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Kant, Marx and the Yanis Varoufakis challenge

February 19th, 2015 · 4 Comments

This article has an interesting discussion of the issues of Kant and Marx. I have a sort of hobby, collecting Kant/Marx contrasts, if not collisions and this article is a prime specimen for the collection. I won’t take sides or pass judgment here (actually the issues are obscure) save to note that Kant isn’t always the best source for ethical decisions. Nor is Marx, whose distate for morality rivals Nietzsche’s. We should point out that marxism has no foundation for ethics, since the agent has no free choice. The issue of bourgeois distortions of morality is another subject, really, and a brilliant insight by Marx.
I raised the issue of Kant and ethics several times in Last and First Men, but the reason was not so much for a practical canon, a text of practical reason, but for insight Kant system gives to the theoretical status of will as a precondition of ethical reason. In LFM Kant is taken as a theorist of freedom in the context of causal behaviourism, and the whole discussion leaves us a little confused about applications to specific situations.

Kant is a reminder that the style of determinism given in the hard sciences doesn’t work and the result is the need to reconstruct morality and free agency.
It is also the case that the period of the Second Internationale with its now lackluster tomes ad finitum of dreary marxist orthodoxy was in parallel to the Kantian socialism of the so-called Marburg school. Kant pointed to a foundation for socialism in his Republic of Ends and it is hard to find a better one. It is useful to consider this in the context of finding a way to express the cirtique of ideological ethical behaviorism.

Convinced that the Europeans and Greece can find a win-win compromise where both can emerge victoriously, although creditors will suffer some form of a “haircut,” Varoufakis argued that Syriza is not motivated by some “radical-left agenda,” but invoked the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, perhaps as a sop to the Germans, to explain the Greek government’s concern for everyone’s welfare:

“One may think that this retreat from game theory is motivated by some radical-left agenda. Not so. The major influence here is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who taught us that the rational and the free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.”

Kant’s ethics were dazzling in their simplicity. His fundamental contention was that doing the right thing coincided with doing the rational thing, which was the same as acting freely, as opposed to being driven by selfish passions. For example, if we wanted to know if stealing could ever be ethically justified, Kant counseled that we pose this question: What if everyone stole? In other words, would it make sense for someone to want stealing to become a universal code of conduct? And, of course, people who steal certainly do not want others to follow their example, for they do not want to become victims of stealing themselves. Hence, they adopt a rationally flawed, self-contradictory code: everyone should abstain from stealing except them.

But Kant’s abstract ethical doctrine does not do justice to Mr. Varoufakis’ political philosophy. Elsewhere in his op-ed he put it this way:

“The great difference between this government [the new Syriza government] and previous Greek governments is twofold: We are determined to clash with mighty vested interests in order to reboot Greece and gain our partners’ trust. We are also determined not to be treated as a debt colony that should suffer what it must.”

This is not the philosophy of Kant where all are treated as equal, atomized individuals, it is the philosophy of Marx. It is raw class war. The Syriza government is out to defend the working class majority at the expense of the rich, who have been shirking on paying their taxes and are waist-deep in corruption. “No more ‘reform’ programs that target poor pensioners and family-owned pharmacies while leaving large-scale corruption untouched,” Varoufakis insisted in his op-ed. In an interview with the BBC he put it this way: “We are going to destroy the basis upon which they [the Greek oligarchy] have built, for decade after decade, a system and network that viciously sucks the energy and the economic power from everybody else in society.”

Marx argued that in class societies, there is no single ethics that can bridge class divisions. Rather, our ethical outlook is deeply defined by our class position. Many in the working class, for example, are convinced of the ethical imperative that the rich pay higher taxes, that their businesses be tightly regulated, that people who fall on hard times through no fault of their own be helped, etc. But many who are rich are equally convinced that such policies are examples of “the politics of envy” and that nothing could be more morally depraved than to transfer money from the good, hard-working wealthy people to the lazy poor.

And because this is a class war, it becomes all the more significant that leaders of major German unions have courageously come out in opposition to their own government to support Syriza’s anti-austerity platform. This is the real reason why European leaders, who represent their respective capitalist classes, refuse to budge on Greece’s debt. They are perfectly aware that in war one must not display weakness; it will only embolden and strengthen “the enemy.” But success also breeds success. Thanks to Syriza’s electoral victory in Greece, Podemos, which also rejects austerity, has surged in Spain, as was evidenced by its recent rally in Madrid of hundreds of thousands. Any small victory of Syriza in its confrontation with its troika opponents will be a victory for Podemos and all the other anti-austerity parties throughout Europe. More European governments could possibly fall. The class struggle could intensify.

Varoufakis has described himself as an “erratic Marxist.” He is far more of a Marxist than a Kantian. It’s the only moral thing to be.

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