Capitalism and the West’s Existential
Crisis: An Interview With Terry
by DAVID SESSIONS on JULY 31, 2011 · 5 COMMENTS · in POLITICS, RELIGION
A few months ago, English literary critic Terry Eagleton was kind enough to speak with
me for a few moments about his latest book, Why Marx Was Right, published in April by
Yale University Press. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and hopefully this will give
you a taste. It’s an excellent companion to the relentlessly depressing debt ceiling news.
I’ve been angry at Washington before, but the past
two years have made all of that feel like minor irritations in comparison. The
way our system, on a daily basis, insulates the culpable and hands the bill for
their greed to the people who, in millions of cases, have already lost
Yes, it’s not only outrageous, it’s darkly farcical—kind of grotesque. The fact that good
liberals like Obama can preside over that system, or equivalent figures back home, for
me, surely ought to clear the scales from some peoples eyes, that if that’s what you mean
by “left”—the left is busily supporting the system which is robbing the poor to pay the
rich—that’s when I think, considering some other kind of political alternative becomes
Do you think the world has in any way woken up to what it’s dealing with?
When capitalists start talking about capitalism, you know the system is in trouble. I think
that’s always a kind of small indication of a certain crisis, a certain awareness, where
normally it doesn’t have to be aware of itself. I think the book probably comes out of the
same situation: when capitalism is in crisis, it becomes newly visible, and becomes a
possible object of criticism. Though I have to say on the other hand, I never quite know
why I write a book. It’s a strangle psychological thing, I find myself in the middle of
writing a book, I very rarely have a clear conception of the origin. I can very rarely say
why I’m doing this. And sometimes it’s only when looking back 10 years later that I can
say what the book was about and how it came about, and so on. So yes, there’s obvious
reasons for the book now, but I think there are also more subterranean motivations going
on that I’ll probably know about in ten years’ time.
Some other countries, for example Ireland and Iceland, responded to their
financial catastrophes by throwing out right-wing parties. But the U.S. has
been a different story. What’s America’s deal with Marxism?
It’s probably relevant to the book that I live in Ireland, in Dublin, given that Ireland is a
particularly tragic case because no sooner than it had become affluent for the first time in
its existence—it had a brief span maybe 10 years of that and then it’s gone into deep
decline, so it’s a particularly poignant situation.
As for the States, I don’t know, it always strikes a European outsider like myself just how
much more aggressive and upfront and explicit ideology in general is. Americans–not
American individuals, but the American system—tends to wear its ideology on its sleeve,
far more flamboyantly than the sort of devious and sometimes hypocritical Europeans. I
think a side of that is that we European academics don’t use the word “hired” to a job, we
talk about being “appointed,” whereas American language is much more concerned to
“tell it like it is.”
I think in general the situation is writ large in the States, but things always seem to us
Europeans a little bit more palpable and over the top. Of course it’s also the case that you
don’t have a free political system in the sense that all you have to choose from are two
capitalist parties, whereas even with the shrunken political scope in Europe, there are
occasionally some opportunities of having really social democratic parties. Although
you’ve got some very fine traditions of latent militancy in the States that are too quickly
forgotten about, there hasn’t been the same socialist tradition and therefore the same
range of alternative options, I suppose.
Has capitalism moved global politics to the right?
Well it has of course, but that’s been going on for a while, but I think the new thing is not
that, but the almighty to shock to that system that the crisis has produced. Globalization
was on the agenda as far back as The Communist Manifesto, but I think what’s happened
since then is the puncturing of this arrogant confidence that market forces are a kind of
providential deity in themselves. But I wrote the book, in fact, not so much about
capitalism, but as the title says, about Marx himself, because of all the great thinkers, that
it’s hard to think of one who is the victim of so much ignorance and prejudice. There are
clear political reasons for this; I don’t think that if Marx had been a more centragram
figure that would have happened…there aren’t the same sort of feelings about, say, John
You’ve written about the rise of “anti-theoretical” language in the U.S. in the
post-9/11 years, which functions to shut down debate about the morality of
our government’s response to violence. Even in my limited experience,
conversations about Marx tend to unfold in a similar fashion, instantly
bringing out the most extreme labels and most comical caricatures.
It is quite extraordinary how grossly caricatured Marx’s own work has been and how
people can get away with that–that when it comes to far left thinkers, you know, the
gloves are off. So that so many accounts of Marxism reveal the ignorance of the
commentator rather than anything about Marx himself. Of course I begin the book by
pointing out that I’m by no means an uncritical adherent of his work, several points of
the book take him to task, but I hope that you know a reasonably disinterested reader
would find the way I present Marx as something of a surprise. I hope they would think,
‘Oh, I didn’t realize that, for example, he was against the state, or that he believed not in
labor but in leisure, or that he was very suspicious of the idea of equality.’ You know? I
just hope that I’ve presented a more accurate version of his work that if people want to
reject him, which of course they’re entirely free to do, they don’t buy their rejection on
the cheap. I think many liberal and conservative commentators buy their rejection of
Marx on the cheap, and it’s therefore not worth anything. If they are confronted with a
more accurate or I hope more attractive version of Marx, they can still reject it, but they’ll
have to pay for it more.
To tell you the truth, I’m not that concerned about people being Marxists; I’m very
concerned that there are socialists of some kind. I just see Marx as a particular
mainstream current in the socialist and labor movements. Obviously a very vital and
important one, but it’s less important to me that people sign on the dotted line, as it were,
for all of Marx’s doctrines, that they see that socialism has provided a powerful response
to the problems of capitalism and that they give that a fair hearing. But it is, as you
suggest, very difficult in the States to do that to the moment. Marxism tends in the States
to mean academic Marxism, overwhelmingly, it’s something that gets taught alongside
post-structuralism and feminism and post-colonialism. I once arrived at Duke to teach
Marxism and they said, “If you teach Marxism here they will flock to your classes, you
won’t even be able to get in the door. If you teach it five miles down the road, they’ll shoot
you through the head.”
Do you feel it’s become passé even in academic circles?
That has been happening, and has very much to do with postmodernism, which has said
that all those grand theories are over and a new kind of pragmatism is here to stay. But
let’s not forget that all that stuff about the “end of history” was before 9/11, that one of
the great ironies that no sooner had people come to blow the whistle on grand narratives
and declare them over than a new quite unexpected grand narrative broke violently out,
namely the coming conflict between capitalism and the Koran, or rather a certain
perverted reading of the Koran, which are likely to dominate the next decades in terms of
global politics. It’s always very rash to declare history over, it has a habit of disproving
those prophecies–in fact, that has happened before, several times. So the West, still
bathing in the complacency of having won the Cold War–I think that’s a very important
moment–thought they’d wrapped it all up, and actually proved completely wrong. It was
ironically partly that spirit of of triumphalism which then caused the Islamic backlash.
We’re now in a different situation….postmodern pragmatism is not going to prove
enough in the fight with radical Islam. Of course on the other hand there’s the nasty
prospect that the alternative to that will be some kind of will be some kind of increasingly
chauvinist, quasi-fascist order. But I do think that we’re in a new, much more
ideologically explicit situation. But the problem for the West in a way is whether it has
depleted the kind of resources it needs to confront that kind of enemy. I mean, given its
pragmatism, utilitarianism, materialism, secularism, all of that that goes hand in hand
with advanced capitalist civilization, I think the question that hasn’t been looked at
nearly enough is, what spiritual resources does the West then have?
One of the problems with advanced capitalism is that they don’t require a great deal of
belief of their citizens. Now again, good old godly America is among them an exception,
but if you take your average advanced capitalist society, the problem is that the citizen is
not required to believe very much; indeed, it’s a bit of an embarrassment if they do,
certainly in Europe. It’s not the kind of system of which belief is the linchpin. Now if you
are then confronting a system in which belief is very much the linchpin, as it is for radical
Islam, you’re automatically at a disadvantage. That said I don’t think the so-called War
on Terror has much to do with religion. All the evidence seems to be that it’s politically
motivated, not religiously motivated, and that most Islamists probably have no better
knowledge of the Koran than Charlie Sheen has of the Old Testament.
Is there anything the West can do about this predicament?
It’s very gloomy. The answer to terrorism is justice, it’s trying to repair the sort of the
situations which impel certain people into these atrocious acts. Terrorism is an atrocity, I
want to make that very plain, but like any other atrocity, it doesn’t go unexplained. It’s
not without causes. Some people seem to think that if you try to point out some of the
causes of terrorism, you’re agreeing with terrorism. Well I mean, historians point out the
causes for the rise of Nazism, but they don’t agree with it.
And you have to combat the popular idea of the psychopathic Islamic
extremist who has no motivation other than blind hatred.
I come from Ireland, where there was thirty years of war, and of course you had the same
thing there with the IRA. The IRA did some atrocious, appalling things, but the British
intelligence people whose job it was to track the IRA knew very well that they weren’t
psychopaths–they knew very well they had political motivations even if they didn’t agree
with them. Their job was to upstand the IRA, and you can’t beat an enemy without
understanding it. So it’s all right for the tabloid newspapers to talk about these fanatics
and psychopaths, but the state actually knows better than that.
To come back to my point, I think that the answer to terrorism is justice, but it may be
too late for that, because terrorism tends to accumulate a kind of deadly momentum of its
own. Which, there’s very little we can do about, apart from being defensive, defending
innocent civilians as much as possible. But the history of the West dealing with Islamic
societies is a very important element in this whole process, and not want that
conservative thinkers want to look at. I mean, I suppose Americans know the CIA created
radical Islam in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. The West has had a hand in
creating these kind of situations in the Middle East which are partly responsible for
terrorism. Terrorists are responsible for terrorism, but they don’t act in a vacuum.
While we’re talking about belief, in your Terry Lectures at Yale in 2008, you
described Christianity as both more gloomy than any other ideological
tradition about the present and also more absurdly hopeful about the future.
You say exactly the same thing about Marxism in the book. What’s going on
Christianity believes in what it calls “original sin,” which it sees not as pessimistic but as
realistic. People who don’t believe in original sin obviously haven’t been reading the
newspaper. And obviously [Christianity] also has a great deal of hope. I think there’s a
similar current in Marxism. One of the things that always strikes the European outsider
about the States is how much of an upbeat society it is. Europe is a very downbeat place;
people don’t on the whole have much hope, they’re buried beneath a very long history of
disasters of one kind or another. Because it’s a younger country, partly, America is a
much more affirmative place—I mean, to the point where any kind of negativity is
regarded almost as a thought crime. You have to talk about you “can” do something, and
“success” and not being a “loser,” and if you can’t do it’s because you’re not trying hard
enough and that kind of nonsense. To an outsider, the United States seems riddled from
end to end with an almost manic belief in itself and in the fact it can do almost anything,
and I think this is extremely dangerous.
It’s probably safer to be a good old cynic and pessimist in the European mode than this
kind of wide-eyed belief in all possibilities that has created so much damage. Because the
beginning of political and moral virtue is realism, is taking a good hard cold look at the
limits and difficulties of your situation, and it seems to me that too often in the States
that’s swept aside for a kind of, “Oh I can do anything if I try,” and that kind of rubbish.
Perhaps in its new situation the States might pause for a moment and just try and learn a
few lessons—that not everything is possible, and that it’s probably the declining world
power, and its historical trajectory is probably on the down, not the up—and it ought to
be realistic about this rather than clinging to these ideals. I’m very very suspicious of
idealism of this kind, it always has a slightly manic and dangerous edge to it, encouraging
people to believe in things they can’t possibly achieve, and then rejecting them as losers
when they can’t. If everyone set their sights more realistically low, it would be a great
benefit to everybody.
But in the book, you examine the way Marxism would seem to undermine
that Christian view of human nature as inherently sinful. How far apart are
the two—are we innately corrupt, or has systemic injustice corrupted us?
Jesus’ famous words on the cross—”Father forgive them, for they know not what they
do”—is a shorter version of what I’m saying in the book, that people are impelled by
certain motivations they’re not always fully responsible for or in charge of. Another I
think very negative aspect of American culture is this assumption that people are
absolutely responsible for what they do, an assumption that lands so many people on
death row. I think this is partly because [Americans] think the alternative to that is some
kind of determinism, that they’re just robots, or playthings or forces. Of course, all the
interesting stuff goes on somewhere in between.
So I think one has to insist to insist there is real wickedness that can’t just be explained
away, what I sometimes call the social worker case. On the other hand so much of the evil
in the world is actually systemic; I think that’s pretty clear. Nice guys can do very horrid
sorts of things. I think that is a sort of ground for hope. My position is that those who
don’t see some ground for hope are fantasists. It is soberly realistic to think that things
could be considerably better than they are. I’m trying there to sketch a position there that
avoids the twin dangers of triumphalism and fatalism, all the real stuff goes on
somewhere in the middle. Those who deny the possibility of substantial change are living
in some cloud cuckoo-land, however much they see themselves as tough-minded cynics,
they’re actually fantasists to the core because history disproves them all the time. On the
other hand, people whether they’re a certain kind of Marxist or a certain kind of
American ideologue who say there are no limits to what we can do are not doing
humanity any favors at all. They’re persuading people to forget their finitude, and their
fragility, and their materiality, and that will always come to grief.
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