Inequality exists so widely and has for so long it’s easy to assume it’s natural. Yet, for most of the time we, homo sapiens sapiens with language and abstract thought, have existed, equality has prevailed in the sense that, prior to agriculture c 12,000 years ago, there was no economic surplus. Hunter gatherers were essentially egalitarians, though there is some evidence of slavery, but that didn’t make them incapable of cruelty as Tobias Schneebaum’s Keep The River on Your Right makes clear. Capable of slaughtering neighbouring tribes and engaging in cannibalism, they weren’t egalitarians by moral choice. However, it’s reasonable to suggest we evolved to live co-operatively in small groups. Leaving aside the dreadful violence Schneebaum writes about, within their groups they tended towards peaceableness. If we have an inherited nature, it developed to match these conditions. On the one hand, co-operative and egalitarian, on the other capable of astonishing brutality and inhumanity; but predominantly the former.
The important point is universality: we share our nature. The inequality we’re used to rests on assumed intrinsic distinctions. Slavery existed widely and for a long period because slaves were deemed to be lesser creatures than their owners. The highly civilised Greeks could philosophise about freedom and democracy while simultaneously treating their slaves like beasts. Monarchy and aristocracy assume the given superiority of the rulers, feudalism took for granted the diminished nature of vassals and capitalism would have been impossible without the axiom that people of property (men in particular) are different in kind from people who sell their work to live. There is much rhetoric of equality and human rights in the advanced democracies, but beneath the bluster, the premise remains: social distinctions correspond to natural differences. “Entrepreneurs” have a different nature from the rest of us. “Workers” are workers by definition. Of course, false notions like “meritocracy” or “social mobility” keep alive the illusion the system is fair: anyone can “make it”, as the failed “American Dream” proposed; yet the evidence tells a different story. What proportion of people born into the top ten percent in the UK over the past fifty years has slipped into the bottom ten percent? Likewise, what percentage has moved in the other direction? The data are stubborn: if you’re born into wealth you stay there. If you’re born into poverty, your chances of rising much above it aren’t high.
This might provide an argument for the Right: it’s the natural order: some are born to be wealthy, others to be poor. The problem is, in order to avoid uprising, capitalist societies have had to embrace universal suffrage (to call it democracy would be inaccurate). When people can vote, telling them they are inferior by nature is slightly risky; hence the sentimentality of the concepts just mentioned. On the one hand, people are told they live in a society of opportunity if they are willing to make the effort, on the other, policy works decisively to ensure wealth and power stay in few hands.
At the same time, the doctrine of the market sets up a smokescreen for injustice: no one chooses this, it’s simply what the market, an abstract force beyond human control, delivers. Thus, the market pushes the banking and financial system to the edge of collapse and the free-marketeers are transmogrified into Statists, some of them calling for the temporary wholesale nationalisation of the banks. The market is wise when it makes them rich and to be halted when it risks the destruction of their system. The market is nothing more than the aggregate effect of many human decisions, but the decisions of the rich have far more influence than those of the rest. Tens of millions vote, but the corporates decide. That’s how democracy and the market function.
On the extreme Right in contemporary capitalist societies, faith in the market collapses into a belief in the authoritarian State whose doctrine is nationalism, supremacism and militarism. This is ever at hand, as the self-declared believers in the market always rely on the State to keep the meddlesome masses in order. Even in its mildest form, right-wing ideology denies a shared human nature. The justification for inequality is always a recourse to nature: this is how things are meant to be. Natural distinctions create their social counterparts; but as Richard Lewontin has argued, differences are biological, distinctions social. All kinds of variations in natural endowment exist: some have better hand-eye co-ordination, mathematical aptitude, musical ability and so on. None of which implies any social distinction. There is no necessary connection between being able to run faster than others or play the piano more expertly, and wealth or power. Amongst our hunter-gatherer ancestors there must have been potential Roger Federers or Bill Gatses, but their talent implied no economic or social distinction because they lacked a culture which could permit it. J.S. Bach made an extraordinary contribution to music yet has anyone ever suggested his talent ought to have made him a dictator? Hence, the exorbitant rewards for talent in our culture can’t be natural.
At the most base level, there is the belief that a biological difference like skin colour should be the cause of social distinction. White supremacism has played an enormous role in modern history, and still does. That the idea is thoroughly irrational hasn’t lessened its virulence. Less respectable today, it still exerts its malign influence. In the same way, it’s somewhat unacceptable now to express directly the idea that the poor deserve their poverty, yet the notion prevails. When George Osborne spoke of hard-working people setting off in the morning while the curtains of the benefits claimants next door were still closed, he was igniting the nasty belief that the poor are feckless, lazy and therefore responsible for their poverty and blameworthy. It’s a small step to the conviction that they aren’t like us. They are different by nature. Difference justifies inequality.
The notion of a universal human nature is problematic for the Right. They seek a resolution in a distorted conception: by nature we are competitive, self-interested, egocentric, inclined to ignore the needs of others, Thus, the inequality of capitalism is the result of the playing out of our nature. “Entrepreneurs”, by being self-interested, provide us with our dinner. If we didn’t permit them to seek enormous wealth, we would all be picking nuts and berries. Greed is good. That’s the way the world works. Yet, if workers strike, they are condemned as selfish, “holding the country to ransom”, doing the wrong thing. The Right evokes a human nature which it has to deny in order to keep the workers in their place. It’s an odd human nature which doesn’t exist in most of the population: the incoherence of right-wing ideology.
The idea of a shared human nature is of great benefit to the Left. If our species capacities are inherited and pre-determined, it makes sense to organize our culture around them. It ought to be a fundamental precept of the Left that negative social distinctions offend our nature. Obviously, the Left has won the argument over white supremacism. Only the far-right which loathes democracy is self-consciously supremacist. As mentioned, the old irrationality bubbles away beneath the surface of apparent equal rights, but for a large majority in the dominant capitalist societies, supremacism has become disreputable. The Left has done the work. The same is true about LGBTQ rights. In these important ways, the Left has asserted our common humanity and the justice of equal rights.
Yet the Left is burdened by an inherited incoherence which is at the heart of Marx’s sociology. Marx denies the existence of an inherited human nature. Fundamental to his theory is the notion that what we are is the product of particular economic relations:
“..the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In its actuality it is reducible to the ensemble of social or historically developing socio-economic relationships.” (Theses on Feuerbach).
What he means by “inhering in each single individual” is biologically determined, our given endowment. This is Marx’s simple refutation of the notion of a given human nature. Yet it takes no more than a few minutes reflection to see how misguided this is. It looks as though Marx forced himself to accept it in order to keep his theory consistent. He was committing the fundamental error of refusing to change his theory in the light of the evidence. That we have a biologically given nature is almost too obvious to need stating. At the physiological level, if you breath in and out of a paper bag for long enough, you will go faint. This applies to everyone. The length of time varies from individual to individual, but not greatly: no one can do it for a week. This is our human nature at a very basic level. It isn’t reducible to socio-economic relationships. It’s our biological inheritance.
There are any number of such examples, but language is particularly potent. It inheres in each single individual and has since it emerged some fifty thousand years ago, almost certainly by a random mutation in a single individual. Across those fifty thousand years there have been many differing socio-economic relationships, but the language faculty has remained unchanged. It’s important to make a distinction between language in use, the externalised form we use to speak or write, and the internal faculty. The external form changes all the time, but the internal faculty doesn’t.
Marx’s notion of “species-being” doesn’t amount to a recognition of an inherited, fixed, universal nature. He wrote, “In the mode of life activity lies the entire character of the species.” The adjective is crucial: everything we are is determined by “life activity”. Our nature is not permanent and universal but determined by specific historical formations. He refers to “an internal, dumb generality” to suggest that what is endowed by nature is uncreative. “It is true,” he argues, “ that eating, drinking and procreating etc are genuine human functions. However, when abstracted from other aspects of human activity, and turned into final and exclusive ends, they are animal.” Presumably he doesn’t intend “animal” as a compliment. What does he mean by “other aspects of human activity”? His assumption is that productive activity, work, completes our nature. What is granted by biology is “dumb”, “animal”. Only when we begin to transform it by the way we produce our means of life, do we rise above this base level.
In Marx’s terms, therefore, language is “animal”. It is as natural as eating, drinking and procreating. Yet it distinguishes us from the other animals. Exclusively human, remarkably creative, Marx would have been lost without it. It isn’t true that only when we begin to produce our means of life do we become linguistic or capable of abstract thought: these are pre-determined capacities. We are creative by nature and this is true universally. Marx didn’t take this for granted but expressed supremacist notions on several occasions. He attributed negative characteristics to Jews, as if they were products of biological inheritance, and was enthusiastic, in a letter to Engels about Pierre Tremaux’s theory which claimed to establish a link between the quality of the soil and human capacities, commenting that Tremaux had “proved that the common Negro type is the degenerate form of a much higher one..”. That Marx could think in terms of a “common Negro type” suggests he believed in given, significant given differences between human populations. That he considered this proven indicates a somewhat cavalier tendency to embrace conclusions matching pre-suppositions. Crucially, it militates against recognition of a permanent, universal nature.
Obviously, Marx had to accept the fact of our biology. Our physiology, our arms and legs, lungs and hearts pre-exist particular economic relations. Yet he needs to see this as low-level, as “animal” and “dumb”. It’s our practical activity which raises us above the level of the animal. This is simply wrong given that language and abstract thought are as much a part of our given capacities and breathing and walking. Marx needs to downgrade what is provided by nature in order to elevate what is produced by our effort to produce our means of life. His push for a coherent theory makes him incoherent.
Darwin called language “An instinct to acquire an art”, which succinctly elaborates the paradox that the language faculty is a given fact of our nature, but in order to speak we need to be part of a linguistic community. It is our nature to require the social trigger which permits the language faculty to be externalised in speech. Biology, that is, has made us social. This has been so since language emerged and it hasn’t altered over fifty thousand years. If Marx were right, this wouldn’t be possible. That our humanity inheres in inherited, fixed capacities undermines the essence of his theory. It has to be true, for his theory to stand, that mere biological attributes are no match for the capacities we develop in and through our productive activity. Marx may be able accept our given physiological nature but he is impelled to deny endowed social or moral capacities.
“In producing their means of life,” he writes, “men enter into specific relations which are indispensable and independent of their will.” As production proceeds, the “forces of production” come into conflict with the “relations of production”, the latter burst asunder and a new form of society arises. There is a clear sense in this of a blind process. Certainly, it refuses any sense of moral decision. Marx recognises a distinction between pre-history and history but he has little to say about the fact that during the former, humanity barely produced its means of life. Rather, we relied on the bounty of nature. We were hunter-gatherers for almost forty thousand years and during that period, the greater portion of our species life, “relations of production” were effectively non-existent. Nor was this a time marked by revolutions which transformed one version of society into another. Social relations among hunter-gatherers serve reproduction more than production. This can be excused by accepting Marxism as a theory of history, ie the past twelve thousand years, but a theory of human society which more or less ignores forty thousand years is hardly comprehensive. The important point is that those hunter-gatherers had the same species-capacities as us. Of course, their cultural capacities were very different: you can’t compose symphonies without equal temperament and violins, but there were mute inglorious Beethovens among pre-historic populations.
Our capacities are altered as we change our circumstances, but our species-capacities aren’t transformed. We aren’t more linguistically capable now than we were twenty thousand years ago. We have invented alphabets and writing and filled libraries, but the fundamental operation of the internal language faculty which makes that possible hasn’t changed, any more than the circulation of the blood or the functioning of the heart. Further, we have almost certainly been moral creatures for the same length of time we’ve been linguistic. Our moral conceptions change as we change our circumstances, but, like language, moral discrimination depends on a given faculty. Marx is pointing to the obvious: people think and behave very differently in twenty-first century America than in twelfth-century France and that is because social circumstances have been transformed; but what those circumstances work upon hasn’t altered. A thousand years ago, people used their lips, tongue and larynx to externalise language, just as they do now, and children acquired language effortlessly and unconsciously, as today. Marx exaggerates. He wants it to be true that a new form of society will create a new human being and so proposes an “empty organism” theory; but it isn’t necessary to contend that we have no given, permanent nature in order to recognise the possibility of social and moral progress. On the contrary, it is only because we are moral creatures by nature that such progress is possible.
If it were true that the “entire character of the species” is a product of the activity of producing the means of life, what would we be prior to that activity? How could we even engage in productive activity without a given nature which made it possible? Without a given nature, we would be some kind of amorphous blob. Marx falls into this incoherence in his urgent need to persuade, his desire for an all-embracing theory.
Human nature exists within very narrow limits which is evident in physiology. No one is twenty feet tall nor weighs a tonne. What strike us as great differences are objectively superficial. Paradoxically, it is these limits, in the mental sphere, which provide our creativity. Once again, language provides the evidence: from a very small set of simple operations (probably just one), by a generative process, we are able to produce an infinite array of sentences. It’s the restricted, optimal nature of the essential operation which provides the extraordinary creativity. The social formations we elaborate through our activity, work on what is given, but the creativity is endowed. Marx has difficulty with this. For him, human nature isn’t modified by changing social conditions, rather the economic conditions bring our nature into being. A proposition which makes no sense, for how could an amorphous blob be transformed into a creative intelligence if it wasn’t endowed with the capacity?
Marx argues that it is in the act of producing our means of life that we distinguish ourselves from the animals, which ignores how our biological endowment distinguishes us. He recognises other creatures transform nature to their ends to some extent (birds build nests, bees make hives) but contends we are different in that we envisage the transformation in our minds before we realise it. However, the capacity to do so isn’t a product of our work on the world, it's given. We differ from birds, bees and all other animals in having the capacity for abstract thought as part of our nature. The evidence suggests this capacity came into existence at the same time as language. Neither is the outcome of our effort to transform reality through labour.
It's often remarked that Marx turned Hegel on his head, in the sense that the latter believed that Spirit was the motive force of history, while Marx believes it is the work we perform in producing our means of life. Yet the hangover from Hegel is the denial of choice. Marx sees the replacement of capitalism by communism as inevitable, whether we like it or not. It won’t come about because we choose it, but because the principle of history, that the forces of production become too powerful for the relations of production, dictates it. The agent of change may be the proletariat, but not because working people will choose. They will be forced to bring about change, more or less blindly. Marx has difficulty in seeing people as moral agents, for the obvious reason that if you’re elaborating a theory of historical inevitability, it’s somewhat inconvenient to have people make more or less free choices. Of course, we always make choices in particular circumstances and our choices are restricted by the way the world is – no one can choose to be in two places at once – but even a small degree of choice plays havoc with inevitability. Geras says that Marx’s work embraces “a moral indictment resting on the conception of essential human needs.” Moral outrage at the injustice of capitalism bubbles up continually in Marx’s writing. Yet this is part of his incoherence: he denies we have a given moral capacity in his assertion that the “entire character of a species” lies in the “mode of life activity”. If we don’t have a given instinct for freedom, why would we baulk at tyranny? Marx is in a cleft stick: he wants it to be true, for the coherence of his theory, that our nature is a product of how we produce our means of life, yet simultaneously he implies the “essential human needs” Geras speaks of. What’s the difference between essential human needs and human nature? Geras is accepting the needs as given, part of our biological endowment. This is what Marx has a problem with because if such a nature exists, it can’t be true that our entire character is a product of our work on the world. There must be a pre-existing set of species capacities.
If empty organism theory is correct what would be wrong with slavery, or for that matter concentration camps or death camps? If we are what we are entirely through the economic and social relations we have created, why would it be wrong for white people to enslave black people or men to dominate women? Marx can’t have it both ways: we can’t be simultaneously nothing but products of our particular circumstances and opponents of those circumstances. Our opposition has to arise from a sense of insult, but insult to what? How can a particular set of circumstances insult what is only the product of those circumstances? When the English peasants revolted in 1381, it was because they felt a sense of injustice at the imposition of poll taxes, among other things. Yet if they were peasants by virtue of the economic relations of their time, and if that was the full extent of their humanity, where was the ground for objection? They may have accepted the structure of their society in general, but they felt an insult to their humanity in being poor and having taxes heaped on them by the rich. How would this be possible without an experience of their humanity which exceeded its social definition? It’s exactly because of the mismatch between their given human nature and what their society made them, that revolt was possible.
Marx provides no moral basis for egalitarianism because of his empty organism theory. On the contrary, Leninism and its logical successor Stalinism, are implied by Marx’s sociology. This is not to dismiss the many worthwhile insights in Marx, nor his detailed analysis of the working of the capitalism of his time. It is his sociology of change in particular which entails the problem: because we are products of economic relations, because the new human being Marx proposes will be the product of changed relations, some agency is going to have to ensure the appropriate relations are brought into being and maintained. There is no given human nature, prior to the specific relations, to rely on. Marx doesn’t propose that by removing the barriers to the flourishing of our nature we can attain liberty, rather a new nature must be elaborated by the establishment of new economic relations. The workers may effect their own liberation from capitalism, but only, in the first instance, to institute “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. How this dictatorship will operate, Marx is more or less silent about, but history has been articulate. Clearly, it’s impossible for the entire working-class to impose the dictatorship. Hence, his theory assumes an elite cadre which will rule on behalf of the workers. There is the open door for Lenin’s “democratic centralism” which is anything but democratic, and from there it is a short step to Stalinism. Ironically, representative democracy under capitalism has proven kinder to the workers than the Marxist remedy he believed would be their salvation.
The moral basis for egalitarianism is provided by a recognition that we are inheritors of species capacities and the differences in endowment between individuals are relatively superficial. The equality of human nature resides in the fact that we all inherit the same species capacities. We are all (barring catastrophic brain damage) endowed by nature with a language faculty and a moral faculty. Social inequality, as mentioned earlier, rests on the notion that there is a correspondence between natural endowment and social reward. In this view, society is an effective sorting mechanism which allocates each individual to their rightful place: the CEO to the boardroom, the zero-hours employee to low paid stress. There is a glitch in the logic: there is no moral justification for attributing rewards to people on the basis of their endowment, even if that were what is happening. There are plenty of justifications from expediency but none from morality.
The customary justification goes like this: the £250,000 per annum barrister deserves her money for the special contribution she makes to society. Further, she has had to qualify, which takes talent and effort and her work in the courtroom requires skill in advocacy which is relatively rare. The bus driver, on the other hand, has no high level qualifications, does a job which requires only a commonplace skill, makes a less valuable contribution and is therefore rightly paid £20,000 per annum. This is a justification from expediency. It has no moral import. It is, in fact, mere hypocrisy. If bus drivers strike, their presence is soon missed and the media waste no time in condemning them as selfish. Their contribution is highly valuable, but that is still and argument from expediency. The moral argument is that a bus driver shares her humanity with the barrister and that common condition implies common social experience. The bus driver needs a place to live, food for her kids, clothes, heating, cultural activities, just like the barrister. The differing roles we fulfil in the economy and society do not justify differences in wealth, power or status. In order to claim they do, we have to sneak in the idea of fundamental difference. A barrister may be more skilled in advocacy than a bus driver and ought to know more about the law, but how does that, from a moral position, entail a greater share of the collectively produced wealth? Even if it were true that the barrister’s work adds much more to the economic product than the bus driver’s, it would still be beyond moral justification to grant the former far more wealth then the latter because by doing so a social division is created which permits the barrister a far fuller life than the bus driver.
Consider another example: a woman who works for herself producing candles and soaps. She employs no one. She works long hours and sells in volume. At length, through her own effort, she has accumulated several million. How can there be any argument against her wealth? Marx’s argument from exploitation is weak at this point, but the argument from inherited common capacities much more potent. First of all, the absolute independence of the candle-maker is illusory. She has to source materials. She needs customers and they have to earn their money. She is part of a social nexus in spite of working alone. Our social connection is inescapable. It is part of our inherited nature and it entails moral relations. All human relations are moral. It’s no more possible to annul our moral faculty than to annul our language faculty. Robinson Crusoe had no moral relations until he discovered Friday, but he had no wealth either. Had the streams of his island been teeming with gold nuggets he wouldn’t have been wealthy because wealth is a social relation. To have plentiful gold is meaningless if you’re alone, unless you like to adorn yourself. The candle-maker’s wealth is socially generated, however great her personal effort and she is a moral agent who owes duties to those she shares her society with. Of course, the simple question is why did she want to accumulate wealth? The desire to be rich is also socially generated. We don’t possess a given greed faculty. The evidence for a given language faculty is overwhelming but the arguments in favour of a natural desire for personal wealth are forced and strained because the evidence is lacking.
There is no moral argument in favour of inequality because our moral faculty resists it. Marx, however, believed moral judgments are untrustworthy. He characterised them as “so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush, just as many bourgeois interests.” He has to degrade moral judgement in order to elevate the teleology of his theory: as the working out of history will do the work of liberation, there is no need for moral judgements. Marx also accepts capitalism (and slave-owning society and feudalism) as necessary phases in the development of human society. His theory has at its centre the notion that a moral objection to slave-owning or feudalism is mere posturing; what is needed is an intellectual understanding of how history functions. He believes he has uncovered its core mechanism, the sociological equivalent of natural selection. Hence his claim to the status of a scientist. It’s clear he is trying to pass off philosophy as science. Darwin derived his theory, substantially, from examination of the fossil record. Marx was looking at the history of the choices we have made, though he didn’t believe history was a matter of choice. The two couldn’t be more different. It’s possible to be thoroughly objective about the former but difficult in the case of the latter, because we are inserted in the process we are trying to understand which drags in subjectivity. His theory offers no explanation of how we make moral choices. They are insignificant for Marx (a further assistance to Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin). Once more, it takes only the most minimal thinking to see how wrong this is: we make moral decisions all the time and how could we do so were we not equipped by nature with a moral capacity? How would we be able to speak were we not endowed with a language faculty? The idea that our effort to produce our means of life gave rise to language makes no sense. If it were so, the language faculty would differ from one economic system to another. Its universality means it must be a biological endowment.
Similarly, our universal moral decision-making implies an endowment. There are almost unlimited contexts and variations, but the fundamental operation remains consistent, as in language. It’s likely our moral faculty works like the language faculty: from a few very simple rules, by a generative process, we are able to produce a huge (perhaps infinite) array of moral decisions.
As previously noted, Marx frequently assumes a moral position, in spite of his mistrust of moral judgments. Presumably, he believed his supposed intellectual understanding of history gave him secure ground. Yet it’s curious that his teleology matches his moral judgements. What would his view have been if he had concluded that the working out of history would deliver us to endless tyranny, war and exploitation? Would he have set aside his moral judgements and accepted his intellectual conclusions? It’s transparently pat that his intellectual theory corresponds to his moral outrage. Darwin, a wealthy, respectable, Christian, English gentleman was shocked by his discoveries. There was a mismatch between his subjectivity and what the evidence told him. Marx, the pseudo-scientist, conveniently elaborates a theory which confirms his subjectivity. The physicists tell us heat-death is inevitable, hardly the conclusion which corresponds to our desires, but that’s science.
The universal language faculty is evidence (fairly uncontroversial evidence) of a shared human nature. The fundamental operation of the faculty is identical in everyone. If we assume this is a reasonable model of the mind, we can theorise a given set of mental capacities whose essential operation is consistent across all individuals. Of course, there are all manner of differences in endowment, as indicated earlier, but they are relatively superficial. Crucially, they don’t constitute the fundamental differences in nature which are necessary to the maintenance of inequality of wealth, power and status. Wherever inequality exists or has existed, it is always justified by reference to supposed inherent difference. A slave-owner has the right to slaves because he was born to be a slave-owner. Aristotle believed slaves were born to their condition and would be unable to live without instruction from their owners. The given nature of a slave was fundamentally different from that of a slave-owner. Kings were permitted to rule by divine right. A vassal was such by god’s intention. People of colour were not fully human and women were less so than men. Today, we have a rhetoric of equality which conceals similar assumptions. An “entrepreneur” is somehow fundamentally different from an employee. The implication is that nature has endowed one with the capacity to command and the other with the need to obey. It’s taken for granted that the life of a President is more valuable than that of road-sweeper. This is mere expediency. There is no moral perspective from which such a view can be upheld. That the function of a competent President is more important than that of a road-sweeper does not imply that the life of one is more valuable than the other. None of us can step out of our humanity to make an objective judgement about the relative worth of human lives. Irrevocably inserted in our humanity we have no perspective from which to judge lives as anything but equal.
Cultures of inequality have a need to persistently stress minor differences in endowment. Marx’s theory is of little use in resisting this. To argue against the idea that sports stars, film stars, rock stars, CEOs, media celebrities and so on should earn more in a week than many people earn in ten years on the grounds that there is a teleology in history which will deliver a cataclysmic clash between the owners of capital and labour in which the latter will triumph, is hardly rational. Here is another incoherence in Marx: he believes the outcome of history is inevitable, but at the same time exhorts the workers to revolt. A kind explanation would be he is assisting what is bound to happen, but why should that be necessary? There is no need for exhortation if the workers are bound to rebel. The Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri had a different view: “We must move away from romanticism. Look at the masses, I would say, in perspective….There is no revolutionary will of the masses, but revolutionary moments when the masses are a huge lever.” Berneri’s view rules out neither moral choice nor the need to exhort. It embraces no inevitability but is based rather on realism and hope.
How can we argue against the huge rewards of the super-rich? The left has difficulty with the wealth of the people’s cultural heroes and heroines. To deplore the wealth of a film star is not at all like criticising that of a factory owner. The Marxist inheritance spavins the criticism. Billionaire footballers, beloved of the masses, are hard to typify as exploitative “owners of the means of production”. Yet it’s a short step from the adulation of a film star to fawning before Donald Trump. The left is reluctant to accept the notion of a given, permanent human nature because it seems to argue against change. The mistake can be traced back to Marx: change must be total. The new economic relations must create a new human being, so it can’t be true that there’s an unchanging nature. Superficially radical, this is in fact reactionary because of its assumption of the need for a managing cadre. It also robs the left of its most powerful potential argument: if we share an identical nature, present in all individuals, and if differences are relatively superficial, it is rational to organise society around equality; and if we are moral creatures by nature, that is if we have an endowed sense of fairness and justice, injustice is an insult to our humanity. This is a far more potent argument than anything in Marx. Indeed, because Marx denies the existence of an inherited moral faculty, because he makes our very capacity for moral judgement dependent on a particular set of economic relations (and yet at the same time plays down all forms of moral decision-making) he implies a governing power which must ensure the right conditions and robs us of the means of criticising all forms of injustice as insults to our nature.
What grounds are there for opposition to disparities of wealth, power and status, if not moral grounds, and how can those moral grounds exist if we are not moral by endowment? The left, substantially because of its Marxist inheritance, has eschewed moral objections, believing that moral relativism is radical: the morality of capitalism shall be replaced by superior socialist morality. Yet the theory has no explanation for the origin of moral judgements of any kind. If they are mere reflections of the prevailing economic relations, they are not moral judgements because a moral judgment is characterised by its ability to resist prevailing assumptions.
Marx is right, of course, in pointing up the compliance of ideology. The divine right of kings served the purposes of absolute monarchy and is now defunct. Yet what is going on here is not the creation of mind but its shaping. As Leslie Brothers argues in Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind, “social stimuli have physical effects on neurons.” Not only do particular social stimuli generate ideas, they alter the working of the brain. Yet what Brothers is highlighting is that mind is altered by social stimuli; a quite different proposition from Marx’s contention that our “entire” nature is a product of our economic relations. The anxiety on the left that to accept a given, permanent human nature will play into the hands of a static view of society is misplaced. Social and moral progress are always the result of moral choice and about that Marx is mistaken. We can’t arrive at moral ends without choosing them. It wasn’t by the force of the powers Marx invokes that, for example, women gained the vote. It was a moral issue and by taking a moral stand the gain was made. Yet Marx is forced to propose moral achievements without moral choice because of his view of how change happens. The curious notion of an egalitarian society of individual liberty without anyone having chosen it gives power to the need for a ruling elite, because our experience tells us good ends aren’t arrived at willy-nilly. How will we prevent people driving at hundred miles an hour past the primary school unless we choose ? There has to be some human agency. It is because Marx effectively dispels human moral agency, which doesn’t fit with his theory of history, that it re-emerges in a grotesque form. This is the flaw Bakunin recognised in 1872. In contradistinction to Marx he wrote of “the identity of human nature at all times and in every climate” which permitted him to argue “The liberty of man consists solely in this, that he obeys the laws of nature because he himself has recognised them as such.” Bakunin, that is, sites humanity in nature, while Marx proposes that we escape nature through our relations of production. Nature is “animal”. Ironically, by denying the idea of a given moral faculty, a natural endowment, and theorizing a rising above what is merely provided by nature through economic activity, Marx unleashes the bestial in humanity. In place of a common moral nature relatively gently applied comes the need for absolute command by an elite armed with true consciousness.
Marx envisages a society without classes, a very morally attractive vision, yet he has no faith in the people. They are compromised by “false consciousness”. The new society will require a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Together, these concepts have been disastrous for the left. While the capitalists have had the wit to grant universal suffrage and undermine it through a wall-to-wall propaganda system, the communists installed totalitarianism, gulags, and commonplace political murder. These are not distortions of Marx’s theory, they flow directly from his incoherent rejection of a given human nature. He has no faith in the people, because he doesn’t believe moral choice is the basis of social and moral progress. Mere choice can be wildly out of kilter with the working out of history. Hence, for their own good, the workers must be directed by those who understand.
Marx has no theory of morality. His theory is genuinely amoral. He relishes the prospect of equality and freedom, but he doesn’t depict them as moral ends, freely chosen. They are something done to people by the working out of history according to the iron laws of “dialectical materialism”. Once again, there is an irony: his putative science became a religion. True believers accepted the entire package or were heretics (“revisionists” in the terminology). Adherence to the doctrine became more important than making real gains. Another disaster for the left.
By virtue of his leading position as an anti-capitalist theorist, Marx has become, in certain circles at least, almost untouchable. His is the theory with inner coherence and to challenge it is to backslide into acceptance of injustice. Yet Marx is only one of many anti-capitalist theorists and though his intellect sets him apart from many, being beguiled by it into an uncritical conformism leads only to a form of hero-worship. Bakunin may have been less of an intellectual than Marx, but his predictions of where the theory would lead were remarkably prescient. The anarchist critics of Marx are no defenders of capitalism. What they don’t have, of course, is his seductive apparent explanation of the motive force of history; but the reason it’s absent is because they know it’s false. They recognise history as messy process of moral decisions in which nothing is inevitable until it happens. Interestingly, this view corresponds to how language functions: the inner faculty is optimum but externalised language is a dog’s breakfast providing an infinite number of possibilities. Almost every sentence spoken has never been spoken before and will never be spoken again. No sentence is inevitable until it’s uttered or written. Yet what underlies this is a universal endowment whose essential functioning is identical in every individual. Our moral faculty is probably like this. It doesn’t permit the historical neatness Marx theorises because there are too many possibilities, but it provides the only true defence against injustice: it is an insult to our nature.
Ridding the world of capitalism by a final cataclysmic conflict between the employers and the workers may give a certain kind of psychological comfort, but it is barely consistent with the evidence. There is only one example of a workers’ uprising producing a genuine, if short-lived, democratic economy: Spain 1936. It was destroyed by the combined forces of fascism, Stalinism and liberal-democratic preference for those when faced with a genuine workers’ democracy. The revolution was brutal but Franco’s dictatorship much more so. Can there be any doubt that the possibility of change through peaceful means is a moral advance? It may require piecemeal improvements and be frustrating but to ask people to risk their lives on barricades when they can go to the ballot box is highly morally dubious. The evidence suggests most people in the capitalist so-called democracies accept the imperfect systems and reject political violence (though Trump’s base is a worrying exception).For orthodox Marxists, this is a disappointment, hence those tiny groups of democratic-centralists still nursing the fantasy that the revolution is about break out.
On the left in general, Marx’s inheritance inhibits the argument from a given human nature. Yet if we can’t find the evidence to argue that capitalism is an insult to or nature, how will we win the debate? Most people in the leading capitalist societies reject slavery. In the UK, Teresa May, an unflinching Tory, passed the modern slavery legislation. What is the principal argument against slavery? That’s it’s morally wrong for one person to own or buy and sell another. The arguments from expediency would be in favour; after all, the slave trade produced huge wealth. It is the moral objection which matters. Yet if it’s wrong to buy and sell people, why is it right to hire them? Employment is no more morally justifiable in its essence than slavery. Of course, employees often enjoy far better conditions than slaves, a moral advance; but the principle holds: it’s an insult to our nature for one person to own, buy, sell or hire another.
Marx’s theory, partly an assault on the dehumanising effects of capitalist labour, introduces a dehumanisation of its own. By effecting a division between “proletarian” and “bourgeois” and by advocating violent uprising, it suggests a “bourgeois” is fit to be killed. On the one hand Marx recognises that capitalists are victims of their own system, that the self-exploitation of humanity is a more profound problem than the exploitation of one class by another, on the other his theory lends itself too readily to the notion of exterminating enemies of the revolution. Together with the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that leads straight to the gulag.
To argue capitalism is an insult to our nature is not to let the rich and their servants off the hook, but it is to acknowledge Marx’s point: capitalists are human too. We are all diminished by a system which denies our common humanity. The left has everything to gain by putting the idea of a shared human nature at the heart of its campaigning and consistently arguing that employment is morally indefensible. Far from being a retreat from radicalism, the recognition of our shared inheritance is more radical than Marx because he proposes “dictatorship” and sneaks in the idea of a managerial elite which will ensure the right conditions for the emergence of the “new humanity”. Our shared moral nature makes ruling elites unnecessary. We are endowed by nature with the capacity to make the important decisions for ourselves. If we weren’t, society simply wouldn’t function. To believe we are incompetent to make our decisions is a little like arguing we need to be told how to make our sentences. No ruling agency oversees our linguistic behaviour. Why is such a thing necessary for our moral behaviour?
This is the important point: all ruling elites must propose themselves as moral. The Nazis didn’t proclaim themselves a force which would slaughter 5.1 million Jew, 2.5 million Polish Catholics, 500,000 Romanies and drive the world into destructive war. They had to have a moral excuse: lifting the German people from the humiliation of Versailles, saving the German economy from international financiers (ie Jews). Such phoney moral excuses are always required because of our given moral nature. Capitalists use arguments from expediency as if they are moral arguments. The way to cut through this is to insist that disparities of wealth, power and status are an offence to our shared humanity which claims the organisation of our economy in its image.
The left should dispense with Marx’s incoherent rejection of a given human nature, and push the notion that equality of endowment is the fundamental truth. Differences are relatively superficial and none provides a moral justification for a society divided between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. What we know about our common human nature is on our side. It isn’t the force of history, powered by our economic effort which will liberate us, but our simple, given moral capacity; a capacity trammelled and distorted by dehumanising conditions.