The spiritual crisis of capitalist civilization

by Jeff Noonan

Human beings are integrally natural and social creatures, dependent upon natural life-support systems for their physical existence and socio-cultural life-development systems for the nurturing and realization of their emotional, cognitive, and practical-creative capacities.  Societies whose developmental dynamics become alienated from their natural conditions of existence face inevitable doom.  Oblivious to the ways in which their reproductive dynamics undermining the physical foundations of social life, they collapse the very basis upon which their institutions and value systems depend.  Let us say that any society which unsustainably converts scarce natural resources into tokens of social power (as, for example, capitalism converts natural systems and elements into money) faces a material crisis of life-reproduction.  The manifold environmental crises unleashed by capitalism, crises which persist even in the midst of on-going economic stagnation, are evidence that capitalism will ultimately face a problem of material life-reproduction.  Yet, this material crisis is not the only crisis that capitalist civilization faces.  Since human beings require not only life, but meaningful, purposive life, societies can also fall into what I will call spiritual crises of life-development.

Spiritual crises arise when the ruling value system and institutional structure of a society becomes alienated from citizens’ need to feel that they belong to a socio-cultural whole which values their contributions to its reproduction and development.  More precisely, spiritual crises arise when the ruling value system and institutional structure of a society actively alienate citizens by treating them as mere tools of its material reproduction.  When people are treated as mere tools of system-reproduction, their moral being as intrinsically life-valuable centres of experience, action, and interaction, cognizant of the social conditions of their freedom and well-being, and desirous of enhancing the social foundations of their individuality, are attacked.  In these alienated circumstances social problems are presented to the populace as technical problems to be solved by political and economic experts working in the service of the established  asymmetries of wealth and power.  Spiritual crises thus arise when ruling classes attempt to solve a material crisis of social reproduction by treating subaltern groups not as participating members of a social whole, but as passive objects whose life-interests must be sacrificed to the health of the system understood as a reified whole indifferent to the life-requirements of the people who live under it.

It is in a moment of spiritual crisis that the material reality of class privilege and power becomes apparent to the subaltern citizens.  Demonized and excluded from the social conversation about solutions to problems which affect their life-horizons most decisively, they cannot but realize that “we” are not all in the same boat.  Instead, they come to see that the boat is going to be kept afloat by pitching as many of them as necessary overboard.  The spiritual crisis is just this realization on the part of the subaltern that their lives are not regarded as intrinsically valuable by the ruling class, but that they are fungible and expendable tools of system and privilege reproduction.  A spiritual crisis is thus very much of this world.  It has nothing to do with our relationship to a transcendent otherworld but rather to the meaning, purpose, and value of the institutions through which our lives as socially self-conscious agents are led.   I will argue that once a society has fallen into spiritual crisis, as I will contend that capitalism has, it has ceased to function as a civilization, i.e., as a cultivator of higher human capacity to think of ourselves as members of wholes that are greater than our abstract individuality which provide direction, purpose, and meaning to our transitory existence on the planet.  Spiritual crises can only be resolved by the construction of a new form of civilization through political practices which marshal the democratic energy and creativity of the subaltern groups spurned by the prevailing ruling class.

Let me develop this argument in three steps.  In the first, I will unpack fully the idea of spiritual crisis, drawing on Hegel’s conception of Spirit to emphasise the this-worldly, social nature of spiritual crisis.  In the second, I will support the philosophical arguments of the first by examining the self-understanding of contemporary democratic resistance movements. As will become clear, movements like the Arab Spring, or Occupy Wall Street, or Syriza are not simply trying to change economic or political institutions.  They are reacting not only to declining living standards, but more equally to the expulsion of their members from participation in the political and social life of the nation.  Another way of putting this point is to say that they are reacting to the death of democracy as the idea of a social whole whose members solve their shared problems together.  In the concluding section I will argue that the only solution to the spiritual crisis of capitalism is success in the positive, constructive program of these oppositional movements.

I:  Spirit, Sociality, and the Value of Felt Belonging

Hegel defines Spirit as a definite form of social relationship between human beings.  Spirit is “this absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousness, which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence:  ‘I’ that is ‘We’ and ‘We’ that is ‘I’.”[1] Spirit is the object of social self-consciousness. Social self-consciousness is consciousness of the other not as a piece of meat or a mammal, but a being like oneself, one defined by its proper goals, possibilities, and capacities for free activity.  When we relate to each other in this way, we value ourselves and one another as intrinsically valuable centres of experience and activity. Spirit is thus the name of that in social relationships which cannot be reduced to the materiality of the elements of life or the physicality of the objects of biological need, that in them which satisfies a socio-cultural need for shared meaning, purpose, and felt belonging which elevate human existence above the biological imperative to survive and reproduce.  Spirit does not refer to transcendent substance, a heavenly otherworld of gods, grace, and salvation, but to that which makes this earthly world worthwhile.  That which makes earthly, mortal life worthwhile is the contributions each person can make to the building of communities that sustain and enable the lives and capacities of others, in the present and into the future.  H.S. Harris brings out the social meaning of “spirit” clearly in his epic commentary on the Phenomenology.  Spirit, he comments, “is the passive medium for all our self-positing efforts…the supposedly ‘supersensible’ world is the real present world that we live in;…‘the spirit’ is the real substantiality of our sense-experience.”[2]  This explanation requires further unpacking if the importance of Hegel’s conception of spirit for understanding the crisis of capitalist civilization is to be properly grasped.

When Harris says that spirit is the real substantiality of our sense-experience, he means by “real” not “physically fundamental” but “constitutive of the meaning of the object of human sense experience.”  Human experience of the world is not that of mere environmental surrounding or elemental forces, but rather of meaningful natural and social objects.  Marx understood this point well.  In a capitalist society the senses are degraded to instruments of money-value seeking, capable of grasping things only in so far as they are commodities.  A socialist world would emancipate “all human senses and qualities… because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human.  The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man…. [The senses] relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man.”[3] The true reality of things is not exhausted by their elemental properties, but must be completed by a grasp of their life-value for human beings.  In other words, the things of the world impact us emotionally and aesthetically, they are grasped as helps or hindrances to our projects, they feel congenial or threatening, they elicit our love or our hatred.  An orange is not simply a source of Vitamin C, it is also “delicious”  or a “treat” or a “reward” for hard work.  The physical and the symbolic are united in human sense and cognition. The real substantiality of the world, that which we grasp when we experience it through human senses, is the world as the natural and social contexts in which we try to realize our capacities and find fulfilment as creative, socially self-conscious individuals.

That which is true of the relationship between human senses and objects in general is especially true when the object of the senses is another human being.  The real substantiality of the human being is neither the physical elements that compose his or her body nor the genetic code that gives human form and possibility to that body, but his or her meaningful relationships to others in narrower or wider circles of association:  father, brother, friend, lover, co-citizen, fellow human being.  Each of these relationships contains possibilities for fulfillment, but also dangers of disappointment.  There is no option but to seek fulfillment through these relationships, since human life in its origins and in its conditions of life-valuable development is social.  The general sociality of human life does not entail that any particular instance of social relationship will satisfy the life-requirements that draw people into it.  If we treat society in general as the condition of human life-capacity development, then its life-value is determined by the extent to which its institutions and ruling value system recognise and comprehensively and universally satisfy its members’ socio-cultural life-requirements.  Our socio-cultural life-requirements are those relationships and institutions through which our social self-conscious agency, our capacity to define ourselves as individuals in ways that support rather than destroy the fields of cooperative interaction upon which we depend, is developed.  The life-value of social institutions and relationships as the matrix within which meaningful lives become possible is their real substantiality, their spiritual nature.[4]

The life-value of social institutions and relationships is distinct from the forms of power exercised within them.  Economic institutions are life-valuable when they produce and distribute scarce life-goods and provide opportunities for contributing to the well-being of others through productive labour.  Political institutions are life-valuable when they provide opportunities for public deliberation about matters of shared concern and rules for collective decision making binding on all members of the association.  In both cases, individuals are recognised as in a shared need of the life-goods these institutions provide, and social life as a whole is regarded as a series of cooperative interactions governed by the goal of providing those shared life-goods in as universal and comprehensive a form as possible.  The shared interest in cooperative effort to provide life-goods does not mean that there is a social interest apart from the interlinked individual interests.  The spirit of society is not a reified whole apart which may sacrifice the good of individuals to preserve itself.  “The individual is not reducible to, but grounded on, this social life-host for self-articulation to be possible,” McMurtry explains.  “The individual achieves individuality by expressing this social life-ground in some way particular to personal capacity and choice.”[5] The spirit of society is an emergent property of relationships between individuals whose social interactions are governed  by the goal of making a meaningful contribution to the whole, and not simply his or her own survival and pleasure as an abstract desire-machine.

Individuals are made the sacrificial victims of reified powers not when society is understood as the ground and basis of individual self-development, but rather when all social action is reduced to competitive zero sum games.  Institutions are no longer recognised as the expression of a truly collective project, but as distributors of power, with the winners entitled to rule over the losers.  Spiritual crisis can be avoided so long as the losers regard the game as fair.  As soon as the real class structure that organizes the game becomes apparent, spiritual crisis sets in.  The real class structure becomes apparent whenever ruling classes need to act decisively to preserve and extend their rule.  The fictitious nature of the existing “we” becomes apparent when it bifurcates into the “we” that decides and the “we” that is forced to obey the decision without having had any role in making it.

Well-governed societies not only ensure that people are able to survive and (if they choose) reproduce, they elicit, encourage, and ensure the participation of their members in the governance of all its major social institutions.  In so doing, they ensure that human beings live life as social self-conscious agents, concerned as much about the integrity of those social institutions and the well-being of all who live within them as their own good as individuals.   When individuals feel as though they belong to a whole which needs and values their participation and contribution, they develop the corresponding desire to so contribute.  When this felt belonging is absent, individuals become alienated from the social whole and other people.  Emile Durkheim called this feeling of alienation from the social whole, “anomie,” and he traced it to a division of labour which failed to recognise individual talents, interests, and goals.[6]  Life in such conditions is reduced to the repetition of meaningless tasks with no shared, substantial value set to provide purpose.  When even those meaningless but remunerative tasks are not available to people, when, because of a crisis of material reproduction people can find no way to contribute to society because there is not even pointless work available, and when peoples’ efforts to contribute to solutions are spurned by the ruling class, at that point society has ceased to deserve the allegiance of its members.  A spiritual crisis can only be solved, therefore, by the constitution of a new “we” formed of the dispossessed, the despised, the expelled, and their supporters.  The identity of the new “we” emerges from the consciousness of the alienation of each of its members from the prevailing social institutions and value system.  It overcomes this alienation not through demands for inclusion in a decadent civilization, but from collective efforts to invent a new ascendant world anchored by the goal of satisfying those life-values the dying world ignores.

II:  The Felt Need to Contribute and the Spiritual Crisis of Capitalism

Among the most ancient and basic moral dispositions of human beings is the sense of reciprocity. Chirot and McCauley explain that “the most primitive [i.e., basic and universal] sense of fairness is the reciprocity principle.  If someone helps…you, then you owe that person help.”[7] This principle can be extended to the institutions and ruling value systems through and within which social life is organized and out of which the spiritual dimension of social life emerges.  Individuals identify with those institutions and value systems that demonstrably satisfy their natural and socio-cultural life-requirements, enabling them to become contributing, socially self-conscious agents.  In such contexts, people connect their private good with the good of the institutions and value systems that enable them to pursue their projects.  To contribute back to the good of those institutions and value systems is recognised as an essential component of the individual’s own good.  The result is an expanded sense of self and what is good for it.  Spiritual crisis compromises this expanded sense of self because it severs the sense of felt belonging out of which the drive to contribute grows.  The sense of felt belonging is severed because the institutions and ruling value systems not only cease to satisfy important social and natural life-requirements, they refuse the contributions to constructive solutions that affected individuals are willing to make.  Instead of getting back from society what the principle of reciprocity would encourage people to expect —  a welcome acknowledgement of their willingness to help — their offers are spurned, their political demands demonized, their demonstrations attacked by the police.

Nevertheless, because human beings are integrally social and natural beings, because we require felt belonging as well as physical nourishment to live and develop as human beings, the excluded and oppressed do not fester in spiritual crisis, but seek to build new communities and solidarities that will satisfy their unmet socio-cultural life-requirements.  Even a brief survey of the manifestos and principles of solidarity and programs that democratic opposition groups around the world have written over the past 5 years turns up two consistent themes:  frustration at the violation of the principle of reciprocity by the ruling class and the institutions it controls, and the demand for a new democratic ethos rooted in solidaristic and mutualistic relationships between people.  In other words, movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring were not simply responding to a material crisis of social reproduction, they were equally responding to a spiritual crisis of the collapse of the possibility of felt belonging in the societies against which they mobilized.  I will support this interpretation by examining key elements of some of the more important declarations and manifestos.

Next, I will begin with the movement that garnered the most attention in the global north, the Occupy Movement.  Occupy was inspired by the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt, but focussed its attention on the massive and increasing inequality produced by three decades of neo-liberal economic policy.  It began at the epicentre of neo-liberalism, Wall Street, home to the banks who were the primary beneficiaries of these policies.[8] In their declaration of principles, the occupiers asserted that “on September 17th, 2011,… we as individuals rose up against political disenfranchisement and social and economic injustice.  We spoke out, resisted, and successfully occupied Wall Street… constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love.” [emphases added].[9] The principles clearly articulate both moments of the spiritual crisis:  expression of the pain of being rejected by the institutions of existing society, constructive activity to build a  new community of felt belonging amongst the rejected.  These themes recur again and again, across the globe.

Amongst the many groups inspired by Occupy Wall Street were the students of Quebec, more than 100 000 of whom, in the winter and spring of 2012, staged the largest and longest student strike in Canadian history.  Not only did they strike, they mobilised the union movement and a broad cross-section of Quebecois in support.  Their determination resulted in the defeat of the Liberal government and victory for their primary demand —  the rescinding of a large tuition hike.  It was the most significant and the most successful left-wing mobilisation in Canada in more than two decades.  The most militant wing of the leadership of the movement was the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Etudiante, or CLASSE (Large Coalition of the Association for Union and Student Solidarity).  While the immediate demands of the movement were monetary and defensive — repeal of the threatened tuition hike — the underlying principles were positive, constructive, and oriented towards fundamental solutions to the pervasive spiritual crisis of capitalism, evidenced in this instance by the attempt of the government to impose the tuition hike against the students’ declared democratic, economic, and educational interests.  Their manifesto thus declares that “direct democracy should be experienced every moment of every day. Our own voices ought to be heard in assemblies, in schools, at work, in our neighbourhoods…Our view is that truly democratic decisions arise from a shared space, where women and men are valued.  As equals, in these spaces, women and men can work together to build a society that is dedicated to the public good.” [emphases added].[10] The expressed need to reclaim democratic power from the financial-corporate elite whose narrow private interests have undermined public institutions (parliaments, legislatures) resonates strongly across the Atlantic, in a variety of anti-austerity, pro-democracy movements.

Let me next begin with the Spanish group Real Democracy Now. Their platform contends that “it is necessary to build a political discourse capable of rebuilding the social fabric systematically rendered vulnerable through years of lies and corruption. We citizens have lost respect for the majoritarian political parties, but this is not the same as losing our critical faculties.  On the contrary, we do not fear politics, to stand up and speak is politics….To seek alternatives of citizen participation is politics…we insist that citizens here make up a transgenerational movement  condemned by an intolerable loss of participation in the political decisions that shape their daily lives and their future.” [emphases added] [11] The crisis in their view is thus not only the scourge of unemployment (20 % overall, 50 % amongst youth) but the refusal of the Spanish state to allow them to participate as socially self-conscious agents in the political decisions that will shape their future.  Excluded from the prevailing institutional distribution of power, they have acted to reconstitute themselves as a new community of struggle.

As dire a situation as Spain finds itself in, the problems in Greece are more severe.  Here too one finds replicated the same dialectic of an elite acting to exclude those most affected by the crisis from participating in its solution and the excluded responding by reconstituting themselves as an emergent democratic public bent on creating new social relations and a new value system.  The coalition of the far left Syriza’s program thus argues that “for us, program means a set of values, principles, straight-out orientations, and diligent positions.  Our program is based on the values of solidarity, freedom, equality, and environmental responsibility.”[12] These normative bases also support the program of the far left opposition in Germany, centre of the neo-liberal financial assault upon Greece.  In a speech to the Bundestag, Die Linke’s co-leader, Sahra Wagenknecht, denounced the European Fiscal Pact for being antithetical to the core values upon which a united Europe was grounded:  “Europe, may I remind you, was once supposed to be a project for peace, democracy, and social welfare, a lesson from the centuries of brutal war and a conscious alternative to crude capitalism that brought forth the bloody fascist dictatorships.  To be true to its heirs, Europe must embrace a new humanism as a stronghold of human dignity and social justice, Richard von Wiseacker once said.”[13] These values are no longer compatible with the conditions of renewed profitability required by contemporary capitalism. In the conflict between the conditions for the solution of the reproductive crisis of the capitalist economy and the spiritual crisis of capitalist civilization, the values that once defined the latter are abandoned.  The only alternative for those who demand not only life as a paid servant of capital but a meaningful life in unity with others is to construct a new civilization. As Tommaso Fatori observes, “democracy is in death agony and we are witnessing post-democratic processes taking over at the national and supranational level.  EU leaders have further concentrated decision-making power on public and fiscal policies in the hands of oligarchical governments, technocrats, and the European Central Bank, which are subject to the dictates of the financial markets”[14]  This oligarchy and the reified financial power it serves have demonized the capacities of the majority of the population to contribute usefully to a solution.  Once elites openly repudiate the capacity of the masses to contribute usefully to the governance of social life, democracy truly is, as Fatori argues, in its death-throes.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, in North Africa, the peoples of Europe and North America are reminded that democracy is not in essence a Potemkin Village papering over a collapsed civilization but a still-potent mobilizer of civic energy and hope.  While the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have, for the moment, been captured by the better organized Islamist organizations, and the situations in Libya and, more so, Syria, are unsettled (and in many respects unsettling): the positive lesson that people working together can overturn violent dictatorship has not been destroyed.  Mahmood Mamdani sums up the achievement of the young revolutionaries of Tahrir Square movingly:  “The significance of Egypt is three-fold:  First is the moral force of non-violence of the many, not just the few…Second, non-violence of the multitude makes possible a new politics of inclusion.  And finally, it makes possible a different sense of self-worth.  Unlike violence, non-violence does not just resist and exclude.  It also embraces and includes.”[15]  It is precisely the need for social relationships that embrace and include that binds together the mostly young activists of Montreal, New York, Madrid, Athens, and Cairo.  And the embryonic forms of new social relationships their struggles have activated at the same time cultivate, as Mamdani says, a new sense of self-worth.  Their self-worth is rooted in the multiplicity of relationships they form with one another — positive, mutually affirming, solidaristic, loving — in contrast to the bank balances and childish toys that inflate the egos of the one percenters. The valorization of things over people and egos over relationships is another sign of the crisis of capitalist civilization.  Recovery, at both the material and the spiritual level, can only be achieved in a new democratic socialist world.

III:  From Nostalgia to Hope:  Creativity and Democratic Socialism  

With the exception of the program of Syriza, the documents I have cited are not detailed plans for the construction of a new society.  Indeed, most do not name or criticise capitalism in any specific way.  They read more like laments for a world that has lost its way and abandoned the generic values that it once claimed to stand for — democracy, equality, justice, inclusion — and which made people feel as if they were part of a whole that provided meaning to their individual lives.  Although there is lament for what has passed, there is also hope that solidarity and mutual care can rebuild social relations, that a new, morally substantial “we” can be constructed.  Unlike the austerity programs being imposed upon them, the people who wrote these documents have confidence in the collective capacity of members of the movements to understand and resolve the challenges that face them.  The spirit of these movements is not rooted in nostalgia for a golden age, but in hope for a future social order whose institutions and ruling value system meet the unmet material and socio-cultural life-requirements of its members.

The success of such a project lies in the degree to which peoples’ self-understandings, their goals, and their purposes can overcome the narrow, acquisitive, competitive ego-centrism of capitalist society.  Writing in 1969, in the midst of the last major global system crisis, Marcuse argued that “the Form of freedom is not merely self-determination and self-realization, but rather the determination of goals which enhance, protect, and unite life on earth.”[16] A free society is not only a society in which people’s individual lives are functions of their choices, it is, more importantly, a society in which those choices steer projects that sustain and develop the life-supportive natural and social worlds without which there can be neither human organisms nor free social self-conscious agents.  Individual freedom requires strong social bonds, for outside of them not only can we not produce the range of goods our complex biological nature requires, we cannot establish the mutual relationships and caring connections upon which our own sense of meaning and purposive existence depend.

Implied but unexpressed in Marcuse’s understanding of the relationship between individual freedom and life-supportive projects is what McMurtry calls the human ecology of vocation.  As an organism can only survive in its proper ecosystem, so too a human being can only find purpose in a meaning-supportive social world.  The human ecology of vocation exists wherever “each person does what he or she can that is of life-value to others and of life-interest to self.  For none to shirk the duty of giving back in to what enables the humanity of each… is the human ordering of social justice.”[17] To be obliged to give back to the social substance that sustains and enables is a “burden” only in a deranged mindset ignorant of its real conditions of existence.  In a healthy, life-grounded self-understanding, to give back is not only rational (for without contribution back, the common stock of natural and social resources will eventually be used up completely) but the meaning-enabling goal of every life worth living.  This contribution back to the common wealth of life-sustaining and life-developing natural and social wealth is the good of each individual.

What, more precisely, does it mean to say that the good of each individual is constituted by the contributions he or she makes back to society?  According to the ruling value system of capitalism, the good of each is identified with consumer demand, such that a good life is a life in which as many desires as possible are satisfied.  Making contributions back to the social whole is not a constitutive element of the good of individuals, but is typically regarded as exceptional — morally laudatory if it follows from individual choice, but not a necessary element of a good life.  Contrary to what a supporter of the capitalist value system would argue, the conception of the good for individuals I defend does not impose obligations to contribute on individuals as burdens external to people’s own projects.  Rather, it understands a good society as one which cultivates in citizens a felt need to contribute, and, more importantly, utilises its resources to ensure that there are multiple and varied real opportunities for people to individuate themselves in ways that are satisfying to the person and life-valuable to others.

The problem with contemporary capitalist society is not that people do not want to live their lives in ways that are valuable for others and the social whole, it is that the primary way in which we make our individual contributions to the social whole — through paid labour — is typically meaningless to self and often productive of junk commodities that good lives do not really require, but which are consumed mechanically as substitute satisfactions.  Worse, when people actually organize to try to contribute as a collective democratic agent, they are ignored or attacked, relative to the strength of the movement.  Hence, they are doubly cut off from making the sorts of active, voluntary contributions to society that their own experience of themselves confirms are real, constitutive components of a human good life as a social self-agent.

This understanding of individual good as life-valuable contributions to the social and natural whole that supports and enables life-capacity development animates the movements I have examined.  Animating the movements and linking them at the level of principle across the different social spaces in which they have erupted is a shared commitment to reconstituting society as a collective democratic project, as the co-creation of all of its members. Democracy is not reduced in their vision to periodic elections of aloof, technocratic program managers or tools of financial markets, but a set of new social relations in which collective wealth is utilised for the comprehensive and universal satisfaction of real life-requirements.  Universal and comprehensive satisfaction of real natural and socio-cultural life-requirements are the material condition for the development of free individuality which the capitalist value system claims to value in theory but undermines by the reality of unemployment, precarious and meaningless wage labour, and soulless consumer culture.  Real individuality requires collective commitment to instituted forms of life-requirements satisfaction. As Baruchello and Johnstone rightly argue, “we cannot live, not to mention prosper, without nourishing food, shelter, and several hours of sleep…Upon such needs and their prolonged and secure satisfaction rests everything else that may be regarded as valuable:  art, sport, conversation, commerce, scientific research, sexual experimentation, political activism, philosophical meditation, etc.”[18] The spiritual life of society, its being a whole that people identify with and feel affirmed and elevated by, is an outgrowth of success in this foundational material-social process.

That the comprehensive and universal satisfaction of life-requirements requires institutionalized forms of coordinating individual activity, planning, and the governance of economic life by explicit social goals does not mean that the solution to the spiritual crisis of capitalism is bureaucratic state control over all facets of life.  On the contrary, since the spiritual crisis of capitalism is identical to the expulsion of the democratic energies of ordinary citizens from the centre of collective life, the solution can only be re-constitution of the social through democratic practice.  As Jacques Ranciere argues, “democracy, far from being the form of life of individuals devoted to their private pleasures, is a process of struggle against this privatization [and the] … two-fold domination of the oligarchy in the state and in society.”[19] Democracy is the practice of publically and collectively securing the universal conditions of meaningful and enjoyable and life-valuable development of human sentient, cognitive, imaginative, and practical capacities.  Socialist democracy is the extension of this practice of public and collective life-security to the governance of economic life.  It is animated not by a desire to control form above and outside the choices that guide individual life-projects.  Rather, as Marx and Engels wrote more than 150 years ago, in the midst of an earlier global crisis, it is animated by the principle that a good society is one in which “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.”[20] Under that umbrella principle all manner of institutional experiments are possible.  Socialism, we could say, can be defined by workers’ control or democratic economic planning or anything else you like, socialism itself is the emergent response and solution to the environmental, economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual crises of capitalist society, in the concretely different shapes they take on in different socio-historical contexts.

End notes: 

[1] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press), 1977, p. 110.

[2] H.S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder: Volume One: The Pilgrimage of Reason, (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing), 197, p. 335.

[3] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works:  Volume 3, 1843-1844, (New York:  International Publishers), 1975, p. 300.

[4] For present purposes the important point about socio-cultural life-requirements is just their function as conditions of the development of properly human forms of action.  Elaborating on the content of the different life-requirements would take me too far beyond the aim of this essay, which is not to define life-requirements, but to explore the spiritual crisis of capitalist civilization.  I provide detailed accounts of the content of the set of socio-cultural life-requirements and defend the claim that these are objective, cross-cultural requirements of human life in Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life Value, (Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012.

[5] John McMurtry, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, (London:  Pluto Press), 1999, p. 89.

[6] Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press), 1972, pp. 173-188.

[7] Daniel Chirot and Clark MacCauley, Why Not Kill Them All?, Princeton University Press:  Princeton, NJ) 2006, p.53.

[8] I cannot provide an overview and explanation of neo-liberal policy here.  It arose as a response to the economic crisis of the early to mid-1970’s, and sought to restore profitability to the system by reducing real wages, through attacks on labour, reducing the tax ‘burden’ on business and the wealthy, as well as through increasing the mobility of capital so that it could seek out those social conditions most conducive to profitable investment. For a more detailed history and critique see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism), (New York:  Oxford University Press), 2005.

[9] Occupy Wall Street, Principles of Solidarity,  (accessed, September 10th, 2012).

[10] CLASSE Manifesto, (accessed, September 10th, 2012).

[11] Jerome Roos, “Manifesto — Spain’s Real Democracy Now! (accessed, July 17th, 2011).

[12] “The Economic Program of SYRIZA-EKM”, The Bullet, No. 653.  (accessed, Sept. 8th, 2012).

[13] Sahra Wagenknecht, “The Euro Crisis and the European Fiscal Pact,” The Bullet, No. 663.  (accessed, Sept. 8th, 2012).

[14] Tommaso Fatori, “Joining Forces for Another Europe,” The Bullet, No. 707. (accessed, October 6th, 2012).

[15] Mahmood Mamdani, “An African Reflection on Tahrir Square,” African Awakening: the Emerging Revolutions, (Cape Town:  Pambazuka Press), 2012, p. 209.

[16] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, (Boston:  Beacon Press), 1969, p. 46.

[17] John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice,”Studies in Social Justice, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2011, p. 35.

[18] Giorgio Baruchello and Rachel Lorna Johnstone, “Rights and Value: Construing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Civil Commons.” Studies in Social Justice, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2011, p. 96.

[19] Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, (London:  Verso), 2006, p. 55.

[20]  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (Moscow:  Progress Publishers), 1986, p. 54.

[Thank you Jeff for this groundbreaking piece]

Jeff Noonan is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (2012). More of his work can be found at his website:

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