Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is Marxism a "conspiracy theory of history"?

I often hear this accusation leveled at Marxists of various stripes, but it is also thrown around to discredit non-Marxist radicals as well. Noam Chomsky is a good example of the latter case, whose radical critiques of current social/political conditions have been mocked by the likes of conservative writer Tom Wolfe, who once said of Chomsky's politics: "I know Chomsky seems to think that somewhere, there is this control room where a bunch of capitalists are conspiring to deceive and dominate everyone... I hate to be the one to tell him, but that room doesn't exist".

Of course, this is not what Chomsky or any serious Marxist would claim at all. Most of their claims have to do with ways that systemic social/economic features impact the circulation of certain ideas and why certain groups are empowered by the economic organization of contemporary societies while others are systematically disadvantaged.

As Marxist G.A. Cohen points out, many radicals have responded to the 'conspiracy theory' charge by emphasizing the aspects of their social theory that do not turn at all on the potentially conspiratorial actions of individuals. But going too much on the defensive here is also a kind of mistake, for as Cohen points out "there is more collective design in history than an inflexible rejection of 'conspiracy theories' would allow." Moreover, there must be a "richer scope" for the elaboration of purposive-actions by individuals when explaining history than any 'anti-conspiracy theory' posture allows. The mistake of forgetting the need for this 'richer scope' has been made by some 20th century Marxists (Louis Althusser is a prominent example) who wanted to eliminate the actions of individuals entirely from social theory/historiography, preferring instead to critically focus on the explanatory power of processes and structure. But subscribing to the need for 'richer scope' here hardly commits us to the crackpot-logic of conspiracy theorists. The move I'm advocating here is that those on the radical Left (i.e. the folks who speak of 'ruling classes', dominant groups, etc.) should resist throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they reject the logic of 'conspiracy theories'.

OK, what do I mean by this? Well, it would be pretty implausible if I told you that certain widespread beliefs and values in society were only prevalent because individual members of the ruling class had actively brought it about that they were widespread and had also created them (out of whole cloth). There's really no evidence for this kind of claim and it sounds wildly implausible in the sense that you'd need a "Matrix"-like story to make it sound possible. For even in the most authoritarian societies we can point to in history, we've never seen a range of direct ideological coercion as totalizing the above example would have it. Simple physical coercion and domination by force does not generally mean that people actually believe in, or mentally submit to the imperatives of the regime, even though they may cynically repeat the 'Official ideology' in order to survive and operate on a daily basis.

Stalinism is a good example of this phenomenon (although Nazism doesn't fit this mold... it was a kind of collective insanity of a much different, and far more horrifying sort... come to think of it I don't really think its helpful at all to try to understand Stalinism and Nazism together at all, for they were extremely different disasters). For although there were harsh physical sanctions under Stalin for any explicit public deviation from Official ideology, the regime had no way of ensuring that people actually believed the Official ideology, indeed, it often appeared as though it was already understood in many day-to-day proceedings that lip-service to the Official doctrine was nothing other than a mere formality. Notice, however, that in the implausible example of "total ruling-class domination" I mentioned above, the claim is that what people actually believe has been manipulated and sustained through and through by the conspiracy of a small group of elites. There is no way to make this story even sound possible without some "Matrix-like" (brain-in-a-vat) narrative, which takes us out of the realm of critical social theory and into Science Fiction.

Nonetheless, although dominant beliefs in society are not usually themeselves created and instilled by the actions of elites, it has often been the case throughout history that dominant groups have sought to maintain or protect (or, alternatively, resist and subvert) certain widespread beliefs in order to maintain their power. As Cohen points out, "while many ideologies are not normally invented to fit the purposes they serve, a fairly deliberate and quite concerted effort to maintain and protect and existing ideology is not unusual".

Cohen points us here to Marxist British Historian Christopher Hill's work on 17th century nobility in England as an example. According to Hill, the gentry and nobility "doubted that they would still be able to control the State without the help of the church" and therefore "rallied to the defense of the episcopacy in 1641...for explicitly social reasons". In other words "ruling class persons with not special devotion to an Anglican God frankly professed that the established church was required to ensure political obedience, and acted on that inspiration".

This kind of 'conspiracy' is an indisputable fact of history. As Cohen notes, "conspiracy is a natural effect when men of like insight into the requirements of continued class domination get together, and such men do get together." And they typically are men. (btw: here's a recent example).

But, and this is a great point about how Marxism and other critical social theories are not founded on an aggregation of the 'purposive actions of individual actors, "sentences beginning 'the ruling class have decided...' do not necessarily entail the convocation of an assembly. Ruling class persons meet and instruct one another in an overlapping milieux of government, recreation, and practical affairs, and a collective policy emerges even when they were never all in one place at a time".

Addendum: It also seems pretty clear that this 'conspiracy theory' accusation is something that many different stripes of feminism confront quite often as well. This is very much true of feminist historiography and the typical conservative responses to it. I can't remember how many times I've heard some moron complain that any feminist claim about widespread oppression of women really just means that there is some "conpiratorial clique of men who want to dominate them just for the fun of it". Or, they say something like: "feminism means that every man secretly enjoys being an oppressor", or more crudely that "all men are evil". I suppose what these conservative folks really want is for people to stop critically questioning culture, gender roles, the sexual division of labor, the family, marriage, heterosexuality, etc. So I would want to respond to these anti-feminist claims in ways that are similar to the Marxist responses above (i.e. by arguing for more structural, historical and cultural forms of oppression without leaving out entirely the intentionally-oppressive actions of individuals as well).

1 comment:

Arvilla said...

Interesting parallels with feminism there at the end.

It also makes me think of a sister to this "conspiracy theory" phenomenon, in those who point out one example of a woman who is among the oppressive class and use it as evidence that the root of power must not be patriarchy, because a woman too is part of the conspiracy. Let's take, say, Margaret Thatcher for example. Her presence as a powerful conservative woman who pursued the economic and social policies that create gender inequality such as we continue to see today is not a sign that the conspirators are just random powerful people and not part of a patriarchal system, as apologists would have you believe, but is a sign that a woman who has somehow gained power, even amid the patriarchal system, would have the same investment in protecting that system as a man might. That seems like common sense to me, and I've never understood why it isn't for others.