The Material and Moral: What Marxism Misconstrues

Few economists take Karl Marx seriously. His economics, they say, is riddled with basic fallacies, and his political philosophy is more religious than scientific—the product of irrational conviction more than impartial observation.

But despite this general distaste for Marxist economics, his belief in prosperity as a cure for social and psychological problems has become a central tenet of American public opinion.

In 1859, Marx wrote:

The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

In short, Marx believed material deprivation is the source of social, political and intellectual conflict. Instead of viewing a strong moral consciousness as the source of economic prosperity, he blamed the lack of prosperity for moral decline.

In the early twentieth century, the progressive movement gained widespread popularity for advancing a similar belief: They viewed in economic engineering—material enrichment—as a means to engender a more civil society. “To permit the moral ideas to percolate through continually lower strata of the population,” progressive economist Edwin Seligman wrote, “we must have an economic basis to render it possible.”

As the twentieth century progressed, this idea spread—especially among the elite political classes. By finding the source of moral and social ills in material causes, politicians could justify power grabs that gave them more control over the economy.

Such sentiments are even seen in the philosophy of President Obama. Speaking at a fundraiser in 2008, he blamed small-town Americans’ apparent frustration with immigrants and their “clinging to guns or religion” on economic factors—namely, high unemployment. Material causes, he implies, are the underlying source of moral and social decay.

Of course, such beliefs are rarely applied on a micro-scale. For example, when witnessing a robbery at a convenience store, no one immediately blames the poor economy for the crime. The fault lies with the perpetrator, as it would with any other crime in any other place.

But jump to a diagnosis of society as a whole, and such analysis is frequently applied on a macro-scale, in ways that marginalize the importance of good morals and personal responsibility. If only poor people were better off, politicians say, problems of theft, drug use and unplanned pregnancy would simply go away. The proposed solutions are material, but the behavior is a question of morality.

How should we think about this issue? Are economic forces really to blame for moral decay? Of course, poverty can make people desperate. Hunger can make things like theft or deceit seem like reasonable options. But to what extent is material deprivation the source of societal problems?

I’ll explore that question in my next post. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

  • Anonymous
    In the USSR ther were called Apparatchiki. In Saudi Arabia they are the bin Saud family. In America, Obama spends more on vacations than a lot of people earn in a lifetime.
    When I was a child, four of us lived in two rooms. We had an ice box that a fella came and loaded 50# of ice into every few days. We got a hot water heater when I was 9. I was taller than it was. But you know what? I had no idea I was poor.
    The lady next door was the neighborhood matriarch. She taught me piano. She had two sons and a daughter who lived in her three story house with her. I was taught by them to do carpentry, fix engines and shoot. A black lady hept me and my sister, since my mother and father had to work. I learned manners, a work ethic and respect from Anna. Her husband, Milton, taught me to fish and to make pipe bombs. Anna was poor, too, poorer than we were. She and Milton lived in one room and I think she had a wood stove. But she didn’t act like she was poor. Head high, she never took (or as far as I know, received) any guff from anybody. She was an equal-opportunity butt-kicker.
    In short, I worked for and earned everything I ever had. I was taught to do that by the Sisters of Mercy, the Jesuits, my parents, Mrs Philbrick and Atilla the Nun, Sister Clara. There was never any class-related stuff in my life except in school.
    Now I have a racist president who is a redistributionist that described himself as a lazy dope-smoking high-schooler with poor performance that barely graduated. He complains that whites are racist, even though they elected a black man to office twice.
    Marx was an idiot. Progressives are idiots.
    End of rant.
  • Anonymous
    Your misquote is typical of the Progressive method. The complete quote is “If only poor people were better off, politicians say, problems of theft, drug use and unplanned pregnancy would simply go away.”
    The author didn’t SAY it. He said that politicians say it. So if the statement is derogatory toward the poor, and politicians (most of whom are rich AFTER being elected) believe it then it would appear that redistribution is a means of:
    Creating an underclass that depends upon politicians for their income and support.
    Maintaining and increasing the power they steal from those very poor by ignoring Constitutional restrictions on the things they can do as politicians.
    Rich and poor use cocain. Rich and poor steal. Rich and poor give their lives for your freedon to misquote. The Progressive accumulates power, and with it riches, because he believes he is an elite among savages. “The People” or Proletariat suffer under the whip of the “Rich” or the Bourgeoisie. So the cure is to be found in les Miserables. Go from “let them eat cake” to “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” And the guillotine for the “rich” and starvation for everybody else. Because that’s what happens when you redistribute wealth.
    You and Barack studied Marx and Engels, I bet.
  • A crime free world is a Utopian ideal. Blaming crime on poverty is a popular myth contrived by power grabbers.

    All politically driven attempts to attain utopia are destined to fail whether they be based on Marxist ideals or Obama’s. Indeed, they are nothing more than thinly disguised attempts to grab power. Power is needed to apply any and all egalitarian measures of success. For all to share equally, something must be taken from one class of citizens and given to another. Who shall decide? Who shall possess that power? Why, the politicians, of course. And, interestingly, they live just a little more equally inasmuch as they wield all that power to their own benefit and the benefit of those who keep them in power.

  • Anonymous
    When you say, ” If only the poor people were better off,” you seem to imply that they would not have a higher moral state, if they were to prosper. Maybe so, I know some very poor people who are very moral and very devote. On the other hand, some folks I know who are very well to do are very loose with their morals.
    So are you really concerned with moral issues are more concerned with keeping the poor in their place; keeping millions of the poor feeding the wealth of the rich?
Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites