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Against idealism

Max Weber, an anti-Marxian idealist
Max Weber, an anti-Marxian idealist

[The following thoughts are from this book.]

It’s funny that people often deprecate Marxian materialism as an explanation of society and human behavior, given that virtually no one cares much about ideas. People think they do, but basically they’re wrong. They insist that ideas, ideological motivations, and spiritual matters are very important to them....but then proceed to ignore them in their lives. Just listen to people talk and you’ll see they’re essentially unfamiliar with ideas and don’t think about them very often. Their understanding of the world is utterly superficial; their ideological commitments exist mainly on the level of words; quotidian personal interests are what preoccupy them. Food, money, success, power, relationships, entertainment, etc. Every so often religion or politics will come up in conversation and people will get strangely animated for a few minutes, but that isn’t very significant. Anyway, most of the time a person’s commitments to certain ideas, such as they are, derive from their reflection of his or her interests, or their being a sublimation of his or her interests. Some selflessness might be involved—and with many people, such as dedicated activists, that’s a very important element—but even then, of course, the ideas are merely abstract reifications of concrete interests or feelings or modes of interaction with others. “Material” realities, that is. But I’ve strayed from my original point.

I’d also note, incidentally, that often when people object to “ideas” they’re really objecting to changing their way of doing things. Religious conservatives oppose liberal reformers in large part because they’re used to doing things (rituals) a certain way, and the thought of changing that makes them profoundly uncomfortable. The human mind/brain, after all, like that of other animals, is a pretty “conservative” thing: it finds comfort, so to speak, in patterns, habits, routines, rituals repeated again and again, such that encountering or doing new things can be very disturbing. Not always, especially not in the case of children (although observe how they react upon meeting strangers or when their parents force them, for whatever reason, to change some habit or discard some toy they’re used to). Curiosity and learning can be a source of great pleasure. But changing one’s behavior or attitudes is hard, sometimes impossible. Sartre notwithstanding, the self is not “free” in this way. Therefore many people object to the “idea” of gay marriage, because it hasn’t been a part of their routine. It isn’t how they have lived their lives—they find it challenging to their ways of acting and thinking—so they oppose it.


People usually think of religion as an example of the importance of ideas, and to an extent they’re right. But not to the extent that is commonly thought. Religion is not only ideas, after all, but also institutions. Social roles. Modes of interaction. And simply an excuse to get together with people once or several times a week, to socialize and act out rituals that reaffirm community. These kinds of behavior, as opposed to mere thinking about various transcendental ideas, are the most important aspect of religion for most people. And one reason why religion is so tenacious in the modern world is that institutions are tenacious, especially institutions with a lot of power and resources backing them up.[1] It isn’t only “ideas”; it is generation after generation being socialized into institutions, to respect power-structures centered around priests and bishops and reverends and pastors and so on—an especially easy thing to do because such respect gets people communal affection and allows them to participate in a significant part of social life. In the light of so many satisfying and self-affirming communal rituals molding one from one’s childhood, it is easy to understand why millions would believe in God and try to act as he wants (because that means acting as the community wants). “Ideas” are in this case, as in most others, little more than reflections or residues of social behavior. By being influenced by the idea of God, one is being influenced by social structures that one has internalized.


A riposte to an idealist.— I can imagine that a contemporary “idealist” might defend the importance of ideas and ideologies by invoking the Tea Party and its Republican representatives, most of whom are definitely ideologically driven. I would respond that, yes, an ideology can be important in this way, but only because it serves the interests of some set of institutions. Sectors of business are funding and helping to organize these ideological movements because it is in their interest to do so. They are blasting society with billions of dollars’ worth of propaganda and political-campaign money. The very idiocy of the Reaganite, Tea-Party ideology, together with its popularity, is evidence of the power of moneyed interests—because unless people had been subjected for decades to well-funded public-relations campaigns, they would not have succumbed to such a stupid ideology. Business propaganda is so ubiquitous it has destroyed people’s common sense. Thus arises an ideological movement like the Tea Party, which offers solutions to people’s material grievances that promise to aggravate their grievances. (For instance, Tea Partiers hate Wall Street, but they want to rein in the power of the federal government, which is the only thing that can regulate Wall Street.)

So, in short, the Tea Party, far from being proof of the power of ideas, is proof of the power of wealthy institutions.


You, nationalist, are an idiot.— You can say whatever you want about the importance of nationalism and its challenge to Marxism; in the end, the fact remains that class, or economic and environmental situation, is more immediately important to people than “nation,” which is an imaginary construction and took centuries of warfare and indoctrination just to be recognized by ordinary people. Peasants have always been more concerned with survival and their immediate situation than “nationality”—even since the 19th century, when they were finally made aware of the principle of nationality. Serfs were always more invested in their struggles against the nobility than in some educated elite’s preoccupation with “national identity” or whatnot. As for the thousands of years of tribal wars and barbarian invasions and imperial clashes and all that shitheap of history, that was mostly a function of the quest for economic power, material resources, material domination. In recent centuries, yes, a few other things have been added into the mix, which interact with political and economic power in complicated ways. But these newer principles, such as ethnicity, are ultimately secondary to class domination and subordination, because without resources (and their specific distribution, determined by class relations) nothing is possible. Whatever social, cultural, and political institutions there are, and whatever purposes they’re directed towards, they need resources first, and those depend on modes of production and distribution, which entail specific power-structures with specific interests. “Nation”? Get real.


Class, race, and gender.— The significance of each of these is multidimensional. Class, however, seems to have a unique sociological importance insofar as class structures, or economic structures, constitute society’s essential “infrastructure,” the skeleton that is fleshed out in culture, politics, ideological trends, etc. Race and gender, by contrast, are primarily subjective identities, not objective structures rigorously defined and enforced in the ways that capitalist class-relations are.[2] In imagination, one can picture rearrangements of the occupants of positions in class structures; black people could occupy capitalist positions and whites occupy wage-earning positions, or the current relative places of most women and men could be reversed in the same way. And society would continue to have basically the same institutional configuration it does now, with lower wage-earners viciously exploited—only these would be white men. In fact, blacks and women have made advances along these lines, even as the real sources of mass oppression have barely been touched due to the lack of institutional change. To change the institutional structures and so really change society, capitalist class-relations have to be abolished.


Concentration of power and resources has, from the very beginning, been the overwhelming source of the world’s ills. (Not religion, as Richard Dawkins et al. would have you believe.) Abolishing it is the sine qua non for establishing a humane society. –Yes, it is that simple. All the sophisticated analyses of historians and economists and philosophers boil down to the fact that it’s imperative to abolish the concentration of wealth, and therewith the concentration of power.

[1] In the U.S., for instance, since the 1970s conservative business sectors have subsidized the propagation of fundamentalist religion.

[2] To be more accurate, race and gender are “objective structures” to the extent that they more or less coincide with economic relations. Forms of racial oppression fit into forms of class oppression.


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