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Last Updated: 2/21/2023

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Further Reading:

  • Chapter 18 of Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm
  • Avant-Garde and Kitsch by Clement Greeneberg

What is art? Over a hundred years ago — in the era of Repin and Monet — this would've been a lot easier of a question to answer. There was a very specific form that art was associated with (painting/sculpture), a very specific function, a very specific meaning, and very specific conventions when it came to its content and expression. If I showed Napoleon a Michelangelo, he would not doubt for a second that it was a work of art.

However, in the modern age we can't really take that for granted anymore. On a conventional and aesthetic level, avant-garde and postmodern movements very much consciously pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Technology shook things up formally in that radio and television would come to dominate as the artforms of the century. The economics of art shifted from a past-time of the educated aristocracy into the domain of the middle-class markets. There were even instances in which art was no longer confined to the gallery.

All the things by which the common man could say “that is art” suddenly were not in agreement with the gallery's definition of art. Is it art on Pollock's canvas, when he himself painted with no subject in mind? When Haans Hacke takes a printer and imbues it with a certain meaning, is it as easy for us to say that that is art? What about when Walter de Maria arranges lightning-rods in the middle of the desert, as to make art out of the lightning between them? Is that art?

Not even the element of education, connection to the artist, or uniqueness survived either. With the advent of pop art, Warhol began to create works specifically designed for mass consumption using mass production techniques. Warhol sought not to prove himself in the realm of meaning as other painters had long did, but rather instead embrace the simplicity of taste and produce things devoid of meaning, slappable on a t-shirt, on a wall, anywhere. And when you purchased a Warhol, there was no guarantee you'd even be purchasing something by him, as his works were rapid-fire and mass-produced by an assembly line's worth of people.

In our modern era, it has gotten to the point where we're so accustomed to this pushing of limits that Jeff Koons can pass off a simple balloon dog as high art and it's accepted.

The notion of such things being art have long offended and sparked debate. It's easy to see why, as they completely problematize the formal foundations we've come to rely on. How do we tell art without the subject, without the gallery, without the paintbrush, without the artist himself?

1. The Traditionalist Answer (section in-progress)

Taking it a step further, what even is art? For the traditionalist, this question is easy to answer: true art is Michelangelo's David. It's either an immaculate painting or a fine marble statue, and no amount of modernist perversion changes that. What is the conservative argument against Pollock? “Just look at it.” This is unsurprising, as conservative epistemology has long relied on simplicity and common-sense intuition. This is not a bug, but a feature, as it acts as a bulwark against the ability for more abstract and theoretical foundations to obfuscate complete BS.

After all, this isn't rocket science, this is aesthetics: the study of beauty. Why should we look down on the common man's ability to instinctually discern it? What makes an ability to recognize good art any more exclusive than say, an ability to recognize good cooking? Sure, food critics exist just as art critics do, but everyone else has taste buds too. The old trope of this special taste of “the meals prepared back home” came not from critics but commoners.

It's a rather simple and sensible answer, and one which was taken for granted for the bulk of history. But with the advent of the modern era, this was no longer possible. Not because of modernist ideology or any such change in social values, but rather instead something much more fundamental: industrialization.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it some key social changes which would inadverdently impact popular aesthetics:

  • Urbanization, and with it the displacement of a previously rural population into an alien and isolated environment
  • Mass-production techniques, and with it the rise of a consumer society dominated by the middle-class
  • The decline of the old aristocracy, and the rise of the aforementioned middle-classes

The combination of all of these things gave rise to a new artistic phenomenon known as “kitsch”:

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday.

Kitsch is best defined as artistic simulacra, it is that which attempts to act as a “shortcut” to the social relations surrounding art. The actual artistic content itself is secondary, what matters is everything else we associate with art except the art itself.

What do I mean by “social relations surrounding art”? I refer to all the “functional” aspects of art. Art as a way to signal prestige or culturedness, art as an attempt to reclaim authenticity, art as a political or moral statement, etc.

Kitsch is distinctly industrial in that these feelings/relations it tries to invoke is done so in a standardized way, according to formulas and sold as generically as possible. No longer was art commissioned by any one king or noble with his peculiar tastes, but rather instead consumed by a general middle class with broad appeal in mind. It parasitically adopts the style of established traditions not for any of their inherent properties but for the intellectual vogue it's able to signal.

The same Academic techniques which were employed by the masters of the 18th century were now being mass-replicated into countless nameless, generic paintings born less out of individual vision and more out of market demand.

It is through repetition that which originally provoked such an intense emotional reaction loses both its meaning and emotional intensity. This sort of traditionally envisioned, sublime encounter we have with a great work of art ceases to be possible when it loses both its uniqueness and specificity.

When we have Hall of the Mountain King being played in cartoons or Frankenstein showing up in Halloween advertising, we regard these things as cliche? Why? Is it because of something inherent in their original substance? Of course not, both of these held a genuine sway when the public first encountered them. It's cliche because of the continued process of repetition: such things begin to detach themselves from their context and become fundamentally generic.

Reduced to the generic, such works can only signal certain concepts. Thomas Kinkade painting a bucolic landscape can give us an idea of how we're supposed to respond to it: we can see that it signals the good old days, some sort of bucolic authenticity, etc.

But does it actually genuinely, primordially evoke that in us, or does it simply signal “oh, I am supposed to respond this way”. Is there anything even particularly distinct or inspired about Kinkade's work that separates it from what I'd find on a puzzlebox? The fact that I can find something functionally identical on any mug, any puzzlebox, or any children's book speaks to that character of repetition again. It also explains why I have zero emotional response: when I see this I don't see the painting itself. What I see is the function such class of paintings are meant to serve in our society and all the objects it is associated with.

The middle classes who flocked to these paintings were less interested in genuine encounter with the painting as much as filling the house with another prop. Why do such a thing? Because it signals to others something about you.

Kinkade marketed his paintings as being emblematic of traditional Christian values and as a return to “true art” from all the modernist experimentation. Those who bought in were also often evangelical Christians, viewing their purchase of such a commodity as proof of adherence to these values. Never mind the fact that you could literally walk into a Thomas Kinkade store at your local shopping mall, by having this in your house, you were telling both your guests and yourself what kind of person you are.

My Marxist readers may notice this is quite literally the definition of spectacle, social relations being mediated by commodities via the medium of imagery.

And this is where we have to turn our critiques back on the traditionalists: the charge has long been that kitsch is fundamentally reactionary. I would like to posit the reverse: reactionary ideology is fundamentally kitsch.

What the evangelical hero Kinkade and internet fascists sporting avatars of marble statues have in common is that their preoccupation is formal. Their focus is stylistic: reflected in their attempts to recreate and analyze the old tradition, we see they conceive of art as an ensemble of motifs.

And it's through this lens we can come to understand why a painter such as Norman Rockwell so captures the conservative imagination. When you look at a Rockwell painting, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

1950s America and all of its associated motifs. Family, order, sentimentality, patriotism. Republican Newt Gingrich would make it a point to speak of his family in “Rockwellian” terms, presumably to associate his own politics with such motifs.

But here is the interesting thing. Rockwell himself was famously apolitical. He regarded any attempt to discern his politics as a sign that he had “failed as a professional”. Keep in mind that while nostalgia can now be seen as a motif of Rockwell paintings, he was originally painting for an audience living in the exact same era. This is why for every family dinner you see him paint, you also see allusions to civil rights.

So, then why does it capture the traditional imagination as so? Well, it has to do with that fact of the 1950s.

2. The Postmodern Answer (section in-progress)

It's a question worth asking in an era such as our own, where irony has so completely permeated our culture that the lines between high art and kitsch have been fully blurred, a world in which the most ardent traditionalists come from the illiterate middle classes as opposed to an educated aristocracy, a world in which we are literally asking ourselves whether or not AI are capable of producing “true art”? In a postmodern world in which the high ideals and mythological enchantment of old has been extinguished in favor of a therapeutic cynicism, can we still speak of such lofty things such as art?

It should come as no surprise to us then that in an environment such as ours, that the most common answer to this question seems to be a subjective one: death of the author, meaning is what you make of it.

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...It is a basic fact that any work of art is both created and seen (or experienced via whichever sense is suited to the medium, to be more accurate).

Another basic fact is that the actual, physical content itself is objective. When I look at the Mona Lisa, I'm looking at the same shapes, colors, and brushstrokes as you are. It's not as if you can somehow percieve your way into the painting having a circular frame.

3. The Social Answer

I want to take a step and and answer the question in objective terms, putting aside these high-minded philosophic questions of aesthetics and beauty for a second. I want to simply ask — in a literal, functional sense — what does art do?

Thinking in such terms, and putting aside value judgements should allow us to narrow down the field of potential definitions. One of the biggest issues with these discussions is that many attempt to conflate the questions of “what is true art” and “what is good art”, but doing this only unnecessarily obfuscates things. One can draw a line in the sand on where art must stop, but it's ultimately meaningless if left as a subjective value judgement completely detached from what the rest of the world is doing.

As discussed above, formal characteristics are insufficient alone as a basis for understanding art. With modern art, the canvas hasn't remained, the subj ect hasn't remained, but what has remained is still the gallery. There's still tastemakers, high price tags, conventions, and a whole culture surrounding high art, just as there was 100 years ago.

Quite possibly the one defining trait we can give to art is that it appears to be useless. Even in the most ridiculous examples of modern art, such as Jeff Koons stacking two vacuum cleaners on top of each other, we can still see the uselessness present within its situation.

The vacuum cleaners are placed within a glass box, away from touching. If you were to try and start using the vacuums to clean up your house, you'd likely get scolded by Koons for “ruining the work”. Why is that though? Probably because if we were to interact with it, it would return to the realm of object and we'd realize there's really nothing separating this from the countless other cleaners of the same model once produced.

Are we at the point where we could take a toothbrush, stick it on a pedestal, and call it a work of art? Probably. But you can't call my toothbrush a work of art. Why is that? Because of how I interact with it. I'm constantly sticking it in my mouth, I'm constantly interacting with it as a tool, something which serves a definite, clearly defined purpose towards some end. How is this gonna go in a gallery or be critiqued when I need it every day in my bathroom? What, is every single patron going to share the experience of using the same brush? Then it'd cease to serve the function of an ordinary toothbrush.

Really, it's the designated spot as opposed to the work itself which really is where the definition is contained. Every work of art has a gallery, if not that, then a wall.

We see this definition holds up against even spatial edge cases. When Gordon-Matta Clark cuts holes in ruined buildings, we still recognize it as art, even if it's not contained within a gallery. But even if it's not contained within a gallery-proper, the social rules of the gallery still apply.

Formally, this work is no different from any regular abandoned building (characteristic of social waste), nor is it necessarily experientially. As Zizek points out, one can find in interacting with waste a powerful emotional and creative experience.

It is socially where we see the difference. In this hypothetical regular ruined building, it's not much of a deal if I trespass. It's not a big deal if I squat there, because the building is essentially waste. In a Matta-Clark building this is not the case. The Matta-Clark building is meant to be looked at, appreciated with a certain level of distance. It is in this, we must return to this idea that the uselessness of art is apparent.

Something truly useless, such as an abandoned building, allows full freedom of interaction, as there is no defined way to interact with it. There are no rules, as rules are always oriented towards some end. There are no boundaries, as in a society which is hyper-functional, its belongs nowhere. It's very existence is an infringement upon boundaries, so to step into it is to step into unknown territory. It is in such a space, unbounded by definition that the mind is able to roam and reflect upon itself. Purpose can be seen as symbolic of the objective world and its constraints, whereas its absence leaves the subjective alone, in a state of alterity.

Even in interpretation, we lose a bit of freedom when we have to consider the intent of Matta-Clark. The giant holes hang there as an elephant in the room, influencing whatever meaning we are to discern from it. This is usually where the critics pour in, piecing together their contextual clues to decode the piece as if it is a puzzle. They'll speak of emptiness of urban life, decay, and so on, these are all still presuppositions which shape how we are supposed to relate to it.

But then that means that any work of art which totally embraces this freedom is functionally no different from trash. Clearly some level of concreteness is needed for meaning.

4. Art as Communication (section in-progress)

Perhaps the aim of art is to recreate this freedom not in an accidental but rather instead a purposeful fashion. To capture that otherworldly moment and direct it back to Earth, to make it relevant. To take that moment of aesthetic contemplation and render it communicable, to take subjective reflection and turn that into a subjective response to the objective world.

In medieval art, we see memento mori, a constant reminder of the limits objective realities (death being the supreme example) place on us. In it we see how art communicates religious truths, with the art adorning Cathedrals often acting as a Gospel substitute to illiterate masses. We see mythical elements employed as emblematic of an enchanted world, in which both the fear and wonder of the Unknown struck a population which lacked full scientific knowledge.

For the Academic artists, their works were characteristic of the Enlightenment philosophy: a supreme confidence in the total coherence between our rational minds and a perfect, orderly world. We see this communicate the mission of striving towards an objective ideal.

For the Expressionists, we saw this question answered yet again, but this time differently. The objective world is viewed as a constraint in its finitude, shackles upon an infinite mind. Art here is seen as a protest against the restraints of externality, a demand for total freedom of the mind, expressing that which is ordinary incommunicable.

But who is this communication between? On one hand, while we can see it as a microcosm of a larger dialogue between the Mind and the World, it more literally can be said to be between the Artist and the Audience.

Last updated: 10/5/2022

Thesis: Historically, there has been disagreement within the feminist movement on whether or not embracing or rejecting gender is more conducive towards liberation. The following are scattered notes on the topic.

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Further Reading:

  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

I have spent a strangely large amount of time engaging with feminist literature, especially given that this subject is not at all my main area of interest. Maybe it's out of a desire to understand myself and the people around me, maybe it is due to it being a serious point of tension between my religion and my politics, maybe it is just a rabbit-hole I happened to fall down. You'd think with so much reading, I'd feel more grounded, but if anything I feel like I've come out with more questions than answers. I don't even know if I can necessarily say I'm on two minds about the issue; for all I know I could be on three or four minds.

The sheer ambivalence I have towards the matter makes it very difficult to express coherently in conversation or even properly reflect upon personally. That ambivalence might be a big reason why I've been long wary to avoid identifying with any sort of ideological labels or camps in this manner.

The goal of this essay in my view is not to provide any sort of authoritative or final statement on “how feminism must be”, but to put onto paper the various conflicting ideas in my head and hopefully open up venues for dialogue and self-reflection. This means that certain sections of the essay will contradict each other, often running with the argument in wildly different directions. I'm interested to see what happens if each of these trains of thought are faced with each other, to see if it is possible to make any sense of it that way.

It's intended to be rather scattershot in its structure, however there is still a central theme underlying the work: what is gender and is it inherently harmful? While there's a lot of angles to approach such a topic from, I'd like to focus on the tension between two specific theories: the evangelical idea of complementarianism and the second-wave feminist notion of social construction.

1. Gender in Feminism (section in-progress)

One of the most central and recurring debates within Western feminism (and possibly elsewhere, I'm not informed enough to comment on that though) is whether or not the political aims of women are achieved by through either the emphasizing or minimizing of difference between the sexes.

Feminists themselves could not decide whether or not to base their case on sexual differences. In the 1850s they repeatedly debated this issue at their annual meetings. In reply to the claim that marriage represented the union of opposites, Lucretia Mott declared that “it is the union of similar, not opposite affections, which is necessary for the marriage bond.” In Mrs. Mott’s view, “mind has no sex”; women were rational creatures and enjoyed all the rights associated with reason. At a convention in Syracuse, in 1853, she dissented from the position advanced by Clarina Howard Nichols, that women’s “moral susceptibilities are greater than those of man.” Mrs. Mott “did not believe that women’s moral feelings were more elevated than man’s; but that with the same opportunities for development … there would probably be about an equal manifestation of virtue.” Ernestine Rose likewise rejected arguments based on the “renovating influences of woman.” The case for feminism, she maintained, had to rest not on expediency but on natural rights, specifically on the doctrine that taxation without representation flouted the political foundations of the American Republic.

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It was the radical feminists which really began to properly take this concept of minimizing sex difference to its ends. And it's here where things begin to get really interesting. The first chapter of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex starts with a simple question: what is a woman?

Where are the women?” asked a short-lived magazine recently. But first, what is a woman? “Tota mulier in utero: she is a womb,” some say. Yet speaking of certain women, the experts proclaim, “They are not women,” even though they have a uterus like the others. Everyone agrees there are females in the human species; today, as in the past, they make up about half of humanity; and yet we are told that “femininity is in jeopardy”; we are urged, “Be women, stay women, become women.” So not every female human being is necessarily a woman; she must take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Is it enshrined in a Platonic heaven? Is a frilly petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women zealously strive to embody it, the model has never been patented. It is typically described in vague and shimmering terms borrowed from a clairvoyant’s vocabulary. ...If the female function is not enough to define woman, and if we also reject the explanation of the “eternal feminine,” but if we accept, even temporarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to ask: What is a woman?

When radical feminists refer to gender as being “socially constructed”, it's easy to forget what that exactly entails given how much of a cliche it's become in the modern day. Social construction in this context very much refers to something heteronomous here. You don't simply identify as a gender, you are subject to the process of gendering. If gender was simply a matter of choosing or “pitching” a restructuring of the categories, we'd refer to it as individually, as opposed to socially constructed.

2. Gender in the Bible (section in-progress)

When it comes to interpreting Scriptural views on gender, Christians will typically resort to one of three frameworks: explicit patriarchy, complementarianism, or egalitarianism.

  • An explicitly patriarchal interpretation, mostly upheld by various Church Fathers centuries ago, but still advocated by some fringe groups in the modern day. They argue that there is an innate inferiority on part of women which necessitates a one-sided subordination. While a less common view nowadays, this played a large role in church history, and can be found in the works of many Church Fathers.
  • A complementarian interpretation, which has become popular among modern-day conservative Christians. Complementarians uphold the existence of separate gender roles, but argue that this separation tells us nothing about superiority or inferiority.
  • An egalitarian interpretation, which has found its support among more liberal Christians in the modern age. Egalitarians would argue that there's minimal to no difference in the roles prescribed to men and women and that equality also means equality in kind.

The bulk of the debate in the present day has been waged between the latter two groups, as explicitly patriarchal interpretations have become increasingly politically untenable to defend with the advance of women's rights. Regardless, I'll take a look at all three in part.

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The thing about complementarianism is that it's really only able to speak to male-female relations within a very specific context. Take a second to seriously engage with what goes on beyond that sphere, and the arguments really begin to buckle under pressure.

3. The Debate (section in-progress)

In the realm of theology (especially as we enter the 20th century), we begin to see not just these ideas implemented as a hermuenetic exercise, but as a larger system which has to hold itself accountable to not just textual analysis but the actual real-world dynamics between men and women. As someone who is pretty strongly influenced by neo-orthodoxy, a lot of my reading has been within that sphere. But regardless, this still works out as the writers within this sphere directly tackle the issue of gender difference, with Karl Barth even writing a section on this exact subject in his Church Dogmatics.

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The really unfortunate thing is that while Barth was in a position to address the claims put forth in The Second Sex, he fails to do so, completely dismissing the core of de Beauvoir's argument. He makes the same mistake every other complementarian makes, reading women's experience as the exception rather than the rule. It really makes me question if he read the book, given how much of it he writes off as “some men abusing their authority over women”. That's a massive red flag, given that the bulk of TSS is spent talking about women: women's thoughts, childhoods, aspirations, and anxieties.

It completely misses the point to characterize the work as a chronicle of mistreatment: it's a testament to how femininity itself is alienation, how womanhood is a caste purely defined by what it is not. de Beauvoir surveys all sorts of female archetypes (the Lesbian, the Girl, the Prostitute, the Mother, etc.) to show that this condition is universal rather than situational. To her, it's not merely a matter of women being devalued, it's that womanhood itself is a badge of devaluation. TSS is not just a feminist work, it's also an existentialist one: what's at stake here isn't just a struggle for equality, but a struggle for humanity.

It's a shame because had Barth actually taken her perspective seriously rather than trying to assassinate her in the footnotes so he could continue his sermon, he would find what is by far the most compelling challenge to his argument: rooted not in theological abstracts or scientific inquiry but actual human experience.

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I've always been a bit of a presuppositionalist myself, but this is one of the areas where it becomes instinctually, viscerally impossible to defend. To do so would go against the very fiber of my conscience. The Gospel is not merely a narrative or some sort of Romantic myth, but rather instead the center of reality itself, the actual, literal truth of what stands between the individual and God. If such truth is incommensurable with human experience, then it cannot speak to human beings. If the Gospel cannot speak to human beings, then who the hell is it for?

Any truth which does not just reject, but outright dismisses the abject misery of an entire class of people cannot be called such.

If femininity itself be a sum of contradictions impossible to maintain outside of lies, then

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Ellul, drawing inspiration from Barth, extends the complementarian line of argument into his critique of industrial society, with a rather unorthodox approach to complementarianism.

Although, as we shall see, many feminists would find the role that Ellul suggests for women in his current view utterly sexist, he maintains their superiority. Indeed, as he said to me in 1981, he believes that women and women’s values hold out the only hope for our world. Although some theologians have seen woman’s creation after man’s as evidence of female inferiority, Ellul maintains the opposite: each stage in creation is superior to the previous one, so that woman represents the high point of creation. She is the perfection of man, who was incomplete without her, and the source of his freedom in the sense that he finds freedom in relationship with her. The serpent attacks the woman because she is the head and perfection of creation, not because she is weaker than man.3 According the Ellul, women’s superior values stem more from education and culture than from their genes, which probably play a role in shaping them but do not constitute a determining factor. Since women are excluded from politics, for example, they tend to form relationships based on values other than competition and force. Ellul explores this idea most extensively in The Subversion of Christianity,4 where he also offers his most detailed contrast of men and women’s values. Sometimes he opposes these point by point so that the reader can grasp how he views them: men incline to eros the conqueror, rigid order, morality, power, rationality, pitilessness toward the weak, violence and quantitive values, whereas women favour agape the servant, flexibility, the faith-hope-love trilogy, nonpower, intuition, care for the weak and wounded, nonviolence, and qualitative values.

However, what Ellul has to be wary about is that these gendered archetypes are a hermeneutic, not a governing principle. Just like the way we speak of yin-yang, there's no metaphysical reality underlying dichotomy, it's simply a mode of perception, whether that be cultural, historical, or moral.

Let's try on a different hermeneutic. It just as easily can be argued that these traits represent not the masculine overtaking the feminine, but rather instead the inhuman overtaking the human, steel's dominion over flesh.

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But I do understand why – from a theological perspective – both writers continue to be drawn towards complementarianism. Barth and Ellul come from very similar foundations, both departing from the Calvinist understanding of total depravity. There is an infinitely qualitative distance between humanity and God, reconcilable only through Christ. But what Christ represents is a radical inversion, the light in which our limitations, once reflected, become strength.

We see the righteousness of God in his wrath, the risen Christ in the crucified one, life in death, the 'Yes' in the 'No'. We are able to behold at the barrier the place of exit, and in the judgement the Coming Day of Salvation. We, as believers, stand in the negation of the negation of the suffering of Christ. And hereby a new premiss is provided for our tribulation also. What it first seems nothing but mere human suffering becomes the action of God, the Creator and the Redeemer. The obstacle to our life becomes a stepping-stone to the victory of life. Demolition becomes edification... The prisoner becomes the watchman and darkness is converted into light. We understand the questionableness of life as it is; and we become aware that our limitation and dissolution are inevitable, and no mere chance occurrence. We affirm the negation which says that we are creatures, and we see clearly. We are enabled ot take to ourselves the protest of the creation against the world as it is. (Barth 156)

Within this context, gender difference constitutes a mutual critique. Gender represents a mark of incompleteness, a reminder that we are not Ubermensch. The masculine, in encounter with the feminine, is forced to grapple with its own insufficiencies and force the man to come to terms with the fact that he is not truly independent. In the acceptance of this weakness, he finds he can come to rely on Christ, but also his fellow human beings. This continuous encounter may begin with struggle, but leads to introspection and humility. The same applies in vice versa. This is the essence of agape, a love for humanity among humanity borne out of a recognition of a common standing before God.

It's quite poetic, it fits the essence of the Gospel, and is consistent with Scripture, but once again I have to reiterate the question because it is crucial: is this actually how things are?

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It's also worth noting another common source of inspiration for these men, that being the women close to them in their lives and the influence said women had on their own development. For Barth, it was Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his assistant (and probable lover, but that's for another discussion). For Ellul it was his wife.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with with using one's own personal experiences as reference for an understanding of gender, but it should be noted that if we truly understand such a dynamic to be symmetric, then we need to weigh not just the standpoint of the man in marriage, but also the woman to ensure that everything corroborates.


Last edited: 10/5/2022

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Thesis: Underlying the constant debates over the historicity of the Bible lies a much deeper tension between faith and reason.

Back in 2014, Bill Nye and Ken Ham decided to square off in a debate. Bill Nye is best known as a “science communicator”, a person responsible for presenting scientific consensus and findings in a fashion easily digestible to the public. Ken Ham is a religious apologist and proponent of “creation science”, concerned with presenting Christian fundamentalist worldview in a fashion easily digestible to the public.

Their topic? Whether or not the reality of the Earth's origins corresponds with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. The two clashed back in forth in the ways you'd expect, continuously coming to an impasse on all sorts of issues such as carbon dating and the amount of animals on Noah's Ark.

For the most part I found it uninteresting, but there was a part at the end which really stuck out to me. Towards the end, during the open question section, an audience member asked both men “what would it take to change your mind?” Ham's response was concise: “I'm a Christian”. Nothing would change his mind. Nye's response, however, was simple: “one piece of evidence, that's all it takes.”

I'm not here to relitigate the debate or even weigh in on the creation science debate itself, because I don't have anything interesting to contribute. However, this last statement is what I really want to hone in on, because its implications are really interesting to me. In light of this, the rest of the debate is pretty much meaningless. What's the point of debating or digging up all this evidence if finding it or not finding it makes zero difference to what you believe?

The real point of contention between these men has nothing to do with the age of the Earth or the ways of interpreting fossil records, but something much more fundamental. In a lot of ways, this debate, and this moment is a microcosm of a larger conflict: a conflict on how to approach the nature of knowledge itself.

For Ham, as a religious practitioner, knowledge is not something to arrive at, but the starting point: his perspective is fundamentally presuppositional. He already has it in his mind that divine revelation was compiled literally into the Scriptures. Any other evidence cannot provide further information; it can only reinforce what he presupposed or potentially undermine it.

Whereas for someone like Nye, knowledge is a product of investigation. He starts with methodology, and runs information through that to connect the dots into a larger truth. Whatever the conclusion actually is matters less to him than whether or not the rationale behind the explanation makes sense and meets some standard criteria of validation. This isn't just some “secular science” as opposed to a “creation science”, this is science.

When people often speak of something being secular, they can just mean “separate from religion” or “atheistic”, but that's far too narrow of a definition. To be secular is to take upon a fundamentally indifferent disposition, to not concern oneself with higher truths. The secular man does not simply reject the existence of higher truths, he calls into question whether or not this is something even worth asking.

It's nonsensical to speak of a “secular science” perse because science itself is secular. At its most base level it exists as a set of methods and criteria for acquiring knowledge and assessing its certainty. It in itself does not presuppose any knowledge, nor does it place a priori moral judgements on what happens if A is true as opposed to if B is true. It simply is a machine, which when fed a set of inputs, will give you an output: whether or not it makes sense to call A true, and how certain you can be in such a statement. What you make of said output is up to you to figure out. There are no higher truths in science, just truths. And this applies not just to evolutionary biology either: natural sciences, social sciences, and even some forms of historical analysis have all held themselves to such a standard.

For the scientist, this even permeates the language. While we can't speak of a uniform “scientific definition” for stuff like “truth” or “knowledge”, since that has long been a matter of philosophical debate, we can see type of definitions that are typically gravitated towards. If a scientist defines “knowing” as “justified true belief”, the definition is constructed in a fashion which is in its own way methodological and meant to easily communicate something unambiguous.

Higher truths, on the other hand, are considered higher because they operate on a separate level. When we speak of revelation, we speak of something not just pieced together but delivered. There's no question of “what do we do with this knowledge” because the content of said knowledge in and of itself provides direction. We have a veritable stake in the existence of any higher truth, as a presupposition stands as a bedrock upon which we view the rest of reality. With these truths, we can speak much more confidently about “what we know”, but expressing “how we know” becomes more difficult.

And as a result, how we speak of and define those same terms “truth” and “knowledge” takes upon an entirely different character. If we were to use the scientific version of these terms, we would immediately be speaking of a possibility in which any of these higher truths could end up not being true, the same way arguing the “how” of Newtonian physics implies accepting that if someone showed a superior explanation with a different conclusion, that you would revise your understanding.

Modern Christians have long tried to convince themselves they can somehow bridge the gap between the “what” and the “how” of knowledge, but what they miss is that with the “how” comes the aforementioned possibility, and the very existence of the possibility problematizes revelation.

Virtually all scientific epistemology insists on a separation between belief and truth, and by the standards of what science defines as “objectivity”, the lines between revelation and belief rapidly become blurred. If a certain truth is scientifically objective, I should be able to take all of the observations available on it, present it to any person, and they should be able to logically deduce that my conclusion is the most sensible one. If the nature or source of that knowledge is not something that humans can fundamentally communicate to each other, then it by these standards would be considered “subjective”.

The “how” provides us a level of security, but also communicability. It's no coincidence that the Christians most often in the position of Ken Ham tend to be apologists and evangelists. They're confronted not just with internal theological questions such as “is the Trinitarian view the most scripturally consistent view”, but much baser ones such as “why should I believe, out of all the possible explanations, that the universe was created by the Abrahamic God”? It cannot be taken for granted that the Bill Nyes of the world share the same presuppositions, so it puts us in this very bizarre position to watch the two enter into dialogue.

But here's the thing about dialogue: it's two-sided, hence the “di” prefix. Dialogue is reciprocal, but also symmetrical. There's a continuous push and pull, an implicit agreement that both sides are on some level open to changing their minds should the opposing case be more convincing. If only one side is willing to give, then what you have is essentially preaching. If neither side is willing to give, what you have is two people talking past each other.

But at the same time, the fruits of dialogue are attractive to Christians. It provides us with opportunity to evangelize, validate our own convictions, and even just try to prove to the larger world that we're not idiots. So what a lot of apologists settle for is trying to have their cake and eat it too: selectively using and presenting evidence, but in a way which stops just short of acknowledging the possibility of an alternative truth.

And this is where the battles over the historicity of the Bible come into play. Scripture contains thousands of years of history contained within typically over a thousand pages. If we take this to be a divinely inspired historical witness, and not just simply some collection of allegorical or literary texts, we're not just dealing with some simple moral or metaphysical statement. We are dealing with a collection of countless claims: claims about historical and material reality, claims which are by nature provable or disprovable. And for every hundred claims made, it doesn't matter if ninety-nine turn out to be correct, if even one is wrong, that seriously calls into question the nature of its authority. But at the same time, if one is able to externally validate all hundred, that creates a very attractive proposition. One would be able to evangelize in the language of the Gentile, to demonstrate the merits of Christianity to a non-Christian. This, essentially, would be the holy grail of apologetics.

And through the history of apologetics, you really do get a sense of this duality. When evidence of the Hittite civilization — previously only documented by Scripture — was brought to light, many Christians rejoiced, referring to the archaeologist's spade as the Bible's best friend. But when scholarly consensus concluded that it is highly unlikely that the Book of Matthew was written by Matthew, that became a lot harder to swallow.

So, how did Christians respond? Some insisted that a lot of these areas of contention were overblown, and that Christianity need not conflict with science, but simply revise itself in response to it. Others, however, began to internalize the conflict. They began to conceive of secularity not as a fundamental disposition in human nature, but instead as a sort of conspiratorial, ideological force specifically hostile to everything Christian. Ken Ham has gone on record claiming that “science has been hijacked by secularists who seem to indoctrinate folks in a religion of naturalism”. He spoke of a scientific establishment who routinely persecuted and censored proponents of creation science. What he speaks of is not just an epistemological incompatibility, but an almost cinematic microcosm of the battle between God and Satan, picking up right where Augustine left off.

But in my view, such a simplistic portrayal of the situation ironically runs the risk of understating the nature of worldly corruption, understating the sheer radicality of the Gospel. There is a conflict between science and faith. Not a conflict between “true science” and “atheist science”, not a conflict between the Bible and evolutionists, but an actual conflict between faith and reason.

I've always had a bit of a bizarre fascination with U.S. elections. Not even necessarily over the politics themselves but the numbers and competition themselves. I get invested in them the same way some people get into baseball, poring over histories, charts, and statistics. Over the course of the pandemic, one of the things I found to pass my time was a web-game known as The Campaign Trail.

The premise of The Campaign Trail is pretty simple. You're able to pick from various historical presidential elections (often ones which were rather close) and essentially replay them, taking the place of any of the candidates and watching as you make decisions for them. Through your decisions, it becomes possible to alter the outcomes of these elections. It was pretty fun, I even uploaded a Let's Play back then.

However, the game's developer has always been relatively inactive, so shortly after some time the game's community got together, cloned the site, and began editing it to allow for modding support. With mods in the game now, it became possible to create our own scenarios.

Game modding in the abstract sense has generally interested me, as I find the whole idea of taking someone's work and expanding on it in different ways to be rather cool. Since this was just HTML and JavaScript, a lesser-known game, and one which isn't too large in scope I felt like I had a decent amount to contribute.

I tried monkeying around with the site a bit, managed to add a Credits section to allow mod creators to credit themselves and edited the site's color palette to be more consistent.

Eventually I decided to try my hand at creating a mod, figured it would make a nice summer project. Little did I know how much of a slog it would be. The biggest issue I found, especially at the time where I started, is that this game (since it's not designed to be modded) has next to zero documentation. Often times variables will exist where nobody in the community exactly knows how they work.

Either way, I got to making my own scenario. The scenario I decided to go with was the 2016 election, but with a bit of a twist: the nominees would be both Marco Rubio and Joe Biden, in turn providing a 2016 general election which would most likely look in line with the political environment of 2015. As I am rather young, I figured this would be a good pick as the key events and topics of discussion were very much within my memory.

As of 7/24/2022, I am very very close to finishing the 2016 mod. I'm hoping to finish it up and possibly explore working on other mods. There's been an unexpectedly long delay on this due to me shelving the project through the school year, but I'm hoping to finish it and ship it out the door by the end of summer.

The following sections are write-ups on various issues I ran into during the course of development and how I came to address them.


The 2016 election was an incredibly pivotal one, not just in terms of the following administration, but in the ways it acted as a turning point for both parties and the ideological shifts they'd undergo. It's very commonly argued that the catalysts for this were both the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and the unexpected success they had running insurgent campaigns.

This mod provides a sort of “what-if” for neither of these populist campaigns really hitting their stride, the timeline where the 2016 election proceeded as expected by both parties' establishments.

The pre-conditions for this scenario are as follows:

  1. Joe Biden has reason to run, defeating both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the primary handily. Unlike in the main timeline, he exits the primary as a broadly popular figure among the base with some opposition from Sanders, but not to the same extent.
  2. Marco Rubio is somehow able to gather together a broad enough coalition to stunt Trump's momentum in the primary and defeat him.

The specifics of this, such as whether or not the GOP primary goes to the convention or if Beau Biden still dies, I leave intentionally vague.

With all this set up, we get some pretty interesting dynamics going on with this matchup.

  • Youth vs. Experience. Marco Rubio in a lot of ways modeled himself after Barack Obama, as a sort of fresh face.
  • Sun Belt vs. Rust Belt. 2016 proved to be the beginning of a realignment of sorts as we began to see a rising Hispanic population turn many Sun Belt states from solid Republican to increasingly competitive. In the opposite direction, with widening polarization based on education, many Democratic strongholds in the Rust Belt began to shift right, improving Republican prospects. These shifts are part of a larger pattern, but solidified with the nomination of Trump in OTL. Rubio is a candidate with a good deal of Sun Belt appeal, whereas Biden's image plays moreso to the Rust Belt.
  • Optimism vs. Pessimism Throughout the Obama administration, the GOP relied on a good deal of negative campaigning and obstructionism in their messaging. Marco Rubio, however, ran his primary campaign on a clean-cut and optimistic platform. This is in contrast to Biden's style, which is often more brash and rooted in experience.

Calculating Trump's Bonus

Written: 7/26/2021

In the Rubio versus Biden mod, it is possible to end up triggering an event in which Trump enters the race should you choose the wrong answer at certain points. Seeing as an independent Trump here would completely go against simple partisan leans, I had to develop a few methods for calculation.

To begin, Trump's baseline is set as around 12%. However, this isn't a flat 12% across all states. The method of calculation varies depending on if I categorize a state as a blue, red, or battleground state. This post is going to be dealing with the method for the blue states, since those are the easiest.

For each state, I consult the 2012 election results for partisan distribution and then add/subtract Obama's national margin (3.9%) so I get their pure relative lean. For example, CT was won by Obama with 58.06%. Subtract 3.9 from that to get 54.16%. From there, I multiply 54.16 by 15 percent? Why 15 percent? Because, according to the data at the time of the primaries, about 15 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Trump, as per 538. Obviously, Dem support for Trump probably varies by state but data is nonexistent and given how solidly blue the following states are, I don't think it matters.

The formula for the Dem-half is 13% baseline multiplied by the relative lean of a state multiplied by 15 percent (an exception is made for Delaware, Biden's home-state, which grants Trump only a 10% multiplier among Democrats).

However, that only gives us Obama-Trump voters. What about Romney-Trump voters? This was probably the roughest part. I took the national polling average of 35 percent from around when the 2016 primary was at its most competitive as a baseline for what GOP support for Trump is nationally. However, GOP support of Trump also varies by state. So, what I did was I consulted the 538 polling averages from late-2015 to early 2016, and approximated a support level. For states where there isn't enough primary data, I just maxed out the support level to 35% for the sake of simplicity and also to make Trump more impactful. To make sure I didn't overall skew too high or too low, I calculated the average of these states' numbers, and noted their deviation from the mean. We can then subtract the deviation from that base of 35 percent to get a more proper number of support per state.

The formula for the Republican-half is 13% baseline multiplied by the relative lean of a state multiplied by the ratio of the state-level GOP support over Trump's national average of 35%.

You combine these two halves, and there's the proper state-by-state baseline for what Trump's support should hover around. I'll have to vary up the methodology for red and battleground states since their dynamics are different I'd imagine, but I'll get to that later.

Here's another article I found in my research which I may take advantage of later.

Calculating Realistic VP Home-State Bonuses

Written: 8/20/2021

Perhaps out of boredom or maybe because I trust formulas more than my own hand-tweaking, I've been approaching the actual score/number generation with a series of formulas. This is what I did when determining Trump's percentage for each state, and now it's what I'm doing for the VPs.

Which back to our topic, here's a fun fact about VP state bonuses in presidential elections: they're inversely proportional to a state's population. The smaller a state is, the more its population will care about having one of their own as VP. This might be bad news for VPs from California, but great news for me because this means I can create a formula in a straightforward fashion.

The first step is finding the scenario of maximum effect to use as a baseline. This gives me an idea of what is the peak potential of a VP-home state effect. Luckily in 2008, we were given data for just that. Sarah Palin is governor of Alaska, a small state.

McCain carried about 59.4% of the vote in 2008. Add his national loss margin of 7.2% to get 66.62%. Romney lost by 3.9% nationally in 2012 and held 54.8% of Alaska's vote. Add 3.9% and I get 58.7%. Subtract 58.7% from 66.62% and you get 7.92% of a contribution from Sarah Palin specifically.

I did some testing and raising Rubio's Alaska multiplier from 0.96 to 1.3 seems to get me close to 8 percent, which is what I need. That's a difference of 0.34 in the multiplier.

I calculated Palin's gain in multiplier terms as follows: 7.92% divided by 58.7%, then add 1. For the other home-states I took Alaska's EV count (3) over their respective EV counts, multiplied by the Palin gain (in multiplier terms) we calculated at the beginning of this paragraph.

I took the other-state multiplier, divided it by the Palin multiplier, and then multiplied that ratio by whatever existing multiplier was in the game's code for the candidate. This seems to have worked, with there being visible but not insane results due to your VP picks.

Some fun facts for those who sat through the math:

  • Hillary Clinton has two home states, Arkansas and New York. This is done as an easter egg of sorts given that election data shows that she did gain support in certain areas of Arkansas which saw a reversion in the 2020 election.
  • Hillary Clinton is the only VP with safe states as her home state, which is another reason I was fine giving her two, since it wouldn't have that much of an effect either way.
  • Hillary Clinton nets you about a 4 percent gain in Arkansas, making that the state with the largest sway.
  • Ted Cruz currently holds the least sway, given that Texas' population is larger than that of even New York.

Setting Up The Issues

Written: 8/8/2022

Unfortunately, there's only room for five “Issues” in a CT game. Candidates, questions, and answers all have to fit within the stats for five policy issues you pick. I decided to go with five that were the most relevant to the political discourse surrounding the 2016 election specifically:

  • Trade
  • Immigration
  • Foreign Policy
  • Civility
  • Socialism

These worked well for the most part, but I'd run into issues where a question doesn't really fit the paradigm. Like when we give Rubio a question surrounding gay marriage, or Biden a question regarding climate change, which stat does that really correspond to? Both of these are issues that played a rather significant role in 2016, even if it wasn't large enough to warrant its own category.

I've taken to assigning them as subcategories based on how issues are rhetorically connected or how voting blocs tend to group. Climate change denial is often paired with concerns about domestic workers, so we should expect it to roughly correspond with the Trade stat.

The sub-categories I've come up with are as follows:

  • Trade:
    • Climate Change
  • Immigration:
    • Crime
    • Drugs
  • Foreign Policy:
    • Terrorism
    • Privacy
  • Civility:
    • Donald Trump
    • Social Issues
    • Institutionalism
  • Socialism:
    • Healthcare

Last updated: 6/24/2021

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Thesis: Just as fascism was borne out of the conditions of modernity, we are witnessing a new form of reaction characteristic of the postmodern era.

Further Reading:

  • The Origins of Nazi Violence by Enzo Traverso
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
  • The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism by Matthew McManus

Reaction isn't limited to any historical movement; over time it constantly undergoes transformations in name, appearance, and manifestation. To some eras it was known as legitimism, in others fascism.

It must be stressed that reaction isn't an ideology or set of values, but rather instead a historical phenomenon. The traditional analysis has been that as society undergoes major changes in its evolution, groups secure in the previous status quo found themselves at risk of displacement. From this fear we get the characteristic symptoms of mass hysteria, totalitarianism, and chauvinism.

Understood in this light, the reactionary is a product of his time, his worldview being entirely contextual. Reaction forms in response to action. Without taking this into account, one will have a difficult time undergoing a proper dissection of the far-right.

Perhaps then it's no surprise that leftists who continue to neglect this fact can only stand perplexed as the far-right appears to them far more adept and organized than they could ever be. It's a rather muddy subject as to how accurate this perception is; what is clear, however, is that the perception itself is very real.

Many have responded to this insecurity with a “left-populism”: a fantasy in which the left too can share in the New Right's success as long as they come down from their ivory towers and speak eye to eye with the common man. After all if the right can see a resurgence by telling lies to Joe Sixpack, imagine what will occur when they hear the truth!

Prisoners of their post-political dogmas, and reluctant to admit their mistakes, they cannot recognize that many of the demands articulated by right-wing populist parties are democratic demands, to which a progressive answer must be given. Many of those demands come from the groups who are the main losers of neoliberal globalization, and they cannot be satisfied within the neoliberal project.

Classifying right-wing populist parties as ‘extreme-right’ or ‘neo-fascist’ and attributing their appeal to lack of education is of course especially convenient for the forces of the centre-left. It is an easy way to disqualify them, without recognizing the centre-left’s own responsibility in such an emergence. By establishing a ‘moral’ frontier so as to exclude the ‘extremists’ from the democratic debate, the ‘good democrats’ believe that they can stop the rise of ‘irrational’ passions. Such a strategy of demonization of the ‘enemies’ of the bipartisan consensus can be morally comforting, but it is politically disempowering.

To stop the rise of right-wing populist parties, it is necessary to design a properly political answer through a left populist movement that will federate all the democratic struggles against post-democracy. Instead of excluding a priori the voters of right-wing populist parties as necessarily moved by atavistic passions, condemning them to remain prisoners of those passions forever, it is necessary to recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands. (Mouffe 2018)

This sort of approach is incredibly naive for reasons I've voiced before, so I'll cut to the chase: the ultimate irony of this narrative is that its holes stem from being out of touch with how reactionaries operate, often falling hook, line, and sinker for the very deception they decry. There's a whole web of details to unravel, and without properly separating the meat from the skin, it's very easy to get misled.

1. Fascism (in progress)

Fascism is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and is in a lot of contexts treated as synonymous with reaction itself. Defining it as such is rather misleading, given that fascism was borne out of specific historical circumstances.

Formally, fascism is a product of the 20th century and it for all intents and purposes can be considered dead in the modern day. Can individuals still espouse fascist views? Sure, but that alone can't make up a movement. Plenty of people self-identify as monarchists but that does not mean that (non-ceremonial) monarchy is a presence in the present day.

(The main exception which should be noted is developing countries, whose historical trajectory does not mirror that of those in the stage of de-industrialization. How fascism manifests in those areas would require an investigation of its own.)

This distinction may seem rather semantic but I assure you, there's a good reason to bring this all up. When we take a specific form of reaction to be something trans-historical, we end up neglecting the dynamic character of the phenomenon. And it's this dynamic character which tends to give reactionaries a lot of leeway when it comes to gaming the public sphere.

1.1. Modernity (section in progress)

The assumption has long been that reactionaries long for or wish to resurrect the past, yet the history of fascism seems to contradict this. What we see is a simultaneous embrace and rejection of modernity; the blending of past, present, and future. All of this converges on the myth of the nation, an entity understood as something timeless.

1.2. The Banality of Evil

1.3. Asymmetry

2. New Right (section in-progress)

The messy thing about the New Right is that while its intellectual roots date multiple decades ago, its only over the past decade that we're really beginning to see the movements take a tangible form.

2.1. Liquid Modernity

2.2. Metapolitics

2.3. Behind the Curve

3. Neo-Reaction

3.1. Pastiche

3.2. Postmodernity

Last edited: 2/4/2022

Note: This essay has been scrapped. Ironically enough, I think my research has shown me the link I was trying to demonstrate was more self-evident than I gave it credit for. I might return to this, as I think there's value in the essay, but honestly, I think there's higher priorities right now.

Thesis: There exists an overlooked affinity between the work of Jacques Ellul and post-1968 communist thought. Once a synthesis is performed, it provides a stronger theoretical backing for his theories of technique and revolution while providing an answer to holes in ultra-left theory.

Karl Barth famously once remarked the following in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans:

The Gospel neither requires men to engage in the conflict of religions or the conflict of philosophies, nor does it compel them to hold themselves aloof from these controversies. In announcing the limitation of the known world by another that is unknown, the Gospel does not enter into competition with the many attempts to disclose within the known world some more or less unknown and higher form of existence and to make it accessible to men. The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. (Barth 1922, 35)

Nearly a century later, Barth has cemented himself as one of the most renowned theologians in modern history. Despite the number of those who praise him, few seem to carry on this truly radical spirit of his work. One of those people is Jacques Ellul. His critique went beyond any one ideology or group, launching an attack on all of that which forms the foundation for humanity and its its civilizations. He was just as harsh on the counterculture as he was the mainstream, rejecting the movement politics of his left-wing peers in favor of walking a road few traversed on.

Many people (including the man himself) characterize Jacques Ellul as an anti-communist. While there is some element of truth to this, the relationship is more complicated than commonly believed. If anything, it seems as if Ellul was rather prescient with identifying flaws in the Orthodox Marxist paradigm, critiques which would only start to gain ground with the “return to Marx”. Given his amenity towards the Situationist Internationale, this is something he seemed to have picked up on.

My “exchanges” with [Jacques] Ellul — that's quite a grand word. Ellul came to see me in Paris. He says that he approves of the SI [Situationist International], which he knows quite well, with two exceptions, one of which, I believe, concerns the hooligans [les bloussons noirs], and the other of which concerns nothing less than his Christian faith. This is obviously quite astonishing. Afterwards, he sent me a copy of his book Propaganda, which is quite remarkable (an excellent example of what I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, concerning details that can be very important. In this book, what is lacking is only the recognition or at least the hypothesis of some kind of force that could constitute an alternative to the evolution that is disparaged). I understand that Ellul is, in this regard, similar to the Christian presence in the N.C. group. (Debord 1962)

On the other hand, the ideas of Marx and his contemporaries prove to give a stronger theoretical foundation to a lot of the social critiques Ellul had to offer.

This is not just another attempted synthesis, but rather instead a response to the challenges put forth by him. In order to make this case, I will be examining Ellul's works one-by-one and reflecting on their bearing on this synthesis.

1. The Radical Character of Christianity (section in progress)

1.1. The Presence of the Kingdom

1.2. Jesus and Marx

One of the most immediate issues you run into with a discussion regarding the intersection of Christianity and communism is the countless “Christian communisms” that have come before. Clichés such as “Jesus sided with the poor, so should we”, the equivocation on what this communism exactly entails and so on and so forth. Jesus and Marx was a book by Ellul which delivered one of the most hard-hitting takedowns of the Christian socialists of his time. And it's precisely because of that fact, that reviewing this book provides an opportunity to distinguish what I am speaking of from just another attempt to subjugate Christianity to ideology.

Before we dig any deeper, first it's important to place this work within context. The bulk of Ellul's work is written during the late 20th century, with this one being originally written in 1988. The New Left was in vogue, and as a politically-inclined French academic, Ellul was in quite possibly the best possible position to be exposed to this milieu.

In the specific domain of the French intellectual world, moreover, you can be taken seriously only if you take a position within or with respect to Marxism. Obviously you are uninteresting and none of your ideas has any weight or meaning unless you participate in one of the current exercises: new interpretation of Marx; application of Marx's method to new areas; analysis of political phenomena by means of latent Marxism; opposition to Stalinism in the name of Marx; reinterpretation of forgotten texts; discovery of the Marxism contrary to Marx; an ex-Stalinist explains his repentance; conversions from Marxism to Christianity; attempt to synthesize everything in Marxist thought, etc. (Ellul 1988, 24)

This is best represented with anecdote he cites, in which a Maoist sends him a letter:

Long ago I wrote an article trying to show the fundamental contradiction between Christianity and Communism. I received a long letter from a fine, devoted Protestant from southern France who believed I was utterly mistaken. He found an extraordinary harmony between the Communist and Christian ethic. The Communist ethic, including its tactics and strategy, expressed precisely what was being lived out in Christianity. What proof did he offer? He recommended I read the essential book by Liu Ch'ao-Chi, How to Be a Good Communist. Unfortunately, this devoted Protestant was writing early in 1966, a few months before the cultural revolution, in which Liu became public enemy number one, and his book was considered to be nothing but error! (Ellul 1988, 36)

And that shines light on what the real target seems to be throughout the book: the “Christian-communists” of his time. Neo-Marxist intellectuals, Maoist partisans, and those parroting vague and shallow “liberation theologies”. What these groups share in common was that Christ was viewed as an accessory to rather than the foundation of their thought.

1.2.1. Socialism versus Christianity

Ellul's anecdote makes sense when you consider all the things Christians and leftists have in common: the incessant need for any topic to be thoroughly moralized first before they are capable of digesting it, a nagging insecurity about their own place in the world which drives them to blindly throw support to random causes.

At the center of this intersection lies the ever-so-vague yet charged concept of “liberation”. In place of substance remains platitudes and bold proclamations. Pressing on said substance will only lead to a doubling-down on the same emotional appeals.

For many... being socialist means denouncing apartheid, colonialism, and imperialism; siding with oppressed people, feminists, homosexuals, and the young against the old (all the while expressing teary-eyed concern for the elderly); pleading the cause of immigrant workers; struggling against requiring too fast a pace of industrial employees, and struggling for raising the minimum wage; attacking Israel's imperialism, etc. Socialism boils down to these matters, more or less. But we are not given any serious reflection. We can never know the basis of a given stance, or what direction it wants to take us. All we have are rather vague principles: siding with the oppressed and fighting for justice. (Ellul 1988, 53)

And for countless “socialist Christians” this is where the stumbling block arises, allowing what appears to be a mere synthesis to devolve into a supplanting.

In reality, however, the present tendency to identify with the left (particularly with Communism) is strictly a matter of going with the stream, being carried along by the wind. Such adhesion a purely sociological matter, without value or significance. A person who declares himself a Communist today is the same one who would have been a French Nationalist in 1914, a Monarchist in 1830, a follower of Napoleon in 1804, etc.

In view of the gutting of Communism's content, dearly no obstacle remains to a Christian's joining up. By becoming Communists, Christians follow the general trend and need feel no pricks of conscience or theological reservations. They conform culturally and intellectually to the rest of society. They already represented the prevailing ideology of the “ruling classes,” and by joining Communism they simply reinforce this trend. In this movement, however, Christianity is of course also gutted of all content.

This process is facilitated by the pseudoscientific affirmation that everything is cultural. Since the entire content of God's revelation in Jesus Christ is cultural anyway, one need have no compunctions about getting rid of the outmoded past. What is left of the revelation? Obviously, since the Christian has joined up with Communism, the defender of the poor and the voice of the oppressed, Christianity becomes (in its entirety) the defense of the poor. This includes armed defense, political struggle, etc. (Ellul 1988, 21)

But, some will object: did Jesus not sit with the tax collectors? Did he not instruct us to love and side with the downtrodden? To leave it as such would be a gross oversimplification, to completely deny the Christian concept of sin. How are we to speak of forgiveness without sin? Sin in this context is not some perceived offense against society or it's hierarchies, but a very real offense against the Lord himself.

The paralytic needs forgiveness. We must not be dishonest at this point and try to transpose this term onto a sociopolitical plane. Jesus calls the others “sick,” after all (v. 12). These people do not just have the reputation of being ill: they are ill. Tax collectors are thieves and exploiters of the poor. They harm others. The issue is not only social and moral. These people are not judged just by others to be sinners: Jesus also has no doubt they are sinners.

He does not say to the paralytic or to the prostitutes that they have every reason to be what they are, that He accepts their actions, etc. No: to the paralytic He announces forgiveness (which he truly needs, so that we can perfectly well use the term sin!); to the others Jesus declares He is the physician and the one who calls. And in Israel, after all, call and vocation had a definite spiritual meaning. “Sin” is not an ordinary word Jesus uses for convenience' sake. The Bible strictly defines the term, and nothing would authorize us to claim that in this context Jesus deviates from biblical usage, since He takes the position of God, who forgives sins. In no way does Jesus transpose sin onto the sociopolitical realm. He simply declares that He forgives sin in all its dimensions (including the political and social). (Ellul 1988, 67)

Stripped of all pretenses, it's a bandwagon, a subcultural shibboleth for leftists to act out their “commitment”. When Ellul made this point, he oft alluded to the horrors of the gulag, as the Soviets were the object of fascination for the Christians before him.

Such a stance may seem to crazy to us today, but history repeats itself. What we have been granted Ellul's time is another generation's worth of mistakes for us to shine our hindsight upon.

1.2.2. Noam Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge

The same question which brought Father Montuclard to Stalin drove pop-intellectuals like Noam Chomsky to defend the atrocities committed in Cambodia; everyone in his circles supported it so why shouldn't he? He built his audience on speaking out against American foreign policy, and they're more than willing to listen to him fight back against the American narrative on Cambodia.

In a long, illustrious career, Chomsky has amassed a formidable array of books, articles, and speeches. He has been a tireless advocate for the underdog, and has demonstrated admirable commitment to his principles. The underdogs, however, are not always the good guys, a fact clearly illustrated by the Khmer Rouge...

There is something vaguely unsettling in Chomsky's words, even as he acknowledges the horrible toll of the Cambodian communists: There was an atrocity, people were outraged, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. The reaction is Chomsky's primary concern; genocide itself is a lesser point. (Sharp 2007)

But throughout his defense it becomes clear that his doggedness has little to do with the Cambodian people and moreso about his own pride as an activist. It quickly ceases to be about any plight of the oppressed and becomes instead a matter of Chomsky's own reputation.

One possible explanation is that Chomsky did not truly understand the nature of the Khmer Rouge until the massive exodus of refugees in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion made it impossible to ignore. In this view, Chomsky's errors are rooted in naivete, gullibility, and poor scholarship.

Chomsky is not an expert on Cambodia. He does, however, know enough about Cambodia to sound knowledgeable to people who know nothing at all. Still, how could he have so seriously misjudged the nature of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps it is a natural consequence of being a generalist. Chomsky writes about events all over the world. Can one person really understand all of the intricacies of the politics and history of any one country? Probably. But can one person understand the intricacies of ten countries? One hundred countries? Two hundred? No. There are conflicting accounts of the history of any country and any event. How can anyone without specialized knowledge of a given region evaluate which of those accounts is accurate? In Chomsky's case, he does not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather, he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be. He does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers “evidence” which supports his theories and ignores the rest. Furthermore, he does not subject sources he regards sympathetically to the same rigorous critical scrutiny that he applies to conflicting accounts. (Sharp 2007)

And from there the usual leftist playbook emerges: moralize, cherrypick, and slander whenever cornered.

A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky's work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics' positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than “neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists.”. (Sharp 2007)

Whatever becomes of this “liberation” or what these activists are intended to contribute beyond rhetorical support is left unclear. Yet it is from this principle that the “liberation theologies” of the mid-century arose.

Liberation theologies unfortunately perpetuate the characteristics of the most despicable traditional theologies! For one thing, they remain amazingly abstract, in spite of their concrete appearance. Their abstraction consists of not asking the decisive concrete question (“liberation for whose benefit?”). In the same way the bourgeois theologies of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries were abstract. Yet they appeared concrete, since they all led to such a practical moral code! In exactly the same way our liberation theologies lead to political strategies and tactics for liberation! Today liberation theologies are abstract in that they fail to question socialist or Communist dictatorships where a tiny minority exercises power over a people more enslaved than ever. (Ellul 1988, 59)

Let us be clear. Showing concern for those in precarious situations is not in and of itself a vice. Neither is sympathizing with their plight or taking action to correct the wrongs which exist all across our world. However none of this absolves us of our responsibility to exercise proper judgment and to exercise these tasks in good faith. Chomsky let himself become caught up in a fad, and his failure in this regard left a black mark on not just his personal character but also the movement he championed.

It's easy to look back on Cambodia decades later, but the lesson we must take from this is that even in our world today, these political bandwagons still exist and they still lead Christians astray. Even if they claim noble intentions, it does not change our responsibility to maintain integrity.

Christians must discern the genuine issues of our time. This way we perform a genuine service to politics and to the society in which we live. We can do this by means of the discernment of spirits, but such understanding must be applied by means of a solid, rigorous, independent analysis of the political, economic, and sociological spheres. This sort of analysis is a practical matter, whereas the discernment of spirits makes it possible, safeguards it, and oversees it. Such analysis must be achieved based on a “point of view” different from that of all ideologies. (Ellul 1988, 5)

1.2.3. Karl Marx

Ironically enough, Ellul's position on the above matter mirrors that of others influenced by Marx such as Theodor Adorno:

For otherwise you will find yourself in the position of what Americans call a joiner, that is to say, a man who always has to join in, who has to have a cause for which he can fight. Such a person is driven by his sheer enthusiasm for the idea that something or other must be done and some movement has to be joined about which he is deluded enough to believe that it will bring about significant changes. And ultimately, this enthusiasm drives him into a kind of hostility towards mind that necessarily negates a genuine unity of theory and practice. (Adorno 1963)

It's indicative of the pattern recurring throughout this book — whether Ellul realizes it or not — he seems to be more critical of Marxists as opposed to Marx himself. To him, Marx was one of many influences he drew from, with various ideas he either incorporated or condemned.

Marxism reveals the lie of this stripped-down evangelism, showing that if we have taken refuge in spiritual matters, we did so knowingly. We were not concerned with purity, for example, but with hiding what Christians really practiced. We wanted to be oriented toward heaven, so as not to see the injustice, poverty, and exploitation on earth. Communism has grasped everything Christians should have grasped. This “materialism” contains a basic recall of the very truth of the Bible. Materialism restores some weight to our flimsy spirituality...

We owe to Marx the rediscovery of this central truth (according to the popular understanding; actually Hegel preceded Marx on the issue of history and the Bible as history). Marx brought history back to the light: not the history of historians, but history as we find it in the Bible: history filled with meaning, moving in a revealed direction, and culminating in an “apotheosis'' but with everything “situated” in history. Here again Marx brings Christians back to revealed truth.

Finally, we must add a militant and communal spirit to the other ways in which Communism challenges the Church. Christians used to be, and should be, militant. And they have been called to make up a living, active community based on fraternity. But what do we see? Flabby, lazy, individualistic church members, committed to nothing. They sit beside each other on Sunday and proceed to ignore each other completely. They are capable of no sacrifice, they create nothing new. (Ellul 1988, 8-9)

However, even in his praise for Marxism, it's clear that he seems the most confident dissecting Marxism as an ideological phenomenon rather than as a serious form of sociological critique. Perhaps this explains why his discussion of Marxism's theoretical substance consists primarily of handwaving.

What is left of Marx in our day? Nothing. I say “nothing” even though I take Marxists themselves into account. What do they think of Marx's political economy? It has been quietly swept into a corner; it contains so many errors, ill-conceived explanations, and false predictions that Marxists generally prefer not to mention Marx's political economy in concrete terms... And Marx's strategy? Why, Communism was supposed to come to life in the most economically developed country, where capitalism had reached its greatest potential. In our day we have changed all this, now Communism can come to life in the most poverty-stricken countries. But this is profoundly anti-Marxist; even the most convoluted explanation fails to harmonize the two notions. (Ellul 1988, 15)

Let's address the issue of history, since that's what Ellul bases a good portion of his argument on.

The impact of Leninism on world history, but more importantly the history of Marxism cannot possibly be understated. The same goes for Lenin's contributions to Marxist thought which is extensive enough that it essentially constitutes a body of work unto itself. Both the unfolding of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism find their roots in the dilemma of the Bolshevik model itself: excellent at seizing power, terrible at handling power. The former characteristic allowed it to spread like wildfire across the globe, completely dominating as a form of communist organization, while the latter would give rise to the issues Ellul cites above.

The October revolution produced by far the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history. Its global expansion has no parallel since the conquests of Islam in its first century. A mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ (Reed, 1919), and Lenin’s organizational model, the Communist Party. Most of them followed the USSR in a second wave of revolutions which emerged from the second phase of the long world war of 1914–45. (Hobsbawm 2003, 55)

Isn't it a cop-out to blame it on Lenin however? After all, Ellul isn't a stranger to all the novel Marxisms. What makes this different from any of the previous hundred rehabilitation projects:

What remains, then, are scattered pieces of Marx's thought; Marxists clutch at these, as if by themselves they could have some obscure meaning: class struggle, prevailing ideology, relations of production, etc. Certain quotations of Marx are especially useful-profound phrases that get applied to everything, and that can be interpreted however one likes! As a result, some people marvel: how miraculous that after the end of Stalinism, there are dozens of Marxisms to choose from! Althusser's is unlike Daix's; A. Gramsci surfaces, but differs from Mao. You have a whole gamut of Marxisms to choose from, depending on your size, your ideas, and your place in society. Wonderful how our freedom has progressed! Unfortunately, Marx's thought is utterly gutted as a result: it lies lifeless and incoherent. (Ellul 1988, 15)

Let's be clear, Lenin was no idiot: the scale of his contributions prove that. The Bolshevik model wasn't something he invented out of thin air. So where did it come from? The answer is two-fold:

  • If there's anything we've learned so far, it's that ideology tends to be heavily shaped by a person's environment. Lenin and the other Marxists of his time were no exception: the 20th century was an age of revolution. The idea of capitalism's inevitable collapse and replacement was just as much a cultural one as it was a socialist one.

It seemed obvious that the old world was doomed. The old society, the old economy, the old political systems had, as the Chinese phrase put it, ‘lost the mandate of heaven’. Humanity was waiting for an alternative. Such as alternative was familiar in 1914. Socialist parties, resting on the support of the expanding working classes of their countries and inspired by a belief in the historic inevitability of their victory, represented this alternative in most countries of Europe. It looked as though only a signal was needed for the peoples to rise, to replace capitalism by socialism, and thus to transform the meaningless sufferings of world war into something more positive: the bloody birth-pains and convulsions of a new world. (Hobsbawm 2003, 55)

  • The most important of Marx's later works were not widely distributed and translated until Ellul's time. These works completely turned Marx scholarship on its head and would end up anticipating a lot of the issues in his early work which the rest of the world would have to find out the hard way. One of these is actually referenced by Ellul, the matter of historical materialism. Fittingly enough, it was this assumption by early Marx which the Bolshevik model heavily relied on.

To answer the question posed above, what makes a “return to Marx” any different is that it is a true return. The substance is being re-appraised rather than simply tacked on. The contribution of Marx to this analysis goes beyond just a name and some trite phrases.

The crisis of traditional Marxism, however, in no way obviates the need for a social critique that is adequate to contemporary capitalism. On the contrary, it draws attention to the need for such a critique. Our historical situation can be understood in terms of a transformation of modern, capitalist society that is as far-reaching — socially, politically, economically, and culturally — as the earlier transformation of liberal to state-interventionist capitalism. We seem to be entering yet another historical phase of developed capitalism. (Postone 1993, 12)

Does the above render Ellul's critique moot? No, just misdirected. Once we understand it as being targeted towards Marxists rather than Marx, it makes sense why the following rebuke ends up being the most damning in the book:

Such Christians in our day have failed to realize that they conform to the unfortunately traditional Christian habit of always looking for a way to adapt Christianity to the dominant intellectual and sociological trend. The current commitment of Christians to “socialism-Marxism-Communism” testifies to what a degree this tendency has become the dominant ideology in our society.

Christians have always functioned in the same way: in a given society, a dissenting ideology comes on the scene. Christians fail to observe it. If the ideology grows, they begin to find it interesting, but they refrain from getting involved. If it becomes the dominant ideology (in which case it continues to dissent from the established reality!), the traditional ideology begins to decline seriously. At this point, when the dissenting ideology is certain to win out, Christians rush to get on the bandwagon, thus becoming “extremists.” These neophytes, full of courage and radicalism, try to demonstrate their extremism. But in reality, such “extremism” is nothing but a slavish following of the current sociological trend, often just when this ideology, having become dominant, enters its own crisis of decline. A certain number of Christians, of course, remain faithfully wedded to yesterday's ideology, or even to the one that preceded it. In this case, the Church becomes a battleground where conservatives struggle against progressives. (Ellul 1988, 13-14)

As a missionary religion, Christians lack closed cultural communities which would otherwise prevent assimilation. This leads to Christians being very quick to jump on political bandwagons and use their faith to retroactively justify it.

Those who are quicker to adapt become “progressive Christians”, while those who show restraint are considered “conservative Christians”. It is through this dichotomy that Christians unwittingly continue to forsake their calling in favor of culture wars. The factions may reach different conclusions, but their rejection of the primacy of Christianity remains the same, whether they realize it or not.

What Ellul neglects, however, is that the element of vogue cuts both ways. These people aren't just fad-Christians, they're fad-communists too. The nature of partisanship is deceptive because it follows this general law: the outward appearance is the inverse of the internal substance. In this context, the underlying lack of seriousness is compensated with vocal affirmations of their dedication. After all, as Ellul himself remarks, ideology is inherently a degeneration:

Let us begin with my definition, a kind of common denominator often used in specialized studies. This one has the advantage of relating concretely to the facts: an ideology is the popularized sentimental degeneration of a political doctrine or worldview; it involves a mixture of passions and rather incoherent intellectual elements, always related to present realities. (Ellul 1988, 1)

There is undeniably an ideology by the name of “communism”; to say otherwise would be to deny history. But behind the marches of the Eastern Bloc still remains a non-ideological core to the contributions of Marx: a critique of alienation under the value-form, crisis theory, and a Hegelian deconstruction of the logic of capital. It no longer is the 60s, the New Left has been long dead. What's left of Marx in our day? Nothing — except for its actual substance. The spotlight has moved onto other ideologies, leaving us with an opportunity to actually cut to the meat of the matter.

If we wish to speak of a communism that goes beyond a mere “-ism”, then we must assert it by counterposing it against the ideology that once bore its name.

2. Ellul's Concept of Revolution

2.1. The Autopsy of Revolution

2.2. Anarchy and Christianity

3. Ellul's Analysis of Society

3.1. The Technological Society

3.2. Propaganda

4. Hope in Time of Abandonment


Adorno, Theodor W. “Theory, Practice, and Moral Philosophy”, 1963. http://autodidactproject.org/quote/adornprx.html

Ellul, Jacques. Jesus and Marx: from gospel to ideology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1988.

Hobsbawm, Eric John. Age of extremes: the short twentieth century : 1914-1991. London: Abacus. 2003.

Postone, Moishe. Time, labor, and social domination a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (1993) 2009.

Sharp, Bruce. “Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy.” Last modified January 8, 2007. https://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm

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Thesis: There is an underlying relationship between one's political goals and one's political methods. Applying this maxim we can dissect the essential components of social liberalism (i.e. SocDem) and gradualist socialism (i.e. DemSoc), and better understand why despite the similarities on paper, there remains so much tension between the two groups.

A consistent logic dictates that one's approach to electoral politics is dependent on exactly what their aims are. Understanding the connection between your aims and your tools is absolutely vital to effectively mobilizing. Depending on this factor, participation in electoral politics could prove essential, a net positive, inconsequential, or outright counter-intuitive.

However, the purpose of this piece will not be questioning whether or not electoralism is “useful”, as that's a rather moot question with no one single answer. There are plenty of anti-electoralist arguments that I could make which would be completely meaningless to a non-communist, that's just the nature of the topic. The purpose of this piece is to look at movements which have something to gain from electoral politics, and conduct an investigation into the implications for said movements.

For the purpose of making a coherent argument, I will be arguing from a possibilist lens, suspending my usual stances to make observations from a more relevant position. This thought experiment should hopefully dissect the logic underpinning reformist left-wing movements, and also explain why certain ones are more successful than others. This will also help explain the reasons underpinning conflicts within progressive/center-left circles, and help those on each side of the rift understand the other.

1. Social Democracy

Social democracy (in this context, what I am referring to is more accurately labeled social liberalism) is the left-wing movement most commonly associated with electoral politics. To define it succinctly, social democracy promotes the utilization of political institutions to keep market forces in check.

Neither hoping for capitalism's demise nor worshipping the market uncritically, [social democrats] argued that the market's anarchic and destructive powers could and should be fettered at the same time that its ability to produce unprecedented material bounty was exploited. They thus came to champion a real “third way” between laissez-faire liberalism and Soviet communism based on a belief that political forces must be able to triumph over economic ones. (Berman 2005, 12)

The definition alone should give you an idea of the central role parliaments play for social democrats, but let us elaborate further on exactly what this looks like.

To do this, we're going to defer to Kenneth Galbraith, an economist who has written extensively on the dynamic between market power and political power.

The first question is: what problems do market forces pose?

If there are only a handful of firms in the typical industry, and if they recognize their interdependence, as they must both for profit and for survival, then privately exercised economic power is less the exception than the rule in the economy. It is also of a piece with the power anciently associated with monopoly. This was the clear conclusion of the new ideas. And the fact of such power, once identified by the theory, could readily be verified by observation.

The executives of the United States Steel Corporation, the longtime price leaders in the steel industry, do have authority to raise and lower the prices they charge for their own steel. When they exercise that power the rest of the industry normally follows. The same executives make decisions on where to build new plants and how much plant to build, what to pay in dividends and, subject to a periodic trial of strength with the union, what wages to pay. They have latitude on all of these matters; they are not the automatons of market forces. These decisions also affect the wealth and income of hundreds of thousands of people. As with steel so with the great core of American industry. The new theory suggested the existence of such power; the eye confirmed it. (Galbraith 2002, 50-51)

1.1. Countervailing Power

The second question: what can be done to counter said market forces? Galbraith points to the democratic state as a venue for those without economic power to stand their ground, using what he calls “countervailing power”:

In fact, the support of countervailing power has become in modem times perhaps the major domestic peacetime function of the federal government. Labor sought and received it in the protection and assistance which the Wagner Act provided to union organization. Farmers sought and received It in the form of federal price supports to their markets — a direct subsidy of market power. Unorganized workers have sought and received it in the form of minimum wage legislation. The bituminous-coal mines sought and received it in the Bituminous Coal Conservation Act of 1935 and the National Bituminous Coal Act of 1937.' These measures, all designed to give a group a market power it did not have before, comprised the most important legislative acts of the New Deal. (Galbraith 2002, 136)

All of these examples were acts of concrete acts of legislation which could have only been realized due to civic participation. Union leaders had to lobby, citizens had to vote, and politicians had to draft up bills their peers would be willing to vote in favor of.

Galbraith's market is one based on agonism, not antagonism. Yes, there is competition between groups over control of policy, but the competition is underlined by a mutual understanding of the necessity of coexistence. Each group seeks to make “make capitalism work for them”, but still presumes capitalism as a given.

To the SocDem, every action taken within the parliamentary sphere provides an opportunity to get the upper hand in negotiations. And to an extent, this is objectively true. As seen with the above examples cited by Galbraith, collective bargaining is a centerpiece of modern liberalism. Cutting deals and compromising is the name of the game, and it's all underlined by a conciliatory approach to politics. They mesh well with parliaments because they're willing to participate in good faith and trust other actors to do the same.

But it should be noted that collective bargaining is still bargaining; one can only get anything out of it if their demands are by definition negotiable. The process undeniably exists, but one has to have a use for it to take advantage of it. For the SocDems, this is no problem; the principle of countervailance holds that each legislative milestone marks a victory in and of itself. But, as we're going to see, this isn't always the case.

2. Democratic Socialism

On the other side of the coin we have democratic socialism. “Democratic socialism” has become a buzzword of sorts, but for the purpose of this, we're going to use this term (and DemSoc by extent) as a colloquial shorthand referring to what is more accurately labeled gradualist socialism.

One of the earliest and most influential examples of a gradualist movement was the Fabian Society, who defined their task as such:

In every field the characteristic Fabian policy has been that of permeation. In accordance with their doctrine of continuity the Fabians set out to develop existing institutions by permeating with this or that element of their doctrine those who had power to influence policy, e.g. the civil service, the political parties, the professions, the administration of business, and local govern-ment. It was part of their creed that no sharp line could be drawn between socialists and non-socialists and that many who would not call themselves socialists could be persuaded to help with particular reforms making for socialism. (Cole 1932)

The purpose of parliamentary action within this context would be to establish the preconditions of socialism. DemSocs view parliamentary action as a vehicle for accomplishing this by exploiting the democratic nature of said parliaments.

In Germany at present, Social Democracy's most effective means of asserting its demands, apart from propaganda by voice and pen, is the Reichstag (legislative) franchise. The influence of this franchise is so great that it has extended even to those bodies from which the working class is excluded by a property qualification or a system of class franchise; for even here the parties must pay attention to the Reichstag electors. If the Reichstag franchise were immune from attack, there might be some justification for treating the question of the franchise for the other bodies as relatively unimportant, though even then it would be a mistake to make light of it. But the Reichstag franchise is not secure at all Governments and government parties will certainly not take the decision to change it lightly, for they will be aware that such a step would inevitably cause hatred and bitterness amongst the mass of German workers, which they would show in a very uncomfortable way on suitable occasions. The socialist movement is too strong, and the political self-consciousness of the German workers is too highly developed, to be dealt with in a cavalier fashion. (Bernstein 1899, 184)

Expanding on this logic, Bernstein drafts three short-term goals for the socialist movement (176):

  1. Expanding democracy and providing resistance to reactionary institutions/movements
  2. Establishing immediate protections for workers
  3. Building up workers' cooperatives and other public institutions

What does this look like in practice? That's a question with a more complex answer than one might presume. “All democratic socialists agree on the need for a democratic alternative to capitalism. There is no consensus as yet as to what that alternative should look like.” (Schweickart 2007) This lack of a consensus can be attributed to many factors:

  • The social democratic project has for the most part been completed, the democratic socialist one has not.
  • There isn't the same type of unifying theory that Marxism has, leading to a lot of different opinions regarding the specifics.
  • The term itself is rather vaguely defined, with a lot of differing movements claiming the mantle.

However, history does provide some precedent which may allow us to piece things together; we've already touched on the work of the Fabians, but that's mostly theoretical. I'd say there's two other places to look, Leninism (dealing with the question of obtaining political power) and market socialism (dealing with the question of utilizing political power).

2.1. Obtaining Political Power

Leninism might seem like an odd (and a rather objectionable) parallel to draw, but there is a connection to be made regarding how both view parliaments as an instrument for obtaining political power:

Criticism, the most keen, ruthless and uncompromising criticism, should be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable, and still more against those who are unwilling to utilise parliamentary elections and the parliamentary rostrum in a revolutionary and communist manner. Only such criticism combined, of course, with the dismissal of incapable leaders and their replacement by capable ones will constitute useful and fruitful revolutionary work that will simultaneously train the leaders to be worthy of the working class and of all working people, and train the masses to be able properly to understand the political situation and the often very complicated and intricate tasks that spring from that situation. (Lenin 1920)

The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old minimal demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, minimal demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism and this occurs at each step — the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old minimal program is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution. (Trotsky 1938)

Leninists held that while electoralism was far from sufficient, it still had its uses in laying the foundation for a revolutionary movement. Each electoral victory marked not a victory for the movement, but rather instead a tactical opportunity.

This is to be expected considering how incredibly influential Lenin was on the theory of left-wing political organization. However, one should not go too far in drawing comparisons. The Leninist programme of old was much more radical in its aims, because it originated in an era where labor unions and parliaments were not as thoroughly integrated into capitalism.

Whereas the Leninists were ultimately interested in the outright abolition of the capitalist mode of production, democratic socialists seem to be more focused on workplace democracy as their demand. This is only natural, considering that the tools available to modern electoral movements are moreso suited to that end, and will attract people interested in such ends. One need only look at the state of remaining Marxist-Leninist parties in western countries to see this.

What connects these two strategies is the attitude, not the content. Democratic socialists may not be interested in communist ends, but they maintain the same militant outlook towards parliamentary institutions. There's still an underlying narrative of class-war (albeit a non-Marxist one) and an essentially combative approach to politics. To the democratic socialist, there is an upper class which has interests diametrically and fundamentally opposed to that of the working class; for SocDems this is either not the case or less central to their outlook.

All this gives the class struggle another form. It works today more as a potential than as an active force, more by the knowledge of what it might be than by actual manifestation. Politically as well as economically it is fought by sections or divisions, and often in forms which are the reverse of what they ought to be according to the letter, so that it might appear as if it were not the social classes that contest with one another the control of legislation, but rather the legislators that fight for the satisfaction of the classes. But the class struggle is no less a reality because it has taken the shape of continuous barter and compromise. (Bernstein 1897)

Participation is conditional; cynicism regarding the existing institutions means democratic socialists don't have the same loyalty to the process that SocDems do. If the electoral route appears to be at a standstill, the democratic socialist has a lot less hesitation to give it up and seek other avenues.

Accompanying this attitude is an element of expectation. By definition, a gradualist puts serious stock into the idea of a socialist society that substantially differs from our own. This is an expectation, so there's a degree of confidence underlying it. Such an expectation isn't as central to social democracy. There might be an optimistic outlook regarding the mixed economy and the expansion of social spending and perhaps some entertaining of a distant vision of socialism, but this is a far cry from an expectation. Political decisions are made around this expectation (or lack thereof). If one takes the idea of a future co-operative society seriously, immediate victories are interpreted within the context of a larger process. On the other hand, taking said victories at face value means that each one holds more weight, and that there's a larger investment in the present as opposed to the future.

2.2. Utilizing Political Power

Rejecting Marxist theory and its more explicitly revolutionary implications, democratic socialists have to develop an alternative framework to work off of. Market socialism (and adjacent theories) have often provided DemSocs with a more concrete portrait of what their expectations are and how political power can be utilized to realize said expectations.

The marriage between these schools of thought is present across all sorts of thinkers both old and new. Cole and the Fabians often toyed with the idea of consumer and producer co-operatives, while modern market socialists such as Schweickart and Cockshott have often shown an affinity towards democratic socialism. Even the other main current among democratic socialists — participatory economics — still holds to those principles of decentralization and economic democracy.

What market socialism has to offer to democratic socialists is the extension of and application of this “principle of democracy” towards the economy itself. This central promise satisfies the democratic, populist, socialist, utopian, and most importantly transitional sentiments found among these ideologues.

Market socialism is democratic because it attempts to promote the population having a larger stake in decisions. It appeals to socialists because its focus is primarily economic, offering solutions that are intended to help consumers and workers. It's populist in that the model rests on the assumption that the current organization of society is insufficiently democratic. It's utopian in that it provides a clear blueprint on how society should be organized, providing a rebuttal to arguments of unfeasibility. And its transitional in the sense that the development of it is predicated on the parallel building up of institutions, which legislation is capable of aiding.

At the center of this is the worker's cooperative, simultaneously the starting point and the goal of market socialism. For over a century now, democratic socialists of all stripes — from the early Fabians to modern YouTube sects — have developed a fascination with this concept. When discussing workplace democracy in practice, DemSocs often fall back on one of two examples: Spain's Mondragon Corporation and the planned decentralization of Yugoslavia's economy:

Quote #1 (Richard D. Wolff):

MC is composed of many co-operative enterprises grouped into four areas: industry, finance, retail and knowledge. In each enterprise, the co-op members (averaging 80-85% of all workers per enterprise) collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise (what, how and where to produce and what to do with the profits). As each enterprise is a constituent of the MC as a whole, its members must confer and decide with all other enterprise members what general rules will govern MC and all its constituent enterprises. In short, MC worker-members collectively choose, hire and fire the directors, whereas in capitalist enterprises the reverse occurs. One of the co-operatively and democratically adopted rules governing the MC limits top-paid worker/members to earning 6.5 times the lowest-paid workers. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the differences distinguishing this from the capitalist alternative organization of enterprises. (In US corporations, CEOs can expect to be paid 400 times an average worker's salary (a rate that has increased 20-fold since 1965.) (Wolff 2012)

Quote #2 (Jacobin):

Yugoslav theorists developed a socialism that called for the withering away of the state' and the creation of society as a free association of producers. The first step was decentralization. In May 1949, the party-state ceded greater autonomy to local communal governments, whose power had been eroded since 1945. Slovene leader Edvard Kardelj explained that these reforms promoted the sense of the masses greater inclusion in the work of the state machinery from the lowest organs to the highest. Greater worker participation in the economic sphere soon accompanied this political decentralization. In June 1950, the National Assembly passed legislation introducing the self-management system. All enterprises would now have workers' councils consisting of 15 to 120 democratically elected representatives, restricted to two one-year terms. (Robertson 2017)

Quote #3 (Jacobin):

Despite sometimes brutal methods, Yugoslavia's de-Stalinization was productive, in the sense that it drove the party to rethink how society was organized. It led to the introduction of workers' self-management, social ownership, and workers' councils as the fundamental units of production and workers' democracy. Of course, very different kinds of self-management emerged in practice. (Balhorn 2020)

There's a lot to be said on exactly how excessively romanticized these ventures are, but that's a topic that's outside the scope of this piece. The important thing here to take note of is how democratic socialists view these efforts as relevant to their own project. In the first quote, we see how they conclude Mondragon (acting as a model for workplace democracy) is able to realize their goals. In the second and third ones, we see them draw a connection between government policy and this goal, providing an opening for them to rework it into a strategy more in line with the tactics they already use to influence a parliamentary government (as opposed to the SFR's primarily autocratic approach).

3. The Rift

In practice, what we see is that often times DemSocs and SocDems pursue the same policies: increased access to social services, higher taxes and nationalization of industries, a commitment to social justice, and so on.

So, what gives with the rift between the two factions? The rift has its true origins not in policy or ideology, but attitudes. This is why the divisions are most pronounced not during the process of legislation but rather instead in moments of messaging, where the direction political movements should take are being decided. The most obvious of these moments are elections, where coalitions are being built and platforms are being drafted.

SocDems typically advance a conciliatory approach towards politics, where they attempt to further their goals by working with and cutting deals with more mainstream political blocs. To the SocDem, their loss condition involves being locked out of participation in the negotiating table. DemSocs on the other hand focus on a combative approach, using their political toolbox with the purpose of increasing their leverage. For the democratic socialist, their loss condition involves losing the upper hand in negotiations, as the populist outlook views politics as a zero-sum battleground between the interests of the people and the interests of the elite.

Is this always the case? Not necessarily, one can be a combative SocDem and vice versa, but I do believe there is a reason each side gravitates towards their respective approaches. Namely, a historic one. In the early 20th century, most industrialized economies were rather laissez-faire and labour politics was still in a relative infancy. For the burgeoning social democratic movement, it was necessary to take power before the topic of negotiations could even come into question. However, the left would eventually get their parliamentary wins and would have to come to terms with the question of how to exercise their new-found influence.

3.1. Abstentionism and its Implications

Nowhere is this more clear than in the debate over the tactic of abstentionism, in which elected candidates would refuse to participate in the parliaments they served, as a matter of undermining their influence and asserting the power of the labour movement. This remained popular while social democrats were making rapid gains in parliaments, but was quickly met with hesitation when the wave began to subside.

Revolutionaries’ belief that trends would continue to move in their favour was enshrined in the policy of abstentionism. Social Democratic parties became the largest factions in parliaments, even if they remained in the minority; but those parties abstained from participating in government. They refused to rule alongside their enemies, choosing instead to wait patiently for their majority to arrive: “This policy of abstention implied enormous confidence in the future, a steadfast belief in the inevitable working-class majority and the ever-expanding power of socialism’s working-class support.” But that inevitability never came to pass...

On the right of the workers’ movement, the social democrats were compelled to face the facts. They were waiting for their time to come, but everywhere they hit ceilings in terms of voting percentages, often significantly below 51 percent. They decided that they needed to prepare for the long road ahead. That meant, in particular, holding their membership in check when the latter tried to jump the gun by risking the organisation’s gains too soon in a “test of strength”. Social democrats (and later, communist parties) were always motivated by this fear of the too soon. Instead of jumping the gun, they would bide their time and moderate their demands in alliance with other classes. In the past, social democratic parties had been strong enough to have a share in power but did not take it based on the policy of abstention. Now, they would begin to use the power they had: it was time to make compromises, to cut deals.

It was this compromising tendency that split the workers’ movement. To many workers, giving up on abstentionism and making alliances was a “betrayal”, signaling in particular the corroding influences of other classes (petit-bourgeois intellectuals), or of certain privileged, pro-imperialist sectors of the working class (the labour aristocracy). In fact, this turn within social democracy had more prosaic roots. In the first instance, it was the only way to give the voters something to celebrate, once voting percentages stopped rising so quickly. Second, and more importantly, once the social democrats could see that they couldn’t reach the crucial numerical majority on the basis of workers alone, it made sense that they would begin to look for voters elsewhere: socialists had to “choose between a party homogeneous in its class appeal, but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats, and a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class character.” Increasingly, all social democratic parties chose the latter. (Endnotes Collective 2015)

And from here, the reason behind the hostility becomes clear. Both factions are electorally co-dependent but at the same time pose existential threats to each other. Since they can't separate, but also cannot cooperate, the only way for one faction to pursue its goals is the absolute subordination of the other. Let's go through the various scenarios:

  1. They remain completely independent from each other. Divided, both factions quickly find themselves unable to maintain a parliamentary coalition which even remotely resembles a plurality. They both remain entirely locked out of the political arena, triggering a loss condition for both.
  2. They cooperate on equal footing. This remains an option until a sufficient amount of power is actually taken, and the DemSocs wish to leverage said power in riskier ways. From there, this scenario spills into one of the other ones.
  3. The SocDems subordinate the DemSocs. This is a win for the former as they are able to manage a sufficient coalition to have a voice in legislation and maintain their influence over an extended period of time. However, this process of negotiation is perpetual, triggering a loss for DemSocs, whose fundamental goals necessitate an advancement of political power.
  4. The DemSocs subordinate the SocDems. The focus of the movement becomes advancing political power, which the DemSocs require. However, simultaneously, the zero-sum focus of such a task makes the negotiation pursued by SocDems near impossible.

Ultimately, the only possible outcomes are either mutual destruction or subordination. In that sense, this specific arena of politics is zero-sum (even if we assume politics as a whole isn't), which explains why emotions run higher between the two groups than between each group and much more ideologically different groups. It also explains why the tensions are so strong during elections, where said zero-sum game is being played.


Balhorn, Lauren. “How Yugoslavia's Partisans Built a New Socialist Society” Jacobin Magazine, June 13, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/yugoslavia-tito-market-socialism

Berman, Sheri, and Dieter Dettke. 2005. Understanding social democracy. Washington: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Washington Office.

Bernstein, Eduard. “Karl Marx and Social Reform.” In Progressive Review no. 7. Edited by Paul Fiewers. Marxist Internet Archive, 1897.

Bernstein, Eduard, and Henry Tudor. (1899) 2004. The preconditions of socialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, G.D.H., “Fabianism.” In Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. Edited by Edwin Seligman and Alvin Saunders Johnson. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 2002. American capitalism: the concept of countervailing power. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Lenin, Vladmir Ilyich. “Should We Participate in Bourgeois Parliaments?” In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Marxists Internet Archive, 1920.

Robertson, James. “The Life and Death of Yugoslav Socialism” Jacobin Magazine, July 17, 2017. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/07/yugoslav-socialism-tito-self-management-serbia-balkans

Schweickart, David. “Democratic Socialism.” In Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, edited by Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr, 446-448. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007. doi: 10.4135/9781412956215.n250.

Trotsky, Leon. “The Transitional Program”. In The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Marxists Internet Archive, 1938.

Wolff, Richard. “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way” The Guardian, June 24, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/24/alternative-capitalism-mondragon

Last updated: 4/3/2021

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Thesis: Communists have repeatedly either ignored or attempted to circumvent the issue of struggles of a non-exclusively proletarian nature. These approaches in their various forms are insufficient. The question can only be answered once it extends beyond one of class composition into the content of the critique itself.

Following the decline of the USSR and the rise of the neoliberal “end of history”, the historical left began to find itself in an identity crisis of sorts. This is the type of crisis Derrida finds himself contending with when writing Specters of Marx:

Today, almost a century and a half later, there are many who, throughout the world, seem just as worried by the specter of communism, just as convinced that what one is dealing with there is only a specter without body, without present reality,without actuality or effectivity, but this time it is supposed to be a past specter. It was only a specter, an illusion, a phantasm, or a ghost: that is what one hears everywhere today. (Derrida 1984, 47-48)

As for what “defines the left”, I've written on that before (although it hasn't aged well); the focus of this piece is to provide a response to the questions raised by one of Marxism's alleged “gravediggers”, the New Left.

On the other hand, there has emerged a growing body of leftist intellectual work which is highly critical of Marxism and often explicitly anti-Marxist., Two characteristics of these new critiques of Marxism are particularly important.

First, they are critiques on the Left, not from the antisocialist Right. The criticisms are not from apostate Marxists who have become defenders of capitalism; they are from anti-capitalist intellectuals with commitments to progressive social change. In some cases, in fact, these theorists' vision of the alternative to capitalism is not radically different from the image of socialism and communism contained in Marxist theory; what is different is the view of the theory of society needed to help create such a society.

Second, the critiques are not simply critiques of the insufficiencies or gaps in Marxist theory; they are critiques of Marxism. In one way or another all of these theorists argue that Marxist theory is a hindrance, that its theoretical assumptions necessarily create blind spots, that its foundations are fundamentally flawed and thus it cannot be reconstructed — it must be abandoned. (Wright 1983, 452)

One of the major points of contention for these social movements was the question of whether Marxism fundamentally has a “tendency toward class or economic reductionism in Marxist typologies of historical forms of society” (Wright 1983).

Is a primarily material conception of society able to testify to the experiences and promise liberation for groups of a racial, sexual, or gender-based identity? Is it even the duty of socialists to pursue such ends?

This essay will deal with evaluating common responses to this question, and providing an answer that does not jeopardize the content of a revolutionary critique.

1. Class Romanticism

To a lot of the early socialists, the obvious answer seemed to be to focus on uniting proletarians across the world under a common class identity. This seemed like the simplest solution, after all two central tenets of orthodox Marxism were the uniquely revolutionary potential of the proletariat and the notion that productive relations constituted the “base” of society.

Those are all well and good from the outset, but we should be careful about how far and why we draw said conclusions. Often times, these conclusions are drawn out of political expedience at the cost of both our understanding of and the development of class-struggle itself.

1.1. Forming a “Proletarian Identity”

Marx's famous call was for workers of the world to unite. What made such a task seem feasible was a connection drawn between the development of productive forces under capitalism and the homogenizing of proletarians. Peasant revolts never broke out into revolution due to their interests residing with religious, ethnic, and other identities.

Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist...

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle. (Marx and Engels 1900, 195)

In practice, such a phenomenon was not nearly as cut-and-dry as Marxists presumed:

In reality, the homogenisation that seemed to be taking place in the factory was always partial. Workers became interchangeable parts in a giant machine; however, that machine turned out to be vastly complex. That in itself opened up many opportunities for pitting different groups against each other. In US auto plants, black workers were concentrated in the foundry, the dirtiest work. Southern Italians equally found themselves segregated from Northerners in the plants of Turin and Milan. Such segregation may appear inefficient, for employers, since it restricts the pool of potential workers for any given post. But as long as the relevant populations are large enough, employers are able to segment the labour market and drive down wages. If differential sets of interests among workers could be created by the internal divisions within the plant (as in Toyota-isation), so much the better. Capitalists were content for the labouring population to remain diverse and incommensurable in all sorts of ways, especially when it undermined workers’ organising efforts. (Endnotes Collective 2015, 129)

Faced with this reality, socialist parties had no choice but to artificially construct a class identity, centered around the ideal image of what a proletarian “should look like”:

How all this might be fashioned into a single working-class identity was the operative question for socialists. The rise of the urban working-class neighborhood was crucial to this project. Initially, lower-class loyalties were held within superordinate structures of deference and paternalism, often ordered by religion, and increasingly dominated by liberals. Across Europe, government policies and party actions regulated popular culture by interacting with the social histories of urbanization in ever more ramified ways. From the 1890s, states intervened with gathering intensity in the everyday lives of working people, assisted by new knowledges and professions and targeting social stability and the national health via powerful ideas of family. In the process, powerfully gendered images of the ideal working father and the responsible mother permeated the politics of class. Then socialist parties, too, began organizing working people into collective political agency beyond the neighborhood and workplace, with an impact on government, locally and municipally, in regions, and eventually the nation. All these processes helped shape class identities institutionally. (Eley 2002, 58)

While this picture may prove useful for propaganda, it ultimately is no substitute for a real class consciousness. Revolution can only be accomplished by the “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority”, not just by pandering to a specific subset of artisans.

Given that the expected homogeneity of the semi-skilled workforce failed to fully realise itself, it became part of the task of the workers’ movement to realise that homogeneity by other means. As we saw above, organisation requires an affirmable identity, an image of working class respectability and dignity. When workers failed to fit this mold, the champions of the workers’ movement became champions of self-transformation. The workers’ movement was a sect — with DIY, straight-edge sensibilities, a particular style of dress, etc. Yet the predicates of the dignified worker (male, disciplined, atheist, expressing a thirst for scientific knowledge and political education, etc.) were often drawn by analogy to the values of bourgeois society. “The party activists wanted to live worthy, upstanding, moral, moderate, and disciplined lives: on the one hand, to show the workers who were not yet organised a good example; on the other hand, to show bourgeois society that one was up to all tasks, that one deserved good standing and respect.” In other words, party activists were quite often killjoys.

The proletarian has been reduced from a class with an actual role in production to a primarily cultural and moral identity. This ideal worker would eventually find himself championed by electoral and populist movements more willing to indulge this fantasy.

Sections of workers—organized, skilled or semi-skilled, male—won unprecedented security, with not only full employment and rising real wages but a new shop floor self-respect...

Postwar industrial relations required a corporatist triangulation: labor won tangible economic benefits and political influence; capital won the space for a new accumulation strategy based on Fordism, meaning workplace deals combining high wages, productivity, and a modernized labor process, linked to consumer-driven growth; and the state won a new role overseeing this large-scale societal compromise. This corporatism was held together partly by national systems of consultation between government, employers, and unions and partly by Keynesianism’s ending of mass unemployment. It produced a system of “reformer managed capitalism.” This held a central place for organized labor, while bypassing socialism as such. (Eley 2002, 316)

Why is this an issue with regards to the workers' movement? Because class identification goes hand-in-hand with class consciousness. When socialists promote a “class” that the majority of proletarians are unable to identify with, they find themselves unable to reach the immense majority.

In this double sense—in social structure and social understandings, as the social aggregation of wage-earning positions in industrial economies and as an organized political identity—the working class declined. This was a complex story. Perceptions of decline reflected the demise of one kind of working-class aggregate—the skilled or semiskilled male proletarians of the “old” industries and the electrochemical complex of the “second industrial revolution.” By stricter definitions of wage-labor, after all, working-class positions still increased. The declining peasantry, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and other self-employed more than replenished the wage-dependent labor force, likewise women’s entry into employment. Assumptions about working-class identity lagged behind actual changes in work and the continuing creation of new types of worker, as growth of the service sector and public employment made clear. (Eley 2002, 397)

1.2. Blurred Lines

Some might handwave this as a white lie in order to attract people to the cause —something that can attract the “common man”, but then be explained in more detail later — but often it ends up spiraling out of control. Propaganda of any form has lasting psychological effects that are severely underestimated. We cannot expect a man to suspend his capacity to think critically and then wean him off of convenient falsehoods.

The individual has no chance to exercise his judgment either on principal questions or on their implication; this leads to the atrophy of a faculty not comfortably exercised under any conditions. What the individual loses is never easy to revive. Once personal judgment and critical faculties have disappeared or have been atrophied, they will not simply reappear when propaganda has been suppressed.

What the individual loses is never easy to revive. Once personal judgment and critical faculties have disappeared or have been atrophied, they will not simply reappear when propaganda has been suppressed. In fact, we are dealing here with one of propaganda’s most durable effects: years of intellectual and spiritual education would be needed to restore such faculties. The propagandee, if deprived of one propaganda, will immediately adopt another; this will spare him the agony of finding himself vis-à-vis some event without a ready-made opinion, and obliged to judge it for himself. (Ellul 1965, 170)

The more you appeal to the irrational side of a man, the more prone he will be to irrational messaging in the future, or to put it in simpler terms: what you say now will come back to haunt you later down the road.

This is especially the case when talking about questions of class composition, because whatever message you put forth regarding class ends up shaping the body of the resulting movement. Nowhere is this more clear than with the syndicalists. Early syndicalists were some of the strongest proponents of class-romanticism. However, their neutered class-theory would end up paving the way for a movement more willing to submerge itself in the fantasy: Italian Fascism.

The war, he felt, had restored Italy's self-confidence by proving the country capable of serious things; now, at last, after centuries of indiscipline and disorganization, she would be able to get down to work, creating “the new miracle, that Italy of the labor aristocracy that can be the model of every other people that intends to endure” The new Italy would have an important new role in the world, not as a military-imperial power, but as the bearer of new productivist values: “The world needs the Italian; Italian is synonymous with worker; he is an organism of extraordinary energy, is resistant, adaptable, sober, thrifty; he is the poet of toil, the hero of excavations, the vanguard of the harvesters of the land, the essential raw material for the effort of continuing human progress.”' Orano clearly wanted to believe that the war itself had been the Italian revolution, but all his exaggeration and forced optimism indicate his sense that it would not be so easy to reap the harvest of the Italian war experience.

And despite Orano's inspiring images, of course, the end of the war soon led to the “biennio rosso” and the threat of socialist revolution. In response, the syndicalists finally began cutting themselves off from the old orthodoxy for good, condemning the working class, declaring the class struggle to be counterproductive, and calling for collaboration between the workers and productive sectors of the bourgeoisie. (Roberts 1979, 154-155)

Class struggle is not merely an issue of getting enough people to identify with socialism. Making your message more palatable for the sake of “the front” may work for electoral movements, but as Marxists such a choice only serves to foster false consciousness. How can one expect a proletarian to be aware of his situation while he is constantly misled on what a proletarian even is?

2. Populism

The global financial crisis that began in 2008 and the ongoing crisis of the euro are both products of the model of lightly regulated financial capitalism that emerged over the past three decades. Yet despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response. It is conceivable that the Occupy Wall Street movement will gain traction, but the most dynamic recent populist movement to date has been the right-wing Tea Party, whose main target is the regulatory state that seeks to protect ordinary people from financial speculators. Something similar is true in Europe as well, where the left is anemic and right-wing populist parties are on the move. (Fukuyama 2012)

This quote is part of a piece by Francis Fukuyama, in which he identifies that “in the aftermath of the [Great Recession]... populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one”. He attempts to provide an explanation of why this is, but he (unsurprisingly) misses the mark in the process. The purpose of this section will be to provide an alternative answer to this problem, tying it back to our central theme of class-composition.

2.1. OWS and Populism

As the left rallied behind the call of “the personal is the political”, the question of class only became all more daunting. By the 2010s, one possible solution was starting to gain traction: if one class theory ends up excluding others, then why not make everybody the revolutionary class?

This theme was at the center of Occupy Wall Street, quite possibly the most prominent example of a left-wing movement in the 21st century. Signs, posters, chants, all repeating the same slogan: “we are the 99 percent”.

For the uninitiated, the term “99 percent” refers to a statistic of income inequality in the US (one percent of the country controls approximately two-fifths of the nation's wealth). From this one statistic springs out a rudimentary class-narrative littered throughout Occupy rhetoric:

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late. (Stiglitz 2011)

If this passage screams “populism” to you, you're absolutely justified in your suspicions. Yes, there is an economic element to the whole dichotomy, but it still is predominantly populist. Of course, defining populism is tricky, but there are common patterns we can observe:

The people are defined in opposition to outsiders, who allegedly do not belong to the moral and hard-working true people. While many studies of populism define the essential social conflict as between the people and the elite, this report uses the more general term “outsiders”, because populists as often stoke divisions between marginalised communities as between marginalised communities and elite.

From there, populists attribute a singular common good to the people: a policy goal that cannot be debated based on evidence but that derives from the common sense of the people. This general will of the people, populists argue, is not represented by the cartel of self-serving establishment elites who guard status quo politics. (Kyle and Gultchin 2018, 12)

The very same report denotes a subtype of populism that should prove more relevant to early Occupy:

Socio-economic populism does not constitute a specific package of economic policies, but rather paints the central ‘us vs. them’ conflict as between economic classes. Among socio-economic populists, there is a reverence for the common worker. The pure people belong to a specific social class, which is not necessarily constrained by national borders. For example, socio-economic populists may see working classes in neighbouring countries as natural allies.

The corrupt elites can include big businesses, capital owners, state elites, and foreign forces and international institutions that prop up an international capitalist system. (Kyle and Gultchin 2018, 23-24)

For some, socio-economic populism may sound all well and good, since it still deals in vaguely economic terms. However, that alone is not enough; the foundations still remain far too equivocal to constitute a proper class theory.

2.2. Class-Narratives

In Marxism, classes are distinguished according to their specific role in the process of production:

(i) The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistance and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class, or the bourgeoisie.

(ii) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get, in exchange, the means of subsistence for their support. This is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat. (Engels 1847)

This proves important for two reasons:

  1. There are clear lines being drawn; both the proletarian and the bourgeois can be objectively identified according to their productive relations. These aren't just adjectives, but actual historical categories.
  2. The proletariat is presented not just in its negative characteristics (its oppression), but as the producer of value. It is this positive characteristic that is able to give weight to Marx's claim that “the proletariat alone is [the] really revolutionary class”.

Contrast this with the class-narrative of socio-economic populism:

  1. The “people” and the “elite” are incredibly equivocal categories. We can attribute a character to these classes, but not any concrete characteristics. Even if we spoke of them in terms of say, income or wealth, that'd only serve to raise more questions. Where is the cutoff that decides if a person is elite or common? What really unites the 99 percent? Why do some of the so-called elite sympathize with Occupy?
  2. The categories serve a primarily moral function, decrying the actions of the “elite”. But it ultimately fails to go further than that. For people like Stiglitz saying that the one percent will learn their lesson once its too late; this may be a nice thought, but it's ultimately hollow. What would the 99 percent do once its “too late”? Are they willing? Are they capable?

What Marxist class theory takes into account which populists neglect is that the revolutionary subject must have both composition and content. As Dauvé puts it:

Until the two or three last decades of the twentieth century, most radical critique considered the working class as the social pivot and revolutionary lever (metaphors highly revealing of a mechanical age mindset). Nowadays, in contrast with the apparent simplicity of yesteryears, capitalism and contemporary struggles are said to be devoid of centrality. When most radicals speak of labour, they tend to overstretch the notion, with no significant difference between a housewife, a student and an assembly-line worker. The definition has moved from entirely positive to entirely negative: the prole is no longer the pan-creator of wealth, he or she is a less-person: jobless, landless, powerless, propertyless, moneyless, homeless, and undocumented. As result, what is meant by class is a boundless shapeless whole, disjointed not only from the work place (which would stick to the Marxian definition: proles are at work and/or jobless), but from the world of work altogether. (Dauvé 2015, 140)

A movement that fails to advance beyond protesting, that fails to take seriously the questions of what leverage is available, the fundamental interests of those in question, and its goals is doomed from the outset.

And that second part ties back into the earlier question of what really unites the 99 percent? And no, I don't mean a character sketch of the “common man”. What is a meaningful characteristic shared by the members of this group? Populism proved great for spreading awareness and promoting the slogans of the campaign: after all, the 99 percent appeals to everyone. But broad appeal comes at a cost: the content is diluted.

2.3. Democracy and Demands

And it's specifically for this reason that we saw Occupy devolve in the way it did. Once people were on board with the idea of fighting back against the one-percent, what was to happen next? What issues should be prioritized? What about conflicting interests among the 99 percent? Is it even possible to represent everyone? Sure, you can say it can be accomplished with consensus democracy, but how does consensus democracy reconcile these divergences better than our current system?

Talking in practical terms, we've seen experimentation with the speaking stack (a consensus-based approach to group discussion) to address concerns raised by minority groups, but even that has run into conflict:

Another check on structurelessness comes in the form of the “progressive stack,” in which the “stack-keeper,” who is in charge of taking questions and concerns from the audiences at general assemblies, is given the ability to privilege voices from “traditionally marginalized groups.”

...Innovations like progressive stack can at times act as a Band-Aid solution covering over pervasive power dynamics that are hard to pinpoint and resolve, she adds. Without serious and sustained work towards women’s equality within the movement, she says, “progressive stack is [just] a way for us to feel slightly better.” (Seltzer 2011)

Confronted with this crisis of identity, the movement which has nothing but an ideal of democracy to its name, does what all democratic movements eventually do: begin negotiations on a list of demands. Demands (and public policy by extent) are essential to democracy:

Democracy and public policy are intertwined because the organization of authority in a nation affects the design and implementation of government activity. Fundamental to democracy is the notion that citizens possess the ability and means to shape decisions made by public officials...

Democracy’s desirability derives from its institutional design which allows the majority of citizens to influence public policy in ways relevant to their interests and needs. (Krane and Marshall 2007)

It should be noted that the move to list demands was not met with unanimous approval; there was some controversy surrounding it, yet I bring it up because these demands still remain Occupy's legacy regardless.

“Everyone is entitled to make their own blog or website to post their opinions about how OWS should operate or what they think the OWS demands should be, this 99% group is no different,” Stepanian said in an email. “However, all of OWS’s official statements are agreed upon by way of consensus-based general assemblies. This matter was not submitted or agreed upon by the NYC general assembly, and therefore by-passed the process all OWS plans have been made through.”...

“Demands have come up before,” wrote Ryan Hoffman in another email to HuffPost. “They were shot down vociferously under the argument that demands are for terrorists and that is not who we are. From that debate however, another proposal was passed: that we table all talk of demands until future notice! Therefore, any talk about demands, posts of demands, etc. are null and void. We already tabled those discussions using consensus.” (Kingkade 2011)

This quote, in addition to introducing the “demand debate”, does give us insight into how Occupy deliberates and also why these demands ended up taking center-stage.

  • The question of Occupy's organization seemed not to have been properly settled. On one hand, there technically is a General Assembly, yet the GA's “authority” seems to be little more than nominal. Groups independent are able to speak on behalf of OWS and receive such recognition by the public no matter how much the GA protests.
  • The consensus-model of the GA brings deliberation to a snail's crawl, showing it to be impotent and bureaucratic in response to a rapidly-unfolding situation. If the GA struggles to discuss an issue (much less offer a solution), their input will remain less significant than that from those who have taken demonstrable action.

Though “On Conflict and Consensus” assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism. Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. (Kauffman 2015)

Since the GA proved itself incapable for the task, countless other groups stepped up to the plate and put forth their demands.

  • One of the most well-known of these is the 99 Percent Declaration: a list of twenty demands, some of which include congressional term limits, an overturning of Citizens United, and various reforms to the tax code.
  • The Demands Working Group backed a “New Deal-style work program funded largely by ending America’s wars and taxing the rich”. (Harkinson 2011)
  • The Liberty Square Blueprint was a bit more extreme, calling to end all wars, open-source government technology, and abolish the Federal Reserve.

What's shared in common by all of these declarations (even the rather unreasonable Liberty Square Blueprint) is that they all take upon a distinctly reformist character. Despite the fanfare in its rhetoric and the wishes of the more anarchist members, there is nothing revolutionary about what Occupy left behind.

2.4. Occupy's Limited Legacy

With the hindsight of all these years behind us, it is rather easy to reflect upon Occupy's legacy. The general consensus seems to be that while the protests may have gone on to promote certain policy platforms, it's impact was far from revolutionary:

Occupy Wall Street takes some of the credit for introducing income inequality into the broader political discourse, for inspiring the fight for a $15 minimum wage and, most recently, for creating a receptive audience for the Democratic presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Everyone knows we were right,” said Caleb Maupin, who was working in the insurance industry when he first joined the movement five years ago. “We had a major campaign for president with Bernie Sanders. The campaign was like a giant Occupy Wall Street rally, talking about the 99 percent and the one percent because millions of people know we were right.” (Hajela and Balsamo 2016)

This was always a concern amongst the protestors (especially the anarchist ones), so it's fair to say that this result was far from unanticipated.

The protesters are just reminding those in power to look down. This is the easy part. The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, those in power will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture...

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new. (Zizek 2011)

What Zizek, along with many other protestors neglected is the form this “dilution” takes:

  • Recuperation need not come from the “elite” or “false friends”, it can arise as a consequence of how we communicate and propagate ideas using modern mediums. Zizek gives an example of Bill Clinton “suggest[ing] the protesters get behind President Obama's jobs plan”, but what the existence of such a statement demonstrates is not a danger to be heeded, but rather instead, evidence of a compatibility between the rhetoric of Occupy and the goals of Bill Clinton. Occupy makes its motto “let the 99 percent be heard”, Bill Clinton believes he can accommodate this with a jobs plan. The issue isn't with Bill Clinton, the issue is with Occupy's messaging.
  • Zizek is correct to oppose demands. But just because a revolutionary movement is absent of demands doesn't mean it shouldn't be absent of content. He seems to identify this when he speaks of a vacuum, but he underestimated how quickly that vacuum can be filled with other things. In the case of Occupy, the vacuum would end up being filled with a overreliance slogans and imagery, both of which are ripe for recuperation.

However, it is one thing to make an observation, and another to transform said observations into useful information. So, returning to this question of why Occupy left behind what it did, let us reiterate our earlier findings.

  • Confronted with the failure of historically labor-centric movements, Occupy centers itself around a populist class-narrative, pitting the 99 percent against the 1 percent. This allows Occupy to be more inclusive of non-labor struggles, as they can be easily slotted into this 'great majority”.
  • Occupy's class-narrative has the numbers on its side, but ultimately lacks substance. Because the movement is primarily populist, the only common theme that could be pursued is “true democracy”. As a result, the movement's main focus shifted towards promoting consensus-democracy, giving rise to the General Assembly.
  • The General Assembly found itself burdened by the inefficiency of its process, and struggled anything, much less an actionable programme.
  • The lack of demands from both the anarchist occupiers and the General Assembly led other groups to make demands on behalf of the movement. While this was neither agreed upon or official, it was de-facto recognized due to the lack of action on part of either of the opposing parties.

Tying this together, we begin to get a picture of how class-content can determine the nature of a movement. Occupy's populist nature could only lead to a democratic focus which in turn could only be resolved by democratic means, i.e., reform. The question of class had not been solved, but instead, merely ignored:

This points more to a crisis within class relations than to a crisis of class relations—a crisis that might initiate the destruction of class structure. Present unrest acts as if it could absorb class without doing away with what maintains it: the capital-labour opposition. Togetherness is a necessary dimension of revolution, providing it breaks with class division, not when it fuses class groups into an aggregate mass. On Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, Taksim … the fact that those without any means of livelihood have to sell their labour power to those who organise work and profit from it, in simpler words the basic fact of exploitation, was interpreted in terms of poor v. rich, powerless v. powerful, bottom v. top. Therefore the solution could only be a fair resharing of wealth and power.

We are not suggesting everything will be fine the day the Cairote jobless refuse to demonstrate alongside doctors because proletarians don’t associate with middle class. The question is what they do and cannot do together. The shift from factory to street occupation, from private to public places, is immensely positive if occupiers transform what they take over: one has to get hold of something before transforming it. But takeover is not ipso facto changeover. The reclaiming of public space signifies a will to reappropriate our lives, an intuition that production and work should not be central in our lives: that could be a starting point for a critique of the economy and work, if production and work were confronted and not bypassed. Otherwise, just as the occupied factory occupies its occupiers and keeps them within the confines of labour issues, those who occupy the square immerse themselves in the occupation tasks. Solidarity is an indispensable dimension of revolutionary breakthrough, a part, not the whole, and when the part replaces the whole, community becomes an end in itself. A Madrid participant was saying in May 2012: “People are fighting to take decisions themselves.” What self is meant and, what’s more, which decisions? (Dauve 2015, 98)

Class without content is little more than an amorphous grouping, impotent and atomized. It's easy, it's attractive, but it's ultimately toothless.

2.4a Rebuttal to Fukuyama

This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to Section 3 if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.

Returning back to Fukuyama, let us see what he concluded regarding Occupy Wall Street:

In the United States, for example, although the Tea Party is anti-elitist in its rhetoric, its members vote for conservative politicians who serve the interests of precisely those financiers and corporate elites they claim to despise. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. They include a deeply embedded belief in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome and the fact that cultural issues, such as abortion and gun rights, crosscut economic ones.

But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this. (Fukuyama 2012)

Fukuyama is correct in two areas: there is an absence of a coherent conceptual framework and an increasing inability to link struggles/experiences. However, he quickly loses sight of the issue:

  • This first part should come as no surprise, considering the book he's notorious for, but Fukuyama contributes to the issue at hand by prematurely burying Marx. Marxism isn't perfect, there's a lot of things that Orthodox Marxists were mistaken on, but it was a coherent framework. It did provide tools for mobilization. Recent developments and the publication of Marx's newly-discovered writings show, if anything, what we need is a return to Marx.
  • He irons over the differences between revolutionary and reactionary movements, which leads him to come to the wrong conclusion on why the Tea Party succeeded. First, it should be noted that “most Tea Party supporters are among the middle class”, not the working class as Fukuyama implies (Boushey 2010). Secondly, the fact is that the ends of reactionary movements are just more suited to populism: the creation of a unified identity, manipulation, a focus on “other-ing” weaker groups, us-versus-them narratives. Combine all of these combined with the middle-class' influence on social institutions and its clear what make right-wing soft-coups so effective.

Occupy had a clear focus against the elites, there was undeniably an economic undertone to it (hence the focus on income and Wall-Street), and the “99 percent” included the middle class. The issue was that they hit a wall precisely because their populist approach had little to offer to those who they wished to mobilize. Taking more pages out of the Tea Party's playbook would only exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

3. Class Vacuum

Of course, all of this begs the question. Why even bother with a class theory? This is a question that has repeatedly been raised, whether consciously or unconsciously, by various movements from individualist anarchists to right-wing nationalists. Often times, however, what we are going to see is that this sort of rejection of a social element in revolutionary change often lends itself to individual terrorism as a means of praxis.

First, let us set the terms, because terrorism in and of itself is a broad phenomenon. We're mostly going to be focusing on terrorism perpetrated by individuals and non-state actors and the ideological factors which motivate them. Terrorism studies is a rabbit-hole unto itself, so there's no point digging into what is irrelevant to the topic of this essay. The following quote should make clear the angle we're approaching this from:

By its very essence terrorist work demands such concentrated energy for “the great moment,” such an overestimation of the significance of individual heroism, and finally, such a “hermetic” conspiracy, that – if not logically, then psychologically – it totally excludes agitational and organisational work among the masses.

...Everything that is outside the framework of terror is only the setting for the struggle; at best, an auxiliary means. In the blinding flash of exploding bombs, the contours of political parties and the dividing lines of the class struggle disappear without a trace.

...The revolvers of individual heroes instead of the people’s cudgels and pitchforks; bombs instead of barricades – that is the real formula of terrorism. (Trotsky 1909)

3.1. Propaganda of the Deed

Historically, a core component of anarchist theory is “propaganda of the deed”, best summarized as the idea that an individual's actions can inspire others to take up arms. However, those who postulated about it soon had to come to terms with the reality once people began to follow through on it.

A proper understanding of the origins of anarchist terrorism at the end of the nineteenth century must take into account not only a variety of causes, some of them contradictory, but also a baffling gap between rhetoric and reality. Malatesta and Kropotkin had called for propaganda by the deed, meaning actions aimed at insurrection and revolution, but soon got random acts of murder about which they harbored deep misgivings. Loath to abandon the lowly instigators of these deeds, the anarchist leaders apolo-gized for them, and thus enabled, or at least assisted, the popular press and numerous politicians in finding someone to blame, or to scapegoat, for mis-cellaneous anti-social acts...

...The assassination of Tsar Alexander, attempts on the German kaiser and Italian king in 1878, the abortive bombing of the Greenwich Observatory (at the instigation of the tsarist police?), scores of mysterious bombings in Barcelona between 1904 and 1909, attacks on British civilians and officials in India, the Italian soldier Masetti’s assault on his commanding officer in 1911, and other acts of violence were all co-opted into the terrorist “black wave,” not only by the prejudices (and sometimes the instigation) of the media, police, and politicians, but also by the fervent desires of many anarchists, who saw in them dazzling images of proletarian power. (Jensen 2014, 22-23)

This encouraged a reformulation on part of thinkers such as Kropotkin and Bakunin, who would develop a theory of anarchist praxis drawing heavily from the then-emerging syndicalist movement. This would end up defining a split between anarchists who were willing to embrace a class-theory and anarchists who weren't.

Coinciding with the birth of anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary unionism, three tendencies emerged within anarchist-communism. First, there was the tendency represented by Kropotkin himself and Les Temps Nouveaux (Jean Grave). Second, there were a number of groups which were influenced by Kropotkin but which were less reserved than him towards the trade unions (for example, Khleb i Volia in Russia). Finally, there was the anti-syndicalist anarchist-communists, who in France were grouped around Sebastien Faure’s Le Libertaire. From 1905 onwards, the Russian counterparts of these anti-syndicalist anarchist-communists become partisans of economic terrorism and illegal ‘expropriations’.

...As an alternative to the strategy of the Russian ‘illegalist’ anarchist-communists, Kropotkin envisaged the formation of independent anarchist trade unions whose aim would be to counteract the influence of the Social Democrats. He defined his strategy in one sentence in the 1904 introduction to the Italian edition of Paroles d’un Révolté: ‘Expropriation as the aim, and the general strike as the means to paralyse the bourgeois world in all countries at the same time.’

At the end of his life Kropotkin seems to have abandoned his previous reservations and to have gone so far as to see in syndicalism the only ‘groundwork for the reconstruction of Russian economy’. In May 1920, he declared that: ‘the syndicalist movement... will emerge as the great force in the course of the next fifty years, leading to the creation of the communist stateless society’. (Pengam 2002)

For the purposes of the point I'm driving, I am going to direct my attention towards individualist strains of anarchism, as they offer the most coherent expression of a classless perspective. A separate section can be found below (“Addressing Potential Objections”) if social anarchists have any issues with exactly how representative this is of anarchism with respect to the context of this piece.

The 1911–1912 rampages of the Bonnot gang, the “Tragic Bandits,” were even more spectacular and bloody. Most of the bandits were French, but a few were Belgian. Many of the gang’s members, although not Jules Bonnot himself, had originally been associated with L’Anarchie, founded in 1905 as the premier anarchist journal advocating individualist anarchism and “individual restitution,” i.e., robbery. In December 1911 the Tragic Bandits began to steal cars, rob banks, and kill people. They were the first individuals to use automobiles for terrorist or criminal purposes. (Jensen 2014, 351)

3.2. Terrorism and Failure

The aforementioned Anarchist F.A.Q. makes another point regarding terrorism:

Terrorism has been used by many other political, social and religious groups and parties. For example, Christians, Marxists, Hindus, Nationalists, Republicans, Muslims, Sikhs, Fascists, Jews and Patriots have all committed acts of terrorism. Few of these movements or ideas have been labelled as “terrorist by nature” or continually associated with violence—which shows anarchism's threat to the status quo. (McKay et al. 2010)

Which brings me to the other half of the terrorism coin: movements which have decayed beyond the point of being able to view themselves as the lever of history.

And it's here we begin to see the inherently defeatist character of terrorism: it “can maintain itself only by exploiting the weakness and disorganization of the masses, minimizing their conquests, and exaggerating their defeats” (Trotsky 1909). It appeals to those who are politically isolated, those who are facing the inevitability of their defeat.

What basically characterizes the members of these strata is their individualism, impatience, scepticism and demoralization. Their actions are more aimed at spectacular suicide than at any particular goal. Having lost their past position in society, having no future, they live in a present of misery and exasperated revolt against this misery; in an immediacy which is felt as an immediacy. Even if through contact with the working class and its historical future they can get inspired by its ideas in a distorted way, this rarely goes beyond the level of fantasy and dreams. Their real view of reality is a purely contingent one. (International Review 1978)

The hopeless mentality that underlies it often makes it attractive to reactionaries, whose ideology can only lead one to adopt the mentality of the perpetual loser. Littered throughout the manifesto of the El Paso shooter is this sense of complete desperation and self-victimization on part of the author. No person who feels remotely secure in their political position would write something like this:

In short, America is rotting from the inside out, and peaceful means to stop this seem to be nearly impossible. The inconvenient truth is that our leaders, both Democrat AND Republican, have been failing us for decades. They are either complacent or involved in one of the biggest betrayals of the American public in our history. The takeover of the United States government by unchecked corporations. I could write a ten page essay on all the damage these corporations have caused, but here is what is important. Due to the death of the baby boomers, the increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right and the ever increasing Hispanic population, America will soon become a one party-state. The Democrat party will own America and they know it. They have already begun the transition by pandering heavily to the Hispanic voting bloc in the 1st Democratic Debate. They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters. With policies like these, the Hispanic support for Democrats will likely become nearly unanimous in the future. The heavy Hispanic population in Texas will make us a Democrat stronghold. Losing Texas and a few other states with heavy Hispanic population to the Democrats is all it would take for them to win nearly every presidential election. (Crusius 2019)

The Unabomber, a luddite, also finds himself in despair when faced with the seemingly unstoppable march of industrialization.

That being accomplished, it does not appear that there would be any further obstacle to the development of technology, and it would presumably advance toward its logical conclusion, which is complete control over everything on Earth, including human beings and all other important organisms. The system may become a unitary, monolithic organization, or it may be more or less fragmented and consist of a number of organizations coexisting in a relationship that includes elements of both cooperation and competition,just as today the government, the corporations and other large organizations both cooperate and compete with one another. Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be impotent vis-à-vis large organizations armed with super technology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings, besides instruments of surveillance and physical coercion. Only a small number of people will have any real power, and even these probably will have only very limited freedom, because their behavior too will be regulated; just as today our politicians and corporation executives can retain their positions of power only as long as their behavior remains within certain fairly narrow limits.

Don’t imagine that the system will stop developing further techniques for controlling human beings and nature once the crisis of the next few decades is over and increasing control is no longer necessary for the system’s survival. On the contrary, once the hard times are over the system will increase its control over people and nature more rapidly, because it will no longer be hampered by difficulties of the kind that it is currently experiencing. Survival is not the principal motive for extending control. As we explained in paragraphs 87-90, technicians and scientists carry on their work largely as a surrogate activity; that is, they satisfy their need for power by solving technical problems. They will continue to do this with unabated enthusiasm, and among the most interesting and challenging problems for them to solve will be those of understanding the human body and mind and intervening in their development. For the ”good of humanity,” of course. (Kaczynski 1995, 39-40)

The previous examples were us demonstrating the hopelessness of known terrorists, but what about the terrorism of a known failure? Working backwards, we end up at the same result. Take a look at Peru's Shining Path, one of many international Maoist movements formed in response to China's liberalization.

Viewed from one historical angle – the emergence of neo-liberalism under Reagan, and China’s own shunning of the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s – Shining Path’s project was bizarrely out of its time. It was also ill-suited to Peru. Few of the preconditions for Mao’s own revolution in the ‘semi-colonial, semi-feudal’ China of the 1940s seemed to be present: Peru in 1980 was a democracy; it was largely urban and literate; and there was no colonial invader to fight, no militant social rebellion to capitalise upon, no massive inequality of land ownership. (Lovell 2019, 308)

The aim – to provoke the state into indiscriminate retaliation and for the people in turn to rebel against government brutality – was crude but, as it turned out, cruelly effective. The more excessive the state response, the more discredited Peru’s democracy, and the more disillusioned the populace, would become. Guzmán was prepared to sustain horrendous losses. He told his cadres frankly that they would have to ‘cross the river of blood’: that ‘many party militants would die…and they would die in the worst possible ways. Their families would be destroyed…there was very little in Peru’s history that prepared it to confront the level of violence that would eventually be unleashed. Dozens, hundreds of thousands of dead.’ The revolution envisioned by Shining Path resembled ever more closely a compact of death. Shining Path melded Mao’s optimistic ‘a single spark can light a prairie fire’ with a much darker, quasi-religious concept of purification in rivers of blood. It fostered a spirit of reckless confrontation. (Lovell 2019, 327-328)

The reversal of their outlook would not bring victory for the guerillas; “with the capture of [their leader], Shining Path collapsed like a paper tiger” (p. 342). What it did bring instead was numerous atrocities inflicted upon the very peasantry Maoism was intended to champion.

Children were forced to become guerrillas: ‘against their will, whether they wanted to or not, they showed them arms, knives, spears; if you don’t accept it, you’ll die’. They understood little of Mao: a few pre-breakfast readings from philosophy essays, nothing more. The party at first tried to ban fiestas, but then realised that the booze made villagers indiscreet in identifying informers: ‘drink made them reveal what they had told the military. Right there we would take them away, and kill them later that night. No one witnessed this, only the dark canyons.’ Girls aged twelve or thirteen were turned, effectively, into comfort-women or child-bearing slaves – they were conscripted to bases, from where they returned pregnant. Shining Path ‘have deceived us’, cried anguished mothers. In some base areas, voluntary recruits coexisted with conscripts whose families had been annihilated in senderista attacks. Deserters and dissenters suffered cruel public execution; in a massacre of Amazonian tribal captives in November 1989, one of the prisoners was crucified. (Lovell 2019, 332-333)

Even beyond Peru, a common pattern emerges among the Maoist movements surveyed in Lovell's book. In the cases of India (p. 349) and Nepal (p. 393-394), and others, we also see movements which when faced with the threat of irrelevancy resort to terroristic means.

3.3. The Atomization of the Terrorist

Unlike the other approaches that have been covered, you're going to see very few people consciously advocate for individual terrorism as a means of praxis. Because of this, it's going to be necessary to first draw a connection between terrorism and a “class vacuum”.

In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy. (Trotsky 1909)

3.1a: Addressing Potential Objections

This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to Section 3.2 if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.

The Anarchist F.A.Q. (reflecting the views of a lot of modern social anarchists) considers the “propaganda-by-the-deed phase of anarchism [to be] a failure” and attempts to quash the notion of “anarchist terrorism”. Peppered throughout the section, however, we're given a whole array of mealy-mouthed defenses regarding the link between anarchism and terrorism.

We can get a feel of the hypocrisy surrounding condemnation of anarchist violence by non-anarchists by considering their response to state violence. For example, many capitalist papers and individuals in the 1920s and 1930s celebrated Fascism as well as Mussolini and Hitler. Anarchists, in contrast, fought Fascism to the death and tried to assassinate both Mussolini and Hitler. Obviously supporting murderous dictatorships is not “violence” and “terrorism” but resisting such regimes is! Similarly, non-anarchists can support repressive and authoritarian states, war and the suppression of strikes and unrest by violence (“restoring law and order”) and not be considered “violent.” Anarchists, in contrast, are condemned as “violent” and “terrorist” because a few of them tried to revenge such acts of oppression and state/capitalist violence! Similarly, it seems the height of hypocrisy for someone to denounce the anarchist “violence” which produces a few broken windows in, say, Seattle while supporting the actual violence of the police in imposing the state's rule or, even worse, supporting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. If anyone should be considered violent it is the supporter of state and its actions yet people do not see the obvious and “deplore the type of violence that the state deplores, and applaud the violence that the state practices.” (McKay et al. 2017)

Is anarchism “terrorist by nature”? No, there are anarchist currents (especially anarcho-pacifism) which are fundamentally incompatible with such methods. However, the attitude social anarchists have shown towards terrorism is fundamentally incoherent. On one hand, you have people like Murray Bookchin condemning these terrorists on account of acting of their own individual accord, rather than listening to the “anarchist groups”.

It must be noted that the majority of anarchists did not support this tactic. Of those who committed “propaganda by the deed” (sometimes called “attentats”), as Murray Bookchin points out, only a “few . . . were members of Anarchist groups. The majority . . . were soloists.” [The Spanish Anarchists, p. 102] Needless to say, the state and media painted all anarchists with the same brush. They still do, usually inaccurately (such as blaming Bakunin for such acts even though he had been dead years before the tactic was even discussed in anarchist circles or by labelling non-anarchist groups anarchists!). (McKay et al. 2017)

On the other hand, you have acts of terror being committed by these same “anarchist groups”, quite a few of which do follow social anarchism.

The Spanish anarchists whom [Bookchin] esteems above all others (1977, 1994) had perhaps the longest terrorist tradition of all. The index reference to “Terrorism, anarchist” in his history of Spanish anarchism covers dozens of pages (1977: 342). There were sporadic bombings in the 1880s which became chronic, at least in the anarchist stronghold of Barcelona, in the 1890s (Bookchin 1977: ch. 6). 1918–1923, period of violent class struggle in Spain, was the time of the pistoleros — gunmen — a term which applies to both employer-hired goons and anarcho-leftist militants. Among hundreds of others, “a premier, two former civil governors, an Arch-bishop, nearly 300 employers, factory directors, foremen, and police, and many workers and their leaders in the sindicato libre [a company union], fell before the bullets and bombs of Anarchist action groups” (Black 1992)

So, what exactly are we supposed to make of all this?

It is true that anarchist violence has often backfired and never won any lasting victory. But this is but to say that anarchism is a failure to date. Anarchist propaganda is a failure. Anarchist organizing is a failure (vide the IWW). Anarchist schooling is a failure. If anything, anarchists have accomplished more by violence than in any other way, in the Ukraine and in Spain, for instance. The fact is anarchists have not accomplished anything by any means to compare with their leftist and fascist and liberal rivals. Their propaganda, for instance, has not come close to the efficiency of propaganda by Nazis, televangelists, and Fabian Socialists. Their institution-building (touted by the Australian consortium) amounts to nothing but anarchists bagging granola in food coops or supplying warm bodies for demonstrations claimed by Stalinists or Green yuppies or whomever. Anything they can do, others do better. Could it be that anarchism itself scares most people away, stirs up their fear of freedom such that they seize upon media spoon-fed slanders like ‘terrorism’ as excuses for looking the other way? (Black 1992)

Social anarchism remains stuck at an impasse attempting to balance the class-narrative of its “social” half and the assumption of absolute individual agency afforded by the final condition of anarchy. Class-theories and anarchism mix like oil and water: Faced with this reality, “libertarian municipalists” and anarcho-syndicalists were forced to abandon the anarchist project in favor of simple left-wing libertarianism. Direct democracy, localism, and decentralization: equivocate all you want on the definition of “hierarchy”, but none of these constitute anarchy.

By some quirk of fate, Bookchin’s minimal, believe-it-or-else anarchist creed just happens to be his creed. It also happens to be deliriously incoherent. A “confederation of decentralized municipalities” contradicts “direct democracy,” as a confederation is at best a representative, not a direct, democracy. It also contradicts “an unwavering opposition to statism” because a city-state or a federal state is still a state.

...While the word “anarchism” appears on almost every page of the Dean’s diatribe, the word “anarchy” rarely if ever does. The ideology, the ism, is what preoccupies him, not the social condition, the way of life, it’s presumably supposed to guide us toward. It may not be an inadvertent choice of words that what Bookchin lays down, as one of his Four Commandments of orthodox anarchism, is “an unwavering opposition to statism” (60: emphasis added), not an unwavering opposition to the state. As a democrat, the Dean is at best capable of only a wavering opposition to the state, whereas an abstract rejection of an abstraction, “statism,” is easy enough to issue. And I’m sure it’s no accident that his shot at the mainstream marketing of Bookchinism (Bookchin 1987a) nowhere identifies the Dean as an anarchist or his teachings as any kind of anarchism. (Black 1997)

4. Striking A Balance

So far, we have criticized numerous approaches which have sought to replace the Orthodox Marxist class-theory. However, the question posed at the beginning of this piece still remains. How should communists respond to non-class struggles? We've already answered how they shouldn't, so now the time has come for a proposed alternative to the above approaches.

4.1. Class From Another Angle

But before we get to that, I think it's first important to establish exactly why communists should even care about the issue. There's a tendency among Marxists to adopt an outlook of vulgar-materialism, partially due to the aesthetic factor I discussed in Section 1, but also due to misconceptions peddled by countless secondary sources. “Materialism” is constantly used as a crutch to justify lazy analyses of social phenomena. To quote Engels:

And if [a] man has not yet discovered that while the material mode of existence is the primary agent this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect, he cannot possibly have understood the subject he is writing about. The materialist conception of history has a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history...

In general, the word “materialistic” serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. (Engels 1890)

What we have seen throughout history is that these “id-pol” movements and struggles have given way to critiques which shine further light on the nature of capitalism and how these secondary effects can influence how it manifests itself. For example, the insights of the black liberation movement gave way to not just one of the few truly revolutionary socialist organizations in United States history (the Black Panthers), but also an understanding into how racial division can countervail the assumed tendency of workers to homogenize with the development of industrialization (as mentioned in Section 1.1.)

Or even take the case of the women's liberation movement, which has continually found itself confronting the question of social reproduction through the concept of the commons and the distinction between directly and indirectly market-mediated labor.

We struggle to break capital's plan for women, which is an essential moment of that planned division of labour and social power within the working class, through which capital has been able to maintain its power. Wages for housework, then, is a revolutionary demand not because by itself it destroys capital, but because it attacks capital and forces it to restructure social relations in terms more favourable to us and consequently more favourable to the unity of the class. In fact, to demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do it. It means precisely the' opposite. To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it, both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity. (Federici 1975, 5)

In the case of both of these examples, however, it required said movements to begin with a purely identity-based analysis, and only after theoretical maturity was it ready to be incorporated into a broader critique of capital. It's naive to expect every movement to begin dealing in these abstract terms, because politics starts from the concrete, our everyday experiences. However, as we become more conscious of our situation, building upon the knowledge of our predecessors, we can begin to articulate these observations as a critical theory.

Communists should not be antagonistic towards these movements, but rather instead give them room to develop in parallel. And as it develops into a coherent theory and history of struggle, the intersection of the causes will allow us to view class from another angle.

4.2. The Politics of Everyday Life

Why would we want to view class from another angle? Because it ties into the concept of “the politics of everyday life”. While capitalism retains certain core characteristics such as generalized commodity production and wage-labor, it's far from a static system. How capital is manifested, how it subsumes labor, and how people are stratified under it are questions which can only be answered relative to the time-period in question. As seen in the wake of 1968, these transformations can occur faster than theory can formalize. A revolutionary moment can be completely missed because communists remain wedded to yesterday's analysis. This isn't to completely disown the need for formal theory, but understand that unless we can pair it with a more responsive base of understanding, we're doomed to forever play catch-up.

Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living. At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crises do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact anew historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language.

Thus does the beginner, who has acquired a new language, keep on translating it back into hi sown mother tongue; only then has he grasped the spirit of the new language and is able freely to express himself therewith when he moves in it without recollections of old, and has forgotten in its use his own hereditary tongue. (Marx 1852, 12)

This is where the temporal advantage of the everyday comes into play, it allows us to understand and respond to revolutionary moments as they occur. It refuses to allow us to fall back onto a purely historical identification, but rather instead forces us to take seriously our responsibility as present beings to define the content of the struggle.

The line of objective time knows nothing and wishes to know nothing of the present as immediate subjective presence. And, in its turn, subjective life concentrated in the space of a point – my joy, my pleasure, my daydreams – isn't interested in time that flows away, in linear time, the time of things. On the contrary, it wants to learn everything about its present – for, after all, it is only a present. (Vaneigem 1967, 105)

There's another side to the coin however, and that's the everyday as relevant to the individual, bringing us back to the original topic. One of the most persistent anchors within communist circles has been the cult of the proletarian, and its this tendency which would go on to inspire all the various mistakes I've gone over in the previous sections.

Parties constantly invoke the wellbeing of the “working-man” to justify their actions. Populists, desperate to be validated, define class-boundaries as broadly as possible to fit themselves into the narrative. Councilists continue to paralyze themselves out of fear that they're somehow interfering with the proletarian destiny.

This remains as true now as it was back in 1968, when Camatte wrote the following:

The classist analysis which we adopted originally could never do more than interpret real events. The same shortcoming affected the participants of May '68 and made it possible for them to perceive themselves according to the old schemas. It is becoming increasingly obvious that these active participants were men and women who were personally and very intimately involved in the life and functioning of capital, and more especially were having to justify and maintain its representation, who then went into revolt against it. But their revolt is completely recuperable as long as it moves on the worn out road of class struggle which aspires to awaken the proletariat and make it accomplish its mission...

The mythology of the proletariat accounts for how the “populism” of May '68, as we called it, became “proletarianism”. People started to say: “We must go to the proletariat, revive its fighting spirit, summon up its capacities for self-sacrifice and then it can kick out the evil bosses and follow the other 'proletarians' down the road to revolution.”

May '68 ushered in a period of great scorn and confusion. People were scornful of themselves because they weren't “proletarian”, and they scorned each other for the same reason, whereas they were all confused about the proletariat, the class that had always been considered potentially revolutionary. There is no other way to explain the impasse encountered by the movement which formed itself in opposition to the established society. (Camatte 1973)

Camatte's position is rather extreme, but perhaps rhetorically necessary as a wake-up call.

I still hold to the assertion that as the producers of value, the proletariat is in a unique position to give force to a critique of capitalism. However, this does not mean that they are the only ones capable of taking action, that action cannot precede their movement, or that somehow it is impossible for them to organize with non-proletarians.

There's an oft-quoted passage from Marx's letters regarding how non-proletarian elements are to be tolerated, one which seems to preclude the stance I have taken:

“Second, when such people from other classes join the proletarian movement, the first demand upon them must be that they do not bring with them any remnants of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., prejudices, but that they irreversibly assimilate the proletarian viewpoint. But those gentlemen, as has been shown, adhere overwhelmingly to petty-bourgeois conceptions. In so petty-bourgeois a country as Germany, such conceptions certainly have their justification, but only outside the Social-Democratic Labor party. If the gentlemen want to build a social-democratic petty-bourgeois party, they have a full right to do so; one could then negotiate with them, conclude agreements, etc., according to circumstances. But in a labor party, they are a falsifying element. If there are grounds which necessitates tolerating them, it is a duty only to tolerate them, to allow them no influence in party leadership, and to keep in mind that a break with them is only a matter of time.” (Marx 1879)

However, it should be noted that this is within a purely programmatic context, both the proletarian and petty bourgeois elements of the time working within an explicit political party. The backdrop here is the war between the reformist and utopian currents of the SPD versus the revolutionary ones. The former often denied the existence of class conflict, believing that socialism was a matter which could be negotiated. The direction with which the SPD approaches its task would have implications for all of its members.

Within the passage, I'd like to highlight this sentence here:

If the gentlemen want to build a social-democratic petty-bourgeois party, they have a full right to do so; one could then negotiate with them, conclude agreements, etc., according to circumstances.

Within the context of spontaneous organization, the proletariat is free to associate, dissociate, adopt, and reject elements according to the situation.

In these cases, the movement is not gradually subverted away from the proletarian perspective, it either interests the proletariat or it does not. Irrespective of that, we continue to struggle according to our personal conflicts with capital and the perspective and tools offered to us by our socially-determined role. Once we put aside the act of white-knighting the little guy and actually become honest with our relationship to capital, does the movement actually begin to mean anything to non-ideologues.

The ones who were successful in piquing the interest of the proletariat in 1968 weren't the electoralist PCF or the invariant ICC, it was the artists and students whose agitation was based on how they found capitalism boring. It sounds rather petty in discourse dominated by proletarian virtue-signaling, but it was the self-awareness which ended up being the most in touch with the situation. Capitalism is boring, and that's the truth people run up against in their everyday life. It's the truth which resonates with them.

Leaving the question of praxis so incredibly relative and open-ended would've been impossible previously, but it's the reality we find ourselves now in a society increasingly characterized by unity-in-separation. Collective struggles, whether proletarian or not, have the potential to develop a public space in which our day-to-day experiences serve as a common ground in an atomized world. The question of class was not what needed fixing, but rather instead the question of how we relate to it.


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Last updated: 9/4/2022

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Thesis: A proper Christian work-ethic requires a critique of not just individual attitudes but also the structural factors which contribute to labor alienation.

Further Reading:

  • The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
  • Crisis and Communisation by Giles Dauve
  • The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

From the very beginning, the question of work versus leisure has generally been considered a stumbling block for Protestant discourse, with preachers often opting to either fall back on old moralisms or ignore the question altogether. Are people getting lazier? Is leisure inherently bad? These are questions Leland Ryken attempts to answer in his book titled “Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective”. Against his contemporaries, he attempts to directly address the question by arguing in favor of a healthy work-life balance.

I doubt that attitudes toward work are very different in our churches than in our culture at large. We find the normal quota of workaholics in the pew on Sunday morning. And what percentage of Christians view their work with the sense of calling that the Reformers proclaimed with such clarity?

The lack of a Christian work ethic is particularly acute among young people. A recent book-length study surveyed attitudes among young people enrolled at Christian colleges and seminaries. One of the conclusions drawn by the researcher who wrote the book was this:

“What has been seen thus far merely confirms what is already well known about the place and value of work for Evangelicalism—that work has lost any spiritual and eternal significance and that it is important only insofar as it fosters certain qualities of the personality.” (Ryken 1987, 13)

Forty years later – well after the generation of the yuppies he derides – Ryken's position has become the mainstream one. The broader public sees value in the notion of a healthy balance, yet work holds this same drudgery for us. So what gives?

Making sense of this requires us to confront what is quite possibly one of the biggest failures of the modern church: its complete and utter inability to conceive social behaviors outside the context of the individual and some mythical vacuum they're assumed to exist in. Any time there's an issue, these preachers always give the same vague responses about “changing one's attitude, but also not too much, lest you end up going too far in the opposite direction.” Ryken, unfortunately, also falls into the same trap at various points in the book.

The main conclusion this book pushes us toward is a deep appreciation for the provision God has made for human life in the rhythm of work and leisure. That rhythm sounds so simple when we encounter it in the creation account of Genesis and in the fourth commandment that it is easy to miss its significance. Yet all the analysis of the problems of work and leisure in society comes back to the keystone of the goodness of both work and leisure in human life.

Not only are work and leisure goad in themselves, they also balance each other and help to prevent the problems that either one alone tends to produce. If we value work and leisure properly, we will avoid overvaluing or undervaluing either one. (Ryken 1987, 243)

If this is the only thing the church has to contribute regarding the issues that continue to plague people's everyday lives, no wonder they continue to turn to self-help books and “life coaches” for their problems. After all, they're offering the same banal and inoffensive advice without needing to confine themselves to any sort of religious affiliation.

This isn't to say that individual responsibility/agency doesn't exist, of course it does. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. But at the same time, society is a complex net of relationships between individuals, something which is constantly molding its members yet is capable of developing in a quasi-autonomous fashion. It is based on abstraction upon abstraction, to the point that it can often cause individuals to act against their own nature. This is called “alienation”, and it poses a distinct threat which can't be explained by simple character traits such as “greed, laziness, selfishness, etc.”

Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else...

Consequently the ‘coincidence’ of the change in circumstances and of human activity as a change in man himself applies to Christian practice to an eminent degree. The alternative between arousing faith in the heart and the changing of the godless circumstances of dehumanized man is a false one, as is the other alternative, which hinders by paralysing. The true front on which the liberation of Christ takes place does not run between soul and body or between persons and structures, but between the powers of the world as it decays and collapses into ruin, and the powers of the Spirit and of the future. (Moltmann 2015, 34)

The church cannot continue to act as if our religious duty is something that exists on an entirely separate plane from our social environment. To do otherwise is to entirely betray the essential spirit of a missionary religion.

Understanding this requires that we ask ourselves two questions:

  • How has church orthodoxy been molded by these external factors, and how can we go about weeding out this revisionism and maintaining the integrity of our doctrine?
  • What can the church do towards actively challenging and seeking to alter society? How can we give individuals the necessary autonomy and encouragement to be able to serve God unimpeded?

Returning back to the topic of work, we begin answering that first by question by taking upon a historical-material analysis of work. This may seem irrelevant to a theological argument, but a proper analysis is only possible once we understand its specifically social implications. Failing to do this would only cause us to repeat the mistakes made by countless Christians of the past:

All of this demonstrates that Christians are utterly unable to express revelation in a way that is both specific and adequate for the social reality in which they live. They either repeat timeless formulas (which they take to be eternal), or else they initiate a pseudo-rereading of the Bible: in reality a method of harmonizing biblical content with the dominant ideology. In this way Christians constitute an important contributing socio-political force on the side of the tendency which is about to dominate. As a result, they obtain a small place in the new social order. (Ellul 1988, 14)

Once we have deconstructed and filtered out the secular influences on our interpretation of work, we will be able to turn to the Word to understand what a proper Christian work-ethic should look like.

1. Defining Work

The worst arguments tend to be over semantics, and unfortunately for us, there is a lot of semantic disagreement on how the word “work” is to be interpreted. It's very easy to walk into a topic like this leaning on preconceptions, so our first task should be properly defining work, and distinguishing it from labour.

The line drawn between work and labour is generally ambiguous, so before we proceed we will have to reconcile this matter. For the purposes of this essay, labour is defined as any mental or physical activity conducted by a person onto an object as to either transform it into one of value (either use-value or exchange-value could apply here, depending on the context) or add to its value. As for the definition of work, we will have to take a more thorough investigation:

(For the purposes of this essay, I will be considering work as a historically-specific activity peculiar to industrial-capitalist society. Obviously, toil has long existed outside of this context, but what is going to be apparent throughout the course of my argument is that it takes upon a unique character within the currently existing economic framework. Considering work as an unchanging activity across all time periods without distinction would end up neglecting how it has fundamentally evolved alongside human civilization.)

1.1. Work as Compulsory

The traditional understanding of work stresses that it is compulsory, not just in an internal sense (such as an animal being compulsed to forage for food by the logic of its biology), but also in an external sense. This distinction means that an activity can be considered “labour” or “productive” without it necessarily being “work” per se.

My minimum definition of work is forced labour, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies whether capitalist or communist, work invariably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness. (Black 1986, 6)

What exactly this external pressure looks like varies not just based on one's interpretation but also the environment in which work is being employed. Some may interpret their work as part of a religious obligation. Certain readings of the Vedas have long been used to justify the Indian caste system. Even in Christianity, the concept of a “vocational calling” has been echoed by writers such as John Calvin.

The magistrate will execute his office with greater pleasure, the father of a family will confine himself to his duty with more satisfaction, and all, in their respective spheres of life, will bear and surmount the inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties which befall them, when they shall be persuaded that every individual has his burden laid upon him by God. Hence also will arise peculiar consolation, since there will be no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation) as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed highly important in the sight of God. (Calvin 1536, 870)

Divine commands aside, there also exist more objective forms of coercion. A country which employs slavery or work-camps, the work is being compelled by the state and the threat of physical retaliation to those who refuse. It could even be argued that the market in and of itself could compel people to perform activities which may not be directly linked to their survival.

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature;that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. (Marx 1844, 30)

Whether or not the compulsion in any of the above scenarios are justified or not is irrelevant to the point made, which is that work is a compulsory affair, the compulsion is external in nature, and that this compulsion dictates not just the existence of the worker but also the character of “work” itself.

On that note, although this characteristic may seem the most apparent, it fails to really shed much light on the matter. If this conception of work is something to be holistically “abolished” as Black proposes, then where is the line to be drawn?

If we define work as “external activity”, then social production entirely ceases to function with its abolition. I fail to see how “the commune needs me to produce this” is any less external than “the market needs me to produce this”. Your individual wants and needs are inevitably going to be tied to and shaped by social wants and needs. Severing that connection would be to turn every man into his own Robinson Crusoe, to put an end to civilization itself. Perhaps that's an attractive outcome for some, but the implications of that aren't something I see as worth entertaining in this essay.

If we wish to only abolish “coerced activity”, then we run the risk of reiterating the fundamental axioms of capitalist society. Freedom of contract already exists, meaning wage-slaves aren't slaves in the conventional sense. Some socialists may object to this, arguing that this freedom is a farce because of the existence of private property, but that is completely besides the point. My work does not suddenly cease to become work now that I'm performing it at a co-operatively owned factory. So, there must be a deeper explanation.

It certainly doesn't help that the space between “external activity” and “coerced activity” is nebulously defined. A debate over whether or not the invisible hand really forces people to work will inevitably devolve into one of semantics, obfuscating the true nature of the topic. Barking up another tree will prove more fruitful to our investigation.

1.1. Work as a Division of Labor

What I'd rather focus on instead is the essential characteristics of work as being comprised of a set of divisions.

Firstly, there's the division of labor, a concept that has been known to us for centuries now. Even writers as old as Calvin and Smith provide extensive insight into this division. Calvin was interested in understanding what such division could mean to a Christian, whereas for Smith it was a question of the economic origins and implications of its existence.

“Division of labor” can interpreted in two ways, one is in the vocational sense which Calvin refers to. The second form is best described as the specialization of labor.

One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some factories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small factory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day...

But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth, part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations. (Smith 1776, 8-9)

Using the example of a pin factory, Smith demonstrates the division of labour by associating each man with a task. Within the context of this larger factory, we see each man's work as defined by a specialized task. Each of these tasks only play one part in the production of the pin. No matter how skilled a worker becomes at drawing out the wire, he alone cannot produce the pin. Just like a machine, his training refines his skills towards being able to only perform one specialized task incredibly well: this renders him dependent on the factory as a whole to render his labour useful. This only intensifies as the firm grows and each worker's role in the production process becomes more and more narrow.

Unlike the vocational form, the effects industrialization had on this are much more pronounced. In medieval and early-modern societies, artisans would develop goods and tools by hand from start to finish, with a full understanding of the production process, control over the supply-chain, and distribution to market.

Yet beneath the similarities with the Old Regime there lurked a difference, for the seeming independence of artisans was built increasingly on a foundation of dependency. No longer did masters,or shopkeepers for that matter, have much control over access to their materials, now provided by merchant industrialists, factors, and wholesalers. Moreover, masters came to rely on a steady flow of orders,often from only a few middlemen or owners of factories. The same can be said of access to credit and to markets, which was increasingly controlled by merchant operations (Farr 2004).

Today, we have the assembly line. Rather than making it one person's job to create a hammer, we have one person to cut the wood, one person to shape the handle, one person to dye the handle, and so on and so forth. This is of course a hypothetical, but point still stands, which is that man has become not just alienated from the product of his own labor, but also the process itself.

The artisans had an easier time finding a positive identity in their work because they still held a degree of autonomy over the production process, they still felt as if their labor was their own. This most likely explains the prevalence of artisan culture and the appeal of early “worker-ist” movements to predominantly this class.

Another key aspect of artisan identity, which existed alongside these status divisions, was the close relationship between production and retailing. Buying raw materials and selling one’s products were integral to artisan identity, and most Florentine guilds both manufactured and retailed their wares. Artisan identity always involved the sale of products in the local marketplace, though some artisans eventually moved into the ranks of the mercantile class. Artisans are often defined in opposition to merchants because of their ties to local rather than foreign markets and the cultural perception of their rootedness (often more imagined than real) in contrast to the merchants’ mobility. Yet precisely because the master craftsman’s identity was localized, dependent upon recognition by peers and neighbors, premodern artisans often imaginatively constructed their relations to the nation. In the fourteenth century, the brothers of the London Bowercraft censured the bowstrings of non-guild members, maintaining that “the greatest damage might easily ensue unto our Lord the King and his realm” through faulty products. The work of craftsmen, like that of knights, was cast as protecting the entire nation; through their collective identity, the bowers articulated a sense of national belonging. (Pappano 2013)

The same cannot be said for the proletarian, who in his work, is reduced to a mere machine, something subhuman.

Utter, unnatural deprivation, putrefied nature, comes to be his life-element. None of his senses exist any longer, and not only in its human fashion, but in an inhuman fashion, and therefore not even in an animal fashion...

The savage and the animal have at least the need to hunt, to roam, etc. – the need of companionship. The simplification of the machine, of labor is used to make a worker out of the human being still in the making, the completely immature human being, the child – whilst the worker has become a neglected child. The machine accommodates itself to the weakness of the human being in order to make the weak human being into a machine...

By reducing the worker’s need to the barest and most miserable level of physical subsistence,and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movement; thus he says: Man has no other need either of activity or of enjoyment. For he call this life, too, human life and existence.

By counting the most meager form of life (existence) as the standard, indeed, as the general standard – general because it is applicable to the mass of men. He changes the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs, just as he changes his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. To him, therefore, every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need – be it in the realm of passive enjoyment, or a manifestation of activity – seems to him a luxury. (Marx 1844, 50-51)

While Smith focuses on the effects this has on total productive efficiency and the factory system as a whole, Marx analyses the same phenomena from the perspective of the individual worker:

The accumulation of capital increases the division of labor, and the division of labor increases the number of workers. Conversely, the number of workers increases the division of labor, just as the division of labor increases the accumulation of capital. With this division of labor on the one hand and the accumulation of capital on the other, the worker becomes ever more exclusively dependent on labor, and on a particular, very one-sided, machine-like labor at that. Just as he is thus depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine and from being a man becomes an abstract activity and a belly, so he also becomes ever more dependent on every fluctuation in market price, on the application of capital, and on the whim of the rich. Equally, the increase in the class of people wholly dependent on work intensifies competition among the workers, thus lowering their price. In the factory system this situation of the worker reaches its climax. (Marx 1844, 4)

The division of labour we see in this factory model is specific to the capitalist mode of production, and is magnitudes more intense than the vocational divisions to be found in pre-capitalist societies which still retained a concept of “work”. The stratification in our society is not just one of judges, doctors, and priests, but rather instead divided up by each step in the production process of a commodity. In addition, the increased efficiency and circular logic of capitalism ensures this fate remains a perpetual one.

1.2. Work as a Division of Activity

This not just only alienates the worker from his product as the socialist talking point goes, but also from the production-process itself. Man's relationship to his labour is not merely a pragmatic one, but also an essentially existential one too, it is through labour that one is given the opportunity to assert their humanity:

For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence...

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him. (Marx 1844, 32)

This activity represents something more than just mere toil, it is the means by which one's will can shape the world, the bridge between a person's innermost passions and their immediate environment.

And the Lord God took the man Moses now adds, that the earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation. Whence it follows that men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. This labor, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness; since however God ordained that man should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned in his person, all indolent repose. Wherefore, nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do. (Calvin 1578, 77)

As made clear in the Genesis narrative, we were made in the likeness of the Creator, so it is only natural, that even despite our fallen state, we find purpose in the act of creation. But what separates this creation, this activity, from the daily routine of animals is the unity of mental and physical faculties. Our minds allow us to formulate an idea while our hands allow us to bring that idea to fruition. Marx's conception of labor in its essential form attests to this.

(Secular readers may object that many animals have demonstrated intelligence, but this neglects that the Christian conception of humanity is an inherently dualist one: the body may be composed of carbon, but the soul is incorporeal. This can only imply an inherent distinction between man and the other creatures of the earth, one which cannot be understood in biological terms.)

Marx sees in Hegel’s account the bourgeois division of labour into physical and mental activities. In Marx’s view human beings are born not only with nutritive capabilities, but with mental ones that are inseparable from them. Human beings engage in their own process of reproduction with both material and mental capabilities united as a whole. (Uchida 1988, 9-10)

However, we do not live in Eden. The world we live in — its institutions, its social relations — has always been a corruption of God's ideal, realized not just on the individual but also the structural level. We see this apply to work too: capitalism completely fractures its unity, so thoroughly separating the physical and mental components that any element of passion or will is to be drained. Unable to realize this unity individually, both the workers and the capitalists must interface through the value-form, which demands all labor, whether physical or mental, be entirely devoted towards its own reproduction. How can we argue that we are working to God's glory when Caesar demands control over the spirit?

This claim can be challenged in one of two ways: either God does not care for the specifics of our work or that industrial society has not actually alienated labor.

In considering production in general Marx takes the human mind and body to be naturally united. This unity is broken by the capitalist division of labour in which the capitalist appears as mental labourer and the wage-worker as physical labourer. The capitalist orders the worker to labour in material production. Capital itself necessitates and posits a specific person, the capitalist, who mediates it. The capitalist has a mission to measure capital-value, which has to be maintained and increased in prospect during production. The capitalist’s mental activity continues in the process of circulation which actualises this possibility. Capital is personified in the capitalist, who internalises its value in capitalist consciousness. (Uchida 1988, 13)

Activity is also divided along lines of production and consumption, each commanding its own distinct sphere. Intuition tells us that this relationship is one-way: that consumption is like a pit which we fill up with the goods we produce. Production creates, consumption destroys, so the logic goes. Socialists often internalized this mentality, valorizing the proletariat as a class of production as opposed to petite-bourgeois consumerism. This perspective is the perspective of capital, which is unable to see activity the way the individual does.

Because Adam Smith studies capital from the viewpoint of the circuit of productive capital, he believes that the movement of capital starts from production. Therefore, with respect to the relation of production to consumption, he considers individual consumption as an act apart from production, and he does not take it up in relation to production. He thinks that individual consumption is unproductive and should be restrained in order to increase capital-stock, which is to be invested as capital in production. He merely affirms consumption when it is productive, and he emphasises parsimony as a subjective fact in capitalist accumulation. Though he asserts that the purpose of production is individual consumption, in fact he theorises production for the sake of production.

However, is individual consumption always unproductive? The individual returns to the process of production afterwards, not only with physical abilities reproduced, but with some knowledge of production and a revitalised morale. The political economist omits the subjective aspect of reproduction, which is typically shown to move from consumption back to production. But why does the political economist abstract from the subjective factor? This is because production is considered from the capitalist standpoint, so in this way any funds to reproduce the lives of workers appear as costs to be reduced. The subjective factor belongs to and is monopolised by the capitalist. (Uchida 1988, 14-15)

Just as the artist draws on previous influences, consumption is to be understood as a source of inspiration for future creation. This process is reciprocal and essential for the individual to be able to find meaning in their own activity through a process of continuous inspiration and re-appraisal against their own needs, aesthetic sensibilities, and virtues.

If we can speak of art as an industry, a job, and a commodity, whose to say we cannot reverse the logic? Is engineering not in and of itself creative? Whenever we look at an emerging industry, whether it be aviation or mobile phone technology, we see an incredibly wide array of designs and concepts. These periods are often referred to as the “wild west” in that there is no clear direction or standard, forcing engineers to exercise a large amount of creativity in their creations and where they draw inspiration from.

Given his close observance and use of nature as a foundation for many of his ideas, emulating natural flight was an obvious place to begin. Most of Leonardo’s aeronautical designs were ornithopters, machines that employed flapping wings to generate both lift and propulsion. He sketched such flying machines with the pilot prone, standing vertically, using arms, using legs. He drew detailed sketches of flapping wing mechanisms and means for actuating them. Imaginative as these designs were, the fundamental barrier to an ornithopter is the demonstrably limited muscle power and endurance of humans compared to birds. Leonardo could never have overcome this basic fact of human physiology...

In less than 20 pages of notes and drawings, the Codex on the Flight of Birds outlines a number of observations and beginning concepts that would find a place in the development of a successful airplane in the early twentieth century. Leonardo never abandoned his preoccupation with flapping wing designs, and did not develop the insights he recorded in the Codex on the Flight of Birds in any practical way. Nonetheless, centuries before any real progress toward a practical flying machine was achieved, the seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings germinated in the mind of da Vinci. In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before. Leonardo lived a fifteenth century life, but a vision of the modern world spread before his mind’s eye. (Jakab 2013)

The artisan and the factory worker may produce the same thing, yet one finds much more meaning in his activity than the other. Why is that? To answer that question we have to ask ourselves: why do we work? If you were to bring the factory worker something he produced, would he be able to identify it? Or have those hours become a blur, just like the rest of his life? Would he be able to remember what he was thinking when he made it or how it affected him? Does the commodity in and of itself tell us anything about its production or the person who made it?

When we perform the same basic activity for multiple hours a day, every day, engulfed within the larger mass of the assembly line, how does it affect our development and psyche? What challenge does it provide, what opportunity does it provide for us to grow? Maintaining a routine, learning to become numb to drudgery and fatigue, and performing tasks without question or emotional hesitance are all things we expect out of our machines. What makes a man then, if he can never measure up to the machine he's competing with?

If we can't come up with a satisfactory explanation to any of these questions, if we remain entirely ignorant as to what we're really doing or why our lives are structured in such a way, how can we confidently say that we're doing a good job, that what we're doing is to the glory of God?

Perhaps that's why we can only conceive external justifications, it's easier to just assume work can only ever be this way. Perhaps we can say that there's more to life than work, but this ignores the importance of activity to the life-process. God gave us hands for a reason, after all.

When faced with this question of why, we often avoid the subject by resorting to cliches: we do what we do because “that's how society functions”, or because “we have do do something”. These may be catchy and broadly acceptable, but they do not actually provide a meaningful answer to the matter at hand.

As a society, we betray our impoverished work ethic by our slogans. On a recent car trip I was passed by a truck with the following jingle painted on the back: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” Here, in rather crude form, is a dominant work ethic today. It views work in mercenary terms – the thing that makes our acquisitive lifestyle possible. (Ryken 1987, 12)

These cliches mask the larger truth, which is that under a system of wage-labor, what we're inherently working towards is going to be the wage. What else is there to look towards? The result, the reward, is what takes logical precedence and this is not a matter of personal interpretation. No amount of “social obligation” will change the fact that if you stop paying an employee, they'll stop working whether by choice or by starvation.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Soviet society, which put a great deal of effort into manufacturing a cultural work-ethic without necessarily changing the nature of work itself.

Soviet “cavalier attitudes toward work” entered the political discourse as a never-ending problem and the popular culture as a constant joke.2 Some of those jokes about the notorious Soviet work ethic are still told today, most famously: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”...

Late Soviet society was famous for its presumably nonexistent work attitude across all occupations. Blue-collar workers got drunk during their shifts, collective farmers seldom showed up, students amused themselves instead of studying, and white-collar workers were rarely present in their offices. Employees working in the Soviet administration were everywhere but at their desks. (Oberländer 2017)

Is this because of some sort of immorally lazy tendency in people or a lack of emphasis on hard work in cultural values? Not likely:

Soviet scholars and party members did not always see the situation in this light. Instead they usually detected a low work morale that troubled them—especially considering that the generation now working had been entirely raised under Soviet socialism yet seemed to lack essential features of the new Soviet person. If people did not work, it indicated a lack of a proper socialist attitude toward work. The dubious Soviet work ethic was regarded, first and foremost, as a moral problem: accordingly, complaints and measures were aimed at working people themselves. Instruments to improve work discipline were introduced on an almost yearly basis across the country or at individual enterprises. If the moral education (vospitanie) provided by trade union members or factory sociologists did not help, compulsion exercised by comrades’ courts were used to try to discipline the workers...

While the Soviet literature was mostly preoccupied with immorality, the Western perspective usually stressed the lack of incentives as a reason why people did not work. (Oberländer 2017)

When we consider the work itself rather than the workers, the pieces begin to fall into place. We see that Soviet and Western society actually held very similar attitudes to the nature of work:

The Soviet Union built its existence on more than one paradox. One of its numerous contradictions is that the workers’ state cherished work as the means that made men into men and thus endorsed the biblical notion that those who do not work shall not eat. At the same time, the USSR claimed communism as its goal and therefore strove to extend nonworking time, based on the Marxist notion that the wealth of nations consisted in free time. As opposed to the biblical notion, work in the Marxist sense was less a moral condition of people who through work realized themselves than a price to be paid to gain as much free time as possible. Self-realization was supposed to happen in one’s free time, by and through the activities conducted in that portion of the day...

Although the two positions seem to be different at first glance, they share some commonalities. Both take for granted the lack of a positive attitude toward work. Both put forward a moral explanation, even though the Western perspective is only implicitly a statement about morality. Soviet observers detected a lack of socialist morality proper, while Western economists detected a general humanitarian problem: If people are not rewarded, they will not work. (Oberländer 2017)

The Soviet economic institutions, being far less robust and prone to abuse than the Western ones, did actually provide us with the opportunity to observe something revealing. The people did work, but they did so outside of the official firms:

The peculiarities of the Soviet planned economy need to be taken into consideration if we are to understand what “work” meant in the Soviet Union. Work in the sense of the eight-hour workday as gainful employment was not necessarily the primary means to provide for oneself or one’s family. Instead, in a society where many things could not be bought with money but had to be obtained through unofficial channels, the sphere of leisure gained importance for material production. Consequently, leisure was not necessarily a sphere for recreation and rest but rather a busy time governed by tight schedules. Gainful employment, in contrast, seemed to provide better possibilities for recreation and relaxation than so-called free time. This article hopes to expand notions of work by highlighting the many spheres in which Soviet people did work—be it in the official or the shadow economy, during official work time or beyond. In this sense, the spheres of work and leisure overlapped, and to a certain degree even changed places...

Last but not least, some workers in the Soviet Union used a considerable amount of their working time to work for themselves. They crafted material provided by their enterprises into something useful for their homes or garden plots. One female worker used to clean her pans and pots at her factory—during official work time, of course. Chaffeurs used the time spent waiting for their bosses to deliver certain items from A to B. Dacha owners, for example, hired a state-employed driver to transport stolen wood in a state-owned car to their dachas during the chauffeur’s official work time. In the first case, workers produced a useful thing for their own direct consumption; in the second, they sometimes earned money and more often engaged in useful networks known as blat. Whatever the reason for engaging in such forms of informal economic practices, it cannot be argued that those people did not work. (Oberländer 2017)

From all this we can conclude that people do have a natural inclination towards activity: one that blurs the lines between work and leisure, defying the rigid structure of the eight-hour day. It may not be work-proper, but it is undeniably productive.

1.3. Work as a Division of Time

However, the characteristic of work that has yielded the most discussion is its constitution of a division of time. When we talk about work in relation to time, we counterpose it against leisure, forming a dialectical relationship between the two. While this overlaps with the previous division, the uniquely temporal element here makes it warrant further discussion.

The quickest way to illustrate such a division is to allude to the very first division as a metaphor of sorts:

It was proper that the light, by means of which the world was to be adorned with such excellent beauty, should be first created; and this also was the commencement of the distinction...

Further, it is certain from the context, that the light was so created as to be interchanged with darkness. But it may be asked, whether light and darkness succeeded each other in turn through the whole circuit of the world; or whether the darkness occupied one half of the circle, while light shone in the other. There is, however, no doubt that the order of their succession was alternate, but whether it was everywhere day at the same time, and everywhere night also, I would rather leave undecided; nor is it very necessary to be known. (Calvin 1578, 39-40)

Day and night were both created and defined simultaneously. Day is the not-night, night is the not-day. When there was no day, there was no night either, because there can be no night without a day. Their unity and opposition are simultaneous. It is the same with work and leisure; there cannot be one without the other, because the boundaries of one are defined in opposition to the boundaries of another.

The relation between leisure and the everyday is not a simple one: the two words are at one and the same time united and contradictory (therefore their relation is dialectical). It cannot be reduced to the simple relation in time between ‘Sunday’ and ‘weekdays’, represented as external and merely different. Leisure – to accept the concept uncritically for the moment – cannot be separated from work. After his work is over, when resting or relaxing or occupying himself in his own particular way, a man is still the same man. Every day, at the same time, the worker leaves the factory, the office worker leaves the office. Every week Saturdays and Sundays are given over to leisure as regularly as day-to-day work. We must therefore imagine a ‘work–leisure’ unity, for this unity exists, and everyone tries to programme the amount of time at his disposal according to what his work is – and what it is not. Sociology should therefore study the way the life of workers as such, their place in the division of labour and in the social system, is ‘reflected’ in leisure activities, or at least in what they demand of leisure.

Historically, in real individuality and its development, the ‘work–leisure’ relation has always presented itself in a contradictory way. (Lefebvre 1947.)

We already conceive work only as one half of this division, but it should also be understood as the catalyst of the division too, the light that divided itself from the darkness, so to speak. Taking this into account, it is not to just be understood as one half of the division but the division itself.

From a historical perspective, conflicts between labour and capital resulted in the adoption of an eight-hour work schedule:

“The movement to reduce the work-hours is intended by its projectors to give a peaceful solution to the difficulties between the capitalists and laborers. I have always held that there were two ways to settle this trouble, either by peaceable means or violent methods. Reduced hours, or eight-hours, is the peace-offering.” (Parsons 1912)

The unrest that preceded this negotiation should serve as evidence of one thing, and it was that the previous division of time was unsustainable. Work is perpetual by nature, and it was necessary to adjust the division of time to maintain labour's cooperation.

Why must the spheres of time be exclusive? Because another essential characteristic of work is that it itself is exclusive. Those eight hours spent at work belong wholly to work and none else, the existence of the worker reduced to a machine.

With this division of labour on the one hand and the accumulation of capitals on the other, the worker becomes ever more exclusively dependent on labour, and on a particular, very one-sided, machine-like labour. (Marx 35)

Yet, it is incorrect to conclude that the exclusive nature of work restricts its dominion. Leisure is still defined in relation to work, and is thus governed by it. What the 8-8-8 schedule inadvertently highlights is the exclusivity of each of these spheres of life.

One response to this is an attitude of complete laziness, but what becomes clear is that embracing leisure is no better. Just as night is the not-day, leisure is little more than the not-work.

Due to the success of separate production as production of the separate, the fundamental experience which in primitive societies is attached to a central task is in the process of being displaced, at the crest of the system’s development. by non-work, by inactivity. But this inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity: it depends on productive activity and is an uneasy and admiring submission to the necessities and results of production; it is itself a product of its rationality. There can be no freedom outside of activity, and in the context of the spectacle all activity is negated. just as real activity has been captured in its entirety for the global construction of this result. Thus the present “liberation from labor,” the increase of leisure, is in no way a liberation within labor, nor a liberation from the world shaped by this labor. None of the activity lost in labor can be regained in the submission to its result. (Society of the Spectacle, Section 27)

1A. Comparing with Ryken's Theory

2. Historical Origins of the Ethic

The main goal of this essay is to be able to distinguish Christianity from Christendom, Gospel from superstructure. Or, in simpler terms, we must be able to identify what parts of our religion are actually rooted in Scripture. To do this, it is necessary to take a materialist analysis of Protestant theology, framing it within its historical and economic contexts.

When dealing with the intersection of Protestant Christianity and the capitalist mode of production, one book stands out as a rather in-depth investigation of this very topic: Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The book mostly deals in historical and sociological terms, focusing moreso on analyzing relationships than making any normative claims. There are some things I heavily disagree with Weber on (which we will get to later), but overall, the book is a suitable source for our purposes.

Weber's aim is to connect the virtues of early Protestant theology with what he terms the “capitalist spirit”. He composes the definition of this phrase “from its individual elements, taken from historical reality.” (Weber 1905, 94)

We shall nevertheless provisionally use the expression “spirit of capitalism” for that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling [berufsmäβig], strives systematically for profit for its own sake in the manner exemplified by Benjamin Franklin. We do this for the historical reason that this attitude has found its most adequate expression in the capitalist enterprise, and conversely the capitalist enterprise has found in this attitude its most adequate spiritual motivation. (Weber 1905, 107)

To put it succinctly, the “spirit of capitalism” is the process of production interpreted as “ethical activity”.

2.1. The Spirit of Capitalism

To better illustrate what this ethic entails, Weber cites Benjamin Franklin, more specifically, his “Advice to a Young Tradesman”.

Some of the “individual elements” to be found in this are:

  • The Prolific Element: “Money can beget Money, and its Offspring can beget more, and so on. Five Shillings turn’d, is Six: Turn’d again, ’tis Seven and Three Pence; and so on ’til it becomes an Hundred Pound. The more there is of it, the more it produces every Turning, so that the Profits rise quicker and quicker.” (Franklin 1748)
  • The Temporal Element: “Remember that time is money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.” (Franklin 1748)
  • The Social Element: “The most trifling Actions that affect a Man’s Credit, are to be regarded. The Sound of your Hammer at Five in the Morning or Nine at Night, heard by a Creditor, makes him easy Six Months longer. But if he sees you at a Billiard Table, or hears your Voice in a Tavern, when you should be at Work, he sends for his Money the next Day. Finer Cloaths than he or his Wife wears, or greater Expence in any particular than he affords himself, shocks his Pride, and he duns you to humble you.” (Franklin 1748)

From this, Weber makes a rather insightful point:

All Franklin’s moral precepts, however, have a utilitarian slant. Honesty is useful because it brings credit. So are punctuality, hard work, moderation, etc., and they are only virtues for this reason—from which it would follow that where, for example, the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose, then this would suffice, and any unnecessary surplus of this virtue would inevitably seem, in Franklin’s eyes, like unproductive and reprehensible profligacy. And indeed: anyone reading his autobiography must inevitably come to the same conclusion. It contains an account of his “conversion” to those virtues [22] and, in particular, describes how, by strictly preserving the appearance of modesty, or officiously belittling one’s own merits, it is possible to enhance one’s standing in the community. [23] According to Franklin, these virtues, like all others, are only virtues at all to the extent that they are “useful” to the individual in concrete situations; the mere appearance of virtue is an adequate substitute wherever it serves the same purpose. (Weber 1905, 97)

These “virtues” are primarily concerned towards the ends of capital. They only hold merit insofar as they continue the reproduction of profit. Calvin attributes this to human greed:

We have a frenzied desire, an infinite eagerness, to pursue wealth and honour, intrigue for power, accumulate riches, and collect all those frivolities which seem conducive to luxury and splendour. On the other hand, we have a remarkable dread, a remarkable hatred of poverty, mean birth, and a humble condition, and feel the strongest desire to guard against them. Hence, in regard to those who frame their life after their own counsel, we see how restless they are in mind, how many plans they try, to what fatigues they submit, in order that they may gain what avarice or ambition desires, or, on the other hand, escape poverty and meanness. (Calvin 1810)

Calvin's “spirit of greed” would fail to explain the attitude taken upon by the Pietist labourer; why would the greedy man put in additional work for the same reward? Our modern mindsets may see it as part of climbing up the ladder, the journey of the soon-to-be-success, but for the Pietists it was truly something they expected to spend their whole lives doing, not as a stepping-stone but as a genuine duty to society.

If we had to make a provisional assessment of the practical effect of these differences, we might say that the virtues cultivated by Pietism tend to be those which might be developed by, on the one hand, the “faithful” [berufstreu] employee, laborer, and home worker, and, on the other hand, in the manner of Zinzendorf, rather patriarchally minded employers displaying pious condescension. (Weber 1905, 194)

As capitalism is predicated on the existence of wage-labour, workers are just as (if not more) essential to its reproduction as capitalists. What we are dealing with is the tendency for all things to be subordinated to the self-perpetuating logic of capital. This is how these different various strains of Christianity can coexist, each assuaging Christians of their respective classes of their role in the larger process:

Compared to this, Calvinism seems to have a closer affinity with the tough, upstanding, and active mind of the middle-class [bürgerlich] capitalist entrepreneur. Finally, pure emotional Pietism—as Ritschl [186] has stressed—is a religious pastime for “leisure classes.” Inadequate though this description is—as will be shown—it does tally with certain differences in the economic character of the peoples who have been under the influence of one or other of the two ascetic traditions. (Weber 1905, 194)

It is impossible to chalk this up to simple “greed”, for it is not individualistic ends that capitalism perpetuates. There is no inherent opposition between the labor and the leisure classes in this system. Both are essential for the reproduction of something larger than their own self-interests.

In truth, though, matters are not as simple as that. We are here dealing with something quite other than a case of purely egocentric maxims being dressed up as moral precepts. This is clear both from the character of Benjamin Franklin himself, as revealed in the rare honesty of his autobiography, and the fact that he saw his discovery of the “usefulness” of virtue as a revelation from God, who wished to direct him toward virtue by this means. Instead, the “summum bonum” of this “ethic” is the making of money and yet more money, coupled with a strict avoidance of all uninhibited enjoyment. Indeed, it is so completely devoid of all eudaemonistic, let alone hedonist, motives, so much purely thought of as an end in itself that it appears as something wholly transcendent and irrational, beyond the “happiness” or the “benefit” of the individual. (Weber 1905, 98)

Calvinists could testify to the existence of such an ethic, but because they failed to grasp the larger picture, they assumed this was towards a greater social end:

But what had been for him a tentative suggestion became for the Calvinists a characteristic part of their ethical system. “Christian charity” [Nächstenliebe]—since, after all, it was to serve only the glory of God, not that of the creature[86]—expressed itself principally in the fulfillment of the duties of the calling given through the lex naturae, and in this it took on a peculiarly neutral and impersonal character—one which served the rational structuring of the surrounding social cosmos. The wonderfully purposeful structuring and organization of this cosmos, which, according to the biblical revelation and equally according to natural insight, is evidently designed to be of “use” to the human race, shows that labor in the service of this social usefulness furthers the divine glory and is willed by God. Later, we shall be analyzing the significance of these points for the light they shed on the political and economic rationalism of Calvinism: the source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics lies here; important peculiarities of the Calvinist concept of the calling also originate from it. (Weber 1905)

The ends of capital and the ends of society are conflated; capitalism is not just a tool, it is a set of social relations which have become an end in and of itself. It has remade society in its own image. It requires the coordination of countless actors all working towards the same goal in mind: in this case, economic growth. It's here we begin to see the Social Element.

Think back to the example of the Pietist laborer, who works for “the greater good of society”. His commitment to neither wealth or higher ambitions, but the carrying out of his duties in a responsible manner is what ends up making him an ideal employee. Similarly we could speak of ideal management, ideal consumers, ideal entrepreneurs, and so on. This ended up forming the foundation for Taylorism, the primary management philosophy for the vast majority of businesses throughout the 20th century. Continuously throughout Taylor's own writings do we begin to see the inherently social character of work:

The writer wishes to again state that: “The time is fast going by for the great personal or individual achievement of any one man standing alone and without the help of those around him. And the time is coming when all great things will be done by that type of cooperation in which each man performs the function for which he is best suited, each man preserves his own individuality and is supreme in his particular function, and each man at the same time loses none of his originality and proper personal initiative, and yet is controlled by and must work harmoniously with many other men.” (Taylor 1913, 140)

In industrial society, what links all of these people is not the dominance of one group over the other but the firm itself. The firm acts as a mediator of something essentially social. Without that link, these tasks would seem absurd and one-sided. This is all well and fine, social production is the foundation of civilization. The issue is that as social production is near-monopolized by firms, the ends of the firm have become the ends of social production and by extent, society.

But what are the ends of the firm? To maximize the amount of value generated.

Why? Because in a competitive environment, the firm's continued survival depends not just on not just output as weighed against social needs but relative to the efficiency of other producers.

But how does this diverge from social need? Because value of any given commodity can be understood in two ways: either as use-value or exchange-value. If you're not sure what that means, I'd recommend taking a minute or so to read this brief definition of the value-form.

The divergence becomes clear when we consider that while there is a convergence, a theoretical limit on what people need, the same cannot be said for objects of exchange. As each firms and economies judge themselves in relative terms, there's an infinite tendency towards the generation and accumulation of capital with no end in sight, just continuous expansion into all facets of life. The means become their own end, with productive output either being discarded or re-invested into new gains. The “frenzied desire” and “infinite eagerness” Calvin speaks of is systemic rather than individual in nature.

As we have seen, capital is M-C-M’, self-valorising value, value that gives birth to value...

Capital, in contrast, does not come out of the process as it entered it. It is in the process that it is first converted into actual capital, into self-valorising value. The total product is now the form in which capital exists as realised capital, and as such it again confronts labour as the property of the capitalist, as a power which is independent and has been created by labour itself. Hence the production process was not only its reproduction process, but its process of production as capital. Previously the conditions of production confronted the worker as capital in so far as he found them to be present over against him in independence. Now it is the product of his own labour that he finds confronting him as conditions of production that have been converted into capital. What started as a presupposition is now the result of the production process...

Capitalist production is not only the reproduction of the relation, it is its reproduction on an ever growing scale; and in the same proportion as the social productive power of labour develops, along with the capitalist mode of production, the pile of wealth confronting the worker grows, as wealth ruling over him, as capital, and the world of wealth expands vis-à-vis the worker as an alien and dominating world. At the opposite pole, and in the same proportion, the worker’s subjective poverty, neediness and dependency develop. The deprivation of the worker and the abundance of capital correspond with each other, they keep in step. At the same time the numbers of the working proletarian these living means for the production of capital, increase. (Marx 1864)

Echoes of the “prolific element” Franklin speaks of can be found here: this is why I refer to the logic of capitalism as self-perpetuating; all that enters the market and its accompanying relations enters a cycle which results in the reproduction of this exchange-value. The exponential growth is inherent to the mode of production, not some immutable fact of the universe.

Returning to the value-form, a question lingers: what is the basis of this exchange-value? Is it some sort of arbitrary social fiction? No. As discussed in the above article, exchange-value exists as an abstract representation of a common property which links otherwise unrelated goods which happen to be in exchange. When looking at an entire economy and all of the countless goods circulating, they hold one thing in common, being the products of human-labor.

Labor is a rather abstract concept; how do we measure its value? In hours. Irrespective of the variations between occupations, technology, economies, and work-ethics is the fact that sixty minutes is still sixty minutes and that it takes time to produce things.

3. Distilling the Ethic (section incomplete)

Modern Christian attitudes towards work take one of three forms: valorization, pessimism, or moderation. The insight provided by each of these perspectives are incomplete in their own respective ways. What does unite them is the failure to consider the topic not just as a matter of individual choice or some unchanging state of nature, but social organization.

The previous sections functioned as an examination of work through a broader lens, setting context for the matter at hand. Having a historically-grounded basis is what allows us to stress the reality of the matter; it gives the following argument a foundation which goes beyond one of countless purely subjective interpretations of how people should view work.

If the issue was just a matter of culture or attitude, then perhaps we could down some life-coach's advice like a cheap bottle of wine, but despite how much we wish for that to be the case, widespread alienation remains stronger than ever.

3.1. Work as a Virtue (section incomplete)

And it looks like I'm not the only one who thinks this way either. Christians today can get their advice from the Internet, just a few taps and clicks away from getting a consultation on any moral issue. This is important because it gives us a window into the advice that permeates the mainstream, a look at the thought process of your average person (whether or not this is a good thing is a debate for another day). Within the span of one search, I've already come across plenty of articles to work with. Some of these are written by Protestants, some by Catholics, but what ties them together is this understanding that work, not just in the general sense, but in the sense of employment, is a virtue.

We'll start with the article I picked up from the previous time I drafted this section, giving the topic a broader treatment. This article seems to run through a lot of the points you'd expect, viewing work as challenging but rewarding, condemning sloth, and detailing how it's part of God's plan for us.

The author, David Mathis, begins by invoking the cultural mandate as evidence of the inherent goodness of work.

From the very beginning, God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). Work is not the product of sin, but a major facet of God’s original plan for human life in his world.

Right off the bat, this raises some questions. Were Adam and Eve really called to work in the same way that we understand now? Is this understanding of work consistent with the way in which work is presented through the rest of Scripture?

I scarcely know a biblical text which presents work as valuable, good, or virtuous. It is necessary to be clear on this. In the Bible work is a necessity, a constraint, a punishment. except in a few, unusual texts. Of course, everyone knows the story of Genesis 2, in which humanity, before the break with God, was called cultivate and to guard the Garden of Eden. Hence, the whole battery of theologians who find in this text the origins of work and who thus claim to have proof that work is part of human “nature”. What I would like to point out, however, is the paradox that this original notion includes none of the characteristics of work! True, cultivation is required, but it has little utility, because the Garden already flourishes on its own without any particular human help. Also, it is necessary “to guard” the Garden, but from whom? We will not enter into a debate on the preexistence of evil in creation; of this evil I find no trace in the Bible. There is no enemy there, no “principle of evil”, no Satan. There is only the serpent, not a mythical or metaphysical serpent, just a simple animal. Nevertheless, Adam is told to cultivate and to guard, to concern himself with functions perfectly useless and unnecessary. This is neither law, constraint, nor necessity. At the same time the distinction between these activities and play does not yet exist. One is not able to speak of work in the ordinary sense.

When we go to the next verse (Genesis 2:16), the garden is clearly one of abundance, where Adam is capable of feeding himself with fruit from any number of trees. There's no mention of the sweat of his brow or thorns and thistles. Maybe one could argue that the difference between Genesis 2 and 3 is that in 3, the land is more hostile. But the sort of agricultural labor Mathis imagines Adam performing exists precisely because the land is hostile. The Garden is self-flourishing, and as Ellul states, it's difficult to distinguish between work and play in this context.

The rest of the article is dedicated to the example of the Apostle Paul, and the steadfastness he showed in his mission.

There is a word of hope here for those who battle laziness. Paul professed again and again that the key to his seemingly tireless labors was God at work in him (Philippians 2:12–13; Colossians 1:29). It was not in his own strength to do what he did. Christ was strengthening him (1 Timothy 1:12; Philippians 4:13). In the same breath, he says he “worked harder than” the other apostles, and he says, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And still today, Christ strengthens his church by grace (Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:1).

And, this is where I think the semantics of the issue really begin to have an effect, which is why I gave so much time to articulating and defending an alternative definition of work. If we define work as a generic catch-all term for any sort of task conducted with effort, we run the risk of neglecting the various nuances associated with it on both historical and political planes.

The same can be extended to the label which the author bestows upon Paul: hard-working. What does it mean to be hard-working? Is a man who spends half his day in the factory and half his day drowning himself in alcohol not hard-working? Could not the same be said about the slaves who spent their lives working in the Roman salt mines? The answer is, yes they are hard-working; but their situation isn't inspiring, its pitiful.

So, what separates Paul from them, if effort and time aren't the central characteristics? Let us take a minute to think what kind of words can describe the example he set forth for Christians: persistence, courage, discipline, patience, humility (Romans 12:3-8): the list goes on. These characteristics remain so striking to us thousands of years later because this was not some task he took up reluctantly. What sets apart Paul's mission is not the way in which he approached it but the nature of said mission. When Paul sets sail for Rome, his resolve testifies not to any personal greatness he has but rather instead the power of he who sent him and what he has been sent out to do.

3.1a. The Great Resignation

This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to Section 3.2 if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.

The essay as a whole has taken me over a year to write, but the world moves on irrespective of my personal schedule. In the months since I first wrote this section, a new development seems to be taking place here in the United States (perhaps other countries as well, but I am not informed enough to speak on them). The COVID-19 pandemic and the various responses to it have had numerous effects, one of which has been a spike in labor shortages, unemployment, and turnover rates within countless industries. A lot of reasons have been cited for this, both speculatively and through actual surveys:

  • Existing government stimulus programs are sufficient income
  • Issues with the work environment (poor safety conditions, general stress, limited benefits)
  • Inflexible or overly long work-schedules

Whatever the causes, people are seeing more and more reasons to quit their job, and less and less reasons to get a job. The press has taken to labeling this the “Great Resignation”, and taking my rule regarding current events into consideration, I do think it actually holds enough relevance to merit discussion in this essay.

And it looks like I'm not the only one who thinks this way. One search later and I've already found plenty of articles by various Christian preachers offering their own two cents on this issue. But before we get into the actual meat of these articles, let us take a second to consider why they would care so much. The guiding principle of our society has long been “mind your own business”, and it shows in how the secular world constantly finds itself responding to Christians. They're perplexed as to why we bother ourselves so much with the lives of others, and I see no reason why it wouldn't be the same for this issue? Why should a Christian preacher care about whether or not others are living off of government assistance? But when we consider our discoveries in the earlier sections of this essay, it begins to make sense: labor constitutes one's own life-activity. How one labors exists as a refection of how one lives their life and views the world around them. If we are witnessing a clear shift in how people labor, then it makes sense to investigate the issue.

How any of these various articles put forth by said preachers approach and respond to the matter is of course something subject to variance. Some are more sympathetic, others more disapproving, all of which of course stem from various political, denominational, and personal leanings of the author in question. I'll be focusing this section towards the attitude which is more critical, as it seems to be more prevalent in evangelical circles (which I am a part of), and will prove more relevant to the arguments made in the previous section.

In this article by Reformed blogger Elizabeth Prata, we definitely see the ways in which Christians can react with condemnation to the events going on. She derisively refers to the phenomenon as “The Great Laziness”, going at length to describe the ways in which it is ultimately selfish:

Some of the top five reasons people are leaving their jobs, and 4 million quit this past April (WUT!), are that they aren’t making enough money (hello, we have received multiple pandemic stimulus monies in the last 18 months), that the job isn’t interesting enough, (self) that their job won’t let them work from home or remotely (self), or work is just so hard it interferes with or leaves little energy for leisure pursuits. (self)

She seems to hone in on this idea that the wave of quitting is for fundamentally selfish reasons, which I won't dispute. But it's still rather disingenuous to frame it this way given how the free-market literally functions based on these principles of rational self-interest.

Why do shop owners charge money for their goods? Because it is in their self-interest to do so. Why do people spend their weeks working with the expectation of a wage? Because it is in their self-interest to do so. How many of these ideal pre-pandemic Christians and business owners would offer their services independent of compensation? Should they be expected to feel the same willingness to contribute to society even if they get nothing out of it? Of course not, so why start now? If we are going to uphold the free-market, then that means upholding freedom of contract. If employers are offering a poor work environment, then laborers have the right to look elsewhere or not at all.

There's this bizarre double-standard when it comes to market-morality, where the right to self-interest is granted to everyone but the employee. Why is this the case? Well, I think it ties back to the earlier discussions had regarding the work-ethic as seen in Section 2.1. The work-ethic is something that varies on a class-basis because each class has a different role to play in the reproduction of the economy. When an entrepreneur acts in self-interest, it helps spur competition, innovation, and efficiency. When a consumer acts in self-interest, they create demand and help the market select out the best products for continuous production. It's only in the case of the workers where the self-interest can often prove disruptive to said economy.

The assertion of these interests whether shown through strikes or occupations (as seen historically), tend to bring the functioning of society to a halt. The effects of this can be felt all over, not just by capitalists but also by consumers trying to get on with their day. And the article briefly testifies to such:

At school, we can’t get substitutes. Farmers can’t get workers into the barn. Restaurants can’t get wait staff. Almost every industry is reporting a shortage of workers. Law Enforcement particularly is feeling the pinch, with great swathes of officers putting in their retirement papers.

For a lot of people, this undeniably sucks. At the end of the day it's going to be their problem if their neighborhood is under-policed, if their kids aren't getting a proper education, if produce prices are beginning to rise to the point that it hurts their wallet. All of that is self-interest, the same self-interest they condemn the unemployed for, and it colors their perspective on the world. Self-interest is a fact of the world (especially a market-driven one) which gives us an understanding of how people on average tend to make decisions and how their own individual experiences affect how they view the world. As a model, it can give us an idea of how to best enact solutions which deal with these widespread problems most effectively or how to approach and talk to those with said experiences.

None of this is a substitute for moral guidance; that can only be found within Scripture. And we must be careful that while we can apply Scripture to modern problems, we cannot start with our own interests and retroactively weaponize Scripture to justify them. So, when we look in Scripture, what do we find? The Bible undeniably condemns sloth, as far as I am aware, this is beyond dispute. (Proverbs 21:25, Proverbs 26:13-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:8-12, etc.) But, at the same time, why should we assume that work (and by extent its opposite, sloth) is a purely vocational concept?

Instead of reflexively condemning others for not returning for their jobs, let us take a second to stop and think what opportunity this actually provides. A lot of people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to think about anything apart from their career are finally being given a great deal of free time that they may not be sure what to do with. The world has provided a false dichotomy as its solution: either suppress your feelings and return to your job or spend your time idly lounging, presumably through the means of passive forms of consumer entertainment. Our society can only conceive of work as a means to a wage, and free-time as a time for us to spend said wage on consumer goods. In both of these scenarios, the choice is done towards the end of spurring on the economy, towards continuing the circulation of money. Perhaps that's why the debate had to be framed in such binary terms, rather than considering if there's even a third option.

The fact is that even if there's a social safety net, people are lost, they're uncertain. The disruption caused by this pandemic has altered many lives and has left people who had a plan without a plan, and people without choices with plenty of choices. Contrary to what popular myth tells us, human nature has a drive towards contribution, the need to feel a part of something larger than them. Without it, one begins to shrivel and become lethargic, and this is why we consider conditions such as depression to be abnormalities. This is a drive that was visible as early as in the days of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:3-4) to the modern day.

What the church has the opportunity to provide here is guidance, on how and where people can direct their energies and time. Instead of chiding them to return to the job they fled, why not encourage them to use this time to take upon other forms of activity? This could be requesting their help in various church faculties, getting them connected with soup kitchens and various volunteering opportunities, or perhaps sending them off to spread the Gospel in their neighborhoods. Even beyond organized forms of volunteer work, why not encourage them to spend more time with their families, channel their creative faculties towards art, learn a new skill, or use the time to study Scripture more in-depth? Ask yourself: should any of this be considered less fruitful than time spent in a cubicle? If the wage really makes the difference, then maybe the next question we have to ask ourselves is: to whose glory are we really working?

3.2. Work as a Curse

3.3. Work as a Balance (section incomplete)

With the 20th century, we began to see a lot of these debates between capitalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism take place.

Leaders of the Dutch Reformed movement (most notably Abraham Kuyper) attempted to meet these problems with a new theory of social relations. Looking to strike a middle ground between a full church-state (as was the case with various medieval Catholic societies) and the complete secularization of liberal societies, Kuyper developed the concept of “sphere sovereignty”.

Kuyper’s Third Way between the evils of popular-sovereignty, on the one hand, and State-sovereignty, on the other, was sphere-sovereignty—or, as he called it himself, “sovereignty in the individual social spheres.” For Kuyper, society was made up of a variety of spheres, such as the family, business, science, and art. They derived their authority not from the State, which occupied a sphere of its own, but from God, to whom they were directly accountable. Each of the spheres developed spontaneously and organically, according to the powers God had given them in the first moments of creation. (Heslam 2002, 17)

The idea behind sphere sovereignty is that society can be broken down into relations, each of which fall into various categories, known as spheres. The workplace may be one sphere whereas the household may be another. These spheres have their own norms, hierarchies, and purpose in both social and individual life. In order to best carry out the Christian duty, no one of these spheres should intrude on the other. Through this balancing act, Kuyper hopes that the ideal of doing all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) could be realized.

But there was a dual meaning to this concept of sphere sovereignty, not just in the conduct of the life of the individual, but also society as a whole. Kuyper, being the Dutch Prime Minister and the founding father of a major political party (the ARP), was able to see his theory implemented into practice. Building off of his ideas, the Dutch developed a system of “pillarization” in which their nation was divided up into multiple sub-societies. Within pillarization, society would be divided up into various political/religious groups (Protestant, Catholic, socialist, etc.) each with their own set of institutions. Each group was given space to cultivate their own schools, media outlets, hospitals, unions, and so on.

Kuyper attached, however, a secondary meaning to his idea of sphere sovereignty. This was the notion that confessional or ideological groups in society were free to organize their own autonomous institutions. As rector of the Free University he called for orthodox Protestants to separate themselves from the rest of society to develop an independent sphere of life (levenskring). “We wish to retreat behind our own lines,” he declared, “in order to prepare ourselves for the struggle ahead.” The argument found backing, Kuyper claimed, in those ideas of his intellectual mentor Groen van Prinsterer, that were encapsulated in the motto: “In isolation lies our strength” (“In het isolement ligt onze kracht”). (Heslam 2002, 19)

It stood not just as a way to mediate competing interests and give every religious group space to properly thrive, but also as a bulwark against the secularizing forces that were beginning to dictate every aspect of life and social organization since the Enlightenment. It affirmed the religious character of society in a time when people increasingly began to understand it as something purely mechanical or abstract.

Clearly Kuyper’s theory was based on an organic understanding of the nature of society. As such, it was a response not only to individualism but to the mechanism and scientism prevalent in the intellectual world at the end of the nineteenth century. In opposition to these latter two theories, which taught that society is governed by neutral forces that operate in terms of cause and effect, Kuyper argued that society should be understood as a moral organism. (Heslam 2002, 17)

However, also in this plan, we can see the connection between his vision for both individual life and social life. He correctly understood how the two were connected, that how one approaches the day-to-day and how one interacts with their neighbors feed into each other. Society is not merely the sum of its individuals, but it is also not entirely detached from the individual experience.

At the heart of his thought lies not the human individual but the human person with the complex matrix of relationships that belong to true personhood. Hence, his stress on the group and on the organic way in which groups, or “communities,” operate and develop. He understood society as a relational entity, and his model of society is a persons-in-relation model. It is this balance of the person and the community that underlies the respect that the German theologian Ernst Troeltsch displayed toward Calvinist social theory. (Heslam 2002, 25)

And at a glance, it really does seem as if departs from the principle laid out in his famous quote. (“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”) That principle is wholly admirable, and something I agree with, but I

3.3a. The Sabbath

This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to Section 3.4 if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.

Related to this topic of work and the division of time, we have the Sabbath, a theological stumbling block for the modern church. You'd expect that with a topic which is so seldom delved into by most Christians, that it's either an issue of minor importance or one that has long been settled. This isn't the case: there currently remains no real consensus on how to interpret the Fourth Commandment despite how frequently it is invoked in Scripture.

Throughout its history, the Church has failed to provide a satisfactory answer to the essence of the Sabbath and its relationship to the Lord's Day. In its early years, the Church avoided the matter of religious days entirely as to appease pagan converts.

It's not entirely clear how Sunday was celebrated in the very early centuries of church history nor how in that period Sabbath and its relationship to the Lord's Day was viewed. There can be no doubt, however, concerning the state of affairs that began to emerge in the fifth century...with the issuance of the Edict of Milan (AD 313), was the inclusion of many within the ranks of the faithful for whom professing Christian faith was little more than empty words. The erstwhile pagan now became the nominal Christian, with predictable results... Among the concessions the church made to the pagan world about it was a failure to take a clearly defined stand on the matter of festivals and religious holidays. Such celebrations had played an important part in pagan worship. (Gaffin 1998, 15)

As we moved into the medieval era, the matter began to take upon a ultra-legalistic (and often arbitrary) nature. One could dress meat but not wash dishes. One could travel to a shrine but not return from it. This is another matter in which one would not be wrong to draw parallels between the practices of the Pharisees and that of the medieval Catholic Church.

As the medieval period progressed, the true meaning of the Lord's Day almost disappeared, and the complexion of its celebration became increasingly colored by the legalistic system it was a part... The situation however, continued to intensify as time passed. As the church hierarchy strengthened its domination over the life of the individual, so did the prescriptions regarding conduct on the Lord's day increased both in number and in minuteness... in the final analysis all these regulations are part of a sacramental system, where observing them was believed to have a part in determining an individual's state of grace. (Gaffin 1998, 17-19)

As the Reformation itself marked a massive re-examination of all aspects of Christian doctrine, it is not surprising that this would apply to the Sabbath too. But the scope of their project meant that they often couldn't give their full focus to investigating this question, not when much more urgent matters of doctrine had to be hashed out.

It may be difficult for Christians today to appreciate fully the spiritual and intellectual turmoil the Reformers experienced in breaking with the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, however, we can understand how those called to spend their lives in dispelling centuries-long darkness that had engulfed truths that are the indispensable life source of Christianity, would not likely be as concerned with questions related primarily to a specific and less central aspect of piety.

For Calvin, forced to spend an entire lifetime contending for a fully gracious salvation and the Scriptures as our sole authority in matters of doctrine and practice, the Sabbath question never recieved the attention it might have, nor was it subject to the full force of his exegetical powers. In short (and at the risk of suggesting an ultimately false disjunction), his dominating preoccupation was gospel, not law. (Gaffin 1998, 144)

Through the course of the Reformation, we saw a variety of views pop up from groups such as the Puritans and the Anabaptists. Most of these can be broken down into one of two camps, however: the Sabbatarians and the non-Sabbatarians. The debate really manifests itself as a debate on Law: the Sabbatarians held that because Christ came to fulfill the Law that it still applied, but

I think what's missing from a lot of these discussions though is the question of why. The Sabbatarian arguments repeatedly come back to invoking the commands outlined in Scripture, and are often rooted in larger debates regarding covenants and the Law in the abstract. These are important discussions to have, but what's missing from the discussion is the Sabbath itself. It does not make sense to view the Sabbath as merely a stand-in for broader discussions of Law, when Scripture clearly affords it a much more significant place.

To be fair to the Reformers though, that's not to say there hasn't been any genuine discussion. Both Luther and Calvin connected this to some concept of rest, both in the physical and spiritual sense. Calvin took it a step further, arguing that it was primarily a rest from the works of sin, and that this could be tied to the Great Commandment. But, as pointed out subsequent theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, this doesn't really explain the position in Scripture that the Sabbath is given.

For Calvin, spiritual rest is ceasing from sin, and the positive side of such cessation is loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind... and... your neighbor as yourself”. But according to the uniform teaching of Scripture, the... particular elements of the Decalogue are related to Christ's love summary as a species to a genus, specific aspects to an integrating whole.

Consequently, to attribute any one of the ten commandments, the comprehensive force that properly belongs to Christ's summary deprives that particular commandment of its place in the Decalogue... The notion of spiritual rest he finds there gives to it a basic force it cannot have biblically; a part of the Decalogue recieves the meaning divinly intended for the whole. Johnathan Edwards, for one, already grasped this point. In commenting on Calvin's views, he says, “And if it stands in force now only as signifying a spiritual, Christian rest, and holy behaviors at all times, it doth not remain as one of the ten commands but a summary of all the commands.” (Gaffin 1998, 145)

The other items of the Decalogue we are able to understand the deeper meaning behind without sacrificing their specificity. Take the Second Commandment for example. Countless commentaries have been penned regarding the profound theological significance of this command, and the discussion often strikes to the essence of what a “graven image” is. From understanding this command we get an appreciation for the invisible God and how the scope of his being is incapable of being contained in any one image.

We see this applied in Scripture too; during Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:21-27) what do we see? He takes these prohibitions in the Decalogue, such as those pertaining to murder and adultery, and fulfills them by investigating the nature of each command. One cannot understand the sin of adultery without understanding this essence of lust, murder without anger.

We must not imagine Christ to be a new legislator, who adds any thing to the eternal righteousness of his Father. We must listen to him as a faithful expounder, that we may know what is the nature of the law, what is its object, and what is its extent. It now remains for us to see, what Christ condemns in the Pharisees, and in what respect his interpretation of it differs from their glosses. The amount of it is, that they had changed the doctrine of the law into a political order, and had made obedience to it to consist entirely in the performance of outward duties.

Hence it came, that he who had not slain a man with his hand was pronounced to be free from the guilt of murder, and he who had not polluted his body by adultery was supposed to be pure and chaste before God. This was an intolerable profanation of the law: for it is certain, that Moses everywhere demands the spiritual worship of God. From the very nature of the law we must conclude, that God, who gave it by the hand of Moses, spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes. (Calvin's Commentary on Matthew 5:21)

It only makes sense to approach the Fourth Commandment with this same mentality too. This is one of those areas where I believe it is useful to look towards Jewish theology to get an understanding of the original purpose and character of the Sabbath. The main work I'm going to be looking at for this sort of dialogue is The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

(It is worth noting that my general instinct is to caution against this sort of Judeo-Christian analysis. The existence of Christ requires one to view the old Scriptures in a radically different light than had he not been the Son of God. Yes, Christ came to fulfill the Law, but when we speak of fulfillment (πληρόω), or completion, we admit the incompleteness of what came before. It's a concept that is fundamentally retrospective in its impact. We see this notion of Christ as an “inflection point” throughout Scripture (Romans 5:9-11, Romans 8:1-4, Hebrews 6:13-20). However, it is still important to understand the Law to make sense of how it is fulfilled. When the Church insufficiently fails to address certain matters pertaining to matters of the Law, I do believe it is worthwhile to engage in dialogue to re-examine foundations, as long as the utmost caution is exercised. One key example of this is the Reformers adopting the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, discarding the Apocrypha. I don't see sufficient reason to doubt that modern-day Jews are unable to testify to the tradition of the Sabbath and its character.)

So, before we can even get to the question of whether or not the Sabbath is binding to Christians, we have to first understand what the Sabbath is. But understanding the Sabbath in essence requires that we understand how God (and by extension the day) relates to the concepts of space and time. I've selected out some passages to help get these concepts across:

Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, within particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with things of space, and the primary question is: Where is the god? There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His pres­ence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit. (Heschel 1951, 4)

The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.

...Pass­over, originally a spring festival, became a celebration of the exodus from Egypt; the Feast of Weeks, an old harvest festival at the end of the wheat harvest (hag ha­kazir, Exodus 23:16; 34:22), became the celebration of the day on which the Torah was given at Sinai; the Feast of the Booths, an old festival of vintage (hag ha­asif, Ex. 23:16), commemorates the dwelling of the Israelites in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42f.). To Israel the unique events of historic time were spiritually more significant than the repetitive processes in the cycle of nature, even though physical sustenance depended on the latter. While the deities of other peoples were associated with places or things, the God of Israel was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting Himself in events of history rather than in things or places. Thus, the faith in the unembodied, in the unimaginable was born.

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. (Heschel 1951, 7-8)

And it's from here that we begin to get an understanding of what this “essence” I spoke of earlier could be. Sabbath was not merely a “shall not” to work, but something to be positively observed and celebrated (Exodus 31:12-17). It served as a reminder to the Israelites that they and their God are related through time. That by experiencing the moment in itself (as opposed to experiencing a Time that is subordinated to Space), the individual is reminded of what lies in Eternity.

Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. When the Romans met the Jews and noticed their strict adherence to the law of abstaining from labor on the Sabbath, their only reaction was contempt. (Heschel 1951, 10)

As discussed earlier, keeping the Law does not mean to simply abstain from an activity in a purely legal sense, but rather instead realize a greater good that the command embodies. By upholding the Sixth Commandment, we affirm the value of human life. The negation of adultery in the Seventh is implicitly an affirmation of love and commitment in marriage. Even the Law as a whole is explicitly presented as an embodiment of the broader concept of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Matthew 22:37-40). This is the mistake the Pharisees made with their own interpretation of the Sabbath, where they transformed the practice into a political order. Outward expression was their primary concern, rather than the essence, what it actually meant for man.

The glorification of the day, the insistence upon strict observance, did not, however, lead the rabbis to a deification of the law. “The Sabbath is given unto you, not you unto the Sabbath.” The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety may endanger the fulfilment of the essence of the law.”

...To observe the seventh day does not mean merely to obey or to conform to the strictness of a divine com­mand. To observe is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again, the majesty of holiness in time, “a day of rest, a day of freedom,” a day which is like “a lord and king of all other days,” a lord and king in the commonwealth of time. (Heschel 1951, 17-20)

This ties back into the larger point of my essay when we consider how much of this command is intrinsically tied to these concepts of labor and time. The language used to discuss the Sabbath very much echoes the language used in these deconstructions of work.

To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one's lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.” The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living. (Heschel 1951, 14)

When we then reflect back on our industrial society, one in which every hour is spent either working, resting from work, or drowning ourselves in the products of our work; one in which the scale of our industry exists for the soul purpose of finding dominion over space, it has very grim implications. The modern “weekend” may happen to overlap with the Sabbath and the Lord's Day, but its purpose very transparently goes beyond that. Otherwise there would be no need for the secular world to observe this. The weekend's primary purpose in our society is to serve as that rest from labor, but is that okay? Should we remain content with this? What are we to make of the weekday then? Questions have been raised by other Jewish thinkers such as Buber and Kaufmann as they grappled with these dilemmas in modern life.

Buber succeeds in endowing the social sphere with a religious dimension. Where other critics of religion tend to take away the sabbath and leave us with a life of weekdays, Buber attacks the dichotomy that condemns men to lives that are at least six-sevenths drab.

While man cannot live in a continual sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, no church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The sabbath is every day, several times a day. (Buber 1970, 30)

I largely agree with Kaufmann's sentiment here, but with the stipulation, that — coming from the Christian perspective — it is not just possible, but necessary to strive towards this so-called “continual Sabbath”. If the Sabbath represents a temple of time, a holy moment sanctified by God, then what are we to make of it once that temple's veil is torn? The veil we see referenced in Matthew 27 represented a separation between man and God, a place set apart for the Lord to dwell. With its tearing, Christ brings together what was once separate.

Christ, the true and everlasting Priest, having abolished the figures of the law, opened up for us by his blood the way to the heavenly sanctuary, that we may no longer stand at a distance within the porch, but may freely advance into the presence of God. For so long as the shadowy worship lasted, (287) a veil was hung up before the earthly sanctuary, in order to keep the people not only from entering but from seeing it, (Exodus 26:33; 2 Chronicles 3:14.) Now Christ, by blotting out the handwriting which was opposed to us, (Colossians 2:14,) removed every obstruction, that, relying on him as Mediator, we may all be a royal priesthood, (1 Peter 2:9.) Thus the rending of the veil was not only an abrogation of the ceremonies which existed under the law, but was, in some respects, an opening of heaven, that God may now invite the members of his Son to approach him with familiarity. (Calvin's Commentary on Matthew 27:51)

In this sense, I'd argue the “continual Sabbath” represents the fulfillment of this law. The completion is attained by taking the day and transposing it onto the entire week. The individual stands before God not as a duality of a working-man and a Sabbath-man, but in a unified existence. When Paul instructs us to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), it means all; he doesn't make exception for meals, so why should he for work? The totality of our existence — even our routines, struggles, and sufferings — constitute the canvas against which our continual relationship with our Creator manifests.

With this new light, we can appreciate what the Reformers were able to grasp: just as with the other tenets of the Law, Christ has not abrogated, but rather instead elevated the Sabbath.

Still there can be no doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished. He is the truth, at whose presence all the emblems vanish; the body, at the sight of which the shadows disappear. He, I say, is the true completion of the sabbath: “We are buried with him by baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life,” (Rom. 6:4). Hence, as the Apostle elsewhere says, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ,” (Col. 2:16, 17); meaning by body the whole essence of the truth, as is well explained in that passage. This is not contented with one day, but requires the whole course of our lives, until being completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days. (Calvin 1536, 2:8:48)

We cannot settle for the “six-sevenths drab”; if this world continues to drag our attention away from the Almighty, to beat people down until they can only conceive the mundane, then it must be revolted against. While even in the context of sinful societies God can make use of our labors, it does not relieve us of our responsibility to resistance.

3.4. Towards a New Work-Ethic

In the end, we still have to speak of a work-ethic in some positive sense: not so we can somehow learn to love our 9-5 schedule, but so there can be an actually existing movement to speak of. If we are to assign activity an existential importance, then it makes itself manifest in all aspects of life and society.

This also goes for revolutions. For far too long have socialists been content to concern themselves with questions of distribution: how are we going to deal with inequalities in wealth, who is going to own what, who is stealing from who.

Production, and by extent work, is treated as a simple means to an end: the structure of our day-to-day lives isn't altered, society is expected to continue on as it did before minus some reshuffling of cards. In this sense, their mentality is no different from that of the capitalists. This mentality has been entirely outmoded by the welfare state, which provides the aforementioned reshuffling but in a more orderly fashion.

But as we've seen in the above sections, work is so much more than that. It's dynamic, its the link between potential and actuality, the purest expression of will. Work is creation.

Work in the Bible begins with God's work of creation. God's work of creation is obviously not toil. It is mote like play or the exuberance of the creative artist. It is joyous and energetic, unencumbered by the need to overcome obstacles or wrestle the physical elements into a finished product. Yet the activity of God in creating the world must be considered work. We know, for example, that after six days of creation “God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Genesis 2:2). In the actual account of creation, moreover, God rests from his creative work after each day, setting up a rhythm of work and rest. (Ryken 1987, 120)

We have spent the last three-hundred years erasing this fact, suppressing the most vital of aspects to our existence. Instead we have created a culture in which we live vicariously through our consumer goods, one where one can only live as a spectator. Is it any surprise that when we treat work as an obstacle, that people will seek to avoid it? What does it tell us that our rejection of what is most essential to us is rooted in fear and complacency?

In our society, man is being pushed more and more into passivity. He is thrust into vast organizations which function collectively and in which each man has his own small part to play. But he cannot act on his own; he can act only as the result of somebody else’s decision. Man is more and more trained to participate in group movements and to act only on signal and in the way he has been taught. There is training for big and small matters—training for his job, for the driver and the pedestrian, for the consumer, for the movie-goer, for the apartment house dweller, and so on. The consumer gets his signal from the advertiser that the purchase of some product is desirable; the driver learns from the green light that he may proceed. The individual becomes less and less capable of acting by himself; he needs the collective signals which integrate his actions into the complete mechanism. Modern life induces us to wait until we are told to act.

Man is a product of his environment, and modern man is characteristically modern. His cowardice, indecision, complacency, passivity, and entitlement all allow him to thrive in this environment. Of course, these have all been inherent to humanity since the beginning of time, but there remains another fact about man which is just as timeless: in social life he finds his justification. His moral compass is trained on what he sees in his peers, his eyes are trained on the path of least resistance. This attribute allows us to stably co-exist in societies but it also means that individuals embody the attributes of the societies they live in.

And it just so happens that industrial and capitalist societies happen to be defined by commodities. To us, the product rather than the process is what matters. We spend our time looking for ways to save time, we enter the office fixated on the clock. When the time comes to rest, the clock still looms, only counting down the hours with dread rather than anticipation. The only way we can afford this is by giving every aspect of life its own private sphere which it cannot overstep: the family gets night-time, God gets Sunday, the job gets the day.

And if that's what's dominant, if that's what occupies our thoughts, then that must be what we fight against as Christians. We stand against the world, and while that relationship remains unchanging, whichever idol currently demands our attention has always been subject to flux. They come and pass, never able to measure up to the Eternity they claim. The task remains the same as it always has: to unmask all that presents itself as inevitable, all that demands our undivided attention. The world is willing to grant religion its bubble, a place to be slotted in only after all other considerations of time, politics, logistics, and economy have been hashed out. All this and not an inch more. But it is up to us to resist the temptation of integration.

Only through the ruthless criticism of all that exists — a truly radical negation — can the light of the Gospel come to penetrate every aspect of life. Before God, the duplicity of time fades away, life reveals itself as a unified, undivided stream of pure existence. Man, looking past all earthly abstractions and loyalties, stands in a direct, intermediated relationship with God.

Our minds are not infinite; and as the volume of the world's knowledge increases, we tend more and more to confine ourselves, each to his special sphere of interest and to the specialised metaphor belonging to it. The analytic bias of the last three centuries has immensely encouraged this tendency, and it is now very difficult for the artist to speak the language of the theologian, or the scientist the language of either. But the attempt must be made; and there are signs everywhere that the human mind is once more beginning to move towards a synthesis of experience. (Sayers 1941)

This is not something which can be accomplished with a mere shift in cultural or individual attitudes. No amount of reflection will change the fact that without the wage there is no survival, that the reproduction of this society is something that's expected out of all of its members. Refusal is not merely punished, but rather instead granted as impossible. Our perspective can only spur us to action, the renewal of the self under salvation creates a will to see the renewal of the world.

Just as social critique absent of individual critique can often shield men from acknowledging the weight of their own sins, the reverse also holds true. The Tower of Babel reflects the character of its builders; institutions of man are no less fallible than men themselves. If we erect a barrier beyond which our critique cannot be extended, can we truly say that it holds a radical presence?

We struggle for this not because we expect sin to be eradicated by socio-economic change, not because we believe the Lord has predestined us political victory in some millenarian fashion. We struggle because the means and the end are simultaneous, each and every moment contains historical potential. Christ has overcome the world, that much was accomplished on the cross. To many, this fact seems to lend itself to complacency, but the example of the apostles shows us the opposite.

Christ is victorious, this means we have nothing to fear. Christ is victorious, that means that no matter what happens, we have no reason to resign. Christ is victorious, that means that even in the face of momentary defeat, the Gospel will be preserved, others ready to carry the torch. It fills us with a restlessness, an eagerness to participate in the saga of mankind's redemption.

Liberation theologies throughout history have chosen to focus on some arbitrary future hope, some point at which everything falls into place. Because of that, it has found itself generally in concord with programmatic variants of socialism, which promise just that in exchange for present party adherence. Deferred enough, this hope becomes an un-reality, a future so distant that it may as well constitute an alternate universe. The mistake is failing to recognize that the hope is in front of us.

We might be tempted to approach the problem from the other side and list all the reasons not to revolt, chief among them the enormous repressive power of the state. Most revolts end in failure, even if we define success in the most modest terms, and failure means, let’s be clear, not only wasted effort but injury, death, imprisonment. Except in situations where survival is truly at stake, there is always good reason to keep one’s head down, to stagger on under the nightmare weight of history. But fear explains both too much and too little, since many do revolt in situations when the odds are not particularly good and the risks great. At a first pass, we are confronted by an insufficient positive explanation (reasons for) and an insufficient negative one (reasons against). Moreover, as nearly all commentators have noticed, since the odds of success for a revolt are not determined by the force of the enemy alone but by the number of those who participate, there is something circular and self-fulfilling about whatever judgments participants make about the risks. Bad odds can be transformed into good ones if, by misapprehending the situation or ignoring the risks, some small group decides to go ahead anyway, creating felicitous conditions for everyone else. A leap into the void can make the ground appear, just as a refusal to leap can turn solid ground to thinnest air. (Bernes 2020, 193)

It is here the essentially spontaneous character makes itself known. As said before institutions reflect the character of their architects, this is the same for revolutions. If revolution is defined as means to the end, a provisional situation which is to be tolerated until the bureaucrats bring about utopia, then it will indefinitely wallow in whatever it has actually achieved. The product once again takes precedence over the process. This was the case for the Soviet Union, which during the post-Stalin era, languished in corruption, un-ambition, and drab mediocrity.

There has never been a golden age, there never will be a golden age. We cannot expect communism to solve every problem of human nature, logistics, or philosophy, but we don't need to. Our world has always been a hellhole and will always be, just in respectively different ways. It's still our hellhole, and we will still continue to persist, no matter the conditions. We exist in this reality no matter how absurd it is, same as our forefathers.

Does this mean we should give up the task of radical social transformation? No, quite the opposite. There is nothing for us to wait on, nothing for us to fear, nothing for us to settle for, nothing for us to resign to. This world has been wholly corrupted by sin, but Christ has overcome the world. (John 16:33) If anything the good news is vibrant, it's energizing. It calls a person to carry out their duty to the Lord without hesitation, unwavering in commitment and drive.

This leaves us not with contentment but complete confidence. Modern radical movements have been entirely rattled by the end of history. Terrorists, in a mix of cynicism and panic, blindly kill in the hopes of history remembering them as a tragic hero. Electoralists settle for “harm reduction”, having subconsciously given up on anything more ambitious than damage control. The parties and organizations of old continue to panhandle for power, idly fantasizing about all the things they can do with sufficient political leverage.

Revolution is the ends making themselves known through the means, a simultaneous process of destroying and prefiguring, a movement which incubates its own conditions. The re-kindling of social bonds in a currently atomized world, the creativity in insurrection which paves the way for actual social organization, the unapologetic self-indulgence which forms a basis for an authentic collectivity. It is inherently social, there is no deferring this. If there are no feelings of sociality, nothing in the movement itself apart from its results, it will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of history. Certain conditions and crises can set the stage for it, but the spark is still ultimately pure collective will.

3.4a. Why Christianity? (section incomplete)

This section is optional (as signified by the “a” in the section title), you can skip to the Bibliography if you want to continue the main thread of the argument.

Through this essay, I've given a lot of focus to defending Marxism from a Christian angle, but the reverse is often just as contentious a topic.

I want to make it clear that first and foremost I am a Christian. The paradox of the cross is the a priori axiom through which I understand everything else. I am concerned first and foremost with the salvation from mankind from itself,

Often in these sorts of arguments, you'll see Christian Marxists go on about the ways in which Christianity benefits Marxist ends, their shared principles, or how what a person believes doesn't matter. This is incredibly shortsighted, and only exacerbates the dissonance, even if it gets other Marxists off their back about their faith. After you've sufficiently performed apologetics for the faith, what actual substance is left of the faith?

How much simpler it would be not to deal with all this! But our Marxist Christians would not dream of abandoning their faith; they feel a sentimental attachment to God's revelation, and would suffer traumatically if they eliminated the label from their lives. They prefer to reconcile and rationalize. Falling prey it) a process repeated throughout history, they claim to safeguard Christianity's authenticity by selecting from it those elements that can be made to coincide with the prevailing ideological movement of the day: in this case, Marxism.

Ignorant of history, they fail to realize that this process has been tried a thousand times, for the purpose of restoring Christianity's authenticity. Always it has appeared extremely helpful, but without fail it has produced catastrophe for faith and the revelation. How much better it would be to blot out the Bible and Christ, abandon them once and for all, and thus be able to limit one's efforts to “serious matters”: politics, the economy, revolution, the Third World, and the oppressed classes. (Ellul)

If Christianity is supposed to be merely some liberatory myth, some tool to advance a political cause, then the next question is what do we even mean by Marxism? Do we mean the ideological tradition of proletarian revolution as espoused by the likes of Marx, Engels, and Lenin?

If so, then how do we grapple with the fact that this tradition has long been, in Lenin's words, “atheistic and positively hostile to all religion”. And for those who reject Lenin, we can even point straight back to Marx in his famous quote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Even when we look at the broader context of this passage there is no getting around the fact that religion cannot be merely used as a tool for liberation.

When Marx states that “the struggle against religion is a struggle against the world”, he does so with an understanding of Religion as the consecration of all things worldly. This is not a metaphysical but an anthropological statement: the point of interest is how religious institutions and ideas integrate into mainstream society. Whether or not a God exists or what form that God takes is besides the point for Marx, because irrespective of that answer, the world is the world. We can see how the world functions for ourselves, the church doesn't need to tell us how our eyes work. Marx's aim is not to disprove the existence of higher truths, but to show how refusing a material analysis to material reality only amounts to obfuscation regarding said reality.

But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

All of this so far only testifies to the negative essence of Marxism. We can see what Marx recognizes as existing and how he criticizes that which exists. But what fills that void? Is it some belief that the material is somehow superior or “more real” than the spiritual? Is it that the political programme of the proletariat is some supreme good to which individuals are morally obligated to subject themselves? No, because if we were to distill some sort of “pure Marxism”, it would be fundamentally negative in nature. It can explain tensions, it can show contradictions, it can provide tools for analysis but Marxism alone is not a metaphysical or existential prescription.

That's not to say Marx didn't have a philosophic foundation. His arguments against capitalist society were downstream from a secular humanist tradition which stretched from the beginnings of the Enlightenment to the Hegelians of his time. This philosophy was implicit through his writings, as the values espoused by them were taken for granted by both the people he was interested in engaging with and the larger cultural environment in which he existed. He did not need to re-litigate the inherent goodness of humanism, that would only be redundant. Instead, his concern in this respect was showing how the mechanisms of capitalist society are an obstacle to the humanist ideal.

Communism is a means to an end, rather than the end in and of itself. The mistake in these discussions is that the framing essentially puts the cart before the horse. Christianity when treated as something ancillary becomes little more than a cultural or political mantle-piece, its entirely gutted of any sort of subversive content. Marx witnessed this in his time, and we see it in our time with the countless “conservative” and “progressive” Christianities which are near indistinguishable from their secular counterparts.

Communism when treated as an end unto itself denies agency to the individual; it defers any hopes of meaning or fulfillment until their external environment has changed. It demands the individual view himself as a historical subject as opposed to a historical agent, waiting upon history to happen to him rather than making his mark upon history. It justifies atrocities and compromises by deferring the question of fulfillment or meaning to an arbitrary future state. It produces martyrs, not human beings. Ironically, this approach to communism is the epitome of what Marx characterizes as religion; a social opiate which renders men passive by detaching themselves from their present situation and self.

Passage A:

What is left of Marx in our day? Nothing. I say “nothing” even though I take Marxists themselves into account. What do they think of Marx's political economy? It has been quietly swept into a corner; it contains so many errors, ill-conceived explanations, and false predictions that Marxists generally prefer not to mention Marx's political economy in concrete terms. What about Marx's philosophy? Insofar as it attempted to provide a coherent materialist system, Marxists have usually abandoned it as well, so that materialism is no longer considered an essential axiom. Marx's materialism was necessarily tied to the overall thought of the nineteenth century. And Marx's strategy? Why, Communism was supposed to come to life in the most economically developed country, where capitalism had reached its greatest potential...

What remains, then, are scattered pieces of Marx's thought; Marxists clutch at these, as if by themselves they could have some obscure meaning: class struggle, prevailing ideology, relations of production, etc. Certain quotations of Marx are especially useful-profound phrases that get applied to everything, and that can be interpreted however one likes!... Unfortunately, Marx's thought is utterly gutted as a result: it lies lifeless and incoherent. (Ellul 1988, 15-16)

Passage B:

We can say, then, that present-day Communism has become an ideology in the most vulgar sense of the word. It is worthless: a bunch of beliefs, a mixture of all sorts of things, since it has grasped everything that belonged to our society's mood. Communism is the most perfected ideology, because it makes use of absolutely everything that makes up the ideological panorama of our society. It expresses our state of mind and has spread everywhere, because it has given the label “Communist” to the various feelings-beliefs-commonplaces-ideas that are present everywhere. Communism has taken the lowest common denominator of all French people and adopted this as its doctrine. As a result, nothing prevents the average French person any longer from joining that which calls itself Communism, and then he can become a member of the organization representing this Communism: the French Communist Party. In so doing, a person simply moves from the vague state of mind in which he lives naturally to becoming formally a member of the organization that best typifies that state of mind. (Ellul 1988, 18)


Black, Bob. The Abolition of Work. The Anarchist Library, 1985.

Buber, Martin Boone's, and Walter Kaufmann. (1970) 2013. I and Thou. La Vergne: EBookIt.com. https://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=5901794.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, (1578) 2009.

Calvin, John. Edited and translated by John Allen. Institutes of the Christian religion. Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, (1536) 1812.

Dauvé, Gilles. From crisis to communisation. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2019.

Debord, Guy. (1967) 2014. The society of the spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb.

ELLUL, JACQUES, and DAVID LOVEKIN. “FROM THE BIBLE TO A HISTORY OF NON-WORK.” CrossCurrents 35, no. 1 (1985): 43–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24458844.

Ellul, Jacques. Jesus and Marx: from gospel to ideology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.

Farr, James R. “Artisans.” In Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, edited by Jonathan Dewald, 127-134. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. Gale eBooks (accessed May 16, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3404900064/GVRL?u=psucic&sid=GVRL&xid=9779fd97.

Franklin, Benjamin. 1748. “Advice to a young tradesman”. Founders Online, National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0130

Gaffin, Richard B. 1998. Calvin and the Sabbath. Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath, its meaning for modern man.

Heslam, Peter S. 2002. “Prophet of a Third Way: The Shape of Kuyper's Socio-Political Vision.” Journal of Markets and Morality.

Jakab, Peter. “Leonardo da Vinci and Flight.” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. August 22, 2013. https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/leonardo-da-vinci-and-flight

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of everyday life. Verso Books, 2014 (1947).

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Translated by Martin Milligan. Moscow: Progress Publishers, (1844) 1959.

Marx, Karl. 1864. “Results of the Direct Production Process”. Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/economic/ch03.htm

Moltmann, Jürgen. The crucified God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Oberländer, Alexandra. “Cushy Work, Backbreaking Leisure: Late Soviet Work Ethics Reconsidered.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18, no. 3 (2017): 569-590. doi:10.1353/kri.2017.0036.

Pappano, Margaret A. “Medieval and Early Modern Artisan Culture.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43, no. 3 (2013): 473-485.

Parson, Lucy. 1912. “The Eight-Hour Strike of 1886,” In Freedom, Equality and Solidarity, edited by Gale Ahrens, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr. 2003. https://libcom.org/library/8-hour-day-parsons

Ryken, Leland. Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective. Portland: Multnomah Press, 1987.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The mind of the Maker. Waterford, Ireland: CrossReach Publications, 2018 (1941).

Smith, Adam. Edited by Salvio Marcelo Soares. An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Indianapolis: ΜεταLibri, 2007 (1776) .

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. https://archive.org/details/principlesofscie00tayl. 1913.

Uchida, Hiroshi. Marx's Grundrisse and Hegel's Logic. London: Routledge, 1988.

Weber, Max. The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism: and other writings. Translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin Books, 2002 (1905).

Note: This essay has been scrapped. There's a lot with it I don't believe has aged well and I don't believe the topic is worth the time it would take to fix it up.

Thesis: While Austrian economic theory seems to address the problems left behind by classical theory, it still has not provided a proper response to Marx's critique of political economy.

Recommended Reading:

  • Principles of Economics by Carl Menger
  • Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I) by Karl Marx
  • Karl Marx and the Close of His System by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk

The rise of marginalism and the STV only really began to show its effects in the 20th century, well after Marx was dead. It's incorporation into mainstream economics during a time in which revolutionary socialism has found itself at a standstill has put it in a position where it has not been as thoroughly challenged as the classical school of thought, despite how strongly it differs from Marxian theory.

As for differences, I'd argue it fundamentally comes down to each school's theories of value. The reason I say this is because the contrasts found in each theory can be seen as logical extensions of this one disagreement.[1]

  • The Austrian School abides by the principle of consumer sovereignty, whereas Marx focuses on the producer as the center of his analysis.
  • Austrians judge time as a scarce resource that is granted value when a product is able to “save time” for the consumer, whereas Marx sees time as a conversion factor between raw labor and measured value.
  • Marx is far more skeptical about the economic autonomy of an individual; for him, the rigid and mechanical nature and divisions found in the production process is extrapolated to the rest of economy. Contrast this with the Austrian School, which sees the economy as an aggregate of countless individual decisions.

And once we go further and further down the respective rabbit holes, away from the abstract and into the concrete, it becomes clear that the consumption-side focus put forth by the STV has major effects on our understanding of the world around us. As someone who strongly holds to the LTV, I think is important to give the STV a more thorough look.

Outlining the Differences

This section mostly deals with introducing the key breaks in each author's work. Skip this section if you're already familiar.

The first paragraph of Marx's Capital opens as such:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity. (Marx 27)

The reason the commodity makes such a useful starting point is because its characteristics give us the clearest window into the fundamental logic of an economy. It is through the commodity that we are able to bridge subconscious decision-making to the tangible reality representing said decisions.

Menger seems to concur on this, opening his Principles of Economics with his own definition of a “good”.

Things that can be placed in a causal connection with the satisfaction of human needs we term useful things. If, however, we both recognize this causal connection, and have the power actually to direct the useful things to the satisfaction of our needs, we call them goods. (Menger 52)

Thus the attempt to provide for the satisfaction of our needs is synonymous with the attempt to provide for our lives and well-being. It is the most important of all human endeavors, since it is the prerequisite and foundation of all others. (Menger 77)

Once again, we see Marx employ a similar definition:

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production. (Marx 27)

However, it is from here when we move away from the origins of a commodity into its present characteristics (in this case, the nature of its value), that we begin to see the disagreements form:

We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use value. But if we abstract from their use value, there remains their Value as defined above. Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value. The progress of our investigation will show that exchange value is the only form in which the value of commodities can manifest itself or be expressed. For the present, however, we have to consider the nature of value independently of this, its form. (Marx 28)

But whether it does so in a direct or in an indirect manner is quite irrelevant when the existence of value in the general sense of the term is in question. The skin of a bear that he has killed has value to an isolated hunter only to the extent to which he would have to forgo the satisfaction of some need if he did not have the skin at his disposal. After he enters into trading relations, the skin has value to him for exactly the same reason. There is no difference between the two cases that in any way affects the essential nature of the phenomenon of value. (Menger 228)

Immediately we're faced with the first major break: if commodities hold a two-fold nature, both in and out of exchange, exactly how do these forms differ?

  • To Menger, both are manifestations of the same concept of “satisfaction”, one direct (use-value), and the other indirect (exchange-value). Because of this, the distinction is purely one of classification rather than inherent function.
  • To Marx, however, the two forms are diametrically opposed: use-value is a material reality that defines commodities qualitatively, whereas exchange-value is a social one that distinguishes them quantitatively.

And its on this topic of value that we begin to see the cruxes of each theory form:

As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value. If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. (Marx 28)

The value of a particular good or of a given portion of the whole quantity of a good at the disposal of an economizing individual is thus for him equal to the importance of the least important of the satisfactions assured by the whole available quantity and achieved with any equal portion. For it is with respect to these least important satisfactions that the economizing individual concerned is dependent on the availability of the particular good, or given quantity of a good. (Menger 139)

So, now we have an idea of what the next question would be: taking into account both the forms value assumes, what defines value?

  • For Menger, the value of a good is defined by the extent to which obtaining it would satisfy an existing need/want. In this sense, it is an intersection of utility and scarcity.
  • Marx, on the other hand, looks at the common factor found within every economic good, being that it is a product of human labour. From here he posits that the value of any commodity is a measure of the labor society as a whole puts into it.

In addition to defining value, both authors have also made statements on what determines the magnitude of value for any given commodity.

There is no reason why a good may not have value to one economizing individual but no value to another individual under different circumstances. The measure of value is entirely subjective in nature, and for this reason a good can have great value to one economizing individual, little value to another, and no value at all to a third, depending upon the differences in their requirements and available amounts. What one person disdains or values lightly is appreciated by another, and what one person abandons is often picked up by another. While one economizing individual esteems equally a given amount of one good and a greater amount of another good,we frequently observe just the opposite evaluations with another economizing individual.

Hence not only the nature, but also the measure of value is subjective. Goods always have value to certain economizing individuals and this value is also determined only by these individuals. (Menger 146)

We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production. Each individual commodity, in this connection, is to be considered as an average sample of its class. Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. “As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time.” (Marx 29)

  • Because the needs/wants of individuals vary, Menger defines value as a subjectively measured phenomena; however the consumer implicitly judges it is the magnitude it holds.
  • Marx uses time as a measurement of expended labour power; to be more specific, the value of a commodity is based upon the average amount of labour-hours it takes to produce said commodity.

Which leads us to the final contrast: where is economic power concentrated?

But if men abandon this most primitive form of economy, investigate the ways in which things may be combined in a causal process for the production of consumption goods, take possession of things capable of being so combined, and treat them as goods of higher order, they will obtain consumption goods that are as truly the results of natural processes as the consumption goods of a primitive collecting economy, but the available quantities of these goods will no longer be independent of the wishes and needs of men. Instead, the quantities of consumption goods will be determined by a process that is in the power of men and is regulated by human purposes within the limits set by natural laws. (Menger 73)

Division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, that are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. The division of labour within the society brings into contact independent commodity-producers, who acknowledge no other authority but that of competition, of the coercion exerted by the pressure of their mutual interests; just as in the animal kingdom, the bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all – Hobbes] more or less preserves the conditions of existence of every species.

The same bourgeois mind which praises division of labour in the workshop, life-long annexation of the labourer to a partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as being an organisation of labour that increases its productiveness – that same bourgeois mind denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to socially control and regulate the process of production, as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and unrestricted play for the bent of the individual capitalist. It is very characteristic that the enthusiastic apologists of the factory system have nothing more damning to urge against a general organisation of the labour of society, than that it would turn all society into one immense factory. (Marx 246-247)

  • Menger concedes that the division of labour may play a decisive role in primitive economies; regardless, he holds that a capitalist economy is primarily developed and driven by people's wants, not by the division of the labor. In other words, economic power is to be found in mass consumption.
  • Marx interprets the division of labour as evidence of power in production. The division acts as a countermeasure against the decisive part labour as a whole plays in the direction and maintenance of economy.

Nature of Value

The majority of Menger's book seems to be a response to classical economists, more specifically Smith; before we proceed, it is important to understand exactly what Menger is refuting here.

Within Smith's economic theory, we see the concept of a “real price”, a production-side measure of the value any economic good has in exchange.

The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. What is bought with money or with goods is purchased by labour as much as what we acquire by the toil of our own body. That money or those goods indeed save us this toil. They contain the value of a certain quantity of labour which we exchange for what is supposed at the time to contain the value of an equal quantity. (Smith 28)

Menger sharply disagrees here, saying that an investigation of price is fundamentally a dead-end.

However much prices, or in other words, the quantities of goods actually exchanged, may impress themselves on our senses, and on this account form the usual object of scientific investigation, they are by no means the most fundamental feature of the economic phenomenon of exchange. This central feature lies rather in the better provision two persons can make for the satisfaction of their needs by means of trade...

Prices are only incidental manifestations of these activities, symptoms of an economic equilibrium between the economies of individuals...

But since prices are the only phenomena of the process that are directly perceptible, since their magnitudes can be measured exactly, and since daily living brings them unceasingly before our eyes, it was easy to commit the error of regarding the magnitude of price as the essential feature of an exchange, and as a result of this mistake, to commit the further error of regarding the quantities of goods in an exchange as equivalents. The result was incalculable damage to our science since writers in the field of price theory lost themselves in attempts to solve the problem of discovering the causes of an alleged equality between two quantities of goods. (Menger 191)

Menger is right in that there are problems present within the classical concept of value, but as we will see repeatedly throughout this section, while Menger is able to challenge the objective measures of value present in the theory of “natural price”, he fails to challenge the objective relations of value that fundamentally underlie it.

Take for example, the “incalculable damage” created by the notion of equivalents. The equivalence Menger speaks of is undeniably a quantitative equivalence, as evidenced by his mention of “an alleged equality between two quantities”.

And to that extent, it does an adequate job refuting the notion of equivalent measure; an example of an equivalent measure being “ten yards of linen is worth the same as one coat”. However, it is not sufficient enough to wholesale reject the notion of an equivalent relation itself, which Marx presents without affirming the idea of an equivalent measure:

When one commodity, such as a coat, serves as the equivalent of another, such as linen, and coats consequently acquire the characteristic property of being directly exchangeable with linen, we are far from knowing in what proportion the two are exchangeable. The value of the linen being given in magnitude, that proportion depends on the value of the coat. Whether the coat serves as the equivalent and the linen as relative value, or the linen as the equivalent and the coat as relative value, the magnitude of the coat’s value is determined, independently of its value form, by the labour time necessary for its production. But whenever the coat assumes in the equation of value, the position of equivalent, its value acquires no quantitative expression; on the contrary, the commodity coat now figures only as a definite quantity of some article.

For instance, 40 yards of linen are worth – what? 2 coats. Because the commodity coat here plays the part of equivalent, because the use-value coat, as opposed to the linen, figures as an embodiment of value, therefore a definite number of coats suffices to express the definite quantity of value in the linen. Two coats may therefore express the quantity of value of 40 yards of linen, but they can never express the quantity of their own value. A superficial observation of this fact, namely, that in the equation of value, the equivalent figures exclusively as a simple quantity of some article, of some use value, has misled Bailey, as also many others, both before and after him, into seeing, in the expression of value, merely a quantitative relation. The truth being, that when a commodity acts as equivalent, no quantitative determination of its value is expressed. (Marx 38)

Marx affirms this notion of qualitative equivalence even while he is criticizing Smith on the very same front Menger was, filling a space left open by Menger failing to consider this distinction:

On the surface of bourgeois society the wage of the labourer appears as the price of labour, a certain quantity of money that is paid for a certain quantity of labour. Thus people speak of the value of labour and call its expression in money its necessary or natural price... But what is the value of a commodity? The objective form of the social labour expended in its production. And how do we measure the quantity of this value? By the quantity of the labour contained in it. How then is the value, e.g., of a 12 hour working-day to be determined? By the 12 working-hours contained in a working day of 12 hours, which is an absurd tautology...

...Classical Political Economy borrowed from every-day life the category “price of labour” without further criticism, and then simply asked the question, how is this price determined? It soon recognized that the change in the relations of demand and supply explained in regard to the price of labour, as of all other commodities, nothing except its changes i.e., the oscillations of the market-price above or below a certain mean. If demand and supply balance, the oscillation of prices ceases, all other conditions remaining the same. But then demand and supply also cease to explain anything...

... This price which always finally predominates over the accidental market-prices of labour and regulates them, this “necessary price” (Physiocrats) or “natural price” of labour (Adam Smith) can, as with all other commodities, be nothing else than its value expressed in money. In this way Political Economy expected to penetrate athwart the accidental prices of labour, to the value of labour. As with other commodities, this value was determined by the cost of production. But what is the cost of production – of the labourer, i.e., the cost of producing or reproducing the labourer himself? This question unconsciously substituted itself in Political Economy for the original one; for the search after the cost of production of labour as such turned in a circle and never left the spot.

Throughout this whole passage Marx does not deny that there is a relation between labour and value, but rather instead targets Smith's quantitative equivalence on the grounds of it being a tautology. Taking that into context, it makes sense why Menger would call such a thing into notion; without any further investigation, it simply appears to be little more than an axiom.

Briefly Addressing Menger's Criticisms of the LTV

However, Menger still was aware of Marx and wrote briefly on his own criticisms of the LTV, so we will slightly digress here to respond to these:

There is no necessary and direct connection between the value of a good and whether, or in what quantities, labor and other goods of higher order were applied to its production. A non-economic good (a quantity of timber in a virgin forest, for example) does not attain value for men since large quantities of labor or other economic goods were not applied to its production. Whether a diamond was found accidentally or was obtained from a diamond pit with the employment of a thousand days of labor is completely irrelevant for its value. In general, no one in practical life asks for the history of the origin of a good in estimating its value, but considers solely the services that the good will render him and which he would have to forgo if he did not have it at his command...The quantities of labor or of other means of production applied to its production cannot, therefore, be the determining factor in the value of a good. Comparison of the value of a good with the value of the means of production employed in its production does, of course, show whether and to what extent its production, an act of past human activity, was appropriate or economic. But the quantities of goods employed in the production of a good have neither a necessary nor a directly determining influence on its value.(Menger 146)

For those unaware, what Menger is referring to is the diamond-water paradox, a basic dilemma most value theories have to account for. Smith describes it as such:

The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it. (Smith 26)

The LTV's most basic explanation for this phenomenon is that there is more labor involved in locating and extracting a diamond than there is with water. I'd argue this is an accurate, but still rather simple explanation. Menger's response to this is that individual variations within the labour-time can completely skew the value. This is a glaring misinterpretation, one which Marx preemptively counters:

Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskillful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. (Marx 29)

While Marx is referring to the extension of labour-time, we can still apply the same logic in reverse. The fact a diamond is stumbled upon by accident does not reflect on the socially-necessary labour-time as a whole, just like how taking an absurdly long time to weave a coat does not reflect on overall exchange value of coats in general.

Equally untenable is the opinion that the determining factor in the value of goods is the quantity of labor or other means of production that are necessary for their reproduction. A large number of goods cannot be reproduced (antiques, and paintings by old masters, for instance) and thus, in a number of cases, we can observe value but no possibility of reproduction. For this reason, any factor connected with reproduction cannot be the determining principle of value in general. Experience, moreover, shows that the value of the means of production necessary for the reproduction of many goods (old-fashioned clothes and obsolete machines, for instance) is sometimes considerably higher and sometimes lower than the value of the products themselves. (Menger 147)

Another point Menger raises is on the prices of non-reproducible goods, such as antiques. However, once again Menger misses the point here too. It is precisely because these goods cannot be reproduced, and are not being produced that gives the commodity a different character, and thus a different expression of value.

This isn't something Marx simply overlooked; he acknowledges that commodities can circulate in different ways, but only one type of circulation is capable of generating capital.

What, however, first and foremost distinguishes the circuit C-M-C from the circuit M-C-M, is the inverted order of succession of the two phases. The simple circulation of commodities begins with a sale and ends with a purchase, while the circulation of money as capital begins with a purchase and ends with a sale. In the one case both the starting-point and the goal are commodities, in the other they are money. In the first form the movement is brought about by the intervention of money, in the second by that of a commodity...

The circuit C-M-C starts with one commodity, and finishes with another, which falls out of circulation and into consumption. Consumption, the satisfaction of wants, in one word, use-value, is its end and aim. The circuit M-C-M, on the contrary, commences with money and ends with money. Its leading motive, and the goal that attracts it, is therefore mere exchange-value. In the simple circulation of commodities, the two extremes of the circuit have the same economic form. They are both commodities, and commodities of equal value. But they are also use-values differing in their qualities, as, for example, corn and clothes...

The circuit C-M-C starts with one commodity, and finishes with another, which falls out of circulation and into consumption. Consumption, the satisfaction of wants, in one word, use-value, is its end and aim. The circuit M-C-M, on the contrary, commences with money and ends with money. Its leading motive, and the goal that attracts it, is therefore mere exchange-value. (Marx 105-106)

Let us say we're working with an antique watch. When this watch was initially produced, it was produced through an M-C-M circuit. It was produced with capital, and then sold for money to be put towards capital once more. As a result, the character of circuit also effects the character of its value.

In simple circulation, C-M-C, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of their use-values, i.e., the form of money; but that same value now in the circulation M-C-M, or the circulation of capital, suddenly presents itself as an independent substance, endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own, in which money and commodities are mere forms which it assumes and casts off in turn. Nay, more: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters now, so to say, into private relations with itself. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value; as the father differentiates himself from himself qua the son, yet both are one and of one age: for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and so soon as this takes place, so soon as the son, and by the son, the father, is begotten, so soon does their difference vanish, and they again become one, £110.

Value therefore now becomes value in process, money in process, and, as such, capital. It comes out of circulation, enters into it again, preserves and multiplies itself within its circuit, comes back out of it with expanded bulk, and begins the same round ever afresh. (Marx 107-108)

Assuming the watch (purely considered in the form of an antique) has no labor expended on it, we see that it can only exist in the C-M-C circuit. One sells the watch, but the watch cannot be reproduced. Once the money is put towards the purchase of another commodity, the cycle terminates: this is not a capitalist relation, and it is to be expected the value holds a different character.

If one wishes to make a business that sells antiques, there must be at least some level of labor involved (discovery, restoration, delivery, etc.). It is only this labor that is able to give said antique a character that can exist within an M-C-M circuit.

Returning to the topic of exchange value, Menger dedicates a good portion of the book to the elephant in the room here: the existence of money. If we were talking purely in terms of a barter, then sure, Menger could stop with that passage alone. However, this is not the case, as money exists as visible evidence of some objective relation between goods.

“To express the exchange value of a particular good, it is evidently sufficient to state the quantity of another known commodity that is regarded as its equivalent. From this it can be seen that all kinds of goods that can be objects of trade are measured, so to speak, against one another, and that any one of them can serve as a yardstick for all the others.” Similar thoughts have been expressed by almost all other economists who come, like Turgot in the course of his famous essay on the origin and distribution of national wealth, to the conclusion that money, among all possible “measures of exchange value,” is the most suitable and hence also the most common.

The only defect of this measure is said to lie in the fact that the value of money is not fixed, but changeable, and that money therefore provides a reliable measure of “exchange value” for any given moment but not for different points in time. In my discussion of price theory, however, I have shown that equivalents of goods in the objective sense of the term cannot be observed anywhere in the economy of men (p. 193), and that the entire theory that presents money as the “measure of the exchange value” of goods disintegrates into nothingness, since the basis of the theory is a fiction, an error. (Menger 274)

Menger reconciles this with his previous claim by stating that money is not a measure of exchange value, but rather instead an approximation for the exchange-value of a commodity for a given moment. However, there is still a few things this fails to answer:

Under conditions of developed trade, the only commodity in which all others can be evaluated without roundabout procedures is money. Wherever barter in the narrow sense of the term disappears, and only sums of money (for the most part) actually appear as prices of the various commodities, a reliable basis for valuation in any but monetary terms is lacking. The valuation of grain or wool, for example, is relatively simple in terms of money. But the valuation of wool in terms of grain, or of grain in terms of wool, involves greater difficulties, if for no other reason than because a direct exchange of these two goods never takes place, or only in the rarest exceptional cases, with the result that the foundation for such a valuation, the respective effective prices, is wanting. A valuation of this kind is therefore usually only possible on the basis of a computation involving, as a prerequisite, the prior valuation of the two goods in terms of money. (Menger 275)

How does disproving a quantitative equality between goods necessarily disprove money's role as a measure of value? The function itself still stands as a relation, it does not require that there is some sort of transcendent number each good is assigned, the only thing that is necessary is qualitative equality.

The first chief function of money is to supply commodities with the material for the expression of their values, or to represent their values as magnitudes of the same denomination, qualitatively equal, and quantitatively comparable. It thus serves as a universal measure of value. And only by virtue of this function does gold, the equivalent commodity par excellence, become money. It is not money that renders commodities commensurable. Just the contrary. It is because all commodities, as values, are realised human labour, and therefore commensurable, that their values can be measured by one and the same special commodity, and the latter be converted into the common measure of their values, i.e., into money. Money as a measure of value, is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities, labour-time. (Marx 67)

And then that brings us to the question of, what value is money representing? Yes, the value of money cannot be expressed by itself, but money is merely a representation of a relation; there's something else which has to link these goods. Before we can delve into the quantitative equivalence Menger seems preoccupied with, we first have to make sure a relation can exist.

In order to discover how the elementary expression of the value of a commodity lies hidden in the value relation of two commodities, we must, in the first place, consider the latter entirely apart from its quantitative aspect. The usual mode of procedure is generally the reverse, and in the value relation nothing is seen but the proportion between definite quantities of two different sorts of commodities that are considered equal to each other. It is apt to be forgotten that the magnitudes of different things can be compared quantitatively, only when those magnitudes are expressed in terms of the same unit. It is only as expressions of such a unit that they are of the same denomination, and therefore commensurable. (Marx 35)

The emphasis on objective relations is more than just a semantic dispute: once we acknowledge said objectivity, value can no longer exist as a subjective phenomenon, but rather instead a relative one.

Whether 20 yards of linen = 1 coat or = 20 coats or = x coats – that is, whether a given quantity of linen is worth few or many coats, every such statement implies that the linen and coats, as magnitudes of value, are expressions of the same unit, things of the same kind. Linen = coat is the basis of the equation. But the two commodities whose identity of quality is thus assumed, do not play the same part.

It is only the value of the linen that is expressed. And how? By its reference to the coat as its equivalent, as something that can be exchanged for it. In this relation the coat is the mode of existence of value, is value embodied, for only as such is it the same as the linen. On the other hand, the linen’s own value comes to the front, receives independent expression, for it is only as being value that it is comparable with the coat as a thing of equal value, or exchangeable with the coat. (Marx 35)

When dealing in relative terms, everything that is brought into the relation becomes related to everything else, whether directly or indirectly. When Menger points out that grain and wool cannot be related due to there never being a direct relation, he neglects the transitive properties of said relations. Wool is related to grain, but it is through an intermediary (in this case, money) that they become indirectly related.

The linen, by virtue of the form of its value, now stands in a social relation, no longer with only one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities. As a commodity, it is a citizen of that world. At the same time, the interminable series of value equations implies, that as regards the value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind, of use value it appears. In the first form, 20 yds of linen = 1 coat, it might, for ought that otherwise appears, be pure accident, that these two commodities are exchangeable in definite quantities. In the second form, on the contrary, we perceive at once the background that determines, and is essentially different from, this accidental appearance. The value of the linen remains unaltered in magnitude, whether expressed in coats, coffee, or iron, or in numberless different commodities, the property of as many different owners. The accidental relation between two individual commodity-owners disappears. It becomes plain, that it is not the exchange of commodities which regulates the magnitude of their value; but, on the contrary, that it is the magnitude of their value which controls their exchange proportions. (Marx 42)

Despite him insisiting in the aforementioned quote (Menger 146) nature/measure of value being entirely subjective, we see himself admit that it is primarily relative. This is incredibly important because assuming relativity as opposed to subjectivity leaves us with a completely different understanding of how economics can and should be approached.

Wherever men live, and whatever level of civilization they occupy, we can observe how economizing individuals weigh the relative importance of satisfaction of their various needs in general, how they weigh especially the relative importance of the separate acts leading to the more or less complete satisfaction of each need, and how they are finally guided by the results of this comparison into activities directed tothe fullest possible satisfaction of their needs. (Menger 128)

When we ask ourselves what this objective relation is, the same relation that money represents, this “relative theory of value” finally becomes the “labour theory of value”.

If then, we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract. (Marx 28)

The one thing that ties together all commodities is the fact that they all employ some level of human labour. This common characteristic acts as the true equivalent by which the exchange-value of all commodities are realized. Taking all of this into account, we can answer to Menger's challenge here:

In my discussion of price theory, however, I have shown that equivalents of goods in the objective sense of the term cannot be observed anywhere in the economy of men (p. 193), and that the entire theory that presents money as the “measure of the exchange value” of goods disintegrates into nothingness, since the basis of the theory is a fiction, an error.

When a hundred weight of wool of given quality is sold in a particular transaction on a wool market for 103 florins, it is often found that transactions are taking place at higher and at lower prices on the same market and at the same time, at 104, 103 ½, and at 102 and 102½ florins, for example. Often too, while the buyers on the market declare themselves ready to “take” at 101 florins, the sellers simultaneously declare that they are willing to “offer” only at 105 florins. What, in such a case, is the “exchange value” of wool? Or, to state the same question in an inverse fashion, what quantity of wool is the“exchange value” of 100 florins, for example?

But a particular quantity of wool and a particular quantity of money(or any other commodity) that can mutually be exchanged for each other—that are equivalents in the objective sense of the term—can nowhere be observed for they do not exist. There can thus be no question of a measure of these equivalents (a measure of “exchange value”). (Menger 273)

There are a few things he does which may throw us off here:

  • When Marx refers to money as a “measure of value”, he does not mean “price = exchange value”. Instead what it refers to is that price is an expression of exchange value. We'll detail this distinction later.

  • Menger gives us definite numbers here, but there still is not nearly enough information to make a quantitative judgement, despite the question goading the reader into attempting such.

  • The questions and information given are already written in a fashion restricted to Menger's economic framework. Both the scope and the factors he implies govern exchange value are all very much lined up in a fashion that is compatible with his theory.

Regardless, let us attempt to answer his questions to the best of our ability.

  1. What has not changed is that the exchange-value of a commodity is governed by the amount of labour embodied within it, and this applies applies to the wool just as much as it does anything else.
    1. The buyers and sellers may have differing prices, but eventually they must come to an agreement. The variation in prices for each exchange don't necessarily disprove the relation itself, as surplus value is flexible.
    2. Notice how the negotiated price only goes so far; flexible as surplus value is, if it approaches zero, the reproduction of such a commodity would be unsustainable. Because of this, the price is primarily governed by the forces of production, not consumption.
    3. Taking a step back, we should ask ourselves the following: why are both the sellers and the buyers entering with the expectation of a price around 100 florins? It's because the exchange value is most likely reflected somewhere around that ballpark. The gravitation of price has to come back to some common factor, which is the labour embodied within each quantity of wool.
  2. The exchange value of 100 florins cannot be expressed in terms of itself without falling into tautology. It is the equivalent in this scenario.
  3. Just because the quantitative expression of value does not remain constant across all scenarios does not mean said value does not exist.

Following further research, I found that this point was actually echoed by Ernest Mandel[2] (albeit in more elegant terms):

The special nature of the neoclassical school is further emphasised by the fact that it was for a long time unable to determine the marginal value of capital goods. In the end it managed to do this only by introducing, with Böhm-Bawerk, the notion of a “roundaboutness” of production which becomes more and more intensified as capital goods increasingly enter into the process. a “roundaboutness” which has to be “paid for”. It is, moreover, unable to explain how, from the clash of millions of different individual “needs” there emerge not only uniform prices, but prices which remain stable over long periods, even under perfect conditions of free competition. Rather than an explanation of constants, and of the basic evolution of economic life, the “marginal” technique provides at best an explanation of ephemeral, short-term variations. It is significant that in Walras’s fundamental work he starts from the example of sellers and buyers “inclined to go in for bidding”, that is, to stock-exchange speculators.

Marginalism and Isolated Exchanges

Arguably, Menger's number one contribution to mainstream economics is the concept of marginalism, so it is probably worth touching on.

Marginalism analyzes economic decisions on a unit-by-unit basis: a transaction involving X quantity of a good should not be understood as one decision, but rather instead a set of X decisions, as the cost/benefit for each successive purchase is not necessarily identical.

We see now, in addition, that the satisfaction of any one specific need has, up to a certain degree of completeness, relatively the highest importance, and that further satisfaction has a progressively smaller importance, until eventually a stage is reached at which a more complete satisfaction of that particular need is a matter of indifference. Ultimately a stage occurs at which every act having the external appearance of a satisfaction of this need not only has no further importance to the consumer but is rather a burden and a pain. (Menger 124)

He then applies this principle to provide a solution to the aforementioned diamond-water paradox:

If we ask, for example, why a pound of drinking water has no value whatsoever to us under ordinary circumstances, while a minute fraction of a pound of gold or diamonds generally exhibits a very high value, the answer is as follows: Diamonds and gold are so rare that all the diamonds available to mankind could be kept ina chest and all the gold in a single large room, as a simple calculation will show. Drinking water, on the other hand, is found in such large quantities on the earth that a reservoir can hardly be imagined large enough to hold it all...

All this holds only for the ordinary circumstances of life, when drinking water is available to us in copious quantities and gold and diamonds in very small quantities. In the desert, however, where the life of a traveller is often dependent on a drink of water, it can by all means be imagined that more important satisfactions depend, for an individual, on a pound of water than on even a pound of gold. In such a case, the value of a pound of water would consequently be greater, for the individual concerned, than the value of a pound of gold. (Menger 140-141)

And looking at this hypothetical alongside many others he illustrates, we begin to see why marginalism left such an impact. It is an incredibly adequate explanation of various types of elementary exchanges. It is through these scenarios that Menger is able to both characterize and demonstrate economic behavior.

In the previous section, I directed attention to the fact that price formation and the distribution of goods conform to definite laws by first considering the simplest possible case in which an exchange of goods takes place between two economizing individuals who are not influenced by the economic activity of other persons. This case, which could be termed isolated exchange, is the most common form of human trade in the early stages of the development of civilization. (Menger 197)

In our case of marginalism, Menger provides this principle of bottom-up reasoning as means of illustration:

Economizing individuals do not use the quantities of goods available to them without regard to differences in quality when these exist. A farmer who has grain of different grades at his disposal does not, for example, use the worst grade for seeding, grain of medium quality as cattle feed, and the best for food and the production of beverages. Nor does he use the grains of different grades indiscriminately for one purpose or another. Rather, with a view to his requirements, he employs the best grade for seeding, the best that remains for food and beverages, and the grain of poorest quality for fattening cattle. (Menger 144)

Suppose that A, an American frontiersman, owns several horses but no cow, while B, his neighbor, has a number of cows but no horses. Provided that A has requirements for milk and milk products and B for draft animals, it is easy to see that a basis for exchange operations is present. But no one will maintain that the exchange of one of A’s horses, for example, for one of B’s cows would necessarily exhaust the existing basis for economic exchange operations between A and B with respect to these goods. It is equally certain, however, that a basis need not necessarily exist for exchange of the total quantities they possess. A who owns (for example) six horses may be able to satisfy his needs better if he exchanges one, or two, or perhaps even three, of his horses for B’s cows. But from this it does not necessarily follow that he would derive an economic gain from the exchange transaction if he were to barter all his horses for all of B’s cows. Although the initial economic situation provides a basis for economic exchange operations between A and B, of carrying the exchange too far might be that the needs of the two contracting parties would be less well provided for than before the exchange. (Menger 181-182)

It is because marginalism is so rooted in this intense atomization, it fails to tackle more fundamental economic questions. Sure, the concept of marginal utility helps expand upon the deviations of supply and demand, but it still ends up anchored to the presuppositions associated with it.

As Marx states in Capital's third volume, “The real difficulty in formulating the general definition of supply and demand is that it seems to take on the appearance of a tautology.”

Market Prices and Market Values

Further, in the study of money it had been assumed that the commodities are sold at their values because there was absolutely no reason to consider prices divergent from values, it being merely a matter of changes of form which commodities undergo in their transformation into money and their reconversion from money into commodities. As soon as a commodity has been sold and a new commodity bought with the receipts, we have before us the entire metamorphosis, and to this process as such it is immaterial whether the price of the commodity lies above or below its value. The value of the commodity remains important as a basis, because the concept of money cannot be developed on any other foundation, and price, in its general meaning, is but value in the form of money.

Demand and supply imply the conversion of value into market-value, and so far as they proceed on a capitalist basis, so far as the commodities are products of capital, they are based on capitalist production processes, i.e., on quite different relationships than the mere purchase and sale of goods. Here it is not a question of the formal conversion of the value of commodities into prices, i.e., not of a mere change of form. It is a question of definite deviations in quantity of the market-prices from the market-values, and, further, from the prices of production. In simple purchase and sale it suffices to have the producers of commodities as such counterposed to one another. In further analysis supply and demand presuppose the existence of different classes and sections of classes which divide the total revenue of a society and consume it among themselves as revenue, and, therefore, make up the demand created by revenue. While on the other hand it requires an insight into the over-all structure of the capitalist production process for an understanding of the supply and demand created among themselves by producers as such. (Capital Vol. 3 Section 2, Chapter 10)

On Demand

It would seem, then, that there is on the side of demand a certain magnitude of definite social wants which require for their satisfaction a definite quantity of a commodity on the market. But quantitatively, the definite social wants are very elastic and changing. Their fixedness is only apparent. If the means of subsistence were cheaper, or money-wages higher, the labourers would buy more of them, and a greater social need would arise for them, leaving aside the paupers, etc., whose demand is even below the narrowest limits of their physical wants.

On the other hand, if cotton were cheaper, for example, the capitalists' demand for it would increase, more additional capital would be thrown into the cotton industry, etc. We must never forget that the demand for productive consumption is, under our assumption, a demand of the capitalist, whose essential purpose is the production of surplus-value, so that he produces a particular commodity to this sole end... But this does exert a considerable influence on the kind of buyer the capitalist is. His demand for cotton is substantially modified by the fact that it disguises his real need for making profit.

The limits within which the need for commodities in the market, the demand, differs quantitatively from the actual social need, naturally vary considerably for different commodities; what I mean is the difference between the demanded quantity of commodities and the quantity which would have been in demand at other money-prices or other money or living conditions of the buyers. (Capital Vol. 3 Section 2, Chapter 10)

On The Intersection of Supply and Demand [section in-progress]

If supply equals demand, they cease to act, and for this very reason commodities are sold at their market-values. Whenever two forces operate equally in opposite directions, they balance one another, exert no outside influence, and any phenomena taking place in these circumstances must be explained by causes other than the effect of these two forces. If supply and demand balance one another, they cease to explain anything, do not affect market-values, and therefore leave us so much more in the dark about the reasons why the market-value is expressed in just this sum of money and no other. It is evident that the real inner laws of capitalist production cannot be explained by the interaction of supply and demand (quite aside from a deeper analysis of these two social motive forces, which would be out of place here), because these laws cannot be observed in their pure state, until supply and demand cease to act, i.e., are equated. In reality, supply and demand never coincide, or, if they do, it is by mere accident, hence scientifically = 0, and to be regarded as not having occurred.

But political economy assumes that supply and demand coincide with one another. Why? To be able to study phenomena in their fundamental relations, in the form corresponding to their conception, that is, is to study them independent of the appearances caused by the movement of supply and demand.

On the one hand, the relation of demand and supply, therefore, only explains the deviations of market-prices from market-values. On the other, it explains the tendency to eliminate these deviations, i.e., to eliminate the effect of the relation of demand and supply. (Capital Vol. 3 Section 2, Chapter 10)

These questions regarding supply and demand are less visible when considered purely on the microeconomic scale, as Menger does; the isolated exchanges he cites hold an inherent blind spot to these problems. When you're considering a hypothetical, embedded into it are various assumptions about the conditions that form it.

This is not to say that hypotheticals are necessarily misleading (after all, Marx uses them too), but rather instead, this blind spot has to be taken into consideration when drawing conclusions:

Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain. Such a primordial condition explains nothing; it merely pushes the question away into a grey nebulous distance. The economist assumes in the form of a fact, of an event, what he is supposed to deduce – namely, the necessary relationship between two things – between, for example, division of labor and exchange. Thus the theologian explains the origin of evil by the fall of Man – that is, he assumes as a fact, in historical form, what has to be explained.

We proceed from an actual economic fact. (1844 Manuscripts)

Yet, Menger seems to neglect this quite a bit:

Economizing Individuals [section in-progress]

At the center of Menger's thought, continuously echoed throughout his work, is the idea of the economizing individual. It is through the economizing behavior of various people that the rest of his theory comes together. He defines the economizing individual as such:

Economizing individuals strive to better their economic positions as much as possible. To this end they engage in economic activity in general. And to this end also, whenever it can be attained by means of trade, they exchange goods. (Menger 191)

Menger himself acknowledges this, using this concept to fill the void left behind by his rejection of price theory:

However much prices, or in other words, the quantities of goods actually exchanged, may impress themselves on our senses, and on this account form the usual object of scientific investigation, they are by no means the most fundamental feature of the economic phenomenon of exchange. This central feature lies rather in the better provision two persons can make for the satisfaction of their needs by means of trade...

If the locks between two still bodies of water at different levels are opened, the surface will become ruffled with waves that will gradually subside until the water is still once more. The waves are only symptoms of the operation of the forces we call gravity and friction. The prices of goods, which are symptoms of an economic equilibrium in the distribution of possessions between the economies of individuals, resemble these waves. The force that drives them to the surface is the ultimate and general cause of all economic activity, the endeavor of men to satisfy their needs as completely as possible, to better their economic positions. (Menger 191-192)

Consumer Sovereignty [section to-do]

1: https://mises.org/library/ludwig-von-mises-scholar-who-would-not-compromise

2: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/works/marxist-economic-theory/marginalists.htm