Mickey Kaus raises several interesting points here regarding the whole bitter/Marxist/Thomas Frank debate, which I wish I could quit. He got me thinking — isn’t our entire Iraq policy based on precisely the type of argument Obama was making?
To clarify, whatever Obama intended to say, the resulting debate has turned — as Kaus says — Marxist. The debate has evolved into a discussion of whether the cultural preferences of bitter Pennsylvanians stem from a lack of economic opportunity. To put the question in more stark Marxist terms — are Pennsylvanians’ cultural preferences (i.e., the superstructure) determined by economics? If so, then those cultural preferences will presumably shift if people become more economically secure.
For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t buy the link. But what’s critical is that this is precisely the type of logic underlying the Iraq War (or the idealistic, neoconnish wing of it anyway). The neocons’ argument is that militant radicalism is a product of the environment — specifically, it stems from a lack of opportunity and freedom. Thus, once the holy fire of freedom spreads across the land, then radicalism will evaporate. Sunni will hug Shiite. Both will hug Israel. And everyone will sell us sweet sweet crude.
Of course, if you really want to get technical, the neocons are being incomplete Marxists at best. They’re pretending that political arrangements are the key driver of History and that cultural preferences are superstructure sitting atop those political arrangements. An old-school Marxist would correct them and point out that there’s another layer — economics — underlying both.
But that said, the neocon vision shares some Marxist assumptions. Specifically, it too sees religion and radicalism as superstructure. Change what lies beneath and you’ll change what rests on top, or so the theory goes.
I used to be far more sympathetic to this view than I am now. Today, I’m more inclined to reject the framework entirely. I think radical Islamic militants are mad primarily because of events and policy — some of that policy is necessary (e.g., recognizing Israel); some isn’t (e.g., electrodes on testicles).
That’s why I think the Iraq War was conceptually flawed, and not merely implemented negligently. Like all men not made of straw, I agree that radicalism is a dangerous problem. I, however, think it’s a problem (statistically speaking) rooted in policy choices. It’s not merely superstructure that will melt away in the face of freedom (see, e.g., London).
The neocons' conception isn't just wrong, it's dangerous. Ironically enough, conceiving of radicalism as superstructure led to the policy judgment (e.g., invasion) that merely reinforced the radicalism. And I fear we're repeating it all over again with respect to Iran.