Sunday, December 05, 2004

Now That We Need Him

Marxist ideas are laughed at these days, especially by Libertarians, Neocons, and other deep thinkers; but Marxism raised questions that don’t go away just because the most dogmatic version of the philosophy was associated with a failed empire. Like other enterprises of thought sponsored by religions or political movements, Marxism provided a context in which insightful inquiry of a focused kind could take place, not despite but because of its ideological setting. One can learn from Marxist sociologists and historians just as atheistic scholars can profit from the philosophers and theologians of Christendom without sharing even one article of their credo.

Whatever its failings, Marxism has at least one huge virtue. It relentlessly asks the question “who?” of history and politics. Thus where social scientists, no less than television pundits, blithely assume that policy debates are about the best means to achieve common goals, the Marxists recognize this methodological bipartisanship for the rhetorical scam it undoubtedly is and try to figure out which interests speak through which proposals. It may be an oversimplification or even paranoia to assume that all human affairs are a struggle between the exploiters and the exploited, but the opposite presumption is far less realistic. The current debate about social security reform, for example, is certainly not about how best to structure a system to assure a decent retirement for everybody. That’s why the official arguments on both sides seem so feeble. The wonkish debate is a ceremonial clown fight that serves to misdirect attention from the real issues. In fact, for middling people, attempting to preserve the social security system in something like its current state is a defensive struggle to maintain one of the few remaining mechanisms of income redistribution. For the well off, privatizing the system is an offensive operation to make the over all tax system less progressive and thereby increase the disparity of wealth between the haves and have-nots. One group doesn’t want to get poorer. The second group wants to get richer at the expense of the first.

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