Monday, April 25, 2011

Marxism and the Continued Cold-War Rhetoric of the Right. . . . .

Am I the only one who is amazed by the Conservatives who condemn fairly mainstream centrists and mild leftists with epithets such as "Marxist" and "Communist" because they are vaguely critical of the extremes of neo-liberalsim and afraid of the implications of a Prime Minister who refuses to adhere to the rules of our constitution? Has the level of knowledge and discourse fallen this far, or are these just the ignorant wackos on the conservative end of the spectrum? I would like to opt for the explanation of ignorance because anyone who is twisted enough to know anything about Marxism and freely use the label to characterize Liberal Party bloggers is absolutely beyond the pale of regular political discussion.

This is not to imply that defining Marxism, for example, is an easy or uncontroversial matter. I spent years studying Marxism and still find the question to be a fairly thorny one. Some people emphasize the Sociological aspect of Marx's work, and I am somewhat sympathetic to this idea. Though he did not originate the idea, Marx was a very important promoter of the notion that people's personal a social behaviour is a result of their socio-economic context of their lives. This idea has permeated so deeply into our collective minds that it seems almost obvious today. The idea can be found to varying degrees in German and English philosophers before Marx, but his work on economics and class gave new power to the idea and it is now an inescapable part of our social and political consciousness. Even deeply conservative thinkers use such notions today.

Others emphasize the Economic aspect of Marx's work. I have never been fond of this approach for many reasons. I am fairly distrustful of the methodology of Economics for one thing. For another, it doesn't seem to me that Marx did much strictly 'economic' work. His economic ideas always seem inexorably intertwined to his politics and so, like many leftists, I don't think economics as a separate study really means much except in the way that capitalists use it to disguise the political implications of economic issues. (One could say a lot about this subject particularly in regard to the 'labour theory of value' and the notion of so-called 'surplus value,' as well as Marx's complex notion of 'Alienation.')

Some are more interested in the idea of Marx as a philosopher of history. This is indeed an interesting topic. Marx's notion of history as a motion pushed forward by conflict between social and economic classes is fascinating. I am putting this in very simple terms here because I obviously cannot discuss the complex issues of Hegelian dialects etc., but I think most people get the point. I think, whether they realize it or not, most people who are attracted to Marxian ideas are attracted to this aspect of his thinking. And as compelling as it can be, as time has gone by I lost my attachment to such a historicist notion for many reasons. Traditional rationalism has lost most of its appeal to me and this historical model seems to be a mental construct that we thrust onto historical events. History and the social order seem much more random and chaotic than this to me now.

And then there are, of course, more complex aspects of Marxist theory such as the philosophical outlooks of thinkers like Lois Althusser. We obviously cannot discuss these in this context because there is just too much to say and investigate.

Anyway, in the complex web of all of these notions of Marxism, not one of them would make any Liberal bloggers I have read, a Marxist. Because simply being influenced by the impact of Marx's thought on simple sociological analysis does not make one a Marxist. Surely to be considered a Marxist one must adhere to some degree to idea that history moves forward through class conflict, that the capitalist order is a historical phenomenon which is by no means "natural," that capitalist development leads to the possibility of a different, more cooperative social and economic order, that as a system of production capitalism begins to become a fetter on itself, that is to say at some point many aspects of Capitalist production will lose their promotion of efficiency and innovation. These are the kinds of things that make one, in any sense, a Marxist. However, the idea that one is a Marxist because one is critical of the arbitrary use of state power, the dangers of an anti-democratic tendency in our executive branch of government, etc is patently absurd. Even a commitment to a semi-socialist, mixed economy, does not make one a Marxist, or even a 'socialist' in any serious sense.

Ironically, many of those who carelessly throw labels like Marxist and Communist around as a political strategy, claim to be concerned with the power of the government and the so-called nanny-state. Of course, this is largely a fantasy. Modern right-wing governments actively overspend, consistently create larger state structures, and are fully in favour of legislating moral behaviour when it offends their particular sensibilities.

It is very unfortunate that many in this country continue to use to the inflammatory (and meaningless) discourse of the cold-war in attempting to marginalize anyone who believes in social democracy or is cautious of political groups that seem to have little regard for constitutionalism. The fact is that capitalism as it now exists is nothing like the innovative, free-market system that it was, say, a hundred and fifty years ago. Already, we have a profoundly regulated, partially socialized economy. And if a party in Canada actually ran on a strong 'capitalist' and socially right-wing agenda they would have significantly less of a chance to win than the NDP does today. The vast majority of people have accepted some 'socialism,' extensive regulation, and a progressive tax system. Thus to try to marginalize people as 'socialists' or 'Marxists' is not only usually factually wrong but deeply disingenuous.

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