Marxist of the Right

June 12, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

PARIS — Paris. -- A proper Cassandra probably should not be quite as comfortably situated as Sir James Goldsmith is here in his house that once was home to a king's brother and later, and more impressively, to Cole Porter. But Sir James, 61, can't help being a billionaire and won't mute his political lamentation, which is nothing if not comprehensive. He has drawn an indictment against most of modernity.

Shortly before the 1987 stock market crash he got out of the market, went to earth -- opulently, in several homes around the world -- and thought. Now his sabbatical is over. Pausing here recently between campaign stops in his Gulfstream jet during his quest for a seat in the European Parliament, he poured forth his worry that unless the new GATT free-trade pact is scuttled, it will produce social divisions ''deeper than anything Marx anticipated.''

Sir James is a capitalist worried that the equilibrium achieved between capital and labor during the last century is about to be tilted radically in capital's favor. The great fact of our age is, he says, the sudden -- because of political and technological changes -- entry of 4 billion people into the international labor market, people from low-wage areas such as China, India, Bangladesh, the former Soviet Union and Latin America. In a world of instantaneous international communication and movements of capital, almost anything can be made almost anywhere. The result under global free trade will be, he warns, the ''proletarianization'' of the labor forces of advanced nations.

Marx falsely prophesied that a ''reserve army of the unemployed'' would produce the immiseration of the masses and a revolutionary crisis of capitalism. With similar certitude Sir James asserts that global free trade will produce chaos for the many but financial bliss for a few.

The world GATT will produce will be, he says, ''economic paradise for an elite'' -- for those with capital to invest where low labor costs maximize its return. This world also will be a politician's dream, making possible lax monetary policy with minimal inflationary effects because of downward pressure on wages from what Sir James calls ''the reservoir of the underemployed.''

Insisting he is not a protectionist but a regionalist, he favors free trade among comparable economies. To those who say the rapid ascents of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore prove that trade between dissimilar economies can produce ''leveling up,'' he rejoins that those successes were produced by the Cold War and involve trivial numbers of people -- 70 million. But he seems to postulate an improbable permanence -- two hermetically sealed blocs of nations, one of high wages, the other low, forever.

Still, he has an attention-arresting vision, particularly of the possible consequences -- reverse Malthusianism, a crisis of agricultural abundance -- of intensive, high-technology agriculture. Sir James will not call such agriculture ''efficient,'' because of the social and economic costs he sees coming from it. Those costs include the deracination of populations and the destabilization of cities.

Currently 3.1 billion people live on the land. Free trade in the foods and fibers that could be produced worldwide by agriculture as efficient as, say, Canadian, Australian and American agriculture could, he says, drive 2 billion of those people into cities, with staggering infrastructure, welfare and police costs. Imagine, say, Sao Paulo with a population of 45 million. Sir James' language acquires Old Testament resonance as he envisions rural communities worldwide ''washed away as if by a flood'' in ''the greatest migration ever'' that would ''make Stalin's collectivization look like child's play.''

His prophecy may seem like ''Marxism of the right,'' but it rejects the sovereignty of economic forces and the primacy of merely economic values. We have heard such refrains before, even in cheerful capitalist America where ''change'' is considered a synonym for ''progress'' -- remember the Southern ''agrarians'' taking their stand against industrialism. And ever since the industrial revolution, some European conservatives have blanched at capitalism's revolutionary power to dissolve traditional social arrangements.

Sir James, a child of an Anglo-French marriage, is allied politically with some representatives of old Catholic France. Some will say he is a political aesthete, recoiling from the ugliness of an urbanized world. But if so, so what?

Asked whether, by standing athwart history crying ''Halt,'' he is rejecting most of the West's experience and values since the Renaissance made man the measure of all things and made science his servant, Sir James answers, equably: ''More or less.'' He is mistaken about both possibilities and inevitabilities, but by darkly sketching a world in which all values are sacrificed to a specious ''efficiency,'' he leavens the conversation of nations.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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