How a Marxist of Twenty-Five Years Became a Misesian Libertarian
In the fall of 2016, I was a left communist. As I will show below, I came to this position after a circuitous tour through numerous sects of Marxism. A year later, I had thoroughly renounced Marxism and embraced the views of free market economists and philosophers Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. How did a career world tourist of left intellectual and radical movements find a home in libertarian social and economic thought? And why did it take twenty-five years to defect?
As any Marxist can tell you, ideology can blind one to the insights that might disrupt one’s political adhesions, often against one’s own best interests. Only it was Marxist ideology itself that blinded me. From where did this ideology emanate? From the institutions with which I had been involved for twenty-five years, most especially from my sojourn through academia.
Down the Rabbit Hole of Academic Leftism
I was burned out from a career in advertising and decided to go to graduate school. All through my advertising career, I had been writing poetry and short fiction. The more I pursued this avocation, the more I became alienated from advertising, and the greater my desire to change my life.
I left a relatively high-income career to undertake what some told me was not only impossible but possibly insane. I had a few friends in the know. They repeated the well-worn truisms. “There are no jobs in academia.” “As a white male, your chances of getting a job in the humanities are quite remote.” “You can’t raise three children, do full-time graduate work, teach at least one class per semester [required for the tuition remission and stipend], and hold down yet another job, all at the same time.” These warnings did not dissuade me. In fact, remarkably, they strengthened my resolve.
But I did have three children and a wife to support, so I couldn’t just quit everything and go to back to school. I needed a job that would support my academic ambitions. I landed a position at Penn State, Erie, the Behrend College, teaching advertising and running the sales force of interns for the campus-based radio station. This would be my transitional job, I thought. My wife, Gretchen, went along with my plans and picked up some of the slack money-wise, by eventually returning to her career in property management. I enrolled in a graduate program at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. Because I was a full-time employee, Penn State would cover half of my tuition. We rented a farmhouse west of Erie, on a property with a couple large ponds and five acres of land. I didn’t want my wife and kids to suffer while I embarked on my long march through the institutions of academia.
However, the career path I’d chosen involved transformations of a wholly different kind than expected. The sharp reduction in income, the many nights of curtailed sleep, the sacrifice of almost all other forms of “entertainment,” the stress and strain on family and marriage, and the certain prospect of uncertain prospects—these were only the preconditions of the story, not the story itself.
My academic advisor at Case recommended that I begin with one class per semester and suggested an initial course entitled Cultural Criticism. I soon learned that it was taught by the maverick in an otherwise more “traditional” literature department, Martha Woodmansee. Martha was a sage academic, not only au courant in the field but also steeped in European cultural history and philosophy. She had master’s and doctoral degrees in both German and English from Stanford. She knew Kant, Hegel, Marx, and the notorious Frankfurt school—in the original German and in English translation. She was a materialist cultural historian and a debunker of what she’d called in her then latest book “the cult of authorship.”
Cultural Criticism was a primer in “theory” and cultural studies. It started with the Frankfurt school, the group of German Jewish intellectuals who founded the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in 1923, then fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse emigrated to the United States and took refuge at Columbia University and later at UC Berkeley and elsewhere. Their writing inaugurated two fields of study—critical theory and media studies. Theory also included postmodern theory, including poststructuralism and deconstruction; feminist theory, including socialist feminism and psychoanalytic feminism; various schools of Marxist theory; Marxist literary theory; and postcolonial theory.
This is what I spent many hours away from my wife and kids studying: I would hunker down in the basement of the house, reading, for example, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” while my kids watched Nickelodeon game shows in the living room upstairs. I realized the irony and contradictions in all this, but in my zeal, I overlooked them all.
The precise name for Martha’s particular approach is called new historicism. New historicism is a method marked by attention to the specificity of historical moments and events, as opposed to universal verities. It holds that our only access to the past is through “texts,” broadly construed as any carriers of signification or meaning. But contrary to an “old historicism,” as it were, texts don’t exist in a vacuum, handed down to us through literary history, but rather in conversation with other texts, including “nonliterary” texts—all of which are involved in ongoing discourses. Texts are not mere reflections of the past but interventions into ongoing conversations of their era—rhetorical structures that have to be read closely in order to discern and then excavate their meaning and import in connection with the conversations within which they intervene.
Looking back on my earliest writing for this course, I can see that I had become quite disoriented. I was trying to square my desire for a life of the mind with the “demystification” of everything that I cherished about literature and writing. As I saw it, literature represented an alternative to mass culture, a means of constructing alternate worlds. But according to Martha, I had to give up my “literary” interest in literature as such, not only because such an approach was elitist but also because the more interesting work involved studying “cultural problems.” I was to read literature, and culture at large, as a new historicist and cultural studies theorist. Literary and other texts served as mere props, grounds for advancing various agendas, both for the author and the theorist. Theory would provide the means for reading literature as cultural politics. I was to become versed in the theoretical perspectives that could be turned on literature, or any “cultural object,” for that matter, in order to read it for the cultural and political work it was doing. This approach was merely one possibility. Another would be to forget about literature entirely.
An antiliterature agenda had advanced so far in English studies by this time that at one conference, a professor of English at Berkeley decried the fact that other attendees had presented papers about novels. How regressive! One prominent scholar had even written a book entitled Against Literature, which argued for “a negation of the literary that would allow nonliterary forms of cultural practice to displace literature’s hegemony.”
Martha’s course would equip me for the rest of my academic career. Every subsequent course would involve theory, with the professor leaning toward one or more theoretical perspectives. One soon came to understand, for example, that one didn’t draw on “vulgar Marxism” when the professor was a “nuanced” Marxist feminist, or, especially, a deconstructionist. The distinctions might sound like hairsplitting to the uninitiated, but they were sharp divisions to the cognoscenti.
A Dip into Marxist Politics
After finishing the MA, I moved the family back to Pittsburgh. I began attending meetings of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The Pittsburgh chapter was led by an East Indian and his wife and consisted of about ten regular members, including graduate and undergraduate students. Most of these people had one reason or another for being resentful about “existing conditions.”
I took my oldest son, John-Michael, to some of these meetings, and at first was proud to expose my ninth grader to such revolutionary ideas. But I soon bristled at the authoritarian character of this group. It rubbed against the grain of my belief in intellectual independence. When, upon the chapter leader’s recommendation, I read Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, I remember thinking, “What is to be done? Avoid Lenin.”
The tipping point was a national meeting in Chicago. There, in a large auditorium, speakers ranted about the horrors of capitalism, after which we were sent on a march while chanting “Stop the barbarism!” It was a Friday at around 6 p.m. Imagine encountering such a march as you passed by on your way home from work. I found the whole exercise bizarre and obtuse, with no idea what it was supposed to mean. Then there were presentations and discussions on the French, American, and the Bolshevik Revolutions, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and more. The stern seminar leaders solicited questions, but only to supply the “correct” answers drawn from the party line. On the way home, one of the drivers from the Pittsburgh chapter, a rather disgruntled young woman, hit a deer, and we were asked to contribute money to cover the damages to her car. Since the car was not my property, I found the request outrageous and argued that in “civil society,” such matters were addressed in court. The members scoffed at my suggestion that we lived in a civil society. Capitalism was anything but civil, they suggested. I quit the group. The ISO consisted of authoritarian Leninists that brooked no dissent. It has since collapsed.
Stranger Marxist and Postmodern Waters
By the time I entered a PhD program in literary and cultural theory at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) in the fall of 1997, my commitments wavered between Marxism and postmodernism. You might say that I was an academic Marxist with a postmoder
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