Liberalism has its back to the wall. And when that happens, the alternatives learn quickly how to project their voice. One of the alternatives is a drift towards authoritarian government: strong leaders who rely on a populist base of support to put up barriers – closed borders, economic protectionism – and assert the identity and influence of the nation state. Another alternative, which has emerged with the energy of a restive pensioner, is marxism.
Jeremiads which survey the ruling liberal consensus of the western world conclude that we are witnessing the ‘golden age’ of liberal democracy splutter, gasp, and flannel. Something will replace it, but, until that happens, our body politic has become ‘morbid’ – plagued and fatigued by unhealthy and unpleasant symptoms which foreshadow the end. The list of these symptoms is now very long, and seems to grow by the month.
The resurgent followers of Marx argue that these symptoms can be diagnosed in marxist terms. In fact, and with prophetic rationalism, Marx and Engels foresaw them. Or so runs the claim. For The Communist Manifesto, free-market capitalism and its social concomitant, the growth of the bourgeoisie, are a little like the borg in Star Trek: they assimilate different species into a hive mind, which reduces all individuality to a collective of drones. So too capitalism: it reduces the diverse antagonisms of hierarchical rank in feudal society to two principal classes divided against each other.
The industrial revolution, the dramatic adoption of efficient new technology and means of communication, absorbed all the fixed, rooted, and particular ‘ancient and venerable prejudices’, or ‘all that is solid’, into a rarefied vision of productive market exchange, which will extend its reach across the globe. The global market is a cosmopolis. It sacrifices the old order of nations, local identities, and self-sufficiency to an international civilisation powered by the new science of bourgeois industrialised production.
The former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, in an introduction to a new edition of the Manifesto, has argued that this forecast for capitalism was only truly vindicated over a hundred years later. The wayward experiment of the nineteenth century did not establish a truly world market. Not until the 1990s did a system of global free trade comparable to the one envisaged by Marx and Engels take root. What we now call globalisation looks suspiciously like the description of a ‘constantly expanding market’ which ‘chases the bourgeoisie over the whole face of the globe’.
But this new system is inseparable from a new set of social and political relations. It forces a new way of life, governed by contract and calculation. Where, formerly, people and things were recognised in a ‘natural’ hierarchy of worth, they are now defined by terms and conditions. The dominant class, we read, ‘has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.’ Likewise love, marriage and the family, become a transaction of preferred interests. Where Shakespeare could refer (albeit ironically) to ‘honest Iago’ to establish his honourable character, today calling someone ‘honest’ basically means they are trustworthy enough to trade with. Class relations shape fundamental changes in the way we think.
But the elite cadre of masters creams a surplus from the dynamic potential of the free-trading economy. These few rely on private armies of organised labour. Such foot soldiers of capitalism cede their individuality to the forces of production and so become an ‘appendage to the machine’. Their value is defined solely by their contract of employment, but the surplus to which their labour contributes goes to their employers. Capitalism, with damnable devastation, grants increasing returns to the owning class, and stagnant subsistent-like wages to its labourers.
So the world market engineers stark income inequality, and an underclass alienated from the fruits of its labour. And it gets worse. To remain competitive, employers must become more productive by pursuing efficiency and innovation. New technology makes the labour market more claustrophobic, which means the labouring class gets stuck in a downward spiral of ‘pauperism’. The political consequence is revolt. Or, in brief, what ‘the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers’. The master has mistreated his slave one too many times.
Many of the carefully traced tectonic trends in the modern economy can be made to fit something like a marxist analysis. The advent of a broadly liberal consensus in the 1980s paralleled trends in rising income inequality, stagnating wages and an eruption of new technology, all in the context of increasingly global free trade. In the Britain of 1978 the bottom 90 per cent of earners received 72.2 per cent of available income in that year. By 2007 this figure dropped to 57.4 per cent. In the US, the gap between average chief executive pay and the pay of employees is ten times what it was in the late 1970s. This trend parallels stagnant social mobility, as more people are likely to stay in the same income group, and experience stagnant or diminishing purchasing power. In the US, the number of hours it takes someone with a middle-income wage to pay median rent has more than doubled since the 1950s. Drug addiction, depression, suicide, infant mortality – the list of social consequences mounts.
Small wonder that a lifelong marxist like Terry Eagleton has seized the moment to write a book called Why Marx Was Right (first published in 2011, but still going strong). The challenge – and this is the object at which Eagleton takes rhetorical target – is to rescue Marx from his tainted reputation and marginalised place in the public debate. This he attempts with a sort of mischievous relish. You almost feel he has pushed his argument as far as he can, just to see what he can get away with.
Among the many myths which he tries to debunk is that Marx’s economic analysis is anachronistic. The charge has it that the nature and structure of modern western economies have changed since the nineteenth century. Manufacturing has given ground to financial services. And the tired preoccupation with class no longer matches to the nature of the labour market. The ‘working class’ has all but disappeared. The only class vanguard left is Waitrose as it caters to the swelling ranks of the wholly more decadent and self-satisfied middle-class.
Not so, says Eagleton. The ‘working class’ or the ‘proletariat’ in Marx’s eyes is not synonymous with manual labour. It simply covers anyone whose paid work supports surplus capital. The sector of the economy in which they work hardly matters. And a key part of Marx’s analysis is that the logic of capitalist economies, with their relentless pursuit of new technologies and greater productivity, strangles the demand for labour.
Something like a Marxist argument takes the ruthless pursuit of profit margins, adds them to the digital revolution and prognosticates liberal armageddon.
Varoufakis, in his most recent book, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, applies Marxist logic to the modern economy, and even speculates about a pseudo-communist future. So long as technology does not replace all labour – in other words so long as there is a role for well-qualified or well-positioned people to design and oversee the technology – then it is likely to sharpen the divisions between the astronomically wealthy and powerful owners of the tech and the tragic obsolescence of the many. A version of this argument runs through the commentary and analysis of other contemporary marxists or hardened left-wingers. Something like it underpins Paul Mason’s book, Postcapitalism.
So much fits nicely with the ‘morbid’ state of our liberal political and economic order. But what replaces liberalism? For The Communist Manifesto, the answer – who would have guessed? – is communism. And what’s communism? The answer to that question is more tricky. And vague. Eagleton is at pains, on these grounds, to contest the charge that Marx’s thought is utopian. Marx simply does not say enough about a communist or socialist society to warrant the claim that he envisages the future communist state as a kind of secular Elysium. Communism rather resolves ‘the contradictions in the present’ to make true human flourishing possible. What exactly this looks like we cannot see with any clarity. But a realistic encounter with the contemporary world must ‘see it in light of its possible transformation’.
If this is justified, it obscures the areas where Marx is not so reticent. The Manifesto is reasonably clear about some things. A communist revolution begins by raising the proletariat to the ruling class, and using the state to take control of the means of production. By despotically appropriating the bourgeois mantle of power, the new centralised government will, among other things, abolish all ownership of land, introduce a heavy income tax, and take control of transport, communications, and credit. In a few pithy sentences the Manifesto envisages that this will lead to the disappearance of all political classes, and bring economic production under the umbrella of ‘a vast association of the whole nation’.
The language of Varoufakis’ book is not so heavy-handed, but he follows a similar drift. As technology erodes the role of workers, his answer is to socialise the technology and redistribute the benefits. Instead of fatally undermining the earning power of the majority, this would boost incomes and stabilise prices. Such a solution would see us through until artificial intelligence is so advanced that it no longer requires human designers and overseers. At this point, our future techno-utopia becomes a reality, and we can completely socialise the means of production to suit a society which has overcome the narrow pre-occupations of power and wealth. Just as in Marx, a kind of socialism is a precursor to a kind of communism.
Eagleton’s book is called Why Marx Was Right. His approach is to dance playfully from one misconception to another, pointing out why it’s wrong. But demythologising a thesis doesn’t make it right. For some – in fact for many – Marx is just plain wrong, even once we have removed the stale crust of misrepresentation. His analysis has been rebutted so many times from so many different angles (on the left and right) that it raises an interesting question as to why he has endured. To give just a few simple and very well-known examples, Keynes said of Capital that it is ‘an obsolete textbook which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world’. The American economist Robert Solow, has said that ‘most serious English-speaking economists regard Marxist economics as an irrelevant dead end’. Eagleton does almost nothing to rescue the credibility of Marx’s economic analysis from this sort of dismissal (and I’m not convinced that Keynes reached his judgment because he fundamentally misunderstood what Marx was saying).
For others, setting the economics to one side, Marx’s legacy is assured by his influence. And this, with startling understatement, gives ample ground to question the merits of his philosophy. Many different commentators, rightly, never tire of pointing out the criminal violence, murder, despotism, and sheer bloody chaos which engulfed almost all Marxist regimes in the twentieth century. Daniel Johnson has summarily dismissed the recent swell of Marxist thought with a damning list of these historical crimes. A hundred million may have been murdered under Stalin and Mao. Half a million students and intellectuals were murdered under Ethiopia’s Mengistu dictatorship. In north Korea, among others crimes, a third of the children are malnourished. After 12 years of Chavez’ Marxist government, once prosperous Venezuela is on the verge of widespread starvation and 90 per cent of its population live in poverty. It now has one of the highest rates of poverty in the world (incidentally, here’s what Jeremy Corbyn said on Twitter about Chavez: ‘Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.’) The list continues.
Eagleton is at pains to drive a wedge between the story of the Soviet Union, and the vision available to the world in Marx. A communist revolution depends on the right conditions, which were woefully lacking in Tsarist Russia, and left it vulnerable to the ‘monstrous caricature of socialism known as Stalinism’. To the extent that Eagleton engages with the history at all – which he largely doesn’t – the reader is left with an impression that the bolsheviks, under the direction of Lenin and Trotsky, were trying nobly to engineer a better society against the odds.
Any simple introduction to the history of the Russian Revolution tells a different story. When it comes to the ledger of state-sponsored genocide, the chief difference between Lenin and Stalin was that Stalin was prepared to kill party members. But it was Lenin who put in place the architecture of totalitarian repression, and exercised it in the most barbaric ways. In 1921, 2,500 striking sailors – former supporters of the revolution – at the Kronstadt naval base were shot without trial, and hundreds more imprisoned. In the same year, famine was rife in Tambov. The rebellions which ensued were brutally put down, with thousands upon thousands of brutal executions by means which included sexual mutilation and mass drowning. It bears repeating that more people were executed in the first four years of the bolshevik revolution than in the entire three hundred years of the preceding Romanov dynasty. The bolsheviks were not a failed experiment in progressive values; they were a heinous catastrophe. And Lenin was a fanatic prepared to commit medieval atrocities in the name of his new puritanism.
Even so, the bovine refrain that ‘communism has never really been tried’, can be invoked to side-step all historical precedents. The subtext of the latest marxist renaissance is that somehow the conditions are now right, or closer to being right. In particular, the disruptions of digital technology are unravelling the contradictions in the present. At last, our new millenarians cry, the end of the world is nigh!
The idea of a communist society is utopian to the marrow of its bones. It prophesies a world in which power, wealth and property have all been neutralised. And this is what is so fundamentally and profoundly wrong with it. Everything about human life assumes limited conditions. Power, wealth and property, in differing ways and to differing degrees, are all corollaries of these conditions. Excessive power, wealth and property may, again in differing ways, do all sorts of harm (a credible criticism of liberal capitalism might start from this premise). Just as excessive eating, sex, drugs, exercise, or any number of other things, can do harm. But eating, sex and drugs can also enhance and enrich life. The same is true of power, wealth and property. Communism is like a collective form of castration in the name of sexual abstinence – and communist Russia was the model of such a castrated society. The very idea of communism is pernicious.
Nietzsche famously laid siege to religion as a deceitful devaluation of the present. Through its ascetic withdrawal towards a life hereafter, it cripples the mercurial dance of life. This polemic applies more pertinently to marxism. Anything which falls short of the future is tragic, which inflicts something like suicide on the present. The result is the moral void of Soviet Russia. Communism has no faith in life as it finds it. Like many modern philosophies, it’s a kind of gnosticism. This is why it’s in a constant bid to dodge the mucky business of history, and why it’s so vague. The original greek meaning of utopia blurs the boundaries of ‘good place’ and ‘no place’ – vagueness is a symptom of perfectionism. The hereafter is, by its nature, opaque. All of which is a sign of the same mindset which can’t face up to the adamantine edges of circumstance – or reality.
This feature of marxism is a large part of its appeal and the reason it endures. It is, as John Gray channelling thinkers such as Eric Voegelin and Carl Becker, have argued, a secular religion or a myth – a powerful, imaginative, cleverly conceived myth that panders to the deepest grievances in advanced societies; but a myth all the same. And this is really the level at which the new marxists operate. Eagleton is an astute and especially lucid cultural critic. His book is primarily an exercise in rhetoric; its function is not to demonstrate why Marx was right, but to rescue the myth of Marx and marxism in modern culture. It’s a piece of secular apologetic theology.
If marxism takes destructive flight from reality, it raises questions about the kind of answers reality can yield. In his now seminal study, After Virtue, the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre charts the course of modern thought in these terms. Nietzsche is one of the pivotal thinkers in his history. For Nietzsche, all moral projects justified in rational terms conceal non-rational motivations. The elevation of a rational ideal only produces an irrational backlash because it tries to infiltrate a creature which is all too human. Marx and marxism are typical. The elevation of a propertyless world dissimulates the cynical thrust of human impulses. Contradiction, it might said, is just a state of life, and a condition which transformational change will only sharpen rather than resolve.
Which provides a different lens through which to examine the kind of febrile and internecine forces at work in Marx’s analysis of conflict in liberal capitalist societies. Liberal capitalism can be read, albeit controversially, as another utopian project, another strain of so-called enlightened rationalism which fatally flattens the diverse inclinations of human behaviour. But this time the secular god is called ‘utility’ rather than ‘communism’. According to the capitalist creed a rational agent in a free-market economy will make calculations in their interest. Technology and innovation ratchets up the return on this interest. The result is enrichment and progress (materially, socially and culturally) for everyone. But do people always behave as rational agents?
Marx’s fascination with the incipient forms of capitalism shows that the pursuit of progress conspires with the rise of alienation, social and political tension. For the future of the liberal project, an awful lot – particularly for the current climate – hangs on the degree of this tension and how mainstream governments manage it. But the idea that it leads to something like communism, just recycles the same materials of utopian thought in a more devastating form. In other words, wayward human behaviour in the modern economy, aligned to the extraordinary power of technology, may explain the spike of income inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class, and all the political fallout. But to suggest that this can transpire in the socialisation of material life substitutes one unrealistic fantasy for another. The hard-nosed cut and thrust of big-boss politics is, in Nietzchean terms, a more likely outcome, and the bellwether changes we have witnessed so far suggest that this is the direction in which we are heading.
So if Marx leads to the chaos of the twentieth century, is there any relief from grim irrationalism? A key part of MacIntyre’s analysis is that all enlightenment projects end chaotically and incoherently in a kind of Nietzchean nihilism. But the central manoeuvre of his book claims that this is made possible by an intellectual revolution which took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The renaissance and the enlightenment overhauled an ethical tradition rooted, historically, in Aristotelian virtue. So, from our postmodern dead-end, the question arises: was Aristotle unwisely discarded?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aristotle hasn’t broken into the popular imagination in the same way as Marx. At best, he’s an echo. The classicist Edith Hall has stepped into this space with a pop primer, Aristotle’s Way. Anyone who has tried reading Aristotle will know he can seem a little dry. One of Hall’s biggest achievements is that she manages to bring his thought to life by translating it into idioms of the modern world. Among other benefits, this helps to show just how far his thought and moral prescriptions emerge by examining what Hall calls ‘the texture of life’. Her book helps to excavate a mind fascinated by the particulars of the world around him. Where other thinkers want to step back to invoke first principles, abstractions, deities, duties and obligations, his ethics and politics emerge from a voracious curiosity about life. Morality is revealed in the forms of nature.
Reading Aristotle is a little like accompanying a palaeontologist around Lyme Regis – he becomes preoccupied by every fossil he discovers and wants to organise it all into an orderly taxonomy. Impatient readers (like me) will find him hard-going, but this feature of his thought is revealing – if Marxism aspires to a secular myth, Aristotle is firmly grounded (to the point of being ever-so-slightly boring) in reality.
But the substance and implications of his thought, as Hall shows successfully, are anything but boring. He sees, notes and classifies the different behaviour that life exhibits, and tries to ascertain where and how it flourishes. This sort of flourishing amounts to doing the right thing. And doing the right thing he calls ‘virtue’. Not only that, doing the right thing leads to the main aim of life: happiness.
This already begins to reveal some of the distinctive features of his thought: ethical behaviour is not imposed from outside. It has an aim: to fulfil natural potential. It is rooted in all the things that are particular to your nature. By realising that potential we achieve happiness. So happiness is not hedonistic: it is not about the satisfaction of appetites and desires. I will not become happy simply by eating chocolate, having lots of sex, enjoying a life of celebrity, and acquiring a fat pile of cash. Happiness is not one long orgasm. Some of these pleasures may, in the course of a life, form part of realising my potential or fulfil simple needs; equally too much sex and chocolate might stand in the way of my potential. There is a balance to strike, which is proportionate to my nature. With Aristotle, plants often come to mind: too much water will drown it, too little and it dies of thirst; but the ‘right’ amount depends on the plant.
Life, instead, is something to cultivate; it is a long-term project. It requires training, development, careful thought and planning, sensitivity to personal character and interests, and their relationship to the nature and interests of others. Happiness is living well in a rounded sense.
The life of virtue is, therefore, one in which the character of people and things can flourish. Morality is not a rulebook (even if the cultivation of character might depend on rules). It is not a divine ordinance. It is not a purely mathematical calculation or a principle (for example, the ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’).
Since the formation of character is not, itself, a given, this means human beings must be free enough to make the right choices. Life can go badly wrong, and many plants either die of thirst, drown in excess or suffer some other misjudgement which stifles their development. And self-sufficient freedom to make life choices, sits neatly alongside the need to deliberate – to step back and consider the different possible actions which may or may not achieve the overall goal.
This way of thinking also recognises and celebrates differences in nature. Which is, in some ways, one of the hardest things for modern minds to grasp. If morality consists in the cultivation of character, and the character of things are different, then moral judgement (or ‘practical wisdom’) must take into account the particular circumstances of a thing and its character. There is, in other words, no ‘one size fits all’ approach to morality; moral judgement makes no sense – it is incoherent – apart from the situation or circumstances which give rise to it.
None of this sounds especially counter-intuitive. Just the opposite. But modern minds do, nevertheless, have a tendency to look for singular answers, and are sometimes affronted by the prospect that different circumstances might require very different judgements. The idea of ‘contextual admissions’ to university is, for example, far from controversial, even if the idea has gained ground in recent years. Academic credentials are the simplest, clearest and fairest way to differentiate students applying to university. The idea that an admissions office might consider a student with a poorer academic performance in the context of their socio-economic background is seen as a form of discrimination. And yet evidence suggests that, given the opportunity, able students from disadvantaged backgrounds with slightly lower grades often perform better than their equally able but more privileged peers. So, arguably, looking at the matter in a more particular way, produces better graduates.
I was once close friends with a middle-aged couple who rented a house in Hampshire. Both were well-qualified and successful, but, due to their circumstances, they had chosen not to buy their own home. They both said that they had been openly sneered at for this decision. In that part of the world, owning your own home had not become a practical decision, but something like an ideology that brooked no patience with personal circumstances!
The same tendency is at work in a more egregious way in politics. In the early noughties, an Anglo-American coalition of forces invaded Iraq, to rid the world of a dictator and encourage the spread of liberal democracy in the middle east. The tuned arguments of neoconservative statesmen and thinkers at the time believed – in a way that is not species apart from Marx’s prophetic counsel for political economy – that the conditions in Iraq were ripe for liberal democratic reform. Other foreign policy experts wailed that Iraq was not late eighteenth century England. Hotly contested as this recent history is, it can been seen as western nations blindly wreaking havoc from an unquestioning faith in their liberal creed.
Whether its university admissions, home ownership, or foreign policy – all show a similar habit of mind: a belief in values which are true for all circumstances, when in fact such a belief just fashions the world after its own image. Or, bluntly, what smells like piety tastes like arrogance.
But, for Aristotle, it makes perfect sense to see intelligence as something that takes shape in a context. It makes perfect sense to say that home ownership is not right for everyone. And it makes perfect sense to say that liberal democracy will not suit all parts of the world.
What matters is virtue – or the realisation of potential in all its manifold forms. The job of good government is to cherish, curate and nurture virtue, to understand human potential and create the right conditions for it to take its natural course:
‘The state is intended to enable all, in their households and their kinships, to live well, meaning by that a full and satisfying life.’
For this reason, he favours a particular form of government, which he calls ‘aristocracy’, or government by the ‘best’ people. Subsequently ‘best’ has come to mean ‘best by right of birth’, but its original meaning suggests government by the most virtuous citizens – a government of the good. And he distinguishes it from its modern connotation by describing it as a ‘constitution in which election to office depends on merit not on wealth’.
However this might sound to modern ears, and whatever our attachment to democracy, he is also clear that, under some circumstances, other forms of government might work better. Discussing monarchy, he concedes that, in some cases, a single individual or family might be ‘outstanding in virtue’, and serve their citizens better than the alternatives.
A word sometimes used to describe Aristotle’s thought is ‘organic’. His philosophy is an observational walk through a lush forest bursting with many varieties of flora and fauna. MacIntyre’s chronicle suggests that, with the renaissance and the enlightenment, early modern culture abstracted moral and political judgement from the organic diversity of life. It took a ‘deontological’ turn. It changed not just how we reach a judgement, but altered the way we think and the language we use.
Protestantism deferred to the inscrutable will of God. Rationalists, empiricists and scientists deferred to deductive or inductive reasoning to escape the misleading intuitions of the body. The early liberal theorists pushed for calculated subservience to a social contract as a safeguard against the untrustworthy and venal inclinations of human behaviour. Nature, following Descartes’ lead, was thrown into doubt, in the search for something more certain and reliable.
This shift is captured intuitively in the way we now use the word ‘moral’. To call someone ‘moral’ or even ‘virtuous’ sounds, to our ears, just a little exalted and pious, but also slightly unattainable, exceptional and unrealistic. So much so that something annoying lingers about it. It may even suggest hidden vices. Something like hypocrisy grins back at us. The same hypocritical vagueness is at work in the idea of communism.
This little cultural subtlety rings with the contradictions of modern thought. But it corrupts Aristotle’s meaning. Virtue makes no sense apart from nature. By projecting its meaning into an unfathomable ether, it loses its intuitive grip and, by definition, becomes an exception. It also condemns it to recycled nonsense.
By which logic, Marxism is an innovative reinvention of absurdity, and anything but a sensible response to the current liberal hand-wringing.
The new marxists – or even the sub-marxist cabal which now run the British Labour Party – want to believe that the economic anxiety and marginalisation brought about by globalisation and new technology will force a political solution. In the name of ‘fairness’, ‘justice’, and ‘equality’ they make the case for new forms of socialised wealth and power. But all these terms are as vague as the word ‘moral’. Indeed, sanctimonious piety married to hypocrisy and reckless public accounting, is one of the recurring criticisms mounted against Jeremy Corbyn’s public platitudes.
This sort of ‘fairness’, ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ is only ‘fair’, ‘just’ and ‘equal’ in an abstract sense, with money as its chief metric. It says, for example, that income inequality is bad for many reasons, not least because it creates very serious – sometimes tragic – social problems (homelessness, poor wellbeing, in-work poverty). By redistributing or socialising wealth in some way this tempers those problems. In other words, it’s a kind of first-aid version of capitalism, which patches people back together by throwing money at them. It implicitly accepts the dominance of money over all other aspects of human life. Just like capitalism in its laissez faire guise, it doesn’t consider money as a function of human character, except, perhaps, as a grand nostrum of social change or a worthy principle. ‘Virtue’ doesn’t get a look in. In other words, socialism is complicit with the logic of capitalism.
‘Is property to be held in common or not?’ Aristotle is much more realistic and pragmatic than Marx in the way he answers this question. Where citizens hold a dramatically unequal share of the available income and resources, it will create resentment. But communal ownership is impractical – partnership of this sort usually just breaks down in ‘quarrelling’. More to the point, it is actually worse for the collective interest because ‘it is the personal qualities of individuals that ensure their common use’. Without the creativity of individuals there is nothing to share. A system of private ownership works better ‘provided that it has a moral basis in sound laws.’ It’s also closer to the aim of happiness; just as there is pleasure in owning (albeit in moderation), this provides the condition for the pleasures of sharing, association and friendship. Without the freedom to own, there is no freedom to give. ‘Communism’ is a joyless affront to natural inclinations.
This idea of a just market would address the problems of inequality, pauperism and alienation not by sharing out the extreme wealth of elite owners, but by equalising the productive and creative capacity of all. Fairness is an equal opportunity to participate, not share in the bounty managed by a few (or, in Varoufakis’ utopia, by machines). Justice makes the most of human potential in all its many forms and leads to a rich and rewarding life. And the scales of justice don’t just measure income.
For Marx the ‘vast association of the nation’ absolves us of power and wealth. On the far side of this transformation lies a misty vision of mutual openness and creative leisure untroubled by financial management and the politics of people. For Aristotle, the horizon of personal interests – including property – is a basic condition for moral life. Problems arise, as always, when societies lose sight of virtue. If people start to pursue property or wealth for its own sake, it warps the direction of their character, by aligning all their natural qualities to the pursuit of never-ending increases in wealth. All that is distinctive and good about people is reduced, streamlined and pollarded to pursue a futile objective. Not that he is entirely against some of the methods of money-lending, or what we might now see in capitalist practice. Lending at interest can be a powerful way to raise capital, so long as it is applied to a moral purpose.
A simple – and cliched – criticism of the liberal order, which continues to shape and dominate the the western world, is that it ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The symptoms of disillusionment it is experiencing – populism, protectionism, economic anxiety, rising nationalism, dog-whistle racialism, irrationalism – can all be explained in these terms. Modern capital management is basically the job of brains in jars. It places a well-educated influential elite at arm’s length from populations, who increasingly feel the pinch and deliver unreasoning body blows in return. The ethos of global free trade creates citizens of the world and an open door for anyone, so long as they are productive economic units. Local culture and identity are, at best, second class citizens, which breed the resentful and kitsch expressions of race, nation and culture popularised by Trump, Farage, Viktor Orban and Norbert Hofer. Liberalism in its current form has a one-track mind, which fails to place money in a human context: it is purblind.
The modern world has at its disposal enormously powerful assets, technologies, knowledge, mechanisms for wealth creation and improving the standard of living. But Aristotle shows us that it is morally blind. It cannot see clearly what all these things are for. Stumbling about myopically with powerful tools at your disposal is a dangerous venture for anyone, and the result is almost always a trail of wreckage.
But someone’s myopia is not cured by putting their eyes out. Their vision needs training, so that it can see more clearly. Unlike Marxism, which in its apocalyptic anarchism levels everything before starting to rebuild, any sensible moral development must start with what’s available:
‘But what is needed is the introduction of a system of government which the people involved will accept and feel able to operate, starting with what they have got.’
Reform is always preferable to revolution. A sensible way forward might be to start by looking at the things that work and expand from there. And there is plenty that works in modern liberal societies. Many people would probably still feel that, on balance, their benefits substantially outweigh the drawbacks. They may have many things wrong with them, but the relative freedom and quality of life they offer is still a beacon for many parts of the world.
Since the big political shocks of the last few years – Brexit, the election of Donald Trump – it is interesting to see the way voices from the mainstream of politics have reacted. Some have pressed the case for reform. Others have doubled-down. We are in choppy waters, they admit. But this has happened before, and we will find our way through them, if we hold firm to the right values.
This is often pushed as an argument for reason in the teeth of excessive emotion. We need to have better arguments, more sophisticated analysis of data, a robust education system. If Aristotle (and Nietzsche) are right, an excess of reason removed from the eccentric realities of human emotion and behaviour is more or less the cause of the problem. To see the mind as a lofty refuge from the sweat and smells of the body is unrealistic and paralysing. Why should we denounce emotions in this way? They are a vital part of life. An emotional attachment to people, communities, cultures is as elemental as it gets. Emotional attachments steadily guided by reason and good judgement is the ancient route to happiness.
To consider contemporary life against a background of virtue ethics is to see the pressing need for reform. Politics, economics, education, civil life, culture and identity, international affairs – all miss the subtleties and variegated vitality of virtue. All of which might sound like I am claiming that Aristotle is a better answer to the current soul-searching of western liberals. But this gets it the wrong way around. Virtue doesn’t lie around the corner in a secular paradise; it lurks beneath our noses. We just don’t see it.
Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton is published by Yale University Press.
Talking To My Daughter About The Economy by Yanis Varoufakis is published by Bodley Head.
Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life by Edith Hall is published by Bodley Head.