s absolutely characteristic of most of these regions which have long, complicated histories of ethnic and tribal conflict.

    Our temptation to reduce the entire world to a series of foreign policy decisions by the United States Government in the 20th century is likely more useful for framing the cultural ethics of modern social justice narratives than documenting history.

    Seth Studer over at our blog has some incredibly smart things to say about how Mandela discourse is quickly emerging.


    • Posted December 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Sorry Graham, but your’re dead-freaking-wrong. The “tire necklace” meme has become a favorite right-wing way to express fake shock that a profoundly and systematically oppressed population, whose collective humanity, life, and freedom hung in the balance, turned to violence to police the moral boundaries. The same meme was popular among white South Africans of the time, who enjoyed sitting inside their barbed-wire-protected compounds, sipping port or Castle Lager, clucking at the unruly natives and happy that the SADF and Koevoet kept the violence neatly contained.

      Was it violent, bad, and unfortunate? Of course. Does it even hold a candle to the razing of whole neighborhoods, the Casspirs indiscriminately mowing down people, children, families, the massacres in the townships, not to mention in Namibia and Angola, the unspeakable physical torture in prison, the bombs and poison aimed at lawyers and activists who supported freedom, not to mention at their families and children? Not a freaking candle. And all this with the support and sponsorship of the United States (and, to some extent, the UK), without which the end would likely have come much sooner, saving countless lives and averting enormous suffering.

      Your casual misreading of Alexander’s article is revealing. I don’t find the article all that convincing on its own, but your interpretation is apparently the kind of banal moral relativism that was the caricature of postmodernism. The fact that the Holocaust needed culture to organize the devastating violence and hatred into “The Holocaust” does NOT preclude the fact that it really was violent, devastating, and evil. Yet your deployment of the article here implies that the transformation of the Holocaust into a great moral issue — and, by extension, the struggle against apartheid as one — is in some way false because it is historically contingent. This is an intellectually sloppy misreading of history, quite separate from its problematic moral implications.

      In the 1980s, there were lots of ways American foreign policy was really bad, from Central America to the Iran-Iraq War to Africa and elsewhere. But South Africa was different. There was literally no way in which the apartheid regime was better than its alternatives: not fairer, not more responsible, not more aesthetically or intellectually productive, not less violent, not more democratic. All it was was white and anti-Soviet. That stark division made the moral stance clear for everyone — and laid bare the depths to which the Reaganites were willing to go in their singular focus on the USSR.

      Studer’s comments (thank you for linking to them) are very good and I appreciate them, though I think it’s a mistake to equate apartheid with Jim Crow and segregation. Though there are obvious connections, the two were dramatically different in terms of their political, demographic, and cultural situations.


  2. Posted December 7, 2013 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    Also supporting my story that this is more about Americans creating an Amero-centric moral story for their own symbolic moral catharsis is the conspicuous lack of discussion just about anywhere on American websites of the Dutch, who after all colonized South Africa.


  3. Posted December 7, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I cannot claim by an stretch to be an expert on South Africa as my knowledge comes only indirectly from knowing people who were involved in the ANC, from being on dissertation committees about South Africa, and from a one-week, but it is clear that even my limited knowledge puts me in a different place both from the idiocy of the right-wingers who want to erase the political meaning and context of great struggles (e.g. Obamacare is Apartheid, MLK would oppose Affirmative Action) and the ignorant sanctification of great leaders on the liberal left, here I’m thinking of the religious left and liberals generally, who construct Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela as vague non-racial “men of peace” who somehow created a new order by uttering uncontroversial moral statements without any social movement or struggle behind them. Of all the oddments coming through my FB feed, I found the following to have the most useful content, and I will say that it is consistent with what I knew about the struggle as it unfolded from my aforementioned indirect knowledge:

    The linked article stresses the armed struggle, the pervasiveness of the nonracial ideology and the SACP’s role in promoting it, and the irrelevance of US leaders as models in the struggle. And to be clear, I agree that this is entirely consistent with what Andrew posted here.


  4. Posted December 7, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Editing my comment because I’ve already over-commented. I initially commented just on Andrew’s post, not the blog he linked to. So I want to echo Andrew that the linked post is really worth a read.
    And here also is David Meyer’s thoughtful and informed post


  5. Posted December 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for engaging, Andrew. I’m not a South Africa scholar, but the wiki on Necklacing is referenced with articles from scholarly journals and major newspapers. The very good article @olderwoman posted also corroborates that ANC violence and that of its supporters got out of control and had to be dialed back.

    I don’t know the body count — you could be right that the regime’s atrocity’s outweigh those of the ANC and its supporters in unholy relative magnitude. That doesn’t make the violent chaos of revolution “fake,” or its propagation entirely one sided.

    Considering your tone, I’m sorry I offended you. Your experiences in SA are clearly very personal, and I want to reemphasize that I support the end result of the end of SA Apartheid, and that I don’t question the brutality of the regime. Nor am I ignorant of the wonton brutality of the Shah, the murder of Patrice Lamumba, and several other Central American dictators the United States clandestinely installed and supported in its midcentury efforts to battle-back the spread of communism. Interested readers can find a journalistic but able treatment of these events in a book called Overthrow.

    I don’t lack ethics, Professor Perrin. I think the ethical abomination of socialism in its different incarnations is crystal clear. The atrocities it’s responsible for get systematically ignored when the history of 20th century foreign policy get told. Maybe we’ll agree (maybe not) that one of the sad realities of small-country uprisings is that a lot of understandable outrage about imperial and colonial domination, and outright racism, got mixed up with ideas about market capitalism, making socialism that much more attractive. I sincerely hope we both agree that SA would have been no better off under the sponsorship of the USSR. If you don’t agree, you can at least rest assured that I won’t indict you with moral casualness.

    If you didn’t find Alexander’s article very persuasive, you should check out this graph: I didn’t read it casually, nor are my morals casual. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that within the climate of the fresh successes (again, thank God) of the civil rights movement and women’s liberation, that a new dialogue that was broadly critical of modernity’s progress emerged got adopted by the wider public. Even the turn of sociological theory after this time reflects such a change.

    My criticism still stands unchallenged that Americans aren’t mentioning even a ghost of Holland’s culpability in this whole story, which is I think the best evidence that this is quickly becoming a political football and moral memorial for the American left to lament the alleged racism of the GOP and show off their anti-racist street cred.


  6. Posted December 8, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Wow, lots to respond to here, and I think lots of interconnected issues that deserve to be disentangled.

    – First, I apologize if I was too strident in my tone. I did not mean to imply you lack ethics, or that your morals are casual, and I’m sorry to imply those.

    – Did necklacing happen? Yes, it happened. Yes, it was bad. But it shouldn’t be surprising that a desparately oppressed population turned to violence sometimes; rather, what should be surprising is the relative rarity of that violence. And it was certainly the result of the appalling violence the regime perpetrated; absent the apartheid environment it would not have happened.

    – I agree that there are plenty of “ethical abominations” that have been perpetrated in the name of socialism. There are also plenty of very positive developments, including early resistance to the Nazis (Rosa Luxemburg et al.), development of humane social policy in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, and yes, anti-colonialism across the third world. Poor people tend to support socialism, and you and I probably disagree to some extent as to whether or not they are right to do so. That is probably a topic for another thread/time. But unlike socialism, I see no positive outcomes from ideologies of white racial purity or ethnic cleansing to balance their demonstrated negative effects.

    – In South Africa in particular, apartheid was utterly inseparable from capitalist exploitation/extraction. The system would be unthinkable without the role of the mining industry in using and perpetuating the black migrant labor system. It would be really bizarre to expect the liberation movement to ignore the prominent role of capitalism in the apartheid system.

    – “SA would have been no better off under the sponsorship of the USSR.” No better off than under the apartheid regime? No, I don’t agree. I didn’t spend as much time in the Soviet bloc as I did in Namibia, but I did travel in Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR before 1989, and spent several weeks in East Germany on several occasions. I met and talked with ordinary people and dissidents in Poland and East Germany. So I think I have some sense of the misery of life there/then — which was significant — but I don’t think life was, in general, as bad as that under apartheid. I *do* think that post-apartheid life has been better than it would have been under a Soviet-style state.

    – What I find problematic about Alexander’s article internally is that there certainly were people who did find the holocaust a dire moral situation long before it became known as “The Holocaust.” (My grandmother’s family left Berlin for Belgium in 1929, convinced that horrible things were afoot. I suspect people thought they were paranoid.) So yes, it only became a universally-understood moral touchstone much later, but there were many people and groups who understood, and publicized, its moral urgency at the time. Building upon that point, my concern about your use of the article in this case is the same. There were many, many people at the time who understood and publicized the urgency of the anti-apartheid struggle and its moral imperative. So I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that this narrative is somehow inauthentic and post-hoc.

    – I’m not sure what you see as Holland’s special culpability, but I’m happy to be educated. Were they worse than other colonial powers?

    – The bottom line for me is this. IMHO, US foreign policy in the cold war era contained many cases in which we threw human rights, democracy, and freedom under the bus in exchange for anti-Soviet geopolitics. But at least in most of those cases there was some discernible trade-off. I view South Africa as the starkest of these cases: the most monstrous violations of human rights and freedom combined with the least plausible anti-Soviet strategic case. Hence my view that, even in an era characterized by questionable moral judgment on the foreign-policy front, Cold War American policy toward apartheid South Africa was particularly shameful. It may be useful to “lament the alleged racism of the GOP and show off… anti-racist street cred,” but it is not unfounded to do so, given that the GOP did everything it could to slow down the path of freedom.


    • Posted December 9, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

      I’ll reply in pieces. Thanks for taking the time to respond — lots of great thoughts happening here.

      “First, I apologize if I was too strident in my tone.”

      No apologies necessary at all! This like everything we do in sociology is ineluctably ethical, and the ethics of the speaker will inevitably blend with the ethics of the ideas she presents. It would be a great tragedy for people to avoid issues with great ethical valence and substitute a superficial culture of intellectual congeniality. Alongside a host of generous contributions here, I sincerely appreciate your unashamed honesty.

      “what should be surprising is the relative rarity of [necklacing].”


      “There are also plenty of very positive developments, including early resistance to the Nazis (Rosa Luxemburg et al.)”

      This is new to me; thanks for adding nuance for me. It still stands that the Nazi party was expressly socialist. I don’t know if you hold such a view, but the academic position that the Nazis, or Mao, or Lenin, “got it wrong” and that wasn’t *really* socialism, is I think a cop out. Socialist thinkers throughout the early modern and Industrial periods who explicitly promoted violent revolution, and indeed whose progeny educated and inspired 20th century Western-educated socialist leaders are, and their very clear programs, responsible for the farce of political freedom and human suffering that resulted in the 20th century. Neo-Marxian 20th century thought has, and continues to, reinterpret Marxian literature and shift its goal posts in an effort to avoid an honest confrontation with the demonstrated material results of socialist revolutions. Whether you’re that person I don’t know — I hope you’ll allow the opportunity of our discussion to to respond to a much larger intellectual movement.

      “[socialist thought inspired] development of humane social policy in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere”

      I think that’s a stretch. It is just not the case that statists of the 19th and 20th centuries have a monopoly on the ethics of caring for the poor and disenfranchised. Indeed Rousseau himself said that “the pretext of the public good is the most dangerous scourge of the state.”

      “I see no positive outcomes from ideologies of white racial purity or ethnic cleansing to balance their demonstrated negative effects.”


      “It would be really bizarre to expect the liberation movement to ignore the prominent role of capitalism in the apartheid system.”

      This is a mistake. For thousands of years business firms operated in the same way as the SA mining industry, enslaving people, and making a nice dessert of inexcusable exploitation and stealing to go along with their meal of positive sum arbitrage. That behavior is not “capitalist,” and more than for instance modern businesses leveraging defensive patenting in order to secure rents, or the American Medical Association setting up discriminatory barriers enforced with state violence in order to raise the prices of their services and guarantee rents. This behavior, notably, is not where economic growth comes from — and it is economic growth and it only that I promote, not the broad history of any and every instance of profit seeking with indefensibly unethical means like racial oppression. It is precisely this distinction I’d hoped to make in my OP, because generally people continue to conflate both capitalist trade and modern American fiscal conservatives with social injustice and oppression.

      “I *do* think that post-apartheid life has been better than it would have been under a Soviet-style state.”

      So in a counterfactual, where the USSR abolished apartheid and set up prison camps for enemies of the party, hunted intellectuals, and shot its opponents, South Africans would have been better off? What about a different counter factual where a Maoist style cultural revolution took place with all the glory of villagers witch hunting neighbors who didn’t display a copy of The Little Red Book? Russian and Chinese citizens did not enjoy a net increase in social and political freedom under communism — these developments were tragedies. And they were counterbalanced by neither an increase of economic productivity, political freedom, nor reduction in income inequality as was promised.

      “there were many people and groups who understood, and publicized, the moral urgency [of the Nazi genocide] at the time . . . . so I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that this narrative is somehow inauthentic and post-hoc.”

      I’m not claiming that the late 20th century publicity the Holocaust received was or is inauthentic, not at all. I don’t think that was Alexander’s point, and it’s certainly not mine. Social narratives are deeply authentic — indeed that’s what cultural sociologists (and people favoring a cultural economics like me) hope to underline. That it is in fact cultural constructions which determine *more* of the variation in material outcomes than they’re given credit for. We face a problem in underlining the importance of culture because when we demonstrate compelling evidence of the cultural construction of narratives, our audience immediately interprets the evidence as if we’ve exposed a great lie or fairy tale. The point isn’t to say, “see X social story is merely a cultural construction, QED,” and drop the mic, walk away, and leave everyone feeling exposed as fools. The point is to understand the construction of social stories so that we can tell BETTER social stories.

      “I’m not sure what you see as Holland’s special culpability, but I’m happy to be educated. Were they worse than other colonial powers?”

      The point is that any number of racially motivated regimes have been set up, or at the very least seeded, by 19th and early 20th century colonialism — and it is this historical development we should blame with the full force of the ethical indignation you and me are both grappling with — for the batshit insanity of 20th century colonial and racial oppression, and the perfectly understandable violent response to it. My effort in underlining the association of the ANC with its violence was to show that neither business-with-guns imperialism nor the socialist reaction to it are ultimately desirable social developments, and regardless their historical inevitability or necessity, should not be recommended going forward.

      “IMHO, US foreign policy in the cold war era contained many cases in which we threw human rights, democracy, and freedom under the bus in exchange for anti-Soviet geopolitics.”

      That’s not an opinion. It’s a demonstrated historical reality.

      “the GOP did everything it could to slow down the path of freedom.”

      No, the GOP did everything it could in a terrifically messy realpolitik to ensure a modicum of economic and political freedom remained in the developed world. Was trading in the political freedoms of Iranians, Guatemalans, South Africans, and so on worth maintaining the economic freedom of subsets of those populations? In the final analysis, yes. If the current world looked like the actually-existing socialism of the 20th century, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here debating the nuances of the best way to ensure the political and economic freedom of blacks or anyone, anywhere else.

      Do I broadly support the efforts of *both* the democratic and republican parties of the 20th century to battle-back the creeping influence of state socialism with foreign intervention? No. If I could rearrange the history, I would have neither Vlad and his buddies, nor the confused promoters of economic freedom intervening in geopolitics. But that world doesn’t exist. All we can do now is hope that we will learn from the mistakes of foreign intervention in all its ideological clothing — and not selectively attack the American imperialism of the 20th century while discussing how Eastern Europeans waiting in line for toilet paper and disappearing from their families at the hands of secret police didn’t have it that bad.


  7. Posted December 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s clear that our dispute is not actually about apartheid but about socialism. It’s a strange world where any movement that is in any way socialist must answer for the crimes of all the others, extending apparently from Michael Harrington and Irving Howe, through Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, and even bizarrely including the Nazis (even though they themselves executed socialists and communists en masse), while capitalism is simultaneously absolved of guilt for any form of capitalism that isn’t purely free markets!

    The Nazis were not socialist in any serious or meaningful way, as evidenced by the fact above that they very quickly understood socialists and communists as enemies, and at least as importantly, that the German socialists and communists were among the first and most solid opposition.

    Whatever Rousseau said, the fact is that it was the European social democrats — socialists — who developed the successful case for humane social policy.

    Meanwhile, apartheid was unmistakably capitalist. The Afrikaner ruling elite flowed easily between the big mining companies, the government, and the military, and it was certainly capital that benefited the most. You seem to expect the desperate oppressed masses, on the way to the bus to the mine for which they might never return, dodging the police men’s bullets and torture, to distinguish philosophically between Capital as it actually existed and directly caused their misery, and Capital as it could be in some fantasy world. That’s folly. The rational response to South African capital’s treatment of Africans is opposition to the power of capital: it is socialism. Regardless of your evaluation of socialism in general, there is no dispute that, in South Africa, the democrats were socialist and the capitalists were totalitarian. No amount of hair-splitting or socialist-lumping can change that.

    I think you misread my claim about the counterfactual Soviet state. I do not think a Soviet client in South Africa would have been as horrific as the apartheid regime was, but I do acknowledge that South Africa is better post-apartheid than it would have been as a soviet client.

    You and I clearly disagree on the political merits of socialism, both theoretically and in actual history. That’s fine, but I don’t think it seriously challenges my original statement about the moral failure of the United States in prolonging the apartheid monster.


    • Posted December 9, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      “I think it’s clear that our dispute is not actually about apartheid but about socialism.”


      “It’s a strange world where any movement that is in any way socialist must answer for the crimes of all the others”

      Why? Karl Marx set up a wild formulation of the supposed class interests as mere expropriators, including a litany of howlers that have been shown to be incorrect by the history of trends in wages, skills, and growth — and explicitly recommended the expropriation of the expropriators. Where this supposed nuanced disconnect of interpretation, between that and the materially violent murder of property owners and enemies of the intellectual movement, took place is beyond me. The recommendation was clear. The material results are clear. And continue to be. Socialist ideology leads to murderous totalitarianism, every time. Throw in some personality cult to legitimate via charisma an otherwise senseless economic logic, and you’ve got every major socialist development in large and small states.

      “while capitalism is simultaneously absolved of guilt for any form of capitalism that isn’t purely free markets!”

      That’s a sharp move. I owe you a glass of wine for that. But if we’re going to call “capitalism” the channel of violent rent-seeking between business elites and states, well then we’ve got capitalism going all the way back to Sumer. And we agree that it’s an ethical abomination — what’s potentially more important to ethicists of consequences versus ideals is that it’s consequences demonstrably lead to low or zero growth. By all means — rail against the modern corporate capture of government, the mining industry’s involvement in South Africa, United Fruit in Central America, and the rest. I’ll hold your poster when your arm gets tired and get you coffee when the protest gets cold.

      “humane social policy.”

      What is humane social policy? Any policy whose intent is to help the poor? On that definition, public housing projects in 20th century America were humane social policy. The wonton murder of intellectuals and business owners in China and Russia were humane social policies. The minimum wage is a humane social policy. And so on.

      Should we celebrate the social innovation and reconstruction of ethics that broadly took place in the early modern and Industrial periods? Absolutely. But you’re going to have to thank my boys Adam Smith and David Ricardo as much as Rousseau and Compte. And I argue that the rethinking of what exactly trade is and does, during that period, was all part of the humanistic turn, emergence of natural rights of man, individual rights, ethics on tolerance, and so forth. What has done more for the poor than a lumbering social welfare system in Europe? Economic growth. Unquestionably. The magnitudes aren’t unclear. Poor people have gotten exponentially richer as a result of divided labor and technological innovation. Income transfers to the poor have made them nominally better off at times, sure. And they’ve also lead to the paternalistic engineering of the poor’s lives and the degradation of their dignity and social freedoms as a necessary condition of delivering in-kind benefits with massive bureaucracies.

      “The rational response to South African capital’s treatment of Africans is opposition to the power of capital: it is socialism.”

      Who is “capital?” Business owners? Business owners on balance in a modern economy don’t exploit people. Stealing from the poor is a bad business plan — they don’t have anything. I never claimed about SA or anywhere else that business owners don’t sometimes behave badly. They do. But a better way to get people to behave badly is to give them a legitimate license for violent force and most of the guns in a society — instead of checkbooks, handshakes, and contracts. The rational response to political oppression is constitutional democracy and a government limited by competitive checks and the authority of citizens. Not socialism.

      “I don’t think it seriously challenges my original statement about the moral failure of the United States in prolonging the apartheid monster.”

      I should have been more clear about this here and in my other inter-webbed discussions — it’s quite clear that American foreign policy contributed to the extended suffering under apartheid. And for that I grieve like everyone else. But there is much more to this situation than a couple of decisions Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan made — and they have become the moral whipping boys in this story. That’s unfortunate. A much clearer telling of events would highlight the persistence of oppression when any interest group, business leaders or not, gets a hold of the government and can enforce segregationist policies.

      The terrific irony is that when our ideological response amounts to more state action to delimit the freedoms of businesspeople or anyone else, of course, the increase in the number of those regulatory and other channels only opens up greater opportunities for precisely the oppression we both agree should be kept to a minimum.


      • Posted December 9, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        “Socialist ideology leads to murderous totalitarianism, every time.”

        This is false. Socialist parties have won in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, many, many times, without murderous totalitarianism following.

        “Income transfers to the poor have made them nominally better off at times, sure. And they’ve also lead to the paternalistic engineering of the poor’s lives and the degradation of their dignity and social freedoms as a necessary condition of delivering in-kind benefits with massive bureaucracies.”

        The vast literature on the capacity of state policy to reduce real inequalities begs to differ. And any threat to dignity is not a necessary condition but an ideological production. The proof? Very substantial international variation in that “degradation of dignity.”

        “Business owners on balance in a modern economy don’t exploit people.”

        Sheer fiction! In the specific modern economy we’re talking about, business owners — VIRTUALLY ALL OF THEM — did exploit people, violently, ruthlessly, and with full knowledge that they were doing so. So here we have it: socialism always produces totalitarianism, even though the evidence is that it doesn’t; and capitalism never produces exploitation, even though the evidence is that it does. If the reality doesn’t support the theory, it is clearly the reality that is wrong.

        “more state action to delimit the freedoms of businesspeople or anyone else…only opens up greater opportunities for…oppression.”

        The logical slippage here is impressive: “businesspeople or anyone else,” as if they were one and the same. They’re not, necessarily, as anyone in a first-year public policy class could explain. Only in the Disney adaptation of an Ayn Rand novel does unrestricted capitalism lead to everybody treated fairly and living happily. In the real world, unrestrained capitalism really does produce great inequality, state action really does have the capacity to shape and limit that inequality, and poor people oppressed by capitalist systems really do reasonably consider socialist politics a reasonable alternative.


  8. Posted December 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t say businesspeople never exploit people. I said there is a long history of businesspeople doing so, but that didn’t create economic growth, and can’t thus be called capitalism.

    Capitalism doesn’t create inequality. Inequality has been a historical constant for thousands of years. There are many reasons inequality arises – transaction cost efficiencies, preferential attachment to network clusters of belief, shortest path informational efficiencies on networks, and of course classical state coercion. State coercion is distinct from capitalist trading and innovaing. At what point did my several hundred word concession that business people have and often do attempt to and succeed at capturing the state to exploit people turn into an Ayn Rand novel? I also conceded that income transfers can and have made the poor better off, but added that these transfers are not without inefficiencies and often fail to deliver. I made a very specific point about economic growth benefitting the poor more than transfers, which you ignored to caricature my argument, and moved to cite an amorphous but “vast literature” that demonstrates the consistent benefits of social programs.

    Maybe it’s a matter of the seer in interpreting whether the glass is half full or empty, but I’m genuinely amazed at your and many people’s belief that state action is the best shot oppressed people have when it is states which have the absolute worst record of oppressing people, whether steered by businesspeople who’ve managed to capture them, tribal malitias, Western educated intellectuals like Lenin and Mao with white knight complexes, or anyone else. Indeed even right here at home, after the American government actively oppressed blacks, chinese, japanese, hmong, women, and continue to — people maintain the faith that getting the right people behind the guns and lawbooks will finally set people free.

    Sad, that.


  9. Posted December 9, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Also, I shouldn’t have said socialist ideology leads to murderous totalitarianism every time — you’re right to call me on that. I should have said that the majority of historical and present cases of state socialism have led to murderous totalitarianism. It’s only a profound faith and hope, and certainly not an empirically honest social science, which can lead people to ignore the dramatic skew of the distribution outcomes of socialist efforts, and concentrate on its thin tail.


  10. Posted December 9, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    And that, I think, is a wrap. The contours of our disagreement are crystal clear, and readers (if in fact there are any) can form their own conclusions.



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