Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, March 15, 2007


"Hitherto, every form of society has been based ... on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes."

Communist Manifesto

I am not a liberal. I say that because I am a leftist and I do not consider liberals to be leftists. I am sure that there are many who would disagree with this characterization, so let me explain.

That which distinguishes the leftist from the liberal is the concept of class struggle. The fundamental explanatory concept for liberals is the individual. Each of these individuals pursues his or her own perceived best interests. Liberals feel that the wealthy, because of the money at their command, are likely to wield undue influence over the political process. Likewise, groups like organized labor might also distort the process because of its numbers and organization. From the liberal viewpoint, one of the functions of the state is to address these inequities so that something approaching a real egalitarianism can be achieved.

To the leftist the fundamental analytical concept is class. To oversimplify, there are oppressing classes and oppressed classes. The oppressing classes enrich themselves by appropriating wealth from the oppressed classes. That leads to an ongoing struggle. The oppressing classes are continually trying to extort more and more wealth from the oppressed. In their turn, the oppressed classes are constantly struggling to get out from under the collective thumb of their oppressors. That struggle can take various forms. The most common form, and one that is nothing but destructive from a class point of view, is common crime. (I say common crime to distinguish it from business or white-collar crime.) That is the attempt of individuals or small groups to grasp some measure of wealth or power for themselves. The large social and political movements are another way in which the oppressed endeavor to improve their lot. For example, the Civil Rights movement in the USA was not just a struggle for equal rights for African Americans. It was also a class struggle. African Americans were the most oppressed group in the USA and they were attempting to ameliorate their condition.

The most common misconception about class comes from the failure to see it as an emergent property. As individuals, each and every one of us may be pursuing what we perceive as our own best interests and, in the process, classes emerge without anyone really intending that it be so. These emergent properties are common throughout nature. An example that might be pertinent to our discussion is the ant colony. Each ant is an autonomous unit that behaves according to a few relatively simple rules. In spite of that, their colonies exhibit very complex behaviors. Some even capture and enslave other species.

The failure to understand class leads to some common misunderstandings. People will ask who is in this ruling class of yours. The usual intent of this question is to impeach the concept because it turns out to be impossible to specify exactly who is in the various classes. In reality, that is quite beside the point. Class isn't just the sum of the individuals who might or might not be members of it. Class is the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Each and everyone of those rich Wall Street investors is pursuing his own personal best interests. I doubt that many would see themselves as representing a class, but given the social position that they occupy and the milieu in which they operate, they collectively act as part of a class that emerges from all of those individuals with similar interests.

Another common complaint about class analysis is that it leads to a conspiracy theory of history. Nothing could be further from the truth, as my comments above should demonstrate. Those who constitute the ruling class in any country are behaving according to their own individual lights and they may even be in fierce competition with some of their fellows, but the class emerges nonetheless. It is not something over which an individual or group of individuals has any control.

One big difference between liberals and leftists comes in their understanding of the role of the state apparatus. As I mentioned above, according to liberals, one of the most important functions of government is to act as an arbiter between the various conflicting forces in society in order to ensure a certain egalitarianism. The leftist sees things differently. From his point of view, the state is primarily a instrument of the ruling or oppressing classes. Its chief function is to suppress the lower classes and to aid in the extraction of wealth from the oppressed. Liberals see corruption is government as a distortion, but leftists see it as endemic.

Now there are times when the oppressors feel the need to make concessions to the oppressed. One of those times was in the 1930's in the USA. The Roosevelt administration made significant concessions in the form of Social Security, the minimum wage, and laws that granted concessions to labor. However, he didn't do it out of the kindness of his heart. Look at the times. The USA was in the midst of a deep depression. Social unrest was high. Not only that but, as a result of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1918, the Communist movement was strong and it had a large sympathetic following among the working class. Many of the social and political struggles for economic and civil rights during the Thirties in the USA were led by open members of the Communist Party. Not only that but a strong Fascist movement had arisen. There were sections of the country where the German-American Bund led large demonstrations that featured the Nazi salute and the singing of "Deutschland ueber Alles". There was real fear among the nation's rulers that parts of the country could descend into social chaos, and Roosevelt's welfare state measures were part of a successful attempt to short-circuit that.

You might wonder what I'm leading up to with all this. It's a fair question, and it's the following. To hear liberals and even some conservatives talk, the Bush administration is a massive distortion of the political process in the USA. From the leftist perspective, this is not the case. They are just doing what the state always does, advancing the interests of our ruling class. The only difference between them and previous administrations is that they are more blatant about what they are doing. If they had not done things like go to war in the Middle East, pass the Patriot Act, and clamp down on individual and civil rights, another administration would have done pretty much the same thing. Historical circumstances demand it. We are living in a world where fundamental resources, like oil, are becoming increasingly scarce. It is in the interests of our ruling class to do whatever it takes to secure those resources for their own use, and that is exactly what they are setting themselves up to do. A lot of the measures that they are going to have to take aren't going to be popular, so they are implementing a state apparatus that will permit them to quickly and ruthlessly clamp down on social protest without legal interference.

How effectively the Bush administration is doing in representing the interests of the ruling class is another question, but I don't believe that they are anywhere near as inept as liberals believe.


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