Thursday, March 04, 2010

US politics from a Marxist perspective

From a Marxist perspective, liberalism and conservatism are categories that contain different class interests. If we want to understand US politics from a class perspective, then we have to begin by identifying these horizontal divisions, concealed as they are behind official appeals to "right" and "left."

Seeking to incorporate disparate class interests, liberalism and conservatism reflect both popular and elite concerns. In their popular expressions, liberalism argues that the government should do what its citizens want, while conservatism argues that the government shouldn't do what its citizens don't want. Taken strictly from the popular vantage point, it is easy to see that what is proposed as an intractable conflict is really just a restatement of the same principle: the government should conform to the expectations of its citizens.

The elite concerns embedded within the liberal/conservative paradigm are mutually reinforcing in the same way. A liberalism beholden to capital will use "big government" to further the aims and purposes of capital, as we have seen in the case of financial bailout, for example. Elite conservatism will then complete the circle by screaming "socialism" and demanding that "big government" be drastically reduced in all areas not subordinated to capital. In this way, the parties seek to present themselves in opposition, when in fact they argue two sides of the same position: the government must service the needs of capital, irrespective of other considerations.

For these reasons, it may be helpful to approach liberal and conservative categories not as coherent antagonists, but rather as incoherent categories best understood through the lens of class conflict. The upshot is that we cannot fully understand "liberal" and "conservative" appeals independent of their class implications. In other words, we cannot take for granted that these terms mean any one thing if we accept that they are comprised intrinsically of competing elements.

7 comments:

Rachel said...

Good lord, this makes ever so much sense. Am I a Marxist, then?

Ethan said...

Dear JR:

Please find a publisher willing to pay you lots and lots of money to create a new translation of the collected works of Marx. I have a ridiculous amount of trouble reading the ones that already exist, but when you talk about them, they're crystal-clear.

Love,
Ethan

Enron said...

I disagree. I think they reflect different political interests of the same ruling elite.

almostinfamous said...

'Enron', why are you disagreeing with thin air?

or in a more illustrative way:
what part of "In this way, the parties seek to present themselves in opposition, when in fact they argue two sides of the same position: the government must service the needs of capital, irrespective of other considerations." do you not understand?

I'm with Ethan btw - Marx without the techno-babble would be great to read.

JRB said...

Rachel: Well, it's one way of looking at things. If it makes sense to you, it's probably because it explains something in a way that also conforms to your values.

As I read him, Marx was very focused on a particular form of authority; even within the broader tradition of class analysis, he went much deeper into this inquiry than anyone else I know. So I take "Marxist" in this spirit -- as a kind specialization in the authority of capital over people's lives and relationships.

Ethan: Marx can certainly be challenging, but you may be surprised at how well he writes, if you stick with it. Granted, it's a totally different style than that which is inspired by corporate utility in the 21st century; it's much richer, more literary. It's frequently very funny once you get a handle on his style of criticism.

I put off reading Marx for a long time out of a similar reluctance to grapple with the language, which, as you note, I don't have much use for myself. However, we don't want to miss out on the concepts.

The irony of what I found after reading many authors about Marx is that he was a far better writer than any of them. I think people like David Harvey are really correct in encouraging us to read Capital as a book. I'm struggling with it now for the first time, in fact.

There's a lot I don't understand and plenty I'm probably getting wrong, but I still feel like I'm getting a lot out it, no doubt because I feel I am living most of the experiences he preferences in his analysis: I'm working jobs to survive and my personal relations are mediated by commodities of every kind; my time is fragmented and always in jeopardy, etc.

Incidentally, I'm reassured to see that Richard over at The Existence Machine is basically in the same place, as well as many of the readers who comment here, at least as far as taking on Capital is concerned.

Enron: That's true insofar as they are utilized by elites. But, as Marx might point out, elites only comprise one class. What do these traditions "reflect" when they are adopted by the working class? A preference for one set of special interests over another? Or a distaste for special interests altogether?

In other words, do these traditions have a unified meaning between classes or don't they? If they don't, then it is possible that the unity we suspected in one configuration actually exists in another.

Ethan said...

it's a totally different style than that which is inspired by corporate utility in the 21st century

So you're saying my mind has been ravaged by too much QBQ?

Thanks for the tips and the encouragement. Should I just start by grabbing the Manifesto, then?

JRB said...

In defense of John G. Miller, it doesn't take nearly as much work to understand what he is saying.

If you have other things competing for your attention, Marx probably won't be the way to go. I think you have to reach a place where everything else is inadequate for the task at hand; that is when Marx can come through.

The Manifesto is worthwhile, but it's worth reading alongside comparable propaganda of other traditions (e.g., that of Kropotkin). The significance of a book like Capital is that it isn't comparable to anything.