Towards a Goth Politics
Against Utilitarianism, Against the Happiness Agenda
I was having an online argument with a right-wing, Mises-type ultracapitalist, on the topic of Marxism. In the course of the conversation, he opined that the problem with Marx's economics was that Marx wrote about maximizing "utils" or "utilons" - that Marx did not realize that human utility cannot be so easily quantitatively measured, since different people subjectively desire different things in different ways. I almost tore my hair out in frustration. How do you respond to this kind of ignorance? How can we have any kind of discussion about economics when people are carrying around these bizarrely inane strawmen?
Anyone who was the least bit familiar with Marx's writing would know that Marx would never use such ridiculous terms as "utils" and "utilons". Having done a little digging, the earliest references to these kinds of ideas I can find come not from Marx but from... (drumroll please)... the right wing, ultracapitalist theories of Alfred Marshall. Or at least, Marshall suggested the concept that one could measure happiness in a quantitative way, though he may not have used these specific words ("utils," "utilons") to describe the happiness units in question - which seem to derive from Von Neumann and Morganstern's utility functions, but were probably the product of some weirdo on the internet, no doubt with his brains fried on marginal and especially Austrian economics. [I'll bet some wiseacre is going to bring up Bernoulli here. Not so fast. But I'll come back to that topic some other time.]
Whatever the case may be, the concept that one could objectively measure people's happiness units (or cardinal utility, as it's known in the biz) has absolutely nothing to do with Marx's economic theories and he would have laughed the idea off the table. Why do people think that this is what Marxism is about? I guess it's because people seem to think that Marxism is an extreme form of utilitarianism, the doctrine that goodness can be defined as the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Just take, as a random example, this internet loser:
"The most popular ethical philosophy [...] at the current time appears to be utilitarianism. [...] [This] is one of the primary reasons why western market economies have continued to drift towards the ready acceptance of socialist policies. [...] Utilitarianism with its “greatest happiness principle” [...] simply 'asserts that men are bound together in societies solely on the basis of a rational calculation of the private advantage to be gained by social cooperation under the division of labor.' But [...] since theft is the first labor saving device, the utilitarian principle will tend to lead to the collective use of government power so as to redistribute income in order to gain the “greatest happiness” in society. [...] 'Utilitarianism, in short, has no logical stopping place short of collectivism.' If morality is ultimately had by making the individual’s happiness subservient to the organic whole of society, which is what Bentham’s utilitarianism asserts, then the human rights of the individual may be violated. [...] As a result, utilitarianism can then be used to justify some heinous government actions. For instance, the murder of millions of human beings can be justified in the minds of reformers if it is thought to move us closer to paradise on earth. This is precisely the view that was taken by communist revolutionaries as they implemented their grand schemes of remaking society. [...] This will tend to hold true in most cases except when such collectivism has so thoroughly destroyed the economic enterprise as in the case of the former Soviet Union. In those cases, the very real need of material advancement will lead to reform in the other direction, blah blah blah" (from The Failure of Utilitarian Ethics in Political Theory, by Paul Cleveland)
Sorry I cut out so much of that.... the author is just so damn longwinded. Anyway, I'm gathering that the argument that Marx was a utilitarian goes something like this: Marxism is evil and bad, like the ideology of a comic book villain, who believes that "The end justifies the means" - and who therefore is willing to bomb and stab millions in order to create his utopia... and "The end justifies the means" - that sounds kinda like consequentialism... and utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism... and... something something something, Marx was a utilitarian!
Ugh. What makes all of this even worse is that this kind of sloppy, delusional thinking is not at all confined to right wing weirdos. Some people on the left - even some self-described Marxists, and not just of the tankie variety - have swallowed this right wing propaganda whole, and have come to believe that Marx was a utilitarian, and therefore they have come to describe themselves as utilitarians, or at least to allow utilitarian ideology to worm its way into their calculations. And this has been happening for a very long time. In fact, it is difficult to find a communist state, a Marxist organization, or indeed a leftist movement of any type, that is not infected with utilitarianism, infected with the pursuit of maximizing human happiness. All existing leftist movements are insufficiently goth.
* * *
Smart people, who should know better, have come under the sway of the bizarre hallucination of a supposed political spectrum in which the left is utilitarian, believing in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, with the far left being Marxist, and the right being all about individual rights and freedom. This doesn't, of course, make sense to anyone who has thought about it for more than two seconds, and yet this way of looking at politics has come to dominate much of the discourse.
And yet it has everything exactly backwards. First of all, the idea that utilitarianism is on the side of the left is just a confusion. The stars of the utilitarian movement were not socialists- rather, they were bourgeois intellectuals, writing on behalf of the prerogatives of the bourgeois class. Jeremy Bentham, with his "felicific calculus" - later known as "hedonic calculus" - did more to build and promote the philosophy of utilitarianism than anyone else, but he was primarily known in his own time for his critiques of the British legal code, especially his Commentary on the Commentaries, his criticism of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, part of which was published as the "Fragment on Government" in 1776. Bentham hated the traditionalism of the British legal code, what he considered its irrational inefficiencies, but not out of any opposition to capitalism - quite the opposite - because he thought that the way for the government to administrate people to bring about the most total pleasure for its subjects would be to maximize commerce and minimize all governmental interference in capitalist profit-making. After all, he considered the "freedom" of the capitalists to be pleasurable, and restriction to be painful.
Another founder of Utilitarianism was James Mill, Presbyterian minister and writer for the Anti-Jacobin Review and the Edinburgh Review, where his first article was entitled "Money and Exchange." The work he is best remembered for now is Elements of Political Economy, which followed the capitalist economic principles of David Ricardo perhaps more rigidly than Ricardo himself ever had, but it was his passionate (and deeply racist) advocacy for the British Empire in The History of British India that was better read in his own time. His ideas on limiting the population border on eugenics and were very influential on the Liberal party in his day.
James Mill was deeply influenced by his older friends, the French economist brothers, Jean-Baptiste Say and Louis-Auguste Say, who owned a major chain of industrial sugar refineries at a time when French colonial sugar plantations in the Caribbean were booming. J-B Say popularized the notion of the "entrepreneur" - the capitalist owner of the means of production made into a kind of romantic hero. He was also the acknowledged originator of Say's Law, which was a fundamental principle of equilibrium economics that provided a cornerstone to the economic theories of James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, an employee of the British East India Company, and a tireless advocate for what he called "benevolent despotism" towards the people of India, whose great work, Principles of Political Economy, became the standard textbook for capitalist economists until World War I.
All of these founders of utilitarianism were thinkers who advocated for the "liberty" of capitalists to do whatever they liked with the lives of lesser people, without regard to those lesser peoples' rights. They were for government non-intervention, up to a point - the point being, first of all, the prerogatives of British imperialism around the world - and also, they weren't shy about instituting rather draconian measures against even British citizens, like the systems of surveillance in Bentham's panopticon and his plan for compulsory work in poor houses and debtors' prisons. They tirelessly worked toward a "radical" reorganization of society, toward a more "rational" arrangement - but this meant a social order in which humans had no rights and therefore could be more efficiently used. For their own good, of course. (Bentham famously called rights "nonsense on stilts".) In short, they were the leading ideologues of capitalism.
In fact, the happiness agenda has a long and complex history, one that is woven into the fabric of the history of the development of capitalism. The study of happiness and its consequences for politics began during the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century - alongside the development of classical economics. During the French Revolution, that great bourgeois revolution, there was a lot of ideological talk about happiness, such as Saint-Just's famous speech of March 3, 1794 to the National Convention. No doubt he was referring to the Scottish Enlightenment when he declared "May the love of virtue and happiness spread throughout the world! Happiness is a new idea in Europe!" (4 months later he had his head chopped off.)
And we can trace the happiness agenda through many vicissitudes to the present day, when countries such as the UK have started appointing a "Happiness Tsar" - a position created by and occupied by the British Baron Richard Layer, who rose to prominence with his economic plan for gutting welfare, imposing "conditionalities" for "non-compliance". Nowadays, Layer and his colleagues put out an annual "World Happiness Report" under the auspices of the UN on March 20th, which has been designated the UN's "International Day of Happiness." Indeed, an entire field of "Happiness Economics" has arisen, with impressive-looking equations like "." Sicco Mansholt, the President of the European Commission in the 70s, developed the notion of a measurable Gross National Happiness, and this concept has since been written into the Constitution of Bhutan.
Meanwhile, Ludwig Von Mises, too, was a utilitarian, and in several of his books, especially Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (1927), he proves, logically and methodically, that a utilitarian moral system leads inevitably to a rigid assertion and unwavering defense of capitalist property rights - along the way, excoriating other utilitarians, who were less dogmatic about their propertarian stance, for applying their principles in a fuzzy and inconsistent manner. In this, Mises was correct: utilitarianism does lead inevitably to dogmatic apologia for capitalism (and beyond that, to nihilism - but that is a story for another time). True, there were
utilitarian socialists - obscure, marginal figures like Jeremy
Bentham's friend E.T. Craig, founder of the Owenite Rahaline Community
in Ireland in 1831. But Mises is correct- these were merely sloppy thinkers, who applied the logic of their own ideas superficially and inconsistently. But Ludwig Von Mises's arguments only show the narrow limits and shallowness of utilitarianism, and its lack of any scientific basis. It is not a theory that can be proven or disproven with facts; it is merely moralistic dogma.
May Happiness Prepare Its Tomb
If anyone actually bothers to read Marx, they will very quickly find out that Marx spent nearly his entire life ruthlessly attacking and criticizing utilitarianism. From Marx's Notes on James Mill (1844), through Capital which was subtitled "A Critique of Political Economy," (a not-so subtle dig at J.S. Mill's Principles of Political Economy) to the Theories of Surplus Value that was published well after his death, Marx kept up a relentless attack on the utilitarians who were the primary ideologues of capitalism of their time. You can find, in the pages of Marx's writing, critiques of all of the above thinkers - Bentham, both Mills, both Says, and many other utilitarians besides. In fact, I find Marx's critiques of utilitarianism to be among the most convincing arguments against utilitarianism that anyone has ever produced.
Of all the utilitarians, Marx is most vicious in his attacks against Bentham. In chapter 24 of Capital Volume 1, Marx calls Bentham an "arch-Philistine", an "insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence of the 19th century," a "genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity." He adds: "In no time and in no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way." His counter-argument to Bentham goes like this:
"To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticize all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naiveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. The Christian religion, e.g., is 'useful,' 'because it forbids in the name of religion the same faults that the penal code condemns in the name of the law.' Artistic criticism is 'harmful,' because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, etc."
So to summarize, Marx rejects Benthamism because:
(1) As an idealist, Bentham attempts to deduce his understanding of human being and society from a principle - the principle of utility - rather than from examining any actual human beings;
(2) (therefore) Bentham ignores, or misunderstands, human nature;
(3) (therefore) Bentham fails to understand the historical contingency of what he presents as universal, timeless ethical truths (he fails to understand how human nature is modified in each historical epoch);
(4) Bentham treats as his universal subject, his norm, the "shopkeeper" (the small-holding proprietor, or petit-bourgeois) when this historically-created form of human life, far from being the norm, let alone the trans-historical universal human subject, is, even in the present day, actually quite "queer" - unusual, uncharacteristic of humanity as a whole - alienated.
But last, and by far most importantly:
(5) Notice that final sentence. To get Marx's joke, you have to know that Martin Tupper was a patriotic, Christian novelist and poet of the 19th century, who wrote pedantic, repetitive, unimaginative little tales with nice, neat little morals at the end, designed to edify everyone to be good boys and girls. These became enormously popular, and he churned them out to his audience like a 19th century James Patterson, though literary critics tended to regard his books as worthless trash, and they have since been utterly forgotten. His most popular book, "Proverbial Philosophy," was a collection of little sayings, worthy of fortune cookies, which Tupper wrote in his clunky, excessive style.... Here's a little taste for you:
"A man too careful of danger liveth in continual torment,
But a cheerful expecter of the best hath a fountain of joy within him."
I know, I know. But Tupper's fans lapped this shit up. They could not get enough. He was the toast of London. A lot of his tiresome aphorisms are about how you should have a positive attitude. His catchphrase was "All's for the best" - perhaps the predecessor of "It's all good." Why did people love his books? I don't know - probably for the same reason they love motivational posters and mugs. (By the way, Tupper was also an extreme racist, who wrote, "Break forth and spread over every place/The world is a world for the Anglo Saxon race!" but I digress.)
The utilitarians are, generally, bad writers. And what could be more devastating for a philosophy that is based on accumulating pleasures and avoiding pain than to point out how aesthetically wretched and painful it is to read?
Think about it. The function of a literary critic - or an art critic, or a movie critic, or what have you - is to ruin people's good time. If the point of human morality is to maximize human happiness and to reduce human suffering, then what literary critics are doing is really unconscionably evil.
I remember, as a child, loving George Orwell's 1984. Then I remember reading Harold Bloom's devastating literary criticism, in which he pointed out, in so many ways, what a bad novel it is. He absolutely ruined it for me. He took something that I loved, something that gave me joy, and sucked all of the pleasure out of it.
Marx's criticism of utilitarianism and its "philistine" defenders is fundamentally an aesthetic criticism. The difference between utilitarianism and Marxism can be summed up in two words: aesthetic materialism. Against utilitarian moralism, Marx's goal was "the ruthless criticism of all that exists."
David Hume deserves credit for recognizing that morality was fundamentally a question of taste, like aesthetics. One way of understanding Marx's central argument against utilitarianism is to say that utilitarians have bad taste. And indeed, the utilitarian theory of morality is in bad taste, or rather it is tasteless. It is the blandest, most insipid, most conformist moral philosophy, the moral philosophy that says "Whatever most people like is good." This kind of "whatever" is the essence of tastelessness. Marx was saying: No. Sometimes people have bad taste. There are things that make people happy, but shouldn't. Sometimes, some people shouldn't be happy. And Marx had very, very good taste.
Karl Marx's Teenage Goth Phase
At first, Marx's poetry was typically Romantic, including love poetry to Jenny, who would one day be his wife. But quickly (likely under the influence of his distant cousin Heinrich Heine, who was already recognized as one of Germany's greatest poets, writing lyrics for Schubert and Mendelssohn) his poetry turned much darker, more cynical, and dipped into the tradition of gothic poetry that had been been raging and sulking for more than a century. I would love to start a doom metal band that set these verses to music. Here's a sample:
Invocation of One in Despair
In the curse and rack of Destiny.
All his worlds are gone beyond recall!
Nothing but revenge is left to me!
On that being, that enthroned Lord,
Make my strength a patchwork of what's weak,
Leave my better self without reward!
Cold, tremendous shall its summit be.
For its bulwark-- superstitious dread,
For its Marshall--blackest agony.
Shall turn back, struck deathly pale and dumb;
Clutched by blind and chill Mortality
May his happiness prepare its tomb.
From that massive iron giant.
If he bring my walls and towers down,
Eternity shall raise them up, defiant.
In another poem, "The Fiddler," Marx writes "See this sword? / the prince of darkness / Sold it to me. [...] With Satan I have struck my deal, / He chalks the signs, beats time for me / I play the death march fast and free." (Marx was known for getting into saber duels.) And in his play Oulanem, there is a famous soliloquy that contains these lines:
I will smash to pieces with my enduring curses.
I'll throw my arms around its harsh reality:
Embracing me, the world will dumbly pass away,
And then sink down to utter nothingness,
Perished, with no existence — that would be really living!
Fortunately, we all know that "It's just a phase; he'll grow out of it" is a stupid lie - nobody ever completely grows out of anything. We're all still the little kid we once were, thank goodness. And so it is with Karl Marx: his teenage goth phase was not just a phase - in all the important ways, he remained a goth for his entire life. The aesthetic of his writing style was forever that of a kid hanging out in a graveyard, looking up at the gargoyles on the church walls and scribbling into his notebook.
Look through a few of his themes:
The Communist Manifesto begins by comparing communism to a ghoul - as it is most often translated, "A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism." In German, "Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa - das Gespenst des Kommunismus." (My favorite translation of this passage is the first English translation, made by Helen MacFarlane in 1850: "A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of communism.") "Gespenst" means something like what we would now, in America, in the 21st century, call a "boogeyman". Marx realized that in their rhetoric, politicians of various tendencies would demonize the opposition by calling them communist. Rather than showing why this demonization was a cartoonish mischaracterization, thus allowing some sort of reconciliation, Marx instead chose to identify with this hitherto imaginary demon, to make it real. This artistic choice could be compared with Marilyn Manson's later declaration: "Society has traditionally always tried to find scapegoats for its problems. Well, here I am."
Marx was not the first to make this kind of rhetorical gambit. It had already been made, even more dramatically and effectively, by Proudhon. The truth is, fairly few politicians were using the demonized boogeyman of the "communist" in their mutual denunciations - but many more, then as now, accused each other of being "anarchists." It was probably in imitation of Proudhon's shocking embrace of this insult that Marx made his own reclamation. And "I am an anarchist" still has a ring to it, whether spoken by Proudhon, Johnny Rotten, or anyone else, that calling yourself a communist lacks.
Marx used the term "vampire" long before this was a well-known term. "Capital is dead labor that, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks," he wrote in Capital Volume 1, published in 1867, a full 30 years before Bram Stoker's Dracula. He was into vampires before it was cool. (Engels had beaten him to it - he wrote about "the vampire property-holding class" 20 years before Marx's Capital.) In that same work, Marx speaks of Capital's "blind, unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus labor." And who can forget my favorite of Marx's books, "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," where Marx tells us that "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."
Readers on both the left and the right may be surprised to discover that Marx also liked to use imagery from the Bible and from Christian theology - usually the darkest, most ominous references he could find. He had a remarkably detailed knowledge of Christian theology for someone who was ethnically Jewish and raised according to the values of the Enlightenment. It can be quite jarring to be reading some of his complex economic analysis of the general relative form of value and so on, usually involving some number of yards of linen, coats, pounds of tea or tons of iron, and then suddenly, he has launched into a reference to the 17th century Casuists (p. 412), or describing value as a "self-moving substance" that "differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value, just as God the Father differentiates himself from God the Son, although both are of the same age and form, in fact one single person," (p. 256) or, most ominously, quoting from the Book of Revelation in Latin about the Mark of the Beast (p. 181). And I could pull a hundred more similar remarks. Undoubtedly, some will object here that these references are ironic. Fair enough - perhaps. But even if so, sarcastic references to religion are extremely goth.
But Marx's rejection of utilitarian ethics is not merely a question of style. In his work "On the Freedom of the Press" (1842), Karl Marx came out
pretty strong against consequentialism, the doctrine that "The ends justify the means." (Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism.) In this case, Marx is attacking a writer
from a rival newspaper who is defending government censorship, who averred that the good ends of a healthy society
justify the bad means of censorship. Marx calls the doctrine that the
ends justify the means "Jesuitical": "Therefore,
if we do not want to confirm the old Jesuitical maxim that a good end —
and we doubt even the goodness of the end — justifies bad means, we have
above all to investigate whether censorship by its essence is a good
means." Far from being a person who thought that "the end justifies the means," Marx began an important and influential rejection of that line of thought.
We shouldn't be surprised by Marx's anti-utilitarianism. After all, when criticisms of utilitarianism are brought up, the first name on everyone's lips is Immanuel Kant. And Hegel can only be considered a move even further from utilitarianism than Kant. Contemporary philosopher Kenneth Westphal writes:
Hegel agreed with one of Kant's main criticisms of utilitarianism, that it cannot account or provide for human autonomy because it takes given desires as the basic locus of value and source of ends. He believed that utilitarianism does not take proper account of the intellectual character of the will; that it involves too atomistic a view of individuals, too instrumental a view of the state and the government; and that it is incompatible with the proper basis of right, which rests on freedom and autonomy. He regarded the concept of utility as an important component of an intelligent grasp of one's alternative courses of action and of the coherence of one's long-range plans. He also regarded utility writ large, welfare, as a fundamental component of the aims of individuals and organizations and a basic responsibility of a number of civil institutions. However, he viewed freedom as a more fundamental value than utility - considerations of utility cannot justify sacrificing freedom or individual rights - and he regarded securing freedom as the most basic obligation of governmental institutions. Indeed, Hegel regarded happiness as beyond the competence of political arrangements. A rational state and its government are obliged to secure the conditions for the success of individual actions; they are not obliged to secure success itself, and so not the happiness it brings. These are Hegel's basic reasons for rejecting utilitarianism.
As someone trained in Hegel's philosophy, Marx had disabused himself of utilitarian illusions at a fairly early age. Indeed, the merit of the entire post-Kantian tradition in philosophy is that it stands athwart utilitarianism.
Even today, it's not the Marxists who are utilitarian. It's not the
Marxists who are saying that "the end justifies the means". It's the
defenders of capitalism who say this. Whenever any criticisms of capitalism are put forward, they will point out that capitalism has produced greater wealth for more people than any other economic system the world has ever known - as though this justifies all the suffering that capitalism has caused. An example of this is Steven Pinker, who defends capitalism by pointing out its many consequences for human happiness and weighing them against its painful consequences, like an accounting in a great ledger sheet. It's the right wing defenders of capitalism who are always
pointing out that government programs have "unintended consequences," and
that these programs should be judged by their consequences, not their
People who defend capitalism say, Well, yes, perhaps workers are being exploited, perhaps commodities are produced through alienated labor, perhaps workers spend most of their lives doing long hours of back-breaking and mind-numbing work in cramped work spaces under surveillance without privacy, perhaps factories have to install suicide nets under their windows, perhaps the wages that a worker makes are a tiny fraction of the value that they create for their capitalist overlords, perhaps they cannot even afford the products that they themselves produce, perhaps this is a contradiction of the Lockean theory of property in which a person owns the products of her own labor, perhaps they have insufficient benefits, perhaps they cannot afford healthcare, perhaps they die in debt, perhaps they live in squalid, crime-ridden ghettos where, if they call the police, the police come and kill them, etc., etc., etc., but, haha! It's all worth it. Because... look at the products they produce! Look at the end results of all this labor and toil and suffering! Aren't these gadgets shiny and fascinating and fun? Don't you worship them? And, with all these commodities being produced, this creates value for everyone, which eventually trickles down even to the lowest rungs of society, so that, ultimately, eventually, after the capitalists have sucked out all the value that they possibly could, and are laying around like over-filled ticks, simply unable to process and digest any more enjoyment out of our economy, some sloppy-second leftovers slosh out over the sides for everyone else, and ultimately, eventually, the living standards of even the poorest, most exploited workers goes up. So capitalism ends up raising living standards of the poor better than any other economics system, eventually. And the ends justify the means.
The opposite of this ideology would be to say: abolish exploitation, even if this exploitation has positive consequences. Abolish capitalism, even if capitalism makes people longer-lived, richer and freer. Emancipate labor from capital, at whatever cost of disruption, dislocation, and chaos. Release production from its capitalist limitations, and the chips can fall where they may. Let the consequences be damned. Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum.
Those who justify capitalism in the name of its beneficial results for average human wealth and happiness are effectively saying, yes capitalism may cause suffering in the present, but it is for a greater future happiness. They promise pie in the sky for those who are willing to sacrifice here and now. And isn't the essence of capitalism the investment (temporary sacrifice) of some wealth in the hopes of a future reward? Isn't this the "lower time preference" spoken about by the Austrian economists?
On the other hand, those who demand the abolition of exploitation, regardless of the consequences, live in the here and now. And one can understand their point of view, especially seeing as the kinds of consequentialist arguments used by the apologists for capitalism were also used, a century and a half ago, in defense of slavery. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was scarcely a country in the world that did not have some form of slavery, and so the idea of abolition of this kind of exploitation seemed untried, unfamiliar, new, disruptive, radical, and scary to many people. The defenders of slavery could cite all kinds of statistics and infer from them that the United States economy depended on slavery, and that without it, the country would sink into economic ruin, bringing down the quality of life for all Americans, including the former slaves. The abolitionists retorted that, even if slavery might bring economic benefits - lowering the price of cotton, which powered the industrial revolution in the British garment industry, its factories with massive looms that hired thousands of workers, for instance - nonetheless slavery must be abolished, regardless of whatever economic consequences this might entail. And a similar argument can be made for wage labor. Indeed, such a comparison between wage labor and slavery is at least as old as Cicero, and was expanded upon at length by the 18th century French conservative thinker, Linguet. But the term "wage slavery," or "the slavery of wages" was most popularized by Fredrick Douglass, particularly in his Address to the National Convention of Colored Men, in 1883:
"As labor becomes more intelligent it will develop what capital already possesses -
that is, the power to organize and combine for its own protection. Experience demonstrates
that there may be a wages slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than
chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other."
[from the Address to the National Convention of Colored Men, Louisville, KY, September 24, 1883.
(You can view it here in his own handwriting!)]
Marx's position is a bit more nuanced than those who would abolish all exploitation instantly here and now, without any concern for consequence. But this example shows that Marx was far from alone in criticizing the utilitarians. Indeed, perhaps Marx did not go far enough in his critique of utilitarianism. Fortunately, others have contributed to this critique.
In the 20th century, Michel Foucault famously portrayed Jeremy Bentham as the originator of the panopticon, a system of control through surveillance built into architecture that would go on to be the organizing structure of prisons, factories, schools, and other kinds of buildings. This would be a system that maximizes control of people for their own and everyone else's good. I have my (very strong) differences with Foucault, but this picture of Bentham is essentially accurate, and Foucault could be interpreted as expanding upon Marx's own analysis of the factory system and the ways in which this set of social relations, that together form the means of production, discipline and form an entire mode of human subjectivity - including inculcating in these docile humans, a form of happiness that is profitable to the system. (By the way, Foucault neglects to mention another important aspect of Bentham's scheme, which was that prisons were to be run by independent contractors, for profit - as pointed out recently by Spencer Weinreich.) And Foucault's goth credentials are impeccable - from his interest in the Marquis de Sade and sadomasochism to his strong influences from the greatest goth of all time, Georges Bataille, to his relationship with that composer maudite, Jean Barraqué. Foucault also famously remarked that what characterized his philosophy was that he refused to be happy.
In his own time, there were many thinkers parallel to Marx who were equally critical of the utilitarians. I think first and foremost of Mikhail Bakunin. Indeed, Bakunin, though he never wrote extensive and detailed critiques of utilitarianism, might be considered even more stridently opposed to it than Marx, for he never uses the term without extreme moral revulsion. In his brief essay, "What is Authority?" for instance, he associates "utility" with "corruption," when he says that even a hypothetical greatest scientific genius, were he to become an "academian," would "lapse... into sluggishness. He loses his spontaneity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy characteristic of the grandest geniuses, ever called to destroy old tottering worlds and lay the foundations of new. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he loses in power of thought. In a word, he becomes corrupted." This is, again, a somewhat aesthetic critique of utility. But it also points out the lack of autonomy, of self-directedness, of creativity, of art, of style, of a person whose morality consists only of the rational calculation of what is best for the greatest number. Bakunin, too, explored a kind of dark Biblical hermeneutics, such as when he identified the snake in the garden of Eden as the hero of that story, at the beginning of God and the State.
We might also mention here that group that must have been an influence, one way or another, on later goth movements - namely, the Russian Nihilists. Well-known for dressing all in black and smoking cigarettes, they were also known to have short, bizarrely cut hair and wear blue-tinted glasses. They flaunted religious custom and also the traditional roles of the sexes.
But of course the name with which we will have to contend most of all is Friedrich Nietzsche. Space does not permit me a full treatment of the complexity of the subject here - I will have to take it up again, somewhere else. But quickly: Nietzsche takes up the theme of happiness again and again in his writings - most obviously with his suspicion towards the "Last Men" - those who claim to have "discovered happiness - and blink thereby." Rejecting the Last Men, Nietzsche took up the cause of the "Great Despisers." He wrote, "What is the greatest thing one can experience? It is the hour of great contempt. The hour in which even your happiness grows loathsome to you - and your reason and your virtue also. It this hour in which you say, 'What good is my happiness? It is poverty and dirt and miserable ease. But my happiness should justify existence itself!'"
And there are many people we could point to in this grand tradition, from Emma Goldman, the anarchist who took up Nietzsche's ideas, to Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the great "Brightsided" - a book that wonderfully takes down positivity, optimism, and the American happiness industry. Leo Strauss, in his lectures on Plato's Symposium - which literally means "drinking together" and recounts Socrates and his friends exchanging odes on erotic divinity, remarks that for Plato, the great competitor to philosophy is not religion or science but "poetry, especially tragedy." Socrates can then be thought of as taking up the cause of the love of wisdom, whereas goths can be understood as the opposition, the perspective of tragedy. (Nietzsche, in his "Birth of Tragedy" traces tragedy to the "spirit of music" in Dionysian dithyrambs, reveling in "Silenian wisdom" - that "What is best is... not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is - to die soon." But Nietzsche wrote "The Birth of Tragedy" when he was still under the spell of the pessimist Schopenhauer, before he had developed his own more life-affirming philosophy.)
In any case, happiness is a very, very stupid goal. Happiness is something that humans produce. But production is not the same as purpose. Saying that the purpose of a human is happiness is like saying that the purpose of an automobile is exhaust. It may not be simple to prove it wrong (because it's difficult to prove anything about the "purpose" of a human being, if such a thing as purpose even exists), but it's obvious to everyone with any sense that it completely misses the point. Wittgenstein is reported to have said, "I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves."
What does all of this mean for a political movement?
First of all, no more wheedling, no more cajoling, no more moralizing. Moralism is the death of any real political movement.
No more personal interest stories, no more heartfelt baring of souls. Don't ask me to feel anything. Goth politics is not about "commitment" or "determination" or any of the other existential hogwash that Sartre is always going on about. It's not about hippie notions of species being or pious belief in anything bigger or higher than us lowly people. Don't ask me to love my neighbor. Don't tell me to love humanity. Don't tell me to be enthusiastic, and above all don't tell me to hope.
I don't believe in a better, future world. There will be no utopia.
But that doesn't matter. The struggle is here, and now.
Absolute opposition to anyone who could think that humans are happiness-maximizing machines - and especially to anyone who thinks that happiness comes in little quantifiable units that we can simply add up (and that are delivered to us in the form of commodities - and therefore, that the more of these commodities we acquire, the happier we will be).
Anyways, happiness is overrated. Often, when we are happy, we don't even notice
it. It's only in retrospect that we realize that we were happy. That
may sound depressing but it's not a bad thing. We are happiest when we
are fully engaged in something. Afterwards, when we are no longer fully
engaged in it, we may take the time for self-reflection to see how it
enthralled us. But during the act there is no time for self-reflection,
and in a certain sense no self. We are the act. We are fully given
over to the process itself. Happiness is a by-product of this process,
not its primary aim or purpose.
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Maybe you must, Camus, if that makes things easier for you. If that makes you happy. I tend to imagine Sisyphus miserable. But his misery is better than the utilitarians' happiness.
See also: Wickedness Makes Life Worth Living
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