In My Humble Opinion: Douthat and Marx

Napoleon III Lifted on the Shield

I don’t care much for nostalgia. I look at the past not with regret that the present doesn’t resemble a past that never existed, but instead with regret that the past did not produce a present that could have existed. When I return to the topical writings of Karl Marx, I don’t wish Marx were here today, finding the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in today’s events. I am instead struck by the vast gulf between what we expect news analysis and opinion pieces to be today, and what they could be.

Here is a modern op-ed I find disappointing. On August 1st, 2010, Ross Douthat wrote on the extremely preliminary developments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He begins by very simply setting the scene:

For the men (and one rather polarizing woman) who might run for president as Republicans in 2012, now is the wilderness campaign. After the midterms, the struggle for the nomination will move out into open country. But for the moment, it’s all guerrilla warfare and tactical maneuvering — in the form of Web videos and op-eds, speeches and endorsements, and the occasional public dig at a potential rival.

Having established that the campaign has begun, he then introduces what he sees as the central dichotomy of the primary race today:

Right now, 2012 looks as if it could be another free-for-fall. In part, that’s because the populist temper is stronger among Republicans than it’s been since the days of Barry Goldwater. But it’s also because the most likely leaders for a populist uprising, Palin and Mike Huckabee, have a more devoted following than most earlier insurgents — and the current “it’s his turn” candidate, Romney, inspires little in the way of actual excitement.

The story, as Douthat sees it, is an emerging competition between the “populists,” lead by Palin and Huckabee, and the “establishment” candidacy of Romney. The background is that the Republican Party usually eventually comes to a consensus around an “establishment” candidate, but recently, there’s been a surge of “populist” sentiment among the rank and file. As a result, Douthat concludes, Romney must “co-opt some of the populist zeal” without “alienating the establishment,” and his candidacy will be exceptionally appealing if Obama is popular at the time of the election, because the party will want a proven, safe candidate to run.

That’s Douthat’s narrative. Here’s mine. For one thing, I see no difference between the “populists” and the “establishment” here. Both factions support essentially the same platform; Romney, Palin and Huckabee all oppose gay marriage, abortion rights and tax cuts. I also don’t see any of these candidates as outsiders. Huckabee and Palin were both governors, and Palin was even the vice-presidential candidate, chosen by (in Douthat’s view) the “establishment” candidate John McCain. The party tends to cohere around “establishment” candidates because primary voters realize that all of the candidates essentially represent the same platform, and therefore vote for the candidate who looks most electable.

Most importantly, however, I don’t think the campaign has actually begun. I believe that the various maneuvers that Douthat describes in the beginning of the piece are nothing but carefully calculated attempts at stirring up hype, intended to make the primaries a fait accompli where “everyone knows” a candidate will win before the first vote is cast. In other words, the intended audience for those maneuvers is none other than opinion makers like Ross Douthat.

The real problem with Douthat’s column is not that my narrative is right and his is wrong. It’s that, without knowing where Douthat’s narrative comes from, we lack the necessary context to correctly assess it. Douthat seems to believe a lot of things about the way American politics works; that social conservatism is populist conservatism as opposed to establishment conservatism and that what politicians say is related to what they do, for example. I generally believe that partisan politics are a shadow-play that creates the illusion of democracy while elites pursue their economic interests. When I contest Douthat’s narrative, I’m not really saying that Douthat analyzed this one case incorrectly. I am saying that I fundamentally disagree with Douthat’s world view. The problem I have with Douthat’s column is that I have to read between the lines to find his ideology. By not admitting up front that he is creating a particular narrative, Douthat is giving his column the imprimatur of indisputable truth, which it certainly isn’t.

In my favorite piece of Marx’s topical writing, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” Marx is analyzing Napoleon III’s coup d’état of 2 December 1851. But this event doesn’t make an appearance until the pamphlet’s first section. Marx instead begins with a condensed version of his philosophy of history:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. . . .Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weights like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time- honored disguise and this borrowed language.

By starting from the general, instead of the specific, Marx is letting us know what kind of story he is going to tell. Here is how history and politics works, Marx is saying, and you can dispute me here if you wish. From there, Marx proceeds to the specific events in question, transmuting the events visibly into his own narrative. The February period of the 1848 revolution becomes the “prologue of the Revolution,” the Constituent National Assembly period becomes “the foundation of the bourgeois republic.” There is a remarkable transparency that is achieved through Marx using his own distinct vocabulary. We know exactly who is telling the story here. It is not conventional wisdom, it is Marx and nobody but him.

I like “Eighteenth Brumaire” because in it Marx understands meaning as Raffi does in his post about the Breslover tapes. Meaning, even the meaning of events that actually happened, is fundamentally dependent on context. The meaning of events depend on the stories we tell about those events, which are ultimately dependent on our world view. Real analysis–whether we’re analyzing events, nigguns or poems–is never so simple as just examining one isolated text. It is creating another narrative, a narrative that describes a world that has a select history, a select landscape and a select physics to it. And the beauty of real analysis, the beauty of creating a world, is that if you make your own world, you’re no longer stuck with the often dismal one you’ve been given.

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4 Responses to In My Humble Opinion: Douthat and Marx

  1. Gabe says:

    Dylan,

    I want to agree with you, but I can’t. Obviously I’m all for taking political positions that can be assessed and against the nebulous tone of articles like this one. Obviously, I agree with you that there’s a huge socioeconomic substrate that is often ignored in this ludicrous inside baseball kind of political coverage. Though, unlike you I’d be much more apt to see these historical forces manipulating the elites as much as the other classes. Even for a nostalgic conservative like yours truly, history is much more the blind leading the blind. Somewhere between a perfect longed for past and a Zinnian folk tale of the ever cunning overclass that can manages to defend its privileges from any challenge . As a favorite poet of nostalgic conservative says:

    For what avail’d it, all the noise
    And outcry of the former men?–
    Say, have their sons achieved more joys,
    Say, is life lighter now than then?
    The sufferers died, they left their pain–
    The pangs which tortured them remain.

    I’d still be happy to see many fewer articles like this one written. But a lot of your specific points seem wildly off base and could easily be applied to anyone who attempts to write about political changes in brief pieces.

    Look, I love the 18th Brumaire too, but Marx was perfectly comfortable with the kind of broad difficult to assess political categories that Douthat employs. I’d even argue that Marx identified in that essay the very kind of rural conservative populism that Douthat is talking about [though in a hugely different context]. In one of my favorite passages he writes:

    The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant who strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather one who wants to consolidate his holding; not the countryfolk who in alliance with the towns want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in solid seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the Empire. It represents not the enlightenment but the superstition of the peasant; not his judgment but his prejudice; not his future but his past; not his modern Cevennes but his modern Vendée.

    We can go back and forth about the concepts of populist [Marx’s rural] conservatism versus establishment [Marx’s bourgeois] conservatism, whether or not they are still useful concepts in this day and age. I’m certainly not sure they are and I’m oversimplifying both Marx and Douthat. But the crucial point is, was it any less nebulous, any less a stab at supposed journalistic truth, any less an attempt to craft an indisputable narrative clothed in the garb of historical materialism to serve ideological purposes when Marx did it then than when Douthat does it today?

    Moreover, the idea that Ross Douthat of all people doesn’t wear his ideology on his sleeve seems rather farfetched. Admittedly in this article, he’s trying for a more journalistic tone, something like “a Harvard man’s eye on the right.” But, still he’s basically a right wing Catholic who has very consistently written these kind of columns that hope to find some kind of new fusionist middle ground that can sway the people who see themselves as populists or establishment figures. Indeed these categories, for better or worse are not just ones Douthat creates (though he propagates them), but ones that we can’t stamp out as much as we’d like to see more serious coverage because politicians will use these narratives as long as they connect to voters. Admittedly it’s not super clear from this individual [and extremely brief] article that Douthat has specific political hopes for the right in 2012, but it’s extremely obvious both from his tone and many many of his other articles that he wants to see a new fusion of what he sees as populist and establishment ideas. He’s not trying to create these narratives ex nihilo to sway opinion makers, but he’s trying to reach out to a more specifically ideological audience, mostly of conservatives. Whether or not these people care about Douthat is debatable, but he is reaching out as much to them as to the standard liberal NYT audience.

    Much like Marx, Douthat is a practical and consistent political actor who is living up to Marx’s [rather silly] dictum about philosophers and changing the world. His ideology is only hidden if one attempts to narrow one’s field of vision to a pinhole. If only he could write like Marx then the right might have a chance in this country and I could sleep better at night.

  2. dylansuher says:

    Gabe,

    Thanks for reading, first of all. It may interest you to know that this post was debated somewhat heavily between Ben, Raffi and myself, along the lines that you point out and practically re-written in a second draft. They felt that there wasn’t enough of a difference between Douthat and Marx’s rhetorical strategies.

    I think you misread me a bit when you seem to suggest that I object to Douthat on ideological grounds. Of course I do, which I mention in the post, but what I’m more concerned about is the rhetorical strategy. In fact, I picked Douthat randomly, in that he happened to be the Times columnist the day that I wrote the piece. I think this criticism could apply just as easily to any of the Times columnists. Is it realistic for my vision of what analysis should be to be applied to a weekly column? Probably not, but for me, that means that that sort of weekly column really doesn’t make for productive analysis. Clearly, Douthat is positioning himself more to be a political actor rather than an intellectual figure, but that is exactly the type of writing that I don’t find useful.

    Sort of an aside: I actually dislike that portion of “18th Brumaire” where Marx discusses the Bonapartist peasant. I find it a condescending and inaccurate part of a mostly very prescient analysis. For me, it’s just a bitter Marx lashing out at the people he holds responsible for Bonaparte’s election. Sympathy for farmers was never Marx’s strong suit. But the point is, we know this is Marx speaking. We know this is Marx’s worldview.

    A larger point, Gabe. Sooner or later during your stay in partibus infidelium, you’re going to want to write for us. You know it. I know it. I await your contribution.

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