Thursday, January 14, 2010

The new ideal for the left should be ....?

Talk about a surprise ending!

I've been researching the connection between Marxism and liberalism. One interesting document I've found is a paper by an American academic, David Bholat, titled Beyond Freedom and Equality.

Bholat writes as a Marxist (despite teaching at a Jesuit university). However, he wants to take Marxism in a different direction. Up to now, Marxists have understood the ideals they are aiming at to be freedom and equality. They took these ideals from liberalism, but believe that unlike liberals they can truly realise these ideals. Bholat thinks these ideals have their limitations and should now be replaced. His proposed replacement is highly interesting, but I won't reveal it now.

According to Bholat, what both Marxists and liberals understand by freedom is individual autonomy:

In the passage cited at the beginning of this essay it is clear that by freedom Marx means individual autonomy. This is indeed what most of us mean when we use this word ... in our context, freedom clearly is a category relating ideas about individual choice and self-determination. (p.27)

Liberals claim that the market allows for individual autonomy as it is based on free contract; Marxists don't think there is a genuinely free choice as workers have little option but to sell their labour:

There are a number of ways the link Marx makes between freedom and capital can plausibly be read. The standard interpretation of his critique is that the depiction of capital as freedom is false. The semblance of free contract between workers and bourgeois conceals that workers have no other choice but sell themselves if they want to survive. The policy implications for Marxists become clear: give workers greater control over the means and distribution of production as the pre-condition for real autonomy. (pp.28-29)

The standard interpretation of Marxism means that Marxism and liberalism share the same basic aim (autonomy) but dispute the conditions for achieving it:

So framed, Liberals and Leftists share a substantive end (individual freedom) while disagreeing about the means for achieving it. The debate then is really a contest between ‘negative (Liberal) freedom’ and ‘positive (Socialist) freedom’ (Berlin 1998) with Leftists arguing that the legal and electoral rights of Liberalism need to be supplemented with a set of resources required for any real autonomy: food, housing, healthcare, education and so forth. (pp.29-30)

Marxists go to more radical lengths in criticising the inadequacy of the market in achieving true autonomy:

The standard Marxist version of the argument is pressed slightly further. Capital is posited as inherently antagonistic to the goal of self-determination since no one can be free if they are required to sell their labor.

Socialism is identified as a society where ‘humanity’ is finally realized: a historically unique animal whose life activities are not pre-determined by innate nature, nor directed towards subsistence, nor coercively to satisfy others, but determined by individuals in ways meaningful for them. (p.30)

You can see from the above why traditionalists don't like to take individual autonomy as the ultimate aim. If our life activities cannot be predetermined by an innate nature, then we cannot act according to such inborn qualities as our masculinity or femininity. And what about the idea that we have to determine what is meaningful for ourselves? Doesn't this take away meaning by basing our activities on what we subjectively make up for ourselves rather than on something objectively meaningful existing outside of our own wills?

The ideal of autonomy is also radically at odds with an appreciation of tradition. We are told that Marx did not even recognise a properly human history as beginning until after the revolution had created the conditions for individual autonomy:

The point for Marx is not to move us toward the telos of History, but to get out from under all that so that we may make a beginning—so that history proper, in all their wealth of difference, might get off the ground. This, in the end, would be the only ‘historic’ achievement. And here universality and plurality go hand in hand. For only when the material conditions exist in which all men and women can be freely self-determining can there be any talk of genuine plurality, since they will all naturally live their histories in different ways. (Terry Eagleton, quoted by Bholat, p.25)

Bholat thinks it's time for the left to start criticising the overvaluation of autonomy. His criticism, though, is not the traditionalist one. He thinks that the left doesn't really believe in extending autonomy to everyone anyway and should be more upfront about this:

let me suggest that today it is possible (even necessary) for Leftists to concede what our opponents have long suspected and declare that we are not really for freedom tout court. So much is evident already in the (justified) limits of Leftist tolerance of misogynists, capitalists, and racists (among others) to self-expression. (p.30)

Why else is there a "problem with freedom as a description for the project of the Left"? Autonomy suggests that the emphasis should be on removing impediments to the pursuit of self-interest. But the left has attempted to appeal to such interests without success:

In sum, conceptualizing a Left agenda around freedom and self-determination today seems part of the problem rather than its remedy. The sage Left strategy of making people aware of their ‘authentic’ (individual/class) interests has proven a dead-end. (p.32)

What is more, the left is going to align itself with the third world and against the first world. Therefore, they are going to have to persuade first world peoples to act against their own self-interests:

Contra the principle of identity and interest politics then the progressive gesture is for those living in advanced capitalist states to act against their self-interest and do so aware that this is neither transcendentally required nor necessarily generative of the collective attachments which motivated Romantic communitarians.

... such a progressive gesture means making the struggle of those on the periphery of global capitalism our own ... Within standard theories of just accounting, these people have no legitimate claim to the wealth created by capitalism. And yet only by making common cause with them can the Left have any meaning or chance in the 21st century. (p.33)

So what then should the ultimate ideals of the left be? What ideals will a post-capitalist society be based on? Here I'll reveal Bholat's stunning answer. None:

an aspiring Left might proudly declare that post-capitalist society is one without ideals. (p.37)

The logic of this answer is as follows:

What Marx suggests in Theses on Feuerbach is that the appearance of an ideal realm necessarily signifies an unsatisfactory resolution to contradictions in reality. A parallel can be drawn to the analysis Freud gives of dreams. Dreams come to us in sleep to express what in our waking lives is repressed. The appearance of dreams, like abstract ideals, suggests something is frustrated from achieving empirical actuality. (p.37)

The argument is that if people get what they want in real life, they don't need ideals. But is the ideal of no ideals really an escape from the "bourgeois" liberal aim of equal freedom? It seems to me to be an intensification of it.

Bholat is suggesting that in the Marxist utopia there will be such "equal freedom" (absolute autonomy for all) that we'll be able to make what we want and need an "empirical actuality". We won't be repressed or frustrated in getting what we want. Therefore, ideals as an expression of what we'd like but can't have will simply wither away.

Anyway, if the left want to proudly declare that their new utopian society will be one without ideals, let them do so. I do find it interesting, though, that Bholat as a Marxist/leftist finds it so difficult to envisage an ideal that doesn't involve autonomy as an ultimate end.


  1. According to Bholat, what both Marxists and liberals understand by freedom is individual autonomy

    Actually, Marx explicitly said the opposite of this in the Communist Manifesto, yet you think that citing one person, on the fringe of Marxism and hardly 'orthodox' makes your point for you.

    Bholat has clearly and repeatedly misinterpreted Marx. Marx didn't want workers to have 'more' control over production, he thought they should have complete control. In fact, there's barely a statement by Bholat that could be considered a 'standard interpretation' of Marx, despite your claims to the contrary. This is why none of the key texts of Marxism mention 'autonomy' at all, and criticise sharply the liberal preoccupation with freedom.

    A better reading here would suggest that 'ideals' for Bholat are those ill-defined things that conservatives use to bludgeon everybody else with their views. Myth is another tool that conservatives use - before Africans came to Australia (apparently), the whities lived in peace and harmony, helping Aboriginals climb the social ladder.

    Now, Pope John Paul II frequently mentioned freedom in his speeches and so forth. Is it correct, then, to characterise him as a liberal autonomist? He was certainly more adamant about freedom and autonomy than Marx.

  2. Anon contrarian,

    I'm not sure that the Communist Manifesto clears up the issue.

    It's true that Marx does at one point in the manifesto discuss a distinctly bourgeois concept of freedom, namely that of buying and selling. He argues that this freedom is meaningful only when compared to a feudal restriction on trade and not when compared to a communist abolition of the bourgeoisie itself.

    There doesn't seem to be a lot else. Marx does at the end state that in the new communist society "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".

    It's interesting that the most famous liberal contemporary of Marx, J.S.Mill, attempted to develop a politics based on a similar principle.

    Maybe I missed something else, but I don't think these fragments are decisive one way or the other.

  3. Excellent post.

    Who is he talking about when he refers to "those on the periphery of global capitalism"?

  4. Oddly, those who carry on about "individual autonomy" all seem to favor government control of health care and retirement, gun control, elimination of the automobile and air travel, elimination of private homes in suburbia (that's "sprawl"), mandatory government indoctrination of the young (aka public school), and strict enforcement of laws against "hate speech". Hey, where did my autonomy go? I'm totally free to be a government slave, hooray!

  5. Anon, talking about the strict enforcement of government laws against "hate speech" and being free to be a government slave, did you see this?

    A gypsy family constructed a house illegally just near an important historic site in England (the Battle of Hastings). When the local council asked people to comment on a planning appeal, someone wrote in to say "‘It’s the 'do as you likey' attitude that I am against.’

    The police took this to be hate speech, raided the wrong person's home, arrested him in front of his family, seized his computers, put him in a cell, fingerprinted him and put him on a DNA base.

    And all this in England!

  6. The travesty is not that the wrong guy could be arrested for saying something that rhymes with an insult to pikeys.

    If someone who actually said "pikeys" were arrested, that would be an absurd miscarriage of justice and waste of police resources.

    Britain truly is what Auster calls The Dead Isle.

  7. If someone who actually said "pikeys" were arrested, that would be an absurd miscarriage of justice and waste of police resources.

    Agree entirely.

  8. This is why none of the key texts of Marxism mention 'autonomy' at all, and criticise sharply the liberal preoccupation with freedom.

    This is not an accurate acount of Marxist thought. Marx did criticise the "liberal" preoccupation with the "liberal" idea of freedom.

    ("Liberal" in quotes because it is not todays liberalism.)

    But Marx objected to that liberal idea of freedom because he believed that it undermined a different and better conception of freedom, not because he thought freedom was a bad thing.

    Marx: "[Liberalism]
    has resolved personal worth into exchange value. And in place of the numberless and feasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

    Marx and Marxists did and do believe in freedom. It's just that they believe in a certain conception of freedom which is different from those of libertarians or conservatives.