If you ever want to win an argument with a Marxist, just keep asking them for “a more material analysis”. Materialism is a catchcry of Marxists, and they weaponise it against all sorts of people: from Foucault to Chomsky, anarchists to reactionaries, Marxists see Idealism – the opposite of Materialism - as an intellectual scourge that obscures the truth of class antagonisms and historical developments behind a wall of make-believe. In this article I hope to illustrate the way in which those most Materialist of all groups, profit-oriented corporations, deliberately set out to weaponise Idealism against forces of progress and social justice.
First, some definitions. Materialism is the view that “humans and their interactions are intrinsically organic, physical, and temporal. This means that all human activities and all human societies can be analyzed according to humans’ organic, physical, and temporal characteristics”. By contrast, Idealism holds that:
humans are essentially self-conscious beings and that if we understand the self-consciousness of humans, we can understand what people are, what human history is, and what the ultimate end of human civilization is.... [T]he world as we know it is actually an idea whose origin is our mind and not the world. Thus, a political regime, social structure, or phase of human civilization is not the product of culture or technological development. Rather, these regimes, structures, or phases are the results of our mind revealing itself to itself.” (op cit pg 42)
These definitions are no doubt contended. In particular this definition of Idealism is a Hegelian Idealism, the sort that Marx was specifically reacting against when he developed his theories of Historical Materialism and Dialectical Materialism . In the modern world, this sort of strong Idealism seems odd - to paraphrase Sir William Harcourt, “we are all materialists now”. This is evident in all sorts of ways, from the inescapable attitude of modern governments that that their primary role is to be stewards of the economy, to the general devaluation of studies in Arts and Humanities in favour of STEM education, to the conceptualisation of mental illness as a biochemical misalignment that can be treated with behavioural adjustments and medication (as opposed to earlier views like that of Plato, which sees madness as divine). Despite the rise in popularity of astrology, most people would look askance if you told them you were selling stocks in IBM because Mercury has entered the Fifth House, or because you were visited by the ghost of your grandmother. This is because modern humans who are subjects of capitalism are heavily conditioned to hold materialist views. Think how often you were told as a child that “life isn't fair”? This is an aggressive materialism, designed to inoculate the child against Idealistic views that “fairness” or “justice” might be out there waiting for them.
But despite this almost universal official espousal of Materialism, there is also an almost universal subtle Idealism of everyday life, where people attribute things to thoughts and concepts, or even individuals, instead of to the material conditions of society. One obvious example is the common insistence of the mainstream left that Trump is to blame for racial tensions, which completely misses the previous few centuries of institutionalised racism. From Obama's deportation of migrants, to Bush's inflaming of anti-Islamic sentiments, to Clinton's superpredator rhetoric – Trump is merely the latest. Not that anyone could deny his contribution to American racism, which has been considerable, but the Idealistic view that replacing Trump in November will significantly improve things is based on a false assumption that the thoughts and intentions of one person could be the difference between a society of racist division and one of egalitarian unity. The inescapable reality is that the American machine will continue along its path regardless of who is at the helm. The point here is not to get into a history of American racism, but to illustrate that although “we are all Materialists now”, Idealism continues to pervade our lives and thoughts.
There is perhaps no Materialism stronger than that of the profit motive. When all you're interested in is the next buck, it literally pays to view the world through a shrewd and hardheaded Materialist lens. Modern corporations would never tell employees to stay home on Friday the 13th, or sacrifice a bull each morning – I'm sure they would see these as simply burning money in the name of folktales. Stock traders will buy or sell at any price that nets them a profit, even if the stock is trading at $666. But some corporations advocate for Idealism, so long as it remains outside their own decision-making. It is my view that this is a deliberate (if perhaps not entirely self-aware) tactic to mystify critics and prevent them from using Materialistic analysis. This is the issue I will spend the rest of the article addressing.
Readers may be familiar with the issue of recognition of First Nations people in the Australian Constitution. This is a long-running debate with immense complexities that is beyond the scope of this essay. In brief, there is a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution to in some way acknowledge or include the Indigenous nations that existed on this continent and were (illegally) invaded by European colonists. Since the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017, most work around Constitutional Recognition has been advocating for mandating an Aboriginal “Voice to Parliament”, which would be some kind of advisory body. The opinions of both First Nations people and colonisers and immigrants on this issue are by no means universal, and it is not my intent to make a strong case one way or another. I intend, rather, to illustrate the way in which corporate sponsors of Recognition are deliberately promoting an Idealistic response to the issue of colonisation, which will directly allow those corporations to continue to profit while essentially meaningless Idealistic change is made.
Constitutional Recognition is an Idealistic approach, advocating a view along the lines of “the ideas that our nation identifies as important have an effect on the real conditions of people who live here”. However, it's clear from even a few moments' reflection that constitutions do not produce the effects that they proclaim. For instance, very few people would argue that the United States has managed to “establish Justice, [and] ensure domestic Tranquility” or that even more specifically, that “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.” As we have seen essentially continuously since the end of World War II, the American government repeatedly keeps troops and ships of war in times of peace, and has repeatedly engaged in war without actually being invaded. Thus, it seems almost undeniable that Constitutions, while having some material effects – it seems obvious, for example, that the US Constitution did actually result in their government being bicameral – are also Idealistic documents.
Further, in 2020, the proposal for Constitutional Recognition of First Nations people is an explicitly Idealistic view, with proponents reassuring skeptics that “there is nothing to fear from this body” on the basis that any change to the Constitution will be in the vein of “there must be an Indigenous advisory body”, without having any detail included:
It will have no legislative powers, deliver no services, return no land, have no budget to distribute. The body will not be allowed to burden parliamentary debate, nor interfere in parliamentary processes. The Voice could not impose any obligations on governments nor create any rights for Aboriginal people. It cannot even determine its own membership. The government will select who sits on it... it is not even clear who the body would advise: unless a government or a political party seeks advice, the body will be singing in the wind.” (op cit)
It's telling that the most vocal supporters of Constitutional Recognition include mining companies like BHP and Rio Tinto. As discussed above, profit-driven corporations are the most Materialistic of all modern institutions. Any slip into Idealism will literally cost them. So why are they advocating for an Idealistic response to the horrors of colonialism? It's because they understand that any slip into Idealism will cost their adversaries: the Traditional Owners of the land that they pillage for cash. If there was any danger of Constitutional Recognition impacting their bottom line, Rio would be doing everything in their power to stop it:
Historically, the mining industry has vehemently opposed land rights and native title, regarding indigenous rights as just another regulatory hurdle in the way of unencumbered access to land for exploitation. The Australian Mining Industry Council, now known as the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), strongly opposed the [Aboriginal Land Rights Act] in the 1970s and later national land rights proposed in the early 1980s... Since the beginning of the land rights era, the mining industry has effectively lobbied the state to dilute the commercial power of the land rights and native title levers available to indigenous people.”
Why did they oppose land rights and native title, while supporting Constitutional Recognition? The answer is: they are Materialists, and they see that land rights and native title have material impacts, while Constitutional Recognition is an Idealistic proposal that will NOT have material impacts. More than this, they see that by promoting an Idealistic approach, they are actively undercutting more meaningful change. According to Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), the proposal for a Voice to Parliament is being pushed in a way that “piggyback[s] on grassroots Aboriginal activism” and that tries to deradicalise other moves towards decolonisation such as the Black Lives Matter protests: “No one is marching down the streets chanting “What do we want? Another advisory body! When do we want it? When the government feels like holding a referendum!””
In the last few months, Rio Tinto destroyed caves that have been continuously used for more than 45 000 years, that were full of important cultural artefacts and archaeological evidence. Since then, it has been made clear that they did so in the full knowledge of the importance of these sites, and that Rio “does not regret” having destroyed them. Of course they don't – there's money in them thar caves. Rio is a Materialist organisation, and they know that apologising is free, but iron ore is profit. Similarly, they know that Constitutional Recognition is free, but moreover, that by promoting it, they minimise the amount of work going into meaningful change.
-  Justin P. Holt The Social Thought of Karl Marx (Sage Publications Inc, 2015), 41-2. <https://us.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-assets/62673_book_item_62673.pdf>
-  The details of which are not important for the purposes of this essay.
-  S. Sawyer & E. Gomez, The Politics of Resource Extraction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) 25.