There is no fog in London, or so I’ve been told. The legend of London Fog (the phenomenon, not the raincoats of the same name) comes from the heavy pollution during the height of the Industrial Revolution which occurred in the second half of the seventeen and first half of the eighteenth centuries. It wasn’t fog, it was smoke, and soot. This week we ask the question, why did capitalism and communism fail?
During this time there were many developments in machinery and the already expansive British Empire, so large that some part was always illuminated by daylight, boomed. At least, it did for certain people. There were no labor laws and, as society shifted from the more traditional and deferential feudal system, to the emerging urban society, exploitation became the dominant disposition.
Factories were dirty and dangerous and inefficient and entrepreneurs were always seeking ways to cut costs. The Laws of Thermodynamics grew from this atmosphere as factory owners sought to eliminate costly workers, altogether (a quest that, unfortunately, continues to this day). Given that manual labor was necessary, factory owners sought to minimize output and maximize production: wages were miserable, hours were long and child labor, favored because children would accept less and could fit into tiny places in factories and mines, was rampant.
This is how things probably would have stayed were it not for a very interesting turn of events. A similar, if not worse, condition existed just across the English Channel in France where the division between the wealthy and poor was extreme, made all the worse by the heartless exploitation and general ignorance of the elite. The French decided that they weren’t going to take it. Instead of putting up with the harsh conditions, they reached a breaking point, resulting in the complete overthrow of the monarchy.
The French Revolution was an omnipresent spectre in England. Along with the formation of labor unions, strikes, lock-outs and general discontent was the constant fear that there would be an uprising. Labor practices had to be tempered. That great experiment known as Unbridled Capitalism had proven to be a complete and utter failure. Pure capitalism doesn’t work. Any student of high school history should know that.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Karl Marx viewed the situation from a different perspective, and recognized that the fundamental problem was, what her termed, control of the means of production. The factory owners owned the factories and made the rules. They said who got paid what and who had to work which hours. In his mind, the means of production should be owned by everyone, reasoning that if everyone put in everything to the best of their ability, and was awarded according to their needs, then no one would be in need of anything.
In nearby Russia, where the disparity between the rich and poor was as extreme as in France, if not more so, following their revolution, the idea took hold; the Marxist Bolshevik’s won out over their rivals and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was born. As an ideal, the problem with Marxism is that, overall, theoretically, if driven, people produce more than they consume. Therefore, if everyone is only awarded what they need, then there is an excess. Ideally this excess should be distributed, however, in reality it is hoarded by those in power.
In actuality, in Soviet Russia, many people didn’t produce anything and the country found difficulty even being self-sufficient. Furthermore, the system simply provided the means for a massive propaganda machine driven at demonizing the affluent west. However, human nature will not be tamed and many Russians looked to the west with envious eyes. The apostate Putin’s efforts to rebuild the USSR is destined to failure for the same reason that it failed the first time. Despite claims of success in China, a country of huge wealth disparity and massive human rights violations, and Cuba, a country of intense poverty, the fall of the Berlin Wall sealed it. Pure Communism doesn’t work.
Which raises the question, if unbridled capitalism doesn’t work and pure communism doesn’t work, then what does work? In order to answer this question, there is one thing that must be clarified first. Here, we are talking about economic systems. The disparity between democracy and totalitarianism, and the nuances thereof, are a separate issue. The question is who has wealth and who has poverty, not who has power and who is a subject, a topic which deserves a sermon on its own (quite possibly more than one).
The two, however, do tend to cross over. Even in the most developed countries, there is a plutocratic element – third party successes are rare in the United States because of the financing of the major parties. Potential electoral success is measured based on financial support. But putting that aside, we are offered two extremes: everyone owns everything or some people own everything and other people own nothing. These were the two extremes offered in concept by Britain and Russia and neither worked.
The answer, obviously, is somewhere in between. The measure of the success of an economic system can be measured, quite easily, and is. Russian communism failed spectacularly, but British capitalism died by degrees and still exists, in a tempered form, today. Perhaps one of Britain’s greatest attributes is their adaptability. They will resist, but when it is clear that resistance will lead to disaster, they relent and even welcome the change. United States President John Adams reflected that King George III once told him, following the American Revolution, “I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.” A friendship that continues to this day (omitting the minor hiccup of the war of 1812).
There is a logical construct called reductio ad absurdum. It means to “reduce to absurdity” and is a perfectly valid logical process. However, due to its name, it has been bastardized to mean reducing another person’s argument to extreme proportions and then ridiculing the result, usually through sarcasm. In reality, people use reductio ad absurdum all of the time. Any time you take a problem and strip it down to its bare bones, you are engaging in reductio ad absurdum. From that initial, raw vision, you apply other logical principles, such as syllogisms and logical constructs, to build bigger, more correct visions.
Britain and Russia engaged in reductio ad absurdum, Britain with capitalism and Russia with communism and neither system worked in the extreme. The question is, why does the British Commonwealth, the modernized version of the British Empire, still exist when its Russian counterpart, the USSR does not? While the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1998 caused the sun to finally set on the British Empire, it still shines brightly on the Commonwealth. Russia struggles, with Putin desperately trying to go back to a failed system, believing in the propaganda he was brainwashed with as a child.
The difference in success is not capitalism versus communism. The steady tempering of raw capitalism with labor laws demonstrates that, in its pure form, it is as much a failure as raw communism. The difference is totalitarianism. While Britain allows change, Russia steadfastly holds on to what it knows. Russia, as a country, is destined to fail under Putin because he is determined to go backwards, rather than forwards. It is fundamental law of nature that time travels forwards. Attempting to remain in the past, or worse, to rebuild it, is contrary to how the Universe wants things done. This is why the two countries, in many ways with similar heritages, are so vastly different in what we would term “success”.
The lesson is to be adaptable and to always move forward, never go back. Which isn’t to say that we should forget the past. Learning lessons of the past is fundamental for deciding the future, however, the past is a guide, not a destination and melancholic nostalgia is a recreational activity, not a productive one. In this age of almost universal digital communication, totalitarianism is all but obsolete. Information is power and the Internet helps make information universal. Almost anyone can have the means of production – Marx’s dream is being realized. The Church has no sympathy for power companies who are struggling because anyone in an area with any decent amount of sunshine can generate their own power. This is the way forward. The perfect system is emerging – an ever balancing conglomeration of Adam Smith capitalism and Marxist communism. It was inevitable, after all, nature loves equilibrium.