Monday, October 5, 2009

In Praise of Rousseau and Marx

The title, to put it mildly, should surprise anyone familiar with my political and intellectual views. But those views do evolve, even if slowly and in within narrow confines.
Of course, I still consider both men to bear at least some responsibility for the awful things done in the name of secular salvation religions in the twentieth century. Both men, but especially Marx, promoted ways of thinking that, after many twists, ended in the Gulag Archipelago, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields. These include the idea that there is only one right form of positive freedom, to be achieved, if necessary, contrary to the wishes of actual people (“force them to be free”); the resulting fundamental intolerance of diversity; the certainty that they (especially Marx) knew the future, a belief that supported an ends-justify-the-means mentality; Marx’s support for a dictatorship of the proletariat and, within the proletariat, for the far-sighted guidance of bourgeois thinkers – such as himself.
On a very different, and much less consequential, scale, at the core of Marx’s thought are all sorts of untenable principles. Jon Elster (Making Sense of Marx) and other members of the so-called no-bullshit Marxism school have rightly excoriated the Hegelian elements in Marx: the belief in dialectic, in teleology, etc.
However, I come not to bury Rousseau and Marx, but to praise them. For what, though?
My central point involves no more than an application of John Stuart Mill’s plea for the value of intellectual diversity, even in the case of thinkers who committed many solecisms (Mill explicitly refers to Rousseau in this regard). Rousseau and Marx sketch an alternative model of human well-being, one which I believe it has become especially important in the past decade or so to keep alive.
For both of them, the key to living well is living within oneself. That is, they want people to live less – or not at all – for the gaining of external approval or values, whether in the form of money, power, or prestige, and more for the intrinsic value of their own actions – above all, the creativity of work – and for the satisfactions of non-instrumental sociability.
I first engaged more deeply with Rousseau and Marx while teaching in Harvard’s social studies program in the mid-2000s. At the time, my reading (and, I have to admit, probably my teaching) was often dominated by my deep dislike of the characteristics of their thought mentioned at the outset.
Over the last year or two, however, I find myself thinking more often – and more positively – about their vision of human freedom and well-being. Why the change? Mainly, I think it’s because of changes in technology, or at least my exposure to it.
First, it was only between 2007 and 2009, while out in Boulder, that I had cable TV for the first time. When I came home tired after work, I turned to the soft consolation of the TV far more often than I had wanted to. I knew, even as I was doing it, that watching snippets of the UFC, reality shows about Alaskan fishermen or Oregonian loggers, and even book readings on C-Span was not how I wanted to be spending my time. Even following the daily jostling and jiggling of the presidential campaign on CNN last fall seemed - deep, deep down, after an evening gorging myself on it - unworthy. But I continued to do it, because it did feel good, at least in the short term. However, I gained a very different perspective – in Rousseauvian or Marxist terms, I discovered positive freedom – quite by accident this summer. Namely, I had no cable, indeed no TV whatsoever, for parts of the summer. And when I THEN, on occasion, stumbled across Anderson Cooper’s breathless reports on the Michael Jackson murder investigation or some “breaking news” about Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, I recognized quite clearly just how trivial and unedifying – but addicting – these news stories are. The contrast was salutary and has led me to go without TV in my new apartment.
Second, as a teacher I’ve become much more cognizant of how students bombard themselves with stimuli, through Ipods and music, but above all through cell phones and texting. In class this year, despite several attempts, I haven’t been able to stamp out texting. I’m not sure whether texting has just become more prevalent in the last couple of years, or whether the students at my last two schools engaged in it more. I suppose, in part, my disapproval stems from evaluation of the students’ “life chances” to begin with. If Harvard (and similar) students fall into this addiction, other incentives will drag most of them out of it before it becomes too disruptive. At many other schools, where the students are less motivated and less disciplined to begin with, I think the temptation only exacerbates serious existing handicaps.
Both of these activities – TV watching and texting (or otherwise using gadgets for stimulation and mood-management) – can easily become addictions. I want to HIGHLY recommend two books that shed light on the pervasive presence and the history of addictions, respectively: Richard Herrnstein, The Matching Law, and Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain.
I believe that my familiarity with Rousseau and Marx has allowed me to gather and process these disparate observations of myself and others in a more coherent, and useful, way than I otherwise would have been capable of. Without their pleas for human well-being centered on internal valuation and creativity, rather than external stimulation and consumption, I might have been frustrated by these recent cultural and technological developments. But I think I wouldn’t have sensed so clearly how I might live differently. Their ideas, then, helped me to crystallize an alternative.
I end, as I began, with a critique of Rousseau’s and Marx’s views. What I’ve just talked about is a personal response to social phenomena. It’s my private answer. It’s not a political program. As deleterious as I think these addictions are, I wouldn’t endorse Rousseau’s or Marx’s political responses to similar developments in their time. For one, both of them lack an adequate conception of human nature (perhaps understandable given when they were writing, but not understandable for those people today who are still sympathetic to their politics. The Origins of Species, after all, was published 150 years ago.) My leftist friends today often deplore the culture industry’s or capitalism’s role in these trends. They ignore the contribution made by human nature, human frailty. And hence they underestimate the difficulty and cost of stamping out the addictions. But this topic – that central error of the left: ignoring what biology has revealed about human nature – must be the subject of another posting.
For now, and in this limited sense, I praise Rousseau and Marx.


  1. David, I'm confused. How are you defining positive freedom? My sense of the term is either individual or collective self-governance or self-realization. The link between positive freedom and not watching TV is not clear to me here.

    I hear you re: students and texting. Being on what I call "the front lines of social problems" as a teacher (like a cop, or social worker, except they see much darker shades of similar social problems) has led me to think that the link between technology and generational change is under-appreciated.

    Too often, generations are defined in terms of big events (e.g., the Great Depression and WWII for the "Greatest Generation," the Vietnam War and counter-culture for the Boomers) yet the Millenials born about 1980 to 2000 are defined much less in terms of big events than technology, especially the internet and the cell phone. Yet what a profound effect, at least from the point of view of this teacher.

    My initial sense: Americans live in a largely un-if not anti-intellectual culture, but the advent of cell phones and the internet is intellectually stunting at least as much as these technologies are socially and politically empowering. I hope some social scientist is measuring the amount of time young people spend texting and "surfing" the internet, and the content of that texting and surfing (if we can capture such without getting sued). My guess is that little of that texting and surfing leads to learning much other than how smashed Joey got last weekend, or consuming the latest porn or Hollywood gossip.

  2. Thanks for this, David. Very interesting. I wish we could sit around the table at Grendels and talk.

    In the spirit of the Grendels table, here's a question. What in Rousseau or Marx gives you something you would not find in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments? I'm talking specifically about what has helped you to confront this world of gadgets, of incessant television and texting. What do Marx or Rossueau give you beyond Smith in terms of the importance of living in oneself and not in the opinion of others--at least if you seek wisdom and virtue (as opposed to wealth and greatness).

  3. Paul and Daniel,

    Very interesting comments. Paul, I think you're spot on about the subtle, but quite powerful, effects of technology in shaping generations. I hadn't really thought enough about that. The connection between positive freedom and not watching TV is just what you imply: if watching TV, texting etc. are addictions, then breaking free is an example of self-governance.
    Daniel, very good question - almost wickedly good, given my predilection for Smith. My best answer would be that the very qualities I don't appreciate in R and M - the single-mindedness, the lack of subtlety - are, in this case, actually strengths. Their call for a different way of living are so crystal-clear that they allow one to think differently even in the midst of an external-stimulation blizzard such as we are now experiencing. Smith is so balanced and subtle that I don't think - or at least I wonder whether - he can serve as effectively in this rallying function. But I'll ponder the question some more.
    I also wanted to add a thought to the end of my post, re: private vs. public solutions. My emphasis here on the private, and rejection of grand public solutions, doesn't mean I'm indifferent to or oppose any kind of broader policy. But it should steer clear of the pitfalls of massive social engineering. At least two kinds of acceptable interventions come to mind. 1) Local rules. For example, I would have no problem if a (my!) university banned cell phones (the ban would have to have teeth, though, as I've discovered in my classroom) or somehow disabled them. This would be a local entity's decision and presumably not all colleges would follow suit. The students could still choose to attend a college that allowed texting, etc, if it was so important to them. 2) Nudge - or libertarian paternalism. This is an idea launched by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a behavioral economist and innovative legal scholar and now advisor to Obama, respectively. (Their book is titled Nudge; I think this movement of libertarian paternalism will be very important.) This involves broader interventions than the first tack, indeed it involves government policy. But rather than dictating outcomes it tries to use our knowledge of people's innate tendencies to shape effective policies, while still preserving ultimate liberty. For example, it matters tremendously whether saving for a 401 or 403K plan is opt-in or opt-out. In each case, about 90% of people will simply stick with the default - an instance of general human inertia. So government's choice of the default can have a dramatic effect on the outcome, while still allowing people, ultimately, to choose their own way.
    I'd be particularly interested to hear my leftist friends' thoughts on this question of private vs. public solutions, and also on libertarian paternalism.