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‘The capitalist life crisis’ by Jeff Noonan

Reposted from: by Jeff Noonan at Philosophers for Change,

The capitalist life crisis


by Jeff Noonan

The failure of the Durban Conference on Climate Change, (December, 2011) to agree to anything more substantial than that all nations would work together to develop binding targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 is a metonym for the life-crisis besetting globalised capitalism.[1] Because global capitalism subordinates what John McMurtry calls “life-value”  to the expansion and accumulation of  money-value, it progressively undermines the conditions of planetary life-support, human life-requirement satisfaction, and meaningful human life-capacity development and enjoyment.[2]  Resources, relationships, practices, norms, institutions, and forms of life-activity have life-value when they:  a) satisfy objective requirements of human life-maintenance, reproduction, and development, b) thereby enabling the expression and enjoyment of the human life-capacities of sentience, imaginative and cognitive thought, and creative activity in ways which are, c) life-coherent.  McMurtry’s principle of life-coherence asserts that in order to be good, expressions of life-capacity must not only follow from the free choices of the agents who enjoy them, but must also, “consistently enable ecological and human life-together.”[3] In other words, good forms of individual life-capacity expression must contribute to, rather than undermine, the natural field of life-support and the social field of life-development within which individual life-activity is grounded.   The vaunted “liberties” of liberal-capitalist society are blind to the natural and social grounds upon which all good lives ultimately depend.  Hence, capitalism is a system that necessarily generates crisis in all important dimensions of being alive.  In the present essay I will explore the four most fundamental dimensions of capitalist life-crisis and the adequacy of egalitarian liberal, human rights-based cosmopolitan, and twenty-first century socialist responses to them.

Capitalist Life-Crisis in Four Dimensions

The first dimension of capitalist life-crisis, clearly evidenced by the failure of the Durban Conference to set firm limits on greenhouse gas emissions, is the material irrationality of capitalism’s growth dynamic.  Capitalist economies are driven by the system imperative to accumulate money-value in the hands of the owners of natural resources and productive wealth.  Ultimately, this system-requirement for the growth of money-value requires growth of material output, which requires increased energy and scarce resource consumption on the one hand, and increased output of waste on the other.  Unless regulated and limited by life-coherent standards, these processes will exhaust the resources of the earth upon which life depends.  But such is the ruling value system of capitalism that it prioritises the accumulation of money-value over the preservation of the natural field of life-support upon which life and life-value depend.  Hence the money-value system is materially irrational because the long-term operation of the growth dynamics which it legitimates as good for societies and individual selves undermines the material conditions for the existence of either.

The second dimension of life-crisis is the on-going economic crisis—now described by Paul Krugman as a depression—that has, since 2008, savaged the living standards and employment prospects of millions of people across the globe. [4] Lower growth rates in the economies of the Global North  have provided the ideological cover that governments need to justify their continued ignoring of the systemic  causal links connecting capitalist economic growth and the environmental crisis.  For example, Canada’s withdrawal from its Kyoto Protocol commitments was justified by its ruling Conservative government as necessary to ensure the conditions for a return to economic health.  While Canada is an egregious example, no nation in the current period of stagnant global growth rates is willing to impose serious environmental limits on the economy for fear of introducing further instability into the system.  The main policy goal of the foreseeable future is to generate the conditions for renewed growth, even if it means intensifying the potentially planet-destroying long-term implications of capitalism’s materially irrational growth dynamic.

The reason why global ruling classes are desperate to find new means of accelerating economic growth at whatever ecological cost is because the last three years of economic crisis have generated pervasive political struggles.  Hence, the third dimension of capitalist life-crisis is political.  It takes the form of a nagging inability of liberal-democratic regimes and the dictatorships outside the Global North that have served as their allies to contain popular anger and maintain their own legitimacy.  In the Arab World and the Middle East these struggles have become openly revolutionary.  In the Global North, the Occupy Wall Street movement and its off-shoots are exposing the monstrous inequalities that neo-liberal “tax reforms” and coordinated assaults against organised labour have created.  Perhaps more importantly, the Occupy movement has demonstrated the systematic way in which the widening chasm of inequality is correlated with the decline of democratic governance.

Durban again exemplifies the crisis of the global political system.  Since the end of World War Two that system has depended upon liberal-democracy functioning as the guiding light of human historical development—that institutional structure towards which all nations must aspire.  But in Durban governments did not do that which millions of their citizens have long-demanded:  address the long-term environmental threats to the human future.  Instead, they did that which they always do:  allow their decisions to be dictated by the interests of “the Markets.”  The interests of “the Markets”—accumulation of money-value in private hands—is antithetical to the environmental, economic, and political conditions required by the good of human beings—satisfaction of fundamental life-requirements and opportunities for the life-coherent expression and  enjoyment of intrinsically valuable life-capacities.  Liberal-democracy was supposed to be that set of institutions which best enabled the translation of capitalist productivity into equal opportunities for free self-development.  It has turned out, on the contrary, to be just another set of institutions by which privileged classes ensure and perpetuate their rule over exploited and oppressed majorities.  The anti-democratic essence of liberal-democracy has become even more overt in the wake of 9/11, as openly totalitarian  ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation (now including the right of the President of the United States to order anyone, including American citizens, to be indefinitely imprisoned without trial) renders vaunted ‘civil liberties’ meaningless.

At the same time as the police function of the state has been reinforced, its democratic function—the governance of public life in the shared life-interest—has continued to recede.  More and more public functions vital to democracy are off-loaded to the misnamed “private sector.”  In reality this “private sector” is composed of massive money-driven corporations whose aim is to assume control over universally required life-resources and institutions.  If democracy requires collective control over those institutions under which all must live and whose policies shape one’s life-horizons in decisive ways, then democracy is incompatible with the control of legislative agendas by corporate lobbyists, privatised public services, and the overall subservience of decision-making to the ruling mono-value of capitalist society:  the growth and accumulation of money-capital in private hands.

This point returns us to Durban as metonym:  despite mass support for collectively binding agreements to limit greenhouse gases, politicians could not agree.  They could not agree because ultimately they do not serve the majority of people they are supposed to represent, but the corporate interest whose money-value holdings they must protect at all costs.  This subordination of nominally democratic institutions to unaccountable market forces expresses the ultimate failure of liberal-democracy as a vital model of democratic life and an ultimately satisfying value by which future human development might be steered.

From the perspective of the Global North what has been most inspiring, invigorating, and animating about the Arab spring is the beauty of people regaining a sense of the ultimate value of public life.  When we contrast the joy generated by collective struggle with the morose solitary mall-wandering that typifies cultural life in the so-called “advanced” liberal-capitalist democracies the fourth and final dimension of capitalist life-crisis comes into focus.  This dimension is the cultural and spiritual crisis of a mode of human life-organization that has lost its raison d’etre, lost its connection with the deeper values—freedom, equality, justice—that it once affirmed in the face of the fixed hierarchies of the feudal societies it overthrew.  The cultural and spiritual decadence of liberal-capitalist civilization is revealed above all by the complete collapse of meaningful public efforts to build solidarity around collective projects that might reinvest public life with meaning (e.g., a society-wide commitment to a shift to clean energy).  In place of meaningful and inspiring collective projects of life-development are the endless exhortations to people as individuals to shop, to indebt themselves, to do whatever they must do to ensure that the ruling class makes more money– all under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras and the police.  It is thus that a greying, gasping civilization staggers towards its end.

The historical fact that liberal-capitalist society has entered into a period of severe structural life-crisis in these four dimensions does not mean that all of the values which it has purported to serve over its three centuries of existence or all of the institutions of collective life-organization and governance that have evolved within that history cannot serve the shared human life-interests.  The key to the solution of the life-crises in which the people of the world find themselves today depends upon understanding the traditional values of political thought, liberal and socialist, and institutions of collective life-organization and governance as life-values.  The life-value perspective is implicit in the egalitarian liberal critique of unregulated market forces, in the cosmopolitan liberal defence of human rights as the moral foundation of global justice, and in the socialist critique of the economic and political contradictions of capitalism.  But a complete solution to the four dimensions of capitalist life-crisis requires an integrated normative framework of which each of these arguments considered separately and in their own terms expresses only a part.  In order to understand the integrated framework it is best to begin with its more familiar partial expressions in egalitarian liberalism, cosmopolitan globalist justice, and socialist critique.  The need for the integrated alternatives emerges from the blind spots each of these arguments reveals when one tries to employ any one of them separately as the basis for complete understanding of the multidimensional life-crisis described above.


Egalitarian Liberalism and Cosmopolitan Human Rights

The dominant normative framework for evaluating the justice of liberal-capitalist society has been derived, for more than thirty years, from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.  Rawls shifted the study of justice from considerations of the dispositions, motivations, and actions of individuals towards the social institutions that shape and guide individual life-activity.  Hence, with Rawls is born a proper conception of social justice.  In contrast to the justice of individuals, social justice concerns the way in which major social institutions (the “basic structure of society”) distribute what Rawls calls “primary goods.”  Primary goods are “things that every rational individual is presumed to want.  These goods normally have a use whatever a person’s plan of life.  For simplicity’s sake, assume that the chief primary goods at the disposition of society are rights, liberties and opportunities, and wealth and income” [5]

Primary goods are to be distributed according to two principles of social justice, both interpreted in light of the “difference principle”. The two principles of justice are: “Each person is to have equal rights to the most extensive share of equal liberties compatible with a similar scheme for others. Second, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and b) attached to positions and offices open to all.” [6]

While Rawls and his followers believe these principles to be egalitarian in substance and spirit, the difference principle according to which their application is to be interpreted compromises this commitment to equality.  It maintains that inequalities are permissible as incentives to the better off to act so as to ensure that the “economic process is more efficient, [and] innovation proceeds at a faster pace,”  and, in general, becomes more productive, creating more wealth overall, and therefore, a larger pool of resources for the poorer members of society to draw upon.[7]  The material implication of the difference principle is that social institutions are to be harnessed to the goal of money-value growth above all else, a commitment which has, historically, served the interests of ruling classes, not the poor.

While it remains possible to derive from Rawls’ conception of justice a critique of existing distributions of wealth as unjust, it is not possible to derive from Rawls’s work a complete and integrated understanding of the prevailing life-crisis of capitalism in its four dimensions. A close investigation of the key terms of his theory reveals that it is neither critical nor egalitarian in a way that would make a comprehensive difference to the goodness of the lives of the least well off members of capitalist society. The crucial problem is that neither Rawls nor his supporters ever expose and criticise the ruling money-value system of the global capitalist market. Instead, the legitimacy of this value-system is presupposed, and debate confined to arguments over what amount of money should be redistributed from rich to poor, with the deeper problem of control over and use of life-sustaining and life-developing resources never even broached.

In illustration of this problem consider Rawls’s definition of primary goods.  The problem with this definition encapsulates the problem of the subsequent “equality of what” debate.  His definition does not touch upon goods that are primary to human life as such, but goods that are primary to life under liberal-capitalism.  In liberal-capitalist society rights, liberty, and income appear primary, because they are the means by which this system reproduces and legitimates itself.  Human life, by contrast, reproduces and organises itself through collective labour within the natural field of life-support and the social field of life-development.  Judged from the ground of their life-value, different systems of collective labour are legitimate to the extent to which they enable everyone who lives under them to satisfy their real natural and social life-requirements and to express and enjoy their life-capacities in life-coherent ways.  In sum, real primary goods are the resources, practices, relationships and institutions that support and enable meaningful and life-coherent forms of life-activity.

Contra Rawls, primary goods are not relative to particular social systems, and it is not rational to want them in ever-increasing amounts.  Eating unlimited amounts of food is not more healthy than eating required amounts of food.   The amount of primary goods that it is rational to want is the amount that is sufficient for purposes of life-requirement satisfaction and life-coherent capacity enjoyment.  Unlimited demand for primary goods is materially irrational because appropriation of scarce life-goods at unsustainable levels undermines the possibility of on-going life.  Rather than capture that which is fundamental to social justice, Rawls confuses the system-values of liberal-capitalism with primary life-values, and normalises the pathological demand for endless accumulation (the root of the first dimension of capitalist life-crisis) as “rational.”  Instead of defining and explicating that which is actually primary to the life of embodied rational beings—the resources, relationships, institutions, and practices which support life and enable its defining capacities, Rawls assumes as primary the prevailing system-values, even though these are demonstrably destructive of the natural system of life-support.  People’s lives are destroyed because the ecosystems upon which they depend are destroyed or because they cannot afford to pay the money-price attached to commodified life-requirement satisfiers.  Yet, as the invocation of the difference principle proves, Rawls grounds the possibility of social justice on the unfettered growth of money-value—precisely the cause of the injustice his theory is supposed to address.

Nevertheless, Rawls’s work has been a vital stimulant to renewed critical interest amongst liberals in the justice of the socio-economic outcomes of global market forces.  Arguably the most trenchant critic of globalised capitalist patterns of distribution and deprivation has been Thomas Pogge.  While Pogge’s roots lie in Rawlsian justice theory, he goes significantly beyond Rawls in three respects:  1) he recognises the existence of a coercive global institutional structure which limits the range of policy options any particular nation state is able to pursue, thus affecting the life-horizons of individuals wherever they live; 2) he anchors his conception of global justice in a set of basic goods that all humans require as fundamental material conditions of life and autonomous activity; and 3) he justifies access to these goods on the basis of a conception of human rights that makes global institutions and those who benefit from them responsible for enduring the satisfaction of those rights.[8]  To the extent that Pogge’s conception of human rights as entitlements to live under social institutions that ensure the satisfaction of fundamental life-requirements, his argument is implicitly grounded in the idea of life-value.  Read from the standpoint of its implicit life-value ground, Pogge exposes a profound moral gap between the standard of living required by human rights (access to those fundamental goods without which life cannot persist in human form) and the normal patterns of distribution produced by global market forces.  As he famously and convincingly demonstrates, life for over 2 billion human beings on the globe is systematically deprived of even the most basic requirements of a decent human existence while a few (much less than the global 1 per cent) live in outrageous luxury that destroys human-hearted concern to alleviate the life-destroying poverty into which the others are sunk.

As powerful as Pogge’s argument it, it nevertheless fails to systematically develop its implicit life-value critique of capitalism.  He fails to do so because he does not work down to the ultimate causes of the systematic deprivation of basic life-goods that he exposes and decries.  He eschews a “socialist” critique of globalised capitalism for a moral critique of the lassitude that allows people to ignore the plight of those exploited by the prevailing global structure. [9] While this moral critique is entirely appropriate, it fails to ask the deeper question:  if the misery in which billions of people is so obviously caused by global capitalism, why does global capitalism remain legitimate?

The answer to that question is that people have internalised the ruling value system of global capitalism and thus confuse the system good—private money-accumulation—with the human good—life-coherent capacity enjoyment.  Thus, people who judge the legitimacy of the world by this standard just do not see the suffering the system causes so long as the system is producing higher levels of money-value.  In this scenario poverty is understood either as a consequence of poor economic growth (a technical matter) or corruption (a moral matter, but one that cannot be corrected by the sort of  re-distribution Pogge demands).  Where poverty is understood in the first manner, as related to low economic growth, a different view of human rights is propounded as the solution—not human rights as enforceable entitlements to fundamental life-goods, but human rights as the legal moral framework for capitalist market penetration and social liberalisation.  Hence, there is a deep political tension at the heart of human rights discourse that those, like Pogge, who see in human rights relatively uncontroversial means to advance a global justice agenda, tend to overlook, even as they assume one side of the opposition.

The source of this tension is the historical entwinement of human rights with the development of capitalist society.  Human rights have evolved within the liberal-capitalist world order to justify a global developmental path determined by the goal of unlimited money-value growth.  At the same time, because that ruling value-system also invokes ideas of equality and individual freedom, the idea of ‘right’ can form the basis of a critique of grossly inegalitarian and undemocratic consequences of the untrammelled operation of this system, without calling the legitimacy of the system itself into question.  As principles which regulate and justify capitalist globalization, human rights are system-values, rules that serve to regulate and legitimate the class structure and wealth distributions of liberal-capitalist society as well as to determine acceptable forms of geo-political relationship.  As system-values human rights can be used to criticise excessively one-sided manifestations of capitalism’s normal relationships and patterns of distribution, but never the ruling money-value system or class structure themselves.  In so far as human rights are system-values, the solutions they recommend are the institutional and interactional and distributive norms of the developed liberal-capitalist societies of the Global North.  Poverty is to be cured by economic growth as measured by standard capitalist metrics of Gross Domestic Product, democratic deficits are to be made good by stable liberal-democratic institutions, and ethnic conflict is to be resolved by the internalization of the norms of multiculturalist toleration of difference.

Nevertheless, it does not follow from the use of human rights as system-values that they are nothing more than ideological justifications of global capitalism.  When human rights are understood as life-values they can form a comprehensive and internally coherent foundation for the radical critique of the existing injustices and material irrationality of globalised capitalism.  Pogge’s critique of the inhuman levels of poverty and life-good deprivation clearly rests on an implicit understanding of human rights as life-values.  At the same time, the efficacy of his critique as a solution to capitalist life-crisis is limited by the lack of definition and concrete spelling out of the idea of life-value that subtends his argument.  The full-realization of a life-coherent understanding of human rights points us beyond capitalist society towards its historic alternative:  socialism.  But the systematic failures of previous attempts at constructing a life-valuable, democratic socialism demand a clear re-thinking of the institutional structures and ruling value system that would allow socialism to solve capitalist life-crises.  While there are many important re-thinkings of the socialist alternative to capitalism currently underway, each of which addresses one dimension of capitalist life-crisis, none fully grasps the need to reconstruct the socialist project in light of the principle of life-coherence.


Re-Thinkings of Socialism for the Twenty-first Century

Over the past decade or so socialist critics of capitalism have been engaged in a deep re-thinking of the normative foundations and political goals of socialism.  Like Pogge’s conception of human rights, the re-thinking of socialist theory and practice has been implicitly grounded in the conception of life-value discussed above.  Each of the four dimensions of capitalist life-crisis has been recognized and addressed by key twenty-first century socialist thinkers.  But also like Pogge, their failure to concretely spell out of the idea of life-value leads to unrecognised tensions, limitations, and dangers in even the best of twenty-first century socialist arguments.  I will explore the ways in which the four dimensions of life-crisis are addressed in twenty-first century socialist theory and then turn to its limitations and tensions.

The ecological dimension of capitalist life-crisis is addressed in the wide and growing body of literature that seeks to connect Marxism to the ecological critique of capitalist growth dynamics.  As John Bellamy Foster argues, capitalism sees nature as “a mere instrument of world social domination.  Hence, capital by its very logic imposes what is in effect a scorched earth strategy.  The planetary ecological crisis is increasingly all-encompassing, a product of the destructive uncontrollability of a rapidly globalising capitalist economy, which knows no other law than its own drive to exponential expansion.”[10] Capitalism thus generates environmental life-crisis because its growth dynamic is unsustainable and its ruling value system is incapable of recognising this ultimately fatal problem.

Ecologically re-interpreted Marxism has thus grasped the need to expand the socialist understanding of value beyond the use-value/exchange-value relationship of capitalism.  In this renewed vision, socialist production is not so much concerned with subordinating exchange- value to use-value, but with satisfying the material conditions for the enjoyment of what Joel Kovel calls “intrinsic values.” He associates intrinsic values with non-appropriative experiential and affective relations between human beings considered as a species and the natural world, and between human beings considered as individual members of communities and each other. “Clearly, use-value is necessary for human-life; and one might venture to say that a realized, ecologically integral life can be carried out through a rich interplay of use-value-as-utility with intrinsic value, through a combined transformative and receptive relation to nature.”[11]  In other words, human beings will always have to appropriate resources from nature in order to live, but the essential value of life is not found in these appropriative relations, but in the non-destructive experiential relationships (beauty, love, etc ) for which the productive relations serve as the material and instrumental conditions.

The natural field of life-support is of ultimate value to human beings in so far as biological life cannot be sustained apart from it.  However, the mere reproduction of life is not the defining goal of human society.  The highest end of human society is to enable life-coherent forms of individual life-flourishing through the free development of life-capacities.  If that goal is to be achieved, socio-cultural and not just biological life-requirements must be satisfied.  The economic system must not only produce goods sufficient for life, it must produce opportunities for meaningful, life-valuable work that link together in overall life-coherent patterns of productive, creative activity.  Correspondingly, the political system must not only allow people to vote for representatives, it must ensure that all institutions which shape individual life-horizons are democratically governed.   Socialist critics have sought to address the economic and political forms of capitalist life-crisis by deepening their conceptions of the democratic character of socialist society.

The renewed conception of socialist democracy that is emerging is rooted in a distinction between democracy as a system-value whose function is to legitimate and reproduce liberal-capitalism, from democracy as a life-value.  Life-valuable democratic social institutions are grounded in the universal life-interest in comprehensive life-requirement satisfaction and life-coherent capacity realization and enjoyment.  Where social institutions are democratically governed, it is this interest that rules, transforming private system-interests of ruling classes and privileged strata and groups into growing consciousness of the collective life-interest that ultimately links all human beings.  Thus, life-valuable democratic institutions are incompatible with structures of social power in which ruling classes use their control over the universal means of life-maintenance and development to dominate the public agenda.  The life-value of democratic institutions is their unique capacity to enable each to recognise the common life-interest they share with all, not as an abstraction, but as the concrete basis of justification of the practice of collective self-governance.

As I have demonstrated above, under capitalism the universal life-interest is subordinated to the ruling system-value of money-value growth.  Hence the political dimension of capitalist life-crisis takes the form of systematic opposition between capitalist market forces and substantively democratic social institutions.  Ellen Meiksins Wood’s historical investigation of the opposition between capitalism and democracy concludes that “the market [plays] an unprecedented role in capitalist society, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange and distribution but the principle determinant and regulator of social reproduction.” [12] By allocating labour and resources according to calculations of private profitability, not universal life-requirement satisfaction, capitalist markets dominate rather than liberate the people who are dependent upon them.  Since economic institutions are absolutely essential to social life, the class that controls economic institutions can subvert the nominally democratic character of other major social institutions.  As Erik Olin Wright argues, under capitalism, “the democratic collectivity has very limited power to ask the question:  how should we allocate the aggregate social surplus to different priorities. The issue here is not simply that many of these decisions are made outside of democratic deliberation, but that because investments are made privately, the threat of disinvestment heavily constrains all other allocative decisions within democratic bodies.”[13] Hence the socialist solution to capitalist political life-crisis is to democratise the major institutions of social life, and in particular, economic institutions.

If socialist society is to free individual life from this structure of dependence, it must not only overcome the structure of ownership that defines capitalism, it must create new institutions of economic democracy.  A great deal of work has been done by theorists like David Schweickhart and  Michael Albert to construct new models of democratic social organization, but I believe that it is in the work of Pat Devine that one finds the most coherent, rich and workable conception of a democratic socialist economy.[14]  The essential principle of Devine’s model of negotiated coordination is that a democratic socialist economy must abandon the metric of value of capitalist society—monetary profit and loss—and regulating dynamics—market forces– for values and regulations grounded in democratic deliberation. “In capitalism, the criterion in terms of which choices are made is the potential or actual private profitability of an innovation, enforced by the coercive pressure of market forces.  In our model, a pluralistic set of criteria, discursively arrived at and revised, would inform a deliberative process for evaluating innovation in terms of its socially productive, unproductive, or destructive potential, paying due attention to the precautionary principle.”[15] For Devine, the point of democratic economic planning is not—as it was under Stalinism—the development of the productive forces whatever the environmental and human cost, but rather the all-round development and freedom of human individuals.  Hence the socialist attempt to solve the economic and political dimensions of capitalist life-crisis points towards the means of solving the fourth dimension of capitalist life-crisis, the cultural and spiritual dimension.

The solution to the increasing emptiness and pointlessness of existence under contemporary capitalism returns twenty-first century socialism to the moral well-springs of Marx’s conception of the value of human life.  The value of human life, Marx argued, was rooted in the meaning we derive from labour that simultaneously satisfies the needs of others with whom we share our world and stimulates the growth of those capacities that one as an individual finds intrinsically interesting and important.  Marx integrates his conception of the value of human life with his model of alternative social structure in his understanding of the regulatory principle of a fully developed socialist society:  “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”[16] For Marx, the deepest value of socialism is the life-valuable use of resources to satisfy needs for the sake of enabling individuals to realize their capacities in ways that contribute to the satisfaction of others’ needs.  The vision that underlies this principle is essentially ethical, focussed on a conception of the good for human beings as the individual contributions each can make to the lives of others with whom they share a society.

Recovery of this implicitly life-valuable understanding of the individual good in the face of the spiritual crisis of capitalism has been central to the revitalized socialist vision of the twenty-first century.   This revitalized vision has, according to Michael Lebowitz, rejected “productivist” interpretations of socialism for a vision which places “human beings at the centre.”[17] For Lebowitz, placing human beings at centre of the socialist project means that the essential value served by socialism is “real human development.”  Lebowitz conceives real human development in ethical terms as a community of people working with each other to satisfy each others’ needs, for the sake of enabling each to fully express and enjoy their human capacities.  By “producing as members of a human family,” Lebowitz argues, “each produces consciously for the sake of satisfying the needs of others.”[18] Thus, one’s own work becomes valuable as a form of life-capacity expression that is enjoyed because it contributes to the maintenance and development of others’ lives. Individuals achieve meaning in their lives by realizing their life-capacities in ways that meet others’ needs.  This theme of creating meaning through contributing to the social world recurs across the spectrum of twenty-first century reconstructions of the depth values of socialism.

It underlies David McNally’s defence of the possibility of a world other than that envisaged by capitalist globalization.  This new world would be  “a place in which people have escaped commodification to live as free beings, as ends in themselves, … where nature is no longer destroyed, … where people are celebrated in the richness of their diversity.”[19] It underlies the more systematically theoretical defence of the necessity of socialism undertaken by Istvan Meszaros.  “The positive alternative” to capitalism, he argues, is “a social reproductive order consciously regulated by the associated individuals” on the basis of “values chosen by social individuals themselves, in accordance with their real needs.” [20] It is also ethically foundational in the analytic Marxist attempt to connect the socialist project to democratic egalitarianism.  G.A. Cohen’s final defence of the socialist project grounded socialism in a principle of “communal reciprocity … according to which I serve you not because of what I can get in return by doing so, but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.”[21]

Implied in these socialist responses to the four dimensions of capitalist life-crisis is the idea of socialism as what I have called a democratic life-economy.  However, nowhere is this idea fully spelled out, and this lack of explicit life-grounding generates potential problems which, if unaddressed, could impede the ability of socialism to resolve capitalist life-crises.  There are two key limitations in the existing socialist response to capitalist life-crises:  first, a lack of attention to the difference between needs as fundamental natural and socio-cultural life-requirements and needs as instrumental requirements of any project whatsoever, and second, absence of explicit connection of good forms of human flourishing to life-coherent limitations on the content of expressed life-capacities.

As central as needs and capacities have been to the ethical foundation of the democratic socialist project, a crucial distinction has never been made. [22] This distinction is between need as a demand for a something which satisfies an instrumental requirement of whatever project a person happens to conceive, and need as a fundamental life-requirement for the fuller development and expression of human life-capacities.  The distinction is important because if need is  identified with demand for the instrumental requirements for the successful realization of any project whatsoever, the aphorism, “to each according to his need” fails to challenge the potentially limitless demand on resources which underlies the fundamental form of capitalist life-incoherence- limitless economic growth.

This oversight affects even the ecological re-reinterpretation of the socialist understanding of value.  Thus Kovel argues that “every commodity is defined by its use-value, and this, too, is necessarily a function of need, which in turn is a function of want, which in turn is a function of desire.”[23] If need is the normative basis for legitimate claims on resources, but grounded in desires, rather than in that which life-valuable capacity expression objectively requires, then Kovel has no principled way of rejecting arguments of the form:  I need whatever I happen to desire, therefore socialist society is obliged by its fundamental normative principle to satisfy all of my desires.  Clearly, given Kovel’s arguments regarding the ultimate grounding of use-value in intrinsic value, he does not intend to affirm capitalist consumer psychology and its conflation of the distinction between need and desire.  However, the only way to make his practical economic arguments consistent with his ultimate ethical and political goals is to make explicit the distinction between needs as demands rooted in desires and needs as life-requirements rooted in the natural and socio-cultural conditions of life-maintenance and development.

The same argument holds in relation to the idea that the expression of life-capacities is that which ultimately makes life meaningful and good.  Here too the idea that a good human life involves the expression and enjoyment of its life-capacities must be explicitly life-grounded.  If we assign intrinsic value to the enjoyed expression of life-capacities without qualification, then it becomes possible to lose sight of the essential link established between the good of capacity expression and the satisfaction of others’ needs.   The reconstituted socialist vision asserts, as did Marx, the essential link between the intrinsic good of capacity realization and enjoyment and the instrumental good of satisfying others’ needs, but it does not explicate how this link is to be made life-coherent.  At the extreme, socialist affirmations of capacity expression of the good veer off towards the liberal neutrality about forms of the good life that we saw operating in Rawls and Pogge’s arguments above.

Erik Olin Wright argues, for example, that “the idea of human flourishing is neutral with respect to the various ways of life that can be constructed around particular ways of flourishing.”  It is of course true, as he notes, “that people have many potentials, and it is impossible in general that all of these potentials can be realized, regardless of access to material and social means.”[24] But Wright’s argument confuses this general existential condition of human being—the need to choose between different possibilities for self-realization—with a political principle—neutrality between ways of human flourishing.  Clearly socialists, or anyone concerned with resolving capitalist life-crisis, cannot be neutral on the question of life-coherent limits to human flourishing. Neutrality would undermine anyone’s ability to mount a coherent critique of capitalist ways of flourishing through the maximization of personal money-value holdings.  Thus, the socialist affirmation of capacity expression and enjoyment cannot mean:  “do what you feel like regardless of its impact on nature and other people,” but rather:  “individuate yourself as a socially self-conscious creative agent through projects that sustain the natural system of life-support and deepen the communal bonds that organize society as an ethical whole by making a real contribution to the satisfaction of others’ life-requirements.”

The solution to capitalist life-crises must address their cause—the subordination of life-value to money-value– in a manner that builds on the achievements of past social struggles.   By starting from that which has already been achieved, the struggle to solve capitalist life-crisis avoids the argument that “there is no alternative”  by demonstrating that the alternative already exists in embryo wherever social institutions recognise and satisfy people’s life-requirements and value their conscious contributions to the well-being of others.  The construction of a socialist democratic life-economy as a systematic alternative to capitalist life-crisis is thus not a creation ex nihilo, but an organic development out of achieved levels of social struggle.   The throughline that connects the different elements of struggle is the life-coherence principle understood as the internal constitutive condition of human freedom.


Life-Coherence and the Solution to Capitalist Life-Crisis

Capitalism generates life-crises because it recognises no internal limitations on the amount of money-value that it would be good for individual or corporate selves to accumulate.  The production of money-value ultimately requires economic growth, which threatens long-term environmental sustainability by increasing the rate of natural resource consumption and waste production.  This materially irrational growth dynamic is at the root of each dimension of life-crisis:  it is environmentally unsustainable, it creates crises of overproduction leading to recession and depression, it subverts democracy, and empties life-activity of meaning and life-value.  Each of these dimensions of life-crisis is connected by the fact that the ruling value system assumes that all constraints on self-maximizing activity are contrary to human freedom, and, in so far as they are contrary to human freedom, antithetical to the good life.  If we examine the idea of human freedom and goodness from the standpoint of their natural and social conditions we discover, by contrast, that there must be life-coherent internal limitations on human activity if there is to be any freedom at all.  A democratic life-economy is built up on the basis of a concrete understanding of what those internal limitations are.

In order to understand this crucial point let us consider a simple example.  I am an organism that must eat in order to have the energy required to fuel basic metabolic functions, which are in turn necessary material condition for the development and conscious expression and enjoyment of higher level creative activities.  The fact that I must eat is not an external constraint on my freedom, but an internal limitation, a constitutive condition, of what it is to be a human being.  As such, my need to eat does not constrain my freedom; its satisfaction is integral to the development of any materially real freedom.  If I did not have to eat I would not be freer, I would no longer be an embodied human being, and the category ‘human freedom’ would have no application to my life.  Recognition of internal constitutive conditions is identical to understanding the necessary conditions of a thing’s being and doing that which it is and is capable of doing.  External constraints, by contrast, impede the satisfaction of these internal constitutive conditions, thus negating the material possibility of the thing’s doing or being that which it is and is capable of doing.  Insisting that internal constitutive conditions be recognized and satisfied is the very opposite of imposing external constraints on freedom.

The required systematic alternative to capitalism can only solve the four dimensions of capitalist life-crisis if it is able to impose life-coherent limitations on the freedom of capital to circulate in search of the highest profits.  If socialism really is the solution to capitalist life-crises, then its institutional structure must be organized by the life-coherence principle as the internal constitutive principle of the socialist democratic life-economy.  This principle does not violate, but rather specifies, the necessary conditions, at the environmental, economic, political, and cultural-spiritual level, of meaningful, life-valuable, and free human experience and activity.  Concretely, the principle of life-coherence mandates that economic activity be sustainable over an open ended future, that social institutions democratically satisfy the life-requirements that they have been developed to satisfy (e.g., health care institutions heal, educational institutions educate, etc) and that individuals create meaningful lives for themselves by making contributions to the health of the natural system of life-support and the life-value of others’ lives within the social system of life-development.  These are the very values central to the re-imagination of the socialist project described above.  They are internally constitutive of socialism as the solution to capitalist life-crisis, but they also rule out many possibilities of choice and action as materially irrational.

If we conceive of the normative superiority of socialism as its ability to solve capitalist life-crises, then it cannot be oriented by the goal of developing the productive forces for their own sake, or understood as “workers’ control” over production as a political value independent of the concrete results for human beings and the environment of this form of governance.  Socialism is the solution to capitalist life-crisis only to the extent that it takes the form of comprehensively instituted life-coherence.  “Comprehensively instituted life-coherence” means that the dynamics and institutions and relationship that define socialist society:  a) are environmentally sustainable over an open-ended human future, b) cultivate non-exploitative and non-oppressive relationships between people, c) positively encourage genuine mutuality and care across individual and group differences, and d) enable each and all to develop across the full range of affective and creative human life-capacities through the free development of individual life-projects which do not violate a or b and promote c.

In order to develop the political forces necessary to advance this goal, socialists must de-link their arguments from the rhetoric of “smashing”  and “destroying” capitalism and re-establish the idea of socialism as the progressively realised outcome of constructive, rather than destructive, social struggles.  Instead of treating the total destruction of capitalism as a necessary precondition of building socialism, socialists must instead concentrate on identifying those existing institutions which prefigure the institutions of a democratic socialist life-economy.  These institutions can be treated as concrete plateaus from which higher levels of democratic life-value construction can proceed.  In this vision, the systematic alternative to capitalist life-crises emerges as an organic process of social development, driven by democratic political struggle, from existing plateaus to higher levels of achievement.  The arena is the existing array of “civil commons” institutions.

The “civil commons” is McMurtry’s term for all non-commodified social goods which enable human life-capacities to be developed and enjoyed in a life-coherent manner. [25] Civil commons goods range from language and love of children through to free education, public health care, and the democratic principle that all who must comply with law and policy should participate in its formulation.  The universality of life-requirement provision that defines the civil commons contrasts with privacy of monetary benefit that defines the ruling money-value system of global capitalism.   In all existing social institutions these contrasting value systems operate in contradiction with each other. For example, human beings have developed highly sophisticated understandings of the body which can be used to cure disease, but under capitalism the treatment of disease is either commodified or under threat of commodification.  To take another example, human beings have advanced intellectually beyond belief in the invidious blood hierarchies of aristocratic society and have given birth on this basis to democratic institutions.  These institutions are threatened, as we have seen, by the power of money and the ruling class which controls it.


Nevertheless, not only the principles of need-governed public access and democracy, but also the institutions which could realise the full life-value of these principles, exist.  They form an existing civil commons reality in tension with the ruling value system of capitalist society.  The way beyond capitalist life-crises is to progressively resolve these contradictions in each institution in favour of the civil commons life-function.  The end goal of this process is the systematic transformation of materially irrational capitalist society.  The means of achieving this global end goal are rooted in local and specific struggles that erupt within definite social institutions at definite moments in historical time and social space.  The idea here is not to make a virtue of particularism or localism.  On the contrary, the idea is to give material reality to universal and comprehensive struggles by identifying the real ground upon which they can stand as they work towards complete social transformation.

In order to motivate people to free themselves from their current social dependence upon market forces, socialists must offer more than abstract theoretical proofs of the possibility of another world.  They must demonstrate that the values of the possible alternative world are already in operation in the existing world, even if only in partial, distorted, and contradictory fashion.   By illuminating how the principle of distribution according to need for the sake of life-coherent capacity development already operates in existing civil commons institutions, socialists offer people searching for a way out of crisis concrete evidence that socialism can form the required alternative to capitalism.  In this way a bridge between the contradictory present and the open-ended socialist future is established.  Unless this sort of concrete evidence can be marshalled in support of a democratic socialist life-economy, social movements are most likely to remain fragmented and partial, and thus without the scope and power necessary to resolve the life-crises of our age.


[1] See the final official report for the details.  “Draft Report of the Conference of the Parties On Its Seventeenth Session.” (

[2] John McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms, (Toronto:  Garamond), 1998, p. 164.

[3] John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights:  Life Value, the Civil Commons, and Social Justice”, Studies in Social Justice, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2011, p. 14.

[4] Paul Krugman, “Depression and Democracy,” New York Times, Sunday, December 18th, 2011.

[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press), 1999, p. 54

[6] Ibid., p. 53.

[7] Ibid., p. 68.

[8] Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, Second Edition, (Cambridge: Polity        Press), 2008, pp. 43-45, 50-54.

[9] Ibid., p.31.

[10] John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution, (New York:  Monthly Review Press), 2009,  p.46.

[11]  Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, (London:  Zed Books), 2007, p. 213.

[12]  Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, (London:  Verso), 2002, p. 97.

[13] Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, (London:  Verso), 2010, p. 83.

[14] David Schweickart, After Capitalism, Second Edition, (Lanham:  MD:  Rowman and     Littlefield), 2011; Michael Albert, Parecon, (London:  Verso), 2003.

[15] Devine and Fikret Adaman, “Participatory Planning as a Deliberative Process:  A Response to Hodgson’s Critique”, Economy and Society, Vol. 30. No. 2, May, 2001, p. 235. The complete explication of the model of democratic planning as negotiated coordination can be found in Pat Devine, Democracy and Economic Planning, (Cambridge:  Polity Press), 1988.

[16]  KarlMarx: “Critique of the Gotha Program, The Marx-Engels Reader,  Robert C.Tucker, ed.  (New York:  W.W. Norton) 1978, p. 531.

[17]  Michael Lebowitz:  The Socialist Alternative:  Real Human Development, (New York:  Monthly Review Press), 2010, p. 21.

[18] Ibid., p. 79.

[19]  David McNally, Another World is Possible, (Winnipeg:  Arbeiter Ring Press), 2002, p. 275.

[20] Istvan Meszaros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time, (New York:  Monthly Review Press), 2008, p. 245.

[21] G.A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?  (Princeton NJ:  Princeton University Press), 2009, p. 39.

[22]  This distinction is not made in even the most thorough and careful analyses of the meaning of need in Marx’s work.  See Agnes Heller, The Theory of Need in Marx, (New York:  St. Martin’s Press), 1976; Ian Fraser, Hegel and Marx:  The Concept of Need, (Edinburgh:  University of Edinburgh Press), 1998.

[23]  Kovel, Ibid., p.112.

[24]  Wright, Ibid., p. 14.

[25]  John McMurtry, Value Wars, (London:  Verso), 2002, p. 117.


[Thank you Jeff for coming through the barricades on time with this one]

The writer is professor of philosophy at the University of Windsor, Canada. He is the author of Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference, and the forthcoming Materialist Ethics and Life-Value as well as numerous articles, chapters, and reviews. More of his work can be found at

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, Thanks for your support.

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