Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Makers, Takers, and Marxists

By now, I'm sure that Romney's statements at a fundraiser need little further comment. However, I happened to be reading an anthropology/history book from 1982 and was struck by how the Marxist framework's use of producers and takers sounded remarkably similar. Of course, in the Marxist framework the roles are reversed, with Romney's makers being the takers of a Marxist perspective.

This made me reflect on something I've mentioned before, how much the modern right resembles a kind of mirror image Marxism. Make Marx's villains heroes, add a sprinkling of nationalism and religiosity for flavor, and you can pretty much predict what the far right appears to believe, even down to the withering away of the state. It's something I find interesting that I still believe is under-explored, but not having lived through the shifts I'm probably not the best to remark on it in detail. It's something that also frightens me, Marxist thought, while valuable for researching certain topics, really wasn't able to grapple well with material reality. There's no reason to believe its mirror image would either. However, both Marxism and its mirror image seem well able to provide emotional fulfillment for their target audience. Probably something about their shared teleology and the certainty this provides, which must provide comfort even as it makes it harder to grapple with empirical reality (I don't understand why someone would adopt a teleological viewpoint like Marxism or modern conservatism so I won't bother pretending to).

What is also interesting is that the right's ranting makes a lot more sense if you assume they're shouting at an empty chair inhabited by the ghost of a left-wing liberal circa 1980. They really did sound like that once. But somewhere along the line the left managed to learn a few things and move on past that chair on to new, better arguments. Even the left fringe sounds different today, like in the last chapter of David Graeber's otherwise excellent Debt:The First 5000 Years.

The entirety of the Presidential race is just beginning to seem like two sides talking past each other, one modern, the other stuck in a timewarp to 1980. Heck, Romney even seems to think he's running against Jimmy Carter. What worries me is that the current ideology of the right wing has a hold similarly strong to that Bolshevism held in the Soviet Union. It bears so many similar characteristics, particularly with its power to justify and explain the world on a theoretical level (and, unfortunately, with similar accuracy).

Its kinda scary to consider arguing with an empty chair might win.


  1. In fairness, Tz, it is a *really scary* empty chair.

  2. I wonder how much the current right's similarities to the Marxism of a few decades ago owes to the tendency of individuals to move from the far left to the far right, without ever touching down in the center. I know people who were left, center, and right in the 1960 and 1970s. extremely few have moved from the then-center to today's right. But quite a few hvae moved from the then far left to today's far right. My speculation is that some people just crave absolutism and certainty -- far more than they car about what they are being absolutist about.

  3. wj,

    That's an interesting observation. It reminds me of how most fascists had been former socialists (I'm not suggesting an equivalence). It also would explain how so many of those that make the movement have a rather bizarre vision of modern liberalism, their authoritarian and/or absolutist views colored their vision of liberalism in their own past and they fail to recognize that these views were not shared by their former compatriots.

    It's also a good reminder of why the left/right axis isn't good for discussing absolute political positions (it works better for discussing relative positions among individuals from similar groups). Instead, taking authoritarian/absolutist attitudes as a separate aspect of political orientation may work better to describe these political orientations. Both the left and right have displayed these traits at different points in time so this may reveal more consistency in individual views than the left/right axis does, since for these individuals the appeal to authority/certainty may be more important than the distinguishing traits normally associated with left/right orientation.

  4. I have usually visualized the liberal/conservative axis as a ring. If you go far enough in one direction, you find yourself at the extreme of the other. Which makes sense of the fact that it seems to be a much shorter step between far left and far right than between either and moderate.

  5. wj,

    I've never really liked the ring analogy, I prefer to separate out components into a grid rather than a line.

    For instance, if you use an authoritarian to anarchist axis than you can separate out mirror image groups on the left and right. On the left-authoritarian group you can get Bolsheviks with their elite led socialism. On the right, aside from old school monarchists, you get deference to business elites as the true guiders of society.

    At the anarchist end, you get commune socialists and radical libertarian types emphasizing local autonomy.

    Of course, there are other ways to separate out traits. But I wonder if the apparent transition stays in one place on the authoritarian axis, a intellectual leadership leftist shifts loyalty to a business leadership rightist and a communal socialist shifts to a radical libertarian.

    Now I'm curious to find out if this holds, it works well for defectors from socialists to fascism, but I don't really know enough about the modern figures.

    1. There is a lot of merit in going from a 1 dimensional view to two (or more!) dimensions. But it occurs to me that, while I have encountered people moving from extreme left to extreme right, I don't think I have seen anyone moving from extremem authoritarian to extreme libertarian (or vis versa).

      Which leads me to wonder whether a better analogy is something like a truncated cone. (As opposed to a cylindar or a sphere.) The authoritarians of the left and right being closer (in terms of ease of movement) than the libertarians of the left and right. Hmmm....