In the polemical piece ‘Molecular Revolutions’ in Deleuze and Politics, Isabelle Garo correctly argues that a Deleuzian mode of politics retains a paradoxical character, an insurmountable aporia between engagement and disengagement. This is in part due to the fact that Deleuze’s conception of the economy is as a philosopher. No doubt Deleuzian theory gives ample attention to the economy and the market, but at no point does Deleuze deal with economic issues from a tradition of scrupulous historical and economic research. On the contrary, Deleuzian economic analysis is situated on the ground of an ontology of flows and becoming.
The privileged ontology of Deleuze, as we all know, in the words of Garo, “presents itself as a heightened form of attention to the concrete diversity of things as a respect for their constitutive multiplicity” (p. 57). This is chiefly done through the concept of desire, characterized by flows or exchanges of energy, which Deleuze and Guattari famously describe as belonging to the infrastructure itself. The vague expression of flows is considered to be the most important consideration of Deleuzian philosophy, constituting “the heart of an ontology that is vitalist in inspiration” (p. 58). On this view the conventional Marxist distinction between base (the domain of production) and superstructure (the realm of culture) is eschewed, leading to the leftist conclusion that everything is political.
The thematic of flows demonstrates the conviction that the dimensions of the real are indistinct but at one and the same time effectively sidelines political mobilization. This is so because while the notion of flows celebrates destabilizing movements, small events and molecular contestations, it nonetheless evacuates all content out of politics as such. The strictly formal exposition of politics, on the other hand, is “reduced to repressive state practices of surveillance and control”—that is, the maintenance of the normal state of affairs. In short, political specificity is canceled out in favor of a nebulous dispersion of abstract, deviant flows while a more traditional idea of politics is relegated to the intransigent State apparatus and its constitution. Inherent to the Deleuzian approach and its particular politics then is an underlying tension or aporia between the miniatruization of politics on the one hand and the relatively autonomous sphere of State politics on the other.
To be more precise, the State sphere plays a specific role under capitalism. For Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism has “haunted all forms of society as the vital flow which tirelessly seeks to throw off all constraints” (p. 60). Capitalism, otherwise stated, is nothing more than the dissipative, regressive or decomposing tendency inherent to life itself. This systematic deterritorializing or decoding movement, in the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, seeks at all times to overcome obstacles and barriers to its dynamic self-expansion, embodied par excellence in the flows of commerce and trade under capitalism. The State, consequently, “is nothing other than that which opposes limits to these flows” (p. 60). In other words, the State apparatus is burdened with the responsibility of managing capital flows and blocking them from becoming uncontrollable.
So how does one conceive of the end of capitalism, the momentous abrupt turn in history away from the market and its so-called ‘laws’ and towards, say, socialism or communism? From this perspective, since regulating the flows of capital is crucial to its very functioning as per the State, “the only thinkable and even desirable possibility is to go to the limits of the present system” (p. 61). Shockingly, this definition of ‘politics’, the pursuit and acceleration of mercantile flows, is an entirely liberal approach: a process that finds its clearest expression in economic and financial deregulation. Indeed, this analysis comes closest to the liberal thought of such thinkers as Hayek, a far stray from Marx to be sure.
Although Deleuze is without a doubt indebted to Marxist ideas, if the scattered remarks on Marx that haunt Deleuze’s work is anything to go by, he is ultimately making use of a quite heterodox Marx. By constantly reworking borrowed Marxian concepts as “a momentary support in order to move off in a new direction” or in an effort “to produce something new”, Deleuze never provides a precisely elaborated coherent commentary on Marx (p. 63). What Deleuze offers instead is a smattering of spectral, allusive and indirect remarks on Marx, which are, we might add, notoriously anti-Hegelian and dialectic-adverse in character.
At the same time, the notion of revolution is renewed by Deleuze (and Guattari), but with a twist. The only real means of radical chance henceforth are ‘micro’: “politics is no longer a privileged sphere of authority”, its is rather the deployment and expansion of diverse deviant practices (p. 63). Revolution, in sum, is no longer the unraveling of an historical logic of development, but rather is redefined as a counter-culture.
In the eyes of Garo, and this is crucial, this thinking is ultimately reflective of a post-May ’68 renunciation of any project to change the current politico-economic conjuncture. For Garo, “with the rejection of any participation in the institutional game of parliamentary democracy as well as with the global critique of this form of governance”, the only potential cadence of change are minorities and their private forms of rebellious spontaneity (p. 64). Revolution itself, situated on the ground of a vitalist ontology, comes to stand for fleeting moments of individual upheavals that nevertheless leave the rhythm of capitalism fully in tact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, private gestures of rupture are celebrated at the expense of the political unification of social struggles. On this line of argument, a Deleuzian political stance goes along with a position of withdrawal, a declared indifference with regard to any form of political activity.
For these reasons, my own assessment for how we imagine things being otherwise is, surprisingly, Žižekian. In Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations Adrian Johnston, as the title would suggest, analyzes the processes of transformation within given sets of circumstances, noting that for both Badiou and Žižek the “slow-moving inertia of status quo realities” is shattered by revolutionary events or acts, respectively, that abruptly shift the established run of things (p. xxix). But while it can be maintained that the Badiouian event and the Žižekian act both essentially entail positing a stark discrepancy between the structure of a situation and the sudden impact of alteration, there is (at least one) decisive difference between the two.
For Badiou, the state of a situation is suddenly interrupted disruptively by a mode of “politics-without-the-partystate, based on the purported disjunction between explosive events of subversive political ‘truth’…and reified regimes of institutionalized statist ‘knowledge’” (ibid.). In Žižek’s view, on the other hand, the stasis of repetition of a given situation is ruptured through “endorsements of strong socialist part-state apparatuses (justified by the need to ‘re-politicize’ the deceptively depoliticized economic sphere)” (ibid.).
In the opening of In Defense of Lost Causes Žižek presents an accurate assessment of the postmodern response to the current politico-economic conjuncture, a position we should now be quite familiar with:
the era of big explanations is over, we need ‘weak thought,’ opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality; in politics too, we should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention (p. 1)
Although I have just started working my way through the text, it should be observed that Žižek is not sympathetic to this political bent. On the contrary, reality-shattering shifts are the work of mass-movements or, as he calls them, ‘grand solutions’. Indeed, this approach, though one I once pushed beyond the pale, increasingly sounds right, especially when the celebration of small events ends up confirming the dynamic of capitalism rather than undermining it.
An earlier version of this post was published @ Indigenous Ink
How does Deleuze stand in relation to Marx? According to an interview conducted by Toni Negri in 1990, Deleuze is committed to the Marxist project, even if the methodology and instruments of Deleuze’s revolutionary theory is demarcated in specific ways from Marx. Deleuze defends his fidelity to Marx insofar as “political philosophy finds its fate in the analysis and criticism of capitalism as an immanent system that constantly moves its limits and constantly re-establishes them on an expanded scale” (‘Minor Marxism’ in Deleuze and Marx, p. 102). But rather than speak in terms of the final resolution of conflict or a self-moving teleology as Marx does, Deleuze envisions the contemporary political scene to be inhabited by lines of flight, minorities and war machines. Deleuze proposes a typology along different lines than Marx, forgoing the Marxian instruments of social contradictions, classes and the State apparatus that were so important to Marxist militant praxis. By speaking in terms of lines of flight, minorities and war machines rather than dialectical movement, Deleuze breaks with any logic of progress.
Reality under capitalism is always mutating, for sure, but this does not necessarily entail a change for the better. According to Deleuze, singular entities are arranged in patterns to form collective assemblages, but these serial organizations do not imply an ascending development or determinate goal. For Deleuze, struggle never achieves any totalization of reality in which all elements of existence would function harmoniously or in unity. As critical theory has discovered, the unification of resistance forces simply ends up making the packaging and marketing work of capitalism all that much easier. The ‘untimely’ for Deleuze, in this regard, does not lead to any form of stable or enduring institution. “What we have, therefore, is a notion of militant praxis that, without giving in to the demands of power, but at the same time without aspiring to power, embraces—beyond government and opposition—the vocation of resistance” (pp. 104-5).
Existence, for Deleuze, is not a totality but a network or thick mesh of disparate singularities, which do not always fit together. Macro-assemblages or power formations, in this sense, despite their appearance to the contrary, are occupied by unstable, agitated and changing vectors. As Eduardo Pellejero puts it in ‘Minor Marxism’, “The social field is not composed by isolated and immutable formations: only stratifications of knowledge and power may give some stability to it” (p. 105). Pellejero again: “The social field leaks everywhere” (p. 105). State otherwise, lines of flight, minorities and war machines are constantly agitating from within the assemblages we are altogether familiar with and consider enduring.
Whereas there is no revolution as the end of history for Deleuze as there is with Marx, Deleuze nonetheless defends revolution as an agent of unrest. Rather than the radical and irreversible advent of a society finally totalised and reconciled amongst all its parts, Deleuze conceives of revolution as ephemeral and unpredicrtable events. Although these local events as opposed to the global advent of communism do not mark a clear major break from the established state of things and open up onto a new kind of society, Deleuze claims that such micro-revolutions still produce immanent and incalculable effects within the societies they historically fail.
The object of struggle, as a result, is not the fulfillment of a possible utopia, but the “multiplication of perspectives” (p. 106). Following these space clearing gestures new sensibilities and assemblages are asserted, making possible uncommon or novel visions of society not previously envisioned. According to Deleuze, this is the only strategy for the maturation or mutation of society: the de-stratification of structures and the re-arrangement of life and society. Alterations of society, in other words, are brought about by events that interrupt the normal flows and exclusions of life.
These mutations, consequently, have unpredictable results. Power formations, after all, have a great capacity for adapting to stimulated dissent and new types of human relations. Collective assemblages or systems, in other words, exhibit great shrewdness in maintaining stability despite constant semi-turmoil, even benefiting from such restlessness by recovering marginal inventions for the sake of its own growth and expansion. Lines of flight, as a result, are not necessarily revolutionary. It goes without saying, “these micro-revolutions do not lead automatically to a social revolution, to a new society, an economy or a culture liberated from capitalism” (p. 108).
More often than not such misfirings in the system are the required condition for the possibility of the machine to continue functioning properly. In this sense, the success of micro-revolutions depends upon how “the lines of flight that cross though a given society” are articulated by subjects who converge with these constructivist vectors (p. 108). For one to decode a system or an assemblage successfully and create an opening for new spaces of freedom, Deleuze tells us, requires one to move slowly and carefully; advice that is more commonsensical than profound. The essential point to bear in mind however is that
What matters is that, suddenly, we do not feel condemned in the same old way anymore; a problem which nobody could see a way out of, a problem in which everyobyd was trapped, suddenly ceases to exist, and we ask ourselves what we were talking about. Suddenly we are in another world, as Péguy said, the same problems do not arise anymore – though there will be many more, of course (p. 109).
Although this new form of criticism remains unsatisfactory for someone like Negri whose political work points to “the institution of a new constituent power beyond the Empire” rather than Deleuze’s alternative of “superficial and ephemeral resistance”, Deleuze gives a more compelling subversive grammar that fits better with the facts of the case (p. 109). Like Marx, Deleuze is concerned with the “creation of spaces of freedom, strategies of torsion of power, conquest of individual and collective forms of subjectivity, invention of new forms of life”, but unlike Marx, Deleuze does not have any doubts over the fact that we do not possess any reliable means to preserve resistance aimed at undermining knowledge and power from becoming compromised itself (pp. 109-10). For this reason, according to Deleuze, we are condemned to everlasting restlessness. “Deprived of any progressive project, of the idea that if we do everything possible things will improve, will change for the better— thus, aware of its tragic destiny—the struggle goes on” (p. 110). In short, what is required for Deleuze is the infinite movement of new struggles.
Deleuze stakes his entire political thought on the revolutionary potential of redistributing singularities and relationships. As Deleuze calls it, the ‘untimely’ is precisely this interruption of a specific situation or assemblage by way of drawing out novelty, discrepancy or molecular lines of flight therein. By this Deleuze does not mean the abolition of molar organization as such. Rather the “molecular re-distribution of power and knowledge” is an instrument for the transformation of molar organizations; viz., acknowledging and following the different compositions of power formations that keep colliding and do not fit, despite the attempts of molar assemblages to control them.
For Deleuze, like other agonistic thinkers such as Derrida, Žižek, Carl Schmidt, William Connolly and Rom Coles, the existence of dissent is inevitable. There are always going to be losers, including humans, trains, viruses and social contracts. But while Deleuze’s thought of immanence is beyond any reliance on a messianic structure in which a future revolution would bring history as we know it to a utopian end, Deleuze “still gives us reasons for resistance, to go on thinking, when it comes impossible to go on seeing certain things without doing nothing, or go on living as we do” (p. 111). Pellejero again: “We do not have faith in the advent of a new happy world, but we cannot renounce to the exercise of a resistant thought, in the difficult, unpredictable and dangerous intersection of our powerlessness” (p. 111).
Although revolutionary praxis will be an everlasting work, there are already a multitude of agents of change or resistance, millions of people convicted every day by the current state of things, such as “people who die from diseases that a simple pill could cure, victims of collateral damage from anti-terrorist operations, but also students educated for unemployment, adolescents enclosed in urban ghettos or suburbs, elderly people without pensions or social security” (p. 111). But even if there is no creation of a utopia on the horizon, will we stop working and struggling for that reason?
In “Wage Labor and Capital” Marx deals directly with the dialectic capital-labor relationship and, more particularly, the existing socio-economic conditions under capitalism that are expected to develop a revolutionary class consciousness in the proletariat. To say that the capitalist and the worker exist antagonistically, Marx effectively means that the class rule of the bourgeoisie and the slavery of the proletariat are founded upon a singular set of economic relations. This point becomes significantly evident with wage labor: by laboring for a capitalist for a determinate amount of time or for a calculable output of work, the worker is paid a certain sum of money, or wage, in return. In this precise sense, the capitalist purchases the labor of the worker and, reciprocally, the worker sells his or her labor for money. Consequently, labor, or what Marx refers to, more precisely, as labor power, is sold by the worker like a commodity to the capitalist for meager earnings, simply in order to meet his or her daily physical needs.
To recap briefly what Marx argues for elsewhere, the life activity of humanity is to consciously manifest itself in the external world, what we can now also distinguish as the exercise of labor power. But in this case, the activity of the worker is done not to produce objects for him- or herself. Rather, the worker labors for a subsistent minimum wage. The worker’s free life activity, therefore, does not integrally belong to his or her own life: it is the sacrifice of his or her species character to another. And, as we know, such labor is generally monotonous, meaningless and stupefying, repeating the same basic function ad infinum.
Doubtless, the worker laborers freely in a certain sense by selling him- or herself to the capitalist who is willing to purchase piecemeal hours of the worker’s daily life, but the freedom of the worker is, in fact, the form of appearance of its opposite: in the case of freedom, for Marx, the worker is, it is true, in bondage to capitalist servitude. The worker, more specifically, can always leave a particular capitalist, but given that his or her “sole source of livelihood is the sale of [labor power]”, the worker “cannot leave the whole class of purchasers, that is, the capitalist class, without renouncing his [or her] existence” (Marx-Engels Reader, p. 205). The point is that in the last resort the worker is enslaved to the capitalist class. The proletariat has no other option but to reassign its labor power to those with buying power, the bourgeoisie.
Marx maintains, echoing Hegel, that the whole mesh of production relations must be viewed in its totality—that is, the truth of capital is in the whole. Integral to the capitalist assemblage falls raw materials, technological machines, instruments of labor, wages, labor power, social connections, historical development, production, commodities, exchange values, and so on. Take for instance Marx’s example of a cotton jenny used to spin cotton: “It becomes capital only in certain relations. Torn from these relations it is no more capital than gold in itself is money” (p. 207). In this sense, the relations of production in their totality are inextricably bound in such a way as to be mutually reinforcing. Therefore whenever one element in the equation of capital is changed, the whole system shifts and transforms as a result, thereby reaching a new equilibrium. The distinctive character of capital, as such, is its flexible ability to perpetually revolutionize itself, whether in social relations of production or material means of production, without suffering the slightest amount of instability.
The reciprocally conditioning nature of capitalism, as shown directly above, is chiefly expressed in the relation between the capitalist and the wage-worker. In this exchange the capitalist captures the labor power of the worker in his or her productive activity, meanwhile the worker merely collects a wage minimum for instant consumption. Taken in its strict sense, labor power requires capital and capital depends upon labor power; one always already presupposes the other. More specifically, capital can only be amassed insofar as it has a working class to draw labor power from. Conversely, workers reliant on wages for subsistence perish so long as the capitalist class does not employ them.
The crucial point with Marx, however, is not so much that the one brings forth the other in an indispensably determining way, essential though this is. The real rub involves the realization that the increasing power of capital spells the denigration of the working class—that is, of the proletariat. Although wage labor and capital condition each other, that is, they are two sides of the same coin, they are by no means equivalent in standing: the increase in productive capital is simultaneously the extension of domination over the workers by the bourgeoisie. Given still the most favorable conditions for the working class, a rapid growth of productive capital in which unemployment is low and wages are high, the gulf that divides the rich from the poor continues to widen: “Profit and wages remain as before in inverse proportion” (p. 211). Stated differently, the more painstakingly the working class labors to expand the wealth of capital, particularly in a boon economy, the harsher that power is in ruling over the working class.
The general logic of unequal development in capitalism as explicated above is plainly observed, additionally, in the division of labor, which is animated by unyielding competition. In this familiar scenario, capitalists survive only by underselling their opponents, therein driving their rivals out of the market with a cheaper good. But to do this the capitalist must actually produce more cheaply, lest the entrepreneur ruin him- or herself in the process. For this to work the capitalist is required to increase the productive power of labor to the greatest possible extent in two primary ways, by escalating the dissection of labor and machinery and then exploiting this relationship as much as possible. Expressed in other terms, machinery or technology is introduced to decrease costs of production and increase the productivity of labor.
If the first capitalist is in fact able to lower the price of his or her product, even to a fraction below the competitor’s cost, then the rival capitalist is forced from the respective field and the initial capitalist extorts a larger share of sales. At the same time, however, the victory is Janus-faced: eventually other capitalists enter the market borrowing the same techniques, thus creating a new equilibrium of competition, now only at a lower cost of production. Marx continues: with this new exploitation of labor and machinery the competition is set rolling again towards what can be the only result, the natural leveling of commodity prices to the lowest possible cost of production. For this reason, given the continual transformation of productive forces and the shrinking of profit margins, the capitalist must now sell more commodities on a greater scale simply in order to realize the same total earnings as before.
What is important to Marx is not that competition flattens the selling price of commodities to the cost of production, thereby depriving capital of higher profits, but that labor suffers the true price in the push to cheapen production. Given the division of labor and the implementation of machinery, which is aggrandized to the furthest extent that production can be cheapened, the worker is now enabled and expected to do the equivalent work of several workers in the previous assemblage. As such, fewer wage-workers are needed by the capitalist and the struggle between laborers for jobs becomes increasingly acute. Moreover, the application of automated machines renders labor progressively simpler and more easily performed, requiring a reduced amount of skill and intellect, thus lowering the rate of wages at the same time as it raises the intensity of competition. Indeed, the more the working class labors for capital, the more their wages decrease, the more their work becomes unsatisfying and the more their competition amongst themselves expands.
Marx concludes elsewhere, in a nutshell, that workers who see their own individual conditions reflected in others will develop a world-historical class consciousness that will eventually lead to the takeover of the means of production and, alas, communism. For Marx, this is the only outcome of the dramatized division of labor that constitutes capitalism. To restate what was argued above, the logic of specialization inevitably worsens the conditions of wage workers, which means that all forms of quaint reform merely delay revolution and, what is more, can always be repealed and undermined. In a word, it puts off the inevitable. As an interesting side note, though one I am regrettably less knowledgeable about, the welfare state is used precisely as a tool to keep this from taking place. The creation of a middle-class acts as a buffer between capitalists and the proletariat insofar as the middle-class do not own the means of production but have more to lose than simply their chains. Therefore, since they do not share a class consciousness with wage-workers, they are unlikely to revolt and risk what possessions they do have.
One of the brilliant insights of Marx is that unequal development or the struggle of workers is not accidental to capitalism but essential to its composition. Given Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel we might understand this in dialectical terms; that is, that any given term shows a perpetual tendency to pass into its opposite. The dialectical, in other words, reveals the inherent self-contradiction to any abstract proposition of understanding. According to Žižek, we might also call this a parallax view. A parallax view is one in which two opposing terms are in all actuality inherent to a larger whole that encompasses them both. Or, what is the same, they are separated by a minimal difference or gap. Jastrow’s Duck-Rabbit and the Moebius strip are both prime examples of expressing an incommensurable dialectic of two terms that are excruciating close yet never touch; such is the antagonism between labor and capital. To recap briefly, from a proper Hegelian perspective, one subverts the standard given-ness of a concept by means of redoubling its hidden counterpoint.
Returning to the issue of capitalism, and following the trajectory of Hegelian dialectics, we can add that the difference and independence of unequal development in no way compromises the integrity of the capitalist world market. Or, as Deleuze and Guattari have argued in A Thousand Plateaus, “[C]entral capitalism needs the periphery constituted by the Third World, where it locates a large part of its most modern industries. It does not just invest capital in these industries, but is also furnished with capital by them” (p. 465). To be sure, and it goes without saying, this shows a strong resemblance to the “old colonialism.” As the authors go on to argue, the so-called First World States necessarily require the so-called Third World States in order to subsist as they do. In brief, the marginal Third Worlds are partially organized and completely inseparable from “the States of the center.” According to Deleuze and Guattari, they provide “a substitute for colonization” (ibid.).
More insightful, I think, is their formulation of designating peripheral worlds inside the center. And again, this unequal exchange is not accidental or incidental but indispensable to the functioning of capitalism. As the authors put it, “And the States of the center deal not only with the Third World, each of them has not only an external Third World, but there are internal Third Worlds that rise up within them and work them from the inside” (p. 468). To be more precise, these “peripheral zones of underdevelopment inside the center” include masses that “are abandoned to erratic work (subcontracting, temporary work, or work in the underground economy)” (p. 469).
Deleuze, for one, has a long history of thinking difference itself; that is, difference that is irreducible to a predetermining identity. To put it in the simplest possible terms, all self-contained identities and stable systems presuppose unstable and unstructured differences. Otherwise put, “both chaos and cosmos are reciprocally presupposed” (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 34). In this sense, Deleuze (and Guattari) are in line with the Kantian transcendental project of determining the limits or conditions whereby new beings or identities emerge and come to be. However, they diverge from Kant insofar as they do not fabricate predetermined and permanent identities. Deleuze and Guattari also share a strong affinity with Hegel. Like Hegel, they have a proclivity for thinking the uncommon and novel as parts subordinate to the whole system (what Hegel refers to as the Notion or Spirit). That is to say, there is nothing truly other. However, the open system of Deleuze and Guattari is in contradistinction to Hegel’s system that is closed and complete. As Bell repeatedly puts it, the dynamic system of Deleuze and Guattari is one at the edge of chaos.
Returning to A Thousand Plateaus we may once again consider the intrinsic coexistence of disparate parts in capitalism. At the manifest level it appears that capitalism tends towards the homogenization of social formations. This is, however, only partially accurate according to Deleuze and Guattari. There is, of course, one capitalist world market, but it is one “in which even the so-called socialist countries participate” (p. 436). It’s an economy in which even noncapitalist States are integrated. Rather than use the word homogeneity to describe the international capitalist axiomatic, the authors prefer the term isomorphy to explain the international economic relations between heterogeneous social formations as diverse as democratic, totalitarian, and, especially, “socialist” States. Moreover, to continue the trajectory begun earlier, the capitalist international organization “continues to imply a heterogeneity of social formations” especially as “it gives rise to and organizes its ‘Third World’” (p. 441).
From this standpoint it might appear that capitalism could do without the State altogether, but again this is only partially true. Rather than abandon nation-states, the capitalist axiomatic redeploys the State in a different capacity: that of policing the economy to keep capital circulating. States, in other words, come to serve capitalism. “Each of them [States] groups together and combines several sectors, according to its resources, population, wealth, industrial capacity, etc. Thus the States in capitalism, are not canceled out but change form and take on a new meaning: models of realization for a worldwide axiomatic that exceeds them” (p. 454). No doubt, enormous multinational organizations are more powerful than most States and go untouched by governmental decisions. Moreover, there is no privileged State in the capitalist world market. Although it would be inaccurate to consider all States as interchangeable, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, all of them are complimentarily dispersed and encompassed—from neocolonial tyrannies to Western democracies.
As a final and sobering note, capitalism is something we are born into. Given its universal cosmopolite capitalism is preestablished in the sense that singular actors only ever fill positions that are already created.
From a standpoint within the capitalist mode of production, it is very difficult to say who is the thief and who the victim, or even where the violence resides. That is because the worker is born entirely naked and the capitalist objectively “clothed,” an independent owner. That which gave the worker and the capitalist this form eludes us because it operated in other modes of production. It is a violence that posits itself as preaccomplished, even though it is reactivated every day. This is the place to say it, if ever there was one: the mutilation is prior, preestablished (p. 447)
Given this thought, no doubt, it would be indefensible to blame greedy business elites for socio-political ills. As the case with BP, we all share in the responsibility for demanding cheap accessible oil.
In my undergraduate studies as a theology student I had a professor recount an experience he had on an Ash Wednesday while he was attending Oxford for his Doctorate in philosophical theology. As the story roughly goes, one of his classmates approached him inquiring what he was giving up for Lent. Being the bold Lutheran that he was, my professor responded: “My piety!” This strategy of internal interrogation in Christianity seems to be similar to the effort made by Merold Westphal in “Atheism for Lent” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.
Christians understand that there are leaps of faith involved in their beliefs, otherwise it wouldn’t be a walk of faith, but they don’t consider that faith to be arbitrary or irrational. Thus the task of apologetics is to articulate the arguments of the faith that makes sense of belief. Moreover, atheists seem to make the same effort to prove their own disbelief in the existence of God. On both sides, then, we have strategies employed to convince supporters of the internal rationale for the respective positions. However, and I believe Westphal is correct in this suggestion, “psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions” (p. 67). In other words, personal experience counts much more than rational arguments when it comes down to choosing sides. Apologetics are merely a tool to shore up some lingering doubts after the decision has already been made.
With that said, Westphal takes an interesting direction in revisiting apologetics from a perspective that deals more with praxis than doxa. For Randal Rauser, another contributing author to the work, there are factors beyond persuasive theological arguments that “make Christians look comical, dangerous, innocuous, irrelevant, and generally unpleasant” (p. 135). Some prime factors that make Christians appear ridiculous include the following: church roadside signs with trite captions, pedophile priests, white-suited televangelists, Christian bumper stickers, disinterest in social justice, life coach pastors offering motivational messages, blind nationalism, kitsch art, and Bible action figures. What Christianity needs then is not more reason giving but more skepticism.
A good place to start this pruning process is with the masters of suspicion. According to these figures, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we should be more suspicious of theistic belief because there is always something more basic to the motives and reasons than we externally give credence to. As we will see, the manifest meaning of faith can be a “lofty disguise” in which we deceive ourselves from the “actual operative motives” determining our actions (p. 70). Starting with Freud, religious beliefs work as disguised wish fulfillments. “What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who will take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including both death and the rigid demands of society and culture” (p. 72). Therefore, according to Freud, we project our own desires onto an idol in order to justify and legitimatize our behavior. For Marx, on the other hand, it is ideology that provides this legitimizing role for society. “So moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system” (pp. 73-4). In brief, Marx suspects that the true function of the will of God is merely to justify the beneficiaries of exploitation and consol its victims. This ideology, after all, weakens the impetus of those exploited to rebel. Nietzsche’s suspicion of religion is different still. According to his popular “slave morality”, “slaves have no power, physical or social, with which to punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters ‘evil’” (p. 76). Therefore, when believers speak of love and justice it is merely the “dark underside” of “resentment and revenge” (p. 76). In all three of these masters of suspicion we see the unmasking of religions that use self-deception to hide from others and themselves the true motivations of their beliefs and actions.
Where Westphal gets interesting is that he applies these hermeneutics of suspicion to Christianity itself. As moderns, we are really good at practicing critique on others, but “its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination” (p. 71). This is, however, not original with Westphal. Of course theologians have always been cross-examining their own tradition, but the prophets, Jesus and the apostles practiced internal investigation of their faith. To read the masters of suspicion, or atheism for that matter, for Lent is “to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety” (p. 75). In the story I opened with, it seems that my professor was undertaking this precise task.
However, and Westphal ends with this caution, suspicion can easily become an end-in-itself which leads to cynicism, despair, and hate. Doubtless, religiosity has had a historical knack for putting divine stamps of approval on atrocities, but it has also played a significant role in resisting injustice. “Religion, it would appear, is Janus-faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin” (p. 74).
For 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.