The quote can be traced reliably to Thomas Müntzer, a theologian of the Reformation who eventually became dissatisfied with Luther’s acceptance of (and perhaps submission to) feudal authority. The quote can even be traced as far back to the great ‘Aristotler’ of the Catholic Church, and medieval Virtue Theorist par excellence, St Thomas Aquinas. This is no mere coincidence. Aquinas and De Angelis have the same intuition in mind when they utter ‘omnia sunt communia’. Aquinas goes ‘full red’ many times in his works and argues forcefully that private property was immoral, and logically indistinguishable from theft. He mounts scathing attacks on the wealthy that is quite staggering for its contemporary relevance. The parasitic rich have, alas, always been with us.
It should come as no surprise to us that Virtue Ethicists have made a whole range of communist, or communist-leaning, claims. Indeed, many communists (and I would include Marx in this list, perhaps controversially) have – knowingly or otherwise, committed themselves to a Virtue Ethic position.
And this is not something that ought to be resisted or transcended. If we are trying to establish a society in which human beings flourish it could be the case (and, I will argue, is the case) that Left Communism might do well to learn from the many insights the Virtue approach to ethics affords. If ideological battles are fought on paper, we will do well to recruit from the argument-arsenal Aquinas’, and his kin, house.
The sort of social edifice we are constructing will have, as its presupposition, its citizenry (or associated concept), and what 'constitutes' this 'citizen' is of utmost importance for most politial philosophers. For Marx, the people who will form our society will be autonomous agents, who develop a more sophisticated understanding of their own agency, and indeed agency as such, as time progresses. What agency ‘as such’ is, is something we can outline and understand now (this is not something that will change post capitalism, whereas how we engage with, and express, our agency might). Marx himself makes a series of claims about what it is to be a person (what our ‘species being’ (essentialism in any other language) is). Answering questions around what sort of a thing ‘people are’ and how those sorts of beings can flourish (can be a good token of their type), takes conceptual (philosophical) priority to Marx’s economic project. Only once we have a clear idea of what people are can we hope to arrive at (and possibly answer) the question: ‘what material conditions have to be present in order for persons to flourish?’. Marx provides good philosophical arguments, supported and supplemented with empirical analyses, to demonstrated that what we are, and how we realize this in the world, is necessarily frustrated under the economic conditions capitalism provides, thus forming his negative (critical) project.
So, what does a good life look like for Marx? What constitutes his creative (positive) project? Here he and Engels are notoriously scatty, but intentionally so. Marx is committed to the view that consciousness (by which he means the way we view the world (including our social and personal world), and ourselves in the world) is formed by the economic conditions we find ourselves in – given that Marx’s consciousness is formed by capitalism, he cannot imagine what mode of engagement (perceptual and expressive) the post-capitalist agent will take. It would be inconsistent and sloppy for him to claim what evaluative systems, preferences, goals, conceptions of the good etc, those in a post-capitalist society would hold. This does NOT mean that Marx’s thought is lacking an ‘ethics’. Because his ethics is centred on agent (being) over action (doing), he is still able to make moral assertions without pain of contradiction.
Marx’s ethical thought revolves around the theme of ‘emancipation’, but he offers no highly codified, legalistic, system of moral rules, the sort of which we find in consequentialism (arising from ‘do that which promotes utility (pleasure), or reduces suffering (which really amounts to the same thing)’), or deontology (do that which you can will as universal law). At most, Marx is able to give us one norm: ‘do that which is conducive to the freedom of the agent’. This maxim requires us to know a) what freedom is, b) how this freedom is best realized, and c) what sort of thing ‘an agent’ is. The first two conditions (a), and b)) are answered by derivation from an examination into c). Before we move to this answering this, it will be helpful to state exactly what sort of thing we mean when we say ‘ethics’. At the very least, we will have to say what Marx definitely does not mean.
Firstly, being a materialist, Marx’s emancipation ethic may sit uncomfortably alongside any ethical position that has ‘choosing’ (consequentialism, certainly, but especially deontology) as its presupposition. This ethic centres on blameworthiness and attaches to an agent’s choice:
1. A is morally blameworthy for x if and only if
2. X is ‘bad’
3. A could have done otherwise
Rather, the ethical position adopted (by Marx as it was for Hegel, and as it would be for Nietzsche), is having the capacity to act in accordance with what one is – this has literally nothing to do with choosing. It does not deny (explicitly) libertarian conceptions of free-will, it is just simply not engaging in that debate. Marx’s claim is, then, that ‘good’ is following a law of one’s own making and that has been generated with reference to what one is. It is with reference to these terms - rational, self-referential, self-determination – that Marx equivocates freedom with ‘the good’. Capitalism is antagonistic to this conception of ‘the good’ as it alienates people from what they are (thus, knocking out self-reference), it alienates people from what they do (thus knocking out ‘self-determination’ - you act from your boss’s will, not your own) and it alienates people from each other (by conditioning them to see others as hostile competitors for scarce resources), thus confusing ‘rationality’ with a narrow conception of ‘self-interest’. Capitalism is ill-conducive to agency, flourishing, and freedom as it causes, systemically, complexes of misrecognition. Capitalism is therefore, on Marx’s ethical account, bad.
For this claim to get through, it seems that Marx, and Marxists (broadly construed) will have to adopt a Virtue Ethic position (albeit not necessarily Aquinas’s). If one is uncomfortable with the strength of this, then perhaps it might be more persuasive to make the weaker claim that even if one concedes there are [logically] coherent deontological, or consequentialist, Marxists, it still might be useful, to adopt a Virtue Ethic position when offering an exegesis of Marx (thus enriching our understanding). Engaging with Virtue Ethics might also serve as a useful way to understand, develop and organize contemporary anti-capitalist praxis.
So, we know that Marx’s essentialist view commits him to a conception of freedom that aligns ‘freedom’ with ‘good’. This, on its own, is perhaps not enough to motivate the idea that Marx is a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying, Virtue Ethicist, but there are other features of both Marxism and Virtue Ethics I think closely align. With their emphasis on ‘praxis’ over ‘doxa’, with ‘wholeness of being’ over capitalistic ‘compartmentalization’, the question I’d like to examine in the rest of this post is: should all Left Communists (Autonomist Communists) be more interested, and adopt, a Virtue approach to thinking through ethical-political issues?
What is Virtue Ethics?
Firslty, it might be helpful to outline what I mean, and hopefully what is meant (generally), by ‘Virtue Ethics’. Virtue Ethics finds its origin in Classical Philosophy (and is given a particularly developed treatment in both the works of Plato and Aristotle), and continued – with various degrees of prominence (experiencing high points in Medieval Europe, then a recent(ish) resurgence post-Wittgenstein) – hence.
At root, the question Virtue Ethics seeks to answer is what is it good to be? That this approach takes priority over the more ‘normal’ (normative) moral question (‘what is it good to do’) is motivated by a series of claims that place weight on the idea that good agents do good things. This, helpfully or unhelpfully (depending on your philosophical prejudices), rests on a denial of the ‘doer-deed’ distinction (so abhorred by Nietzsche). A person is what they do. I know Anika is a good person because Anika does good things. I know Sue is a bad person because Sue does bad things. Actions act as a kind of ‘signpost’ to a person’s character. A good watchmaker is one who makes good watches, a good shoemaker is one who makes good shoes, a good person is one who does good deeds (or ‘acts well’).
This leads to the question ‘how does one become a ‘good person?’ For the Virtue Ethicist, a person is formed by participation in various communities and projects (hence, the emphasis on praxis) and education is essentially a formative process of character cultivation. Through character cultivation, one can participate in a wide variety of projects that one has deemed worthwhile or ‘good’. The more one knows about themselves, and the more one has spent time developing themselves, the more determinedly one can act. Thus, a good life, for the Virtue Ethicist, is having the capacity to participating in projects one judges to be good, without external impediment.
This cultivation is frustrated under capitalism as it allows only for the development of those aspects of character which, are useful to the capitalist (when employers say that they are ‘investors in people’, don’t be confused, they really mean that they’re investors in themselves). Through efficiency-motivated labour specialization and automation, a person’s skillset becomes increasingly compartmentalised and narrow. Further, one is not free to engage in a project of their choosing – capitalism frequently makes it necessary for people to take jobs they’ve no interest in, as they are beholden to exchange their labour power so they can afford to purchase basic goods. This entails that agents are not in command of how they spend their time (doing things they’d rather be doing). Further, time-off, or so-called ‘leisure time’, is now used for recuperation so that they can resume being an effective member of the workforce upon redeployment in the labour market.
While capitalism does not allow for the development of a rich and varied character, and that this can probably be judged to be a bad thing, the question remains open as to which character one ought to cultivate under conditions of freedom? Some people are able to cultivate a character others cannot. Despite my most enthused and focussed attempts, I will never ever be a concert pianist (unless the concert is for irredeemably talentless pianists). Relatedly, one will not flourish where one develops a 'character' that is ‘ill-fitting’ to one’s being. Self-knowledge (knowledge of who one is, and what one can and cannot do) will be an essential component of post-capitalist education. This is not to say that people cannot attain virtuosity in subjects and practices that have no real interest for them. Indeed, this is a common feature of life within a capitalist economy. The point is that one is not acting freely when one develops such virtuosity. For example, a person with a desperate desire to be liked by their peers might conform to participating in the various practices enjoyed by a group that they would – all things being equal – never-in-a-million-years choose to do. For instance, there are those who might feel pressured to go out and indulge in some ‘nightclubbing’ on a weekly basis. This person might develop a sophisticated knowledge of the best clubs, what music each club plays, what music is currently ‘in’ on the club scene &c., while, deep down (perhaps so deep that not even the agent is aware of this), loathing this embarked-upon life – the Virtue Ethicist will claim that such poor creatures (nightclubbing – yuk!) are not free as they are not participating in a life they would have otherwise embarked-upon as it is, quite simply, not valuable to them (and might even hold a negative value). Perhaps our hypothetical club-dweller might secretly enjoy chess, Dostoevsky, and cafés. Much of the language around ‘guilty pleasures’ suggests that many of us like things we can’t be seen to enjoy. Many people may never get to find something they’re truly passionate about because they never come into contact with them, or even know of their existence. Sigh.
A condition, therefore, must be that a good life is one in which the participant participates in projects, hobbies, interests etc, that they determine and deem worthwhile.
Again, capitalism frustrates this as only one mode of being is presented to us as a way of conducting ourselves, viz. that of the worker-consumer; working and consuming in industries frequently not of our choosing. The ‘consumer’ end of this formula is becoming more restricted given the echo-chambers developed by Amazon, Google, and Facebook. This forces an epistemic enclosure that is bad for pluralism – if you are only exposed to one form of lifestyle, it might make it difficult to envisage the mere possibility of other ways of living.
Capitalism’s over-determination (imposing a lifestyle model and a worldview on people for whom this may not ‘fit’) is alienating and incarcerating; it denies your ability to explore who you are, while trapping you in a life that isn’t yours.
A Communism Based on Virtue Ethics has Freedom as its End
So, with the weight Virtue Ethics places on the structure of agency (what an agent is, and an emphasis on the claim that what an agent does is an expression of what they are), and what autonomous agency (a tautology, for the Virtue Ethicist - if you’re not acting autonomously, you’re not acting qua agent) looks like, we can see how this, by necessity, determines that one ought to be a committed anti-capitalist (at the very least) given that the material conditions under capitalism frustrates individual flourishing via its total, perforating, and all pervasive hegemony.
Not all anti-capitalists are communists, of course. There are many on the hard right of the political spectrum (the so called ‘alt-right’, especially) who want to frustrate global, consumer capitalism, in favour of ethnocentric states whose economic model seems to be some sort of feudalism with the state at the top, controlling the organization of labour and circulation of wealth. This totalizing structure is, however, at odds with the Virtue Ethic position as it is accompanied by a value monopoly that asserts there is but one way to live, and all variation of type (albeit, not degree) will be eradicated. This 'one way of being' for the white-nationalist, white-supremacist, is usually heteronormative, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and (obviously) racist. If you are not prepared to live as a heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied white person – then you will not be a welcome member of that community.
Virtue Ethics aligns itself to communism (as its preferred political system to capitalism) because of its inherent acceptance (not mere tolerance) of plurality. It recognizes that people have a structure that can be expressed differently among agents, without a compromise of agential integrity. How I recognise and understand myself - and choose to express this - might be completely different to how you want to express your self-understanding. You might want to live as a journalist and reside in an urban, brutalist mega-structure. I might prefer to live as a poet in a thatched-roofed cottage in the countryside. You may find romantic fulfilment in a member of the same sex as you, whereas I might prefer the [romantic] company of the opposite sex. Ultimately, who gives a shit? I don’t have the right to impose my life-choices on you, just as you don’t have the right to impose your life-choices on me. Your life-choices are yours and, provided they are not harmful to the kind of thing you are (slavery, self-loathing and self-sabotage, to name but three things that are harmful to all involved (not least, to the slaves, in the first example), would be prevented and stopped, where possible). you can crack on with whatever it is that makes your life worth living.
Communism will eradicate exploitation by eradicating surplus labour (as profit ceases to be a motivator). With this people will have more time to discover who they are, and what they like doing. As the means of production become fully automated, leisure time will be used for – well – leisure (duh). With the removal of the alienating, formed-consciousness, of capitalist hostility, people will see each other as bearers of dignity and treat each other as such. If, for example, I recognize a person who has been racialized as black as a person (in the full sense of ‘recognize’ and all that that entails), I will not try to enslave them, nor will I assume they are violent in virtue of their skin colour. We will not ‘other’ those different to us. This is not to say that we will all get on, but only to say that the terms of disagreement will change. I will not argue that x is the best way to live, and that by living y, you are living ‘incorrectly’ (or ‘wrongly’, or ‘sinfully’, or whatever).
Q. What is it good to be?
A. What you are.
Q. What are you?
A. A free being, willing their freedom.
Q. How best is your freedom realized?
A. Under a political structure that adheres to an ethic of emancipation and recognizes the kind of thing we are, while allowing (and even facilitating) the expression of this freedom, and forbidding all practices that frustrate freedom (e.g. slavery, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, etc).
Q. Is this political structure capitalism?
A. No. Capitalism allows us to develop one aspect of our character (at most) and, through compartmentalization and specialization, deskills us so that we can only do one (fairly low-level) thing extremely well.
Q. Is there a political structure that allows the agent to develop their character in a variety of ways, and where the agent decides which areas of their character to develop?
Q. What political structure is this?