Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
They Said It:
If we attach more significance to feeling than to thinking, we shall soon, by a simple extension, attach more to wanting than to deserving . . . It clarifies much to see that socialism is in origin a middle-class and not a proletarian concept. The middle class owes to its social location an especial fondness for security and complacency . . . Loving comfort, risking little, terrified by the thought of change, its aim is to establish a materialistic civilization which will banish threats to its complacency . . . Thus the final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite. The state, ceasing to express man’s inner qualifications, turns into a vast bureaucracy designed to promote economic activity. It is little wonder that traditional values, however much they may be eulogized on commemorative occasions, today must dodge about and find themselves nooks and crannies if they are to survive at all . . . The dullest member of a conservative legislative committee, seeking the source of threats to institutions, does not fail to see that those doctrines which exalt material interests over spiritual, to the confounding of rational distinctions among men, are positively incompatible with the society he is elected to represent. For expressing such views, he is likely to be condemned as ignorant or selfish, because normally he does not express them very well.
Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 1948.
BERNIE SANDERS, EGOIST.
Just over a month ago, Venezuelan President Nicolas Madura sent his praise and his well wishes to Bernie Sanders. “He is an emerging candidate with a renovating and revolutionary message,” Madura declared, a man after his own heart.
Just under a week ago, Madura – the “socialist” successor to Hugo Chavez – announced that his country will, for the foreseeable future, experience planned rolling blackouts. Power will be cut for four hours a day, every day, for at least the next several weeks. Venezuela, the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, simply can’t keep its lights on. Socialism strikes again!
We mention this today for a couple of reasons. First and most obvious is the fact that socialism continues its unbroken losing streak. Those who support and defend Marxist economics – in spite of its record – often insist that “real” socialism will work; it just hasn’t been tried yet. All of the failures – from the Soviet Union to North Korea to Venezuela – are examples of “contrived” socialism, quasi-Marxist undertakings whose revolutions varied too greatly from the socialist blueprint. Given this, the only answer is to keep on trying to get the “revolution” right. And so they keep on trying. And it keeps on not working. And keeps on not working. And keeps on not working. The whole thing would be kind of funny, if it weren’t for the fact that real people inevitably suffer and die because of Marx and his fantasies. Marxism may sound like a lot of fun when you’re sitting in a classroom in New Haven, Connecticut, but it’s not so much fun on the streets of Caracas.
Which brings us to the second reason we bring up Madura and his apparent affection for Bernie Sanders. The Marxist rationalizers may want you to believe that Madura is not a real socialist, but he and his predecessor were a great deal closer than Bernie Sanders will ever be. Chavez actually nationalized the means of production, as all socialists must. He (illegally) placed various oil projects under government control; he took physical property from Western oil companies; he stole from the “capitalists” and gave the proceeds to “the people” – especially his now-billionaire daughter; he pirated the wealth and resources of other Venezuelan companies; and he chased Western businessmen out of the country, violating or ignoring all precedent and contractual obligations. Madura, for his part, has followed precisely in his mentor’s footsteps. Chavez, Madura, and their cronies were true socialist revolutionaries. And like most revolutionaries throughout history, their revolution has produced nothing but violence, hunger, and death.
Bernie Sanders, by contrast, is no revolutionary – no matter what he says, no matter what his fans and supporters say, no matter what Nicolas Madura says. Heck, Bernie Sanders isn’t even really a socialist. If he were elected president, he wouldn’t nationalize the means of production in the United States. He wouldn’t even try. He would simply take more of what is produced by those means and distribute it to favored constituencies. Bernie Sanders, you see, is an egoist. His followers are egoists. His political competitors, especially within his own party, are egoists. Their professed affection for socialism is as archaic as it is illiterate.
Last week, you may recall, we argued that the Left in this country is resurgent and that “a plurality, if not an outright majority, of American voters” now supports socialism. That’s a point we wish to reiterate, but to clarify a bit. Maybe we should have said that “a plurality, if not an outright majority, of American voters” now supports what it believes to be socialism. The fact of the matter is that socialism is dead in the West (or “the developed world,” if you prefer). And the Left, of all people, killed it.
We started thinking about this late last after reading Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “G-File” missive. Like us, Goldberg is a fan of Eric Voegelin’s characterization of contemporary leftism as a quasi-religious enterprise. And in this week’s G-File, he made the point again, in case anyone had missed it. Specifically, he wrote:
Yesterday, I heard a segment on NPR puzzling out how it could be that Bernie Sanders, the Don Quixote to the windmill-dragon of income inequality, was doing better in states with less inequality and worse in states with more. The answer NPR came up with is that there’s no clear or single answer to the supposedly “counterintuitive” trend. I think that’s fair.
But there is one factor worth considering: Bernie Sanders is tapping into a cultural, even somewhat ethnic, preference and pretending that it is an empirical argument. Socialists, and particularly Marxists, love to masquerade their essentially irrational or romantic aspirations in social-science-y gobbledygook. (Remember “scientific socialism”?)
The problem is no economic doctrine has been more thoroughly debunked, disproved, and delegitimized than socialism — at least among people who can see the light beyond their anal cavities. That’s because it’s not really an economic doctrine . . .
Gracchus Babeuf, arguably the first “socialist” to earn the label, wanted a “conspiracy of equals,” which would “remove from every individual the hope of ever becoming richer, or more powerful, or more distinguished by his intelligence.” In his Manifesto of the Equals, he called for the “disappearance of boundary-marks, hedges, walls, door locks, disputes, trials, thefts, murders, all crimes . . . courts, prisons, gallows, penalties . . . envy, jealousy, insatiability, pride, deception, duplicity, in short, all vices.” To fill that void, “the great principle of equality, or universal fraternity, would become the sole religion of the peoples.”
I know some very smart economists, but I doubt any of them could run that crap-storm word-cloud through some regression analysis and arrive at a recognizable economic theory. The simple fact is that socialism was always intended to be a new religion that mixed nostalgia for a past that never existed with a utopian future that never could . . .
Those few paragraphs would, we think, make a nice summary of the concluding chapter of Noman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium or even of up to a quarter of the pieces we’ve written over the past seven or eight years. Goldberg has penned a nice, brief synopsis of the basic case against socialism – and National Socialism, for that matter. Unfortunately, this synopsis is missing something. It makes the case against socialism just fine, but as we said, socialism in a real and sincere Marxist sense, is dead.
That means that the Sanders phenomenon – and the Clinton phenomenon, and indeed the entire Western social welfare model – is not entirely explainable as a pure secular religion, and is not as easily dismissed as a more earnest model of Marxism. There is something else going on here, something else in the Western, post-Christian, post-democratic, political milieu that is important and which, in turn, helps us to understand where the West is headed in the immediate not-quite-socialist future.
To find the answer, we have to begin at the beginning. And that would be with the Enlightenment, which is commonly described as that European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries which emphasized “reason” as a substitute for the traditional, religiously based moral scheme.
As the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted, this plan was doomed from its inception. Without a teleological framework, MacIntyre argued, “the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible,” and moral philosophy becomes nothing more than an arena for competing notions that have no basis other than “logic,” which is, of course, subjective.
Under this system, everyone has his or her own conception of metaphysical reality on which to make moral decisions. As such, the (likely apocryphal) line from Chesterton has become an apt description of the post-Enlightenment West: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.” In short, the post-religious West is anything but post-religious.
Now, it is important to note that this primordial need to believe in something – anything – is one of the fundamental preconditions of quasi-religious Western politics. Marx may have demanded atheism of his devotees, but they would not have been devotees if they were. What he really asked of them was to swap the religion of their forefathers for Marxism, which ironically was in essence nothing more than the secularization of the Christianity, i.e., the promise of an earthy paradise in the here and now rather than in the after-life. Voegelin would famously describe this effort as the “immanentization of the Christian eschaton.”
Of course, some bought into this nonsense. But others didn’t. They chose to believe in nothing, which became known as “nihilism,” which is, among other things, one of the principal sources of what we call “postmodernism.” As we have noted more than once in these pages, nihilism is a complicated and complex philosophical concept. The heart of it, though – both linguistically and metaphysically – is nihil, the Latin word for “nothing.” Nothing is real; nothing is important; nothing matters; nothing can be known; nothing is good; nothing is evil; nothing . . . well . . . is.
Nihilism as a philosophical notion is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who notably pondered the concept, its causes, and its cures. And likely the most significant effect of Nietzsche’s study of nihilism was the effect that it had on Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher, Nazi backer, and patron saint of postmodernism.
Heidegger, through his interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism, effectively fashioned what we understand today as postmodern thought and especially postmodernism’s examination of reality, values, and truth. In brief, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the purpose of being and thus the value in being helped form the foundation of Heidegger’s “da-sein” (i.e. “being projected into Nothingness), which, in turn, helped form the foundation of postmodernism’s critique of objectivity and objective reality.
Nietzsche and Heidegger are not, however, the only believers in nihilism and not the only forefathers of postmodernism. Indeed, in the context of the Western Left’s incapacity to embrace the socialist religion, one other 19th century German is at least as important, if far too often overlooked. That man is Johann Kaspar Schmidt, but he is better known by his penname, Max Stirner.
Stirner was, at least for a brief period of time, a member of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s inner circle, one of the participants in the famed German intellectual discussion group known variously as the “Hippel circle,” “Die Freien” (the Free Ones), the Doktorklub, and the “Young Hegelians.” Although Marx was generally acknowledged to be the intellectual leader of the group, the others – and especially Stirner – also played significant parts in the development of the pre-revolutionary German socialist dogma.
Stirner was a schoolteacher in a gymnasium for young girls owned by a Madame Gropius. In 1945, he published a book titled Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, which would be translated into English as The Ego and His Own, and which would be described for decades after its publication as “the most dangerous book ever written.” In his classic 1909 volume, Egoists, James Huneker summarized Stirner’s beliefs, as stated in the book, as follows:
Our first enemies are our parents, our educators. It follows, then, that the only criterion of life is my Ego. Without my Ego I could not apprehend existence. Altruism is a pretty disguise for egoism. No one is or can be disinterested. He gives up one thing for another because the other seems better, nobler to him. Egoism! . . . The one sure thing of life is the Ego. Therefore, “I am not you, but I’ll use you if you are agreeable to me.” Not to God, not to man, must be given the glory. “I’ll keep the glory myself.” What is Humanity but an abstraction? I am Humanity. Therefore the State is a monster that devours its children. It must not dictate to me . . . Socialism is but a further screwing up of the State machine to limit the individual. Socialism is a new god, a new abstraction to tyrannize over the Ego . . . “crimes spring from fixed ideas.” The Church, State, the Family, Morals, are fixed ideas. “Atheists are pious people.” They reject one fiction only to cling to many old ones. Liberty for the people is not my liberty. Socrates was a fool in that he conceded to the Athenians the right to condemn him . . . Your Ego is not free if you allow your vices or virtues to enslave it.
The dust cover of the first English edition, published in 1963 by the Libertarian Book Club, New York, reads as follows:
As Herbert Read [the British anarchist/existentialist poet] observed [in 1945] in an essay commemorating the centennial of Stirner’s [book] . . . “the giants whom Marx thought he had slain show signs of coming to life again,” and Stirner is one of them. The fact that Stirner was the real antithesis of Marx (and incidentally, of Hegel) has long been ignored, blurred, or suppressed, though [Sidney] Hook, in his durable From Hegel to Marx, emphasized that in their controversy, Marx and Stirner were discussing “the fundamental problems of any possible system of ethics or public morality.” How a number of lesser figures have been posed as Marx’s prime antagonists over the years is a tribute to the determination to escape the far more uncomfortable and demanding Stirnerite alternative.
In the aforementioned From Hegel to Marx, Hook described the root of Stirner’s quarrel with Marx as follows:
What is a moral idea? Stirner asks. Something which dominates or controls conduct. Whose conduct? My conduct. What is a political or religious fetish? Something which dominates my conduct until I have realized why and how it has been constructed. What is the difference, then, between a religious fetish and an ethical ideal? None, answers Stirner, except that we are usually more conscious of the fetishistic character of the first than of the second. Consider all the ideals which the Young-Hegelians have discarded as empty abstractions – God, the state, the nation, the church, respectability. Why, asks Stirner, should they be rejected, refuted and denounced? Because instead of serving man’s interests they have been used to serve the interests of the ruling group which has propagated these ideals most widely: because they correspond to nothing which I can objectively experience; because, upon analysis, they turn out to be meaningless abstractions: and finally, because they stand in the way of the free assertion of my unique personality, imposing rules or claims which are irrelevant to my own best interests in any particular situation.
But now, Stirner goes on, let us look at what our Young-Hegelian friends offer us in their stead. Humanity, justice, truth, love, communism, etc. They are admirable and enthusiastic slogans. But what do they mean? Why should I die for humanity or communism any more than for God and Country? After all, what is humanity? It does not seem to be particularly concerned about me . . .
Needless to say, Marx was shocked and horrified by what Stirner wrote. He and Engels were beside themselves with fear. If Stirner proved right about the post-Christian, post-Hegelian man, then they would be wrong. They would never see their revolution, would never see the socialization of the means of production, would never see their secular utopia. Marx and Engels feared that Stirner was right. They feared that the proletariat, liberated from its bonds, would not become socialists or communists, but rather egoists and would thus find the “workers’ paradise” – the secular eschaton – as unappealing as the Christian version. And so they fought back and fought back viciously. Roberto Calasso, explained the vicious response as follows in his classic The Ruin of Kasch.
In the molten lead that flowed from Stirner’s book, in its obsessive repetitions and unseemly arguments, Marx and Engels, who now claimed to speak for all workers, saw the emergence of a different and fearsome mass of proletarians. Not Pellizza da Volpedo’s workers, striding proudly to be gunned down by mustachioed officers, but the infernal, shapeless mass of the Lumpen: incorrigible vagabonds, incapable of class loyalty, rootless from the womb, violent, inarticulate, disrespectful enemies of labor and learning . . . it was the countless other proliferating species that frightened Marx and seemed to him beyond control, like a sea of jellyfish. In Stirner he recognized the herald of that poisoned host. That single individual of Stirner’s certainly did not offer an anthropological model for the petty bourgeois (as Marx and Engels, out of polemical shrewdness, claim it did). It represented something far more fearsome: the breakdown of the schema of classes, the chaotic irruption that spoiled the sacred drama of history in the penultimate act. This was the prime unforgivable sin – and this is enough to explain the fury of Marx’s attacks on Stirner.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Marx’s fantasies never panned out. The proletariat never revolted against its bourgeois masters. Yes, various communist revolutions took place – obviously – but none of them happened where they were supposed to happen. None of them took place in the industrial West, where the proletariat actually existed. They took place in mostly rural Russia, in mostly rural China, in mostly rural North Korea, in most rural North Vietnam, in mostly rural Cuba, in mostly rural Cambodia, in mostly rural Nicaragua, in mostly rural, Venezuela, etc. etc. All of these revolutions, you’ll note, have something in common, namely the absence of an industrialized core of workers.
There are, of course, numerous explanations for why this is the case. Perhaps the most notable, if least explored, is the likelihood that Stirner was right about the fate of Western man, while Marx and Engels were as wrong about the workers as they were about everything else. Modern Western man, it turns out, is not as religiously impelled as Marx and Engels imagined. He does not dream of the same utopia they did. He dreams, rather, of his own ego, his own comfort, his own fortune, his own unearned luxury. Modern Western man is not a socialist. He is an egoist and a proud one at that. Western man did not kill God in order to worship the state or the workers’ collective. He killed God to worship himself. He is a nihilist, but a specific kind of nihilist. He believes in nothing, nothing, that is, except himself. Interestingly enough, we are finding that he is neither a Republican nor a Democratic. He believes only in the hand that feeds him.
Take a brief look, if you will, at the type of policy proposals that the “socialist” Bernie Sanders is making in this campaign. According to his own web site, Sanders is dedicated to the following “radical” propositions:
Fighting for pay equity by signing the Paycheck Fairness Act into law. It is an outrage that women earn just 78 cents for every dollar a man earns.
Making tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout America. Everyone in this country who studies hard should be able to go to college regardless of income.
Expanding Social Security by lifting the cap on taxable income above $250,000. At a time when the senior poverty rate is going up, we have got to make sure that every American can retire with dignity and respect.
Guaranteeing healthcare as a right of citizenship by enacting a Medicare for all single-payer healthcare system. It’s time for the U.S. to join every major industrialized country on earth and provide universal healthcare to all.
Requiring employers to provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave; two weeks of paid vacation; and 7 days of paid sick days. Real family values are about making sure that parents have the time they need to bond with their babies and take care of their children and relatives when they get ill.
Enacting a universal childcare and prekindergarten program. Every psychologist understands that the most formative years for a human being is from the ages 0-3. We have got to make sure every family in America has the opportunity to send their kids to a high quality childcare and pre-K program.
Free college tuition? Paid family leave? Universal child care? It almost goes without saying that none of this has anything whatsoever to do with socialism as envisioned by Marx. Indeed, none of this has anything to with the “working class” at all. These are all gifts to the middle class, all middle class “entitlements.”
For decades now, conservatives have accused candidates in both parties, but the Democratic Party in particular, of trying to “buy” votes. And that’s precisely what the Democrats in this contest are doing. They are competing to see who can satisfy the wants and the desires of the greatest number. Moreover, this isn’t some furtive, sneaky plan. It’s the very nature of the social contract Democrats propose: we’ll give you stuff, and you give us votes. Everyone is happy!
The socialist Bernie Sanders, just like the socialist Barack Obama before him, is dedicated to socialism in name only. Most of his energies are expended on defending the middle class and, specifically, on defending the benefits provided by the government to the middle class that allow it to live as only the upper classes once lived. Tom Joad, he ain’t.
On the one hand, of course, all of this is good news. Bernie Sanders is the most radical candidate that any major party has ever considered nominating. And he couldn’t care less about the working class or the means of production or any sort of revolution. He cares about preserving the status quo, preserving the contentment of the wider middle class. He cares, in short, about preserving the bourgeoisie and their comfortable, well-heeled lives. And so he caters to their individual wants and desires. He promises them that he will make their individual lives better, cozier, more secure. He promises not revolution, but restoration. Socialism is dead.
On the other hand, though, this is the stuff of fiscal disaster. Sanders – and Clinton and the entire Democratic Party – thinks he can tax the country back to prosperity. He thinks that if he takes a little from these folks here and a little from those folks there, that he’ll be able to pay for all of goodies he’s promised. He can’t. There simply aren’t enough “rich” people in the country to pay for everything. Worse still, with his plans in action, there would be even fewer rich people, less excess wealth to distribute, and more need to borrow from future generations to pay for this one’s comfort. This is the problem with the social welfare model. It requires massive population growth but encourages the opposite. And as Herb Stein’s Law puts it: something that can’t go on forever, won’t.
Anyone who has taken even a brief look at the fiscal condition of the United States or any of the other nations of the West knows that the “revolution” Sanders is promising will lead, inevitably, to chaos and collapse. The American government is borrowing billions every year simply to fund its day-to-day operations, while the costs of the middle class entitlements already in place remain largely unfunded and largely unexamined. They are “off budget,” you see. The same goes for the countries of Europe, even the wealthy ones like France and Germany. They have made promises to their middle classes that they simply CANNOT keep.
And yet . . . the idea of entitlement reform is almost never discussed. The closest anyone ever gets is when people like Sanders promise to raise some taxes here and there to help stanch the bleeding temporarily. The egoists have won. Western economic politics today is all about the individual and his well-being and about preserving the status quo in order to enhance that well-being. Bernie Sanders is no revolutionary. He is the ultimate reactionary, a man dedicated to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that current expectations never change. And in this he is the perfect distillation of American “establishment” politics.
This will not end well.
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