Critic’s Notebook: A Demanding Read, Part II (Non-fiction)

The act of reading can exact a demanding price from the reader.  If one lacks preparation, he or she can be left in a wallow of ignorance.  Certain titles exist that a reader approaches with caution.  The Cantos of Ezra Pound, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and many others.  Non-fiction works also intimidate potential readers.  I am currently reading the second volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, Years of Upheaval, and the first volume of Capital by Karl Marx.  Each extracts certain demands from the reader in its own particular way.

Yes, this book actually exists. I’m reading the wrong Kissinger biography.

Years of Upheaval is best described as the memoirs of a government courtier.  In the second volume, Kissinger deals with the Watergate scandal and its fallout in terms of maintaining a strong foreign policy.  Nixon also elevates him from National Security Advisor to Secretary of State, the courtier becoming the minister.  Years of Upheaval contains a style consistent with the first volume, White House Years, gossipy and academic, offering lessons in the exercise of government power and portraits of officials foreign and domestic.

Kissinger shares similarities with Marx’s economic critique.  Marx’s shares Kissinger’s ethnic heritage.  Kissinger, born in Germany, came to the United States as an exile, and succeeded in the worlds of academia and government.  Karl Marx came from a family of assimilated German Jews, became active in both academia and politics, and spent the last years of his life as an exile in Great Britain.  In Britain, he wrote his masterwork, the still controversial Capital: a Critique of Political Economy.

After reading Kissinger and Marx, one realizes that both exhibit positive progressive philosophies, albeit radically different in execution.  Kissinger sees progress through the lens of a strong foreign policy and the adept use of “linkage.”  Marx sees progress in the dictatorship of the proletariat and the classless society.  Kissinger remains a realist whereas Marx underpins his work with a messianic and utopian thrust.

The utopian perspective has mellowed when Marx lived in exile, hence Capital’s function as a critique, not a call to arms like the Communist Manifesto.  (Ironically, it is Kissinger’s pessimistic attitude that shines through in White House Years (1979) and Years of Upheaval (1981).  He wrote both following the foreign policy disasters of the Carter years.)

Capital is not the first book I have read by Karl Marx.  As an undergraduate, I read the Communist Manifesto for a European history class.  In the break between degrees, I read the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and the Civil War in France, both short, tightly crafted political polemics written against the election, dictatorship, and Second Empire excess of Emperor Napoleon III.  I only encountered Capital in excerpts for a graduate-level history class focusing on “globalization,” a slippery weasel word that can mean anything, depending on who you talk to and what they have to gain from his or her specific definition.  One sees the same thing happening in our farcical political discourse with the revival of Joe McCarthy’s favorite scare word “socialism.”

I have not finished Capital, but there have been some rewarding side trips taken.  Reading Marx brought me back to Walter Benjamin, the influential German Jewish cultural critic.  With rudimentary knowledge from Capital, his trenchant essays became easier to understand.  Benjamin adeptly melded Marxist revolutionary theory with Jewish mysticism, creating a unique and challenging method of analysis of popular culture.  In his massive and unfinished project the Arcades Project, Benjamin seeks to explore the world of the 19th century arcades and the specific sociocultural and political consequences created by their appearance.  The arcades appeared during the Second Empire, another product of Baron Haussmann’s radical urban redesign of Paris.  Haussmann’s influence on Parisian urban planning reflected a conservative thirst for order and a means to quell revolution.  Long wide boulevards made it nearly impossible to build barricades.

Another side trip, inspired by reading Benjamin’s exploration of Second Empire urban design, involved reading a few articles in S,M,L,XL, by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mao.  Reading about the emergence of Singapore as a major power one realizes there are as many flavors of socialism as capitalism.  Singapore, following independence in the 1950s, literally Haussmannized the island, creating a strong capitalist city-state with socialist techniques.

When reading Capital, Marx’s trademark style is inescapable, even buried beneath the sedimentary layers of economic theory.  The dense economic text can be as boring as any film by Andy Warhol, while other passages flash with the brilliance of comets.  Marx braids together the separate strands of abstract economic theory, revolutionary polemic, and dialectical materialist philosophy.  (The specifics of Marx’s economic philosophy will be covered in a book review.)  His writing is labyrinthine, enlarded with footnotes.  In my Penguin edition, there are footnotes to footnotes.

Inevitably, any discussion of Marx devolves into a political shouting match, the opposition bringing up gulags, Stalin, and mass murder.  In order to appreciate Capital, at least from a literary and philosophical perspective, one must appreciate it on its own merits.  The book was the product of a specific historical moment.  The first edition came out in 1867 (references to the American Civil War abound) and modern capitalism was in genesis.  Capitalism has evolved into something more complex than the simple antithesis of socialism.  One need only look at anti-democratic regimes like Pinochet’s Chile, the People’s Republic of China, and Singapore to see the various flavors of non-democratic capitalism.

Capital involves the practice of reading.  One can taken any text literally and seen it as an oracle of religious significance.  The fanaticism of Maoists is strangely similar to the fanatics who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand.  It is not the text, in and of itself, that is the problem, but the fanatical interpretation that usually breeds monsters and mayhem.  Reading Capital in 2010 involves serious consideration.  Deregulatory capitalism has created global economic devastation unseen since the Hoover Administration.  By the same token, economies subject to total planning, have utterly failed.  The 1976 preface by Ernest Mandel brought some chuckles since it was written in the heyday of Communist power.  That said, Capital’s usefulness includes a user-friendly explanation of how capitalism actually works.

In the shadow of the Great Recession, readers must consider how to approach problems with an eye on both political and economic consequences.  Capitalism free of government regulations is just as dangerous as a totally planned economy.

Unregulated capitalism is volatile, unstable, and explosive.  Capital is the oxygen that makes economies grow and prosper, but only an idiot would throw matches at a tank of liquid oxygen.  (Regulations are not a panacea either, since they need reform and streamlining as society changes.)  Those shouting for the end of government regulations remain as out of touch and ludicrous as elderly Russians carrying around Stalin posters yearning for the “good old days.”  One should not trade one brand of fanaticism for the other.

An economy under total planning can be stifling and ossified.  Just look at the political system of the United States.  Two choices and less imagination than a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction website.  Each side entrenched in outdated theologies, desiccated family dynasties, and a permanent criminal class in cahoots with each other to grow fat and rich while their constituents face outsourcing, poverty, and disinformation from all sides.  But, hey, the best system in the world.  A totally planned economy results in stagnation and poverty.  In The Company, Robert Littell’s epic tale of the Central Intelligence Agency, a economic forecasting seminar attempts to estimate the economic power of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  One economist described the Soviet Union at that time as “Upper Volta with missiles.”

Capital brings to mind the question posed by Alex in Anthony Burgess’s notorious work, A Clockwork Orange, “So what’s it gonna be then, eh?”

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