“It may come as a surprise to some academics,” writes leftist political theorist Michael Parenti in his sprawling textbook Democracy for the Few, “but there is a marked relationship between economic power and political power.” Parenti exaggerates—I have never met such an academic in a humanities department, though it may be true in the worlds of political philosophy and political science.
Yet in centuries past, philosophers and scholars had no trouble drawing conclusions about the intertwining of the political and the economic. One may immediately think of Karl Marx, who—according to the above video from a new School of Life series on famous political theorists—was “capitalism’s most famous and ambitious critic.” The practical effects of Marx’s political ideas may be anathema for good reason, Alain de Botton admits, but his economic analysis deserves continued attention.
“Capitalism is going to have to be reformed,” de Botton says, “and Marx’s analyses are going to be part of any answer.” One might imagine many academics objecting to his certainty. Marx’s relevance is in question across the political spectrum, in part because the kind of capitalism he so painstakingly documented is hardly recognizable to us now.
70 years before Marx diagnosed the social and economic ills of Victorian capitalism, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith made similar observations of its 18th century precursor. Regularly cited in defense of so-called free market principles, Smith’s Wealth of Nations as often shows how little freedom actually exists in capitalist societies because of the undue influence of “the masters” and the hyper-specialization of the work force, who were unable in Smith’s time, and often in ours, to organize for their mutual interests.
Smith may not have gone as far as Marx in his conclusions, but he did advocate progressive taxation and a robust welfare state. In the 20th century, John Rawls argued for a stricter standard of political and economic equality than Smith’s appeal to sympathy. Rawls’ 1971 Theory of Justice introduced a “simple, economical, and polemical way to show people how their societies were unfair”: the “veil of ignorance.”
This thought experiment asks us to eliminate unfairness by presuming we might potentially have been born into the circumstances of any other living person on earth. Though it may not be particularly apparent, Rawls’ ideas have had some influence on policy. As de Botton points out above, he dined regularly at the Clinton White House. But his principles haven’t much changed the way we live our economic lives, in part because of his critique of the rags-to-riches story, almost a sacred myth in American society.
Like Adam Smith, Henry David Thoreau’s politics seem a little harder to pin down. A contemporary of Marx, Thoreau thought in terms of the individual, penning perhaps a founding text for both hippie homesteaders and survivalists. In Walden—written while he lived alone in a cabin on land owned by his friend and patron Ralph Waldo Emerson—Thoreau makes the case for near total self-reliance. In his Civil Disobedience, he writes, “I heartily accept the motto—‘That government is best which governs least.’”
Thoreau also believed “That government is best which governs not at all.” Yet, despite its author’s fierce libertarian bent (he refused to pay his taxes on principle), Civil Disobedience has served a founding text of progressive social and environmental movements worldwide. Speaking “practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men,” Thoreau went on, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”
De Botton’s series on political theory profiles two more Victorian-era thinkers—poet and writer on political economy William Morris, above, and art and literary critic John Ruskin, below. Both thinkers—with rarified focus on craft and aesthetics—made their own critiques of capitalism from positions of relative luxury. Though the School of Life series doesn’t say so directly, it seems as though the six philosophers it surveys—very cursorily, I should add—were chosen as historical counterexamples to the idea that political theorists don’t observe the relationship between the political and the economic. It may be the case today in certain academic departments, but it certainly was not for over the first two hundred years of capitalism’s existence.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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