From Bob's archive: Folk Marxism and American political culture

This is another one from the archive while I'm away. It got zero comments when I posted it in February 2006, so I would appreciate feedback. I have added a conclusion, which hopefully makes it more coherent, although I have my doubts.

Economist Arnold Kling has written an interesting two-part piece in TCS Daily on how thinkers influence us through the folk versions of their beliefs. Jogo sent me the second part with the simple instruction “blog this”. I’m going to comply with that instruction, because I found the piece wrong on so many levels.

The idealist view of history

It starts with a quote from arch-liberal economist John Maynard Keynes to the effect that philosophers have an immense influence on the world: “it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” This is a classical statement of idealism – the belief that it is primarily ideas not material interests that shape the world – against materialism. Liberalism is premised on this sort of idealism, hence liberalism’s fundamentalist attitude to free speech: if ideas are all-important, the right to speak is more important than material entitlements, like food or not getting attacked by racist thugs.

Leaving aside for the moment this issue of materialism and idealism, Kling’s argument in the first part is pretty uncontroversial: that some high thinkers’ ideas go out into the world in a more or (usually) less faithful “folk” forms, which then have an impact on the world. Thus we have folk Freudianism, folk Keynesianism, folk Marxism, and so on.

‘Folk Marxism’

The second part focuses in on folk Locke-ism and folk Marxism, which Kling suggests have been two of the most influential folk beliefs of our age. The Lockean tradition believes in the rights of individuals and the responsibilities and limits of government. The folk version of this is a “jaunty defiance of tyrants” which runs deep in American culture. Although folk Lockeans might not know they are following Locke, Locke would most probably recognise his kinship with them.

Folk Marxism for Kling is the simple belief that oppressors are bad and the oppressed are good: a folk 
version, he says, of Marx’s view of history as class struggle. Now, I think Kling is right to identify a current of thought that identifies with the oppressed against the oppressor, and that this identification can be dangerous and stupid. It is not the instinct to side with the oppressed against the oppressor - the noble instinct of Thomas Paine and George Orwell - that is wrong. What is wrong is when this instinct is channelled through a worldview that only allows you to support the oppressed when they are darker skinned than their oppressors (or when the oppressed are Muslim and the oppressors are Christian or Jewish, or when the oppressors are allied with America, etc). And what is also wrong is when the instinct blinds people to the obvious (“dialectical” as Marx would say) truth that the oppressed easily become the oppressors.

Here’s Kling: “If you think about it, the forces fighting America in Iraq consist of former oppressors and would-be future oppressors. But because America is a rich, powerful country, the folk Marxist instinct is to romanticize (‘insurgency’) the real oppressors and demonize (“occupation”) the real liberators.” This perverted instinct pervades the left and I have argued against it on this blog before.

I’m not sure simply using the word “insurgency” is part of this, as Kling suggests. “Insurgency”, unlike “resistance” or “terrorist”, is fairly neutral and doesn’t romanticise. Only if you accept that “insurgency” romanticizes does Kling’s claim that “the mainstream media” is folk Marxist make any sense.

Marx and ‘folk Marxism’

Marx himself was generally on the side of nations that were championed as oppressed by the radical and liberal milieus in which he moved, but not very enthusiastically. At times he was downright contemptuous of the struggles of the Indians and the Irish and the Poles, and he was not in the least bothered about the oppression of women. This is because oppression is basically not a key part of the Marxist worldview, but rather is a key part of the radical liberal worldview. For Marx, as a materialist, exploitation was more important than oppression, and the “objective antagonism” between capital and labour was more important than moral struggles between oppressors and oppressed.

As for the moral authority of the oppressed, Marx specifically did not see the workers having any moral authority by virtue of their oppression. Indeed, it is one of the problems of Marx’s philosophy that he did not have any language for thinking about morality.

The people Kling calls folk Marxists (e.g. “the mainstream media”) mostly wouldn’t see themselves as Marxists and their views have little to do with Marx, so it seems to me that the designation “folk Marxist” is not at all helpful in the way that “folk Lockean” is. Maybe it is fair to indict Marxism for things done in Marx’s name, even where they have nothing to do with Marx’s actual thoughts, but it's surely rather unfair to indict Marxism for silly, liberal, romantic notions about the oppressed.

In fact, I might even suggest that the reflex to romanticize the oppressed is a symptom of the ascendancy within the left of thoughtless liberal ideology over rigorous Marxist thought. It is thoughtless liberal ideology that has taken over the academy, not folk Marxism.

I think there is such a thing, however, as folk Marxism, which also has a dangerous hold on the left, which Noam Chomsky has probably done the most to disseminate. This is the “vulgar materialist” belief that everything done in the world is down to material interests, to economics. The most common form of this position is the stupid “No blood for oil” slogan, which sees American foreign policy as nothing but the expression of the interests of robber baron petrocracy.

We’re all Lockeans now

Pushing a bit further, it might be that both the ultra-liberal reflex Kling is attacking and Marx’s own philosophy are actually skewed variants of Lockeanism. The notion of oppression is grounded in the Lockean or classical liberal belief in people’s inalienable rights – oppression is where one body of people more or less systematically deny another body of people their rights. The instinct is basically right, but is dangerous if applied without thought, or when it is applied according to flawed principles about who constitutes the oppressed and who constitutes the oppressor.

Marx’s political economy was based on Locke’s theories, in quite a fundamental way. It was Locke, as part of his argument for private property as one of the key rights of individuals, who developed the first formulation of the “labour theory of value”, a fundamental plank of Marx’s thought. Locke argued that the process of labour allows something of a person’s self to be “mingled” with things in a way that makes them belong to a person. Thus, if I take a piece of wood from a tree and fashion it into a chair, my labour has made it mine by “mingling” something of my self with the raw wood.

Economists inferred thatthat the economic value of the chair I have made is created by the labour I put in – that is, the difference between the value of the wood and the value of the chair is the labour I “mingled” with it. Marx took this theory further, and applied it to a situation where I’m making the chair for an employer. The employer makes a profit by selling on the chair for more than he bought the wood for, but the difference in value is all down to my labour. In “folk” terms, profits are just unpaid wages

Marx’s notion of exploitation and the "objective antagonism" between capital and labour is premised on Locke’s idea that I have put something of my self into that chair, and that the capitalist is thus expropriating something of my self, something in Locke’s terms “inalienable” (hence Marx’s concept of “alienation”, which has nothing to do with existential angst, but simply refers to this taking of the labour I have “mingled” with a commodity).

It is this tradition of Lockeanism - a radical critique of exploitation - that we need to recover today. It has been eclipsed, on the one hand, by liberal moralism which focuses on oppression and recognition and, on the other, by the vulgar folk Marxism of the "no blood for oil" brigade. But, in this time of financial crisis and austerity, we need it more than ever.


JRB said…
Really great. I enjoyed this very much.

You've got a lot going on here but I followed you every step of the way. That is a testament to your writing ability and mastery of the material!

Thanks a lot for passing this on and bringing my attention to what you're up to here. I'll be back!
Unknown said…
oh come on. I totally thought of this T- shirt my self a few months ago, only mine was black and whit and had three of the Marx Brothers.
Unknown said…
I agree that Marxism today is not what Marx had in mind but he build his theories in societies during the industrial revolution, England, Germany…whereas communist movements succeeded where agriculture was predominant. so his support for the old order of peasants and monarchs is to prevent the use of false consciousness by the middle class.It emphasizes the issue of materialism.

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