Spiritual Immiserization

27 November 2011


It is always an amusement to me to see the search terms that have led readers (or, more realistically, picture seekers) to this forum. Some of them are such that I would expect, while others are somewhat less likely, for example:

pictures of a spanish book and lightbulb (11.10.2011)
becomes a stranger in one’s own country definition (11.16.2011)
what is an explicit view of thanksgiving holiday (11.26.2011)
building construction technical terms urdu (11.27.2011)

I am sorry that the person searching for technical terms for construction in Urdu would not have found much help here, and one wonders how the inscrutable chemistry of search engines connected their query to my writing. As an aside on the subject of languages other than English, I have learned that the quickest way to discover the meaning of foreign language search terms is to search for images with the term in question.

Some of these search terms obviously come from exams, and often these searches still include the number of the question as it appeared in the test:

7. which african country has borders with both morocco and tunisia

Last month I noticed a string of search terms that was quite intellectually compelling, and which led me to think. I managed to go back through my statistics and find the particular search string, which was from 24 October 2011:

will this immiserization, in marx opinion, be purely economic or something more spiritual?

The person who made this inquiry had in mind the Marxian use of “immiserization,” which I wrote about in The Immiserization Thesis, and in some subsequent posts.

Here’s a passage from Marx’s Capital that gives one version (among many) of worker immiserization under capitalism:

“The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chap. 25, section 4

Immiserization,” according to Marx, is simply the increasing misery of the workers under the capitalist system (the “making miserable” of the workers). Eventually, this immiserization reaches “critical mass,” a revolution occurs, and the expropriators are expropriated.

Now, having learned a few lessons about being misunderstood, I am going to pause for just a moment to remind the reader that I don’t agree with this thesis in Marx at all. Although I have argued in Globalization and Marxism that the conditions under which Marxism could experience its experimentum crusis — the industrialization of the world entire — simply do not obtain, the trend of development is already obvious. The growth of capital and productivity does not entail a growth in pauperization. Indeed, in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution I have argued that we can, as a thought experiment, imagine a very different historical process of industrialization in which unemployment rates were routinely at 50 percent or more. This would result in a very different society than that in which unemployment only climbs to such levels in unusual circumstances, and in which the most industrialized economies experience rates of unemployment around 10-15 percent only in a severe recession.

With that disclaimer, I now move on.

It seems plain to me that the greater number of commentators on Marx have assumed that Marx’s immiserization thesis was all about the material immiserization of the workers under capitalism. I don’t have a sufficiently encyclopedic knowledge of Marxism in all the luxuriance of its many formulations to say that all Marxist writers held that the immiserization thesis was concerned with the material impoverishment of workers, but I certainly think that this was the case for Marx and for most Marxists.

Marx leads off his Chapter 25, section 4 (from which the above quotation is taken) with a tripartite distinction in relative surplus population:

“The relative surplus population exists in every possible form. Every labourer belongs to it during the time when he is only partially employed or wholly unemployed. Not taking into account the great periodically recurring forms that the changing phases of the industrial cycle impress on it, now an acute form during the crisis, then again a chronic form during dull times — it has always three forms, the floating, the latent, the stagnant.”

Although Marx himself makes this tripartite distinction, he goes on to discuss the “lowest sediment” of the relative surplus population, which lies beyond the other three:

“The lowest sediment of the relative surplus population finally dwells in the sphere of pauperism. Exclusive of vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes, in a word, the ‘dangerous’ classes, this layer of society consists of three categories. First, those able to work. One need only glance superficially at the statistics of English pauperism to find that the quantity of paupers increases with every crisis, and diminishes with every revival of trade. Second, orphans and pauper children. These are candidates for the industrial reserve army, and are, in times of great prosperity, as 1860, e.g., speedily and in large numbers enrolled in the active army of labourers. Third, the demoralised and ragged, and those unable to work, chiefly people who succumb to their incapacity for adaptation, due to the division of labour; people who have passed the normal age of the labourer; the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, &c., the mutilated, the sickly, the widows, &c. Pauperism is the hospital of the active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army. Its production is included in that of the relative surplus population, its necessity in theirs; along with the surplus population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth. It enters into the faux frais of capitalist production; but capital knows how to throw these, for the most part, from its own shoulders on to those of the working class and the lower middle class.

While Marx almost always treats of immiserization and pauperization in an economic context, and while formulating the misery of the worker in terms of “pauperization,” which is a term of material povery, suggests the economic context of the immiserization thesis, there is some wiggle room in this passage since Marx writes of “the demoralised and ragged,” which implicitly recognizes two kinds of immiserization: the demoralized are the spiritually immiserated while the ragged are the materially immiserated.

The very idea of spiritual immiseration is a fascinating one, and, given an appropriate exposition, I think it could be quite the ideological fetish with which to conjure. One reason for this is that, at least in contemporary society, when people begin invoking the term “spiritual” they almost always use it to formulate something about which they do not want to be pinned down, and so the most vague and non-falsifiable formulation that is possible is employed. In other words, when people start expressing their dissatisfaction with the economic system in spiritual terms, it is likely that no concrete proposed remedy would satisfy them.

It would not be going to far to say that a wholly new form of Marxism might be teased out of the established tradition by a reformulation in terms of spiritual immiserization following from the affluence of capitalism. That being said, the idea of spiritual immiserization is not new, though it has been called by other names. Here is a classic passage from Adam Smith in which Smith describes the condition of the industrial laborer (i.e., the proletariat):

“…the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part 3, Article II

While Adam Smith and Karl Marx are usually invoked as exemplars and antithetical traditions, both clearly understood the intellectually debilitating consequences of rote labor. There are sections of The Wealth of Nations that might be swapped salva veritate with sections of Das Kapital, and no one would notice who was not a close and careful textual scholar.

It would be difficult to argue against the parallelism of material immiserization and spiritual immiserization, so that the two often appear as the same thing, and may well be conflated by the well-meaning who wish only to ameliorate the suffering of immiserization, regardless of its source. It is important to make the distinction, however, because the most obvious examples of material immiserization occur in the midst of great poverty and want, while the most obvious examples of spiritual immiserization occur in the midst of great affluence.

There are several traditions of thought that might be tapped for a formulation of spiritual immiserization, as, for example, the tradition of emphasizing Marx’s writings on alienation, which one mostly finds in Marxists coming from a Hegelian background.

I can imagine that if we do see a reformulation of Marxism in spiritual terms, this will represent a shift in the understanding of Marxism similar in several respects to the more subtle shift that came about when Marxists began speaking of Marxism as a “project.” I haven’t read anything about this terminological shift, but it is important. Even the most self-deluded Marxist had to eventually admit that the communist Millennium of the worker’s paradise didn’t come about as a result of communist revolution in Russia or any other place that experienced a communist-inspired revolution. Since Marxism could not be brought about in one fell swoop, as it were, Marxism had to be transformed into the “Marxist Project,” understood as an incrementalist approach to the worker’s paradise that couldn’t be had by way of a catastrophic approach.

What I see as likely to be missed in any likely formulation of spiritual immiserization in the context of a spiritualized Marxism is that Marx’s historical materialism in such a context ought to give way to a historical spiritualism, and I can’t see the kind of people who demand redistributed justice being inspired to pursue a doctrine of historical spiritualism and all that this implies. What does it imply? Well, for starters, it implies that spiritual immiserization is to be addressed not by a redistribution of goods and services, which is a material undertaking, but by a spiritual program of giving succor to those who suffer — spiritual succor, not crass material goods.

One here expects the kind of incredulity that Huck Finn demonstrates in being instructed only to pray for “spiritual gifts” (Chap. III):

“WELL, I got a good going-over in the morning from old Miss Watson on account of my clothes; but the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay, and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave awhile if I could. Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.”

“I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to my self, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant — I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it — except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go. Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was a-going to be any better off then than what he was before, seeing I was so ignorant, and so kind of low-down and ornery.”

Here Huck Finn is cast in the role of Everyman, who must attempt to grapple with a difficult and elusive spiritual truth with only the resources of a mind completely embedded in a material context. Twain makes a joke of this, but there is a lesson to be learned.

On a final note, I must remember to look at my search terms more often. The above meditation is the result of someone’s inquiry, and now I’ve found that someone found my site by searching on “naturalism and legal theory.” This too is a very interesting idea. Legal theory has been dominated by legal positivism, but I have recently convinced myself that the heir to positivism and materialism is contemporary naturalism (as I mentioned in Some Formulations of Methodological Naturalism), and so it would be a fascinating undertaking to review concepts of legal positivism in the light of the innovations that contemporary naturalism brings to the tradition of positivist legal thought.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Spiritual Immiserization”

  1. mercadeo internet said

    Whether the immiserization thesis is true or not is simply too complex a topic to deal with here. Indeed, for the sake of the present argument, I am willing to assume that it is absolutely true — truer than anything has ever been true before. For what I want to concentrate on is the question of whether the Baran-Wallerstein revision is consistent with Marxism’s claim to represent a realistic political agenda as opposed to a mere utopian fantasy. And the short answer is that, no matter how true the global immiserization thesis might be, it does not save the Baran-Wallerstein revision of Marxism from being condemned as utopian fantasy — and condemned not by my standards or yours, but by those of Marx and Engels.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Have you presented a detailed formulation of your argument? I would be interested to read it. What does it mean to say that the immiserization thesis is “absolutely true”?

      I myself would be no friend of the Baran-Wallerstein revision, or the whole cluster of dependency-underdevelopment theories — not because they are utopian, but simply because they are incorrect.

      Best wishes,


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