Henry A. Giroux on Zombie Politics, November 22, 2013
A Dangerous Idea: Economic Determinism
The American Dream. Perhaps best exemplified within the immortal trope of, “all men are created equal and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” The Classical Liberal conceits of freedom, liberty, equality and opportunity have been erected, transmitted and successfully absorbed into the mass consciousness of Americans for centuries now, and even though upward social mobility has never been more impossible to attain than it is currently, many Americans still hold on to this patriotic and sentimental idea – even in the face of an undeniable economic determinism that dictates every facet of a person’s life.
What do I mean by, “economic determinism?” Well, economic determinism is the doctrine that states all cultural, social, political and intellectual activities are a product of economic organization of society. Originally, the term was coined by Karl Marx (1818-1893) to describe what he saw as a process of social phenomena having its roots within the relations of production.
In the social production which men carry on, they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society–the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Kerr, 1904), Preface, pp. 11-12.
The elephant in the room is this clause;
they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will;
The relations of production can easily be understood as the relationships of the platform of capital that connects with all the various segments of society. Marx attempted to explain capitalism as he understood it – as the systems of relationships with the members of society. However, many of Marx’s contemporaries sneered at the theory of economic determinism, thinking it as a clumsy, intellectually suspect social model. Marx and Engels were seemingly embarrassed and frustrated by the acceptance of the theory by certain Marxist factions, although Engels conceded there was a place for discussing the concept more in – depth that had been possible. 
The critical theorist brain trust (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and many others) was set up in Germany during the 1920s as a Marxist research institute to study and examination of various social issues from a Marxist perspective, also rejected ED as too plain and vulgar an explanation of the increasingly unfolding complexity of the relationships with the various systems at play in society.
The mind loves complexity, you see. That’s why we have lawyers. But don’t follow the diversion.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when such a concept like economic determinism is laid so plainly, so bare, there is a visceral, instinctive, reactive desire to enter a state of cognitive dissonance. To deny the truth. To hold on what one believed in the face of overwhelming evidence that such beliefs no longer serve their purpose. That may explain an element of the resistance shown by the intelligentsia to give the concept of economic determinism full consideration. However, as a workable social theory economic determinism may have been resisted because of its loaded potential as a dangerous idea.
Perhaps the most dangerous point within the theory of economic determinism is that it leaves no room for the operation of Free Will, one of the most cherished of all Classical Liberal ideals. It is believed that all are born with Free Will, but in the real word, only a few possess enough wealth to afford to use it. If Free Will can be invalidated by economic determinism, Capitalism loses its greatest theoretical weapon in justifying the ethic of enlightened Individual self-interest. Such an idea may lead to questioning the fundamental point of why such a system where one has to pay others money for the right (or is it privilege?) to survive, is preferable to any other system that isn’t based on competition and power over others. Maybe questioning the system could lead to considering another system where the answer presented is yet another dangerous idea, and one just as simple.
That answer exists on the other side of fear, that answer is as simple as the question. The answer is economic equality. Only the lack of collective will make it such a seemingly impossible feat to attain.
But what about issues of culture, the markets, the ecology, politics, psychology, economic hegemony and ownership of resources? Surely all these factors can’t be reduced to a simple explanation that all relationships in capitalism is based on the social platform of consumers and consumption? Economic determinism still is a useful tool in explaining to others the Matrix – like, camouflaged system of enslavement and exploitation that people have accepted as “the norm.” And not only as the norm, but a normalcy that one feels an explicable loyalty towards an abusive, economic authoritarian system.
Professor Henry A. Giroux calls this phenomena, “the swindle of fulfillment,” So what is the swindle? That society has been given a set of quaint, romantic values to identify itself with as the overarching self – definition its members must embody and transmit to all others, which is the principal role of the individual to exists as consumer and the commoditized. All relationships are based on one aspect: one’s relationship and access to money. The social elite has successfully hijacked and redefined these terms, and has employed them to further entrench and consolidate its power over all others, and in doing so, robbed democracy, liberty and freedom of their meanings and replaced it with fraudulent and abusive, pathological ideals, all the while overseeing the erosion of expectations, common sense and the obliteration of the social safety net in order to hand that common institution over to the privateers.
The Tyranny of an Idea: The Validity of the Middle Class
In an earlier blog I noted Kenneth Rexroth’s observation for the necessity of a nationalist “social lie” that advances the vested interests of the elites at the cost of everyone else. If, as a nation, people start questioning the lie, then perhaps the truth may emerge and make itself known. However, the ruling elites have done their job of social conditioning so extremely well, it is all too easy to understand how they have been able to deploy their ideological weaponry to convince an economically vulnerable and gullible public to not only vote against their chief public interests, but to support such measures out of a theological – like commitment to self-defeating ideologies, values, beliefs religious and political principles that are managed, manipulated and controlled through patriotic or religious sentimentality and cultural media conditioning.
In order for such a morally and ethically twisted system to retain its validity among the members of society, the ideology must be successfully sold to the populace. Part of that conditioning is generally accepted understanding by everyone that each one of us occupies a specific placement within this system, or Heaven help you, outside of it (And woe to those who are outside the system or fails to wear the signature of the Beast. Weeping and gnashing of teeth awaits).
One of the most successful of these ideologies that has benefited the social elites is the myth of the existence, sanctity and value of the American Middle Class, which exists as a metaphysically charged utopia within the minds of those who identify with its values, achievements and aspirations. As Howard Zinn points out, the Middle Class exists as an economic buffer or wedge between the elites and the impoverished. It also serves as a sentimental cultural set piece for the members of society to identify with, aspire to and maintain its place with American society.
Of course, there are various layers within this mythic class structure. Somewhere between what I call the “safe” Middle Class, or those that have a dependable, secure access to income – and the working poor who mainly consist of the service sector is the layer of those that may live in the same neighborhoods as the safe Middle Class, but are desperately treading water. The anxiety of the Middle Class is broadcasted daily in the media with endless stories projecting the fears and doubts about its “shrinking.” This fear is massaged, nourished and broadcasted via the media to keep the populace anxious, for it is a well – known principle in advertising to “turn up the pain” to get the required response from those who are being sold. All advertising aims at maximizing discontent and demoralizing the individual/consumer with visions of social conflict amid reduced expectations and fear of losing out.
“How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation! How adroit to bus poor black youngsters into poor white neighborhoods, in a violent exchange of impoverished schools, while the schools of the rich remain untouched and the wealth of the nation, doled out carefully where children need free milk, is drained for billion-dollar aircraft carriers. How ingenious to meet the demands of blacks and women for equality by giving them small special benefits, and setting them in competition with everyone else for jobs made scares by an irrational, wasteful system. How wise to turn the fear and anger of the majority toward a class of criminals bred – by economic inequity – faster than they can be put away, deflecting attention from the huge thefts of national resources carried out within the law by men in executive offices.”
― Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present
Isn’t it funny how the politicians always talk about how great the middle class is, and yet the Middle Class is understood by everyone in America to be an endangered species? Isn’t it hilarious that the politicians sell so skillfully the bit about how ardent they are in pursuing the “national interests” as if all American Citizens held the same value as those who sit in the seats of real power in this country? Obviously, the anxiety that is palpable within the Middle Class exists as an unspoken, existential fear that as a group, there is no access or influence it can muster against those sitting in the seats of power. There can only be a grudging, resentful hope that the Middle Class won’t be sacrificed upon the crucible of neoliberal agenda. For the Middle Class there can only be the unrelenting churn of helplessness as they are chained to the deck chairs of a slowly sinking economic state of affairs.
It will never occur to them, until they are in danger of losing everything, to ask why should there even BE a “Middle Class,” never mind whether it should be something worth aspiring to or keep it around while ignoring its own certain and approaching death as it encounters the mother of all economic icebergs. It will never occur to them that the illusion of attaining the American Dream keeps the social and economic injustices firmly in place. As the neoliberal agenda marches onwards to total economic domination over every aspect of life, fear of equality will continued to milked for all its worth by the masters of deception and given to masses to drink, enabling the terrible truth to continue to be hidden in plain sight.
It is a fact that the current economic system in America is causing a growing crisis in democracy. As the Middle Class evaporates into the steam of cultural amnesia, so follows democracy, or what passes for democracy, with it. In its place awaits total economic domination of the neoliberal program. It doesn’t take much to overcome the fear of equality. It only takes the will to do so.
 “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to theoretical the main principle vis-a-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent “Marxists” from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too. (Engels) Letter to J. Bloch, 21 September 1890