Brett Williams's Reviews > From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology

From Mandeville to Marx by Louis Dumont
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Who knew capitalism and Christianity were moral opposites?

For reasons having to do with ignorance and upbringing, I have long assumed capitalism and Christianity were in agreement. Agreement about what? Well, morality, I guess. Such are the assumptions of unquestioned habit. Once again anthropologist Louis Dumont changed forever the way I think. In this text Dumont traces the evolution of economics, its separation from politics, from morality, and finally its claim to be a kind of independent science. The second half of Dumont’s text is focused on development of Karl Marx’s thought. We find Marx brilliant, and so biased by his revolutionary zeal responding to his outrage at the new morality of economics that he spins everything his way. Once Dumont digs deep into Communism, it’s so riddled with holes one wonders how any 1917 revolutionary could take it for more than a means to enslave people they claimed to free from the oppressive world of production. There remain those scattered Communist holdouts that could use a good read, and here it is.

More surprising than Marx’s failure was that great self-contradiction in the West between capitalism and religion. As Dumont and others note, prevailing moral standards at the time of America’s Founding came from Christianity. According to Dumont (1911-1998), Jesus emphasized empathy as central to humanity. Recognizing the potential for error, we should then strive to be selfless. Jesus placed emphasis on what I’ll term here as spiritual morality, degrading the material world of the here-and-now in favor of a world beyond. “For what has a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mathew 16:26) But seventeen hundred years after Jesus, Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote Wealth of Nations and changed all this. Smith claimed that selfishness is central to humanity - a paramount interest in self-preservation, why not give into it? So long as we create a set of rules to play by, each can pursue their own self-interest by a new type of morality, of “private vice serving public good.” Smith reversed the Christian teaching by elevating the material world of here-and-now, seeking physical comfort for the greatest number of people. And it worked. Smith’s capitalist economy thrived in an atmosphere of “moral neutrality” and expanding individualism.

It’s clear that traditional morality and economic morality are in opposition: selflessness vs. selfishness; empathy vs. “greed is good,” as Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) clarifies in his Fable of the Bees that so influenced Smith. Hence, the most profound self-contradiction in Western civilization, which is generally Christian and simultaneously capitalistic.

From Smith eventually arrives the notion that material well-being is a realization of social justice, not that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This change in the human definition changed our ideology (according to Dumont) and thus our actions from an ideology once based on “man’s relation to men,” to “man’s relation to things.” It might be predictable that at this transition the individual accelerates their separation from others via control of the natural world, achievement, displays of materially defined success, etc. As such, true communities disappear. After Smith, the plodding pace of individualism becomes a sprint, eventually to trample traditional communal life with its many duties and responsibilities that we moderns view as positively stifling. While Dumont is occasionally dense, it’s worth the effort as his ideas are excellent and well supported.
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Reading Progress

January 12, 2015 –
page 33
(Paperback Edition)
Started Reading
May 1, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 10, 2015 – Shelved
June 10, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites

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