What if democracy is just an illusion?

John Stoehr writes: Karl Marx never visited the United States, but he nevertheless understood the country, because he understood capitalism. As you know, there’s no American ideology that’s mightier than capitalism. Equality, justice and the rule of law are nice and all, but money talks.

In their 1846 book The German Ideology, Marx and co-author Frederick Engels took a look at human history and made a plain but controversial observation. In any given historical period, the ideas that people generally think are the best and most important ideas are usually the ideas of the people in charge. If you have a lot of money and own a lot of property, then you have the power to propagandise your worldview and you have incentive to avoid appearing as if you’re propagandising your worldview. Or, as Marx and Engels would put it: The ruling ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.

The ideas of the one per cent become the dominant ideas because the one per cent convinces the 99 per cent that its ideas are the only rational and universally valid ideas. Consider free-market capitalism. The idea says that growth provides prosperity to all, that government governs best when it governs least, so there’s no need to discuss the redistribution of wealth. That’s neoliberalism and that idea has been the only acceptable economic policy since the Clinton era. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was its greatest champion. After the collapse of the housing market, he said he was dead wrong. Even so, the idea remains dominant. Why? Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but the ruling class happens to make a lot of money from a free market.

Americans tend to look askance at Marx and I don’t blame them. He was, after all, the father of socialism, as well as the guy associated with Josef Stalin, who was, you know, a homicidal totalitarian dictator. But as philosopher John Gray has noted, Marx got a lot wrong about Marxism but he got a lot right about capitalism. He understood that ideas don’t exist in bubbles – they have a concrete material context and have a human cost.

The late Steve Jobs, for instance, was a man of ideas. He was widely considered a visionary and a prophet of technology, and Jobs took great pains to encourage that way of thinking. After his death, however, Mike Daisey, the acclaimed playwright and monologuist, revealed something about Jobs that should have been plain to see – Jobs’ prophecies came at the expense of poor Chinese sweatshop workers who make iPads and other Apple products for middle-class Americans to buy at affordable prices. The Great Man theory of history is more like intellectual cover (or what Marx called the illusions of the ruling class), for the exploitation of labour. [Continue reading…]

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