Monday, September 24, 2012

Marx versus Rousseau

J.J. Rousseau not Karl Marx is the real father and inspiration of the contemporary Left.   Rousseau’s “Man is born free, everywhere he is in chains” is the original, Gallic formulation of the current adolescent anarchist rally-cry, “Rage against the machine!”
 Marx made the mistake of thinking that his economic and sociological generalizations harnessed to a Hegelian dialectic was science, and so with these “instruments” he committed to writing an ambitious set of predictions about the future of the modern world that never materialized and never will.  Marx was a pretend-scientist and after a time most everyone quit pretending that he was a real one. 
Karl Marx and his “science” died, but the man and his work became an “ism”, Marxism, a prophetic religious movement with an infallible scripture, fanatical followers, enforced orthodoxy with splintering sects, and the promise of equality and plenty always, like the Second Coming, somewhere in the future.  Whenever and wherever its practitioners failed, as in Russia and China, the true believers refused to retreat. They were saved by the “Great Tautology” – what failed was not really ‘true Communism’ because true Communism would be successful.  Scientists, engineers, economists – few if any, know or care about Karl Marx any longer.  He remains popular with English professors who find in his largely unreadable tomes a “theoretical” argot that gives a ponderous voice to the resentment they feel for having salaries lower than business professors.  Only from a “Distinguished Professor of English Literature” (Terry Eagleton) would in 2011 come a title: Why Marx was Right.
Rousseau was a very different creature from Marx and his legacy and influence more insidious and pervasive.   Romantic, deviant, half-crazy – Rousseau’s genius consisted in the overturning of the normative premise that affirms the work of civilizing institutions.  Rousseau was about grievances. His famous oracular pronouncement that opened his famous political work, On Social Contract,Man is born free but everywhere is in chains” is emblematic of a view of the human condition that conceives of human beings as naturally good and benevolent, confronting a society that represses that natural goodness, corrupts the spontaneous benevolence of the individual, and ultimately ruins his happiness. It represents the core of Rousseau's subversive sentiments and betrays his attitude -- the instruments of civilization, ironically, are the tools of oppression. The authority behind the civilized structures of authority is fraudulent, deserving of repudiation. 
 Civilization was a problem for a Rousseau, not a solution for natural human limitations, as it was generally opined to be.  To civilize for Rousseau meant to exert repressive and coercive forces of social organization that resulted in unjust and arbitrary inequalities among people.  Primitive man was free, equal and happy: modern man was trapped in a rigged system that empties out his authentic self, a victim.
Self-righteous victimhood was the predominant motif that drifted out of the turbulent ideological wake of Rousseau’s premise-overturning.  Marx made victimhood the origin and engine of the proletarian revolution.   “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist Manifesto)   History’s victims, the oppressed workers, would in the end overthrow their capitalist oppressors.  Beneath the façade of any and every existing social order there was always a system of domination and oppression made up of the exploiters and their victims. 
Rousseau’s insistence on the reality of an innate, natural human goodness and the inherent repressiveness of traditional institutions with their entrenchment of inequalities was, however, an exquisite creation of what turns out to be a proto-modern mind. Moreover, Rousseau was a thinker far ahead of his time. His ideas were destined to be an energizing ideological force with unlimited potential for the production of intellectual resentment—raw, festering, and intense—as the inequalities come into view, and for the complete dismantling of traditional institutions. The various tropes of victimhood are now firmly entrenched in our political discourse and mass culture with a language developed and refined by the Illuminati from our best universities.
For the Roussean, the gross disparities, the innumerable inequalities, the invidious comparisons that one inevitably finds separating human beings are the work of inherently corrupt social forces. Truly creative, humanizing work expresses itself in the undoing of the inequality and injustice ruthlessly established and cruelly perpetuated by the agents of social institutions. “Liberty, fraternity, equality,” the famous slogan of the French Revolutionaries, inspired by Rousseau, captures the spirit of his profound opposition to and revulsion with the old order and led to the call to overthrow the hated Ancient Regime ruled by a hierarchy of a king, aristocrats and priests, agents of temporal and spiritual tyranny.
The passion expressed by the slogan became a fundamental passion of modernity that would be translated into revolutionary programs designed to carry out the smashing of the old orders. The throne and the cross were the most obvious symbols of oppression for the French revolutionaries, corruption and immorality— the last priest was to be strangled with the entrails of the last king. Here, late in the eighteenth century, was the terrible birth of total revolution, a new, totally modern phenomenon.  Total revolution would become a large part of the twentieth century’s legacy of mass murder and systematic enslavement. One of the great ironies of Rousseau is that his reaction against the crushing of the authentic self by a false and hypocritical society unleashed a subjective and emotive orientation steeped in self-righteous resentment that has only increased the alienation associated with modern life.
Rousseau’s passionate theorizing has become a familiar underpinning of our contemporary efforts at social critique. It inverts the traditional conception of individual-to-institutional relationship. In both the traditional conception, and the modern inverted version, the theme of constraint vigorously asserts itself—the radically different interpretation of its role and effects creates this all important inversion.
Constraints have come to be viewed and resented as the embodiment of something quite nefarious—engines of social exploitation and sources of social inequality. The reason for this is that existing constraints, the laws, rules and norms in their abstract form appear to be necessary or fair or reasonable. But constraints, alas, are ultimately linked to constrainers, to individuals—real people hiding behind the abstractions—who enjoy the benefits that accrue from their socially or politically advantaged positions, while avoiding the constraints themselves—gross hypocrisy at the core, always! This is most certainly the view of Rousseau and of all his ideological progeny; it is a seductive, troubling perspective that has traveled for over two hundred years far and well into the twenty-first century. 
            De-legitimization remains the serious business of our own intellectual elites who follow Rousseau’s call to expose the illegitimacy of the old order. Their motto is  écraser l’infame. Their vocation is the systematic dismantling of traditional institutions. These institutions reveal their moral bankruptcy and their origins in the corrupted exercise of power. The Rousseans proceed by attacking the hypocrisy of the institutions, by showing that the ideals of the institutions—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as stated in our own Declaration of Independence, for example––are belied by historical practices that exclude all but a select few from the enjoyment of the institution’s benefits. No critique of an institution renders a more withering and morally deflating verdict than when it exposes a base hypocrisy; and no institutions exist without hypocrites. De-legitimation builds from Rousseau’s foundational premise of “the noble savage.”
            Rousseau was the intellectual’s intellectual. As the philosopher of misery and the original theorist of socially determined victimhood, he cast the original molds for the production of the “socially conscious” moralist. These were the theorist, richly infused with the indignation that the contemplation of social misery arouses, and the revolutionary—Lenin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, who could fan the white-hot coals of long-smoldering moral outrage into the blazing fires of an ideological conflagration.  Liberation is the intellectual’s elixir. Alienated and detached from his own institutions, impressed with his own infallible moral insights, he remains the solidly self-righteous, resentful agent of social insurrection.