I made a comment over at Jim’s Blog on the topic of working-class consciousness, how whites needed to see themselves as workers as well. Jim responded pretty strongly to this, to the original comment and to the extent of making a post directly on the topic, Working class consciousness, dismissing the idea comprehensively as leading to Nazism or communism.
It turns out Jim isn’t a “neo-reactionary” at all but just a very familiar figure, a Randian capitalist libertarian. According to Jim, people don’t make things, joint-stock corporations make things.
I don’t like to put my own links in comments, but the comment I made on quasi-black nationalist/comic book nerd/Howard University dropout Ta-Nehisi Coates is strangely enough appropriate for Jim. My comment on Coates was that black people don’t make things, white people make things; my comment to Jim, with only a few side comments needing changes, is that joint-stock corporations don’t make things, white people make things.
Ayn Rand is regarded pretty snidely by the good people- a crazy woman a few nerds like in high school, and some black-hearted libertarians and Republicans. And yet the Randian hero- a capitalist who strives against all odds, opposition, and even the law to build his empire- is at least as much a hero of progressives as of neoconservatives. Who is more the Randian hero than Steve Jobs? More the progressive ideal? Less heroic, but still in the mold, are Mark Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and various other tech capitalists. (The more socially conventional engineers who made it all possible with the actual technology are conveniently forgotten- after all they are just white guys making stuff in their garages like my uncle.) Unrestrained capitalism of the right sort is deeply admired by progressives. Blacks, latinos, women, and gays have rights, but workers are just losers, whatever their skill level.
The existential hero- a more modern version of the German Romantic hero- is the individual who defies fate and the conventional order to create his own destiny, to remake the world in his own image. Ayn Rand saw the mass-manufacturing capitalists of the late 19th century as her ultimate models, and yet the communist terrorists of the same era fit the bill at least as well. The existential hero shapes the colorless and dull mass of humanity to his ideal.
So both the idealized market economy and the two basic kinds of leftism- the cultural kind, progressivism, and the economic kind, communism- place great importance on the figure of the existential hero. Here’s the thing, though- there is no existential hero. Every human being is at the mercy of, a product of and hostage to forces far greater than he and far outside his power and control. The ostensible existential hero is only one, more visible member of a greater human community, and above that creation itself.
Marx placed the source of human wealth in the laborer- and ambiguous term, that in Marx’s original economics meant much more a skilled worker than came later, since he wrote in the early stages of industrialization. All the classical economists tried to form a labor theory of value, starting with Adam Smith, and never came up with a good one. Marx’s theory, which he set out at great length, is based on David Ricardo’s, which takes about a paragraph. Ayn Rand placed it in the genius of the untamed individual. Jim places it in a form of legal organization of assets.
All these things work together- work, of various levels of sophistication, genius and creativity, the organization of society, and in innovation a willingness to question and overthrow the accepted way of doing things. But to elevate one high above the others is to misunderstand their relationship. The defect of leftism is not a particular form of organization, as much as it is crushing the culture and the individual.
Another way- not exactly a third way, maybe a fourth or fifth way, without Marx or Rand, and without a corporate legal system that shuts out any plaintiff without huge amounts of money- recognizes the organic nature of human society, and protects and disciplines all. The truth is the existential hero is a myth. People build on the accomplishments of others, and pass along what they have built to others. A society or system that doesn’t understand or recognize the contributions of all types and classes of people will suffer from a harmful imbalance.
(Cross-posted with substantially the same content to my religion blog here.)