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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Petite philosophie de la crise

by Jean-Paul Jouary, Philosopher

A Short Philosophy of the Crisis

Why is capitalism immoral in its very principle?

Translated Tuesday 18 November 2008, by Isabelle Métral

If the current situation seems politically lamentable, economically disastrous and socially problematic, its philosophy at least turns out to be most interesting. Two concepts are being used jointly in quite a novel way. The concept of “the real economy” first, then the concept of "morality".

If the current situation seems politically lamentable, economically disastrous and socially problematic, its philosophy at least turns out to be most interesting. Two concepts are being used jointly in quite a novel way. The concept of “the real economy” first: the same free-market enthusiasts of several persuasions and the same journalists who for decades –since supply-side economics came into office –reeled off rhapsody after rhapsody on how the global financial market alone could boost the economy have just discovered that the present financial crisis is hurting “the real economy”. Could it be that the free play of financial powers had after all – in real fact – nothing to do with the economy? Then the concept of “morality” - the blame for this cataclysm - should be laid on a few ”rogues” who wormed their way into a basically virtuous or impartial system (so the various versions go) so that all that were needed were “to moralize capitalism”. It must be said that our philosophers laureate – who are the media’s favourite guests all year round - keep churning out theory after theory on these paradoxes, either by singing the praises of the existing system or by proclaiming that politics, economics and morality should be kept strictly separate; or again by playing the role of the pseudo-rebels so much in favour with the mighty.

Let’s look briefly at more modern philosophies. Karl Marx had of course thoroughly analysed the contradictions that plague capital in proportion as it accumulates, as well as the consequences for those that create it by their physical or intellectual labour. But then Marx is dead to be sure. Before him, Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed in his Projet de constitution pour la Corse (Proposal for a Constitution for Corsica) that the more eminent the role played by currency in any society, the wider the gap between rich and poor and the poorer the poor. But then Rousseau‘s dead and buried, sure enough.

Let’s try to find someone who can never be suspected of having a soft spot for totalitarianism, someone who has been for several thousand years associated with the greatest religious intuitions: in the fourth century BC Aristotle distinguished and opposed two functions of currency. When currency proves to be indispensable to trade, as providing a convenient and non-perishable general equivalent, it remains “in accordance with nature” even though it is a convention: so Aristotle granted in his Politics(I) . But when currency becomes the beginning and the end of trade, then it takes on an altogether different function of wealth creation that “runs contrary to nature”. The instances he mentions are interest-bearing loans and monopolies.

And true it is that in the former case, currency is a means between two human needs that the exchange is meant to meet, and that in the latter it is the origin and end of the exchange, the human needs being only the means by which some will acquire wealth to the detriment of others.

Twenty-five centuries later, when modern capitalism has enshrined this perversion as the sole logic of all social relations, what our smart political analysts and leaders profess to discover and to lament is the domination of pure currency circulation over “the real economy”. How can that logic be possibly “moralized” when its very principle subordinates human lives to imperatives of financial profitability that have nothing to do with human needs or values? The Roman branch of Christianity did remember Aristotle when it condemned all the trades that encouraged monetary speculation. And even today, the Church keeps reaffirming this basic principle.

Instead of rhapsodizing about how there can be no morality outside religion, Presidents George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy (supposing they care about this in the least) had better ponder this truth: Christian values are incompatible with the very principle of capitalism. If Kant laid down the prerequisite for all morality as being the necessity always to consider man as an end and never as a means only, then capitalism is immoral in its very principle, and not only in the rogues’ excesses. It matters not that the media’s pet philosophers, or that our true-bred right-wingers or soft left-wingers, or radical centrists may object.

But let us not turn our noses up at the progress of human thought: it has at last been firmly and universally established that finance is not the real economy, and that the contradiction between them is immoral. Yes, it has been said. How long before the next step?

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