- Roberts's Marx's Inferno
One of the many strengths of William Roberts's fruitful reading of Marx through Dante is that it forces us away from the oft-held impression of Capital as a dry, "serious" work, where what is meant by "serious" is "abandoning the moral sentiments and concerns of the 'young' Marx." The concept of Hell is, after all, nothing if not profoundly moral, comprehensible only within the context of a worldview that is shot through with normativity. One of the numerous salutary interventions of Roberts's book is that it roundly discourages us from reading Capital as a non-philosophical text, or even as an attempt at one.
Interpreting capitalism as a hellfire to which we have been damned, Roberts's likening of Marx's Capital to a tour through Dante's circles of Hell highlights the extent to which Marx's account of capitalism enters into critical conversation with a moralized conception of how we have wound up where we are. A soul does not, after all, generally find itself consigned to eternal damnation without having run afoul of a whole practice of moral praising and blaming. This is true even while Roberts enjoins his reader to understand Marx as departing from the individualistic moralism of his socialist contemporaries and forebears, arguing instead that Marx supplants that individualistic moralism with a "depersonalized" account of the wrongness of capitalist exploitation. We wind up exploited under capitalism not as just deserts for any of our individual actions, but because of the movement of capital itself, a system that stunts and confounds the ability of individuals to act except within highly narrowed constraints.
Against characterizations of Marx as a strict economic determinist about human action, Roberts deftly and correctly counters that, "Marx does not argue that economic relations manipulate individuals like puppets, but that economic relations dominate their decision-making." He goes on to write that the individual subjects of capitalist exploitation "are not forced to act as they do, but they are subject to a kind of hazard that rules out discursive deliberation except within arbitrarily narrow parameters".1
A long tradition of thought about moral responsibility holds that "ought implies can," which is to say that if it is the case that one is morally responsible for performing some action, then that person must also have been able to perform the action. One straightforward way of denying moral responsibility for an action is to establish that one had no choice in the matter, that one could not have done otherwise than to perform the action. In Roberts's discussion of market competition among commodity producers, "ought" and "can" somewhat seem to come apart. While he insists that individuals' agency under capitalism "remains intact," and that they are "not forced to act as they do," he concludes nevertheless that "they are not, for all that, fit to be held responsible for their actions in view of the market".2 [End Page 781]
Roberts's argument for this conclusion is that "there is not much room for wondering whether making or selling x, in y manner, is worth doing," if failing to make or sell x will imperil one's livelihood. This suggests an interesting connection between agency, responsibility, constraint, and absolution that Roberts does not flesh out in great detail in the book. I am highly sympathetic to Roberts's urging that we not reduce the causes of suffering under capitalism to an array of individual immoral choices. This would be well at odds with Marx's picture. Roberts's argument suggests an area for further inquiry: to say a bit more about reasons for thinking one can be absolved of responsibility for actions one performs while unforced and with one's agency "intact."
What hangs on conceiving of economic choices under capitalism as unforced? What would be lost if we conceived of a choice made under threat of losing one's livelihood as one that was, indeed, forced, and for that reason, one for which it is inappropriate to hold the...