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).

The Mists of Political Economy

“Of course it’s complicated,” continued Arthur, “but when you come to look into it it comes out clear enough. It is one of the instances of the omnipotence of capital. Parliament can do such a thing, not because it has any creative power of its own, but because it has the command of unlimited capital.” Mr. Wharton looked at him, sighing inwardly as he reflected that unrequited love should have brought a clear-headed young barrister into mists so thick and labyrinths so mazy as these. (Trollope, The Prime Minister)

On Weddings in Novels

Print

An essay of mine has just been published in a volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul, edited by Eric Austin Lee and Samuel Kimbriel. It’s the first time that I have contributed an essay in an actual, printed book, and so I am perhaps slightly inordinately proud of it.

My essay is on the portrayal of the soul in the novel. I argue that the novel  developed as a literary form particularly suited to the modern view of the subject as an isolated res cogitans separate from the res extensa and also from other res cogitantes, except to the extent that it enters into voluntary relationships with other subjects

Following Ian Watt, I argue that this explains not only the form of the novel, but also to a large extent the main theme of English novels since Samuel Richardson: love between a man and a woman usually terminating in marriage. As I put it in my essay,

Capitalism having destroyed the interpersonal ties of more organic societies and replaced them with cold contractualism, freely chosen relationships took on a great importance: especially the relationship of husband and wife, which, disengaged from other areas of life, becomes a matter of personal choice. (p. 204)

Now it occured to me recently that since marriage here is important mostly for its subjective purpose of overcoming the isolation of the individual, rather than for its role in a larger society, it makes sense that while proposals of marriage play a prominent role in novels, actual weddings are surprisingly rare. Moreover, on the rare occasions when a wedding is actually described, it is often described as being a small, private affair, rather than a great feast for a whole community.

Take for example David Copperfield’s wedding to Agnes. If anyone might be expected to ignore the novelistic convention of small weddings, one would think it would be Dickens, who has so much concern with “social” problems and so on, and is by no means so devoted to the classical novelistic purpose of giving a window into the depths of the res cogitans as more formally perfect novelists. Moreover, David Copperfield is by the time of his wedding to Agnes a national celebrity, who might be expected to have a very wide social circle. (Even in our lamentable time celebrities like to have big weddings; witness Francesco Totti’s wedding at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which was televised so that the whole of Italy could be, as it were, present). And yet this is how Dickens describes David and Agnes’s wedding:

Traddles and Sophy, and Doctor and Mrs. Strong, were the only guests at our quiet wedding.

A notable exception to the rule, however, is (spoiler alert:Mary and Frank’s wedding in Trollope’s Dr ThorneIt is a truly magnificent affair in which not only all the friends and relations of the Thornes and Greshams are present, but also all the dignitaries of Barsetshire, and (significantly) all the common people dependent on the Greshams.

The reason for this, it seems to me, is that Dr Thorne is really about the conjunction of two different worlds, and of two different views of marriage. The Greshams are an old aristocratic family whose position in the community is threatened by new economic realities of 19th century England. The only practicable way for Frank to save his position, and thus the whole way of life of his family, and to a certain extent of the whole community, is to marry someone rich. But of course he falls in love with Mary Thorne, who is very poor. The interesting thing about the novel is the way in which both Frank and Mary are torn about their prospective marriage— both acknowledge the importance of personal choice and love (so central to the bourgeois ideal of marriage that is the main theme of novels), and yet both also see the importance of saving Frank’s position, and the suffering that their marriage would consequently bring on the whole community. There are two apparently incommensurable moral ideals in conflict here. This conflict is only resolved by the fortuitous circumstance of Mary’s inheriting the fortune of a railway magnate. Thus bringing a strange synthesis in which the wealth of the new world of railways and industry is used to prop up the old world way of life of the landed gentry. This works quite well in the novel, but it was not a solution that admitted to a general application to the problems of English society.

Some notable appreciations and critiques of Laudato Si’

Over at The Josias I defend the section of Laudato Si’ on world government, in the introduction a section of Henri Grenier neo-scholastic proof of the necessity of such an institution. At the same time, however, I wriggle out of the conclusion that the UN’s authority ought to be expanded by claiming that such a world government could only be just if it recognized the social kingship of Christ. Continue reading

A Magnificent, a Wonderful Encyclical

In his weird and partly brilliant book on infinity, David Foster Wallace writes, “what the modern world’s about, what it is, is science.” That is, the heart of the modernity as a project is the new science developed in the 17th century, which consists in the application of a certain kind of symbolic-calculation to nature through experiments for the sake of technological power over nature. This science was “new” because unlike the old science its goal was not the contemplation of the truth in the forms of things; the goal of the new science was and is practical. As El Mono Liso recently noted, “the attempt to analyze the world as a series of mathematical equations or chemical formulas is ultimately not an unbiased analysis of static essences, but a blueprint by which civilized actors seek to bend all things to their own will, in our case, the will of capital.” The reference to capital is crucial. The new science was wedded to a new attitude toward external wealth: capitalism. For the first for the first time in history “the economy” emerged as self-regulating system aimed at the measureless increase of exchange value. And it was capitalism that provided the main measure of the growth of technological power. Unlimited technological progress is the engine of economic growth, and unlimited economic growth the measure of technological progress. Continue reading

civil and religious liberty

In the civil wars, the Egremonts pricked by their Norman blood, were cavaliers and fought pretty well. But in 1688, alarmed at the prevalent impression that King James intended to insist on the restitution of the church estates to their original purposes, to wit, the education of the people and the maintenance of the poor, the Lord of Marney Abbey became a warm adherent of “civil and religious liberty,”—the cause for which Hampden had died in the field, and Russell on the scaffold,—and joined the other whig lords, and great lay impropriators, in calling over the Prince of Orange and a Dutch army, to vindicate those popular principles which, somehow or other, the people would never support. (Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil)

Use Values and Corn Laws, Aristotelian Marxists and High Tories

In a reply to Owen White’s comment on my last post I claimed that English Toryism worthy of the name suffered its final defeat in 1846 with the triumph of the free trade movement and the abolition of the Corn Laws. To explain what I meant I want to consider the account of the anti-conservative nature of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto.  Marx and Engels point out that bourgeois capitalism has dissolved the feudal ties that used to tie men to their ‘natural superiors,’ and that it has stripped human relations down to ‘egotistical calculation,’ and reduced human values to ‘exchange value.’ But they think that this was in a way necessary (one might almost say good) because it has enabled the rise of a revolutionary class who know that they are being oppressed: «for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.» (p. 16) But what if the religious and political institutions that founded pre-capitalist society in Western Europe were not illusions? What would become of their argument then? If one thinks that earthly societies ought to reflect the hierarchical order of the cosmos, then one might indeed think that ‘feudal’ society may have been more defensible then Marx and Engels thought, and that the rise of bourgeois capitalism was not a necessary unveiling of exploitation at all, but just an unmitigated disaster. Continue reading

David Graeber on Usury and the Psychology of the Conquistadors

The ostensible reason for the Spanish conquests in the New World was the bringing of Christ to the natives. But the extraordinary rapacity and cruelty shown by many of the Spanish soldiers often made a mockery of this purpose. Bartolomé de las Casas describes in gruesome and almost incredible detail how countless Indians, including women and children, were murdered. There was something diabolic about the measureless frenzy of their cruelty as de las Casas says, they behaved, “more inhumanely then rapacious Tygres Wolves and Lyons.” Continue reading

Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

I recently listened to an audiobook of the German translation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission— which, as most readers will know, is about Muslim party taking power in France. I am working on a review, and have been checking my favorite passages in the French original. I hope to complete the full review soon, but in the mean time here is a  rough translation of some passages in which Houellebecq discusses distributism. The main objective of the new government is to strengthen the family, and for this purpose they turn to distributism:

Apart from this superficial agitation, France was in the midst of rapid development and profound change. It soon became clear that Mohammed Ben Abbes [the new Muslim president of France] had other ideas apart from Islam; in a press conference he declared to general astonishment that he was influenced by distributism. Actually he had already mentioned this multiple times during his campaign, but since journalists are very naturally inclined to ignore information that they cannot understand, these statements were not passed on to the public. This time he was the sitting president of the republic so that it was necessary for them to bring their research up to date. And so the public learned over the next few weeks that distributism was an economic philosophy that had been developed in England at the start of the 20th century by thinkers such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.  […] An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, no association (whether social, economic or political) should have charge of a function that could be assigned to a smaller association. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, provided a definition of this principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

(Au-delà de cette agitation superficielle, la France était en train d’évoluer rapidement, et d’évoluer en profondeur. Il apparut bientôt que Mohammed Ben Abbes, même indépendamment de l’islam, avait des idées ; lors d’une séance de questions à la presse, il se déclara influencé par le distributivisme, ce qui plongea ses auditeurs dans un ébahissement général. Il l’avait à vrai dire déjà déclaré, à plusieurs reprises, au cours de la campagne présidentielle ; mais les journalistes ayant une tendance bien naturelle à ignorer les informations qu’ils ne comprennent pas, la déclaration n’avait été ni relevée, ni reprise. Cette fois, il s’agissait d’un président de la république en exercice, il devenait donc indispensable qu’ils mettent à jour leur documentation. Le grand public apprit ainsi au cours des semaines suivantes que le distributivisme était une philosophie économique apparue en Angleterre au début du xxe siècle sous l’impulsion des penseurs Gilbert Keith Chesterton et Hilaire Belloc. Elle se voulait une « troisième voie », s’écartant aussi bien du capitalisme que du communisme – assimilé à un capitalisme d’État. Son idée de base était la suppression de la séparation entre le capital et le travail. La forme normale de l’économie y était l’entreprise familiale ; lorsqu’il devenait nécessaire, pour certaines productions, de se réunir dans des entités plus vastes, tout devait être fait pour que les travailleurs soient actionnaires de leur entreprise, et coresponsables de sa gestion. […] Un des éléments essentiels de la philosophie politique introduite par Chesterton et Belloc était le principe de subsidiarité. D’après ce principe, aucune entité (sociale, économique ou politique) ne devait prendre en charge une fonction pouvant être confiée à une entité plus petite. Le pape Pie XI, dans son ency- clique Quadragesimo Anno, fournissait une définition de ce principe: «Tout comme il est mauvais de reti- rer à l’individu et de confier à la communauté ce que l’entreprise privée et l’industrie peuvent accomplir, c’est également une grande injustice, un mal sérieux et une perturbation de l’ordre convenable pour une organisation supérieure plus large de s’arroger les fonctions qui peuvent être effectuées efficacement par des entités inférieures plus petites.»  [Soumission, pp. 201-202, 210])

Blessed Are They That Mourn: Stratford Caldecott and Tradition

Hilaire Belloc calls the dons that taught him at Oxford «The horizon of my memories— / Like large and comfortable trees.» I can apply that expression to the friends of my parents whom I knew as a small child. Since we moved often when I was growing up, there are many who form the horizon of my childhood memories whom I have seen only rarely since. There is something wonderful about meeting those people now (or even just reading their writings), and being able to know them in quite a different way than I did as a child. Continue reading