Justice is arguably the most serious concern of any society. As such, one might be inclined to think it should have been the first order of business when human civilization first began to arise about five millennia ago. But alas, the pursuit of the good society, which treats all members fairly and serves the cause of truth and ensures that everyone is as well off as he can possibly be, continues to this day, with much passion and controversy about what set of institutions will ensure that fairness, truth, and happiness harmoniously prevail among the disparate inhabitants of a human community.
Justice, in fact, is an exceedingly hard thing to figure out. For centuries, its complexities have consumed the attention of philosophers, bedeviled idealists who chased the perfect at the expense of the good, frustrated ideologues who brook no disagreement, and humbled utopians who naively believed that abstractions conceived in the ivory tower could be smoothly reconciled with the situational intricacies of the real world. Unfortunately, it is no easy matter to discern the essential principles that will ensure a concomitance between governance and justice, or ensure consensus about what fairness, happiness, and truth mean. Plato’s race of philosopher-kings is not the same as the Hobbesian Leviathan or Locke’s social contract or Kant’s kingdom of ends or Rawls’s maxi-min. The utilitarian’s greatest good for the greatest number offends the conscience of those who renounce hedonism, or more poignantly, refuse to condone the killing of one person even though ten lives are saved. Zen Buddhism is not what comes to mind when rampant capitalism is the order of the day.
This profound lack of consensus about justice comes to mind whenever I contemplate the sanctimonious moralism of the twenty-first century social justice movement. It is not simply that the good soldier of progressive causes believes wholeheartedly that he possesses a monopoly on virtue. That is as true of the alt-right, maverick academics, pundits and politicians, social media trolls, smug tycoons, and Curt Schilling-like celebrities as it is true of the progressive soldier of fortune. But social justice warriors are unique in their single-minded focus on historical constructs as a perennial source of injustice in the world. Whether discourse centers on political governance or economic distribution or fair treatment or the theory of value or the pursuit of knowledge and truth, all matters of conscience invariably come down to an analysis of the history of power, particularly the history of how those in power have marshalled the resources of privilege at the expense of all poor souls who have been excluded from power. It is not power per se, but wrongful use of power, that motivates the social justice movement—i.e. it is power used to exploit and oppress, enforced through socialized norms and attitudes and behaviors that are usually invisible to the legions of powerful and powerless people who have not ‘woken up’, that riles up the masses of social justice warriors.
The notion that justice should be concerned with dismantling cultures of exploitation and oppression is not necessarily problematic per se. It has, however, become so influential a paradigm that the social justice crusade risks instituting its own version of intellectual imperialism, a perverse epistemic venture of adapting facts to its narrative rather letting its narrative be guided by the facts. That’s not to say that the social justice movement is incorrigibly blinded by its own ideology. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and all forms of systemic disempowerment are worthy concerns deserving the serious attention of anyone concerned with justice. Yet when every inkling of concern about injustice is filtered through the lens of an overarching paradigm of historicized oppression, I worry that the cause of social justice has been commandeered by a broad-based campaign of ideological rectitude which ignores the complexities of justice in favor of a postmodern focus on oppressive historical constructs as the sole legitimate concern for any social justice warrior worth his salt.
No concept seems more pertinent to this concern than the current obsession with so-called ‘inter-sectionality’, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw referring to the idea that in spite of all their differences in identity and experience, oppressed groups share the status of being a victim, and that solidarity takes precedence over sectarian loyalties if systems of power and privilege which unconscionably exploit their victims (often or usually regardless of sect) are to be confronted and overturned. Moreover, there is a tendency to view the crucible of oppression endured by all victims of exploitation as rooted in grand historical developments. Whether the conversation turns on cultural appropriation, Western imperialism, institutional racism, heteronormative institutions, patriarchy, micro-aggressions, xenophobia, or other manifestations of oppression, the inter-sectional concerns of the social justice movement cultivate a culture of victimhood while advancing a worldview that subsumes all the complexities of justice under a superficial ideology of historicized oppression.
One may raise a reasonable though obvious point that anyone who is suspicious of a fight against oppression is himself worthy of suspicion. But it is not the nominal fight against oppression that raises qualms about the social justice crusade. It is, rather, the implication that a commitment to justice is equivalent to a commitment to revolution rather than reform, and that there is little or no virtue in prevailing norms, ideas, and institutions if they are not in some way connected to a concerted effort to overturn the status quo.
Justice is not so simple. Hope is not a strategy, and neither is change for change’s sake. For example, privilege per se is not a bad thing. The problem is not privilege, but that not everyone has it. Privilege is, in fact, a good thing. Everyone should have it. It is when privilege is accessible only to the few at the expense of the many that privilege becomes a problem (unless, as John Rawls might have argued, provision is made for the underprivileged that makes them happy and ensures they are equitably treated). One might object that it is the very definition of privilege for advantages to be unequally distributed, and that the acquisition of privilege by all is the same as the dissolution of all privilege. But then this only means that no one is excluded from the advantages that privilege confers. The goal, therefore, is not to take away the advantages of privilege, but to ensure their accessibility to everyone.
This last point admittedly implies an understanding of what, in fact, privilege is. But even defining privilege is not so straightforward. In discussions of white privilege, for example, a distinction is made between privileges worth having, such as rights like free speech or to the freedom to move into any neighborhood without encountering local prejudice, and privileges not worth having, such as the right to discriminate or ignore another person’s perspective. Given this distinction, the issue arises of identifying and defining the nature of each privilege that is worth having. For example, is private property a privilege worth having? If so, does everyone have a fair shot at owning his own plot of land or his own home or his own reserve of capital to invest for retirement? Or is private property an instrument of oppression and exploitation? The question of private property is particularly illustrative. There are some (or many?) anti-capitalist social justice warriors who, like nineteenth-century political economist Karl Marx, believe that private property can be a bane, or obstacle, to the cause of justice. It is no coincidence, then, that many partisans of the social justice movement ultimately find their inspiration, whether they know it or not, in the intellectual legacy of Karl Marx.
Never mind the discredited economic framework associated with Marx’s labor theory of value. Given how the rubric of progressive activism reduces the fight for justice to a fight against oppressive historical constructs, modern social justice warriors are as guilty as Marx in reducing the zeitgeist of every age to a historical struggle between oppressors and their victims. The complexities of justice yield to the simplicities of the true believer, and we are left with innumerable examples of the fight for justice going awry. For instance, as I pointed out in an article on why I choose not to participate in protests, during protests of the Inaugural Parade in January, news outlets reported on the eruption of a small-scale riot in downtown Washington, D.C. The riot saw private property vandalized when the windows of a Starbucks store were smashed and a limousine was torched and burned. Considering that the riot was sparked in part by President Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric demonizing Muslim immigrants, it was ironic, to put it mildly, that the torched limousine turned out to be owned by a Muslim immigrant. The irony would be worthy of a comic skit if it were not so perverse, not only for the Muslim immigrant whose business was impacted, but for the cause of justice itself, which, honestly pursued, does not concern itself with the black and white dichotomies of the zealot (like, for example, the class struggle between the owners of the means of production, e.g. limousine owners, and the proletariat, e.g. limousine drivers), but with the shades of gray that intellectual honesty respects. Activism, in a word, is no guarantee that justice will prevail. Nor is revolution, especially if we consider that, while the American Revolution gave us the U.S. Constitution and the Haitian Revolution was a successful slave rebellion that led to the first free black republic, Robespierre’s French Revolution gave us the Reign of Terror; the Castro revolution bequeathed to Cuba a bankrupt economy; al Qaeda’s jihadi revolution led to 9-11; and the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism and the Soviet Union. As the great Bard might have said, there are more uncertainties in the heavens and earth of justice than the convictions that are dreamt of in the Marx-inspired activism of the social justice warrior.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was once an earnest and dedicated social justice warrior. It began in college, when I veered to the left politically, in a gradual but ultimately radical shift from the conservative Weltanschauung I embraced as a high school student. It was in high school that I wrote articles for the student newspaper with the shrillness of an ideological firebrand who avidly listened to Rush Limbaugh (back when he was half-way sane) and espoused the ideas of conservative heroes like Ronald Reagan (smaller government), Jack Kemp (supply-side economics), and Dan Quayle (family values). In college, however, as I read up on social history and soaked up novels like Richard Wright’s Native Son, met students and professors who were smart and persuasive and fired up by progressive causes, and remained in touch with an intellectual mentor from back home who was decidedly progressive in his worldview, I began to explore New Left causes while peeling away from the conservative creed I had once espoused with sophomoric conceit.
The clincher came in my junior year, when I took a philosophy course that surveyed the works of philosophers affiliated with the so-called Frankfurt School. I was introduced to works like the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse. Reading the Dialectic, I was captivated by the thesis that the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and science as benign forces that would liberate mankind from superstition, myth, and subservience to the brute forces of nature was not unlike religious faith in how it turned into ‘false consciousness’, i.e. subliminal obedience to an oppressive social order. Their pessimism was reinforced by the regression of European societies into war, fascism, and totalitarianism despite all the discoveries of science that rushed forth from the Enlightenment’s pursuit of knowledge and truth.
But the authors were concerned with far more than their dismay over the wars of the twentieth century. They argued that the Enlightenment had not only failed to prevent war and fascism. It had also left modern man in a state of profound unhappiness. It had put so much stock in technology, material progress, and scientific discovery as foundational institutions that virtue and vice became indelibly connected to the moral superstructure of capitalism. Like feudalism and other restrictive social orders, industrial capitalism imposes a uniformity on cultural life which severely cripples the autonomy of human imagination which the authors believed is essential to human happiness. The cultural machinery of industrial capitalism—mass entertainment, mass industrialization, mass media—homogenize the populace into votive agents of mass consumption and mass production. It molds them into social automatons rather than autonomous participants in an active, healthy culture of avant-garde dissonance. The business of a capitalist society is business, and this means that human autonomy is sacrificed on the altar of progress in the material conditions of life, which in the age of industrial capitalism means that ‘happiness’ stems from the freedom to buy mass-produced commodities. Aesthetic tensions in the human imagination, i.e. iconoclastic ideas and idiosyncratic behavior that veer from the web of norms that characterize a society, are too subversive to fit neatly into the skein of interests that motivate the guardians of the status quo. Creative destruction is not in the interest of the bottom line (although Joseph Schumpeter might have something creative to say about that).
The Dialectic authors were writing in an era when film, television, and radio were first coming into their own as mediums for disseminating social and cultural memes. One might argue that the digital age has become too de-centralized for corporate interests to exact such control. But contemporary examples of rigid cultural conformity abound. Google search data and Amazon purchases can be converted into real-time ads on iPhones and laptops that exploit our propensity to buy the latest fads. Professional sports teams and leagues harness fan loyalties into millions of dollars of sales of team and league merchandise. Disney marketing campaigns seduce children into pleading with parents to buy them the next generation of Disney products. Earnings seasons roil the markets with investor anxieties about whether growth in sales of the next generation of iPhones, announced instantaneously on financial news sites or television stations like Bloomberg, will meet expectations. Twitter facilitates political demagoguery in its attempt to harness widespread distrust of the mainstream media among millions of disaffected voters into legions of Trump brigades who have been brainwashed to believe in ‘alternative facts’.
One need only observe the success of American Idol to witness the cultural hegemony of industrial capitalism as described in the Dialectic’s chapter 4 essay on the ‘culture industry’, in which they write: ‘Any trace of spontaneity in the audience of the official radio is steered and absorbed into a selection of specializations by talent-spotters, performance competitions, and sponsored events of every kind. The talents belong to the operation long before they are put on show; otherwise they would not conform so eagerly.’ Susan Boyle may have been ‘a little tiger’ when sparring with Simon Cowell before unleashing her breakout performance, but she and her voice were always subservient to the well-managed tastes of a mass audience, of which Simon Cowell and his fellow titans in the industry of producing ‘stars’ are well aware, and for which they are well-prepared with the resources they channel into cultivating ‘stars’ to cater to such profitable tastes. Performers become as interested in learning the business of their arts as they are in mastering the art of their business.
This idea of cultural hegemony through cultural homogenization was revolutionary to me when I first read the Dialectic, as was the explanation they provided for how millions of citizens can become as susceptible as sheep to subservience within an oppressive social order. Drawing a distinction between ‘instrumental’ and ‘objective’ reason, the authors define the former as the reasoning capacity used to determine the most effective means to achieve one’s ends, while defining the latter as the reasoning capacity used to assess and articulate the intrinsic value of the ends themselves. The aim of Enlightenment rationality was to explore, control, and dominate nature. Otherwise known as scientific inquiry, the burgeoning field of Enlightenment rationality had a profound cultural and philosophical impact, elevating our understanding of rationality as an instrument for controlling and manipulating the world as it is (e.g. conducting research that leads to a baldness cure or a cancer elixir), in contrast to rationality as an ‘objective’ guide for thinking about how the world should be (should we be more concerned about curing baldness or curing cancer?). Instrumental reason is concerned with the control of nature (figuring out a way to cure baldness or cure cancer). Objective reason is concerned with how and why we control it (should more resources be devoted to growing hair or curing cancer?). The former seeks to acquire its own vested interests. The latter seeks to understand whether those vested interests are, in fact, in our best interest.
I was hooked on their view that, in the utilitarian world of capitalism, our rational faculties are focused primarily, if not exclusively, on figuring out the means to attain one’s ends, rather than evaluating the ends themselves. To make their point, the authors of the Dialectic present the Homeric hero Odysseus as an allegorical representation of the modern bourgeois individual. As explained concisely in this lecture on the Dialectic: ‘Like the bourgeoisie of the capitalist world, Odysseus employs instrumental reason to advance his self-interest. This enables him to survive the mythological terrors of the ancient world. He sacrifices all else that he might desire and value, even his crew, all of whom die on the way back to Ithaca. And so he escapes the mythological world of his voyage. Yet what does he return to? An enlightened world of freedom and autonomy? No, he returns to his kingdom, resuming his place as ruler of his people. His odyssey is thus a voyage in which — to express a complicated matter in a simple formula — Odysseus oppressed resumes his place as Odysseus the oppressor.’
Not once does Odysseus ever wonder about the ethical underpinnings of the world in which he lives. He simply assumes the throne and rules again. This is no different than the modern bourgeois individual who employs his intelligence to secure a good job, take out a loan from a bank and start an enterprise or grow a business, or save up money for retirement. Both Odysseus and the modern bourgeois individual employ instrumental reason to succeed in a world by pursuing ends that they take for granted. There is never a pause to wonder if the ends they pursue are worth the effort to attain them.
What’s the problem with this? Surely, one cannot object to a good job, entrepreneurial success, or a dignified retirement. But the Dialectic authors were convinced that instrumental reason was one of the primary instruments by which capitalism supports an overarching structure of exploitation in society. If everyone is concerned only with means and not with ends, they do not think too hard about how they pursue ends custom-made for them by a social order defined by exploitative relations between capital and labor. Enlightenment celebrates rationality as the way to free us from being dominated by nature and the outdated myths we once relied upon in our feeble attempt to control nature (e.g. subservience to the gods on Olympus). But if rationality is simply concerned with optimizing our status within a society defined by relations between capital and labor, the public interest becomes rigidly preoccupied with material living standards rather than the ‘emergence from self-imposed immaturity’ that philosopher Immanuel Kant defined as the essence of enlightenment.
The culmination of all this is alienation, a condition in which the material conditions of life confront us as hostile powers. There is no visceral consciousness given to the inherent justice of the social order in which the material conditions of life are enjoyed. Science and technology create the mirage of improved living standards while doing nothing to dissolve the social tension resulting from a division of resources between those who rule and those who are ruled. In capitalism, the bourgeoisie focus only on the determination of means to preserve or enhance their standing within the existing social order. Thus, the basic institutions of private property, rule of law, and class identity endure without disruption. The victory over nature is a victory for oppressors at the expense of the oppressed. The owners of the means of production exploit workers by putting them to work while living off the profits derived from selling the goods workers produce. The worker is a slave to the unrelenting competition of the marketplace, and when he does find a job, he finds himself ‘alienated’ from his labor because the goods he produces with his own hands are lifted from his hands, sold on the market, and returned to him in the form of a wage that is insufficient in body and mind. The owner of the means of production is the heartless fat cat that amasses capital while paying a paltry wage to workers who are the foundational source of all value and profit. The division of labor reduces the worker to a cog in the industrial machine, giving him a wage, but stripping him of the dignity and self-possession one cultivates by laying claim to the goods he produces, not to mention giving him little or no protection against long hard hours in a hot dusty sweatshop or the stale confines of a cubicle.
Exploitation, then, is a direct legacy of the Enlightenment. For Marx, exploitation meant the naked extraction of surplus value from the worker and the resulting alienation of the proletariat. For the authors of the Dialectic, exploitation was manifest in a system of social relations between, for example, Simon Cowell-like captains of entertainment and the fledgling artists they absorb into the institutions (what they call the ‘culture industry’, and what Marx would call the ‘superstructure’) which force-feed the commodification of technological and artistic ‘progress’ to the masses. Material progress is a shibboleth that upholds and preserves the control of the titans over the fates of the fledgling artists who internalize the shibboleths of stardom and its wealth and fame. This is not unlike restrictive social orders of old. Whether it is slavery in ancient societies or serfdom in medieval feudal orders or spiritual indoctrination in religious societies, the keepers of customs ensure that members of a tribe or society adhere to the traditions which ultimately enrich and sustain the power of those who keep the customs.
Enlightenment was supposed to free mankind from myth, but instead it cultivated a form of rationality that accommodated the mind of man to the ideology of a capitalist order that promised enhancements in material well-being in exchange for obedience to the efficiencies of mass production. But those who own the means of production were the new keepers of a ‘culture industry’ which masterfully harvests the compliance of the oppressed: ‘The consumers are the workers and salaried employees, the farmers and petty bourgeois. Capitalist production hems them in so tightly, in body and soul, that they unresistingly succumb to whatever is proffered to them. However, just as the ruled have always taken the morality dispensed to them by the rules more seriously than the rulers themselves, the defrauded masses today cling to the myth of success still more ardently than the successful. They, too, have their aspirations. They insist unwaveringly on the ideology by which they are enslaved.’ Enlightenment, in short, had become just like the myths it was supposed to uproot.
My introduction to so-called ‘Western Marxism’ arrived after spending a summer working as a research intern at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. While commuting to Boston every day, I was struck by the horrible monotony of the daily grind. Each day, I saw the same commuters boarding the same train to go to the same jobs in the same corporate buildings in downtown Boston. They had been doing this routine for years, and would continue to do it for years to come. As for me, the routine would thankfully last only for the summer. I couldn’t wait to get back to school. I didn’t want to work for a wage, but for the daemon of my soul.
The contrast between the boring daily grind and grinding away at an inner passion of the soul (in my case, learning) much enamored me to the idea that capitalism was fundamentally flawed, not simply because capital accrues to a small coterie of clueless and privileged fat cats, but because man is invariably not free to pursue his true passions. Whatever the profession, most of us are chumps who punch the clock to work in jobs that do not excite or inspire us, merely to pay the bills and, we hope, have enough time left over to indulge our addictions to (in today’s world) iPhones, social media, Netflix binge-watching, podcasts, or perhaps the opioids that have become an epidemic in our country.
Was this what awaited me after graduation? If my father’s fate was any indication, then the answer was yes. My father was a poet who drove a taxicab to earn his meager living, and it was because of him that I found a topic to research during my summer internship. A colleague at the Fed passed along a story to me about medallion taxicabs in Boston. I decided to follow up on it with the vague surmise that I might have special insight given that my father was in the business. In truth, I never found the business especially interesting. It was instead a mind-numbing grind that limited the time my father could devote to the avocation he loved, while the fatigue after a long shift led him to spend a good fraction of his leisure time recovering from the labor of work rather than devoting his energy to his labor of love. Embittered as my father may have been, however, he never complained about his station in life in a way that prompted him to question the inherent justice of a society that forced him to drive a taxi (or when he was younger, paint houses) instead of spending all his time writing poetry.
But I took a different view of the matter as I began to study and write about the industry. In the late 90s, a major controversy in the industry involved the leasing of taxicabs. For generations, taxi fleets hired drivers as employees. Many in the industry considered the employer-employee relationship a better arrangement than the lessor-lessee relationship that was rapidly becoming the norm. Instead of being hired as employees, drivers were finding themselves forced to sign on as lessees. The driver was not an employee dependent upon his employer for income and benefits. Rather, he was an independent contractor who was wholly responsible for what he earned above the lease rate.
Leasing instigated a divisive debate in an industry where a half-century of municipal regulations had restricted the supply of taxi licenses (called ‘medallions’ in many cities). In New York City, one medallion could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. High rents could also be observed in other cities as well. Since the lease rate was in part a reflection of the value of medallions, drivers seemed to be subsidizing owners who sat back and collected the fees from renting out their medallion cabs. For a budding Marxist, the portrait of an industry in which rich medallion owners leased out taxicabs to poor drivers who could not afford their own medallions was a stark example of exploitation. It was a blatant division of power between lessor owners of medallion cabs (i.e. the owners of the means of production) and lessee taxi drivers. Never mind that the owner might have incurred a lot of debt to buy a medallion, or that a fleet owner was not simply a rich fat cat sitting on a pile of gold, but had invested millions of dollars of risk capital in taxi fleet operations over the course of many years of learning and mastering the business. What mattered to me was that an owner leased out a taxicab to a driver and collected the daily or weekly lease rate. Drivers worked long hard hours to pay a high lease rate (because of the high medallion value, which was theoretically related to the discounted lifetime stream of lease payments) and went home with a surplus that was barely subsistence level. Suffice to say that activists in the industry were concerned about a division of resources between owners who were akin to absentee landlords and taxi drivers who were akin to ‘urban sharecroppers’.
As the Marxist son of a taxi driver, I got hooked on this story of exploitation, which was not simply about subsistence-level earnings, but about the damage to body and soul from working long hours day after day instead of doing what one loves, which, in my father’s case, was writing poetry. By the time I was a senior in college, I was determined to examine this topic in much greater depth as the theme of my senior economics thesis. But alas, economists in the department were not buying it. In the economics department, among students and professors, Marx was not so much despised as he was ignored. He was irrelevant, a relic of the past whose labor theory of value had little to offer the modern science of economics. I was inclined to attribute the indifference of students to an ideological adherence to capitalism that one readily found on a Penn campus dominated by the Wharton business school in the Wall Street heyday of the late-1990s. But to encounter outright antipathy from academic professors was to experience a cognitive dissonance that seemed to signify something important.
Indeed, I started to have misgivings which ultimately kindled my divorce from Marx. After encountering pushback from my thesis advisor when I broached a Marx-themed thesis, I went on to write a prize-winning thesis in economics that involved interviewing over two hundred taxicab drivers in Philadelphia, gathering data on revenues, costs, demographics, and other variables that I used to analyze the economic effects of leasing in the Philadelphia taxicab industry. I ultimately discovered that leasing was an efficiency-enhancing arrangement, in contrast to a widespread belief that owner-drivers were better drivers because they were more invested in the business. I found that lease drivers generated more revenue per day, were less likely to receive a ticket, and received fewer summonses per year than the owner-driver. Lease drivers seemed motivated to maximize revenue and minimize cost since every dollar above the lease rate was theirs to keep. They were efficient, motivated, and empowered. Having found support for my advisor’s initial hypothesis that leasing solved the moral hazard of traditional revenue-sharing schemes between fleet owners and drivers, Marx never meant the same to me.
The labor theory of value or historical materialism could not account for the discovery that taxi drivers did not turn out to be impoverished and inefficient ‘urban sharecroppers’. They were more efficient and arguably better off as independent contractors. They could be their own boss, drive as much or as little as they wanted, and take home everything above a fixed lease rate. Their earnings potential might be determined by supply and demand, and may have reflected the rents associated with a fixed supply of medallions. But that was not because of exploitation. Supply and demand are simple facts of life in all economies (central planners might try to say otherwise, but in the long run, no society can escape the inconveniences of scarcity), and the lease fees and rents associated with high medallion values were the direct result of ill-conceived municipal regulations, not malevolent price-gouging by heartless capitalists.
If my faith in Marx was not yet broken, it had suffered a wound that would ultimately prove to be mortal. I went to work for an economic consulting firm after graduation, and after a few years of private sector experience, Marx was dead to me. As an undergrad in the ivory tower, you could get away with late-night bullshit fests about capitalism, alienation, and exploitation. But in the real world of conference calls and client meetings, where there were real money and reputations at stake, Marx was as persona non-grata as a call center representative who answers every call by saying ‘I cannot help you’. There was no point bringing up Marx even in casual conversation lest you come across as a crackpot, not the kind of reputation you want to have when you’re trying to earn a living and stay respectable among colleagues who have PhDs in economics. In a few years, when I wrote my personal essays as part of applications to graduate programs in economics, I made no mention of my undergraduate fascination with Marx. Years after that, when I took up study to earn the CFA charter, a top designation in the finance industry, not once did I come across Marx in the curriculum.
It has been several years since I gave Marx the time of day, or since I thought seriously about the influence Marx exerted on me in my undergraduate years. But in recent years, I am frequently reminded of my undergraduate excursions in Marxism whenever I consider the unhealthy obsession with exploitation as a central force in historical developments that has found a home in the echo chambers of social justice activism.
According to Friedrich Engels, Marx’s co-author in The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s main proposition is ‘that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions, and class struggles.’
This rhetoric of revolution comes straight out of a playbook of the social justice movement. While not necessarily focused explicitly or exclusively on proletarian revolution, the social justice movement shares a strong, almost fanatical, belief in systemic victimization as a virus that infects every cell of the social body. The mutations of history generate cultural norms and memes that collectively encode a social ideology connecting each cell to every other cell in the social body, ensuring that the body serves the interests of a ruling class. The DNA of the social body is thus the DNA of oppression, and it has wired our brains so thoroughly that we are complicit in our own ‘false consciousness’, like in the movie The Matrix, in which intelligent machines subdue humans by plugging them into a vast infrastructural grid, and they spend their lives sitting like embryos hooked up to a grid that sucks out their bioelectricity while tranquilizing their minds with a simulated reality.
For the social justice warrior, the fundamental concern of justice is emancipation from the grid of oppression and exploitation, by way of personal liberation and vindication, or more ominously, by way of pro-active social engineering, which mobilizes all the resources of McCarthyite thought-police brigades and their zealot’s brand of political correctness to rewire the DNA of the social body, or by outright revolution to force change by way of social upheaval and, when the chaos clears, by way of kumbaya consensus if possible, by decree if necessary. The common interest in overcoming oppression, and the common identity of being a victim (i.e. the intersectionality of social justice solidarity and activism), forms a kind of class struggle that converts social justice dogma into a twenty-first century incarnation of the Marxist creed.
But like Marx advocating revolution without ever clearly defining what the world of communism would look like, the cause of social justice seems to lie in nothing more profound than an insistence that victims are the true heroes in history, and that the dead are martyrs while the living are potential saviors and redeemers. Social justice becomes a crusade that turns impassioned activists into foot soldiers in a campaign for change and redemption, often without a clear vision of what a changed world will look like other than a vague notion that it will be a world without oppression and exploitation. A bona fide social justice warrior finds common cause with alleged victims and takes up the fight against ‘isms’ and phobias that jointly make up a historical construct which is fundamentally defective because vested interests and victims are not only allowed to co-exist, but form a symbiotic relationship between guardians of the status quo and the disempowered victims on whom they parasitically feed.
To join the cause of social justice is to believe that social norms form the rudiments of social structures that perpetuate systemic injustices like toxic masculinity and patriarchy, misogyny and sexism, institutional racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all other manifestations of discrimination, exclusion, and disempowerment. To join the social justice crusade is to commit oneself to reengineering the long process of socialization whereby children learn from their observations of parents, role models, teachers, politicians, athletes, celebrities, and other adult influences how to emulate the pieties of unjust norms and attitudes. It is to understand that what we believe is what we are indoctrinated with, and what we are indoctrinated with oppresses us. Internalization is at the root of everything, and it leads to exploitation everywhere we look. Justice may be hard, but it is not complex. It is simply a matter of ripping out from the roots the ideologies which lie beneath the veneer of false consciousness that ultimately makes all of us compliant in our own victimization.
The upshot is a Hegelian conception of historical justice as a Manichaen struggle between oppressors and their victims that ends in the overthrow of oppressors and the vindication of the underdog. Social justice literature turns into agitprop that sacrifices nuance in favor of the same kind of sanctimonious moralism or vindictive indignation that taints the guardians of the status quo when they unleash a reactionary backlash of denial and vitriol. Like Marx overlooking that the owner of a mill is a more complex human being than a complacent steward of material interests unconsciously or deliberately upholding the injustices of an ossified ideological regime, the social justice warrior views people as little more than socialized beings who embody the ‘isms’ and phobias of the zeitgeist in which they live.
This kind of self-consciousness breeds a culture of hyper-vigilance that we see when well-meaning concerns about insensitivities toward victims turn into a consciousness-raising campaign to police micro-aggressions, inciting students on university campuses to take offense at the slightest hint of inappropriate comments and gestures even though the notion of a micro-aggression is far from a clear or compelling concept. We see it when self-appointed gatekeepers of indigenous cultures feel an obligation to section off cultures into purist realms where only native inhabitants are permitted to interact with cultural artifacts, and even then only with the sanction of pious experts, thus (for example) appropriating from artistic enterprise the very essence of what art is supposed to do, which is place oneself in another’s shoes in the service of a story that, if it is well done, is a quintessential demonstration of empathy and understanding rather than an act of cultural appropriation. We see it when the human susceptibility to confirmation bias leaves the social justice warrior trying to explain almost every subjective perception of racial disparity as another instantiation of white privilege, giving short shrift to the often spurious link between correlation and causation while transforming a debate about what privileges are worth having and what privileges are not worth having into a hardline insistence that there is nothing left to do but teach people to ‘check’ their privilege. We see it when social science falls prey to widespread belief that the Implicit Association Test is a robust test of internalized racial bias, despite the surprising lack of evidence revealed by authoritative reporters and scientists.
None of this is to suggest that overcoming oppression is an unworthy objective. I highly recommend that one read Charles Dickens’s novels about poverty in Victorian England, Tolstoy’s novels that display compassionate respect for the nobility of the serf, Mark Twain’s depictions of the evils of racism in nineteenth-century America, James Baldwin’s essays on the vacuity of American film when it comes to the topic of race, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and innumerable other books that offer penetrating insights into suffering and oppression. But these works do so with an eye to nuance and universal empathy rather than with the doctrinaire puritanism of social justice warriors who are inclined, like Marx, to reduce every aspect of society—every attitude, every institution, every conflict—to a grand Manichean historical drama that pits oppressors against oppressed, trying to do for social justice what Darwin did for biology, or Newton did for physics. But history and society and human nature are far too complex for myopic reductionism. When stern polemics replace intellectual honesty, there is little room for shades of gray, and a lessee taxi driver becomes another oppressed member of the proletariat rather than an independent contractor who is more efficient and motivated than complacent owner-drivers who may themselves be among the oppressed, too burdened by medallion debt to feel empowered by their livelihoods.
In the modern social justice crusade, the cause of justice focuses on oppressive historical constructs. History is not about what happened, but about who won and who lost, and the winners and losers are synonymous with oppressors and victims. Marx may have lost the war of ideas, but he has not lost his influence. Not if the social justice warriors of the twenty-first century are any indication.
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