Archive for the ‘The Right’ Category
I just saw The Iron Lady, and I can highly recommend it, although it was very different from what I expected. Although it dealt with Thatcher’s politics (sort of), it mostly focused on a private character study of the former prime minister, emphasizing her role as a woman in politics from the 1950s to the 1990s and her struggle with her husband’s death. And let me just say that whatever your politics, the movie makes clear that there’s one thing we can all agree about: Meryl Streep is a legend.
There has been an interesting reaction to the film by both the British public and its public intellectuals. Richard Vinen (at my alma mater, King’s College London, and author of Thatcher’s Britain) has been in the press several times in the past month, attempting to explain Thatcher’s lasting power in British political rhetoric, first in the New York Times, and then, after receiving hate mail, in the Financial Times. He wrote that Thatcher exists essentially as a fictional bogeyman in British politics, despite the fact that both parties have agreed (rightly or wrongly) with her policies after the fact.
Vinen’s New York Times piece takes the film as a call for backbone amongst Britain’s politicians. In times of crisis, he claims, the British need a polarizing figure like Thatcher, who drove conservatives to the right and Labour to the left and made people choose a solution to the crisis from those two sides. He says that in Britain Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday’s FT featured a book review by the Conservative operative Danny Kruger. The book reviewed was The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, a book that lays out the intellectual framework for ‘Blue Labour’. Blue Labour is a newish move in the British Labour Party to appeal to middle class and working class voters by shifting to the right (the Tories are blue and Labour is red here) on a number of social issues, particularly immigration, crime, and the welfare state. It is not unlike the idea of ‘blue dog democrats’ in America in its appeal to somewhat socially conservative, blue collar and middle class voters. I haven’t read the book and this isn’t a counter-review. Kruger made some interesting statements, though, in defense of the ‘blue’ of Blue Labour.
In terms of the political spectrum as outlined by Kruger, there are both ‘Utopian’ and ‘Nostalgic’ forms of both Labour and Tory ideology. Blue Labour conforms to the Nostalgic: He reports that Maurice Glasman (one of the leading lights of Blue Labour) ‘wants to rebuild a “Tudor Commonwealth” of freemen, hustings, guilds and guildhalls. The task for Labour, in today’s outsourced and globalised world, is to be “the collective poet” for England, retelling the stories of the nation.’ In contrast, the New Labour of Tony Blair and the Millibands is Whiggish and Utopian. Kruger points out that the Conservatives have the same two strands of Utopian and Nostalgic ideology. He rejects the Utopians in both parties and supports the project of Blue Labour for that reason. He likes that ‘Glasman and Rutherford give hat tips to Burke, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Conservative elegists who saw the 19th century coming and didn’t like it. Most of all, credit is given to Aristotle – though Moses and Jesus should also have got a mention too, given that Blue Labour’s worldview is, in large part, Judeo-Christian. Instead of progress, our task is civilisation, the melioration of brokenness.’ Read the rest of this entry »
This week’s Economist and Weekend FT both feature articles about the newest candidate to enter the Republican nomination contest, Michele Bachmann. As papers that regularly point to the celebrity reality show nature of Sarah Palin’s past (and potential future) candidacy, the papers treat Bachmann remarkably seriously. They refer to her polling numbers in Iowa, where she is only behind Mitt Romney by 1 percentage point in the Republican nominating contest. They refer to her religious convictions, and although it’s clear that they are not shared by the authors of the pieces, the tone is markedly different from those aimed at Palin, or even Newt Gingrich. ’Authenticity’, ‘conviction’, ‘credentials’ seem to be the buzzwords surrounding Bachmann. She is genuinely passionate about her religious convictions, the papers argue. She’s the opposite of Romney’s transparent faux conservativeness, and therefore will appeal to real value voters, they say. She is ideologically pure, as well, ridiculing the Republican establishment with as much vigor as she ridicules Democratic opponents. But they also emphasize that she’s no lightweight. Although she has a limited political track record, they are keen to highlight that unlike Palin, she’s smart. Not just shrewd (though there’s that too: ‘And Mrs Bachmann certainly knows how to play Iowa;’ ‘She is a gifted public speaker, with a knack for rousing a crowd;’ ‘ her appetite for provocative stunts;’ etc), she is portrayed as genuinely smart, presidential material: The Economist says ‘ She replied, in a suitably dignified, presidential manner, that she deserved to be taken seriously.‘ The FT says that ’In Republican circles she is seen as having the potential to outshine Palin by being a smarter and more disciplined candidate.’ Clearly the comparisons to Palin are easy for journalists: they are both ‘values’ candidates, they appeal to similar voters, and they are both women.
What is more intriguing about this coverage, though, is its potential for international comparisons. A regular feature of the Economist (and its only regular Read the rest of this entry »
Michele Bachmann is running around talking about how the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery,” and using the example of John Quincy Adams as evidence of that fact. This has engendered some debate over whether or not JQ was a real Founding Father, since he was, well, 8 when the Declaration of Independence was passed. Bachmann’s supporters have taken to scrubbing wikipedia, writing in that JQ Adams was, in fact, a Founding Father.
The stakes are this: Bachmann and her supporters have adopted the view that the Founders were Moses figures– perfect law givers whose judgement SHALL NOT BE QUESTIONED. (It goes without saying, they all sat around Colonial Massachusetts and Virginia talking about how deregulation, privatization, and union-busting were God’s will.) Bachmann: “our Constitution has done for our nation is to give us the basis of freedom unparalleled in the rest of the world.
The unpleasant historical fact, though, that they personally accepted and profited off slavery, and then clearly enshrined it in the Constitution is a bit awkward. American exceptionalism must be defended! Hence the Tea Party history lesson: the Founders “worked tirelessly to end slavery.” Odd that they put in things like the 3/5 clause and the clause demanding the rendition of fugitive slaves from one state to another.
Anyway… Everyone is focusing on how ridiculous it is that Bachman considers John Quincy Adams, whose career obviously peaked in the 1820s and 1830s, as a Founding Father. But its also a bit strange to consider him an abolitionist. I thought I’d go back and look at a eulogy given about John Quincy Adams on his death. In this case, Theodore Parker, a prominent Boston anti-slavery preacher.
“It must be confessed that Mr. Adams, while Secretary of State, and again while President, showed no hostility to the institution of slavery. His influence all went the other way. He would repress the freedom of the blacks in the West Indies, lest American slavery should be disturbed and its fetters broke; he would not acknowledge the independence of Hayti, he would urge Spain to make peace with her descendants, for the same reason,– “not for the new republics,” but lest the negroes in Cuba and Porto Rico should secure their freedom.”
Working tirelessly indeed.
But Parker admits, he did change. After losing re-election to Andrew Jackson, he entered the Congress and became an antislavery leader. “In respect to the subject of slavery, he had no ideas in advance of the nation; he was far behind the foremost men. He deprecated all discussion of slavery or its abolition, in the House…’ However, he acquired new ideas as he went on, and became the congressional leader in the great movement of the American mind towards universal freedom.”
In other words, and I think Parker is generally correct here, Adams didn’t really become a prominent anti-slavery voice until the mid 1830s, when he only represented Massachusetts (and hence was freer to take positions which would alienate the South). Even then, he focused on the ways that slavery infringed on Northern freedom, far more than he did on the ways that slavery infringed the freedom of African-Americans.
The point, of course, is that its absurd to pretend that Adams was some pure, unbroken link of human rights and antislavery sentiment that stretched from 1776 to 1831. He, by and large, didn’t care about the issue, until the actions of radicals and insurgent slaves forced politicians to take sides in the 1830s. To his credit he took the right side, and was brave and forceful while doing so. But presenting his life as some vindication of the abolitionist tendencies of the Founding Fathers is an absurd re-writing of history. It is also, of course, a re-writing of history that erases the actions of the radicals (both black and white, free and enslaved) who forced the issue of slavery into the open. And it should be mentioned, many of those radicals thought that the Constitution was a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Some final words from Parker’s eulogy of Adams:
But with him the Constitution was not an idol; it was a means, not an end. He did more than expound it; he went back of the Constitution, to the Declaration of Independence, for the ideas of the Constitution; yes, back to the Declaration to human nature and the laws of God, to legitimate those ideas. The Constitution is a compromise between those ideas, and the institutions and prejudices existing when it was made; not an idol, but a servant. He saw that the Constitution is “not the work of eternal justice, ruling through the people,” but the work “of man, frail, fallen, imperfect man, following the dictates of his nature and aspiring to be perfect.” Though a “constitutionalist,” he did not worship the Constitution. He was much more than a “defender of the Constitution,” — a defender of Human Rights.
Very quietly, on his own blog, David Frum has written the most important conservative article in recent memory. Ostensibly a critique of a National Affairs essay by Yuval Levin, Frum’s article “Two Cheers for the Welfare State” in fact represents a rejection of conservative economic policy at the level of abstract principles. It is not only an example of the oft-talked about rifts in American conservatism, but also, just maybe, a precursor to a dramatic shift leftward for the conservative intellectual class in the United States.
Frum notes that he “changed his mind” as a result of the recent financial crisis. Earlier in his career, he supported the “doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years.” But with the recent collapse, he decided:
Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.
And then, this massive revelation:
GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.
Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.
First, it’s fairly remarkable for anyone, left or right, in our political discourse (and in academia), to admit to being wrong. This is just not something the punditocracy does. I guess people did this about the Iraq War, particularly the left wing humanitarian hawks. And Richard Posner “became a Keynesian,” which I wrote about here. Most notably, Diane Ravitch, former champion of charter schools and standardized testing and opponent of teacher’s unions, has done a complete 180, and now blames America’s education problems on poverty and inequality.
Frum hasn’t changed that much. Sure he was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for criticizing the Republican Party. But I suspect that has more to do with his disdain for the recent wave of conservative anti-intellectualism, symbolized by the Tea Partiers who have made heroes out of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. He shares that disdain with other conservatives like David Brooks and Christopher Buckley. But those disagreements were more about style than substance. On foreign policy I suspect Frum is still a hawk, and probably still far too conservative for my taste on economic issues as well.
Nonethelss, Frum is moving in the right (by which I mean the left) direction. Especially interesting is how he justifies this change. He invokes Irving Kristol the way socialists invoke Marx, libertarians invoke Ayn Rand, and Christians invoke the Bible. This is a classic intellectual move. Frum appeals to the ultimate neoconservative authority to advance the notion of a “conservative welfare state.”
Here is the Irving Kristol quote Frum uses:
The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.
Whatever works for you, Mr. Frum. What I see is a smart conservative realizing that conservative economic policies aren’t so smart.
Republicans: attacking labor, women’s rights, teachers, and now… nineteenth century historians?
The background, for those who don’t follow Josh Marshall (who has written about this here), is that Bill Cronon, a professor at U-Wisconsin, has come under bizarre but clear intimidation from the Republican Party. First he wrote a blog post, showing the influence that a bunch of shady national convervative groups have on state politics. He followed up writing an op-ed in the New York Times decrying Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Then, the Republican Wisconsin Party counterattacked, filing a Freedom of Information Act Request against Cronon, arguing that since he is a public employee (Wisconsin is a public university), he has to turn over all his email records to the Wisconsin Republican Party.
This hits personally to me for a couple of reasons. First, like Josh Marshall I cannot speak highly enough of Cronon’s academic work. Marshall mentions Cronon’s Changes in the Land, certainly a fantastic book. But for my money, his study of Chicago– Nature’s Metropolis– is simply one of the best and most original books on American history ever written. It is a rare book that both contributed significantly to my thinking about academic topics like urbanization, westward expansion, and industrialization, but also, if I can sound melodramatic, changed the very way I think about the natural environment. A major theme is how the logic of Chicago’s urbanization is intricately tied in with environmental changes miles away (deforestation in Wisconsin, destruction of Nebraska’s prairie, etc…). That the idea that we can divide between rural and urban is complete fantasy: rural America looks the way it does because urban American looks the way it does.
Nature’s Metropolis is an incredibly deep book, and I’m probably not going to do justice to it. But I took away from it the profound ways that the spread of market relations completely reshape so many aspects of the human experience, often in ways that are completely obscured to people themselves. Land becomes a commodity, and so we get perfectly identical plots of square farmland in Kansas (all the better to buy and sell in New York City by speculators who know nothing about the physical land in Kansas). So do animals and timber, changing the way we interact with non-humans and with forests. Cronon, in a chapter that is only rivaled by E.P. Thompson’s famous essay on work discipline shows how railroads required abstract and predictable time schedules. The result was time zones, where everyone measures time, not by the sun any longer, but by an artificially imposed grid, which pretends that everyone in a massive block of land has the same time. Everywhere the market goes, then, the messy real earth is replaced abstraction, commodification, and a fictional homogenization (fictional because, for instance, every bag of grain is actually different, but we have to pretend it can be classified as the same, so that it can be bought by someone who has never seen it.)
Anyways… the second, and clearest, reason to be offended by the Republicans’ treatment of Cronon is that it is a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue. I’ve constantly been frustrated by the unwillingness of historians to engage in public discourse, and am thrilled when prominent ones try to make their voices heard. This blog was created partly to do our small part in getting the voices of historians out into the world.
And lets be clear, asking for his emails is entirely about silencing Cronon and intimidating other professors who were thinking about speaking out. Yes, they can’t fire him (yet) because tenure is designed to protect people in situations like this. But they can harass him, and publish his personal emails to the world. As Cronon writes, “they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.”
Read the rest of Cronon’s response to this. He is entirely correct, Freedom of Information laws are supposed to allow the people to keep the government accountable. By subverting them, and turning them into tools to silence dissenters, they are being used for the exact opposite effect. If the Bill Cronons of the future stay silent, because they don’t want Scott Walker reading all their emails, democracy loses.
My hope is that, combined with the more general assault on teachers, public universities, and unions (including academic labor unions), American academics might start to wake up a bit, and re-engage publicly. If it can happen to Cronon, who with his prestige, tenure, and moderate reputation, is as well-protected as one can possible get, it can happen to anyone.
So, anyway, let me end by suggesting that everyone go out and buy a Bill Cronon book, if they don’t already own them, as a small way to show solidarity (and educate yourself). There is Changes in the Land, a fantastic environmental history of colonial New England, Nature’s Metropolis, my personal favorite, and Uncommon Ground, which I’ve never read, but just ordered.
in much the way that conservatives became unusually and incorrectly obsessed with George Soros between 2004 and 2008, I worry that a lot of liberals have become overly fixated on the influence and power of the Koch brothers…. There’s an impulse on both sides of the political divide to attribute losses and unhelpful shifts in political opinion to shadowy, all-powerful organizations and financiers.
He concludes with this description of David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch’s importance:
Influential political players court them for their money, work with them when it suits their purposes and ignore them otherwise. That makes them a lot more powerful than you or me, and certainly worthy of attention. But it doesn’t make them into a grand unified theory of conservative politics,and people should be skeptical when they’re presented as such.
Ezra is right on the money here, but this got me thinking about an earlier post I wrote on the role of the individual in history. In that post, I noted that while earlier historians attributed considerable heft and agency to individuals in driving history forward, be they “good guys” like Martin Luther King Jr., or “bad guys” like Adolf Hitler (and yes, they were almost always guys). When the individual became super important, things like Hitler’s gas problem become crucial (I’m talking about flatulence, not Zyklon B). But then social historians in the 1960s looked to larger structural patterns that shaped historical events, along with granting agency to large masses of people: frequently workers, women, minorities (or some combination of the three) creating history “from the bottom up.”
The interesting contrast here, though, is when it comes to political commentary, there seems to be a tendency, on the left and the right, to revert to the “great man” theory of history when assigning blame. So liberals and leftists blame the Koch Brothers, or figureheads like Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin, and conservatives blame George Soros, and hatch conspiratorial theories about Barack Obama being a secret Kenyan Marxist Muslim.
On the flip side, though, when praising their own cause, everyone becomes a social historian, and usually attributes a broad base of support to their views. The Tea Partiers claim that their movement is widespread and “grassroots,” just the like the Moveon.org people and union leaders and others on the left. Both sides cite polls that says the masses agree with them.
I’m not saying the right’s causes are equally valid to those of the left: they’re not, and it’s not even close. But I am saying that it seems everyone wants the power with the people, left or right, fighting evil, conspiratorial individuals, left or right. Where is the truth? As usual, the classical grad student answer is probably correct: it’s a little bit of both.
I tried to read The Fountainhead. I really did. But after ten or fifteen pages, I gave up. The text was so poorly written, so comically absurd yet mind-numbingly dull at the same time that I had to put it down. In my snobbery, when I see a smart friend’s profile on Facebook which lists one of Ayn Rand’s books as their favourites, I feel a sense of tremendous disappointment, the way I used to feel when I saw similarly smart people list The Da Vinci Code. Except The Da Vinci Code, however stupid, is a quick, entertaining read, and doesn’t turn its readers into sensational assholes (also, Dan Brown may be a bad writer, but he never really hurt anyone except the Catholic Church, and they had it coming). I could get through The Da Vinci Code. I doubt I’ll ever be able to stomach Atlas Shrugged.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you about how bad Ayn Rand’s books are, or how stupid her philosophy of Objectivism is, or how much harm its adherents (converts?) have done to the American economy. I’ve addressed that a little bit here, and so has Wiz here, and so did GQ‘s Andrew Corsello in a hilarious hit piece titled “The Bitch is Back.” Corsello compares reading Rand (pictured left) at age 19 to “devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting. During: irresistible, bracing, the thing at hand imparting vitality, fertility, potency. After: bleccchh.” I never got to the irresistible part, but the urge to vomit came soon enough.
I think Rand’s work can best be summarized with an old intellectual putdown my father taught me: “Ayn Rand’s writing is both interesting and original. Unfortunately, what is interesting is not original, and what is original is not interesting.” I’d add that it’s also inaccurate and harmful and even downright pernicious, but that’s enough for now.
Perhaps the best short takedown of Rand can be found in The Nation, by Corey Robin. But if you’re looking for something a little longer, but don’t have the stomach for Rand herself, try this superb intellectual biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns.
In Burns’ book, we learn about the crazy cult of Objectivism, which Rand ran like an authoritarian tyrant. To call it quasi-religious might be a bit mild. As Burns writes on page 203:
Although Objectivism appeared a way to escape religion, it was more often a substitute, offering a similar regimentation and moralism without the sense of conformity. Rand’s ideas allowed students to reject traditional religion without feeling lost in a nihilistic, meaningless universe.
And yet three pages earlier, Burns compared the adoption of Objectivism to a similar religious experience.
In many ways the overwhelming impact of Rand’s ideas mimicked Marxism’s influence. Arthur Koestler’s memory of conversion to Communism echoes the sentiments expressed by Rand’s readers: “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question; doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past.” Only a small portion of Rand’s readers became as feverishly devoted to her ideas as Koestler did to Marxism, but the basic dynamic was similar. A twenty-four-year-old woman told Rand, “you have combined all my stray thoughts into an orderly, workable pattern–this alone is worth many years of my life.” Rand’s perspective could bring refreshing clarity to the unfocused, replacing doubt and uncertainty with passion and conviction.
It’s no accident that Burns used the word “conversion” to describe Koestler’s Marxist turn, nor that Koestler the himself used religious, even miraculous language to recount how he saw the “light” of scientific socialism. Objectivism, like Marxism, and most religious doctrines, are absolutist and all-encompassing philosophies.
When I first seriously studied Marx (pictured right) in the Dawson College Liberal Arts program (with Nemo among my classmates), our wonderful professor David Mulhall frequently used the term “millenarian” to describe Marxist thought. To Mulhall, and of course he was not the first to say this, Marxism was a fundamentally messianic faith, with its belief in the withering away of the state and an eventual Communist utopia, despite the mask of materialism. That description stuck with me.
When I studied Marxism as an undergraduate, I did so in the context of European intellectual history, with the brilliant Peter Gordon. With Gordon’s guidance, I came to understand Marx primarily as a “Left Hegelian,” someone who did not merely stand “Hegel on his head,” as Marx’s own cliche would have you, but in fact simply adapted Hegel to a more practical, materialist framework. Hegel’s messianic “world spirit” became Marx’s messianic working class, both operating in dialectical fashion.
When I finally studied Marx as a graduate student, in a History of the Left class (along with Wiz) taught by the excellent professors Molly Nolan and Linda Gordon (no relation to Peter, as far as I know), I had had enough. As a moderate social democrat and strong supporter of the welfare state, I was the class fascist, by far the most conservative, and probably the most vocal participant. This was certainly a strange scenario as a Canadian among mostly American students. I won’t lie: I relished the role. More important, I learned a great deal in these class discussions.
Of course, the stakes were pretty low. As my free market friend Josh once quipped: “the only place you’ll find real Marxists is in the humanities departments of universities, which is a good thing, because they can’t hurt anyone there.” This remark isn’t all that different from an observation made by the late Irving Kristol in his 1979 essay “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals.” Kristol wrote, “if you want to meet active socialists intellectuals, you can go to Oxford or Berkeley or Paris or Rome. There is no point in going to Moscow or Peking or Belgrade or Bucharest or Havana.” Much as I loathe Kristol, he, and Josh (who I quite like) may be on to something. As the semester went on, much as I enjoyed it, I became exasperated.
You see, I felt that the class, like much of academia, venerated (and venerates) Marx in a way that is totally inappropriate, and frankly ahistorical. This will offend some readers (and possibly writers) of this blog, but when I hear obviously Marxist academics make obviously Marxist arguments, my eyes secretly glaze over (or perhaps not so secretly, if my subtlety is wearing thin) much in the same way they would if I had to listen to a Creationist defend the Biblical account on the universe’s origins, or an Intelligent Design advocate attempt to mesh Darwin with God’s divine plan. It’s like that feeling you get when you meet very smart and devoutly religious people and you think to yourself “how do intelligent people believe this nonsense?”
I remember being spellbound by the fantasy history of the Soviet Union woven in his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge by the elderly Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher (published in 1967 under the title The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967). The form so elegantly transcended the content that we accepted the latter on trust: detoxification took a while. Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.
This is not to say that Marx is entirely devoid of “originality and depth of content.” I don’t really think Marx is nonsense. The funny thing is, I love Marx. I really do. I think his writing was and is sensationally inspirational. Politically, I think his vision is impractical but nonetheless alluring, his goals noble and moral. I even think that his observations about working class life in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution reaching full steam, was incredibly astute.
But there’s the rub. As a historian, I can’t help think we’d be better off looking at Marx in his context. Yes, his description of worker alienation, and commodity fetishization can still ring true, in certain very specific circumstances, like in the developing world today. But on the whole, one cannot escape the fact, and yes it is a fact, that Marx got a whole lot wrong. He thought nationalism was a weak force, but in fact it was (and is) a very strong one. More important, he never recognized the power of a middle way, of strong welfare states offering a restraint on, rather than the destruction of, the market economy . He never imagined the compelling appeal of unions, like those of Samuel Gompers (pictured right) that offered “bread and butter” benefits to dignify workers within a capitalist framework (minus Gompers’ racism and sexism).
More important, Marx didn’t realize that most workers wanted to cease being workers, or at least, ensure that their children would not have to work like they did. Indeed, the story of eastern European Jews in America serves as a spectacular refutation of Marxism. Many came with dedication to socialism in hand, or more likely one that they learned on the job. They were active in left wing politics on New York’s Lower East Side and elsewhere. They worked in sweat shops, and lived in dilapidated tenement apartments. But eventually, they sent their kids to public school, and their kids became doctors and lawyers and entered the middle class. They mostly (though not all) remained on the left, but typically the mainstream left, of the Democratic Party. Their class consciousness was no more, if it ever really existed.
There’s no way Marx could have anticipated any of this, let alone i-phones and the Internet and a million other kinds of technological, scientific and philosophical and historical developments that have laid waste to his theory. Which is why, as I said earlier, we should understand Marx in context. And the same goes for Rand. Incidentally, that’s precisely what Burns does: her Rand responded to her upbringing as a middle-class Jew in Russia and then the Soviet Union, her disillusionment with the New Deal, and her distaste for the Judeo-Christian religiosity of mainstream conservatives, and role as a fierce Cold Warrior. But she too, like Marx, could not anticipate history.
As I’ve written here before, one of the biggest problems with Marxism, as the great philosopher Sir Karl Popper (pictured below) elucidated many years ago, was it’s utter imperviousness to “falsifiability.” As Popper wrote, “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” Marx’s socialism, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, could not be scientific, because they couldn’t really be proven or disproven. As I wrote then:
[Popper] criticized Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian economics on the ground that they were not falsifiable. Their advocates found evidence in every result, even ones that seemed to blatantly contradict these “theories.” The Marxist revolution never happened, so Marxists tweaked the theory, rather than abandon it. They forced a strange fit of theory and fact, rather than simply form a new theory. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, is a valid theory, because it is testable, the results came in, proving it right. If different results has come in, the theory would have been proven wrong.
I think the same of course, can be said about those who remain faithful to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, or who remain staunch believers in free market capitalism, even after the recent troubles of the American economy. Whatever the facts, they will find some way to make them fit the theory.
One of the biggest problems I have with Rand and Marx is this implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim to inevitability. I don’t think anything is inevitable. I know that many, perhaps most Marxists, abandoned inevitability by the 1930s, including, Sidney Hook, who attempted to meld Marxism with John Dewey’s pragmatism in his 1934 essay “Communism Without Dogmas.” I would argue that by abandoning inevitability, these “Marxists” had actually abandoned Marxism entirely, and tweaked it save the theory, as Popper’s critique noted.
Because, annoyingly for them, history got in the way. As I just said, I don’t think anything is inevitable, and I don’t think that Marx is to be blamed for the gulag. Nonetheless, with all the horrors of the 20th century, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China and many others in the name of some kind of scientific socialism, Marxists, if not Marx, have a lot to answer for.
So too do the Randians today, some of whom (Paul Ryan, Rand and Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and so on) simply ignore her militant atheism (as Burns recounts, she once told William F. Buckley that he was “too intelligent to believe in God”). More significantly, many of Rand’s adherents ignore her inability to deal with historical reality and economic facts.
But I think the basic similarity between Rand and Marx comes in their misjudgment of human nature. Rand, as a hyper-individualist, had absolutely no sense of the joys of human love and companionship (hence her unfulfilling marital life, substance abuse, and chronic depression), the warmth of community, and most famously, the dignity of altruism. Indeed, she despised fellow libertarians Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman because they argued that libertarianism was actually good from a utilitarian standpoint, that Adam Smith’s invisible hand would bring the greatest good to the greatest number. Rand didn’t care about that. She thought altruism was wrong, plain and simple. People should act selfishly and only selfishly, no matter what happened to anyone else. Not only did she think Christianity led to socialism, or at that it basically was socialism, she believed that self-sacrificial altruism, the very essence of Christianity (Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, but for yours), was immoral.
Rand seems to advocate the basic philosophical principle of psychological egoism, without any awareness of its simplicity and flaws. Psychological egoists say: “people are selfish because they always do what they want,” without taking into account that what people want differs greatly. Some people want to work in soup kitchens, others want to be investment bankers, still others want to be axe murderers. Each are doing what they want, but we can evaluate their desires as having different moral standings.
Marx went the other way. First, his community is too large: he has no use for ethno-cultural particularism, gender solidarity, or anything that moves beyond class. Second, his philosophy does not understand the thoroughly strongly individualistic aspect of human nature. Sure, Sidney Hook (pictured below) tried to argue against that proposition:
Communism is hostile to individualism, as a social theory, and not individuality, as a social value. It seeks to provide the material guarantee of security without which the free development of individuality or personality is an empty or impossible ideal. But the free development of personality remains its ideal; difference uniqueness, independence, and creative originality are intrinsic values to be fostered and strengthened; and indeed one of the strongest arguments against capitalism is that it prevents these values from flourishing for all but a few.
I’m not sure this distinction is true in theory, as Marx has no use for individual expression that derived from national or ethno-cultural traditions. In practice, it has meant even less. Experiments in socialism have often bred uniformity, with Mao’s cultural revolution perhaps the most egregious example, and the limits placed on Soviet art a close second. I think one can argue that strong welfare states in a capitalist context allow for a good amount of “material security” along with the “free development of personality.”
Furthermore, Marx and Marxists discount the importance of individualism, not just individuality, to human beings, who often do place their first loyalties to themselves and to their families, well above class and community. Indeed, this little ditty my father taught me may provide more insight into class relations and human nature than anything Marx or Engels or other Marxists theorists ever wrote:
The working class, can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.
Again, I do think much of Marx is valuable, and inspirational, orders of magnitude more than Rand. But like Rand, historically it doesn’t hold up, and politically it seems to contradict human nature as I understand it. Which is why, much as I think pragmatism is a silly philosophy with which to pursue scholarship (I believe in objectivity, but not Objectivism), I think it’s useful, or dare I say, pragmatic, when it comes to politics. It allows for the flexibility to change your opinion, to make compromises, to account for new evidence and realities. Of course, not all compromises are good, and principles are important too, which is why I support a progressive, principled pragmatism.
I think one can do this and remain on the left. One can remain committed to left-wing policies and politics without adhering to any sort of Marxism. Tony Judt will be remembered as a leading advocate of social democracy. Yet some on the left often forget that he cut his teeth as a STAUNCHLY ANTI-MARXIST thinker, criticizing French Communists who ignored, downplayed, or apologized for Stalin’s crimes.
My point here is not to venerate pragmatism or Tony Judt’s political views, both of which have their flaws. My point is simply to say that one can uphold progressive politics and fight the legacy of Ayn Rand without succumbing to the philosophy of her much smarter, much more moral but similarly dogmatic and messianic alter ego, Karl Marx.
To lighten things up a bit. I loved this Tom Tomorrow cartoon about the Tea Party’s history.
It actually captures something I’d been thinking but wasn’t quite able to articulate: there is an element to the Tea Party mind which deeply craves historical authority. Even desires to abdicate their own responsibility before that authority. There is an obvious link between how conservatives tend to want their favored interpretation of the Bible to really be the Revealed Word of God, and how they want their favored interpretation of the Constitution to be the Revealed Word of the (God-like) Founding Fathers.
I spend a lot of time reading polemical theological works from the 1830s and 1840s. The liberal Unitarians are normally making some argument along the lines of: its a sign of bad faith and a lack of moral courage to take the words of the Bible so seriously that you miss the overall spirit of it. The more conservative ones are saying: you all are doomed and going to hell for ignoring the literal words of the Bible. (Massive simplification…)
Anyway… the point is, it seems to me those dueling mindsets are alive and well. Those who want to hold blindly to the (supposedly) Unchanging and Revealed Words of some wise old man (and its always the words of a man) versus those who are okay with a little ambiguity and okay with each generation re-making the world to suit their purposes.
Its just that Tea Partiers now are confused about where the religious authority they are supposed to blindly worship ends, and where the political authority they are supposed to blindly worship begins. It all just gets jumbled together in some weird mix of politics as religion.
I think the brilliance of Glenn Beck is that he tapped into a real– if obscene and depending on your religion, heretical– desire that many people have to transplant the impulse to worship onto what had formerly been secular and profane historical characters. If the Founding Fathers had previously been part of our civil religion, he’s now stripped the “civil” aspect out of it, demanding that we worship the stern patriarchal Founding Fathers, like the Ancient Romans did their ancestors, throw away our faculties of critical thought, and sacralize the past.
Update: I’m also digging George Washington’s yellow pants.