For Ethical Politics by Andy Blunden, 2003
The political landscape of the twenty-first century is completely different from the terrain of the 19th and 20th centuries upon which the socialist and other progressive social movements worked out their political strategies. The spaces through which to build governments-in-waiting to conquer public political power and lead a social transformation, or for pressure groups and social movements to eradicate racism, sexism, poverty and injustice incrementally, or for social and political alliances to be built to achieve common objectives by protest and propaganda are becoming increasingly restricted. Few any longer believe that the most compelling injustices and forms of suffering of the modern world can be resolved by these means alone.
The US invasion of Iraq triggered an unprecedented protest movement with tens of millions of people participating in coordinated protest marches on every continent around the world. But George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard did not even suffer a significant negative impact on their poll ratings before the military action was over. The invasion was only the beginning of the Iraq story, but once Baghdad was taken, it became but one of a myriad of issues, and its ability to focus the attention of millions in coordinated action had passed.
Despite everything, the world clearly stands at a higher cultural level than ever before, suffering and injustice that has existed in the past is no longer necessary, and their continued existence is intolerable, - the opportunity must exist to address the manifold outrages that affront and alarm popular consciousness.
The division of the world into haves and have-nots is hardly new. Poverty (or wealth) continues to be located in far away lands or on the other side of the tracks - in ghettoes (or gated villages) that outsiders do not visit. But what is new is the interconnectedness of our lives: the poor work for the same employer, watch the same TV news and buy the same hamburgers as the average, professional or middle-class citizen of Europe or North America. This poverty (and wealth) now constitutes an outrage to popular consciousness in a way that it has never before.
The reverse is true also. The poor no longer, if they ever did, accept their lot, but labouring long hours in sweatshops producing stuff they desire but cannot afford, watching days of the lives of the better-off on TV, and their exclusion from the fruits of modernity is a constant outrage. Any wonder then, that the well-meaning better-off citizens of the “global village” live in gated villages, in a world which resembles not a sharing community, but rather a “global walled village.”
Whereas in the past class divisions could draw a degree of legitimacy from traditional conceptions of their inevitability, perceived bonds of mutual benefit, “respect for one’s betters,” and religious and moral homogeneity, people no longer accept the necessity of having a different station in life, just as people are more conscious than ever of how different is the lot of others and how fragile is their own.
The world market has drawn everyone into a single, universal life, but at the very same time has destroyed almost every ideal through which a shared life could be given meaning and stability.
Foremost among those ideal elements which bind society and mediate its conflicts are the states and their national governments. Few heads of state are today held in any degree of respect, let alone awe, and no-one sees their head of state as representing themselves. Most bureaucracies and police-military machines are, if not in actuality, then at least in public perception, corrupt and illegitimate, despite the fact that their ability to police and terrorise their citizens is greater than ever. This situation is accentuated by the fact that there is only one state, that of the U.S., which truly rules. Anti-monopoly laws evidently don’t apply to states. If the state is the “march of God in the world” (as Hegel says in the Philosophy of Right), then this is a very lonely God, because it represents almost no-one.
In characterising the geo-political situation, it should be remarked that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire was a welcome stimulus for the left to re-examine its ideas. However, the advent of the Bush Doctrine of world-domination in the wake of September 11 2001 exposed the illusion under which Negri and Hardt had formulated their analysis, in the wake of Gulf War I.
It would be difficult today to sustain a statement like:
“The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over.” [Empire, p. xiii]
Nevertheless, the observation that transnational institutions like the U.N. are acquiring a legitimacy which overshadows that of national governments retains some value:
“On the one hand, however, this process of legitimation [of the sovereignty of individual states] is effective only insofar as it transfers sovereign right to a real supranational center. It is not our intention here to criticise or lament the serious (and at times tragic) inadequacies of this process; indeed we are interested in the United Nations and the project of international order not as an end in itself, but rather as a real historical lever that pushed forward the transition toward a properly global system. It is precisely the inadequacies of the process, then, that make it effective.” [Empire, p. 5]
While the anti-Iraq War protests were always aimed against any invasion of Iraq, with or without UN sanction, it is clear that millions of people believed that the UN had a legitimacy to sanction acts of war which the US does not possess. However, it is not only premature to sound the funeral pipes for imperialism, the incapacity of the UN to exercise any restraint on the US military machine actually confirms and emphasises that imperialism is alive and well. But it is not a government which is the vehicle of this imperialism, but a state. I think the fundamental error of Negri and Hardt is to confuse the categories of state and government.
By state, I mean the institutions of violence, “bodies of armed men,” which are sustained by self-appointment of their leadership and informal connections with their social bases, despite being subject to appointment of chiefs and regulation by the legally constituted national government. A government on the other hand, is primarily the legislative and political entity subject in the Western democracies, to election by the country’s voters. The civil service and the judiciary are other entities with a greater or lesser degree of independence of the government, but sharing with the legislative body legally constituted authority within the borders of the nation.
The increasing volume of movement of people, goods, services, information and above all money, across national borders, has famously undermined the viability of national governments. National governments are close to losing any capacity to productively regulate and intervene in the lives of their citizens other than by steering a course on the tides and currents of the world market. The domain of legitimacy of a national government ends at its national borders. A state however, can operate across its borders, and infamously the US state operates without constraint in every corner of the world, within the borders of its allies as much as its enemies. It is in this sense a transnational institution already. Violence knows no borders. The idea that globalisation and transnational companies would undermine the possibility of world war is, I believe, no longer tenable.
The hope that the opening of a transnational space for political action would bypass the problems of national political life, just as the economy is bypassing national governments, has, I believe, thus been dashed.
These processes have been under way for more than a century, but the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the ubiquity of media and computer and information technology, the successive waves of export of productive capacity - from Britain and the U.S. to Japan to Korea to China ... and the movement of whole peoples into the cities and into the industrialised countries, all these factors combine to bring a new quality to the domination of the world market.
Negri and Hardt go so far as to talk of this mass movement of peoples around the world eroding the concept of “the people” of nation-states, and bringing into being a global “multitude”:
“Is it possible to imagine U.S. agriculture and service industries without Mexican migrant labour, or Arab oil without Palestinians and Pakistanis? Moreover, where would the great innovative sectors of immaterial production, from design to fashion, and from electronics to science in Europe, the United States, and Asia, be without the “illegal labor” of the great masses, mobilized toward the radiant horizons of capitalist wealth and freedom?” [Empire, p. 398]
These economic and social conditions have led to a political impasse for the left. The social crisis (poverty and inequality, war, refugees, fragmentation, ...), and an ethical crisis (multiculturalism, new technology, corporate fraud, ...) which must be recognised by everyone, have merged, making instrumental politics of the old kind increasingly ineffective. Appeals to values and ideals previously associated with progressive politics seem bound to fail; no social agent capable of offering political and moral leadership for radical social change is visible even on the horizon; consensus on any progressive political program of action seems to be hopelessly out of reach. Political and ethical progress can only be made through ethical politics, that is, through political practice which aims to bring about political change by challenging ethical and moral precepts underlying public life, rather than taking this ethical and moral substratum as a given, to which political activity can only adapt or respond.
The entire world has been unified under capital, but this very unification takes the form of infinite fragmentation, both cultural and functional.
This is the “geology” underlying the political landscape. A number of features of this underlying “geology” are worth mentioning.
Commodification has invaded working relationships, family relationships and even relationships of governance. This has led to the destruction of traditional roles and values, and the weakening of conceptions of duty and virtue. Commodification, which is the cause of the impoverishment of the majority of the world, still remains the main feature of most liberal solutions to the world crisis - from privatising employment services through to greenhouse gas coupons and the World Bank programs. It is also the source of the crisis for communitarianism of all kinds, the dominance of “material” values in a world where “non-material” values are what people are looking for.
The most significant cultural gains of the bourgeois epoch - from national liberation to women’s emancipation, social welfare and mobility, universal public education, the overcoming of religious and racial prejudice - ultimately originate from the combination of this process of commodification with the resistance offered to forms of exploitation, made obsolete by the progress of commodification. That is, by people asserting their equal value as human beings.
The basic thought underlying our approach to understanding the emergence of a universal, transnational moral consciousness is simply stated by Karl Marx in the first chapter of Capital:
“The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between person and person, is that of owners of commodities.” [Capital, Chapter One]
No-one proposes a return to pre-bourgeois traditional modes of trade or to the bureaucratic state-regulated modes of the twentieth century.
However, the commodity relation, that of customer to service-provider, which is everywhere supplanting the array of former traditional-hierarchical, master-servant and bureaucratic relationships, is ultimately restricted and mutually alienating.
The essential problem confronting all progressive struggles which aim to transcend the confines of bourgeois right is to conceive of the commodity relation, the relation of exchange of equivalents between free and equal agents, as an historically transitional form of human relationship standing midway between relations of traditional cooperation and hierarchical domination on one side, and genuinely voluntary and symmetrical collaboration on the other side.
This conception is so crucial to the way in which I am approaching the conception of ethical politics, let us examine a series of examples of this transition.
Formerly, women’s work (cooking, washing, child-rearing, etc.) was carried out within a marriage bond made “before God.” Although it took two hundred years to get around to it, the bourgeois revolution created the conditions under which women are breaking this bond, and food preparation, child-care, washing, cleaning, clothing, health care, leisure and so on are now mainly catered for by the market, more often than not (at least in Australia), with women doing the same work but as paid employees of a capitalist employer. “Wages for housework” was a strange slogan which never came to fruition, but nevertheless, women’s domestic slavery has increasingly been replaced by purchase and sale of this labour on the market, even though the major burden of couples’ housework and child-rearing and care of the aged and so on, still falls upon the woman.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union, after the initial utopian reforms of the Revolution had been destroyed, women enjoyed a high level of participation in the labour force, but still carried the entire burden of domestic labour when they got home. But generally-speaking, the progress of equal pay for equal work and the rate of female participation in the full-time workforce are measures of the commodification of women’s labour.
This commodification may be indirect as well as direct, as it includes the engagement of women in the food and whitegoods manufacturing industries as well as in the service industries. It began during the Second World War and has continued, without interruption, to increase ever since.
Now, there can be no doubt that the abolition of domestic slavery and its replacement by wage labour and equal pay is (would be) an unequivocal historical step forward. All other aspects and measures of women’s emancipation have their ultimate origin in this one. But the cost is the movement of all those social functions which used to be carried out by women within immediate human relations to being carried out impersonally and for profit, mediated by money and machines. The family is being destroyed.
The marriage contract used to be made “before God” and was ruthlessly enforced by Church and State alike. If a free, loving association between man and woman ever existed, it has been lost in the mists of time. Once divorce became easily available, separate bank accounts and pre-nuptial contracts were not far behind. In Australia, the average size of a household is now down to 2.6 with one-adult families outnumbering couple families with children.
Once domestic labour (including love and care) becomes a commodity, the traditional basis for family life is gone. Is the ideal of a loving family attainable? If so, how?
Once upon a time, people lived with risks and if you were crippled for example, either the state or your family accepted responsibility for caring for you and that was that. Now risk-taking has been commodified. All entities which by virtue of what they do, create what could conceivably be called a public risk must, at pain of accepting personal liability, buy public liability insurance. Citizens no longer accept responsibility for their own safety, and nor do families or the state accept responsibility for care; people sue. The result of this obsession with litigation is unquestionably a significant improvement in public health and safety as insurance companies enforce measures aimed at minimising claims on policy-holders. The cost is that anyone engaged in a public activity, such as voluntary and community associations, who do not charge for their services and generate a profit, cannot afford insurance and cannot operate. All kind of voluntary and community service are thereby commodified as a side-effect of the privatisation of public risk. What is the alternative, if big business is not to have exclusive rights to all public activity? Has the institution of private liability for public risk and its commodification in the form of public liability insurance meant that people care more about other people’s health and safety? People certainly take more trouble about it and talk about it more, but what has been gained if caring about other people’s welfare is something one can or cannot afford?
In the olden days, capitalists employed a relatively small number of managers and supervisors, and these people, on behalf of their employer, directed the work of the mass of employees. Usually this relation operated in a pyramid or chain called “line management,” from the top down. The relation between employer and employee is of course that of exchange of commodities: wage labour for wages. But what actually took place once the contract was made was something else: direction, control, domination and subordination. Increasingly over the past couple of decades this has changed; large corporations have been split up into relatively independent companies, all contributing profits to the same owner, but working independently; departments within a firm operate on one-line budgets, obliging them to operate as if they were independent companies; franchises like Coca-Cola and MacDonald’s sell the rights to retail their products, or supply products to their retail outlets, to people who are for all intents and purposes branch managers, but who see themselves and are legally-speaking independent proprietors; buildings are constructed by a vast web of contractors, sub-contractors, sub-sub-contractors and self-employed labourers, who see themselves as independent proprietors; clothing manufacturers purchase finished or partially finished products off out-workers or contractors employing outworkers or themselves out-sourcing labour; labour hire firms; service industries carrying out single functions of management such as paying salaries or maintaining buildings. This list can be extended indefinitely. I will return to this topic later on, in Part 2, but the point here is that throughout the world of work, the relation of direction of labour has been supplanted by the purchase and sale of services and products.
When Mark Latham, for instance, observes that:
“more than 95 per cent of the nation’s non-agricultural businesses employ fewer than 20 people [and] more than one half of Australia’s 781,000 small businesses are not actually engaged in employment. As an economic unit their optimum size lies on a scale of one. These are information workers, consultants, designers, tradesmen and service providers.” [Civilising Global Capital, p. 76]
he takes this at face value, as the blossoming of small business and the end of “mass production and mass consumption.” This is a huge misunderstanding. The transformation of employees and branch managers into subcontractors and franchisees may be very good for business efficiency but it above all represents the triumph of capital.
This is the form taken by the modernisation of industry. The cost is many-sided. On the one side there is intensified exploitation typified by the exploitation of outworkers; on the other side there is the shattering of collaboration amongst workers, replacing it by a struggle in which each participant in a project is struggling to outwit and manipulate the other. Companies often spend more time and energy supervising the shoddy work of their specialist service providers than they would have spent it they had continued to carry out the task in-house.
The burgeoning size of the whole “service sector” is a measure of the progress of commodification. All those forms of labour which are taken out of the realm of domestic servitude, industrial direction or community responsibility make up the products of the service sector. There is no kind of productive activity which is supplied as a service which was not or could not have been done by means of hierarchical or traditional division of labour. All that the service sector represents is the severing of the directing or traditional productive relationship and its replacement by that of purchase and sale.
The functions of national governments and municipal authorities used to be carried out according to what was seen to be the responsibilities accruing to the community at the given level. Governments ran criminal courts and the prisons into which its subjects were consigned; local councils collected rubbish and maintained roads. In general, what happens now is that these “representatives of the community” become glorified ticket collectors, and simply hand over to private companies the price of providing these services. Before long, the job of collecting ticket-money is out-sourced as well. The services themselves are then transformed from community responsibilities to nothing more than the means of making a profit. Governments, of course, retain their authority and legitimacy as representatives of the people, and are formally capable of enforcing legal constraints on the service providers, and hope in this way to avoid, for example, deleting transport and communication services to country areas, denying health services to people with serious illnesses and so on, while privatising public responsibilities. But the market will have its way. And the more governments reduce themselves to impotence simply by virtue of the fact that they become increasingly small players in the market place, the more they find that they cannot afford to carry out community responsibilities.
The result of this atrophy of communal power is the atrophy of communal feeling and consciousness.
In the former situation, doctors were responsible for maintaining the health of their charges. A lazy doctor may pay insufficient attention to her patients, but the less people complain of ill-health, the better is the life of the doctor. With a privatised health system, the medical profession are actually engaged in promoting ill-health, in generating demand for cosmetic surgery and imagined diseases, in generating demand for life-threatening drugs. Health spending increases as a result of privatisation, while well-being declines. A vast array of medical technology is concentrated on curing indigestion while the poor die of curable diseases.
Corporatism, by casting the student as a “customer” purchasing knowledge and a ticket to a job from the academy, has broken down the hierarchical and bureaucratic teacher-centred and elitist notions of learning. But the “customer focus” notions which have replaced them are a nonsense hardly worthy of critique. In the traditional relation of student to teacher, the teacher is in charge; the teacher knows what the student needs to do in order to learn and instructs them accordingly and then decides whether or not they have achieved the standard required to qualify. Under corporatism, the student becomes the customer and the teacher the service provider. The customer is always right, and tells the teacher what they need to have explained and be told about, demands to be shown how to write their essays, and told which are the right answers to the exam questions so as to ensure that they get the degree they have, after all, paid for. The best academics however, respond not with a call for a return to the former hierarchical teacher-centred relationship, but rather with a move forward to collaborative learning. It is on this notion of collaboration which I rely in critique of the commodity relationship.
When we are talking about the intensive and extensive growth of the world market, we are talking about a transformation of person-to-person relationships, a transformation which penetrates into the most private and immediate domains of human life. In each of the above examples, it is clear enough how commodification has been a necessary, progressive step forward from the foregoing traditional, hierarchical relationship. But there is a cost. And in each case it is possible to imagine how the relation of customer to service provider can in turn be overcome with a deeper, more productive, more human collaborative relationship.
See how the young Marx described the relationship of exchange of private labour in 1844:
“... your needs constitute the tie which makes you dependent on me, because they put you in a position of dependence on my product. ... The intention of plundering, of deception, is necessarily present in the background, for since our exchange is a selfish one, on your side as on mine, and since the selfishness of each seeks to get the better of that of the other, we necessarily seek to deceive each other. ... , therefore, you have become for yourself a means, an instrument of your object, of which your desire is the servant, ...” [Comment on James Mill, 1844]
Any real, complete act of production in the modern world involves different trades working together. With each specialism constituted as a separate industry, the co-workers are effectively independent economic agents selling their services. So what appears to be, and needs to be a collaboration, is in fact a market place in which each of the players is swindling the others.
But what concerns us here is not economic efficiency but ethical life.
Sometime between 1759 when Adam Smith wrote The Theory of the Moral Sentiments and 1776 when he wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, ethics and economics parted company; economics was the ethics of people whose life was guided by the Invisible Hand. The transformation in person-to-person relations which we have described in terms of the commodity relation is a transformation in ethics.
The foundation of bourgeois society is inscribed in the Gospels:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Luke 6:31.
This dictum, the so-called Golden Rule, was of course only ever intended to apply in the relation between equals, and was never intended to deter bosses from issuing commands to employees, husbands from beating their wives or white men from murdering Blacks. But exactly parallel to the spread of the commodity relation, the concept of universality over which the principle of equality is applicable has expanded and Luke 6:31 has risen in its universal significance.
Immanuel Kant was concerned that the dicta of his Lutheran religion could not be accepted on the basis of faith alone, and set out to rediscover his faith on the basis of Reason. Reason led him to the Principle of Universalisability:
“Act according to a maxim which can be adopted at the same time as a universal law” [Metaphysics of Morals, Kant 1785]
and from here he was able to formulate his version of the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative:
“Always treat another person as an end and never as a mere means.” [Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, Kant 1780]
But the relation of exchange of commodities at their value, as Marx put in 1844, is one in which each uses the other as a means to their own end. This relation is by definition mutual (symmetrical), but it is a relationship of mutual instrumentalism, of mutual manipulation, and so still falls far short of a genuinely human relationship.
The other defect in the Golden Rule is that it presumes that you are able and entitled to have recourse to (your own) Reason to decide how another person would be treated. By the 1980s, the illegitimacy of this presumption had become widely recognised, and in 1984, Jürgen Habermas published his Theory of Communicative Action, and corrected the Golden Rule in these terms:
“only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse” [Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Habermas 1992].
Agnes Heller finds this formulation too vague, and in her 1986 Beyond Justice expressed it this way:
“I do unto you what I expect you to do unto me. What I do unto you and what you do unto me should be decided by you and me” [Beyond Justice, p. 253, Heller 1986]
This is coming a little closer to what I mean by a “genuinely human relationship,” but Heller still maintains the conception of independent agents who do this or that to each other, and thus remains entirely within the ambit of contracts between equal economic agents. The real issue is not what I do to you and what you do to me, but rather what we do together. Consequently, I formulate the critique of commodity exchange in terms of the ethical maxim:
“What we do, is decided by you and me.”
Looking at this from a slightly different angle, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, the manager and the therapist are the archetypal characters of modern society, whose very essence is to “treat people as a means”:
“The manager represents in his character the obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations: the therapist represents the same obliteration in the sphere of personal life. The manager treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique, with effectiveness ... Neither manager nor therapist, in their roles as manager and therapist, do or are able to engage in moral debate. They are seen by themselves and by those who see them with the same eyes as their own, as uncontested figures, who purport to restrict themselves to the realms in which rational agreement is possible - that is, of course from their point of view to the realm of fact, the realm of means, the realm of measurable effectiveness.” [After Virtue, p. 30, MacIntyre 1981]
To summarise, the exchange of commodities at their value is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, and constitutes the very definition of fairness in Western society, of justice in fact. But this tradition, reaching its consummation in the process of commodification, both presupposes and recreates the independent and antagonistic relation between individuals, even though they be free and equal. The resulting crisis can only be overcome by an ethical revolution.
We have a triad of three stages in the development of cooperation:
In the first, hierarchical traditional or bureaucratic relationship, you have the power, you know what is best for me and how it should be done, and you direct me;
The second relationship is a contract between free and equal commodity-owners, each with their own ends; you use me for your end and I use you for my end, and our activity is mediated and controlled by the market;
In the third relationship we are free and equal collaborators; our respective roles are neither predetermined nor simply autonomous, but each subjects the other to critique; we have a common end and we decide together what we should do.
The third relationship is not an invention, a fantasy, a utopia. It is found wherever there is genuine collaboration and teamwork, a genuine loving relationship, any genuine human relationship in which each treats the other as an end in themselves, and not merely a means.
There is another triad which will help to clarify our point here, and that is the Hegelian triad of Family, Civil society and State, which constitutes what Hegel called Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit). The Family is the domain of immediate human relationships, founded on kinship, sharing and a traditional division of labour. The State is the public domain where individuals act altruistically on behalf of the community and exercise the domination vested in their office. In ancient society, state and family were identified. In neither domain was there any scope for the individual pursuit of self-interest.
Modernity was characterised, according to Hegel, by the emergence of civil society, the “animal kingdom of the Spirit.” For centuries since a civil society first inserted itself between the family on the one hand and political life and statecraft on the other, these two traditional domains remained important sites for the production and defence of human values and the satisfaction of human needs, needs which could not be sustained by the economy, regulation and civil society generally. The destruction of the family and the attenuation of the role played by the state can be welcomed insofar as these have always been the sites of oppression, exploitation and reaction. But even though the displacement of values from the domestic and political sphere into economics has been effective in promoting and meeting individual human needs, this has proven to be largely illusory because the cost in community and ethical life undermines what has been achieved. There is no escape from or point of support against those forces which dominate the world economy.
Intellectual property in science, loss of public space, fast food which causes obesity, cheque-book journalism are among the growing array of affronts to popular moral consciousness to which commodification has given rise.
Commodification drives the endless elaboration of the division of labour. The resulting destruction of the integrity and coherence of humanity at the individual level, displacing its integration to the level of the world market, is not matched by cultural and political norms and universally recognised icons to match the ever-growing power of the market. In itself, division of labour is hardly a social ill. On the contrary. It is simply that the loss of coherence, immediacy and self-sufficiency which results from the division of labour has to be compensated by engagement at a higher social level if it is not simply to lead to loss of community and ultimately of self-determination.
There is no joy in realising oneself as part of a larger whole, if that larger whole (the world market) has no recognisable human identity nor (for many) gives any recognition in return.
Ethical politics springs from the fact that this same ethical problem confronts us in every domain of our lives from the most intimate and personal to the global-political.
This author believes that the commodity relation is the essential question, but there are other aspects of the modern world which are also significant.
The terrorism which is currently the subject of public hysteria is but the latest demon to occupy the public space of post-modernity, alongside y2k, “muggers,” serial rapists, paedophiles, carbon monoxide, killer bees, AIDS and SARS. Fear and uncertainty also characterises economic fortunes which are computed three months in arrears with the only consensus about what may happen next being that we don’t know; new viruses, food allergies, forms of pollution and environmental catastrophes join the prospect of intercontinental nuclear war as images of Armageddon.
Ulrich Beck was the first to describe this phenomenon in his 1986 book, The Risk Society. Towards a New Modernity. Beck named a number of new cultural aspects of what he called “reflexive modernity” but he seems to agree that this period is more risk prone than the foregoing period of “industrial society.” But life was surely more unpredictable and prone to catastrophe in earlier days; the increase in life-expectancy would seem to be an objective basis for believing that contemporary risk-hysteria is more of a social construct than something having an objective basis. An historical analysis of risk is needed to resolve this question, and this author is not able to take a firm position here.
Beck holds that the development of science and technology has created a situation where people’s actions have broad, risk-laden impact on the lives of people far away from them. He also points out that the development of science has made systematic scepticism a normal attitude among the community at large. Reflexive modernity gives people choices that were formerly unavailable, so that people regard their own biographies as products of choice, rather than happenings. For my part, Beck is closer to an appropriate approach to “risk society” here. It arises as the negative aspect of the opening up of a choice.
When Auguste Comte wrote Course in Positive Philosophy in 1832, he was able to treat human history as an objective, law-governed process, like the processes studied by the natural sciences. But what happens when the actors of history are able to read what the social scientists are writing? Auguste Blanqui responded to Comte:
“Without doubt, all things are interconnected and enmeshed with one another. Every second follows according the second before. But the gears of human things are not fatalistic like that of the natural universe. They are modifiable at every moment.” [Against Positivism, 1869]
And Marx made the same point against Hegel and today’s activists the same point against the gurus of economic science. It is not so much the dangers which plague the modern world, but the consciousness of its citizens that disasters are both created and avoidable, that every social policy, every new technology brings with it unknown, unpredictable consequences. The “reflexive citizens of modernity” are all too able to imagine the disasters which threaten their tranquillity and their reflexive social action generates the complexity which ensures that economic and social processes are formally unpredictable.
This systematic scepticism which Beck identified, this uncertainty, is one of the main drivers for ethical politics. Instrumental politics is impossible when you don’t know where the world is going; no-one today believes the politician who claims to have the “sure solution,” but it is still possible to “do the right thing.”
By “instrumental politics” I mean that political policy or argument which is put forward, not for its own sake, for its own inherent virtue, but in order to bring about certain consequences. In general, ethical politics is the opposite and complement of instrumental politics; it proposes and argues according to what is inherently right, relatively irrespective of consequences.
For example, the U.S. administration argued in favour of their right to change the regime in Iraq on the basis that, despite the loss of civilian life, a regime change would bring about a net increase in the sum of human happiness. Regrettably, the main line of argument against the invasion relied on the same utilitarian ethics, but argued instead that the consequences of the invasion would cause more not less suffering and unhappiness than it cured. This may be true, but surely the issue is that no nation has the right to decide what is best for another nation? and that the invasion was unjust irrespective of the consequences, as horrendous as they are. The dominant utilitarian ethics gives to anyone who is powerful enough, the right to enforce their view about what is best on to the rest of the world.
The systematic scepticism which Beck has shown to be part of reflexive modernity, makes instrumental politics increasingly unviable. This connects up with the debate in ethics, which has been going on for a couple of decades, between consequentialism and “deontologism.” Of course, there must always be an element of consequentialism in human action, but commodification and the complexity of modern life, has undermined the traditional notions which have underpinned the very notions of virtue and duty, without which the modern world threatens to descend into barbarism.
Arguing for and doing unpleasant and unethical things in order to bring about a pay-off later on is less and less convincing. Closing down industries to fight unemployment, reducing welfare payments in order to solve poverty, reducing tariffs in order to stimulate domestic industry, and so on, and so on. No-one believes in the “sciences” on which these prescriptions rely.
Instead of arguing along the lines of instrumental politics to do one or another questionable thing because of its good consequences, ethical politics addresses itself directly to what should be done.
The ease with which scapegoating and scaremongering can muddy the political waters poses one of the most difficult challenges to progressive politics. People prefer the fear of a named enemy to relieve the anxiety of maladies whose cause is indeterminate. It is far easier to imagine a global catastrophe than a satisfactory solution to the world’s problems.
Ethical politics addresses the problems of fear and uncertainty because it addresses itself to the values of security and equity rather than being driven by the politics of fear and insecurity and the dilemmas of consequentialism.
Terms like “duty,” “virtue,” “good,” “ethics,” “morals” are foreign to the discourse in many parts of the Left, especially the socialist left, at least until recent times. This is a deplorable situation. And the use and misuse of the terminology of ethical discourse is hardly better in the mainstream.
For reasons best known to himself, Karl Marx consistently rejected the need for a moral or ethical theory, and as a result made it very easy for his followers, who have had such an impact on the history of the twentieth century, to follow him in refusing ethical and moral discourse. I agree with George Brenkert, Norman Geras and others who hold that while Marx did not have an ethical theory, and explicitly rejected the need for one, he nonetheless throughout his life expressed consistent ethical judgments integrally connected to his so-called “scientific” work, and there is absolutely no basis for us to follow Marx in this denial of ethical discourse. Indeed, socialism is conceivable only as an ethical project, and is actually quite senseless as a simply “scientific” project.
In brief, virtue is what you should be while duty is what you should do. Alisdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue is the definitive, though somewhat pessimistic, work on virtue. Let us outline his core argument:
“A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” [After Virtue, p.178 Duckworth edition]
Internal goods, such as the joy derived from achieving a level of skill in chess, as opposed to the reward given for winning a chess competition. Practice, e.g., painting, physics, is never just a set of technical skills; its goals are sustained and transmuted through the history of the practice, so engagement in a practice always involved a relationship with those who have practised it in the past, of playing a role in a larger story.
“no practices can survive for any length of time unsustained by institutions. Indeed so intimate is the relationship of practices to institutions - and consequently of the goods external to the goods internal to the practices in question - that institutions and practices characteristically form a single causal order in which the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution. In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions.” [After Virtue, p. 181]
The implications for the fate of virtue in a society with such a highly developed, commodified functional division of labour, is clear enough. The whole idea of virtue has been largely narrowed to that of excellence, and excellence is of course handsomely rewarded.
Outlining the origins of concepts of virtue in the narrative mythology of ancient societies, and the way, not only virtue, but the very “meaning of life” is tied up with a person’s life-story, and the role they play in a larger story, MacIntyre helps us understand the depth of the moral crisis this corruption of virtue engenders in modern society:
“In what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask ‘What is the good for me?’ is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. To ask ‘what is the good for men?’ is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common. But now it is important to emphasise that it is the systematic asking of these two questions and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word which provide the moral life with its unity. The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest. Quests sometimes fail, are frustrated, abandoned or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest. A quest for what? ...” [After Virtue, p. 203]
Thus the widespread feeling of anomie and what Anthony Giddens calls “ontological insecurity” thus become eminently comprehensible.
“The virtues are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good. The catalogue of the virtues will therefore include the virtues required to sustain the kind of households and the kind of political communities in which men and women can seek for the good together and the virtues necessary for philosophical enquiry about the character of the good. We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.” [After Virtue, p. 204]
MacIntyre’s conclusions must necessarily be very pessimistic, and we do not go along with this pessimism.
“... the kind of work done by the vast majority of the inhabitants of the modern world cannot be understood in terms of the nature of a practice with goods internal to itself, and for very good reason. One of the key moments in the creation of modernity occurs when production moves outside the household. So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household in turn sustains. As, and to the extent that, work moves outside the household and of those wider forms of community which the household and is put to the service of impersonal capital, the realm of work tends to become separated from everything but the service of biological survival and the reproduction of the labour force, on the one hand, and that of institutional acquisitiveness, on the other.” [After Virtue, p. 211]
Since there can be no question of returning production to the confines of the household, we must either accept MacIntyre’s characterisation of a future “after virtue,” or we must commit ourselves to an ethical-political project which can restore some meaning to social life.
The dominance of liberal over communitarian social values, multiculturalism, commodification and the destruction of tradition and the relativism left in the wake of identity politics, have created a situation where it is “politically incorrect” to suggest that there could exist an objective or socially meaningful definition of virtue beyond the recognition of excellence. Every desire is valued and rewarded solely according to the cost of gratifying it.
Just as “virtue” is a word associated by many on the left with conservatism and conformity, “duty” conjures up images of militarism and right-wing traditionalism. But the left and the workers’ and other progressive movements are sustained by consensus about what one should do just as much as other institutions of a more formal and established character. Trade unionists know that they should honour picket lines, environmentalists that they should recycle their own refuse and all political activists that they have a duty to speak out when wrong is done. No institution, social movement or society could exist without a wide range of “thou shalts,” whether they be inscribed in laws or sustained by informal social pressure. All systems of duty are sustained, at least at their boundaries, by some system of reward and punishment. Modern society has in fact extended this system of rewards and punishment to the extent that it finds itself unable to rely on morality. Morality simply refers to the internalisation of duty, the capacity of people to know what is right and to choose to do what is right without compulsion. That many on the left still associate the word “morality” with conformity to sexual mores is regrettable.
The culture of libertarian autonomy allows that the community may place bounds on what you may do - indeed laws regulating behaviour continue to proliferate - but to enquire into what you should be, into what you should desire to do, is an unwarranted intrusion into personal space tantamount to “thought police.” And yet, the translation of values into the form of money means that values are depersonalised. By means of payment, the community bestows value on anything which is sufficiently desired.
This withdrawal of the power of moral judgment before the dynamics of the market is welcome insofar as it constitutes the decline of conservative moralism, but the unchecked rule of the market represents little more than a descent into barbarism.
The tabloid papers, with journalists like Andrew Bolt, who whip up hatred and spread lies for no better reason than to sell a couple of hundred more copies of their paper, are exemplars of the negative effects of this tendency. Fine journalists still exist in abundance but it is rare that they enjoy pride of place in the mass circulation media.
Despite the proliferation of laws and regulations, an ethics of duty cannot ultimately provide the basis for society-wide integration. By “ethics of duty” is meant an ethical theory or policy centred on the prescription of what one should and shouldn’t do, while an “ethics of virtue” is an ethical theory or program which focuses on what it means to be a “good person,” of fostering the good person. An ethics of virtue looks at the conditions which lead people to desire to do this or that in the first place, rather than simply prescribing what desires may or may not be acted upon. In modern times, especially under the influence of utilitarianism, ethics has been predominantly one of duty. Concepts of virtue continue, but are largely marginalised.
Over and above this, neo-liberalism now marginalises even an ethics of duty in favour of an exclusive focus on the ethics of right. As a result, negative freedom is prioritised over positive freedom, what you are allowed to do, over what you are able to do.
It is rightly said that good intentions pave the way to hell, and a fundamentalist hell at that. An ethical policy based exclusively upon an ethics of virtue as opposed to an ethics of duty is just as unviable as an ethics of duty alone. But nowadays, any kind of ethics of virtue seems to be excluded, because of the fact that the doctrine of individual autonomy makes such a suggestion “politically incorrect.” [I use this term “politically incorrect” to indicate that in a given political environment certain actions or speech acts are excluded. The term, originally coined by the left by way of self-mockery, has been largely co-opted by the right to contest the derogation of the expression of certain of their own views, but I continue to use it because it aptly points to the problematic character of the exclusion of certain speech acts in the current environment.]
The complexity of postmodern society is such that it is inconceivable that a better world can be approached by the further elaboration of duty, of laws and regulations, outside the fostering of social values which ensure that what people desire to do is socially beneficial, or at least not harmful. It is undeniable that the elaboration of rights, as opposed to duties or virtues, is the fundamental level of ethical life, but it is equally inconceivable that a good life can be reached by rights alone. But these questions cannot be answered as isolated theoretical exercises: how can people live a good life? That is the question.
“Education not regulation” is the well-known aphorism which expresses the same basic thought on this matter, except that it is not just a question of people learning about what may be the consequences of their actions, but of creating conditions where their desires orient others as well as themselves to socially productive, or at least not harmful, activity. The same idea is expressed in the thesis that rhinoceros poaching cannot be eradicated by park rangers so long as some people are willing to pay high prices for rhino-horn while others are too poor to worry about the consequences. Or that bullying in schools and workplaces cannot be eradicated by penalties but only by “changing the culture.”
Ethical politics seeks to directly address the underlying causes of political problems, rather than playing a game in which the cards are stacked against us.
In popular discourse, “ethics” has been reduced to consideration of arcane problems of reproductive technology or the niceties of corporate behaviour. Members of Parliament get a “conscience vote” over embryo stem-cell research, but not about state support for gambling, launching a war or deciding the level of foreign aid. No-one believes the “values” inscribed in the corporate mission statement because everyone knows that the profit motive is the only real ethic known to corporate capitalism. Who is responsible for corporate behaviour? Not the base employees, who must do as they are told or be sacked, nor the managers whose obligation is to shareholders who in turn, if they have any say at all, are governed by “economic forces.”
All the professions - journalists, politicians, the clergy, entrepreneurs - are increasingly perceived as untrustworthy; there is no trust in authority and disbelief in public information is widespread.
Only hard cash commands trust.
Accountability, one of the watchwords of “really existing democracy,” only serves to emphasise the deception endemic in postmodern society. Politicians must lie when almost every word they utter is recorded and broadcast to millions. How can the political and social elite behave ethically? Only by stepping totally outside their assigned roles, that is to say, outside the ethos of their chosen profession. It is hardly tenable that politicians were more honest in the times when “snake oil salesman” was a real occupation rather than a metaphor. Modernity has set standards but is unable to fulfil them.
The replacement of locality and kin by the virtual community of broadcast humbug and internet noise opens possibilities which cannot be fulfilled while destroying what can no longer be maintained. Postmodern society, which has developed the world division of labour to undreamt of degrees, lacks any spiritual cement. People cry out for an ethical life but modern commercial, multicultural life can offer no standard for an ethical life - it must be constructed anew. Or pulled from the Pandora’s box of ancient history.
With politics conducted with 24-hour media coverage and scientific opinion measurement by professional spin-doctors, voters are presented with tweedle-dum tweedle-dee choices, both of which lack any vision more profound than that of a bean counter. Only minor parties which are neither in-between or extremes, but offer an ethical alternative, can make any impact on the media-massaged electoral swell.
The success of the Victorian Greens in the November 30 2002 election exemplified this trend; their policy platform was limited and gave minimal prominence to environmental issues; they attracted support almost exclusively on the basis of a clear stand for social justice.
All the mainstream political parties, but the social-democratic parties above all, are inextricably bound up and even merge with the state and its bureaucracy. They no longer represent social bases outside the state, but are rightly perceived as being simply wings of the “political class.” (Of those Labor MPs today who have ever earned a living outside of the electoral party industry, most were lawyers.)
In countries where there are a large number of parties in the parliamentary arena, rather than the two-party system, the situation is of course different, but the dynamic is essentially the same: mainstream vote-chasing is dominated by populism, deceit and the logic of mass-media communication which leaves little real choice in the party of government.
Cultural politics therefore becomes increasingly a more significant avenue for political activity.
In the absence of a credible icon of national and social cohesion, pop-culture is the foremost vehicle for universality, but pop-culture is a corporate product, magnifying and reflecting itself in a profitable spiral. Ever since youth cultures began to see themselves as a vehicle for social change in the 1950s, every new fad has made the passage from nihilism to commodity in rapid progression, despite every effort by the artists involved to resist this passage. Style can never be genuinely subversive. Life-style criticism which resists commodification is marginalised. Cultural politics has to orient itself towards daily, mainstream life, rather than niche marketing or cult-building. Ethical politics is, in a sense, a sub-species of cultural politics, but one which takes a critical position in relation to every relationship and activity in mainstream working, political and social life.
Aspirational politics has been the subject of much attention. A recent US survey found that 39% of American voters believed that they were in the top 1% of income earners already, or that they would be eventually. This observation serves to emphasise some of the difficulties facing the politics of redistribution. Ethical politics addresses itself directly to aspirations, rather than choosing between manipulating aspirations or crushing them.
Public (communal) space is either degraded or privatised, while private (domestic) space is saturated by public (corporate) content.
The private space of immediate human relationship in the family home, may be reviled as the historic site of the oppression of women, abuse of children and so on, but it is only within such spaces that the cultured, critical human being, able to stand against the stream of public life, can be raised. This space is now saturated by television, advertising, marketing and bureaucratic intrusion. The TV set may take more of a role in raising the kids than their working parents.
On the other hand, the public spaces - the streets where kids would learn that even strangers take a modicum of responsibility for you, and become socialised in modernity, the market places, public schools, universities and meeting halls, in which the independent-minded individual has a forum in which to give voice to dissenting views and find a hearing, are also disappearing as they become private property or are eroded by the intrusion of the market, crime or simple decay.
This reciprocal invasion of public and private space amplifies the feeling of powerlessness which grips everyone. In a world where anything is possible nothing can ever be achieved. But the erosion of the boundary between public and private life also opens up the opportunity for ethical politics.
The advent of the New World Order with the collapse of the USSR has accelerated all the processes of modernity, terminating the compromises of the post World War Two period, which had retarded them. This has led immediately to the perceived impossibility and undesirability of the social-democratic project, the welfare-public enterprise state, etc.
Conditions still vary widely from country to country. However, the widespread bankruptcy of social-democracy and the welfare state is not just an ideological construct, it is real. The Blair-Giddens critique of welfare is as valid as it is reactionary; welfare is dependency.
The welfare state can redistribute consumer goods, but it cannot cure alienation, it can prevent starvation, but not powerlessness. The fact that the welfare state retains legitimacy in some European countries and elsewhere, and its catastrophic decline is so far limited to the English-speaking countries and countries under the whip of the World Bank, is, in my view, no cause for comfort. The idea that there are “different models of capitalism,” and that Scandinavia and Western Europe can withstand the assault on the welfare state, is wishful thinking. The more aggressive, laissez-faire “reforms” of welfare in Britain, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand only express the essential logic of capitalist development, and will quite inevitably manifest themselves in those countries with a deeper commitment to social welfare, even if the decline takes a different form and is extended over a longer period of time.
Nothing in this article should be taken to in any way minimise the centrality of the problem of poverty for all progressive politics. On the contrary. The point is only that instrumental politics in general, has failed to resolve this problem, and in particular, the program of using a governmental bureaucracy to redistribute consumer goods can never succeed in redistributing power beyond the ground level task of ensuring access to the primary goods necessary for any participation in public life. The reflex defence of state-ownership as “public” as against private has outlasted its usefulness.
The shopping mall which is owned by a retail giant is no more alien to the community than the dilapidated local council-run high street, the government unemployment department no more helpful or sympathetic to its unemployed clients than the staff at a private placement agency. Islands of public enterprise such as the ABC exist, staunchly defended in “holding operations,” protected from the diktat of the market by public ownership, but nationalisation cannot inspire us with the prospect of returning entities to “public” control when government itself is alien.
The social democratic project depends on the thesis that state-owned public property is a viable transitional form towards the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, of capitalism, or at least a viable moderation of its defects. This conception depends on two theses: (i) that the state can be an effective means for the community to control the conditions of their own lives, and (ii) that individuals recognise themselves as members of the community and see the state as an extension and representative of them as members of the community. Neither thesis applies.
As a practical project for addressing economic crisis and inequality, workers’ control, employee participation and its variants are a dead end, but nevertheless, despite everything, an employee is far more likely and able to identify with their own firm, even though it be the private property of someone else, in which they have negligible say in running, than to identify with a government for which they have one vote every 3 or 4 years.
On reflection, it is hardly surprising that an implementation of “democracy” which was designed for property-owners and after the emergence of the organised working class on to the political arena, adapted as a façade, does not make for a viable instrument of proletarian participatory democracy.
In any case, a century of social democracy has left people more alienated and disempowered and the gap between rich and poor wider than ever, despite the significant social reforms that have been achieved.
Nevertheless, even in countries most under the heel of neo-liberal economic policy, there exist public (i.e., government or municipal) organisations - schools, radio stations, hospitals, etc. - which despite everything are still non-market and nominally community property, and which are sustained by the communitarian or critical ethos of their employees, and which continue to provide latitude for resisting neo-liberalism in a hundred ways. Defence of these oases is of course vital. But there cannot be an illusion that such public spaces can be strategically expanded to revitalise social democracy.
It is not really a question of whether workers’ control is possible but that the right of capital to dictate ought to be contested. The young activists of the anti-corporate movement are contesting the right of capital to subsume the world in its net, but rarely does workers’ control figure in their programs for large corporations.
The move by the anti-WTO protests to take the state out of centre-stage and turn their fire upon the corporations makes a great deal of sense, but it still suffers largely from the defect that it approaches the corporations in the capacity of consumers and as objects of corporate productive activity, that is, from the outside. There are significant exceptions from this tendency, such as the organising drive supported by youthful employees of MacDonalds and the labour activists who have piggy-backed on to the anti-corporate protests to organise sweatshop workers exploited by high profile “brands.” But it is the exception rather than the rule, that the anti-corporate actions originate among producers rather than consumers. By and large, the anti-corporate movement throws bricks, from the outside, at the some of the greatest achievements of modernity, which is after all what these giant corporations are.
The point is to reconquer control of productive life rather than alienate it.
Among the most perverse usages of the English language that have come out of academia must be the terms “human capital” and “social capital.”
Theodore Schulz was awarded a Nobel prize for his discovery of “human capital” and although it was Jane Jaobs who coined the term “social capital” in 1961, it is James Coleman and Robert Putnam who are known as the main contemporary theorists of “social capital.” Social democrats like Anthony Giddens and Mark Latham are enthusiastic supporters of this new economic category as a platform for the reform of capitalism.
Building on Hegel’s definition of property as the fundamental form of recognition in modern society, Karl Marx showed a long time ago that “capital” was a social relation. Since the 1960s at least, I would have thought it was widely accepted by social theorists of all kinds, that the phenomena of social life, capital included, are social constructs. But it took these geniuses to discover that, on the contrary, social relations are forms of capital. “Human capital” and “social capital” are about as useful for dealing with the antagonism of capital towards all those social bonds which still lie outside its control, as the words “infidel” and “heathen” are useful for resolving the conflict between rival religious believers.
For your average speculator, economic theorist or entrepreneur, the bonds of general social collaboration are after all just an informal, disorganised kind of business, and amenable to the economic theory which has been so successful in understanding the economy. Just as farmers need to care for the soil, capitalists need to care for social capital, otherwise profits will dry up. Thus runs the advice of social democracy to their friends in the business world.
The theorists of “social capital” identify two kinds of social capital: vertical capital and horizontal capital. Vertical capital is understood as what I have referred to as the relation of direction which is characteristic of traditional hierarchies, and line management within businesses, and the “patron/client” relation of bureaucracies. We have observed that it is these relations which are declining with the expansion of commodification. That is to say, the form of domination which is fundamental to capitalism is not “vertical capital” at all, but fair exchange, symmetrical “horizontal” relations. Fair exchange is of course invariably exploitative when one of the parties to the contract is much better endowed than the other, but it remains “fair exchange” nonetheless. The rush to dismantle the bureaucratic, hierarchical apparatus of state control and dependency in favour of utilising “horizontal social capital” is therefore very much to be welcomed by big business.
According to Mark Latham however:
“... horizontal capital, unlike most things of value in a capitalist society, cannot be brought into the orbit of property rights” [Civilising Global Capital, Latham 1998]
You’ve got to be joking! Capitalism had its beginnings precisely by subsuming under itself productive collaboration that already existed in society; though the expansion of capital has centred on the transformation of those productive processes which have been subsumed, the process of subsumption continues apace. Capital has after all always employed living, creative, socialised human beings, and it is rare indeed for capital to get involved in creating its own labour force. Like Nature, society is an external which provides the inputs and pays the costs. Only when the “external” is in danger of being used up or taken away, do they get around to counting it.
Of course, this author is 100% in favour of the expansion of voluntary work and collaborative self-determination, but the binary vertical/horizontal distinction which justifies the dismantling of “vertical” hierarchical systems of welfare and regulation leads to their replacement with “horizontal” systems, which in the current situation simply means market systems. Such a move inevitably leads to the strengthening of that form of domination which rests on “fair exchange,” inequality of wealth.
On the other hand, the implication that “vertical social capital” is bad, sets itself against the struggle of ordinary citizens to build representative structures, forms which invariably entail the “vertical” relations of election, delegation, mandate, representation, leadership, and so on, the sine qua non of organisation.
In the developed capitalist countries the labour force is fragmented into multitudinous layers of supervisors, technical workers, specialists, contract workers, part-timers, sub-contractors and “wired workers” who increasingly organise their own work or that of others. Gone are the serried ranks of organised workers who formed a coherent and concentrated force for progressive politics a century ago. The bottom ranks of the proletariat which once occupied the inner suburbs of the metropolitan cities, are now mostly to be found thousands of miles away in the enterprise zones of Asia and Latin America, while that section of the most exploited which lives in the metropolis is generally marginalised.
This long-drawn out transformation of working relations is in fact the process which lies at the root of the whole change which has taken place in the political and social terrain. The factory system began with a radical rupture between head and hand, between theoretical and practical reason, but it has continued over the 125 years since the arrival of Taylorism to shatter the human form into a million tiny bits, each human function becoming first an instrument, then a profession and finally an independent industry, which relates to other human functions not by collaboration or cooperation, but by exchange of values. Without a unifying ideal, division of labour is dehumanising; the only unifying ideal cementing the world division of labour is money.
The root of the alienation which affects all of social life lies here in work relationships and a way forward must include a strategy for employees. The trade unions remain the only voice of the working class, but not only is their membership declining but the unions are finding it increasingly difficult to organise the expanding new industries. The unions have successfully organised the great public sector industries such as health and education, which are now their core territory in fact, but the new technology areas, franchises, call centres and so on are still largely unorganised. If the unions are to be part of the solution, so to speak, then these new industries have to be unionised.
As a concomitant of the challenges facing union organisation, the unions have been reduced to consolidating the position of their members as wage-slaves, endeavouring, usually unsuccessfully, to sharpen the divide between work and leisure, and relying more and more on a declining state and its relationship with the bureaucratic caste to defend the economic interests of members.
In its formative years, the union movement was inseparably connected with the socialist project. To this day, unions are only sustained by the dedicated work of members motivated by the spirit of solidarity and a socialist ethic. But the more unions slide into a narrow economic role, let alone the so-called “service model,” the more they must dig themselves deeper into the mire. Engels declared somewhat prematurely in 1881 that “the old watchword” of ‘a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!’ had “lived its day.” But a union that keeps this slogan as its sole mantra has indeed “lived its day.”
The above conditions pertain in the metropolis and among the more privileged. In those quarters which have not yet attained the postmodern condition, or rather who suffer its inverse, the underbelly of postmodern development, most reject modernism not so much for its economic exploitation and its inequality, as for its immorality. We recoil at Islamic law, terrorism, suicide bombing, child-soldiery, sectarian and internecine warfare, but these were not the first choice of the people fighting to liberate themselves from the domination of Euro-American capital. Their first choice was Pan-Arabism and various forms of state-led development to make their own way to modernism. But imperialism could not tolerate this choice and forced them to either find a place within the imperialist system as sources of cheap labour and raw materials or reject modernism entirely.
The fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. (where the word “fundamentalism” originated) and the conservative/communitarian and right-wing populist movements in rural areas of Australia, basically express the same reaction to modernism.
No progress is possible in the “West” without a reconciliation with the “East,” between “North” and “South,” city and countryside. Ethical dialogue offers, in my opinion, the only opportunity of bridging these ideological gulfs.
On the other hand, the left-wing socialist parties have lost all ideals, and assemble their members to protest at staged media moments on the plane of alliance politics, offering no noticeable resistance and absolutely no alternative in the face of too many atrocities to even list, far less defeat, and has, to a large extent, been reduced to a band of professional protesters engaged in branch of specialised activity unrelated to daily life. This public activity is however only a means of sustaining sects which only fail to emulate the horrors of Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao by virtue of being small and lacking in prestige.
The Left must face the fact that a completely new way of doing progressive politics, is necessary.
There is good reason to believe that if progressive people can orient themselves in this new terrain, then the radical social transformation to which so many aspire can be achieved. Despite the cultural and political fragmentation, the widespread prejudice as to the equal moral worth of all human beings, resulting from the worldwide division of labour, constitutes the embryo of a new universal consciousness.