The following is the second of a symposium, or series of articles, on the problem of wealth within the global economic system. The first can be found here.
Throughout the ages the problem of wealth has always comes down to the question of human sufficiency.
As Aristotle famously notes in Book 1 of the Politics, the management of the household, or oikos (whence the word oikonomos, or “economics,” i.e.), requires the acquisition of “wealth” (ploutos). Since the oikos is the foundation of polis, any “political theory” must start with the question of how one actually acquires wealth.
The core of such a theory is what from the eighteenth century onward came to be called “political economy.” Aristotle, whose observations about human nature and relationships profoundly influenced the breadth of Western thought up until the early modern period, held that the acquisition of wealth was mainly a means to a far more important end – eudaimonia, or “happiness.”
Whereas the ascetic ideal, institutionalized quite early on by Christianity, had stressed the straightforward principle (formulated in the late twentieth century as a moral principle of the fledgling ecological movement by British economist E.F. Schumacher) that “less is more” and “small is beautiful,” Aristotle himself did not make any dogmatic judgments about the overall measure of wealth that one might obtain, or aim to preserve.
He was more concerned with whether the quest for wealth interfered with the pursuit of happiness. The real problem for Aristotle, and the Greeks of classical Athens, was not wealth, but avarice, for which the myth of King Midas and his “golden touch” served as a popular cautionary tale.
In the opening sections of the Politics Aristotle, however, made a clear distinction between the types of wealth and their methods of acquisition. Aristotle devotes significant attention to the “art” (techne) of wealth-acquisition, which the Greeks called chrematistics. Natural, inherited wealth was to be much preferred, according to Aristotle, over whatever might be acquired through the marketplace.
Dealings in the marketplace required money as a medium of exchange, which functioned as a powerful temptation to greed, and which later Christian theologians catalogued as one of the seven deadly sins. It was for this reason that Aristotle, like his Christian and Muslim successors, condemned usury, or the manufacture of money from money, chiefly because (again, as in the Midas story) it substituted sign for substance and thereby leads to the moral and spiritual ruin of those who make their living through such “ill-gotten gains.”
In this respect Aristotle was by and large in agreement with Karl Marx, who centuries later insisted in Book One of Capital that ascription of value to a good through trade or exchange somehow de-natured it, or robbed it of its essence. Its true value was its “use value”, as opposed to its “exchange value.”
But Aristotelian “naturalism” also had its dark side. Aristotle’s suspicion toward wealth-getting by dint of exchange mechanisms paradoxically ended up valorizing what today we call “income inequality” and also served as the rationale for slavery. Just as there are natural goods that can be possessed, used, and enjoyed by those who have dominion over them as rightful “property,” so there are what Aristotle called “natural slaves” whose purpose is ensure through their bonded, uncompensated labor the necessary happiness of the slave-owner.
It was this argument that underlay to a large degree the church’s acceptance of the practice of human bondage throughout the Patristic era, its sanctioning of serfdom in the Middle Ages, and later its overall indifference to the trans-Atlantic slave trade through much of the early modern era. As Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe points out in his brilliant analysis of the origin of African servitude entitled Critique of Black Reason, it was not the physical characteristics of race per se but the mercantilist and colonial conflation of pagan “superstition” with the racial markers of natives during the Age of Exploration that led Europeans to identify various indigenous peoples as some variant of Aristotle’s “natural slaves.”
Mbembe argues that it was only with the plantation systems, appearing first in the West Indies, then in the American South in the early nineteenth century, that slavery became thoroughly racialized. Slavery was well-established in Africa among non-European peoples, especially Arabs, long before Portuguese traders opened up the Continent to European exploitation at the end of the fifteenth century. It was also not unknown among white Europeans in the New World under the guise of what came to be called “indentured servitude.”
What the plantation system did for the first time in history, according to Mbembe, was to transform the Aristotelian principle of “natural slavery” into a system of mass production and brutal exploitation that not only commodified certain goods (e.g., sugar and cotton) in high demand, but also human bodies. Racialization proceeded hand in glove with that commodification.
According to Mbembe, it was out of the plantation system that what today we call “capitalism” emerged, insofar as what Marx called the “surplus value” of human labor could now be extracted and financialized at an unprecedented “automated” level.
The only difference between the plantation and the factory is that workers in the latter environment were allegedly “free” to contract for their labor, a fiction that Marx himself savaged. As John Hobson noted in his book Imperialism: A Study (1902), a work which exerted an outsize influence on Lenin, the subjugation of peoples of color around the globe by European gunboats decades after virtually all “civilized” nations had abolished chattel slavery was an inevitable consequence of the new “social contract” that the capitalist ruling classes had reached in the latter part of the century with their white, industrial workers in order to forestall revolution.
Surplus value had to be extorted from somewhere to keep the entire setup expanding and to prevent the kind of catastrophic outcome Marx in the 1840s had predicted. The wider goal of this overarching historical analysis, however, is to emphasize that capitalism in both its early and late forms was always a contingent (though from a transcendental moral standpoint ambivalent, if not perverse) economic apparatus for rectifying earlier failed systems of wealth acquisition, something which Marx himself very much appreciated.
What modern political economy, in contrast with ancient and early Christian conceptions, makes clear is that the problem of wealth is not merely about its distribution, but its production. Every radical distributionist ethic has always had to come to terms with the problem of wealth production, as the collapse of Soviet Communism now more than a quarter century ago brought to light.
Marxism as a form of political practice was only able to solve the latter half of the equation laid out in The Communist Manifesto of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Aristotle tried to solve the equation by sacrificing the abilities of the many to the needs of the few. But when that happens, certain “natural” inequalities must be proclaimed, and the result has always been slave revolts and worker strikes, not to mention the eventual collapse of the production systems themselves.
At the same time, satisfying the needs of the many has historically fostered the kinds of nefarious “downstream” effects that Hobson wrote about as one of the key incentives for imperialism. When it comes to political economy, history has more often than not been unkind to the moralists. The law of unintended consequences somehow seems to disrupt the demand for social justice. That was a theme Reinhold Niebuhr stressed repeatedly.
The conditions of the Versailles Treaty following World War I was perceived by many among the victorious Allies as righteous recompense for the millions of lives lost, but its impossible demands on the German people and their economy precipitated the collapse of the Weimar parliamentary democracy and opened the way for the monstrosity of Hitler.
Today the problem of wealth is often regarded by moralists as merely a matter of the “1 percent” owning, or controlling, too much while taking advantage of the remaining 99 percent. But we must also recognize that today’s galloping wealth inequalities within nations are due in many respects to the global lessening of inequalities among nations.
From the end of World War II up until the mid-1970s it was a regular refrain among social ethicists that the exclusive club of the world’s “rich nations”, made up of Western Europe, American, and Japan, should be singled out, if not shamed, for their excessive share of global riches. The formula, which turned out to more of a slogan than a statistic, was that “the 6 percent own 60 percent.”
However, the process of globalization since that period and the March of capitalism from what was once called the “first world” into the “second” and “third worlds,” has shifted the distribution dramatically. As the online publication “Our World in Data” highlights:
Over the [past] 4 decades the world income distribution has…changed dramatically. The poorer countries, especially in South-East Asia, have caught up… World income inequality has declined. And not only is the world more equal again, the distribution has also shifted to the right—the incomes of the world’s poorest citizens have increased and poverty has fallen faster than ever before in human history.
At the same time, the rapid drop in global income inequality among nations has been offset by several related invidious trends that shift the equation in ways unforeseen during Marx’s day. At a pace unimaginable even half a century earlier, “each” has been met in rising measure “according to his needs,” but the measuring stick of needs itself has been altered almost beyond recognition.
As recently as the turn of the new millennium, few would have imagined the cell phone as a cheap, global commodity, not to mention the quantity of energy that has to be produced on a per capita basis to sustain the planet’s newfound “wealth.” Ever rising consumption, accompanied by a relentlessly expanding population, imperils the relationship between humanity and nature at a standard that would have absolutely horrified Aristotle when he initially tried to frame the question of wealth.
And burgeoning consumption has also, as the data suggests, been inexorably attended by mounting inequalities at a domestic level in terms of the ownership and supervision of wealth. Worldwide the proverbial “one percent” now control almost half of global wealth. A huge reason for this trend is the lightning advance of digitization and automation in the generation of wealth, the new Marxian “means of production” that cannot be easily redistributed democratically.
The problem of wealth is an age-old moral issue of who and how much someone should be allowed to have. But the question of how it is produced, which has been political economy’s conundrum from the start, is not so easily amenable to moralistic solutions.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.