Thursday, August 25, 2016

Marx and Reagan

Marx was wrong on most of his central contentions. There is no such thing as a historical inevitability; people's choices have taken different parts of the world into any number of places at any number of times. The businessman is not a thief; he is someone who gets things done. And religion is not “the opium for the masses.”

Why am I saying this? Because the world's major religions, with the exception of Buddhism, were started not by economic or political leaders but by the hoi polloi. Both Christ and Mohammad were anti-establishment radicals with no experience of economic or political power; and while Mohammad became politically powerful in his lifetime as a result of inventing Islam, Christ died on the cross.

We see the same thing in contemporary religious movements. Christian fundamentalism was not invented on Wall Street or in DC and militates against both. The New Age movement was started by academic dropouts who militated against the academic and medical establishments. Taliban was begun by politically and economically powerless students in Pakistani madrasas. Not Luther, not Cromwell, not any number of other influential leaders of Protestant Christianity, were part of political or economic “elites” prior to starting their activities.

Why do these religions carry the appeal that they do to the less well-off? Probably because they were started by people who were not part of “the ruling class” but became far more powerful than any of these “ruling classes.” Whether through force, miracle or persuasion, these people's beliefs then were adopted by people with economic and political power as much as they were by the hoi polloi. They were claimed by the kings and nobles; then they were claimed by the colonists and the bourgeoisie. So that when Marx saw an order of exploitation, he impugned the religions that were possessed by both the exploiters and the exploited alike and saw them as being part of the problem.

Marxists claim to speak for the working classes, but so do Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. In America, we see a phenomenon that inverts the claims of Karl Marx. There are more Marxists among the “elites” than there are among the “masses”; and there are more conservative people among the “masses” than there are among the “elites.”

Seeing all this, Reagan appropriated the Marxist and hippie rhetoric and took it into the opposite direction. He said that the “liberal elites,” “liberal establishment” and “big liberal government” failed to represent the values of the American people and that they were dictating to them a foreign totalitarian order that was against their beliefs. His message resonated with many people, and he became an exceptionally powerful president. He inverted the Marxian rhetoric and turned it into its opposite. The result was a very effective political force that continues to exert a vast influence – both for right and for wrong – to the present day.

So that while Marx militated against one set of elites, Reagan conservatives militate against another set of elites. Both have followers among the so-called “masses.” And then of course there are people among these “masses” who claim that both sets of “elites” are jerks and do not represent their interests or their values. Marx claimed to champion “the working class,” but his message has carried greatest appeal in the West to the well-off students and academics. And Reagan claimed to run against the government, and now there is a huge government building near the White House with his name on it.

Both the founders of America – Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin – and the founder of the Soviet Union – Vladimir Lenin – came from privilege. The first two championed democracy, social mobility and opportunity for all men, and the last claimed to champion the proletariat. In both cases, we see people coming from the “elites” who took an anti-elitist stance. Both countries became global superpowers. And in both countries there was – and remains – a strong anti-elitist sentiment that can be taken, and has been taken, into any number of opposite directions. Some militate against economic “elites”; others militate against ones in media and academia. The first fail to realize and respect the role of entrepreneurship in creating prosperity. The second fail to realize and respect how much prosperity and democracy owe to science, journalism, education and the arts.
When the Soviet Union fell, the first two things that came back were consumerism and religion. A huge McDonald's was built near the Red Square, and the vast Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt with a billion dollars of private donations. Both appear to have great appeal both to the more educated and the less educated; and Marx was obviously wrong to see both as an artifact of exploitation of working people by the propertied class.

Whereas Reagan was also wrong on a number of fronts. He was wrong about the environment; people have not created nature and cannot re-create nature, and blindly plundering it for gain that can be much better realized through smarter technologies leaves the world a worse place than one has found it. He was wrong about government being the source of oppression and corruption; there are many private religious, communitarian and economic entities that commit hideous violations against people, and unlike the government in a democracy they are unelected, unbalanced and unchecked. And his anti-academic policy has proven to be a disaster. When higher education is unaffordable and the primary educational system is weak, the bulk of the population lacks the knowledge that it needs to make informed political and personal decisions.

Both have been vastly influential, and I expect both to remain vastly influential. Which means that it is necessary to confront the people claiming the legacy of both where they were wrong. Marx was wrong about religion, business and historical inevitability, and Reagan was wrong on education, environment and the preference of unelected private power over elected public power. Both have claimed to champion the people against the elites, and both have many followers among the elites. It remains up to us - both ones coming from elites and ones not coming from elites - to make sense of both influences and refute them where they have gone wrong.


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