The Legacy of Marx: The Club of Rome

Part one: the "problematique"

Guardian Council, Going Postal
Often wondered how and why globalisation really got going? Well, all it took was a set of ideas. They’re mainly centred around buzz words such as sustainability and climate change but what do they mean? They are, in a nutshell, shackles to hinder humanity’s progress. Ever wondered why an erstwhile developing country such as China is now poised to become the world’s leading economy and maybe its greatest military power? Well, look no further than the ideas originating in “The Club of Rome”.

They are one of the reasons why the Chinese are now running the world’s largest high-speed rail network, moving a few billion people with it each year, build the world’s highest and longest bridges, and are set to operate the world’s largest airport soon – while Europe and the US whither away in self induced intellectual misery, listening (and believing) the crap people like Caroline Lucas or Jeremy Corbyn are incessantly spouting.

The Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, of course. Moving 1.3 billion people out of abject poverty during the last 30 years has been no small feat either but it was certainly helped by the West’s self-imposed unwillingness to keep itself in prime position. It hasn’t always been like this – let’s keep in mind that during most of the middle ages and early modernity, China and indeed India were the world’s greatest economic powers, and at least financially, the subjects of the Emperors and Mughals were much better off than the inhabitants of poor old Europe.

It has now come to the point that China is buying up large swathes of Africa to provide food reserves for their ever-growing population in the form of the rich, fertile farmland while Africans, despite all our best “text 1-800” efforts, are still walking 20 miles to the next water source; it is fair to assume that most Africans will still be doing this under their benign and not at all totalitarian Chinese colonial overlords in future, I suppose.

Again: How did this come about? Let’s cast our minds back a few years, or rather a few decades to the early 1970s, when a new book was apparently all the craze in the developed world. This book was called “The Limits to Growth” and it was published by some people who called themselves, rather pompously, I must say, “The Club of Rome”. And didn’t it sound so reassuring and serious when we heard it on the news first that – for mankind to survive – we in the industrialised and democratic nations of the erstwhile West had to, simply had to, reduce our living standards significantly.

Unless we wanted to cause an overpopulation disaster, which in turn would lead to an ecological catastrophe that would put mutually assured destruction to shame. The first report of “The Club of Rome” was a fearmonger’s wet dream, although – or maybe because – it was all derived from rather simplistically projecting current trends thirty years into the future without much adjusting them for what could, would or should happen whilst we got there.

Among the many things the bright minds of “The Club of Rome” didn’t account for was the demise of the USSR and its empire of vasal states in Eastern Europe and the advent of digitalisation, computerisation and automation in almost all industries. They didn’t even have the foresight to predict the oil price shock after the OPEC meeting in Vienna 1973, a mere year after the publication of their much acclaimed first look into the future. And this certainly put real and severe limits to growth in the form of a ever increasing energy prices – limits to growth “The Club of Rome” could only dream about.

But the most important factor their pompously titled first report missed was human nature – a factor its authors apparently knew very little of. Beyond the realms of its ivory tower, “The Club of Rome” apparently had no concept of how humanity would react to the challenges it was facing. It is rather ironic that its members intended to set about advising mankind on how to deal with the future when they had no clear notion of what everyday life for 99,9% of mankind really was like – so far detached from reality were they that it made their report bordering on the deluded.

So, who were these people? Well, as usual in cases like this it all comes down to a handful, or just about two or three people in the end. Namely, Aurelio Peccei (pronounced pet che), David Rockefeller and Alexander King.

We can discard Rockefeller from the start. Considering him being such an eventful moral busy body, “The Club of Rome” was not the foremost of his many “philanthrophical” interests. He was rather engaged with dealers and wheelers, movers and makers all over the world so there was no reason to exclude him from another venture. There even was a fair chance that he’d make his global contacts in governments and businesses available to “The Club of Rome”, but Rockefeller was not the driving force behind it by any stretch of the imagination. He was the ideal tool that could give the ideas of “The Club of Rome” global leverage, though.

Alexander King considered himself a scientist, though the closest he ever came to research was intercepting a cable that mentioned the many benefits of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, aka DDT. This opened opportunities for him in higher office after the war, when he became Secretary of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, and included in the 1948 Birthday Honours, to be decorated with an OBE. This of course was not the type of stellar scientific career that was still possible in Britain at his time, just think of the discovery of the double strand helix of DNA – another three letters starting with “D”, coincidentally.

Discarding two of three leaves us with one man at the centre: Aurelio Peccei. Born 1908 in Turin, he graduated there with a degree in economics and his vita reads like the biography of a Bond-style villain. Invited to the Soviet Union in 1930, presumably for his socialist ideals, Peccei was eager to please his overlords in fascist Italy just as well. Fascism and communism apparently were no contradictions in his mind, but two equally valid approaches of bettering the human condition through central planning or some such.

This was first put to the test when Fiat, his employer, sent Peccei to China in 1935 to start their operations from scratch. This, he apparently did exceeding their expectation which may be why Fiat awarded Peccei with a place on their management board. During the war, Peccei lived through – what Churchill might have called – his “wilderness years”, joining a partisan outfit called Giustizia è Liberta (justice and liberty) closely affiliated to what was then called a “liberal-socialist” party named – in breath-taking simplicity – the Action Party (Partito d’Azzione).

Guardian Council, Going Postal

Their party-political programme was what would today be called social democrat: instating socialist policy principles not by substituting capitalism with socialism but by making capitalism work as a means of its ultimate destruction in order to achieve socialist, and ultimately communist, Nirvana. This has remained the final goal of euro-communism ever since it first manifested itself in its many guises, one of them being the EU-SSR of course, another one being “The Club of Rome”.

After the war, Peccei got working for Fiat again who, considering his past successes in China, sent him on a business trip to Argentina. He was supposed to copy what he did in China, building up business operations from scratch, presumably by getting on very good terms (*cough cough) with the Argentinian powers that be at that time – which were of course Peronists and thus politically not too far removed from where Peccei stood ideologically: not on the solid grounds of classical-liberal capitalism and free-market economics, but on the treacherous grounds of third-way socialism, which wanted to join an unholy corporatist alliance between economy and state.

Corporatism had worked rather well when Peccei had founded Alitalia, and it also went down well in the Peronist Argentine, which at that time wanted to build up her economy through what Peronists called an agenda of import substitution, mainly protectionist tariffs along the lines of Hamilton’s American System (or American School). Argentina in the 1940s had an abundant, highly skilled industrial work force living in just a few urban regions and was eager to put the opportunities created by a savagely ruined European continent to good use, taking its place as one of the leading nations of the world. Peccei’s ideas about the “redistribution” of wealth between the global North and South probably stem from the time when he set up Fiat-Concord, a joint Italo-Argentinian manufacturer of cars and tractors.

After ten years in Argentina, Peccei was recalled to Turin by Fiat and became the managing director of Italoconsult, a para-public venture of Fiat with Innocenti (machinery) and Montecatini (an Italian quasi monopolist in the chemical industry). He later set about saving Olivetti (of type writer fame) from bankruptcy. All these efforts would today be considered state interventions in failing enterprises, and textbook examples of corporatism – manipulation of pseudo-private business ventures for the political benefit of the state, with mixed results to put it mildly: with an annual revenue of EUR 227 million, Olivetti is today a niche player in its industry, Innocenti and Montecatini don’t exist anymore, and we all know what became of Alitalia.

For all their worth, Peccei’s business engagements left him craving for more, apparently, so he looked around and spotted a niche in the free market of ideas and opinions: apparently, there was an opening in the market for doom and gloom, for fearmongering as it were. Let’s quickly remind ourselves that for all their Pax Americana optimism, the 50s and 60s especially were disaster-prone. Despite their hee-haw optimism, these two decades made mankind at times acutely aware of the fact that utter destruction was only a step, or rather a push of a button, away. The Cuban missile crises in particular had just reminded the world that the consequences of mutually assured destruction would indeed not only be mutual, but quite utterly total. Or what today would be termed global.

So, what did Peccei do? He sat down writing a paper called the ADELA paper, of which strangely enough not a shred can be found on the internet. From what can be gathered, this was where he laid out his ideas of a more “socially just” redistribution of capital and labour between the industrialised First and the yet to be industrialised Third World. All with the eager and willing support and consent of the Third World, mind. That’s when it helped that Peccei reframed classical-liberal capitalism as social democratic corporatism – a corrupted, yet functional variant of capitalism, where free-market economics become the means of their own destruction and a means of achieving socialist (and ultimately communist) utopia.

What happened next was Dean Rusk, then US Secretary of State, catching a glimpse of Peccei’s ADELA paper and – Rusk being rather bereft of political ideas of his own – putting his considerable political weight behind yet another champion of “social justice”; after all, Rusk did call himself a New Deal Democrat and fancy himself a latter-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a reason. Obviously, Rusk couldn’t live up to his ideals, that’s apparently why Peccei’s message of impending doom and gloom resonated with him so forcibly that he had the ADELA paper translated into English and handed around in Washington as some sort of miraculous revelation, or Holy Scripture.

This is also how the ADELA paper found its way to the Soviet Union’s delegation at the UN. Here, Jermen Gvishiani, son-in-law of Andrej Kosygin, then Chairman of the Council of Ministers, the power behind Khrushchev’s throne, was rather enthralled by Peccei’s plan to achieve socialism (and ultimately communism) not by means of the pesky proletarian world revolution, but by “taming” capitalism through the means of central planning and state-economy corporatism. “It might just work” was the consensus reached in Washington and Moscow – at least it would keep the European competition busy for the time being and keep their minds off of more important things.

This was also when Alexander King got involved, via his posting at the OECD in Paris. It was his job to track down Peccei because the Yanks had a paper, the author of which they and the Commies wanted to get in touch with as a matter of great urgency. King passed on Gvishiani’s invitation to the Soviet Union to Peccei, which must have reminded Peccei of his first trip in 1930. Peccei called King back on the telephone, both had lunch together and got on rather well – King was in on the deal as it were.

What Peccei did next was handing out invitations to thirty industrialists and scientists who met for a weekend brainstorming in the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynxes, animals fabled for their sharp and far-reaching vision; pictured above). The purpose of the meeting was to focus on the manifold, and mostly interdependent, problems mankind was facing in the next thirty to one hundred years – what Peccei called the problematique – and what they presumably had in common.

This meeting was not a success for many reasons, one of them being that the participants couldn’t all agree on the intended message of impending disaster and catastrophe for mankind unless measures were taken to reign in human activity, and with this, development in the industrialised nations of the West – but never in the Communist East, mind, and not in the Third World neither, which was still eagerly awaiting the full benefits of industrialisation.

The situation was remedied directly after the meeting in Peccei’s home, where a handful of people gathered. While most of Peccei’s guests had by then made their excuses and bid him farewell, at least the remaining few shared his pessimistic, dystopic visions concerning the future. Amongst them were Erich Jantsch (Austrian-born American and one of the leading methodologists of social systems design), Hugo Thiemann (then a leading Swiss research and development manager) and Max Kohnstamm (an acclaimed Dutch historian and diplomat) – and of course Alexander King of (acquired) DDT fame.

They all seem to have been respected capacities in their respective fields (though no one knows for certain just what King’s field actually was). But although none of them were outstanding or even excellent, all were eager to leave a lasting mark in the history books. That’s how “The Club of Rome” was founded – by experts who for as long as they lived had always been one sandwich short of a picknick.

We shall see in the next instalment how they set about achieving their goals. But until then, let’s remind ourselves once more what their final goal was: Marxism.

© Guardian Council 2018

Audio file