Karl Marx’s Lenten Practice

Was Karl Marx a Christian? No. Nor is there any evidence that he observed Lent, the season of penitence that leads up to Easter. Nevertheless, let me suggest that Marx’s entire approach to capitalism was a Lenten Practice.

Not Lent as it is often observed — abstaining from chocolate, alcohol, or Facebook — but Lent as it might be observed — reflecting critically, and acting militantly, on behalf of the redemption of the world.

In traditional Protestant theology, at least since the eighteenth century, it has been argued that the modern world is an outgrowth of Christianity. Democracy is an expression of the abstract idea of humanity promoted if not by Jesus, then at least by Paul, and capitalism is an expression of the Christian idea of freedom. In the nineteenth century, the German thinker Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel showed how the modern liberal state was an outgrowth, an expression, of the Christian Spirit.

As a young student, Karl Marx was inclined to agree with Hegel. He simply thought that Hegel needed to be tweaked. Only once the working class was the universal class; only then would the Spirit be fully realized.

But, then, Marx had what can only be described as a conversion experience. Modern liberal capitalism was not the expression of the Spirit. It was the expression only of the spirit of capitalism. And that meant that it did not matter who owned it, capitalists or workers, or how it was owned, publicly or privately. What mattered, according to Marx, was whether or not human beings are dominated by labor, by what they do, and by commodities, by what they make. “True freedom,” Marx remarked at the end of volume three of Capital, only appears where “labor ends.”

This became Marx’s liturgy, his Lenten practice, if you will: ending the domination of labor over people’s lives.

This Lent, as we ease gently into a Biden-Harris neoliberal dream world, I am observing a Marxian Lenten practice. Please join me.

Biden, Harris, and Determinate Contradiction

In volume one of Capital, Marx definitively scrapped his earlier analysis of the central contradiction in capitalism. According to his earlier analysis, capitalism would have been overcome — superseded — when the contradiction between the social forces of production (the industrial working class) and the private relations of production (private property and the market) violently clashed, giving rise to the universal species being, its feet firmly anchored on its own soil. Marx now counted this view naive. He now held that the central contradiction within capitalism was internal to the form of the commodity itself:

To say that these mutually independent and antithetical processes form an internal unity is to also that their internal unity moves forward through external antitheses. These two processes lack internal independence because they complement each other. Hence, if the assertion of their external independence proceeds to a certain critical point, their unity violently makes itself felt by producing — a crisis. There is an antithesis, immanent in the commodity, between use-value and value, between private labour which must simultaneously manifest itself as directly social labour, and a particular concrete kind of labour which simultaneously counts as merely abstract universal labour, between the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things; the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of the commodity are the developed forms of motion of this immanent contradiction. These forms therefore imply the possibility of crises, though no more than the possibility. For the development of this possibility into a reality a whole series of conditions is required, which do not yet even exist from the standpoint of the simple circulation of commodities (Capital I.I.3 §2 (a)).

I have been reading a lot of extraordinarily sloppy social analysis of the new Biden-Harris regime in the US. As Hegel observed, these commentators paint their grey on grey, as though Biden is Trump in sheep’s clothing, revealing their no longer secret idealism. They want the Kingdom to come. (So do I.)

Or, Biden-Harris are the Kingdom. Oh. My. No.

There is a real “break” (as Lacan would have said) between the surface form and its underlying value; a “break” between the value social actors rely upon and the actual value social mediations assign to things. And this break opens up a “possibility,” but no more than a possibility.

Critical social scientists need to think carefully about the “whole series of conditions” that might be required for even half of the world’s 7.5B inhabitants to “see” what they would have to see in order to do something more than stomp their feet, raise their fists, march, change regimes (again), kill someone, assassinate a leader, retreat, advance . . .

In the mean time, the end (unfortunately) is not near. What could we do to help even half the world’s population to grasp what is happening, what is being done to them, how they are being played, the game they are playing?