In Defence of Hypocrisy

25 07 2007

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On first reckoning this would seem a truly indefensible proposition. Not only does it fly in the face of the most basic common sense, it is an idea so seemingly audacious as not to even merit consideration. Hypocrisy, in contemporary life, has been raised to the status of the seven deadly sins. What could ever be the defence of an action that goes against the very principle which it professes?

Bear with me as we spend the next few minutes unravelling the idea of hypocrisy, its social function and implications. The definition of hypocrisy is the origin of my defence of this practice.

The dictionary meaning of hypocrisy is: “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings or principles that one does not hold or practice.” Why should a person profess beliefs, feelings or principles that he does not hold or practice? There could be two answers for this. One reason for this disconnect between the beliefs and principles one holds dear and what one practices could be due to social, political or even economic pressures that this person suffers. What this means is that this person cannot live by his ideals because he is forced otherwise. For example, a journalist who believes in the free press and reporting the truth may practice self-censorship and report falsities under threat of fines, closures, imprisonment and even death under a dictatorship. This cannot be termed hypocrisy in the true sense since the person involved is not a free agent.

The second situation of disconnect between a person’s actions and his professed ideals and principles is when the person realises that his actions are somehow wrong and unethical. He realises, deep in his heart, even though he is loath to accept it openly, that what he is doing is contrary to the ethics and morals he himself professes or actually aspires for. Here this person acts on his free will, without any significant threat to him if he acted to the contrary. This is the true hypocrite and his actions are true hypocrisy.

So why should one defend such practice? The answer to that lies in the context that defines hypocrisy.

We live in a world dominated by capital whose primary, nay sole, purpose of existence is to maximise its profit. Capital will move heaven and earth, zip from one continent to the other, overturn centuries-old customs and dislocate millions in pursuit of profit. This is such a stark historical fact that it hardly needs repetition. But what needs to be highlighted is that the cultural, ideological mirror of this relentless drive to profit is selfishness — complete self-centredness of the human person. The right-bearing autonomous individual, whom capitalism celebrates, is so necessary to the success of capitalism precisely because this right-bearing, autonomous individual is concerned, first and foremost, for himself. His concern for others, family, friends, society, nation, nature is driven by this concern for oneself.

Over the centuries capitalism has entrenched itself in our consciousness, not merely as a system of production, but as a way of looking at and understanding the world. The ideologues of capitalism have come up with hundreds of theories to explain this extreme self-centredness of the human individual at the heart of this system. Without going into a detailed reference to these theories, a few examples would suffice. The saying, “God helps those who help themselves” merely underlines this sentiment, as does the entire political philosophy of “enlightened self-interest”, which claims that each individual, by pursuing his or her own self-interest, ultimately propels the interest of all. Each of us, if we spend some time reflecting on proverbs, famous quotations, philosophies, epochal novels and generation-swaying songs, would come up with our own set of examples where the individual and his/her self-interest is celebrated and reinforced.

This celebration of self-interest, its foregrounding is unprecedented in human history. At no point, before the advent of capitalism, has any human society ever celebrated self-interest so pervasively. Self-promotion, self-indulgence, selfishness, egoism and crass greed are mere extensions of this self-centred universe that capitalism has given birth to. These vices are not conceptually different from self-centredness, but merely different forms of this core idea.

But, despite all the protestations of the ideologues of capitalism, self-centredness cannot become a universal virtue like justice, liberty or fraternity. Every person can aspire to justice and a just life; similarly, all humans can conceivably be free and it is surely not difficult to visualise a situation, however hypothetical it may appear at present, where all are linked in fraternal relations with each other. But the same cannot be said of self-centredness. As the virtue which subscribes only to capital (being the cultural, ideological mirror of the profit maximisation principle), it can only be fully practised by the owners of capital. Being capitalists, they are in no need to shield their self-centredness. They can be, and are, brazen about their pursuit of profit. Those who are bereft of capital (or property), the proletariat or property-less workers, do not have the material basis to practise self-centredness; rather, they are open to actualise the ideals of justice, liberty and fraternity.

It is the middle classes, which have one foot in the camp of the propertied and one in the camp of the working people, who are wracked by a contradiction of ideals and practice. While their ownership of property and access to privilege makes them practice self-centredness, their need to labour for their living makes them aspire for the ideals of liberty, fraternity and justice. Hypocrisy is the forte of the middle class.

So what is the defence of hypocrisy from this somewhat idiosyncratic analysis of class and virtues? As a Marxist observer of this world, it appears to me that when the class struggle is strong and the challenge of the working people to the rule of capital is a significant, if not primary, political battle, the middle classes are driven by hypocrisy. Their material interests drive them towards the ideology of the capitalists, the ideology of self-centredness, but the political challenge of left-wing activism shows to them the position of servitude they are destined for under the rule of capital and makes them aspire for the virtues of liberty, fraternity, justice and equality. On the other hand, as and when the politics of the left is in retreat and the rule of capital is in the ascendant, the middle classes dump all affiliation to such political ideals and hitch their ideological boat firmly to the flotilla of capital. The political expression of this abandonment of hypocrisy is the rise of fascism with its naked threat to virtues mentioned earlier.

Hypocrisy is a statement that while the material conditions are such that the person benefits from an abandonment of virtue, he still retains some sense of guilt and shame, some ideal of a better world that prevents him from a brazen rejection of these virtues. In a world where self-centredness, self-indulgence, egotism, national chauvinism (a form of collective egotism) and greed are continuously celebrated, where fascism is rearing its head in a hundred places on a rejection of the ideals of justice and equality, hypocrisy is not a small relief. It is a testament to the perseverance of human virtues in the face of the most intense attacks. It is therefore, a testament of hope.

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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post, on 25 July, 2007.

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10 responses

25 07 2007
Fat Nancy

I agree that hypocrisy presupposes knowledge and guilt about the true nature of injustice.

However, the assumption is that being fully or partially aware of this injustice – and, of course, the greater knowledge, the greater complicity and hypocrisy – one will then move to remedy it. This is certainly the traditional political and moral approach, Marxist or otherwise

But what if that’s not the case?

What if we, fully cognisant of the injustice that we are complicit in, nevertheless do nothing? What if the capitalist system can, in fact, absorb such knowledge.

This is vaguely the approach to ideology taken by Slavoj Zizek – it’s no longer tenable to claim they do it, but they do not know why they do it. Rather, we do it, we know we do it, we know very well why we do it, but we disavow this knowledge, adopt a cynical or ironic outlook and carry on.

What I would add, is that more needs to be done on the notion of “shame”. It sounds like a very old-fashioned notion in many societies these days, but a lack of shame is not only the cornerstone of a sociopath, but a fundamental element of capitalism.

25 07 2007
Fat Nancy

Another point:

You’re using “middle class” following from Marx’s own use, right, as primarily referring to the lower middle class – the petite bourgeoisie?

The petite bourgeoisie are not only responsible for the rise in fascism, but also a moralistic outlook that the middle class proper find decidedly embarrassing.

In my country, Australia, petite bourgeois morality is often reactionary, but has at its core a sense of solidarity (called “mateship” in less political language) that rears its head on increasingly rare occaisions when working people are endangered.

The trick is, how does one morally re-orientate the petite bourgeoisie away from the middle class proper and towards the working class?

We need to rethink the traditional Marxist antipathy towards them, too. From the time of the Manifesto and it’s “overlookers, bailiffs and shopmen” the focus has been too much on the petite bourgeoisie as class enemies and harbingers of fascism, and not enough on their inevitable insecurities making prospects for solidarity.

25 07 2007
chhavi

interesting analysis. “Hypocrisy is the forte of the middle class.” — very interesting. But then when you look at celebrities and other people in power, who may be from but not of the middle class and see hypocricy, how do you explain it? Is it all a capitalist conspiracy?

25 07 2007
Saibal

Very interesting and quite entertaining article indeed!! I agree to the argument but I guess it would be worth researching whether hypocrisy was a norm even during the feudal societies too! 🙂

26 07 2007
Unni

In “History and Class Consciousness” Lukacs analyses the role played by petty-bourgeois.

“The question of consciousness may make its appearance in terms of the objectives chosen or in terms of action, as for instance in the case of the petty bourgeoisie. This class lives at least in part in the capitalist big city and every aspect of its existence is directly exposed to the influence of capitalism. Hence it cannot possibly remain wholly unaffected by the fact of class conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat. But as a “transitional class in which the interests of two other classes become simultaneously blunted …” it will imagine itself “to be above all class antagonisms”. [24] Accordingly it will search for ways whereby it will “not indeed eliminate the two extremes of capital and wage labor, but will weaken their antagonism and transform it into harmony”. [25] In all decisions crucial for society its actions will be irrelevant and it will be forced to fight for both sides in turn but always without consciousness. In so doing its own objectives – which exist exclusively in its own consciousness – must become progressively weakened and increasingly divorced from social action. Ultimately they will assume purely ‘ideological’ forms The petty bourgeoisie will only be able to play an active role in history as long as these objectives happen to coincide with the real economic interests of capitalism. This was the case with the abolition of the feudal estates during the French Revolution”

The hypocrisy that is shown by this class is a manifestation of the class consciousness that it lacks. When the Cambodian country side was ruthlessly bombed by the US aggressor ,the urban middle class of Nom phen didn’t find its their obligation to reach out to their brethren on whom bombs fell like raindrops. This resulted in a divide which culminated in Khemer Rouge genocide.

This hypocrisy may linger inside a socialist society as well. In “Doctor Zhivago” Pasternak portrays this, perhaps unwittingly. For the Zhivago family watching a procession that is demanding equality and brotherhood, is a good will gesture .But when it comes to sharing the luxurious mansion with the underprivileged the dreams of an egalitarian society vanishes in thin air .The struggle for a socialist society will have to fight and defeat this petty-bourgeois recalcitrance.

26 07 2007
Ramu Players

Hi

Well well one very famous comrade of yours made this statement recently ” We want a political person as President and a non-political person as VP”. I find this extremely amusing and so typically leftist hypocrisy. What will happen after 5 years? Will Mr.Ansari be confined to the bin or the logic at 2012 will change?

One more very famous lady comrade of yours who studied in one of the most post private school and college and whose progeny have also studied in such institutions does not want education to be privatised in India. She indulged in a shouting match with Rahul Gandhi who wanted to privatisation in education but poor boy was shouted down by this very “self -righteous” lady who seem to be a perfect exapmple of leftist hyprocrisy.

28 07 2007
V

There also needs to be said something about the class-traitors, particularly people from the bourgeoisie who align themselves with the aims of the proletariat against their own class. Are they also, in addition to the petty-bourgeoisie, treading the path of hypocrisy?

30 07 2007
Fat Nancy

“There also needs to be said something about the class-traitors, particularly people from the bourgeoisie who align themselves with the aims of the proletariat against their own class. Are they also, in addition to the petty-bourgeoisie, treading the path of hypocrisy?”

The Marxist defence to that is that since the proletariat represent the universal interests of us all – of course not!

There is something to be said for being aware of one’s own privilege, however…

If it’s the Zhivago-style spectatorship of the bourgeoisie or the faddish attention of celebrity causes that drift from topic to topic (refugees, war, global warming) then that only perpetuates inequality by reducing class struggle and solidarity – that’s the concept missing here, and within the petite bourgeoisie as a whole! – to a fashion trend.

Social movements that rely on the good will of the middle class are doomed to failure. They get bored too quickly.

13 08 2007
mkatju

Hypocrisy sounds the next best thing to virtue!

So one should be a hypocrite if one cannot be virtuous!

5 10 2011
Robby Gomillion

Thank you, I’ve recently been looking for info about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so far. But, what about the bottom line? Are you sure about the source?

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