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Karl-Marx Figuren in TrierRoss Douthat has written on the revival of Marxism as a seductive theory in the wake of burgeoning economic inequality and the withering away of the middle class. He might have said that the futurist most attuned to both those trends is the savvy libertarian economist Tyler Cowen in his Average Is Over.

Cowen says, in effect, that capitalism has won in the form of genius machines and those who are skilled and smart enough to work comfortably with them. That cognitive elite that will be—and deserve to be—richer than rich will make up maybe twenty percent of the population. The rest of us will sink into a kind of marginal productivity and something like an idiocracy. Our less-than-average producers will be diverted from their misery by all the enjoyments—such as games and Internet porn—available to them on screens.

Surely Cowen exaggerates! Well, if he does, it is in the way a Marxist would in describing the outcome of the development of the division of labor in our time. What Marx failed to predict, of course, is the screen.

Cowen, as an unabashed and unbounded fan of both technology and individual liberty, has no problem putting a positive spin on the facts that Marx thought would produce the hateful misery that is the prelude to inevitable revolution. Marx, we shouldn’t forget, was himself quite the enthusiast when describing capitalism’s wonderful conquest of scarcity and global urbanization—the latter, of course, saving so many from rural idiocy.

The libertarian economist and Marx (also quite an economist) agree that what Cowen calls “the light at the end of the tunnel” is the prospect of a time to come when we can all unobsessively revel in whatever hobby pleases us the most at the moment. Their utopian fantasies are pretty darn similar. Neither Cowen nor Marx think of “the realm of freedom” as an idiocracy, but in some ways were stuck with wondering why.

Douthat finishes up by reminding us that the genuinely negative view of the observation that “capitalism has won” can be found these days among non-libertarian conservatives:

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.

Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more … reactionary.

It is actually true that, in John Locke’s bourgeois account of the development of the idea of property, God is replaced by money. After he gives the account of the human invention of value for little pieces of yellow metal—an ingenious overcoming of the natural and Biblical limits to personal acquisition, he never mentions God or his authority again. (He couldn’t shut up about God and Biblical revelation up until that point.)

There does seem to an emerging consensus among sophisticates today that non-libertarian conservatism—and authoritative religion in general—are “reactionary.” They have been discredited by “capitalism”—or economic and technological progress—and so are destined to have no place in the emerging future. A reactionary is nostalgic for a world that’s been surpassed by history and so can’t and, in truth, shouldn’t be restored. Unlike crabs, we dialectically materialistic beings can’t crawl backwards.

This anti-reactionary impulse is also why “liberal education” seems to be withering away. It has no place, our “disruptive” critics say, in meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century global competitive marketplace. On that point, most of our Marxist and libertarian economists seem to agree.

There are some so-called conservatives who do seem to be genuinely reactionary. They too readily accept Marx’s description of capitalism as a realistic account of the world in which we live. They think of themselves as living in a techno-wasteland and of freedom as having become another word, these days, for nothing left to lose. Identifying capitalism with America, they become anti-American and anti-modern and almost as revolutionary in their intentions as members of Marx’s proletariat.

To give these reactionaries the credit they deserve, they long and work for a world where it’s possible to be at home with the full truth about who we are as free, dignified, and relational persons. They’re repulsed, with admirably good reasons, with the utopian fantasies of the Marxists and the libertarians, even if they are more scared than is reasonable that they might actually become true. They might not be completely wrong, however, to see intimations of the possible idiocracy to come in the ways we already relate to the screen and to each other.

We true conservatives put the word “reactionary” in ironic quotes, because we deny the premises about history and the comprehensive explanatory power of economic analysis that it implies. We’re not about restoring some past world. But we think God, country, families, friendship, philosophy, theology, and love haven’t been and can’t be taken out by techno-progress.

So we don’t think liberal education and authoritative religion have become irrelevant; we still need them to live well as beings born to know, love, and die.

That’s why we even put “capitalism” in ironic quotes, because it doesn’t really correspond all that well, thank God, to the world we now inhabit. That’s not to say we’re not for a basically free economy and appreciate the benefits of technological progress. It is to say we think of free persons as much more than producers and consumers.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared at Big Think and is republished with permission of the author.

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8 replies to this post
  1. We poor humans require a republic to experience our best opportunity to be free and to love God, freely. The ‘reactionary’, the true reactionary, inherently aware of this condition, is seeking to restore or recapture those political and moral attributes that make up and/or strengthen the various political modes that reach denouement in the republic. There is a point, I think, when the state can no longer sustain the perverse and immoral condition of the people and there occurs the phenomenon Voegelin referred to as “Exodus,” defined in his essay, “Configurations of History,”: “When a society gains a new insight into the true order of personal or social existence, and when it will abandon the larger society of which it is a part when it gains this insight, this constitutes an exodus.”

  2. Yes.

    “We” excluding the noble, embattled vestiges of traditional order and morally transcendent objective norms grounded in the super-sensible “over-world”, the Godhead.

    Marxism as rationalized alibi of subversion, is pure, Titanic Satanism, the shrill madness and pseudo-messianic Utopian nihilistic surrealism of nothingness of the cacodemon reigning over Hell.

    Every “conservative” today, at best, presents a stance of disheveled incoherence and subconscious mimetic internalization of Marxist ideological accentuations and axes of emphasis.

    The “conservative” of today? The American Republican Jacobin Fascists who shall “revolutionize the globe for the numinous deity of democracy by coercion”… What? Exactly. In that sense, we are all Marxists now…

    Kirk and a few other neglected Americans represented a different strain of cultural ennoblement, against the times, against the idols of the epoch. Its central bedrock metaphysics was absolute moral objectivity emanating from the Ineffable, breathing into hominid stock the “IMAGO DEI”, i.e. the internal ethical and cognitive capacity to “know right from wrong”… As Paul styles the beautiful subject, the “natural law” as subordinate principle of the supra-mundane “LEX PERENNIALIS” (eternal law divine), is “INSCRIBED” into the human KARDIA immutably, incapable of expunged extinction except at the price of the God-inspirited human soul derogating and demoting its originally paradisiacal “garments of light” into mere beastly dermic flesh…

    Locke is a JOKE; Kirk is a principled, virile THINKER, because Locke drowned to death in the superficies of life, and such a fate of a supposed “intellect”, is the most ignoble imaginable. Locke never graduated from high school, ethically or metaphysically. I can liken his thought to that of a churl mechanic Saxon, charitably. Kirk transmits what NEVER perished, “the LEX PRIMORDIALIS” of the Platonist-Christian “golden chain” of contemplation of the “world of Being” and DEONTOLOGY of majestic ethical world-view, whose culminating and transfiguring moment Kirk affirmed unapologetically was and is CHRISTOLOGICAL: Christ is not the Quaker-Manichean demigod of effeminacy, but the soldier of chivalrous self-sacrifice; and Kirk affirms as Western cultural ethical archetype upon which all exists, is the exemplar of noblesse oblige of Christ, in His pure, dispassionate kenotic agape.

    Why is Kirk important? For not giving in an inch either to sanctified inherited traditionalism of empty convention (so opposed to authentic “tradition”) or the modernistic, fashionable gospels and millennial neo-Gnostic nihilistic ideological hegemony of unopposed despotic sway, forming Western civilization today…

    Kirk notices the “framers” are no demi-divinities from an alter-verse of Hyperborean meta-cosmic infallibility. As a “conservative”, to question our own sacrosanct, time-consecrated skeletons of unreality and ossified dogmata of Enlightenment Rosicrucian rationalistic humanism, takes VIRILITY OF CHARACTER. Kirk knew the fabric of this “experiment in self-governorship” was thin, and sought to reinforce it, wherever possible, highlighting its best exemplars of authentic traditionalist “revolutionary” spirit – yet Kirk called out the “Constitutionalism” of compromise and unintelligibility more insightfully than any of the Marxist dullards…

    Why is Marxism evil, and to be fought with iron and fire, and its contagion over the Western cultural sphere, to be mercilessly intransigently combatted? Because, Marx removes the Christly “gnostic” KARDIA from human essence, in fact butchering human essence totally in a chaotic vortex of undifferentiated, indistinguishable appearances without any ontological basis – all is mere “super-structure”… What is morality, the key to God, the filiation of the deiform Nous we possess as “partakers of Divinity” in potential, to the Marxist? Pure illusion, ephemera. Machiavellian tactic. Nothing.

    Kirk and a few others uphold the IMAGE OF GOD in man and this all-determining reality constitutes the basis of their “conservatism” – and that is why their conservatism is the only REAL, INTEGRAL, DEFENSIBLE and REASONABLE intellectual resistance movement against the UN-GOD of NIHILITY (i.e., Satan: Marxism, anarchist-egoism, amoral-libertine “left hand path” cultists, the devotees of the neo-Bacchanalia cultural regression of Nietzsche, the Trotskyite anti-familial ideologists raging to obliterate the Christian, Roman-Germanic patriarchal patterns of inherited natural preordained facts ungovernable by mere humanistic caprice (IF Christian patriarchal social life is definitively overthrown, humankind shall have lost its ne its constituent merits of incarnating the Divinity and sub-humanized itself into ape-horde zoological life, de-souled and “beyond good and evil” once again…) – all of these Marxist and Marxism-bastardized factions of cultural demolition and sabotage-squadrons of social involution and disaggregation TYRANNIZE US IN IMPUNITY TODAY and infect the lineaments of our intellectuality itself, with their Hell-ink blackened INSURRECTION OF REVOLT AGAINST THE BEING OF THE LIVING GOD.

    Kirk forces modern Westerners to re-contemplate the meaning of “revolutionary conservative”, grimly, again… America’s “revolutionary-conservative” Patriots of anti-monarchic, progressive, Rosicrucian character, perhaps, left out some important parts of reality, neglected or underemphasized very important areas of existence, for whatever reasons, in their “juridical legitimating” pamphlets, written in the heart of the torrential moment and all-too-human…

    Kirk is America, Kirk is American destiny, whatever it may be, woeful or benefic…

    • Amen, Brother: Give me a talker who can turn all those fancy words into buzz words for the electorate and maybe the tide can be turned. Maybe what we need is one more community organizer to be elected president. The precedent of being able to run things by the dictatorial powers of the president has already be established.

  3. Catacomb-asceticism of the original anchorite-cellular groups, who gave us the PHILOKALIA. Roman-Orthodox petty squabbling be cursed, the PHILOKALIA is unsurpassed as manual of spiritual warfare.

    The solution seems partially quietist and passivity rather than confrontation against the demotic necrotized polis is seemingly advanced (?) … What about the possibility of either overt or covert re-organization of medieval chivalric royal-imperial “guards of the revolution from above”…? Our Bible knows these type of knightly warrior spiritual traditions under the name of the “ROYAL ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK”… Shall the exodus be combative, or pacifistic?

  4. “Clowns to the left of me,
    Jokers to the right, here I am…”

    Having had those of the libertine/libertarian bent vent all over my silly notions, I quite sympathize with the “reactionary” impulse.

    “Capitalism” is admittedly destructive of society, families, and individuals, the only real point of debate being whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

    I aver that there are things more important than money. Family. Friends. Community. Faith. To name but a few.

    Big Yellow Taxi
    by Joni Mitchell

    “They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot
    With a pink hotel *, a boutique
    And a swinging hot spot

    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    Till it’s gone
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot

    They took all the trees
    Put ’em in a tree museum *
    And they charged the people
    A dollar and a half just to see ’em

    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    Till it’s gone
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot”

    But, the Uber-rich can always build a new plastic paradise (for themselves, on the bones of the rest of everybody), can they not?

  5. God forbid that we should be Marxists, the Communist party which enjoyed all the perks and powers of a new class. However, will the elite allow us a continued life even as an idiocracy? Seems like the Fema camps might have more than one purpose in mind, when one considers the coffins stacked near by. Besides, there are folks who think the world can work a lot better, if there are only a half billion people to serve it. What a shame! Right when we are on the verge of going to the stars. A Third Great Awakening suggests that there might be something better than such a vulgarity.

  6. This is one of those articles I’m going to have to re-read several times in order to ponder. I will say that one of the unintended consequences of the fall of communism has been a restoration of what is sometimes called “pre-war Communist” thought to prominence. After all, not all Marxists were Stalinists, and not all socialists were revolutionaries of the Leninist cast.

    As for liberal education – one irony of the present age is that whenever I read a book written by a Communist who was born and educated prior to 1939, it is always superior in terms of erudition, style, scope, grasp of history and level of interest to anything written by a Communist born after 1945.

    This is because pre-war Communists were liberally educated, while post-war Communists were merely indoctrinated. Modern Communists, Marxists and Leftists tend to also be infoctrinated by political correctness.

    This is why I support the restoration of pre-war Communist thought: if there must be a left, let it at least be intelligent and philosophical! Naturally, this same critique might well apply to conservatism.

  7. Considering that Marxism is not a monolith and thus not all forms involve some search for utopia, this article provides another example of how Marxism is used more as a pejorative than as an actual school of thought.

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