Practical reason as sorcery (ii): development economics

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the towering figure of Josif Stalin, whose footprint on the 20th century has been arguably the biggest of any world leader. ‘Young Stalin‘ of Simon Sebag Montefiore has rightly been awarded many prizes, as much uncomfortable its central tenet – JS was a supremely talented man, albeit an evil one- can be. In a forum, I stumbled upon the following witty remark:

“Stalin was a great ceo of ussr inc. fought and won inter management battle due to his superior strategy and vision. successfully defeated hostile takeover bid by german nazi inc ( with a little help from friends). cut lots of unproductive and underperforming fat. and really turned over inefficient and backward business into a world conquering juggernaut second only to great usa inc. a really great ceo and shining beacon for business community. “

Turning to more serious analysis, the early Soviet poster below, promoting industrialization, reads “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”:
it  gives an hint for another instance of the recurring theme of practical reason as sorcery (see here for the previous post).


Let us start  from a remark by late Eric Hobsbawm in “Age Of Revolution 1789 -1848”, (pg 181):

“Of all the economic consequences of the age of dual revolution this division between the ‘advanced’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ countries proved to be the most profound and the most lasting. Roughly speaking by 1848 it was clear which countries were to belong to the first group, i.e. Western Europe (minus the Iberian peninsula), Germany, Northern Italy and parts of central Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and perhaps the colonies settled by English-speaking migrants. But it was equally clear that the rest of the world was, apart from small patches, lagging, or turning—under the informal pressure of western exports and imports or the military pressure of western gunboats and military-expeditions— into economic dependencies of the west. Until the Russians in the 1930s developed means of leaping this chasm between the ‘backward’ and the ‘advanced’, it would remain immovable, untraversed, and indeed growing wider, between the minority and the majority of the world’s inhabitants. No fact has determined the history of the twentieth century more firmly than this.”

Hobsbawm,  in “Age Of Extremes – 1914-1991″, (pg. 380), talks about the first Five Year Plan launched by J. Stalin in the following terms:

“Nevertheless, any policy of rapid modernization in the USSR, under the circumstances of the time, was bound to be ruthless …”

Stalin realized quite early on that the (world) revolution was not going to happen in the West & hence he unflinchingly (and brutally) followed the suggestions of the industrialists to steer through a policy of massive industrialization in one country.
How are we to judge the above remarks? Are they supported by empirical data?

Take old Alec Nove’s article, “Was Stalin really necessary?”:  his conclusion seems to be on the affirmative. Now take another set of researchers,  Anton Cheremukhin, Mikhail Golosov, Sergei Guriev, Aleh Tsyvinski (MIT): in the paper “Was Stalin Necessary for Russian Economic Development?”, they argue quite the opposite, seemingly pointing to the total uselessness of JS’s policies of rapid industrialization, against the loss of economic potential in the millions. (The paper above has been reviewed by Emanuele Felice: here)

In reality, the debate -even invoking notions of Pareto optimality in the allocation etc- would still be an ill-fit to the empirical data, because the concept of human society it is predicated upon cannot be clearly stated, but it lives in the foggy province of either an extrapolation from the present, or of a earthly ‘civitas dei’ which, along with similar messianic ideas, cannot have instantiation.

It seems that either some obscure notion of human freedom, happiness has to be invoked, – which is impossible – or the debate is reduced to sterile comaparison of time-series analysis, which by itself cannot do justice to the vastness of the events. The phrase :”One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics”, also attributed to JS, is just a restatement of the same problem, that morality – so to speak- has a necessary scale, which is commensurate to the situation at hand. Entire popuulations can be displaced to make room for future Magnitogorsk or Norilsk, without the notion of human dignity to apply or make much sense. Those notions, so to speak, have a local domain of validity. Kantian universalism is rejected by the historical data in the ‘age of extremes’.




Wir sind unschuldig


The text at the bottom of Marx and Engels monument in Alexander Platz in Berlin reads “Wir sind unschuldig”, i.e. “We are not guilty”. Guilty of what?
In the preface to “A People’s Tragedy”, Orlando Figes writes very perceptive words:

The Russian Revolution launched a vast experiment in social engineering — perhaps the grandest in the history of mankind. It was arguably an experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity’s historic striving for social justice and comradeship.

Albert Einstein wrote an article for the “Monthly Review” in 1949, with the title ‘Why Socialism?’, explaining why a mode of production corresponding to Veblen’s “predatory phase” of human race could not foster the human potential, as (Veblen 1899, Ch. 1

“The predatory phase of culture is attained […] when the predatory attitude has become the habitual and accredited spiritual attitude for the members of the group; when the fight has become the dominant note in the current theory of life; when the common-sense appreciation of men and things has come to be an appreciation with a view to combat.”

Nowhere in recorded history, has argued Yuval Harari in ‘Home Sapiens’, there have been periods where being expendable in the production process has accrued in something else than insignificance. If ever we would be able to build the ‘civitatem dei’ of automata working for us, according to the old dream of the rabbi from Prague, the outcome may be straight dismissal for us. The illusion – fostered by the golden age of post 1945 Western economies miracle – that free sanitation and health care and (almost) free schooling were granted by the liberal order because of some ethical concern about the human life is soon dismissed: the (neo)liberal argument that inspired such policies was born out of efficiency considerations. Whoever has to provide for her own expensive health care is less productive and total efficiency decreases.

We are still trapped in this line of argument: if we forget this, it is at our own peril.

“Religions keeps us from thinking to hard problems”

Marvin Minsky needs no presentation: his unflinching atheism was proverbial.
Less well known, as the above video shows, his connection to Russian Cosmism. Sagan, Asimov and other East coast Russian-Jewish immigrants were all permeated by the idea of Tsiolkovsky. See also this.

Chances are CRISPR is but the latest incarnation of such a dream.
Antigone was wrong, again and againpace Martin Heidegger and his comment on ‘Ode on Man’.

In the brilliant words of Bertrand Russell:

A good world needs knowledge, kindness and courage. It does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.