Moralism and the Critique of Capitalism – Matthew Lowery

What modes of critique are adequate to interpreting, understanding and acting upon Late Capitalism and its concomitant crises? Formulated another way, what form should a contemporary critique of Capitalism take? The French Marxist intellectual Louis Althusser took to these to be central issues in the mid-to-late 20th century, and I want to suggest that these issues remain with us today, and that Althusser’s own systematically anti-humanist Marxism offers us — at the very least — powerful tools for contemporary critiques of Capitalism, especially given the ways in which it has developed since his death. For Althsuser, ‘humanism’ is fundamentally ideological, in contrast to the scientific character of Marxism; what Marx provides us in his later works (arguably from Capital, Vol. 1 onwards) is a scientific explanation of the structure of capitalism, the processes which produce, undermine, and sustain it, and so on. The critique Marx’s later work offers is not merely that Capitalism, for example, denigrates the human spirit through repetitive, menial labour; but that it necessarily produces such excesses and goes on to provide an outline of the ways in which it also undermines itself (cyclical economic crises, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, etc.) and can be further undermined (worker agitation, etc.)

I would like therefore to push back (at least to a certain extent) against the moralistic form of critique, in which Capitalism essentially stands indicted of being unfair, unjust, evil, and so on. On this reading, Capitalism’s problem is that it either fails to live up to the a priori moral standards any economic system ought to or it necessarily entails so many forms of moral injustices that the system is therefore indicted for it: it’s an unjust system because it necessarily relegates many people to poverty while a small elite enjoy exorbitant wealth, for example. I don’t want to disregard the role which the experience of injustice can play in pushing people towards the left and as a starting-point for that journey, but I do want to suggest some reasons why it’s inadequate for the kind of critique we need.

In particular, if the problems of Capitalism are articulated in the moral register, then it carries an implicit tendency towards thinking in terms of agents (and their actions), rather than the structures and forces which constitute Capitalism as a distinctive mode of production. If the problem with Capitalism is that it is unjust or immoral, the tendency is to identify those bad actors at the top responsible for this injustice, whether it’s the greedy bankers and CEOs or the corrupt political elite, and so on. We see this tendency even within the kinds of left-populist models advocated by such authors as Chantal Mouffe (for whom I nevertheless have a great deal of respect), who argues in favour of the identification of the enemy in constituting ‘the people’ as a movement for radical democratic change. But the problems of Capitalism are not reducible to individual actors, their actions, or their character. The problem is not that, for example, a business-owner who makes redundant many of his employees due to high costs is simply greedy or uncaring. Such an individual is responding entirely rationally to the very real economic pressures which exert themselves upon him and his business. Economic relations of production and exchange — the rationality of Capitalism — don’t disappear just because we’ve deemed them to be unjust.

This temptation leads to further issues. The implicit suggestion is either that we should replace The Bad People with The Good People (e.g. Morally upright bankers), or that we ought to regulate through political and legislative measures the permitted behaviours of those individuals. To return to the previous point: the logic of the market doesn’t disappear just because you don’t like it. If you replace ‘bad bankers’ with ‘good bankers’ you still have bankers, and they’re still going to act in accordance with the logic of their position in the economic structure. What you end up with is a form of faux-radical liberal reformism which fails to get to the heart of how Capitalism works and how it might be defeated (or, better: surpassed!)

Bankers who award themselves exorbitant bonuses while avoiding taxes; politicians who accept handouts and kickbacks from corporations; CEOs who lay off thousands of workers while recording record profits; none of these are contingent features of Capitalism, nor are they reducible to the moral character of the individuals in charge here. They are immanent to Capitalism as a system. They are the necessary and predictable outcomes of the logics which constitute Capitalism as such. As long as the critique of Capitalism is articulated in the moral register, the fundamental character of Capitalism remain obscured, and the critique is reduced to reformism. “Bankers are greedy” is the ‘radlib’ line of thought that leads to the utterly horrifying situation where it’s considered progressive that women now control America’s military-industrial complex.

As usual, Gilles Deleuze put it better than I could ever hope to.

Everything about capitalism is rational, except capital or capitalism. A stock-market is a perfectly rational mechanism, you can understand it, learn how it works; capitalists know how to use it; and yet what a delirium, it’s nuts. This is what we mean when we say that the rational is always the rationality of an irrational. Something that has not been discussed in Marx’s Capital is the extent to which he is fascinated by capitalist mechanisms, precisely because, at one and the same time, it is demented and it works.

“On Capitalism and Desire” in Desert Islands and Other Texts (Semiotexte, 2004), p. 262

Part of the problem with Capitalism (particularly in its specifically Liberal-Democratic form, which must also be grasped as only one contingent political regime among many compatible with Capitalism) is that it encourages us to overestimate the importance of our subjective beliefs. I’ve written a little more on this in one of my previous posts on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. To recapitulate the point which Fisher derives from Žižek: “The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” (pp. 12–13)

At this point I would like in some sense to gesture towards some of the limitations of this approach and what sort of positive role moralism can play within a broader critique of capitalism. One point in favour of employing the moral register is, I think, decisive, which I want to elaborate on a little here. Fabian Freyenhagen argues that Adorno’s work contains an often implicit ethics. He quotes Adorno from Negative Dialectics:

All pain and all negativity, the moving forces of dialectical thinking, assume the variously conveyed, sometimes unrecognizable form of physical things, just as all happiness aims at sensual fulfilment and obtains its objectivity in that fulfilment. […] The physical moment tells our knowledge that suffering ought not to be, that things should be different. ‘Woe speaks: “Go”.’ Hence the convergence of specific materialism with criticism, with social change in practice. (Negative Dialectics, p. 194)

The visceral, somatic experience of pain is a basic impulse against the injustices of a system which visits such pain upon us. It would be very easy for someone in my social position (white, cis, straight, male, etc.) to argue something along the typical elitist lines that ‘the only valid critique of capitalism is one derived from this old book.’ That is not what I wish to argue, and I hope that the words above do not suggest anything quite so reductive or extreme. The experiences of those oppressed, driven into poverty and despair, excluded and minoritized by Capitalism are valid, powerful starting-points: they speak to the visceral reality of our system. A critical approach grounded in the visceral bodily experience of the most vile excesses of our system is more powerful than anything one can gain in the library. When articulated within or alongside a systematic critique of Capitalism, it gains a rhetorical power capable of moving those for whom ideology has clouded the realities of our present economic system and building meaningful coalitions for radical change.

My point here is merely that as long as this critique remains articulated in the moral register, it is necessary but inadequate (or insufficient) to the system it opposes, and displays a tendency towards reformism or humanistic liberalism incompatible with a truly radical and transformative left. It lapses into the kind of Utopian Socialism which Marx himself spent his career criticising, and which motivated him to write Capital. I should add that I think it is implausible today to ground an anti-capitalist project on ideas of the essential nature of the human spirit (or what the early Marx referred to as ‘species-being’), of our inherent direction towards freedom, goodness, creativity, and so on. Such essentialist ideas are not only implausible following the work of Nietzsche and Foucault, they are ahistorical. If the problem with Capitalism is that it restricts us in our capacity to express our inner repressed possibilities of creativity, this must rest upon a thoroughgoing notion of human freedom, subjectivity, etc. Precisely this is occluded by more recent scholarship. To this extent, an approach to Capitalism grounded in the humanism of the early Marx (e.g. the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844) will have severe difficulty ever getting off the ground. At best it could be a useful rhetorical tool, but then we return to the dangers discussed earlier.

I do not know for sure whether Marxism has any future. Any honest thinker or activist must take seriously the objections raised by feminist and post-colonial scholars about the analysis outlined in Capital. And I personally find something very powerful and evocative in the way that George Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Fèlix Guattari, and Jean-François Lyotard approach understanding Capitalism through the concept and economy of desire (its production, regulation, direction and reproduction). But I think alongside the question of the future of Marxism must be raised the question of the future of the left without it. Too often various constituencies within the political left, bereft of the influence of Marxist analysis, display tendencies towards moralism and and excessive reliance upon the folk-politics so blisteringly excoriated by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in Demand the Future. I suppose despite my lack of certainty that, in the final analysis, Marxism does provide a final, accurate analysis and immanent critique of Capitalism, I think we could all stand to gain from being more Marxist than we are, to think more materially, more structurally, with more attentiveness towards the subterranean forces and powers which constitute our economies and to a large extent our subjectivities. If Marxism can offer us anything at all today, then at minimum it is to encourage us in this direction.

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