Thursday, November 10, 2011

Paving the road to hell: Intentions, conspiracies, and visions

Paul Adams 

Many Americans traveling to Europe have first-hand experience of European anti-Americanism, an angry, contemptuous prejudice that attributes the worst motives and intentions to Americans in culture and politics, often mixed with 
- cultural self-loathing or ethnomasochism that is at the same time self-righteous, 
- hatred of Christianity, 
- anti-Semitism, 
- excusing of the worst excesses of Islamism by way of moral equivalence (the U.S. and Israel as rogue states, the real terrorists, etc.), and 
- assumption of superior virtue on the part of a post-national, multicultural Europe. 

The aspect I'm interested in here is the substitution of intentions, good or evil, our own and those of our enemies, for analysis, evidence, or results.  

There is a piece in the First Things blog by David Mills, whom I take to be an old leftist, on the incoherence of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  He misses Marxism, which offered a serious analysis and at its best programmatic and organizational leadership.  
The problem, I think, is that nearly everyone has accepted the Occupiers’ anger as validating their movement, but an anger so general has no political value. It gets you nowhere. It offers no critique of, no challenge nor any alternative to the vague abstract thing at which you are angry. “We are the 99 percent” angry at the remaining 1% doesn’t tell anyone who the 1 percent are, and what they’ve done wrong, and what they should have done, and how the system itself encouraged them to do some things and not others, and what the nation should do now.They make you, as I say, miss Marx. Or not Marx, exactly, but the kind of coherent and thought-out leftism he represents, ideas you can engage and challenge, and be challenged by, which is very different from the establishment liberalism of (to mention them again) the editors of the New York Times.

The loss of a left worth engaging hurts the country, not because that left will answer the questions of the moment, but because the country needs the challenges only the left will (at the moment) provide. 
The loss of a left worth engaging hurts the country, not because that left will answer the questions of the moment, but because the country needs the challenges only the left will (at the moment) provide. 
Even Sowell, who talks about the unconstrained vision of utopians (what Scruton calls the 'unscrupulous optimism' of revolutionary/utopian/bureaucratic elites), sees Marxism as different - it is not utopian in that sense.  Well, he says it's anti-utopian with respect to past and present but falls into utopianism with regard to the future. It would be fairer in my opinion to say, as Hal Draper did, that there are 'two souls of socialism' - the bureaucratic-plannist-topdown-Stalinist-Reformist-utopian kind and the socialism-from-below, the authentic revolutionary Marxist tradition in which the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working-class itself.  If the latter is utopian (which Draper denied), it is in the belief that such struggle from below, where successful, can, has, or will ever fail to result in practice (in the not very long run) in some version of the first kind.

An important distinction between utopian, romantic social thinking and the aim of the ‘scientific socialism’ that Marx and Engels espoused is that the latter bases itself on analysis of actual historical forces and formations, and the constraints and possibilities to which they give rise at a particular, “concrete” historical conjuncture.  It identifies a specific social agency – a class and its leadership – that can play a revolutionary, progressive role. 

Utopian thinking, as Draper pointed out, is intrinsically authoritarian and anti-democratic.  This is true even though, or even because, the utopian has good intentions and wants the best for society.  The elite believes its rational, comprehensive plans are best for those who are to live under them.  The implementation and defense of the plan justify any amount of suffering along the way; and failure of the well-intentioned plan requires ruthless suppression of those with different idea or goals, who must be saboteurs and traitors.  The revolutionary elite substitutes its vision and knowledge for the experience of the infinitely less enlightened and progressive masses, for the inherited culture, the wisdom of the generations – all that must be discounted or scrapped, and we must start from scratch (appealing to the elite's Reason alone) with Year One of the Revolution.   

This is the “unconstrained vision” in which collective experience is to be jettisoned, the elite takes control, and the enlightened aim to bring the rest of us up to their level.  The good intentions and plans of the revolutionary elite justify trampling all the expressions of human culture that stand between the citizen and the all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent  state – like family and church in particular.

As Sowell and others have observed, this unconstrained vision, this utopian hypertrophy of revolutionary will and intent over all material, cultural, and moral constraints is what distinguishes the French Revolution from the American.  The French Revolution, for one example, murdered unarmed cloistered nuns (as the Spanish revolutionaries in the 1930s desecrated and destroyed churches and shot unarmed monks).  The American Revolution produced unique (in the history of the world) constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion from control, interference, or suppression by the state.  These protections stood for over a century and a half and are only in recent times being whittled away by liberal secularists and courts that turn the First Amendment on its head.

As critics from Burke on have noted, the unconstrained vision in power, with its insatiable need for scapegoats to blame for the failure of the utopian-elite vision in practice, is intolerant, violent, and dictatorial.  It needs to uncover conspiracies, traitors in its ranks, corrupt and counter-revolutionary elements, groups and classes (kulaks, Jews) that stand in the path of the vision and have to be swept aside with whatever violence is needed.

But what interests me is the way, in my experience, Marxism in its classic revolutionary form, resisted conspiracy theories, moralistic narratives (greedy capitalists/bankers), and scapegoating (Jews, Americans).  I recall one Marxism summer event in London, where some Brits were verbally trashing Americans over beer at the next table and a Socialist Workers Party leader sat down with them and lectured the semi-drunken comrades about solidarity, internationalism, class struggle in the U.S., and the reactionary role of national prejudice in dividing the class.  Well, I don't remember what he said exactly, but it would have been consistent with that line.  Among reformists and in the Labour Party, by contrast, as in the Guardian, anti-Americanism is blatant and unchecked, along with a hostility to Israel and all who support its existence that is distinguishable only in tone from the more blatant forms of anti-Semitism. 

The Marxist response is possible because Marxism (again, at its best) has an analysis that does not depend on evil intentions or mean, morally reprehensible villains.  Capitalism depends on the compulsion, driven by competition, to accumulate capital.  Economic crisis, in this analysis, is endemic in the system because, in a nutshell, the drive to accumulate operates irrespective of the system’s absorptive capacity.  Crises of overproduction, with financial collapse, mass unemployment, and so forth can perhaps be postponed but not prevented.  Such an analysis, or something like it, has nothing to do with the vices, the greed or malevolence, of bankers.  The least greedy, most beneficent banker in the world is not relieved by his personal virtues from the need to accumulate or go out of business.

Absent such an analysis, people readily fall into scapegoating and conspiracy theories to give expression to anger and resentment at the state of affairs they find themselves or the world in.  So it is not such a surprise to learn of the anti-Semitic origins and elements of the OWS movement:

These stories, along with the liberal media denials of anti-Semitism in OWS, are symptomatic of an increasingly unconstrained anti-Semitism on the left as well as the right.  This in-your-face “Jewish-Zionist pig” rhetoric remains unacceptable in public discourse in both the U.S. left and Europe, despite the leftist bigot's care to add 'Zionist' to 'Jewish'. But traditional anti-Semitic tropes have become mainstream across Europe and clearly relate to the historic blaming of Jewish bankers, formerly a mainstay of specifically right-wing anti-Semitism.  If you have no serious analysis of the economic crisis and of governments' role in it, it is an easy transition from blaming greedy bankers to noting Jewish representation in finance or among neoconservative supporters of Israel.

There is, as Sowell and Scruton among others argue, a natural tendency in that direction on the part of utopians/plannists/bureaucrats/socialists-from-above who find themselves in power and who inevitably find that their schemes for improving humankind, starting from scratch to create a new world unburdened by the wisdom of preceding generations, produce results different from, or opposite to their intent.  Do they conclude that good intentions are not enough, we just don't know enough as an enlightened elite, and don't and shouldn't have that much control over the lives of the masses (even if we know what's best for them)? Some do, but more common is the response that our plans are being sabotaged by...Jews, Trotskyists, the Church, etc.  Utopian elitism requires scapegoats to blame its inevitable failures on. 

These considerations led me to a 2004 interview with Andrei S. Markovits, Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, reflecting on the rise in volume and public acceptability of both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in the wake of 9/11.  

One of Markovits’ points is that Europe needs anti-Americanism to give it identity.  It's what (and what alone) Swedes and Greeks have in common - they are not Americans. He doesn't say this, but jettisoning and erasing the continent's core geographical and cultural definition and roots in Christianity, and not ready to embrace a new Islamic identity, anti-Americanism is what holds Europe together ideologically. (One expression of this is the readiness of high proportions of young, educated Europeans to believe conspiracy theories about 9/11 or Dan Brown fantasies about the history of Christianity, and to be completely impervious to evidence and reason on these questions.) 

Markovits also makes interesting points about the dynamics of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, which are closely related historically.  We hate those we wrong and those who do us good.  Europeans cannot forgive Americans for rescuing them from Nazism in WWII and putting the continent back on its feet afterward. 
Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex was correct in saying that the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. In an analogous manner, I would argue that Western Europeans will also never forgive the Americans for being daily reminders that it was the Americans - together with the Red Army - who defeated Nazism, and not the Europeans themselves. Impotence breeds resentment, which in turn breeds disdain, hatred, and contempt. 

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