Monday, October 21, 2013
The New Dark Ages, Part II: Materialism
by Akim Reinhardt
In part I of this
essay, I offered a broad re-definition of the term "Dark Ages," using it to describe any
historical period when dogma becomes ascendant and flattens
people's perceptions of humanity's very real complexities. From there,
I discussed how the conventional Dark Ages, marked by religious dogma's
domination medieval Europe, were supplanted by a subsequent Dark Age; during the 19th and 20th centuries, racism and ethnocentrism
complemented the rise of ethnic national states, to cast a pall on much of
the Western world.
If part I of this essay sought to expand Dark Age perils beyond the threat of religious totalitarianism, then part II of this essay will seek to drag it out of the past and into the present. To identify modern forms of dogma that threaten to flatten our understanding of life's complexities.
In particular, I will focus on various forms of materialism as among the most potent dogmas that have created Dark Ages during the 20th century, and which continue to threaten the West here in the 21st century.
I began part I of this essay by begging forgiveness from European historians for recycling and attempting to redefine the term "Dark Age," which most of them have long since discarded. I should probably begin part II of this essay then by requesting patience from philosophers. For I am not using the term "materialism" in the philosophic sense.
I am using "materialism" to identify dogmatic interpretations of the
human condition that are based on economics. That of course is closer
to the term "historical materialism," which refers to Marxist
interpretations of the past. And while I will discuss Marxism and the
past, I will also be talking about free market interpretations and the
present, so the strict Marxist phrase "materiaism" simply will not do.
Therefor, I am claiming the word "materialism" in this essay to mean
various economic interpretations, from both the Left and the Right, which
make grand claims of not just of the economy, but also of broader
social, political, and cultural realms.
Originally emanating out of Europe, I define materialism as dogma that views economics as an all-encompassing filter for explaining the human condition. Such dogma has since subdivided into numerous factions, each with millions of followers. And while various doctrines are in stiff competition with each other, all of dogmatic forms of materialism place economics front and center in an effort to explain and interpret the human condition, erroneously downplaying various cultural and social elements.
Marxism is hardly the oldest economic philosophy to be widely accepted in Europe, but it was the first to become a truly dominant dogma that has initiated Dark Ages in various parts of the world.
It is a great irony that Marxist theory, when used responsibly, has been an important tool to historians, while many of Marx's own conceptions of history were so debased as to make actual historians shudder.
For Marx, it is not enought that Capitalism is not just evil. It is also sewing the seeds of its own decline. And there will be a (typical Western) linear ascension to socialism and eventually communism. And at that point, a version of paradise will be found through economic means.
When you think about it, in some ways it doesn't sound too different from religion, despite Marx's ferocious hostility to religion. And much like religion, Marxism has been a lever for creating totalitarian institutions that produce what can fairly be called Dark Ages, using dogma to explain and justify far too much, while persecuting all competing ideologies.
The horrific totalitarianism of the U.S.S.R. and Soviet bloc nations need not be recounted here in any detail. Rather, the point is to identify Marxism as a form of materialist dogma that has been used to plunge various societies into Dark Ages, and are clear examples.
Likewise, a version of Marxism was used to produce the ongoing and horrific form of totalitarian Dark Age in Maoist China. Sadly, as the actual economic determinism of Marxist/Maoist ideology recedes in China, all that remains is the horrific totalitarianism. But this is not unusual. Totalitarian institutions are quite capable of outliving their ideological justifications.
Regardless, the danger of Marxist dogmas being used to create a Dark Age is nothing new. And it should not be surprising since Marxism is a form of determinism that takes a reductionist view of the of the human condition's complexities by over emphasizing economics to stunning degree. It is a form of materialism
Capitalism is an older form of materialist dogma. Modern market theories go back at least as far as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776). However, whereas Marx's Das Kapital is a voracious dogma that went far beyond economic proscriptions to create a vast dogma, Smith's protestations of mercantilism were relatively modest in comparison.
Whereas Marxist dogma emerged fully formed, like Athena with spear and shield erupting from Zeus' body, it took time for ideas about capitalism to amalgamate into the modern dogma of free market ideology. And the United States has been the main incubator for such developments.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Laissez-Faire doctrines coalesced into rigid dogma that not only purported to explain the perfect economic system, but also began hinting at a wider importance. By the 20th century, adherents of free market ideology were completely certain that any government interference in the economy was wrong. But what's more, they began to suggest that free market economics were a greater good for society at large.
This sense of economics as the highest of all orders and of free market ideology as the only acceptable interpretation was hinted at in a 1920 quote attributed to future President Calvin Coolidge, who supposedly proclaimed:
The man who builds a factory builds a temple, that the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.
Coolidge may have not actually said those words; they first appeared in campaign material authored by an advertising man named Bruce Barton, when Coolidge was running as Vice President on the Republican ticket headed by Warren Harding. But if anything, that only reinforces the importance of the statement in reflecting a growing sense of dogma; that a professional manipulator of American culture and society rightly believed that framing capitalist economic ventures as sacred would be well received by many people.
And it is no small coincidence that the rise of free market ideology in the United States ran hand-in-hand with rise of Marxism in Europe, with the eventual emergence of the U.S.S.R. as the first full-fledged Marxist state. The rise of Marxism as a world flattening dogma capable of ushering in a Dark age contributed to the evolution of free market ideology from a mere economic proscription into a competing dogma also capable of ushering in a Dark Age.
Capitalism and Communism are typically framed as diametrically opposed philosophies engaged in an epic struggle for supremacy. However, when on considers that both of them are, at their core, forms of dogmatic materialism emanating from the European intellectual tradition, it is also quite reasonable to conceive of them as being bound in a factional dispute, not entirely dissimilar from the early conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism.
light, the long Cold
War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which ran from 1922-1991, excepting the
temporary alliance born of World War II, can be understood less as a
competition between antithetical
opponents on opposite ends of a spectrum and more as a fierce factional
struggle among expansive, economic determinists. Both sides used
economic dogma to justify imperial expansion: Communism's quest to
eliminate class divisions and unite the workers of the world versus
Capitalisms' faith in economic freedom as the seed bed of political
Thus, U.S. victory in the Cold War can be seen not as the triumph of one very different ideology over another, but rather as an important turning point in factional dispute within the ranks of materialist dogma. One system that places far too much emphasis on economics in explaining the human condition declined in the face of another system that places far too much emphasis on economics in explaining the human condition.
And for the most part, the better side won. At least for now.
I say this not because I believe free market economic proscriptions are absolutely superior to Marxists economic proscriptions; each has their pros and cons. Rather, I say this because free market dogma has not yet subjected broad swaths of humanity to a Dark Age, as defined in this essay, whereas Marxism most certainly has.
However, Marxism is the only form of materialism capable of producing a Dark Age. Free market ideology is as well, and I am concerned that it is moving in that direction.
For the decline of Marxism and the United States' ultimate victory in the Cold War have not led to a lessening of free market materialism; minus a real threat to predominance, free market dogma has not shurnk. To the contrary, the last two decades have seen a sharpening of economic determinism in the United States, as radical libertarian free market economics is on the rise.
Personally, I am actually quite sympathetic to social libertarian ideas that emphasize minimal government intervention into people's private lives. For example, I think laws that outlaw things like homosexuality and marijuana are phenomenally barbaric for all the reasons that libertarians cite. However, economic libertarianism is another matter altogether and needs to be carefully teased out from social libertarianism.
Since the 1980s, the United States has witnessed a revival of discredited, pre-Depression, laissez-faire economic philosophies. Free market ideologies have rise to the ranks of dogma as more and more people believe that government intervention in the economy is to blame for a wide array of social ills, and that implementing an extreme free market approach will solve everything from unemployment to grandma's bunions.
Of course I am not the first person to observe this phenomenon. Indeed, Wikipedia has an entire page devoted to the phrase "Free Market Fundamentalism," while it's now a cliché to compare young men enamored with the head-slapping doggerel of laughable lunatic Ayn Rand to the socially inept ranks of J.R.R. Tolkien devotees and Star Trek conventioneers.
For the record, I enjoyed The Hobbit and the original Star Trek.
My concern is that after having thrown off the Dark Ages of medieval religon and modernist racism, free-market dogma currently offers the most plausible vehicle for manifesting a modern Dark Age in the West, particularly the United States. In an intellectual tradition where materialism has been a dominant force for well over a century, and in a nation with strong constitutional barriers to theocracy, free market dogma stands as a real threat to critical, multi-faceted, and complex interpretations of the human condition and the modern world.
It is not the only such dogma, of course. Many dogmas are always competing with each other for exclusive rights to explain it all for us. But it is Western materialism, more than anything else, that has been responsible for manifesting true Dark Ages around in much of the world since 1945. And here in the early 21st century, free market dogma stands as the most dominant and fearsome brand of materialism.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com. It includes no pictures of hobbits.
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 12:25 AM | Permalink