30 August 2011

America's Red Guards, part 2: reactionary class consciousness

Just as I was thinking about the ironic similarities between the right-wing populists in the Tea Party movement and the Red Guards of the Maoist extreme left, The American Conservative published an article called "Marx's Tea Party" in its September 2011 issue. Anthony Gregory's subject is the common resort of the Marxist left and the populist right to class analysis. He opens on a historical note: Karl Marx did not invent class consciousness, but particularized it. Before Marx, Gregory writes, "it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms." Liberal class consciousness, he explains, was bipolar, dividing the world between the masses and the ruling class. The latter was understood to be essentially political rather than economic; the ruling class oppressed the masses, and acquired wealth, because it had power. Marx's departure, Gregory claims, was to base class conflict on economic status, specifically one's place in "the process of economic production." In Marx's view, according to Gregory, the state had simply become the handmaiden of capitalism. This had the long-term effect of enticing many erstwhile classical liberals away from their mistrust of the state. "By endorsing the proletarian capture of state power, Marx, his followers, and the entire left side of the spectrum have in a sense inverted the original purpose of class analysis," Gregory writes.

Modern libertarianism is, to a great extent, a reassertion of the political basis of class and the role of the state as the chief oppressor. The more sophisticated libertarians, Gregory acknowledges, retain part of Marx's critique, "agreeing with leftists on many particulars of how big businesses -- especially the banking industry and defense contractors -- use the state to line their pockets at the expense of the people." Gregory traces present-day Tea Party populism in large part to the thought of Murray Rothbard, a libertarian ideologue who believed, in Gregory's words, that "the state was born when bands of marauders decided to stick around and extract regular tribute from their victims." Rothbard and his disciples embraced part of Marxist class analysis, but sought to end class conflict by minimalizing or marginalizing the state. The Tea Parties, while distrusting politics and the idea of a political class, fall short of Rothbard's anti-statist rigor. Gregory regards them as mostly jingoistic, knee-jerk militarists who fail to see that "nothing done by America's government is more rapacious, collectivist, or dangerous to liberty than its warfare policies." If they were more consistent in their opposition to state power, he claims, they would admit that "if welfare bums and teachers are on the public dole, so too is everyone who carries a gun for the regime." Their apparent failure to admit this may reveal a flaw in their assumption that "patriotic Americans can reclaim the government and purge it of its predatory nature." Marxists may be "more wrong than right" in Gregory's view, but at least they're more "coherent" than most Tea Partiers.

It seems to me that, like their counterparts at the Leninist-Maoist extreme, Tea Partiers dream of power without the mediation of bureaucracy -- the direct rule of the masses, which is to say the proletariat for bolsheviks, the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie for the TPs. All institutions carry the potential for developing institutional self-interests that transform them into ends unto themselves rather than means. That potential is the core of truth within Gregory's notion of classical liberal class-consciousness, and a real problem that Maoists and TPs are not wrong to perceive. Both groups assert a radical rule of accountability, the TPs through party primaries, the Red Guards through party purges, each hoping that a purged polity will realize the general will as each understands it. Each is hypocritical to the extent that it opposes "power" in the interest of unlimited power, that of Chairman Mao for the Red Guards, that of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie for the TPs. The distrust of the state, and even the party, is an old issue for the historic left, and I expect to return soon to this subject to explore how communist discussions of the subject may further inform our understanding of the anti-statism of the entrepreneurial right in America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whether the "ruling" class does so through politics or economics, the essence of class consciousness is based on an acceptance of inequality as better or preferable to equality. Those on top are there because they've "earned" it or (somehow) "merit" it, those on the bottom are there because they have not "earned" anything better.

In this, the teabaggers are no different than the rest. The only difference is they believe THEY should be on the top and everyone else on the bottom. Unfortunately I see no reason why they should. They are not more intelligent or better educated. They are fearful and paranoid. They are reactionary, rather than proactive. They are regressive, rather than progressive. In short, they are anathema to everything one needs to be to push the limits of humanity and bring humanity to a higher pinnacle.

Like most revolutionaries, they don't want "change" as much as they simply want to "change" who makes the rules.