6 Political Theorists Introduced in Animated “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Harvey’s Course on Marx’sCapital: Vol­umes 1 & 2 Now Avail­able Free Online

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

Alain de Botton’s School of Life Presents Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to Hei­deg­ger, The Sto­ics & Epi­cu­rus

East­ern Phi­los­o­phy Explained with Three Ani­mat­ed Videos by Alain de Botton’s School of Life

Leo Strauss: 15 Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es Online

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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