Response to “Moral Landscape”

Marxist Perspective
Marxist Perspective
Total Posts:  1
Joined  01-11-2010
01 November 2010 07:23

Marxism sees morality as about “enjoying yourself.” This is the tradition to which Marxists basically subscribe. It is a much more pleasant idea of morality altogether (than bourgeois prohibitive moralizing).

Marx, broadly speaking, is an Aristotelian for whom the aim of human life is happiness, for whom the nature of humanity is political, and for whom, therefore, happiness must be inseparably a political and an individual project.

Nobody is in any doubt, surely, about what it is that everybody fundamentally wants. What everybody is after is “happiness.” But because happiness is an extremely complex and problematical notion, and because human beings are desperately opaque to themselves (they very often don’t know what they desire or want to be happy) we need a special kind of inquiry - a special kind of language - which actually tries to sort out, first, what the concept of happiness consists of for a whole society and, secondly, how it is materially to be achieved (science can indeed help shape human values). Those are classic moral preoccupations. “Under what sort of material conditions could everybody achieve fulfillment?” is the classical moral question which Marxism addresses in the modern age.

But the phrase “enjoy yourself” is a bit too vague. It lets in, for example, bourgeois hedonism - those who believe that pleasure is the goal of life. The irony of Marxism is that it sees that, in order to be able to achieve happiness all round, you have rather gloomily and sometimes rather tragically to forgo it in the short term.

For Marx, morality is a positive and not a negative concept. Morality isn’t about, in the first place, what we ought to do (though it involves that question); it is about what we want to do. It is about the tradition of “fulfilling our natures in a pleasurable way,” not about sternly repressing them (as Kant believed) in the name of some high ideal (i.e. Protestantism). But it is also the fact, of course, that we can’t do that now, and, therefore, about the material conditions that would be necessary to bring that about. That kind of moral landscape is in a certain sense (in a good rather than bad sense of the word) Utopian. It tries to outline the way we could live in the proper kinds of social and material conditions. It says, “These are the fundamental values – but not yet - they are not yet possible.” That is not to say, on the other hand, that the abstract bourgeois language of rights and duties is simply something to be opposed. Marx, however, sees in the end that this language of universal natural rights and duties is too anemic. It is too impoverished to capture the wealth of a more positive conception of morality.

And what that conception is, is “virtue.” Virtue means the kind of social disposition bred in us that affects the quality and texture of our life in society as a whole, rather than just isolated actions that we can abstract from that life and say, “Is this action right or wrong?” That, for the tradition of “virtue,” which I’m saying runs all the way from Aristotle to Marx and onwards today, is the wrong way of asking the moral question. The bourgeois moralist says, “Is this isolated action right or wrong?” It is not easy to see that as political. The exponents of the virtue tradition say “How does what I do (or what we do) relate to the concept of the possibility of the good life together?” And that clearly is more political. What then is it “to enjoy yourself” for Marx? The phrase he uses is “The full, free, rich, all-round development of human powers and capacities.” (Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844). That is what Marx would call morality.

Marx understands that “to be good, you have to be well-heeled.” Does that mean that the poor are a morally-shabby lot and the rich are a shining example of virtue? It would be a perverse interpreter who would get that out of the work of Marx. No, it means that to be that good, in that sense of goodness, in the sense of the full flourishing of human powers and capacities (historically bred and conditioned powers), you have to have the developed material conditions in which to do so. Because, in conditions of exploitation or oppression or scarcity, people’s powers and capacities will be stunted and thwarted.

Marx is about taking morality out of the superstructure and putting it in, in the broader sense, the “productive process” which, for him, vitally includes development of human powers (men and women are part of the productive forces). It is all to do with development and dynamic realization. I.e. morality is part of the infrastructure and not of the superstructure.

Problems. Which “powers and capacities” to start with? All of them? Are we being asked to realize all our powers and capacities? Capacity to torture, to exploit, to oppress? And if you say those are negative capacities, how and what is it that decides between the more positive and the more negative? Marx can’t, quite rightly, turn to an historical set of criteria. He can’t say that what decides between those two sets of capacities are Absolute Laws, or the Ten Commandments, or God’s will. He has to submit that question to the historical process itself.

The problem with that is that historical powers and capacities won’t tell you if they are good or not. If Marx assumes that all human powers and capacities are inherently positive then he is a good old romantic libertarian with all the problems connected with that. Romanticism works with what you might call the “expression-repression” model of human behavior. There is something creative ‘in here’ and it is struggling to get out and burst through something ‘out there.’ The problem is that something pretty nasty and negative ‘out there’ is repressing the creative things ‘in here.’ This assumes that maybe not everything ‘in here’ is creative. Also, more interestingly, if that which was repressing us was simply ‘out there,’ it would be far easier to fight it. Any power which doesn’t persuade individual men and women to internalize it, to take into their being (a name for which is hegemony) isn’t going to work half so well. That model of the creative inside and the repressive outside needs to be deconstructed.

The question remains that by what criteria do we decide which powers are creative or not? Marx steals an answer from Hegel. Imagine this in the form of an imperative to the people. “Realize only those of your powers and capacities which allow others to realize their’s fully and freely as well.” That would mark the difference between a liberal and a communist ethics. For a liberal ethics, each individual freewheels as far as his or her capacities go in a separate space from others. For a socialist or communist ethics, you have to see individuals as somehow realizing their powers through and in terms of the freely realized powers of others. Socialism would be whatever set of institutional arrangements allowed that to happen.

What this version of morality really says is that being moral is doing what you want.

Except, of course, “false desires,” desires implanted into us by ideology. Or even leaving that aside, Freud says that we are certainly very opaque to ourselves; often I am more transparent to you than I am to myself. And that raises a real problem about sorting out what it is we really desire.

We need the special language of what it is we really desire and what would make us happy. That traditionally has been called a moral language. Aristotle, in his book The Ethics, says “There is a language of that kind around… And its name is politics.” For Aristotle, ethics is a kind of sub-branch of politics.

As long as we don’t have the socialist and democratic institutions in which we could carry on that dialogue (which everybody has to be in on) as to what it is we really desire and how we can do it, then we won’t find out what we really want. Nothing can be more mistaken than the supposedly socialist or radical notion that we are already are in full possession of what we morally and politically want; we simply have to break through the enemy and release it. Desires that are repressed or oppressed are therefore not obvious to themselves and it seems to me to be a disastrously mistaken and so-called socialist model to imagine we know exactly what we want; our values are in full working order, the only problem being that somebody ‘out there’ is sitting on them. If they are sitting on them effectively, they will create genuine ambiguity among us about what it is we genuinely desire. So we need those institutions and we need that kind of dialogue. We won’t find out what it is we really want just by looking into our hearts/heads.

Marxism has enormous respect for the great bourgeois ideals of justice, autonomy, freedom, and so on. No quarrel with these values at all. It simply addresses one question to those ideals with a kind of false naivety: “How is it that they can never be realized in practice?” What is it about the material conditions of bourgeois society which means that every time you try to realize those admirable ideals (and we are all behind you in that!) they twist by some inexorable logic into their opposite. Freedom becomes oppression, justice becomes injustice, equality becomes inequality, and so on.

Marxism has only one moral question to address to those ideals: “By what kind of mechanisms and processes does it come about that you are absolutely incapable of realizing your fine ideals, let alone of universalizing them?” You might just about get around to realizing them for a minority. Even then, because they are for a minority, those ideals will be distorted and crippled.

It is because we take those great revolutionary, bourgeois values even more seriously than the bourgeoisie does, that we are the genuine moralists and they, God help them, are the moralizers.

Total Posts:  47
Joined  04-06-2010
11 November 2010 21:38

If you have any references to where Marx said any of these things, I’d like to see them.