“He’s morally unfit to be President.” “The environment is a moral issue.” “We should consume only those commodities produced by the highest moral standards.” We hear this kind of moralizing all the time, but these are not political positions, let alone critical ones, and to pretend that they are only makes us dumb to today’s actually-existing conditions.
Pretty much everything that goes under the name of politics today is not political at all, if by politics we mean, not the cartoon version we witness daily in the media but real contestation over the economic, cultural, psychological and spiritual institutions that shape what is possible and for whom - and that shape the very way by which we dream what might be possible in the future.
Anyone can argue against a system when it’s gone wrong, when a cop’s chokehold asphyxiates an innocent man or when we catch a politician with his pants down. The real test of critical thinking is to resist this temptation to knock on the open door and moralize against the liars and the cheats and the crooks (however much they deserve it), and instead attune ourselves to how, even if the system seems to be functioning crisis-free, it is still producing inequality and injustice.
Even if the factory is clean and safe, for example, the workers are still being exploited. Even if I am kind and caring, I can still be part of the race problem. And even if the system is producing injustice it is still functioning according to plan. This is not some contrarian and easy cynicism; this attunement requires a rigorous and non-moralizing critique of capitalist logic and an unapologetic speculation about what can come after it.
What would be the principles of such a critique? First, it is not personally motivated. Of course, every action is personally motivated insofar that it comes from an individual person and is necessarily fashioned by conscious and unconscious desires. But a non-personal critique of capitalism recognizes that we are necessarily part of this system and wrapped up in its ideologies, and that we share this necessity with others, both friends and enemies.
There is no escaping capitalism since capitalism is not only the production and consumption of commodities, but a system with special forms of exchange, meaning-making, social relations, desire, communication and thought that imbue themselves into our very beings, so much so that attempting to avoid them is like trying to avoid our deepest habits.
Second, this non-moralizing critique is not personally directed. Instead it is directed toward the structure, system and logic of capitalism, which requires less scathing and shaming rhetoric against individuals and more analytic understanding of how the system actually works. Yes, capitalism produces greedy and corrupt capitalists, but to begin with a criticism of them is counterproductive, not only because the dominant system of media representation is based on a sophisticated defense of these individuals and their practices, but also because to go after successful capitalists undermines the analytical skills required to understand the larger system.
To direct a critique at the system and not at the individuals who manage and defend it is to reaffirm a belief in the system itself - in systems as such. To argue that crises occur in capitalism not because capitalism has gone wrong but because it has gone right is to argue that there is a cause-and-effect logic that can explain events like war, poverty and illness.
Unless we recognize that each system has a special logic, politics will be relegated to the dull paternalism of dinner-table debate measured only by what counts and makes sense within the dominant ideology. Resisting moralizing critiques and the smug cynicism of dystopian narratives that find any reference to “the system” to be a straight line to the gulag enables us to be more conscious of the fact that capitalism is a system that came into being at one moment in history and will go out of being at another.
Moreover, the capitalist system today, dominated by finance capital and neoliberal strategies of dispossession, is constituted by dominant ideologies that are no longer underwritten by the cold-war political justifications of freedom and democracy. The demand that one must starve or work one’s fingers to the bone to ensure liberty against foreign enemies falls on deaf ears. Today’s post post-cold war ideologies of sacrifice openly justify the economic logic of sustainability and growth.
People die, for example, because the logic of capitalist profit and expansion requires a withholding of their life-saving medications. The most vulnerable, in other words, are told the truth: that the global capitalist system cannot afford to save their lives, at least if it wants to manage its own contradictions. The most vulnerable are also the least susceptible to those who argue that capitalism can be fixed, or at least that capitalism can be managed so as to make it more progressive or compassionate or moral. It can’t be fixed because it’s not broken - it’s operating precisely as it’s designed to operate.
This simple fact sustains a non-moralizing critique because it denaturalizes capitalism, opening up a comparative analysis with other social formations, especially those that don’t yet exist, and based on what each system delivers in areas like health care, a healthy natural environment, opportunities to experience diverse pleasures, social equality, individual justice, nourishing food and secure shelter.
Third, instead of anthropomorphizing capitalism with histrionic claims of how it is evil or righteous, a non-moralizing critique sees it for what it is - a human-built machine that performs certain functions based on fundamental principles that cannot be suspended - such as the necessary expansion of commodity production and the accumulation of perversely excessive profits that can only be hoarded by a privileged few.
Such a critique generates a certain degree of respect for capitalism based on how capable it is at performing such tasks. Instead of incredulity and counter-productive anger, a non-moralizing critique generates a clear voice and a measured response that doesn’t retreat from the most painful and beautiful aspects of everyday capitalist life.
But this non-moralizing critique is not enough. No matter how much we recognize that it is tactically counterproductive to moralize against bad actors or chance events and blame them for disrupting our otherwise smooth sailing into a peaceful and prosperous future, we are still no closer to changing the system itself.
To resign ourselves to this paradox is not the answer either - not only because such a clever settling functions to strengthen the system and dull our critical edges, but also because the pleasure gained by a spirited and non-moralizing critique of capitalism is enlivening, and radical politics will always require a reclaiming of personal pleasure from the state, and a redirection of erotics away from the dominant order.
Something similar can be said about critique on the personal level. Even if we know why we behave the way we do and what activates these symptoms, this knowledge doesn’t keep us from repeating the same patterns of behaviour. In fact, often times it is precisely the accurate knowledge of the truth about ourselves that keeps us locked into our harmful ways.
In this sense, it is precisely the truth of our self-analysis, and the gratification we take in the force of the narrative itself, that is likely to prevent us from radically transforming it. This is not to argue against all projects of self-inquiry, but to recognize that something truly creative and nourishing requires a confrontation that exceeds this form of knowing, and that confronts head-on the making of a self that exceeds what we want or can imagine.
I’m not sure which project is more difficult: to make a self beyond ourselves or to make a world beyond itself. Regardless, it is in the face of this transformative desire that the personal and the political meet most profoundly.