Marx is first a historian and economist, and the scale on which both those social sciences operate are systemic and on greater time scales than human beings live. There’s nothing wrong with that level of analysis. However, ethics is on a personal time scale. As Fuck Theory points out in a recent Patreon post, mass murder across time isn’t an atrocity to you if you don’t believe one murder is unethical. Without a personal ethics, Marxism’s theory of class struggle, even as it theorizes the eventual “win” of the proletariat, can be used by the ruling class to extend their rule. All things die. Humanity itself will someday die. Given enough time, sure, the proletariat will win. Do we have that time? And you may scoff at the idea capitalists may believe in Marxism, but friends, they sure as hell act as if they share class interests. Capitalists are flawless in their class solidarity.
It takes a system of ethics to say we ought to apply Marxism for the benefit of the proletariat over the ruling class, and ethics are personal. Ethics are acted out in the smallest of interactions. And unlike the Republican or Democratic party, where their machine keeps chugging along if there’s a rapist or a fraudster what have you in charge, we actually do have to be better. This is a Utopian project. What’s the goddamn point if we have a (potentially bloody!) revolution only to replicate class hierarchies? Marxism can help us describe history, determine how to forge a new society. But ethics will be what describes what a just society even is, and I think that’s where a lot of schisms in the modern left lie, not just on big scales, but on the local organizing and interpersonal scales as well.
Are we kind to people in meeting spaces? Do we associate with people who’ve historically harmed others? What if they’re sorry? What if they’re not sorry enough? Who says? Some rich people will be class traitors and join the movement. How do we handle them? How do we adjudicate accusations of misconduct? What about rapes in our community? Do we call the police, or do we enact restorative justice in our communities? Do we even have the means to do that effectively, and should we make a member (perp or victim) go through that process if they don’t want to? What about fundraising? Ethical money handling is actually a pretty highly skilled thing, and we’re a movement of marginalized workers. What do we do if we just don’t have that knowledge base? What do we do when two marginalized communities, in the moment, have differing needs? I have a disability services background. We talked a lot in my workplace about the problem of accommodating people who are low vision (and so frequently rely on sound signals socially) and autistic people (who often have sensory problems that make clapping and other loud noises unpleasant). There’s no blanket way to solve that problem without considering the specific people present and their needs. I’m nonbinary, and having to disclose my pronouns makes me dysphoric. But disclosing pronouns helps a lot of other NB and binary trans people. Who has to be uncomfortable? How do we determine that?
These aren’t easy questions, and part of why they aren’t easy is that the ethical solution isn’t gonna be theoretical. It’s gonna depend on people with good social skills hammering out solutions in the moment. It’s gonna be principle and problem-solving based rather than rule-based. And in a lot of cases, I think people see these small interpersonal problems as petty. I don’t think they are. It’s incredibly easy in an unjust world just to replicate that injustice on a smaller scale. There’s a lot to lose by doing that. We’re a small movement enough that one asshole who is coddled despite his mistreatment of others in an org of 3 dozen people can cause massive turnover in local organizing.
Speaking of assholes, we are also gonna have to deal with the problem of people being deeply imperfect all of their lives. The left can’t function if we all have to be perfect. This is not a personal growth project, we need to be out there doing things. How imperfect do we let people be to work with them, and at whose cost? There has to be a mechanism for restorative justice that actually restores people to the community, or else every member of the community’s eventually gonna be too radioactively toxic to associate with. And that hurts only us.
We’ve correctly recognized that a lot of social mechanisms exist to make a deeply unjust society continue to function despite injustice. And there’s something admirable about withholding the social niceties that make the social machinery of injustice continue to chug along. But beyond breaking capitalism, beyond outlining what doesn’t work, we have to figure out what modern socialist kindness is so we can practice it. And if we don’t have it, then the only way to be publicly Marxist will be to hide behind insincerity and critique of others. Constantly dismantling, constantly avoiding building anything.
And perhaps this interpersonal Marxist ethics is out there! There’s so many words on Marxism I can’t hope to have read all of them. All I know is I don’t see it in practice. And this isn’t meant to say there is no hope. I’m trying, clumsily, to outline the problem in hopes of an eventual solution.
4 thoughts on “Towards an Interpersonal Marxist Ethics”
This is a necessary analysis. It’s a lot to think about. I’m thinking about the nature of what we call civilization, especially as we perceive it here in the capitalist ‘West.’ Beyond a certain size (i.e. a few hundred or so, beyond which mutual personal familiarity becomes ungainly), how have any civilizations (past or present) managed to contain the stratification and exploitation? I get the sense that’s what Marxists are aiming for. It’s not just an academic question, as you point out; it’s urgently existential at this point. As it is, I see myself and so many other people with seemingly good intentions struggling against our own cultural programming and against the structures that reproduce the exploitation. I feel that if we can begin to answer your questions, then we might make significant movement in the right direction.
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I personally think priority #1 has to be a restorative justice framework in any organizing space (equal emphasis on both halves– it will not work if it’s not actually justice). Without it, people are simultaneously not accountable to anyone AND perpetually punished based on criteria that can change based on whims, and that’s, uh, bad. I think the people who’ll be favored by that kinda chaos are just gonna be the usual beneficiaries of capitalism and
I’m not much of a Marxian economist but I have an observation that no one seems to have noticed: digital changes the relationship between workers and the means of production. Capitalism of the 20th century depended on the relationships between supply, demand, and costs. Digital behaves differently. A thousand copies of a sofware costs the same to produce as one copy. It’s not like a car or a sack of flour where producing a thousand cars or a thousand sacks of flour costs many times the cost of a single car or a single sack. Supplying a digital service to a thousand users costs the same as supplying one user. This is behind free software and free services: additional workers are not needed to produce the free software and services. This changes the relationship between workers and the goods they consume and somehow drives the crazy economy that now immerses us. If Marx was correct, and I think he was supremely correct about this, changes in the relationship between labor and the means of production drive changes in the structure of society. I don’t think Marx could ever have imagined a digital economy, but I am certain he would have recognized that the changes that digital is causing are as society-changing as the appearance of the factory system.
This is not *precisely* true because hosting requires infrastructure, storage, and maintenance which isn’t free and does require labor and should be figured into the cost. Logistical systems / infrastructure are also part of the means of production!
Also, Marx sort of did account for something like this! It’s covered in Capital Volume III: Tendency of the rate of profit to fall. An information economy probably accelerates this.
It’s sort of a truism to say anyone from the 19th century couldn’t have anticipated the current economy. But I think he did okay on this one. It may not look precisely like it would have in the 19th century, but the information economy is an (extreme) embodiment of the tendency.
Tendency of the rate of profit to fall is one of the inherent contradictions of capitalism which Marx said would eventually make people into communists. Like, Marx set out to describe existing communism, it is not Marx’s dogma. At the very least, the fact that I, as an author, cannot get paid fair wages for my labor because of a combination of piracy (because of digital sharing— writers aren’t paid the same, their wages have gone down by about a third in a decade) and capitalist exploitation is a hell of a contradiction. Capitalism has no means to pay us fairly.