Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Put Your Halo On: Marx’s Critiques of Moralism

Not a good episode, but a great observation



There are those that claim that Marx’s criticism of capitalism is ultimately grounded in a moral or ethical consideration of humanity, that notions such as alienation, exploitation, and so on, only make sense against the backdrop more often assumed rather than asserted, of some kind of morality, of a picture of an ideal life, in which human beings are treated more or less as ends in themselves. Marx investigations of the horrendous working conditions of early capitalism, from child labor to deadly working conditions, would seem to have as its critical basis a moral understanding of humanity. However, what I would like to propose is that Marx’s thought, at least at its most provocative, is less a moral criticism of capitalism, than a materialist criticism of moralism. 

The outlines for such a criticism can be found as early as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In that text, arguing the one most susceptible to a humanist and moral reading, Marx outlines a division, a rift between morality, or ethics, and political economy. As Marx writes, 

Do I obey economic laws if I extract money by offering my body for sale, by surrendering it to another's lust? (The factory workers in France call the prostitution of their wives and daughters the nth working hour, which is literally correct.) — Or am I not acting in keeping with political economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans? (And the direct sale of men in the form of a trade in conscripts, etc., takes place in all civilised countries.) — Then the political economist replies to me: You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but — But whom am I now to believe, political economy or ethics? — The ethics of political economy is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety — but political economy promises to satisfy my needs. — The political economy of ethics is the opulence of a good conscience, of virtue, etc.; but how can I live virtuously if I do not live? And how can I have a good conscience if I do not know anything? It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick — ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and> focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. 

What is perhaps most striking about this formulation is that it offers a different version of estrangement, or alienation, one grounded neither in the estrangement of activity or species being as in the familiar passage on estranged labor, but in the division between two different standpoints and perspectives, the practical estrangement of political economy and the moral estrangement of ethics. The first imposes the practical necessity of making a living, of surviving under capitalism, while the second imposes a different necessity, that of a good conscience. Split between the two the worker vacillates, caught between the dictates of economic necessity and moral good standing. As much as this can be considered a different variation of estrangement, or of alienation, one predicated less on the loss of subjectivity into an object than on the division and conflict of the standards of existence, it is not without its precursors in Marx’s thought. In some sense it restages the division between civic life and material life that Marx put at the center of his criticism of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in “On The Jewish Question.” The division in this context is not framed as a separation between two different yardsticks, one economic and the other ethical, but as a division between political life and economic life. The equality and universality of political life is separated from and above the hierarchies and particularity of economic life, of civil society. As Marx writes, 

The members of the political state are religious because of the dualism between individual life and species life, between the life of civil society and political life. They are religious in the sense that man treats political life, which is remote from his own individual existence, as if were his true life, and in the sense that relation is here the spirit of civil society, and expresses the separation and withdrawal of man from man. 

In each text, ethics and religion is framed in terms of its disconnect and abstraction from material and economic life. However, this separation does not mean that ethics or religion are entirely immaterial or ineffective. The very fact that this existence is perceived as an alienation, as conflict or strife, would suggest that the abstraction continues to have efficacy even in its abstraction and separation. Separation is the focus of Marx’s early writings, the division of life into different spheres, into morality and economics, or politics and civil society, with different rules and norms, is also a division, an alienation of humanity itself. Such divisions are only legible against the backdrop of not only an ideal of a cohesive society, but perhaps also a unified self. 

This idea of a division between morality and economy persists in Capital, taking on a new form, one stressing not so much the alienation of two different standards, but the impersonal indifference of capital, of capitalist accumulation, to ethical norms and even human intentions. It is not that political economy imposes a different standard than ethics, but that it is entirely indifferent to ethical norms. In the Chapter dedicated to the Working Day, Marx adopts the voice of the worker, addressing the capitalist as follows, “You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the R.S.P.C.A. [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], and you may be in the odor of sanctity as well; but the thing you represent when you come face to face with me has no heart in its breast.” Once again it is a division between ethics and political economy, only now what is stressed is the inhuman demand of capitalist accumulation. It is the former which is manifest in the actual relation of capital to labor, while the later manifests itself in the good conscience of charity works. 

It is also in the chapter on The Working Day that Marx makes his famous remark stating that the capitalist is “vampire like, living only by sucking living labour.” The capitalist is not torn between two different yardsticks, but is almost two different beings: by day he or she is a model citizen and philanthropist but by night a different creature with a bloodthirsty taste for living labor. What the worker lives as an estrangement, as the conflict between the demands of conscience and the reality of working, is perhaps less of a conflict for the capitalist because of the ability to afford the donations that give it the odor of sanctity. Wealth makes it possible to afford a good conscience. The division between economics and ethics divides in two; on one side there are those who cannot afford the luxury of a good conscience, forced to take whatever jobs are available and purchase whatever commodities they can while on the other side, the side of the capitalist, there is the luxury of being able to engage in a variety of philanthropic activities. A good conscience is something that only the rich can afford. 

That the division between political economy and ethics divides into two, split between the double alienation of the worker, caught between two different yardsticks, two different measures, and a division of the capitalist, a division that is not such much an alienation but a divided self, divided between philanthropic conscience and exploitative actions. This split can be understood in two ways; first, as I have already suggested, it can be understood as itself a theorization of class, not so much class struggle, but as a fundamental difference of the different position of the classes with respect to morality. The worker can only experience moral alienation, caught between two different standards, two different ideals, while the capitalist is able to live a double life through wealth itself, purchasing the halo of a good conscience through excess wealth. It can also be understood as a tension between two different criticism of morality. In the first criticism, moral, ethical standards and norms, are simply displaced and discarded by the demands of capital, the demands to sell one’s labor in order to survive, in the case of the worker, and the demands to extract the most value from the worker in the case of the capitalist. On this reading moralism, ethics would be like religion, criticism, and even philosophy, as something without history and without effects, as a dream separate from the real world. However, a second criticism is hinted at in invocation of the capitalist’s odor of sanctity. That the capitalist can purchase at least the appearance of a good conscience would suggest that morality is not just an impossible or ineffective idea for the capitalist but rather is an effective cover. This second aspect of criticism, one that focuses less on capitalisms moral indifference than its moral veneer culminates in the final pages of the first volume of Capital, the pages dedicated to “primitive accumulation.” In those pages we see that the moral distinction between good and bad, industrious and lazy, become identical with the division between capitalist and worker. As Marx writes: 

This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal elite; the other lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins.

While it has often been remarked that Marx offers a different account of the origins of capitalism, one that stresses both the violence of the origin, the brutality of slavery and colonialism, as well as the complexity of its conditions, multiple causes stretching from colonialism to the destruction of the church, what is less commented on is the role this narrative plays throughout the formation of capitalism. Primitive accumulation is not just an account of the origins of capitalism, and a mistaken one at that, it is also a justification of its existence, one articulated in explicitly moral and even theological terms. Primitive accumulation persists, not as a myth about the origins of capital, but as a lingering morality play about the present. As the Bible says, “those who do not work should not eat,” only in this case not because their work is necessary for survival, of the community, but because it is necessary to make them worthy. The morality tale at the heart of primitive accumulation shifts the terms of the articulation of morality and capitalism, and of the critique of morality. It is no longer a matter of two different divisions, the division between morality and economics and the division between worker and capitalist, but of the division between worker and capitalist becoming not just an economic distinction but a moral, and even theological, difference. They are not just differences of class, of economic standing, but of character. Two becomes one. The moral division of good and bad becomes identical with the economic divisions between the classes. It is not just that the capitalist can afford the odour of sanctity through donations to charity, but becomes itself virtuous and good through capital itself through wealth. The capitalist is the bearer of wealth, the creator jobs, and therein lies his or her goodness and sanctity. 




The two criticisms of morality reflect on a tension at the center of Marx’s thought. As André Tosel argues, it is a tension between two different understandings of the relation between capital and social and moral meaning and symbolism. Marx vacillates between presenting capitalism as an economic system which dissolves all symbolism into icy waters of calculation, discarding meaning, and understanding capitalism as something that becomes its own meaning, its own morality. These different understandings correspond to two different criticisms. The first criticism, in which morality is nothing other than an ineffective ideal, corresponds with Marx’s assertion in The Communist Manifesto that with capitalism “all that is holy is profaned and all that is solid melts into air.” Morality dissolves along with religion and tradition, replaced by the force of money. In this first tendency the economy, or more accurately, capital is pure economic necessity without symbolism or meaning. While the second, in which the distinction between worker and capitalist takes on a moral sense and meaning, reflects a different aspect of Marx’s criticism in which capital is not bereft of meaning as a kind of iron cage of pure quantitative calculation but necessarily creates its own meaning, which is to say its own moralism and even religion. The second can be found in the famous section on fetishism, but beyond that, it extends it Marx’s invocation of what he refers to as “the religion of everyday life,” the way that the distorted world of capital becomes its own meaning, its own morality, and its own religion. 

These two tendencies do not divide neatly between the young and the mature Marx, it is possible to find elements of both throughout Marx’s writings, but reflect a permanent problem. This poses a challenge for interpreting Marx’s thought, for understanding his critique of capital, but more importantly for understanding and criticizing capitalism itself. It is possible to find both tendencies in contemporary capitalism; the contemporary world confronts us as once with economic compulsions and constraints that presented as being absolutely indifferent to meaning or morality, taking on the status of what Marx referred to as natural laws, but, at the same time it also confronts us with a moralization of capital itself, with the wealthy as the virtuous and the poor as suspect, a world in which money itself is seen as the testament to social standing and worth. Any critique of capital must address both aspects, its indifference to morality as well as its veneer of moralism, thus, in this case the unevenness of Marx’s thought, its tendency to vacillate between two different critiques of moralism, is in perhaps adequate to the vacillation of capitalism, or a vacillation of how we perceive it. Capitalism appears at times to be a pure natural force, a market that is indifferent to morals or meaning, but it also appears as its own morality, its own division of good and bad according to wealth. The tension in Marx’s thought is less a flaw, or even the effect of progressive development, that it is perhaps a reflection of the reality of capitalism. Capitalism itself is split between an amoral necessity and impersonal compulsion and its own moralism.

This piece will appear in Turkish in a collection titled Marxism: From the Past into the Future 

Until then I will let Lungfish play us out. 



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