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.