Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 17 April 2020



It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Simone Weil's La condition ouvriere (1951) is the only book in the huge
literature on the labor question which deals with the problem without prejudice and sentimentality. She chose as the
motto for her diary, relating from day to day her experiences in a factory, the line from Homer: poll' aekadzomene,
kratere d'epikeisef anagke ("much against your own will, since necessity lies more mightily upon you"), and concludes
that the hope for an eventual liberation from labor and necessity is the only Utopian element of Marxism and at the
same time the actual motor of all Marx- inspired revolutionary labor movements. It is the "opium of the people" which
Marx had believed religion to be. (Arendt, HC, p.131.)

The opposite of freedom is not necessity: the true opposite of freedom is coercion. (Cf. H.Arendt,
On Revolution.) Indeed, without necessity, from the environment or from society, freedom itself
would have no meaning, and it would most certainly hold no value for humans. We can only
perceive freedom, be aware of it and need it, if there are bounds to our ambition. Freedom is the
ambit of our will. Necessity – whether imposed by nature or by our social being – is the boundary
that makes freedom possible: it is both the con-dition (literally, boundary, border) and the
condiment (the added ingredient, the flavour) of freedom. At its broadest, the domain of free-dom
– the range of action available to us - is bounded by our con-flict with nature and with other human
beings. We are not “free” to do the im-possible. Equally, we are not “free” to do what contravenes
the free-dom (the domain of freedom) of others. Nature and society impose conflicts on our will
and on our wishes. Yet, these conflicts need not be destructive: indeed, the very notion of con-flict
suggests that there is always a con-tention, a com-petition over some disputed goal or pursuit –
which in and of itself implies the possibility of com-promise, of agreement or harmony, if not un￾animity (one soul, unity of purpose).

Freedom therefore requires the exercise of judgement to have any practical meaning and effect in
terms of (a) not attempting the im-possible with regard to nature, and (b) not co-ercing others in
the social sphere. The social question, the domain of freedom, is exquisitely political. Contra
Schmitt, we could say that the Political is not determined by the schism between “friends and
foes”, which presumes the ne-cessity (no stepping back by antagonistic parties) of social conflict,
but rather by the process of determining the domain of freedom on rational grounds of human
inter-est, of that inter homines esse (living with other humans) that is constitutive of human being.
Perhaps one of the most important advances that Marx’s novel social theory accomplished for
humanity was precisely to have identified this “species-conscious being” (the Gattungs-wesen) that
distinguishes human beings from other species in the animal kingdom. (In contrast, one of the
biggest mistakes Hannah Arendt makes in her critique of Marx is to confuse his undeniable
immanentist materialism with his somewhat concurrent reduction of the zoon politikon [Arendt’s
homo faber] to the animal sociale [Arendt’s animal laborans]. As we conceded earlier, we agree
with Arendt that Marx collapsed human development into a near-mechanical process more akin to
the animal sociale of Thomist tradition, mixing up thus what Habermas, after Arendt, sought to
keep neatly apart as labor and interaction [cf. his Theory and Practice, and then Knowledge and
Human Interest]. Yet this strained distinction reflects and perpetuates the old Platonic chorismos
of Body and Soul which, as we sought to establish in “The Philosophy of the Flesh”, has no basis
whatsoever in reality.)

The Political, then, does not have to be an antagonistic pursuit but rather can become a co-operative quest to various degrees. For every ant-agonism has an agon (a disputandum) that is
common to the parties, just as every com-petition has a common pursuit, and every con-flict has an
object that the parties “strike” – just as every con-tention has a common “tendency”, a “bone of
contention”, or “an axe to grind”, as it were.

It is precisely in this rationalist and materialist social perspective that Simone Weil tackles the
concept of freedom as a practical guide to combatting social oppression and coercion for the
greater emancipation of social life. The first practical task, of course, is to confront the teleological
aspect of Marx’s critique of capitalism – a bias that he inherited from German Classical Idealism –
something that Schopenhauer first, then Nietzsche and Kierkegaard later were to attack and
demolish. Weil continues in that vein, attacking the uncritical teleological and utopian elements in
Marx’s critique. True, Marx’s materialism is commendable in that it lays proper emphasis on the
very material necessity of labor for human beings to be able to reproduce themselves: -

La grande idée de Marx, c'est que dans la société aussi bien que dans la nature rien ne s'effectue autrement que par
des transformations matérielles. « Les hommes font leur propre histoire, mais dans des conditions déterminées. »
Désirer n'est rien, il faut connaître les conditions matérielles qui déterminent nos possibilités d'action ; et dans le
domaine social, ces conditions sont définies par la manière dont l'homme obéit aux nécessités matérielles en
subvenant à ses propres besoins, autrement dit par le mode de production. (Weil, Reflexions, p.17.)

Yet Marx then proceeds quite unjustifiably to assume that it is possible for human beings to escape
this yoke of human prehistory and to develop the means to exploit an unyielding nature by
developing “the forces of production”. All prior human history is for Marx a record of this struggle
with nature – this Hegelian objectification – that was necessary hitherto because of the limited
ability of humans to secure the reproduction of society without toil – a toil that takes the form of
oppressive social institutions. But whereas this social oppression was in countless ways necessary
up to the present, the historical task and destiny of capitalism is to evolve society out of the need
for social oppression and co-ercion to be exerted by the few over the many precisely in the ergonomic sphere, the sphere of labor and production and, thence, of distribution of the social
product. It is this teleological and quasi-eschatological notion of social evolution that Weil disputes
most strenuously:

Marx n'explique jamais pourquoi les forces productives tendraient à s'accroître ; en admettant sans preuve cette
tendance mystérieuse, il s'apparente non pas à Darwin, comme il aimait à le croire, mais à Lamarck, qui fondait
pareillement tout son système biologique sur une tendance inexplicable des êtres vivants à l'adaptation. De même
pourquoi est-ce que, lorsque les institutions sociales s'opposent au développement des forces productives, la victoire
devrait appartenir d'avance à celles-ci plutôt qu'à celles-là ? [Reflexions, p.15]

It is not the case that animals living close to human settlements become domesticated, and
therefore adapt to the presence of humans in order to survive. This is not Darwin: this is Lamarck!
Quite to the contrary, it is only those animals that are genetically endowed to co-exist with humans
– even with the assistance and breeding or extermination of their rivals by humans – that
“domesticated” animals survive all other species! As Weil quite intelligently points out, Marx
confused Darwin with Lamarck and thus falsely believed that his critique of capitalism was the
application in the social sphere of Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. Confusing
Darwin’s with Lamarck’s theory, Marx believed that natural selection is a result of the willful efforts
of each species to adapt! By so doing, he incurred two fundamental errors: the first was to believe
that human beings are masters of their destiny vis-à-vis their natural environment, in such a way
that nature is an ob-ject (a Gegen-stand, a standing opposite) for humans to bend to their wishes.
And the second error was to think therefore that humans can do no harm to nature because “the
development of the forces of production” is (a) linearly measurable, and (b) an infinite progressus.
The materiality of thought is confirmed by its imaginative limitations, including logic, and by its
dependence on action for the enactment of its content or projects. (We cite logic here not because
thought is bound by “the laws of logic” – for there are no suh “laws” given that logic is pure
tautology – “nothing”. Rather, and paradoxically, we cite logic as a pointer to the materiality of
thought for precisely the opposite reason! And that is that thought can be illogical in its
meanderings. It is the fallibility of thought, not its adherence to the “laws” of logic [contra
Wittgenstein] that demonstrates how “materially fallible” thought is! Only something material
cannot both be and not-be [cf. Bertrand Russell’s principle of non-contradiction: “Whatever is,

It follows that freedom is not the ability to satisfy a desire – because that desire may not have been
prompted “freely” or spontaneously; it may have been induced compulsively “from without”. In
the latter case, such consequent actions are “thoughtless” or mechanical precisely because the
being that enacts them is not thinking reflectively, is not objectifying its own thoughts into action.

On peut entendre par liberté autre chose que la possibilité d'obtenir sans effort ce qui plaît. Il existe une conception
bien différente de la liberté, une conception héroïque qui est celle de la sagesse commune. La liberté véritable ne se
définit pas par un rapport entre le désir et la satisfaction, mais par un rapport entre la pensée et l'action ; serait tout à
fait libre l'homme dont toutes les actions procéderaient d'un jugement préalable concernant la fin qu'il se propose et
l'enchaînement des moyens propres à amener cette fin. Peu importe que les actions en elles-mêmes soient aisées ou
douloureuses, et peu importe même qu'elles soient couronnées de succès ; la douleur et l'échec peuvent rendre
l'homme malheureux, mais ne peuvent pas l'humilier aussi longtemps que c'est lui-même qui dispose de sa propre faculté d'agir. (p.60)

Human freedom is therefore bounded, on one side, by natural necessity, and on the other, by
political limits involving the wills of other human beings. The determination of the domain of
freedom is the true constitution of the Political – in terms of (a) the rationality of thought, and, (b),
even more important, its autonomy. It follows that freedom is necessarily a political notion in that
all human activities, including thought, are materially political actions. The boundaries to human
freedom set by our ability to put our thoughts into action are immediately and necessarily political
because they affect the lives, thoughts and actions of other humans: our being human is a human
inter-est, inter homines esse, a being among humans, and therefore political.
Because thought is material, Freedom – which is the essence of thought - is by no means the
absence of necessity. Human existence would have no meaning without freedom and freedom
would have no meaning without being bounded by necessity, as Weil helpfully explains:

Si l'on devait entendre par liberté la simple absence de toute nécessité, ce mot serait vide de toute signification
concrète ; mais il ne représenterait pas alors pour nous ce dont la privation ôte à la vie sa valeur. Mais le fait même de
ne pouvoir rien obtenir sans avoir mis en action, pour le conquérir, toutes les puissances de la pensée et du corps,
permettrait à l'homme de s'arracher sans retour à l'emprise aveugle des passions. Une vue claire du possible et de
l'impossible, du facile et du difficile, des peines qui séparent le projet de l'accomplissement efface seule les désirs
insatiables et les craintes vaines ; de là et non d'ailleurs procèdent la temperance [61]et le courage, vertus sans
lesquelles la vie n'est qu'un honteux délire.

Without an external necessity imposed on our free will by the environment and by society, human
life would be nothing other than a delirium – quite an appropriate word because thus we would
cross the “lyra”, the boundary that marks the end of the human community. In other words, our
will would no longer be “free” precisely because of its unrestrained and unconstrained ambit: our
freedom would lack the catechon, the containment of volition that is the indispensable foundation
of contentment.
But what are the bases or, if you like, the con-ditions of free will and of its “rationality”?

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