Materialism and the Logic of Capitalism

Yesterday, Victoria over at Short White Coat, Inc. wrote a penetrating post about the intersection of poverty and health problems in the US, reflecting on her work with AIDS patients who were exiting the criminal justice system, she lamented the reality: despite her training and intentions, these people faced such a host of social, legal, and medical problems that their futures seemed bleak, their challenges intractable:

My patients felt they had paid their debt to society, but society would not give them a chance. Most had limited education and job training, and during the recession, it was difficult enough to find a new job without a conviction. Prior to incarceration, many had suffered mental illness, including substance addiction and depression. All of them now faced complicated HIV medication regimens and doctors’ appointments despite frequently unstable housing, transportation, and employment status. After release, many met criteria for devastating post-traumatic stress disorder, some resulting from horrifying events occurring while under the “care” of the State. Almost all were from poor backgrounds and the majority were people of color. During the interviews, many expressed themes of detachment, a sense of alienation from society starting in childhood. Some intimated a sense that outcomes many Americans view as basic rights or inevitabilities were never options for them, like freedom from an abuser, a safe home and school environment, or deciding what to be when they grew up.

She went on to point out that this isn’t just some unfortunate set of accidents that occurred these people; rather, this nexus of misfortune, poor health, lack of education, and subjection to violence is central to how late capitalism functions. These aren’t bugs, in other words–they’re features.

She linked a post from the Social Medicine Portal that only underscores this reality. It’s a short post, well-worth reading, but perhaps the crux of its argument is here well expressed:

How can one claim to fight poverty if, at the same time, one is carrying out policies that create poverty? By privatizing public services and charging those who use them, by laying off workers and reducing unemployment compensation, by maintaining social assistance at levels below the poverty level, by privatizing pensions… one can only increase the number of poor people.

The very people who are so vocal about combating poverty and building a better future are the same people who are profiting off of labor exploitation and environmental degradation. If extremely rich philanthropists were serious about combating poverty, they’d start by changing the way their very companies work in the first place. Instead, they drive people into poverty with one hand while shaking their fist at poverty with the other. It’s a deeply hypocritical, cynical attitude–exactly what the expression and maintenance of power demands. Slavoj Zizek strikes at the heart of this reality in a talk he gave the RSA:

Unfortunately, the response from the Left has been both uninspired and ineffective, and I want to suggest here that the reasons for its failure are deeper than often perceived. It’s not just that the Left has failed to popularize its discourse or develop strong institutions. These are both valid points, but I think they are more symptoms than causes. Fundamentally, what those who resist capitalism really lack is a consistent narrative. We have not articulated a systematic ideology of resistance, because the primary ideologies of resistance are themselves predicated on the philosophy that undergirds capitalism itself. The Left still speaks of power as the primary issue on the table: we need more of it, we need to marshal it against our opponents.

But such a view takes the zero-sum antagonistic worldview of capitalism for granted. It challenges the current distribution of power and wealth, but not the naked exploitation of power and wealth themselves. Marxism is, at its heart, an attempt to transcend capitalism by being ever-yet more materialistic and ruthless than capitalism itself; Marx didn’t primarily argue that capitalism was wrong so much as he argued that it was not fully developed. Communism was to be mature capitalism, fully enlightened and playing out the logic of Marx’s understanding of the progressive development of history. Marxism is unabashedly materialistic and deterministic.

Anarchism tends towards a more romantic implementation and certainly focuses more on the individual as the center of value over Marxism’s more communitarian bent–though anarchism is so diverse that making any such generalization is difficult at best. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that anarchism developed classical Liberalism to its logical end: the individual as the ultimate arbiter of all value and meaning. Others’ rights were to be respected as they too were individual persons, their own centers of value, but this was simply taken for granted. Modern anarchism doesn’t question materialism, it simply asserts the value of subjective beings without accounting for this valuation objectively. It is, in a sense, the ersatz political extension of 19th century Romanticism into the 20th and 21st centuries, a defiant semi-solpsism built around a core of unarticulated primal ethical claims encased in modern materialism, the two mixing as well as oil and water.

What is needed to resist capitalism is a philosophy that actually resists the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is a logical extension of the Enlightenment: the world is an object without inherent value that can–and should–be manipulated by human subjects as they see fit. Ethical and spiritual values are only valid within the sphere of a given individual person and have no ontological basis; the world is material alone and deterministic as well. Morality can be legislated–by groups with sufficient power–but there is no universally recognized set of values, aside from those that guarantee the capacity to accumulate resources as capital: property. The capacity for persons to absolute right over a certain set of resources, can have no limitations–but as a totally secular space, devoid of any sense of sacredness, the world can support no other rights.

Marxism and Anarchism attempt to defy the neoliberal order, but on its terms: power is to be met with power. What makes these efforts so pathetic is not only that, at the outset, such an attitude already concedes the central debate, but that self-styled revolutionary groups have orders of magnitude less power than their adversaries; they have absolutely no chance at success. When they do develop enough power to defeat their opponents, the power itself–quite predictably–reshapes them. Those 20th century revolutions that were successful were successful precisely to the extent that they adopted capitalist and imperialist tactics. Perhaps no state witnesses to this as well as the People’s Republic of China; in its most revolutionary phase it murdered or starved millions of people to death in a few short years. And as Maoist Marxism showed its faults, the Party rapidly refashioned itself along mercantilist lines, becoming one of the most aggressively capitalist institutions in the world.

No, what is needed is a philosophy that explains the world in radically different terms. This is not to say that the realities of oppression should or could be ignored. Indeed, those who claim to speak about social justice cannot ignore the “mundane” everyday needs of the world’s oppressed. But it is precisely here, again, that contemporary radicals so often get their priorities reversed. If the concern is for food stamps (now known as TANF), Social Security, the minimum wage and the rights of unions, then what is needed is a reformist attitude, because these are all assets that have to be negotiated within the current order. What is a revolutionary attitude towards Social Security? This is a question with no answer, because Social Security was a concession given away by the capitalist system in the first place; under revolutionary conditions, would such a system be necessary or even sustainable? So long as we are talking about the everyday needs of the oppressed under the current system, let’s abandon all self-serving talk of revolution.

And if we are going to talk of revolution, then we must talk about a full and real revolution: not just the transfer of power from one group to another, promising to organize capital in a fairer way–though such a move would be quite welcome, it is ultimately a reformist move at its very best. No, real revolutionary activity has to be predicated on a radically different system, one that resists the very logic of capitalism. And this means critiquing–though not rejecting–materialist science, balancing it with what can only be called a relationary realism that affirms the ontological validity of subjects as real entities in the world who are only possible through societies. Individualism must be balanced with community, matter must be contextualized with relationship, analysis must be seen as as depending on its opposite vector: synthesis.

Resistance to capitalism must articulate a vision, not just call for the creation of opposition institutions. A world that has no sacred aspect, a world of mere heaps of matter, is a world devoid of ethics a priori. In such a world, the word oppression is meaningless, and justice is a legal term only. If we are going to challenge oppression and injustice, we have to believe that these are real categories of action, and this demands what is today a radical assertion: people are not just collections of cells, they are real relational entities, and ethics is the ontologically valid study of how such entities can exist and thrive in harmony. Hence, the materialist determinism of Marxism, though not flat-out denied, must be balanced–Hegel wasn’t standing on his head after all. And the desperate post-Romanticism of anarchism must be reconciled with itself–the dualism inherent in it must be transcended and a unity achieved.

The idealist project, essentially dead in the anglophonic world for centuries, was warped and turned in on itself in the early 20th century with existentialist nihilism, which essentially surrendered any ontological considerations to materialism anyway. But the spiritual-ethical impulse has not died, rather it has carried forward as a powerful undercurrent in modern societies. What is needed is to bring it to the surface–and this will require an ontology that can join it with all the valid positions of materialism. Such a project can not only join idealistic realism and empirical materialism, the two positions that have been battling one another for 2500 years in western thought, but can crucially also reveal the folly of late capitalism and the desperate need to move beyond it.

2 thoughts on “Materialism and the Logic of Capitalism

  1. Scott, you are addressing some challenging issues and while I agree with you in spirit let me offer a brief critique revealing my partisanship to the primacy of the material:
    • Marx and Marxism is not necessarily “unabashedly deterministic.” A dogmatic Leninism or Stalinism would present a social totality of static categories determined by economic forces and that these categories are deterministically tautological. However, this view is not supported by Marx, especially the Marx of Capital, or Marxist oriented social scientists since the late 1960s. For example, the theoretical development that subjective and objective distinctions are integrated in the interaction of individuals and collectives through which the social, temporal, and spatial structures of capitalism are reproduced (Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Henri Lefebvre, and David Harvey). Even those more in line with a Leninist conception emphasize multiple determining factors or “over-determination” (Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Manuel Castells, and Erik Olin Wright).
    • But, I understand your argument to be less concerned with the specifics of Marxist or Anarchist theory and more about the necessity to avoid deterministic and/or romantic/nostalgic thinking. Here I concede your point to take seriously a Hegelian perspective. An alternative or transcendent social vision that aspires to a utopian future is ideological, in a pejorative sense, and is inherently impotent. What is needed is an ideology-critique, or in Hegelian terms, systematic dialectical thinking that negates the contradictions of the current epoch. However, the development and articulation of a consistent oppositional socio-political ideology and praxis is necessary but not sufficient for social transformation. In this way, Hegel is still stuck on his head.
    • It is precisely power that structures capitalism and this power is based on the abstraction of material conditions. The only way to transform social structures formed through class-power is in the counter-assertion of power. As you point out, there is no point in pursuing a model that seizes state power to force the restructuring of society. This has, of course, resulted in catastrophe and failure. The logic of capitalism is material, and as such, is only able to be confronted through material opposition. Defying the logic of capitalism is not accomplished in articulating a transcendent vision of society but rather through the creation of oppositional institutions. Obviously, there is no denying that the institutions we look to as oppositional are stuck in conciliatory or reformist dispositions. The Ideal is necessary in pressing for increased militancy in confronting the logic of capitalism but this will only be successful if there remains a connection to material conditions (functionally productive and materially beneficial to those who produce value) not just an appeal to idealism (ethics and morals). For example, a trade union may be directed by its leadership to pursue reformist goals (i.e. protection of social security, collective bargaining, minimum wage laws, and etc.) but in the moment of conflict between the interests of labor and capital the union membership may transcend the ideological limitations of the trade union as an institution, potentially creating the site for a revolutionary subjectivity. If sustained, militancy may transform an oppositional institution into a counter-hegemonic force. The spread of counter-hegemonic forces within capitalism could threatened its continuation by replacing and confronting its structures with functioning alternatives and thus creating a base of power for a revolutionary transformation. (I admit to being pessimistic about this happening without capitalist co-optation resulting in mere Scandinavian style social democracy).
    • Some questions: How would you define a political ontology based on your argument? Where would you locate the revolutionary subject or subjectivity (or is there no revolutionary subject) in an advanced capitalist society? Assuming “the sacred” is Ideal, does this mean you reject a priori a materialist basis for ethics and morals?

  2. Bryan, thanks for your comment! I’m just going to respond to the main thrust of your post here. My argument is not so much that opposition to capitalism shouldn’t or won’t include oppositional institutions, but that such institutions are–or, really, the institutional thinking that wolud create them is–necessary yet far from sufficient. A different way of relating to one another and to our shared reality is crucially needed here, to offer a different logic of interactions–an alternate ethics. Such a shift in political ethics would confront materialism, power politics, and institutions–but not necessarily seek to totally ignore or topple them.

    My claim–and perhaps I should have made this clearer, though I hinted at it a few times–is not that materialism is wrong–but that it’s incomplete. I feel we have to balance materialist determinism (which I don’t disagree with) with a relational realism. Such a balance would be to flesh-out the full truth of materialism, recognizing to what extent it is true and to what extent its incompleteness can become illusory without an essentially dialectic balancing of a different hermeneutical vector–relational to balance the reductive, synthetic to balance the analytic, etc.

    Such a project isn’t so much about rescuing Idealism (in the ontological sense) but rather about recognizing the crucial truths that it encapsulated, however imperfectly, and reintegrating them into an otherwise still materialist worldview. This is obvious a huge challenge, but I think it’s the necessary project, spiritually and politically.

    As for your direct questions: I’m not sure! I’m still working this out. I’m hoping to engage more in dialogue here rather than confident polemic. I really don’t know what the answers would look like; I’m groping towards a solution, and hoping that doing so in public will allow me to enlist the help of others like yourself as well as, perhaps, allow my thought to help others in their groping as well. Such an approach to political theorizing is itself relational–and therefore is an ideological move on my part as well, haha.

    Furthermore, I’m more interested in the philosophical underpinnings of such a liberatory politics, rather than working out the nitty-gritty–only because I think I might have something to offer in the former but honestly don’t think I’ll be very effective in thinking about the latter. In professor Messmer’s metaphor, I’m more of a parachutist than a truffle-digger; I can think about the big-picture, but I tend to lose the trees for the forest. So I’ll stick to talking about the forest, and leave the trees to the likes of you!

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