Yes, it’s not only outrageous, it’s darkly farcical—kind of grotesque. The fact that good liberals like Obama can preside over that system, or equivalent figures back home, for me, surely ought to clear the scales from some peoples eyes, that if that’s what you mean by “left”—the left is busily supporting the system which is robbing the poor to pay the rich—that’s when I think, considering some other kind of political alternative becomes most relevant.
When capitalists start talking about capitalism, you know the system is in trouble. I think that’s always a kind of small indication of a certain crisis, a certain awareness, where normally it doesn’t have to be aware of itself. I think the book probably comes out of the same situation: when capitalism is in crisis, it becomes newly visible, and becomes a possible object of criticism. Though I have to say on the other hand, I never quite know why I write a book. It’s a strangle psychological thing, I find myself in the middle of writing a book, I very rarely have a clear conception of the origin. I can very rarely say why I’m doing this. And sometimes it’s only when looking back 10 years later that I can say what the book was about and how it came about, and so on. So yes, there’s obvious reasons for the book now, but I think there are also more subterranean motivations going on that I’ll probably know about in ten years’ time.
Some other countries, for example Ireland and Iceland, responded to their financial catastrophes by throwing out right-wing parties. But the U.S. has been a different story. What’s America’s deal with Marxism?
It’s probably relevant to the book that I live in Ireland, in Dublin, given that Ireland is a particularly tragic case because no sooner than it had become affluent for the first time in its existence—it had a brief span maybe 10 years of that and then it’s gone into deep decline, so it’s a particularly poignant situation.
As for the States, I don’t know, it always strikes a European outsider like myself just how much more aggressive and upfront and explicit ideology in general is. Americans–not American individuals, but the American system—tends to wear its ideology on its sleeve, far more flamboyantly than the sort of devious and sometimes hypocritical Europeans. I think a side of that is that we European academics don’t use the word “hired” to a job, we talk about being “appointed,” whereas American language is much more concerned to “tell it like it is.”
I think in general the situation is writ large in the States, but things always seem to us Europeans a little bit more palpable and over the top. Of course it’s also the case that you don’t have a free political system in the sense that all you have to choose from are two capitalist parties, whereas even with the shrunken political scope in Europe, there are occasionally some opportunities of having really social democratic parties. Although you’ve got some very fine traditions of latent militancy in the States that are too quickly forgotten about, there hasn’t been the same socialist tradition and therefore the same range of alternative options, I suppose.
Has capitalism moved global politics to the right?
Well it has of course, but that’s been going on for a while, but I think the new thing is not that, but the almighty to shock to that system that the crisis has produced. Globalization was on the agenda as far back as The Communist Manifesto, but I think what’s happened since then is the puncturing of this arrogant confidence that market forces are a kind of providential deity in themselves. But I wrote the book, in fact, not so much about capitalism, but as the title says, about Marx himself, because of all the great thinkers, that it’s hard to think of one who is the victim of so much ignorance and prejudice. There are clear political reasons for this; I don’t think that if Marx had been a more centragram figure that would have happened…there aren’t the same sort of feelings about, say, John Stuart Mill.
You’ve written about the rise of “anti-theoretical” language in the U.S. in the post-9/11 years, which functions to shut down debate about the morality of our government’s response to violence. Even in my limited experience, conversations about Marx tend to unfold in a similar fashion, instantly bringing out the most extreme labels and most comical caricatures.
It is quite extraordinary how grossly caricatured Marx’s own work has been and how people can get away with that–that when it comes to far left thinkers, you know, the gloves are off. So that so many accounts of Marxism reveal the ignorance of the commentator rather than anything about Marx himself. Of course I begin the book by pointing out that I’m by no means an uncritical adherent of his work, several points of the book take him to task, but I hope that you know a reasonably disinterested reader would find the way I present Marx as something of a surprise. I hope they would think, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that, for example, he was against the state, or that he believed not in labor but in leisure, or that he was very suspicious of the idea of equality.’ You know? I just hope that I’ve presented a more accurate version of his work that if people want to reject him, which of course they’re entirely free to do, they don’t buy their rejection on the cheap. I think many liberal and conservative commentators buy their rejection of Marx on the cheap, and it’s therefore not worth anything. If they are confronted with a more accurate or I hope more attractive version of Marx, they can still reject it, but they’ll have to pay for it more.
To tell you the truth, I’m not that concerned about people being Marxists; I’m very concerned that there are socialists of some kind. I just see Marx as a particular mainstream current in the socialist and labor movements. Obviously a very vital and important one, but it’s less important to me that people sign on the dotted line, as it were, for all of Marx’s doctrines, that they see that socialism has provided a powerful response to the problems of capitalism and that they give that a fair hearing. But it is, as you suggest, very difficult in the States to do that to the moment. Marxism tends in the States to mean academic Marxism, overwhelmingly, it’s something that gets taught alongside post-structuralism and feminism and post-colonialism. I once arrived at Duke to teach Marxism and they said, “If you teach Marxism here they will flock to your classes, you won’t even be able to get in the door. If you teach it five miles down the road, they’ll shoot you through the head.”
Do you feel it’s become passé even in academic circles?
That has been happening, and has very much to do with postmodernism, which has said that all those grand theories are over and a new kind of pragmatism is here to stay. But let’s not forget that all that stuff about the “end of history” was before 9/11, that one of the great ironies that no sooner had people come to blow the whistle on grand narratives and declare them over than a new quite unexpected grand narrative broke violently out, namely the coming conflict between capitalism and the Koran, or rather a certain perverted reading of the Koran, which are likely to dominate the next decades in terms of global politics. It’s always very rash to declare history over, it has a habit of disproving those prophecies–in fact, that has happened before, several times. So the West, still bathing in the complacency of having won the Cold War–I think that’s a very important moment–thought they’d wrapped it all up, and actually proved completely wrong. It was ironically partly that spirit of of triumphalism which then caused the Islamic backlash.
We’re now in a different situation….postmodern pragmatism is not going to prove enough in the fight with radical Islam. Of course on the other hand there’s the nasty prospect that the alternative to that will be some kind of will be some kind of increasingly chauvinist, quasi-fascist order. But I do think that we’re in a new, much more ideologically explicit situation. But the problem for the West in a way is whether it has depleted the kind of resources it needs to confront that kind of enemy. I mean, given its pragmatism, utilitarianism, materialism, secularism, all of that that goes hand in hand with advanced capitalist civilization, I think the question that hasn’t been looked at nearly enough is, what spiritual resources does the West then have?
One of the problems with advanced capitalism is that they don’t require a great deal of belief of their citizens. Now again, good old godly America is among them an exception, but if you take your average advanced capitalist society, the problem is that the citizen is not required to believe very much; indeed, it’s a bit of an embarrassment if they do, certainly in Europe. It’s not the kind of system of which belief is the linchpin. Now if you are then confronting a system in which belief is very much the linchpin, as it is for radical Islam, you’re automatically at a disadvantage. That said I don’t think the so-called War on Terror has much to do with religion. All the evidence seems to be that it’s politically motivated, not religiously motivated, and that most Islamists probably have no better knowledge of the Koran than Charlie Sheen has of the Old Testament.
Is there anything the West can do about this predicament?
It’s very gloomy. The answer to terrorism is justice, it’s trying to repair the sort of the situations which impel certain people into these atrocious acts. Terrorism is an atrocity, I want to make that very plain, but like any other atrocity, it doesn’t go unexplained. It’s not without causes. Some people seem to think that if you try to point out some of the causes of terrorism, you’re agreeing with terrorism. Well I mean, historians point out the causes for the rise of Nazism, but they don’t agree with it.
And you have to combat the popular idea of the psychopathic Islamic extremist who has no motivation other than blind hatred.
I come from Ireland, where there was thirty years of war, and of course you had the same thing there with the IRA. The IRA did some atrocious, appalling things, but the British intelligence people whose job it was to track the IRA knew very well that they weren’t psychopaths–they knew very well they had political motivations even if they didn’t agree with them. Their job was to upstand the IRA, and you can’t beat an enemy without understanding it. So it’s all right for the tabloid newspapers to talk about these fanatics and psychopaths, but the state actually knows better than that.
To come back to my point, I think that the answer to terrorism is justice, but it may be too late for that, because terrorism tends to accumulate a kind of deadly momentum of its own. Which, there’s very little we can do about, apart from being defensive, defending innocent civilians as much as possible. But the history of the West dealing with Islamic societies is a very important element in this whole process, and not want that conservative thinkers want to look at. I mean, I suppose Americans know the CIA created radical Islam in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. The West has had a hand in creating these kind of situations in the Middle East which are partly responsible for terrorism. Terrorists are responsible for terrorism, but they don’t act in a vacuum.
While we’re talking about belief, in your Terry Lectures at Yale in 2008, you described Christianity as both more gloomy than any other ideological tradition about the present and also more absurdly hopeful about the future. You say exactly the same thing about Marxism in the book. What’s going on there?
Christianity believes in what it calls “original sin,” which it sees not as pessimistic but as realistic. People who don’t believe in original sin obviously haven’t been reading the newspaper. And obviously [Christianity] also has a great deal of hope. I think there’s a similar current in Marxism. One of the things that always strikes the European outsider about the States is how much of an upbeat society it is. Europe is a very downbeat place; people don’t on the whole have much hope, they’re buried beneath a very long history of disasters of one kind or another. Because it’s a younger country, partly, America is a much more affirmative place—I mean, to the point where any kind of negativity is regarded almost as a thought crime. You have to talk about you “can” do something, and “success” and not being a “loser,” and if you can’t do it’s because you’re not trying hard enough and that kind of nonsense. To an outsider, the United States seems riddled from end to end with an almost manic belief in itself and in the fact it can do almost anything, and I think this is extremely dangerous.
It’s probably safer to be a good old cynic and pessimist in the European mode than this kind of wide-eyed belief in all possibilities that has created so much damage. Because the beginning of political and moral virtue is realism, is taking a good hard cold look at the limits and difficulties of your situation, and it seems to me that too often in the States that’s swept aside for a kind of, “Oh I can do anything if I try,” and that kind of rubbish. Perhaps in its new situation the States might pause for a moment and just try and learn a few lessons—that not everything is possible, and that it’s probably the declining world power, and its historical trajectory is probably on the down, not the up—and it ought to be realistic about this rather than clinging to these ideals. I’m very very suspicious of idealism of this kind, it always has a slightly manic and dangerous edge to it, encouraging people to believe in things they can’t possibly achieve, and then rejecting them as losers when they can’t. If everyone set their sights more realistically low, it would be a great benefit to everybody.
But in the book, you examine the way Marxism would seem to undermine that Christian view of human nature as inherently sinful. How far apart are the two—are we innately corrupt, or has systemic injustice corrupted us?
Jesus’ famous words on the cross—”Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”—is a shorter version of what I’m saying in the book, that people are impelled by certain motivations they’re not always fully responsible for or in charge of. Another I think very negative aspect of American culture is this assumption that people are absolutely responsible for what they do, an assumption that lands so many people on death row. I think this is partly because [Americans] think the alternative to that is some kind of determinism, that they’re just robots, or playthings or forces. Of course, all the interesting stuff goes on somewhere in between.
So I think one has to insist to insist there is real wickedness that can’t just be explained away, what I sometimes call the social worker case. On the other hand so much of the evil in the world is actually systemic; I think that’s pretty clear. Nice guys can do very horrid sorts of things. I think that is a sort of ground for hope. My position is that those who don’t see some ground for hope are fantasists. It is soberly realistic to think that things could be considerably better than they are. I’m trying there to sketch a position there that avoids the twin dangers of triumphalism and fatalism, all the real stuff goes on somewhere in the middle. Those who deny the possibility of substantial change are living in some cloud cuckoo-land, however much they see themselves as tough-minded cynics, they’re actually fantasists to the core because history disproves them all the time. On the other hand, people whether they’re a certain kind of Marxist or a certain kind of American ideologue who say there are no limits to what we can do are not doing humanity any favors at all. They’re persuading people to forget their finitude, and their fragility, and their materiality, and that will always come to grief.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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