Marxian Tools and Conservative Caterpillars

May 5 was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’ birth, and Jonathan Chait decided to take a slap at him in a piece titled Trump Handed the Agenda to Conservatives and They Blew It. The title concept was addressed several weeks ago by Mike Konczal in a smart essay. Konczal asks why the Republicans who control all branches of government haven’t accomplished more, gives several examples of legislation that never moved, and asks why there is no discussion of these failures by conservative theorists.

Chait begins with an attack on an op-ed in the New York Times by Jason Barker, an associate professor of philosophy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, titled Happy Birthday Karl Marx. You Were Right!. What was the point of attacking the birthday boy? Chait writes:

It is philosophically irrelevant that every nation-state founded on Marxist philosophy almost immediately metastasized into a repressive tyranny, [Barker] breezily insists. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the parties that ruled them all shared a common philosophy, and that this philosophy identified within their society an oppressor class whose political rights could and should be eliminated? No, no, reply the Marxists. All these real-world examples of governments attempting to actualize Marxist principles tell us nothing about Marxism.

Is Chait saying that Leninism is the same as Stalinism is the same as Marxist philosophy? Does he think the capitalists of Marx’ day didn’t oppress the workers? Does he think that early capitalists were tender shepherds to their employee sheep, or that the current billionaire class is the apex of Christian love and respect for their independent contractors? Who knows? This is just trite rhetoric, so he can ignore the thrust of Barker’s discussion of the obvious fact that efforts to put dialectical materialism into practice have failed. Barker says there’s a good reason for this. Marx was first and foremost a philosopher. He was a follower of Hegel, developing Hegel’s ideas of dialectical materialism into a broader theory of society. Barker explains:

… let’s be clear: Marx arrives at no magic formula for exiting the enormous social and economic contradictions that global capitalism entails (according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent). What Marx did achieve, however, through his self-styled materialist thought, were the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.

Chait suggests that conservatives will blame their leaders, especially Trump, when the actual problem lies with Conservatism. The parallel is supposed to be that this is just the same as Marxists blaming the failure of all Marxist regimes on evil leaders and not the “philosophy” itself. But that’s just not Barker’s position, or anyone’s, for that matter. Scholars, mostly European but a few Americans too, argue about Marxian philosophy, and about his criticisms of capitalism, but never in favor of the dictatorial regimes that attempted to put it into practice.

On the other hand conservatism and its triumphant successor neoliberalism were constructed by their founders and other cultural workers to be a theory of government. They have a theory of the person, an economic theory, and a rough program for transformation of democracy into a form suited to their flourishing. Their failures, including not least the failure to deliver a decent life to the vast bulk of society, are part of their program.

Chait doesn’t take up the issue of the destruction of conservatism and its replacement by full-blown neoliberalism. He thinks neoliberalism is nothing but a slur directed at real liberals by disgruntled leftists. He takes full advantage of the fact that neoliberalism is a denied structure, or at least a deniable structure.

The Conservative Movement, from its formation by William Buckley to its disappearance in 2016, was always a project funded by the rich. It was marketed with whispers of racism, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, misogyny, patriarchy, anti-intellectualism and boundless militarism abroad and at home. The Conservative Movement was just a Trojan Horse for neoliberalism, when those whispers turned into roars. Think of conservatism as caterpillars spontaneously generated by the John Birch Society, the White Citizens Council and any number of grifting self-titled Religious Ministers until one day new Leaders burst forth in all their neoliberal putrescence and all the Republicans fall in behind them dancing, playing timbrels and chanting MAGA.

And that’s why the few remaining movement Conservative writers are bewildered into silence. They are stunned that their patrons no longer applaud their finely spun theories and their sharply honed plans. They thought they were relevant, when they were, as Konczal puts it, just the entertainment.

13 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Apart from being a fucking idiot, Chait seems oblivious to the harms of early capitalism – the dark satanic mills and environmental pillaging – and of late capitalism: The Kissinger-Friedman capitalism-at-the-point-of-a-gun brought to Chile and the Southern Cone, and neoliberalism’s privatizations of public functions and resources – education, infrastructure, healthcare, policing, water, power and fuel.

    I assume Chait is good with all that.  Can’t make an omelette without breaking a few heads and so on.  It must be the inevitable fate of high priests that they are the last to see the horrors brought about by the religion that so handsomely rewards and comforts them.

    • seriousliberalrealist says:

      Well, this is the thing – the tyranny of communist states and their underlying societies can be attributed entirely to the original sins of Marxist philosophy. No room for human error, historical context, etc.

      Meanwhile, the tyranny of capitalist societies is never the fault of any inherent problems with capitalism or a democratic deficit in neoliberalism. It’s always human error, historical context, etc.

      This doesn’t even get into the fact that some of the more consistent opponents and critics of Marxism-Leninism have been Marxists and other socialists – in particular anarchists – themselves.

      To be sure, they’ve also been some of their biggest cheerleaders and handwavers, but the reason liberal critiques so often fall flat is because they manage to somehow fight a strawman and lose to it at the same time.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Sounds like the comment of a bride left at the altar.

      No room for human error in your analysis.  You did, however, avoid commenting on the human error – and intention – that fills capitalism, particularly its latest, Americanized version, neoliberalism.

      • seriousliberalrealist says:

        What? I wasn’t saying that was my analysis, I was saying that’s the blind spot of people like Chait – that the problems caused by capitalism are always bugs, never features.

        I’m saying they believe in an idealised and non-existent version of capitalism in precisely the same manner Chait accuses socialists of doing with Marx.

        • Desider says:

          If you read VS Naipaul’s book on Islam (“Among the Believers”), all faults of Islam are attributed to an imperfect following of the original strictures as laid down by Mohammad. L. Ron Hubbard posited the same for Scientology, and I imagine everything from the Vedas to Catholics to Mormons to Ayn Rand fall into the same trap – the reformers thinking their reforms were the end of the line, the last step towards perfection.

          Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s much positive to be gained by assuming *the worst* of every one of these either. The conceit of the total putdown of a worldview, “the Conservative Movement was just a Trojan Horse for neoliberalism” etc, is breathtaking. Like, people swallow this whole hog, vs. “one part of the conservative movement had a hidden agenda of neoliberalism”, or some recognition that no, American Conservatism hasn’t been goosestepping across parade grounds despite its many faults.

          That liberal democracy has missed so much about human nature while offering great improvements should at least give us pause, especially when it’s largely been on its heels here for some time (Europe seems to be better off). One of the areas where liberalism reigns supreme is predicting the absolute worst outcomes, even while proposing tangible solutions and implementing them – i.e. the guy at the gas pump still insisting he’s going to run out of gas in 20 miles. We are often pessimists, undercutting our own progress (decrease in war, in pollution, in diseases, poverty, fossil fuel output; improvement in agriculture yields, alternative electric production, vaccines to prevent illness and death, steadily improving conditions for women…). And then we often refuse to acknowledge any decent points of conservatives, preferring to posit that half of the American electorate is just Cro-Magnon knuckledraggers. [oddly we’re switching positions in that many liberals or Democrats or whatchamacallits are discovering that no, the Russians really aren’t our brothers, as conservo-Repubs find themselves bizarrely allied with them – yet we still find it hard to look back at Reagan and give him any credit. Similarly, while the 2016 DNC break-in is a virtualized foreign power-enabled version of Watergate, Nixon *did* draw down troops from over half a million in Jan 1969 to 24,000 just 3 years later – a performance we wish either W or Obama followed.

          • Ed Walker says:

            Perhaps you should read Chait and Konczal to get a better feel for what I mean by the death of the Conservative Movement,  No one is paying attention to its ‘intellectuals”, and they aren’t saying anything interesting.

            There will always be conservatives, just as there will always be liberals, as we learn from a When All Night Long by Gilbert and Sullivan.

            • Desider says:

              Except I have a feeling had Hillary won we’d have run into a similarly misguided quagmire summarized by, “It works in practice, but will it work in theory?” The Republicans/Conservatives spent years building up their religion based on “the business of government is business”, which worked so well (and I find *in part and within reason* unobjectionble) that Democrats incorporated it into their modern outlook – or at least tried to, since it’s been a point of contention from from the far left ever since, and denied by the right since it works their side of the street.
              [In an ideal universe, politics and politicians could grow up, so that our debates of 2018 would be miles ahead of those in 1936 or 1953. Instead, ours are largely miles behind – it’s almost as if as society moves forward, politics must move backwards to balance it – but I digress]
              Take the OLA as mentioned – rather than a “too big to fail” mechanism, it’s a “too big to let free fall” result. A colleague yesterday was complaining that the Brits had lost 24billion pounds on bailing out RBS, but I noted that that was a hedge against losing even more – from RBS & similar institutions going down in 2008. Yes, supposedly we got our money back from bailing out the Big 3, but that wasn’t our goal – it was to salvage an industry and millions of people behind it (including dealerships et al, which were a 2nd thought oddly enough – hiding in plain sight).
              This *is* a measure of conservatism tied to pragmatism that even liberals might agree to (including the supposed head liberal, Obama himself, though he never struck me as terribly liberal even in 2006 – “liberal enough”, he might say). But while liberals could swallow the painful medicine, the idea of reducing bankers’ bonuses or providing stimulus to the little people at the same time was a bridge too far.
              But this untaken bridge was a betrayal of traditional conservatism (is that a redundancy or an actually useful term?). The conservatives supposed problem with liberals economically was that they forgot that Keynes proposed stimulus in bad times and belt-tightening in good, but that liberals thought every year was a good year to spend. The conservatives stayed true to their business side of the street, and ignored the “hard working man in the street” except as a trickle-down effect as is doctrine post-Reagan.
              And what’s largely happened to conservatives is that they’ve created laundry lists upon laundry lists, as exemplified by the teabagger “revolution”, while getting further and further from the logic that originally inspired these lists. I mean, Hamilton makes for a good play, lots of sharp rhetoric to sing about, whereas Paul Ryan and Rand Paul make Britney Spears look intellectual, and let’s not even consider what a Mitch McConnell or Tom “The Hammer” DeLay songfest would sound like.
              And when we ask why the Conservatives didn’t do their homework, complete their task when they had all the power, all control, aside from “the dog ate it”, the real answer was, “we didn’t think it necessary”. The reason had gone out of it – it had turned into an empty vessel, a scourge to thrash Democrats with, but not a wrench and a hammer to actually build something.
              The Marx piece was quite compelling – it wasn’t that it ignored the tyrannies that picked up its call – like the whip the Republicans have, Marxism has been used similarly, with destructive results. Yet we remarkably find ourselves in the position where indeed Business (or the owners) is co-opting all excess fruits of production for itself, and becoming more and more efficient at doing so, harvesting the “low hanging fruit” and leaving the high fruit for government or other suckers to go after. And the idea of redistribution in Marxism, long a bit contentious as rewarding those who refuse to work, now seems to have new vigor and justification, where we see the dreams of those who did buy into the system and worked their butts off for decades only to find themselves cut off with no lifeline – forgotten and SOL rather than actually vilified. (in fact, they’re still “glorified” as the mythical worker, even as the fruits of that labor are siphoned off and not replaced). The cronyism & Tammany Hall resurgence of Trump and his cabinet and indeed all the GOP leadership (Broidy & Cohen were the new heralded finance deputies of the RNC, no?), along with the craven corrupt flip to Russians as new paymasters (never mind that we’re much richer than Russia – if we chose to legalize crony capitalism, it’d be a much bigger payday than Putin could afford) signifies the death of conservatism through both over-messaging and the sheer dilution of principles into overshouting the other in a “Tastes Great”/”Less Filling” commercial existence.
              Yet I also mentioned the problem on the left – we talk about “poverty”, but indeed world poverty has come down, yet we become earnest protectionists as soon as that poverty effort affects us. We’re all up on “Putin bad” now that it’s politically expedient, but efforts to rein in Russian expansionism over the last century – including post-1999 – has often been dismissed as simply being too hawkish. Much of the effort against global warming is being won through market mechanisms and scientific progress – which would go faster without all the conservative obstruction, but likely would *not* have needed the 10’s of trillions that we supposedly needed to spend immediately.
              The biggest issue is that while the conservatives have forgotten reasons for what they’re doing, liberals frequently forget mechanisms and consequences, whether methods to drive income or lower pollution or ensure equality or improve education – resisting over exhuberance is often called “neo-liberal” and other terms implying old fashioned and backwards and cheap, but the fact is that few things are slam dunks, and the debate and bickering between both sides *had* been useful, but the empty-headed kneejerk approaches of the last few years have left us in a muddled, largely unexciting mess. Fortunately the liberal dem side still has some up side to work with, but we shouldn’t get too cocky – we still don’t really have a winning margin over the Norquist “drown-gov-in-a-bathtub” type flat-earthers, there’s lots of ways we can water down the seriousness of reforming women’s issues, environmental ones, race relations, et al. Part of our brand as the “adults in the room” has been accepting complexity and hard work, not easy solutions whether left or right. Now that the right is committing hara kiri both figuratively and practically, it’d be nice if we took the steps to both prevent a return to the silliness of yesterday as well as take the steps past the current predicament. Yes, there can be a crisis of winning too easily, as the Trump situation shows well. Oddly enough, we’d be in a much worse situation if they’d only been a little competent. I keep getting drawn back to the Foundation Trilogy – philosophy measured in galactic time is a bit different than national politics, but the crises can be more informative.

  2. Watson says:

    Marx’s critique of capitalism was moral: he believed that economic relations should be based on sharing and need, rather than on exploitation. That concept is not unique to Marx, and it doesn’t require reading him. It’s more or less ‘do unto others’ or ‘love thy neighbor’. People who agree with that principle face a moral question: should sharing be mandatory, and if so, how should it be accomplished?

    • Ed Walker says:

      Marx’ critique of capitalism is based on his analysis of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. As an example, one I discussed in my series on Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, is that for capitalism on its own terms to work requires that everything be brought under its sway, including what Polanyi calls the “fictitious commodities” of land, labor and money. As Polanyi shows, and I discuss in this series, to do so destroys them, makes them useless for capitalist exploitation.

      This post has links to my series on Polanyi.

      For another discussion of this, see this in the New Yorker.

  3. Thomasa says:

    I recently re-watched the BBC’s production “The Power of Nightmares: The rise of the politics of fear.” Written by Adam Curtis. 
    I had seen it fourteen years ago and wanted to see how it stands up to the test of time. Well, I think.

    While not addressing Marx directly, it examines how as capitalism’s failure to deliver for the common people and politician’s promises of a bright shining future became obvious hot air, a new means of control had to be found. Fear. Letting no good crisis go to waste, 9/11 was fertile ground for fear mongering.

    The problem occurred in both the Muslim world and in the west.  In both cases fear has been the solution. In the Muslim world fear of the US is used. The series explores the parallel rise of radical islam and neo conservatism. It was produced in 2004 as an attempt to explain how 9/11 happened but viewed from a distance of 14 years, it is a basis for understanding what has happened since.

    Pans: it ignores the consequences of the Dulles Bros. meddling in the Middle East that I believe was in no small part responsible for the failure of those governments to deliver for their people. Had at least elements of Marxism/socialism been able to gain a toehold things might have turned out differently, not withstanding Soviet oppression that did occur. Would Iran have become an oppressive marxist state had the Shaw not been installed in ’54? Or Arbenz ousted, also in ’54? How about Chile in ’73? Not to forget the mother of all such interventions, Viet Nam. Was it the theory or the implementation? At least in those cases and many others where socialists or communists were overthrown, we’ll never know.
    In case you’re interested, here’s the distributor:
    Big D Productions, 314 Godell; Wyndotte, MI 48192. I’m not affiliated with them in any way.

  4. Lladnar says:

    If you guys are going to really go deep into understanding what is really on offer, try to comprehend the article below:
    I am agreeing with them that it is muddy thinking to think ‘communism is collectivist, capitalism isn’t’… when capitalism is manifestly collectivist in the sense that individuals routinely give up their autonomy (alienate their labor) in all kinds of settings in a nominally capitalist country, and the article spells out nicely.
    On the other hand, subordination into hierarchy, alienation of labor, and behaving effectively as a collectivist (by merely having a boss other than one’s customer) seems to me to be right at the core of what it means to be in something ‘organized’… that is, as opposed to being ‘chaotic, unorganized, shambolic, ineffective… ridiculous’.

    So we have another layer of muddy thinking at the bottom of this article.

    So, sorry, for the author and anyone wishing all this subordination would go away some time soon in favor of individuality and all that is great stuff, but it isn’t going to happen in ANY kind of organized enterprise. It doesn’t matter who the oligarchs are, whether the system is labeled socialist or whatever.. what matters is whether or not we (the oppressed workers!) are stuck with them – the oligarchs – and therefore stuck where we are in the profoundly bad sense.

    Thus what people need to be focused on is the change process (elections? assassination? hereditary succession?), not the apparently obligatory collectivist nature of organization.


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