To Better Understand Capitalism, Don’t Call a “Priest”

  • August 25, 2023
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In this week’s column, I’d like to continue discussing Graham Priest’s unusual book Capitalism: Its Nature and Its Replacement. Priest uses ideas he gets from Marxism and Buddhism to criticize capitalism. Last week, I said that Priest has interesting things to say about Marxism but I avoided Buddhism. This time I won’t avoid it, because the account of human personality he gets from it is crucial to his rejection of libertarianism.

Priest is an eminent logician, and he is quick to cut through nonsense. He says about historical materialism:

Marx and Engels . . . draw a distinction between the base and the superstructure of a society. The base comprises the means and relations of production: the superstructure comprises the consciousness of people. And the base determines the superstructure. . . .

The view is, frankly, incredible. It is clear that ideas can have enormous impact on people. Merely consider the effects of the teachings of Christ, Mohammed, or the Buddha, and their disciples. Moreover, such ideas can have an enormous impact on the economic base itself. . . .

It is unsurprising, then, to find Engels, at least, backtracking. . . .

Engels is clearly prevaricating. He says that the base determines the superstructure “in the last instance,” but he has no explanation of what that means . . . it becomes the banality that the economic activity is necessary for whatever else to happen.

Our author also makes an incisive criticism of Marx’s endorsement of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx said that after a socialist revolution, a new state controlled by the workers was needed to smash the remnants of capitalism and the bourgeois class that supported it. After doing so, the state was supposed to “wither away,” but for Priest this naively ignores what we know about the psychology of power:

It is clear, however, that Marx endorsed a centralized state in some form after the demise of capitalism: something that had the power to enforce new social relations. True, Marx and Engels claimed it would eventually “wither away.” . . .

However, Marx and Engels gave no reason for, or mechanism for, the disappearance of the state.

The points were forcefully made by [the anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin . . . [who] got it right. Once the Bolsheviks were able to take power away from the relatively democratic soviets and worker’s councils, and place it in their own top-down power structure, the rest was all downhill. . . .

The lesson, then, is a quite general one. Top-down power structures do not dismantle themselves. For whatever reason they arise, they start to run things for their own benefit. Such is the fate of all bureaucracies, be they of the major kind of the Soviet nomenklatura or the minor kind of bureaucracies that have taken over Australian universities.

Why won’t people give up power? Priest answers by invoking Buddhist psychology. The self is transitory, but people cannot accept this and engage in a futile quest for permanence. Getting and holding power is one way some people try to achieve this:

Buddhist psychology provides an acute analysis of what is going on here. There is no such thing as a determinate self, yet we try to construct one. . . .

Everything is impermanent. Moreover, it is clear that we all have a sense of this, much as we might try to suppress it. . . . Now, it is clearly natural to suppose that things like wealth and power are means to control these vicissitudes, and thus protecting ourselves from them. Desires for these things are, therefore, eminently explicable by our inchoate grasp of impermanence.

It is here that I part company with Priest. He is right that people have a sense of impermanence. As the French proverb says, “Tout lasse, tout casse, tout passe.” He is also right that people seek power as a means to cope with this sense of impermanence. But to dismiss the self as an illusion goes too far and is inimical to liberty.

You can retain the wisdom of Priest’s account of power without denying the existence of a determinate self. He says, “As the nineteenth-century British politician Lord Acton noted: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton had this insight without taking a Buddhist view of the self. (By the way, Priest has slightly misquoted Acton, though he gives the correct quotation in a footnote; and Acton is much better described as a historian than a politician.)

Why do I claim that Priest’s denial of the self is inimical to liberty? He says:

In short, a post-capitalist society, if it is to work, must be organized in a bottom-up fashion, as endorsed by many anarchists. I note that nearly all those who do or did endorse such a kind of structure, argue for it on the basis of the value of liberty and its role in human flourishing. As is clear, we are approaching matters from a very different direction. It is Buddhist ethics that is driving the picture, not libertarianism.

In Priest’s Buddhist view, if I have understood it, oppression is bad because it is a form of suffering. You might now ask, “Why don’t people try to detach themselves from the suffering that oppression causes?” Priest’s answer is that human evolution has made it very difficult to do this. People should be compassionate and thus try to lessen oppression, but doing this isn’t based on the false view that persons are separate.

Priest has no use for the libertarian account of human rights, which impedes solidarity:

People are essentially interdependent from birth. Society is not a configuration formed to enforce pre-existing interests, but a pre-existing matrix, which forms such interests and provides for the needs of its members. In other words, this aspect of the [capitalist] ideology [i.e., Priest’s claim that supporters of the social contract view people as social atoms] serves to cover over the essential interconnectedness of people. Hence it can deliver those us/them attitudes which undermine solidarity. (emphasis in original)

Libertarians don’t in fact deny that people depend on one another. Priest’s accusation of “social atomism” is misplaced, as he himself seems to recognize elsewhere in the book: “For the most part, those who espoused social contract theory . . . did not regard the situation before the contract as an historical reality. It was simply a conceptual framework aimed at justifying a certain set of social relations.” Libertarians do, though, insist that people have inherent rights that other people cannot override, and this Priest cannot abide.

Priest supports democratic decision-making. People should be able to listen to each other in order to arrive at a common viewpoint, and doing this is especially important at the local level. If you disagree with the group’s decision, the others will certainly listen to you, and take into account the suffering you may undergo because your standpoint hasn’t won approval, but there isn’t a sphere in which the group has to defer to you, where your decision about what is to be done to your person and property is final.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Priest takes a favorable view of the “bottom-up democratic decision-making” of Communist Cuba, though, to his credit, he acknowledges that the Cuban Communist Party “wields a good deal of top-down de facto power.” Cuba has in fact been an oppressive dictatorship since 1959, but evidently this does not trouble Priest.

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