The Magazine

Marx, Keynes, Pelosi

And why conservatives beg to differ.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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“It is all about a four-letter word: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. We are all about jobs.”

Marx, Keynes, Pelosi

—Nancy Pelosi, May 4, 2010

“We see [health care reform as] a bill that says to someone, if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You won’t have to be job-locked.”

—Nancy Pelosi, speaking to musicians and artists
in Washington, D.C., May 15, 2010

The tension between these two statements runs through the left. Pelosi’s first statement recalls the Old Left, her second the New. The first is in the spirit of the mature Karl Marx (not to accuse Pelosi of being a Marxist!), while the second echoes the young Marx, who wrote in 1846: “As soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

So which is it? Is progressivism all about providing good jobs at good pay? Or is it all about transcending the world of being “job-locked” in the name of creativity?

It’s all about both—as we can learn from John Maynard Keynes, who, halfway between the age of Marx and the era of Pelosi, wrote this in 1930:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity. .  .  . But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

Keynes has given us a glimpse into the heart of modern progressivism: For now, progress requires a respect for work, for jobs, for economics. So the left embraces the use of government for economic ends. But ultimately all of this is for the sake of transcending “pseudo-moral principles” like precaution. So the left embraces big government while disdaining the need for self-government.

We conservatives, for our part, reject this as the worst of both worlds: stultifying big government statism on the one hand, and dangerously utopian liberationism on the other. Now we agree with Keynes: that the accumulation of wealth is a merely secondary good. But for us the primary good is God or family or country or tradition or morality, not a false promise of liberation from all of these. 

And we conservatives differ from Keynes in having regard for the bourgeois virtues. We believe those virtues (itself a conservative word, these days) do have a certain worth and dignity—that bourgeois life does not make fair foul and foul fair.

What’s more, conservatives don’t believe mankind will ever escape the realm of necessity for that of freedom. We don’t think men ever will, or should, move beyond the realm of religious belief and patriotic attachment into some future realm of liberation and daylight. Conservatives don’t believe the time will come when men can escape the task of self-government.

So for conservatives, it’s jobs in the day and tea parties after dinner, with hunting and church and patriotic parades on the weekends. Not to mention a flourishing private sector to provide jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs to all the Pelosi Democrats voted out of office this November.

—William Kristol


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