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’.




Categories: Society

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