Does It All Really Come Down to Economics?

In Western intellectual circles, it is sometimes easiest to argue convincingly if we base our underlying assumptions on the material world. By using the material world as a base — often materialist philosophy, economics, and positivist science — we speak a “lower” truth . It’s a trend worth noting, especially when we talk about such topics as modern rhetorical techniques.

One common assumption, often used as a tool of analysis in the social sciences, is the idea that cultural decisions are made for economic reasons. This relates to the concept that ideas can only be judged based on their results, and that the most basic level of analysis is the material world.

Materialism is an intellectual version of “might makes right.” It throws aside Western culture and replaces it with a devotion to a lowest common denominator that must be true in all times and places.

The Influence of Karl Marx

Karl Marx
Karl Marx, 1861 (1818-1883)

If you’ve suffered through 6th grade history (I had an awesome 6th grade history teacher — Thank you, Mrs. S.), then you probably know Karl Marx as one of the two writers who came up with The Communist Manifesto. And if you’ve spent much time in the social sciences, then you’ll be aware of his contribution there: the idea that pretty much everything is determined by what are effectively materialist and economic factors.

Marxist analysis” is a reaction to Hegel’s dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic is the dialectic of ideas: two ideas clashing, and then eventually unifying into one.

Marx argued that the process of clashing and then unification would take place not in the world of ideas, but in the material world. This was a major philosophical change, but what we want to take away is this: Marxist analysis is materialist.

The worldview of Marxist analysis rejects both religion and intellectualism as valid worldviews. The traditional mind/body/spirit division of Western thought is thrown out,  and everything is subordinated to the material.

Rhetoric and Analysis

While Marx and Engels’s conclusions are, from a modern perspective, ridiculously Utopian, it’s their reliance on the material as a source of authority that is their lasting contribution to Western culture. It’s a complete rejection of the philosophical history of the West — similar to the one that was going on in science (writ large) at the same time.

Any time we see an argument that compares two ideas’ values based on their material consequences, that’s at least partly Marx’s influence. In fact, any time we make an argument about how something will play out in the “real world” (material world), we’re leaning on Marx’s philosophy for support — and we probably don’t even know it.

Marxist analysis is a useful tool in some ways: by moving our analysis to the “material,” we theoretically make it possible to add less cultural bias to our analysis. But there’s a flaw the arises as soon as we start to actually believe in the materialist model.

All analysis happens in the world of ideas. If we argue “it’s true that the world of ideas is secondary to the physical world” (as Marxist analysis does), then we’ve just shot ourselves in the collective foot. If the underlying assumptions of our analysis determine that analysis is unimportant, then where do we go from there?

Coming Full Circle

I believe the answer is that we need to challenge the materialist assumptions that we make. We need to remember that Marxist analysis is a tool (a scientific tool at best and a rhetorical tool at worst), and not the one and only effective model of the world. While such analysis can be useful, we need to leave it subordinate, and not reify it as the one true model of the world.

Marxist analysis, like materialist science, cannot do more than tell us the way things are (and, I would argue, lends only one perspective). Such perspectives can be incredibly useful, but don’t even begin to touch on what we should do with our knowledge.

Even if we argue Marxist analysis reveals truth, knowing “the Truth” doesn’t tell us what’s “Right.” For that, we (as Westerners) will continue to rely on Western culture.

[I’m starting a new reading project: Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (in translation). You can find my ongoing comments on my What I’m Reading page.]

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