Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Your periodic defense of education and literacy

Jonathan Chait has written one of his recurring series of columns attacking Marxism, ostensibly in defense of liberalism. I have little interest in engaging with any of this, except to point out that even by the basic criteria of liberalism his argument fails.

A foundational premise of liberalism maintains that a progressive discourse will be at least minimally informed by civilization's accumulating body of knowledge. This is particularly true in the sciences, but it's also true in politics as well - this is how progress happens. It's why academic institutions are so central to liberal society. You build an accurate and adequate understanding of some field of knowledge, and then you build on that. We've also had societies that ground knowledge in intuition, folk wisdom, and so on - we generally call them "theocracies" or "pre-modern", and not approvingly.

By these (hilariously) minimal standards, Chait's writing on Marxism simply does not qualify as liberal. Even if his conclusions happen to be correct, they are correct entirely by accident, and we should take them no more seriously than we would the proclamations of some illiterate mystic who's conveying revelations from alien spirits in another dimension. Some basic points:

  • Chait does not have any significant education in the fields that he's writing about, EG Marxist economics / political theory, history and current affairs of Marxist-aligned movements and states, etcetera.
  • Chait, as a matter of statistical fact, has almost certainly not read any of Marx's major works. And to criticize Marx, you have to have read him.
  • Chait's writing displays almost no familiarity with historical or contemporary debates over Marxist theory and practice. For instance, his claim that "Political correctness borrows its illiberal model of political discourse from Marxism" is flatly and obviously contradicted by the venerable tradition of Soviet dissidents from the Marxist left who fought state censorship - many of whom were imprisoned or executed in consequence. This is something that anyone with a basic acquaintance with Soviet history is aware of, but Chait says nothing about it, for obvious reasons.
Again: if you like, you can play a parlor game of examining Chait's writing to see if he accidentally gets anything right. My point is simply that this has nothing to do with liberalism. Chait is an opinion columnist who is well known, not because of any particular expertise or breadth of knowledge, but simply because he has large corporate platforms that promote his content. Insofar as he is taken seriously, he is proof that liberalism is not working and that scholarly / intellectual discourse has been completely severed by capitalism from any actual subject matter knowledge or expertise. If you want to learn something about Marxism, economics, or history, take a class or read a book by an actual academic. Don't read Jonathan Chait.