Why a secular liberal critique of Capitalism is impossible

It seems that today there are two options when it comes to Capitalism, either accept Capitalism (fully or with some social-democratic counterweight) or join the with the anti-Capitalist left, generally fully secular, and fully liberal. Most critique of Capitalism in the west has been either from a Marxist or a Liberal perspective, which is the enlightenment on steroids, completely secular.

I think this critique of Capitalism is doomed to failure; it simply cannot stand up to Capitalism on its own. A Secular/Liberal opposition to Capitalism is impossible; it will fail anytime it rises. Great contemporary Anglican Theologian John Milbank more or less agrees with me, in his essay “On Baseless Suspicion – Christianity and the Crisis of Socialism” he sums up the major problem, or contradiction of the secular/liberal left in one damning statement:

Socialism is not right because it is “rational” but because it is just. And the corollary here, to adapt Peguy, is that the critique of capitalism is a moral critique or else it is no critique at all.

You cannot get around the question of morality. Ultimately, the problem with Capitalism is not a scientific problem, but rather an ethical problem, I would go further and say it is a theological problem. Capitalism is an economic system; it is a system that determines who controls what resources, who produces what, who gets the produce and how it is distributed. Whether or not a system is good or not depends on what one assumes the goals of an economy are, what the measuring stick on which one can measure the effectiveness of an economy is. This is by definition a moral question. Unfortunately, many liberal economists simply ignore this; they treat the economy as an almost pagan-like divine realm where the market simply is what it is and is necessarily correct, so the question of morality in the economy doesn’t really come up. Market outcomes need no moral justification for the liberal economists, they are their own justification, private property needs no justification, it is its own justification (unfortunately, many liberal economists don’t give the same sacramental view to public property or the commons), acquisition of profit needs no justification, it is its own justification, and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately, things are not so much better on the Left. Many secular liberal anti-capitalists, especially Marxists (it’s important to remember that Marx famously said “I am not a Marxist”) seem to take the view that we can oppose Capitalism with no reference to morality. The opposition to Capitalism can be merely rational. Some secular leftists may appeal to morality (most inadvertently do) but think that their morality is simply a given, with no need of justification.

To be frank, the statement that Markets are their own justification, and the statement that the goal of communal wellbeing is its own justification are both, ultimately, philosophically absurd. Social wellbeing need not be anyone’s innate Good lacking some transcendent value.

Marxists may attempt to get around this, John Milbank, in the same essay as I quoted from before addresses this:

In the realm of modern natural-law theory, which is also the realm of the secular, an attempt is made to ground the ethical in the pre-ethical, in some theoretically knowable principle like utilitarian benefit or abstract individual right. For Marxism, the theoretical principle is the coming-to-be of human self-possession without heteronomous dependence, through the unraveling of a dialectical logic. But to accept this new natural law is to displace the immediacy of ethical judgment. From a Marxist perspective, it is inescapable that capitalist abstraction is fine and necessary in its own day, and so in a certain sense “moral.”

So Marxists appeal to kind of Hegelian Dialectic of class dynamics leading to the eventual liberation of man. However, as Milbank points out, this kind of thinking makes Capitalism actually moral and necessary. In Marxist thinking, Capitalism was an advance over feudalism, and thus good, but this includes all the alienation that capitalism produces. What the Marxist needs to accept for this to be true however is a kind of myth of progress, that whatever comes is necessarily better than what preceded it, and that whatever it is, it is moral and necessary. The problem is that there is no way of knowing this, there is no way of knowing what will come will be better, and as I pointed out earlier, there is no way of knowing exactly what better is outside of some transcendent value other than what I as an individual feel like.

Milbank continues:

For the Marxist question, “How are we to act, given the facts?” betrays at root a positivist attitude to the facts and permits a dualism of means and ends, whereas the “moral facts” of Aristotelian ethics are only read as facts in the terms of their inherent value and teleology, a teleology for which means are only ends “in embryo.” The means/end dualism in Marxism perpetuates by contrast the Machiavellian indirectness of political economy, the manipulation of vices towards goals of mere coexistence, which are, as it were, false simulacra of political community.

I think this may account for the horrors of 20th century Leninist Socialism, the old ends-justifies-the-means, issue. If for the liberal economist the means are the ends in itself (the market is right because it is the market) then for the Marxist Capitalism is good because it will lead to socialism, and socialism is good because it will lead to communism, and communism is good because ….. Well, let us be honest and frank here. Communism is good for the secular socialist because the Marxist has internalized what are explicitly Christian values.

Nevertheless, let’s say that we can appeal simply to human individual material interests. Let’s say there is a sweatshop worker in Guatemala, living in desperate poverty, working for a factory subcontracting for Walmart, what are his interests? Is it in his interest to build a non-Capitalist communitarian society where he lives? Absolutely, in the abstract yes. But it’s probably more in his immediate interest to travel up north to the United States and try and make some money there, and perhaps open up a business, or work his way up some economic ladder there. Of course he is probably going to, as an individual, choose that over taking a giant risk in opposing the system, to do that requires Christ like courage, sacrifice and dedication to an idea that will likely not be realized within his lifetime and will most likely lead to his further suffering. If we are only going to appeal to material interest, it is in his interest to play along with the system the best way he can. And for those excluded from the system (Capitalism by its nature must constantly exclude people from it, to take an example, when unemployment gets too low, liberal economists have a problem since they would say wages get to high), their individual interest is very often to desperately try to gain a foothold in the system. The promise of middle management is more realistic than the promise of revolution.

John Milbank talks more about the Marxists attempt to speak of overcoming capitalism without appeal to the transcendent moral realm in the same essay:

Tensions have to be politically exploited before they can be accounted as conflicts with the system itself. For example, the struggles of workers for higher pay and better conditions may be just part of capitalist functioning, and need involve no challenge to the system. It is not even the case, as Marxists would claim, that the interests of the workers are “objectively” antagonistic to capital. For this presupposes that workers have an “essential” identity as human beings which is not fully absorbed by their roles as workers, consumers, and seduced admirers of the spectacle of capitalist wealth and glamour.

This is one fallacy of many secular leftists, they have this idea that there are certain classes of people, who have some intrinsic interests, and that those interests are in conflict with Capitalism. This is not the case at all, rather it is often the case that the imminent material interest of people in the working classes may coincide with the internal workings of the Capitalist system. There is no intrinsic principle that demands that the working class must be in solidarity with each other, or other oppressed groups. There is no principle that demands that the interests of these oppressed groups are always the same and always in conflict with the system. The fact is that without a religious doctrine of the nature of man, the Imago Dei, and once you strip all the social roles that socio/political systems impose on man, there may be simply nothing left. The identity the workers have as workers is a product of Capitalism, and whatever identity Capitalism creates from that is as equally valid as any supposed “essential” identity posited by a secular leftist, which is neither valid nor invalid, it’s arbitrary, it no more than a manifestation of material conditions.

The same goes with the Marxian concept of alienation. Secular leftists assume that there is some state of nature, some transcendent (they won’t call it transcendent of course) principle, which Capitalism alienates and hides. John Milbank in the same essay criticizes that concept:

First of all, both the “scientific” and the “humanist” versions of the theory of alienation disappear once one denies that man’s (sic) labor, or the products of his labor, in any way “belong” to hum by nature. On the contrary, ideas of subjective “self-expression” and norms of autonomous production only arise in the context of a set of culturally specific symbolic exchanges with nature and with other persons, which go on to make up “liberal capitalism.” Hence, the notion of self-possession in work is itself generated by the capitalist relations of production, so that it is not enough to claim. Like Marxism, that his condition is not truly fulfilled by capitalism. For one cannot imagine self-possession as a “natural” state which capitalism falsifies or unlimited, autonomous production as a “natural” goal which capitalism is holding back. On the contrary, one can only ensure that people’s work really “belongs” to them if one not only brings them to fully share in its benefits but also creates a situation where they identify by habit and consent with its goals, in the content of a common culture.

The whole concept of “self-ownership” which includes over the products of one’s labor is itself a product of liberal Capitalism. It’s not that liberal Capitalism denies self-ownership or autonomous production, liberal Capitalism creates those very concepts. It’s akin to saying that the problem with ice cream producers is that they deny us ice cream, so let’s get rid of the ice cream producers. As Milbank points out in the quote above, there needs to be a common culture, we cannot accept that there is some essential state there that Capitalism suppresses, when all we have is the one that was created for us by the various systems and ideologies.

What we end up with is a secular liberal left that denies the truth of Christianity, yet assumes the most basic truths that are only founded ultimately in Christianity. There is no Imago Dei in a secular humanist state of nature, there is no inherent community in a secular humanist state of nature, there cannot be by definition, there is no inherent “good” in a secular humans state of nature. Although many secular leftists simply assume these things, which contradicts their demand for secularism. The contradictions (just like the contradictions in Capitalism) end up manifesting and destroying the ideological structure of the secular humanist left. This is why ultimately despite all attempts, the secular left cannot pose a serious critique of Capitalism. All they have is the pursuit of negative freedom, since that is all that can really by justified (I don’t even thing negative freedom is ultimately justifiable in a secular system) in a secular worldview.

So what does the left do? It critiques homophobia, sexism, traditional authority structures and so on, because those things fit perfectly with liberal secular humanism and it’s penchant for demanding total negative liberty, and tearing down moral structures. It does so while desperately trying to attach those cultural struggles to some critique of Capitalism. It won’t work, there is no reason at all why (in a secular world view) a woman wanting to break the glass ceiling in order to get into an executive position in a corporation should care about workers in a sweatshop, or worker autonomy. In fact her struggle is not against Capitalism it is simply to have more access to it. There is no reason why a homosexual wanting the right to get married should care at all about the devastation Capitalism causes, why should he? Perhaps he profits from it, perhaps he doesn’t, it’s simply irrelevant. Individual liberty and freedom from traditional authority structures is not only compatible with Capitalism, these struggles actually follow the same logic of Capitalism, the liberal/libertarian logic. This logic is simply that what is important is individual negative liberty, and only that, everything else is up to individual choice, there are no set roles, there are no set obligations, there is only individual will, and individuals control over what he “owns,” including whatever he identity he creates for himself. There can be no jump from defending that absolute principle which is the heart of liberalism and capitalism, to some kind of critique of capitalism in favor of any kind of communal principle.

The last place I’m going to quote from John Milbank’s essay is where he frankly lays out the hopelessness of a secular resistance to capitalism:

Furthermore, at certain strategic times and places, fetishization may no longer conceal the process of its own constitution. People may come to recognize capitalism for what it is-namely, a nescience and a “lived illusion”- and yet still affirm it and promote it. And this is not irrational, nor ideological, nor unprogressive. While Margaret Thatcher was ideological in associating her market philosophy with “traditional” values, most of her progeny have been out and out modernists who entertain no such illusions. The ideas that neoliberalism/neoconservatism are ”backward looking,” or that socialism can successfully appropriate the modernists’ discourse of “individual rights,” represents fatal misapprehensions. All the socialisms, including Marxism, which compromise with the Enlightenment, ultimately lose out to capitalism as a more virulent and purer form of liberalism. Socialism is not necessarily on the agenda of history, and its “future” is always bound up in keeping alive a sense of collective purpose linked to objective and transcendent norms. This is not to say that these norms are eternally “present” to us in constant fashion. On the contrary, our normative sense emerges through processes of “tradition,” the gradual development of a common real cultural outlook, and collective purpose develops through seeing what is possible at specific historic junctures. But the transcendent reference of developing values is suggested just to the extent that such values are “positively imagined” in the course of unpredictable super additions to the tradition, rather than being “negatively immanent” to an evolving dialectic.

It is because capitalism may be theoretically rational an indefinitely feasible, and yet not practically rational in the Aristotelian sense (in other words, not ethical), that the Marxist mode of suspicion will no longer do.

As the 21st century goes on, this realization and affirmation is becoming more and more apparent. More and more people are realizing that Capitalism is ultimately a giant swindle, a giant abstraction and fetishization, that it leads to unacceptable outcomes, that it is a contradiction and is ultimately de-humanizing. Yet more and more people also realize that this is the system that “functions” in a certain purely rational way, not in an ethical way, but it is huge and growing, and their best bet is to simply try to secure their place as high on the pyramid as they can get. Of course, there are millions of those whom Capitalism excludes, but they don’t have any power, and often it is in their interest simply to fight for some scraps, which is what they do. If they all get together they might make some changes, or they might be killed, or most might get together, and while they are doing that, someone else secures a spot in the system, which the others lose out on. The promise of an iPhone and an apartment may seem more plausible than revolution and more in the material interests of the dispossessed, even if they probably won’t get it.

The only way out is a return to Christianity, of ultimate value, of the Imago Dei, of the doctrine of creation. Capitalism is not a problem because it’s irrational; it’s a problem because it is unjust. The doctrine that the human being is of ultimate value, or infinite value, flies right in the face of the concept that a human being can be reduced to market value, or that one’s access to the necessities of life are only determined by profitability or market value. The Just and the Good must be common goals, not because they are in someone’s “material interests” but rather because the Just and the Good are transcendent values grounded in God. The community of man is not an arbitrary evolutionary function, something which has no intrinsic reality, but can be useful (or not useful depending on your position), but, it is fundamental to Mankind since all men are made in the image of God and redeemed to him through Christ.

Capitalism is a product of secular liberalism, the two are ideologically and logically intertwined, a critique of Capitalism cannot be one based in secular liberalism, because in the end Capitalism does secular liberalism better than any socialism ever could.

Why a secular liberal critique of Capitalism is impossible

3 thoughts on “Why a secular liberal critique of Capitalism is impossible

  1. […] What else would you expect? Christ is Lord, not Cesar, this was the message of the Gospel, what happens when Cesar is no longer lord, but neither is Christ? What you’re left with is “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality, you end up with identity politics, when there is no Lord the individual becomes Lord. Paul was right, if Christ was not raised, then our faith is in vein. And so are our notions of Universal justice, this de-linking of Christian morals from Christian metaphysics is something I’ve written about when it comes to Zizek’s theology (here, here and here) and in relation to an essay by John Milbank here. […]


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