Here's the sort of post that will get me in trouble with economic conservatives.
So Slate tells me that there's a piece coming out in the New York Times Magazine about the next step for Cuba, and quotes this line:
Once "the winter playground of Americans, a place to gamble, rumba, smoke puros and sip mojitos, the land of every vice and any trade
Because of the history of America's mutual antagonism with the Soviet Union, it's very difficult to discuss Marxism or communism whatsoever. There's still a healthy strain of red-baiting within conservatism, and a propensity within liberalism to want to purge any vestiges of Marxist or socialist thought, because that is supposedly what's necessary to be taken seriously, to advance the movement, etc. So Naomi Klein, with whom I agree on very little, is not just another person with bad ideas, but a pox on the American intelligentsia. There's little doubt that "race realists" face much less
I'm no Marxist. I don't think prescriptive Marxism (solutions) work, although I think that there is some descriptive Marxism (observations) that is simply undeniable. Indeed, some of these observations have been absorbed into economic conservatism itself. I have sympathy for some of the more idealistic Marxist intellectuals of the last century, and it is simply dead-out flat historically wrong to insist, as some do, that there was never a Marxist revolutionary who didn't advocate or commit violence against civilians. But I do think these people were almost all wrong about what can and should be done by the state to alleviate poverty.
I have nothing but opprobrium for the many Marxist or quasi-Marxist dictators in history with horrific records on human rights and individual freedoms. It's truly a detestable history. Let's not pretend, though, that there isn't differences within them. Fidel Castro has undertaken many harsh, repressive actions against his people, and deserves our criticism for such. At the same time, people who speak or act as if there is no difference between a Stalin or Pol Pot on one hand, and a Castro or El Che on the other-- that's just not a mature way of analyzing history or considering morality. It's like the people who speak as if there's no difference between an asshole like Chavez and a monster like Saddam Hussein. It obscures where we desperately need clarity, and diminishes the crimes of the worse villain.
So I'm not a cheerleader for the Cuban revolution, either in its ends or means, and I don't think the revolution had a net positive effect for Cuba by any means. At the same time, I think we should have sympathy for people within these revolutions, and make an attempt to understand why so many people would be convinced that they needed to overthrow the government.
Consider the above quote. You've got an oppressive, nominally capitalist regime in Batista. And then you've got the capitalist superpower to your immediate north that sends its people down to your country to conspicuously consume and treat your home like a filthy playground. The economic conservative might object that the tourists are improving the lives of the people of Cuba by spending their money there. And, indeed, economic participation helps the people living in an area. But that doesn't always outweigh the negative realities of the behavior of the people who are spending the money; the world is littered with places with a great tension between the native people and the tourists who they rely on, because of the bad behavior (including crime and violence) of the visiting tourists. Surely, in Cuba, where the island's American presence was literally controlled by gangsters, this didn't help. Plus, degree matters. Cuba's poor were absolutely benefited by American tourism financially, but they remained in desperate poverty, and as often is the case, their proximity to those with much more money and power than they had exacerbated their anger. That's not good, it's just true.
So you've got this situation where so many have so little, work for those from an incredibly affluent, white hegemon, and have to deal with the poor behavior of those people constantly, all while living in squalor and poverty. Then throw in the actual dictator who repressed the people, quite savagely, who meanwhile used his power to enlarge his personal wealth immensely, and you've got a tinderbox. And Marxism, whatever else is true, for all of its failings, for all of the ways in which it leads towards dictatorship and genocide, for all its miserable history and every other caveat you want to throw out there-- Marxism at least represented an attempt at bringing the people living under the boot of poverty and powerlessness out from under it. You don't need to educate me about why this didn't work or doesn't. You don't need to convince me about the folly of communism; I'm on your side.
What economic conservatism needs to do, or I guess, what I would like it to do, is to demonstrate that it can acknowledge and respect the difficulties of Batista-era Cubans or other non-American peoples who are trapped in poverty and despair. And if I can ask for a little more, it would be for economic conservatives to demonstrate some way that these poor countries can improve their lots beyond "just take part in total free market capitalism and wait for globalism to gradually pull you out." Look, maybe there is no other way. That might be true, although I don't agree. But surely, the suggestion that there are other ways isn't necessarily some sinister plot or the mark of total naivete. Surely it isn't always the case that people who want to try something truly different are secretly just out to burn down the abundance that already exists. I know that I've handicapped my own position here, somewhat, by leading people to think that I'm merely talking about caring.
When I engaged with Conor on these issues a month or so back, due to my own failings, it came to be framed that I was saying "you guys don't care". Which was easily undone by Conor or others saying "Sure we do." But the point isn't caring, or not just. The point is that it's a cruel business to insist that every instance where people are downtrodden, the only solution is the slow wheel of globalism; and maybe, in some situations, there are some times when a more robust government social state is the vehicle most likely to produce human utility.
The fact is that economic conservatism has found itself in a place of rhetorical maximalism. Liberals say that the government is not the best or only solution all the time. Pick your favorite liberal blogger, your Yglesias or your Klein or your Beutler or whoever, and they'll all take pains, at regular intervals, to agree that in such circumstance or another, government intervention is a bad idea, or that current government ventures aren't working. Similar claims are in contrast exceedingly rare among economic conservatives, and libertarians in general. Sonny Bunch said in disagreeing with me that no one says that capitalism has no victims. True, that strong-form statement is made only by a straw-man. But so many of the economic conservatives I read, even the most bright, act and talk as if that were true, even though they would never make the explicit claim. It seems as if there's no room at all on most conservative or libertarian blogs to say "this is a situation where standard free markets have broken down, or have failed to provide the people with workable possibilities." Instead the habit, particularly by commenters, is to insist that any individual situation where one might say that is in fact another shining example of the glory of the free market.
I'd like for that argumentative excess and zeal to be turned down somewhat. I'd like to find on libertarian blogs examples of where markets aren't working, with the same ease and frequency that I find examples of governmental failures on my favorite blog, Matt Yglesias's. And I would also like for some conservatives to be more amenable to the fact that there are indeed sinister forces that sometimes work within capitalism, they way that history demonstrates that there were myriad sinister people working within communism. Yes, it's true, liberals often attribute malice to businesses or corporations where none exists. Yes, there are times when leftist critiques of business go overboard or are unfair. But there are also times when corporations really do cause major harm to many people. And there are situations, like in Batista's Cuba, where capitalism is allowed to be twisted in ways that are nothing less than destructive. Capitalism in and of itself is amoral. Too many leftists ascribe to it purely sinister motives or effects. But too many conservatives ignore the actual sinister motives or effects. There really is such a thing as rapacious capitalism.
More, and this is crucial, understand that capitalism, while capable of delivering a huge number of people to unheard of abundance, is also capable of preventing people from rising above their station. Some say things like this: the people of Cuba were foolish to revolt. The example provided by Americans should have pushed them to try and emulate America's capitalism, not to embrace Marxism. Well, look-- Cuba is not America. Cuba does not have America's power, leverage, natural abundance, size.... I am frequently exasperated by the notion that many poor countries have little Americas within them, if only they were allowed to flower. More importantly, it really is true that great powers often use that power to keep other countries from improving their station. Sometimes life, and capitalism, really are exercises in power struggle, and sometimes it really does come down to this: people with power and wealth trying to keep people without it from getting it. That doesn't disqualify the system. But it should give us pause, and make us tread carefully in how we appreciate the ability of any country to just bootstrap itself up.
I don't think any of this makes me some preening socialist, but who knows. I may be. I do know, though, that there exists within economic conservatism a strain of such ideological zeal and argumentative excess that nothing I say could be taken seriously, if it doesn't amount to a complete sop to unfettered free markets. That, I think, should change. Some have written me out of the conversation long ago, simply for thinking that there are very valid and real concerns that could bring a '50s era Cuban to incorrectly believe that Marxist revolution was a good idea. In my ideal public discourse, talking soberly about capitalism wouldn't require unflinching fidelity to laissez faire policy, and people could make stronger and more fundamental critiques of the capitalist system as practiced without disqualifying themselves from adult conversation.