Ivory Tower Ideologies

(Delusions & simplistic visions from Carl Marx to Ayn Rand)

But before we get into an exploration of Carl Marx, let’s consider the writings of Lennon.

No, I don’t mean Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Russian revolutionary dictator, I mean John Lennon of the Beatles and the words of his famous song, “Imagine.” It has become (as I’m sure John Lennon intended) somewhat of a theme song for liberal idealism in the modern world. And I’ll have to admit that I find its style, and melody, and even its lyrics to be quite pleasant. But it ought to be realized that, although they have a ready platform for voicing their opinions, actors and musicians are all too often mouthpieces for out-of-touch-with-reality “ivory tower” ideals, and, regardless of how much their hearts often may be in the right place, we ought to be careful to engage our critical thinking skills when we consider the implications of some of the things they promote.

So, even if we agree, or, rather, especially if we agree with much of its sentiment, we ought to listen carefully to the words of this song and consider what their implementation would imply, rather than just taking them at face value as I suspect many people who enjoy this song are prone to do.


Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand has become somewhat of an icon for the promotion of individualism, free market capitalism and Libertarianism in the minds of many (even though she herself repudiated Libertarians and the “conservative movement” in general as not having a cohesive philosophy.)

Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905. She was 12 years old when her family’s business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks shortly after the 1917 “October Revolution,” and her family, like many others of the “bourgeois” middle class in Russia at that time, was brought to near starvation. These early events had a lasting impact and she spent the rest of her life opposing the “collectivist” worldview and promoting the nobility and the potential of the individual human being, at first through books and screenplays, and then through essays, periodical publications, and discussion groups which included such influential people as Alan Greenspan, who later became chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States.

While capitalism is seen by many as synonymous with the the agenda of the so-called “conservative Christian right,” it may seem ironic that one of its most famous promoters based her philosophy solidly upon an entirely atheistic foundation which she called “Objectivism.”


Carl Marx

Depending upon one’s political outlook, and perhaps imagination, the name “Carl Marx” may summon up visions ranging anywhere from an idyllic panacea of world peace to a fearsome and oppressive Soviet style totalitarian dictatorship to a post apocalyptic dystopian wasteland. All of these, however, miss the point of what Marx was actually promoting. He would not have favored a Leninist or Stalinist Russian dictatorship any more than he supported the Tszar. In fact, it may be surprising to some people to know that Marx recommended against the idea of a communist revolution in Russia in the first place, claiming that the Russian people were not ready for such a thing as they had not yet evolved through and attained the full benefits of capitalism.

Sitting here in the 21st century in America, it may be difficult to imagine the world in which Carl Marx grew up, and because of which he first developed his philosophies. It was an era of actual widespread exploitation of people, including children, on a scale that we don’t see in our daily lives in America today (even though it does still exist in many parts of the world.)

In spite of some people’s desire to demonize him, Carl Marx was not a devil motivated by the desire for world conquest that we have seen in some of the people in history who have used his name and his philosophy. He was largely motivated by compassion for the great numbers of people who were struggling to get by in a world that seemed excessively unfair.

Carl Marx’s problem was not mostly in the sympathy of his desires. It was in the fact that he was simply fundamentally wrong about some very basic and very important things regarding both human nature and the potential for future development in the world. And if we are to answer the promoters of his philosophy in the modern world, we need to understand exactly what it was he was actually promoting, what he was wrong about, and why.


The so-called “race to the bottom”

A popular claim by anti-capitalists, including many promoters of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, is that what is called the “race to the bottom” is a necessary result of the operation of a capitalist system. The claim is that, in an environment of deregulation and free trade, especially combined with economic globalization, the selfishness of the participants will always drive decisions that ultimately result in disaster for all participants.

The argument is illustrated by a game theory device called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” which tends to indicate that a selfish option will always be chosen over a more collaborative and universally beneficial one, even though it results in a worse average outcome for all involved, including, ultimately, the one who chooses the selfish option. The argument of this game theory exercise is compelling when it is considered in the context of a limited game with a single set of choices. But its application by theorists to capitalism and world markets in general is simplistic.

The application of the simplistic conclusions of this exercise and principle to the capitalism in general ignores many aspects of the real world and the interaction between people. And those who use it to promote collectivist and/or communist solutions ignore related flaws in their own favored systems.

The use of “race to the bottom” arguments to indict capitalism in general due to the recent economic depression triggered by the “sub prime” lending disaster is especially pernicious. Those who promote this view of recent events not only are taking an excessively simplistic view of the economy and ignoring a major role that government played in this disaster, but, as a result, they are clamoring for the wrong kinds of solutions.