Saturday, August 22, 2020

The dance of Marxism and liberalism

In Quillette, Yoram Hazony writes about the challenge of Marxism.
I. The collapse of institutional liberalism

For a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most Americans and Europeans regarded Marxism as an enemy that had been defeated once and for all. But they were wrong. A mere 30 years later, Marxism is back, and making an astonishingly successful bid to seize control of the most important American media companies, universities and schools, major corporations and philanthropic organizations, and even the courts, the government bureaucracy, and some churches. As American cities succumb to rioting, arson, and looting, it appears as though the liberal custodians of many of these institutions—from the New York Times to Princeton University—have despaired of regaining control of them, and are instead adopting a policy of accommodation. That is, they are attempting to appease their Marxist employees by giving in to some of their demands in the hope of not being swept away entirely.

...This means that some brave liberals will soon be waging war on the very institutions they so recently controlled. They will try to build up alternative educational and media platforms in the shadow of the prestigious, wealthy, powerful institutions they have lost. Meanwhile, others will continue to work in the mainstream media, universities, tech companies, philanthropies, and government bureaucracy, learning to keep their liberalism to themselves and to let their colleagues believe that they too are Marxists—just as many conservatives learned long ago how to keep their conservatism to themselves and let their colleagues believe they are liberals.

In this essay, I would like to offer some initial remarks about the new Marxist victories in America—about what has happened and what’s likely to happen next.

II. The Marxist framework

Anti-Marxist liberals have labored under numerous disadvantages in the recent struggles to maintain control of liberal organizations. One is that they are often not confident they can use the term “Marxist” in good faith to describe those seeking to overthrow them. This is because their tormentors do not follow the precedent of the Communist Party, the Nazis, and various other political movements that branded themselves using a particular party name and issued an explicit manifesto to define it. Instead, they disorient their opponents by referring to their beliefs with a shifting vocabulary of terms, including “the Left,” “Progressivism,” “Social Justice,” “Anti-Racism,” “Anti-Fascism,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Critical Race Theory,” “Identity Politics,” “Political Correctness,” “Wokeness,” and more. When liberals try to use these terms they often find themselves deplored for not using them correctly, and this itself becomes a weapon in the hands of those who wish to humiliate and ultimately destroy them.

Marx's political framework
1. Oppressor and oppressed

2. False consciousness
Marx recognizes that the liberal businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and intellectuals who keep this system in place are unaware that they are the oppressors, and that what they think of as progress has only established new conditions of oppression. Indeed, even the working class may not know that they are exploited and oppressed. This is because they all think in terms of liberal categories (e.g., the individual’s right to freely sell his labor) which obscure the systematic oppression that is taking place. This ignorance of the fact that one is an oppressor or oppressed is called the ruling ideology (Engels later coined the phrase false consciousness to describe it), and it is only overcome when one is awakened to what is happening and learns to recognize reality using true categories.

3. Revolutionary reconstitution of society
There is a period of “more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution” and the “violent overthrow” of the liberal oppressors. At this point, the oppressed seize control of the state.

4. Total disappearance of class antagonisms

III. The attraction and power of Marxism
For example, despite decades of experimentation with vouchers and charter schools, the dominant form of American liberalism remains strongly committed to the public school system. In most places, this is a monopolistic system that requires children of all backgrounds to receive what is, in effect, an atheistic education stripped clean of references to God or the Bible. Although liberals sincerely believe that this policy is justified by the theory of “separation of church and state,” or by the argument that society needs schools that are “for everyone,” the fact is that these theories justify what really is a system aimed at inculcating their own Enlightenment liberalism. Seen from a conservative perspective, this amounts to a quiet persecution of religious families. Similarly, the pornography industry is nothing but a horrific instrument for exploiting poor women, although it is justified by liberal elites on grounds of “free speech” and other freedoms reserved to “consenting adults.” And in the same way, indiscriminate offshoring of manufacturing capacity is considered to be an expression of property rights by liberal elites, who benefit from cheap Chinese labor at the expense of their own working-class neighbors.

...We must understand the enduring attraction and strength of Marxism. And we will never understand it unless we recognize that Marxism captures certain aspects of the truth that are missing from Enlightenment liberalism.

Which aspects of the truth?

Marx’s principal insight is the recognition that the categories liberals use to construct their theory of political reality (liberty, equality, rights, and consent) are insufficient for understanding the political domain. They are insufficient because the liberal picture of the political world leaves out two phenomena that are, according to Marx, absolutely central to human political experience: The fact that people invariably form cohesive classes or groups; and the fact that these classes or groups invariably oppress or exploit one another, with the state itself functioning as an instrument of the oppressor class.

IV. The flaws that make Marxism fatal

We’ve looked at what Marxist political theory gets right and why it’s such a powerful doctrine. But there are also plenty of problems with the Marxist framework, a number of them fatal.

The first of these is that while Marxism proposes an empirical investigation of the power relations among classes or groups, it simply assumes that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed.

The fact that the Marxist framework presupposes a relationship of oppressor and oppressed leads to the second great difficulty, which is the assumption that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group. But if it is possible for weaker groups to benefit from their position, and not just to be oppressed by it, then we have arrived at the possibility of a conservative society: One in which there is a dominant class or loyalty group (or coalition of groups), which seeks to balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid actual oppression.

...When liberals and conservatives talk about Marxism being “nothing but a big lie,” this is what they mean. The Marxist goal of seizing the state and using it to eliminate all oppression is an empty promise. Marx did not know how the state could actually bring this about, and neither have any of his followers. In fact, we now have many historical cases in which Marxists have seized the state: In Russia and Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, and Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela. But nowhere has the Marxists’ attempt at a “revolutionary reconstitution of society” by the state been anything other than a parade of horrors. In every case, the Marxists themselves form a new class or group, using the power of the state to exploit and oppress other classes in the most extreme ways—up to and including repeated recourse to murdering millions of their own people. Yet for all this, utopia never comes and oppression never ends.

...But the aim of reconstituting society and the assertion that the state is responsible for achieving this feat makes the Marxist state much more aggressive, and more willing to resort to coercion and bloodshed, than the liberal regime it seeks to replace.

V. The dance of liberalism and Marxism
Thus the endless dance of liberalism and Marxism, which goes like this:

1. Liberals declare that henceforth all will be free and equal, emphasizing that reason (not tradition) will determine the content of each individual’s rights.

2. Marxists, exercising reason, point to many genuine instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, decrying them as oppression and demanding new rights.

3. Liberals, embarrassed by the presence of unfreedom and inequality after having declared that all would be free and equal, adopt some of the Marxists’ demands for new rights.

4. Return to #1 above and repeat.

...Liberals progressively adopt the critical theories of the Marxists over time, whether the subject is God and religion, man and woman, honor and duty, family, nation, or anything else.

More to come later today.

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