Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Religious Dimension of Marx

Brad DeLong writes about Marx's labor theory of value in a recent post and offers a useful example to show that his term "exploitation" is so indeterminate that it cannot be used to discriminate between the pernicious origins of wealth and the legitimate ones. Without drawing any distinctions, every case of the extraction of surplus wealth is simply labeled exploitation. Thus, DeLong writes:
Thus the labor theory of value category of "exploitation" does not map onto what either ordinary language or our moral intuitions call "exploitation." There are social and economic changes that are good that are, in Marx's schema, increases in the rate of exploitation. There are social and economic changes that are bad that are, in Marx's schema, increases in the rate of exploitation. It's simply not a useful tool for either moral philosophy or political action.
True as this may be (and there is some argument about it here by Matthew Yglesias), I do not think this is the primary issue in understanding Marx or appreciating his significance. In other words, it is not his contribution to moral philosophy or political action that matters the most. Rather, Marx's work is valuable as an analysis of the "spirit" of the age and for its messianic vision. Thus, it is primarily for his religious imagination that his legacy should be studied and valued.

His analysis of exploitation, despite its appearance, is not so much about economic relations and the conditions of injustice in the marketplace. Those concerns are merely the clothing of deeper worries about the self-alienated condition of modern life. When he claims that the bourgeoisie "has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest," this sense of "exploitation" runs much deeper than any argument about the efficiency of economic relations. It is about the spiritual health of human beings. Thus, Marx can claim that the proletariat, i.e., the everyman, "represents the complete loss of man and can only regain itself, therefore, by the complete resurrection of man." This resurrection takes place in and through the overcoming of self-alienation, which occurs finally when the "utterly alien power" and "inhuman force" of greed no longer holds sway over the whole of human existence. Of course, this will not happen easily because the problem runs deep. The implicit morality of the political economy, as he explains it, underscores the depth of the problem:
The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theater, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save--the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour--your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your externalized life--the greater is your store of alienated being.
The less you are, the more you have--the more money, i.e., alienated being, you have. The irony of this possession is that it is dispossessing. The lifeblood of one's existence is poured out and drained of its vitality. Thus, he writes: "Dispossession is the most desperate spiritualism, total unreality of man, total reality of non-man." This spirit in despair yearns to regain itself, to return to itself out of the self-alienated state created by the greed which the political economy fosters. How exactly the overcoming of greed is to occur is unclear. On that point, Marx seems to reach for a resource that is not available to him--some sort of grace that he cannot envision. Yet he seems sure that it will be present and pervasive in the ethical community that arises in the aftermath of the current age--the age governed by the dispossessing power of greed. Whether or not Marx merits much attention as a moral philosopher or economist, his work clearly draws on the prophetic tradition by offering both a critique of the current age and a vision of the ideal community for which we should strive. This aspect of his thought deserves recognition and respect.


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