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(sup) (en) "Demoralizing Moralism: The Futility of Fetishized Values" from Anarchy magazine #58 by Jason McQuinn

From Jason McQuinn <jmcquinn@coin.org>
Date Sun, 13 Feb 2005 19:23:03 +0100 (CET)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

N. (pl. -ies) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong
or good and bad behavior. (The New Oxford American Dictionary)

N. the practice of moralizing, esp. showing a tendency to make judgments
about others' morality (The New Oxford American Dictionary)

> Introduction
Most anarchists-just like most other people on the planet-remain relatively
naive concerning the many problems with theories and practices of compulsory
morality and moralism. Positive, uncritical references to various forms of
compulsory morality are nearly ubiquitous in both historical and
contemporary anarchist writings, despite the occasional influence of Max
Stirner's critique of morality amongst the more widely read. Even amongst
anarchist writers who have actually taken the effort to read Max Stirner's
1844 master work, The Ego and Its Own (the publishing date was 1845, but it
actually appeared in late 1844), his powerful and important critique of
morality often remains either misunderstood, unduly ignored or ignorantly
rejected. And although most anarchists may understand that moralism is most
often a self-defeating practice in radical social movements, it is generally
only excessive references to morality that are so understood, rather than
uncritical submission to compulsory morality per se.

Every social theory-including those based on philosophy, religion or
science-contains judgements of value by necessity. There is no form of
knowledge that can be strictly value-free or even value-neutral. Unlike the
natural sciences which can more easily-though never completely-evade
acknowledgement of the human values expressed within their hypotheses,
theories and research programs, the social sciences are unable to hide their
multiple commitments to particular forms and particular expressions of human
values. As Max Weber (one of the most important of the early scientific
social theorists) put it: "There is no absolutely 'objective' scientific
analysis of culture or of 'social phenomena' independent of special and
'one-sided' viewpoints to which-expressedly or tacitly, consciously or
unconsciously-they are selected, analysed and organised for expository
purposes." (see Max Weber's The Methodology of the Social Sciences edited by
Edward Schils & Henry Parsons [The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1949])

Values are even more obviously implicated in radical social theories which
are explicitly formulated to aid the pursuit of deeply rooted structural
changes in society. But such values can be constituted in two distinctly
different manners: (1) as finite, historical expressions of people's
individual and social desires, and (2) as being imputed to have some form of
fetishized, transcendental-often absolute, ahistorical or
objective-existence over and above human individuals and communities.
Unfortunately, there is no commonplace, well-understood terminology to
easily distinguish these two manners of constituting and speaking of human
values. And this alone can lead to misunderstandings.

Problems of terminology

Terminology is a problem with many aspects of social critique wherever
overcoming the many facets of social alienation is concerned. For every form
of compulsory fetishization, whether religion, ideology, politics,
commodity-fetishism and work, or morality, there remains a corresponding
form of non-fetishized thinking and activity that is most often uncritically
lumped together with it. Thus, the critique of religion often founders on a
widespread, irrational insistence that nonfetishized thinking about life and
the cosmos actually constitutes a form religion (even when it
self-consciously denies such an identity). And that, therefore, since this
particular imputed form of religion is not fetishized, then the critique of
religion as such (as fetishization of the realm of the spiritual, divine or
sacred) is argued to be unfounded. Similarly, those opposed to the critique
of ideology tend to consistently (if insincerely) claim to see no difference
between fetishized social theory and nonfetishized social theory, calling
every form of social theory "ideology" in order to evade the sting of
criticism for their own devotion to particular ideological mystifications.
Where politics is concerned, all human beings are often simply defined as
"political animals" by the defenders of political mediation and the state.
This poor excuse for reasoning then often goes that if human beings are
inherently "political," then the state is a natural form of (political)
community that can't (or at least shouldn't) be questioned. Commodity
fetishism and the institution of work (forced labor) also have their
illogical defenders, including many mistakenly posing as anti-capitalist
radicals, who would only like to see commodity fetishism and work redirected
to different ends than they currently serve, with new and different forms of
police, courts and prisons enforcing their existence.

The pattern here is clear. Where people are committed to undermining,
evading or denying radical social criticism, they most often insist on
defining away such criticism by denying there is any consistent difference
between the present alienated society and any potential liberated
(non-alienated) way of life.

The same strategy is usually employed whenever the critique of morality
begins to be formulated. Although most dictionary definitions of morality
clearly imply it involves the fetishization of values, this implication is
lost on most readers. For example, The New Oxford American Dictionary
defines morality as "principles concerning the distinction between right and
wrong or good and bad behavior." Obviously, the "right and wrong or good and
bad" qualifiers here are most likely to be taken (unself-consciously) as
fetishized, transcendental values, rather than as particular, finite choices
with no claims to any reality beyond the unique desires of individual human
beings. However, the moment the critique of morality is raised, even in
Anarchy magazine, there are always those who pop up with the aim to confuse
things (in order to defend their own moralistic commitments) by claiming in
one form or another that there is no such thing as a non-moral human value!
Most people, in common with dictionary definitions, would never say that a
person expressing her or his own desires with no claim to transcendental
status for them is being moral by valuing a particular goal. But the
defenders of morality will come out of the woodwork to claim that even the
most finite, ephemeral and contingent human desire indicates the existence
of a moral system every bit as real as those taught by the various branches
of the Catholic Church!

To avoid this intentional confusionism wrought by those afraid of any
criticism directed at their own sacred cows, people pursuing critiques of
morality usually attempt to make a clear distinction between ethics and
morality. In this case, ethics is considered to be concerned with finite,
non-fetishized values, while morality is concerned with fetishized,
transcendental values: right and wrong or good and bad. Unfortunately, since
there is almost no radical and substantial criticism of morality in our
popular culture (as opposed to the mountains of superficial and
insubstantial, partial criticisms of morality), appeals by moralists to
dictionary definitions of "ethics" often derail such attempts. (Most
dictionary definitions in an alienated, moralistic society will be unlikely
reflect the possibility that a dichotomy between fetishized and
nonfetishized values could even exist. For most people consistently
nonfetishized values simply aren't considered possible).

Therefore, in this essay, I will try to refer to the critique of "compulsory
morality" in order to make it absolutely clear that I'm speaking of a system
of fetishized values that demand compliance. And that I'm never speaking of
some unlikely form of nonfetishized system (or nonsystematic set) of values
that some moralist will still insist on calling "moral" merely in order to
confuse things. I will also refer to "finite ethics" to make it clear that
the alternative to compulsory morality involves finite, nonfetishized
values. And to make it clear that I'm not speaking of an ethics inclusive of
both nonfetishized and fetishized values.

The anatomy of compulsory morality

Compulsory morality involves self-subjugation to a system or set of values
that are, for one reason or another, believed to require mandatory
compliance-even if the person believing this is unable to-as the cliché
goes-"live up to them." Although compulsory morality can potentially be
grounded within an individual's subjective experience, it is almost always
instead grounded somewhere outside the realm of directly lived human

For example, religious forms of morality are commonly grounded in such
unlikely (nonexistent) places as "the Word of God," or other forms of
supposed direct revelation from some sort of unseen, disembodied, (unreal)
Spirit. (Of course, this grounding is generally mediated through the
supposed gods' appointed representatives on Earth, however irrational the
belief in the authenticity of these representatives might be.) In this form
of compulsory morality, God (or Satan, or the Gods, or the Goddess, or the
Great Spirit, etc.) are supposed to be the source of moral values that must
be followed because the source-whatever it may be-is in some sense
considered far more real and important than the unique individual person who
cannot be trusted to know what she or he should do without the guidance of a
system of fetishized, sacred values. The formal structure of compulsory
religious morality is thus: sacred values from an unseen source to be
followed by a relatively worthless human being whatever the context. With a
system of values like this, whatever the actual content of the morality, is
it any wonder that people attempting to live this form of alienation are
constantly mystified about their lives, desires and social relationships?

However, in these modern times, the place of religion has often been
supplanted by other things, like Science, or particular social or political
ideologies (like Marxism) that demand compulsory adherence. Although
religious morality can be a dominant social force in areas of the world not
highly colonized by capital (like most of Afghanistan, where the Taliban
held sway, for example) in areas in which industrial capitalism, mass media
and commodity consumption already dominate social relationships in fact (as
in most of the world's urban areas), religious morality will be severely
compromised. Other forms of enlightened compulsory morality based upon
Science, social or political ideologies, or even rationalist philosophies
will contend for the allegiance of the victims of morality. Especially when
the values of particular religions get in the way of the exercise of
political power, the subjugation of resources, or the exploitation of labor,
they will over time find themselves supplanted with more amenable modern
forms of thought and morality.

Science is one example of a source of many forms of modern, enlightened
compulsory morality. I have capitalized it above to indicate that it is not
the actual practice of experimental exploration of nature in pursuit of
knowledge (science) of which I'm speaking, but an ideological construct
(Science) of particular fetishized scientific ideas taken out of their
finite, experimental contexts and elevated into general, quasi-religious
principles. The prestige of the various forms of scientism (ideologies and
worship of Science) is based on the practical accomplishments of
experimental science in combination with industrial capitalism. Together
their power seems to rival that of the old gods for many modern citizens of
the civilized world. For those whom religion no longer satisfies, but who do
not yet understand the social origins of ideas and values, the various forms
of scientism can be very appealing. They all involve the deduction of value
systems from particular, reified scientific (or semi-scientific, or even
pseudo-scientific) theories. Notable examples include the (misnamed) social
Darwinist ideas whose morality is usually based on some version of the
Spencerian "survival of the fittest" ("and Devil take the hindmost"), the
ideologists of the fetishized gene whose morality is based on imagining what
genes (as if they had minds of their own!) would want "their" bodies to do
to promote their reproduction or evolution, and all the various
ethnological, zoological, or evolutionary psychological reifications of
humanity whose moralities are all based on imagining that our values are
determined in one form or another by biology or genetics, etc. The formal
structure of the various scientific moralities is, once again, the same as
that for religious morality: sacred values from an unseen source to be
followed by a relatively worthless human being whatever the context. Like
religious morality, scientific versions of morality attempt to limit and
determine what is supposed to be humanly desirable and possible, narrowing
the choices that can be made by true believers.

Within the anarchist milieu scientism is probably less of a problem (though
it certainly influences a lot of people), than are (usually half-digested)
social and political ideologies like Marxism. Left anarchists are often
especially influenced by the approaches taken towards morality by the
various strands of Marxist ideology.

The Marxist Evasion

Amongst the more sophisticated Marxist theorists and writers (as with Marx
himself) morality often gets much less overt respect than in the anarchist
milieu, but forms of scientism and objectivistic dialectics tend to take its
problematic place. Many anarchists have little problem perceiving and
understanding the ideological nature of the attempted self-identification of
the Marxist project as "scientific." This rhetorical trope was originally
based on harnessing the 19th century credibility and mystique of the natural
sciences to help drive one particular form of attempted radical social
critique ahead of others in popular consideration. (Even some anarchists,
including Kropotkin, were not immune to this temptation, attempting to
harness the mystique of natural science to an ideological form of
anarchism.) Anarchists also generally understand that the objectivistic
(naturalized) dialectics of all the most prevalent forms of Marxism function
as little more than arcane formulae for justifying whatever Karl Marx and
his epigones wanted justified. The abstract and highly speculative nature of
Marxist dialectics is usually obscured in an attempt to lend an appearance
of logic and solidity to ideological arguments and positions that defy
conventional attempts at more transparent rationalization. (While critical
dialectics can raise many worthwhile questions and open up new perspectives,
the ideological dialectics of most forms of Marxist thought-i.e. dialectics
in the service of Marxist ideologies-have nothing to offer to any genuinely
radical theory.)

Interestingly, the Marxist turn towards "scientific" legitimation and
objectivistic dialectics was directly influenced by Max Stirner's critique
of morality. Before The Ego and Its Own appeared at the end of 1844, Karl
Marx was a humanist political philosopher in the style of Ludwig Feuerbach
(see Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, for example).
After the sensational debut of Stirner's phenomenological philosophy of the
ego ("ego" was another word for "self" at the time-well before Freud
transformed its popular meaning) with its trenchant criticism of morality,
Marx was forced to come to terms with the naiveté of his moralistic humanism
and abruptly transformed his entire social philosophy, beginning with The
German Ideology-written in 1845 in an attempt to evade Stirner's stinging
critique. However, Marx was ultimately unable and unwilling to leave his
philosophy unjustified by a metaphysically objective or material world,
frequently describing his ideology as "scientific" and increasingly allowing
his dialectical speculations to be mistaken for supposed objective truths.
Marx's various epigones (including even his erstwhile partner, Friedrich
Engels) attempted to systematize Marxism in various fashions, each of which
tended to deny whatever was of value in Marx's more critical dialectics,
while reifying a few decontextualized insights into dogmatic principles of

Ultimately, most ideologies of modern Marxism have developed explicit forms
of compulsory morality which have been deduced from what have become the
supposed transcendental truths of the Class Struggle revealed by the various
"scientific" formulations of Marxism. Marxist movements that have achieved
state power have given especially concrete and bloody meanings to the
predominant worker's-gulag morality of Marxist class-struggle ideologies,
though this hasn't stopped some left anarchists from appropriating aspects
of the various forms of Marxist morality as their own, as when they argue
that particular analyses of the class struggle demand the submission of
workers or citizens to the dictates of certain organizations which are
claimed to represent them-whether labor unions, "dual power" community or
municipal organizations, etc.

(I should also note that there are still a very few would-be radicals
attempting to construct non-ideological Marxist social critiques-or better,
social critiques influenced by Marx. However, these attempts almost always
founder on the pervasive Marxist contempt for human individuals and human
individuality. This Marxist phobia for concrete, living individual human
beings-Marxist theorists themselves excepted, of course-requires the
consistent fetishization of collectivities as the only genuine social
actors, collectivities whose own social and political dynamics always remain
at least partly mystified by the refusal to acknowledge that they are made
up of individuals whose existence is by no means exhausted by membership in
the various collectivities.)

Radical moralism?

In the absence of genuinely lived community (of contestation) and a
genuinely revolutionary movement throughout society, many would-be radicals
tend to retreat into other activities that substitute for radical, direct
action. One of the easiest traps to fall into is the reduction of the
radical project into a moralistic project (and, as a corollary, the
reduction of subversive, radical discourse into relatively meaningless
moralistic discourses). Instead of creating a subversively radical social
theory in concert with other rebels and putting it into practice with them
with the aim of directly eliminating as many aspects of domination and
social alienation as possible, the goal becomes the rigidly Manichaean
division of the social world into "good" and "bad" parts (in
themselves--outside of any context), with the aim of mechanically
suppressing the "bad" wherever and whenever possible, and enlarging the

Instead of a dialectical social theory aimed at increasingly sophisticated
understanding in conjunction with an increasingly sophisticated, subversive
practice, moralistic ideologies are aimed at simplistic dividing and
labelling with little or no regard for context or the totality! For
environmental moralists, for example, recycling and wilderness are always
good, while SUVs and new housing developments are always bad. Context doesn't
matter, resulting in mechanistic strategies aimed at, for example, simply
discouraging SUV use (whether by firebombing new SUVs or working for
legislation that makes them more expensive), or discouraging the
construction of new housing (whether by arson or attempting to organize
political pressure on developers). Rather than encouraging the spread of the
(practical and theoretical) critique of capital and state as parts of a
worldwide system of social alienation and domination, moralism tends to
result in always seeing the entire social world in a series of single-issue

Moralistic practice always tends towards guilt-mongering (towards those who
engage in activities that can in any way be labelled "bad") and towards
self-righteousness (since one already has all the detailed answers ready,
regardless of context or real-world developments), and is most easily
practiced by those privileged enough to enjoy a wide array of consumer
choices (which facilitates the ability to boycott the correct corporations,
while supporting the correct "fair-trade" or subcultural commodities).
Because moralistic practice aims at maximizing one's attainment of certain
fetishized "good" qualities and minimizing any demonized "bad" qualities,
there is little or no place for the development of any nuanced understanding
of the social and historical systems that give overall context to the
superficial moralistic dilemmas with which people seem to be faced. The
resulting choices are nearly always "either this/or that and nothing else,"
with the full range of actual possibilities stifled.

PC moralism is probably the most easily recognized form taken by moralistic
practice. For people whose identities are tied to their skin color, the PC
tendency is towards a reactive, racialist moralism. For women whose major
identity is tied to gender, the tendency is to demonize all men, both
individually and in reified form as the "patriarchy" as a gender-defined

Examples could also be given for other forms of would-be radical moralism
like pacifism, many forms of leftism including most Marxist ideologies, and
various other single-issue campaigns.

One of the most striking aspects of moralistic practice involves the
generally futile attempts to communicate across the finite ethics/compulsory
morality divide (which will surely be evidenced in moralistic reactions to
this essay). Even when those who have no belief in any fetishized
value-systems make quite clear that their criticisms and commentary develop
from their own practical experiences within particular social contexts and
historical situations, their words are almost automatically interpreted
instead through a moralistic framework that assumes these criticisms and
commentary must be based on some undeclared, but still-transcendent system
of values! Moralists most often see only other moralists, even when none are
there. And, further, moralists often see-and criticize-these other
(phantasmic) moralists as being exceedingly (yet occultly) moralistic, even
when absolutely no evidence can be found for such a charge!

One of the most empty and self-defeating aspects of morality within the
would-be radical milieu is lifestyle moralism-a moralistic stance supporting
fetishized identities based on particular forms of commodity consumption.
Instead of acting on the radical critique of all the social institutions
which reinforce and justify our alienation and domination, lifestyle
moralists elevate their consumer choices to moral choices, which they see as
making them better persons than those who do not share them. These lifestyle
choices can involve adopting rigid diets (vegetarianism or veganism),
wearing a specialized uniform (punk, or working-class), practicing
particular forms of sex, or consuming subcultural commodities. (Note:
Obviously, none of these practices-particular diets, clothing, sexual
practices, or commodity consumption per se-are in themselves necessarily
debilitating or self-defeating; it is their fetishization and elevation to
decontextualized moral standards that makes them so.)

The effects of morality

Whatever the specific content of compulsory morality, the effects are
basically similar. A person's ability to think clearly and act decisively in
his or her own interests (within appropriate contexts) is compromised or
sabotaged. If people are not able to consciously act in their own individual
and communal interests, they will almost certainly end up acting instead in
the (alien) interests of another in some fashion.

In most forms of compulsory morality this other around whose interests
values are oriented is an abstract idea rather than a person or persons:
God, Science, Nature, one's Country (or Nation-State), the Economy or
Ecology, etc. (Although there are always real people, social groups and
organizations just waiting to exploit the victims of morality by acting as
mediators between them and their abstract ideals.) Even in those cases in
which values are explicitly oriented towards people or groups of people (for
example, the class-struggle morality that puts the Working Class at the
center of value), these values usually remain oriented much more towards the
abstract idea of the person or the group than towards any actual, concrete,
living persons: the fetishized idea of the Proletariat or the Party (rather
than actual living and breathing workers or the individual members who make
up the party), Humanity (in the abstract rather than in the form of an
aggregate of concrete individuals in all their interrelationships), the
State, etc. People whose compulsory moralities are organized around these
abstract ideas attempt to force themselves to follow their demands because
they have displaced (projected or alienated) their own subjectivity onto
them, usually through the influence of years and years of alienating and
demoralizing socialization and indoctrination. Rather than understanding and
acting for themselves the victims of morality attempt to make themselves the
puppets of the abstract ideas they fetishize.

Living without morality

The radical alternative to morality involves the creation of critical
self-theory. The formation of any coherent and effective anarchist
perspective and practice requires that people develop (through interaction
with their natural and social environments) a relatively sophisticated
understanding of themselves and their places in their social and natural
worlds. Without a consciously understood subjective locus of understanding,
without a clear focus on one's own personal and social interests, it is
impossible to develop a critical social theory that can comprehend social
alienation and the possibilities for its supersession. Critical self-theory
and critical social theory are two essential poles of one comprehensive

Only by developing and maintaining a self-critical understanding of oneself
and one's world can people make comprehensively rational decisions about
what their most genuine interests are and how to pursue them (rather than
making narrowly or partially rationalized decisions which won't accurately
reflect themselves or their overall context). In the 19th century language
of Max Stirner, this kind of critical self-understanding was termed
"self-conscious egoism," but today it makes more sense to jettison this
outdated, pre-Freudian term in favor of "self-theory."

Critical self-understanding involves the simultaneous development of a
finite ethics, a set of values consistent with what are considered and felt
to be one's most important interests, that are expressed in everyday life
activities. These values are organic expressions of one's radical
subjectivity, of one's self-possession, self-understanding and
self-activity. They don't originate outside of one's life, demanding one's
subjection, because they originate from one's own direct life-experiences
and serve one's own interests.


This is a revised version of the essay which originally appeared in
Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #58 - Fall/Winter 2004-05.

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