In Critical Notes On The King Of Prussia, Young Marx points-out that a CLASS in society is behooved by any conflicts raging between the other classes. For example, a State’s upper class would find its position strengthened if the middle and lower classes directed their energies and angers against each other instead of toward it.
“Every class is striving to gain control,” contends Young Marx. Each class wishes to impose its worldview upon society—its vision of justice, its concept of happiness, its ideal of proper social behavior, its chosen balance of freedom versus order. And the plain truth is, the ideas dominating any given Society are in actuality merely the rules that the dominating class has established in order to perpetuate its rule.
To stay in power, or to gain power, Young Marx posits that a class will attempt to broaden its base of support by couching their struggle in terms which appeal to the sympathies of those across the spectrum of different class consciousnesses. Therefore, each class will try to represent its interests as the universal interest.
Over time, says Young Marx, with every class pitching its concerns in the broadest possible terms, the presented values begin to become more and more idealized. High-sounding words dot the rhetorical landscape—words like “Justice,” “Equality,” “Freedom…” The broader a class can define its particular set of values, the more adherents it can recruit and less haters it will have to suffer and suppress. To offer an example of my own, a set of luxury sedan owners who do not want others joyriding in their expensive cars would NOT try to convince their fellow citizens that “sharing is bad”— they would instead extol the moral values of “respecting private property,” and they would condemn “stealing” or “trespassing.”
But what we must not forget, says Young Marx, is that underneath all this rhetoric and idealism, beneath all this talk of sin and morality and principle, what is really going on is a vast struggle between the different classes, a collision of different vested interests, divergent agendas, and differently evolved worldviews. As Young Marx puts it, the rule of a certain class will equally be “the rule of certain ideas.”
The ongoing class struggle is not a fair fight however. The in-power class will have vast advantages in this battle for the hearts and minds of the citizens of the State. “The class having the means of material production has also control over the means of intellectual production,” says Young Marx in The German Ideology (written with Engels), and can thus exert powerful control of “the ideas of those who lack the means of intellectual production.”
When the most powerful class achieves a high enough level of domination it will more or less become the State, and the values and worldview it promulgates will become the laws and institutions of Society. Naturally, these rules and ethical doctrines will be precisely those which will support the position of the dominating class and help it to maintain its grip on power. As such, they are implemented after the fact, after power has already been seized, and merely codify and institutionalize the already existing material state of affairs on the ground. “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships” of the State, says Marx.
An example Young Marx gives of how the dominant class can impose a convenient “morality” upon the lower classes is the notion of financial credit. The upper-class, playing the role of creditor to the lower classes’ role of debtor, will attempt to convince the other classes that a person’s credit rating is more than just a statistic signifying an individual’s access to resources but “an economic judgment of a man’s morality.” Thus, “a moral judgment is added to the simple statement that a man without credit is poor.” When the credit-offering class succeeds in grafting this moral dimension on to what is truly only a financial condition, not only bankers and community members will judge the rejected credit-applicant as “untrustworthy and unworthy of recognition, a social pariah and a bad man”—but the rejected man, himself, will begin to doubt his own moral worth and suffer pangs of moral shame.
Throughout history, in order to stave off revolution, ruling classes have always attempted to alleviate the dire effects of poverty just enough to keep people from weaponizing themselves and taking to the streets. However, these alleviation measures always come with moral baggage. The ruling class resents being parted from even a small portion of its spoils and will disseminate the idea that the poor man is poor –not due to any fundamental problem with Society’s system of production and disbursement– but due instead to the poor man’s own moral increpitude… It will be hinted and whispered that the poor man deserves his poverty (with the implication that the rich man deserves his riches). As Young Marx says in Critical Notes On The King Of Prussia, a man’s poverty, says the upper class, “should not be regarded as a misfortune but rather be suppressed and punished as a crime.” This shocking interpretation of poverty as a moral failure actually comes as no shock to Young Marx. After all, society’s legal and moral codes only exist to bolster and protect the place of precedence occupied by the elite families. As Young Marx says in a journal article written in the early 1840s, “the hereditary masters are the PURPOSE of this whole society.” One would do well not to forget that.
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