Liberty Matters

Alienation and Exploitation: Was Marx Engaged in a Moral Argument Against Capitalism?


Virgil Storr argues that even if Marx was not aware of it, his criticism of capitalism is ultimately a moral criticism. Marx's use of the concepts alienation, exploitation, and so on seems to suggest that they carry great normative weight, and to the extent that they expose the unjust nature of capitalism, appeals to justice would demand correcting the system of its injustices. I wish to question this interpretation at least a little bit and by doing so address Virgil's three questions at the end of his essay, which I think are all interrelated.
I believe Marx can be best understood if we see his critique of capitalism not only as an application of his vision of socialism – using his idealized vision of the socialist future as a set of glasses by which to critically judge actually existing capitalism -- but more fundamentally as an application of his ontological view of man, Marx's philosophical anthropology. Marx views man as a praxis being and a species-being (more on this idea below), who ultimately has the power to live freely and creatively, who can rationally and democratically guide and control institutions of his own making. While man has this collective power, or at least the fundamental potential for such power, men and women find themselves in an alienating and exploitative position under the capitalist mode of production, which Virgil correctly discussed and I need not repeat here. It is a key to understanding Marx that alienation is ultimately self-alienation, estrangement -- a structural gap between man's final potential to control society and the reality of living within the anarchic sea of the capitalist mode of commodity production. For Marx, man will only "return to himself" when the commodity mode is completely and utterly abolished and some sort of system of comprehensive economic planning is put into place. Louis Althusser's (2003) objections notwithstanding, I believe Marx's philosophical anthropology undergirds his more "mature" works and his conception of scientific socialism.
As I see it, Marx's philosophical anthropology explains man's present estrangement in capitalist society, and Marx's scientific socialism explains and predicts man's ultimate relief, his ultimate and historically inevitable way out. It is not an issue of immorality and injustice. It's a deeper one of the difference between where man finds himself today and where he will – inevitably – find himself in the socialist future. No appeals to justice will get him there.
In fact, Marx ridicules such appeals. He considers the entire notion of rights and justice to be part of the capitalist superstructure – its towering system of legitimation that seeks to maintain the commodity mode of production. Marx insists that we are confused if we think we can fundamentally transform the system into a more "just" order if we work within the realm of law, regulation, and culture to better man's place in society, to lift people out of exploitation and alienation, say, for example, through redistributive justice or the formation of worker-cooperative societies whether through philanthropic beneficence or state aid. The base, the commodity mode of production, must be abolished. Anything less is fantasy (if not utopian) and merely meliorist.
Marx (and Engels) clearly discuss this in several of their lesser read works, for example, Critique of the Gotha Program (1986 [1875], 10-11):
Rights can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development thereby determined.
Also consider his "On the Jewish Question" (1844):
None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.
Moral critique within the system fails, as we hear from Engels's in Anti-Durhing (1978 [1878], 117-18):
We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate and forever immutable ethical law on the pretext that the moral world, too, has its permanent principles which stand above history and the difference between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.
On the question of going from here to there, we read from Marx and Engels's The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism (1845):
[I]t follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today.
Marx (and Engels) are clearly against any type of justice-oriented reformism. Income redistributionism, unions and cooperative associations, and so on still seek to preserve the dominant mode of production; these approaches do not, and cannot, abolish alienation and exploitation.  Here we have in Marx a true radicalism, a radicalism based not only on Marx's image of a comprehensively planned society, informed in part by his dialectical method of scientific socialism, but also and especially by his primarily ontological view of man, his philosophical anthropology. To fulfill man's praxis potential and reunite his true species-being, capitalism itself must be abolished outright. Socialism or communism is not some justice-filled ideal that man tinkers, haggles, persuades, and reforms his way toward, independent of the materialist forces of history. It is a complete rupture with the present, as Marx and Engels state clearly in The German Ideology (1939 [1846], 26:
Communism is for us not a stable state which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.
So where does this leave us in the context of Virgil's essay? Virgil argues that Marx's analysis is ultimately engaged in moral critique or that, at the very least, it has normative implications. Let me therefore raise the following question: Was Mises's effort a moral critique of socialism when he raised the calculation problem? Are the Austrian criticisms in Hayek's edited book Collectivist Economic Planning (1975 [1933]) moral criticisms of socialism? Not at all. Mises viewed his case against socialism as a positive, value-free exercise in praxeology and economics in particular. To say that Mises didn't quite see that he was (also) engaged in moral criticism misses the point. Now, his effort may have moral, ethical, or normative implications – what should we do (or not do) in light of the calculation problem? But it is not a moral critique. Mises insisted he was engaged in value-free economic reasoning. Similarly, as I see it, Marx's critique of capitalism is not a moral critique, and Marx himself knew that. His was (dare I say) a dialectically "positive" exercise in his own praxis philosophy in general and scientific socialism in particular.
May it also, like Mises's critique, have normative implications? Yes. But understand here, I insist that Marx was a radical, not a meliorist. And, it is crucial to note, while people inspired by Mises might act upon their wills and give up on socialism, elect classical liberals to office, adopt a freer market system, and so on, for Marx the abolition of capitalism cannot be willed into action. The capitalist mode of production has to dialectically move into a final crisis stage before a successful revolutionary change can occur. If Marx has a normative, moral mission in his lifework, it is fundamentally a revolutionary morality. Those who are inspired by Marx today, say, democratic socialists in the U.S., fail to appreciate the true radicalism of his message. They themselves would be subject to unrelenting criticism from Marx, just like the contemporaries of his time.
Which leads me to Virgil Storr's three questions. In answering them briefly, due to space constraints, I will now state clearly that Marx's philosophical anthropology is simply and completely false. Marx's view that "man" can – and ultimately will -- "return to himself" through comprehensive economic planning fails in light of the calculation and knowledge problem because the central planning board itself is an office of grotesque pretenses. In fact, I believe Marx should have been horrified himself of such an office, as the board would act as one universal capitalist, dictating its plans from the top down. But even decentralized and self-managed comprehensive planning – which Marx may have been more comfortable with – fails for knowledge-based reasons as well. (On this, see Prychitko [1991] and the first several chapters in Prychitko [2002].) If man cannot rationally and comprehensively plan the system, then it is not true that people are "stuck" in an alienated system, blocked from "returning" to themselves, or that, in Virgil's view, Marx's implicit moral condemnation of capitalism may still hold. Instead, there simply is no alienation as Marx defined, understood, and condemned it.One can only be "blocked" from that which is possible; one cannot be blocked from that which is impossible to ever achieve. (Nor does the concept of exploitation, as Marx defined, understood, and condemned it, pass muster in light of his false labor theory of value and his theory of surplus value.)
In conclusion, if comprehensive planning, of any variety, is epistemically impossible, then Marx's view of man is false and his scientific critique of capitalism, as well as its normative implications (if any), is completely misguided. Critics of capitalism may do best by looking elsewhere.