Rasmussen_bookLarry L. Rasmussen is a prominent Christian ethicist and the author of numerous books, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (1972), Moral Fragments and Moral Community (1993), and Earth Community, Earth Ethics (1996). (I remember reading the last mentioned book during my first semester of graduate school in the fall of 1999.) Rasmussen served as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1986 until his retirement in 2004. In his latest book, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (2013), Rasmussen offers a wide-ranging exploration of the ecological predicament of humanity, presenting what he believes to be the essential building-blocks for a new kind of religious ethic intended to inspire and empower the world’s religious communities to address that predicament.

Earth-Honoring Faith is a challenging book, not only because of its length (400 plus pages) but also because of the depth and breadth of the topics and themes it covers. The presentation is multi-disciplinary and contains numerous lengthy digressions; Rasmussen likes to take his sweet time as he painstakingly builds up each of his arguments, drawing upon a large number of both contemporary and ancient sources, the diversity of which is clearly reflected in his copious (and very informative) endnotes. This is both a strength of the book as well as a possible weakness; a novice or half-committed reader can easily get lost in the complex labyrinth of names and concepts, giving up prematurely. Yet, a serious effort to engage with the text is likely to reward the reader in unanticipated ways. Overall, Earth-Honoring Faith can be seen as the product of a lifetime of research and reflection on the part of its author, a work that demands from the reader nothing short of a similar investment of sustained attention and thoughtful engagement.

It would be presumptuous of me, therefore, to try and condense the contents of the entire book in a few blog posts. Due to the richness of Rasmussen’s text, any such attempt is likely to distort rather than illuminate. What I would like to do, instead, is to summarize and paraphrase those sections of the book that I’ve personally found most interesting. In doing so, I would probably have to jump back and forth through the text, rather than strictly follow the order of the author’s own presentation. Basically, this is going to be a subjective, and highly selective, interpretation, with no pretension of either complete objectivity or anything close to thoroughness. Furthermore, since my plan is to eventually write a full-fledged response to Rasmussen’s proposal of an “earth-honoring faith,” these blog posts are also intended as my preliminary attempts to understand the significance of his arguments, as well to help me figure out how I feel about them.

I will begin with a brief outline/overview of the book. Earth-Honoring Faith is divided into two main parts. The first part deals with four fundamental questions:

  1. What kind of creatures are we? (We are bio-social beings who use symbols and seek meaning; we are moral by nature but not infallible.)
  2. What is the state of the world we are living in? (Our world is at the brink of ecological collapse because of our own misguided choices.)
  3. What kind of faith should we look for? (We ought to seek a faith that honors the earth and allows us to live in harmony with the rest of nature.)
  4. What sort of ethic do we need? (We need a new kind of religious ethic that invests nature with sacred value and meaning.)

In the first part of the book, Rasmussen argues that the modern industrial-capitalist path of humanity has led us into a truly disastrous situation, and that business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. Humanity needs to change its ways. This involves giving up certain habits of thoughts and action, and adopting new ones. Since we don’t like the consequences that have resulted from our recent choices, we need to learn how to make alternative choices. If one were to imagine the modern, global human civilization as analogous to a huge ship traveling at high speed toward certain disaster, then our task is to turn the ship around as quickly as possible, despite its tremendous momentum. For Rasmussen, the required turn-around involves a number of “long-haul transition,” as listed below:

  1. A perspectival transition (characterized by a reenchantment of the natural world)
  2. An economic transition (so that economic activity does not exceed the earth’s carrying capacity and other natural limits)
  3. A demographic transition (involving a reduction in the total human population as well as the size of each person’s ecological footprint)
  4. A polity transition (involving a shift away from capitalism, and a democratizing of social, political, and economic power)
  5. A policy transition (characterized by adoption of integrated policies that address societal and ecological concerns together)
  6. A religious and moral transition (so that religious communities promote an earth-honoring faith, and religious ethic includes the care of creation)

In order to bring about these transitions, Rasmussen argues, humanity is going to need an earth-honoring faith, as well as a corresponding moral framework needed to realize that faith into concrete practice.

In the second part of the book, Rasmussen offers an inventory of key religious resources necessary for developing the required religious ethic. Even though Rasmussen’s focus is on Christianity, he provides numerous illustrations from non-Christian traditions as well, emphasizing that these resources are not limited to any one tradition. His choice of the most appropriate religious resources for this purpose seems to be at least partly guided by their perceived opposition to, and their incompatibility with, the dominant habits of thought and action that characterize the modern industrial-capitalist society. The basic idea seems to be that certain specific religious teachings, if properly revived, will be able to counteract certain specific, and highly egregious, tendencies of our ecologically destructive civilization.

In the second half of the book, therefore, Rasmussen proposes five essential elements for constructing a new moral framework that would help the world’s religious communities realize an earth-honoring faith. These are:

  1. Asceticism (as opposed to consumerism)
  2. Sacramentalism (as opposed to commodification)
  3. Mysticism (as opposed to alienation)
  4. Prophetic-Liberative Practices (as opposed to oppression)
  5. Wisdom (as opposed to folly)

If and when I return to this project, I will discuss each of these five elements, mainly by drawing upon the second part of Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-honoring Faith. I’m not sure when that will happen, if at all, so don’t hold your breath.

In chapter 5 of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (titled “The Ideology of Capital”), Heilbroner discusses the role of ideology under capitalism, as seen in three different areas of social life: economic, political, and cultural.

Heilbroner defines ideology as a system of “thought and belief by which dominant classes explain to themselves how their social system operates and what principles it exemplifies” (p. 108). He emphasizes that an ideology is not the same thing as propaganda, which is consciously designed to manipulate people; ideology, in contrast, is not intended to deceive but to enlighten. In other words, “the purpose of an ideology is not to mystify but to clarify; not to mislead the lower classes but to enlighten all classes, in particular the ruling class” (p. 117). Ideology is an explanation that the dominant class uses to rationalize its own behavior, explaining to itself how its actions are morally righteous as well as utterly necessary for the greater good of society. Ideology is the lens “through which the ruling class observes its own actions” (p. 117) and finds them to be justified, meaningful, important, and praiseworthy.

It’s important to note that ideology is not unique to capitalism; every exploitative system requires an ideology to justify the status quo. As the mode of exploitation changes, however, so must the specific form of ideology. In both imperial and feudal societies, the extraction of surplus was legitimized primarily through religious beliefs and symbols; in the capitalist social formation, in contrast, the ideology generally takes a secular form.

Since ideology is an interpretation of social reality that is produced by the ruling class and is intended for the ruling class, it ignores and/or conceals all those aspects of social reality that are either irrelevant or inconvenient from the viewpoint of the ruling class. The power of ideology lies in its ability to provide a convincing picture of social reality; this picture presents itself as the complete, unadorned truth, while actually being a particular interpretation of social reality that serves a particular set of class interests.

Ideology in the Economic Sphere

How does the ideology of capital function within the economic realm? One of the central attributes of capital is its imperative to expand, and this requires that the pursuit and accumulation of wealth be considered a morally desirable trait. In every precapitalist society,” Heilbroner notes, “we find acquisitive activity disliked or despised” for a variety of reasons. This was particularly true of medieval Christian societies, where the charging of interest was a sin and earning anything more than a small profit was a serious offence. For capitalism to become the dominant force, the status of avarice in the popular mind had to change from vice to virtue. As feudalism began to crumble with the rise of the merchant class, people’s beliefs about the legitimacy of interest, profit, and acquisitiveness also began to transform. By the 17th and 18th centuries, a new belief system had started to take root that viewed acquisitive behavior in a positive light. Heilbroner shows that this metamorphosis happened by means of two simultaneous but separate developments. First, avarice was gradually reinterpreted not as a “passion” but as an “interest.” Citing the work of Albert Otto Hirschmann (The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments For Capitalism Before Its Triumph, 1977), Heilbroner writes that “the drive for wealth was perceived as a calming influence compared with the unruly disposition over which no similar rational, calculating attribute exerted its restraints” (p. 110). Second, political economy (or “economics,” as it is now called) made its appearance as a serious academic discipline. Heilbroner writes that the discipline of political economy emerged as “an explanation of how the commercial or nascent industrial system works, from the point of view of the ruling class” (his italics). This was not a matter of “willful distortion,” Heilbroner cautions, but simply the result of a selective interpretation of social reality from a particular perspective, that of the ruling class.

The “science” of Economics has had an ideological aspect to it from the very beginning. For Heilbroner, it is precisely for this reason that mainstream Economics has no understanding of how surplus is systematically extracted from the production process and transferred to a small dominant class.

Heilbroner goes on to show a few glimpses of the intellectual process that created the ideology of capitalism, with particular reference to the writings of John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, 1689) and Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). In the early 19th century, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism established the principle that the pursuit of individual self-interest was the key to achieving the greatest happiness for everyone. This “utilitarian framework provided the final resolution of the moral dilemmas of the economic process by its assertion that whatever served the individual served society.” From there, one only had to take a simple step to reach the conclusion that “whatever created a profit (and thereby served the individual capitalist) also served society” (p. 115). The pursuit of individual self-interest ceased to be a sin and became, instead, a positive social value.

Heilbroner explains that there have been two major consequences of the ideology of capitalism within the economic realm. First, it has provided the dominant class “the moral self-assurance without which it could not carry on its historic mission with such dedicated conviction” (p. 117). Second, it has established the belief that “moral and aesthetic criteria . . . are without relevance within the realm of economic activity” (p. 118).  As already noted, capitalism is characterized by a process of “relentless commercialization” that continuously brings more and more of the previously self-determined aspects of private life under the regime of capital (pp. 117-118). The process of commercialization — which is “perhaps the single most self-destructive process of modern capitalist civilization” — is itself a consequence of commodification, i.e., “the continuous search of business for areas of social activity that can be subsumed within the capital-generating circuit” (p. 118). The only way to control these inherent tendencies of capitalism is through appealing to values higher than that of profit, but the ideology of capitalism refuses to recognize that any such values are relevant in the economic sphere. Through the lens of capitalist ideology, any legal activity that creates wealth appears as unconditionally desirable, even if the consequences of that activity are morally questionable and/or repugnant to human sensibilities.

Ideology in the Political Sphere

The second main area of social life where capitalist ideology plays a significant role is the political sphere. Heilbroner begins by noting the importance of legitimacy for any political system, calling it the “indispensable requirement for the effective exercise of political authority.” In precapitalist societies, religion was the main source of political legitimacy. In such societies, the “inherent legitimacy of government itself” was taken for granted, though the legitimacy of individual rulers was subject to challenge. Under capitalism, in contrast, government is viewed as a human creation that comes into being when a group of individuals “bands together for their mutual safety and protection” (p. 119) by means of a social contract. In precapitalist societies, the individual has no real existence apart from the community, but under capitalism “he or she is imagined to be a self-sufficient cell from which a living social organism is constructed” (p. 120). Heilbroner contends that the ideological element in “this political conception is not just its fictive history but the assumptions about the nature of the ‘individuals’ who meet to form governments.” Such a political narrative imagines human beings as isolated units who could exist by themselves in some kind of a vacuum, without any social connections and without being subject to any social influence. They are further imagined as “coexisting in a state of latent hostility and suspicion,” interacting only “through market exchanges and contractual obligations.” According to Heilbroner, this conception of the “monadic individual is foundational for many aspects of bourgeois ideology,” including the “premise of its economics” (p. 120). More importantly, it is the very basis for political liberalism.

The central idea of political liberalism is that political authority ought to be restricted as much as possible, in order to allow “the largest possible space” for the individual to exercise his or her free choice. For this to happen, the government must exercise “a self-inhibitory discipline, withdrawing from areas previously occupied by state authority and creating legal barriers to secure those liberated territories for their inhabitants’ unfettered use” (p. 121). So far so good. But when political liberalism emphasizes the need for expanding and safeguarding the freedom of the individual to determine his or her own actions, exactly what sort of action are we talking about? The ideological element in political liberalism is exposed when we notice that the particular kind of free choice at issue here is “the economic act of participating in the market bargain,” and that this is precisely the arena in which “the order-bestowing functions of government have been curtailed.” This doesn’t mean that political liberalism was not concerned with liberating the workers from a variety of “legally enforceable subservience,” but this shouldn’t detract us from the fact that the main beneficiary of the liberal reform was always intended to be “the merchant or nascent industrial capitalist” (p. 121). The principal theorists of political liberalism — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith — all agree that the main purpose of government is the preservation of private property (p. 122). Heilbroner explains the parallel roles played by Economics and political liberalism, as follows:

Economics . . . explains the positive effects of a generalized search for capital and “explains away” any inhibitory reservations with respect to the moral consequences of unleashing the acquisitive drive through society. Political liberalism explains the appropriate activities of the governing branch as the partner of a society that has already accepted and legitimated individual accumulation.

Next, Heilbroner tackles the problem of the relationship between political liberalism and democracy. He is interested in understanding how that question has been understood, not how it has been answered. The question can be framed as follows: Does the separation between the political and economic spheres have any causal connection with the achievement of political freedoms in the broad sense? Historically, no clear-cut answer can be given, suggesting that the relationship between the two is complex. There have been regimes where capitalism coexisted with lack of democracy, and many such regimes still exist. One can still generalize, Heilbroner argues, that “political freedom in modern times . . . has only appeared in capitalist states.” That is to say, “democratic liberties have not yet appeared, except fleetingly, in any nation that has declared itself to be fundamentally anticapitalist” (p. 126). Even though capitalism does not always produce democracy, anticapitalist regimes have always been undemocratic and repressive. How does one explain this state of affairs?

Political liberalism argues that the separation of the economic and political spheres is the key to achieving political freedoms, since it prevents the government from enforcing “its will through economic sanctions” (p. 126). Heilbroner acknowledges the strength of this argument, but still feels the necessity of subjecting it to closer scrutiny, in order to detect whether the argument has any ideological elements.

There are three main points to note in this regard. First of all, we should recognize that “capital itself has no inherent dependence on or affinity to political freedom.” This is because capital is primarily “oriented to the creation of profit, not to the attainment of freedom” (p. 127). Capital wants nothing more than its own continuous accumulation; it will support any state policy that will enhance the M-C-M’ circuit and resist any policy that will cause it to slow down.

Second, when political liberalism champions the freedom of the individual, we need to know exactly what kind of freedoms are being considered. Typically, we hear about “the pressures of state-imposed conformity that destroy the individual’s capacity for independence and self-development.” It is true that political liberalism has significantly reduced the state’s ability to coerce the individual, and it should be applauded for that achievement. At the same time, it is also true that the state is not the only mechanism for curtailing “the individual’s capacity for independence and self-development,” for “the pressures of the marketplace and of the ethos of capitalism also erode these capacities significantly” (p. 128). Yet, we don’t normally notice these latter pressures to conform.

Third, when it comes to the rights of the individual under the regime of capital, there is a double standard in how these rights are conceptualized and applied. Thus, if citizens are prevented from voting “on the determination of national or local affairs,” it is condemned as a violation of their rights. At the same time, it is considered perfectly legitimate to deny the same citizens “the opportunity to cast a vote on the determination of the affairs of the company that employs them.” Similarly, the democratic idea of “one person, one vote” is applied in the political sphere but not in the marketplace, where “every market participant may rightly cast as many votes as his or wealth permits” (p. 129).

Hielbroner acknowledges the positive contributions of political liberalism in championing the individual’s freedoms and rights, but he also emphasizes its ideological elements by noting the asymmetric way in which these freedoms and rights are conceptualized and applied.

Political and intellectual liberties are perhaps the greatest bourgeois civilizational triumphs. Nevertheless they are bourgeois triumphs; and the ideology that tends to depict them in absolute terms becomes evident when we reflect only on the limitations but the definitions of the freedoms that have been won. (p. 129)

Ideology in the Cultural Sphere

The term “culture,” according to Heilbroner, covers “the diffuse values, the style of art and thought, unconscious customs, and general outlook of the system.” The culture produced and developed by the bourgeoisie has always been “extraordinarily rich, brilliant, and diverse,” and so it cannot be reduced to a single idea or tendency. There are certain aspects of the bourgeois culture, however, that show a remarkable influence of — and compatibility with — the needs and interests of capital. From this latter category, Heilbroner chooses to discusses an aspect of culture that has not received adequate attention,” that is, “the bourgeois attitude toward nature” (p. 132).

In sharp contrast to the dominant culture under capitalism, the cultures of most precapitalist societies are characterized with a “sacred view of the world.” In this view, “the earth is seen . . . as peopled with spirits and living presences, suffused with an animism that inhabits every rock as well as every living thing.” Such a world is often seen as possessing its own vitality and subjectivity, it “is endowed with the capacity for suffering and rejoicing, for vengeance and for beneficence.” According to these cultures, the world “exists to be cajoled, propitiated, rewarded, and thanked.” It is “not to be abused, invaded, violated, or ignored” (p. 133). The ancient Israelite religion inaugurated a “striking departure from this animistic” view of the world, which continued under Christianity (and Islam). Nature became “desacralized and objectified,” and it became possible — and even divinely mandated — to exploit the natural world for human ends. Capitalism did not invent this objectification of nature; it did, however, provide a cultural context that encouraged an increasingly rational and utilitarian approach to nature, reducing it “to the purely abstract considerations of income statements and balance sheets” (p. 134).

The objectification of nature — and human labor — has not been the sole result of the pressures created by the profit motive, for a key role has been played by modern science. Citing Max Weber, Heilbroner contends that the reification of nature has received intellectual support by the disenchanted view of the world that modern science propagated. This is a view that “reduces the objects in the material world to atoms and particles, propelled or held in place by ‘forces’ capable of being described by mathematics but no longer by art or imagery” (pp. 134-135). In the modern world, science provides the authoritative explanation of how the world works, fulfilling a critical social function that was served by religion in past civilizations. Science is not an ideology in the sense of a belief system that overtly supports certain class interests; rather, the ideological element of science lies in its tendency to desacralize the world, particularly through the concept of “an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality” (p. 135). An ever-increasing exploitation of nature that is unchecked by any moral considerations would have been simply unimaginable in a world where people approached nature “with awe and veneration.” For capitalism to become dominant, in other words, nature had to be emptied of all sacred value. Insofar as modern science helps in creating a “view of nature as object, the obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man,” it engenders “a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material world,” and therefore plays an ideological role in the service of capital accumulation (p. 135). Under capitalism, the exploitation of nature is only the flip side of the exploitation of human labor.

Another important characteristic of bourgeois culture is its capacity to assimilate and co-opt anticapitalist ideas by turning them into commodities. Under capitalism, it is common for cultural products like books, music, movies, and fashions to start their lives as protests against the capitalist establishment and then gradually become part of the same establishment as means of capital accumulation. Heilbroner makes two important comments regarding this phenomenon. First, he argues that capitalism’s “extraordinary tolerance for heretical, skeptical, or disconcerting thought and cultural activity is a direct consequence of the desacralization” mentioned above (p. 138). Second, he contends that the unprecedented intellectual freedom offered by the capitalist social formation is closely related to capitalism’s tendency toward commodification; it is precisely because ideas can be turned into commodities that “they can be so lightly and indifferently regarded.” Under capitalism, “the contest of thoughts” is depicted as a competition in the “marketplace of ideas,” thereby providing a remarkable degree of protection to dissenting views. Commodification and desacralization work together to create an extraordinary freedom for the intellect. In contrast, “a culture based on sacred beliefs would have great difficulty in tolerating continuous threats to the validity and sanctity of its world view” (p. 139).

The downside of intellectual freedom within capitalist culture is the resulting cacophony of opposing ideas. As a result, capitalist ideology “lacks the basis of a religious certainty, the granite in which other world views are imprisoned but on which they can build with utter confidence.” Capitalism, Heilbroner notes, “has no intrinsic moral dimension, no vision of art or idea aside from the commodity form in which it is embodied.” Under the regime of capital, “ideas thrive but morality languishes.” The bourgeois culture is rich and diverse, but it fails to produce any “organizing moral force” (p. 140).

Chapter 4 of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is titled “The Role of the State.” The issue here is the nature of the relationship between two kinds of power, political and economic.

Heilbroner begins by noting that a social formation is a complex totality consisting of many different elements; some of these elements function harmoniously while others may be in conflict with each other. Obviously, it would be a mistake to describe any given social formation by paying attention only to its most obvious or most active element. At the same time, all of the various elements of a social formation should not receive the same amount of attention, for some of them play a more central role than others in determining its nature and logic. Indeed, every social formation is characterized by a “central organizing principle,” i.e., a key element that exerts a disproportional influence over all other aspects of society. In the case of capitalist social formation, that principle is “capital with its self-expanding attributes” (p. 79). While we don’t want to reduce everything that happens in a capitalist social formation to the sole influence of capital, we cannot afford to ignore its pervasive influence either. Heilbroner summarizes his point as follows:

Thus it seems to me that the failure to accord centrality to one principle and its embodying institutions — not, of course, the same ones for all social formations — robs social analysis of its clarificatory potential as gravely as the dogmatic insistence that all attributes of any given society can be explained as mere epiphenomena of its mode of production or of any other organizing structure. (p. 83)

Given that capital is “the dominating principle” of a capitalist social formation, Heilbroner argues, its influence cannot possibly remain restricted to the economic sphere alone; rather, it “must color and infiltrate the institutions and beliefs that lie beyond its immediate ambit of operation” (p. 84). This does not mean that capital acts like a puppet-master, controlling all of our beliefs and behaviors in a mechanical or deterministic way. Heilbroner’s point, rather, is that we cannot underestimate capital’s influence over all aspects of society without compromising our understanding of what’s really going on around us. In order to establish that capital is indeed the central organizing principle of modern societies, we need not argue that powerful interests other than those of capital either do not exist or are too weak to have any effect; rather, we only need to show that there is an overall compatibility between the demands of capital and those of other interests. According to Heilbroner, “The influence of the economic realm on its intertwined political and social realms does not therefore involve any mechanical dependency or slavish passivity of the latter but only their congruence with, and complementarity to, the operating relationships of capital” (p. 84). While emphasizing that the “general priorities and interests” in a capitalist social formation are mostly shaped according to the needs and preferences of capital, Heilbroner acknowledges that other aspects of society do enjoy some degree of independence from the dominating influence of capital. We must, in other words, “accord to the political and ideological realms a degree of freedom to act on behalf of motives that antedate those of capital accumulation and that persist alongside it, although generally subordinated to it” (p. 85). To summarize, even though capital calls the tune, it cannot eliminate all anti-capitalist tendencies from society; its reign is pervasive but not total.

In the capitalist social formation, therefore, the state is not a mere tool in the hands of capital, though it normally does act in ways that tend to prioritize the needs and preferences of capital over all other interests. To understand this phenomenon, we must begin by comparing the properties of the economic sphere (consisting of the productive and distributive activities of society) and those of the political sphere (the realm that deals with governance).

In precapitalist societies, there is no formal boundary between economic and political spheres. There are two reasons for this: first, there is no independently existing economic sphere, and second, there is no mechanism that prevents the state from exercising its power over the processes of production and distribution (pp. 85-86). As a result, an economic sphere cannot emerge in a society unless the ruling elite or the state bureaucracy gives up some of its power and thereby allows the emergence of an independent realm that deals with production and distribution. This phenomenon began only in the tenth century, when the fall of the Roman Empire created a widespread political vacuum in which the merchant class was able to gain increasing prominence. An independent economic sphere, in other words, began to appear as a nascent phenomenon even when feudalism was still in its early stages. This was a slow process that took several hundred years to mature. Heilbroner notes:

Very gradually, there arose from the widening importance of mercantile dealings, and from the increasing dependence of all levels of society on the market mechanism, the foundations of a regime of capital. On the land, surplus continued to be gathered through the lord’s political domination over the serf, but in the towns and cities, surplus more and more welled up in the form of profits accruing to merchant traders, later in merchant guilds (p. 87).

In his book Class and Nation (1980), Samir Amin suggested that a key difference between an imperial social formation and a feudal one was that only the former was based on centralized tribute collection; he used the term “incomplete tributary society” to describe the nature of feudalism. Following Amin’s analysis, Heilbroner explains that “the logic of feudalism was to remedy its incompletion by seeking self-sufficiency through military and dynastic struggles and alliances” (p. 87). In late medieval Europe, the hundreds of autonomous political fiefdoms were feeling an enormous pressure toward unification in order to centralize tribute collection and consolidate political power. The same was true of the mercantile world. As the small political units of medieval Europe coalesced to form nation-states, the small centers of mercantile power began to combine as well; the latter phenomenon gave rise to large commercial operations that eventually turned into the modern business corporation. It’s hardly a coincidence that two of the most powerful forces of our world, i.e., capitalism and nationalism, emerged in the same place and at the same time.

In light of the above discussion, we can see that the economic sphere has come into being through a gradual process of separation from the political sphere. Instead of a single sphere that was responsible for governance as well as production and distribution, we now have two interdependent spheres. The political sphere “retained the ancient trappings and much of the military power of the original imperium and was vested with the formal responsibility of enforcing the will of the state, both through its monopoly of legal violence and its position of moral authority” (p. 88). The economic sphere took over “the task of superintending the daily work of the population of amassing the surplus” (pp. 88-89). The relationship between the two spheres, however, is clearly asymmetrical. As the economic sphere gained prominence and autonomy, constraints were placed on “the power of the state to violate the private space of the individual or to commandeer his or her property.” The state was excluded from the workings of the market, leading to “the gradual loss by the state of its right of direct access to surplus,” as well as “its command over the labor or materials, or even the money.” In effect, “even though the state retained the ultimate weaponry of rule and the authority of awe, it became dependent on the operation of its self-created republic for the nourishment of revenues” (p. 89). It is for this reason that “the regime of capital is the dominant active influence in the normal relationship between the two realms,” and that “the state is normally its obliging servant.” The state has access to a tremendous amount of violent force while capital lacks any means of direct coercion; yet, the state must “support and advance the accumulation of capital” if it is to maintain its own power (p. 90).

What all of this means is that “at the very heart of capitalism” there lies a tension that vastly complicates the relationship between state and capital. The tension results from a fundamental conflict between the logic of political power and the logic of economic power. The logic of economic power dictates that chains of production and distribution be organized solely “according to opportunities of profit,” while the logic of political power is “concerned primarily with considerations of boundaries” as well as other limits and constraints (p. 90). In precapitalist societies, the logic of political power reigned supreme. With the emergence of an autonomous economic sphere, the logic of political power was increasingly disrupted as society’s surplus began to flow not toward the centers of political power but toward those of economic power.

Despite the state’s control over the means of mass surveillance and legitimized violence, the logic of economic power is such that it often brings capital “into conflict with, or beyond the effective control of, the state” (p. 93). This allows capital to become “increasingly capable of defying, or of existing ‘above,’ the state.” Basically, a “network of commodity flows” comes into existence that “cuts through the boundaries of national sovereignty,” forming an increasingly autonomous system capable of operating “according to the dictates of its own logic, with less and less regard for those of politics” (p. 94). As the logic of economic power gains momentum, capital becomes increasingly able to shape and influence all aspects of society, while the “full powers of the state . . . remain largely in the background.” It’s only during “periods of overt internal disruption or external war” that the state exerts its full power; during such times, the state “advances the interests of capital as a natural response to the appeals of capital, as well as in a calculating fashion to promote its own peacetime strength” (p. 95).

We may generalize at this point by observing that the “basic interests of capital usually exert their sway without opposition” (p. 95). Under the capitalist social formation, the political and the economic spheres remain interdependent rivals with capital almost always prevailing over the state.

In reality, the political and economic spheres penetrate each other in a variety of ways. Exploitation, for example, is a political phenomenon. In precapitalist societies, the surplus produced by peasants and other workers is made to flow upwards to the ruling elite, and this is accomplished through the use of coercion and the threat or use of violence. In capitalist societies, on the other hand, the political and economic realms exist separately, yet the upward flow of surplus continues. The exploitation of the labor force is a political act in both cases, but its political nature becomes concealed or masked in the latter instance. Heilbroner writes that the political nature of exploitation is obvious “when a lord wrests his share from a serf’s crops” but that it “becomes invisible when the same diversion of output is carried out by the market mechanism.” The reason for the invisibility of this exploitation is the lack of direct coercion of the labor force that characterizes capitalism. It is “precisely because the worker under capitalism is free to quit and to appeal at law if the wage contract has been abrogated that the continuing exploitative diversion of surplus remains unnoticed” (p. 99). The “freedom” enjoyed by the workers under capitalism is precisely the mask that hides their exploitation.

Heilbroner then goes on to explain another characteristic of capitalism that conceals the political nature of the economic sphere. The very capacity to organize production and distribution, he points out, is an instance of political power. “The deployment of the legal authority of the capitalist within the confines of his business enterprise thus constitutes an unrecognized transfer of political power from the state into private hands” (p. 100).

Just as there are important political elements within the economic sphere, we can find economic elements within the political sphere. Thus, the power of the state is used “for the protection of activities within the economic realm.” The state ensures that the rights of private property are maintained; it also provides law and order so that the the process of production and the generation of surplus can go on without interruption (p. 101). The military and diplomatic resources of the state are routinely used to enhance and promote the interests of the economic sphere (p.103). At a more fundamental level, it is clear that the economic sphere needs a variety of goods and services for its proper functioning, but that many of these goods and services cannot be produced and maintained profitably. The state provides these goods and services at public expense; the public bears the cost while private businesses reap the resulting profits. Examples include “the network of canals, railways, highways, and airways that have played an indispensable part in capitalist growth, as well as the provision of literate and socialized work forces through public education programs, [and] the protection of public health” (p. 102). The fact that the public at large also seems to benefit from these state activities shouldn’t prevent the observer from noticing that they are meant primarily to serve the interests of capital while also strengthening the domination of the ruling elite. Indeed, the conventional distinction between “private” and “public” seems to break down at this point.

Toward the end of the chapter, Heilbroner summarizes the nature of the relationship between capital and state as follows:

Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain, although it might change dramatically; remove the state and the regime of capital would not last a day. In this sense politics is prior to economics in that domination must precede exploitation. Thus one again we encounter the tense relation of realms characteristic of the social formation in which capital calls the tune by which the state normally dances but takes for granted that the state will provide the theater within which the performance takes place. (p. 105)


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