Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
In the latter years of the Cold War, a samizdat slogan appeared on the walls of Eastern European cities: “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is the opposite”. This was the verdict of a generation disillusioned to the point of desperation with a failing social experiment. The system of Communism, or “really-existing-socialism” in East German parlance, was imposed by Soviet power and sustained ultimately by force. However the experiment was supported, in its initial stages especially, by some of the best-educated and most talented citizens of the “people’s democracies”. They saw the new system as a harbinger of progress, enlightenment and internationalism, a means to free their societies from parochialism and superstition, a way to “catch up with” and overtake the West in social and economic development. As we now know, none of these dreams were realised. The dictatorships that emerged were a cruel mockery of the ideals that inspired them. Idealists turned either into dissidents or monsters and eventually the regimes collapsed under the weight of their own incompetence.
It is nearly 15 years since the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe (in the Soviet Union, it took another two years to unravel). Most ex-communist states in the region are either members of the European Union or preparing to join within a few years. Marxism survives, in the West far more than the East, as an academic philosophy more than a political programme, and the left throughout Europe has lost its ideological coherence. Yet the experience of Communism’s supporters in Central and Eastern Europe remains highly relevant. For it is an important and valuable illustration of the way in which intellectuals, in particular, can arrive at extreme positions through a potent mixture of abstract theory and emotionally charged humanitarian sentiment. Some of the passionate intensity that underscored support for the Communist experiment is now being directed towards capitalism, the economic strictures of which are seen as a panacea. The secular religion of “market forces” is adopting many of the motifs once associated with the Communist dream: internationalism, the abolition of traditions and customs that get in the way of “progress”, the placing of abstract “equality” before personal freedom and an essentially mechanistic approach to economics. Nonetheless, we must hope that the recent experience of dictatorship will make many Central and Eastern Europeans more suspicious of doctrinaire theory than their Western counterparts. If this is the case, they might play an important critical role in the new Europe.
Laszlo Zsolnai’s article, “The morality of economic man”, holds out hope of a humanising and non-dogmatic influence of this kind. Professor Zsolnai, of the Business Ethics Centre at the University of Economic Sciences in Budapest, sees dangers in the reductionist approach favoured by neo-liberal economics, which remains fashionable in the West and among the new business elites in the West. Neo-liberalism has been largely unchallenged since the demise of Communism, and yet it contains many of the worst faults previously associated with Marxist economics. Chief amongst these is its reduction of the individual to an economic unit rather than a three-dimensional human being. In Marxism, at its activist level in particular, the individual unit or “element” is absorbed in a collective class-consciousness, class being defined in economic rather than cultural terms. In neo-liberalism, the individual is an isolated, atomised Homo Oeconomicus whose motives are exclusively competitive, exclusively economic, for whom any social bonds exist for purely pragmatic, self-interested reasons. Both theories, Marxist and liberal, evolved in the industrial era when material advances could be convincingly equated with progress and the foundations of modern mass society were being laid.
Both ideologies, one explicitly collectivist, the other narrowly individualist, adopt a view of human behaviour that is simplistic and which, to use a fashionable phrase, lacks “emotional literacy”. They take little account of the complex motives underlying individual and communal responses to political and economic events. They can take a surprisingly amoral view of humanity, although their followers speedily resort to morally charged rhetoric: social justice for Marxists, work-not-welfare for neo-liberals. Professor Zsolnai, who has experienced the human consequences of both ideologies, argues for a moral dimension to be restored to economics. This would recognise that human beings are moral and social creatures, that they require not only economic or political freedom, but the freedom to act in an ethical manner. Without a moral framework, there can indeed be no other freedoms, economic or political. A reductionist, amoral view of economics leads to authoritarianism and endemic corruption, whether the “system” is capitalist or Communist in theory.
David Hay’s contribution, “Quality of life/quality of management”, is based on a lecture he delivered at the University of Warsaw’s School of Management. Dr Hay is a zoologist and theologian who is interested in exploring the biological roots of religious faith or spiritual awareness. The sense of the spiritual, Dr Hay argues, is a distinctive characteristic of human beings, and it is closely linked to their capacity to act ethically. Economics in its present form takes little or no account of ethical or spiritual impulses. As such, it is lagging behind other disciplines, such as psychology and neuroscience, which are moving away from purely materialistic interpretations of human behaviour. The prevailing model of capitalism is unbalanced because it acknowledges only competition, not co-operation, which has been at least as important to human evolution.
Zsolnai and Hay both argue for a more multi-faceted approach to the market economy, to make it more genuinely responsive to human needs. One of the problems of the prevailing neo-liberal model (and the theories underlying it) is that it places unrestrained growth before human scale. One result of this is that choice and variety are reduced by the development of corporate monopolies, which in their remoteness and their bureaucracy bear an uncanny resemblance to the worst state enterprises. At the same time, civil society is undermined as local communities become alienated from the economic process, reduced to mere consumers acting en masse. Chris Wright, a British writer and ecological campaigner, explores a number of ways in which the human scale might be restored to economics, which after all originally means “the law of the household”. His proposal for a community trust is refreshing because it is practical and conservative the best sense, as well as genuinely radical in that goes to the roots of our present predicament. Wright’s suggestions are as applicable to Central and Eastern Europe’s new market economies as they are to the “late capitalist” West. Restoring the human scale is essential to restoring an ethical, and a spiritual, dimension, not just to economics, but to the whole conduct of public life.
John Coleman, Aidan RankinEditors