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).

Tarnishing the Splendor of Truth


The eccentric French footballer Nicolas Anelka— once of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Chelsea etc., now of West West Bromwich Albion– celebrated one of his goals against West Ham the other day by performing la quenelle, a quasi-nazi salute invented by French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Politically correct journalists are now suggesting that he should  be hounded out of the game for this.  Now, in this case the PC establishment has a point; anti-semitism is obviously evil, and making fun of the unspeakable evil of the שואה is horrible. But why is it that even when the PC machine is in the right there is something distasteful about the way it exercises its power? Anelka has claimed that la quenelle is not anti-semitic, but only “anti-système,” against the establishment and its manipulative and hypocritical system of power.

Screenshot 2018-11-07 at 19.36.58

Anelka is presumably wrong about the original meaning of la quenelle, but he has perhaps hit on the secret of its bizarre popularity. Probably most people who make la quenelle do so not so much out of animosity toward the Jewish people as out of animosity toward the power of  le système.

Aladair MacIntyre’s discussion of emotivism in After Virtue can help to understanding what is going on here. MacIntyre describes how the Enlightenment project of grounding morality–after abandoning both Aristotle and Revelation–failed. Modernity is marked by a lack of a shared basis for morality, and by intractable disagreements between rival moral traditions. The theory of emotivism–that moral judgements have no objective meaning but merely express arbitrary subjective approval or disapproval together with an appeal to share such an attitude (so that “honesty is good,” really means something like “honesty: YEAH!”)–makes little sense as a universal claim, but is actually a good description of the way moral language is in fact used in our cultural situation. Perhaps few people today would in fact claim to be emotivists, but moral terms are in fact used in a emotivist way by “the system.” MacIntyre notes the shrillness with which people argue about moral questions on which there is no agreement, and no movement toward agreement. I have long thought though that his point is shown even more clearly by the shrill, and almost panic rage with which those are attacked who dare to disagree about some moral judgement about which there is almost universal agreement. In an emotivist culture a great deal of importance comes to be put on cataclismic events toward which almost everyone — regardless of their moral theory — tends to have the same emotions. Hence the tremendous importance of the Shoah in the contemporary social imaginary. It is no accident that the “reductio ad Hitleram” argument is so over used nowadays; Hitler’s crimes are among the few things about which their is almost universal moral agreement.

So I think the strange popularity of the quenelle has to do with what its song calls “a wind of liberty” (un vent de liberté), a feeling of freedom that comes from mocking the firmest support that the manipulative, emotivist system has got.

So far I have been examining the discrediting of a just cause through association with arbitrary and manipulative power only in our contemporary emotivist culture, but James Chastek recently argued that this sort of thing happens in every culture; that this is “the world” in its NT sense:

Christians occasionally daydream about winning the culture over for Christ. But this would mean that belief in Christ would be policed and encouraged in the same way that our current cultural beliefs are: by manipulation of the levers of power to control spoils, intimidate dissent, and coin new taboo words and thoughtcrimes that can immediately condemn without argument and persuade without reason. [..] The closest idea of “culture” in [the Gospels] is “the world”, which persuades not by reason and freedom but taboo, intimidation, usurping parental education, control over the principles of discourse, etc.

As an integralist I’m of course somewhat cautious of this line of thought. Can’t one distinguish between an exercise of cultural power that is irrational, and one that is actually helps people to see the truth? Take the taboo in our culture against cannibalism say — doesn’t it seem that in fact just makes it easier for people to see the natural law that is inscribed in their hearts anyway? Chastek does in fact acknowledge this in an earlier post:

Taboos are the human law at its most powerful – they are the most perfect and powerful tool for what St. Thomas calls the power of law to lead to virtue. Mere statutory laws bridle behavior; taboos actually restructure thought and form the will.

Nevertheless it is worth thinking carefully about what is meant by the world. The scripture readings for this season show us in a striking way how secretly, in what weakness and poverty, the Light of the world chooses to come into that world.  “No one works in secret, but he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (John 7:4) Thus the Lord’s doubting relations. And St. Jude at the Last Supper asks:  “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22) The answer seems to have something to do with the world’s obsession with human glory. “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) Concern for the glory that comes from other men is the obstacle to seeing the light of Christ: “Many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.” Ratzinger has a wonderful reflection on this in a retreat that he preached to the priests of the CL movement. St. John is playing on the double meaning of “doxa” (glory). Doxa meant originally “appearance,” “splendor,” but from this two opposite meanings are developed. On the one hand doxa means opinion, the semblance of truth, what merely seems but is not. On the other hand it means the the splendor and glitter that comes from the truth itself: the glory of the Lord. The great attraction of the doxa of men is, as I have argued before, that it allows us to hide from our own misery. Hence people build up a semblance of themselves, an “image” for the sake of the opinion of others. They act not according to the demands of the good, but according to the expected reaction of those with influential opinions. In order to preserve their own image they have to respect and further the common doxa. Thus as Ratzinger argues,

The rule of opinion, of untruth is set up. The whole life of a society … comes to be dominated by a dictatorship of untruth, of the way in which things are presented and reported rather than of reality itself.

Thus the humility, poverty, and powerlessness with which the true Light enters the world seems necessary in order that people might be freed of their enslavement to the doxa of this world. But there is of course a paradox involved here. As Chastek points out in yet another post, to work toward the evangelization of all is to work toward a “Christian culture.” But the more people are convinced by Christianity the more hypocrites there will be who go to church out of respect for the doxa of the Christians. And one sees people trying to attain to influence in the Church for the sake of worldly influence. History is full of that sort of thing, and any integralist theory has to come to terms with it. One hardly needs reminders of just how much the splendor of the Gospel can be tarnished through its association with the worldly. I was recently reading an account of the Vienna Geserah, a persecution of the Jews in 15th century Vienna, and it is truly heart rending to read of how certain people decide, after torturing rich Jews for their money, try to “proclaim the good news to them:”

Afterwards they took Rabi Meinsterl with his two sons. And they flogged the sons with thorns till the blood ran down, and the father they hung on chains and made a fire under him, till he told them where his money was. After this they wanted  [the father and his sons] to convert [to Christianity], but they laughed them in the face and said: “You fools, shall we exchange a living God for your foolishness?” And so they tortured them till they died a holy death.


This is an extreme and obvious case; forced baptism has always been condemned by the Church, and the perpetrators in the Geserah were obviously motivated by love of money. But the issue is far less clear with in cases of coercing the baptized to fulfill their baptismal promises. How does one draw the line between justifiable coercian and an excessive use of force that discredits the truth of the Faith?

But such cases are not entirely parallel to the case of emotivist outrage with which I began. A closer parallel would be what Charles Taylor calls “the disciplinary society.” The disciplinary society is formed by a  moral, civilizing impulse. It is formed by people impatient of the “two track” Christianity of the Middle Ages, which they saw as restricting the pursuit of perfection to the monastery and being satisfied with lax standards among the many. These people are horrified by the practice of “times of exception” like carnival and “feasts of misrule.” Taylor sees the disciplinary society as contributing to secularization in to almost opposite ways — on the one hand by its success and the Weberian disenchantment that that brings, but on the other hand by the resentment and pent-up violent passions that its iron grip causes. Hence movements libertine and Bohemian movements (most powerfully in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which had however many predecessors), rise up in protest against the moral discipline of the powerful. This is what the quenelle movement seems to be about. History however seems to show that “the system,” when it is not able to crush such protests, is  able to incorporate them within itself, modifying its codes while consolidating its power. (It will be interesting to see whether Dieudonné is crushed or incorporated…)

So what can we take from all this? One thing I think (mentioned by Chastek) is the importance of the Evangelical Council of poverty. The various movements of hermits, monks, mendicants etc. are necessary again and again to revive the humility which rejects the doxa of men. (And even Giorgio Agamben seems to recognize that this is “anti-système.“) Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation seems to be in a part an appeal for this spirit in our own time.

But the conclusion that Chastek draws in his last post is one that I continue to resist. I read him as endorsing a certain kind of secularism; an attempt to insulate Christianity from the world by privatizing it.

The medieval synthesis had all kind of weaknesses and internal contradictions, but it had a what Luigi Giusani calls “a unitary mentality.” It had “a conception of God as pertinent to all aspects of life, underlying every human experience excluding none.”

In this sense, then, the Middle Ages are not to be considered a more interesting epoch than others just because at that time everyone was more devout or capable of behaving in a less morally reproachable way. No, it was more interesting, because it was characterized by a unitary mentality.

The secularization that followed the period of the Reformation “disarticulated” this unitary mentality. And as Giussani shows at great length this disarticulation is itself a great barrier to faith. The attempt to insulate God from public life makes God irrelevant. And, as he writes in another place “Herein lies the cause of the terrible impasse confronting the religious awareness of human beings in our day.” Thus this mode of attempting to escape from the doxa of this world is just another way of surrendering to it. And the emotivist wasteland in which we live is the result.

John Milbank vs Mark Lilla on the Theologico-Political Problem

I had never heard of Mark Lilla till I read his angry review of Brad Gregory’s book on secularization. Lilla’s review caused a certain amount of stir among the sort of people that are interested in the sort of Christian critique of modernity that Gregory represents (See e.g. Matthew Milliner and Modestinus (with a follow up). Now I thought Brad Gregory’s book was brilliant, and disagreed with Lilla’s critique, but it still seemed to me that Lilla was at least an articulate critic who grasped what was at issue. That is, Lilla understands the sort of critique of Enlightenment liberalism made by the likes of Gregory and Aladair MacIntyr , but still defends liberalism. This would seem to make him a helpful interlocutor with “anti-liberal” thinkers, so I was pleased to find the following debate between Lilla and John Milbank:

It is a quite fascinating debate. Lilla puts the question thus: do human persons legitimately rule themselves (as Lilla holds) or do they rather need a divine warrant for political authority? This is what Leo Strauss used to call “the theologico-political problem.” Milbank’s defense of the anti-liberal position is all right as far as it goes, but it is a bit too soft. Lilla rightly presses Milbank on what exactly politics would look like given his theory, and Milbank is shy of giving any very concrete answer. This is because Milbank is too attached to the positive achievements of liberalism, and is not willing to push his premises all the way to their logical conclusion, which would be a lot more authoritarian than he wants to admit. As an irate commentator on this blog once wrote it’s not really clear how anti-liberal Milbank really is. As Modestinus has pointed out, “postmodern” anti-liberals like Milbank could learn a thing or two from good old reactionary Catholic integralism…

Relativism, Dogmatism and Alasdair MacIntyre

In the above lecture (pointed out by John of St Thomas) Alasdair MacIntyre quotes Peguy as follows: “A great philosophy is not one that passes final judgments… It is one that causes uneasiness.” Googling the line reveals that MacIntyre has left something rather telling out: after “judgements” Peguy adds “and establishes ultimate truth.” MacIntyre has been accused of opposite faults– on the one hand of nostalgic anti-modernism, on the other of relativistic postmodernism. The latter accusation seems to come from MacIntyre’s sensitivity to the way in which one’s situation in particular historical and cultural surroundings affect what one thinks to be true. As he writes in the Preface to the 3rd ed. of After Virtue:

What historical enquiry discloses is the situatedness of all enquiry, the extent to which what are taken to be the standards of truth and of rational justification in the contexts of practice vary from one time and place to another. If one adds to that disclosure, as I have done, a denial that there are available to any rational agent whatsoever standards of truth and of rational justification such that appeal to them could be sufficient to resolve fundamental moral, scientific, or metaphysical disputes in a conclusive way, then it may seem that an accusation of relativism has been invited. (The word ‘accusation’ is perhaps out of place, since I have been congratulated on my alleged relativism by those who have tried to claim me as a postmodernist…)

In the above lecture MacIntyre talks much of the need to be unsettled in one’s own habit of thoughts, and praises the American tradition represented by Whitman  of valuing “other voices.” But the tradition of Whitman (he claims) is now all but dead. Nowadays Americans don’t want to listen to other voices they just want everyone else to join in there own affirmation of what seems patently obvious to them. It would be easy to see MacIntyre here as making a skeptical anti-dogmatic point– one against “ultimate truths,” but really precisely the opposite is the case. MacIntyre is in fact a dogmatist, and he praises philosophy that “causes uneasiness” on dogmatist grounds. Sean Kelsey, in his response to MacIntyre included in the above video shows why this is so by reference to two passages from Bl. John Henry Newman’s novel Loss and GainIn the first Newman’s protagonist, an Anglican, adopts the principle of dogmatism:

By means of conversations such as those which we have related (to which many others might be added, which we spare the reader’s patience), and from the diversities of view which [Charles] met with in the University, he had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them. He had been accustomed, as we have seen, to fix his mind on persons,  not on opinions, and to determine to like what was good in every one; but he had now come to perceive that, to say the least, it was not respectable in any great question to hold false opinions. It did not matter that such false opinions were sincerely held—he could not feel that respect for a person who held what Sheffield called a sham, with which he regarded him who held a reality. White and Bateman were cases in point; they were very good fellows, but he could not endure their unreal way of talking, though they did not feel it to be unreal themselves. […] Thus the principle of dogmatism gradually became an essential element in Charles’s religious views.

In the second the protagonist has determined to become a Catholic, and is explaining why:

[The majority of Church-of-England people] tell us to seek, they give us rules for seeking, they make us exert our private judgment; but directly we come to any conclusion but theirs, they turn round and talk to us of our ‘providential position’. But there’s another thing. Tell me, supposing we ought all to seek the truth, do you think that members of the English Church do seek it in that way which Scripture enjoins upon all seekers? Think how very seriously Scripture speaks of the arduousness of finding, the labour of seeking, the duty of thirsting after the truth. I don’t believe the bulk of the English clergy, the bulk of Oxford residents, Heads of houses, Fellows of Colleges (with all their good points, which I am not the man to deny), have ever sought the truth. They have taken what they found, and have used no private judgment at all. Or if they have judged, it has been in the vaguest, most cursory way possible; or they have  looked into Scripture only to find proofs for what they were bound to subscribe, as undergraduates getting up the Articles. Then they sit over their wine, and talk about this or that friend who has ‘seceded’ and condemn him, and […] assign motives for his conduct. Yet after all, which is the more likely to be right,—he who has given years, perhaps, to the search of truth, who has habitually prayed for guidance, and has taken all the means in his power to secure it, or they, ‘the gentlemen of England who sit at home at ease’? No, no, they may talk of seeking the truth, of private judgment, as a duty, but they have never sought, they have never judged; they are where they are, not because it is true, but because they find themselves there, because it is their ‘providential position,’ and a pleasant one into the bargain.

Kelsey argues that this is the reason why MacIntyre wants a philosophy that causes uneasiness–in order that one might be really impelled to seek the truth. But one can of course object that MacIntyre holds that it is impossible to take a position “outside” all traditions of thought and judge them against each other. So how can one say that this teaching whether some teaching which seems true viewed from one tradition, but not from another is “really” true or not. Again Newman can help here. In a letter quoted in his Apologia Newman is answering the charge that his changing his religious opinions after having been so emphatically convinced of his old opinions will lead to scepticism in his followers:

I wish to remark on W.’s chief distress, that my changing my opinion seemed to unsettle one’s confidence in truth and falsehood as external things, and led one to be suspicious of the new opinion as one became distrustful of the old. […] The case with me, then, was this, and not surely an unnatural one:—as a matter of feeling and of duty I threw myself into the system which I found myself in. I saw that the English Church had a theological idea or theory as such, and I took it up. […]  So far from my change of opinion having any fair tendency to unsettle persons as to truth and falsehood viewed as objective realities, it should be considered whether such change is not necessary, if truth be a real objective thing, and be made to confront a person who has been brought up in a system short of truth. Surely the continuance of a person who wishes to go right in a wrong system, and not his giving it up, would be that which militated against the objectiveness of Truth, leading, as it would, to the suspicion, that one thing and another were equally pleasing to our Maker, where men were sincere.

Having established that changing one’s settled position does not militate against the idea of objective truth, Newman goes on to argue that it does not follow that the way to seek that truth is to abstract oneself from all traditions and regard things from the point of view of Cartesian doubt. On the contrary:

For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came? Yet in proportion to their previous zeal, would be their appearance of inconsistency. Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating. And though I have no right at all to assume that this mercy is granted to me, yet the fact, that a person in my situation may have it granted to him, seems to me to remove the perplexity which my change of opinion may occasion.

What Newman is saying here is that it is really those who are most sincerely devoted to the truth which they find in their own system who are likely to be unsettled by the challenges to that system from some other system. It is those who are most dogmatists who are most likely to see what is false in their own system and adopt another. Thus MacIntyre, as a good disciple of Newman, doesn’t think of the inevitable embeddedness of human thought in tradition as an obstacle to the attainment of “ultimate truth,” but rather as a condition of such attainment.