Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Contra-deBoer: Materialist

At the end of 2015 Perdue PhD Fredrik deBoer issued a leftist manifesto for 2016. It's helpful for a right-wing extremist like me because it seems to honestly propose a new Left. But of course to me the whole thing reeks of stuck-in-a-bubble cultism.

Let's look at deBoer's first topic; he argues that the new left movement must be "Materialist."

He starts by invoking Marx: "a functioning, healthy left political movement would be concerned with the material reality of the present world." It would not be anti-religious, but "it would be anticlerical"; " it would recognize that science is key to human flourishing" but would recognize that science can often be used to marginalize. It would reject "all forms of supernaturalism, the occult, and vague spiritualism. It would be concerned first and foremost with reality, and would privilege “is” statements over “ought to be” statements."

Very well, but a left movement that started with the "material reality of the present world" would have to start with understanding why, during the flourishing of capitalism as a social and economic reality, per capita income in the capitalist countries has increased by 3,000 percent in 200 years. Before we can do anything to change the current system we must understand why it worked and why it flooded the world with untold riches wherever it was tried. deBoer's invocation of science is significant, for it was Marx's conceit that his economics was "scientific." So it was, based on the best economics of the time, and it was by a critique of that economics that Marx came up with his doctrine of "surplus value" as the means by which the capitalist exploited the worker. The only trouble is that economics has moved on from the dichotomy of "use value" and "exchange value" to the notion of marginal value, but you will search in vain in the work of Marxists to find a reformulation of "surplus value" in terms of an economics that has solved the enigma of use value versus exchange value. And what are we to say about the reality that Marx's prophecy about the immiseration of the workers turned out to be completely unreal?

What does it really mean to be anticlerical but not anti-religious, to privilege the "is" against the "ought to be?" I'd say it gets you into a muddle. Anticlericalism starts with opposition to the institutional power of the Catholic Church and I suppose any other institution of religion. But what are we to make of the 1,000 year campaign of the Church against polygamous habits in the ruling class? Or its campaign against cousin marriage? Could that have succeeded without clerical power? The fact is that clerics have often been the most impressive force against unjust political rulers. You can tell that because rulers tend to get really pissed off by troublesome priests. And by clerics do we include left-wing movement activists that work for advocacy organizations? Should we not consider left-wing organizations as secular churches practicing the modern secular religions from socialism to environmentalism, and their officers as secular clerics?

And does anticlericalism extend to, say, the individual enthusiastic Christian church with its lower-middle class members and entrepreneurial minister, such as was experienced by liberal sociologist James M. Ault, Jr. in Spirit and Flesh?

What does it really say to privilege the "is" over the "ought"? As I see it, every single human on this planet privileges the "is" when it suits him and the "ought" when it suits her. Meanwhile everyone agrees that humans shall not live by bread alone. The whole point of any religious or political belief is that the "is" is not enough. Life "ought" to be better: fairer, juster, nobler, more equal. Any time that someone advocates for a better world they are privileging the "ought" over the "is."

I can see where deBoer is coming from in calling for materialism. He is reprising the Marx that excoriated the utopian socialists for their pie-in-the-sky ideas and offered his own social and economic analysis that was based on the best social science available at the time. Very well, but the new Marx must reformulate his "ought" on the "is" of today. And that includes the fact of prosperity unimaginable in the hungry 1840s, the post classical economics that has delivered withering critiques of socialist economics. And then there is the notion, advanced by thinkers like Deirdre McCloskey and George Gilder, that the foundation of our prosperity is not science but "surprise." People keep coming up with new and surprising ideas that bump up prosperity: from the textile revolution to the steam revolution to the oil revolution to the electric revolution to the information revolution. And that is to say nothing of the unremitting transportation revolution. It is not the science that makes the difference, but the application of science by humans to human flourishing in ways that nobody thought of before.

Marx had a point about materialism. The bourgeois revolutions were all about principles and rules, but what about the workers? Since then, politics has taken account of material needs, so the Materialist question has been answered.

Next we will look at deBoer's "Anti-capitalist."

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