"For and Against Marx" in Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

Karl MarxFor Marx, political freedom cannot be distinguished from economic freedom. Furthermore, civil society is far from neutral in the matter, it embodies certain assumptions as will follow. Marx is critical of the secular insofar as he deconstructs its power and authority. Marx fails however, according to John Miblank, because he doesn’t offer an alternative to liberalism. First, Marx believes capitalsm was a necessary step in the process of human evolution/dialectics. Second, he confirms the secular definition of freedom (i.e., freedom from tradition). He is correct in not separating the public sphere of “making” from the private sphere of “values” (theory from practice), but he retains “modern natural law” as well as the “modern secular order.” He believed in the illusion that we were progressing towards utopian harmony by way of dialectic

In antiquity religion was “natural” and included everything about life. Only later did religion as we know it today appear. Marx identifies this time as the division of labor. With this specialization comes the priestly clas and the speculation of “theoretical objects” (i.e., the birth of theology and philosophy) apart from practical living. At this time, according Marx, metaphors and illusions were birthed. But, for Milbank, this sort of metaphorical substitution for “real objects” is ubiquitous linguistically. Thus, no “religion” or culture is natural as Marx supposed

Marx believed original human society was free of illusion because it created meaning “naturally”. Feuerbach is important for Marxist thought because Feuerbach believed our worship was misplaced, that humans should be the objects of worship rather than an imaginary/abstract God. His point was that God’s qualities were not of a transcendental source but a reflection of our own human ego. Similarly, Marx wanted to talk about the natural processes of ethics, religion, art and culture that arose in praxis. Thus he appropriated Feuerbach insofar as the theoretical should be returned to humanity’s practical existence. The “religious error” in other words is the chief mistake of humanity – that is, to alienate theory from real existence. Hence, Marx wants to return to nature/materialism. He extends this error to include how social power was originated by the priestly class and criticizes the state above the economy for exercising a similar role. Religion is analogous to the state therefore as it is over and above common humanity at an alienating disance (i.e., out of sight and touch of the masses). Like the Hegelian phenomenologists, Marx explained religion and the state as a phenomena at a very distant gaze.

Like religious belief, the state establishes/creates itself. Both are “superstructural”. Marx’s mistake, according to Milbank, is that he viewed all religions in this way, which is not historically valid. In other words, Marx considers all religions to occupy the realm of mere belief, ignoring the dimension of religious practice. In this way capitalism becomes like a god (removed from the people) and its commodities are treated as relics (fetishistic sacred objects). Similarly, only the clerics or business elites have access to god and the market respectively. But Marx believes that this sacredalization is an illusion (all rooted in material motives). Both capitalism and Christianity, his parallel, are abstract and contentless; both non-realities

A few powerful people in the capitalistic system, like the priests of the religious sphere/illusion, determine the value of a commodity (like the priests detemined the revelation of god). Human beings are alienated from the process of meaning/value making (detemined now by “exchange value” rather than “use value”). But Marx is only criticizing the version of Christianity appropriated by the political economy (used to explain finite realities – the hand-in-the-market – rather the creator/first-cause of finite reality). So he succeeds in querying religious immanentism or humanist/positivist metanarratives but fails at finally displacing Christianity

Marx also failed to see that identifying something as an illusion does not necessarily lead to its demise. All economies, after all, are illusory and cannot ultimately be founded rationally. No more or no less rational than other economies, capitalism is just more predictable. The production of an illusion therefore cannot simply be linked to a particular force of production because this process is ubiquitous. (Milbank also adds here that no economic theory is more “natural” than another. According to Baudrillard, for instance, political economies fundamentally distort/produce our perspective of what it means to be human. Therefore, capitalism is only sustained insofar as we continue to agree/reify its definition of “human nature”)

According to Milbank, religion can only be validly criticized if in fact there really does exist a “pre-religious”, “natural” state of existence (what Marx terms “pre-cultural humanity”). Since this perspective is ultimately unfounded religion can only be criticized from another religious or quasi-religious perspective. Thus, Marx still retains assumptions implicit to political economy by reifying its conception of “human nature”. Marx, following Hegel’s dialectic of history, believes capitalism actually reveals the “true nature” of economics which was previously concealed. Hence, he does not recognize the historically contingent character of economics.

In addition to Milbank’s critiques of Marx, there is not such thing as a pure “use-value”. Rather, desire is manufactured (i.e., advertisment) by those who want to gain the advantage of a profit margin. Thus, capitalism has to do with both production and exchange in determining value. Capitalism is also tautological in that its ends and means are identical: the increase of wealth and profit. Thus it does not contradict itself and does not appear irrational. Hence why it is able to sustain itself (i.e., it has sustained itself longer than Marx predicted) so long as people, “the losers”, do not interrupt it. However, workers are content with the illusion of capitalism because it delivers the goods so to speak. Even nihilists will accept capitalism because, while they don’t find it “natural” in the realist sense, it honestly acknowledges the arbitrariness of life – thus it can absorb and overcome all forms of ideology. Capitalism, rather than finding itself irrational (the many working for the few), persistently re-establishes itself with new modes of competition and work

In conclusion, we always live under illusions and ideologies. The question then is not whether we will be guided by a religion/quasi-religion but rather which one. To replace the amoral and expedient quasi-religion of capitalism with a moral and just society is the kind of proposal Milbank has in mind; to integrate economic society with virtue. In a religio-political community that is concerned with truth and beautry ethics/aesthetics would be coordinated with production and exchange. This sort of telological integration is missing in Marx, who is at fault of “craft idiocy” or the production of crap material. At least the antique polis and the medieval guilds provides a comparison to capitalist oppression where friendship, caritas and reconciliation were exercised. Ultimately, according to Milbank, “dialectical synthesis” for Marx or Hegel fails to replace antagonistic tensions with peace and harmony.


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