Even for non-Marxists, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is considered one of the most profound analyses of revolution. Marx’s imagery is taken from the coup of Napoleon Bonaparte on November 9, 1799 (the Eighteenth of Brumaire in the revolutionary calendar), but his seminal analysis is about the reign of the general’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte, who was brought to power by a coup against the Second French Republic on December 2, 1851.
The work is most commonly known for its play on Hegel’s aphorism that history repeats itself. But what is commonly overlooked is Marx’s addition to Hegel’s adage: for Marx, history didn’t just repeat itself, it manifested itself first as tragedy and then as farce.
Louis Bonaparte’s presence on the stage of history was a farce. By culture he was a foreigner. By political inclination he was a pretender, a man who was all things to all people, and a man who was carried into political life by plying the outcasts of society with sausages. Then, as Marx so aptly put it, he plied them with sausages anew. Bonaparte represented no class interest and no transcendent interest except his own.
To Marx’s disgust, Bonaparte ruled by creating dependency on the state, by expanding the machinery of government. The organs of the state, the bureaucracy, and their ever-growing tentacles expanding into private life were Bonaparte’s substitution for a class or transcendent interest. Remember, the young Marx is the Marx of revolution who was appalled by the state as the corruption of humanity. Marx himself was a participant in the revolutionary skirmishes of 1848 and proclaimed the wrecking of the state — not its extension — as the road to the emancipation of humanity.
Confronting Marx was a political situation where no one class could achieve power. The bourgeois had failed to consummate its revolution, and the proletariat had marched too quickly on the bourgeois’ heels. This situation was ripe for exploitation by the foreigner, the pretender, who was all things to all people. To some scholars of this period, this was a description of what would later become known as fascism. The template for Hitler, Mussolini, and Peron is to be found in an examination of the reign of Louis Bonaparte.
So too, in a sense, is the presidency of Barack Obama.
As I have argued elsewhere, Obama is not a communist, even in the twentieth century meaning of the term. Communism is about state ownership of the means of production. The Obama administration does not seek ownership. In fact, where it acquired ownership through the bailout, the administration now works to divest itself. What Obama is building is a large government bureaucracy whose expanding limbs find their way into every facet of human existence, a government that does not own the means of production but controls them by increased and oppressive regulation and taxation. Obama’s political inspiration is more likely to be Mussolini or Peron, even Hugo Chavez, than Lenin or Stalin.
Obama has successfully done what few American presidential candidates have been able to do. He has mobilized the electoral periphery — the previously uninvolved youth, the apathetic poor, and the marginalized minorities. In politics, the agenda of the previous non-participants seldom resembles that of those traditionally involved in political struggles. This was one of Marx’s central considerations in his analysis of the Eighteenth Brumaire, and the one leftist political theorist Antonio Gramsci drew upon in comparing the rise of Mussolini to the rise of Louis Bonaparte.
How is it that a sitting president presiding over a damaged economy with high unemployment and no sign of recovery can get reelected? In part, the answer is that he has expanded access to the federal trough, made people dependent on the largess of the government, and caused them to be fearful that the “nasty” opposition is going to terminate the government programs upon which they are increasingly dependent.
Mitt Romney articulated it poorly and somewhat exaggerated the number, but the reality is that a large part of the population, especially the growing number of poor, is locked into the party that can be counted on to ply them with sausages. On the other side of the creation of dependency is an ever-growing government bureaucracy that administers those programs.
Mussolini and Peron, not to mention the recently departed Hugo Chavez, were popular with the social periphery. These dictators were the tragedy. As demagogues, they aggressively expanded state-created dependency on one hand and make-believe jobs on the other, giving many the comfort of a mediocre and predictable standard of living, while draining the real economy, borrowing incessantly, and perpetuating a dysfunctional system until its collapse could not be avoided. Obama, with his elitist pretensions and his insufferable allusions to the middle class, follows in their vein as farcical imitator.
The Peronist government managed the relationships between various interest groups and pretended to speak in the name of each of them, while micromanaging the economy with the promise of reducing income inequality. Ultimately, this policy led to one economic crisis after another.
The expanding role of government means a mutual dependency between a government bestowing favors and businesses and interest groups seeking them. This spawns an incestuous crony capitalism that produces Solyndras and causes the devastation of GM bondholders in favor of a United Auto Workers union that — like the Service Employees International Union — represents a Peronist-style syndicalism united with the Obama administration.
Louis Bonaparte came to power through a coup, as did Mussolini, but both Hitler and Peron were elected. Elections are not the only measure of democracy, especially when the incoming regime uses elections to expand power and seize wealth. Peron, like Hugo Chavez, raided the private retirement funds of individuals and coerced them into government social security in order to pay for a government increasingly burdened with debt from pandering to the social periphery. There is a move now in leftist Democratic circles to have the Obama administration implement similar policies.
The monetizing of the government debt by aggressively and artificially lowering interest rates and falsifying real inflation has created problems for those dependent on interest-bearing instruments for their income. Meanwhile, programs for the social periphery are expanded in the name of compassion, where compassion has become a shibboleth that really means the government takes from some and gives to others.
The ultimate goal of such programs is neither compassion nor social justice, but building a political base of dependents made up of program recipients and program administrators on one hand and crony capitalists on the other. And so, we are in the era of another purveyor of an alien culture, a pretender who is all things to all people, and a demagogue who is hoisted on the shield of the social periphery that is constantly plied with sausages and then sausages anew. Welcome to the Eighteenth Brumaire of Barack Obama.