Marxism, Contrarianism, and Liberty

Replace weak liberalism with strong communism!

So is Marxism on the rise?  Since the Tea Party’s high water mark in 2009, it most certainly seems this way.  Occupiers run amok, the once famed European Common Market is on the brink of collapse, France has rejected austerity, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation triumphantly proclaim state capitalism as the alternative to the free market, and the Arab Spring seems to have ushered in a new challenge to traditional Arab states such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and now Syria.

One almost shudders to think of how President Obama would have reacted to an Arab Spring style uprising within an Iraq run by Saddam Hussein (or his sons) — would “no blood for oil” be the cry of conservatives seeking to deal a blow to Obama’s 2012 hopes?

I digress… and with reason.  Karl Marx never quite took off in the United States for a number of reasons.  First, the man simply isn’t an American, popularized by the very same British we drove out of North America not once but twice… or so we tell ourselves about the history of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.  Second, Marx arrived at a point in time where American patriotism rode high and where the errors of the French Revolution had spread her wings once again over the European continent.  Finally — and perhaps most importantly — Marxism was borrowed by revolutionaries as a final expression of what communitarianism should be about, culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and ending momentarily with the Bolshevik victory over the Mensheviks and nationalist Russians in 1922.

Marxism is inextricably connected with the Cold War and the Soviet menace in American minds, and the rest simply follows from there.  Yet there is always something alluring about the idea of a socialist workers paradise, or at the very least, the idea that everyone in society — no matter what their background or ability — deserves an equal chance at an equal outcome.

It’s that balance between equal chance and equal station that makes the conversation about socialism so difficult.

There was a program (and I believe it was on the BBC) that showed a certain graph of European states vs. the rest of the world by region.  It was a pretty cool 3D graphic demonstration of the impact of the industrialized revolution on the West that, despite my best efforts, I cannot find anywhere online.  However… this is a cheap knockoff of the same.

Two takeaways that were made evident in the BBC presentation:

(1) The West got a massive head start over the rest of the world that will be temporary in nature.

(2) GDP tends to level off at around $40,000 per capita.

It’s that second part that should be of most interest to folks… because at $40,000 per capita, this is where social democracy thrives.

In 2008, one could arguably say that social democrats were on their way.  Society was prosperous, income was steady, net worth was high, and even though lives were ultimately borrowed at the cost of second mortgages and high credit, the money kept coming in.

…until it all got swept away.

Fast forward to 2011 and the first wave of Occupy Wall Street protests.  The debt is still there, yet the lifestyles have shrunk.  Arguments of going backwards, income disparity, class warfare, haves and have nots, the 99% against the super rich 1% crushing the middle class under the boot of corporatist greed…

Sound familiar, Uncle Karl?

He’s very happy to see you.

Which is why this UK Guardian article hits home so quickly.  What seemed like a gauche and irrelevant ideology in 2008 now suddenly seems to be enjoying quite the renaissance in 2012.

Four years of austerity, bailouts, budget cuts, high unemployment, and a meandering halfway house between the free market so loved by the Anglosphere contrast sharply with the behavior of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) in the West are forcing people to look for alternatives that promise a little security, a little hope, and the idea of reclaiming the prosperity many never had to begin with… unless it was an illusion provided by gross materialism.

So what’s the fix for this materialist utopia the free market failed to deliver?  A materialist utopia that state capitalism and Marxism promise to deliver, so it would seem:

The irony is scarcely wasted on leading Marxist thinkers. “The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the existence of a Chinese Communist party that gives de-localised capitalist enterprises cheap labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation,” says Jacques Rancière, the French marxist thinker and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris VIII. “Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than today’s.”

That hope, perhaps, explains another improbable truth of our economically catastrophic times – the revival in interest in Marx and Marxist thought. Sales of Das Kapital, Marx’s masterpiece of political economy, have soared ever since 2008, as have those of The Communist Manifesto and the Grundrisse (or, to give it its English title, Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy). Their sales rose as British workers bailed out the banks to keep the degraded system going and the snouts of the rich firmly in their troughs while the rest of us struggle in debt, job insecurity or worse. There’s even a Chinese theatre director called He Nian who capitalised on Das Kapital’s renaissance to create an all-singing, all-dancing musical.

And in perhaps the most lovely reversal of the luxuriantly bearded revolutionary theorist’s fortunes, Karl Marx was recently chosen from a list of 10 contenders to appear on a new issue of MasterCard by customers of German bank Sparkasse in Chemnitz. In communist East Germany from 1953 to 1990, Chemnitz was known as Karl Marx Stadt. Clearly, more than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany hasn’t airbrushed its Marxist past. In 2008, Reuters reports, a survey of east Germans found 52% believed the free-market economy was “unsuitable” and 43% said they wanted socialism back. Karl Marx may be dead and buried in Highgate cemetery, but he’s alive and well among credit-hungry Germans. Would Marx have appreciated the irony of his image being deployed on a card to get Germans deeper in debt? You’d think.

Karl Marx on a MasterCard?  Oh sweet and delicious irony…

Of course, there’s a soft spot on the underbelly of these neo-Marxist trumpeters, and the new legions of unwashed masses certainly do feel a great need to explain themselves:

There has been a glut of books trumpeting Marxism’s relevance. English literature professor Terry Eagleton last year published a book called Why Marx Was Right. French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou published a little red book called The Communist Hypothesis with a red star on the cover (very Mao, very now) in which he rallied the faithful to usher in the third era of the communist idea (the previous two having gone from the establishment of the French Republic in 1792 to the massacre of the Paris communards in 1871, and from 1917 to the collapse of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1976). Isn’t this all a delusion?

Damn fine question.

After all, I suggest to Rancière, the bourgeoisie has failed to produce its own gravediggers. Rancière refuses to be downbeat: “The bourgeoisie has learned to make the exploited pay for its crisis and to use them to disarm its adversaries. But we must not reverse the idea of historical necessity and conclude that the current situation is eternal. The gravediggers are still here, in the form of workers in precarious conditions like the over-exploited workers of factories in the far east. And today’s popular movements – Greece or elsewhere – also indicate that there’s a new will not to let our governments and our bankers inflict their crisis on the people.”

Now re-read that lame defense for just one second, and let’s re-approach this in words an American public school education can understand:

(1)  Marxism got its butt kicked by the free market hands down.

(2)  The free market built up this awesome economy that is fueling social democracy in its inexorable (execrable?) march towards socialism.

(3)  The free market snagged itself on the carpet.

(4)  …and therefore, modern day socialists are begging at the temples of Mammon to bailout the middle class so we can enjoy more socialism… all at the hands of our capitalist masters, of course.  QED.

Here’s an answer from a younger generation of Marxist that’ll make your spine shiver:

I ask Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, a 22 year-old English and drama student at Goldsmiths College, London, who has just finished her BA course in English and Drama, why she considers Marxist thought still relevant. “The point is that younger people weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union,” she says.

I mean… Margaret Thatcher and the Soviet Union?  Ancient history, I say!

Here’s where the conversation gets just a bit scary, both in a the-dog-who-caught-the-car sort of way with a bit of Hollywood machismo to boot:

Blackwell-Pal will be speaking Thursday on Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution at the Marxism festival. “It’s going to be the first time I’ll have spoken on Marxism,” she says nervously. But what’s the point thinking about Guevara and Castro in this day and age? Surely violent socialist revolution is irrelevant to workers’ struggles today? “Not at all!” she replies. “What’s happening in Britain is quite interesting. We have a very, very weak government mired in in-fighting. I think if we can really organise we can oust them.” Could Britain have its Tahrir Square, its equivalent to Castro’s 26th of July Movement? Let a young woman dream. After last year’s riots and today with most of Britain alienated from the rich men in its government’s cabinet, only a fool would rule it out.

Once again, violence rears its ugly head.  Marxists by nature simply cannot save themselves from their fatal flaw — all of this ends in a guillotine on the Place de la Concorde, does it not?

Naturally, this whole history of “class warfare” is as old as envy and want, and where there’s political power to be had, there’s to be drama and circumstance abound.

Recently, I had the pleasure of picking up Ralph Fiennes’ rendition of Coriolanus, which for those of you who have not experienced this rarely-performed Shakespearean play will appreciate the modern setting as a fantastic introduction to all things Good Bard.

At the opening of the play, there is an exchange between Marcius, a Roman general sent to protect Rome’s grain supply, and an anonymous “First Citizen” who leads a mob set upon grain and somewhat divided as to whether Coriolanus should live or die.  The sentiment consummates with an exchange in front of the granaries:


Thanks. What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?

First Citizen

We have ever your good word.


He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it.
Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What’s their seeking?

Now if that’s not a condemnation of agitators using the poor for their own political purposes — “rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs” — I don’t know what is!

Shakespeare the proto-conservative?  Who would have thought?!

But what’s more is the Shakespearean attack on those “that love neither peace nor war” or the critique that their “virtue is to make him worthy whose offence subdues him and curse that justice did it.”

Return to our neo-Marxist friends for a moment…

“If I had written it four years earlier it would have been dismissed as a 1960s concept of class,” says Jones. “But class is back in our reality because the economic crisis affects people in different ways and because the Coalition mantra that ‘We’re all in this together’ is offensive and ludicrous. It’s impossible to argue now as was argued in the 1990s that we’re all middle class. This government’s reforms are class-based. VAT rises affect working people disproportionately, for instance.

Capitalism was great so long as it worked to serve our appetites.  Now that it no longer does… we seek other systems to serve our appetites?

This is certainly the fear of some, and the violence embedded within Marxism leaves little guarantees that the neo-Marxist push will not end in the same violence that marked the experiment with socialism in nations such as East Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, and elsewhere.

But perhaps it’s not worth analyzing neo-Marxism as a return to communism.  Perhaps, as some suggest, it is the advent of post-capitalism?

Professor Eric Hobsbawm suggests that Marx was right to argue that the “contradictions of a market system based on no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’, a system of exploitation and of ‘endless accumulation’ can never be overcome: that at some point in a series of transformations and restructurings the development of this essentially destabilising system will lead to a state of affairs that can no longer be described as capitalism”.

That is post-capitalist society as dreamed of by Marxists. But what would it be like? “It is extremely unlikely that such a ‘post-capitalist society’ would respond to the traditional models of socialism and still less to the ‘really existing’ socialisms of the Soviet era,” argues Hobsbawm, adding that it will, however, necessarily involve a shift from private appropriation to social management on a global scale. “What forms it might take and how far it would embody the humanist values of Marx’s and Engels’s communism, would depend on the political action through which this change came about.”

So what is the solution?  How do social democrats grasp for a reality which socialism cannot afford, yet requires the robber barons of capitalism to fund in order to achieve the equal station necessary to fulfill the equal chance Americans so desperately cling to in our Declaration of Independence?

Drawing back on the very early part of this thread of discussion, there seems to be this invisible vapor barrier of about US$40,000 for social progress — reach this, and there seems to be a tangible ceiling that allows Western-style democracies to provide the social welfare state the Soviet Union groaned and eventually collapsed under in the 1980s.

It is, in essence, an unholy alliance between socialists and capitalists that achieve similar goals.  Or simply put, conservative means to accomplish liberal ends — almost Robert F. Kennedy style.

But don’t take my word for it… take Margaret Thatcher’s word for it.

Thatcher: “But what the honorable member is saying, is that he would rather the poor were poorer provided the rich were less rich!  That way you will never create the wealth for better social services as we have!”

Too bad our neo-Marxist friends as quoted in the UK Guardian article didn’t catch on to this tradition of the UK Conservative Party… but the argument still rings true — socialism and social democracy can only thrive at the expense of free market capitalism.

So long as the is marginal and not all-consuming, a happy if tense relationship can be arranged.  Should the sinews of the economy be stretched thin… then tension naturally increases.

Where the socialists go wrong is to insist upon such resistance until the sinews break, throwing the entire system out of balance and requiring years to recover (see: Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland).  Where the barons of free market capital make their mistake is to use economic downturns as an excuse to rollback “socialism” as it were — moments to force government to economize, most certainly… but not moments to completely do away with the programs others have come to rely upon.

Robert Nozick, the great libertarian philosopher of the 20th century, makes the classic argument that liberty should not be simply described as maximum individualism.  Consider your 1776 American alongside your 2012 American.  Which has the greater degree of liberty?  The better standard of living?  More opportunities to pursue education and earn money?  More opportunities to create their own business?

Clearly — undeniably — the victor remains the modern American, with all their fees and taxes and roads and schools and defense budgets and government bureaucracy and tangles and weeds and all.

Simply put, there is no generation of Americans that has been more free than today’s generation.

Now some may counter that there is no other generation of Americans saddled with more government than today’s generation either, and this is true.

Yet sidelining all the poor choices with deficit spending and debt, with monetary policy and federal and state spending, consider that no other generation of Americans has more disposable income, more opportunities to work, greater degrees of luxury such as health care and clean water and education and business opportunities (and yes — those are luxuries to about 5 billion other people in the world) than Americans do.

The malcontents and the contrarians dominating the political discourse are who they are.  The poor will always be with us, so the Holy Bible reminds us.  When the smoke finally clears out, one realizes that neither of the extremes have the balance.  Liberty has always been the middle space between tyranny on one hand and license on the other, and so long as there is a balancing of the scales… there is an increasing degree of human liberty.

…precisely the ends both social democrats and free marketeers want.

Now obviously, this presents an uncomfortable dichotomy with most Americans trained to reject any form of government as creeping Marxism.  It also throws a heavy wet blanket on neo-Marxist dreams of a socialist utopia because those 1% types really are necessary to fuel social democracy.

Government can increase liberty.   Sleep on that one for awhile.

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