The past couple weeks in the United States have been very congenial to a Marxist worldview. I don’t remember any time when the bourgeoisie has so clearly been waging war on the proletariat – or when that kind of language seemed an accurate description of contemporary society. The best known example of this is the ongoing conflict in Wisconsin, where the newly elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, attempted to strip public-sector workers of both their generous benefits and their rights to collective bargaining. With a limited grasp of the local situation (such as Margaret Wente demonstrates in this breathtakingly ignorant column), one might imagine that this is primarily a matter of shared sacrifice in a time of burgeoning government debt. That view is plausible, and entirely wrong. For not only did Walker recently enact corporate tax cuts in a volume comparable to the workers’ benefits, the unions agreed to let their costly benefits be cut if they could keep their right to collective bargaining. This action isn’t about reasonable budget cuts, but about union-busting, plain and simple.
Meanwhile, a couple of related recent American events you might not have heard of. In Maine, newly elected Republican governor Paul LePage has ordered the removal of a mural in the state Department of Labour depicting the state’s labour history, along with the renaming of conference rooms named after César Chávez and other labour organizers. The governor’s spokesman proclaimed that these symbols are “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.” At the symbolic level too, the government has explicitly picked a side in a class struggle.
The same battles come up in the federal government, where House Republicans have prepared a measure to deny food stamps – the main US provision to ensure people do not starve – to striking workers. If you fight for better labour conditions, the logic appears to go, you deserve to die hungry. Some irony that all this is taking place around the 100th anniversary of the industrial disaster that helped create labour laws and labour movement in the US. (Keep in mind, too, that unions are already extraordinarily weak in the US; less than 10% of private-sector employees belong to a union, and even in the public sector the number is less than 40%.)
It has been hard for me to go through the past couple of weeks without hearing the voice of Karl Marx saying “I told you so”: class struggles are real, and the government takes the side of the property owners. It’s true that these active gratuitous assaults on labour movement are all perpetrated by Republicans, but they are just further assaults on unions that were already weakened with Democratic complicity. (Republicans have recently taken on the sadly amusing habit of calling Obama a “socialist.” Would that it were so.) I haven’t been a Marxist for a long time, but this year’s events go a long way toward making me one – not just in terms of the problem of alienation, where I’ve already discussed my agreement with Marx, but also with respect to his more central issue of class conflict.
But what I also said about Marx before still applies: he was wrong about the future. There was and will be no new preferable order. The Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson quoted an anonymous “someone” as having said “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”; as it turns out, Jameson himself had said something like this in an earlier work. I think it’s hard to dispute this quote. There is a varied number of disasters, some narrowly averted, that could mean the end of humanity: global nuclear war, emerging pandemic, change to the natural environment that comes too quickly for us to stop. But humanity going on after capitalism? It’s not entirely unthinkable, but at this point it’s very difficult to envision what that would look like, when the only really serious attempt at an alternative not only failed, but destroyed millions of lives and families along the way.
Just as before, I think there’s a close parallel between Marxism and Christianity – though rather than Jesus and the early Christians, I’m thinking here of probably the most profound and influential Christian thinker, Augustine. What Marx and Augustine share, to use Greek medical terms, is a combination of penetrating diagnosis and wrong prognosis. Augustine is quite right to point out his central “chastened intellectualist” theme of human weakness: when we make attempts at self-improvement, the persistence of our bad habits shows us just how hard it is to be better, even how much we rationalize the bad habits to ourselves. When we place our individual weakness beside the terrible crimes committed by other human beings – some of the worst having been committed in Marx’s own name – it is easy to see the power of Augustine’s mistrust of human virtue, like Marx’s insights into class conflict and alienation.
Yet Augustine’s way forward is no better than Marx’s. In his eyes, our troubles will be resolved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ if we open ourselves up to his grace, allowing ourselves a perfectly virtuous and happy life after death. But I’ve noted before that I don’t see any reason to believe in such a thing; and even if I did, I would have significant objections to worshipping the God he describes, who damns human beings to eternal torment.
Augustine and Marx, then, both insightfully diagnose a problem but leave us without a good solution. I used to think Buddhism offered us a good way out of this dilemma, through a critique of hope: accept that the world is not as it should be, and just deal with reducing your suffering. But then Buddhists have their own kind of hope, which I also find wrong-headed: the idea that suffering can be entirely eliminated, that we can reach a state of nirvana. In Buddhism too, we face a powerful and perceptive diagnosis in the Second Noble Truth, with a misinformed prognosis in the Third.
What the poor prognoses of Marx, Augustine and the Pali suttas all share, indeed, is hope, optimism: an optimism entirely uncalled for given their pessimistic diagnoses. There isn’t going to be a new social order, and we’re going to remain surrounded by a suffering that ends in death. Nor, as the Stoics and Epicureans that Augustine criticized might think, will we be able to make ourselves good enough to transcend our evil or our suffering. No, things don’t look good for humans, and there’s no straightforward solution in sight. All we can do is keep stumbling through the evils of life – we can pursue the difficult, but worthy and surmountable, task of finding enough joy, truth and interest in life to make it well worth living.