People talk about their problems, sometimes more than they realize. What they say can’t help but reflect their actual outlook in some way, and when they harp on an issue it’s likely to be one that hits close to home. So it makes a sort of sense that the two greatest liars I’ve known personally have been clergymen who talked constantly about honesty.
Situations in which people complain about the thing they exemplify arise in politics even more than religion. The standard of truth is vaguer, and virtue signaling a bigger part of what people do because there’s less at stake personally. The conversion of politics into a religion, a burden it can’t sustain, makes things worse by making the whole enterprise unreal. No sanctimony strikes as false a note as political sanctimony.
“Family values” used to provide the best-publicized examples of hypocrisy in public life, but moralism and denial of human nature are mostly on the left today, so that’s where the most spectacular examples can be found. Recent instances include prominent male feminists who habitually abuse women sexually, and hatred, violence, and mob action in the name of tolerance.
But what about Marxism? It seems to be making a comeback in what passes for intellectual culture—and even in some corners of the Church. We have recently seen a series of nostalgic articles in the New York Times about the past hundred years of communism, and praise for Marx from his namesake Cardinal Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, on the bishops’ website.
Marxism explains history by reference to exploitation, so it seems that those who find it appealing would see exploitation as the fundamental human relationship. That view may show something about their own outlook and conduct. So does increasing sympathy for Marxism suggest that today’s progressivism is a cover for its adherents’ exploitation of others? The question deserves exploration.
Marxism can be seen as a form of technological determinism driven by the human desire for wealth and power. At any level of technology, it tells us, some way of organizing production will be most efficient and therefore tend to be adopted. That method will define social classes that correspond to people’s varying roles in the productive process, and whatever class does most of the decision-making will use its position to grab as much for itself as possible. The other classes will of course object, so the dominant class will hire priests, professors, philosophers, and pundits to explain why it’s right for them to run the show and take so much for themselves.
The resulting system of exploitation works for a while, but eventually the development of technology and methods of production change the relative importance of social classes. The result is a struggle between the existing ruling class and a new class that is better able to function effectively in the changed environment. Eventually the old masters are overthrown, a new dominant class takes power, and the priests, professors, and so on, who know where their advantage lies, discover that it’s really the new class that deserves to rule.
Hence the Marxist claim that economic class struggle is the driving engine of history, and religion, philosophy, and moral thought are a matter of class ideology designed to further the material interests of the dominant class.
But how does all this apply to the world around us?
Standard Marxist theory tells us that the landowning warrior class that dominated the feudal system gave way to the entrepreneurial capital-owning class, whose wealth and position was justified by free market economics and classical liberal thought. Supposedly, that class was going to be overthrown by the workers, who were going to abolish private ownership of the means of production, establish universal equality and abundance, and bring about the end of class society and therefore history.
That isn’t quite how it’s worked out. The capital-owning class has indeed been largely subordinated to workers—to people who live on what their employer pays them for their work rather than income from property or independent business activity—but it’s not the mass of workers who have taken control. Instead it’s managers, bureaucrats, and manipulators of symbols—lawyers, media people, and experts of various sorts. That class’s power is based on control of the extensive bureaucratic, contractual, and communications networks that now, as a result of changes in technology and economic life, determine who holds power and how economic goods are produced and distributed.
The result is that we’re headed toward a world governed by global business, global bureaucracy, and global media, with those who manage those things as our rulers. It is that class whose hired spokesmen—media talking heads, ambitious and well-connected journalists, academic and ecclesiastical functionaries—define respectable views of politics, morality, and religion.
Those views constitute contemporary progressivism, which promises equality, abundance, and the end of history as a constant struggle arbitrated by force. It claims that the neutral expertise of managers and social technicians acting through bureaucratic, contractual, and communications networks is the uniquely rational and effective way to realize those goals.
On that view the emerging status quo, which confers enormous power and other benefits on those who run it, becomes the natural and unquestionable order of things, just as nineteenth-century capitalism and medieval feudalism were thought to be in their day. To dissent, respectable people agree, is to attack peace, prosperity, rationality, and human dignity, and so to favor violence, oppression, hardship, and madness. Traditional arrangements such as family, religion, and specific cultural community interfere with the unquestioned authority and smooth operation of the system. So people who take those things seriously are attacking the benefits the system promises. That means they are ignorant, evil, or crazy, and have to be re-educated or at least shut up.
Some adjustments are needed to make the story plausible. First, abundance has to be viewed globally. Average production and living standards have indeed been rising worldwide under the new order, but not for everyone. People at the top and in most of the Third World have been doing better, while incomes have stagnated and living conditions gotten worse for non-elite Westerners. Young Westerners are having an especially hard time of it, but nonetheless seem resigned and often devoted to the new order of things—a testimony to the success of the system in presenting itself as inevitable and to the extraordinary effectiveness of today’s education in achieving what it cares about. Older people, who weren’t properly “educated”, remember how things were, and sometimes do weird things like vote for Trump or Brexit, need to be propagandized, browbeaten, and silenced.
More importantly, the focus of equality has to be shifted away from economics. The growing complexity and hierarchical nature of the emerging global order makes it easy for those at the top to enrich themselves disproportionately. The result has been rising economic inequality, a trend that has been successfully obscured by an emphasis on other dimensions of equality that are now treated as moral absolutes. It is now respectable to speak with utter contempt of people who shop at Walmart—non-wealthy non-urban people—but not of racial or sexual minorities.
The practical result of all this has been a radical decline in the well-being of those in the bottom half of the social order, who depend more than the successful and prosperous on traditional arrangements and who find themselves headed toward the bottom half of global society. That result doesn’t bother today’s progressives, whose only real concern is that they stay near the top of the ladder and that the bottom half include enough white men—all those Walmart shoppers—for the moral demands of equality as now understood to be satisfied.
It seems then that current progressivism can plausibly be explained on Marxist grounds as a class ideology that cloaks exploitation with high-sounding rhetoric. Such an explanation is not of course the whole truth, if only because Marxism is not a complete theory of human life. In particular, it doesn’t demonstrate anything about the motives of particular people. Even so, it’s worth presenting as an argument, since there’s a great deal of truth in it and it’s a useful response to progressive moralism and triumphalism, which are also found in the Church. For that reason it may help make it possible to discuss social and political issues intelligently once again.