Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bourgeois Ideology does (not) equal Freedom

As Nicole, Anne, and Eder have pointed out, Prof. McCloskey’s arguments for capitalism were a captivating performance, but in some ways seemed to be fighting an elaborate straw man. We all know that the material wealth of the world is “better” i.e. we have more stuff and that stuff makes us, in general, live longer (though it also kills us in new ways). The assumption is that this makes everyone happier, right down to the descendants of colonized peoples who now have the “dignity” to innovate—and this proof of the non-exploitative nature of capitalism (I’m sticking with term capitalism, I think it’s historically solid. No one defines capital as brick on brick—it’s a generative flow of money: M’). And all this came from an immaterial thing: the idea that those who innovate are dignified (a position which, in our society, is not going out of fashion—see Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Madmen, &c.)

Okay, fine. But when she defers to Gramsci, making claims that his understanding of ideology is correct, I have to raise an eyebrow. If she concedes that, then let’s turn Gramsci on McCloskey.

In our selections from his prison notebooks, Gramsci’s concern seems to be with exactly the kind of “vulgar” determinism that I find disturbing about gross materialist history: base determines superstructure. Gramsci sees it differently. First, he claims that ideology is not a “deception to which [the governed] are subject” or a “willed and knowing deception” by the governing (196). We aren’t talking about conspiracy theories. Rather, for the “philosophy of praxis  superstructures are and objective and operative reality.” Furthermore, “the philosophy of praxis is itself a superstructure, it is the terrain on which determinate social groups become conscious of their own social being, their own strengths, their own tasks, their own becoming” (196). This seems to all be what McCloskey is agreeing with—ideas can determine the unfolding of material history—the great enrichment.

Gramsci wouldn’t be too surprised about McCloskey’s evidence. Because he points out that “the criterion that a philosophical current must be criticized and evaluated for what it professes to be but for what it really is and shows itself to be in concrete historical works applies to Croce’s [or McCloskey’s] thought too” (195). Which is to say, Qui bono? And it’s politically duplicitous to say that the working class is who gains, politically, from the rapid growth of wealth. So it’s no surprise that McCloskey points to the “great enrichment” as proof of the value of this philosophical current. Except by such a material criterion, McCloskey’s politics comes up wanting.

Her bourgeois virtues aren’t the ultimate good in the world she claims. As Nicole points out, McCloskey never comes out to say, “happiness=stuff” but she came darn close. And that’s just plain false. To a given point its true…say, from $3 a day to $20 a day. But then…it just isn’t—or rather, it becomes relative. There are lots of studies about this, and to economists it is called the Easterlin paradox (see Patel, The Value of Nothing). For all of her professed solidarity with the working class students, and striking for the dignity of her position (which I would have liked to hear more about…that is, the question of Tom’s she never answered about what she sees as the proper role for class struggle) her position doesn’t empower anyone. It seems to me that power isn’t about material wealth, but relative access to wealth as a means of politically intervening into the circumstances of one’s life. If this is the case then her libertarianism is indeed paternal; it keeps people in thrall to an ideology of individual rights and a system which can, literally, capitalize on those rights. The poor have no power when they are not able to stop corporations via the elected government—when they are kept in the same disintegrated state as Gramsci’s southern peasants. There are no social rights, and no environmental rights. Those concerned with environmental justice have no recourse to protest “innovation” that would open up the artic to drilling, territorialize the resources of politically marginal peoples, enclose the genetic commons of biodiversity, or risk oil spills over precariously balanced fossil water. Green tape might be a good idea, even purely economically, and certainly for reasons of democracy.

Even if innovation worked the way McCloskey claims, which is a claim I doubt on definitional grounds, there is no reason to assume that capital, or “innovism,” has any ability or reason to check itself or share power beyond the class and historical bloc that can access this tool. Freedom might appear to increase under the bourgeois neoliberal system, but you just have to read a Kafka story or some Foucault to realize how there’s more to it than that.

p.s. Here is an interesting article that takes up ideology/political economy and base/superstructure questions (in the context of the old nature/nurture debate) without realizing it. 

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