Posted by: Dan | January 26, 2008

Equality and Indifference

Marx, in the Grundrisse, discusses the ways in which economic relations of exchange (wherein exchange-value overshadows and replaces use-value) produce equality amongst all those who participate within that system of exchange because all of the participants are reduced to the status of 'exchangers'. In this way, he argues that this system simultaneously masks the social tensions inherent to bourgeois society.

Now what I found particularly interesting is the way in which Marx connects the notion of equality to indifference. He writes:

Since they only exist for one another in exchange in this way [i.e. as exchangers]… they are, as equals, also indifferent to one another; whatever other individual distinction there may be does not concern them; they are indifferent to all their other individual particularities.

These comments continue to be relevant for Christians who are interested in finding their way within our contemporary context, wherein the economic predominates. Of course, one obvious point of application is to note the way in which Marx's comments further explain the deficient and reductionistic anthropology of capitalism. However, much has already been said about these things, and I maintain the the root problem with capitalism is not its anthropology (which is deficient and reductionistic!) but its theology, upon which its anthropology is premised. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the focus on anthropology that one finds in many Christian responses to capitalism is simply another expression of the anthropocentricism of modern thought. Thus, Christian responses to capitalism that lay their central focus upon anthropology are frequently (but not always!) insufficient in at least two ways: (1) these responses remain caught within a form of thinking that is itself definitive of capitalism; and (2) these responses focus on a symptom rather than a cause.

Points about anthropology aside, what I found especially interesting about the quotation from Marx was the connection he made between inequality and indifference.

Sometime ago, I wrote a post entitled “What Reversal? (Confronting Myths of 'Equality')” (cf., wherein I argued that the myth of equality is actually one of the keys to perpetuating inequality in our day to day living. That is to say, we have been told that we are all equal and this then becomes a way of engaging in victim blaming. If others do not have the happy, healthy life that I have, the obvious conclusion is that this is the case because those others are lazy, or immoral, or whatever. Thus, because we are all equal, we are exonerated from actually treating our neighbours as our equals.

Therefore, what I found intriguing about the quotation from Marx is that, while I was approaching the topic from the angle of the mythic stories told by our society, Marx was approaching the topic from the angle of the technical economic structures of society — and we came to the same conclusion!

This, I think, is a point that has not been sufficiently grasped by Christians who attempt to create social change through the avenues provided by the discourse of freedom, equality, and human rights. In my opinion, what these people (several of whom I consider close friends) tend to miss is the way in which that discourse continues to aid and perpetuate oppression, inequality, and degradation within our contemporary context. This is why it is not sufficient to simply appeal to the way in which such language has a long history within the Christian tradition. Regardless of where that discourse originated, and regardless of how it has been employed, the fact is that it cannot be employed in the same way today.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Look at Christians in our society and what do we discover? Those who will defend equality until they are blue in the face, and those who simultaneously do nothing (and generally don't even think to do anything) about the fact that their neighbours are homeless.

Instead of pursuing equality, I suspect it may be better to begin to understand ourselves us douloi Christou, slaves of Christ, and in this way we may learn to share in the passion of God.


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