Notes on morality

1 07 2011

For a long time, I have not bought the argument that a god makes us more moral, or morality has to be based on an extra-human source. More often than not, the opposite has been the case, if only because religion has more of a track record in the matter than secular ideologies. Monotheistic gods in particular have a way of serving as ideological weapons against unwanted others. Often in this society, they serve as a ghostly companion backing up one’s own particular bigotry. If you are going to be a bigot, at least say that it comes from the heart, and not from heaven.

In this regard, I do not know why morality must be so stable, while the rest of society is in flux. Stability in morality may not mean that one is somehow automatically virtuous. It may just mean you can’t see your own vices. People make gulags, concentration camps, show trials, inquisitions, and so on. Ideologies do not, or one cannot simply put the blame on an ideology. Vigilance to me seems the most important thing here.

One must struggle for a morality just as one must struggle for everything else. The struggle for the morality must be a morality of struggle, or a morality in struggle. Just because you have a supposedly set-in-stone code of ethics makes you no less prone to atrocities, etc.

In that sense, I wish certain leftwing people would stop framing debates on capitalism in terms of the morality of the system. Capitalism is an intensely moral system. Everyone gets what “they deserve” and that is exactly the point. You signed on to be a wage slave, and you should get whatever you contractually signed up for. To go on and on about how “evil corporations” cheat “good middle class people” is the best way to lose the argument, because it assumes that the system will be made better precisely when people get what is “fair”. That is precisely the problem, since what is “fair” in a specific context may not be enough to put a roof over someone’s head, food on the table, etc. Capitalism is an economic problem, not a moral one. Nothing will get better when the capitalists behave themselves, precisely because the capitalists behaving themselves means screwing the workers better and with more intensity. That is not a moral issue, at least not in terms of the morality we have now.



18 responses

28 07 2011

“Everyone gets what “they deserve” and that is exactly the point. You signed on to be a wage slave, and you should get whatever you contractually signed up for.”

Some years ago, I had an economics professor who was a hardcore libertarian. When asked about the plight of the American autoworker, he just shrugged and said that the workers made a bad choice and they would have to deal with the ramifications of it. I can understand what you’re saying, but it seems like the autoworkers thought they were signing up for one thing (benefits and pensions) and got something else entirely (the shaft).

Capitalism has reached a point where it can run on capital but no workers. I am positive if you add up all of the people who work for “innovative” companies that make the news (Google, Facebook, Twitter), it wouldn’t add up to a quarter of the number of people who were employed by Ford or GM in the 1950s. I am beginning to think that there are a large chunk of people who will never work again.

28 07 2011

I think the rumors of the death of the working class are much exaggerated. Really, these sorts of arguments have been thrown back and forth since the middle of last century. But things don’t get produced unless people make them, even with the help of machines. Even if all they are doing is pressing a button. Here is not the place to go into the falling rate of profit in capitalism, or the ratio of dead labor (machinery and other capital) to living labor, nor to get into polemics as to why labor is just not another factor in production amongst others. I will note that class struggle has something to do with it: when the working class is so disorganized and disoriented that the capitialist class feels it can do what it wants with it without any push back, then of course the labor theory of value seems completely absurd. People can’t fathom that things are ultimately made by people and not other things, they think that the real creator of things in society are the brilliant entrepreneurs,etc. There is a dynamic relationship between theory and reality, but sometimes it is safe to say that the reality of things on the ground is justified by theory: the proletariat seems to be mute, therefore, they must be on the verge of exinction, etc. Ultimately, this is bourgeois claptrap.

What you are getting at is the reserve army of labor, and it is a Marxist idea of there ever was one. All we have to do is analyze the rhetoric of certain right-wing hacks, and it is easy to see that this sort of talk boils down to people saying that there are either too many or too few of us, and that we don’t really deserve the lives we have been living. Take the talk of “demographic winter” in Europe: having only one or two or no kids leads to a bunch of “spoiled brats” who think they are somehow entitled to not live in ghettos and work more than 35 hours a week. Or the whole real estate / credit crisis: those people spent beyond their means, and we shouldn’t bail them out, etc. And the current discussion about entitlements in this country. Behind all of this is the very bourgeois and very reactionary sentiment that we are not all in this together, that if I am well-off, it is because of something I did without any relation to the government or the rest of society, etc. It is propaganda almost of religious proportion. The idea is if we just let things go to shit, and we have masses of desperate people looking for work, who can’t be on the dole, who can’t charge their groceries on a credit card, and have to depend on “family and charity” when things don’t work out (see how well that worked back in the day), then things might bounce back, people will open businesses again, and the American worker will be seen as “more competitive” with her counterparts in the Third World. The only problem is, I don’t want to live in that society, and neither do you. But bourgeois propaganda has a way of not reading the fine print, as is the case with most propaganda.

Another factor of this discussion is of course the increased mobility of capital, but this is not as severe as many people think either. The narrative we all know is that when it becomes harder to exploit people in one area, the capitalist just moves production to another area. What we have then are places like Detroit and the rest of the Rust Belt that seem to be abandoned by capital. But capitalism produces its gravediggers, and resistance to capital. China is already seeing problems with its economy and increased labor resistance. Some day, probably soon, something will have to give with these exploited workers who seem to have no voice at all. And when that happens, when the shit hits the fan in the refuge of capital where people earn a dollar a day, where are they going to go then? Back to Detroit? The real reason we did not see this crisis earlier is because of the opening of formerly closed markets (Stalinist, ex-Stalinist, and Third World nationalist regimes) to international capital: this was the fuel tank of the neo-liberal expansion from the 1980’s to 2007-2008. Capitalism doesn’t solve crises: it merely defers them.

I am not saying that things will get better. But the ultimate fantasy land is the place where it all stays the same.

28 07 2011

I’m not saying there is no working class. The problem with class in America is that no one talks about class in America. If one believes that there is a widening gulf between rich and poor or that the rich should pay higher taxes, then you are accused of encouraging class war. The working class exists, but Americans prefer to think of themselves as middle class whether they are or not. Hence, there are many tiers of the middle class (lower middle class, comfortably middle class, upper middle class) so everyone can be included in the fantasy.
Perhaps the social contract that our autoworkers signed on for is akin to those 50+ page agreements that itunes distributes; you click on the box to agree to things that you have no idea about until you realize that you agreed to have Apple spy on you.

What is needed is cognitive liberation on the part of workers. This is what happened in the 1930s, when laid-off workers realized that their state of unemployment was not due to a lack of drive or bad moral character, but because the system was fundamentally rotten. However, the residual effects of the Cold War mean that the majority of Americans feel obliged to support capitalism to the bitter end, so I don’t know if there is a drive to find alternatives to the status quo.

28 07 2011

My original post was a bit pointless, but let’s try this instead:

Arturo: Take the talk of “demographic winter” in Europe: having only one or two or no kids leads to a bunch of “spoiled brats” who think they are somehow entitled to not live in ghettos and work more than 35 hours a week.

Correct me, but the rapidly changing ethnographic survey in Europe involves more than the “wage pressure” that results in families having less children required for population replacement. Immigration from former colonies, the (often irrational) fear of Muslim immigrants, as well as high unemployment caused by capitalist fluctuations all influence birthrate. Can one establish a convincing and clear link between “islamophobia” and a declining European birthrate without resorting to a Marxist framework, or are the declining birthrate and anti-Muslim sentiments intrinsically linked to the precarious fate of both the proletariat and bourgeois?

29 07 2011

Excellent post.

why labor is just not another factor in production amongst others

This is minor, but I think one of the most pernicious signs of this attitude is the popular phrase, which as far as I know has only been around the last twenty years or so, “human capital”.

I want to blow thing up every time I hear that. Humans are not machines or buildings or assembly lines–they are not capital!!! Just shows how bad things are….

28 07 2011

Arturo: Capitalism is an intensely moral system. Everyone gets what “they deserve” and that is exactly the point. You signed on to be a wage slave, and you should get whatever you contractually signed up for.

Simply living in a “capitalist” culture or nation necessitates signing on to the wage slave system. Unless someone pulls a Ted Kaczynski, goes off the grid in a Mountain Time state, and lives off of hunted game and handpicked blackberries, playing the wage game is necessary to eat.

With that in mind, capitalism might moral but nearly inevitable. Since most people can’t escape wage slavery, morality and capitalism are intertwined out of necessity. I agree that theoretically this need not be the case.

28 07 2011

With that in mind, capitalism might moral but nearly inevitable.

should be

With that in mind, capitalism might not necessarily be moral, but morality might be nearly inevitable.

28 07 2011
Blowoff Post 2 « Ius Honorarium

[…] writes about the problem of morality here. His observations reminded me of one of my favorite works by Richard Posner, The Problematics of […]

28 07 2011

A somewhat off-topic but not really.

You’re forgetting that the “science” of economics was originally called “moral philosophy”- this is what Adam Smith practiced.

29 07 2011
owen white

I found this post to be among the most perplexing that I have read here.

You write that Capitalism is an intensely moral system. Everyone gets what “they deserve” and that is exactly the point. But I assume from many other things you have written that here you only refer to the logic of capitalism as it presents itself rhetorically, and not to the reality it presumes to describe. In capitalism the people who work the hardest and the people who give us the most useful and creative ideas are usually not the people most highly compensated or rewarded in whatever fashion capitalists deem to be fair reward. Thus the moral logic of capitalism only exists within its mythos. On that front, you do not provide in this post any data or argument concerning how the capitalist moral argument is more moral than anti-capitalist arguments. You simply assert the simple logic of the morality of capitalism and then infer that anti-capitalist “evil corporations”speak is somehow ethically sloppy or tritely moralistic in contrast to the pure simplicity of capitalist morality as you present it.

I sometimes wonder when you write with this reverence regarding the logic of capitalism if you will not follow the well worn path trodden by many Trots and end up an ardent neo-liberal in economics and neo-con in foreign policy.

Marx, Engels, Lenin, Debs, Du Bois, Luxemburg, and on and on in the whole pantheon of foundational Leftist/Commie thinkers use moral terms to describe class enemies. One can certainly argue about what degree they avoid bourgeois moralisms, but that language is there. Even with communism’s latest unholy fool, Zizek, you find moralistic language as often as you find him ranting against moralism and moralistic language. Moral language is impossible to depart with when one is speaking about class consciousness and class warfare, at least if one is speaking about and to real events and real peoples and not just navel gazing in the land of “pure” theory.

It seems in this post that your reference to those who use the “evil corporations”speak is a reference to those who adopt bourgeois moralisms and all the fetished sentimentalities that go along with that. Such is worthy of condemnation. But I find the logic of capitalism’s morality just as sentimental, even if sentimental in a different way – we find a bellicose, brute sentiment opposed to a bambi, soft, hugs & kisses sentiment. Folks who get riled up watching Top Gun and who afterwards desire to go kill some towelheads are just as sentimental as folks who watch Mr. Holland’s Opus and want to go raise money for their local school system’s music program – it’s just a different expression of sentiment.

I think a more serious project would be to go through the various ethical schools found in modern ethical thought and use each ethical method to argue for and against capitalism. But with various utilitarianisms, to deontology, right down to the recent “ethics without principles” school of thought, neither the logic of capitalist fairness nor the bourgeois sentiments you note in this post are going to escape pretty quick dismissal.

29 07 2011
owen white

I should also note I that I like what you write about struggling for a morality. This conjures in my mind the question of the relationship between morality and struggle. Take the image of some blue blood, during the grape boycott, driving his new Mercedes to the grocery store in order to not buy grapes. It would seem his morality which has him participate in the boycott is probably no more than a fetishized commodity. But this begs the question of when or to what degree of participation in a given struggle does one actually use a morality as a morality and not simply parade a morality as another fetished commodity??

30 07 2011

I cannot help but think that you are missing the difference between agitation and propaganda. For the purposes of agitation, of course one has to talk in moral terms, and of course one brings up the hypocrisy, the theft, the inherent injustice of capitalism when one is at the picket line, the demonstration, etc. Then is not the time to bust out with the elements of dialectical materialism, and so forth.

Generally, postmodern people, including myself, are generally hesitant to call Marxism “scientific”. That is a condition of the intellectual environment in which we live. While I will not write an apologia here concerning why I think Marxism is more “objectively correct” and not just a better subjective preference, I will say that the reason I think it is correct is because I don’t see any other viable way out for humanity. This has nothing to do with the proletariat getting “what’s coming to them”, or the bourgeoisie getting punished for any horrible injustice, or Third World countries getting even with all of those imperialist countries who screwed them over, etc. If the proletariat is Reason in history, it is due to the contradictions in the system itself; as I have been prone to saying of late, capitalism producing its own gravediggers. The only moral argument here is whether humanity wants to survive or not.

30 07 2011
owen white

What do you make then of Lenin’s use of moral terms near the end of his life. Is he then still agitating? Is the presence of moral terminology an indication that the rhetoric is agitation and not propaganda?

I don’t know how one can siphon off a meta-morality regarding humanity’s survival and deem that micro acts don’t then also have a moral quality. If humanity saving itself by the proletariat being Reason in history is moral, then how are specific acts of the induction and maintenance of class consciousness and specific acts of class warfare amoral? If it is moral for humanity to save itself by way of eradicating capitalism, how is a given act which helps bring this about an amoral act?

1 08 2011
C. Wingate

How is the Labor Theory of Value not, at root, a moral statement?

30 07 2011

No entiendo.
Dice Kant que la filosofía es legislación.

Hablas como si existiese una moral o como si “la moral” se pareciese a la pared de la oficina de correos donde cuelgan unos 37 avisos, de los que algunos tapan a otros por ser más recientes, y dicen

No fumar p fvr
Venta de sellos >>>>>
Esperar su turno, gracias
No se aceptan paquetes de más de un metro de largo.
IMPORTANTE: preguntar aquí
URGENTE: a partir del año que vie(tapado por otro)
Feliz Navidad

30 07 2011

Ooops. Se me olvidó ponerlo a nombre del Alcachofa, y como tienes sólo 5 espacios reservados para los comments, uno queda muy visible allí arriba.

8 08 2011

I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does
not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse.
. . . Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse
than an animal, something like a devil.
~C.S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec.20 1961

15 08 2011

If I can pwn all the newbs, I deserve all their gear! I obviously made superior choices in character creation! They should have used the same build! I am the best at the game!

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