A Clientelist Elite, And An Idiotic Idea
On the 30th of April 2018 the New York Times published an opinion piece, “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!” by Jason Barker. It was a typical, facile, brief account of the virtue of Karl Marx by an academic – a Professor of English (who and what else?) – who had found employment teaching philosophy in South Korea.
To anyone who might have thought that Karl Marx was the guy who (in his words) “proved” that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and “that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society ,” and thus triggered the crazy schemes and programs of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, etc., who had to kill a lot of people to make sure that they would not even think about trying to protect their property from the party representing the dictatorship of the proletariat – Barker, true to (con)form(ity), informed the urbane, sensitive, well educated, sophisticated and terribly exploited readers of the New York Times that Marxism had never really been tried.
Barker, like so many academics before him, was true to a dictum (which I know I have used before in this magazine) of another, extremely talented, Marx (Chico) that when one heard the words of Marx, one should believe him, not what one sees with one’s own eyes.
In Karl’s case, anyone who used his eyes could see that while he insisted that it was not consciousness but social being that determines consciousness and that the social “being” of the proletariat was the key to its universal emancipatory historical role of destroying class society, everything Marx said about the proletariat came out of his consciousness; or, more precisely, his imagination, consisting of his reading and philosophy, his rationalizations and selective observations – but nothing from his being as a proletarian. For Marx belonged as much to that class as any other person who has known some workers; or, as in his case, was good friends with (and received money from) someone (viz., his friend Engels who was also coauthor of The Communist Manifesto) who employed them in his factory. Perhaps Marx was so blind to himself that he never noticed the deception he was engaging in.
Likewise, perhaps Barker’s blindness to reality stems from simply not knowing that he is ignorant about the historical connections between Marx, Lenin and Stalin, and why the goal of the program – the elimination of private ownership of “the means of production” – required the kind of theoretical adaptation that not only Marxists but Marx himself made when, in spite of the central argument of his unfinished magnum opus, Capital, that the conditions of socialism had to be generated from the internal contradictions flowing from the development of capitalism reaching its breaking point, he told his Russian “fans” that they could have communism without having to go through the journey of capitalism as Western Europe had done.
Whether ignorant or not, one must be blind, if one does not realize that when the Bolsheviks tried to create the kind of society Marx dreamt of, they got chaos and resistance. Like Marx, there was no serious precedent anywhere ever of what they wanted; although, like Marx, they romanticized the artisan-led Paris commune (itself a product of very specific French political and Parisian conditions in the tumult and aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war), as if it were somehow a prototype of what they were pursuing.
For Marx and the Bolsheviks, socialism was to be a society in which there would be large-scale, spontaneous cooperative harnessing of labour power to produce whatever the society needed. And because there would be no classes and no bourgeoisie to dictate patterns of consumption based upon profits, there was supposed to be unanimous agreement upon social needs. Given that people did not all think it was such a swell idea to have their property taken away from them, or be told what work they had to do and for how long, the mass cooperation that was supposed to emerge out of the unalienated classless condition had to be induced another way.
Historically two common inducements outside of the family, or tribe (which has its own compulsions) have occurred – force (conquest, enslavement, etc.), or renumeration/exchange (you do this for me, and I do that/give this for /to you). The Bolsheviks resorted to option A, thereby leaping back beyond Russian feudalism and creating large scale modern, ideologically induced and legitimated, labour camps for mass slavery (thereby also showing the National Socialists how to go about it), and the creation of a secret police (again, showing the National Socialists how to scout out and deal with traitors to the regime).
That this would occur could only be a surprise to someone who prefers historical fantasy about human social formation over actual development, which proceeds according to certain structural, functional conditions of scale and coordination of resource accumulation and production (the very topic Marxism was supposed to be particularly astute to). That the Bolsheviks were still confronted with chaos – made even worse by a civil war, as, naturally enough, various groups who were in less controllable regions fought against becoming dispossessed and enslaved to fulfil the fantasies of the intelligentsia and their willing followers – led them to resort back, in part at least, to option B.
But Lenin knew that if this was a long-term option, then one could forget the endgame. Stalin remembered that – thus he realized that the only way to salvage the program after Lenin’s death was to get it back on track, and destroy the peasantry and their market base, as well as any opposition to the slaughter that this would entail. (By the way, when Bukharin was pressing for the New Economic Policy, allowing the peasantry to have their own markets NEP, Trotsky was vigorously opposed to it, while Stalin was non-committal – so much for the myth of the tolerant Trotsky).
But given the geopolitical rivalry Stalin was confronted with (for Lenin had taken advantage of a war that had effectually help destroy the old regime), Stalin had to be prepared for the inevitability of another war. That required having a society that was industrially and technologically developed, administratively capable, centrally coordinated and politically committed. No wonder Trotsky’s “wind-baggery” about the dangers of bureaucracy in the face of internal oppositionists and arising external deadly adversaries looked like outright defeatism and treachery (Stalin realized that the geopolitical aspirations of Nazi Germany were not to be confused with the rather lack-luster involvement by a gaggle of foreign powers on the fringes of Russia in the immediate aftermath of the Great War).
The old revolutionary guard had been good at gasbagging about how great their new world would be, distributing propaganda and defying the old regime, inciting mutiny, and then ruthlessly destroying anyone who did not join them. Stalin certainly took all this on board – but (Stalin and those he trusted or needed aside) they were generally useless for actually building a new large-scale centralized state-run economy. Yes, indeed, this was ostensibly a new option – option C. Given it was option B – the market – that Marxism had identified as the root of alienation, and given that the fantasy of simply letting people take and do what they want could not exist, and that this left force (option A) in the form of the state (whose bulwarks were its secret police, originally Lenin’s creation, the Cheka, and the Red Army) as the means for organizing large scale production – option C was really just option A.
And that came back to the basic option that Marxists from Karl on had ever skirted around – production via sheer force of arms and the instruments of authority the state could marshal against those who defied it, or markets? Up until the time communists actually had some power, they preferred verbal dream to tough as boots reality; and hence promised to eliminate both – this was seen as nonsense even by the anarchist lunatic Bakunin, who accused Marxism of being nothing but red bureaucracy and statism. Bakunin was, of course, another of those nineteenth century fabulists who thought that because the bulwarks of civilization (private property, the family, the state, religion, money, law, etc.) created their own (to be sure) serious problems, they could simply be overthrown without human beings being thrown back again into the problems and kinds of crises that these institutions had arisen to overcome.
Stalinist statism was, in other words, the inevitable accompaniment of the attempt to instantiate a rationalist program upon the world, which is a contingent, not a rational creation. And while an ideology is just a chain of ideas, some of which derive from reality; others, like communism itself – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” as Marx famously and ridiculously formulated it – are just words. But once a group of people who share a set of ideas seek to make others do what they want, then they need the state with the modalities of force that it can activate for all those who refuse to obey.
As an ideology Marxism, like anarchism, simply avoided the issue of disputation and disagreement by identifying anyone who did not get on board with the program as class enemies, and thus an enemy of the human race, which was why once the Bolsheviks seized power they upped the dictum of the red queen in Alice in Wonderland, calling “bourgeois” or “agents of the bourgeoisie” anyone they needed to lock up or liquidate because such would not do what they were told. And, perhaps Barker has no memory of this, but back in the day communists generally, and communist intellectuals, including people as smart as Brecht, Benjamin, Tzara, Picasso, Eluard, Aragon – all loved Stalin.
And when Stalin was cleaning out the stable – including the upper ranks of the military (which, contrary to the standard critique of it being potentially perilous to the regime, turned out to be a brilliant move with historical precedent based upon the insight that old generals will generally be a burden because they will want to fight the new war in the old way) – so that a new, more technically proficient, class could build up the economy after all the ruin of the 1920s.
The New York Times also had their man, Walter Duranty, on the ground. He wrote fables for New Yorkers living far away from the slave camps, about what a bunch of treacherous scum Stalin had to deal with. And to be fair to Stalin, the only difference between him and Trotsky, or Zinoviev or Kamenev, and even (sad to say, the golden-haired boy) Bukharin, the other saboteurs was that he was more astute in the battles he picked, and the allies he chose in fighting them. And whereas Trotsky, his one real possible rival to take charge of gulags and mass death to implement the program, was cold and aloof, Stalin could really turn on that big, earthy, goofy smile and ingratiating rustic charm.
As for the great mass of those caught up in the purge, New York Times readers, even had they known, generally could not care less about these unknown people, in a place that was only knowable through the scribble and portal of people like Duranty’s imagination. As with Barker and the readers of 2018, reality should not interfere with a pipe-dream. People usually only change after a great deal of personal suffering, as opposed to suffering that one reads about in newspapers and which befalls others. That is unfortunate, though no less so than the fact that people with idiotic ideas make small and large fortunes out of their imbecilic ideas which, in the long run, only contribute to larger scale human suffering than God or nature, left to their own devices, may have devised.
While I think it highly unlikely that the Sulzberger family today, who have run the Times for generations, and the editors they appoint really want to see their property seized and socialized by the industrial proletariat, they are more than happy to employ an editor who back in the day saw it fitting to inform their readers what a swell guy Uncle Joe was, and now more recently that communism might be worth another go. Maybe that is blindness too. And perhaps it was also simply blindness that led President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who, around much the same time as Barker’s “thought piece,” was also urging anyone who thought him worth listening to that Karl Marx should be celebrated and not be blamed for the crimes of his followers. Perhaps he too was blind to the fact that his power and privilege have about as much to do with the proletariat as my watching Michael Jordan turned me into one of the greatest athletes on the planet.
The idea of communism, from the founder to his followers, and others, who are happy to pitch it as a seriously good idea, seems to create a lot of blindness. It certainly creates idiocy. And let us not beat around any scholarly bushes of etiquette: the idea we are talking about is completely idiotic. Communism, as Marx exclaimed in his notebooks of 1844, solved the riddle of history because it enabled the overcoming of alienation. The logic is pure scholasticism (without any residual virtues that such devotion to logic for understanding God and the soul might have had).
And it goes like this: private property has alienated us therefore we must eliminate it. Or to flesh it out a bit more, our alienation comes from being estranged from our species’ essence, which is labouring. Poverty exists because our essence, our capacity to labour, has been expropriated from us by people who buy and sell us and our essence for their own gain.
Were we to take back our essence, by eliminating private property, and labour, because we saw that by producing something for someone else we have gratified our “authentic…human communal, nature” (the logic is spelled out in Notes he took on James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy), we would also eliminate classes, and thus create the most productive economic system that ever existed. To which one can only respond – wow, how come no other societies ever conformed to the human essence? Maybe, just maybe, what Marx thought was the essence was just an existential attribute or feature that is, in part, a response to necessity. But if it were the essence, it sure waited a long time to be discovered.
The worst thing about Marx’s reasoning and conclusion is not its platitudinous quality – more or less articulated by Montaigne in his essays, “Of Cannibals” (a critique of Europe’s own burdens, mixed up with a romantic paean to primitive life, which, to its credit, was not burdened by bad economics), roundly and brilliantly ridiculed by Shakespeare, when he put parts of it in the mouth of the well-meaning, but imbecilic Gonzalo, and repeated by the cultural (Marxist?) icon of the 1960s and 1970s John Lennon – “imagine no possessions/ I wonder if you can.” Yes, I can, John, and if you had read a bit more between writing some good songs (and let’s face it some real stinkers – can anyone listen to ‘Woman’ without a bucket?), taking drugs and schmoozing up to Yoko, you would know that it ain’t a pretty sight.
If the above logic does not sound idiotic to you, you have not realized that classes are just the name we give to the various groups that are created by the division of labour. In other words, the only way to eliminate classes is to eliminate the division of labour, which is why in his heady twenty-four or -five year old enthusiastic, drunken stupor, Marx came right out with it and proclaimed that the abolition of the division of labour was the means for freeing people from alienation. Good luck to anyone who seriously thinks they can have even modest economic development without the division of labour.
Even the formulation of the problem – the problem of alienation – reveals itself to be the kind of philosophical bothering undertaken by someone who has swallowed and regurgitated too many inebriates and abstractions; as if alienation is even the appropriate term to cover the original lack of resources, territory, a reliable food supply, the desire for women (a major source of conflict among Australian Aboriginal tribes, according to the escaped convict William Buckley who lived with the Aborigines for thirty years), and the kinds of artifacts and possibilities that urban dwelling and its accompanying division of labour historically enabled.
Such a way of thinking – which has now become commonplace among our intelligentsia – involves the belief that scarcity is not a natural existential starting point and problem to be constantly dealt with, but a deviation from our nature and essence. This is the “magic bin” theory of economics – there is a magic bin full of all the goodies we want that we all have a right to access (though Marx did at least think rights’ talk, like justice, was bourgeois nonsense).
Rights claims have become increasingly predicated upon the magic bin theory of economics, as is all too evident in the UN Declaration of Human Rights which identifies all manner of rights that have first to be produced before one can actually have any of them. Marx’s claim that the elimination of the division of labour solved the problems of scarcity and alienation is akin to using beheading as a cure for migraine.
To be fair to Marx, in a footnote tucked away in his posthumously published third volume of Capital, he seems to have substituted the crazy idea of marrying large scale production without the division of labour to the reduction of the working day. That is a remarkable comedown – a little like me confessing that in spite of all my watching of Michael Jordan, I am not the world’s great athlete, but I did like to nurse a basketball in my lap when watching him on the tellie.
As for needing communism to bring about the reduction of the working day – labour hours in communist countries generally lagged behind the West because their economies were not particularly productive, and the flow on of benefits within the workplace could not match the combined benefits of unions, market efficiencies, and state regulations (more often than not the economic benefits were due to the institutional amelioration of potentially disruptive industrial conflict).
And while the Western democracies delivered what could reasonably be argued were relatively limited social/community goods and services (though there are considerable differences between what Western democracies are prepared to offer and pay with public monies), they managed to improve living standards on a far greater scale than in communist countries. And they did it without the extermination of the peasantry and petit bourgeois.
Moreover, in spite of Marx’s reputation and his disastrous impact – from mass murder to spreading ideological idiocy amongst his own class (the intelligentsia) – Marx cannot take any serious credit for the gains to the working class that sprang from their political organization and economic bargaining in the form of labour parties and trade unions.
In England and America, Marxism was never a serious factor within the development of working-class political organization and representation; and in Germany, where Marxism had had most success within the labour movement of Western Europe, Eduard Bernstein, who had been a Marxist and had been close to Engels, dropped the Marxist program, having realized how superior to communism were the social, economic and political gains to be had by focusing upon trade union and parliamentary representation pushing for public education, better welfare conditions, and nationalizing certain industries.
Intellectuals were generally far more attracted to Marxism than to the working-class based political parties – which were, let’s face it, dealing with the dull humdrum, day-to-day of real politics that might help a couple pay the rent, or buy a home, get their kids into a decent school, and be able to pay doctors’ bills, rather than ending history and all exploitation.
Intellectuals generally shared Lenin’s view that trade union consciousness blunted the revolutionary aspirations and potential of the working class – in the USA, Marcuse’ theory of repressive tolerance was a big hit with college kids who had got really bored with all those unhip, square workers, who didn’t have the education to know that “Yeah, man -it’s the system.”
That they preferred the idiotic idea over the day-to-day grind of working-class political organization is all too explicable, if we take cognizance of the kind of economic factors that Marx (falsely) purported to have incorporated into his theory – that is, Marxism was indeed the reflection of the social being of those who espoused it. But it was never a theory that came out of the working class – rather, a theory that was foisted onto the working class. From its inception and in its development, it was a product of the intelligentsia, whose view of social and political progress was predicated upon them supplying the ideas and teaching the rest of society how to conform to their ideas. It was, in other words, a clientelist ideology.
Hence too as communism looked a dead duck in the Western world, outside of communist countries whose intellectuals could no longer bear the idiocy, lies, toadyism, and poverty that Marxism had spawned, Marxism’s home was exclusive to the breeding ground of the intelligentsia, the university. Other potent concoctions of the human mind – all with much the same amount of analytical rigor as had satisfied Marx – were being brewed by people around the same age as Marx was when he knew everything. They knew even more because they had the benefit of having learnt where critique (what they did to others) had to be refined. They were all devoted to making themselves, as students, or professors and intellectuals, the leaders of the great emancipation, the overthrow of domination. They were also one and all concoctions which found a plethora of client groups – if you were a woman, you could take on women; if you were gay, the gays; if you were black, the blacks; if from a former colony, people from the colonies.
By then, the colonies had pretty well all been given back; so now it was a question of post-colonialism; and the thing was to score a career at an elite university by representing the products of colonialism, racism, etc. Of course, in spite of identity guaranteeing representative status – “I am woman, therefore I speak for all women,” etc., those who couldn’t actually claim the identity status of those needing them as their representatives would not always be too bothered by that – especially where race was concerned. One just needed to make a career out of the fact that all (other) whites were racist, or colonialists.
The program was a farrago of idiotic ideas, which took about two minutes to learn. They could be applied anywhere and everywhere; so learning it didn’t require one to study too much history – certainly nothing that revealed the complex details that would illustrate that learning history via a moral principle, such as moral and political progress, is to blind one to history.
While the program lent itself to huge salaries for administrators and human resource types, who could hand out crayons and butcher’s paper to better indoctrinate their captive employees (now including the US military) in whatever piece of ideological imbecility they were pushing at the moment, the theory types in the university could dress up the farrago in the kind of bloviated diction that did at least involve some dictionary learning. Bug-eyed students, who had the initial lobotomy performed in schools and were now just a gangling mass of fretful nerve-ends, were enthralled by the dizzying ideas of their loquacious professors.
Once upon a time people used to go to college to read books, engage in student activities and enjoy a sequestered space of reflection – now students needed trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect them from the horrors that might befall them – they might hear a word, or witness a tragic scene in a play, or learn that an orange version of Hitler had been voted in by all these terrible people. They were the most inexperienced and brainless bottom end of the assembly line of the dialectic, easy to yoke into service, to scream and screech at whoever and whatever they had been told was responsible for making their world a hateful place of oppression.
What had come to constitute oppression, not only according to lobotomized students on grievance autopilot, demanding the sacking of any teacher they heard saying something that made them feel unsafe, varied from someone who was not Mexican wearing a sombrero, to someone who did not think their tomboy daughter should have their sex organs tampered with, to someone who ate meat, to someone who was white, to someone who was black but not woke, to someone who mined or transported or invested in fossil fuel, to someone who expresses doubt about yet to be proven predictions of rising sea-level, to someone who thinks the tactics of dealing with COVID have not been that wise, to someone who still used old-fashioned designations of roles and gender like Mum and Dad – the great persecution is a movable feast alright.
The zombie carnival is the outgrowth of the most grimly earnest self-belief and utterly unshakeable conviction in their own intellectual talent with one absolute (though rarely stated) certainty at the end of it – job prospects, because all institutions now have to be radically overhauled by this particular group representing all the clients of their world (what lay beyond their world did not really exist; thus, the non-problem for feminists of Muslim patriarchy and honour killings).
More, in an age where genuine religion was increasingly some exotic Other which, no matter how cruel its practices to women, deserved respect, provided it was not something Westerners practiced or even knew anything serious about, the platitudes of social justice gave the “hollow” non-binaries, with their own pronouns (to use what might now be an acceptable rewriting of T.S. Eliot’s prescient poem) something to hold on to. You have to hand it to those who live off this dialectic; although the end game is idiotic, the tactic is pretty brilliant – especially in how it taps into one of the most disgusting qualities in human beings, sanctimoniousness.
And the existence of a compliant sector of the population had already been facilitated by all those mindless sit-coms, gameshows, and infantile diversions that the developed world had channeled into living rooms. It was all taking over, while much of the population barely noticed that the free world had become mentally captive to an elite, who believing in idiotic ideas themselves, now required for their own elevated status and careers, making everybody else accept them as true. The proof of its success has been recently put by Victor Davis Hanson in his typically perspicuous essay, “This isn’t Your Father’s Left-Wing Revolution.” Today’s revolutionaries aren’t fighting “the Man” – they are “the Man”:
“Name one mainline institution the woke Left does not now control – and warp. The media? The campuses? Silicon Valley? Professional sports? The corporate bedroom? Foundations? The K-12 educational establishment? The military hierarchy? The administrative state? The FBI top echelon?’
As for the proles, even Marxists tended to ditch them as too ideologically stupefied to help them in their revolution, though it had become apparent to the tertiary educated that the political parties that had been created by the working-classes, as well as the trade unions, offered good employment prospects. Hence, they also took over the various labour parties of the Western world, as they “professionalized” the unions by fast-tracking university graduates into union leadership positions. They had gone to college after all, so they were smart enough to know many of the workers would sentimentally stick with the party of their past while blindly accepting their leadership. It worked for a while, until a majority of the workers realized they were being treated as idiots; and then they started abandoning their patrons and the party they and their parents had generally supported.
If they were white, they were renounced as white supremacists for wanting to preserve any of the values that they identified with, rather than fit into the new client boxes that had been constructed for them to fit into. The problem with the working class, unlike the Woke (again, like political correctness, originally a term the elite used to distinguish its own intellectual superiority, but now used pejoratively by its critics), and indeed the problem with anyone who would not get in step with the Woke, is that they weren’t imbeciles.
The alliance noted above between the inventor of a narrative that purports to solve all the world’s problems, a globalist educator, a media mogul and editor, and a leading (non-elected) “representative” of a political body that is non-democratic (democratic deficit is how EU scholars politely put it) in all that matters is a symptom of the fact that today the Western world’s largest corporations, its wealthiest, its most prestigious elite learning, education institutions and its most prestigious educators, along with its leading political parties and politicians, as well as its most highly paid public servants, military and intelligence operatives, along with its wealthiest celebrities and even sports stars – all agree on how the world should be fixed, and who should do the fixing (them). It can be fixed by a curriculum of imbecility which will create an educational elite who will ensure that all acceptable social ideals are imbecilic, so that our social and political institutions may socially reproduce imbeciles to instantiate the program of imbecility. Brilliant!
Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.
The featured image shows, “Sisyphus,” by Odd Nerdrum; painted in 1990.