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Karl Marx might have had a point concerning morality and economics.
In this article, I shall stage a fight between two cultural icons:
In the Blue corner: Moses, the ancient Hebrew prophet.
In the Red corner: Karl Marx, the nineteenth century philosopher.
In The German Ideology (1845), Karl Marx wrote that:
“The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics of a people. Men are the producers of their conception, ideas, etc. — real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process.”
To grossly simplify what Karl is saying here, he is pointing out that any ideas, laws, politics, religions, or morals in human history shall be a product of the material circumstances of the society in which they were first conceived. If you are not familiar with this concept of Marx’s, the best example I can think of to demonstrate how this logic works is by thinking of Ireland. In Ireland, due to continental drift and evolution, there are no snakes. Therefore it follows that the natives of Ireland – circa 1000BC – probably didn’t have any moral laws concerning snakes. This is because they didn’t have any material interaction with snakes; in fact, they had no knowledge of them whatsoever. Material circumstances dictate what the morality of the society shall be.
Recently, I was writing an essay about Marxism, the essay concerned Marx’s philosophy on morality. I quoted the passage above; explaining that Marx thought that the prevailing morality of any society shall be a reflection on what the rich elite (bourgeoisie) in society wanted the prevailing morality of the society to be. As Marx put it himself in The Communist Manifesto (1848):
“Law, morality, religion, are to [the working class] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
In other words, the bourgeoisie shall manipulate society by indoctrinating them into believing morals which suit their own agenda. If it suits the interests of the elite to make the working class believe that a thunderbolt shall kill them if they steal the private property of a rich man, then it follows that the elite shall attempt to make people believe in that thunderbolt.
After I wrote this, I realised that I required an example to conclude my point, so I hastily wrote the first piece of moral law I could think of on the paper: ‘The Ten Commandments’. This was a split second decision, but I think I stumbled upon a very good point. I went on to explain that following all Ten Commandments would lead to an individual who is very subservient to the rich elite in his or her society. I concluded that it was highly convenient that a set of moral laws which enforce so many capitalist values ended up being the cornerstone of the morality of capitalist Western Europe.
So this week, I would like to apply economic thought to the Ten Commandments. Explaining what each commandment tells us about economics, and in doing so we shall gain a better understand what the moral message of each commandment is.
Commandment 1: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, you shall have no other Gods before me.
This commandment is about competition.
Why does this commandment start off by reminding the Israelites that God brought them out of slavery? Worship, like every activity ever, is an economic activity, in fact, it is an economic exchange. Humans think rationally, they shall never worship a God for no reason at all; they undertake the activity in exchange for something. The Israelites wouldn’t worship a God who did nothing for them. So this commandment starts with God reminding the Israelites of how powerful he is. By reminding them of what happened in Egypt, he reminds his followers of how much he has to offer those who worship him, and how much he has already done for them, by saving them from slavery. Therefore, the logic goes that you worship no God except the powerful God who you owe something to already.
What God is asking for here is a monopoly on worship. In economics, a true monopoly is when there is only one supplier in a market for something. God wants to be the sole supplier of worship, which means forbidding the exchange of worship with any other deity. This technique has been used throughout history to impose a state religion on society, and the thinking behind it is economical. In the later books of the Bible, God makes it clear that he has a business plan to monopolise the market for worship in the Middle East:
The bourgeoisie have an incentive to impose a state theocracy on a society, because people shall be submissive to the laws the theocracy imposes, since they believe that the laws are being imposed by their all powerful God, who they must obey.
Commandment 2: You shall not make yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Commandment 3: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Both of these commandments are about brand management.
There’s a reason why Ferrari’s aren’t mass produced like Ford’s. Scarcity means that you can sell exclusivity. It would seem that God wants a ‘Unique Selling Point’ (USP) for his religion, and he has determined that to ban idol worship would be a good way to distinguish himself from all the other deities. God might well have thought that people worship him more, or ‘better’, if they rarely see an image of him, possibly because his brand is seen as more exclusive, or fashionable.
The same principle can be applied to blasphemy. By forbidding anyone to use his name unless they are taking it seriously, it creates a stigma against people who don’t take him seriously. Therefore people within a society are pressured into taking worship of him seriously. There’s a reason Ferrari showrooms don’t show this image:
They want people to value their brand, not disrespect it. Similarly God wants people to value him, not disrespect him. God is an economist, or at least, he thinks like one.
It is in the interests of the bourgeoisie to maintain the good image of their God, so that people respect him enough to obey ‘his’ laws.
Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son, or your daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but her rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
This commandment is about granting the workers in an economy a day off once in a while.
You then expect them to be so grateful for this brief period of relaxation that you demand that they spend most of their day off worshipping the God who has created a set of laws which benefit the rich elite in your society, to the detriment of everyone else.
Commandment 5: Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord is giving to you.
This commandment is about inheritance protocol.
In every economy, the elderly tend to have a high level of accumulated wealth, after having worked throughout their youth. Children then tend to inherit the wealth of their parents when their parents die. However, if a ‘youth’ is unruly, disrespectful, or doesn’t make choices in life which correlate with the desires of their parent, they are considerably less likely to inherit that income. Therefore, unless a child feels compelled to murder their parents, they shall have to ‘suck up’ to their folks in order to inherit their amassed wealth.
The bourgeoisie in society shall, more likely than not, be elderly, rich, and have children. Therefore, this commandment serves the interests of the bourgeoisie by demanding that their children honour them – no matter what.
Commandment 6: You shall not commit murder.
This commandment is about keeping wages low.
In any economy, it becomes easier for the employers (the bourgeoisie) to pay exploitative wages to their employees if their workers are threatened by unemployment. Wages shall thus always be low when the supply of labour exceeds the demand for labour. Imagine an economy contains just two employers and twelve employees, who can each work eight hours a day:
As you can see from the graph above, when a potential worker murders another potential worker, the supply of labour shifts left, and so wages rise.
Therefore it follows that if the bourgeoisie want to keep wages low, and thus maintain their wealth, they should set up laws which forbid people from killing one another.
Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.
Commandment 8: You shall not steal.
Both of these commandments enforce private property laws.
Marx argued that private property was a violation of the true purpose of humans, to live in a society where everyone co-operates. Marx pointed out that private property exists only to divide society, forcing individuals to view each other as competing over the resources which they all view as necessary to achieve their own happiness.
These two commandments only make sense within a society where private property exists. It follows that in such a society, there shall be a rich elite (a bourgeoisie, if you will) who shall want to protect their property from being stolen by any others. The bourgeoisie rely on this private property to maintain their high standard of living; attaining the best medical care, living in a comfortable house, protection from starvation, securing the most desired spouse, controlling the political agenda, etc.
The same principles apply to marriage. Marriage is a social construct, which relies on each partner (though historically – the woman) being private property of the other. The members of the bourgeoisie, due to their wealth and status, are likely to be married, and they have an interest in not having anyone else sleeping with their spouses, for a number of obvious reasons.
It’s logical that having a moral law against theft and adultery would greatly benefit the bourgeoisie, because it ensures that individuals in society shall believe that their God himself has explicitly forbidden theft and adultery under any circumstance. Therefore individuals shall be less likely to steal or commit adultery, two actions which would severely harm members of the bourgeoisie more than anyone else.
Commandment 9: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
In its most literal sense, this law declares perjury – lying under oath – to be morally wrong. The most obvious application of this law is lying in court. Courts uphold the law. The law is made by politicians. Politicians in all societies are controlled by the rich bourgeoisie, who are able to bankroll, dictate, and bribe the political class into doing whatever they want. Marx would argue that the wealthy are able to force the politicians into making laws which benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else in society. So this commandment serves to create the illusion of a just legal system, when in reality, it could be anything but.
Commandment 10: You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male, or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
This is the commandment that really takes the piss.
God finishes off his list by saying that you aren’t even allowed to want the private property of the rich elite. Ultimately, this commandment is about ensuring that the workers remain subservient to the rich. In any society with private property, there shall always be gross inequality. It serves the interests of the bourgeoisie to provide the workers with a reason not to rise up and seize the private property for their own. Any moral law which declares that it is immoral to covert the property of anyone else only serves the interests of those who have that property in the first place – The bourgeoisie.
I would just like to make it clear that this is just one way we could interpret the Ten Commandments, and it is a highly skeptical viewpoint. I am merely performing the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ and offering up a Marxist interpretation of the Commandments using economic analysis. Feel free to continue believing that these laws are the foundation of a civilized society, ignoring the fact that the tenth commandment is physically impossible to obey.
My Economic translation of the Ten Commandments
Commandment 1: You shall impose a monopoly on all worship, so that I am the sole provider of worship.
Commandment 2: You shall keep my image exclusive.
Commandment 3: You shall keep my name exclusive.
Commandment 4: You shall take a break once in a while, and use that break to worship me.
Commandment 5: You shall honour the rich elderly couple whose wealth you hope one day to inherit.
Commandment 6: You shall not kill off members of the workforce, to do so would force the rich man to pay his laborers more than he does already.
Commandment 7: You shall not touch the rich man’s wife.
Commandment 8: You shall not touch the rich man’s property.
Commandment 9: You shall not lie in the rich man’s courts.
Commandment 10: Don’t even think about touching the rich man’s wife or property.