Neo-Marxism

by Henry on May 23, 2018

A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan delivered a blast against “neo-Marxism”:

The idea that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement, that absent fatherhood and a cultural association of studying with “acting white” are part of the problem — themes Obama touched upon throughout his presidency — is now almost a definition of racism itself. And the animating goal of progressive politics is unvarnished race and gender warfare. What matters before anything else is what race and gender you are, and therefore what side you are on. And in this neo-Marxist worldview, fully embraced by a hefty majority of the next generation, the very idea of America as a liberating experiment, dissolving tribal loyalties in a common journey toward individual opportunity, is anathema.

There is no arc of history here, just an eternal grinding of the racist and sexist wheel. What matters is that nonwhites fight and defeat white supremacy, that women unite and defeat oppressive masculinity, and that the trans supplant and redefine the cis. What matters is equality of outcome, and it cannot be delayed. All the ideas that might complicate this — meritocracy, for example, or a color-blind vision of justice, or equality of opportunity rather than outcome — are to be mocked until they are dismantled. And the political goal is not a post-racial fusion, a unity of the red and the blue, but the rallying of the victims against the victimizers, animated by the core belief that a non-“white” and non-male majority will at some point come, after which the new hierarchies can be imposed by fiat.

Matthew Yglesias rightly complains about Sullivan’s suggestion that Marxism lurks behind the movements for gender and race recognition. Jonathan Chait has been making an even cruder version of this argument for a while, telling us that the “campus left” has borrowed its extremism from Marxism, and would likely drag us all off to the gulags if we ever got a chance. This theory marks a weird and unfortunate alignment that is taking place between a particular strain of center-to-center right opinionating and the “Intellectual Dark Web” crowd. Zack Beauchamp’s description of how Jordan Peterson

elevates battles over political correctness and free speech into existential struggles over Western society. He is very literally arguing that if the “postmodernists” win, if people start using others’ chosen pronouns, we’re one step closer to modern gulags.

could be applied just as aptly to Chait, and likely, with modification, to Sullivan too, (the “hierarchies … imposed by fiat” bit sounds sinister but is notably weaker than gulag rhetoric; Sullivan is clearly angrier about race than he is about gender).

You could, I suppose, treat Sullivan’s, Chait’s and Peterson’s arguments as serious claims to be taken seriously, pointing to the specific situations where campus leftists have indeed behaved like arseholes, and extrapolating this into a general trend of angry, intolerant and indeed totalitarian illiberalism on the march towards possible victory. Frankly, I think that that would be granting unwarranted respect to nonsense. These claims seem to me to instead be rhetorical attacks which illegitimately treat reasonable claims for recognition as if they were steps on a journey towards dictatorship. Contrary to their framing, they are fundamentally illiberal, in the small ‘l’ sense of liberalism, intended to justify existing power relations against people who would reasonably challenge them.

Where this becomes most clear is in Sullivan’s previous post, which is particularly aimed at Ta-Nehisi Coates. Sullivan begins by praising Coates, sort of, before describing him as the exemplar of a “tribal” dynamic, where the “individual is always subordinate to the group,” leading to the social exclusion of Bari Weiss’s “Intellectual Dark Web,” a group of “non-tribal thinkers who have certainly not been silenced, but have definitely been morally anathematized, in the precincts of elite opinion.” Sullivan laments that something important has been lost:

But then I remember a different time — and it wasn’t so long ago. A friend reminded me of this bloggy exchange Ta-Nehisi and I had in 2009, on the very subject of identity politics and its claims. We clearly disagreed, deeply. But there was a civility about it, an actual generosity of spirit, that transcended the boundaries of race and background. We both come from extremely different places, countries, life experiences, loyalties. But a conversation in the same pages was still possible, writer to writer, human to human, as part of the same American idea. It was a debate in which I think we both listened to each other, in which I changed my mind a bit, and where neither of us denied each other’s good faith or human worth.

It’s only a decade ago, but it feels like aeons now. The Atlantic was crammed with ideological opposites then, jostling together in the same office, and our engagement with each other and our readerships was a crackling and productive one. There was much more of that back then, before Twitter swallowed blogging, before identity politics became completely nonnegotiable, before we degenerated into these tribal swarms of snark and loathing. I think of it now as a distant island, appearing now and then, as the waves go up and down. The riptide of tribalism can capture us all in the end, until we drown in it.

I grew up outside America – which means that many aspects of the American argument about race don’t come easily to me. I also don’t know anything first hand, obviously, about the personal relationship between Coates and Sullivan, which I suspect colors their interactions too. So take these caveats as a health warning regarding what follows. Still, I think it’s quite plain that Coates has a very different memory of his interactions with Sullivan than Sullivan’s depiction. A week before Sullivan’s piece, Huffington Post published a transcript of a conversation at the Atlantic about the hiring and rapid firing of Kevin Williamson. Coates says:

I got incredibly used to learning from people. And studying people. And feeling like certain people were even actually quite good at their craft, who I felt, and pardon my language, were fucking racist. And that was just the way the world was. I didn’t really have the luxury of having teachers who I necessarily felt, you know, saw me completely as a human being.

This extends not just from my early days as a journalist, but if I’m being honest here, from my early days at The Atlantic. You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand? I couldn’t speak in a certain way to Andrew. I couldn’t speak to Andrew on the blog the way I would speak to my wife about what Andrew said on the blog in the morning when it was just us…. I learned how to blog from Andrew. That was who I actually learned from. That was who actually helped me craft my voice. Even recognizing who he was and what he was, you know, I learned from him.

I don’t have the privilege of being able to look into Sullivan’s head, but it is hard to imagine that his piece about Coates and tribalism was not an angry and hurt response to Coates’ claim that he, Sullivan, was a “fucking racist.”

In juxtaposition, Sullivan’s and Coates’ pieces provide a miniature history of how a certain variety of self-congratulatory openness to inquiry is in actual fact a barbed thicket of power relations. What Sullivan depicts as a “different time” when “neither of us denied each other’s good faith or human worth,” is, in Coates’ understanding, a time where he was required to “take seriously” the argument that “black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people” as a price of entry into the rarified heights of conversation at the Atlantic. The “civility” and “generosity of spirit” that supported “human to human” conversation is juxtaposed to Coates’ “teachers” who didn’t see him “completely as a human being.” What was open and free spirited debate in Sullivan’s depiction, was to Coates a loaded and poisonous dialogue where he could only participate if he shut up about what he actually believed.

Juxtaposing these two gives us a very different understanding of Sullivan’s claim that “identity politics [have become] completely nonnegotiable,” and we are all being pulled down by the “riptide of tribalism.” The imagined paradise of liberal discussion from which we are being torn was only a paradise for some; others were there on sufferance, or not allowed in at all. Sullivan’s hostility to “tribalism” reflects his unwillingness to confront the rather sordid politics of his own position, and his past and continuing history on race and intelligence.

Sullivan, Chait, and, I suspect many other soi-disant centrists and centrist liberals are now converging with Peterson and the whole sorry crew of white men on the Internet shouting out against the oppression of Social Justice Warriors. This allows them to delegitimize – and hence avoid having to seriously confront – hard criticisms of their own positions. If they want, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to push back against what they believe to be excesses. Gender activists and race activists are human too, which means that they surely may be wrong, and may certainly behave stupidly, or badly. But claims that “neo-Marxists” and “campus leftists” are looking in general to build gulags, impose hierarchies by fiat and the like are themselves both bad and stupid rhetoric, which undermine rather than reinforce the commitment to open debate that they claim to hold so deeply.

{ 70 comments }

1

Alesis 05.23.18 at 3:19 pm

I think Corey Robin has to be given a lot of credit for stating plainly what many conservatives understand instinctively. That conservatism is not so much concerns with liberty or markets as it is with defending hierarchy. Marxism though not philosophically connected to most modern social justice causes is egalitarian in ethos and that’s what makes conservatives (and conservative leaning centrists) antsy.

It’s the same thing as the “race mixing is communism” placards segregationists waived outside of Little Rock High School.

2

BruceJ 05.23.18 at 3:33 pm

IMO there is no argument of Sullivan’s that cannot be succinctly countered by saying “Oh sod off, you pompous wanker!”

“When you’ve been on top so long, equality feels like oppression” is the motivating fear of all of these white male supremacists (whether they wear the sheets proudly or dress it up in pseudo-philoosophical blather like Peterson, that is what they’re espousing).

They fear the gulag, because they damned well know that’s what THEIR forebears did to US.

3

Mrmr 05.23.18 at 3:49 pm

Jordan Peterson is a troglodyte, and Sullivan indulges himself in pious blowhard-ery. So this is not meant as an endorsement. But it does strike me that the pose taken in this post is asymmetrical with respect to how it treats Sullivan and all versus the SJWs. When Sullivan is self important and ignores or marginalizes other viewpoints in mythmaking about a pure past (where he was coincidentally taken very seriously) this is symptomatic of relations of power and domination. When SJWs go to unnamed excess it is because they are human, and humans inevitably have known defects. So in one case the systemic mode of explanation is preferred whereas in the other the inevitable few bad apple mode of explanation is preferred.

I think a weakness of current SJW discourse—and that of its fellow travelers—is that it is systematically resistant to self-application of some of its own insights. That is, people love enjoying arbitrary domination, and hate being subject to arbitrary degradation. Writers like Sullivan, imo, react partially out of a justified fear not that they will be sent to a gulag, but that they will be subject to unfair and illegitimate censure by social authorities they don’t recognize or endorse, and which they cannot meaningfully contest. This, despite all the “fee fees” business, is a legitimate fear and the sort of thing that SJWs are in other instances highly attuned to—I recall my mother’s depressing descriptions of her grandfather, who was a mean controlling old asshole, holding court at dinner and everyone has to just listen to him and accept his mean, self-important abuse. No back talk allowed. And that was a form of degradation for everyone else that was of course not just individual to him, but symptomatic of his position as the patriarch. That’s the sort of thing that SJWs and fellow travelers instantly recognize as shitty: people hate that!

I don’t think the old order was best, or that Sullivan is entitled to get his dick sucked forever, but I think it is unfair and misleading to insist on setting the starting ground of discussion by describing out of existence what seems to be his real fear, which is just that the “excesses” of SJWs aren’t random, but are the organization of social prestige into a position where others will be able to arbitrarily abuse him in ways he cannot meaningfully contest. It is a weakness of his perspective that he struggles to see that, in the old regime, that is how TNC felt he was being treated by him. But precisely because we understand the one fear, we at least should also be able to understand the other! We have to at least state it in order to contest it, anyway.

4

Abigail Nussbaum 05.23.18 at 3:53 pm

Shorter Andrew Sullivan: “Ten year ago, when I was still riding high on a reputation as a major anti-Bush voice and TNC was just starting out, he was effectively compelled to debate the humanity of African-Americans with me. Now that I’m a has-been and he’s one of America’s top public intellectuals, he not only refuses to debate me but has the audacity to say that he wasn’t completely happy to engage with me and in fact thinks less of me because of the experience. What is the world coming to?????”

Excellent post, thank you.

5

GrueBleen 05.23.18 at 3:58 pm

“I grew up outside America…”

Something that the greater majority of the planet shares with you. And thus ends up asking: “why is anybody still paying any attention whatsoever to the Sullivans and Chaits of this world ? And why did anybody ever take any notice of Peterson ?”

And why doesn’t America remember Andrew Kehoe ?

6

WLGR 05.23.18 at 4:02 pm

Not to poke at old wounds or anything, but by this point in the year of our lord two thousand and eighteen, is there anybody who still doesn’t understand that the pseudointellectual meme of “tribalism” as used by racists like Sullivan or Charles Murray or Jonah Goldberg is a thinly veiled code phrase for “hordes of savage darkies disrupting our oh-so-rational civilized genteel Oxford debate seminar with chants of ‘ooga booga booga!'”?

7

parse 05.23.18 at 4:41 pm

It’s interesting that Sullivan laments that the , “tribal” dynamic, where the “individual is always subordinate to the group,” is supposed to be responsible for making it impossible for him to claim that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement. without being defined as a racist.

Apparently, the use of group identity to consider rights and responsibilities is sometimes tribal nonsense and other times brave opposition to the tide of SJWs, all based on who is providing the analysis.

8

Jim Harrison 05.23.18 at 4:44 pm

Isn’t Sullivan just pulling off the highbrow version of calling Obama a Marxist/neoliberal/atheist/Muslim/homosexual? A focus on race and gender doesn’t sound very Marxist, and Postmodernism is not only a badly dated term circa 2018 but never really had a settled definition—like “cultural relativism” it pretty much meant “I’m agin’ ’em!”

I’ve got a simple take on Sullivan. He’s an Oxbridge product and reflects the Two Cultures problem which was always much more a feature of British higher education than of American elite education. Sullivan simply doesn’t understand very much about the sciences, which accounts for his credulity about the Bell Curve version of racism. He is, to be crude about it, a liberal arts idiot.

9

WLGR 05.23.18 at 4:49 pm

Also, a brief test of intellectual rigor for anybody who uses the phrase “neo-Marxism” as an analytical category: what, precisely, is the supposed theoretical basis for a distinction between “neo-Marxism” and the broader intellectual tradition of Marxism without the “neo”? When an equivalent question comes up regarding the term “neoliberalism,” those who defend the use of the term can cite libraries’ worth of scholarly articles and books by social scientists like Philip Mirowski, Will Davies, Melinda Cooper, or (most recently in CT terms) Quinn Slobodian, elucidating the meanings of the relevant distinctions through lengthy engagements with the literature of neoliberals like Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan, Becker, Röpke, and so forth. Is there any comparable evidence that people like Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, Jonathan Chait, or Jordan Peterson have ever deigned to engage in a serious and sustained way with the historical literature of Marxism, “neo” or otherwise?

10

rea 05.23.18 at 5:15 pm

why doesn’t America remember Andrew Kehoe ?

Well, I remember him, but I used to live in Bath, Michigan.

11

roger gathmann 05.23.18 at 5:20 pm

Sullivan gets everything wrong. I think that it is Daryl Pinckney who puts a finger on elements of Coates’s Afro-Pessimism: which can be summed up as the lack of a communist alternative since the fall of the Berlin wall. In other words, the problem is a lack of marxism: “Coates writes in an intellectual landscape without the communism or Pan-Africanism that once figured in debate as alternatives to what white America seemed to offer.”

The damage done to America by McCarthyism and the puring of an American communist party – such as existed in France and Italy – can be measured in the narrowness and provincialism of American political writing. The shame is that neo-Marxism, or simple Marxism, has not been a more consistant and larger presence in American culture.

12

Lee A. Arnold 05.23.18 at 5:56 pm

Sullivan: “If Trump has destroyed Obama’s substantive legacy at home and abroad, the left has gutted Obama’s post-racial cultural vision.”

I don’t believe either conclusion. Trump is an embarrassment, yet so far he is just a big fat waste of time. It’s a standard Republican administration with the addition of a lot of bragging, lying, and more crooks than usual. Yes it could get worse, if Trump’s shortsighted foreign policy and economic policy leads the US into more war. And the long-term effects of Trump’s destruction of alliances and destruction of future technological innovation may become sad for the US. Experts in China and Russia ought to be surprised to find how easily the US could weaken and destroy itself. In many ways the rest of the world must look at Trump as the apotheosis of pure capitalism: short-term punting into short-sighted imbrolios. Of course Trump the Biznessman always got fixed with tax writeoffs, debt-restructuring, bankruptcy, and private bailouts from the international plutocratic insurgency in search of safe harbor and moneylaundering. But an Atlantic City Plan for the whole country? Financial capital won’t bother, they can get their taxcut money out of the country at the flick of a keyboard. Who is going to bail out the whole US as it flails into whim and chaos? Considering the possible damage that Trump presents, you might imagine that the Gang of 8 is now secretly thinking that it may be wise to dump Trump overboard before the “artist of the deal” gets further. What are the calls for “Mueller to wrap it up,” but the hidden plea, “Let’s get the referral to impeachment, already!” What are the odds that Congress won’t wait for Mueller to publicly (i.e. without revealing spy sources) reconstruct the various collusions and grifting with international gangsters, and instead, it goes straight to impeachment proceedings based on a separate matter, the Michael Cohen influence-peddling sex-hushing slush fund? There is enough scumminess in that mess, to revolt even a Trump voter. He didn’t drain the swamp, he swamped the drain!

Anyway in the end Obama had foresight, and is likely to win both the legacy thing and the vision thing.

13

Thomas Beale 05.23.18 at 5:58 pm

The genesis of the perceived link between Marxism and today’s identity politics / SJW excesses etc seems clear enough (whether or not it is a real academic or intellectual lineage is another question): Marxism is seen by many to be a politics of oppression and victimhood (or a theory that has engendered such), with the category of proletariat being the permanent victims in a class war environment. The new identity politics, including political correctness, race-fetishism, third-wave feminism, intersectionalism etc is seen as a refinement of the same kind of thinking: permanent victimhood, just crystallised into ever more categories.

One problem that both species of thinking share is the creation of a politics of oppression around the claim that certain statistical categories (worker, black, gay, etc) are really intentional political entities, which generally isn’t true in reality. One only has to look at the left side of politics historically to see this: it’s made up of labour movements/parties/trade unions that look for an accommodation between working people and business, and separately, various Marxist, communist, and other radical left entities (IS for example) which have generally been led by ideologues and theorists, many dreaming of revolution.

The second problem with this kind of thinking is the idea that victim status is a permanent thing. This is almost never the case, even if real and hideous oppressions lasted for great lengths of time (trans-Atlantic slavery for example). Hence the kinds of things that some modern radical feminists come out with, dismissing the major gains in the last century as nothing compared to what they think must come.

14

Lobsterman 05.23.18 at 6:01 pm

Coates is right. Sully is just “fucking racist” and should be cheerfully disregarded by anyone sensible.

15

bob mcmanus 05.23.18 at 6:03 pm

Marxism though not philosophically connected to most modern social justice causes

Habermas, Honneth, Laclau & Mouffe, oh, Boltanski & Chiapello, Honneth & Fraser Redistribution or Recognition 2003, whatever

I am not about to give any credit or assign much blame to Marxism for identity politics, but let’s just say that ever since 1914 gobsmacked Lenin, Gramsci, and Luxemburg and the 30s exiled and killed so many, Marxians have seen an compelling need to theorize centrifugal forces and the relationships between the universal and particular. I tend to get paralyzed here, wondering if I am incompetent in not being able to summarize generations of work, and questioning my priorities if I am more interested in Honneth vs Fraser, or Coates vs Adolf Reed, rather than Coates and some damn racist Republican. But not my party.

Not just academic, can show up if looked for in say the Georgia Governor’s primary last night.

16

td 05.23.18 at 6:09 pm

The desire to dramatically label things (NeoMarxism, etc) and exaggerate the effect of noisy collegians by people like Sullivan, Chait, Peterson, et alia, is mostly to make themselves seem more heroic & necessary in the battle of A vs B. It’s the writers and social critics’ fears of being fundamentally unread and irrelevant that turns their prose purple, their indignation righteous, and their passions turgid. It’s mostly theatre with words, especially when further on the facts prove them wrong and then they tend to ignore those inconvenient facts in lieu of new dramas.

17

politicalfootball 05.23.18 at 6:12 pm

Mrmr: I suppose there are times when folks attempt to impose their will using “social justice” in a way that is analogous to the way Sullivan uses good old fashioned white supremacy. You wish that liberals would push back on this, but of course, they do. As you point out, they label this sort of behavior understandable — not correct, but understandable. When one sympathizes in that fashion, one is voicing disagreement.

And you know what? Sullivan’s view is understandable, too. But it’s not excusable.

I think that you’re right that folks like Sullivan are pushing back against “social authorities they don’t recognize or endorse, and which they cannot meaningfully contest.”

But you know what? Sullivan’s failure to recognize Coates, and his inability to meaningfully contest Coates’ views, is a direct result of the fact that Sullivan is a fucking racist moron. I don’t see any reason to sympathize with him.

18

Matt_L 05.23.18 at 6:16 pm

“The damage done to America by McCarthyism and the pur[g]ing of an American communist party – such as existed in France and Italy – can be measured in the narrowness and provincialism of American political writing. “

Eh, the PCF and PCI are dead. They are as moribund as the Social Democrats they sought to displace or overthrow. Organized marxist political groupings are done, for now. They might make a comeback, but its probably easier to imagine a resurgent labor union movement than a marxist political party anywhere (well except Kerala, India).

Thats what makes the “Neo-Marxist” jibe such a tell. There is nobody with less political power or voice today than the Marxists. Another problem is that the people who are working for gender equality and racial equality are not the organizational or intellectual descendants of Marx, who had very little to say about either.

Alesis is dead right. Marxism or Neo-Marxism is just shorthand for anything conservatives find icky. It’s a cuss word.

19

bob mcmanus 05.23.18 at 6:28 pm

…such as existed in France and Italy

I am not so clear as of 2018 how much of a difference these local traditions and knowledges have made. France and Italy may have better welfare capitalism, and more energetic discourses, but I am not seeing a radical difference in combating neoliberalism.

This is not to admit the uselessness of Marxism (although I retain a personal claim to the absurd and de trop) but just to recognize that the countervailing forces and momentum of capitalism is pretty overwhelming and discouraging and the adjustment should be made, considering the urgency of our situation, to a more radical discourse and disruptive rhetoric, irregardless of the foundation chosen.

20

bob mcmanus 05.23.18 at 7:20 pm

I will defend Coates briefly. Afro-pessimism is Anti-Utopian, and given that I can’t tell Coates that socialism and its mitigation of racial disparities is on the horizon, and given that Coates may find some of the luxuries of neo-liberal capitalism pleasing anyway and not attracted to Mao-pajama society, pessimism and egoism and whatever small local improvements remain possible have strong arguments.

The terms of the Obama’s long term co-production deal with Netflix remain undisclosed.

21

LFC 05.23.18 at 8:03 pm

Re one or two comments upthread: my sense (could be wrong) is that with the exception of Marcuse in the late 1960s, the figures connected with, circling around, or in some way descended from the Frankfurt School have not been very direct influences on ‘progressive’ movements, at least not in the U.S. W/r/t Habermas, he has participated in debates on contemporary politics, often (though probably not always) specific to the European or German scene, but my guess is that today’s student activists are, on the whole, not v. likely to have read him. (Of course there will always be exceptions to this sort of generalization.)

22

politicalfootball 05.23.18 at 8:40 pm

I read Thomas Beale @13 as confirmation of Matt_L @18 and thus Alesis @1.

23

Chip Daniels 05.23.18 at 10:25 pm

@13
Wasn’t there just a thread here on Crooked Timber discussing the permanent victim status of conservatives in academia?

24

ash 05.23.18 at 11:45 pm

To the extent that Sullivan — and Peterson, I suppose, though I haven’t read his work — draw comparisons to neo-Marxism because of its unsavory connotations, I agree that they are fundamentally illiberal, in the small ‘l’ sense of liberalism.. The two are similar in that they take class and power differential as salient political units and institutional characteristics, but the similarities end there (ironically, I thought Marcuse was just as hypocritical in invoking neo-Marxism, which had seen a resurgence at the time).

That said, the usual criticisms of relying on class as a salient political unit remain. Which classes are relevant, and how should we deal with the intersectionality of class when making public policy? Coming up with redistributive criteria to assess the power differential between a Middle Eastern short bald man with glasses and a white woman from Chicago who is allergic to dogs is challenging and highly context-dependent. This is problematic because the criteria themselves are subject to undue influence from groups that are already powerful in the institutional setting (e.g., white liberal women in the Sociology department of a SLAC) and are only exacerbated by the small size of the setting (less accountability, more groupthink). If openness to inquiry [… is] a barbed thicket of power relations, should we dismiss practices solely on the basis that they (may) reinforce them? Who determines when such reinforcement precludes discussion, and how will they do so without reinforcing power relations?

Why did Coates presumably believe that he could only participate [… “in the loaded and poisonous dialogue”…] if he shut up about what he actually believed? If he would have faced social penalties, then indeed, the preexisting system was illiberal and editors should undertake corrective measures that allow Coates to respond. If, instead, he believed that engaging in the argument would open the way for people to question the humanity of Blacks, then I’m less sympathetic to his argument. In part this is due to the reasons articulated above — who decides what can be discussed? — and also because the links between debate and power differentials is unclear. Did the alleged relationship between genetics and intelligence cause further racism? Or did racism open the way for the debate? Are we willing to discard any action previously undertaken with a racist motive regardless of its causal effect — songwriting, lawmaking, etc?

Two side notes:

First, IMHO, the ad hominem attacks on Sullivan (speculating about his motivations) and appeal to the stone (I’m hesitant to engage in this argument), both in the blog and in the comments, were distracting and you’d make a stronger case if you avoided them.

Second, it strikes me as curious that Coates equates intelligence with humanity. One could argue that the academy was tolerant of this practice throughout the 20th century, but it was also willing to equate race with humanity. We need not adopt all their assumptions.

25

LeLoup 05.23.18 at 11:46 pm

I’d say the Andrew Sullivan position is basically one held by the entire country of France and just about every non anglo-saxon republic in the world. Is there any space at all in which one can defend republican values based on principles of individual merit and “a color-blind vision of justice” (AS) without being branded a “f*ing racist” ? This is an honest question. Yes, Jordan P is a fraud. If Andrew Sullivan or Chait or disqualified, can you point to an acceptable interlocutor ?

(Heard on French public radio today re. Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain”: dieu merci, in France we’re immune to the kind of censorship and intimidation widely present on American Campuses)

26

Faustusnotes 05.24.18 at 12:12 am

Is Thomas Beale saying Islamic State are leftists? Is that what his bracketed IS means?

27

J-D 05.24.18 at 12:37 am

Alesis

I think Corey Robin has to be given a lot of credit for stating plainly what many conservatives understand instinctively. That conservatism is not so much concerns with liberty or markets as it is with defending hierarchy.

Aristotle wrote (in his Politics) that ‘there are cities in which they [the oligarchs] swear, “I will be an enemy to the people, and will devise all the harm against them which I can”‘. Bertrand Russell (in his History Of Western Philosophy) cites this and comments, ‘Nowadays, reactionaries are not so frank.’

From a different perspective, we have this:
https://www.theonion.com/nation-s-rich-and-powerful-wondering-when-rest-of-ameri-1826268763

28

Lordwhorfin 05.24.18 at 1:07 am

The only gulags in America today are the ones in which the kidnapped children of asylum seekers are being held. Conservatives are eternal, imagined victims.

29

Glen Tomkins 05.24.18 at 1:10 am

As if any of these people would need to be put in a gulag. They imagine that they are the hero of A Man for All Seasons, figures of such intellectual and moral stature in our world that anyone trying to bring in a new system would have to get these natural aristocrats of the mind and soul out of the way. Not true of Thomas More and laughable applied to these people.

30

Emma 05.24.18 at 3:12 am

@3: The rhetorical/political excesses of people in positions of power are more meaningful than the rhetorical/political excesses of the powerless. People in positions of authority lend the appearance authority to their opinions. If, for example, some brainless jaq-off of a college student decided to have Charles Murray on his podcast, Murray’s pseudoscience wouldn’t subsequently carry the weight that Sam Harris’s Mister Science Does Manhattan Show (whatever it is) gave it. Harris added scientifical-looking parentheses to Murray’s propaganda. In a previous process of authority-furnishing, the issue had already affected at least one person (Ta-Nehisi Coates). If in some fair future the halls of power are populated entirely by queer mixed-race women, and I personally produce a podcast in which I claim to sort good ideas from bad ideas for the benefit of my audience, and I then interview a scholar who says he has definitive proof that straight white men are less genetically fit for public life than queer mixed-race women, and that scholar backs up his assertions with made-up “science” which I take the unprecedented step of claiming is unvarnished fact, I would expect to be raked over the coals just as harshly as Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Not because I’m no longer human in that alternate reality, but because I’ve become an authority whose (labored over, edited, paid-for) words carry real-world weight.

@13: I don’t understand what you’re calling “permanent victimhood.” Are you worried that the category will expand so far it will contain everyone, and thus become meaningless? Or do you think that no one is actually a real victim of anything, ever? Or that existing under documented oppression is irrelevant to the outcome of a person’s life, and that the only meaningful explanation for the comparative powerlessness of women and people of color in this country is that those groups are full of innately flawed individuals who aren’t capable of living up to objective standards? I see conservatives talk about “victimhood” in these dismissive terms a lot, but they take their own victimization at the hands of evil leftists very, very seriously. & do you really think ISIL, with its emphasis on slavery, rape, and empire, is a leftist organization? Why is it bad for Ta-Nehisi Coates to talk about his victimhood, but okay for Andrew Sullivan to get all up in his feelings?

@24: Working backward — The race/I.Q. discussion was undertaken because The Atlantic was (is?) a racist institution run by racists. Apparently. Airing out Charles Murray’s dirty racist fake-science underpants (apparently) contributed to the endemic racism at the magazine. We don’t know what other repercussions it had; probably not a lot of them were good. Since it would be impossible to eliminate everything that had ever been touched by bigotry — we would have to destroy everything ever made by white people, straight people, men, etc. and somehow start over without their influence, an impossible and pointless task — what we do instead is change the way we view and use tainted artifacts. We don’t surrender the blues, for example, but we’ve stopped the minstrel shows (except on some college campuses). I’m not sure I followed the rest of it, but not every part of a person’s identity is politically salient. I don’t know any SJW who thinks suffering from common allergies or wearing spectacles (or displaying any practical expression of human difference that hasn’t been marked as meaningful by the powerful) are mechanisms of oppression. Most leftists would just like to make it harder for the rich to steal the nation’s wealth, and maybe also stop so many black Americans from being shot in the back by police.

@25: No, everybody wants color-blind justice. That’s the goal. What we have is very much not color-blind justice, though, and calling it “color-blind justice” is farcical and offensive. Pretending that justice can somehow become “color-blind” without a lot of energetic action on the part of white-majority America is also absurd. If you want to look at opinion journalism, I often read Splinter News, which rose from the ashes of Gawker & is not too bad.

I liked this post a lot, and in fact I came here to link it in an email to my mother.
Then I read the comments.
(Much less bad than most comment sections! I’m impressed.)

31

Kurt Schuler 05.24.18 at 3:17 am

Neo-Marxism is the attempt to salvage what can be salvaged from Marxist thought after the events of 1989-1991 showed socialism to be a complete failure as an economic, political, and moral system. There’s a parallel to neoliberalism in the sense that some of the authors mentioned in #9 above use that term. Neoliberalism in their sense was an attempt to salvage after the Second World War what could be salvaged of the “classical” liberalism that the 30 years starting with the First World War had so upended. The difference between neoliberalism and neo-Marxism is that neoliberalism has successes it can tout. Every country that has remained rich or become rich in the last generation has followed the neoliberal prescriptions of private property and markets. Venezuela billed itself as embodying the socialism of the 21st century, but I doubt that neo-Marxists want to claim it, or Cuba, or North Korea, as their successes.

32

F. Foundling 05.24.18 at 3:21 am

Tribalism I see as a tendency to prioritise (the signalling of) group loyalty over individual or universal justice and truthfulness. It’s a thing.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism are very specific philosophical approaches and political worldviews with a long history and many serious representatives; using ‘Neo-Marxism’ metaphorically to refer to just about any radical, militant and self-identified anti-oppression movement that the author disapproves of is utterly sloppy, ignorant and disgraceful for an intellectual, and it’s quite terrifying that, after the pop-culture clown Peterson, people who pass for intelligent and well-educated have also begun to use the same nonsensical rhetoric.

It is, however, true that certain negative characteristics that could be found in the old Marxist movements in their worst periods also occur, sometimes to a larger extent, in the current identity politics (‘SJW’) activism. I have previously criticised cases of rejection – open or de facto – of various values such as free and reasoned discourse, equality (before the law and otherwise), democratic procedure, the presumption of innocence, so-called ‘abstract humanism’, rational thought, and the cultural (and political, and economic) achievements of the past as being merely the worthless and fake products or tools of an oppressive system, which must be viewed solely cynically, as weapons in the struggle between social groups; and the overriding of all of these values by demands for compensatory inequality – the unequal treatment of individuals based on their membership in different social groups, justified by the need to offset the inequality characteristic of other spheres of society or historical periods and by a certain notion of collective responsibility. These aren’t, unfortunately, just rare and occasional weaknesses, but highly pervasive and noxious tendencies. Gulags remain unlikely, because the conflict between different interests isn’t really that serious and the real bosses aren’t threatened, but important elements necessary for the functioning of democracy are, indeed, attacked and weakened from these quarters (not that they aren’t constantly attacked and weakened by the Right, too, and overall more efficiently).

Still, even in their worst periods, Marxist movements generally considered that what one thinks and does trumps what one ‘is’ (by class origin or current occupation). The Cultural Revolution might possibly furnish some exceptional examples of something similar, but in general, it would have been very strange for somebody to say that a non-proletarian doesn’t have the right to identify as a socialist, or that a non-proletarian doesn’t have the right to argue with a proletarian about what socialism is or should be, or that a non-proletarian should never dare argue with a proletarian about what he should or shouldn’t do, or that if a proletarian accuses a non-proletarian of exhibiting residual bourgeois class hatred towards him, the non-proletarian should assume that the accusation is justified and ‘check his privilege’, or that great works of art created in class societies should be removed because they ‘trigger’ and oppress the proletarian.

This is probably connected to the fact that Marxism was supposed to change radically the fundamental legal, economic and political structure of society in a way that eliminates oppression – thus, one’s identity within the previous system wouldn’t matter and was supposed to disappear, and as long as one was working towards that goal, one was mostly ‘doing OK’. Identity activism is primarily concerned with largely immutable identities that aren’t going anywhere in the near future, the existing legal, economic and political system mostly isn’t supposed to be changed either, and the main objective is changes in the distribution, status and representation of identity groups within the system through changes in the treatment of the individual members of the groups. Thus, group membership and the claim to a certain treatment qua group member or group representative become factors of paramount importance, and they become connected with the accumulation of cultural and social capital and social advancement by individuals.

Due to the above, while most here seem most eager to free idpol activists from the compromising red-baiting association with Marxism, I would instead say that the comparison with contemporary idpol activism is, in significant ways, unfair to Marxism.

33

F. Foundling 05.24.18 at 3:24 am

Tribalism I see as a tendency to prioritise (the signalling of) group loyalty over individual or universal justice

and truthfulness. It’s a thing.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism are very specific philosophical approaches and political worldviews with a long history and

many serious representatives; using ‘Neo-Marxism’ metaphorically to refer to just about any radical, militant and

self-identified anti-oppression movement that the author disapproves of is utterly sloppy, ignorant and disgraceful

for an intellectual, and it’s quite terrifying that, after the pop-culture clown Peterson, people who pass for

intelligent and well-educated have also begun to use the same nonsensical rhetoric.

It is, however, true that certain negative characteristics that could be found in the old Marxist movements in their

worst periods also occur, sometimes to a larger extent, in the current identity politics (‘SJW’) activism. I have

previously criticised cases of rejection – open or de facto – of various values such as free and reasoned discourse,

equality before the law, democratic procedure, the presumption of innocence, so-called ‘abstract humanism’, and the

cultural (and political, and economic) achievements of the past as being merely the worthless and fake products or

tools of an oppressive system, which must be viewed solely cynically, as weapons in the struggle between social

groups; and the overriding of all of these values by demands for compensatory inequality – the unequal treatment of

individuals based on their membership in different social groups, justified by the need to offset the inequality

characteristic of other spheres of society or historical periods and by a certain notion of collective

responsibility. These aren’t, unfortunately, just rare and occasional weaknesses, but highly pervasive and noxious

tendencies.

Still, even in their worst periods, Marxist movements generally considered that what one thinks and does trumps what

one ‘is’ (by class origin or current occupation). The Cultural Revolution might possibly furnish some exceptional examples of something similar, but in general, it would have been very strange for somebody to say that a non-proletarian doesn’t have the right to identify as a socialist, or that a non-proletarian doesn’t have the right to argue with a proletarian about what socialism is or should be, or that a non-proletarian should never dare argue with a proletarian about what he should or shouldn’t do, or that if a proletarian accuses a non-proletarian of exhibiting

residual bourgeois class hatred towards him, the non-proletarian should assume that the accusation is justified and

‘check his privilege’, or that great works of art created in class societies should be removed because they ‘trigger’ and oppress the proletarian. This is probably connected to the fact that Marxism was supposed to change radically the fundamental legal, economic and political structure of society in a way that eliminates oppression – thus, one’s identity within the previous system wouldn’t matter and was supposed to disappear, and as long as one was working toward that goal, one was doing OK. Identity activism is primarily concerned with largely immutable identities that aren’t going anywhere in the near future, the existing legal, economic and political system isn’t supposed to be changed either, and the main objective is changes in the distribution and representation of identity groups within the system through certain treatment of the members of the groups. Thus, group membership and the claim to a certain treatment qua group member or group representative become factors of paramount importance, and they become connected with the accumulation of cultural and social capital and social advancement by individuals.

34

J-D 05.24.18 at 4:32 am

Mrmr

But it does strike me that the pose taken in this post is asymmetrical with respect to how it treats Sullivan and all versus the SJWs.

Sometimes people should be treated asymmetrically. For example, if we have a case where M censures N and N censures M, it does not follow that we should evaluate both actions symmetrically; to do so would be to consider only the form and to ignore the content.

35

faustusnotes 05.24.18 at 4:47 am

This from Sullivan:

The idea that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement … is now almost a definition of racism itself

is entertaining coming just a few days before the NFL owners decide to no-platform every black player on all their teams, in order to stop them campaigning for an end to police violence. I’m sure we’ll be hearing very shortly from all these aggrieved free speech defenders about how terrible it is that these white billionaires have restricted the speech of their players.

36

Thomas Beale 05.24.18 at 7:06 am

@26
IS = International Socialists.

37

MFB 05.24.18 at 7:10 am

When journalists like Sullivan talk about “neomarxism”, they are obviously not attempting to unpack the concept, because unpacking the concept is not what journalists do. They are, instead, making use of existing tropes which are designed not to be criticised or intellectually unpacked.

The term does actually have a meaning if you are concerned to debate political concepts; it was a spin-off from postmodernism, generating such people as Laclau and Mouffe, and Hardt and Negri. In my opinion, although some of it generated interesting ideas, it was for the most part a waste of time. However, someone like Sullivan is not interested in debating political concepts, but in imposing them (which is the function of the Atlantic, after all). This is why he could not meaningfully debate with Coates; he did not want to do that, and had no experience of doing that in any case.

One way of looking at neomarxism, however, is as an attempt to further some of the goals of marxism without engaging with class issues or the seizure of political power. (The reason was an attempt to avoid violent repression, and also to appeal to a public which had been persuaded that all left-wing political doctrines which engaged with such things were immoral and dangerous.) In this sense, some of the identity-politics movements which arose out of the ferment of the 1960s may be seen as neomarxist. So I suppose that there is some content to this debate, although I don’t think either Sullivan or Coates add much to it.

38

Belle Waring 05.24.18 at 7:13 am

Christ, what an asshole.

39

roger gathmann 05.24.18 at 8:07 am

In both Italy and France, the U.S. heavily invested in fighting communism on both the political and cultural front, up to – in Italy’s case – adopting an open policy of doing everything it could to keep communists out of the national government. Italy still hosts more American army bases than, I believe, any other country in the world.
Even so, parties in both countries are extremely cautious about claiming that the “market” is the solvent for all social woes. This doesn’t discount racism or neo-liberalism, it just observes that the penetration of neo-liberalism in both countries has been much slower. And I’d attribute that to a strong communist tradition. Interestingly, in Germany, France and Italy, it has been the socialist parties – for instance, the SPD under Schroeder – who enacted the “reforms” that are leading Europe’s main economies back to the American model.
But to return to Afro-pessimism – I think I find Pinckney (and Thomas Chatterton Williams) persuasive about the ultimately conservative implications of Coates position. Sadly, these people are not going to be talked about, while a showboating know-nothing like Sullivan will grab the headlines and lead us nowhere. We definitely need more Marxism and neo-Marxism in the U.S.

40

Marc 05.24.18 at 9:59 am

The link between identity politics and Marxism as an ideology is weak; Marxism generally subordinates non-economic group identities to class. However, the analogy to the political tactics used by Marxists to those used in identity politics is quite strong – everything from the demands for Maoist style self-criticisms to the intolerance of ideological disagreement and the treatment of dissent.

Contemporary left politics is deeply intolerant of dissent, even for people who are sympathetic to the left or agree with it on almost all issues. It’s becoming increasingly common for me, in online discussions, to see sweeping stereotypes applied to large groups and dismissal of opinions on the grounds of the race or gender of the person who holds them. Even mild dissent from orthodoxy, even in matters like expressing sympathy for people who get caught up in internet mass shaming exercises, can provoke pile-ons. In all other contexts, liberal discourse takes people at their word about their feelings – so if members of a group feel as if they are being intimidated, their opinions are taken seriously. But when liberals (let alone conservatives!) talk about how they feel uncomfortable with the atmosphere in left politics now, they’re mocked, mischaracterized, or ignored. This is not healthy.

The ideological narrowing in the academy also comes across as an inability to fairly characterize opposing views, even if you disagree with them. Henry can’t even recognize why someone with strongly held egalitarian views (e.g. that all people should be treated equally) might have any legitimate – or at least legitimately felt – opposition to contemporary identity politics.

Even if folks on the left don’t care about the principles involved (e.g. you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet), politics is about assembling winning coalitions. Antagonize enough large groups of people and you end up with people voting for reactionaries because they hate you more than they hate them. I think this has a lot of explanatory power in the current political environment.

41

Alesis Turner 05.24.18 at 11:38 am

Faustusnotes @ 35 nails why this is not an opportune time to come up with boilerplate about how progressives don’t welcome dissent.

Compared to whom?

42

Thomas Beale 05.24.18 at 11:45 am

There seems to be a conflation of two uses of the term ‘victimhood’ in this discussion that really needs to be avoided. One is the substantive meaning, i.e. being a victim of oppression due to being gay, a woman, Asian or whatever it may be; the other is (apparently) the status of certain interlocutors in public discourse – supposed conservatives painting themselves as victims etc. These are two entirely different things: the former is a key aspect of an ideological stance, the latter is just a complaint about how public discussions function.

Another unclarity abounds as well: what is the word ‘conservative’ meant to point to here? It appears that most commenters think ‘conservative’ is a synonym for (US) Republican, which won’t do at all. Some others think the conservative stance is about defending hierarchy, power and property, which seems incorrect to me, even though there are certainly self-identified conservatives who think exactly this. I would have thought the most useful definition of the conservative mindset was related to conserving the successful elements of political culture, social institutions and particularly the values, of a civilisation. The politics and institutions that are good are those that enable the values to be realised for everyone, in an equitable way. Thus, someone like Thomas Sowell is a conservative, but most of the anti-conservative comments here would not apply to him.

While the way that Peterson, Haidt et al talk about SJW-ism and identity politics as an intellectual result of neo-Marxism (and thus Marxism) is almost certainly wrong (but unremarkable), their perception of the similarities of the two clearly has some foundation, as I mentioned earlier – they just explain it the wrong way. Whether they and all the others are exaggerating what is really going on on university campuses is another question, but these are peripheral issues on which to base a surprising amount of invective. Proper critique is surely to be based on their main work (which may of course be shabby as well).

43

Alesis Turner 05.24.18 at 12:03 pm

I would have thought the most useful definition of the conservative mindset was related to conserving the successful elements of political culture, social institutions and particularly the values, of a civilisation.

As it stands this explanation is inherently incomplete because we first have to defend “useful”.

Useful for what purposes? I think one would be hard pressed to define conservatism as particularly pragmatic.

44

Faustusnotes 05.24.18 at 12:35 pm

The particular definition of conservative I work from is easy, Thomas Beale, and works for us, UK and Oz conservatives: traitors and economic wreckers. It is a perfectly adequate description of the politics of the UK Tories, Aussie liberals and us Republicans. You can expand it to include religious nutjobs and anti science dickheads if you want but the sets are 100% overlapping.

It’s not hard. These people are a menace to human civilization, and Andrew Sullivan is whining about campus radicals.

45

Bob Zannelli 05.24.18 at 1:07 pm

Marc is the voice of reason here. The intolerance of the left is rapidly catching up with the intolerance of the right. Once you start the heresy trials you keep finding more and more heretics with finer and finer departures from the true belief. While Russian owned kleptocracts have seized power in the U,S, leftists worry about safe spaces and trigger warnings

46

Thomas Beale 05.24.18 at 1:41 pm

Faustusnotes @44

That’s not a definition of ‘conservativism’; you are just pointing to right-wing parties whose members self-identify as conservative. 90% of the MPs of all of these parties (and probably all mainstream parties in most countries today) are illiterate in history, political philosophy and economics; they mostly don’t even know what ‘conservative’ means themselves.

As often pointed out in the press by conservative journalists like Peter Hitchens and Rod Liddle, there is no party at all currently representing people with genuine conservative interests in the UK. (I’m not arguing on my own behalf here; I have never voted Tory or Liberal, and cannot imagine doing so. Although with the state of UK Labour today …)

Arguments based on a definition of conservative that is derived from the real-world extension of political illiterates are worthless, since they don’t argue against anything (except perhaps the behaviour of said individuals, which doesn’t say anything interesting).

47

novakant 05.24.18 at 2:19 pm

BruceJ has it right.

We’re talking about Andrew “the evil gay left made me support the Iraq War” Sullivan

48

bianca steele 05.24.18 at 2:34 pm

How nice (against my better judgment I clicked through) that Sullivan sees Obama as a “bridge” on which people like Sullivan himself would be able to walk. How surprising (that’s irony, by the way) that Sullivan blames the left for not making the olive branch Obama held out to the right wing and racists stronger and more fireproof.

49

WLGR 05.24.18 at 2:40 pm

Kurt Schuler, so you’re postulating a clear discontinuity between the non-“neo” Marxism of pre-1991 and the “neo” Marxism of post-1991, that’s at least a start. The problem with comparing this to the liberalism-neoliberalism discontinuity is that with neoliberalism one can point to a relatively clear-cut break in the ’30s and ’40s, the historiography of which forms a fairly coherent narrative (Colloque Walter Lippmann, Mont Pelerin, etc. etc.) whose early protagonists like Hayek and Friedman even acknowledged it explicitly as such. With Marxism on the other hand, you could plop that template of a single clear discontinuity into the narrative in any number of ways, most of which are backed by a far richer historiography and far more deeply embedded terminology than the version you’re proposing: off the top of my head, you could go with the “Old Left” vs. “New Left” distinction in the US, the Sino-Soviet split, the Stalin-Khrushchev split, the Stalin-Trotsky split, the Lenin-Kautsky split, the Deng-Maoism split, the Luxemburg-Bernstein split, the Marxist-anarchist split, the breaks between any of the four Internationals (including whether the Third and/or Fourth International is even a legitimate thing; see Stalin-Trotsky split), or any number of “Marxism vs. revisionism” splits that one could map onto the other aforementioned splits in all sorts of varying and contested ways.

Of course the “neo-Marxism” narrative is clearly worth studying in its capacity as as an anti-intellectual reactionary meme about Marxism, sort of the same way it’s worth studying the slightly older and more anti-Semitic sibling meme of “Cultural Marxism” re: the Frankfurt School, which in both cases is distinct from affording any genuine explanatory power to the narrative as such. Again, the key difference with neoliberalism is that this “Marxism vs. neo-Marxism” distinction starts to crumble as soon as one starts to examine the relevant beliefs and movements in any real detail (knowing that the Eastern Bloc collapsed in ’89-’91 is pretty much the absolute least thing any Westerner in the post-Cold War era could possibly know about Marxism) whereas the “classical liberalism vs. neoliberalism” distinction tends to suffer the opposite problem, of seeming less and less real the less one knows about the relevant history.

MFB, the philosophical term you seem to be thinking of for people like Laclau and Mouffe is “post-Marxism,” which is a designation used and acknowledged by them, their Marxist critics, and their non-Marxist critics alike, not “neo-Marxism,” which isn’t. Regarding post-Marxism as a spinoff of postmodernism seems a bit tautological since one of the basic shared premises is that Marxism itself is an inherently modernist ideology, but that’s also why it doesn’t make much sense to refer to L&M et al as a form of Marxism in the first place. As above, the term only seems to make sense to the extent that the user of the term is unashamedly determined to understand as little as possible about any philosophical terrain to the left of, say, Rawls or Habermas.

50

Brett 05.24.18 at 3:14 pm

Marc brought up the “pile-on”, and in my experience talking with conservatives tuned into this stuff, that’s what they’re afraid of. They’re afraid that sharp ideological disagreements and unpopular opinions will be met not just with harsh criticism, but with organized efforts at their personal destruction – targeting their employer to get them fired, targeting friends and family, poisoning the well with the propagation of falsehoods, and so forth. That’s not a big problem for the Jordan Peterson and top-level conservative writers (although it means they have to spend more on security), but it is a problem for everyone below them who doesn’t have their resources.

[Of course, the irony is that these conservatives would then likely oppose rules that would limit the ability to do this, like making it illegal for your employer to fire you for speech outside the workplace]

51

F. Foundling 05.24.18 at 3:18 pm

@Thomas Beale 05.24.18 at 11:45 am
>I would have thought the most useful definition of the conservative mindset was related to conserving the successful elements of political culture, social institutions and particularly the values, of a civilisation.

Nobody objects to conserving what is good. It’s just that people disagree about what is good, and the so-called conservatives’ idea of what is good happens to involve, yes, ‘defending hierarchy, power and property’ – and indeed expanding them whenever possible. ‘Conserving’ institutions that produce egalitarian outcomes (free or cheap public services and other types of redistribution through taxation, limits on the employers’ power over their employees) is *not* a ‘conservative’ cause, just like environmental ‘conserv-ationism’ is not a ‘conserv-ative’ cause. The Right’s claim to ‘conserving’ in general is bogus; the only thing that is conserved and increased is, indeed, ‘hierarchy, power and property’. As for values, those are numerous, highly variable and always changing within a culture; again, the values that the Right chooses to emphasise, and the contexts in which it emphasises them, are the ones that can serve as a pretext to ‘defend hierarchy, power and property’.

>The politics and institutions that are good are those that enable the values to be realised for everyone, in an equitable way.

The problem is that equitability can be understood differently, and conservatives’ understanding of ‘equitability for everyone’ generally includes some people’s living in misery or dying of it and depending for their well-being and survival on the arbitrary power of others.

@Kurt Schuler 05.24.18 at 3:17 am
>Every country that has remained rich or become rich in the last generation has followed the neoliberal prescriptions of private property and markets.

Neoliberalism is not just about having private property and markets – those have dominated everywhere in the last generation with the exception of a few besieged fortresses – it’s about maximal privatisation and reliance on the market to solve issues at the expense of state-provided public services, state regulation and public property. Its policies have had predictably dismal effects everywhere, locally and globally. The various schools of thought neutrally described as Neo-Marxist existed long before 1989-1991; using the word as a shorthand for ‘all leftish positions which I think should have disappeared after 1989-1991’ is not terminology but bile. This would have hold true even if I didn’t also disagree with your interpretation of the events of 1989-1991 and their implications for socialism; while this is off-topic, I will just point out that as your expression ‘moral failure’ strikes me as a very fitting description of the restoration of capitalism as it actually played out, and of neoliberalism as well.

Note to moderator: I would be very grateful if you could also delete my duplicated post from 05.24.18 at 3:24 am. Thank you for previously deleting the third duplication!

52

bob mcmanus 05.24.18 at 4:27 pm

with neoliberalism one can point to a relatively clear-cut break in the ’30s and ’40s

Mebbe. First Vanderbilt (or Brit equiv) built the train monopoly using gov’ts for vast corrupt profits, then wars and stuff the trains got nationalized, then we re-privatized the trains, and the second time was totally different. If it is different, the differences need to be shown.

Cause just looks like liberalism to me, and I don’t think Morgan or Mellon would be totally lost in our world.

Now why Hayek and Pelerin wanted to claim a break and rename liberalism ordo or neo, and why Mirowski and Harvey et al play along is maybe more interesting. Could be “liberalism” European meaning got a bad rep. And course is a bloody mess in Murican discourse.

I use the Euro meaning, and equate it to the American meaning. Property rights/freedom and personal rights/freedoms are at the least homologous. Hayek and Friedman are perfect liberals, not conservatives. So much for liberalism.

Neo-liberalism is liberalism in bad faith, just as post-modernism is modernism at Caliban’s looking-glass. Times for irony.

53

Thomas Beale 05.24.18 at 5:06 pm

Founding @51
The Right’s claim to ‘conserving’ in general is bogus; the only thing that is conserved and increased is, indeed, ‘hierarchy, power and property’.

This is more or less the Corey Robin view of conservatism, but it’s not the mainstream one (which is to do with conserving certain aspects of tradition, society, values, institutions etc). I don’t think the hierarchy/power/property definition is useful (it’s more a straw man used to throw Leftist ideology into virtuous relief), and I can’t say I have detected any claim by the political Right in my lifetime to conserve much at all (exception: a few extreme moral reactionaries). Indeed it tends to neo-liberalism which tends to rapacious capitalism, the beast that externalises ever greater costs onto society and the environment and sucks the value from the economy into the upper 0.01%. But that doesn’t amount to a philosophy, and it certainly doesn’t care about history, culture, tradition or institutions.

I’m not trying to defend conservatism here (whatever it may be), just trying to get people to be clearer on what they are really attacking when they use that word; I think they are really attacking neo-liberalism (or maybe just vampire capitalism), but it’s not clear that the individuals being attacked are representatives of that mindset.

54

F. Foundling 05.24.18 at 5:12 pm

@Marc 05.24.18 at 9:59 am

While I agree with the observation (unsurprisingly, since I, too, have had this type of interactions and arguments here on CT on multiple occasions), I would point out that those on the ‘left’ who currently practice the things you mention most frequently and intensively actually tend to be the ones most *distant* from traditional Marxism in terms of their attitude to class, economic inequality, the capitalist economic system and imperialism. From my point of view, it seems odd and unfair to Marxism that its worst and most superficial moments and aspects – and not its best and essential ones – should be what defines something as being a Neo-version of it. This word usage obliterates actual Marxism. I should perhaps point out that I wouldn’t actually call myself a Marxist personally, since that comes with more specific and technical economic and philosophical commitments than I am prepared to make, but I am relatively close to it in many of my views – at least by contemporary standards – and in my background.

55

Faustusnotes 05.24.18 at 10:51 pm

Thomas Beale I absolutely can define conservatism in terms of the actions of its political exponents because a) it’s a political movement so should be judged by its consequences and b) its intellectual (haha) supporters support and even valiroze the treachery and economic wrecking. It’s very common for conservatisms genteel defenders to point out the occasional (usually dead) thinker (haha) who doesn’t promote treason and economic wrecking, but those few such intellectuals (haha) they can find usually turn out to be a) dead and b) inconveniently loaded down with writings that say exactly what their promoters claim they don’t. See the OP for an example of this in action.

Brett talks about conservatives being afraid for their careers, the day the NFL promises to fine anyone who speaks against its political views, and after two players had their careers ruined for speech. But oh, won’t we all think of those poor conservatives!

56

F 05.24.18 at 11:19 pm

@Thomas Beale 05.24.18 at 5:06 pm
>This is more or less the Corey Robin view of conservatism, but it’s not the mainstream one.

Small-c conservatism as defined in a dictionary is not a political alignment or force and never has been. The Right (which goes by the ‘Conservatism’ monicker among others), on the other hand, is, and Corey Robin captures its true essence perfectly.

57

Peter T 05.25.18 at 12:47 am

Kurt @ 31

“Every country that has remained rich or become rich in the last generation has followed the neoliberal prescriptions of private property and markets.”

This displays a remarkable ignorance of the actual path followed by countries like South Korea and Singapore, or indeed the actual mechanisms of wealth in the developed world, or the sad trajectories of most of the post-communist world.

58

Rapier 05.25.18 at 2:23 am

I had no idea Andrew Sullivan mattered anymore. His schtick of taking ‘conservative’ ideas seriously from a so called liberal perspective, always ends up as being too clever by half. Well there is always a market for that sort of thing I suppose which makes it AOK to most in these neo liberal times.

Wherein lies the main problem.

59

Lee A. Arnold 05.25.18 at 2:44 am

Successful modern economies are mixed economies, half capitalist and half socialist. The socialist half is very much aimed at equalities of OUTCOMES. Obvious examples are public goods such as healthcare and retirement security.

60

Kurt Schuler 05.25.18 at 4:38 am

WGLR @49: I was tempted to begin my comment @31 with a reference to neo-Marxism as starting with Edouard Bernstein, but it seemed too jokey. Anybody who wants to trace the different variants of Marxist thought can read the three volumes of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. I think that the collapse of socialism from 1989-1991 is a reasonable demarcation line because it was such a definitive rejection of Marxism by the people who had lived under it. Any serious attempt to apply Marxist ideas to economics or politics since then must grapple with that rejection and therefore must be different from the Marxist apologetics that continued to have some plausibility as late as the mid 1980s. That’s different from the loose way Andrew Sullivan was using “neo-Marxist,” which has little reference to economics, but it seems worthwhile to me to stick more closely to economics when making a definition since economics was central to Marx’s thought and the application of it by political leaders who claimed his mantle.

Peter T @57: Few actual economic systems are pure cases. Surely, though, South Korea is much closer to the neoliberal pole and North Korea is much closer to the Marxist pole. Ditto for Singapore (or Hong Kong) versus Shanghai before China returned to the capitalist road. And I don’t know why you call the trajectory of most of the post-communist world sad when China, which contained most of the people living under communism, has gone from mass starvation under Mao to the most rapid movement out of poverty the world has ever seen under Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “Let some people get rich first,” which is neoliberalism succinctly caricatured.

61

floopmeister 05.25.18 at 6:02 am

I think that it is Daryl Pinckney who puts a finger on elements of Coates’s Afro-Pessimism: which can be summed up as the lack of a communist alternative since the fall of the Berlin wall. In other words, the problem is a lack of marxism: “Coates writes in an intellectual landscape without the communism or Pan-Africanism that once figured in debate as alternatives to what white America seemed to offer.”

Sounds like the trajectory of pan-Arab liberation movement – from the PLO to IS?

And yes, I know this is a gross generalisation – but the discrediting of any self-identified (however much you agree with that identification) ideology of liberation like revolutionary Marxism or Pan-Africanism is always going to leave people floundering for something to replace it (at least for a measurable period of time).

62

floopmeister 05.25.18 at 6:03 am

I think that it is Daryl Pinckney who puts a finger on elements of Coates’s Afro-Pessimism: which can be summed up as the lack of a communist alternative since the fall of the Berlin wall. In other words, the problem is a lack of marxism: “Coates writes in an intellectual landscape without the communism or Pan-Africanism that once figured in debate as alternatives to what white America seemed to offer.”

Sounds like the trajectory of pan-Arab liberation movement – from the PLO to ISIS?

And yes, I know this is a gross generalisation – but the discrediting of any self-identified (however much you agree with that identification) ideology of liberation like revolutionary Marxism or Pan-Africanism is always going to leave people floundering for something to replace it (at least for a measurable period of time).

63

F. Foundling 05.25.18 at 12:29 pm

To avoid misunderstandings: the signature ‘F’ at 05.24.18 at 11:19 pm is me. I must have mistyped. I remember that another F has occasionally posted here; that is not his/her statement.

64

Peter T 05.25.18 at 1:42 pm

Kurt

That would be the South Korea of chaebols and guided development, no? Or the Singapore of socialised housing and state control of the major industries?

The post communist Soviet bloc – the one in ten whose economic lives have started to catch the west. Or the other nine whose lives have not? See: https://www.theglobalist.com/for-whom-the-wall-fell-a-balance-sheet-of-the-transition-to-capitalism/

Not that there are not other measures (not least personal freedom). But “private property and markets” is a heroic simplification.

65

Brett 05.25.18 at 3:16 pm

@Peter T

If by “guided development” you mean “they gave tax favors for exports to whichever corporation paid them more, and allowed the chaebol to go bankrupt if they couldn’t compete overseas”. The original set of chaebol at the start of the program were mostly not the same as the ones that exist today.

As for Singapore, the state investment fund runs it exactly like a capitalist firm. Calling the housing sector “socialized” is a bit much too – it’s distributed as a series of 99-year-leases, longer than Singapore has existed as an independent country. The boundary between an effectively indefinite lease that can be inherited and transferred and private property is rather thin.

66

LFC 05.25.18 at 5:12 pm

I object to Kurt Schuler’s repeated refs to 1989-91 as “the collapse of socialism.” To let the USSR, E Germany etc exhaust the meaning of socialism is completely unwarranted.

67

Patrice Ayme 05.25.18 at 7:11 pm

Marx was racist (consider his racist vituperations against fellow Socialist Lasalle, founder of the proto-SPD; Marx’s racist insults were so violent I can’t reproduce them here as they would be censored!), advocated “dictatorship”, “terror” (his words). In other words Marx was no friend of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Progress. Marx was no friend of the so-called “left”, progress, civilization. He got into economics when the vineyard of his wealthy family became less profitable. So why should “Marx” be always used as a paradigm of goodness? When he turned into Stalin’s soul?

More background on why the “left” and “progressives”, let alone “anti-fascists” and “anti-racists” should reject Karl Marx with horror and consternation is on my site.

Note to moderator: this is the second time I try to publish this comment.

68

Patrice Ayme 05.25.18 at 7:13 pm

Marx made extensive racist vituperations against fellow Socialist Lasalle, founder of the proto-SPD; Marx’s racist insults were so violent I can’t reproduce them here as they would be censored! Marx advocated “dictatorship”, “terror” (his words).

In other words Marx was no friend of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Progress. Marx was no friend of the so-called “left”, progress, civilization. He got into economics when the vineyard of his wealthy family became less profitable. So why should “Marx” be always used as a paradigm of goodness? When he turned into Stalin’s soul?

More background on why the “left” and “progressives”, let alone “anti-fascists” and “anti-racists” should reject Karl Marx with horror and consternation is on my site.

Note to moderator: this is the second time I try to publish this comment.

69

WLGR 05.25.18 at 11:29 pm

Kurt Schuler, at least two major problems with your narrative. First, that’s a more controversial reading of both Marxism and the fall of the Eastern Bloc than you seem to think it is: setting aside that many if not most people in the former Eastern Bloc (depending on the country) actually think their societies were better off before 1989-91 than after, the fall of the Eastern Bloc isn’t some kind of inexplicable occurrence in Marxist terms either. Put simply in Cold War “three worlds” vocabulary, the First World defeated the Second World using the proceeds from the exploitation of the Third World, in a way that gels perfectly well with how Marxists since Lenin or earlier have understood capitalist imperialism. How Marxists propose to respond to this turn of events politically is another issue, but it’s not as if it leaves the basic premises of Marxist theory at a loss for explanations.

Second, your narrative focused on 1989-91 definitely isn’t the first version of that narrative or even the one with the most ideological staying power. For example, another popular version claims that after the Russian Revolution failed to spread to the working classes of Western Europe and the US, the ones Marxists had been predicting would lead the revolution, Marxists of the time decided that they needed a completely new form of Marxism, explaining this failure as a consequence of traditional Marxism’s insistence on centering issues of economics and its reluctance to account for the strength of Western European nations’ vibrant culture. The idea, this narrative goes, is that where the old economistic Marxism had failed, this new culturally focused form of Marxism would succeed in bringing about revolution in the West, by undermining the West’s most sacred pillars of national, racial, sexual, and moral identity.

I’m sure you can see where this is going… the narrative I’m outlining here is the classical fascist anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of “Cultural Bolshevism,” which began as a common staple of post-WWI German right-wing propaganda, and reemerged in the early ’90s within the US-based reactionary far right under the guise of “Cultural Marxism.” (Here’s a sympathetic overview for anybody who’s OK letting LaRouchites into their browsing history, and here’s a more skeptical take.) Much like the question Henry raises in his “Dark Web Centrism” piece at Vox, contrasting these dark-webbers’ careful avoidance of the popular alt-right “red pill” metaphor compared to their eager use of equivalent metaphors to convey essentially the same idea, the question for proponents of the “neo-Marxism” concept becomes: how exactly can this concept be framed in such a way as to prevent a column by Sullivan or Chait from conveying essentially the same ideological framework one might find in Hitler’s embittered veteran’s-hall ramblings of the late ’10s or early ’20s?

70

Lobsterman 05.26.18 at 12:29 am

” Is there any space at all in which one can defend republican values based on principles of individual merit and “a color-blind vision of justice” (AS) without being branded a “f*ing racist” ?”

Honestly? I think those ideals are fine things to aspire to, but then you have to present them as things whose prerequisites are being routinely violated by, for example, racist schools, environmental racism, and proven racial bias in enforcement. That is, you can want them, but you can’t pretend that we can possibly have them before we fix a lot of other things.

Comments on this entry are closed.