Friday, April 10, 2009

American Liberalism

Alpheus takes a look at Fred Siegel's account of the origin of the Left and comes away impressed.

I'm less impressed. It's a good stuff to be sure. Yet, Siegel is missing the forest through the trees. Sure, he describes a lot of the trees very well. However, he misdiagnoses American liberalism. Do you know how I know? The word "leisure" isn't mentioned once in the article.

The ultimate goal of Marxism, in its purest, Platonic form, is Leisure. Leisure in this case means the ability to pursue one's goals free from constraints. Those constraints could be cultural, economic, or political. Which explains the animus with which the intellectuals mentioned in the essay hate the bourgeois virtues, capitalism, and the American political system.

The nexus of economic statism and cultural libertarianism is not some odd pairing derived from unique circumstances, but a direct product of the end goal of Marxism. Economic statism is the preferred policy because it offers the false hope of spreading the wealth in a way that liberates the entire population from economic constraints in pursuing their goals. This is particularly appealing to people like artists and intellectuals whose activities are not relatively highly valued by capitalism. Cultural libertarianism removes the societal and cultural boundaries that repress and constrain the intellectuals and artists.

Perhaps I prefer oversimplified answers, but this isn't some big mystery and the particular events or nuances that led to American liberalism aren't very interesting to me. American liberalism is pursing the ultimate Marxist goal -- Leisure.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big proponent of the Great Man theory of history. Therefore, the individuals involved are important to me. But looking at the development of American liberalism as if it is some unique political Left movement is a waste of time.


Withywindle said...

I don't think you're correct that the ultimate goal of Marxism is leisure. It's a very complicated subject, and one I don't pretend to have more than a very shallow knowledge of, but leisure isn't it. The moral value of labor, after all, is a central component of Marxism; Marxism aims to unalienate labor, unalienate the personality, reintegrate the human soul by revolutionizing the labor process. This might be rephrased as "the ability to pursue one's goals free from constraints" - although I'm still dubious - but it emphatically isn't "leisure." Nor, indeed, would I say that leisure was the primary goal of the interwar American liberals. I need to think about this a bit more, but I think you're referring to a postwar mutation of liberalism.

FLG said...

I'll have to get out my Marx reader this weekend and find some supporting evidence. There's alienation of labor, I grant you, but the end game is leisure.

Maybe one of the political theory phds who read this blog will disagree.

FLG said...

By alienation of labor, I of course meant unalienation.

Withywindle said...

Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 186-87: "Marx also wanted to hint at some grand transformation in the way mankind relates to nature, an escape from the realm of necessity, a transcendence of the old distinction between work and play. Then one won't have to talk, as I have been doing, of work carried on at a leisurely pace or incorporated into a life of leisure, for work will simply be leisure and leisure will be work: free, productive activity, the 'species life' of mankind. [Paragraph Break] For Marx, it is the great failing of bourgeois civilization that most men and women experience this activity, if they experience it at all, only in spare and scattered moments, as a hobby, not as their life's work. In communist society, by contrast, everyone's vocation [will be?] his avocation."

This "leisure" is a very far cry from the pursuit of leisure modern liberalism promotes, which, I think, Marx would deem a very bourgeois conception of leisure.

Alpheus said...

This is a very interesting controversy. I don't know that much about Marx. I know more about Aristotle, and Ari definitely *did* say that leisure (scholē) was the goal of life. He's pretty emphatic that scholē isn't just play (paidia) or amusement, but rather a serious effort to achieve true happiness by realizing one's potential as a human being.

Aristotle didn't seem to think that anything one did to earn a living could be considered leisure, but Marx may have seen things differently....

Withywindle said...

I may think up a blog post on this, after the Easter weekend. A great deal evidently turns on the definition of leisure. Classic liberalism would presumably allow for an individual right to choose the happiness/leisure one prefers as one sees fit; this is a liberty that is no(t necessarily a) positive, productive freedom. I suppose I would say there is an intellectual lineage between Aristotle and modern liberalism' cultural libertinism, but I must mull exactly how I think that work.

FLG said...

"For Marx, it is the great failing of bourgeois civilization that most men and women experience [leisure], if they experience it at all, only in spare and scattered moments, as a hobby, not as their life's work."

Isn't that a fancy way of saying that the ultimate goal is leisure?

Like everything Leisure must be rightly understood. However, a Marxist would probably argue, conveniently I might add, that we can't rightly understand it until after the revolution because we are too influenced by bourgeois culture to rightly understand it now.

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