Marxism and Existentialism, the Made and the Born

Blade Runner, Pris and Roy Batty

In two brief epigrams, why Sartre had such a hard time in Critique of Dialectical Reason trying to reconcile his existentialism with Marxism:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

~ Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

“Freedom is existence, and in it existence precedes essence.”

~ Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (1946)

It is a wonder Sartre so hated psychoanalysis and the unconsciousness for the suggestion that freedom was anything other than absolute, but Marxism he could work with.

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Without the Bugaboo of the Soviet Union

Marx display, Borders at 14th and H Streets, Washington, D.C., 19 May 2009

Well of course — this is just the media pushing its left-wing agenda. I doubt it. The media has their finger to the wind. During the Bush years they shamelessly kowtowed to Ari Fleischer’s admonition to watch what they write and now that the times are a’ changing, the media is putting up sails for new seas. The mood questioning capitalism is welling up from the ranks with the media wondering how to be relevant. Witness:

“Until 2004, we sold less than 100 copies of Das Kapital per year,” Schuetrumpf [managing director of the Berlin-based publishing house Karl-Diez Verlag, publisher of the German edition of Marx’s collected works] said. “In the 10 months of 2008, we have sold more than 2,500 copies. It is clear that people are interested in learning what Marx has to say about why capitalism does not work.” (Godoy, Julio, “Economy: Turning the Pages Back to Marx and Keynes,” Inter Press Service, 7 November 2008)

And from the picture above, apparently Borders thinks there’s enough interest amidst their customers to turn the Marx collection face-out.

Craziest of all, according to a recent Rasmussen survey, a whopping 20 percent of Americans currently believe that socialism is superior to capitalism (“Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism,” 9 April 2009).

During the Cold War, Americans’ strongest association with socialism was the Soviet Union, and after the collapse of communism we were told that left-wing economic ideas had been roundly refuted by events. So the right currently believes itself to be effectively tarnishing the program of President Obama by labeling him a socialist. But it turns out that the existence of the Soviet Union wasn’t just culture jamming socialist ideas, but the negative associations that it generated was lending undue credibility to right-wing ideas as well. The collapse of communism may end up not so much taking left-wing ideas down with it, as depriving those of the right of their cudgel of existent socialism. The association of socialism with Stalinism has lost its effectiveness now that the Soviet Union has become just another historical anecdote. This might explain the even more pronounced positive view of socialism among young respondents in the survey (33 percent of young people favor socialism versus 20 percent among the general population).

Republicans would be advised that in constantly pointing to the popular President Obama as the primary exemplar of socialism, the outcome isn’t so much to tarnish President Obama so much as to burnish socialism in the minds of the young generation. “If Obama is socialism,” they think, “I guess that makes me a socialist.” (Yglesias, Matthew, “The Declining Unpopularity of Socialism,” ThinkProgress, 9 April 2009).

Marx is Back!

April-May 2009, Marx is Back! / 1 de Mayo immigrant's march posters

Out of character for the city, there have been a number of lefty signs around. Some of my recent favorites are the two above. The one on the right is for a Mayday immigrant march. Notice that the flag in the hands of the native American is the United States as a tree with its roots in the shape of the rest of the world. The little plaque on the man’s chest reads both “Sise puede” and “Yes we can.” And the rally is meeting in Malcolm X Park, the unofficial name for Meridian Hill Park (Google Maps | Wikipedia).

I love the socialist conference poster. “Marx is back!” One may wonder where he ever went. I guess some people though that Marxism went into remission after the end of the Cold War. But everyone is on notice that he’s back now.

March 2008-May 2009, Newsweek, Foreign Policy and BusinessWeek, varying degrees of questioning capitalism

With Newsweek going beyond declaring us merely Keynesians now and portraying George Bush, Jr. in the style of Che Guevara, Foreign Policy putting Marx on the cover of their “Big Think” issue (“Why he matters now”), BusinessWeek making Ben Bernanke look like Lenin and including Henry Paulson in Stalinist Soviet style collages and Richard Posner titling his current book A Failure of Capitalism, things are feeling positively European.

But the return of Marx is more than just media camp. With respect to national security, Charles Krauthammer referred to the liberal internationalism of the Clinton years as a “holiday from history” (The Washington Post, 14 February 2003, p. A31). Robert Kagan is now referring to the post-1990s as The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Supposedly September 11, 2001 and the ensuing clash of civilizations has woken us up from our Fukuyam-esque ex-historical state. Similarly, we might refer to the phenomena of “Marx is Back” as the return of history to the economic sphere after 20 years of economic dreams (given that the current crisis has wiped out nearly 15 years of stock market value, it does seem as if it was all a dream). Just as September 11, 2001 broke the exclusive claim of liberal internationalism upon the thinking of the foreign policy establishment and showed that the future would be one of continuing world-historical ideological contention, so the holiday of political-economy that was the Washington Consensus has been knocked askew. The future of the economy will be one of political conflict.

But I kid myself. The legitimacy of capitalism within a given polity has nothing to do with the soundness of ideas and little to do with events. It is primarily a function of the Gini coefficient: the more money there is sloshing around in the upper social strata, the more inassailable the reputation of capitalism. And since that’s hardly going to change in the current crisis, I doubt that the Washington Consensus will emerge with anything more than a few fast forgotten slights.

In this regard the conservatism of the Obama administration should be noted. They are doing whatever they can to handle the current situation with as little enduring systematic change or publicity as possible. And I guess I’m in favor of this. While I may sympathize with dialectical materialism and Marx’s critique of the corruptions of capitalism, he was grossly wrong in his assessment of capitalism as ineluctably hell-bent-for-crisis. I’m essentially an advocate of Keynesian tinkering in a mostly stable system. And besides, alienation is a feature of capitalism, not a bug. The last thing I want is to be railroaded into a syndicate with a bunch of hippies. Those guys are fascists.