The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (4)

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.

Robert Heilbronner, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, 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).


    1. Good question. The word “moral” has two distinct meanings, one broad and general, the other narrow and specific. In the former sense, “moral” denotes ANY kind of vision of how we ought to live and act, and in this sense it is indeed the case that capitalist ideology can act as a moral force. In the latter sense, however, the word “moral” has positive connotations, as in the word “morality.” When Heilbroner says that capitalism does not provide any “organizing moral force,” I believe he is using the word “moral” in its latter, i.e., narrow and specific, sense. Since capitalism is “amoral,” it doesn’t care how people live and act so long as profit-making and capital-expansion can go on with minimal hindrance. It is for this reason that a capitalist enterprise has no qualms about publishing anticapitalist books or producing anticapitalist films.

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