Is Amartya Sen “the century’s great critic of capitalism”?
The short answer is no, he is not “the century’s great critic of capitalism,” but surely Sen should be included in our pantheon of the foremost critics of capitalism. The conclusion that captures the essence of Tim Rogan’s piece in Aeon is as follows: “There have been two critiques [i.e., the ‘moral’ and the ‘material’] of capitalism, but there should be only one [i.e., a critique that does dialectical justice to both the material and the moral modalities]. Amartya Sen is the new century’s first great critic of capitalism because he has made that clear.” I don’t think Sen needs to be elevated to such “commanding heights” if only because it casts a shadow over all his comrades who have likewise been laboring on this selfsame endeavor, proving themselves equally adept as great “critic(s) of capitalism” according to Rogan’s criteria. In any case, the fact that the majority of Sen’s books were published in the previous century makes this premature or living “canonization” a bit silly (a social scientific or cultural variation on the ‘great man’ theory?).
I have long publicized the social scientific and philosophical virtues of Sen’s work, at least when provided the opportunity (in intimate conversational settings, in public lectures, in blog posts, etc.), so I’m inclined to find Rogan’s argument largely persuasive. As Rogan rightly states, “In Sen’s work, the two critiques [i.e., the ‘moral’ and the ‘material’] of capitalism cooperate. We move from moral concerns to material outcomes and back again with no sense of a threshold separating the two. Sen disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus.” Sen has never self-identified as a Marxist or Marxist economist, although he has often acknowledged his debts to Marx (among others, from Aristotle to Adam Smith), which perhaps explains why Rogan is anxious to single out Sen’s critique of capitalism for celebrity-like acclaim.
Over the years, more than a few progressives and ostensible or sincere Leftists have been rhetorically reticent about invoking Marx or Marx’s theoretical ideas (and by extension, Marxists), motivated perhaps by motley and occasionally justifiable reasons, not the least of which is the oppressive and even suppressive or repressive political and cultural climate in this country. Here is where I part company with one of the founders of the (New Left) Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), emeritus sociology professor (and still a local activist and friend), Richard (Dick) Flacks. In Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988), Flacks proffered advice to this generation’s youngest activists, arguing that they should refuse the temptations of a “Leninist” answer to “social democracy,” that “the appropriate counter-position” is found in “pacifism—as a philosophy to guide extra-parliamentary activism and as a practical framework for deriving strategies of radical action.” There is much of principled and strategic value in that counsel, even if I don’t like the term “pacifism.” Flacks does not want this generation to repeat the (strategic, political, and moral) mistakes of earlier Leftists (not few of which he experienced first-hand), at least those that hankered after conventional political power, looking (often uncritically) to models of revolutionary praxis abroad in countries with colonialist and imperialist histories, countries with precious little by way of democratic experience or bourgeois legal rights, and thus with historical, socio-economic and political conditions starkly different from the capitalist democracies (welfare state regimes) in the affluent North in which they lived:
“Activists who choose a radical path and an elitist practice must begin their journey by refusing absolutely to reach for power, seeing instead that their mission is to serve as exemplars of moral being and action. They must refuse absolutely the belief that history can be short-circuited through violent intervention. [I think I understand what Flacks means by this, but others may not choose a charitable interpretation.] They ought to study Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Muste, and King as models of history making, rather than Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Che, and Fanon.”
First, notice that Flacks fails to cite Marx on either side of his ledger! I happen to believe young radicals on the Left should study all of the above, even if their ethical dispositions and orientations find them favoring, say, Gandhi, Muste and King, over Lenin, Trotsky and Mao. The latter remain worth of study, for any number of philosophical and practical reasons. As the late philosopher Hector-Neri Castañeda wisely put it,
“Some fail to see the richness and complexity of human experience, yet, more importantly, some fail to see that the world is capable of being different in different contexts or perspectives [a point made rather systematically and emphatically in Jain epistemology]. Often the presupposition is straightforward: there is one world and an indivisible unity of man and world, hence, they assume, there is just one theory of the structure of man and world.”
Our well-considered or seasoned moral and political commitments should not be threatened by a thorough examination and (in part moral) assessment of Leftist figures, theorists and strategists of all stripes. Nor should Rogan fear acknowledging and according due attention to those Marxists who, with Sen, do justice to both the moral and material modalities of the critique of capitalism. There is no need on this score for a Rawlsian-like veil of ignorance or rhetorical dissimulation.
Rogan ignores contemporary Marxist critiques of capitalism that, in the widest—and what I prefer to think of as the best—sense do indeed have a strong moral dimension, exemplified, for instance, in the works of G.A. Cohen, Michael Harrington, and Jon Elster. This rendering explicit what is often implicit in Marx himself (and not just in the ‘early writings’) is given a rather more systematic articulation (one need not agree with all the particulars) in the Rawlsian-inspired or –provoked work by R.G. Peffer: Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990). And this moral component has not come at the expense of “material” concerns and foci, as David Schwieckart’s books, Against Capitalism (1996) and After Capitalism (2002) amply demonstrate.
No doubt the (bourgeois) academic legal theorist and philosopher Brian Leiter would dismiss most of this literature for its “normative” (moral and otherwise, as not all norms are moral norms) orientation, as simply the sullied product of Western academic Marxists (distinguishing between its Anglophone and Continental European incarnations) writing for fellow “bourgeois academics.” This is not the place to attempt a rebuttal of that dismissal, but I do want to remind readers, in the words of Jeffrey Reiman, that
“Marxism has made two recent contributions to moral philosophy. The first has been to stimulate a deep and wide-ranging discussion of the moral status of capitalism, provoked by the attempt to determine whether the Marxist critique of capitalism is a moral critique and, if so, on what moral ideal the critique is based [here I would add that it is arguably more than one moral ideal and at least several moral principles and values]. The second has been to force moral philosophers to confront the problem of ideology.”
Reiman later points out that “Marxism’s practical and partisan nature is what brings it into contact with moral philosophy,” and this, I think, gets to the heart of matters; that is, at least if we view ethics and morality (which is not reducible to a first-order morality of formal or structured propositions and judgments, be they deontic or utilitarian) as integral to what it means to flourish, to live “rightly” and well, to aspire to “the Good.” For the Marxist moral and material critique of capitalism speaks clearly and urgently to our everyday (dispositional) “nexus of distinctive sensibilities, cares, and concerns that are expressed in distinctive patterns of emotional and practical response” (David Wiggins), as contemporary Marxist philosophers and theorists have demonstrated with uncommon intelligence and vigor.
I close by citing a somewhat neglected and no doubt forgotten work that embodies the merits of a material and moral critique of capitalism: Maurice Cornforth’s The Open Philosophy and the Open Society (1968) (the title alone may account for its neglect). Cornforth’s book is a well-argued and perhaps quaint defense of Marxism against the well-known attack on Marx’s theory by Karl Popper, one that artfully combines moral and materialist sensibilities in its critique of capitalism. I leave you with a taste of his ardent and incisive defense:
“Dr. Popper confuses militancy with advocacy of violence. Marxism advocates that mass organisations of working people should not be prepared meekly to abide by instructions issued by authorities not controlled by themselves and victimising working people for the benefit of their exploiters. They should be intransigent in their opposition to any sort of control of power by the exploiting class. And they should be united in their demands for what they immediately want done, and prepared to back their leaders and those in whose hands they entrust power in getting it done. This attitude of opposition to the dictation of an exploiting minority should not be confused with an attitude of violence directed against democratic institutions.
Marxism makes no proposals for the use of violence to destroy legally established democratic institutions, where such exist. [….] For us, the question of violence can only arise as a question, on the one hand, of how to resist violent attacks on democratic institutions, on the activities of democratic organisations, and on the implementation of democratic authorities and, on the other hand, of how to overcome violent methods of preventing democratic institutions and democratic rights being won. As Marxists have said again and again, if the ruling class resorts to violence, either to deprive people of existing democratic rights or to prevent their winning them, then violence must if necessary be used to defeat this violence [in the lexicon of forest fighters on chaparral ecological terrain, sometimes one needs to ‘fight fire with fire,’ keeping in mind that this is not the principal strategy or tactic used in ‘wildland’ fire suppression]. But without a doubt, the better organised, the more disciplined and the more united the democratic mass movement is [cf. the United Democratic Front in the South African struggle against apartheid], the less opportunity is there likely to be for the ruling class to resort to violence, and the less violence will be required to repel violence if it occurs. [….]
The underlying economic reason why the bourgeoisie became champions of the rule of law is clear enough. It is because this was an indispensable condition for security in the commercial development of the home market. Without it, they could never have become as prosperous and powerful as they did become. And this necessitated laws to protect the right to exploit and curtail the right to oppose it. Marxists are opposed to exploitation, and oppose it even when the law steps in to protect it. But that, says Dr. Popper, means we want to break the rule of law and carry on without it [which is to confuse anarchism with Marxism], whereas without law [at least in our time and place, during this epoch of history] there can only be anarchy or tyranny.
The law which Marxism opposes is law in so far as it has been instituted to protect the rights of exploiting classes. We are not in favor of submitting to laws which are designed to protect the security and right of exploiters and hamper the organisation of the masses. We propose to nullify such laws. But that is not to oppose the reign of law in general.”
Please see, “Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism,” by Tim Rogan in Aeon, 27 February, 2018.
Please see my compilation for Marxism.
And for bibliographies with family resemblance to the Marxist list, please see the following: (i) After Slavery & Reconstruction: The Black Struggle in the U.S. for Freedom, Equality, and Self-Realization; (ii) Beyond Capitalist Agribusiness: Toward Agroecology & Food Justice (iii) Beyond Capitalist-Attenuated Time: Freedom, Leisure, and Self-Realization; (iv) Beyond Inequality: Toward the Globalization of Welfare, Well-Being and Human Flourishing; (v) Blacks and Food Justice; (vi) Blacks on the (Radical) Left; (vii) César Chávez & the United Farm Workers… and the Struggle of Farm Workers in the U.S. (viii) Democratic Theory; (ix) Detroit: Labor & Industrialization, Race & Politics, Rebellion & Resurgence; (x) Global Distributive Justice; (xi) The Great Depression & The New Deal; (xii) Health: Law, Ethics & Social Justice; (xiii) The History, Theory & Praxis of the Left in the 1960s; (xiv) Human Rights; (xv) Punishment and Prison; (xvi) Social Security & The Welfare State; and (xvii) Workers, the World of Work, and Labor Law.