Philosophy, Top Stories

‘Cultural Marxism’ Explained and Re-Evaluated

It has become a common trope to decry the prevalence of ‘Cultural Marxism’ in the academy as well as in wider Western culture. Jordan Peterson has gone so far as to say that Cultural Marxism threatens the very bedrock of Western civilization. Although the concept gets thrown around quite a lot in contemporary discourse, it is rarely defined in clear terms. And when it is defined, too often it is caricatured for ideological purposes by both the Left and Right. Although any attempt to explain and evaluate a contested phenomenon like Cultural Marxism is bound to be biased to some extent, a reasoned re-assessment uncoupled from polemic is overdue.

Although ‘Cultural Marxism’ is in no sense a monolithic entity (we might be better off speaking of Cultural Marxisms), what defines it as a social theory, essentially, is a certain theoretical presupposition: that culture (ideas, religious beliefs, values, etc.) is in the last instance determined by one’s position in a class or social hierarchy. Or, in Marxist terms, the superstructure (in this case, what I am calling culture) is, in some sense, a mere reflection of the base (what orthodox Marxists would equate with the relations and means of production).

Tracing the emergence of Cultural Marxism is a complicated and controversial affair, and there is much disagreement over who has had the most influence in shaping its contemporary expressions. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some of the key figures that have shaped this intellectual movement.

In Germany during the 1930s, a group of neo-Marxist thinkers developed Critical Theory, which they held to be a necessary instrument in the liberation of human beings from the throes of capitalism. These thinkers became known as the Frankfurt School, which was associated with the writings of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, George Lukacs, and Herbert Marcuse (among others). Adorno and Horkheimer became well-known for their critique of the ‘Culture Industry‘—a term they used to describe the use of popular culture to manipulate Westerners into acquiescing to the dictates and norms of a capitalist society.

Meanwhile, Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci and, later, French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser argued that culture plays a pivotal role in the reproduction of capitalism—in their own ways, these thinkers challenged the orthodox Marxist unidimensional emphasis on economics at the expense of the capitalist society’s superstructure. Gramsci is well-known for his theory of hegemony (the notion that the culture of the ruling class is not coercively imposed upon the lower classes so much as assented to, voluntarily), while Althusser is famous for arguing that “Institutional State Apparatuses” such as the education system, the church, and the family work to disseminate and perpetuate capitalist ideology.

These thinkers influenced—and were challenged by—subsequent neo-Marxist scholars such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Stuart Hall, all of whom became known for their hand in developing the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded in 1964. Since the 1960s, cultural studies has morphed into a vast field of scholarship, characterized by theories and methods as diverse as critical sociology, postmodernism, post-structuralism, feminist and queer theory, post-colonial scholarship, affect theory, as well as literary criticism. Thinkers as diverse as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, gender theorist Judith Butler, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and post-colonial thinker Edward Said are now accepted as part of the Cultural Studies canon. Although it would be doing an injustice to the diversity of these thinkers and the field of Cultural Studies as whole to characterize them as merely ‘Culturally Marxist,’ their scholarship today can be understood as espousing the Cultural Marxism’s basic theoretical presuppositions.

Of course, Cultural Studies is not the sole field in which Cultural Marxism, as I have defined it, is found. It is also taught in departments as diverse as anthropology, sociology, gender and women’s studies, education, history, geography, and philosophy. Accordingly, it is fair to say that Cultural Marxism, understood as a certain kind of social theory, is relatively commonplace in the humanities and social sciences, and also within the wider culture—that is, it has become a common lens through which many on the Left understand society. This does not mean, of course, that most progressives today have a comprehensive understanding of Gramsci’s thought, or that they are committed to the project of liberation as articulated by the Frankfurt School; it means only that the theoretical presupposition that I outlined earlier has seeped into the wider progressive milieu so such an extent that is often taken for granted.

Unlike Jordan Peterson, however, I am not convinced that Cultural Marxism is wholly evil. Rather, it is useful for some purposes, and not for others. In order to make this case, I will focus on the work of one particular scholar, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Although some might contend Bourdieu is not a Cultural Marxist (during his lifetime he railed against certain tenets of Marxist philosophy), he is nevertheless committed to the presupposition that culture is used to reify and perpetuate class hierarchies. I have selected Bourdieu as a representative example of this kind of thinking because he remains incredibly popular within the social sciences today, especially within the sociology of culture and education.

Given his expansive body of work I’m only going to focus on Bourdieu’s theory of the educational system. Well known for his theories of social distinction and cultural capital, Bourdieu argued that society should ultimately be understood as a space of domination, whereby distinct social groups compete for power. He further argued that the education system should be thought of as a complex of institutions and practices which serves to reproduce the power relations of a given society. According to Bourdieu, this occurs because the ruling class dictates what is to be culturally valued (the forms of art, religious beliefs, etiquette, and ways of speaking that are considered profound, tasteful, or appropriate) and what is not. Moreover, the children of elites grow up being socialized into this culture, whereas the lower classes do not. Bourdieu’s way of putting this is that the children of elites are bequeathed a high amount of cultural capital whereas less privileged children inherit a low cultural capital—none of which they actually earn. So, the educational system is said to reproduce this social inequality by academically rewarding the children of elites for their (unmerited) cultural capital, and punishing lower class children for having none.

At this point, it is useful to step back and concretize what Bourdieu is saying. As social analysis, there is in fact much of significance here. Basically, Bourdieu claims that the children of elites do better academically, not because they are smarter, but because they have been socialized to say and do what an elite consensus decides is correct. In some ways, this makes sense. For instance, I grew up in an upper-middle class home in Canada. As a result, I was exposed to a panoply of art forms and had a number of cultural experiences (i.e. traveling around the world) that cumulatively granted me a high amount of what Bourdieu would call cultural capital. Additionally, I had the privilege of spending lots of time with my parents’ friends (also upper-middle class) from whom I picked up unspoken forms of etiquette, cultural tastes, and general mores of behaviour. As an adult, this allowed me to feel at ease with the well-to-do, and to adapt to the unspoken social norms of the Canadian upper-middle class. Of course, I didn’t choose this; I was just lucky enough to grow up in a privileged home.

Bourdieu’s Cultural Marxism helps identify mechanisms by which inherited advantages might reproduce unmerited social inequality, and this is what makes it useful as a social theory. But at the same time, there are aspects of Bourdieu’s framework that are deeply flawed. Where I think Cultural Marxism goes wrong is that it fails to adequately appreciate a number of facets of a complex social and cultural reality. Here are a few:

It reproduces the most reductionist forms of orthodox Marxism: Bourdieu makes the case that the culture valued by elites merely reflects their own economic and social interests, and that it is therefore arbitrary. From this, it follows that we can reduce the content of their culture to their position in the social hierarchy. This is how we end up with a crude neo-Marxist analysis that informs the worst forms of identity politics today: Cultural Marxism of this variety is the kind of social analysis which views all culture—be it taste in art, religious and spiritual beliefs, or even moral values—as merely reflective of, and therefore entirely determined by, one’s position in what Bourdieu calls the system of social relations. This framework expands on Marx’s theory of class conflict to encompass a framework of social conflict, whereby distinct identity groups (sexual, gendered, racial, etc.) are in constant competition for positions of domination and power within the social hierarchy.

It has trouble making sense of both social change and social mobility: This has been a notorious problem for Bourdieu, and one for which he has been heavily criticized. If our identities and beliefs are merely reflections of our position in a class or social hierarchy then how do we explain social change or mobility? Cultural Marxism of this kind denies individual agency, and thereby leads to social determinism. And, in so doing, it undermines its own cause. For no one seeking emancipation for marginalized groups should endorse a deterministic worldview (unless they espouse a historical materialism like that of Marx, which few today are willing to do).

Cultural Marxism as a political strategy is incoherent: Cultural Marxism seems to offer an analysis of society which reduces individuals to their position in the social hierarchy, which in turn constrains or even precludes individual agency. But, at the same time, the project of critique—that is, of engaging in social analysis in order to uncover its hidden logic in the pursuit of liberation—seems to presuppose individual agency. But why engage in critique if one believes people’s values are socially determined and that they are therefore unpersuadable? This may be why Cultural Marxists prefer to speak of changing ‘the system’ as opposed to persuading or changing individuals. But this approach simply raises a different question: how do you intend to change the system unless you can first convince individuals (especially those of different social groups) to help you do so? No doubt this is why some on the Right fear that Cultural Marxism necessarily implies coercion (and potentially violence). However, I take the view that most progressives who view the world through this lens are not interested in fomenting violent revolution; they simply haven’t recognized the contradictions in their position.

Cultural Marxism, although useful for understanding certain aspects of modern society, endorses a worldview at odds with democracy: Recall Bourdieu’s view of the education system. Although it may be true that, in some school systems, students are rewarded for arbitrary reasons—i.e. they know the right cultural references, speak with a desirable accent, or have the right last name—surely this is not the sole basis upon which most students are rewarded. The problem then is that Bourdieu makes no distinctions between arbitrary and non-arbitrary cultural values and beliefs. For instance, if one is socialized in a home where the habits of hard work, diligence, temperance, autonomy, and self-restraint are valued, this is not arbitrary. Indeed, these are values that democratic societies ought to endorse because they are the values that a free and open society requires if it is to function properly. Whether or not we are born into a family that values such things may not lie within our control, but it would be wrong to reduce it to an arbitrary form of cultural domination. These values are better understood as what Hunter Baker calls “a different kind of privilege.”

Bourdieu is right to say that meritocracy can, in some instances, act as a guise for a wholly arbitrary system of value which rewards the privileged for their familiarity with the ‘right’ cultural references (this was even more the case in, say, early twentieth century France). But modern school systems, although imperfect, are examples of places where the values and habits that help to forge active and engaged citizens are used as metrics for measuring excellence. This is all to the good.

In sum, I don’t believe that Cultural Marxism, as a tool of social analysis among many, should be summarily discarded. It is useful for helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced, and indeed for achieving a more socially just world (understood here in a left-liberal sense). But we ought to be wary of claims that it captures social reality in its entirety. By making no distinctions between arbitrary and non-arbitrary values and culture, and by denying individual agency, it is wholly unsatisfactory as a comprehensive worldview. It reduces individuals to cogs in a machine of domination whereby social groups are either winners or losers, and individual liberty is merely a fool’s fantasy. This is why I favour a cultural sociological approach to studying culture and its role in society, associated with classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, rather than Karl Marx. A progressive liberal, Durkheim embraced the values of social and economic equality, but unlike Marx did not view society as characterised by eternal class or social conflict. Moreover, because he recognised that a just liberal democracy requires virtuous citizens with particular dispositions and habits he adamantly distinguished between arbitrary and non-arbitrary values. In my view, this makes Durkheim’s analyses of culture far more useful and relevant to the progressive cause than those of Marx. But, in general, an ecumenical approach to social theory is preferable; there should be no one way to understand society.

It is hard to assess whether Cultural Marxism, considered as a total theory of society, is really a threat to Western civilization. Although I believe it’s far more common than many on the centre-Left realize, its more histrionic critics on the Right overemphasize the dangers it poses. Here, it is important to distinguish between prevalence and social impact. I agree that many on the Left analyze social life through a Cultural Marxist lens, but this does not mean they live accordingly. Cultural Marxism, at its best, is simply a heuristic for analysis, and not a practical worldview with which to understand and organise one’s life.

Indeed, Cultural Marxism as a worldview often produces a quite depressed and dysfunctional personality. I therefore worry more about the impact it may have on the psyches of its most committed adherents than I do about those who reject it. How a person looks at the world can deeply affect their well-being, and the organising principles of Cultural Marxism can be difficult to live with because they leave individuals both hyperaware of injustice as well as distraught by how little power their analytical framework affords them as individuals.

So my guess is that those who subscribe to Cultural Marxism as a literal worldview are few and far between. It is more likely that the majority of progressives, like myself, recognize its validity as a tool of social analysis, but when it comes to living our lives and making sense of our relationships, we leave it at the door.

 

Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at Queen’s University, Canada. He studies the social and political implications of contemporary spirituality. You can find his website at www.galenwatts.com

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69 Comments

  1. Sylv says

    The main function of Cultural Marxism, in practical terms, is that it’s a convenient frame through which popular, widely accepted ideas, like a progressive tax structure or government regulation of industrial toxins, may be attacked through less popular ideas that are deemed culturally adjacent. In this way popular ideas, like progressive taxation, can be unfavorably tied to less popular ideas, like the idea that there are an indefinite number of first person singular pronouns and guessing wrong should land you in jail.

  2. ADM64 says

    Marxism is an inherently illogical, contradictory theory of how the economy works and how economic structures are related to political ones. It is wrong in all aspects. It is also evil because its doctrines, when implemented, lead to destruction, death, poverty and injustice. Cultural Marxism is every bit as wrong. Neither has any redeeming features.

  3. What about the cultural practice, pretty much confined to the anglosphere, of the state asking its inhabitants to self-identify as a member of a quack race, such as white or black? I am sure that practice contributed to the development of identity politics much more than some obscure academic.

  4. Pizza Pete says

    Let’s unpack some of this, as the kids say.

    “Bourdieu’s way of putting this is that the children of elites are bequeathed a high amount of cultural capital whereas less privileged children inherit a low cultural capital—none of which they actually earn.”

    It is perplexing to me how this is anything but self-evident. Furthermore, outside of sweatshops no children earn anything. They are children. However, someone certainly has created what children are given because all material wealth is created by human ingenuity and effort.

    “Of course, I didn’t choose this; I was just lucky enough to grow up in a privileged home.”

    “Privileged home” is a poor term. What does it mean? Did your parents have a title? Were they aristocrats? Does Canada have an archaic class or caste system I am unaware of? No. Most likely your parents worked (i) for their income, and (ii) to create a happy and supportive home environment. So in what sense then was your home “privileged?” Just because you did not work for what you had doesn’t preclude from someone else having to work hard for it.

    The fallacy of this subtext is that opportunity, happiness, and wealth is a zero sum game. Your parents did not steal opportunity and happiness from a less fortunate family or child. Despite its incoherence, this class resentment has somehow been transmogrified into a morality that the affluent have internalized and then measure their self worth by, i.e. “I possess refined moral sensibilities to the degree that I have internalized a sophisticated understanding about what should be resented about me.”

    “Bourdieu’s Cultural Marxism helps identify mechanisms by which inherited advantages might reproduce unmerited social inequality.” There will always be inequality and it will always to some degree be unmerited insofar as people will be born with different levels of intelligence and different personality traits, will have different home environments, and differing degrees of luck. The question is: so what? The Left hasn’t really come up with anything better than class punishment historically and we all know how that has gone.

    If you’re arguing that we should have a larger redistributive welfare state, this type of intellectual construct does nothing to inform us what that should look like (which by the way the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden, etc. already have. Wealthy societies redistribute.), and, compared to specific policy proposals that hypothesize specific benefits, “unfairness” is a pretty weak blanket justification for any specific policy.

    I have never found the following to be anything beyond a vague generalization that gets no real world traction: “[Cultural Marxism] is useful for helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced, and indeed for achieving a more socially just world (understood here in a left-liberal sense).” How? In what tangible way?

    Finally, one contradiction on the Left that no one has been able to explain to me: if the upper middle class, with it’s superior social mores and hunger for justice, is so great, why would you be opposed to it’s reproduction and expansion? Don’t we need more sociology professors and social workers and teachers to midwife this more just, equitable society?

    Finally I’ll add that the arbitrary values are window dressing (in comparison to the non-arbitrary values). You might be less socially acceptable initially as you move up the ladder without the arbitrary values, but so what? Has anyone done an analysis decomposing the variance these two factors account for in terms of success?

    • Alexandre says

      I was writing my reply when I read yours. Surely you have put things in a better way than I will, but I’ll leave mine. And I agree entirely when you write: ““Privileged home” is a poor term. What does it mean? Did your parents have a title? Were they aristocrats? Does Canada have an archaic class or caste system I am unaware of? No. Most likely your parents worked (i) for their income, and (ii) to create a happy and supportive home environment. So in what sense then was your home “privileged?” Just because you did not work for what you had doesn’t preclude from someone else having to work hard for it.”

      Just some comments:

      1.
      The best answer for Bourdieu’s views on the educational system is Raymond Boudon’s “L’inégalité des Chances”. Actually, Boudon’s work is a great substitute for Bourdieu’s ideological remarks disguised as sociology.

      And allow me to also use myself to concretize how problematic Bourdieu’s theory is: I am from a pretty common middle-middle-class. Yes, my parents valued education, they took me to museums, cinema when I was a kid. They thought that reading was important, but they have never forced me to read. It was up to me to choose if I wanted to read something or just play computer games (what I did a lot). I have never traveled around the world (it was expensive). And my friends were also from middle-middle-class. After finishing school (I had some average marks; even some zeros) I did a BA in History. Then a MA in History. Then a PhD in Sociology. I choose all of this. I did not inherit from my social milieu any cultural capital that could help me do better academically. I did not inherit any social capital that could help me getting in touch with professors. I had support, but the rest was on my own. Nobody in my family showed me Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”. I don’t recall anyone showing me how to appreciate European art or Noh plays. I did not pick up from my friends’ parents forms of etiquette to be used in academia, when talking to a professor who was from middle-upper or upper-upper-class. And I have a sister: we couldn’t be more different in everything (from behavior to cultural capital).
      (So, if I would look for a way to understand that, it would be Giddens’ structuration theory which is far more realistic and less ideological).

      2.
      Besides, what Bourdieu is saying was already said before (see Randall Collins’ Functional and Conflict Theories of Educational Stratification). The difference is: Bourdieu transformed a scholarly finding in a political conflict, analyzing it under ideological lens and reaching ludicrous conclusions. In this regard, one of Bourdieu’s greatest contribution to the study of society is: resentment and guilt – two powerful components of Cultural Marxism.

      3.
      The only use of Cultural Marxism is for ideological/political purposes. As analytical or heuristic tool it is a disaster because both its ontological and epistemological claims present serious problems (and they support an authoritarian worldview and authoritarian practices). Anything that has “Marxism” attached to it is not only flawed, but despicable (It is a shame that sociology has Karl Marx as one of its classical author – Simmel is superior in every sense; not to mention Durkheim and Weber, of course).
      You said it yourself: “[Cultural Marxism] is useful for helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced, and indeed for achieving a more socially just world (understood here in a left-liberal sense)”.
      That is, it is useful for political purposes, for social engineering, not for science, not for analytical thinking.

      “(…)those who subscribe to Cultural Marxism as a literal worldview are few and far between”. I don’t know what you mean by “literal worldview”, but I can say this: as someone from a third world country, when I see that every TV news, newspaper, the cultural and intellectual elites, etc in my country are talking about MeToo, islamophobia, transphobia and everything else associated with Cultural Marxism instead of discussing why the country has 60.000 homicides a year, why people die in front of a hospital because there are no doctors, how someone can live with a minimum wage that is less than USD263 a month, than one realizes how Cultural Marxism not only is not on the heads of a few lunatics, but also how powerful it is that people choose to ignore reality to discuss themes that are far from being truly urgent. And these people in positions of power impose Cultural Marxism interpretations and themes on the rest of society with no regard for their problems.

      4.
      “However, I take the view that most progressives who view the world through this lens are not interested in fomenting violent revolution”.
      Maybe not “fomenting violent revolution” but I am almost sure that they believe that violence is a legitimate mean of political action in order to produce change (i.e. the change that they want according to their worldview).
      “[T]hey simply haven’t recognized the contradictions in their position”. This is no excuse. Actually, it is an easy way out: “Oh, I wasn’t aware of the consequences…” “Ah, I didn’t realize it could turn out like this…”. People have to be aware of the possible consequences of their ideas and actions.

      • Alexandre says

        Somewhere I wrote “than” instead of “then”. It’s my lack of cultural capital (and not the sheer fact that English is not my first language and that I don’t put the necessary effort to improve it in order to avoid mistakes like that or others).

      • James says

        Well done sir.

        *standing at desk and applauding*

    • Paul says

      “Despite its incoherence, this class resentment has somehow been transmogrified into a morality that the affluent have internalized and then measure their self worth by, i.e. “I possess refined moral sensibilities to the degree that I have internalized a sophisticated understanding about what should be resented about me.””

      Brilliant, funny stuff.

    • The “unearned privilege myth” is the link between Marxism and cultural Marxism.

      Let us follow the logic.

      If parenting is inherently unjust, then what is the solution for a just society?

      1. Adults should not form families.
      2. Children should be brought to life anonymously, not born into a family.
      3. Children should be brought up communally, from the first day.
      4. All necessary resources should be accrue to the state for the raising of children.

      I see the communism.

      Further comments:

      The transfer of wealth and knowledge from parents to children is not in any way unearned. First off you are quite literally a biological continuation of your parents! By the Holy Darwin, what a unscientific idea unearned privilege is!

      The transfer of resources from father* to son* has been the basis of human civilization since man built his first house. If cultural Marxists were transported to any civilization prior to our own, they would be stoned to death.

  5. james lee says

    You have given one definition here of the nebulous concept that is cultural marxism, which is perfectly fine. However, I don’t believe it’s the same as the one referred to by Peterson and other critics. It appears to me that Cultural Marxism, like the term Postmodern Neomarxism, is more generally employed to refer to the Marxist framework which views social reality as a zero sum game between an oppressor class and an oppressed class(es). In the original formulation, the groups were defined by economics, but the modern iterations define the groups by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

    The apologists who decry the “naïveté” or
    the “ignorance” of Peterson et al regarding the full spectrum of Marxism are arguing past the issue at hand. The point is that if you view social reality through this particular lens, and if you attempt to institute policy following this theoretical framework, you are courting disaster- based on *empirical evidence*. The Marxists of course simply ignore the empirical evidence. We would be insane to follow their example.

    • Jay Salhi says

      You have provided a better definition than the author. If you want to go further and reduce the definition to a sound bite: Cultural Marxism = Marxism with class conflict replaced by intersectionality.

  6. Rod says

    I’m a teacher. I’ve taught on Vancouver’s wealthy west side and less wealthy east side. The biggest factor for success is intelligence. It’s foolish to ignore the fact that the average IQ of private school kids and west side kids is much higher than public school kids. Much much higher. I’ve seen it — in the eyes, in the demeanour, in the WOW conversations. Those kids are smart, cuz their DNA is smart. They succeed and get weatlthy and produce more smart /wealthy kids. Period.

    • dirk says

      Do you really think that IQ has anything to do with succes in life Rod? I see around me the biggest stupids get richer and richer, of course, because they know what to do, how to impose, and gain the upper hand, and I see that very clever academics (with the highest notes in school) earn only a minimum wage, or even less than that.

      • Rich says

        I don’t know where you are, but that certainly does not jive with what I have seen in the U.S. Very smart people who go into heavily mathematical professions tend to do very well. Granted, not all intelligent people go into those mathematical professions. Outside of professions that require higher mathematics or extremely logical problem solving, things like work ethic, energy level, and extraversion might be more important than IQ. For instance, in sales, intelligence might make some difference but it does not dominate over other traits (that’s my own assessment, anyway). Do some people wind up more successful than the more intelligent people around them? Sure, of course, many people have experienced this. Over the entire population, though, a higher IQ will help you towards a stable, decently financially rewarding career. The “stupids” getting richer and richer are outliers, and I would presume that if you are in a circle such that you are seeing them then you are in a pretty successful circle already.
        That said, probably the most intelligent guy I know lives with his parents despite being middle aged and has failed to launch a successful career ever in his life (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he has never followed up on the launch, as he has started many careers but never followed through beyond the initial success). This is to the point that, obviously, it is not a perfect correlation between IQ and life success. There are many mediators.

        • dirk says

          I shouldn’t have said stupids Rich because they were keen, avid , assertive and with good social instincts, but I meant unacademic, with low marks in school for example. It’s very strange that in schools and IQ tests, the important things that count in life and society are not even part of the exigencies, it’s always geography, maths, logic, history and other abstract subjects.

    • gda says

      The truth and nothing but the truth. Thanks Rod.

    • Mazzakim says

      If you taught at the high school level, you were dealing with kids with 9~12+ years of widely disparate academic socialization/preparation, with the wealthy accumulating ever-widening advantages over the poor at every age/grade level. I don’t know what kinds of standardized testing you do in Canada, but I would guess if there are any early childhood intelligence assessments that the differences between your east and west populations of students are negligible. What you attribute to intelligence I would guess is more due to differences in the quality of the sum of the education and experiences available to each population.

  7. James says

    Three things…

    1) Galen Watts is to be commended for what is the most impartial and honest description of cultural Marxism that I have ever read. I am no fan of cultural Marxism but Galen has stuck to the facts and provided explanations that a lay person (such as yours truly) can understand and consider further; my thanks.

    That said, I am curious if the author has children because I have a theory about “inherited privilege” which is very unlikely to be original; an adult who has been raised by a parents with a certain outlook (which is not confined to a certain class) and who has been blessed with their own children is far more likely to appreciate the subtle but important error at the root of cultural Marxism where a child-less adult, no matter their intelligence is much less likely to understand the importance of said error. To refer to the authors own text:

    “Of course, I didn’t choose this; I was just lucky enough to grow up in a privileged home.”

    To borrow a phrase from someone I know who first alerted me to this error of sequence and causality: there is no luck involved! If you are the child of that certain type of parent (and often grandparent) then you know that they have strove with every fiber of their being for your entire life (and often before you were even born) to manifest in you all the qualities required for a happy and successful life. What is often a multi-decade effort requiring enormous sacrifice by your parents is the very opposite of arbitrary or lucky – your parents left nothing to luck or chance to ensure your success.

    It is also worth noting that the cultural traits and benefits passed from one generation to the next which the cultural Marxists most take issue with (with some justification I might add) such as
    – wealth
    – easier access to the upper classes
    – a learnt way of speaking and behaving that signals their membership of the upper class

    have continued to become less important over time to the point that these types of privilege are bordering on irrelevancy in 2018 when you consider the role they play in a meaningful and happy life. Hunter Baker characterises the most important values and qualities in his previous piece (posted to Quillette) as “a different kind of privilege” which I think is quite neat.

    2) My rambling has been previously captured by Pizza Pete (previous comment) in the most coherent form I have seen:

    “Privileged home” is a poor term. What does it mean? Did your parents have a title? Were they aristocrats? Does Canada have an archaic class or caste system I am unaware of? No. Most likely your parents worked (i) for their income, and (ii) to create a happy and supportive home environment. So in what sense then was your home “privileged?” Just because you did not work for what you had doesn’t preclude from someone else having to work hard for it.”

    The most vicious or shallow of cultural Marxists will simply never understand the truth in Pizza Pete’s last sentence. It takes an enlightened and humble human being (or at least one who is honestly trying to become such) to appreciate the eternal link between the past, present and future and takes their place in it by understanding the debt we owe to past generations and the obligation we have to future generations.

    Many thanks Pizza Pete.

    3) Lastly, my heart goes out to those children who get neither the benefit of “a different kind of privilege” nor the more obvious type of privilige (money, access etc.). They have an utterly hopeless road and are beyond our help as long as we fail to explain to these kids that, while the circumstances of their birth are not their fault, nor is it the fault of their contemporaries who are blessed with “a different kind of privilege” – they are literally paying with their lives for the short comings of their near term forebears.
    Life and reality is simultaneously unfair to these children but fair in principle and over time; more’s the pity. It is cold comfort that social mobility is higher in advanced western nations than anywhere else but at least these kids have a glimmer of hope if they are born in Australia, NZ, UK, US, Canada, Nordic nations etc.

    • dirk says

      I was borne in a comfortable sphere, with nice parents, a nice big house with a large garden and separate rooms for each child, with a large world-globe in my father’s studyroom (the whole world under my hands), historybooks, world literature ( the Russian classics), and all kinds of encyclopedia (there was no internet at the time), I had to go to piano lessons, musea (I didn’t like, I preferred fishing and tree climbing, but now are happy I learned to do so, in those musea I visit nowadays, you don’t see any other people as my own cultural class, except maybe a noisy class of children), was sent to a good school and university, had nice jobs and good salary (I can’t remember that I fought for such things, they just happened). So, reading what Bourdieu explains, I give him ful credit, life is a lottery , you may have luck, or not (imagine, having been borne in an African slum, or in an Indian village, the most enterprising of these people now arrive in masses on rubberboats in a European country, with very variable successes, in case they survived the boat trip).

      • Rich says

        But life is only a lottery, in that sense (I mean, there is always an element of randomness to life, no matter how stable), if you consider your self/being as something that exists on its own, that perhaps existed before your were born and could have been born elsewhere. On the other hand, if your self is constructed of a combination of biology and social interaction (you could add psychology, though it is not clear the extent to which this is separate from or derivative of the other two), then your existence where you are/were is not a lottery. Rather, it was the creation of those that came before you and that exist around you.

        (P.S. I swear I’m not just following you around in these comments. You just happened to have two comments near each other that made points I felt like responding to. Of course, this is assuming that I am responding to the same “dirk”.

        • dirk says

          Yes Rich , the same (because I did not come across another dirk the last 2 months). Of course, I am curious which 2 ones those responding valid comments were, but I guess some, where I came with something you agreed with (that’s human). The lottery is a metaphore, the family and society layer around me, where I found myself thrown into, was also part of it, it was all too easy altogether, I don’t feel I deserve it, actually But, being a biologist by training, am not so amazed, because, seeing all those acorns fallen in autumn from the mother tree, where only 1 out of the 100.000 ever becomes a majestic tree (though, all have good genes and abilities), I realize that luck and hazards are (have to, by necessity) part of the system. Also, I donot feel oppressed, or oppressor, but privileged (by nature), yes. In short, with Bourdieu and Levi-Strauss, I feel for structuralism, less so than for, e.g., the Human Rights Bill (which, I think, is more something of the (unrealistic) imagination).

  8. Thanks a lot for this description and analysis.
    Having a good understanding of the idea is more important than the label, as most people don’t know what the term means and I don’t know anyone who identifies themselves as a “cultural marxist”.

    On the (empirical) question of the impact of this idea/worldview, I agree that, absent some objective measure, it could be overestimated.
    That said, my impression (from a limited and likely biased sample) is that the idea of Cultural Marxism is frequently represented by the left (in politics, in academia and in the media). I’ll admit I don’t know whether the idea has a central or causal effect on the policy positions, or it is just coincidentally or conveniently part of those political discussions.

  9. “Cultural Marxism” is a cant phrase used by conspiracy-minded pseudo-intellectuals on the right to designate whichever crowd of left-liberals have come into their laser-like focus as the most recent threat to their virility and their position as sycophants to the wealthy and powerful whose crumbs they vacuum up whenever they are flicked in their general direction.

    For the Nazis, the phrase du jour was “Cultural Bolshevism” and was associated with all sorts of decadent threats to Aryan masculinity, including that of the nasty Jews of course.

    For Anders Brevik, Cultural Marxists were involved in a nefarious plot to undermine the West (pollute his precious bodily fluids) that took the form of the mass importation of Muslims by teenagers who belonged to the youth wing of a social democratic party whose policies resembled nothing so much as the old FDR Democrats.

    For William Lind, Cultural Marxism was a rallying cry to American social conservatives to gather together under the big tent of neoliberal capitalism as it rent asunder the fabric of American communities by pointing the finger of conspiracy at the feminazis, the fags, the pinkos and the feminazi-pinko-fags.

    As flyover country was dropped into the economic toilet by globalist capital and Wall Street, Cultural Marxists took the place of ye olde-tyme endearingly simple “Communists in Our Midst” as the enemy on the other side of the kulturkampf. “Get them womens back into the kitchen barefoot and pregnant and Mom, Apple Pie and the American Way will be more than a logo on the side of a shipping container from South Korea!”

    Of course it is possible to read through Gramsci and Althusser and the Frankfurters (great band name) and then move on to Derrida and Foucault and that nasty Judith Butler in order to “unpack” the intellectual tendencies that have fed into so many of those abstracts we all love to laugh at on Twitter’s Real Peer Review, account, but why?

    The people who fling the cant phrase around as if we were at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee haven’t, won’t and by all indications couldn’t if they tried.

    So better not.

    • OtherWay says

      mjw51, did you go straight to insults? No rational defense at all? OK then.

      • Outside the discourse of right-wing conspiracy nutjobbery and faux-rational attempts to “explain” it (like the article). CM has no particle of reality. The history of its use as a cant phrase to attack various “enemies” of the reactionaries around us is clear: beginning with the Nazis and Cultural Bolshevism and ending with its present apotheosis thanks to “thought leaders” like Jordan Peterson, Cultural Marxism is little more than an “insult with no rational defense” in itself.

  10. “Bourdieu’s Cultural Marxism helps identify mechanisms by which inherited advantages might reproduce unmerited social inequality, and this is what makes it useful as a social theory”

    Sadly, the author is WAY off on this one. That Bourdieu thinks he has identified ‘unmerited social inequality,” and that this is taken as prima facie injustice is exactly what makes these cultural marxists useless. Being a graduate student of cultural studies, the author seems to be blind to the political implications of manufacturing resentment and labeling entire classes of people as undeserving or ‘privileged.’

    You could try to argue, as the author seems to have attmempted, that cultural Marxism is just an innocuous manner of incompletely interpreting the world, one that can be adequately supplemented by other perspectives. This is patently wrong. CM is a set of ontological axioms that have seeped into mainstream culture and defined fundamental values. One need not have an explicit grasp of the axioms to have adopted the values. Evidence of this seepage? Just consider the ease with which a concept like ‘white privilege’ gets readily accepted as a legitimate position to hold, despite fact it doesn’t hold up to even the least bit of scrutiny. The unreflective adoption of this ridiculous concept is made possible only because cultural marxists have been successful in spreading the values that pave the way for people to encounter the concept as a sort of self-evident truth.

    What is disgusting, and in my view bordering on evil, is that these cultural marxists are not involved in some admirable creative project that emphasizes what is best in humanity; on the contrary, the appeal of what they preach is based solely on an appeal to a most nasty side of human motivation that is rooted in resentment and conception said of collective guilt. The cherry on top is that even a cursory review of the articles published out of the humanities reveals a staggering capacity for intellectual laziness and groupthink. I mean seriously, how difficult is i REALLY to pick one of the world’s many problems and blame it on capitalism??? I’m pretty sure my German Shepherd has the mental effort required to undertake such a task.

  11. Emmanuel says

    Bourdieu’s ideas about education have seduced many readers and academics, however they are not backed by much empirical data. A few weeks ago I read a text by a French sociologist that explained there is no evidence than teaching you kid to play the cello or bringing him or her to the opera with you (which many upper class or upper middle class people don’t do and many people who are only midfle class do) has any influence on his results at school. At least, it’s true in France where the school system does not pay much attention to extra-curricular activities.

    • dirk says

      I think, Emmanuel, that Bourdieu is valid especially in France, and much less so in the US and, e.g., the Scandinavian nations, where the most common comment on snobism or big manners is: just do normal, and not so foolish. That partly invalidates my former comment, maybe, but society is a complicate thing, and not easy to categorize.

    • Zarley Zalapski says

      Annette Lareau’s “Unequal Childhoods” is a good in-depth work that demonstrates how class differences in child-rearing lead to better life outcomes.

      If you want a glaring example of where this makes a difference, look at the firestorm around trust in the media. If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know you make it there by adhering to a certain code of middle class (and up) ass-kissing behaviour, a familiarity with and profession of class-dependent ideological pieties, and often the stuff that gets you a sniff in the first place is being well-traveled, and otherwise well-rounded in the same sense that Ivy League admits beating out high test scoring Asians are. Even in North America you’d be surprised at the prevalence of posh English accents.

      The result of that is a critical subculture existing inside a tiny bubble talking down to those they have no contact with.

  12. Peter says

    “Of course, I didn’t choose this; I was just lucky enough to grow up in a privileged home.” Let me summarize what James already told you. Your parents put a lot of effort and time to give you a good start in life. Instead of being grateful, you seem almost ashamed of their self-sacrifice. And this heritage has little to do with privilege, but much more with the parenting style and values. Beyond inherited characteristics, work ethic and grit (and these values are not connected to income level) are key factors for success at University (and elsewhere). Knowledge of art etc. is fine, but can be acquired later in life.

    Well, you are an example that Cultural Marxism really works.

    • dirk says

      Here, I fully agree Peter. The problem might be, that a lot of culture and culturalism that Bourdieu speaks about, belongs to the unconscious, but very real world of a person as part of society.

      • Tom More says

        Materialistic groundings always must end with power struggles. They fail to grasp the spiritual; the free and voluntaristic. Focusing only on Aristotle’s “material” causes.. leaves us stupid. We need to rediscover his “formal” and final or end causes.. the cause of causes. Nominalism ruined us and led to the final train wreck of postmodernism. Ed Feser and Mortimer Adler are good guides out of the woods and back to our common sense sanity. Peterson shows this path as being the path of psychological.. unity and value. Materialists are simplistic including Marx.

    • teo says

      He’s not wrong. I don’t subscribe to the teachings of cultural marxism but it’s obvious our upbringing has an impact on our lives. It doesn’t define anything, but it can be an advantage or a hinderance.

      I grew up upper-middle class as well. By the time I was 18, I had traveled to 20+ countries. I had spent a year as a foreign exchange student, paid for by my parents. I had extensive knowledge of high culture for someone my age, thanks to my parents dragging me to live theatre or orchestra performances every other week. It made it much easier to talk to and network with older, upper and middle class people in positions of authority.

      I don’t feel any guilt over it, only a sense of gratitude towards my parents. Working crappy summer jobs with other students and youth is what finally opened my eyes on the subject. There are a lot of people whose understanding of culture is limited television and pop radio. They wouldn’t even try to carry on a meaningful conversation with a superior in the break room, because they felt inferior as people, not just because of their position in the company.

      Just the fact that I’m fairly confident in expressing myself in English, my 3rd language, while some of my peers struggle ordering food in a foreign restaurant is a huge asset in life. I have largely my background to thank for the opportunities I was allowed, even if it was me who actually did the work in the end.

  13. teo says

    Thank you. It’s very hard to find discussion about cultural marxism that isn’t either painting it as a tool of the devil or denying its existence alltogether.

    • dirk says

      Agreed Teo, it seems to be hard to stay in the middle ground, it’s always more tempting to evade and look for the limits/extremes.

    • Brad Carpenter says

      That’s because it has no existence. It’s just s swear word.

  14. Tom More says

    With respect, the entire monologue of western culture’s imposition of fake reality is predicated upon arbitrary identity groups and unquestioned and absurd biological denial. Peterson’s critique is right on, employing perhaps his sense of the idea of “truth” as inescapably and intrinsically bound to value. Our almost enchantingly scientistic narcissistic cult is much more like classic gnosticism and reflects, again as Peterson suggested in a context, a two year old’s approach to reality.

  15. Urusigh says

    “So my guess is that those who subscribe to Cultural Marxism as a literal worldview are few and far between.”

    “Few and far between?” Then why do we have video evidence of protest crowds, large marches, and violent mobs at college after college (and elsewhere) showing literally tens of thousands of people carrying the signs, chanting the slogans, and even assaulting fellow citizens under the presumed justification of this worldview?

    “Indeed, Cultural Marxism as a worldview often produces a quite depressed and dysfunctional personality.”

    Conveniently, this provides us a usable set of symptoms to look for when assessing how widespread this delusion really is: the prevalence of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide among students at college and among recent graduates. I don’t know how to embed a line graph in here, but suffice to say that “few and far between” actually describes those students NOT suffering from mental distress since Cultural Marxism achieved dominance in the academy.

    • Brad Carpenter says

      So the mere act of protesting is somehow ‘Cultural Marxism’ now? God you people are nuts.

  16. Marx was a failure says

    “It is useful for helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced, and indeed for achieving a more socially just world (understood here in a left-liberal sense).”

    Which assumes that social justice is a desirable outcome. It isn’t.

  17. OtherWay says

    Cultural Marxism is evil. It divides the world into two camps, the victims and the oppressors.
    It then says that no rules whatsoever apply to the victims. They can do whatever it takes to throw off the oppression. And now the evil part – there is no rational metric to who is an oppressor.
    You simply call somebody you don’t like a Nazi and then you are free to hit them. Or even kill them, which Marxism has a very long history of actually doing.

    • Brad Carpenter says

      Just like you simply call someone you don’t like a cultural Marxist. Or, as Jordan Peterson says, a “postmodern neo-Marxist”. Then you are free to dox them, blacklist them, punch them, kill them, run them over, knife them, kick them off youtube, twitter, Facebook, etc. and proclaim the end of Western Civilization is near, as we are all being oppressed by a few college kids.

  18. John AD says

    Jesus, all those names. All those names saying stuff that’s both tritely true and annoyingly simple. It’d be nice if the idea were spread that if you can’t replace the names with their theories (giving the theories a handle relevant to the content) then you can’t call it an academic discipline (and, yes, this includes the hard sciences). The “discipline” would progress by the honing and critiquing the theories, replacing the original authors with better and better attested (researched, evidenced, trialled, replicated) catalogues of solid social science that doesn’t reference the originators.

    I studied a hard science, 3 years undergraduate, 1 year post, and don’t recall a single mention of the originators of the theories. (The history might be interesting, but that’s the history, not the science)

    I’m guessing that the English speaking world is not so enamoured with the edgy sounding (to our ears) Foucaults, Derridas, Bourdieus.

    • dirk says

      Indeed that’s a big difference between hard and soft science, except in some laws (e.g. Chatelier- van’t Hof) you don’t come across the inventers of all those (objective) truths, that’s quite different in the humanities, there you see immediately the person behind the theory or hypothesis, such as Marx, Judith Butler or Sartre. Of Bourdieu: I found it very interesting to read that he was the son of a simple uneducated postman in the Pyrenean backwaters of France, with other words, his life is actually the opposite of his theory.

  19. Peter says

    Teo, your story is nice and interesting. It is true that social skills and good manners help. Only, they will hardly have an effect on grades at a university.

    If your pals at summer jobs did only trivial reading, it was IMHO mostly their fault. It is a century since public libraries opened. Anyone interested can borrow excellent literature for free and expand his knowledge. Museums and galleries often have open days.

    After the societies have invested so much effort in providing opportunities for intellectual growth for practically everybody, it is really destructive to prop up centuries old grievances and monstrously exaggerate minor issues.

    Elite private universities in US do provide special access to the privileged and cement their networks. But as long as the faculty and the programs are leftist, that will not be perceived as a big issue.

    One should concentrate on real issues of concern that keep the poor and their children down: corruption, usury (Do you know, that many US states have no laws against usury?), tax avoidance by the super-rich all over the world, unnecessarily brutal justice systems, importing illegal immigrants to keep wages down…

    • Teo says

      Peter, you’re right. We are all ultimately responsible for our own lives. The point I’m trying to make is that because of my upbringing I was pushed to do certain things, like reading or visiting museums, at a far younger age than when I could make smart decisions for myself. Even if a 30-year old realizes it’s benefitial for a small child to regularly read books, that doesn’t mean he knew it as a 5-year old.

      I agree with your post. I originally replied to someone, who claimed that admitting people to have advantages in life due to their background is proof of cultural marxism working. I don’t agree with that. I think we can be realistic about admitting these privileges exist, without claiming them to be the reason for everything, or judging people for having them.

  20. Chris says

    Anybody who doesn’t think being a member of the dominant class isn’t helpful just isn’t paying attention. Children of this class are more likely to learn the attitudes and skills that lead to success and they are more likely to get practice at impressing people who are dominant in society.

    But education is precisely an effort to share these skills and opportunities with everyone. The problem with dominant culture bashing is that it discourages people from getting the skills they need in favor of greater skills at complaining and blaming others, which are not in demand anywhere anything is being accomplished. It is a sad rip off of the most vulnerable and is generally orchestrated by elites who have figured out how to gain dominance by pursuing a career of herding these vulnerable people into failure or at best mediocrity.

    Life isn’t fair. There is monetary inequality, intellectual inequality, inequality of appearance, and many others. Either you get over it and do the best with what you do have or you massively limit your opportunities.

    I was born relatively privileged. It didn’t stop me from being bullied or having social anxiety. I had to work many boring hours at boring jobs as well as many satisfying hours at interesting jobs. I’ve been happy and I’ve been sad. Nobody has happiness just giving to them because it is not “giveable”.

    No, your life would not have been magically better if you were someone else. It’s a delusion.

  21. ga gamba says

    Cheer up, comrades!

    “When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this,” wrote Foucault.

    So, though they are not Marxists, be assured they may be as blood thirsty and murderous as the fellas seizing the means of production and dictating equality.

    • dirk says

      Many French philosophers, Ga, have the habit to say just the opposite what well meaning ordinary citizens think (Sartre, Foucault, Lacan), that’s why revolutions are quite normal there. It has also something childish, teenager like, my mum and dad say this, I am modern and freethinking, so say the opposite, rebel without a cause. But it works, it hits , what hell are you saying there? Power is good for you, dictatorial triumphs too??

  22. “To borrow a phrase from someone I know who first alerted me to this error of sequence and causality: there is no luck involved! If you are the child of that certain type of parent (and often grandparent) then you know that they have strove with every fiber of their being for your entire life (and often before you were even born) to manifest in you all the qualities required for a happy and successful life. What is often a multi-decade effort requiring enormous sacrifice by your parents is the very opposite of arbitrary or lucky – your parents left nothing to luck or chance to ensure your success.”

    This. A child born to loving, dedicated parents, with high intelligence and high conscientiousness is guaranteed to ‘succeed’ in modern western society. A child born to crap parents (‘parents’ in biological terms only), of low intelligence and low conscientiousness has a very low chance of success. But … because of all those kids in the first category, and the ones that came before them who built our great society, their life will be much, much better than it was for the low IQ, low conscientiousness crap-parent kids that came before them. It isn’t a zero-sum game over time.

    Question: if a cultural Marxist wants the best for their children are they a hypocrite?
    Answer: yes.

  23. ga gamba says

    Teo, you are correct one’s upbringing influences their path, for good or not, but it does not determine it. Further, many over-egg the claims the deprived are left with nothing. They too have their culture and there’s more than one space. In a country like the US many cultural movements start amongst the youth of the underclass, often based on racial and sexual identity as well as first- and second-generation immigrants, who surely are outsiders, and explode onto the scene becoming mass culture.

    Why are the rules and conventions of the aristocracy and their bourgeoisie sycophants not written in stone and our compliance mandated? Under the powerful-powerless dichotomy claimed to exist by postmodernists and cultural Marxists (hereafter the ‘New Left’) we should all be listening to classical music and opera, our artistic paintings today should very similar to that of the Classicism of hundreds of years ago, our architecture dominated by columned facades, and we’d all be still studying Latin and ancient Greek from primary school onward (for those fortunate enough to attend). Even a convention such as ‘never brown in town’, which dictates men’s business shoes be black Oxfords, only holds today in the most hidebound financial and legal firms.

    Capitalism is wondrously destructive force, but the destruction it wrecks brings forth new and improved things, i.e. Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’, rather than the top-down commanded destruction inflicted on the Chinese by Mao’s revolutions and Pol Pot’s year zero in Cambodia. This is not to say capitalism doesn’t have its economic casualties as I’m sure those who made wooden wagons, horse shoes, steam engines, and phonographs will attest.

    Marx himself observed and, I think, admired capitalism’s dynamic creativity.

    The bourgeoisie has been the first to show what man’s activity can
    bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

    The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production … The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarcely one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of
    rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?
    (Bold text my emphasis.)

    You’ll be hard-pressed to find similar praise of capitalism coming from the New Left. So, though it is true the New Left has some antagonism to Marxism, it expresses much greater antipathy to capitalism. Ills such as slavery, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, conquest, and genocide, which all pre-date capitalism are laid at capitalism’s feet.

    What do the New Left say of capitalism? This is the gist, the low-resolution summary. Foucault said it was an order based on the accumulation of men and the accumulation of wealth and these accumulations maximise utility and docility simultaneously. The paradox of capitalism is that in order to increase the utility and productive capacity of individuals and populations it requires continuous expansion in the scope of freedom and diversity. Voilà! You’re enslaved, i.e. made docile, by your freedom.

    OK, let’s unpack that. Firstly, docility. It could be argued that submission is due in large part to an economic order that allows the majority of people to attain security and contentment, unequally distributed, in mostly tranquil, law-abiding societies. Further, it could be argued the people find their present means to protest acceptable and appropriate. Not only are their material needs attainable and met, if Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is correct people can and do attain much more. Secondly, we find many people employed in fields that do little, if anything, to increase productive capacity. Gender Studies, for example. Blogging. Punditry. Writing postmodern criticism of capitalism. If capitalist society were genuinely driven by maximising productivity we’d dispose the morons (and lower), the crippled, and the aged and infirm – anyone who isn’t producing. Though eugenics occurred in the early 20th century, it also predates capitalism. The eugenics we practice today are targeted on the unborn who are tested for abnormalities in utero – our eugenics is performed discreetly. Thirdly, the demands for diversity are often accompanied by the demands to limit the freedoms of others. Examples of this are positive discrimination (a.k.a. affirmative action, which is now being re-coined as holistic accommodation), hate speech laws and speech codes, and public accommodation laws placed on private businesses and associations. Surely these are curtailments of freedom.

    Jean Baudrillard used Marx’s theory of use-value and exchange-value – so much for the postmodernists rejecting Marxism, eh? To this Baudrillard added sign-value. Before capitalism, they asserted, people would look at an item such as an axe and see what they could do with it such as chopping wood to build a shelter, splitting firewood, and shaping wood to make furniture. Let’s ignore that money predates capitalism; with capitalism people no longer looked at the axe’s use-value, they looked at exchange-value, i.e. its worth, for example £30. Marx and Baudrillard just assume that pre-capitalist people only saw a use and not a worth such as three silver coins or one bushel of wheat. They also assume capitalist people no longer saw use in what they wanted, which is quite a stretch. Were people buying axes because they were worth x sum and not because they were needed for a purpose? Even in barter-based economies an item had an exchange value; an axe could be worth one apple or five cows depending on how needed it and how desperate a party were. One would have to wonder around in the world of very imperfect knowledge trying to find a person not only willing to barter but also exchange what was needed in a quantity, i.e. a worth, deemed appropriate. Good luck! Baudrillard sees exchange-value as alienating; according to him it’s “all capital”. In a society where everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold, alienation is total. He began to look to premodern societies for hints of more emancipatory alternatives to capitalism and exchange-value.

    I think exchange-value is one of the greatest miracles of all the human constructs we devised. Evolving from simple barter we used gold and silver, which have almost no value in making tools, though silver was used to make mirrors, and they somehow had value. Later, paper currency, which eventually lost its precious-metal backing, was declared a means of exchange – fiat currency. We are so removed from the past that we fail to understand how oppressively inefficient and ineffective solely use-value and barter were.

    As a thought experiment think of all the things you would need to make something as basic as soap. Don’t neglect the tools needed, which you don’t have too. Understand that you have nothing but the use and power of your own body. Now, make soap. Oh, don’t forget you’ll need some kind of footwear as you embark on your adventure to gather the materials.

    Think of the question “how much is my time worth?” This is question of affluence, one that exists where a person’s wants are met and his survival is not at stake. This question is asked often when a person is asked to give up some of his free time to work more hours. Baudrillard states placing a value on time is alienating and oppressive. In fact, he says, free time doesn’t exist, rather we have work time and idle time.

    Lastly, where the postmodernists are better than the Marxists is the pomos stated the Marxists were far too focused on productive economics. The pomos understood that it is just one facet of life. But, then they fixate on consumerism, succumbing to a similar error they accuse the Marxists of committing.

  24. Craig Hubbard says

    The phenomenon Bourdieu describes doesn’t sound that different from what the Libertarian Charles Murray describes in his book Coming Apart.

  25. Mazzakim says

    I’m curious, is there anyone commenting on this article who is from an objectively poor background?

  26. Craig Hubbard says

    Not exactly poor but blue collar. Grew up in a trailer park.

    • One of the currents that seems to run through many of the comments on this article is a resentment that (personal) achievement is viewed as unearned if the person started from a place of relative (or absolute) privilege. “Hey, I’ve worked *hard* for everything I’ve achieved!” is what a lot of commenters seem to be saying. Yes, success in life at any station almost always comes down in a large part to the ability to roll up your sleeves and go to work in a sustained way at whatever it is you are trying to achieve. But what I’m not seeing here is a whole lot of empathy for the way being poor makes it hard work just to exist on a daily basis. “”Life’s not fair.” *shrug*”

      I’m going to set aside what I witnessed in Bangladesh and in the pueblos jovenes of Lima, Peru, two places where I lived and worked, and just focus my (anecdotal but I suspect broadly applicable) observation on what it means to be poor in a developed country like the United States. Everything you do, all your daily tasks such as the logistics of getting to and from work and your kids to and from school/day care without a car, grocery shopping or doing laundry when neither the grocery store or laundromat are close, etc., all become magnified time sinks that just suck the minutes and hours of your day away. And everything you do is done within the context of just not having enough money, or barely having enough, to cover everyone and everything demanding money from you. God forbid you fall behind on your bills and have bill collectors come at you. Or you get in trouble with the law and get buried under a blizzard of fees and fines. Or you or one of your loved ones gets seriously sick and even if you have health insurance, the family plan you are paying out the nose for, it’s a shitty-ass plan that you discover in your time of need doesn’t actually cover jack squat. Or you have to pay for a funeral.

      There’s a real undercurrent of almost Victorian-era morality in America that being poor is a sin and a deficiency in personal character. And it seems to me the people often hardest on the poor are not necessarily the ones at the top of the ladder, but those only a rung or two above being poor themselves.

      Poverty (rural and urban) is a complicated problem with no easy answers, and I’m not offering any solutions. What I will say related to this article is this: I agree with the person who called the term “cultural marxism” a right-wing pejorative. What we on the left want is our society to actually serve all within it. What many of you (overwhelmingly on this thread white, male, straight and educated) call “cultural marxism” I call the demand to take seriously the issues and rights of, and to treat with dignity and respect, all the different people who have historically been marginalized and often criminalized by those in power. Those of you who have never experienced poverty, or have not ever in any way been on the outside looking in, I don’t think you can truly understand all the ways society can and does put you down. You can say study X “proves” Y, for example, but when every black man in America is afraid of the police to some degree, there’s a problem. When half the gay people *still* hide their sexual orientation at work, that’s a problem. When women continue to experience deeply entrenched sexism and in many cases outright harassment in their workplaces, that’s a problem. When poor people try to explain what it means to be poor and you just wave it off, that’s a problem. You don’t see what you don’t see, don’t hear what you don’t hear, and maybe more of you should just take the time to actually listen to those you say are playing identity politics. Maybe we engage in some excesses, some silly and others more serious (and I don’t think what happens on campus to be all that serious, most students graduate and quickly assimilate mostly apolitically into the working world) but it is an ongoing process of finding and using our voices. With all due respect, fuck anyone who thinks the rest of us are going to go back to the time we were supposed to be mostly invisible in a white male world.

      For the record, I fully believe in capitalism. I believe it’s the economic engine that has lifted hundreds of millions around the world out of poverty in just the last 40 years. But every game requires rules for fair play, and referees to enforce the rules. Libertarians especially like to blather on about “redistribution,” meaning the taking from the wealthy to give to the poor. But what we have now in America is the exact opposite. Last year’s tax cut and the 460b in stock buybacks it enabled, has resulted in a massive redistribution upwards. Predictably, as recently announced, the tax cuts have resulted in the largest public debt relative to GDP in almost 70 years. And it’s going to grow. Equally predictably, to pay for it, there are now calls for extensive cuts in entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. In other words, having the poor pay for it. This is not fair play, nor the result of the hard work or risk taking by the rich. This is flat out theft from the poor to the rich. And you don’t have to be a Marxist to say that that is bullshit.

      • dirk says

        Youh’ve shocked me Mazzakim, I have worked in Peru (but in a village and not in a slum) and in Africa, where people earned not more than 1 dollar a day, at least, if you calculate and evaluate the things they produced (beans, maize, a chicken , some pumpkins), but I never experienced such situations as miserable, they seemed all to be OK (had a house (of mud) and daily food of what was growing there, not even bad, because rather varied, fresh, natural, organic, and no nonsense from the neighbourhood super), because there was nothing around to compare with. But what you say about poors in the US, yes, that makes a difference, maybe there is abject misery, despair and bad feelings. Who is the culprit? The government?, the rich?, the system?? I wouldn’t know, I am not a politician or activist. And when I listen then to Martha Nussbaum or John Rawls, then I think, is all that not too easily said?

        • As a broad observation, and made without the time to fully development it, about Rawls and his theory of justice are two things: 1) the increasing understanding we have about the ways we are interconnected, both with one another to and the world we live in, and what harm really means, and 2) the role of corruption in society. I don’t really know who the culprits are either, although I have my suspects, nor do I know the solutions that will absolutely, positively, work. Any honest answer would have to be holistic and take a close look at the sacred cows across the political spectrum, but we know that’s not going to happen.

  27. ukcj4 says

    The article (which I very much enjoyed, notwithstanding what follows) says: “Bourdieu’s Cultural Marxism helps identify mechanisms by which inherited advantages might reproduce unmerited social inequality, and this is what makes it useful as a social theory.”

    From what the article describes (I have not personally studied it), it appears that what Bourdeiu gets right is basically common sense – I think most people understand that a child (and more broadly anyone) who has doors to various social and other experiences opened to them because of their parent’s (or any other influential person in their life’s) status has certain advantages resulting from those experiences (assuming, of course, that the child or other person is observant, adapts to these environments and then translates the lessons learned to their own education, vocation or other productive aspect of their lives).

    I suppose there is some (maybe much) benefit to having an intellectual or academic translate these common sense observations into academic jargon (to then be studied and pondered more systematically) but academia, much like the press, too often takes these common sense observations too far under a thin veil of “academic truth-seeking” or some such banner, and find lurking beneath not just some common sense truth about life and culture that we should all try to better understand and perhaps even seek to improve on in some way but a power structure or other hidden evil of some kind, which then leads them to formulate some grand social or psychological theory that is actually based more on the academic’s values and worldview than on any “neutral” observation or fact-finding. You don’t need Marxism or some other theory to suss out these common sense truths (of course there are hegemonic forces in every culture or economy, for example – more generally, of course, all cultures and economies create kinds of feedback loops that reinforce their inherent values, right??), so suggesting the theory is useful in this way seems to almost be getting the situation backward.

    The smart academic is useful and would be more useful if he or she bagged the theory or at least developed it more discretely and with more humility. Instead, many (most?) intentionally (and by their reckoning, I guess, all, unintentionally) play the power games that he or she claims the forces they have snuffed out with their superior intellects are already playing. But humility is the last word I would associate with academia or the press. And this lack of humility is maybe why we need terms like “cultural Marxism” (even if they are not precisely accurate) to help call out what is going on behind these veils of academic (or journalistic) “truth” and neutrality.

  28. ‘Here, it is important to distinguish between prevalence and social impact. I agree that many on the Left analyze social life through a Cultural Marxist lens, but this does not mean they live accordingly. Cultural Marxism, at its best, is simply a heuristic for analysis, and not a practical worldview with which to understand and organise one’s life.’

    It isn’t as important to me whether a sizable minority of people arrange their lives around Cultural Marxism as whether their expressions of opinion translate into government action. The latter is both more likely, I think, and more threatening than the former.

  29. C Young says

    Forget high theory, the Marxist ideas in play here are simple in nature.

    The originating idea that the base determines the superstructure – economic interests shape culture. For traditional Marxists this was limited to empirical observations e.g. about the shape of religious ideologies and their role in protecting class interests.

    I would guess that Peterson accepts this perspective as valid.

    This idea became essentially toxic when it was turned from an empirical observation into a foundational philosophy by Derrida. Derrida presented an extreme form of relativism in which ‘reason’ and science are also constructs, also products of the base/power relations.

    This view automatically protects anyone who believes themselves to be on the right of history, from any contrary argument. Those views are malign constructs. They are products of the class structure/ patriarchy/ imperialism – whatever your poison. Assert this principle and never lose another argument, by your own account at least.

    Accepting this closes your mind, but it leaves you the undisputed (and undisputable) hero of your own life narrative.

    It is, at base, an argumentative strategy from the playground. Any attack can be rebutted with ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you’, a variation on ‘fake news!’.

  30. Zack says

    “But this approach simply raises a different question: how do you intend to change the system unless you can first convince individuals (especially those of different social groups) to help you do so? No doubt this is why some on the Right fear that Cultural Marxism necessarily implies coercion (and potentially violence). However, I take the view that most progressives who view the world through this lens are not interested in fomenting violent revolution; they simply haven’t recognized the contradictions in their position.”

    I am not on the Right, but I do fear that those of us on the Left who are so invested in a Cultural Marxist analysis as to advocate policy that reflects it will only realize the contradictions of this position once the more extremist types have used the same logic to foment violent revolution. Anything becomes justifiable to redress the perceived ongoing oppression of the less fortunate, and some of the most violent acts in human history were in the guise of the “greater good”.

  31. Chris Martin says

    I do not think anyone doubts that Marxists have pointed out problems that are legitimate. That’s not the problem. The problem is their solutions, which are often authoritarian. I would go as far as saying that the benefit of Marxism disappearing would greatly outweigh any of the small ways it has benefited society.

    • dirk says

      Small ways?? SMALL WAYS?? It has completely changed economic systems and societies all over the world? Imagine, Marx (or similar figure) would not have spoken? Still 2% of super rich, and 98% powerless factory workers and child labour?? In fact, Trump is a true Marxist. Protect our factory workers, they can’t help it that the system is against them.

  32. Pingback: Cultuurmarxisme en de oorlog over woorden – Een gesprek met Paul Cliteur – The Fire

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