[Translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-11, GegenStandpunkt Verlag, Munich]
Letter to the editors
“I have a question which has interested me and repeatedly provoked a great deal of thought in relation to your use and meaning of the concept of altruism.
I listen to lectures by the GegenStandpunkt editors with interest because they are often more accessible than the written articles. Peter Decker (among others) dealt with this concept and came to the conclusion (among others) that it – I’m saying this now in my own words – is in a certain sense incorrect because it is morally motivated, thus ultimately useless as a tool of thought and action for living together in a community.
Now however I ask myself to what extent holding lectures is not also ultimately the result of an altruistic stance in the positive (good) sense. If I say for example, 'workers are exploited,' what actually bothers me about that, if I am not exploited myself? I mean it is nevertheless quite obvious that precisely those who are constantly talked about often see their situation in a completely different way. They do not necessarily suffer only because I think that they would suffer in their situation.
Is therefore the concern to enlighten people (with lectures or articles) about their situation, namely that they are used for the purpose of the enrichment of others, etc. – not also altruistically motivated, driven by a very abstract human kindness or sympathy, the concern about the well-being of an abstract other?
The question is important to me because on this point GegenStandpunkt seems fundamentally self-contradictory.”
Answer of the editorial staff
You have doubts about moral values; altruistically motivated human kindness seems “very abstract” to you and involves the danger – hence your suspicion of us – of paternalism. You ask whether altruism is good as a “tool of thought or action for living together in a community” and do not find a clear answer from us, but rather a contradiction between theory and practice. However, with this question you have already misunderstood our critique of morality.
We are not searching for maxims of good deeds, we do not want to stipulate how people should or ought to behave in order to live together better, we do not imagine basic rules of decency for the new non-capitalistic person, but rather analyze thought and behavior in this society as it really is. Our critique of altruism does not say that it is no good for the construction of a new society, but rather that it is very good, indeed essential, for the world of capitalistic exploitation. Morality is the affirmative stance towards the antagonism of interests in this society, nothing less than the alternative to its criticism.
The categorical imperative of morality is this: Think not (only) of yourself, but always (also) of others. The precept would be pointless if it did not come from an antagonism of interests: If I pursue my well-being, I pass over the well-being of others or even damage it or make it impossible; however, if I make the welfare of others my concern, my own more or less falls by the wayside. This antagonism is not an incidental not-fitting-together of interests, such as civics conjures up with its human-all-to-human examples along the lines of: one person wants to listen to loud music, while the neighbor wants his rest. It is however also not necessarily due to a human need structure that is irreconcilable in the abstract. It is ever-present and necessary only in the society of private property. You take over the formulation that the wage-laborers, who own nothing but themselves, are used by the owners of the means of production “for the purpose of their enrichment.” They must augment the property of the wealthy, bring in more money than their cost in wages, in order to be allowed to work for their livelihoods. Everything else in this system is “ineffecient” and “unprofitable,” and is scotched. The wage-laborers fill their economic role all the better the more they work in an hour and the lower the wage they receive for it is. The worse their pay, the more profitable their work is for their employers. If something is necessary for the profitability of their capital, there is no unethical misconduct. To utilize labor-power in such a way is the first right of the owner of capital and actually essential to maintain existing capital assets. Secondly, on the side of the ethical hiring of workers, no difference is to be seen between the capitalist and his employees: They also agree to the employment contract only because of their private monetary interests and seek their own advantage in the antagonistic relationship.
The difference exists not in moral maxims, but rather completely and utterly in the economic means over which the contracting parties dispose when they pursue their competitive interests. This competition, as a principle of social interaction, would not exist if it were not supplemented by the moderation of antagonisms and limitations on mutual damage. With its monopoly of force, the state ensures that the capitalistic private interests put up with each other and that their antagonisms don’t destroy the whole business: It is the state which first lays down the citizens’ pursuit of private interests, authorizes their conflict and also sets its limits – not according to the stipulation that nobody is damaged, but rather because it regards the preservation and productivity of the capitalist order as necessary. The capitalist organization of society is complete with the legal authorization and limitation of interests: It determines that the natural materialism of the person, his pursuit of useful goods, satisfaction of needs and comfort can exist in no other form other than as private interests which deny and step over other private interests.
The ruled allow themselves to be strictly set towards private monetary interests. They make it their concern because they are only permitted to act on their materialism in this way. And they accept the restrictions which the law sets on their interest, because only under these conditions can they pursue their advantage. They obey the law not only because violations are punishable by force, but because they see that their freedom ends where the freedom of others begins, and their self-interest must be limited so that it can be pursued. In this way, they subjectivize the quintessence of the law into virtues which they know they are obligated to if they want to compete for their advantage. As moral individuals, the most well-behaved people who submit to everything obey only themselves and conversely set themselves up as overseers and watchdogs over their surrounding world near and far: And what are others permitted to do? Do they subordinate themselves to the required decency and good mores as they themselves do? There is plenty to judge, because moral individuals have alternatives in their fleshing out of social roles: one can exploit all legal possibilities of enrichment up to their limit and beyond; by contrast, a consensus-oriented citizen tries not to damage the interests of others more than is absolutely necessary and makes concessions for what is enforceable if he can afford it. After and alongside their money-making, socially conscious people sometimes help those who have failed in the competition, and sacrifice time and money to do so. In this society, the most normal human sympathy is still not a matter of course: sympathy costs! The most considerate or inconsiderate practice of the unity of decency and the pursuit of success is obviously not a refusal of, and much less an elimination of, the objective capitalistic antagonism of interests, but rather the way these antagonisms between free, self-confident individuals operate, and thereby define their social cohesion.
Morality turns this relation on its head: because they have incorporated legal restraints into their convictions and beliefs, free citizens in their social intercourse follow nothing but their moral compass in their respective assessment of the eligibility of their own claims and those of others. They deny that they simply mentally reconstruct the objective constraints of their capitalistic sources of income, and blame their antagonisms on their conflicting human nature. They behave as if the selfish behavior of their beloved fellow human beings is what brought the antagonisms into the world, and if people would only behave responsibly then the antagonism of interests would not arise in the first place. For them it always depends on the individual and his morality; in all associations and strata, according to their wisdom, it takes “all kinds.” Nevertheless, the moral commandments of self-restriction and consideration in the pursuit of interests already reveal the fact that their hostile nature is assumed and is also not meant to be removed. The moral ideal promises merely and simply that these interests, in all their antagonism with each other, could co-exist if people would only limit themselves.
The demonstration of one’s own modesty and the obligation of others to the same is certainly not a renunciation of the interest, but rather the morally obligated form to pursue it and deal with antagonisms. Conversely, the moral individual insists that in his actions he has always thought of the affected persons and the necessary consideration has been taken into account in order to claim an open road for his interest in this way: nobody can raise valid objections against it. On the one hand, moral people claim that they themselves adapt out of their own insight the reins which the law places on them, and put these constraints above their own interests. On the other hand, they use their readiness to renounce the inconsiderate assertion of individual interests as the means of asserting these interests. In the contradiction they sort biasedly: They hold themselves good for showing consideration out of conviction, and with others they see the same thing as hypocrisy. Thus the consciousness of righteousness is not a suspension of mutual damage, but the good conscience with which it operates: the members of this society are permitted to do what they do, and can do no wrong to anybody if they pursue their advantage – so long as they justify their actions to themselves and others in moral principles, i.e. if they can “take responsibility” for them. And everybody can do that. In addition, it requires only the cheaply had assurance that one has not forgotten to validate one’s own purposes with higher principles. The entrepreneur, for example, who fires employees to lower his labor costs and increase his profit margin does not forget to justify all this with his responsibility for the people who depend on him: had he not brought the costs down and whipped the competitive ability of his business into shape, even more jobs would be at stake. He “must” – unfortunately – axe the earnings of some people in order to save others’ source of income. Everybody answers for what they do in the fashion of this entrepreneur. Doctors, politicians and workers on the shop floor maintain a dignified consciousness of what they perform for others and the general public, and that they therefore have a right to what they are able to get out of the competition.
Egoism and altruism were not mentioned at all because these “isms” are not elements of lived morality, but rather ideological constructs created by the moral judgments and condemnations: it appraises persons and their actions, while it leads back to one of two opposing fundamental orientations: does he think only of himself or does he concern himself with the welfare of others? The question rips asunder what in morality always appears in combination, because morality is not the opposite of interest and not on the other side of it, but is rather a subordination under the commands of the state that one accepts. The decisive question of whether egoism or altruism are present somewhere misjudges both sides of the contradictory capitalistic private materialism.
Isolated in themselves, the radicalized alternatives of moral posturing are absurd abstractions: in the reproach of egoism, bourgeois people accuse others of only having their own interests in mind and not also the restraint of those interests, which would make the interests socially acceptable. However, an unchecked interest, regardless of its content, is asocial selfishness. Not what one wants (and asserts against others) but rather that one wants something for one’s self and not at the same time also its negation, is supposed to be the sin: materialism in the abstract is condemned as bad. At the same time, the critics of egoism know that they themselves of course want to satisfy their interests – and not restrict them. However, they hold the view that they would have to renounce them if they wanted to be truly good.
Altruism, the positive counter-ideal, declares selflessness, renunciation and sacrifice as attributes of the perfect person. In an altruistic world, well-being would also be important, strangely however never one’s own but rather that of others. As sure as moral idealists know that they cannot renounce egoism, they just as surely know they cannot live altruism. Exceptional persons, e.g. jungle doctors and nuns, who seem earnest with their altruism – “I want to serve, not make money!” – are sneered at because of their unworldliness or suspected of indulging in a quite unusual form of selfishness. Whenever altruism appears as an actual reason for doing something, it arouses mistrust.
In the moral ideals bourgeois people compose, uncritically towards the systematic antagonism of interests of their mode of production, a criticism of man and a picture of the “good community” which they know is not of this world and must remain an ideal. They allow the consciousness that they live wrong, but they can’t live otherwise, for the simple reason that they themselves are wrong.
You yourself are entangled in moral thinking and judging when you attempt to infer the meaning and authorization of actions by tracing them back to egoistic or altruistic motives. Instead of examining the contents of our lectures and texts, you carry out research into our motivation and intend to find out if you can determine whether with us good will is at work.
You explain our efforts to criticize capitalism, in which no monetary gain is to be seen, as an activity of unselfish motives. However, barely have you ascertained that, according to your coordinates, altruism is on hand with us, which for some mysterious reason we ourselves do not admit to, the matter becomes dubious to you: Is there real altruism anyway? “What bothers me about the exploitation of the workers, if I myself am not exploited?” Why are people concerned with the interests of others when they are not affected by them? Do they perhaps approach the workers as enlighteners, and talk them into a discontent and a suffering that they don’t actually have at all? The Marxist ennobled into an altruist quickly mutates into a self-appointed guardian of his own stringent standards for what others have to require from life, and his diagnosis a possibly invalid conclusion drawn from them. Yes, if wage-laborers criticized exploitation, they would have a credible selfish motive; but they do not see their situation this way. However, those who do see it this way but are not in this situation, don’t have their own reason, and therefore in fact have no reason at all, to criticize: with your question about who has the motive, reason and right to denounce exploitation, you do nothing less than deny its objectivity.
Moreover, you also misjudge our relationship to the exploited. There is no altruistic proxy, no compassion and no sympathy for the less well-off. We criticize these people. Above all, we do not talk them into a discontent which they do not have, but rather criticize the moral interpretations they give to their discontent: their sighs for justice, which the powerful figures in the state and the economy should strive to obtain for them, their anger over the mismanagers and career politicians who do not correctly perform their allegedly beneficial services, their pride in their proletarian righteousness and their certainty that they aren’t making a mistake if they allow anything to be done with them.
Your letter is less interested in our criticism of capitalism, in its participants and its mores, than in the motives which drive us to this criticism. This disconnection is wrong, because the criticism contains all that is needed to “motivate” the refusal of this economic mode. It is also summarized quite poorly with the meager quintessence: “exploitation of the workers.” The entire life-process of the society is subjected to the economic purpose of turning money into more money; and it is not only the blue-collar workers who are dependent on wages. Those who advance in the hierarchy of occupations as salaried employees or self-employed persons are rewarded less grueling work and higher incomes for fulfilling useful functions for the exploitation of the blue-collar workers. Among other things, these consist in preparing them for their roles (teachers), keeping them healthy (doctors), making them productive on the job (engineers), calculating their cost to the companies and driving them towards efficiency with money and management (management experts), administering them in social institutions (civil servants) and generally overseeing them (the legal system). Nobody escapes the relations of exploitation – whether as a cooperating culprit, victim, or both at once. The life of the higher-earners is also determined by the fight for money; and the criticism of this fetish of the private power of disposal over society’s capacity for growth becomes neither incorrect nor superfluous simply because some people have enough of it.
Discontent with the capitalistic relation is therefore easy to come by. Nothing comes from it, but rather from what one makes of it. And only one thing is to be demanded of it: the criticism must be correct.
In this respect, it all depends on whether someone regards something that stinks as theoretically settled when he frowns on it with the yardstick of the morally acceptable and in addition still thinks that what shouldn’t be would not have to be if people only made an effort and controlled their egoism. Appeals to humanity and demands for what should and should not be are a dime a dozen; they accompany capitalistic society from its inception and accomplish only one thing: with them the one who criticizes places himself in the right. He is full of good intentions; it is the others who spoil their coexistence.
Marxist criticism does not bemoan that the world is not as it should be, but rather explains why and how it is. It takes the same ills which everyone deplores, and leads them back to their reasons and demonstrates their necessity on the basis of the mode of organization of this society. This is useful in so far as those who object to these ills know what they have to turn against and what is necessary to stop it.
In doing this, we come across one thing: many people may want to get rid of capitalism, but only the wage-laborers can do what is necessary for it: with their work, they perpetually sustain and reproduce the economic and political power which compels them into its service. They not only have good reasons, but also the means to overturn the conditions which don’t suit us. There you have our reason why we “constantly” speak to the workers about their economic position.