Category Archives: Philosophy

Unto This Last: Marxism, Debt, and Usury

by Mario Sifuentez

During his visit to campus this spring, David Palumbo-Liu discussed his article “All That is Sold Melts into Air (Again)” with faculty and students. He urges us to shed the shackles of an old morality in order to rid ourselves of the pressing guilt that we feel when we owe money. He argues that this guilt clouds our understanding of what exactly happened during the 2008 meltdown and offers instead a countermorality, that is based on a different sense of morality and justice.

This version of capitalism positions the proletariat as owing future labor to their capitalist overlords and that alienation of wage labor has now become an alienation based on debt. Debt follows us everywhere; it is ever present in our minds, in our labor, and most importantly in our credit score. The credit system is alienating because it eliminates a material good and replaces it with something ephemeral and intangible, it replaces it with distrust and suspicion on the side of the lender, which in turn makes the borrower feel untrustworthy.

In the case of the 2008 meltdown, the borrower, large corporations, escaped the scrutiny precisely because they are not people, they cannot feel alienation, they are not moral beings, and they cannot be held accountable. In the end we pay for their debts twice over in the form of taxes and services not rendered.

So what do we do? Palumbo-Liu reintroduces the notion of a countermorality, one that creates a “whole new social imaginary” that invests heavily in a new kind of language and new kind of vocabulary. One that allows us to reinvent, explode, and construct new meanings for ourselves and places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the one percent.

In reflecting on Palumbo-Liu’s article, I am reminded of Stephanie Black’s fantastic 2002 film, Life and Debt. In the opening sequence, three Rastafarian men sit around a fire discussing the morality of lending money with high interest rates and the indebtedness that has been forced on Jamaica. They read from Exodus 22:25 “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” The Quran similarly tells us in 2:275 “Those who charge usury are in the same position as those controlled by the devil’s influence. This is because they claim that usury is the same as commerce. However, God permits commerce, and prohibits usury. Thus, whoever heeds this commandment from his Lord, and refrains from usury, he may keep his past earnings, and his judgment rests with God. As for those who persist in usury, they incur Hell, wherein they abide forever.” Ancient Hindu and Buddhist text also demean and condemn usury.

This reminds us of three things: first, that loaning and borrowing money are not immoral per se but the act of usury is really the problem. Lending and borrowing money of course are an ancient practice that predates capitalism. So does usury but capitalism’s original sin is normalizing usury in the everyday lending practices of institutions.

Second it reminds us that the United States established this world wide financial system after the Second World War. The United States and its global lenders, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter American Development Bank have been turning the Darker Nations into the Poorer Nations for over half a century. The austerity programs that have been enacted on the U.S. populace might be a case of the chicken coming home to roost. Capitalists have long provided a cheaper and more affordable way of life for Americans at the expense of the former colonies around the globe and are now looking here as a place to continue the gouging. For as Palumbo-Liu’s reference to Marshall Berman reminds us, “the only activity that really means anything to the bourgeoisie is making money.”

Finally, I concur with Dr. Palumbo-Liu that the solution might be as simple as refusing to pay our debts. And as difficult as creating a new morality that forces us to talk about debt and debtors in a different framework. But I want to suggest that perhaps we should look to an ancient morality that while perhaps not as radical as Marxism does resonate with more people all over the world. The wrath and the vocal support that Pope Francis recently incurred because he dared to suggest that all foreign debt should be forgiven is indicative that this sort of morality appeals to a wide swath of the darker nations and makes capitalists quite nervous.


Music and Religious Change in Shakespeare’s Tempest

by Peter Vanderschraaf

Katie Brokaw’s essay is the culminating part of her overall book project Staging Harmony, that focuses on important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. For me, studying Brokaw’s essay is proving both a special treat and a formidable but valuable challenge, coming from philosophy (with scant background in literature) and specializing in branches of moral and political philosophy with roots in the early modern philosophical era that begins almost immediately after the composition of The Tempest (with Grotius’ Free Sea).  Brokaw argues that in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare’s writes in a “spirit of finding amicable [and not merely peaceful] coexistence between word, art and ritual (p. 4)”. The discussion here focuses on the role of music (and sometimes dance) in The Tempest.

Some questions/comments for consideration:

  1. This essay discusses primarily The Tempest, written in 1610-1611. Is there a special reason for ending the analysis at 1611 (beyond perhaps the fact that The Tempest is one is Shakespeare’s late plays and Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of his and maybe any era to write in the English language)? Staging Harmony will discuss important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. Historical tidbit: The London Puritans succeed in having the theaters closed in 1642 until the Restoration.
  2. I agree with Brokaw that interpreting The Tempest as a work arguing for accepting a certain diversity of religious belief and practice makes very good sense. I’m wondering about a possible outlier: the Puritans. My impression is that Shakespeare makes no attempt to “bring the Puritans to the table” in The Tempest. If that’s right, a dull explanation is that Shakespeare may have thought there was little point in trying to appeal to this part of his English culture (since the Puritans would at best ignore his art form anyway). But (again if I am right) could there be a more interesting explanation, namely, that Shakespeare is taking a stance regarding the (now old) question of “tolerating the intolerant”? (I think we face this problem all the time.)
  3. Very quick comment/question: As Brokaw observes, James I was fairly tolerant of religious nonconformism even in his own court. But (as I recently discovered) James had quite interesting ideas about sovereignty. Here’s a quote: “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth. For kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. . . .” Does Shakespeare express a view about sovereignty in The Tempest? (If not it certainly is not a problem for Brokaw’s project but I thought it might be interesting to know about.)
  4. I found Brokaw’s discussion of how people of the time viewed music and its power particularly striking. As Brokaw observes, they connected music with science (”music of the spheres”) and the occult in ways we’re not used to in our time. Just an observation: I wonder if this is another way in which The Tempest reflects what I keep calling the pre-modern tradition (because unlike in the pre-modern tradition, specific discussion of music is largely absent among the early modern philosophers and my impression is that these days, aesthetics is thought of as a “luxury” specialization.)
  5. Ditto for the short but very interesting discussion of sympathy. In Shakespeare’s time sympathy apparently had a wider meaning than in our time, reflecting harmony between music and the natural world as well as harmony between people. For reasons I don’t know (and maybe Brokaw does), in the English-speaking world I think the scope of our thinking about sympathy became narrower (roughly, for the moderns and maybe for us, to sympathize is to mentally put oneself in the place of another) as it started to make a more explicit and important role in English moral philosophy (such as Hume’s “judicious spectator” and Smith’s “impartial spectator”).
  6. Why bother raising the earlier insubstantial question about time period? Comment: My impression is that Brokaw’s interpretation can be thought of as representing a culmination in England of thought regarding relative toleration of diverse religious belief and practice (and maybe artistic practice)? (For example, as Brokaw observes recusants in James’ time were common and Roman Catholics were able to practice their faith — my impression is that places where Catholics could participate in the mass were like “speakeasies.”) From Brokaw’s essay (which I find compelling) I think one can conclude that Shakespeare advocated what one might call a “great society” view (plug for my philosophy colleague Jerry Gaus) whose members not merely accept but appreciate and learn from their differences (as opposed to a modus vivendi view of pluralism decried by Alasdair MacIntyre). The contemporary counterpart is modern politically liberal society (if you approve of it) or “the degenerate West” (if you don’t). Anyway if this is right so far, then what follows and the philosophical response (and you knew I would try to smuggle in some philosophy) are an interesting contrast. The Thirty Years War begins two years after Shakespeare’s death, the English Civil War starts in 1642 and the early modern philosophical era starts around this time. I wonder if Shakespeare’s The Tempest foreshadows a period of terrible disillusionment (especially among philosophers), Leibniz being a possible exception. We get figures like Grotius and Hobbes trying to develop a natural law that in principle could be detached from religion, Hobbes arguing that religious diversity and freedom of expression are neither desirable for civil peace nor necessary for personal salvation, and later Hume hinting that in the end we don’t need anything like religious belief to explain or to justify government and moral practice. (Leibniz tries maybe for the last time before the 20th century to develop a creed that he thinks all Christians can accept and that can reconcile the various Christian churches.)


Personification and the Political Imagination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Eli Jelly-Schapiro

Amanda Bailey visited our seminar to discuss her work on the philosophic and political imagination of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Through her reading of the play, Bailey illuminates forms of agency and consent that arise out of the fluid intermingling of human and nonhuman entities rather than the embodied and self-contained sovereign subject. Offering a “glimpse of community beyond the semantics of proprium,” Bailey suggests, A Midsummer Night’s Dream gestures toward “an alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” (3).

Bailey elaborates this fundamental claim through two interwoven threads. First, she examines how metamorphosis functions in the play—not as a process whereby one autonomous and stable ontological entity is transformed into another, but rather as a moment or space of perpetual becoming wherein a series of binary distinctions—subject–object, self–other, man-beast, being-in-itself and being-for-itself—dissolve: a space of “mutability and assemblage” rather than fixity and individuation.

Second and relatedly, Bailey advances—via a close engagement with early modern political thought and early modern contract law—a nuanced critique of how the play figures the conjoined philosophic problems of personhood and consent. The “space of persona” opened up in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals the mutability of the human as an ontological category and challenges the political and philosophic ascendancy of the willful sovereign subject—and by extension the structures of state or market dominance with which it is bound.

Central to Bailey’s argument is a lucid exegesis of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Bailey uses Locke’s meditations on non-corporeal personhood to evince the ways in which, as she puts it, “personification is an enabling condition of the collective rather than a crisis of the individual” (6). It’s worth noting, though, that in other texts, most notably the chapter “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke articulates personhood and consent in the context of a robust defense of primitive accumulation. His famous claim that “every Man has a property in his own person” prefaces an extended reflection on the virtues of enclosure, in England as in the New World (116; ch. 5). And in testifying to the emancipatory powers of money, Locke intimates that when by universal consent money is endowed with value, universal consent is also bestowed upon the inequality that money inevitably produces (Ince 35).

Locke’s philosophic treatment of concepts such as personhood and consent, in other words, was complicit in the naturalization of capitalist and colonial processes. Bailey’s summoning of Locke alongside Shakespeare in the service of imagining an “alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” is thus somewhat paradoxical. But this contrapuntal application of Locke is precisely what lends her argument its power. She enacts a dialectical move that salvages Locke’s notion of the disembodied person from the uses to which political systems founded on the logic of perpetual accumulation have put it. If Locke’s thought provides philosophic support for capitalist social relations it also, Bailey conveys, contains conceptual tools that might be wielded in the service of alternative social formations.

In this, Bailey affirms an important insight of Stuart Hall’s. The moment of economic determinism, Hall contends in “The Problem of Ideology,” is in the first instance, not the last. Even if our ideas of freedom, equality, personhood, the individual, consent, etc. “derive from the categories we use in our practical, commonsense thinking about the market economy,” what this conceptual vocabulary signifies is never fixed, is always open to contestation and transformation (34).

The contest over what concepts such as “personhood” and “consent” describe, however, is today being won by the ideology of the market. If one lineage of disembodied personhood leads to radical social formations beyond the logic of dominion another finds its terminus in the heart of our own neoliberal moment, wherein a legal fiction, the corporation, is afforded the First Amendment right to free speech. This is not to contradict the anticipatory tenor of Bailey’s account, but rather to highlight its urgency.

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx observed that the universalization of commodity rationality makes “definite social relations between men . . . [assume] the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165; ch. 1).  Today as then, the “personification of things” and the “thingification of persons”—the commoditization of human life itself—are two sides of the same coin. Bailey’s vibrant contribution is to shed light upon alternative cultures of personification that might counter rather than express the alienation of human bodies and human communities.