Marx's Fundamental Insight into Capitalism

I have been thinking about the way MacIntyre uses Marx in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity. He says a couple of times that Marx’s key insight into capitalism is the theory of surplus value. But it seems to me that what MacIntyre’s argument actually shows is that it is Marx’s insight into the way use value is subordinated to exchange value that is really the key insight. The two are closely related, but I think they are distinguishable.

The account of the subordination of use value to exchange value is something that Marx develops out of his reading of Aristotle (as I have discussed before). He contrasts the case where one exchanges good (C) for money (M) in order to buy other goods that one needs (C-M-C) with the case where one exchanges money for goods in order to exchange them for even more money (M-C-M’).

Capitalism is set up to get you M-C-M’. That is it is set up to increase exchange value and use value is produced for the sake of exchange value. So that equation is an expression of the subordination of use to exchange. According to Meikle, whom MacIntyre cites, this is the true essence of capitalism:

In order to capture the difference between capitalist economy and pre-capitalist ‘economy’ the distinction required is that between use-value and exchange-value. The most fundamental question to be asked about a society is which of these predominates in it. A capitalist society is predominantly a system or exchange-value; economics is the study of the developed forms of exchange-value and of the regularities in its movement, or ‘actual market mechanisms,’ and it can come into being only with the appearance of full-blown market economy, that is, with markets in labour and capital, Antiquity was predominantly a system of use-value, partially administered, and if it had regularities, these were nothing like the cycles, laws, and trends which characterize a system of exchange-value.

I think he is correct.

Of course, the theory of surplus value is meant to explain where the increase in value comes from that gives you M’ in the equation. Marx thinks it comes from exploitation, and this is the essence of capitalism.

Doubtless, there is a lot of exploitation going on in capitalist economies, and this is a great injustice. But it seems to me that Marx’s account of exploitation is too simplistic. Moreover it is hard to reconcile with the teachings of Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno on the cooperation of productive property and labor:

Hence it follows that unless a man is expending labor on his own property, the labor of one person and the property of another must be associated, for neither can produce anything without the other. Leo XIII certainly had this in mind when he wrote: “Neither capital can do without labor, nor labor without capital.”[Rerum novarum] Wherefore it is wholly false to ascribe to property alone or to labor alone whatever has been obtained through the combined effort of both, and it is wholly unjust for either, denying the efficacy of the other, to arrogate to itself whatever has been produced. (Quadragesimo anno §53)

So the most fundamental insight into capitalism is not the theory of surplus value, but rather the theory of the relation between exchange value and use value on which that theory is based. It is this relation that supports the lust for money through social pressure. And then in order to satisfy that lust for money it has to create fake needs in consumers, propagating a false image of the good life. As MacIntyre puts it:

[W]hat agents learn from both success and failure in market transactions is the importance of increasing whatever money they have, by selling for as much as possible, by buying as cheaply as possible, by saving, and by investing, and this no matter how much money they may have already. So they learn to want more and then more and then more and become consumed by their own desires. Moreover, it is by how good they are at increasing their stock of money that others measure their success or failure, admire them or withhold their admiration. So the trait that the Greeks called pleonexia, acquisitiveness, a trait that both Aristotle and Aquinas took to be a vice, comes for the first time to be treated as a virtue by large numbers of people and money becomes an object of desire, not only for what it can buy, but also for its own sake. Yet this is not all.
Every economic order is an order of producers who are also consumers and what distinguishes one such order from another is in part how those who inhabit it understand the relationship between their activities as producers and their activities as consumers. The paradox of capitalism is that, while it requires that consumption should serve the ends of expanding production, it imposes on many a way of life in which their work, their productive activity, is thought of as valuable only because it serves the ends of consumption. It creates consumer societies in which its products can be successfully marketed only if the desires of consumers are directed toward whatever consumable objects the economy needs them to want. So the seductive rhetoric of advertising and the deceptions of marketing become necessary means for capitalist expansion, means that shape and elicit desires for objects that agents qua rational agents, directed toward the ends of human flourishing, have no good reason to desire. (Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, p. 109).

Valley of Our Lady

My Cistercian consœurs in Valley of Our Lady, Wisconsin are building a new monastery. The are blest with a lot of vocations, and the buildings that they are currently using are too small. The current buildings are also not really suited to monastic life. You can learn more about the project and how you can help here.

An Introduction to the Extraordinary Form from a Wedding Program

The following is an introduction to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite for a wedding at which many of the guests had never previously experienced the older form.


Dear guest, with gratitude and joy I welcome you to the wedding of Andreas and Blaise. The Marriage Rite and the Nuptial Mass will be celebrated in the so-called ‘Extraordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite. This older form of the ceremonies is not familiar to everyone, and some explanation is therefore in order.

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The Age of Reason

As infants are transformed into children, they learn to distinguish between, on the one hand, goods and, on the other, objects of desire. “Don’t eat, take, do that!” says the parent. “But I want it!” replies the child. “It will be bad for you,” says the parent. Or perhaps what the parent says is “Don’t eat, take, do that now. It will be better to leave it until later,” to which the reply is “But I want it now!” Why should children do what their parents take to be good for them rather than what they want? Why should a child defer the satisfaction of its wants because its parent takes it to be better to do so? Initially, it can only be because the child desires the parent’s approval and fears its disapproval, a disapproval sometimes expressed in punishment. But later the good-enough parent provides reasons for dis- criminating between objects of desire and hopes that the child will come to recognize these reasons as good reasons. How might a child do so?

One of the salient differences between young human beings and the young of other species is that the former, unlike the latter, are at a certain point treated as accountable for their actions. “What was/is the good of doing that?” they are asked, not only by parents and by other adults but also by their contemporaries, and this in a number of contexts. For as they are initiated into a variety of practices at home, at school, in the workplace, they learn to recognize goods internal to each practice, goods that they and other participants can achieve only through the exercise of virtues and skills. If and when they fail in respect of these, they will commonly be put to the question. So they find themselves having to give reasons for their actions to others and on occasion having to advance arguments in support of those reasons. They become rational agents when they first pose such questions to themselves about their own failures and act upon the answers. If they are so to act, they must of course be motivated by the prospect of achieving those goods that have provided them with what they take to be good reasons for acting. Their desires must to some large degree direct them as their reasoning directs them. Insofar as this is so, they will have begun to become accountable rational agents, accountable both to themselves and to others.

Aladair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, pp. 37-38.

Sermon for a Wedding on the Feast of the Holy Innocents

Originally published in Jesus, the Imagination (pdf).


Dear Ingrid, you birthday and your wedding day falls within the octave of Christmas.  The great feast of Christmas is our joy, and our consolation. Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus, the prophet says: Be consoled, be consoled, my people, says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, call out to her: that her woes are at an end. (Isaiah 40:1-2) Christmas is the beginning of the end: the happy ending for our humanity. It is a wedding feast, a marriage; the marriage of Divine and Human Nature in the incarnation of the eternal Word. And from this marriage of human and divine springs a great multitude of new life: the new creation, the Church. This marriage is like a seed from which a great tree grows, in which the birds of the air can find their nests. This is consolation: to be so united to God for whom our hearts yearn, to know Him, and to be thoroughly known by Him. To be known and yet not condemned, to be loved. Consolamini, popule meus.

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The Pope’s Two Bodies: the The Weinandy-Farrow Thesis as Lancastrian Ecclesiology

In a recent article for The Catholic Thing, the Capuchin theologian Fr. Thomas Weinandy comes to some rather startling conclusions. He argues that Pope Francis is both the visible ruler of the Church on earth— as Vicar of Christ— but also at the same time the head of a ‘schismatic church’ which has separated itself from the Unity of the Una, Sancta, Catholica. Here are Fr. Weinandy’s words at length:

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Alma Mater Rudolphina

At long last I have successfully defended my dissertation in theology at the University of Vienna. The dissertation took far too long to write, and ended up not being very good, but it is a great relief to have it finished at last.

I suppose it is natural that one doesn’t have as much affection for one’s graduate school than one does for one’s undergraduate college, but I am pleased to now have a degree from what is one of the oldest universities in central Europe. The University of Vienna was founded in 1365 by Duke Rudolph IV of Austria, and is therefore called the Alma Mater Rudolphina. The Pope initially refused to grant the new university a theological faculty, so my faculty, the queen of the faculties, wasn’t established till 1384.

Terrestrial and Celestial Motion

Copernicus and Newton both deny the Aristotelian theory of two kinds of natural motion, but they do so in opposite ways. Aristotle had argued that there are two kinds of natural motion. There is one kind for the corruptible things below the sphere of the moon namely in a straight line (up or down), and another for the supposedly incorruptible bodies above the moon (in a circle). The difference makes some sense because corruptible things have a beginning and an end (like a straight line), and incorruptible things don’t (like a circle).

Copernicus denies the distinction, and claims that there is only one kind of natural motion: circular motion. Straight line motion is only a corrective that happens when something has been removed from its proper place. Thus Revolutions, I,8:

A simple body possesses a simple movement—this is first verified in the case of circular movement—as long as the simple body remain in its unity in its natural place. In this place, in fact, its movement is none other than the circular, which remains entirely in itself, as though at rest. Rectilinear movement, however, is added to those bodies which journey away from their natural place or are shoved out of it or are outside it somehow… Therefore rectilinear movement belongs only to bodies which are not in the right condition and are not perfectly conformed to their nature when they are separated from their whole and abandon its unity. Furthermore, bodies which are moved upward or downward do not possess a simple, uniform, and regular movement—even without taking into account circular movement… Therefore, since circular movement belongs to wholes and rectilinear to parts, we can say that the circular movement stands with the rectilinear, as does animal with sick.

He thus elevates the earth, as it were, to the status of a heavenly body.

Newton thinks the symmetrical opposite: motion is as it were “natural” when it is in a straight line. Curved motion comes about by the composition of straight motions. He thus brings the heavenly bodies down to the level of terrestrial things. Thus Principia III,4: the moon is a thrown rock.

Modern astronomy thus begins by elevating the terrestrial (Copernicus), but reaches its classical form by degrading the celestial (Newton).

Robinson Crusoe

In the latest newsletter of The Lamp, Matthew Walther points out that this year marks three hundred years since the publication of Robinson Crusoe. He promises us an essay ‘on alienation and the common good’ in Defoe’s masterpiece in next week’s newsletter. I certainly look forward to reading that. A few years ago I wrote an essay on the soul in the novel, in which I argued that Robinson Crusoe expresses some typical features of ‘modernity’—including a split between the interior and subjective (in which religion is placed), and the exterior or objective (which becomes the domain of technology).