The Future and How to Get There Ashley Frawley October 19th, 2022
[This essay was originally published in Culture on the Offensive but is no longer available online. It has been republished here with permission.]
In the late 1990s, political scientist Alan Wolfe remarked that ‘the right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war, and the center won the political war.’ Today this conclusion no longer seems as self-evident as it did even a decade ago. No one needs to be reminded that Trump and Brexit signified, triumphantly or horrifyingly, depending on what side you were on, that the tenuous consensus of the last decade of the twentieth century has finally given way. And yet, there is nothing to replace it. Everywhere we hear about the devastating effects of this or that policy on the working class, that fascism is on the rise again, and yet despite the gaping hole in politics desperate to be filled, the left seems to have doubled down on the culture war. How has this happened?
Conspiracy theorists have made much of the role of the Frankfurt School of German neo-Marxists and their supposed role in a plot to bring down Western civilization. And yet there is something about the legacy symbolized by the Frankfurt School’s suppression of economics in favor of cultural criticism worth considering. That is, the abandonment of the economic critique of capitalism that once existed as the foundation on which was built a vision of a future radically different—and radically better—than the present speaks volumes about our present predicament.
A Totalizing Critique
Typified by the cultural emphasis of the Frankfurt School, successive generations of leftists, some operating under the Marxist label, but the majority rejecting it, have turned their back on the one component of Marxist theory most central to its explanatory and revolutionary power – its account of the capitalist economy—a system in which the things we need to survive are produced not for need or even consumption, but for exchange.
Marx’s account of this system and the contradictions it entails begins not from human nature, emotions such as greed, nor mistakes in public policy, but from the proper functioning of the system itself, whose very proper functioning leads it to undermine the basis of its existence. Not inevitably, of course, but through destructiveness that successively makes more and more obvious its transient character.
That is, where other writers of his time tended to naturalize or harmonize the current state of affairs as the outgrowths of human nature or biology, Marx posited historically specific and systemic causes. When these contradictions came to head, most visibly in times of economic crises, they gave human beings a glimpse of capitalism’s ultimate impermanence. Take, for instance, the way that Marx understood the observation, dating back at