The emptiness of a secular creed. The editor of the Economist, in his indifference to the human costs of an ideology, is like the western apologists for the old Soviet Union, argues John Gray
20:21 Vision: the lessons of the 20th century for the 21st
Bill Emmott Allen Lane, The Penguin
It is a common error to believe that Karl Marx is not to be blamed for the crimes and tragedies of communism. Chronically corrupt, centrally planned economies can survive only by intense political repression; when that fails, they collapse. Like other utopian projects, Marxian socialism is fated to run aground on the truth of human nature. As Bill Emmott, editor of the Economist, writes in his new book: "Ideas of attainable human utopias, of the perfectibility of human nature and of human conditions, are not just a delusion but dangerous. They are a delusion because life is too complicated, too riven by competing desires, instincts and needs, to allow utopias to emerge. They are dangerous because they bring with them false notions of certainty, dogmas that drive people to demand that particular ideas and plans must be followed, and to back those demands with force."
Intellectually as well as morally, humans are too imperfect to be able to construct a new world. They can only muddle along in the world they find themselves in. If they try to do more - to implement a rational model for the economy, for example, the results are practically always ruinous. But it is not just those who tried to implement central planning who came to grief trying to achieve this rationalistic ambition in the 20th century. It was also those who tried to impose free markets throughout the world. Like Marx's communist disciples, the bureaucrats of the International Monetary Fund were certain that a single economic system must be adopted universally. They, too, were fully prepared to back their false notions of certainty with force - as when they imposed heavy debts and other economic sanctions on emerging countries. Like the planned economies that were imposed across a third of the world in the communist era, the free markets that were engineered at vast human cost in the 1990s have collapsed in a number of countries - including the most important, Russia.
One of the more curious features of 20:21 Vision is that it contains no discussion - indeed, no mention - of the costs and failures of the transition to free markets in post- communist countries. If you look for the names of Gorbachev or Yeltsin in the index, you will find nothing. Like Trotsky during the Soviet period, they have been airbrushed out of history. It is as if the tragicomic history of post-communist Russia - the catastrophic drop in population and living standards, the crime-based anarcho-capitalism of the Yeltsin era and the emergence of a subtle form of authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin - had never occurred. In consigning the failures of Russian market reform to an Orwellian memory hole, Emmott shows he has something in common with western defenders of the Soviet Union. Like them, he is cavalier in his attitude to the human casualties of economic development.
To pass over the failed transition to a western-style market economy in Russia in silence is a grotesque omission. It suggests an inability to learn from the past - an unfortunate feature in a book that claims to draw on the lessons of the 20th century. Such a blank denial of history is a common failing of ideologues, and it has been particularly conspicuous among market liberals over the past decade. Old-style Trotskyists refuse to admit that the failures of existing socialist regimes in any way undermine Marxism: if the Soviet system caused the deaths of millions of people, that only shows it was not really socialist. In exactly the same way if, in Argentina, neoliberal policies have turned a rich first-world country into an impoverished chaos, for neoliberals, that can only mean free-market policies simply were not implemented consistently enough. There is nothing wrong with the theory. It is a waste of time arguing with ideologues of this kind. However stridently they claim to be rationalists, their beliefs are based neither on evidence nor argument. They are the tenets of a secular creed, articles in a modern utopian catechism that is at bottom an expression of faith.
Unlike some of his more excitable co-believers, Emmott understands there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of global capitalism. He declares at the outset that the two big questions that face the world at present are whether the current vogue for capitalism will last and whether the US will continue to keep the global peace (and he is clear that the answer to the first question depends very largely on how the second is answered). In much of what is by any standard a formidably intelligent book, Emmott's tone is coolly analytic. Adding his voice to an emerging revisionist consensus, he is sharply realistic about the insupportable debt and endemic corruption that lie not far beneath the surface of the so-called Chinese economic miracle. More unusually, he understands that accelerating globalisation does not automatically enhance American hegemony; if anything, the trend is the other way. As countries such as China and India become economic superpowers, they are bound to become increasingly unwilling to accept a unipolar world. So globalisation may paradoxically undermine global capitalism by making it easier to challenge US power.
It is hard to imagine a better defence of global capitalism than the one developed by Bill Emmott in 20:21 Vision. Yet the view of history that underpins his argument is not, in the end, greatly different from Francis Fukuyama's monocular vision. The victory of global capitalism may not be preordained, but in Emmott's view there is no remotely satisfactory alternative to it. Either the world continues its progress towards a universal free market or it will relapse into conflict. The trouble with this view is that it fails to understand that trying to impose a single economic system throughout the world is itself a sure recipe for conflict. Modern capitalism comes in a number of varieties, expressing different national and religious traditions and values. These divergent variants of capitalism - American, Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Russian, for example - are not fixed. There are many hybrids. Even so, there is no reason to think they will converge on a single model.
The idea that American capitalism is the model for economic life everywhere - a vision of the future that, for all his many caveats, Emmott still shares - implies that some version of American values will one day be universally accepted. But this is simply Marx's Enlightenment dream of a universal civilisation framed in neoliberal terms. Emmott believes that economic forces are (if only in the last analysis, as Marxists used to say) what really drive history. The history of the 20th century suggests the contrary. The Soviet empire did not collapse because it was economically inefficient; it fell because it could not contain the undiminished power of religion and nationalism in Poland and the Baltic states. The same forces lie behind the revulsion against globalisation that is building up in many countries today.
In the US itself, criticism of the economy has been muted by the impact of the terrorist attacks of 11 September; but in the rest of the world American capitalism is viewed with greater suspicion than has been the case for decades. No doubt there are many reasons for this state of affairs, but a major factor is the claim - which George Bush reiterated towards the end of last year, and which lies behind the grandiose American scheme for reshaping the Middle East in the aftermath of war in Iraq - that the US embodies "the only sustainable model of national success". The lesson of the 20th century is that such claims are hubristic - even when made by liberals. No one economic or political system can be implemented everywhere. The attempt to impose a single model always backfires. This is a lesson not found in Bill Emmott's book, but I fear it is one the world is about to learn all the same.
John Gray is the author of Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (Granta). His next book is Al-Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern (Faber and Faber)