Archives For Morality

Details about Simone Weil’s life and thought are enigmatic. Other than what’s included in the general encyclopedic biographies circling the internet, I know very little about her. Unlike someone such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is no long, authorised biography written by her friends. What knowledge I have been about to find out about her, is padded by what I’ve learnt from conversations with internet friends, whose admiration for her work has increased over the years.

Simone was a French intellectual. Like Jacques Ellul, Weil worked in the French resistance, was an admirer of Karl Marx, and a contemporary of Albert Camus.

Weil moved back towards Roman Catholic Christianity and took an interest in Catholic mysticism. This detached her from the French intellectual trends of her day. Weil also made a break with Marxism. Whilst Weil remained a fan of Karl Marx, alongside her criticism of [crony] capitalism, she also wielded a heated criticism of Marxism.

Some of these criticisms are set out in Oppression & Liberty, 1955. Weil’s major criticisms begin with the monopoly of centralisation. This is what Weil says fuels forms of ‘bureaucratic oppression’ from a ‘bureaucratic caste’[i]:

‘All exclusive, uncontrolled power becomes oppressive in the hands of those who have the monopoly of it… instead of a clash of contrary opinions, we end up with an “official opinion” from which no one would be able to deviate.’ (pp.15 & 16)

Three bureaucracies exist: these are ‘state, capital industries and worker’s organisations (trade-unions)’ (p.17). Given the right environment (such as Germany in the 1930s) all three can merge into one. The state takes control of the market and runs it from a centralised politick, with a salaried and bureaucratic hierarchy. Weil calls this ‘state capitalism[ii]’. This means that the economy is managed by the government and government approved capital industries. In 1930’s Germany, this manifested as a dictatorship resting on the twin supports of trade unions and the national-socialist movement[iii]’ (p.25).

The zenith of all of Weil’s criticisms is when she calls Marxism ‘a fully-fledged religion in the impurest sense of the word’ (p.165). Two other earlier statements back this up: ‘‘Marxism is the highest spiritual expression of bourgeois society’ (p.124); ‘Marxism is a badly constructed religion; it has always possessed a religious character’ (p.154).

In a similar way to Jacques Ellul, Weil advocates the truth in Marx’s critique, but is not a believer in Marxism.  For her, the social, economic and political mechanisms of bureaucracy and industry, turn men and women (the working class), into machines. The working class becomes a means to an end.

Weil’s praise for Marx doesn’t go any further than this:

the truth in Marx’s critique is found in how he ‘defined with admirable precision the relationships of force in society […] Two things in Marx are solid and indestructible. First: method; study of and defining the relationships of force. Second is the analysis of Capitalist society as it existed in the 19th Century – where it was believed that in industrial production lay the key to human progress ’ (p.152).

Weil’s short lived praise for Marx ends here: ‘Marx was an idolater; he idolised the Proletariat and considered himself to be their natural leader’ (p.151); Marx made oppression the central notion of his writings, but never attempted to analyse it. He never asked himself what oppression is’ (p.154)

Oppression & Liberty concludes with Weil’s summary of Marx’s failings. This includes his obsession[iv] with production, class war and moralism.

‘The only form of war Marx takes into consideration is social war – (open or underground) – under the name of class struggle.  Class struggle or social war is the sole principle for explaining history. Marx was incapable of any real effort of scientific thought, because that did not matter to him. All this materialist was interested in was justice. He took refuge in a dream and called it dialectical materialism.’ (pp.178 & 180)

As Weil explains,

‘Marx fell back into the ‘group morality which revolted him to the point of hating society. Like the feudal magnates of old,  like the business men  of his own day, he had built for himself a morality which placed above good and evil the activity of professional revolutionaries; the mechanism for producing paradise’ (p.182). Marx’s ‘moral failing was that he do not seek the source of the good in the place where it dwells.’ (p.183).

When I was given a copy of Oppression and Liberty, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I hadn’t planned on reading the book, but I’m thankful to have had the chance to make a careful study of it.

The subject matter is dense. This is made more complex by Weil’s writing style. However, this complexity doesn’t make Oppression & Liberty unbearable to read. Weil takes aim at a lot of relevant themes which pose serious questions for our contemporary setting. These themes include unintended consequences, ‘bureaucratic oppression’[v], monopolies, power, materialism, group-think morality, sociopolitical force, the mechanisms of power, and subjectivism.

The latter coming out through her discussion and warning about seeking morality in places other than where genuine goodness and authentic morality dwells. This can be interpreted to mean that God is the only means by which humanity has a moral anchor. Weil’s example of this is Karl Marx and his obsession with justice, production and power. These led to contradictions in his theory and its application. His subsequent moral failing was that his quest for morality searched everywhere, but where the source of goodness and authentic morality is, can, and therefore, ought to be found.

Oppression & Liberty is a book that teaches something new each time it’s opened. Weil’s book is a gold mine, with a complex nature and a variety of themes which require careful navigation. Because of this it’s difficult to take ownership of Weil’s main points with just one reading.

Oppression & Liberty’s main theme pivots on an analysis of Karl Marx. Within this analysis, Weil yields a critique of Marxism. This criticism is balanced by her agreement and disagreement with Marx. For Weil, any centralised control of an economy (monopoly), leads to the oppression and tyrannical rule over those who work under it, or are made to serve it. In sum, this criticism states that despite appearances, Marxists, plutocrats and bureaucrats alike, all pose a threat to equity and morality.

The warning from Simone Weil in Oppression & Liberty is loud and clear: those who chose to entertain Marxism, big bureaucracy or crony capitalism, ride the backs of monsters.


References:

[i] Weil, S. 1955, Oppression & Liberty, 2001. Routledge Classics, ‘the dictatorship of the bureaucratic caste’ (p.14)

[ii] Weil credits Ferdinand Fried with the term and its definition.

[iii] An interesting add-on to this is Weil’s statement: ‘The communists accuse the social-democrats of being the “quartermaster-sergeants of fascism”, and they are absolutely right.’ (p.27)

[iv] Ibid, (p.178)

[v] ‘the bureaucratic oppression; the bureaucratic machine’, (p.13)

Cracked soil 2Two weeks ago I came across two speeches. The first was from Catholic Theologian Jean Vanier, and the second was from Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.

I’ve had an interest in the praxis, theology and political philosophy of the former since my encounter with his work during my undergraduate study. His co-authored work, ‘Living Gently in a Violent World, (2008)‘ written with Stanley Hauerwas still stands out in my mind.

Each speech was given as part of an acceptance ceremony whereby Vanier (2015) and Sacks (2016) were awarded the Templeton Prize. Both speeches are not entirely worlds apart, however in the end I was drawn to the speech given by Sacks, more than I was Vanier.

For context, the Templeton Prize is an award that ‘honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works […]The Prize seeks and encourages breadth of vision, and new insights that human beings take their spiritual bearings from a range of experiences.’ [i]

The Sacks speech hits on the dangers and problems caused by the outsourcing of [personal] responsibility (for example abuses, neglect, mechanisms of denial, anxiety avoidance, crisis, oppression, self-justification and how at times  social justice can mask even greater evils).

Some of the key highlights:

1. ‘A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart  and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.’
2. ‘The 1960’s is marked by the outsourcing of morality; an abandonment of the Moral Sciences. Morality had been outsourced to the market. The market gives choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire […] Ethics was reduced to economics. As for the consequences of our choices, these were outsourced to the state […] Welfare was outsourced to the state. As for conscience, that once played so large a part in a the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choices to economics, we transformed the consequences of choices to politics.’
3. ‘You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away. When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. […] as a result people start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far left seeks a Utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace. These are all fantasies, and pursuing them will endanger the very foundations of freedom […] We’ve already seen on university campuses in Britain and America [& Australia] the abandonment of academic freedom in the name of the right not to be offended by being confronted by views with which I disagree.’
4.  ‘What emerged in Judaism and post-reformation Christianity was the rarest of character-types: the inner-directed personality. Most societies, for most of history, have been either tradition-directed or other-directed.  Inner directed types are different. They become pioneers, the innovators and the survivors. They try to have secure marriages, hand on their values to their children, belong to strong communities, and take daring but carefully calculated risks. When they fail, they have rapid recovery times, have discipline and are more interested in sustainability than quick profits.’
5. ‘Civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West.’

His conclusion:

‘There is an alternative: become inner-directed again […] which means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future.
If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.’ [ii]

All Sacks’ points and his sharp conclusion speak of a society telling itself that it’s on the verge of an upgrade. When in fact it’s face to face with the abyss, far closer to an irreversible downgrade. Glimmers of hope, such as Brexit, where free citizens vote not to comfortably slide into the role of indentured subject, may not be enough to encourage unity against such.

On another front, for me, Sacks’ use of the phrase ”inner-directed” is too ambiguous. Other than referring to it as being human conscience, it’s left open to interpretation. If the definition rests solely on human conscience then it raises significant problems for theologians, who hold human conscience as not being the centre or source of morality, ethics – the distinction between good and evil; right and wrong.

Humanity is not the source of this. It can only be a Word spoken to humanity from outside humanity. It cannot speak right and wrong to itself abstracted from the source of this differentiation. As witnessed throughout the 20th century in the West, when right and wrong are detached from Judeo-Christian ethics, human suffering isn’t answered, it’s increased.

It’s exactly what Bonhoeffer digs into when he states:

Humankind, which has fallen away from God in a precipitous plunge, now still flees from God. For humankind the fall is not enough; its flight cannot be fast enough. This flight, Adam’s hiding away from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience.
Only since humankind has become divided from the Creator are human beings divided within themselves. Indeed it is the function of conscience to make human beings flee from God and so admit against their own will that God is in the right; yet, conscience also lets human beings, in fleeing from God, feel secure in their hiding place […]
Conscience is not the voice of God within sinful human beings; instead it is precisely their defence against this voice. Yet precisely as a defence against this voice, conscience still points to it, in spite of all that human beings know and want.’ [iii]

‘Inner-directed” therefore can only mean the inner-direction of the Holy Spirit. Any other source of ”inner-direction” is bound to lead us into inner-misdirection. Inner-direction is directed by a transcendent direction, at once hidden, yet revealed.

Outside this theological framework Jonathan Sacks’ call to become inner-directed is mis-directed:

‘Conscience means feeling shame before God; at the same time one conceals one’s own wickedness in shame, humankind in shame justifies itself […] The grace of the Creator is not recognised. God calls Adam and does not let him flee. Instead Adam sees this grace only as hate, as wrath, a wrath that inflames his own hate, his rebellion, his desire to get away from God. Adam keeps on falling. The fall drops with increasing speed for an immeasurable distance.’ [iv]

With the understanding that ”inner-direction” is within the framework of humanity finding itself being Holy Spirit-directed, I’m on board with Sacks’ conclusions.

‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.’ (Galatians 5:16-26)


Source:

[i] Templeton Prize

[ii] Sacks, J. Rabbi, 2016 Templeton Speech PDF Sourced 19th June, 2016 from http://www.templetonprize.org/

[iii] Bonhoeffer, D. 2004, DBW3 Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3  (128). Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (p.128)

[iv] ibid, 2004:130