Marx was right: Society really is shaped by relations between the means of production.
The Middle Ages, for instance, organized itself around defense from marauding barbarian hordes. Fast, heavy cavalry were the apex of military technology at the time; the so-called “feudal” system were the cavalry’s support. The system was field tested in the later Roman empire — medieval titles like “duke” came from the ranks of the Roman posse comitatus — and perfected in the Dark Ages.
When the barbarians had been pacified sufficiently that Europeans had leisure time to think about this stuff, they took the feudal system — at that point a cumbersome relic — as their model for society. Hobbes, Locke, et al saw it as the origin of the Social Contract; Marx saw it as finely tuned oppression. But here’s the fun part:
Hobbes ends his Leviathan with the most absolute monarch that could ever be. He starts* with… wait for it… the equality of man. Marx, on the other hand, ends with the equality of man. He starts with a frank, indeed brutal, acknowledgment of man’s inequality. As much as I love Hobbes (and consider Leviathan the only political philosophy book worth reading), he’s wrong — fundamentally wrong — and Marx is right. Marx went wrong somewhere down the line; Hobbes jumped the track from page one.
Marx only went wrong when he started dabbling in metaphysics. Marxism isn’t the original underpants gnome philosophy, but it’s certainly the best — not least because Marx’s followers were so successful at hiding the deus ex machina that was supposed to bring Communism about. Marx didn’t just say “The Revolution will happen because that’s the way all the trend lines are pointing.” He said “the trend lines are pointing that way, and oh yeah, the animating Spirit of History demands that the Revolution shall happen.” This is so obviously sub-Hegelian junk that his followers dropped it as fast as they could, but to Marx himself it was the key to his philosophy. For all its formidable technobabble, Marxism is just another chiliastic mystery cult.
Which brings us to today’s excellent piece by the Z Man. Specifically, this:
[W]hatever comes after conservatism must first sink roots outside the neoliberal order and maybe even outside the Enlightenment. It cannot be a reaction to neoliberalism, as that implies a dependency. The obvious implication is that what comes after conservatism, in the framework of the American Right, is nothing. That line of discovery and inquiry has reached a dead end. It is an intellectual tradition with no future and no shadow. What comes next must be a clean break from northern conservatism.
Emphasis mine, because there’s no maybe about it. Enlightenment-wise, Hobbes was the start, Marx the end of political philosophy, and both are flawed beyond redemption. Hobbes sure sounds like a viable alternative to Marx, because Hobbes’s reasoning seems sound, and based on an irrefutable premise: That in the State of Nature, life is nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short. But that’s not Hobbes’s premise — the fundamental equality of man in the State of Nature is. Life in the State of Nature is brutal because all men are equal.
Marx, on the other hand, was born in 1818 — just three years after Waterloo. He grew up listening to the echoes of the Concert of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was a very recent memory in his childhood; the Divine Right of Kings was still a going concern. Hobbes was like a medieval doctor, bleeding you to cure your fever — the treatment “works,” in that it abates the symptoms, but it gets the underlying disease completely wrong.** Marx was like a different kind of medieval doctor — he got the diagnosis right, but he wanted to make you wear a poultice of sheep rectum or something to cure it. From his true — and truly revolutionary — insight that societies form largely around their means of production, he deduced that Cosmic Forces must be pushing us towards Utopia.
The truth is that societies do organize around their means of production, but Man is more than the spreadsheet-making animal. We don’t relate to our means of production these days; we’re so “alienated” from our labor that our labor doesn’t even matter anymore. Instead, we seem to worship our means of production. Instead of squeezing us for every last cent of productivity, like Marx said, our Titans of Industry blow millions of their own money making us into their personal amen choirs. George Soros is a Devil to lots of people, and a God to many others, but almost nobody who recognizes his name knows how he actually got his money. Do you? I have yet to hear an explanation of Facebook’s P/E ratio that makes sense, but we let Zuckerberg run our lives for us.
If the businessmen who rule us actually acted like businessmen, they’d be kicking it People’s Liberation Army-style. Instead, they risk bankruptcy leading us in hosannas to themselves. Other than a leased BMW and a crippling mortgage, what exactly is the difference these days between a middle manager and a creepy cult member? Heaven’s Gate — the suicide cult that ran a flourishing web design business — was just a little bit ahead of its time. If suicide were the new #Woke thing, do you really think the wingless golden-skinned dragonkin at Google wouldn’t be lining up on the Golden Gate Bridge?
Enlightenment philosophes, like Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx, believed in their heart of hearts that religion was the source of all man’s ills, and that science would be his salvation. These days, science is religion and vice versa. A post-Enlightenment philosophy must recognize that there’s no salvation in this world — not even salvation from religion.
Marx was right about that, too — it’s the opium of the people. Too bad we’re all just people, Marx most definitely included.