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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Limits of Ethics

The latest Speaking of Faith featured another discussion of values in relation to the economic crisis, this time with Quaker intellectual Parker Palmer. I was moved to submit the following comment:

I just read Sidney Hook's book Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation, and it's got me fired up about reasserting certain truths. And this applies very much to today's show.

An executive may come away from a retreat feeling transformed, but he then goes back to the need to function in the capitalist marketplace. A passion to be more ethical can't erase the insecurity built into this system and, unless one is altruistic to a suicidal degree, there's often little one can do without changing the property relations that are responsible for this insecurity.

This relates to what Palmer said about the different forms of violence. The central violence in our society is the systematic denial, with the state's backing, of people's access to the means of production, so that those who monopolize that access -- the "owners" -- are empowered, and in a competitive market therefore compelled, to set extortive terms for that access (whence profits come).

Changing the economy does in fact depend on changing social relations in the workplace, as Palmer suggests. But this requires more than good will. It necessitates changing the power structure at the point of production.

Some businesspeople may be in a position to start this process unilaterally and outside of "politics," by legally creating a workers' collective and then handing title to their business over to it. Mostly this will apply only to those who hold a business privately. Even in those cases, however, it may be difficult for such enterprises to survive in competition with capitalist business, as long as the legal system is set up in the latter's favor.

Meanwhile, for workers it's the rule, not the exception, that ethical action is also self-interested. Collective action by workers, both through union activity and labor-led politics, advances democracy in the workplace and equity in income distribution, increasing the rationality with which resources are allocated by prioritizing investment in necessities over luxuries. Thus society as a whole benefits from workers' acting collectively in our self-interest.

Probably the main thing that most businesspeople can do to take ethical responsibility is to support the labor movement in its industrial and political struggles, up to and including the seizure of state power which alone will enable the final eradication of capitalist insecurity and irrationality.

Eric Hamell

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Quote of the Month

Whatever the drives and impulses which constitute his animal nature, man's human nature is revealed only in a socially determined context, in which the biological pattern functions as only one constituent element of the whole .... [S]elfishness is selfishness, and power is power; but a selfishness and power that assert themselves in a system ... in which the legal right to prevent others from using land and machines means the material power to condemn them to poverty and death, are different kinds of selfishness and power from those which express themselves within a socialized economy, guaranteeing to all who are capable and willing to work, the right to life and subsistence. -- Sidney Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation.