Financial systems have always been fragile. Barry Eichengreen

“The perfect society is an illusion”

According to Czech economist Tomáš Sedláček, there’s good reason not to blame capitalism for our contemporary ills but something much more inherently human. He sat down with Alexander Görlach to discuss why Marx would prefer to live in a capitalist society, how the Left has dismantled itself, and why modern capitalism is like walking across a graveyard at night.

The European: Mr. Sedláček, many contemporary thinkers – including you – use Marxist theory and apply it to the contemporary world. Are we witnessing the renaissance of Marxism?
Sedláček: Being from the Czech Republic, I find that Marxism as an ideology has utterly failed. History has proven that it is a dead end and eventually turns into a nightmare. On the other hand, modern capitalism itself owes its existence to Marx – and today it is much more sensitive and social than it used to be a hundred years ago. Children do not need to work, workers are protected, and the rich care about the poor, weak, sick and old through the obligatory taxation and relatively generous social system. So Marx proved to be a much better inspiration to capitalism than to communism itself. Communism has failed while capitalism has developed to incorporate the most burning points. I think that Marx would much rather live in a capitalist country in 2014 than in a communist one, past or present. Marx himself was not a Marxist – that is well known.

The European: What’s the legacy of his ideas?
Sedláček: His call to revolution against the system has failed, but he actually served the evolution of the very system he criticized quite well. He was the loudest critic, but failed to accomplish his goals. He probably thought that he was criticizing capitalism as such, but he actually criticized a much more general feeling: that the world in itself is wrong, not just, not ethical, exploitative, confusing, and that the system is not thoroughly thought through and generates paradoxes.

The European: How do you mean that?
Sedláček: Take alienation for example, one of his main points. The feeling of being detached from the work of your hands and ultimately from yourself influenced Marx a lot. But that is something way older than capitalism and not specific to it. It has to do more with industrialization, urbanization, specialization – but all these are not specific to capitalism and exist in other systems as well, past and present communist countries included. Marx is thus not criticizing capitalism itself, but the human condition.

The European: Why did he blame capitalism for these ills?
Sedláček: He had the same feeling that you can find in Christianity: that the system works but is at the same time fucked up. Marx attributed that to capitalism, whereas the writers of the New Testament attributed it to what they called “the system of the world”. Capitalism is to blame for many things, but not for alienation.

The European: Do we still suffer from that alienation today?
Sedláček: I think we oppress our feelings and ourselves, we alienate ourselves from ourselves and from our surroundings – that, in fact, is the role of civilization or culture as such. To alienate us from cold, hunger, wild nature, from the violence of others, from the desires of others… and perhaps even from our own. And one more thought: we have a mental image that the system oppresses us from above. But what if the oppression really comes “from below”? What if the system alienates us not so much from our “higher us”, but alienates us from our “lower us”? So, you see how mental mythology, mental placing of ideas plays a crucial role. The system might be like a lid on the Freudian id. Only God knows what would happen if this lid were removed and we did not oppress ourselves or be oppressed by the system.

“We have fetishized economics”

The European: Is the ideology of growth and improvement something that you would count as oppression?
Sedláček: Yes. It pressures you to do something you are not comfortable with. But it is unfair to blame capitalism for that. Communism wanted to grow like mad; the five-year plans were much more economic and growth-oriented than many things in capitalism. I think what is in crisis is “growth capitalism”, not capitalism per se.

The European: We are no longer in the era of industrialization and our standards of living have improved considerably. Can we still learn from Marx, or are his ideas only applicable in the context of industrialization?
Sedláček: His idea that we should take care of the weak is not very original. In fact, it is religious. As all prominent voices of the Left will point out: It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Point taken, but that is the fault of thinkers of the Left! If anybody should be able to imagine a better society, it should be them. Even Slavoj Žižek, who I consider the most brilliant, original, and inspiring thinker of the Left, will readily admit that we don’t have anything to replace the system. The critique we hear from the Left is often a critique with a condom: the critique is very erotic, but they don’t really want their ideas or dreams to be materialized. I am also very critical about the system, but not in order to destroy it… in order to improve it.

The European: Marx’s ideas for a just society were inspired by moral philosophy – which was one of the main sources of inspiration for Adam Smith. Maybe we can’t come up with another system because our thinking takes place only in economic terms?
Sedláček: I think you are right. Today, economists talk about art, love and corruption. They have studies showing that corruption slows down the economy, that art has economic benefits, etc. If studies showed that corruption was helping GDP growth, would that mean that stealing should be supported? Stealing is stealing and we don’t need economic proof that it is wrong. Here you see how economic our thinking has become.

The European: Even our thinking about basic human concepts like love is characterized by the economic value of a partnership.
Sedláček: Many Christian democratic parties see marriage as a central element of their policy. But there is actually very little about family in the New Testament. In fact, it is even quite critical of marriage. But these parties resort to economic reasoning and argue that pensions and society break down if the traditional notion of family disappears. They don’t value family as a value in itself, but as a supportive value to economic value. I have heard about a movement that wants to show that art is economically useful. That is crazy – art is just art! Like philosophy, art is not to be useful and make us more efficient at what we do, its role is exactly to be not only useless, meaning free from the imperative of usefulness, but even to go against usefulness. Art should show us that we are working too much, are being too corporate, and are too drunk with the economy or even too drunk with reason. We have fetishized economics and view everything – stealing, art, family – through the eyes of an economist. Health is also above economics: We have a good economy to be healthy, not the other way around. It is crazy to think that we should be healthy in order to foster economic growth.

The European: In the United States, some people even assign a monetary value to a wedding proposal: An engagement ring needs to be worth three times the groom’s monthly income.
Sedláček: Economics were supposed to empower us. But today it has become restrictive. A budget is supposed to give you freedom, but we instead think of the limitations. This is quite common. The same applies to Coke: thirty years ago, we used to love this drink – now we think it is despicable. What used to empower us, now limits us. We no longer perceive growth as the gate to freedom but as an imperative that dictates. Enjoy yourself! If you don’t, you are hurting others because you are not consuming.

The European: In his Christmas speech after 9/11, President Bush asked citizens to go shopping…
Sedláček: He could have said so many other things, but he said: Let’s consume! No wonder the current crisis is called “credit crunch”. “Credit” means faith in Latin – it is a faith crunch. The problem was too much consumption on credit, but what will get us out of is even more consumption on credit – only a little bit differently. It is the same idea as the one behind “quantitative easing”: If it doesn’t work, there must be too little of it.

“Even the most perfect system breaks down”

The European: In a sense, we find ourselves in a situation similar to that before the outbreak of the French revolution. We haven’t stormed the Bastille yet, but we have lost faith in the institutions. Who can fill this vacuum of belief?
Sedláček: There is nothing to replace the belief. I don’t think one has a free choice in choosing one’s own beliefs. Imagine you are walking through a graveyard in the middle of the night. Of course you don’t believe in vampires, ghosts and zombies. But right then, for a little moment, you do. You don’t want to believe in them, but you do. It is not a free choice. Modern capitalism is like that. Nobody wants to believe the economics textbooks anymore, but since we don’t have anything else, there is nothing else to believe in. But there can’t be an ideological vacuum, which means we always have to swap one belief for another. And we reluctantly believe capitalism, not so much because it functions or has been proven to work, but because there is nothing else out there.

The European: Coping rather than accepting it.
Sedláček: Joseph Schumpeter or even John Maynard Keynes wrote about the same questions. They recognized that the way to a just society follows capitalism. Through evolution, not through revolution. Capitalism today is completely different than the David Copperfield capitalism from 200 years ago. In the Czech Republic, capitalism now is even different from what it was like 20 years ago. Capitalism changes all the time. Today, we try to have capitalism with a human face – capitalist perestroika. That is why I am a capitalist reformist.

The European: What is the lesson of the current crisis?
Sedláček: We have come to the realization that markets are not divine, that they fail like everything else and – as Marx pointed out – that we are responsible for the institutions we have created. Consider your car: You don’t expect it to be perfect. Your car unexpectedly breaks down sometimes. Does that mean we should go back to horses – would Marx suggest that? No. It simply means we should drive cars slower, make them safer and improve the traffic rules and habits. Everything, even the markets are “human, all too human”, to quote Nietzsche.

The European: But there might still be accidents…
Sedláček: What is the most perfect system we humans know? A computer program! It is rational, has no emotions, no goals of its own, no Oedipus complexes running about. It is 100% mathematical and therefore predictable. And yet, even these perfect man-made systems, they freeze, crash and collapse. From time to time, you have to reboot the system. Why are we so surprised that a society, which is a much more complicated system, sometimes gets to a crunch or a freeze? Even if we were to invent a perfect system – be it with no banks, no money, no specialization and lot of hippie love – it would break down from time to time. It would never be as perfect as a computer system. So the perfect society is an illusion.

The European: You allude to a lot of rational thinking – the basis of the modern economy.
Sedláček: I am not a big fan of pure rationality. When you hear an analyst mentioning a “bubble”, or that something “is overvalued”, they are really saying that markets are not rational. It implies that the market is wrong in assessing the value of that given asset and that analysts know better. If you ask them: “How come you know and the market does not?” They will say: “Well, I have a model for it”. But all of their models are based on the assumption that markets are rational.

The European: When I meet somebody who claims to be rational, I always think of St. Augustine, who said “Love and do what you will”.
Sedláček: In love, you do not have the “rational” choice to do what you will. You don’t even think. In Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer goes: “Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” In other words: Your desire is our desire. Our will is bypassed, overshadowed by the will to love God.

The European: You make it sound negative.
Sedláček: Yes, but it also has upsides. Where there is love, you don’t need laws. Laws only enter when something doesn’t function. When children behave the way you want them to, you don’t need any laws. They love you and you love them. No laws required. Friendship needs no laws. There is not a single society that regulates friendship in a legal way – as opposed to marriage and business. We tend to believe that laws are the opposite of freedom. But for freedom to work, there have got to be rules. I am only free to drive fast on a highway if everybody sticks to the rules. Language is nothing but a set of rules. If I start breaking them I am not freer, nor can I express myself freer; nobody will understand me. Not even myself.

”You never own anything”

The European: If rules don’t cause oppression, what does?
Sedláček: That your image of yourself is different than you want it to be. And this is where economy enters. We can go back to Marx: There’s alienation, a gap you want to bridge.

The European: Ironically, advertisement can help bridge that gap: It makes you identify with every object you look at.
Sedláček: Patek Philippe advertises their watches with the slogan that you never own them but merely keep them safe for the next generation. Here is the trick: You never own anything. There is just a psychological agreement that I won’t take your jacket or the food on your plate. You don’t own it because you merely bought it. You own it because society respects that principle.

The European: Isn’t that what the sharing economy is about? That our social conventions about ownership are overcome?
Sedláček: The whole marketing structure has reversed: Certain industries become more dominant when they are not owned but shared. The more people use Google, the more valuable it becomes. Compare that with a car, which loses value with each use. The same holds true for money as well.

The European: Because people trust its value.
Sedláček: If half of the society didn’t believe in money, then the value of those pieces of paper would become half of what it is. But sharing is much bigger than that. We are also sharing the system: The more countries use market democracy, the richer we in the West become. International trade is beneficial to the poor countries, but it is much more beneficial to the rich countries.

The European: Empires used to annex other countries, capture valuables and bring them back home. Are we doing something similar when enlarging our economic zones?
Sedláček: If I offered Poland half of the Czech Republic, they wouldn’t care – or vice versa. Two generations ago, we would have killed for it. What is the economic point of enlarging your country geographically? It is just trouble. The fetish of geographical growth of a nation, which almost destroyed us, has been replaced with the fetish of economic growth of a nation. Which has also almost destroyed us. Every good thing, markets included, when fetishized, becomes a threat.

The European: When the nation-state was introduced, it solved a lot of questions. But in our globalized world, it may no longer be required.
Sedláček: Marx foresaw the withering of the nation-state. He was right – but it is withering in two directions. Towards Brussels and towards the regions. “I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy” is wrong. You shoot the middleman – and that is the nation-state.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Kenneth Binmore: "They accuse me of advocating selfishness"

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