Moralizing capitalism, what does this mean and is it conceivable?
(Original French Article: Vouloir le rendre moral, c’est, en réalité, exiger sa suppression; translated Wednesday 15 May 2013, by Leopold O’Shea).
The demand to moralize capitalism emerged in public debate, ironically, during Nicholas Sarkozy’s term of office, while he himself was embarking on ultra-free-market policy laden with scandalous human consequences. Its expression however is sapped by a strange contradiction, which manifests its limitations from the start. This contradiction presupposes that there is indeed something immoral in capitalism, since it would not need to be moralized otherwise. And at the same time, and for the same reason, it implies that such a moralization is possible: one does not demand what cannot be done, and at the horizon of this is the idea that a more moral capitalism is perfectly conceivable. I want to untangle this contradiction and denounce this imposture.
The contradiction stems from what is conceived of as immoral in the functioning of this system: the excesses of certain agents like traders, the unbelievable salaries of company heads or the acts of bosses now characterized as criminal, in short the behavior of certain individuals one can isolate from the system while leaving it intact, the reduction of the former thus allowing a return to the normal functioning of the latter, to which full consent is otherwise given. The limits of this attitude, which is seductive if one isn’t vigilant, are visible from the start: capitalism is criticized morally, but only at the margins, in some of its aspects, not in its essence. At this level it is considered as good for man and as serving his interests. Conclusion: if we confront these particular slip-ups, it can be made moral again.
This is a theoretic imposture. To see it, a return to Marx’s understanding of capitalist economy must be undertaken. The latter is not a set of objective processes, comparable to natural ones, and independent of man — in which case it would not, in fact, be strictly moral but amoral, escaping moral judgment, as the 20th century free market theoretician Hayek strongly maintained, for whom only the actions of an individual can be characterized as just or unjust, not a whole social system intended by no one; on the contrary, it is a set of practices by which certain people act in relation to other people in the field of the production of wealth: by buying their workforce, by paying them, by deciding on their working hours and the forms that these take, and, if need be, by making them redundant, etc.
Their behavior, of course, is largely determined by historical conditions, and Marx, in the preface to Capital, lucidly points out that man is the “creature” of social relations and not their “creator” and that, if he is attacking the capitalist or landowner, it is not their person he is aiming at but the “economic function” that they embody. Nevertheless, he denounces these functions as inherent to capitalism and his entire theoretic enterprise, in addition to its scientific and explanative aspect, consists in a ferocious critique of these functions and hence of the entire system that they constitute and sustain.
This approach, contrary to what certain Marxist trends have affirmed for a long time, is not just an analysis of the system’s malfunctioning that would allow a prognosis of its eventual implosion. It is equally rooted in values, without which judgment and critique are impossible (science is neutral), and which are moral in nature. In this way, Marx had the genius to unmask in capitalist social and economic relations what their appearance, taken up by bourgeois ideology, tends to cover up: the phenomenon of exploitation that serves the interests of a minority, that turns workers into instruments by reducing them to factors in production and negates their autonomy by submitting them to the will of employers. Add to this the alienation that deprives them of their collective life at the same time as their individual existence. All of this he condemns, and this condemnation implicitly assumes—Marx often denies it theoretically, maintaining that “communists do not preach morality”—an adherence to universal moral values that places respect at the heart of his prescriptions.
But it is a morality that does not seal itself in the bubble of inter-subjective relations and the intention of subjects. It applies itself principally and concretely to social phenomena and shows capitalism not as a technical machinery from which man is absent, which it is not for us to judge, but a system of human relations that violate the dignity of those who are its victims. Which is to say, alongside E. Bloch, that the moral call “does not exist outside economy, in its Marxist sense: it shows capitalism to be essentially immoral, to be, in a sense, of an objective immorality and that it must be abolished in the name of that “categorical imperative” that Marx so magnificently adopted and formulated in his youth: that of “ending all social relations that turn man into a servile, contemptible, abandoned and humiliated being”. This means that we could not hope to truly moralize capitalism, even if we can reform it and lessen its inhumanity. To desire to make it moral is, in reality, to demand its suppression.
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