Part I. The moral individual — How does an abstract free will work?

Part I. The moral individual — How does an abstract free will work?

“… and to make abstractions hold in reality is to destroy reality.”
(Hegel)

Abstracting is with good reason taken to be an obvious activity of intelligent individuals. When we distinguish the determinations of a thing, we know very well that the parts, differences, qualities, and aspects we perceive constitute the object under consideration precisely in their unity. When after separating the various sides we then proceed to judge and draw conclusions, what we are concerned about is the connection between the separated arsenal of determinations found, not in the form of an enumeration but logically ordered. The how and why lead us to an insight into the nature of the object of our mental efforts, to the reason why it exists, functions, and acts in the way it does and in no other. Through abstractions, we find out about laws and purposes that are valid and prevail in nature and in society. If mistakes are made in the process, they can be recognized in the logical contradictions of the theories. By thinking through arguments, we determine whether they are correct or false, and whether the abstractions made are justified. There is a difference between occasional errors, and real mistakes that are “consistently” continued in the modern human and social sciences to the point of forming entire, theoretical edifices. This invariably occurs when the creators of theories follow interests that require the object of thought to be determined with bias, brought into relation with all sorts of well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning intentions, and that inspire them to make assertions about the characteristics of their object that have nothing whatsoever to do with its reason and purpose. But the fact that modern science makes abstractions without any commitment to objectivity is not an argument against abstraction per se and no reason to condemn “abstract thinking,” which for many a critical soul is the source of all evil in the world. “Abstract” and “concrete” are actually two perfectly innocent logical categories, and the way they are ordinarily used in the vulgar scientific vernacular to mean bad and good, dead and alive, unreal and terribly real, is stupid, since it is an argument against thinking, and therefore always a contradiction in terms.

On theoretical and practical abstractions

Hegel introduced the manner of speaking about abstractions being brought to bear in reality or carried out in practice. Marx saw no problem in characterizing in just this way certain features of bourgeois life that he discovered. He found money to be the abstract form of wealth characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. Value exists separately from all real wealth, independent of and in opposition to use-value, its basis, which in times of economic crisis is sacrificed for the sake of value and its accumulation. In wage labor Marx saw the expenditure of abstract labor which serves the purpose of accumulating capital and which rests on the separation of the workers from the means of production. This degrades the workers to their lifelong function of labor-power, which is worn out according to the needs of capital — this being the form taken by wealth that has become independent of its producers — and whose self-preservation is constantly in jeopardy. The two cases cited here make it clear that “abstractions brought to bear in reality” are not exactly the most pleasant states of affairs. Certain people are separated from the means of existence peculiar to them, a situation which can hardly be brought about even by the most incorrect of theoretical abstractions. In the world of capitalist commodity production, money really is the means for getting hold of all necessary or pleasurable objects, and this same means hinders a whole class in its efforts to partake of society's wealth. Being excluded from the means of production, which serve as alien property for their profitable utilization, wage workers are forced to work for capital as the only way to make a living. The performance and the consequences of this work make it clear to them, firstly, that their wallet is always empty; secondly, that their health is continually being destroyed, because it is not at all good for a person to be reduced to performing the services necessary for capital; and, thirdly, that their mere employment is not even guaranteed.

The subservient use of free will

The economic relations of capitalism, and thus all the manifestations of a real, practical abstraction performed on real live individuals, are the concern of economics. The violent force necessary for maintaining this sort of economic activity is the concern of the theory of the bourgeois state, the political power that ensures that the people caught up in the economy always put up with everything properly. How the beneficiaries and, above all, the victims of the capitalistic economy and bourgeois politics manage to exercise the free will conceded to them solely to go along with everything as best they can — this is the focus of a psychology of the private individual.

Such a theory does not deny the freedom of modern democracy nor of its victims, so it does not deny free will (a redundant term, as Hegel already noted, since every will is free). It explains what this freedom consists of, how little there is in it to brag about, and which lofty purposes it serves (having indeed little to do with the petty interests of ordinary people). A psychology of this kind does not once more explain surplus value, piece rates, fixed capital and interest. Nor does it explain the constitutional state, its financial sovereignty and its legislature. Since it is psychology, it explains only the subjective procedures: what a freely deciding subject achieves with his feelings, perceptions and thoughts to make his subsumption under the capitalist circus, his going along with it all, continually appear to be solely the well-founded work of his will. This science is psychology of the private individual in so far as it does not grind out the formal determinations of subjectivity in its generality, as they have been developed at other times and under different circumstances. It explains the specific way people use their minds in the capitalistic mode of production and the particular sorts of feelings they have, the content of these feelings that is normal here and now.

The present book, which is written in the form of a derivation, deals with the manifestations of the contradiction contained in the concept of abstract free will. That is, how does a (free) will manage to adapt its own preconditions — feeling, consciousness, language and intellect — in such a way as to give itself up? How do individuals, whose training gives them all kinds of knowledge and skills that enable them to realize their interests by all types of performance in the bourgeois world — or, to put it the other way round, that enable them to make themselves useful out of self-interest — how do these individuals manage to cope with all the restrictions of capitalism and modern democracy, and stay with it so faithfully? This is the question to be answered, and it should not be confused with the completely different one addressed by the above-mentioned theories of the capitalistic economy and its matching political power, namely: why does the world work the way it does? Anyone who sees individuals' moral and psychological techniques as the reason for the production of noodles, autos, and armaments, for the construction of subways, reservoirs, and schools, has at best a view of human nature that authors all the decisions and activities that come about in the world. That anything happens because people “are like that” and the subjectivity of homo sapiens just happens to “be that way,” already disqualifies itself as an explanation in view of the simple fact that those who make the decisions that make the world such a cozy place are quite different people from those who have to go about putting these decisions into practice, and who celebrate the most idiotic opinions about it as their freedom…

Of course this does not mean that there will be no mention here of the objective conditions in which the present-day individual is so terribly individualistic. The bourgeois circus will continually crop up as that to which the individual adapts himself, as that arena in which he is out to prove his worth. Even in the first part of this book, which faithfully proceeds “from the abstract to the concrete” in analyzing the general principles of free, bourgeois obedience, which are continually present because they are “followed,” those subjects of history currently in sway, namely capital and state, have not been completely forgotten. On the one hand, they appear as the precondition for the poor behavior of the “popular masses,” whom not only Brecht — by way of poetry — would crown the “real” subject of history. On the other hand, false consciousness with all its dodges cannot be portrayed in even its most abstract determinations without mention of the social relations that make it necessary. However, as best we could, we have refrained from specifying what these individuals are grappling with, simply in the interest of determining the pathetic “laws of motion” of the present-day psyche in their (for the last time!) abstract form, laws which remain “untouched” when carried out.