Chait, Marxism, Liberalism

Jonathan Chait’s new salvo against Marxism and campus political correctness (which he now treats as synonymous in the same haphazard way the far right attributes identity politics to the Frankfurt School) is peak Chait—the purest expression yet of his ideology of liberalism as such and pugilistic disdain for any politics or political philosophy that steps outside its bounds. Others have already responded to the broader absurdities of Chait’s depiction of triumphant liberal politics. I’m gonna focus on a smaller point:

One of the great advantages of Marxist thought is that it acknowledges the hollowness of liberal universality in the context of capitalism—in which vast differentials in power condition who really gets to benefit from political rights. (Think of A.J. Liebling’s quip, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to everyone who owns one”; or better yet, Anotole France’s: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges and beg in the street.”) Not only is political equality an illusion, the persistence of the illusion serves the interests of those in power and harms the poor.

Chait rarely if ever engages with the substance of this critique. Instead, he consistently confuses—or deliberately conflates—the left’s description of these conditions (“liberal equality does not, in fact, exist”) with an endorsement (“we leftists believe liberal equality ought not to exist”). When campus activists interrogate the abstract “free speech” rights of a commencement speaker—insisting that power dynamics always already condition who is permitted to speak with authority and whose speech is worthy of defense—Chait hears “we don’t care about free speech.” When, in fact, they do. Very much so. By applying the topography of power to a scenario that Chait imagines playing out on an even plane, the activists illuminate its actual political stakes: that perhaps the imperiled speech is not that of the wealthy person on stage with the microphone, but the students of color in the crowd trying to be heard.

This myopia is symptomatic.  It’s why Chait wrings his hands over protestors jeopardizing Donald Trump’s speech rights but has spilled little ink over the criminalization of pro-Palestine activism; why rappers get felony charges for depicting criminal acts in their art while Martin Scorsese gets Oscars.  The absence of a theory of power in liberalism consistently undermines its pretensions to impartiality, to the equal application of principle.

Maybe there are still some orthodox Marxists who insist that paying any mind to bourgeois political rights hardens the existing order against revolution. Chait seems to think they are everywhere, running popular magazines and leading campus protests. But that’s not the position of many leftists I know. Rather, we tend to think of liberal principles in aspirational terms. The world we are trying to build is one in which freedom of speech can actually be guaranteed to everyone in the way Jon Chait imagines it already is—where political equality can flourish in fact as it now does in ideological fiction. 

What leftists understand is that achieving that world—as opposed to the “actually existing” liberal democracy we have today—will require a massive redistribution of income, wealth, and political power and sustained agitation against racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Chait’s political philosophy, by itself, is utterly incapable of bringing it about. Liberalism, in the absence of a critique of power, fails to live up to its own principles. It always has. And without the continued work of the radicals Chait disdains, it always will.

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