Culture Matters: Western Exceptionalism and Socialist Possibility

The argument I make in this essay is that the working classes of western capitalist countries have benefitted from socioeconomic development in the trans-Atlantic sphere, and that this development provides the instruments for socialist transformation, but that globalism, neoliberalism, and multiculturalism imperil progress and potential.

Complicating the matter is that the situation has summoned, to prowl about on both sides of the Atlantic, the dogs of rightwing nationalism. Worker support for the center-left establishment and multiculturalist policy will not turn back the reactionary tide. On the contrary, it will accelerate the decline of the West and encourage atavisms that feed on cultural decay, for the center-left establishment is the cause of devolution. Structural adjustment, mass immigration, and the promotion of cultural pluralism diminish the working class, weaken democratic institutions, erode national sovereignty, and undermine western culture—the normative system sustaining the dynamic and forward-looking values of humanism, liberalism, rationalism, and secularism. Retrogression makes room for the right and, so, the question before us is, who will defend western civilization against the destructive forces of transnational capitalism?

With few exceptions, workers in the West enjoy greater freedom of speech and expression, higher standards of living, superior welfare services, and more advanced infrastructure compared to countries outside the West. These advantages not only make life better for workers, but they are also the tools workers require to take the world from the peril of late capitalism to a successful socialist future. National identity, a strong republican state and attitude, commitment to the rights of labor, dedication to secularism, social democratic traditions, and access to the public square—all these favor working class politics. And the need for socialism has never been greater. Global climate change is now an existential threat. Overpopulation and mass consumption are exhausting the planet’s resources. The species and its needs and wants (real and created) are exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity. The nonwestern world is waiting for the means to alleviate their own problems; billions suffer economic, patriarchal, political, and religious oppressions.

But an elite assault on working people and the democratic republic, and on the norms and values of the West is dulling the tools of modernization. Our governments have become little more than kleptocracies, arranging for the capitalist plunder of the common wealth. We see the work of the elite in the historic levels of income and wealth inequality, deterioration and privatization of public infrastructure, the looting of the public treasury, disinvestment in education and social welfare, political disorganization, wage stagnation, and burgeoning personal debt. We can see their strategies in the promotion of mass immigration and multiculturalism, a project to shift mass consciousness from acceptance of universal human nature, to be realized in modern humanist legal and social structures guided by scientific rationality, the values of the Enlightenment, to romantic notions of culture and identity conveyed through the relativistic lens of popularized cultural anthropology and history, thinking expressed long ago in the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, who, in the eighteenth century, circumscribed cognition in language and claimed that incommensurable differences between cultures militates against the homogenization supposed by such rationalist philosophers as David Hume.

As Kenan Malik writes in Multiculturalism and its Discontents, we are dissuaded from conceiving of “progress as civilization overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures with their peculiar superstitions, irrational prejudices and outmoded institutions.” This is a Eurocentric view of things. It assumes as true its culture-bound view of human nature. Thus it is an act of hubris to which the West, on account of its sins, is not entitled. The imperialist desire that comes with the notion of modern man explains the Third World. With culture essentialized and implicitly rooted in notions of race in this counter-Enlightenment view of things, the demand that immigrants in the West integrate with its values becomes reconceptualized as racism (indeed, the doctrine of antiracism I have been criticizing on my blog owes much to Herder). Instead, foreign cultures are to be celebrated for their distinctiveness, preserved for the sake of identity, and western peoples and their institutions changed to accommodate them. (But is this not still a Eurocentric view of things?)

Crucially, Malik demonstrates in his little book that it is not (or at least only) those immigrating to the West who demand this; it is the policy of western governments. But why would governments advance such a policy? To disorganize the national culture they endeavored to establish only a century earlier? At least to disorganize the working class majority. By the 1970s, for example, the government of France, under liberal president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, sought in Islam “a stabilizing force which would turn the faithful from deviance, delinquency or membership of unions or revolutionary parties,” here quoting Paul Dijoud, minister for immigrant workers. “When a series of strikes hit car factories in the late 1970s,” Malik writes, “the government encouraged employers to build prayer rooms in an effort to wean immigrant workers, who formed a large proportion of the workforce, away from militant activity.” Keeping newcomers away from native-born workers is an effective strategy to disorganize the national proletariat. How effective? In the 1950s, roughly one-third of French workers belonged to a trade union. Today, less than one in ten. (This mirrors the decline in organized labor in the United States during the same period. The decline follows the opening of the national borders in 1965.)

The widespread and general popular unease that comes with the decline of a civilization is portrayed by academics, pundits, and politicians as a threat from the right. Nativists, neofascists, racists, xenophobes—they are the problem. But this is subterfuge. The threat is really from the center and the establishment left, from the moderate and the social democrat, and the corporate and financial interests they represent. The function of major political parties is that of the sheepdog: keep workers away from politics organic to their interests. Folk devils and moral panic are powerful weapons to isolate and paralyze the populace. Arabization and Islamization of Europe are not problems for the West; resistance to them is. That’s the way they tell it, anyway. Elite command of the state machinery and the culture industry has fashioned an illusion in which the perpetrator becomes the savior. Salvation lies in diminishing, even losing western civilization.

Douglas Murray writes in The Strange Death of Europe (2017), “Europe is committing suicide. Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide.” This pathology has come to America, as well. Elites across the transatlantic sphere are asking the public to abandon the Enlightenment and embrace the postmodern condition. This explains the strange fact that, excepting economics, social science disciplines in our institutions of higher learning, despite their extensive corporatization, peddle New Left ideology. Even in elementary education children are indoctrinated in cultural self loathing: they live on Indian land, live in a society built by slaves, supplied by the imperialist exploitation of the Third World As strange as it may seem, and not necessarily for the reasons we would like, it is the conservative and the populist, people of Douglas Murray’s ilk, who are today the safeguards of western culture. They defend free speech, secularism, and national integrity against the machinations of the globalists and the transnational network of corporations and financial institutions directing governments and steering policy worldwide to dismantle or render ineffective democratic-republican institutions.

Her prediction premature, but ultimately correct, Rosa Luxemburg famously warns in her 1916 The Crisis of German Social Democracy: “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” It is the purpose of this essay to think about how radicals can defend civilization and thus preserve the tools of socialist transformation over against the transnational bourgeoisie whose loyalties are to fortune and fame and little else. In thinking about this I travel a different path than perhaps one might expect. I ask, who are the conservatives defending the western civilization and what do they have to say about our situation? I have already mentioned Douglas Murray. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is another such voice and one of the most important (and he has suffered much scorn on account of it). I will lean on his Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (2015) to get some perspective. But, before getting to Scruton, I will consider briefly what it is about western civilization that makes it worth keeping. I will, therefore, first consider the matter of human rights and its enemies.

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David Hume

Human rights—the right to life and liberty, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom from slavery and torture, the right to drink, food, medicine, and to an education, the freedom to leisure and to creative endeavor—inhere in every person. These rights are universal because all persons belong to the same species: Homo sapiens. Human rights are not subjective. They are not relative. David Hume exaggerates when he writes, “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular,” but he is basically correct. Natural history has formed humans in such a way that they require conditions for proper cognitive, emotional, moral, and physical development. This is to say that human rights are a recognition of the way evolution has made us.

For Hume, history is useful insofar as it allows us “to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behavior.” To put this another way, human nature is scientifically determinable. Meeting the conditions that our natural history demands establishes the foundation for health, self-actualization, and well-being. Failure to meet these conditions indicates unjust social arrangements. History and cross-cultural comparison shows us that much of the world has failed and continues to fail to meet these conditions. The New Left redefines this failure as diversity and criticism of it racism.

Adam Smith, liberal philosopher

What is our nature? Homo sapiens is a social animal who depends on his fellow animals not merely for survival and reproduction, but in order to thrive. Our species is empathic, or sympathetic, exhibiting the innate ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Adam Smith writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that, for each person, “there are principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” The wellspring of morality for Smith is thus found in “our fellow-feeling for the misery of others.” Smith writes that “by changing places in fancy with the sufferer . . . we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels.” What is more, Smith argues, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1762–1763), that the norms of society guide our action and hold us accountable to one another. The state exists to protect the rights to our person, property, and social relations. Morality is innate and normally reflected in our institutions.

Karl Marx, radical philosopher

On this account, the radical philosopher Karl Marx cautions us about “establishing ‘society’ as an abstraction over against the individual.” He writes, “The individual is a social being.” “Man’s individual and species-life are not two distinct things,” he insists. Marx refers to this unity as Gattungswesen, or species-being (alternatively species-essence or species-instance). Gattungswesen collapses the distinction between the human instance and the whole of humanity. In this view, species-being is no more found in abstract individualism than it is in abstract society; it is discovered in the totality of social relations that humans author together. Marx teaches us that “species-being confirms itself in species-consciousness and exists for itself in its universality, as a thinking being.” Human rights are therefore not an abstraction; they are a concrete part of being human.

The separation of the individual and his collective existence in consciousness, ubiquitous in the current epoch, is a form of alienation to be overcome. To adapt Marxian phraseology, we are a species-in-itself; but the recognition of human rights makes us a species-for-itself. The human capacity for imagination allows for reflection upon matters of social development, of which ethics and morality, the logic and practice of right conduct, are fundamental components. Because these are objective matters, reflecting on them requires objective methods. Marx pushes us to move consciousness beyond superstition and religious apprehension towards a scientific theory of human relations (see Marx’s Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from 1843). The result, which is also the method, is the materialist conception of history, or historical materialism, and it posits that humans make history to provide for their species-needs.

Human progress generates a problem: the appearance of a social surplus, production beyond subsistence resulting from technological development, complicates the distribution of resources. Early social organizations were equalitarian and democratic, meeting the needs of the entire community. Marx identifies this stage of social evolution “primitive communism.” As humanity progressed, societies became large, complex, and segmented. In them, needs were more frequently and fully met for some, while others suffered deprivations, which in turn led to their subjugation. In this way societies became divided into social classes, and all hitherto social formations have been composed of different configurations of class-based hierarchies. Moreover, as Friedrich Engels shows in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), human society became segmented by asymmetrical gender relations, the natural sexual division of labor deformed into the systematic subordination of women and girls. Class segmentation remains true for all contemporary mass societies, as do the oppressions of patriarchal relations for most of them, their deprivations clear evidence of their inadequacy in meeting the needs of the people.

Associated with human history is culture, the body of patterns of beliefs and behaviors guiding interactions with nature and people, and transmitting acquired knowledge to succeeding generations. In the Marxian view of things, culture is ultimately emergent from the material relations of a given society. An integrated system of language and meaning, norms and values that guide humans in their daily lives, culture represents what we can usefully think of as the social mind. It is this mind that confronts the problems of existence. A more advanced and just social mind generally makes for a better social life, solving problems in an equitable way. A social mind encumbered by superstition, religion, patriarchy, and other limiting norms and values generally retards social development. Crucially, at any level of social development, culture may be biased to justify unjust social arrangements. For example, in capitalists societies, the ideology of abstracted individualism denies the unequal results of class segmentation, laying the blame for one’s troubles entirely upon his doorstep.

In Muslim-majority countries, women are obliged to cover their heads, and sometimes even their faces, not for the sake of the men who own their bodies, but because the one true God demands this of them. Unfortunately, as Bruce Bawer noted in his While Europe Slept (2006), “Ever since large-scale immigration in Europe began . . . the European establishment has encouraged a romantic view of Muslim immigration. . . . To criticize any Muslim for any reason whatsoever is racist, and it is that racism that is the sole cause of any and all immigrant-related problems.” “As a rule,” he writes, “the establishment strives to overlook the fact that being a Muslim is a matter of holding certain beliefs and living by them.” Thus attempts to organize to abolish, alter, exclude, or marginalize the harmful practices of Muslims is immediately met with establishment and even popular resistance. But to struggle for equality and justice means to identify cultural elements or cultures in their totality that are contrary to the ends of human health, well-being, and self-actualization and then organize to abolish, alter, exclude, or marginalize them.

This, briefly considered, is why western civilization is worth preserving, despite the continuing problem of labor exploitation under capitalist relations: it’s the West that discovered human rights, and it could make such a discovery because of the stress it lays on the values of empiricism, humanism, liberalism, rationalism, and secularism, values that enable an observer to negate the power of those other cultural elements that would limit his apprehension of natural history and social being. Because these are cultural values, one might suppose western civilization to be a culture like any other, just a different standpoint, with no greater validity, since each culture claims its own validity. But this would assume a priori the premise that truth is relative, and that, therefore, all cultures are equal in this regard. You likely learned this in primary school: no culture is superior or inferior, just differently evolved to suit these needs of its members (all of its members?). But this claim presumes that ways of knowing—science, for example—are merely cultural standpoints, that there is no method of apprehension that transcends its cultural framework, and that therefore the scientist’s claims about human nature are just as mythological as the shaman’s. The claim is easily proven false. Religion produces no miracles, while science prevents and cure diseases that afflict people in every culture. The medicine that works wonders throughout the world depends on the correctness of the claims of scientists. If the requirements for optimal health and well-being are the result of natural history, then they are objectively determinable through science.

I will now turn to the question of the law and jurisprudence, using Roger Scruton’s critique of Ronald Dworkin’s work to show that the conservative is a natural ally of the socialist over against the progressive liberal on account of the fact that the conservative intuitively grasps the necessity of preserving western civilization for the sake of humanity, whereas the progressive liberal is busy undermining it at the behest of transnational capital. I am keen on showing this because, in the United States for example, the largest segment of the working class—white rural and suburban workers—while rejecting progressive liberalism, is at the same time alienated from the politics that can empower them. A successful working class movement has to call these proletarians home, and that starts with understanding them. This also signals to those bamboozled by progressive politics the need to think differently about politics than they do currently.

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In taking issue with the moral jurisprudence of Ronald Dworkin, whom he regards as a thinker of the New Left, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton leans heavily on Friedrich Hayek’s opinions on law and legislation. Hayek is well known as a vigorous advocate of classical liberalism. For this reason I have students read from his The Constitution of Liberty (1960) in my course Freedom and Social Control. In that book, Hayek contends that the ideal of personal liberty is vital to the dynamism and success of western civilization. In Law, Legislation and Liberty (1982), Volume I of which interests Scruton here, Hayek aims to show how that ideal underpins law and jurisprudence in the West and is necessary for its future. The importance of the individual is not something made by man, but discovered and defended. “To modern man,” Hayek writes, “the belief that all law governing human action is the product of legislation appears so obvious that the contention that the law is older than law making has almost the character of paradox. Yet there can be no doubt that law existed for ages before it occurred to man that he can make or alter it.” Thus it is in western civilization that man finally consciously articulates the conditions that make him free, a historical fact the New Left denies.

Friedrich Hayek, liberal philosopher

It is with some irony, therefore, that Hayek’s statement on the law bears more than a superficial resemblance to Marx’s claim that the law emerges from the deep social relations that establish society’s material foundation from which consciousness of itself emerges (though not necessary ascertained in an undistorted manner). Yet, in contrast to historical materialism, which conceptualizes the law as the result of human activity, however alienated from scientific truth those actions are, or, to put this another way, however falsely conscious are the beings making and throwing them into motion, the conservative conceptualizes the law as “natural,” thus obscuring its origins in a term notorious for its ambiguity. For what is “nature” in the view of natural law? Is it race? God?

The conservative, following Herder, makes a similar move with national identity, seeing it as guided by a “spirit,” or Nationalgeist, a collective soul, or Volksgeist. And thus loses the thread. He decries the left’s accusation of false consciousness, yet he sees those who disagree with him as also suffering from false consciousness, except he has no objective metric against which to make this determination, only an appeal to some völkisch sensibility. And here they make the postmodern mistake of cultural relativism. There is no defense against Islam if you regard it as the expression of spirit by a people. You can only defend against such a thing the way you defend humanity against fascism and fascistic-like relations: by recognizing that there is such a thing as humanity.

Roger Scruton, conservative philosopher

Still, Scruton is correct when he writes, “People cannot form a society and then give themselves laws, as Rousseau had imagined. For the existence of law is presupposed in the very project of living in society—or at least, in a society of strangers. Law is real, though tacit, long before it is written down, and it is for the judge to discover the law, by examining social conflicts and laying bare the shared assumptions that permit their resolution.” This is a vital anthropological observation: law is emergent from the interactions of concrete persons in a community. Émile Durkheim, a founder of the discipline of sociology, saw the law as tied to a moral order, which is in turn subject to the dynamic of societal evolution. The law changed in tandem with the altering of the moral order caused the growing organic complexity of society. These are social facts to be discovered through rigorous sociological examination. For the postmodernist, this is narrative.

Scruton is, of course, interested in the discovered law in the Anglo-American sphere. And the conservative view is not so keen on articulating a grand sociological theory. “Law in its natural condition is therefore to be construed on the model of the common law of England,” Scruton argues, “which preceded the legislative powers of Parliament, and which for many centuries looked upon Parliament not as a legislative body but as a court of law, whose function was to resolve the questions they could not be answered from the study of existing precedents.” Scruton returns to Hayek, who “points out that written law and sovereign legislation are late comers to human society, and that both open the way to abuses which, in the common law, are usually self-correcting.”

Here, Scruton emphasizes the pragmatic and inherently conservative character of law, (properly conceived) in order to put the problem of Dworkin’s approach in sharp contrast: “Legislators see law as a human artifact, created for a purpose, and they endeavor to use law not merely to rectify injustices but also to bring about a new social order, in conformity with some ‘political morality’—which is essentially how Dworkin sees the American Constitution. For him law is not a summary of the rights, duties and procedures, but a blueprint for a new liberal society.” This tack concerns Scruton for the following reason: “There is nothing to prevent the radical legislator from passing laws that fly in the face of justice, by granting privileges, confiscating assets and extinguishing deserts in the interests of some personal or political agenda.”

Ronald Dworkin, liberal philosopher

“One sign of this is the adoption of ‘social justice’ as the goal of the law, rather than natural justice as a procedural constraint,” writes Scruton. “For Hayek, by contrast, the goal of the common law is not social engineering but justice in the proper sense of the term, namely the punishment or rectification of unjust actions.” In Hayek’s view, the judge, in examining a specific case, looks for a rule that will settle it. That is all that is meant by justice and justice is found in the common law. “Judges rightly think of themselves as discovering the law, for the reason that there would be no case to judge, had the existence of the relevant law not that implicit in the conduct of the parties,” writes Hayek.

At this point, a question might have occurred to the reader: can legislatures not also discover the law? Moreover, if Scruton has a problem with positive law, why is he so unsympathetic to Dworkin’s account of it? Of course, the problem is really an ideological disagreement. Dworkin sees in discovery the desire of the progressive liberal. Scruton sees in discovery justification for the conservative approach to such matters. Yet both see jurisprudence as an act of discovery.

This is what I find particularly fascinating about Scruton’s argument, namely how powerfully, albeit unintentionally, it justifies the construction of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not legislate rights but discovers them in the same way the United States Bill of Rights discovers the rights and liberties enjoyed by Americans. Human rights extend protections for speech and expression, religious liberty, and so on, to all humans, not just the inhabitants of the West of of the United States. The Universal Declaration seeks to protect the individual from the inequalities and injustices stemming from the problem of concentrated power in a manner analogous to the way the Bill of Rights protects the individual from the problem of governmental and religious power. They are both the product of western culture, but they speak to values that accord with human nature.

The defect in the Bill of Rights is not in its circumscription, rather the rights and liberties identified in it are ascertained at a point in time and by a class of people concerned to advance the interests of private capital, which they are careful not to constrain too sharply, while at the same time framing the discovery of principles conducive to this end in such a way that they apply in theory to everyone within the scope of state power. Scruton has no problem with this, of course, because he is a supporter of capitalism. In contrast, the Universal Declaration is written at a point in time and by persons painfully aware of the defects of capitalism, who endeavor, through social democratic means, to protect all persons from these defects (while still upholding property rights). The Universal Declaration is not a document of positive law. It is another round of discovery, of clarifying and elaborating the law of society, its elements natural in the manner described in the first section of this blog entry. That is, as a deepening of the knowledge of species-being.

Scruton’s complaint that the Supreme Court of the United States discovered in 1973 a right to an abortion in the Constitution betrays his mystification of natural law. Reproductive rights is a principled extension of the right to privacy discovered in the foundation of civil liberties. Scruton writes of Justice Blackmun’s “contorted decision” that it “depended upon finding the right to privacy in the US Constitution, despite the fact that the document mentions nothing of the kind,” thus “arbitrarily” asserting “that the unborn have no constitutional rights.” Scruton finds rhetorically convenient that the words “discover” and “find” are synonyms. But less convenient for his argument is this: that without a right to privacy, parts of the Bill of Rights are missing the underlying principle that gives them their meaning. What is the Fourth Amendment, which states that, without compelling reason, an individual’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” without a privacy right assumed? And the Fifth Amendment, which forbids under all circumstances an individual being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The government has no right to know what it is my mind. I have a right to keep them private.

Yet Scruton nonetheless admires the liberal values articulated in Constitution and sees in their use by the American left something quite distinct from the “Marxist marginalization of institution, law, and the moral life,” “the ‘domination’ theory of Foucault,” or “the Frankfurt School attack on the ‘instrumentalization’ of the social world.” “Thanks to the American Constitution, and the long tradition of critical thinking inspired by it,” he writes “American leftism has more often than not taken the form of legal and constitutional argument, interspersed with reflections on justice that are mercifully free from the class resentments that speak in the works of European leftists. Hence, even though they argue for an ever-increasing role for the state in the lives of ordinary people, Americans on the left are described not a socialists but as liberals, as though it were freedom, rather than equality, that they promise.” Perhaps this is Scruton, seemingly outside of his own awareness, winding up in accord with Dworkin’s assumption, which is really about finding justice in the law, however constrained by the necessity of private property. It is also, I suspect, an expression of Scruton’s admiration for America’s unique philosophical tradition of pragmatism.

Despite partisan efforts to highlight those things that differentiate their respective worldviews, conservatives and liberals (and socialists) make an common argument positing that the law is, in some substantial way, an emergent organic phenomenon. Liberals may wish to universalize rights, while conservatives may wish to provincialize them, but they both nonetheless ascribe to them some intrinsic force where they apply. (Scruton’s attribution of strict positive jurisprudence to the political left is therefore a bit of a straw man.) Since this claim is true, and given what I have argued about the relationship between culture and human rights, we ask whether there is a consensus in the West regarding the importance of cultural integrity in preserving law that supports the advancement of human rights? In answering why there isn’t, since my feelings on the matter are probably obvious to the reader by now, it is useful to briefly review the ideological lay of the American political landscape and consider the concrete problems of immigration and growing cultural diversity.

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The claims that rights inhere in every individual and that individuals are culture-bearers are not in contradiction. Indeed, they depend on each other. In order to obtain the optimal conditions for human thriving, the culture must be adequate to them. Culture can therefore advance or impede the realization of human rights. In practice, this understanding interferes with liberal economic desire, which, as I have alluded to, is capitalistic in orientation, in that it shifts the emphasis of public action away from the maximization of surplus value and realization of profit and towards safeguarding western civilization from the corruption of backwards cultures. Why is this? Capitalism is not a system devoted to general well-being and self-actualization, but to private accumulation by those who control the means of production. To maximize private accumulation, capitalism require labor markets where workers are pitted against each other. If workers can be found who will accept less compensation for their labors (or who are not in a position to demand more), then these workers will be welcomed in. Indeed, the more workers competing for work, the less any one of them will be paid on average. Supply and demand.

The anthropological suggestion implied by the demand for cultural relativism, that all cultures are created equal, is of course untrue; as already demonstrated, some cultures are objectively better than others at supporting the conditions necessary for human thriving, their role in advancing or retarding social progress judged in light of cognitive, emotional, moral, and physical development. This fact is true both internally to a given society, especially in large regionally-differentiated ones, and externally across societies. Stating this may draw the charge of “cultural racism,” but, as I explain in a previous blog entry “Smearing Amy Wax,” this is ideology. Culture therefore matters because of its effects on human potential. We have to ask when determining cultural adequacy whether it enables or limits the development of every person.

Protest of cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press, London, England, February 3, 2006. Unlike many countries around the world, the West protects the right to freedom of opinion and expression consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Culture also matters because people carry their culture with them wherever they go and settle. They are, as Malik describes them, culture bearers, very often striving to establish that culture in new places, gathering around them those who think and act and look like them and, with them, carrying on with the familiar norms and values.

As expected, the liberal and the conservative regard new arrivals differently. The liberal, with his multicultural experiences and expectations, sees the diversity brought about by immigration as merely a greater variety of cultural items on the urban buffet, more options for food, music, art, etc. As former New York City mayor and now presidential candidate said, “We need immigrants to take all the different kinds of jobs that the country needs—improve our culture, our cuisine, our religion, our dialogue and certainly improve our economy.” Improve our religion? The state will certainly prevent the imposition of theocracy. No worries. Moreover, the bourgeoisie attitude understands competition as between individuals, not between cultures. Those who can do the work are just as welcome as other. The conservative, on the other hand, sees a clash of cultures, as groups differentiated by norms and values compete for control over social space. The greater diversity immigration brings is not regarded as a strength to the conservative’s way of thinking; it dilutes and weakens the traditional foundation of the society he knows and loves. The conservative sees its effects in the problems of urban life: crime, disorder, disorganization, homelessness, poverty, and welfare dependency.

These attitudes emerge from their ideological orientations. The liberal, holds that the nation-state is a means by which the rational interests of atomized individuals are realized. The relationship between the individual and society is conceptualized as antagonistic, resolved in favor of the individual, whose rights are guaranteed by the state. Such a society is described as substantively secular, even if it keeps a state church. The emphasis on liberty and equality, understood as the freedom of the individual to be about his business undisturbed and the absence of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, is of course troubled by property. It is after all a bourgeoisie view of things. Liberals live largely an urban existence and appear rather indifferent to what the people who move about them believe, since government is supposed to protect persons from the imposition of unwelcome beliefs. They pride themselves on this ethic: individuals are free to believe and express all manner of notions as long as they do not interfere with the beliefs and expressions of others. As Thomas Jefferson puts it in his letter to the Danbury Baptists: “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.” Thus there is in the urban milieux considerable social pressure to appear tolerant towards people with different cultural orientations and religious beliefs. This is the cosmopolitan attitude.

For the conservative, the nation is the manifestation of a spiritual sense, an expression of the collective unconscious, sentiments existing deep within the human psyche, in which individuals submit to a cultural ideal that pertains to them as a unique community and are obliged to align with an identity. The attitudes of the conservative therefore lean towards the traditional, the provincial. The emphasis is on authority, hierarchy, piety, deference to social status. Here, nation intersects with ethnicity, the notion that shared language and traditions make a people. Of course, the modern conservative also believes in private property. But, in contrast to the liberal, conservatives emphasize culture in sustaining societies, especially the role of custom and tradition, especially as organized by religious faith and ritual. Their rural and suburban existence limits interaction with other cultural agents. Their experience is more parochial. One suspects they do not appreciate other cultures because they have limited first-hand experience of them. Conservatives experience multiculturalism vicariously. But their perception of it as the balkanization of their society is nevertheless the correct one. And their suspicion that it is the progressive liberal who is responsible for this balkanization is well-founded.

The progressive liberal has undermined the ethic of diversity as individuals pursuing their ends as individuals by conceptualizing the social order as, what Amartya Sen calls “plural monoculturalism,” the idea that “society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures.” The blog Communication Today, run by Communication and Digital Media and International Relations students from Tec de Monterrey Estado de México, defines plural monoculturalism as “the doctrine that individuals ought to remain faithful to their ancestral cultures and that a good society ought to be a ‘salad bowl,’ where diverse groups maintain and persistence of ethnic communities should be encouraged.” This is Horace Kallen’s notion of “cultural pluralism,” wherein individuals pursue their ends as ethnic, racial, and religious groups in the same national framework. This sounds good in the abstract. But it has an isolating and ultimately disuniting effect. Moreover, it leads to culturally oppressive effects at the individual level.

“The starting point of multicultural policies is the acceptance of societies as diverse,” writes Kenan Malik. “Yet, there is an unstated assumption that such diversity ends at the ends of minority communities.” As a result, multicultural policy, by “treating minority communities as homogeneous wholes,” ignores “conflicts within those communities.” He continues: “Multicultural politics, in other words, have not responded to the needs of communities but, to a large degree, have helped create those communities by imposing identities on people and by ignoring internal conflicts arising out of class, gender and intra-religious differences. They have empowered not minority communities but so-called community leaders who owe their position and influence largely to the relationship they possess with the state.”

One can see this in the way secularized Muslims, for example Maajid Nawaz, because he is a secular Muslim, is not seen as an authentic Muslim, whereas Muslims committed to Islamic orthodoxy are regarded as authentic. To the progressive mind, the hijab wearing woman represents Islam, and is therefore authentic, her liberty to be free from the imposition of modesty rules obviated. Multicultural policy enables her oppression. And so the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad by Jyllands-Posten in 2005, were said by establishment voices to have offended the Muslim community, which assumes that the authentic Muslim is the person who would be offended by such depictions of Muhammad. In this way, the concrete individual is absorbed into an abstract community and his agency negated. (Not to mention that the liberty of those outside the Muslim community is compromised by laws and norms restricting access to cartoons depicting Muhammad.)

Multicultural policy thus sanctions patriarchal and religious oppression. So, while there exists a law demanding gender equality, this law may be suppressed for the sake of a religious demand in a particular community. In any case, those practices that would not be tolerated in the host society, are seen as exotic and therefore excusable if they occur in an ethnic minority. A nation may desire to pass a law protecting children from genital mutilation, but it will be reluctant to do so for fear that it will offend a religious community, a reluctance, if carried through, representing a failure to defend the rights of a human on a fallacy that an infant is necessarily part of that community and able to willing subscribe to a doctrine and a ritual that will permanently alter his physical appearance and his sexual function.

Malik also shows that by ignoring the conflicts within an imagined community, multicultural policy creates conflicts between these communities, as the various groupings seek to maximize their (perceived) collective interests, whereas before individuals had an interest in maximizing their personal interests, which often meant working together across ethnic, racial, and religious lines. An atomized individual coming forward will find it hard to secure some benefit. But if he appears before government agency representing an ethnic or religious minority, then the government will listen. “People mobilize on the basis of how they feel they will get the resources to tackle the issues important to them,” Malik notes. Thus, ethnicity becomes “a key to entitlement.” “Rather than thinking of meeting people’s needs or about distributing resources more equitably, organizations are forced to think about the distribution of ethnicity,” writes Malik. “And people begin to think in those terms, too.” He cites Joy Warmington of the Birmingham Race Action Partnership: “People are forced into a very one-dimensional view of themselves by the way that equality policies work.”

One can see how multicultural policy, then, systematically prevents formation of socialist consciousness by preventing the liberation of the individual from tribal associations (the promise of liberal democracy) and the possible reintegration of the individual into organizations based on a common class position. Multiculturalism is therefore a false consciousness very much engineered by the establishment representing bourgeois interests, and the progressive liberal’s function is to refine and upload it into the operating culture of society’s dominant institutions.

* * *

One does not have to reject secular society and embrace conservative values of authority and intolerance to resist multiculturalism. But one must recognize that there is a problem with large influxes of persons bearing norms and values that do not uphold the cultural features that support human rights and an establishment policy that discourages their assimilation. The foreign culture-bearer brings patriarchal, heterosexist, superstitious, theocratic, and other odious norms and values with him, cultural elements that are associated with lower levels of societal development that are, for this reason, inadequate for establishing the conditions for generalized well-being and self-actualization.

It is especially troubling when the new arrivals are determined to keep and spread their cultures to the West by resisting assimilation to the societies that have welcomed them. This problem is typical and therefore indicative of the more backwards cultures, particularly those with a religious zealous character. We see this resistance in the formation of exclusive cultural enclaves in the West, as we have seen resistance enabled by multicultural policy. This situation undermines the ability of more developed societies to sustain their cultures, and it just so happens that, for the wrong reasons, the conservative-traditionalist has better instincts when it comes to the threat posed by competing cultures. In this case, culture-mindedness acts as an instinctive warning system. The liberal, operating with a more abstracted view of persons, in particular a ethnicized and racialized view of them, is less aware of the threat of foreign cultures to the integrity of his own society.

At the same time, the liberal is aware of the threat the cultural backwardness in his own society poses to the secular foundation of the West. He loathes white Christian conservatism and reflexively votes for the party he thinks will save him from it. I am speaking here mainly of the situation in the United States where the savior is the Democratic Party, one of two bourgeois parties administering the state. To be sure, the liberal is right to worry about this threat. In the struggle for a more free society, urban values ought to be protected from the atavisms of the countryside. But there is a double standard here; for, at the same time, the modern liberal has come to believe that assimilation is a bad thing because it robs the immigrant of his cultural identity, which a good liberal person is supposed to tolerate, if not appreciate and celebrate.

I have been suggesting all along that the liberal is not really an agnostic on the culture question. Culture is important to him in a particular way. He will decry the backwardness of his fellow countrymen, mock and criticize their cultural values, while he will resist criticizing the backwardness of the newcomer. He will shutter at the treatment of girls in the white conservative Christian household, but allow his public school to take his own daughter to a mosque for a day to learn how to properly affix a hijab to her head. For this reason, in the current phase of civilizational crisis, humanists ought to be thankful for conservatives and demand that their objections be given a hearing.

* * *

On the question of a consensus regarding the importance of cultural integrity, there is not a lot evidence for it when all mainstream views are considered. With its postmodern character and advocacy of multiculturalism, progressive politics, especially for those declaring allegiance to democratic socialism, is not conducive to upholding the cultural foundations underpinning western notions of rights and liberties. Marxist orthodoxy, as most adherents articulate it, treats culture as at best superstructural, at worst epiphenomenal.

In a 2018 interview with Encounter Books, Roger Scruton characterized the contemporary democratic socialists in this way: “there is a lot of socialist rhetoric, but it is completely detached from the kind of substantial theories of society and its development that were given by Marx.” In perhaps the worst of all possible alliances for the moment, the culturally-minded liberal-pluralist and the antiracist social democrat have come together around identitarian politics, apparently taking over from the bourgeoisie tactics used for decades to undermine class analysis, politics, and solidarity, but in actually implementing a new and improved version of it developed by the bourgeoisie intellectual.

What makes this alliance, represented in America by the Democratic Party, so odious could not be more obvious than in the analysis of the current situation articulated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the darling of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA). “The reason [Trump is] trying to center issues of race, of immigration, etc. is to sink the economic agenda.” she said in a radio interview. “He’s trying to eclipse it. And the only reason that has power is because we refuse to talk about. And so race is going to be an issue, and the key is whether we’re going to allow him to define that conversation, or if we’re going to insert ourselves into that space and define that conversation.”

But if economics is what the progressive left wants to focus on as self-proclaimed democratic socialists, then where are the interests of working Americans represented in this formulation? “We believe that working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few,” the DSA states on its website. Why are they instead representing the interests of the denationalizers, the transnationalists, who cleave the working class by race and ethnicity? This is not an interpretation of their politics. Ocasio-Cortez explicitly treats immigration as a race issue over against economic reality. But immigration is foremost economic issue, as well as a cultural one (and, no, culture is not race).

I have explained this elsewhere, but it bears repeating here: immigrants come in all races, but they come with one property in common, their cheap labor. Capitalists use cheap labor to raise profit rates and drive down the wages of native-born workers via competition, injecting in the labor market a cheaper (although not necessarily inferior) commodity while expanding the industrial reserve. For well more than a century capitalists have used large-scale immigration as a conscious strategy not only for raising the rate of profit but also for politically disorganizing the masses. A constant influx of people from other cultures undermines national solidarity and weakens the labor movement, a point that Marxist economist Melvin Leiman makes in his The Political Economy of Racism (1995).

Marx himself notes this in an April 9, 1870 letter to Sigrid Meyer and August Vogt. Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labor market,” he writes, “ and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.Marx grasps the function of immigration: Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life…. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation,” Marx concludes. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this. In other words, it was a conscious strategy by capitalist elites. And what we are seeing today is the evolution of this strategy. (See Bernie Sanders Gets it on Open Borders for a more detailed discussion of Marx’s observations in this letter.)

This is why multiculturalism (or cultural pluralism, as it was first formulated) is pushed as a progressive value by the bourgeois political establishment and culture industry. Resurrecting and polishing these strategies in the post-war period, the bourgeoisie has smashed labor, opening the borders to large-scale immigration and incentivizing US corporations to move production overseas (along with other union busting and wage suppression tactics). When working people complained about stagnant and deteriorating standard of living, progressives branded them nativists, “racists,” and “xenophobes.” Ocasio-Cortez is doing the bidding of capitalist elites, perpetuating false consciousness by moving immigration to the race side of the ledger while divorcing it from economics, and then calling on white people to do antiracist work, thereby implying that they’re the problem—that is, using racism to divide the proletariat. Enlisting oneself in this strategy is allowing oneself to be used by the capitalist class to keep his bothers and sisters divided and disempowered.

* * *

Western societies are distinguished from nonwestern societies (with few exceptions) by having reached a higher stage of societal evolution, marked by free and open societies guided by scientific rationality. Thanks to this development, the West enjoys a comparatively superior capacity for meeting the needs of its inhabitants. This achievement is in part attributable to a unique culture that emphasizes individual rights and personal liberties, secular reasoning, and democratic government. The liberal character of the modern nation-state, substantially variable in that character, nonetheless embodies this culture. Inhabitants in most western nation states are materially better off than countries elsewhere in the world and because of this enjoy greater opportunities for personal development. It is this culture that recognized human rights and established international law.

As I wrote in “Secularism, Nationalism, and Nativism,” leaning heavily on Marx’s observations in “Zur Judenfrage,” civil society is, in the democratic-republican nation, emancipated from politics. Thus, in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and in the changes this transition forced into law, “man was not freed from religion; he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property; he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business; he received freedom to engage in business.” And, while Marx recognizes that this is an incomplete revolution from the standpoint of achieving species-being, he recognizes that it is an advance over the conditions of the Ancien regime and a necessary step towards finishing that revolution. The tools a democratic republic provides are the tools with which socialism works.

In Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, Scruton criticizes the class reductionism of those twentieth century intellectuals who deigned themselves worthy of speaking for Marx and the working class (for example Eric Hobsbawm). This move marginalized the organic elements of western culture that helped give rise to the civic emancipation Marx describes in his early work, developments relatively independent of the class struggle, elements that move western men of all social classes to defend free and secular society from totalitarianism. “When challenged by the rise of Nazism,” Scruton writes, aping Marxian phraseology, “this ‘nation for itself’ proved more effective than the international solidarity of the proletariat, which showed itself, by contrast, to be a mere dream of the intellectuals.” For conservative thinkers like Scruton, the liberal and secular values of the West are worth keeping even if they press against his conservative provincialism. They allow him to be a conservative. And while that community has its deprivations, it is freer to develop in than the nonwestern cultures disrupting it. It has this potential because it is in the West.

So it is that the proletariat, estranged from collective self identity, its consciousness disordered by those who claim to raise it, remains in embryo politically, its future development dependent on perhaps the most unexpected of political orientations: the modern conservative and the rightwing populist who defend civilization against the denationalizing drive of globalizing neoliberalism, unembarrassed by expressions of national chauvinism, who preach the virtues of limited government, the common law, and other exceptional customs of the West. And while we should desire to transcend aspects of conservatism (foremost its perverse desire to control the body), we should not wish to transcend the civilization that conservatism defends.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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