Profit, Wages, and the Human Good

In his work What is Property? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declares that “property is theft.”[1] In particular, Proudhon has in mind the products of labor, which, under capitalism, the worker produces but does not own. Nor can she afford to buy them, Proudhon says, “Because the right of increase does not permit these things to be sold at the cost-price, which is all that laborers can afford to pay.”[2]

In a capitalist system, the means of production (i.e., land, factories, tools and machinery, as well as stocks and bonds, etc.) are privately owned in order to maximize profit (and these privately owned means of production are what we refer to as “private property”). Workers are hired to produce with these means of production commodities that can be sold on the market. In order to ensure profit, these products must be sold for more than the cost of producing them. Furthermore, most of this consequent surplus value does not go to the workers but rather to those who own the means of production. A fraction of surplus value is then returned to the workers in the form of wage.

What this means is that, quite literally, the value produced in the workers’ labor is stolen from them and only partially returned (an objection which, as it happens, sounds rather similar to capitalist anti-taxation arguments). And the owners have a vested interest in keeping the workers’ wages as low as possible, so that profit is maximized as much as possible. As Milton Friedman insists, businesses have no social responsibility whatsoever other than the maximization of profit.[3]

Karl Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

For [political economy], therefore, the worker’s needs are but the one need – to maintain him while he is working insofar as may be necessary to prevent the race of laborers from dying out. The wages of labor have thus exactly the same significance as the maintenance and servicing of any other productive instrument . . . Wages, therefore, belong to capital’s and the capitalist’s necessary costs, and must not exceed the bounds of this necessity.[4]

In other words, wages, according to Marx, are literally a maintenance fee.

Human beings are seen (whether implicitly or explicitly) solely in terms of potential profit. Unemployed persons, then, are not producing profit and therefore needn’t be afforded the maintenance fees of wages. Capitalism, in other words, annihilates the possibility of thinking of persons or things as intrinsically valuable – all value is externalized and measured against capital, which is the sole and absolute measure of value.

This is readily apparent when we consider the fact that we must purchase the things that keep us alive (i.e., food, shelter, healthcare, etc.) – which is to say that our very lives are commodities to be purchased. And the only way that we can afford to do this – speaking in the hypothetical absence of a welfare state, which is continually derided as “socialist” and therefore fundamentally anti-capitalist – is if we have jobs, which is to say if we are producing value. And “value,” of course, means capital. If I am not profitable to the capitalist, then I have no standing in relation to capital, the absolute measure of value. And, therefore, quite literally, I have no value and do not “deserve” food, shelter, healthcare, etc. Marx is once again helpful on this issue: “The worker exists as a worker only when he exists for himself as capital; and he exists as capital only when some capital exists for him. The existence of capital is his existence; his life[.]”[5]

What is often forgotten, it seems, is that it was anarchists, socialists, and other labor activists who were fighting against capitalists in favor of such basic worker protections as an eight-hour day, forty-hour week, minimum wage, and child labor laws. All of these cut into profits, and, furthermore, in the case of unskilled labor, if one worker demands a living wage, the capitalist can fire the worker and have a new one, who is willing to work for low wages, hired and trained by the end of the day. Workers are utterly expendable and, as human beings, have no value in and of themselves. Their value is literally a question of how much profit they bring to the capitalists.

On its own, capitalism ignores externalities, such as damage to the environment or the implications for the well-being of society. Frans de Waal points out another telling quotation from Milton Friedman, who says, “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”[6]

As social creatures, our well-being as individuals directly correlates to the well-being of the whole. We are not atomistic individuals who make totally free, totally isolated market choices, which have no effect on society as a whole (an assumption upon which capitalism, as a product of Enlightenment thought, rests). Individual choices have implications for society at large. It’s no mystery why societies in which everyone has access to the basic necessities of food, healthcare, and education are generally happier, healthier, and safer.

I’m not talking about utopia. I’m not saying all our problems will be solved if we just tax the rich a little more and redistribute wealth more equally. I’m talking about how to make things better. Hell, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that healthy, happy, and safe workers are better workers. True, ensuring this might cost more in the short-term, but if capitalism were capable of considering long-term impacts – which, granted, I don’t really think it is or ever will be – then increased worker protection and social welfare would be a no-brainer. To be sure, this is an argument for what I take to be a relatively morally neutral “Enlightened Self-Interest” (i.e., I do what’s good for others because it is also what’s good for me), but it’s a hell of a lot better than the straightforward egoism of free market capitalism.

Ann Jones recently published an article in which she praises the social-democratic system of Norway. Now, again, I’m no social democrat (I’m much more strongly anti-capitalist than that), but I do think that Jones makes some important points regarding the superiority of a system that protects more than just the profitability of corporations. She writes, for example:

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams—to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Putting aside the question of whether and to what extent this truly happens in Norway (I’m not the one to ask), Jones is making a point here that I have often tried to make before: The world needs folks who are doing what they are passionate about. Why? Well, for one thing, there is the Enlightened Self-Interest argument that folks who are passionate about what they are doing will obviously do better than folks who are not, and that excellent work will benefit society as a whole.

Another angle on this is that it helps reaffirm the inherent value of work. Socialism is often misunderstood as the position that it doesn’t matter how much work you do, you should still be paid the same at the end of the day. Putting aside the fact that the presence of any form of monetary remuneration is altogether rejected by many socialists, this is not quite the argument.

Marx, for example, made a point of arguing that human beings need meaningful labor, but that capitalism denies most of us this basic human good – something like 80% of Americans hate their jobs – in the name of greater circulation of cheap commodities (implying that “freedom” is fundamentally “freedom to consume”). Labor has become totally instrumentalized – a mere means to the end of having food to eat. Socialism, then, wants to reclaim the inherent value and goodness of labor.

For some socialists, such as communists, this may indeed mean the total abolition of any and all forms of currency and remuneration. For others, such as collectivists, a labor theory of value (i.e., the value of a product is determined on the basis of the labor required to make it) would guide a labor note system, wherein remuneration would be relative to one’s work, but with the crucial difference from capitalist forms of remuneration that the inherent value of life and labor would be affirmed such that even those who do less skilled or less dangerous forms of work would have their needs met just because they are human beings and as such do not need to “earn” the “right” to live.

The capitalist threat of destitution may ensure that most of us work, but work at what? Convincing people to buy cheap clothes they don’t need made by slave children in Bangladesh? Knowingly selling electronics – also made by slaves – that are intended to break in three years to ensure the next model sells? Selling fast food products that are ridiculously unhealthy? What social goods are being promoted with these kinds of jobs? And yet, these are the kinds of jobs that low-wage workers typically have. Do we really need to make sure this kind of labor endures? Just because consumers have been manipulated by advertisements into providing “demand” for these “services”?

Individual persons do not exist in vacuums and neither, by extension, do their market choices. We need to recognize ourselves as intimately bound up with the social whole. Noam Chomsky enquires after the human good in his most recent publication, and ultimately argues that a form of libertarian socialism is the answer. I am inclined to agree, but I do not claim to know. I’m not interested in drawing up blueprints for the perfect society of the future. I’m interested in how well we look after each other right now, and I have to say, free market capitalism seems to me to be one of the worst ways of doing so.

As I’ve argued before, capitalism is inherently and necessarily plutocratic, and therefore anti-democratic by its very nature. Socialism, on the other hand, is not only the position that we need democracy, but that democracy should go all the way down into the workplace, where the wheels of society truly turn. Accordingly, if we want democracy, we need socialism.


 

Notes

[1] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, from What is Property?, in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), edited by Robert Graham, (Montreal/New York/London: Black Rose Books, 2005), 34.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Profit,” The New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1970, available from: http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html.

[4] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1988), 86.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, (Three Rivers Press: New York, 2009), 38.

Hospitality in a Hostile World: Being Serious About the Madness of the Sermon on the Mount

Already since the terrorist attack on Friday analysts and commentators have been warning France – and, implicitly, the rest of the world currently waging war against ISIS in Syria, most notably the US – to be careful not to “play into the hands of ISIS” and let our anger and desire for vengeance lead us blindly into a disastrous war as happened following the 9/11 attacks. By Sunday, however, France had begun aerial assaults upon ISIS targets.

Meanwhile, on our side of the pond, fear of the Syrian Other has risen to manic levels. Several states have declared that they will accept no more refugees. A large part of the inspiration for such a move is the discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers Friday night. Some have suggested, however, that the precise purpose of planting this passport may have been hopes of stoking European fear of, and hatred for, Syrian immigrants. As Dierdre Fulton reports on Truthdig:

“One theory is that ISIS hopes to turn Europe against Syrian refugees,” Kingsley wrote. “This would reinforce the idea of unresolvable divisions between east and west, and Christians and Muslims, and so persuade Syrians that Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate is their best hope of protection. ‘You know what pissed off Islamist extremists the most about Europe?’ summarised Iyad El-Baghdadi, an activist and jihadi-watcher, on Twitter. ‘It was watching their very humane, moral response to the refugee crisis’.”

Justin Salhani concurs, writing: “ISIS has released statements saying it wants the West to turn on refugees, proving its assertions that Western nations are at war with Islam. The extremist group has also said on at least 12 occasions that Muslims should be seeking refuge in their self-declared Caliphate as opposed to ‘the lands of the infidel.'”

Watching the response of United States politicians (to say nothing of citizens) suggests that, if this in fact reflects the aims of ISIS, they have been nothing if not effective. As Adam Taylor observes, “one of the most persuasive arguments against equating refugees with terrorists is simple: It’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.”

With all of this in mind, I think we are faced with an opportunity here – an opportunity to not let the terrorists win by reinforcing a narrative of “us” versus “them”; to not continue the cycle of violence, hatred, and revenge (and implicitly thereby to affirm the legitimacy of violence, etc.), a cycle which will not end until someone has the courage to take the risky step of simply renouncing tit-for-tat violence and the logic of lex talionis (more on this in a minute); an opportunity to demonstrate the love, compassion, and hospitality so powerfully exemplified in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition of which we are the inheritors (even those heretics, skeptics, and atheists among us); an opportunity to deny evil’s superior power over good and to instead overcome evil with good – in short, an opportunity to be loving and welcoming, which (I think) are the best weapons in our arsenal in the fight against fear, hatred, and violence.

That all sounds nice, it may be objected, and the Bible gives us a lovely ideal, but this is the real world and we have to be practical and we have to defend ourselves. However, I think (and here I will surely start to lose readers if I haven’t already) that we are in the unique position of affirming and participating in a tradition (again, whether we are church-going Christians or Sunday-is-for-sleeping atheists) that wants to radically disrupt and overturn the business-as-usual, eminently practical, feet-on-the-ground rationality of the kingdoms of the world.

Though myself a heathen, heretic, and theological ne’er-do-well, one of the reasons that I still love the Gospels is Jesus’ talk of a new kingdom, a kingdom that is both among us and still to come, in which everything is turned upside down, in which the last are first, forgiveness is unconditional, strangers and weirdos are always welcome, violence is not repaid for violence, and gifts are given without anything being expected in return – in short, pure madness, holy hell, and sacred anarchy (to borrow John Caputo’s words). Human relationships are no longer matters of economic exchange but rather of overflowing love and grace.

And nowhere does Jesus say, only welcome strangers if you are certain that it is safe to do so; only give to a beggar if you are sure she won’t use your money to buy drugs; only be nonviolent if your life isn’t actually in danger. Specifically in regard to nonviolence, D. Stephen Long sums this up nicely:

Nowhere does Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount suggest that it is only for individuals. There is no footnote or proviso where Jesus says, ‘You are to live this way except when it comes to the defence of your neighbours, then you must use the violence at your disposal to protect them.’ In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is not private instruction for individual consciences; it is the political platform for the new kingdom or city that Jesus proclaims, the city that is to be ‘set on a hill’ and illumine the world (Matt 5:14-16).[1]

What madness! Yes, indeed. But the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is not of this world. And that does not mean, I am convinced, that it is therefore a kingdom of some magical hinter-world. Rather, I think, it is a radically new kind of kingdom which is breaking into this world and disturbing the present kingdoms. Mark Van Steenwyk calls this kingdom that Jesus preaches an “unkingdom,” and Jesus its “unking.” For what kind of king establishes the kingdom described above? Would not such a king be, by all worldly lights, naught but an anti-king, the very opposite of a power-grabbing monarch?

I am convinced that two of the most powerful and radical ideas on which this Unkingdom turn are radical nonviolence and radical hospitality.

I mentioned lex talionis earlier. You will hear this phrase a lot if you spend any time at all in Christian anarchist and/or pacifist circles (like Jesus Radicals or Young Anabaptist Radicals). In short, lex talionis is the law found in the Hebrew Bible of an eye for an eye. When Jesus cites this law, however, he immediately overturns it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also[.]” For centuries (well before the birth of “Christian anarchism,” even) certain Christians have been calling attention to the significance and radical implications of this passage. It may be old hat to some, but I think it is worth reviewing.

In his excellent work Jesus and Nonviolence, Walter Wink argues (and he is by no means the first to do so) that the word that is translated as “resist” is best understood as implying “violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention.”[2] Kurt Willems agrees with Wink’s translation, writing that “antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as ‘warfare’ and is also used in Ephesians 6:13 in the context of active military imagery.”[3] Such an interpretation furthermore confirms the words of Long cited above that Jesus was not teaching private morality but a distinctly social ethic. Indeed, scholars as different as John Howard Yoder and Bart Ehrman agree that Jesus was executed precisely because, in the words of Yoder, he was “a social critic and an agitator.”[4] Ehrman agrees, pointing out that “only two known people were specifically called ‘the son of God.’ The emperor was one of them, and Jesus was the other.”[5]

Jesus was boldly proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, of which he (Jesus) would be the king. It does not get much more subversive than that. “This was the message he delivered to his disciples,” writes Ehrman, “and in the end, it was the message that got him crucified.”[6] Once again, the kingdom that Jesus was preaching – the Unkingdom of which he is the unking – is not a magical other-worldly palace, but a very this-worldly in-breaking and overturning of the kingdoms of the world. And I think we have a role to play in realizing this impossible Unkingdom.

(Otherwise, if Jesus never meant for us to take his words literally, if we are supposed to just sit on our hands and wait for God to come back and fix all of our problems, then I don’t want anything to do with such radically life-denying defeatism. It’s a convenient way to avoid having to accept any responsibility, but it ultimately sounds to me like Gnostic escapism — which, I am convinced, comes down to nihilism in the end.)

Christian anarchists and pacifists argue that Jesus’ teachings imply a refusal to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Responding to violence with violence only results in more violence. As Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence — nothing else.[7] Accordingly, commentators who argue that violent intervention in the Middle East is largely to blame for the rise of ISIS don’t sound too crazy. It’s blowback. Imagine several of your friends and family members, while attending a wedding, are killed by a US drone strike – a strike sent on the shaky suspicion that a militant or two might have been present and which is anyway considered a success because your father and brothers are all over the age of fifteen which is enough for them to classified as suspected militants. What could possibly fuel more anger and resentment toward the US? What better inspiration could there be to join a radical group committed to waging a brutal war with the western world?

Violence begets violence. And it will happen again. I suspect that ISIS knows that if they are able to evoke a violent military response from France that will only mean more recruits for them.

So, what of the bit about hospitality? I mentioned earlier the disturbingly hostile responses to immigrants that we have been hearing recently. Since we never know which Muslims might be secret members of ISIS, the reasoning seems to go, we had better keep them all out. And this fear is, to a certain extent, understandable. But ultimately such xenophobia, if left unchecked, will plant the seeds of fascism.

More to the point, I have been arguing that we are the inheritors of a tradition that teaches radical hospitality. (Here’s a nice list of references.) And that is no hospitality that only welcomes sameness and familiarity, comfort and safety. Rather, as Kierkegaard says,

Your neighbor is every man [sic], for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[8]

Or in the words of Caputo:

We welcome those who are welcome to begin with, not those who are unwelcome. But if hospitality is what we say it is – that is, welcoming the other – then ought it not be a matter of welcoming those who are unwelcome? Should it not extended beyond our neighbors to strangers? Beyond our friends to enemies? Beyond the invited to the uninvited?[9]

Such hospitality is by no means easy, but, then, when was it ever supposed to be? “[I]f you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” That’s the easy part. The hard part is greeting – and loving – one’s enemies (or, in this case, those who look like one’s enemies and therefore inspire the same fearful reaction). Is it risky? Of course! But that is “the madness of the kingdom.”[10] And anyway, “There is always a risk in everything worthwhile.”[11] Is it possible that among the Syrian refugees – men and women trying desperately to save their families from the chaos and death of civil war, as any of us would similarly do – there is a militant Jihadist? Yes, it is possible (although considering the fact that initial reports indicate that most of the Paris attackers were French- and Belgian-born nationals, fears that militants are hiding among refugees from Syria seem pretty exaggerated). Just like it’s possible that your all-American neighbour is a white supremacist who has plans to shoot up a black church.

Either way, as I’ve said, I am convinced that if we let this fear drive us, if we respond only with hostility and violence, we will just exacerbate the problem; not only will we be reinforcing the beliefs of violent militants, but we will be telling the rest of the Muslim community that we are in fact the hateful, hostile, violent society that we are feared to be. A good way to make someone your enemy is to tell them that they are your enemy and treat them accordingly. And, as noted above, it would be very much in the favor of ISIS for us to do so.

If we lose faith in the power of good to overcome evil – love to overcome hatred, compassion to overcome violence, welcome to overcome hostility – then we have lost it all. If we refuse to give up the worldly logic of lex talionis then we have given up on Jesus. He was maddeningly impractical, to be sure. But, then again, revolutionaries always are. Revolutionaries are the ones who call for the impossible — who demand that we make the impossible possible. That’s what I want. The possible is easy. The possible is lex talonis. I want to push against the limits of the possible and challenge the status quo, a desire that I take to be at the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Appendix (of interest to those concerned with matters of biblical exegesis):

I can foresee the objection that Romans 13 gets us off the hook of having to take Jesus literally and assures us that Jesus’ teachings aren’t that crazy. Anyone who has ever made a habit of talking about Christian anarchism and/or pacifism has grown accustomed to responding to this objection on a pretty regular basis (as in, every time the words “Christian anarchism and pacifism” cross your lips). The passage has been addressed many, many times, and there are many, many interesting points that could be raised, and but so I will try to keep my comments here short.

(Though in a very real sense I have no dog in this race — in the end my views are unaffected by what Paul may or may not have said — I think it is important to discuss alternative interpretations of this passage so that a more coherent Christian position on nonviolence and the state can be sketched out. Why do I care about finding a “coherent Christian position”? Because, as I’ve suggested, I think there are riches in the teachings of Jesus which tend to be swept under the rug because it is thought (implicitly, though it is not explicitly said) that Paul’s teachings trump those of Jesus.)

For one thing, I think it’s a little odd that I am supposed to not take Jesus literally on the basis of seven verses written by Paul (and a few more written by Peter, of course). True, the latter half of Romans 12 is basically a verbatim recitation of the Sermon on the Mount, but Romans 13:1 signals a rather strange departure from this. After all, Jesus never said anything of the sort (not even, I maintain, in the (in)famous “render unto Caesar” passage). First and foremost, then, I think that Christians should privilege Christ (this is not to advocate some kind of anti-Paul Jesusism, per say, just what seems to me like a perfectly legitimate method of prioritization).

One interesting interpretation that I think is particularly worth pointing out is that of Kevin Daugherty, who argues that it is in fact an unfounded assumption that this passage is referring to governing authorities at all. The Greek, he says, does not necessitate such a reading. Instead, Daugherty suggests, the passage could perhaps be better understood to be referring to religious authorities who wield a symbolic, spiritual sword, “Unless of course, Ephesians 6:17 means that the Holy Spirit can literally cut me.”[12]

What is helpful about such an interpretation is that it quells cognitive dissonance over how Paul could quote Jesus’ Sermon and then so suddenly seem to contradict it. Indeed, Paul himself clearly did not believe that obeying the governing authorities was of overwhelming importance, and the rulers clearly did execute wrath upon him, in spite of his “good conduct.” Accordingly, if we want to give Paul the benefit of the doubt (which, admittedly, I don’t always want to do – especially when he talks about women) this reading would be the way to go.

But even assuming the traditional translation the passage does not have to be read as condoning all forms of state violence (i.e., military, police, capital punishment). John Howard Yoder points out, for example, that “The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority. It was not the instrument of capital punishment,” nor was it “the instrument of war,”[13] so the passage has nothing to do with war or Christians’ involvement therein. Furthermore, Yoder writes, “verses 3-4 did not include any services that the Christian is asked to render”[14]; rather, these verses describe the authority as carrying out a function “which the Christian was to leave to God”[15], meaning, in other words, that the role taken up by state authorities is one which can only rightly be claimed by God and therefore state authorities have no claim on the allegiance of Christians.

Once again, we have a reading that does not so blatantly contradict the teachings of Jesus and is therefore preferable. Indeed, this makes perfectly good sense considering that the early Christians were followers of a man who had gone around declaring himself king of this crazy new kingdom and subsequently got himself killed for doing so. Of course authority only comes from God – which is bad news rather than good news for the state and those who would seek to morally justify it.

This turned out to be quite a detour into Christian anarchist and pacifist debates, but I think it is all relevant to my original point. I am fully and painfully aware that there are aspects of the debates that I had to leave out, but – believe it or not – I was really trying to be concise.

 


 

Notes

[1] D. Stephen Long, “What About the Protection of Third-Party Innocents? On Letting Your Neighbors Die,” in York and Barringer, 21.

[2] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 13.

[3] Kurt Willems, “Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2),” available from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/02/07/nonviolence-101-resistance-is-futile-or-the-meaning-of-ἀντιστῆναι-part-2/ (accessed 2 August 2014), para. 7.

[4] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (2nd Edition), (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 1.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 225.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections From A Christian Perspective, translated by Cecilia Gaul Kings, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 100.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, translated by Howard and Edna Hong. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[9] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 76.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kevin Daugherty, “Romans 13 and the State,” available from http://mennonerds.com/romans-13-and-the-state/

[13] Yoder, 203.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 198.

 

Marco Rubio, Capitalist Logic, and the “Value” of Philosophy

In the fourth Republican presidential debate last night, Marcio Rubio said (now famously) that “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” As with prior comments regarding the worthlessness of the humanities, the response to Rubio has been swift, and justifications and arguments for the value of philosophy are being provided with passion and vigor. However, I think Rubio’s comments have implications for much deeper issues than simply whether or not philosophy is “worthwhile.”

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: What makes something worthwhile or valuable? As philosophers object to Rubio and argue that, in fact, philosophy is valuable, they are employing the exact same logic that Rubio is employing in arguing that philosophy is not valuable — namely, the logic of capitalism. It’s pretty simple to lay this out:

Premise 1: The measure of a thing’s value is money (i.e., the question of the “value” of something is ultimately a question of how much money it’s worth).
Premise 2: Accordingly, if a thing is not worth any money it is, effectively, worthless.
Premise 3: Philosophy is not worth any money.
Conclusion: Philosophy is worthless.

In trying to prove Rubio wrong, philosophers are implicitly accepting the first two premises and simply disagreeing with premise three. If we change premise three (the argument goes) to read, “Philosophy is worth money,” then the conclusion “Philosophy is worthwhile” will necessarily follow.

But I think there are some real problems with this (and perhaps those problems are clear at this point). I think it is absolutely true that, for capitalism, money is the only intrinsically valuable thing. Everything else — including human beings — is measured against the value standard of money. Hence, if I do not work and therefore do not contribute to the maximization of profit I do not “deserve” food, shelter, healthcare, etc. — which is to say, I do not “deserve” to live — which is to say, I am not intrinsically valuable. And hence, furthermore, I have been reassured (by capitalists) that capitalists do not like slavery “because it’s not profitable.” The question, in other words, is not whether or not slavery is immoral, but whether or not it is profitable.

I imagine it is clear at this point where I am going. When we say that philosophy is valuable because it’s profitable we are still conceding that philosophy’s value is totally relative and can only be measured against capital. What happens, then, if Rubio wins the debate and proves that, empirically, philosophy is not worth much money? Those who were arguing for the monetary value of philosophy would have to concede that, in fact, philosophy is not valuable. And perhaps in a few years the market will change and philosophy will be worth money, at which point the philosophers will be able to proclaim, “Now philosophy is worthwhile.” (Until the market changes again, that is.)

And, by the same token, if I could have demonstrated that slavery was in fact more profitable (not a difficult thing to do), my capitalist interlocutors would have been perforce obliged to concede that slavery is therefore valuable (literally! Because cheaper labor means more profit which means more value!)

I am reminded of a wonderful passage from Heidegger (which I am tempted to recite every time someone asks me what I am going to “do” with my philosophy degree):

You often hear such remarks as “Philosophy leads to nothing,” “You can’t do anything with philosophy,” and readily imagine that they confirm an expression of your own. There is no denying the soundness of the two phrases, particularly common among scientists and teachers of science. Any attempt to refute them by proving that after all it does “lead to something” merely strengthens the prevailing misinterpretation to the effect that the everyday standards by which we judge bicycles or sulphur baths are applicable to philosophy . . . granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?

According to the logic of capitalism, philosophy may or may not be valuable at any given time. However, I maintain that philosophy, like human beings, needs no external justification (like money) for being considered valuable (I am still forced to use the economic term, “value!”) and I therefore will not try to demonstrate to Rubio and friends the value of philosophy. We would be ships passing in the night, for, in the absence of dollar signs, they would see no conceivable way that I could reasonably continue to argue that philosophy is valuable. I, on the other hand, would be unwilling to employ the rationality of: Money = Value, and No Money = No Value.

I don’t care whether or not philosophy is worth any money — that question has absolutely no bearing whatsoever upon my decision to value it.

If We Want Democracy, We Need Socialism

In my experience, the basic difference between capitalism and socialism is often missed. Capitalism, it is thought, represents free markets, consumer choice, personal liberty, etc. And socialism represents “big government,” state intervention, and a utilitarian sacrifice of the individual in favor of the “greater good.”

At bottom, however, the distinction is much simpler: It comes down to the question of who owns the means of production. Capitalists advocate private ownership of the means of production, whereas socialists advocate collective ownership. As I argued in the previous post, collective ownership is democratic and private ownership is plutocratic.

Some time ago, I offered an overview of the Marxian critique of alienated labor and I think it gets to the heart of this issue. Private ownership of the means of production goes like this: A capitalist, seeking to make profit, purchases a factory and the equipment necessary to make a product which can then be sold in the marketplace. The capitalist then hires workers to come in and use this equipment to make said product. The capitalist repays the workers in the form of wages, but, in order to ensure the maximum amount of profit possible, he [the capitalist] drives the workers’ wages down as much as possible so that he can extract the surplus value of their labor and keep it as profit. This is what we call exploitation.

The long and short of it is that the workers are selling themselves to the capitalist in exchange for wages, which will then (hopefully) allow the worker to purchase life’s basic necessities (i.e., food, shelter, healthcare, etc.) on the marketplace. But to say that one’s basic necessities must be purchased is to say that one’s freedom must be purchased. It is after all undeniable that someone who has good food, is healthy and well-educated has greater access to opportunity than someone who does not.

The private ownership of the means of production, in other words, turns everything — including human lives — into a commodity. It is said that workers are free, but of what does this freedom consist? The freedom to sell oneself to this capitalist or that one? Either way, one can expect low wages, for not only does the capitalist seek profit for himself, but must also be competing with other companies, which means products must be sold at the lowest price possible (thereby cutting into the workers’ wages even more) and strategically planned obsolescence ensures that consumers will continue to purchase new products in the years to come.

All the while, Marx argues, the worker is alienated from herself, from her labor, from the product of her labor, and from her fellow workers, all of which have been turned into commodities. Contrary to popular belief, socialists maintain that human beings need meaningful work, which capitalism all too often denies us. We are forced to work mindless, meaningless jobs, creating and selling worthless, mass produced products, and competing with our fellow workers to make sure that, if anyone is going to be hungry tonight, it will not be me. It is therefore hardly surprising that we need external incentives to work these jobs!

What we need instead, I argue, is a world in which people can freely choose work that is meaningful to them without having to worry about whether or not it will put bread on the table. And who can do better work in any given field than someone who is doing it because they are truly passionate about it? (It is true that this model would likely result in the demise of the fast food industry, but something tells me we will find the strength to carry on.)[1]

And here we find another fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism: individualism versus social holism. Socialists maintain that human beings are always and already social creatures. The cinematic, atomized, asocial, rugged individual is, according to this view, simply a fiction. This is important because it means that things are better for everyone involved when everyone has access to life’s basic necessities (crime rates, for example, drop significantly when everyone has access to food, education, and healthcare).[2] It is not forced “charity”; it is living together as social creatures. And despite the fact that we are indoctrinated from day one with “rugged individualism” and talk of the evils of “human nature,” I think that the evidence overwhelmingly favors social holism.[3]

The common notion, then, that I begin as a “private individual” who can “freely choose” to enter into contracts with other private individuals to exchange goods and services is, I think, deeply flawed. On this line of thinking, social interaction is nothing more than enlightened self-interest, rather than a fundamental part of being human. And if this individualist model is correct, it is easy to see why I should think I have no necessary responsibility to my fellow human beings.

And this detached individualism is precisely what capitalism requires. Altruism does not maximize profits — not directly, at least. Maximization of profit is, after all, the single and fundamental law of capitalism. And whether it is altruism or egoism that best serves this purpose seems to be utterly irrelevant. So while it is true that the “free market” may at times decide to favor the well-being of the people, it is only insofar as this course of action can be shown to be the most profitable. Placing inherent value in anything — including human beings — other than profit is fundamentally anti-capitalist. I see no way around this conclusion.

It is also commonly objected that the radical egalitarianism of socialism forces equality upon society. But exactly what unnatural equality is being enforced by ensuring that everyone has access to life’s basic necessities? Can one be more or less equal in regard to needing food? It seems to me that this is to say that human beings are not inherently valuable. After all, how can we affirm the inherent value of human life while requiring that one “earn” the things required to sustain said life? If we are not naturally equal in our deserving access to these necessities, we are not naturally equal in value as persons.

This is not to say that “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.” Food is not a trophy. And to say that ensuring that all have access to life’s basic necessities is to “force equality” seems to be tantamount to affirming Social Darwinism (i.e., the strong, naturally unequal insofar as they are able to easily access life’s necessities, and bearing no responsibility to the weak, will succeed, while the weak, naturally unequal insofar as they are unable to easily access life’s necessities (whether through physical or mental disabilities, socioeconomic situation, etc.) will perish or be “weeded out”).

In the end, I see capitalism as deeply immoral. And while individual cases of its success may be presented (I do not deny that capitalism works perfectly well for some people — and not just greedy schmucks, but some honest, hardworking folks as well), an examination of the philosophical ideas that underpin capitalism demonstrates (quite conclusively, in my view) that the harms far outweigh any benefits. To reject capitalism is not to reject liberty and free choice, but instead exploitation, hierarchy, and otherwise anti-social, anti-democratic values.

Contrary to popular belief, socialism can offer a morally legitimate alternative. Personally, I do not advocate “state socialism,” but rather libertarian socialism, for I believe that worker-ownership of the means of production should mean just that — worker-ownership, not state ownership. In fact, “state socialism” is essentially capitalistic, in my view, insofar as the means of production are privately owned by a single entity (i.e., the state).

If we want democracy, we need socialism — libertarian socialism to be precise.

For further reading on contemporary experiments in collective ownership, check out Mondragon and Marinaleda.


 

[1] I, for example, am currently pursuing a career in professional philosophy. I am fully aware of the fact that this is a risky endeavor, but I would rather take a risk to do something I love and am good at than to simply take a job that I know guarantees a steady paycheck. If this does not work out for me and I am unable to find a job, there are many who will say that it is my own fault for choosing such a difficult profession. In other words, it is my fault for foolishly choosing what I love over what pays well. Apparently I am to submit to the demands of the market first and foremost. Unfortunately, the instrumental rationality of the market places little value in things such as philosophy, and literature, so I suppose I am simply out of luck if my passions and talents lie in the humanities. A free market indeed!

[2] See, for example, this study.

[3] See, for example, the work of Frans de Waal.

Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

Apparently, my ongoing–albeit intermittent–“Notes On Anarchism” series has morphed into a way to (attempt to) briefly and succinctly respond to frequently asked questions regarding anarchism (and socialism more generally).

Thus, today I am taking up the annoyingly common objection that, because man (it is always man–I suppose the jury is still out on woman) is inherently evil, socialism (especially libertarian socialism) could never work, because man [sic!] would have to be inherently good. Therefore, it is concluded, the state is necessary and capitalism is our best bet economically.

What I find particularly odd about this objection is that it seems to be essentially saying that, because humans are inherently evil, we should–indeed, we must–build an economic system that encourages greed, selfishness, and the valuing of profit above all else (i.e., capitalism); and that, furthermore, we should give some of these inherently evil people a monopoly of force over the rest of society. If it is true that humans are inherently evil, this hardly seems like a solution.

Secondly, the “inherently evil”-“inherently good” dichotomy is, in my opinion, a red herring. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do people always say to me, “Well, either you believe people are inherently good or you believe that people are inherently evil.” My question is: Why should we assume that people are inherently anything? This thinking strikes me as incredibly reductionistic, and I have addressed it in further detail, spelling out what I take to be serious problems with the idea of “human nature” here.

Now, to be clear, I do believe that empathy and mutual aid are an “inherent” (if we must use that word) aspect of the human species, developed over the course of evolution and without which we would never have survived. I absolutely believe that humans are social creatures and that if anarchy (in the pejorative sense) were to prevail, most of us would probably not run around killing, raping, and pillaging (and if the threat of the state’s use of force is the only thing that prevents you from doing so, I don’t think I want to hang out with you.) There is, to my mind, plenty of good and convincing evidence for all of this. Why, for example, is the lack of empathy (i.e., psychopathy) considered psychologically aberrant? Why is it so damaging for soldiers who experience firsthand the ravages of war? Why do babies who aren’t held enough often become psychopaths? Because we are social creatures!

The principles of “rugged individualism” and Social Darwinism still enjoy a considerable amount of prominence among right-wing politicians, but, quite simply, I think the evidence is completely and utterly lacking that these ideas come anywhere near accurately describing the human species and how we relate to one another. I have written on this in more detail before as well.

So, no, I don’t think people are “inherently good”, but I also don’t think people are “inherently evil.” Such reductionistic categories ignore perfectly good evidence to the contrary, as well as encourage vacuous thinking when approaching social and political problems. (I.e., “There is a lot of crime, which obviously just means that people are inherently evil”, rather than, “There is a lot of crime; why might that be? What social, political, economic, or other forms of power relations might be contributing to that?” To say nothing of asking what the historical evolution is of such ideas as “human nature”, what kinds of social and historical contingencies surrounded and contributed to the development of those ideas, how one’s own social and cultural background might be contributing to one’s adherence to these types of ideas, etc. etc.)

Social and political issues are incredibly complex, and, as is clear to anyone who is actually interested enough to do a minimal investigation into the political philosophies of socialism and anarchism rather than just assaulting us with right-wing talking points (if the reader will forgive a brief lapse into cynicism), anarchism and socialism attempt to address these issues with respect for their complexity. Anarchists do not deny that people do bad things, and that they would continue to do bad things in an anarchist society. However, anarchists also believe that there are many, many ways in which current structures–the state and capitalism chief among them–which serve to exacerbate these problems, often to an extreme degree. Capitalism, for example, must discourage and suppress sentiments of collectivity and communality among the working classes, as such sentiments encourage people to work together for mutual benefit rather than for the profit of their capitalist bosses. It is therefore in no way surprising that Milton Friedman said that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

A Pacifist and A Utilitarian Walk Into A Bar

Often when discussing utilitarian ethics, the following sort of hypothetical scenario will be posed as an interesting thought experiment: Say you are at a dinner party with twenty friends and family and suddenly a group of goons bursts in, guns drawn, and informs the group that they will all be killed.  However, if you agree to take one of their guns and kill your closest family member in the room–say, your spouse–the other nineteen people will be spared.  What should you do?

More interesting for my own purposes is the question, what could a pacifist possibly do in this situation to emerge with her pacifist principles intact and unscathed?

I hope that I can safely begin with the assumption that in order for an action to have moral weight, it must be freely chosen.  After all, how can I be accused of acting immorally when I could not freely choose to do otherwise?  And it is precisely upon this assumption that my response–as a pacifist–to this problem depends.

Put simply, I’m not sure how we can meaningfully speak of either one of the possible choices in the above situation as moral or immoral.  As a pacifist, I take human life to be inviolable–never to be destroyed except in the most extreme of cases.  And this, I think, is precisely one such case.  

What, after all, is the real choice in this scenario?  It seems that it is a choice between death and death.  And if, furthermore, human life is inviolable, we could say that the choice is more specifically between two evils of equal measure.  In other words, it is not a choice!  And if there is no choice, I would submit that neither decision can meaningfully be seen as moral or immoral.  

Now, presumably, the utilitarian would say that you should kill your spouse and spare the others, as according to utilitarian logic we must not give preference to our loved ones in choosing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  However, I would take issue with utilitarianism on two points.

First, it’s unclear to me how utilitarians can maintain the inviolability of human life.  And perhaps this is simply not a problem from a utilitarian perspective, but, quite simply, I vehemently disagree with any moral theory that puts the greatest value in anything other than human life–whether that be happiness, money, or anything else.  Without human life, none of these things can possibly hold any value.

Secondly, it seems that utilitarianism–and consequentialist theories more generally–has another fatal flaw in regard to knowledge.  If whether or not my action is moral or immoral depends on the consequences of that action, unless I can look into the future and know with certainty what said actions will be, I will never actually know beyond a guess whether or not my action will be moral or not!  In the above scenario, for example, I could as a faithful utilitarian kill my spouse in order to save the others only to discover that the goons–being goons–were lying and are going to kill everyone else anyway!

Utilitarianism may be practical in certain every day situations, but as a moral theory I think it fails.  At a certain point, we must put aside speculations and hedonic calculii regarding the possible consequences of our actions and do what is right regardless.  

Markets, Meritocracy, and Human Rights

So far as I understand it, one of the chief arguments in favor of unfettered free markets is that they would allow for a true meritocracy.  All who were willing would be able to find work and, as a result, be able to eat, purchase healthcare, have a home, etc.  Putting aside the fact that I do not think that “leaving it to the free market” would in any way result in a meritocratic society—on the contrary, it is plutocracy—I think there is a deeper moral problem with this line of reasoning.

The idea that one’s basic needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare, etc.) should be earned for oneself on the basis of merit—which, in this case, means one’s ability to sell oneself on the market and bring profit to her employer—is, I think, extremely problematic.  First of all, it is unclear to me how this situation is in any way one of freedom.  If one must sell oneself in order to survive, one is not free; one’s labor is forced.  And as David Graeber writes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “It is the great scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”[1]

But, furthermore, (and more to the point), it must be asked: Why does not the simple fact of being human constitute sufficient “merit” to not starve because one cannot afford food, or to live on the streets because one cannot afford a home, or to die in an ambulance because one cannot afford healthcare?  It seems to me that however lazy or unproductive someone happens to be, however little monetary value she may have—which, I should add, is at least as often a result of the “free market” deciding her particular skillset is not presently profitable as it is laziness—one still has the right, in virtue of being human, to have her basic needs met.

“Leaving it to the free market” essentially means, at best, leaving it to luck, and at worst, to the all-too-often merciless greed perpetuated by the religion of profit maximization.  That is no place for human rights.  Human life is not a commodity.  And the fact that we have to sell ourselves to employers, who profit by stealing as much as labor laws will allow from the value of our commoditized labor—and by extension, commoditized lives—simply in order to survive, is ludicrous, unnecessary, and immoral.

And it is not enough to simply advocate regulated capitalism either, which seems to me to be analogous to patching the roof on a home with a faulty foundation and calling it good (the foundation of capitalism being the maximization of profit which, both in theory and practice, seems to necessarily imply a skirting of human rights where there is profit to made.  If, therefore, one values—no economic pun intended—human rights over profit, rather than the other way around, it seems that one has already betrayed the basic logic of capitalism).  The foundation itself must be changed.


[1] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), 350.

Radical Democracy and Theopoetry

In the following passage from “Theopoetic/Theopolitic,” John D. Caputo writes the following:

 What would a political order look like, were the Kingdom able to be reinvented and transformed into a political structure? What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like were there a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top–down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where ta me onta  (I Cor 1:28) enjoy pride of place and a special privilege? What would a political order look like if the last are first, if everything turned on lifting up the lowliest instead of letting relief trickle down from the top? What would it look like if there were a politics of loving one’s enemies, not of war, let alone, God forbid, of preemptive war?

Would it not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus? Are not the figures who publicly parade their self-righteousness, their love of power, and their hatred of the other under the name of Jesus singled out in advance by Jesus under the name of the whited sepulchers and long robes whose fathers killed the prophets? In this connection, it would be amusing—were it not so tragic—to recall that the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”, which provides a cover for the arrogance, militancy, greed and hatred of the Christian Right, is taken from an immensely popular book written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon entitled In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”  Sheldon was an early leader of the Social Gospel movement, and his answer to this question was, in brief, that Jesus would be found in the worst neighbors in the poorest cities serving the wretched of the earth. To do what Jesus would do, would mean to make everything turn on peace not war, forgiveness not retribution, on loving one’s enemies not a preemptive war, on all the paradoxes and reversals that can be summarized under the name of “radical democracy.”

A politics of the Kingdom would be marked by madness of forgiveness, generosity, mercy and hospitality. The dangerous memory of the crucified body of Jesus poses a threat to a world organized around the disastrous concept of power, something that is reflected today in the widespread critique of the concept of “sovereignty”—of the sovereignty of autonomous subjects and the sovereignty of nations powerful enough to get away with acting unilaterally and in their own self-interests. The call that issues from the Cross threatens what Derrida calls the “unavowed theologism” of the political concept of sovereignty by returning us to its root, to its understanding of God, to its underlying or archi–theology. The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics, but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as an unconditional claim or solicitation without power, as a weak force or power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty.

On “Reverse Racism” and “Reverse Sexism”

If you’ve been paying attention to things happening in the world in recent years, you’re undoubtedly aware that there is an ongoing debate about “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism”–viz., are such reversals possible and, if so, are they a problem?  It is perhaps already obvious by my inserting the terms between quotation marks that I am not convinced that such phenomena are real, and, living in the south, this is often a surprising opinion to express when the conversation turns political.  For this reason, I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly explain my reasoning behind this position.

I think it’s important to consider that if racism and sexism simply refer to prejudice based on one’s race or gender, then what black folks and women have historically faced is something much more harmful and pernicious than just racism and sexism.  Indeed, to say that the mere prejudice that can be expressed toward me as a white man by a black person or a woman (which almost certainly would nevertheless present no threat whatsoever to the privilege I enjoy simply in virtue of being a white man) is somehow the same as the historical, systematic domination of black folks and women strikes me as incredibly offensive.

Therefore, I think that either a) what women and black folks have faced is in fact racism and sexism, in which case, unless or until black folks and women systematically dominate and oppress white men for hundreds (or even thousands) of years, it makes about as much sense to speak of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as it does to speak of “reverse antisemitism” when a Jew expresses prejudice toward a Christian.  On the other hand, if b) racism and sexism do in fact refer to nothing more than prejudice based on one’s race or gender, then, as I have said, what black folks and women have historically faced is something much, much worse than racism or sexism.

Either way, we need to acknowledge the difference between everyday prejudice on the one hand, and historical, systematic domination and oppression on the other, and quit ignorantly lumping them into the same category.

Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic

I. The Principle of Mutual Aid

In Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin traces the development of mutual aid through human and animal evolutionary history, ultimately concluding: “That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough.”[1]  “Sociability,” Kropotkin is convinced, “is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”[2] And these claims he supports with an impressive amount of evidence from studies of both animal and human society.  The idea that pre-civilizational human society was characterized by a Hobbesian war of all against all is absurd on its face, Kropotkin argues, and

It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[3]

And furthermore,

The very persistence of the clan organization shows how utterly false it is to represent primitive mankind as a disorderly agglomeration of individuals, who only obey their individual passions, and take advantage of their personal force and cunningness against all other representatives of the species.  Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.[4]

Human beings, according to this view, have not evolved in such a way (as is commonly assumed) that we are all, at bottom, selfish, and that we must be dominated and coerced to prevent us from destroying each other—why, if we are simply selfish by nature, we would ever decide that we shouldn’t dominate and coerce one another remains unclear—but instead are evolutionarily inclined towards mutual aid and egalitarianism.

But surely, it will be objected, this is merely the revisionist history of hippie socialists.  Kropotkin, however, contends that, “not only many aspirations of our modern radicals were already realized in the middle ages, but much of what is described now as Utopian was accepted then as a matter of fact.”[5] However, “The absorption of all social functions by the State necessarily favored the development of an unbridled, narrow-minded individualism”[6], rendering the once-assumed place of the individual as an integral member of the collective whole a vague memory.  Where members of a society would have previously considered caring for the poor, orphan, widow, etc. to be a duty inseparable from social life, these responsibilities were now undertaken (or, rather, ignored) by the state.  “The result is,” Kropotkin continues, “that the theory which maintains that men can, and must, seek their own happiness in a disregard of other people’s wants is now triumphant all round–in law, in science, in religion.  It is the religion of the day, and to doubt its efficacy is to be a dangerous Utopian.”[7]

II. The Kingdom of God

Historically, Kropotkin points out, religion has often served as a challenge to these assumptions of self-interested individualism when they have arisen:

Even the new religions which were born from time to time–always at epochs when the mutual-aid principle was falling into decay in the theocracies and despotic States of the East, or at the decline of the Roman Empire–even the new religions have only reaffirmed that same principle.  They found their first supporters among the humble, in the lowest, down-trodden layers of society, where the mutual-aid principle is the necessary foundation of every-day life; and the new forms of union which were introduced in the earliest Buddhist and Christian communities, in the Moravian brotherhoods and so on, took the character of a return to the best aspects of mutual aid in early tribal life.[8]

It is tempting (and perhaps rightly so) to find in this an understanding of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”[9] as referring precisely to this principle of mutual aid, for, as Kropotkin tediously chronicles in his book, and as he mentions in the above quotation, it is very often among the poor that we still find the mutual aid principle most fully and beautifully realized.

After all, as Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is among[10] you”[11].  That is, the kingdom of the God who is love is, is continuing to be, and is still yet to be, realized among us.  And the clearest hint of where to find this kingdom is given to us when we consider where Jesus spent the majority of his time: among the poor and lowly.  And what is often found among the downtrodden of society is the aforementioned principle of mutual aid, preserved in spite of the rhetoric of self-interest perpetuated by the state.[12]

Furthermore, Jesus constantly emphasizes hospitality and the opening of one’s home to the stranger.  And, taken in tandem with the above considerations, this casts Matthew 25:34-40 in a new light as well:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Christ is found in the face of the stranger.  As Richard Kearney writes, “Love of the guest becomes love of God.”[13] And in this there is no distinction.  As Kierkegaard points out, the commandment to love one’s neighbor is the commandment to love without distinction:

Your neighbor is every man, for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men.  He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[14]

And, consequently, “by being a Christian he does not become free from distinctions, but by winning the victory over the temptation of distinctions he becomes a Christian.”[15] Indeed, this is how Slavoj Zizek suggests that we read Luke 14:26[16]–as teaching the rejection of social, economic, political, etc. distinctions within society[17].  Similarly, Greg Boyd argues for a reading of Luke 24:13-35 as an instance of Jesus appearing as the stranger, and only revealing himself to his disciples once they had opened their homes to the unfamiliar guest—which Matthew 25, as suggested above, equates with being hospitable toward Christ the stranger[18].  Therefore, once the disciples had opened their home to this unfamiliar guest, they had opened their home to Christ.  The two are one in the same, and Christ reveals as much at the end of the passage.

What is the kingdom of God, then?  It is a community predicated on mutual aid and equality; a community that cares for the poor, the widow, and the orphan; a community that shows hospitality toward the stranger; in a word: unconditional love.  And it goes without saying that unconditional love is incompatible with oppression, coercion, greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

The kingdom of God, therefore, truly is, as Mark Van Steenwyk puts it, an (un)kingdom[19].  It is the kingdom of love, we might say.  And a kingdom that is ruled by love—by a king who is love (see Infinite Rebinding II and A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte for further thoughts on what exactly this means)—is hardly a kingdom in the hierarchical, authoritarian sense in which we have come to understand the term.  It is—dare I say?—anarchy.

Notes


[1] Kropotkin, Peter.  Mutual Aid.  (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 246.

[2] Kropotkin, 5.

[3] Kropotkin, 62.

[4] Kropotkin, 71.

[5] Kropotkin, 160.

[6] Kropotkin, 187.

[7] Kropotkin, 188.

[8] Kropotkin, 247.

[9] Luke 6:20

[10] Or within.

[11] Luke 17:21

[12] This is not, of course, to callously suggest that those who are not poor are somehow incapable of practicing mutual aid—there is certainly ample evidence to the contrary—but merely that the ideas of selflessness, of needing one another, and giving to those in need, are all too often ruthlessly stifled by the capitalistic ideals of competition, individualism, self-gain, etc. (which truly amount to, it seems, a thinly veiled valorization of greed).

[13] Kearney, Richard.  Anatheism.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 29.

[14] Kierkegaard, Soren.  Works of Love.  Translated by Howard and Edna Hong.  (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[15] Kierkegaard, 81.

[16] “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (NRSV)

[17] Zizek, Slavoj.  “Love As A Political Category.”  Subversive Festival.  Zagreb, Croatia.  16 May 2013.  Keynote Address.

[18] Boyd, Greg.  “Virtuous Ambiguity.”  Woodland Hills Church.  St. Paul, MN.  11 May 2011.

[19] Mark Van Steenwyk, That Holy Anarchist, (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012), 14.