Friday, June 15, 2012

Mirror Image Marxism

One of the major factors that drove me to the study of political science was the distaste I felt for how close minded Marxist thought was. It seemed so obvious to me that their assumptions drove their conclusions, rather than the actual observations of real world evidence, and that the combination made criticism impossible on their terms, by defining their intellectual playing field they made outside critique and empirical analysis impossible. This both fascinated and repelled me, I was fascinated to learn politics in an attempt to understand why large groups of people would adhere to so obviously flawed and limited a philosophy and I desired to learn political economy to learn all the flaws to the model from other perspectives.

A major factor that leads me to continue to study politics is the fascination and repulsion I feel by a near perfect mirror image of this that I see on the right wing, particularly in libertarianism. This philosophy seems to have developed a similarly closed circle, it makes assumptions that narrowly define the admissible evidence which inevitably drives the philosophy's conclusions and allows them to reject any outside evidence, since that evidence is not comprehensible within their philosophy. About the only thing they lack is socialist's talent for pithy phrases, like bourgeoisie science, for dismissing any inconvenient evidence or perspective.

A central feature of these closed systems is a doctrine of alienation. For Marx, and in a slightly less strongly specified form for other socialists, the Capitalist system, and the market generally, is oppressive by definition (there's an argument to this as well, but I can't summarize Das Kapital in a blog post). The very functioning of the market oppresses people, limits their life choices, and creates gross inequalities of power. The market alienates people from their own labor and from the institutions that run their lives. Never mind that millions, if not billions, of people support the market and recognize how it has improved their standard of living. Market institutions limit people from having any real impact over the choices they face in their lives and they simply become cogs in the machine grinding through their daily lives to the  rhythm of market forces. Individual autonomy is an illusion, liberty requires freeing ourselves from the dominance of those that control capital. Markets, if they exist at all, should be limited to the trivial. Anyone that disagrees is simply deceived, they don't understand how market forces are impacting them personally and creating false opinions driven by the dominant market ideology.

There's really no way to argue with someone that believes this hogwash. Any criticism made or fact pointed out gets dismissed as an epiphenomenon (as I said, socialists are by far the more clever of the two with coming up with gobbledygook to dismiss criticism) created by underlying economic forces. It's closed, evidence of the benefits of markets is generally dismissed or labeled oppressive. The only acceptable inputs are decisions arrived at through deliberation and consultation, though since people rather inconveniently don't all express the same faith in socialist doctrine these deliberations and consultations become increasingly closed. In the end, it simply doesn't work.

Libertarianism (or perhaps more precisely libertarians, in my criticism of both groups I am referring to popular discussions of the philosophies and not the rather more nuanced academic debates, I'm criticizing college Marxists and the college Objectivists, addressing more nuanced arguments would require a different, and far more lengthy, format) displays many of the same characteristics of Marxism, but flipped 180 degrees. For Libertarians rather than the ultimate source of oppression and constraint on liberty, the market instead is the fount of the same. Rather than being the source of alienation the market is the true expression of a free people and our ability to make choices within its confines is our liberty. For Libertarians, it is the state that is alien and oppressive. The market facilitates interactions between individuals but the state is unresponsive to their needs, little is said of its consultative or deliberative aspects. Never mind that millions, if not billions, of people criticize the workings of the market, these people are deluded the market awards people for benefiting others and punishes them when they fail to do so. The market awards personal merit and punishes lack thereof, those criticizing the market for inequalities are obviously failures since they lack wealth (those that have wealth and are making these criticisms are obviously making some form of power play to oppress people through the state apparatus). If people desire something the market will make it available, if people criticize what is being supplied by the market they obviously misunderstand supply and demand since the market would supply their needs by definition.

I'm running out of time, but I'll follow this up in subsequent posts. Both philosophies are characterized by simply assuming that some social institution is necessarily oppressive without really interrogating the criticisms of this (well, Marx does interrogate this, but his assumptions a few steps back from this argument seem flawed to me, getting into this is well beyond what I can deal with in this post). Each system produces definitions and assumptions that register the main criticisms of each as invalid. For Marxism, the obvious oppression of unchecked deliberative methods is dismissed as impossible because the coercive powers of the capitalists have been removed, people simply don't understand the roots of their oppression or the wisdom of new methods. For libertarianism, there is no means to question whether the market truly awards merit or if the market is truly efficient or if it truly supplies what people want. It seems to do so by definition, never mind that Socialism has been saying the opposite for two centuries, that earlier political and economic philosophy also criticized the market, and that people living within market economies today regularly criticize whether the market is awarding merit, question the range of goods supplied by it, and question the abilities of market actors to coerce others.

But for those that want closure, both philosophies supply it by providing ready excuses for dismissing the concerns of others. Neither philosophy is willing to admit that humans are contradictory, flawed creatures with multiple identities (individual, corporate, and collective), with natural tendencies to oppress each other. Since humans have flaws so will all institutions. It is necessary to have multiple means of signalling to each other what problems we believe exist in our social institutions, only through checks and balances can we attain some approximation of freedom and liberty. Any system which tries for a utopia is necessarily tyrannical and oppressive, our natures simply don't allow for it.

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