Thursday May 25, 2017

From Multitude to Civil Society

by Christopher Chantrill
May 12, 2017

[T]here is also the possibility of a kind of solicitude which does not so much leap in for the Other as leap ahead of him... This kind of solicitude pertains essentially to authentic care... it helps the Other to become transparent to himself in his care and to become free for it.1

In the last chapter we made much of the responsible individualism that, following Robert Bellah, we imagined to begin with the historic religions of the Axial Age. But we also saw that the modern world is suffused with another kind of individualism, a creative or expressive individualism. Sociologist George Simmel explained that the first kind of individualism belongs to the 18th century and the second kind to the 19th century.

In their Manifesto of the Communist Party and their economic apology in Capital Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels launch their great attack on capitalism and the people that made it happen, the entrepreneurial middle class. They nail their colors to the mast on the question of exploitation. In the Manifesto they make it clear right away what they mean. In the new capitalist society all the traditional communal ties, exploitative though they often were, have collapsed into pure economic calculation, and the bourgeoisie did it.

In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, [the bourgeoisie] has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.2

Marx and Engels describe in detail the manifold exploitations of capitalism: turning dignified occupations into wage labor, families into “mere money relation.” But then they surprise their readers and launch into a review of the accomplishments of capitalism and its bourgeois promoters. The bourgeoisie “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”. It constantly revolutionizes business, chasing all over the world to expand its markets, sucking the whole world from rural idiocy into its cosmopolitan system in the cities. The problem is that the success of the big capitalists immiserates those whose “diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on” and they “sink gradually into the proletariat.” It is not that the capitalists deliberately set out to harm people. It is the system. The wonders of capitalism condemn everyone except a few to the alienation of the working class and a life of wage labor. System, to the founding Marxists, was domination.

Leaving aside the fact that the Marxian prophesies were wrong, that the Marxian labor theory of value — the notion that value inheres in the “socially necessary” labor to create a product — was exploded in the marginal revolution of 1870, and leaving aside the failed “immiseration” theory, which inflated the common-sense truth that every market revolution will hurt the current market leaders, squeeze out the small and inefficient, and condemn them to a reduced position in the world, but fails to understand that in the disappointed hopes of a few are the opportunities for a million, there is a bigger failure. Marx and Engels fail to understand the nature of social cooperation, and fail to grasp the larger picture, that modern human society is founded upon a greatness of spirit that can tolerate, even celebrate, the success of others.

Marx makes a scandal out of the fact that the laborer does not get 100 percent of the value of his labor input returned to him in wages. His employer aims to get more value out of the employee than he actually pays him. The difference, for Marx, is unpaid labor that the employer appropriates because he owns the means of production: in one word, exploitation. This is a vision of social cooperation stunning in its narrowness and viciousness. Of course the employer makes a profit on his employees, and sells the product of their labor at a profit. All human and social transactions must have this quality. It is what the economists and the business consultants call “win-win” situations. The laborer would rather work and get wages at the present job rather than his previous job; the employer would rather get a worker to perform work for him than try to do the work himself. So both parties “win.” The retailer sells a product at more than he paid for it; the consumer exchanges money for a product because she values the product, in a certain time and place, more than the money. All activity of all living things must have this quality. It is just that, in the money economy, as Marx and Engels eloquently insist, all sentimental veils have been torn aside, revealing the bare facts of the cash nexus. Aroused by this nakedness they determine to humiliate and hang around the neck of the provocative nymph of exchange a scarlet letter “E”. But what is this exploitation in reality? Liberated from the shame of nakedness, the Marxian surplus value is merely a mark-up. The retail store marks up the price of a product over the wholesale price because it must spend money on rent, wages, advertising and a host of other costs in order to sell products. At the end of the month, it must earn a profit, a net surplus over all costs, including interest payments, depreciation, and return of capital. Anything less than a net surplus means that, eventually, the store will go out of business and its workers will join the reserve army of the unemployed.

So what is the point of this scandal of exploitation? It is so obvious that it is sitting in plain sight. The scandal is necessary to justify the violent communist revolution that Marx prophesies and that the Educated Youth yearns to practice in its religion of expressive individualism. If the worker were only occasionally thrust into an exploitative situation that issued more from the character of an individual employer than employers in general then the argument for revolution would wither and die. There must be exploitation, “naked, shameless, direct, brutal”, else the heavens — or in the Marxist-Leninist case, history — would not cry out for justice. There must be gross injustice to justify the resort to force, the Marxist war on the bourgeoisie, and the glorious excitement of fighting for social justice.

Just as Marx needs his exploitation to justify his program of force, aggressive national leaders need their casus belli to enrage the people into support of aggressive conquest: otherwise no war. Committed political activists need their naked exploitation to enrage the rank and file: otherwise no revolution. Modern American progressives need their scandal of inequality: otherwise there is no need for the government to tax and redistribute income. There must be gross injustice; otherwise there is no need for force.

Even presidents of democratic republics need this argument to justify their redistributive agenda. In Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011, President Obama used the exploitation argument to set up a case for the taxes on the rich that would fund his increases in government education and research spending.

At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because there were people who thought massive inequality and exploitation of people was just the price you pay for progress.3

It’s lucky that President Obama was running for the nomination of the Democratic Party; the media would have made a dog’s dinner of such flagrant ignorance of 19th century history in any Republican candidate. In fact, the “new railroads and factories” were driving prices down and making it possible for farmers to grow grains in the middle of a continent and sell to a world-wide market; they were lowering the price of illuminating oil by 90 percent, and cutting the price of steel by two-thirds; they were making it possible for workers to trade work for leisure in reduced working hours. You may not like the machinations of an undercapitalized railroad baron like Jay Gould, a jumped-up kid from rural upstate New York; you may not like the monopolistic John D. Rockefeller, a jumped-up store clerk; you may not like the union-busting of Andrew Carnegie, a jumped-up telegraph messenger. But if you concede that their businesses actually benefited farmers and householders and consumers then you are half way to conceding that force may not really be needed to protect folks from “industrial giants.”

The same necessity pursues Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose leftist manifestos in the trilogy from Empire to Multitude to Commonwealth mean nothing if they cannot discover a need for militant political action. But how to do it? After all, since Marx’s day the average daily subsistence of workers in the western world has gone up from $3 per day to $100 per day or more.4 Even in developing countries like Vietnam, people are working in Nike factories and reporting their satisfaction at getting to work indoors5. Villagers in the highlands of Thailand get to transport grain from their fields using the ubiquitous 100ml motorcycle. How bad can things be? Bad enough for Hardt and Negri to conjure up a monstrous “biopower” that only a new democracy, founded upon a “multitude” to replace the working class and the masses of old, can slay.

In Empire Hardt and Negri propose the idea of “Empire,” the institutional combination of nation states and global capitalism, the “biopower” that rules the world. To maintain its legitimacy, they argue in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, this Empire must maintain a state of war to acquire the exceptional powers to maintain its hegemony and its right to dominate the subordinate nations of the world. But a growing “multitude,” groupings of singularities in the new world of work, is changing the world. These singularities, nodes of cultural and economic difference, are eroding the old working world of “habit” in mass-production factories and offices and transforming it into a culture of “performance” in creative occupations and productions of “affect,” thus becoming the dominant form of work. This new articulated multitude, a work force, obviously, of creative artists inspired by Charles Taylor’s culture of expressive individualism, is clearly calling forth new forms of socialization: political, economic, and cultural. So far, the analysis of Hardt and Negri is not so far from sociologist George Simmel and critics of modernity such as James C. Scott.

But Hardt and Negri cannot leave the multitude alone to work out its “life in common” in its own way, any more than socialists and Marxists a century ago were willing to let the working class find its own way from rural indigence in agricultural tenancy to urban competence in the new capitalist society. The leaders of Educated Youth do not want to understand the world; they want to change it. They need to find injustice, political, economic and moral, and they find it every time they identify a new protest movement that has arisen to fight an injustice, from feminists and gays in the western world to villagers in the developing world. What they want out of these protest movements is a revolution in the political sector, a renewal of the corrupted forms of democratic representation, a real democracy to reflect the new life “in common” that is coming into being as the “multitude” realizes itself. Their hearts throb to the beat of carnivalesque street protest, NGO activism, and the avenging hand of international justice, of politics, politics, politics.

If there truly is exploitation out there, naked, brutal, and direct, then force is the only remedy. But if the scope of exploitation is only limited to temporary setbacks within a general trend that has lifted every population from $3 per day indigence to $100 per day prosperity wherever and whenever capitalism has been tried, then the problem takes on a different aspect. Perhaps then the exploitation problem is not urgent enough, not scandalous enough to demand a political solution; perhaps force is not the answer.

Hardt and Negri almost seem to recognize that the revolution they seek does not quite require the remedy of revolutionary convulsion. Almost.

The institutions of democracy today must coincide with the communicative and collaborative networks that constantly produce and reproduce social life. Today, would it be possible for a revolution, aware of the violence of biopower and the structural forms of authority, to use the constitutional instruments of the republican tradition to destroy sovereignty and establish a democracy from below of free men and women?6

With “communicative and collaborative networks” Hardt and Negri almost seem to be channeling Habermas. Could the revolution achieve its aims through constitutional means, a lifeworld of communication and collaboration? Alas, no, for in the end they surrender to the lust for a moment of “Kairòs,” the “moment when a decision of action is made,”7 for the “extraordinary accumulations of grievances and reform proposals must at some point be transformed by a strong event, a radical insurrectionary demand.”8 They lust for the old thrill of the hunter-gatherer’s dawn raid, the 19th century street barricade, and the modern gangbanger’s drive-by shooting, a longing that is human, all too human, and all too primitive, if René Girard’s notion of religion as the cure for mimetic violence is to be believed.

Most people can do without the moment of “Kairòs” because they have been socialized out of their base instincts by culture and religion. Even educated young men, the spark of insurrection from Marx to ISIS, usually grow out of their lust for insurrection. As we have seen, the best Marxists realized back in the 1940s that there was a problem with revolution, and even with reason, for reason is a form of power and power wants to dominate. The whole point of social animals is to flourish by minimizing the need for power, for power is force, and force kills. It is also inefficient and expensive. Thus center-left thinkers have tried to imagine a world in which the modern still flourishes, but without the Kairòs of the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, let alone the farce of Paris in 1968. We have seen how the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas developed a Marxist response to this problem, by neutralizing the dominance of instrumental reason with the balm of the intersubjective lifeworld. Now we will look at the effort of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor to work out this problem.

Taylor tries to achieve a balance between the three modern secular religions, rationalism, Romanticism, and Marxism, within a framework of liberal Catholic Christianity. In Sources of the Self he investigates the nature and the origins of the Modern Moral Order, and in A Secular Age he attempts to build a vision of a modernity that could embrace a liberal Catholicism. He brings to his task a fluency in both German and French thought, a North American appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon culture, and an earnest love of his liberal Catholic faith.

We live, according to Taylor, in an “immanent frame,” a natural world understood in its own materialist terms rather than in reference to an ultimate transcendent reality, or God. But that leaves open the question of ultimate meaning and it deposits a feeling that something is missing.

The whole culture experiences cross pressures, between the draw of the narratives of closed immanence on one side, and the sense of their inadequacy on the other...

The uneasy sense is... that the reductive materialist account of human beings leaves no place for fullness.9

Taylor lists three objections to the materialist account implied in the immanent frame: creative spontaneity, the higher ethical/spiritual motives, and the aesthetic. Even secular people want a space for the moral guidance of their children.

Living in an immanent frame, we all, from secularists to believers, experience “cross pressures.” For instance, materialists that insist on facts, facts, facts, often respond to the aesthetic experience of poetry. Theists that submit themselves to divine authority also agree with the Modern Moral Order and its agenda of universal human rights and welfare. Romantics that react against the disciplined, rational ethos that seems to sacrifice something essential with regard to feelings and bodily existence still want their rights. Taylor proposes that we resolve our differences by combining two modern currents that most can agree on. First, we recognize the importance of ordinary human flourishing: forming families, owning property, doing it for the children. Second, we recognize that we all search for something higher and fuller. To balance these goals, we must define our moral aspirations in terms that do not “crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity... [and] fully respect ordinary human flourishing.”10 He proposes to balance the ideal with the practical, to recognize that secular utopianism belongs in the same bin as religious millennarianism: Plato’s Republic, medieval monasticism and the Bolshevik “new Soviet man;” all of them crush and mutilate ordinary human flourishing.

To realize this two-fold hope, Taylor imagines a two dimensional moral space. The horizontal dimension gives you a “point of resolution, the fair ‘award’”.11 The vertical dimension creates space to rise higher, to reestablish trust, “to overcome fear by offering oneself to it; responding with love and forgiveness, thereby tapping a source of goodness, and healing”12 and forgoing the satisfaction of moral victory in sacred violence, religious or secular. “[P]ower lies not in suppressing the madness of violent categorization, but in transfiguring it in the name of a new kind of common world.”13

There is broad agreement in modern culture about moral standards, he writes: “the demand for universal justice and beneficence... the claims of equality... freedom and self-rule... and... the avoidance of death and suffering.”14 But there is disagreement about moral sources that support the agreement. Taylor has argued that three moral sources compete for followers in the modern world: theism, “a naturalism of disengaged reason” extending to scientism, and Romanticism or its modernist successors. But most people resist one or more of the three.

Beyond the disagreement on moral sources is the conflict between disengaged reason and Romanticism/modernism, that instrumental reason empties life of meaning and, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, constitutes a source of domination. Then there is disagreement between the Romantics and the modernists on morality, whether an aesthetical life could be spontaneously moral, or whether “the highest spiritual ideals threaten to lay the most crushing burdens on mankind.”15

Taylor criticizes the critics as too narrow and blind to their own acceptance of the Modern Moral Order. Rationalist critics of Romanticism often forget how much they “seek ‘fulfillment’ and ‘expression.’” Opponents of technology often forget how it was disengaged reason that proposed freedom, individual rights, and the affirmation of ordinary life. Radical opponents and repudiators of modern life nevertheless appeal to a “universal freedom from domination.”16

Against all this blindness and “partisan narrowness” Taylor sees hope “implicit in Judaeo-Christian theism... and... its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human[.]”17 So perhaps the future can be reached in a sociable compromise between ordinary material flourishing and higher spiritual goals without the convulsion of Kairòs.

Charles Taylor provides us with an answer to the question of whether it is possible to transfigure moral witness into a life “in common” without the annealing fire of mimetic rivalry, the intolerable presence of the “other” and his ill-gotten gains, and its resolution in sacred violence. He echoes, in his liberal Catholicism, the neo-Marxist solution of Jürgen Habermas: the intersubjective lifeworld that balances and softens the hard edge of instrumental reason and its dominating systems. This, of course, has been the project of conservatives ever since Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France at the end of the 18th century. We conservatives even have a name for the world that is to come: civil society.

1Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, HarperOne, 1962, p. 158-159.

2Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 20.

3Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Economy in Osawatomie, Kansas,” December 6, 2011.

4Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity, University of Chicago, 2010, p. 1.

5Johan Norberg, “The Noble Feat of Nike,” The Spectator, June 7, 2003.

6Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude, Penguin, 2005, p.355.

7Ibid., p.357.

8Ibid., p.358.

9Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard UP, 2007, p. 595-596.

10Ibid., p. 640-641.

11Ibid., p. 706.

12Ibid., p. 708.

13Ibid., p. 710.

14Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard UP, 1989, p. 495.

15Ibid., p. 495.

16Ibid., p. 504.

17Ibid., p. 521.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at