Monthly Archives: March 2017

Marxism: Philosophy and Economics

If it weren’t for the fact that his ideas resulted in the deaths of around 200 million people, I’d be inclined to tip a hat to the fact that Karl Marx managed to create what amounts to the world’s most durable secular religion. Because I’m old fashioned and happen to regard an amoral, genocidal and totalitarian ideology as…you know…a net negative on human welfare, I can’t really do that with a clear conscience. Marxism is so destructive, yet its appeal remains undimmed by the failure of communism. It also remains seemingly resistant to criticism. If one has any intentions of engagement in the battlefield of debate, you’re going to need to fortify yourself with heavy intellectual artillery. Since it is such a cancerous blight on humanity, opponents of Marxism are well served by understanding its architectural underpinnings. Thomas Sowell’s analysis of the entire system, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, is an essential step toward that end.

Marxism is the apotheosis and the backdrop of the ideological Left. It is a framework which can be recycled and repurposed in order to justify any expansion of political power. More importantly, it provides a critical ballast of narrative that infuses the ideology with a sense of moral urgency and historical struggle against an omnipresent capitalist boogeyman. It can absorb and accommodate new social phenomena (e.g. transgenderism, queer and race “theory”, etc) as well as the latest pseudoscience (climate change, etc) because it is pseudoscience all by itself. Marxism is a seemingly evergreen ideology because it is a theory of history, economics, and sociology wrapped in the rhetoric of equality and justice. It bakes moral outrage into its premises, but considers all moral transgression a necessary but transitory phase in an inexorable, dialectical historical progression towards a society of classless emancipation. In other words, it possesses all the features of religion, but still maintains an appearance of intellectual depth and scientific legitimacy.

How socialists view Marx

This is your brain on Marxism.

The basic propositions of Marxism are easy to grasp, but the system itself is deeply layered. It is propelled by an emotional immediacy and a certain internal coherence that makes it especially resilient to attack. Defenses of Marxism take one of four forms:

  1. You don’t understand Marxism.
  2. (Choose communist state) wasn’t what Marx intended.
  3. Marxism (i.e. socialism/communism) has never been properly attempted.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with the ideology. It fails because of capitalism, bad people, etc.

The latter three defenses are demonstrably false, but Sowell’s book is particularly useful in rebutting the first claim. True believers ascribe a quasi-mystical depth to Marxism that is apparently unattainable to luddites who aren’t sympathetic to his thought. There is something to this claim. Besides the sheer volume of his corpus, Marx presented his work, Capital in particular, as an unfolding dialectic which would unmask the bourgeois appearance of reality and reveal its true essence. Sowell emphasizes two hurdles that this approach presents to the layman. First, Engels himself cautioned Marx that his dialectical approach would potentially be misunderstood. This is telling since his magnum opus, Capital, is an excruciating slog. Further, Marx’ own writing suggests the possibility that he never intended to be understood fully and was simply laying traps for his critics. The latter possibility should be considered since Marx enjoys a reputation among his acolytes as some kind of prophet or mystic whose depths can only be divined by dutiful study at the feet of #WOKE college professors. Any philosopher whose work produces so many fiercely divided opinions over what its True Meaning was may not have ever intended to be fully understood in the first place. The only result that mattered was that he succeeded in building a cult of personality machine for himself and for generations of followers who’ve taken up the ideology.

Oh look. We’re still debating whether or not Marxism works.

Marxism must be judged by the results it has produced in the world and the actions of its adherents. Revolution by violent means, strict demands for ideological conformity, and complete subordination of the individual to some self-appointed elite have been the consistent hallmarks of every attempt to implement this ideology. When the written record is examined, it is rather easy to see how the ideas correlate to real world outcomes. Fortunately for us, Sowell breaks down Marxism’s festering carcass so that its fetid anatomy can be examined.

Rather than delivering a polemic, Sowell spends most of the book analyzing each component of Marxist philosophy in a dispassionate, scientific manner. Lest you believe that Sowell’s political leanings have biased him against the ideology, just keep in mind that he spent 25 years working on this book and earned an advanced degree from Harvard on this very subject. By systematically stepping through each aspect and sourcing his argument from the original texts, Sowell distills Marx to his essence without building straw men. The book reveals the central pillars that bind the entire philosophy with Sowell’s trademarked clarity and precision.

Sowell analyzes the full arc of Marx’ career, and he is very honest about the many inconsistencies, failures of logic, dubious elisions, cop outs and ideas that were never fleshed out. Delineating where Marx ends and Engels begins is a problem rarely discussed by doctrinaire socialists and academic apologists, but Sowell is careful to point all of these things out while cautioning the reader to consider the larger context of his work.

PHILOSOPHIC MATERIALISM

Marxism belongs to a philosophical tradition known as materialism. It is a philosophy which posits that there is no spiritual reality and all that exists is the material world. Not only does this view consign human volition to determinism, it provides an opening for the likes of Marx to embue social and material forces with spiritual and supernatural qualities while operating under the guise of social science. Social transformation is the product of material and social forces to which the individual is completely subordinate.  

THE MARXIAN THEORY OF HISTORY

Marx’ materialist conception of the world dovetailed into his theory of history. This historical aspect of the Marxist doctrine is downplayed by modern acolytes, but deeply significant because it compounds the moral and ethical void in the entire system. Marx was a member of the Young Hegelians and developed a theory of history which closely resembled the thought of his mentor. Marx saw the transformation of one stage of society to another in a quasi-deterministic manner that was driven by changes to the material conditions and social relations rather than the movement of individuals or ideas. According to Marx, these changes naturally bred conflict because all capitalist innovation simply created new enmity and jealousy.  Marx and Engels spent much of their careers waiting for capitalism to fail and for all of their ghoulish hopes of societal collapse to come true, but they never did.  Rather than admitting error, apologists will keep moving the goalposts to validate Marx’ so called predictions.  If the development of a revolutionary consciousness was the ironclad, scientifically sound historical inevitability he claimed, calls for revolution were redundant. 

THE CAPITALIST ECONOMY

The Marxian conception of the capitalist economy was more sociological than economic. The only purpose Capital serves to the contemporary audience to confirm the prejudicial notion that capitalism is an inherently predatory and exploitative system. It does not offer a positive theory of socialism nor does it add anything to classical market economics. It’s three volumes of tortured, fallacious metaphysics layered on top of thought pioneered by greater minds. Marx completely disregarded the necessity of varying skill levels in the development of an advanced economy, and consigned the entrepreneur completely to the role of soulless predator.  

MARXIAN ECONOMIC CRISES

As is the case with most of the economic analysis in the Marxian system, Marx’ “theory” of business cycles was a half-baked hodgepodge of existing theories jerry-rigged together in order to add another layer of oppressive class struggle. Mismatches of supply and demand were evidence of a lack of proportionality in sectors and were ultimately evidence of “ever widening crises” and deepening class struggle. 

MARXIAN VALUE

The Marxian concept of value is one of the lynchpins of the entire ideology. It’s less a theory of production or consumption goods and more of a theory of social relations.  Marx leaned very heavily on the labor theory of value as articulated by Ricardo and Smith, but was distinguished by his emphasis on “socially useful labor” and the quantity of surplus value extracted by the capitalist. Somehow, contemplating all this the surplus value was a critical act of dialectical inquiry that sharpened the revolutionary consciousness. 

POLITICAL SYSTEMS AND REVOLUTION

Sowell’s treatment of the Marxian concept of proletarian revolution is proof positive of the even-handedness of his analysis.  As easy as it is to point to that one paragraph from the Critique of the Gotha Program as prima facie evidence that Marx wanted a dictatorship, Sowell takes pains to emphasize that this should be taken in context with his overall vision of the transformation of social relations and productive forces. Ultimately, these subtle nuances didn’t override the ideology’s central propositions pertaining to the predatory nature of capitalism. 

Marx was sympathetic to the Paris Commune uprising, and saw it as an exemplary model of a proletarian dictatorship. In The Civil War in France, Marx professed support for four feelgood principles to which any modern progressive would readily align himself. Universal suffrage, an open society, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a non-militaristic viewpoint sound good on paper just like many other Marxist epigrams. The abject failure of this experiment and the support he gave it were evidence that he was giving birth to a totalitarian ideology. 

One of the most pernicious myths of the Marxian system was Marx’ claim that, unlike his utopian forebears, he had put forth a theory of “scientific” socialism. Despite the numerous flaws and inconsistencies within the system, this perception of scientific legitimacy not only persists as Belief, but abets all complementary doctrines of scientific social organization.  

MARX THE MAN

Similar to Gary North’s contribution to Requiem for Marx, Sowell gives us a portrait of Karl Marx’ life.  Rather than being the type of working class prole he claimed to represent, he was born into a middle-class family of means. Marx enjoyed a life of lavish patronage from his parents, wealthy in-laws, and his intellectual wingman, Friedrich Engels. He was notoriously spendthrift with other people’s money, and apparently, quite the party hound. He regarded university as little more than a “camping ground” in which to while away the hours. His megalomaniacal tendencies and apocalyptic visions were present in his early poetry, and were simply transferred over to his political writings later in life. Marx’ entire career was marked by failed attempts at media success, squandered wealth borrowed from others, bitter rivalries with other intellectuals, and a marriage marred by self-imposed impoverishment, financial incompetence, emotional strife and infidelity. In short, he was the very epitome of the smug, entitled, coddled, narcissistic, middle-class progressive who goes to college to end up studying Marxism or subjects informed by Marxism. 

THE LEGACY OF MARX

The endurance of Marxism’s appeal is simultaneously befuddling and tragic. Despite numerous refutations and contributing absolutely nothing of enduring value to modern economics, the basic template of Marxian proletarian oppression has been transferred over to the entire spectrum of sociology, arts and humanities. Marxism fits very neatly into the two realms of academic “science” which are the Left’s current vehicles for the implementation of Communism 2.0: gender studies and climate science. 

Even if Karl Marx never existed, the Left would have invented him. Since the Left’s true goal is absolute political dominion, it needs a secular cult of the State in order to advance its agenda. It makes perfect sense that a quasi-religious, pseudoscientific, anti-family, anti-capitalistic, atheistic paean to state power written by a pampered, sheltered academic is still the guiding light of the Left.  

Marxism enjoys an unchallenged dominion in the halls of academia. Instead of promoting intellectual curiosity, Marxism inculcates a set of prejudices against capitalism, prefab outrage, simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and most importantly, a pretense of moral superiority.  

Marxist thought is reaching a state of peak fermentation in America and Europe after decades of gestation. True believers are beyond reason, but for those looking for intellectual ammunition to ward off the Marxist zombie apocalypse, Thomas Sowell’s book is an indispensable weapon for your arsenal. 

Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many-inside and outside its ranks-to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus ultimately to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways. – Thomas Sowell

Voltaire: Candide

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today.  In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.

With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous.  Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.

Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls. 

Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.

Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye.  Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake?  Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.

Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother.  On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate.  It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.

Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.

But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral.  I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.

Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide.  In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.

When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.

Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.

Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public.  Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed.  Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.

Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism.  All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.

While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan.  Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.