Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I often wonder whether there is more commonality across the ideological spectrum than might otherwise seem the case.

For example, conservatives sometimes articulate a critique of the dissolution of social norms and bonds. But, then again, so do liberals or radicals. That is, both the "left" and the "right" seem to find some despair in modern culture, and yearn for "community" at least in some sense. The "traditional values" rhetoric articulated by conservatives is, to be sure, often nothing more than a cloak for sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. But I am not convinced it is entirely that. When conservatives rail against, for example "Hollywood," and the perceived attendant degeneration of culture, they are, it strikes me, concerned (at least in part) about the dissolution of human bonds -- and, though they would not put it this way, the commodifcation of culture, and perhaps of humanity itself.

And, of course, this is an impulse that guides many on the left. The increasing commodification of culture seems to dissolve all that is recognizably human. "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." (Marx's rather famous description of the sheer brute and transparent conditions of commodification and exploitation under capitalism, as written in The Communist Manifesto.)

Am I being too Pollyanish about finding a bridge between left and right? Perhaps. But occasionally I see works of art that suggest that there may, in fact, exist such a commonality.

One of those works of art is a short video called "More." For a silent, stop-action, claymation, six-minute film, it covers an impressive number of topics. These include: (1) happiness as a commodity to be bought and sold, as opposed to being found in human relations; (2) how the spark of innocence -- or perhaps, of one's soul -- that exists in childhood, can become extinguished in adulthood, and (3) the socio-economic structure that facilitates (1) and (2) -- such structure, specifically, being the relationship between worker and boss under capitalist relations of production.

The clip I linked to above is a relatively recent upload on YouTube. I wish I could find the earlier uploads. There were far more hits, and far more comments. What I recall from those comments was that: most people took away points (1) and (2). But fewer, as I recall, took away point (3), even though it is explicit (to the point of caricature). To me, this is a shame; for it seems impossible to speak of reclaiming our humanity without simultaneously speaking of the dehumanizing forms of socio-economic institutional relations.

Regardless, I nonetheless regard this short video as testament to the fact that there are certain common values that animate both the right and the left -- i.e., all of us.

It also says something additional about the institution of wage-labor that I barely alluded to in my earlier posts. In my earlier posts, I spoke of the ways in which wage-labor necessitated irrational social consequences -- specifically, the imperative for growth -- or "More" (the title of this video) -- irrespective of whether people actually desire "more." Here, however, lies another critique, namely, that the institution of wage-labor is dehumanizing. In Marx's language, we trade our essence for our existence (the classic statement of alienated labor, as articulated in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)

In any event, after you watch it, tell me please -- do you think this video reflects values that animate political movements from both the left and the right? Or, again, am I trying too hard to find a bridge?


  1. Hi Mark,

    I found this post very interesting. I share your thoughts regarding the existence of some commonality in the right and left in terms of a critique of market society. A former student of mine gave me Steve Marglin's Social Analysis 72: Economics: A Critical Approach, taught at Harvard every year or so. In it, he has students read an excerpt from Albert O. Hirschman's (the exit loyalty and voice guy) RIVAL VIEWS OF MARKET SOCIETY, chapter 5.

    Let me know if you'd like a pdf copy of this chapter (I made it for someone else a while back). Hirschman presents 4 critiques of market society that have risen since the 17th century or so. One in particular -- formed by 18th century traditional conservatives -- formed a central part of Marx's own arguments against capitalism.

    It is dubbed the "self-destruction thesis" by Hirschman. It is "the idea that capitalism as a socioeconomic order somehow carries within itself the seed of its own destruction" (111). Three points are mentioned in the process through which this occurs: emphasis on self-interest; failure of government policy, due to interests persuaded by money, to properly promote the 'general good'; individualistic rationalism being inconsistent with the types of religious values required to support social virtues such as truth, obligation, etc.

    "in the Communist Manifesto and other early writings, Marx and Engels make much of the way in which capitalism corrodes all traditional values and institutions such as love, family, and patriotism" (112).

    Of course, I'm sure you know of Schumpeter's views here -- a kind of hyper-conservative variant on the above, where capitalism, precisely because it harbors creative destruction, will ultimately lead to the depletion of society.

    You might of course want to consider some other historical sources, like Polanyi. It is certainly an interesting idea...

  2. Hi Mark,
    I really like the video. About the commonality across ideological spectrum, this idea is not appealing to me especially for one reason. I don't have a really good idea about American conservatism, but conservatism in general is too much associated with religious conservatism for me. Even if we can find some 'good' traditional values that both left and right celebrate together (btw I don't think that there are a lot of) the reasons for they celebrate those particular values may be quite different. And in the case of religion, the same good reasons can create quite bad results. For example, 'love your neighbor' because God wants you to do this; this is a good thing, the primary motivation is not self-interest, it is just the morality supported by that religious culture and this behavior creates good results, a more communal environment etc. But that holy underlying reason, 'God wants that' make people to do awful things like recm. May be this is too simplistic but I think that those good traditional values are not the same ones (those that left and right share) even if they create exactly same results.

    I thought that 'More' is particularly related to alienation. I don't think that it reflects values from right. I don't know, maybe the part about losing innocence/soul, but even that happened as a result of alienation in the work place and commodification in general.

    Dan, Hirschman piece is really interesting. There is a thesis in that piece. Louis Harzt's thesis about 'American exceptionalism'. Hartz reasoning is this:
    “Having been “born equal”, without any sustained struggle against the “father” – that is, the feudal past – America is deprived of what Europe has in abundance: social and ideological diversity. But such diversity is one of the prime constituents of genuine liberty. According to Hartz, the lack of ideological diversity in America has meant the absence of an AUTHENTIC CONSERVATIVE TRADITION, is responsible for the often noted weaknesses of socialist movements.”

    I m curious what do you think about this thesis?

  3. Dan -- thanks tons for the Hirshman reference. It looks really interesting. My sense is that he is right in identifying a "self-destruction thesis" that can be found on various parts of the ideological spectrum. Yes, I'd love a copy of the PDF, if you had a chance.

    Yasemin, I think that is an entirely fair point -- that is, for example, if one does good merely because God wants it, then one is acting out of a superstitious belief in authority. And that simply isn't conducive to human freedom. (I'd say in passing that there are those whose belief in God, or a spiritual world, is, they would say, based in experience and reason, not mere blind faith. I can't defend that position, but I know people hold it -- and it's a more respectable position than merely saying "well, some book told me so.")

    I agree that the video is about alienation. But what's striking is that almost no one who commented on the video sees the socio-economic dimension of it. Again, I'm going largely on prior uploads of this video (which are apparently no longer there), but almost everyone saw this in purely psychological terms. More specifically, they saw this solely as a consequence of the individual choices the character made -- and not at all about the conditions under which he made them. I find that incredibly striking. The video is obviously partly along the "psychological" dimension. But it's also clearly also along the dimension of workplace relations -- and (almost) no one seems to look at it that way. It's truly remarkable to me. I suppose that says a lot about how much we take wage-labor as an unquestioned "given."

    That said, one place I would say there is perhaps a commonality of right and left (or at least "conservative" and left), as reflected in the video,is in the displeasure with increased commodification. When I've spoken with families that consider themselves "conservative," it strikes me that of their objection to say "Hollywood" or even much of TV, is this idea that pleasure (or happiness) can be put in a product or can and sold.
    OK, I might be stretching things. Granted most people go right along with it. But they seem to find themselves, simultaneously, wanting to shut that out -- especially if they have children.
    But then that impulse (to protect themselves) takes a strange turn. That impulse to protection themselves from certain aspects of contemporary culture becomes an protection from anything "outside -- any "Other" --generally. And this is where things get dangerous. But that's just my sense.