A Morality Tale

A Morality Tale

Mini Teaser: John Clark and Aaron Wildavsky, The Moral Collapse of Communism: Poland as a Cautionary Tale (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1990).

by Author(s): Martin Krygier

John Clark and Aaron Wildavsky, The Moral Collapse of Communism: Poland as a Cautionary Tale (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1990).  431 pp., $24.95.

No one predicted the sudden and epidemic collapse of communism in 1989.  Many are now trying to explain it.  The importance of this book, what makes it stand out from most of the dozens of other works on the communist experience in Eastern Europe now appearing, is that it has an overarching and arresting theme that, properly understood, points to such an explanation.

That theme is encapsulated in the book's title: the collapse of communism is, essentially and profoundly, a moral collapse.  Stated as baldly as that, the proposition might seem both banal and empty of explanatory power.  But as it is elaborated and explored by Clark and Wildavsky--in a style that is always sophisticated and often mordant and witty--it is novel and illuminating, casting light not only on the reasons for the failure of the communist regimes but on the prospects for progress in the postcommunist period.

A natural first reaction to predictive failure is to search for particulars of which one was unaware or which were overlooked.  Many social scientists have been led to search for a host of such particulars, usually political and economic ones.  How misleading were Soviet statistics?  How divided were communist leaders?  How run down were East German factories?  How deeply diseased are distributive systems in the East?  What is it that markets know that central planners cannot?

It is important to get these tangible matters right, but the house-of-cards collapse of communism suggests that deeper things were awry.  After all, communist leaders still had armies, police, and secret police, and whatever else collapsed, these still carried loaded guns.  Why on the whole, and particularly in Poland, were they not called upon to use them?  And why did attempts to use them as of old--in Romania, for example--backfire so badly?

It may be that our explanatory difficulties lie not in specifics but in something more general and enveloping.  We lack, or are uncomfortable with, the idiom appropriate to one of the most important ways in which social orders can succeed or fail--morally.  Clark and Wildavsky maintain that the collapse of communism was not simply a product of despotism, poor institutions, the senselessness of comprehensive planning, the absence of markets, or contradictions between forces and relations of production.  All these played a part, many of them are linked, and in this wide-ranging work Clark and Wildavsky discuss them all.  They were all, however, connected to a more distinctive and profound failure of communism--its moral failure.  They contributed to it, but it, equally, to them.

The language of morals, of course, has often figured in people's evaluation of communism, with supporters attributing virtues to it and opponents frequently using moral categories to condemn its regimes.  What seemed appropriate for praise or blame, however, has rarely been accepted as apt for explanation.  Tough-minded analysis of the fate of nations and economies has seldom been conducted in the idiom of morals.  And almost no social scientist (aside from the Pope) has ventured to suggest that key, causally significant weaknesses of communist regimes might have to do with their immorality.  That is what Clark and Wildavsky successfully suggest, and therein lies the novelty and force of their work.

What does it mean to be "demoralized"?  The word is usefully ambiguous, suggesting both loss of morale and corruption of morals.  Within the range and interconnection of its several meanings lie some of the key disabilities of communist political economies.

In its most usual sense, to be demoralized means that morale is gone.  This is patently true of the Communist Parties in most of Central and Eastern Europe, preeminently Poland.  Long before they lost office their morale was shattered.  No one believed them or in them.  Worse still, they no longer believed, or believed in, themselves.

Moreover, anyone who has spent time in a communist country knows that it was not only leaders who were demoralized.  Meeting all those denizens of "abnormal" societies and dreamers about "normal" ones--all those queuers, fixers, finaglers, currency changers; tired, sad, unwell, hopeless, perpetual shoppers in perpetually empty shops; shabby inhabitants of smelly, filthy, identical, scruffy apartment blocks; non-workers in non-jobs--one became aware of a pervasive demoralization, a kind of overwhelming slackness of social muscle, which was much more disturbing and inescapable than the fate of a few corrupt and incompetent communists.

Of course the two sorts of demoralization are closely linked.  For in all communist political economies (CPEs) only one institution stands to take credit or blame: the party-state which insinuated itself everywhere, sought to control everyone, and so was held responsible for everything.  These two entities--state and society--symbiotically shared and fed each other's demoralization, with the consequence well described by Clark and Wildavsky:

Both those who lied about its operating norms and those who were lied to are disgusted because in all CPEs the system breeds similar effects, either hostility or disbelief.  When these hollow states no longer exist in the hearts and minds of their citizens, when someone pushes on them, they collapse....[W]hen push comes to shove no one pushes back.  The collapse of communism is, above all, a moral collapse.

And here we have the other sense in which state and society are demoralized: they are not only low in morale, they are low in ordinary morals as well.  Again the most obvious manifestation of this is in the state: it is full of lies.  Public language is totally fraudulent.  The interaction between virtually every level in a command economy is built on lies.  Clark and Wildavsky discuss the pathologies of "planned" economies in detail, and they make it clear that such economies would not work even if everyone told the truth.  But no one does, and that in and of itself makes planning impossible:

It may appear laughable to talk about plans as embodying moral relations.  Nevertheless, without being grounded in the common morality, no plan can be worthwhile.  Those who provide data must be trying to be accurate, or there is no point in hearing from them; those who use data must be honest in how they present them, or there is no point in doing anything.  Those who send instructions must believe these can be carried out; otherwise why bother?  When plans are tissues of lies, however, lies of such different sizes and shapes that it is not even possible to detect a consistent bias, the main effect of the plan is to inculcate lying in all who participate in it....[T]he patterns of mutual falsification have made plans useless to everyone.

Lying is only part of the story.  Stealing and dealing are also endemic, for they must be.  The public economy is short of everything, makes nothing of quality (except for military use or occasionally for export), maintains nothing, repairs nothing.  The "black" economy makes up the slack.  Everyone needs it, everyone uses it.  Everyone is alienated from the state, but the state employs everyone and owns everything, so the state is plundered.  It is a world in which "criminality in regard to the political economy first becomes normal, then normative."

The consequences of these linked forms of demoralization, Clark and Wildavsky suggest, are profound.  In personal life they lead to self-contempt.  We are not talking about some members of a society who choose (or are forced) to be criminals, but of a society as a whole which cannot help but be criminal.  Between the often intensely moral aspects of life among family and intimates, and the intense amorality of dealings in the world, there appears to be neither continuity nor contradiction--no connection really--and no space for a normatively stabilized and regulated "civil society."

More deeply still and extending the insight of the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the authors argue that the necessary criminality of public life in CPEs robs the economy of indispensable normative sources of trust and predictability, without which routine and mutually beneficial cooperation among strangers cannot occur.

Every economy is not only a political economy that specifies and expresses a pattern of power relations; it is also a moral economy that expresses and shapes ideas about how people ought to relate to each other.  No system of law, no type of contract is sufficient to sustain productive economic relations without the desire on the part of the interested parties to act honestly toward each other....[In CPEs however, people] must assume that, unless they are dealing with a member of their family or a trusted acquaintance, they are dealing with someone who is not to be trusted.  They will tailor their behavior to their expectations.  Bad moral behavior drives out good.

There is nothing pious, sanctimonious, or preachy in this point; it is really about the social and economic utility of morality.  And, if anything, Clark and Wildavsky understate the case; for eloquent as they are on the past costs of communist immorality, they do not really explore its future consequences.  Yet these consequences may turn out to be decisive.

Essay Types: Book Review