Capitalism, Democracy and Intellectuals

Only the naive would expect the transition from a communist to a capitalist system in Serbia to develop smoothly, without endemic ailments and distortions. These did appear in all East-European countries and any expectations that these transitory problems will bypass Serbia would be illusory. In addition to the problem of eliminating the inefficient socialist production structures, an important factor in transition countries is the issue of the citizens’ subjective (psychological and intellectual) acceptability of capitalism as an alternative system of organizing the economy and society. This is perhaps only understandable since the years of virulent socialist demagogy took their toll, and capitalism as a “novelty” in these parts demands an intellectual justification people are often not aware of.

However, the most surprising in our case is the fact that transition to capitalism has been (and still is) encountering the strongest resistance, not from political parties, trade unions, employers or other “social groups” directly involved and existentially dependent on this process, but from those who are the least expected to offer it – the intellectual circles. All relevant social groups have recognized capitalism as the reality we should seek to create (notwithstanding the unequal enthusiasm of all about their respective places in that reality), while only the intellectuals are still inclined to question the entire process.

The point that intellectuals in transition countries are the most conservative stratum, opposing the introduction of market economy, recalls the fact that the incipient socialist movement was primarily the making of intellectuals, rather than the »base« responding to the pressing problems posed by the capitalist system, namely a grassroots movement of the working class which sought to improve its position and the like (as it should have been under the doctrine of the socialists themselves). Thus, both at the time of historical retreat (more precisely breakdown) and of the surge of socialism, the intellectuals were the last defense and promoters of socialist utopia. In view of their decisive role in successfully propagating socialism (and the consequences the system had for liberty), an inquiry into the general inclination of intellectuals towards socialist ideas gains increasing importance.

Their positive attitude towards socialism is still surprising, since it is not all that clear what it really is that the intellectuals themselves stand to lose with the introduction of capitalism, especially bearing in mind that these are often the very same men who refused to conform to communism and were therefore subjected to repression. Although the old apparatus of repression has disappeared, many intellectuals (communist dissidents) still firmly adhere to the old anti-capitalist beliefs, perhaps with the new (anti-globalist and similar) titles. Despite witnessing the loss of freedom in a system dominated by socialist, as opposed to liberal ideas, they are still highly reserved towards the liberal-capitalist order, which guarantees that freedom. Why is that?

The first thing that comes to mind, is that intellectuals are people who, by the nature of things, stick to their adopted views the longest and find them most difficult to shed. Therefore, once the intellectuals accepted the leftist anti-capitalist creed, it is only natural that they will take them longer to reexamine it compared with other people. However, the question is why intellectuals generally (not only those who reached intellectual maturity in communism) incline towards the left and academic challenging of capitalism?

A generally anti-capitalist attitude is not characteristic of all intellectuals equally, but primarily of those concerned with social sciences or humanities: economists, sociologists, journalists, philosophers. On the other hand, anti-capitalist views are not nearly as widespread among the ranks of the so-called technical intelligentsia, and we could sooner say that the members of this group are remarkably pro-capitalist. A survey carried out in the late 1980s in the socialist Yugoslavia of that time, revealed that the overwhelming majority of technical intelligentsia was, already at that time, clearly oriented towards the market and capitalism. I hardly believe that the situation would be any different today. Technical intelligentsia would probably share the pro-capitalist beliefs of most businessmen, employees, political parties and even trade unions.

The anti-capitalist reflex is, I think, mostly characteristic of professors and students in humanities, the so-called humanist intelligentsia. In his book “Socratic Puzzles” Robert Nozick finds the explanation for this general attitude of humanist intellectuals (referred to as “wordsmith intellectuals”) in the projection of their intellectuals micro-order into what the macro-order should be. Namely, these are mostly people who have spent the largest part of their lives in strictly hierarchized institutions (schools, universities, institutes, etc.) where knowledge is almost all that is valued, and highly at that, and where their own learning assured them the highest offices and positions of distinction. However, outside these educational institutions they encounter the world where people prosper and are highly valued even without any particular humanist erudition. That world appreciates the ability of an individual to use his knowledge and abilities for the production of goods and services other individuals value the most, as reflected in material compensation at the market. A thing which most of these intellectuals generally fail to understand, and which guides people’s lives in a free society (capitalism), is the fact that the structure of material reward does not fit an a priori ethical concept of individual merit or value. The market system offers no advance guarantee that an individual with certain intellectual qualities and moral values shall succeed. That success largely depends on the circumstances no one can influence, just as no one can anticipate the change of the consumer preferences over time.

Therefore, the knowledge possessed of humanist intellectuals, the handling of general concepts and scientific generalizations, is not much help in the production of specific goods, other people want. Decisive in that context is the “time- and place-specific information” (as Hayek would put it), or rather the knowledge of the specific way for a technically optimal production of a commodity, combined with the best possible predictions of the degree and quality of market demand. A “small man”, a man without high academic degrees, but with a good intuition and resourcefulness, shall often prove to be a more successful entrepreneur than a “wordsmith intellectual”.

That is precisely what causes the resentment of humanist intellectuals towards the very system which makes that possible. They look upon it with the eyes of honor students who protest the discontinuance of a division “to each according to his worth”, like in a school, in favor another system which puts a higher value on a grade repeater who uses his modest knowledge – generally of a quite specific activity – to satisfy the concrete needs of a large number of people. These intellectuals find that upsetting and experience the system as immoral, one of absolutely disrupted values which “reifies” the man, judging him “exclusively” in terms of commodities he may offer to other people on the market, rather than in terms of his personal qualities.

Socialism is a system wherein this kind of a market for knowledge and abilities regulated by the principle of supply and demand does not exist. It does not have an impersonal system of prices to express the value of the services offered to the market. It has a clearly hierarchical system of values where those who have a way with words and can recognize and cater to the needs of the ruling nomenclature fare the best. They have a very important role in this system, because they act as mediators between the »nomenclature« and the »mass«, either by interpreting the ideas and demands of the government to the people, or by acting as brave intellectual »resistance«, using the tone of offended rebels to articulate an abstract idea as an alternative to the established order (often accusing the nomenclature of »betraying« true communist ideas, etc.). Consequently, in that system (the one we could, together with R. Aaron, call “ideocracy”) they obtain a higher price for their knowledge and their work, and therefore also higher positions, then they would in a free society. Even when persecuted, their feeling of subjective value and importance is much higher than they would receive in capitalism. No matter whether they act as mouthpieces for the power or as proscribed dissidents, the system continuously feeds their megalomania and revandications worthy of a Platonist philosopher/king, an illusion that they are distinctively important and that the fate of society depends on their writings and “analyses”. The social framework does not define them as individuals among other individuals, but as men of a special kind, mission and importance, irrespective of their classification as apologists or persecuted critics. Moreover, the syndrome of an anti-capitalist intellectual is often much stronger among former communist dissidents than among the “conformists”, since it is, with the former, hardened by years-long oppositional ostracism and the unlimited moral self-confidence which is, as a rule, cemented in a situation of excommunication and (imagined or real) sufferings. A collectivist intellectual is actually the only possible opponent to totalitarian power and it is small wonder that once he finds himself in a changed situation of a market, he shall tend to retain his previous dissident position claiming the right to universal intellectual and moral authority, since his idea of himself as of an authentic opposition is, in his consciousness, merged with the idea of his concept being authentic and the only possible one. A communist dissident is paradoxically, the last remnant and mouthpiece of communism in the advancing capitalism, trying to smuggle into the new, free society the remnants of old ideological tales and inarticulate, vague concepts of communism, fighting the destruction of the world wherein he had an
illusion of his special value and importance for the lives of others.

To make the paradox complete, this attempt at preserving the collectivist heritage under new conditions is often made by resorting to the currently popular (and seemingly liberal) vocabulary of democracy. “Democracy” in this case essentially amounts to the conceptual clouding of old ideological contents, an attempt to use politically correct notions to label the contents evoking insecurity and wavering. When the domestic intellectuals – communist dissidents – speak of democracy as the objective of transition, concurrently attacking the neo-liberal ideology and “market fundamentalism” they are merely attempting to save what they can of the old world, although they themselves instinctively feel that it has gone under in the autumn of 1989. The “democratic” phraseology remains the last resort in the face of collapse of collectivism, since its undefined and indefinable nature offers thedisillusioned communists the possibility to denounce a large part of the advancing capitalist society’s practice as “undemocratic”.

In order to criticize capitalism in the name of “true democracy” one should first define it. Still the intellectuals engaged in forcing (primarily transition) capitalism into a democratic form, are unable to do that. All they know is the weary, cynical, apathetic repetition of warn-out egalitarian slogans about the “civil society”, “social justice”, “democratization of society, not only introduction of neo-liberalism”, etc. They have no idea of how to define democracy bypassing or countering capitalism and the free market. They merely brandish their old and warn-out Marxist dogma that capitalism and democracy are two opposed and irreconcilable realities, and that aside from introduction of the free market and the rule of law, there is a higher and more ethereal thing called “true democracy”, representing the ultimate goal one should strive to reach! But this is no longer a radical-collectivistic call to revolutionary communist experiments and adventures, shrouded in a vague democratic cover of the “popular democracy” type: it is only a surviving cynical form of a vanished world in a new situation, a residual effluent from an old reservoir of collectivist ideologies which has, meanwhile, after their breakdown and intellectual discreditation turned from an offensive ideological toxin into a colorless, etheric, overly sweet and harmless smelly vapor. The “democratic” ideology of communists, or Maoist militants in the West of the ’60s, is now thoroughly transformed, “laymanized”, adapted to political correctness, so to say ketmanized in its refusal of its own necessary political implications and its merging with other theories and lines of thought.

Still, the anti-capitalist mentality controls even this new form of “democratic” theory. This mentality is visible, not only in the scorn for individual freedom, manifested in resistance to marketization of the economy and the removal of the mastodon communist system, but also in the propagandist work to make the concept as blurry as possible and mark the opposing views with negatively connoted terms, thus securing the highly respected and generally accepted designations for their vague and meaningless concepts. Malice towards transition and petty skepticism, as well as an ignorant nihilist refusal to change and transform the old system are the most recognizable external manifestations of this attitude. For that purpose, the propagandist talent of disappointed communists finds symbols intended to undermine and discredit the proponents of change: one of them is a widespread comparison of liberal reformers with Bolsheviks and Jacobins. They are impassioned revolutionaries who seek to change the old system and walk over everything getting in their way, disregarding tradition and the rule of law, which if observed would protract, slow down or relativize the disbanding of the whole system. Moral scruples are not in this game; we cannot expect that people, who were brought up with the communist understanding of morals and intellectual honesty, and who, until yesterday, were (and in many respects still remain) severe critics of the abstract bourgeois and neo-liberal formalism in the understanding of freedom, will realize that their own criticism of liberal reforms for their lack of “civility” to the legal order of the old system, the lack of legalism, are actually the darkest neo-liberal ruse. “Legalism” and crocodile tears for the predicament of the “law-abiding state” in the hands of neo-liberal Jacobins are merely a petty-political smoke screen to cover their deep odium for the “Jacobins”: hatred of those who destroy the illusionary world an intellectual dissident, a world of dreams of a “true democracy”, free from the damned capitalism, wherein the price of their services shall match their “true” rather than their exchange value. One should not be naive: Marxist professors who accused Tito’s system of the ’60s for betraying socialism and restoring the class relations, those who in mid-80s – when the Berlin wall started to crumble – wrote articles equating “private ownership with theft”, calling the liberal notions of freedom and the rule of law “a mask for class rule”, shell not become supporters of freedom and honest critics of the abuse of power. They are but cynical old men who retroactively try to give some sense to their failed intellectual careers by criticizing the neo-liberal ideology and inventing a phantom “democratic” ideal and regulative which would, all over again, renew the guilty conscience of everyone who believed that the liberal ideal of limited rule and individual freedom is all we need in the coming century to reach a “better and more humane world”.

And if it turned out that this “true democracy” did not exist outside capitalism everything they had been doing and writing for decades would tumble down as a house of cards. To their chagrin that is precisely how things are. A meaningful alternative concept of democracy outside the one of liberal democracy does not exist (and never has); and to make the situation still less favorable for our supporters of “true” democracy, all positive civilization contents of “liberal democracy” have been the result of expanding the “liberal” in this syntagm (legal state, market economy, division of power, multiparty system, peace, welfare) while the expansion of the “democratic” element has most often resulted precisely in undermining the achievements of the liberal state. Democracy without liberalism as James Buchanan would say, turns into “unleashed democracy”. The reality of modern societies of the West gives us the best example, because even there democracy is often merely a password for a game of interest groups which suppress the freedom of individuals imposing bureaucratic regulations, plundering taxpayers and reducing the overall level of the society’s welfare. Therefore democracy, devoid of its liberal context, is merely a synonym for tyranny and absence of any guarantee of ownership and individual freedom which may be endangered by every single gang powerful and organized enough, invoking the “popular will”. And conversely, in a liberal context, democracy has no cognitive meaning: it is but a seductive ambiguous label used to praise the consequences of liberalism – like freedom and welfare – without at the same time praising liberalism itself.

The only alternative concept of “democracy” was seen in the examples of Soviet Russia or Broz’s Yugoslavia, where it had the meaning of abolishing the multiparty system of rule and introducing a single party dictatorship in the name of ideals of a direct, popular democracy, which apparently has not yet lost all of its imaginative power over the present day critics of the “neo-liberal plague”. Criticizing the transition efforts of the reform Government for the establishment of a liberal state in Serbia the local “analysts” (coming predominantly from the camp of humanist intellectuals, rather than experts versed in the only relevant technical issues of change) do not always aim their critical stings at the still unsatisfactory level of individual freedoms, high pressure of bureaucracy on entrepreneurship, artificial restrictions in many areas they know nothing about, or care for (being cynics and misanthropes) and are bothered by the submission of their ideal of true democracy to the proclaimed reform objectives, i.e. the fact that democracy has not been “unleashed” to float the shoreless seas of their collectivist imagination, but has instead been moored to the prosaic reality of modern capitalism with a strong anchor of (neo)liberal principles. That is why for them democracy may never be profanated as a vehicle, since that is when capitalism will be sacralized as a goal.

From this dark milieu comes the lament over the betrayal of “October 5” , “the legacy of democratic revolution”, which has these days and months filled the columns of various newspapers and magazines in Serbia. This lament reveals a mystical Rousseauan inspiration at its basis. The proponents of this lament do not see democracy as a set of procedures and rules of game, but as mystical merging of individual with collective in an act of general popular will. Thus one of them claims that October 5 existed only on October 5 and that the rest was but the betrayal of this democratic legacy, that after that date “nothing of substance for democracy in Serbia” has happened. This merely proves that the whole story of legalism and the rule of law is an empty slogan and a smoke screen hiding the essential refusal to exit collectivist fantasies, and discard a murky and incoherent concept of democracy as a supra-natural substance which ennobles everything else. It is therefore no surprise that reality always fails their exam, since their ideas invariably fail the exam of reality. This fashionable and ritual disillusionment with “October 5”, this insulted attitude of an intellectual teenager stood up by her date, is apparently the same attitude of intellectual skepticism and bad temper famously described by Jovan Skerlic, a hundred years ago: “You know yourself that the petty philosophy of these ‘disillusioned’ men (and a huge number among them do nothing but keep being disillusioned) – is only an impotence of the spirit and the mind, that they are defeated and incapacitated to fight and are in their fall consoled by destroying the willpower for action of others and their faith in the higher tasks of life.”

Borislav Ristic