What Ron DeSantis and the Rest of the G.O.P. Can Learn From Marx

With their new majority, House Republicans are planning to take on “woke capitalism.”

“Republicans and their longtime corporate allies are going through a messy breakup as companies’ equality and climate goals run headlong into a G.O.P. movement exploiting social and cultural issues to fire up conservatives,” Bloomberg reports. “Most directly in the G.O.P. cross hairs is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is under pressure from the likely House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to replace its leadership after the nation’s biggest business lobby backed some Democratic candidates.”

I wrote last year about this notion of “woke capitalism” and the degree to which I think this “conflict” is little more than a performance meant to sell an illusion of serious disagreement between owners of capital and the Republican Party. As I wrote then, “the entire Republican Party is united in support of an anti-labor politics that puts ordinary workers at the mercy of capital.” Republicans don’t have a problem with corporate speech or corporate prerogatives as a matter of principle; they have a problem with them as a matter of narrow partisan politics.

That the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, railed this week against the “raw exercise of monopolistic power” by Apple, for example, has much more to do with the cultural politics of Twitter and its new owner, Elon Musk, than any real interest in the power of government to regulate markets and curb abuse. (In fact, DeSantis argued in his book, “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” that the Constitution was designed to “prevent the redistribution of wealth through the political process” and stop any popular effort to “undermine the rights of property.”)

Nonetheless, there is something of substance behind this facade of conflict. It is true that the largest players in the corporate world, compelled to seek profit by the competitive pressures of the market, have mostly ceased catering to the particular tastes and preferences of the more conservative and reactionary parts of the American public. To borrow from and paraphrase the basketball legend Michael Jordan: Queer families buy shoes, too.

Republicans have discovered, to their apparent chagrin, that their total devotion to the interests of concentrated, corporate capital does not buy them support for a cultural agenda that sometimes cuts against those very same interests.

Here it’s worth noting, as the sociologist Melinda Cooper has argued, that what we’re seeing in this cultural dispute is something of a conflict between two different segments of capital. What’s at stake in the “growing militancy” of the right wing of the Republican Party, Cooper writes, “is less an alliance of the small against the big than it is an insurrection of one form of capitalism against another: the private, unincorporated, and family-based versus the corporate, publicly traded, and shareholder-owned.” It is the patriarchal and dynastic capitalism of Donald Trump against the more impersonal and managerial capitalism of, for example, Mitt Romney.

To the extent that cultural reactionaries within the Republican Party have been caught unaware by the friction between their interests and those of the more powerful part of the capitalist class, they would do well to take a lesson from one of the boogeymen of conservative rhetoric and ideology: Karl Marx.

Throughout his work, Marx emphasized the revolutionary character of capitalism in its relation to existing social arrangements. It annihilates the “old social organization” that fetters and keeps down “the new forces and new passions” that spring up in the “bosom of society.” It decomposes the old society from “top to bottom.” It “drives beyond national barriers and prejudices” as well as “all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproduction of old ways of life.”

Or, as Marx observed in one of his most famous passages, the “bourgeois epoch” is distinguished by the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions.” Under capitalism, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at least compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

In context, Marx is writing about precapitalist social and economic arrangements, like feudalism. But I think you can understand this dynamic as a general tendency under capitalism as well. The interests and demands of capital are sometimes in sync with traditional hierarchies. There are even two competing impulses within the larger system: a drive to dissolve and erode the barriers between wage earners until they form a single, undifferentiated mass and a drive to preserve and reinforce those same barriers to divide workers and stymie the development of class consciousness on their part.

But that’s a subject for another day and a different column.

For now, I’ll simply say that the problem of “woke capitalism” for social and political conservatives is the problem of capitalism for anyone who hopes to preserve anything in the face of the ceaseless drive of capital to dominate the entire society.

You could restrain the power of capital by strengthening the power of labor to act for itself, in its own interests. But as conservatives are well aware, the prerogatives of workers can also undermine received hierarchies and traditional social arrangements. The working class, after all, is not just one thing, and what it seeks to preserve — its autonomy, its independence, its own ways of living — does not often jibe with the interests of reactionaries.

Conservatives, if their policy priorities are any indication, want to both unleash the free market and reserve a space for hierarchy and domination. But this will not happen on its own. The state must be brought to bear, not to restrain capital per se but to make it as subordinate as possible to the political right’s preferred social agenda. Play within those restraints, goes the bargain, and you can do whatever you want. Put differently, the right doesn’t have a problem with capitalism, it has a problem with who appears to be in charge of it.

There is even a clear strategy at work. If you can stamp out alternative ways of being, if you can weaken labor to the point of desperation, then perhaps you can force people back into traditional families and traditional households. But no matter how hard you try, you cannot stop the dynamic movement of society. It will churn and churn and churn, until eventually the dam breaks.

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