Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Karl Marx & the neo-conservatives: an illicit love affair

This article is going to be full of half-estimations and semi-shaped arguments. You have been warned in advance. If it's any consolation, I think that I am in some way right about all this. To put it in the form of a single sentence, in a simple approximation that should leave little lingering in confusion: Marx is the darling of the neo-cons. Even if they don't admit it; especially if they don't admit it.

Ideologically speaking, the neo-conservative consensus grew up in America, a kind of antithesis of communism, it literally made a monster out of traditional capitalism. Let me explain. Marx gave an excellent approximation of late nineteenth century capitalism, its abuses, its exploitation of the lower classes, which he held all lead to inequality and entrenched class divisions.

But that wasn't all that Marx's theory was about. An early Marx thought up a reason for the deplorability of his world, an explanation, a deep, philosophical, psychological reason even. In doing so he perhaps misunderstood something, or shifted a focus from something altogether more fundamental. In turn, he created the conditions for neoconservativism, as strange as that may seem. Let me explain my train of thought here.

Marx had an idea that the worker was alienated from the stuff that he or she made because of the system of production, which meant that they did not make the stuff themselves, for themselves or their close friends and family. In such a way, in a paradox, this very alienation drove them to buy the products, in the hope that they would overcome the alienation they felt from the products that they were always already removed from, in the production of the products, through the advent of mass production. The system, Marx seemed to be saying, was self-perpetuating alienation amongst the masses.

All this is true. All one has to see is the lengths that advertisers go to to make their products more familial, often linking them to deep, base human experiences and emotions such as love, longing, envy, family and irony. Still, there are certain things about this approximation that are problematic. These have to do with a narrowing of focus, like a search light too close to a wall, when it should be further away, illuminating much more of the wall in a huge halo of bright orange light.

In focussing on one aspect of human experience, not alienation itself, but linking it solely and primarily with economics and production, Marx paved the way for neoconservativism. His goal was to break free from this alienation, to find a centred human, one not at odds with his or her surroundings, away from systems which breed inequality, systems which he found existed primarily within the realm of the production of capital.

You can see his logic here. However, I still think that he was being too reductive in his analysis. If we skip forward roughly six decades after the time of Marx, we find a french philosopher named Jacques Derrida putting another name, another face upon the idea of Humanity's alienation from its true nature, its fall. Only this time, there was no fall as event, as a happening, as an explanation, as a beginning or an origin. Rather, there was a sense of alienation, a sense of a fall, one which is always happening, but that has already happened, especially at that moment it enters conscious thought, and presents itself as a problem, which makes us sit back and think: "How do I get back to that place that I once was?" or "How do I get to where I should be?"

This is alienation; this is addiction; this is desire; this is a fundamental condition of language, Derrida held. We enter into a system grander than economy, grander than societies and cultures even; we enter into language. Following Freud and Lacan for a moment, this alienates us from ourselves to varying degrees. Or to put it more succinctly, meaning - always linked with the self - and individuation are in flux, possibly multiplicious, and always other. The Buddhist dictum, that to forget the self is to approach enlightenment, is a clear approximation of this.

I am going to say something strange here, but just as much as the self doesn't exist, neither does language, if we take the approach that the primary tension is between the self and language. That is to say, neither exist without the other, without a crystalisation AWAY from each other, but also WITH each other, beside each other, maybe even within each other. AWAY, because they have to take on different shapes. WITH, because these shapes take their conditions from each other. We can only talk of the tension. That is not to say that nothing lies beyond that tension, that there is no peace to life. Only to say that this unconscious state would not be satisfactory if we ever to get anything done!

This is why, I think, Derrida says that deconstruction is a way of cheating death, even though death in this sense, of the flow of language, and its strangeness/normalness, is not possible. Or it is only possible in the radical sense of the extinction of the species along with every shred and scrap of everything that was ever written, drawn, recorded, or e-mailed (unlikely given Voyager 1's journey across the stars). The death that Derrida speaks is a death that lies in the goal of idealism, of a perfect truth, that silences all others. If all other voices are silenced, then there is no conversation. There is thus no oppurtunity to call something a truth. Derrida just never wants the conversation to end. This echoes Simon Critchley's approximation when he says that Derrida's problem was that he didn't know when to stop. (Critchley is a fan, by the way.)

And so, getting back to Marx, we can say that the alienation is symptomatic of modes of production, but not exclusively. What are the effects of Marx putting such an emphasis on the acheivement of some sort of ultimate happiness through the abolition of capitalism? I think that it laid the stage for a rhetoric which in turn forced capitalism into its modern guise of being.

Here we should reflect for a moment upon how conservativism's link with ideologies of capitalism has its roots in Marx. In labelling capitalism - its approximation, its definition, which Marx helped define - as the cause of human alienation, the cause of the fall, Marx had linked it with societal structures and class division. These are essentially with things that were and are linked with deepseated ideologies such as the approximations of selfhood and community; such as the nationstate; even of class divisions themselves. In doing so conservativism was excluded from any movement that would grow up around the theory.

Another consequnce was the building up of a theory of conservative capitalism, or some intrinsic link between the two, which strengthened and strengthened during the second half of the twentieth century, especially with the advent (or lack) of the Cold War.

Enter the neo conservatives. What was Thatcher's and Reagan's biggest coup de gras? They appealed to people who didn't think things were so bad, who were happy with their station in life, who wanted security and a decent life, who generally supported the status. A status quo that Marx helped define, helped make other.

While there are many other factors involved, brilliantly illustrated by Adam Curtis in All watched over by machines of loving grace, it still remains a fact that these two darlings of conservativism tapped into a zeitgeist of some description.

Here it is important to note that it is not simply, and has never simply been, Socialism versus the behemoth of capitalism. Rather, this is a battles of ideologies, of wills. In its late twentieth century stage, we are dealing with a highly codified argument or discussion, with rules and traditions, angels and demons, which perhaps have outstayed their welcome. In Marx's emphasis on money as the root of all evil, he also set the stage for the rise of money, enticing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher to believe that no one should receive social welfare; Thatcher who, along with Reagan, brought the term Taxpayer into the realm of politico speek, and defined us all as such. Nodes, in an economy, in a market, which will work itself out, as if balance in nature were the natural order of things. If we follow Derrida's train of though, that the resolution or truth of an argument, discussion or discourse is a death, then this assumed balance can only be thought of as a kind of death wish. Considering the current global economic crisis that began with the reckless shortsightedness of Wall St. bankers, this may not be too far off the mark.

And what of Marx? It was a critical misunderstanding that painted the tragedy of Marxist thought. In painting a picture of such a violent and original opposition to the other of the capitalist system which naturally led to alienation, he alienated many, who in turn were forced to deal with Marx, albeit unknowingly, and appropriate his thought. "If he thinks that capitalism alienates," they said in some higher realm of reductivity, "and this is the primary source of human alienation, and we are against his thought in all its forms, then capitalism is the ultimate form of human organisation, and people are just cogs in its machine."

Marxist thought is valuable. But we should never forget that alienation exists in language itself, its usage, and the never-quite-fixed nature of meaning. To rationalise everything as economic is to create a system of thought which raises the economic above all else. This is the age we live in, this is neo-conservative theory, this is Marx's theory.

We live in a Marxist age. Contrary to popular rhetoric, our most pertinent task at hand is to undo a very Marxist ideology, which is based in and around America, which found its roots there and took spring, flourished in itself, in universities, civil rights movements, student movements, but also, crucially, among the rich and the wealthy, among bankers, among the religious, among the ultra-conservatives. Because we all feel alienated, in one way or another; they simply found blame and solace respectively in a vision of THE economy, in seeds sown by Marx, many years ago. One of our jobs is to undo Marx, to present a new paradigm, and not to fall into this old trap again and again.

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