May Day, 2014
Not since the 1960s has Marx’s name been so widely invoked as a guide and sage. Except in a few academic outposts—mainly “culture studies,” not in the disciplines in which Marxism was once most vital, political science and economics—Marx had almost wholly disappeared as a serious contender of our attention. By the early 1970s, Rawls had replaced Marx as the main object of the devotions among those on the Left, by which time the Marxist experiments in Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere seemed to have left it wholly discredited. The American Left had made its peace with liberalism, and while it remained egalitarian, redistributist, and enamored of centralization, it largely made its peace with capitalism.
With the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Marx is back in vogue, though—as is the case with Piketty as well—likely more invoked than read. In the backdrop of a range of statistics showing that economic inequality has deepened over the past several decades and accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008, and the broader anxiety felt nearly everywhere that the nation is heading in the wrong direction, Piketty’s argument is riding high on the wave of the Zeitgeist. Critiques of capitalism are in vogue in salons and academe and in the media, and calls for radical rethinking are the order of the day.
But as in early-20th century, those who most ardently embrace Marx tend not to be the dispossessed, but educated and wealthy elites. The revolution—such as it is—once again seems to be the cri de coeur of the nation’s educational, media, and even business liberal elites. The object of their critique would seem to be—themselves. As Matt Continetti recently documented, those most likely to be in the 1 percent (or at least 5 percent) today are documented liberals.
But, read your Marx: Marx knew that the revolution of the proletariat was not likely to be advanced by the proletariat: it would, in fact, be the enlightened segment of the bourgeoisie who would lead the charge in transforming of society. They would constitute the “vanguard” who would act on behalf of the dispossessed workers, and then rule on their behalf until society was sufficiently transformed that true equality could be established and the “State” could finally wither away.
In fact, the lower classes on whose behalf the enlightened would act could not be trusted: they were in the grip of “false consciousness,” deceived about the nature of their true condition, likely to “cling” to their religion and other backward beliefs. Marx was clear who constituted the true opposition: not the wealthy, from whom the enlightened were to be drawn; it was the lower-middle class, the “conservative” element of society. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto,
The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionaries, but conservative. Nay, more they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.
The elites would invoke the anxieties of these classes—wrought above all by the dislocation of capitalism—to justify the displacement of the old aristocracy with their replacement by the temporary dictatorship of the enlightened. The enlightened would rule for an unspecified time until the “reactionaries” could be re-educated, and then all divisions would cease: no more war, no more countries, no more religion, no more possessions. Imagine!—it’s easy if you try.
The story of the rise of conservatism and the defeat of communism in the 1980s was in large part “the revolt of the masses” against their enlightened saviors. In Eastern Europe, ordinary people rose up against their Soviet occupiers, throwing off decades of brutal rule that had been justified in the name of and for the benefit of the working classes. This past Sunday’s canonization of John Paul II in part recalls and honors his role in combatting communism in Poland, acting with the ordinary Polish workers—Solidarity—who sought to reclaim basic human dignity and freedom, including the freedom to worship God without oppression and interference.
At the same time, in the United States, working-class voters—traditionally, the backbone of the Democratic party—threw their support behind Ronald Reagan, forming the core of the modern Republican electorate and dubbed accordingly as “Reagan Democrats.” Rejecting the Democratic party’s embrace of an agenda that forefronted the concerns of the professoriate and elite classes—identity politics, lifestyle autonomy—including sexual license and abortion—and anti-patriotism, the people of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and Franklin Roosevelt—for the first time in American history—began to vote Republican.
Eventually, the identification of the white-working class with Republicans—which had traditionally been the party of the propertied elite, and the more “liberal” of the two parties—led to charges of “false consciousness” on the part of the working class, a charge lodged most notably by Thomas Frank in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank charged that the working-class poor, in supporting Republicans, were voting against their class interest (I wrote a follow-up article on this subject for TAC several years ago, which in its draft form was entitled “What’s the Matter with Connecticut?”, in which I speculated on why rich denizens of my native Connecticut were now voting against their class interest).
While the storyline today is that the conservative Republican party is doomed for political irrelevance in Presidential elections due to demographic shifts that will favor liberal Democratic presidential candidates for foreseeable decades, at least in the case of the 2012 election, the main, largely uncovered story was that this bloc of voters stayed home. The working-class—who today’s liberals, enthralled by Thomas Piketty, claim to speak on behalf of—chose “none of the above.” In one report of their dissatisfaction, which interviewed culturally-conservative working-class whites in my rust-belt city, South Bend, IN, a local Democratic politician explained why:
Locals dislike Mr Obama’s stance on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, explains Brendan Mullen, the Democratic candidate for the area’s seat in Congress. But they are only slightly more enthusiastic about Mr Romney, who reminds them of the absentee executives who show up at the factories where they work to announce lay-offs and closures.
According to reports such as this one, “none-of-the-above” represented the people whose fate Mr. Piketty and his legion of fans lament better than either President Obama or Governor Romney.
Here’s what Marx got right—profoundly, overwhelmingly, admirably right: capitalism is unforgiving to “conservatives,” those who care about neighborhood, Church, family, loyalty, tradition. As Marx and Engels eloquently described in The Communist Manifesto,
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation….
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
If voters like the regulars at South Bend’s Simeri’s Old Town Tap believed that the Democrats could help their plight, they would have voted for Obama. If they believed that the Republicans were standing up for them (as they did in the 1980s), they would have voted for Romney. But they have concluded that neither party now represents the working class, and what they really care about—which is to be able to lead stable and decent lives without being ravaged by an economy run by distant decisions and absentee owners who seek only to increase their own bottom line. The Democrats, they have concluded, care most about advancing the libertarian lifestlyle agenda enjoyed by educated elites. In spite of the flurry of recent stories praising Thomas Piketty in the New York Times, what has gotten more coverage and dedicated discussion in its pages—income inequality, or gay marriage? And the Republicans, they have concluded—particularly regarding Mitt Romney, but not exclusively—are in the pocket of the very people who have been outsourcing their jobs and ravaging their places and people.
Charles Murray has told their story using numbers in his recent book Coming Apart, in which he contrasts the flourishing lives of the denizens of “Belmont”—upper-class, near-urban elite counties—with the disintegrating lives of the people in “Fishtown,” or working class neighborhoods that were once the stronghold of the Democratic party until they became Reagan Democrats and, more recently, “none-of-the-above.” Once the backbone of American society, the denizens of Fishtown are experiencing catastrophic levels of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, criminality and declining social capital. Yet their “rulers” care more about advancing marriage equality on the Left, or protecting corporate interests, on the Right. It’s highly doubtful that an 80 percent global tax on the richest people, as proposed by Picketty, would much help these people. But efforts to support domestic industry; salvage and even rebuild once-thriving neighborhoods (not just in the counties outside Washington D.C.); support education and apprenticeship linked to local industry; heavily favor the formation of families through the tax code (and, as Reihan Salam has proposed, even punitively tax the childless); encourage the talented and ambitious not just to flock to trendy urban centers; cease subsidizing suburbia; stop advancing the sexual revolution through government policy; relentlessly root out crony capitalism, rent-seeking, and large-scale corporate reliance upon regulatory advantages; for starters at least, might actually start to help some of the working poor and even pinch the elite.
Conservatives would do well to read some Christopher Lasch, who in the 1980s wrote a series of devastating critiques of the elite as those least likely to advance the cause of the working classes. An atheist Marxist early in his career, Lasch’s late work—especially his books The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites—exposed the intellectual and financial elites for their irresponsibility and deep hostility toward the working classes. His fears that the society they envisioned—globalized libertinism—has come to pass, with these elites now reaping the advantages while the (unemployed) working poor “enjoy” the fruits of sexual liberation: the de-linking of individuals from robust and settled communities, the destruction of networks, cultures, and traditions that supported families and neighborhoods. He identified liberals especially for special and searing scorn, exposing their sentimental pity as a veneer that covered their main aim of outsourcing actual responsibility toward the less fortunate to a faceless, uncaring, distant and irresponsible government while they enjoyed the fruits of their outsized gains and organized license.
This is the kind of Marxism we need today. People who really want to work, make things, build families and communities and dig deep roots—Unite!