It has become increasingly common to hear those on what we may call the conventional right claim that the main threat facing the historic American nation and the American way of life is “socialism.” These warnings have grown with the rise of the so-called Great Reset, ostensibly a broad effort to reduce inequality, cool the planet (i.e., “address climate change”), and cure various social ills, all by decreasing alleged overconsumption. In other words, its mission is to persuade people, at least in the developed West, to accept lower standards of living in order to create a more just and equitable world. Since the conservative mind, not unreasonably, associates lower standards of living with socialism, many conservatives naturally intuit that the Great Reset must somehow be socialist.
I believe this fear is at least partly misplaced and that the warnings it gives rise to, however well-meaning, are counterproductive because they deflect attention from the truer, greater threat: specifically, the cabal of bankers, techies, corporate executives, politicians, senior bureaucrats, academics, and pundits who coalesce around the World Economic Forum and seek to change, reduce, restrict, and homogenize the Western way of life—but only for ordinary people. Their own way of life, along with the wealth and power that define it, they seek to entrench, augment, deepen, and extend.
This is why a strict or literal definition of socialism—public or government ownership and control of the means of production in order to equalize incomes and wealth across the population—is inapt to our situation. The Great Reset quietly but unmistakably redefines socialism to allow and even promote wealth and power concentration in certain hands. In the decisive sense, then, the West’s present economic system—really, its overarching regime—is the opposite of socialistic.
Yet there are ways in which this regime might still be tentatively described as socialist, at least as it operates for those not members in good standing of the Davoisie. If the Great Reset is allowed to proceed as planned, wealth for all but the global overclass will be equalized, or at least reduced for the middle and increased for the bottom. Many of the means used to accomplish this goal will be socialistic, broadly understood. But to understand both the similarities and the differences, we must go back to socialism’s source, which is the thought of Karl Marx and his colleague, financial backer, and junior partner, Friedrich Engels.
That thought is most accessible in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the jointly authored Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), and Engels’s pamphlet “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” (1880). Marxism’s detailed account of economics is fully developed in the monumental Capital, published in three volumes between 1867 and 1894. Marx and Engels do not claim to be innovators. They insist rather that they merely discovered and explicate the “scientific” theory of socialism, whose true roots are to be found in the unfolding development of “history.”
A word ought to be said about the difference between communism and socialism. The distinction is not always clear in Marx’s and Engels’s works. Often, they use both terms interchangeably. Engels, especially, seems to elide the two, particularly in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.” But we may perhaps take as authoritative the distinction made in the Manifesto. There, the two authors contrast true communism with various forms of socialism—feudal, petty-bourgeois, German, conservative, and critical-utopian—all of which they find wanting, at best milestones on the road to communism.
It is unnecessary for our purposes here to recount Marx’s and Engels’s distinctions between the various forms of socialism. Suffice it to say that, in their account, all of those varieties constitute cynical or at any rate inconsequential concessions to the lower classes, intended to stave off the emergence of full communism and to preserve ruling class status and privileges. The socialism with which we are most familiar today—high and progressive taxation, a generous welfare state, nationalization of key services such as health care, an expansive list of state-guaranteed rights, combined with the retention of private property and private ownership of most means of production—Marx and Engels deride as “bourgeois socialism,” i.e., not only not the real thing but fundamentally closer to bourgeois capitalism than to true socialism, much less communism.
For Marx and Engels, the ground of both socialism and communism is “history,” understood not as an account of past events, conditions, structures, and trends but as an inexorable movement toward a final, fully rational state, with “state” understood as both “state of being” and the formal machinery of government. The discovery of this notion of “history” is implicit in Rousseau’s account of man’s transition from the state of nature—man’s original and natural, in the sense of “default,” condition—to civil society. For Rousseau, that transition was both a decline and one-way: There is no going back. This change in man’s situation, which putatively changes his nature, is the core of what would come to be called “historicism”: the idea that human nature is not constant but variable according to the historical situation. In this understanding, “history,” and not any purported but nonexistent permanent human nature as posited by all prior philosophy, both determines the organization of society and supplies the standard by which man should live.
For Rousseau, man’s transition from the state of nature to civil society is caused by the discovery or development of his rationality, a latent quality always present in humanity but not active in the state of nature, in which men live more or less as beasts. What distinguishes man from the beasts is his freedom, his awareness of and ability to act on that freedom, and the potential to develop his rationality. The “unlocking” of that rationality is perhaps inevitable but at the same time accidental or inadvertent. Once unlocked, human rationality inevitably leads to the invention of private property, which is the basis of all politics. “The first person who, having fenced off ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society,” Rousseau writes in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men.
Private property necessarily gives rise to institutions designed to protect and defend it, and these become not only the instruments of civil society but also sources of inequality and misery. Implicit in Rousseau’s thought is the unsettling notion that, once this historical process begins, it has no end or rational direction. History is driven by contradiction and conflict—though, he asserts, human beings can still live more or less happily if isolated from urban wealth and corruption. But such circumstances are rare and the products of chance. History in the main is the endless replacement of one set of standards and modes of life for new ones, one set of masters for another, ad infinitum.
Rousseau’s successors, principally Kant and Hegel, accept the notion that history is driven by conflict but posit that the process nonetheless has a rational direction. History’s inherent and inevitable conflicts point forward and upward toward a final state in which all of history’s contradictions are resolved. It is this alleged insight—popularized in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Francis Fukuyama—upon which Marx and Engels build their political and economic theory.
For Marxism, the fundamental fact of human life—what sets man apart from the other living beings—is conscious production and consumption. Marx partly follows Rousseau in believing that there was a period when man could, essentially, “live off the land,” on what he could find and gather. But whereas for Rousseau, man’s transition from the state of nature to civil society was an avoidable or at any rate accidental and unnecessary tragedy, for Marx it was inevitable and, eventually, will turn out all to the good. Unlike producing animals (for instance, bees) man’s production is conscious. He knows what he does and why he does it. But this consciousness does not arise from any innate rationality but rather from necessity. Population increase forces man to produce—that is, to manipulate nature rather than simply living off its bounty—in order to survive. (The implication is that nature is barely bountiful enough to support a limited number of primitive men but must be “conquered” in order to support the inevitably larger numbers that will emerge absent some external force that consistently culls the population.) This turn to production represents a fundamental change in man’s being and is the first step in his historical development.
From this point forward, the character of man and of every society he inhabits is set by the mode(s) of production. Such modes not only determine but explain, literally, everything about human life: man’s past, present, and future; his theology, morality, and worldview; and the underlying metaphysics and ontology of reality. Thus can Marx claim that his theory is comprehensive.
For Marxism, man adapts himself to the reigning mode of production; he does not adapt that (or any) mode to his environment, traditions, religion, or to any of his specific wants, preferences, or aspirations. The mode of production is the fundamental given in any historical situation, the “base.” This “base” determines the “superstructure,” i.e., all other aspects of life, especially the cultural and zeitgeist-forming institutions that shape and regulate men’s habits and opinions. In this understanding, families, churches, civic insti- tutions, fraternal organizations, guilds, and even governments are all determined by the reigning means of production. As Marx observed in The Poverty of Philosophy, “the hand-mill gives you the society of the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
The subsequent unfolding of “history” is the change from one mode of production to another, and the concomitant replacement (or displacement) of one ruling class by another, which always results in the erection of a new superstructure. In the famous words very near the beginning of the Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Or, to be slightly more precise, class conflict is the engine that moves history.
Class struggles arise from the inherent fact that all means of production are always owned and controlled by a few who exploit the many. This inherent tension inevitably produces inequality, injustice and misery, and hence conflict, which eventually but inevitably overthrows the existing means of production, its superstructure, and its ruling class. Thus did the ancient warrior-agrarian economy give way to the medieval-feudal system, which gave way to the early-modern monarchal aristocracies, which in turn were replaced by bourgeois industrial capitalism.
The process was not, however, smooth. Every system of production is marred by inherent contradictions, inefficiencies, and, above all, injustices that spur conflict. While the replacement of one system of production and its ruling class by another may be inevitable, it is also tumultuous: always the result of violent revolution.
The winner, by definition, defeats the loser but is also transformed in and by the struggle. No system (until the final one) is free of contradiction and error. All claims to justice (except the final one) are partial. Every system has, in a sense, “something to learn” from its mortal enemy. Thus, in terms Marx borrows or builds upon from Hegel, “thesis” (the dominant mode of production) is confronted by “antithesis” (its challenger), and after a protracted struggle, the two form a “synthesis”: a new mode, closer to the antithesis than to the thesis, but incorporating elements of the latter. Only with the emergence of communism, which Marx and Engels allege will be entirely free of contradiction and injustice, does this process cease and history “end.”
Marx and Engels claim to write at a moment when capitalism stands on the precipice of destruction. That system, they argue, is unique in ways that make inevitable its imminent overthrow.
First and foremost, capitalism elevates production, efficiency, and profit above all other considerations—even going so far as to deny that there are any other legitimate societal interests. As a result, capitalism is vastly more productive than any previously existing economic system. This makes its ruling class, the bourgeoisie, far richer and more powerful than any prior ruling class, and hence far more ruthlessly exploitative.
Unjust as (say) feudalism was, it at least asserted and nurtured human bonds and obligations between lords and vassals, aristocrats and peasants, land-owners and serfs. One hallmark of precapitalist economies was the existence of intermediate classes: professionals, merchants, clerical workers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and various middlemen. In prior historical epochs, it was these intermediate classes (or some of them) who rose up, overthrew the dominant class, and became the new ruling class.
But capitalism, say Marx and Engels, crushes the remaining intermediate classes, either eliminating their role entirely or else subsuming their functions into the machinery of capitalism. As a result, most “upper” intermediaries are absorbed into the capitalist system (though typically at lower wages than they earned previously, and always with less independence and power) while the “lower” are forced into the proletariat. Capitalism inevitably divides society into two classes: wealthy exploiters and the impoverished exploited, with no one in between. The proletariat has no stake in the system because the system exists only to exploit it.
For the vast majority, “freedom” becomes merely the ability to sell one’s labor, the only remotely valuable commodity most people have. That labor being duly paid for, capitalists feel no further obligation to workers. To the contrary, they believe that, in paying the wage, they have done their duty entirely—to the workers and to society at large. The only obligations a capitalist recognizes are to himself, to his shareholders (to maximize profits), and to the system (to maximize efficiency and production). Capitalism, Marx and Engels assert, “has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”
Capitalism also dehumanizes. The system’s only goals, increasing profits and productivity, are immensely furthered by breaking down all tasks into minute constituent parts: repetitive, mind-numbing jobs that can be performed by anyone—and, when automation reaches a sufficient level of sophistication, by no one. The division of labor and industrial organization push wages downward and work hours upward, thus fattening the bottom line (for labor is nearly always any business’s highest cost) while making workers disposable because easily replaceable, further increasing the power of the bourgeoisie.
This restless spirit of innovation in pursuit of greater efficiency and productivity relentlessly erodes the grounds for societal stability and continuity:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Among the consequences is endless technological change that whisks away old industries and with them established ways of life. The burdens of this change fall entirely on the workers, few of whom can adapt to and succeed in the technologically transformed new economy. With all in a constant state of flux and all tradition washed away, the people become anxiety-ridden and isolated.
The inherent logic of capitalism also demands, and drives, maximum expansion. Once a firm saturates its local market, it must conquer the regional. This is not a choice: Management can be certain that if their firm does not (and even if it does), its competitors surely will. And even if they don’t, capitalism abhors stability, which in its logic is synonymous with stagnation and tantamount to decay. A business no less than an industry or economy is either expanding or dying. The ultimate imperative of capitalism is growth. Hence, once the local market is conquered, and then the regional, the next inevitable frontier is the national, then the continental, the hemispheric, and finally the global: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
In this way, the power of capitalist firms and of capitalism itself eventually rivals, and in many cases exceeds, the power of nation-states. At a minimum, these firms’ immense market power, control of resources, and dominance of their economic sectors allow them to seduce, bribe, and bully states to adopt policies favorable to capitalism, often at the expense of citizens’ interests. For instance, a capitalist firm will always seek the lowest available wage for a task done competently. It is indifferent to the fate of those who can’t or won’t compete for the same task at a lower wage, regardless of whether such workers are fel- low citizens. The pressure, then, to “globalize” not just the market for products but also for labor is inexorable.
Just as capitalism attacks the bonds of citizenship, it also undermines the family. Capitalism recognizes only three types of human beings: capitalists, workers, and consumers. For the first two categories, it considers family life at best a distraction and at worst a competing claim to loyalty. As for the third, the more consumers work and spend (and work in order to spend), the better. Family life constrains participation in the labor market, which limits earnings, which reduces spending. More ominously, the ground of the family itself becomes pecuniary: husbands and wives, parents and children, are dependent on one another for money but are otherwise disconnected: “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family to a mere money relation.”
Perhaps the most striking or counterintuitive of Marxism’s claims about capitalism is the assertion that its high productivity inevitably leads to overproduction. A decisive difference between capitalism and all prior modes of production is that the latter all wrestled with, without ever solving, the problem of scarcity. From man’s emergence from the state of nature until the advent of bourgeois capitalism, scarcity was assumed to be a fundamental condition that could be managed but never overcome. Capitalism solves this problem—and then, says Marx, creates the new problem of overproduction. Mechanization, organization, the division of labor, ruthless competition, and other factors combine to enable capitalist firms to produce more than ever, but the foundation of this miraculous production is lower costs arising from new technology, greater efficiency, lower wages, fewer workers, and longer hours.
As a result, workers have less money to spend and less leisure in which to spend it. Hence, much of the production they would otherwise consume must lie fallow. The resultant lower revenues increase the imperative to cut the workforce further. Boom leads to bust, to mass layoffs and retrenchment, to further consolidation, fewer and larger capitalist firms, and a larger and ever-increasing “reserve army of the unemployed.” The only ways to keep the system going are “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces,” “the conquest of new markets,” and “more thorough exploitation of the old ones,” thus “paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and... diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”
This situation, naturally, further binds together and embitters the workers, who become a class—the proletariat—with distinct interests diametrically opposed to those of the bourgeoisie. Capitalism, in other words, creates the means of its own destruction: a large, strong, united, angry, and determined proletariat.
Finally, according to Marxism, human beings with power and/or privilege always and everywhere have a deep need to believe that their position is deserved and what they do is right and just. Their explanation or account of why this is so, Marx and Engels call “ideology”: the fairy tale a ruling class tells itself to feel better and which it sells to the masses to cajole them into accepting their inferior status in the reigning order. Marx and Engels claim that the ideology of bourgeois capitalism is the thinnest yet concocted—so transparently false and unbelievable that it can’t long support the system it attempts to undergird. Capitalist ideology’s hold over men’s minds is much weaker than the rich myths of ancient paganism, medieval Christianity, or even aristocratic chivalry. All capitalism has to offer is endless production and consumption, a “joyless quest for joy,” to borrow a phrase from Leo Strauss. In a way, the very honesty of capitalist ideology—there’s nothing for man but self-interest and self-indulgence—will hasten its undoing. The human soul longs for transcendence, and capitalism not only explicitly promises nothing but material goods, it denies the value and even existence of anything higher.
For Marxism, the advent of communism (the highest and final manifestation of socialism) is, somewhat paradoxically, both inevitable and requires human effort. The theory insists on the inexorability of “history” while also admitting that the proletariat can’t act on its own but needs leaders—a “vanguard”—to mount the revolution. Those leaders must have the leisure to acquire the philosophic education that enables them to discern the course and exigencies of history, to know how and when to act, and who therefore must come from outside (really, above) the proletariat. Marxist theory is never entirely clear whether this vanguard emerges inevitably or whether some men must take matters into their own hands. Marx’s successor Vladimir Lenin definitively resolves the ambiguity in favor of the latter.
For Marxism, the reason why capitalism, evil as it is, was both necessary and desirable is that it solves the problem of scarcity. Capitalism makes want a thing of the past. In a post-capitalist society, for the first time in history, men will not fight over goods because goods will no longer be scarce. The fundamental problem becomes one of distribution, of just and equitable allocation. This, Marxism claims, can be accomplished through central planning. Class conflict will be a thing of the past because classes themselves will be things of the past. There will be only one class: the proletariat. The proletariat will be history’s first ruling class that is not a minority—that, to the contrary, comprises the vast majority of mankind and thus, so to speak, everyone. This is why, for Marxists, communism is mankind’s final state. It exploits no one and thus faces no challenger or competitor; it does not create an oppressed class to rise against it. It is a thesis without antithesis, the final synthesis.
Communism culminates not merely in a wholly new system of production and distribution but also—because economics determines all—in an entirely new society and breed of man. For Marxism, man’s experience in the state of nature is social and almost paradisiacal. His natural sociality is gradually eroded through history until it is all but crushed by the atomizing forces of capitalism. Communism restores, and improves on, man’s initial state. It returns man to his innocence and natural goodness—but with the accumulated technology, wealth, and sophistication of industrial modernity. It restores his status as a “species-being”: an essentially communal, fraternal, and benevolent creature who becomes fully human and happy only through relating to others of his own species. Because all contradictions have been resolved, and all class conflict ended, avarice and other forms selfishness will cease. Perfect rationality will reign.
Communism further improves on the state of nature by solving the problems not just of scarcity but of the division of labor. Under communism, man is no longer reduced to a quasi-robot, performing one or a handful of mindless, repetitive tasks throughout his entire working life. He is rather finally and fully free to develop his whole potential. In one of Marx’s most famous passages (from The German Ideology, 1846), he writes that precommunist man:
...is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.
Communism heals the division of the soul inflicted by the transition from the state of nature to civil society and exacerbated by the division of labor. Man under communism is not merely greater than the sum of his parts but greater than all prior manifestations of man, who were all merely the products of a particular historical epoch.
The most obvious objection to level against Marxism is that its posited end state is an imagined republic, never yet seen or known to exist in truth. Marxism anticipates and responds to this objection with the assertion that true or final communism must emerge gradually, in stages. While the fall of capitalism will be sudden and decisive, the transition to communism will be bumpy. There must come, first, the crushing of the bourgeoisie and the state seizure of industry, which will require despotic power and not a little violence. During this period, private property and wage labor will remain but the state will own all means of production. This is, however, but a transitory phase toward a more democratic communism, on the way to the full transcendence of private property. In the early stages, the state plays an indispensable role. In the last stage, the state, in Engels’s famous formulation, “withers away.” There is no longer any need for the state because man will have become rational and good, and thus will no longer need to be persuaded or coerced.
Up to this point, we have examined what Marxism asserts, which is knowable and checkable. The critique of Marxism—above all, the blunt conclusion that Marx was wrong—since less knowable, must be more circumspect. We should be cautious in dismissing the thought of a man who, in the words of Leo Strauss, was “liberally educated on a level to which we cannot even hope to aspire.” However, we may judiciously raise questions regarding Marxism’s plausibility and its predictive power.
We may ask first: How plausible is Marxism’s fundamental basis, its account of “history”? Of course, we know from history as originally understood that human things change, sometimes fundamentally. Christendom is decisively different from paganism, the medieval world from the classical, modernity from the Middle Ages. And Marx is certainly right that a society with industrial technology looks and operates differently than one whose most complex machinery are horse-drawn plows and hand-powered looms.
But does technological change preclude an unchanging human nature that accommodates itself to differing modes of production and even shapes such changing modes to better fit human nature? Which is more realistic: a human nature so malleable that change to one part of human life—the means of production of artificial goods— alters and determines literally everything else about human life? Or a human nature that, while affected by changes in its environment (including the means of production), nonetheless retains its essential humanity no matter the prevailing external conditions? Put another way, however much the transition from hand-mill to steam-mill may have altered the character of everyday life and even of society as a whole, how much did that transition actually change humanity itself? How much did it affect and alter man’s virtues and vices, passions and motivations, longings and aspirations, immediate wants and overar- ching desires?
Stripped of their theoretical grandiosity and stated as a common-sense insight, Marx’s observations on the effects of technological change on human society were perfectly well-known to pre-Marxist philosophers. A tribe of herdsmen will not long retain the same social or political structure once it starts tilling the land, nor will an agrarian society retain its way of life unaltered once it begins to industrialize.
But for most of those earlier philosophers, these are choices driven, to be sure, by the natural and permanent passion of human acquisitiveness—not the inexorable working-through of an inevitable historical process. Some societies, indeed, resist technological change precisely to protect their ancestral ways of life. Many philosophers themselves recommend such resistance, for much the same reason. Examples of such resistance (for example, Japan closing itself to foreigners—and foreign innovation—from 1603 to 1868) are historical facts, but ones for which Marx’s theory of “history” cannot adequately account.
Pre-Marxist philosophy was also well aware that human virtue and societal health rise and fall. Man and his man-made environments are better at certain times and worse at others. The cause is not the grinding wheels of “history,” as Marx and his teachers understood it, but human nature. Harshness, rusticity, scarcity, and danger give rise to virtues that create peace, security, and plenty, which in turn create the conditions for leisure, under which virtue is less prized, less needed, and less prevalent. As virtue decays, scarcity and danger return. Eventually, in response, the virtues reemerge. In classical political philosophy, this idea is known as the “cycle of regimes.” There is no endpoint or end state, but rather peaks and valleys.
Marxist historicism asserts that certain passions understood by earlier philosophy to be permanent and coeval with man will no longer exist in the end state. Man will lose all of his selfishness, covetousness, avarice, ambition, and status-seeking. This is not to suggest that, for pre-Marxist philosophy, these passions defined humanity. But all philosophers up through the early moderns considered them inexpungable, though manageable, aspects of human nature. Indeed, for this earlier philosophy, a vital task of politics is to channel, control, and (when and where necessary) suppress the passions, especially the lower ones, via a combination of education (understood above all as character formation), persuasion or rhetoric, and coercion, (i.e., rewards and punishments). Marxism posits that all this can be dispensed with after history’s end and the emergence of full communism. The question of whether that is true is inseparable from the questions of whether Marxism’s end state is possible, and, hence, whether Marxist philosophy is true.
As for Marxism’s predictive power, while its track record is not altogether one of failure, in the main, we would have to say that its biggest and most fundamental predictions did not come true. Some 175 years after the publication of the Manifesto, no final-stage communist state such as Marx and Engels described and forecast has ever emerged anywhere. Most actual communist regimes ceased to exist while stuck somewhere in Marx’s and Engels’s first or second stage. Others abandoned Marxist economics in practice while formally denying having done so, and one or two others trundle on thanks to the largess of patrons.
Marxist theory posits that full communism will emerge only after a process of indeterminate length. But how long is that process supposed to take? The first communist revolution occurred in 1917. The U.S.S.R. formally dissolved seventy-five years later. Even if we accept that three-quarters of a century is insufficient for the emergence of full communism, why did that regime fall rather than continue developing toward the end state?
The most plausible answer is that Marxism’s assertion that fundamental human passions will melt away is wrong. That assertion undergirds Marxism’s expectation that the postcapitalist economy will remain productive absent the profit motive. For while Marx is certainly correct that capitalism is the most productive economic system yet known, it is not clear why or how that productivity should reasonably be expected to continue without the incentives that drive productivity. Capitalists produce because they expect to be rewarded; the more they produce, the greater the reward they expect. It is these expectations that above all drive production.
Marxism appears to assume that an industrial economy, once built, will simply go on producing as if on autopilot, even once the profit motive is obsolesced (or eliminated). According to Marxism, the great leap forward to mass productivity was accomplished on the backs of the proletariat, propelled by greed and exploitation. But under communism, that productivity will continue voluntarily, on a foundation of mutual goodwill and the pleasure that comes from working for the benefit of all mankind.
The actual experience of communism, however, suggests that real human beings do not behave as Marxism predicts. If so, that might explain, in part, why those communist states that dispensed with the profit motive have mostly failed while those that liberalized their markets (if always under strict political supervision) have fared better. “To get rich is glorious,” Deng Xiaoping exhorted the Chinese people nearly two generations ago. That may have something to do with the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is still in power while its Soviet counterpart no longer exists. At any rate, for Marxist theory to overcome communism’s less-than-stellar practical record, it would have to explain not only why no final-stage communist state has ever emerged but also why the economies of those states that began but never completed communism’s via dolorosa performed so poorly relative to their capitalist and even to their “bourgeois socialist” peers.
Marxism also elides the differences between what it denounces as “capitalism” and all prior noncommunist economics. It all but claims that the free-market as such is inherently “capitalistic” in the derogatory sense in which Marx and Engels use the term. Modern defenders of free markets have arguably played into Marxism’s hands by enthusiastically adopting the term “capitalism”—which Marx and Engels mean as a pejorative—as their own.
But what Marxism derides as “capitalism” is more accurately described as an extreme libertarianism, a system in which economics is elevated above all other concerns and crushes and sweeps aside everything else. For this version of “capitalism,” only productivity and profit matter. By contrast, for theoretical and practical defenders of free markets such as Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton, political and moral virtue are the indispensable foundations of economic freedom. Smith himself insisted that his economic theory as expounded in The Wealth of Nations is incomprehensible and unworkable absent the understanding of human virtue propounded in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. These earlier thinkers and statesmen cheerfully subordinated the imperatives of the market to the higher considerations of virtue, morality, common citizenship, national defense, and stability. Economic freedom serves virtue and liberty, not the reverse; it is a means, not the end. The later, libertarian conception of “capitalism” is acutely vulnerable to attack from both the Marxist Left and the traditionalist Right; the earlier understanding much less so.
We may note, finally, that, contrary to Marx’s prediction, the practice of actual communist regimes suggests an eternal need for rhetoric and coercion. The Eastern Bloc, for instance, was characterized by ubiquitous propaganda, a fact no less true of China or North Korea today—and, what’s more, by a coercion far more onerous, and a rhetoric far more disconnected from truth, than those prevailing in any nontyrannical, noncommunist state. Marxism acknowledges the temporary necessity for such measures but promises they will evaporate in the end state. But the end state never came. At least, it hasn’t yet.
Perhaps it is more plausible to suppose that, human nature being more or less constant, the need for rhetoric and coercion never disappears. Hence one of the fundamental duties of responsible politics is to make that coercion as light, and the rhetoric as ennobling, as possible, with both always serving good ends.
The evident need for, and omnipresence of, coercion in communist states may also help explain why, when peoples who want to move their countries in a vaguely Marxian direction and are allowed to vote—i.e., when they do not have communism imposed on them by a revolutionary vanguard—they tend to choose the system Marx and Engels deride as “bourgeois socialism.” This helps explain post-World War II political and economic trends in most of Western Europe, whose states remained formally anticommunist, but whose economies moved in a more or less “socialistic” direction.
An uncomfortable fact for contemporary conservatives, who tend to demonize or dismiss Marx, is the extent to which the practices being pushed under the rubric of the Great Reset resemble the worst elements of the capitalism Marx himself demonized. Of course, demonization of Marx is largely deserved, given that the movement and revolutions he confidently and recklessly urged upon the world extinguished upward of one hundred million lives and consigned more than a billion others to earthly tenures of poverty, misery, and oppression.
Another reason Marxism has such a low reputation is that, at the height of its political success in the mid-20th century, its key economic predictions turned out to be laughably wrong. Instead of mass, technology-driven unemployment, the capitalist world boasted near full employment. Instead of the pauperization of workers, the working class under capitalism enjoyed a standard of living never yet seen for the common man. Far from lengthening the working day (and week), capitalism shortened both—granted, under pressure from unions and reformist lawmakers and after an initial expansion of work hours in the early industrial period.
Yet looking forward from the peak of the 20th-century industrial economy to today’s information-managerial-techno economy presents a somewhat different picture. If we may characterize the latter as pure or ur-capitalism and the former as closer to the pre-Marxist Smithian-Hamiltonian version of free market economics, we may say that today’s economy looks more like Marx’s caricature of capitalism than many of its most dedicated defenders on the right would care to admit. “Pure capitalism” abstracts away from, even undercuts, considertions such as virtue, morality, good citizenship, and societal health—things the right claims to value but often only weakly defends. Whenever the requirements of virtue clash with the imperatives of capitalism, the typical conservative response is to deny there is any conflict or insist that it be resolved in capitalism’s favor. Often both.
For Marxism, productivity is a necessary step toward a universal abundance that will allow man to regain his pure, Rousseauvian pre-capitalist nature and develop his full potential, above all in fields that transcend mere economic productivity. By contrast, for capitalism as such, productivity is either an end in itself or, to the extent that it’s a means, its end is simply to fulfill wants. Pure or libertarian capitalism not only avers its supreme indifference to the nature of those wants, it rules out of bounds even the question of their goodness or badness. Whatever the people, in accordance with the “market,” decide is ipso facto legitimate, so long as it is not imposed by the state. All private transactions not resting on force are legitimate. Even harm is acceptable, or at least objections to market transactions on the basis of harm are illegitimate, so long as both parties choose freely. Hence, for example, according to the classic libertarian dictum, heroin ought to be legal and, if the market so demands, widely available.
Turning from theory to practice, in surveying the actual economic history of the past three decades at least, we may wonder whether the older, qualified economic freedom has not in many (though, as we shall see, by no means all) respects given way to the logic of “pure capitalism” at its most efficient and corrosive.
To list some of 21st-century runaway corporatism’s worst features: tech-driven replacement of unskilled—and, increasingly, skilled—labor; constant technological change whose burden falls almost exclusively on wage-earners; capital treated much more kindly in the tax code than wages, favoring owners over workers; scads of jobs and even whole industries obsolesced; un- and underemployment rampant; legions of displaced workers who can’t adapt; the remaining jobs available to the lower quintiles pay less and less relative to the rapidly rising prices of basic necessities; constant churn and revolution in the economy and society that increases uncertainty and anxiety, and evaporates stability and predictability; lengthening of the working day and/or of total hours worked; expansion of a propertyless workforce to whom capitalists believe they owe nothing; nearly all gains accruing to the top, and increasingly, the tippy-top; the destruction of the middle class and the reduction of society into two starkly unequal classes.
All of these trends are increasing and will continue to increase, by design, so long as our present capitalists—who not coincidentally are the authors of the Great Reset—continue to get their way.
To these we may add drumming workers off the formal payroll and into contract positions so as to avoid paying benefits. Readers of Dickens may scoff at the idea that working conditions today are worse, but if we approach the issue like an economist and ask “compared to what?” the assertion becomes less risible. A modern cubicle or warehouse may not be worse than a coke oven in 19th-century Birmingham, but compared to conditions a generation ago? Amazon et al. ruthlessly micromanage every second of workers’ days, even policing “breaks” so stringently as to begrudge trips to the bathroom. Firms en masse pay so little in wages that many are forced to work multiple jobs in the “gig economy” and/or rely on public assistance just to eat. Precariousness and insecurity reign. One blown tire can mean financial ruin.
And then there’s immigration. What automation can’t yet do, or is taking too long to do—drive wages to the vanishing point—untrammeled immigration assists. Marxism does not formally contemplate this contemporary capitalist enthusiasm, but it’s implicit in the imperative for globalized markets. Labor, no less than capital markets, can and must be globalized. Indeed, given that capitalism requires cost-cutting to escape annihilation in a cutthroat market, isn’t globalizing the labor market, pushing labor costs to the absolute minimum, necessary? And doesn’t that in turn demand the “free movement of labor,” also known as mass migration or open borders?
Other factors make mass immigration most useful to capitalism. Marxism posits the devolution of society into two classes, haves and have-nots, oppressors and oppressed—a dichotomy perpetuated by original or political/economic Marxism’s spiritual successor “cultural Marxism,” the historical and intellectual precursor to what we know as “wokeness.” By its very nature, capitalism creates more losers than winners. This means that the system is continuously generating more opponents. Those opponents increasingly will not wish to serve the system and hence must be continually replaced. Also, in another dynamic not found in Marx, our modern capitalists have found it useful to pacify the proletariat or lower class—specifically, to enervate them with drugs, debilitating food, and spectacle (pornography, streaming services, athletic contests, video games). This has the intended effect of blunting any potential urge toward rebellion but also degrades people’s capacity for work, thus (allegedly) necessitating yet more immigration. Paradoxically, the larger the lower class becomes, the more additional workers the system must import.
If Marx understood industrial capitalism badly, or at least saw (or acknowledged) only its warts, he seems to have anticipated, if inadvertently, the trend and goal of financial-techno-managerial capitalism. And that, simply, is the gradual impoverishment of everyone outside the ruling elite. This is a trend, in that the inexorable pressures of capitalism as now practiced work to despoil the middle class and concentrate its wealth at the top. It is a goal in that the elites increasingly not only decline to deny the trend but praise it as a desired end-state, a “positive good.”
The catch-phrases “Great Reset” and “Build Back Better” are intended to sugarcoat this reality. Perhaps the ultimate expression is the now-ubiquitous WEF slogan “You’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.” Note that the WEF doesn’t say they will own nothing, only that you will. They most assuredly will own a great deal—more than the considerable amount they already own, and you will make up the difference. Marx could hardly be surprised by the underlying sentiment, but the audacious cynicism might have shocked even him.
Marxism’s assertion that, under capitalism, employers feel no moral or civic obligations to employees might be inapt, and unfair, to free economies with loyal and patriotic elites. But it is dead accurate to our cosmopolitan “meritocratic” elite who are certain they deserve everything they have and more, and that if you’re not one of them, it’s because there’s something wrong with—inferior about—you. Under this system, a college degree is the ultimate signifier. First, it’s the fundamental dividing line between upper and lower, somebodies and nobodies. Second, it provides the necessary (though hardly only) credential for being allowed to occupy the upper slots in the modern system. Third, the hierarchy of colleges serves the same fundamental purpose as the old ranks among aristocratic titles: to make clear that, while all aristocrats may be noble, not all nobles are dukes. But in the breasts of our new nobility, there is nothing approaching a guilty conscience, much less noblesse oblige.
Orthodox Marxism asserts that the proletariat will be history’s first nonpartisan ruling class because it will represent not any partisan interest but all of humanity. In a strange inversion of Marxist theory, our ruling class believes the same of itself—except not looking upward from the socioeconomic ladder’s bottom rung but downward from the top. Under contemporary capitalism, not the impoverished proletariat but the (ever fewer) owners of the means of production represent humanity in toto. This perhaps helps explain why, in co temporary political discourse, “democracy” has been redefined to mean whatever elites want, not what the supposedly ignorant masses actually vote for.
And what those elites want is a world favorable to “markets”—not free markets, as prior conservative and liberal theory alike understood them, but markets designed to favor the interests of global capital over the interests of nations and citizens. The more countries in which an industry or firm or businessman operates, the truer this is. The logic of contemporary capitalism demands that the location of a firm’s headquarters eventually be regarded as a mere accident of birth or advantageous choice. A firm is American or French or Japanese only incidentally or historically. It is loyal solely to itself and to its interests, just as individual businessmen are loyal to their transnational firms and to their industries but not to their countries, except insofar as the interests of the latter align with their own. If and when there are conflicts, firm and industry take precedence. Corporate elites defend this with the slogan that “what’s good for business is good for communities and individuals.” But the goods under discussion are limited to the wide availability of consumer products at low(ish) prices and jobs. Neither the value nor quality of those goods nor the wage or dignity of those jobs factor into the equation.
More fundamentally, neoliberal capitalism reshapes governments just as it reshapes societies, and this reshaping takes everywhere more or less the same form. The world becomes less and less differentiated and more and more homogenous. Sovereignty gives way to the imperatives of business; therefore, individuals and peoples have less and less freedom to determine their destinies.
This underlying economic imperative intensifies pressures that undermine the family, including low wages that delay marriage and family formation, frequent job relocations that disperse extended families, high rents and home prices that force both parents to work, cost-cutting layoffs that stress marriages, a me-first consumerism that fuels self-centeredness, and a divorce culture and family-court system seemingly designed to further that self-centeredness and encourage family breakup.
Finally, to those ideologues who retort that the presence of but one regulation or small tariff shows that we do not practice “pure capitalism,” one can only ask: Given what we see around us even with these handful of ineffectual restraints in place, what would our economy and society look like absent any restraint whatsoever? How many American factories would be left open, jobs not yet outsourced, native-born workers not yet replaced by foreigners? In response, the advocates of “pure capitalism,” if intellectually honest, can only appeal to their one true god and intone that, if this is “what the market wants,” then its will be done.
For Marx, the proletariat has only one thing to offer: its labor. This remains true for now, but it’s clear that one goal of the Great Reset is to make superfluous all but highly remunerated intellectual work. This will, it is predicted or hoped, be accomplished through automation, artificial intelligence, and the like. In other words, in the envisioned perfect society to come, the nonelite are to enjoy neither the income nor the independence nor the dignity that accompany work. This was definitely not the future Marx envisioned for his beloved proletariat.
But dignity and independence for the lower and middle classes are anathema to our ruling class, hence for them this outcome is a feature not a bug. Yet even modern capitalists realize that the lower orders need money. This is what the universal basic income (UBI) is intended to supply. Indeed, the Davoisie’s increasing insistence that UBI is inevitable may be said to be another unexpected vindication of Marxian theory: specifically, the prediction that under perfect capitalism, the proletariat will have nothing. The rulers will own everything; what little you get will come at their sufferance.
The UBI serves multiple purposes. It accomplishes the Marxist goal of providing for all, if by different means, thereby assuaging any possible guilty feelings (not that many are felt) among the upper class for destroying the bulk of the labor market. “No one will starve,” the plutocrats reassure themselves. A universal basic income thus, in a sense, revives a semblance of those humanistic ties between upper and lower classes that Marx admits existed in precapitalist societies but insists cannot and will not survive the transition to capitalism. A guaranteed income restores an obligation of the top to the bottom: we’ll pay your Grubhub and streaming bills.
Second, a UBI makes the bottom classes entirely dependent on the ruling order. This dependence is compounded by the ruling elites’ ability to cut off the money—already foreshadowed by its present power to get you fired and prevent you from working again. Once work is unavailable—not simply for some individual personally but for his entire class—and people’s only source of income is the rulers, they will be fully at the latter’s mercy.
The flipside is that UBI solves the problem (from capitalism’s perspective) of the proletariat having no stake in the system. UBI literally gives them one. Whatever rebellious or revolutionary impulse might have survived and be lurking under all that dope and streaming-released dopamine will be checked by the recognition, obvious to the meanest capacities, that it would be folly to attack a system that pays one to do nothing, especially when there’s no alternative.
Third, UBI puts in lower-class pockets cash that can—and will, since there will be nowhere else for it to go—flow back into an economy that the rulers own and run. The UBI also solves, or mitigates, another problem identified by Marx: capitalism by its very nature pressures wages downward, meaning that workers have ever less to spend even as production rises. The resulting boom-bust cycles lead to further layoffs and cost-cutting, which further drive down consumer spending. But such spending is the lifeblood of capitalist-consumer economics. For now, this gap is papered over by debt. We may analogize debt-finance for the lower orders as a “transitional” stage on the way to UBI in the same way that, for classic Marxism, a certain type of “socialism” serves as the necessary bridge to full communism. One difference, however, may be that our debt stage could be difficult to transition out of, given the extensive financialization of our economy and the enormous profits generated by interest. Does this foreshadow a showdown between bankers and techies?
However that may be, it is not unreasonable to suppose that UBI is intended as a kind of money-laundering scheme like the “company towns” of old: the rulers give you money; you spend it at their businesses, on their products. If and to the extent that UBI recipients attempt to save a portion of that money, one answer, already floated, might be to convert UBI to “consumption credits” that must be used or lost. Not one dime ever escapes the system: recipients either spend their state largesse back in or never receive it in the first place. Either way, the rulers keep the profits while the taxpayers (i.e., you) finance the UBI. This is but one way in which the present economy may be described as “socialist”: Its costs are borne by all; its benefits, one need hardly add, accrue to a few.
Marx does not appear to have anticipated the dual economy of our day: the economy of things, on the one hand, and the finance-info-digital economy on the other. Granted, the two interact to an extent that can make them hard to distinguish in every instance. But the application of a little common sense reveals a bright if not always sharp line between activities that make, grow, and deliver things versus those that don’t. Marxist theory accounts only for the former. For Marxism, all production and value derive from the labor power of the proletariat.
This is manifestly not so for present-day capitalism, the vast majority of whose value derives from “intellectual” work. What would Marx have made of modern tech and finance, to say nothing of other ostensibly nonproductive activities, especially when the contemporary economy’s rewards are showered disproportionately on “brain work” rather than physical labor—either the actual toil or the management thereof? The extent to which pixels and bits today “produce” more wealth than any imaginable combination of factories likely would have mystified him and should trouble us more than it does.
However, the Marxian insistence that the means of production determine the nature of all societies would appear to be at least partially vindicated by today’s polity, whose contours almost entirely reflect the desires, needs, and tastes of the financial-techno-intellectual-clerical-artistic class. From what we require—college degrees as the minimum credential for tedious mental grunt work—to what we honor and reward—fame and fortune for app coders and social media influencers—our superstructure is, indeed, determined by its base.
Most sinister of all are the myriad ways in which digital technology shapes and rules our lives. Marx likely exaggerated the extent to which prior production modes determined the character of society, but his thesis seems especially apt to our time. Even if the steam mill did not, in and of itself, give us the society of the industrial capitalist, it would seem much more certain that the personal computer and smartphone have imposed on us the society of the tech oligarch and his financiers, the administrative state commissar, the “intelligence community” technocrat, and the revolving-door military-operator/defense contractor/security consultant—all of whom employ these technologies as means to control the rest of us.
If practice matched theory exactly, there should be no such thing as “woke” capitalism. “Get woke, go broke,” the Right likes to say. But virtually all global corporations have gotten woke and none, as yet, has gone broke. Some have seen revenues decline and market share shrink. A few others have been surprised by state countermeasures (see Disney v. DeSantis). But none have turned back from the embrace of wokeness. There are many plausible explanations for this, including the desire to penetrate (pander to?) new markets, C-suite fear of boycotts, lawsuits, and rebellions by junior employees, and the desire to appear “with it.”
The last is probably the most important. Marx’s historicism, however wrong, is increasingly the state religion of our elite. They believe that history has an upward direction and that they are its culmination. That other ubiquitous phrase—“right/wrong side of history”—they utter like a credo, to summon woke angels and ward off retrograde demons. Seen in this light, wokeness allows modern capitalists both to pay the Danegeld and to position themselves as the good guys. However much wokeness costs, you can be sure our masters wouldn’t pay if they didn’t think, once all the ledgers are audited, that it’s worth it.
Marx was right about the nature and purpose of ideology: to justify rule and privilege. He was wrong only in predicting that the need for, and hence the presence of, ideology would melt away. Ideology has turned out to be more necessary than ever, thus the omnipresent propaganda blaring forth from every screen, speaker, headphone and page in the developed world.
Marx predicted—really, urged on—a total revolution in thought, the overthrow of all previous beliefs, traditions, customs, institutions, and orders. Religion, the family, guilds and associations, mediating institutions, even the state itself: all must go. Our overlords fully believe all that—except the part about the state. This, they insist, remains necessary, only transformed into what we may term a hybrid corporo-state: the state and woke capital working hand in glove. But the ruling class is otherwise full-speed-ahead with total revolution in all prior modes of thought and life. The difference is that Marx was certain the revolution he foresaw would serve the proletariat; our elites are busy implementing one designed to serve only themselves.
Marxism’s self-conceit is that it fulfills the dream of the ancient philosophers—the perfectly rational state—a project the latter believed must forever remain a dream because it is impossible to implement. In the perfectly rational state, there is only one correct view on every- thing. All opinion has been replaced by knowledge. Dissent is inherently irrational. We see more than a glimmer of Marx’s utopian vision in our rulers’ elevation of “expertise,” based on “science,” to unquestionable authority, including political authority.
But not every tension or difference between Marxist theory and capitalist practice has been resolved, and it’s hard to see how all can be.
To begin with the most obvious, Marx insisted that armed revolution was necessary to achieve his envisioned paradise. Today’s oligarchs, by contrast, believe the same can be accomplished with corporatist technology. Indeed, far from calling for or welcoming revolution, it is revolution that they most fear, since they are the ruling power that any revolution would displace. Their overriding goal is therefore to preserve the present system along with their place in it. In this sense, if in few others, our ruling class is instinctively conservative. It deflects attention from this inherent conservatism by demonizing all opposition as not just “far-right,” but indistinguishable from the 20th-century right’s most violent exemplars.
This points to another problem that Marxism identifies, and which one purpose of woke capitalism is intended to address: the devolution of society into two implacably warring classes. Wokeness recognizes three classes: a “meritocratic” class of virtuous experts; a lower class that does not deserve its poverty and lack of privilege; and a middle class whose wealth and position are entirely unearned. The second is the ruling class’s ally, which it buys off with government spending, cheap debt, and grievance politics. The third is its enemy, which it demonizes and fears. This enemy takes the place and serves the function of Marx’s bourgeoisie. Ruling-class rhetoric rather ridiculously paints the middle class as the true rulers, hence the true oppressors.
In truth, however, the upper and lower classes team up to oppress and despoil the middle. This further explains the need not only for endless immigration, but also for endless grievance politics. Economically, the capitalist class is continually making others poorer and thus pushing them into potential opposition. Hence, just as (until automation kills all the jobs) the rulers need immigrants to replace displaced native workers, so do they need to foster grievances, to transform economic resentments that otherwise would be directed at them into racial and political complaints that can be targeted at the middle class. This is how the rulers keep both the urban underclass and the urban woke-clerical class loyal and obedient despite incommensurate interests and declining material prospects. As an added bonus, immigrants or at least their children can be added to the grievance coalition via constant propaganda that the majority population of the country they’ve chosen to move to (and that welcomed them with more or less open arms) is implacably hostile to their interests and even to their existence.
Another crucial departure from Marxism is that under woke capitalism, there is little pretense of the restoration and full flowering of man’s submerged humanity (hunter, shepherd, critic). Our capitalists know they are plying the masses with enervating food, drink, drugs, and entertainment. They’re not merely fine with that; it’s part of the plan. Spending on these things keeps the economy going, recycles money into ruling-class wallets, and ensures a docile populace. Whether morning, afternoon, evening, or after dinner, modern man will be in the same place, doing the same thing: on the couch, looking at a screen.
But the most important difference between Marxism (or socialism as originally conceived) and its contemporary update is that, for Marx, the economy, and therefore class, are at the heart of society whereas for our rulers, race is. Cultural Marxism effectively rewrites the Manifesto’s famous early sentence as “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of racist oppression.”
In this vision, the white race plays the role of the oppressor class. But unlike Marxist “history,” in which a new ruling class takes over as the modes of production change, for wokeness, the ruling or oppressor race is always the same. This may seem a distinction without a difference, since all of Marxism’s alleged historical ruling classes were also white. But for Marxism strictly understood, that was merely an accident of demography. In all-white societies, the owners of the means of production (whatever those may be at a given time) will necessarily be white, as will the masses they exploit. In a multiracial society, by contrast, no such racial continuity will be inevitable—unless race is the fundamental characteristic that defines ruler and ruled, oppressor versus oppressed. There is nothing in Marxist theory that excludes the possibility of a multiracial bourgeoisie united by joint ownership of the means of production ruling over a multiracial proletariat. Wokeness by contrast vehemently denies this even as a theoretical possibility, much less an actual reality.
This brings us to another important departure from the original theory. For Marxism, man is essentially good. Indeed, he must be, if “pure communism” is to have any hope of working. There cannot be any selfishness or other such vices inherent in humanity as such. These must be traits acquired through the process of history and expungable through history’s culmination.
For wokeness, by contrast, some races are inherently good while others are inherently bad. Actually, only one is inherently bad—guess which!—and all others inherently good. This is why, for the modern left, there can be no end of history. For Marxism, the final revolution enthrones a virtuous proletariat that not merely rules in the interests of, but literally represents, all humanity. Class conflict—all conflict— will have ended. Wokeness similarly posits a virtuous ruling class that rules on behalf of humanity, but conflict never ends. At least, not as long as that one retrograde race is still around; it always poses a danger and so must perpetually must be monitored and opposed.
Or we may say that, for wokeness, once the technocratic elite has assumed its rightful place at the top of society, history partially ends, in that no political progress beyond that point, no superior regime, is possible. But history does not and cannot end if by “end” one understands a permanent, strifeless peace. The presence of selfish, wicked, privileged, unruly whites makes that impossible. The ongoing existence of this alleged oppressor race serves the same purpose as that of “wreckers” in communist propaganda: an explanation/scapegoat for all failures, and a lightning rod for joint resentment to hold together an otherwise fractious collation. The theory, of course, admits only the former consideration.
One benefit of “history” never “ending” is that the vanguard of the revolution need never lose its job or place. There is always more work to do, more enemies to conquer, more privilege to dislodge. This has the dual benefit of keeping the broke-but-woke clerical class employed, energized, and committed to the system while also preserving the rulers’ power. Under Marx’s system, and even (theoretically) Lenin’s, the vanguard loses its power and privilege with the emergence of final communism because, its task achieved, there is nothing left for it to do. Under wokeness (and, one may say, under communism in practice as opposed to theory), the revolution never ends, hence the necessity for a vanguard never goes away.
Two problems remain, with which wokeness struggles. The first is that today’s technocratic ruling class is disproportionately, even overwhelmingly, white. The second is that a nontrivial number of non-whites oppose wokeness in terms hardly distinguishable from those shared by the white middle and working classes. Marxism supplies a ready answer to the second problem: “false consciousness,” i.e., the assertion that any person whose economic or political opinions do not match his alleged class (or, in this case, racial) interests is deluded and perhaps even mentally ill.
The first problem is harder to dismiss and, as yet, the ruling class has not found a consistent or convincing way to do so. The oligarchs are therefore reduced to falling back on unconvincing double standards: all whites are bad—but not me. Or: “whiteness” is bad—but despite being white, I am free of its taint. To the extent that they attempt a justification for their own privilege, they (mostly unknowingly) channel the late Harvard professor John Rawls, who argued that great wealth and privilege are acceptable and even laudable so long as they’re used to help the “most disadvantaged.” What form this “help” actually takes, beyond the mouthing of woke platitudes, remains unclear.
But ultimately to look for consistency in woke capitalism is futile. You won’t find any because it isn’t there, at least not intellectually. Lenin’s “Who? Whom?” has far greater explanatory power. Who does what to whom? Who benefits and who suffers? The one consistent thread we find in examining our economy and society is that the techno-financial-administrative ruling class benefits a great deal, the underclass benefits somewhat, and the middle and working classes suffer.
We have come, finally, full circle. It should be plain by now that “socialism” as traditionally understood—state ownership of the means of production—is not today a real prospect or serious threat. Socialism in this sense is today more properly understood as a slogan used to mollify the urban underclass and the broke-woke clerical class. Socialism holds out the promise that their material prospects will improve via state action. In practice, this has thus far meant generous welfare and other benefits, financed mostly by debt, in part via taxes on high earners. It’s likely that taxes will go up; the modern humor of the Democratic Party seems to demand as much. However, we can be fairly certain that today’s big fiscal winners will be able to avoid the most painful of the hikes and/or to ensure that any new rates are set at levels which, to the extent that evasion is impractical, they can easily afford with no diminution in lifestyle. At any rate, they always have.
The biggest difference between anything hitherto understood as socialism and the system we have now is that, for the former, profit is always inherently exploitative. Our overlords obviously do not believe that. Profit is what keeps them in power, to say nothing of in private jets.
Far from rejecting profit, our rulers profit immensely from creating, selling, and spreading pathologies—from obesity to drug addiction to unemployment to loneliness and despair—while socializing the costs. We’ve already seen one example: socialization, through the potential implementation of UBI, of the costs of mass unemployment. But the most important is socializing the costs of immigration. Corporations do not pay for emergency-room overuse, school overcrowding, infrastructure overloading, or the myriad other ways that overpopulation taxes our country—to say nothing of the specific costs of importing millions who don’t speak our common language or adhere to our established ways of life. Indeed, one meaning of socialism has come to be the equal right of foreigners to live in the United States (and the developed West more generally). The ruling class “pays” for this, to the extent that it pays taxes, but far less than it should, and whatever it pays is easily and vastly outweighed by the enormous profits it collects from this injustice. The rest of us just pay.
Socialism originally meant the drive toward equalization, specifically of individual economic outcomes. We may contrast that with equality as originally meant: treating everyone as equal before the law. Socialism long ago attacked that meaning as insufficient. Engels specifically derides “bourgeois equality before the law” because it does not generate equal outcomes.
The contemporary invocation of socialism sometimes feints in Engels’s direction, when rhetorically beneficial or necessary (e.g., when a threat to oligarch power emerges, as Bernie Sanders briefly appeared to be). But it is always only a feint; the oligarchs have no intention of equalizing individual wealth. To the contrary, they are constantly doing everything in their power to take yours and increase theirs. That’s what the Great Reset is all about.
To deflect attention from this goal and the methods used to further it, and also to hold their coalition together, the oligarchs promise instead “equity”: the equalization of demographic groups. The new term signifies the altered goal and transformation of socialism.
Equity, it is alleged, will be achieved via a variety of means, many of them socialistic in the older sense. But those older means, by themselves, will be insufficient. More radical measures must be taken. To be blunt—and leftist rhetoric is increasingly blunt—achieving equity requires that wealth be taken from certain demographic groups and given to others. The trick for the ruling class is to find ways to retain capitalism for themselves while they despoil their enemies and reward their allies. Call it “socialism for thee but not for me.” That is another fundamental, though necessarily unstated because unsettling, meaning of “the Great Reset.”
The Great Reset’s authors prefer not to be explicit about their goals, for obvious reasons. When pinned down, they resort to anodyne (and near-meaningless) terms such as “reform,” “fairness,” “revamping,” “shared goals” and “sustainability.” Occasionally, in less guarded moments, they let slip “reparations.” But the more accurate name for this practice is expropriation, a tactic as old as political life. How, exactly, the Davos class will explain what they are doing as somehow principled and consistent remains unclear—just as their explanation for why whites generally, but not themselves, constitute a privileged oppressor class does not seem entirely coherent. They may never come up with a convincing formulation, but we can be sure that, if not, they will simply push their program through via brute force, political or otherwise. Surely they are helped by their client class’s enthusiastic belief that “equity” is not merely a societal good and rectification of past injustice but also deserved punishment. In this, there is more than a whiff of the old communist demonization of kulaks and other “class enemies.”
The Great Reset co-opts “socialism” and puts it to work in service of a rapacious ruling class, who use its rhetoric, some of its means, and the extravagant hopes it inspires to keep its lumpen-base pacified, satisfied, reverent, and stupefied.
We may even revise our earlier assertion that the present system cannot be “socialist” because the state does not literally own the means of production. After all, do not the owners of the means of production own or at least control the state? Do they not give it direction, set its guardrails, define its limits, occupy its key offices, and tell its minions what to do? Is not the surest ticket to easy, unearned wealth today some sort of government “service”? Can you think of a single former congressman, senator, cabinet or even subcabinet official who lives modestly, who does not have at least an eight-figure net worth? Do not the state and the power centers of our economy work so closely that it can be impossible—and, perhaps, irrelevant, given that their goals are so often identical—to discern who’s in charge?
Contrary to Marx’s prediction and legacy conservatism’s fears, the real threat to civilization, the moral order, and the middle class today is not from the pitchfork-bearing proletariat but from capitalists—especially the techies and bankers driving the Great Reset. The proles, by contrast, are the Right’s natural ally and should be our core constituency. The Great Resetters are our avowed enemy and every day look and act more and more like Marx’s grotesque caricature of the rapacious capitalist. I am not usually one to wring hands over labels, but it may be that, finally, the terms left and right have lost all salience. When it becomes more plausible than not to describe billionaire oligarchs as being on the left and MAGA-hatted truckers as the right, something fundamental has changed.
For conservatives, who admire commercial success, this can be hard to process. But the sooner people on the Right wake up and realize that big business—especially big finance and big tech—are not their friends but are out to get them, the sooner they will be able to organize in defense of their interests.
It’s also an open question whether the corpora-state synthesis we have now is inherently flawed or merely destructive in the present case. The conventional right condemns out of hand, in the name of “economic freedom” and “anti-statism,” any cooperation between the state and big economic players. But what is the state—what is it supposed to be—if not a vehicle for the promotion of citizen welfare? Perhaps the problem is not the state qua state but the state’s capture by private interests to further their wealth and power, as opposed to the common good, and its weaponization against the oligarchs’ class enemies.
This is a development that, if not Marx, then certainly his updater and implementer Lenin would recognize. Contra Marxism, the state will never “wither away.” Some states fall and some are conquered, but as long as there is man, there will be government. The questions are, and will always be: who runs it and to what ends? Cooperation between a patriotic state and patriotic economic elites, both aiming at the common good, would solve many of our problems and may even be indispensable to their solution.
Is that possible? Marx asserts that the bourgeoisie creates class consciousness in the proletariat. Is the modern ruling class creating class consciousness in the Deplorables?
Marxism’s biggest blind spot is to see everything through the lens of class. This is one respect in which modern wokeness surpasses Marxism in its understanding of human nature: race trumps class. Your rich uncle is still your uncle, just as your no-account cousin is still your cousin. Marxist theory leaves out or gives short shrift to kinship and culture. Neither has yet been entirely dissolved and there is sound reason to believe neither can ever fully be. So long as such ties exist, they act as great drivers of unity and resentment.
Marxism’s inevitability argument doesn’t have a place for people who refuse to modernize, who prefer to keep their old ways. This is a lesson we might have learned in Afghanistan. Will the ruling class be forced to learn it anew in West Virginia?
The Great Reset turns out to be a kind of synthesis after all— just not the one Marx predicted and certainly not one he would have welcomed. It combines the worst elements of libertarian capitalism with most of the worst of socialism and rolls them together with the utterly irredeemable wokeness. It maintains the profit motive but concentrates profits in the ruling class. It retains private ownership of the means of production while erecting massive barriers to entry for all but established behemoths. It gives outsized power to the richest ruling class in human history and restricts freedom and opportunity for everyone else. It socializes costs while keeping profits private. It despoils the middle class while reducing ordinary people’s standard of living. And it sanctimoniously cloaks itself in an ideology that claims moral perfection for itself while denouncing tens of millions as inherently and irredeemably evil.
One of its few redeeming features is that it hasn’t built any gulags—yet.