With the rise of mass production, of the mass market in capitalist societies, of government control of the economy in socialist ones, and of huge powerful bureaucracies in both, the entire setting in which moral anger can arise and find expression has changed. To these elements in the modern situation it is necessary to add that of sheer numbers. The more people there are, the less any single person’s feelings can count, even if a few individuals may have greater social power because of a more complex division of labor.

The consequence has been, I suggest, to produce a synthetic and indirect quality in moral outrage. Nowadays visceral moral anger may be much rarer or more difficult to express openly than it was a few generations ago, partly because for any individual its expression may seem rather futile. Instead, leaders of opinion of various views turn the moral current on and off as best they can in accordance with larger considerations. Or else they smell out the shifting currents of public sentiment as forces they can use to propel their intellectual and commercial products in the direction of greater influence and profit. The upheavals of the late Sixties and Seventies in China and in the West were partly efforts to restore gut reactions to a place of honor, efforts that the prevailing social apparatus for the most part managed to absorb or deflect.

The transformations wrought by the growth of modern bureaucracy and modern industry have by no means everywhere reduced the individual’s freedom to express moral likes and dislikes. For the moderately prosperous sector within Western societies there may even be a considerable increase in the freedom of the individual to make moral choices and a substantial decrease in the burdens of anxiety in making these choices. Sorting through the day’s mail one can decide whether or not to express moral outrage about political prisoners in Chile or in the Soviet Union, black or Spanish-speaking victims of racial injustice in American cities, the plight of farm laborers in California or that of whales in the Pacific Ocean. It is even possible to gauge very nicely the intensity of one’s moral outrage by the size of the check one makes out. It is also possible to select a congenial color from the political spectrum by choosing one organization among several promoting the same general cause as the group to which one will mail the check.

The system allocates society’s store of moral outrage in much the same way as the oligopolist market allocates the supply of canned potatoes and soft drinks. The big producers of moral outrage, the pressure groups and public spokesmen who are the moral equivalents of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, can within broad limits create the demand that they proceed to satisfy.

At any given time, on the other hand, the demand for moral outrage is limited. Hence, as is generally true of consumer goods, there is stiff competition for shares of the market with a great deal of product differentiation through ingenious labeling, a practice that has perhaps been more noticeable among European Marxist movements. Despite such competition those who need the product most may not get it because they lack the material resources for the expression of their wishes through the mechanism of the market, while new suppliers face severe obstacles in trying to break into a crowded market. But these hurdles and frictions can be exaggerated in connection with such a commodity as moral outrage. The causes for the expression of such sentiments come and go ceaselessly as the market swiftly and impersonally allocates resources, growth, and fame to some producers and a slow withering extinction to others.

For the workers, the expropriation of moral outrage and its subjection to bureaucratic rationality have been a major part of the capitalist experience. In the early phase of industrialization in Western Europe workers’ protests took two main forms. One was the brief flare-up in the form of a strike over some apparent injustice by the employer: the sudden announcement of a wage cut or the firing of a fellow worker. The other was workers’ participation, along with journeymen, artisans, some small proprietors, and even at times peasants, in raggedly organized movements for social change. These movements ranged from the Chartists in England to the popular upheavals on the Continent in 1848. Afterward came the organizational revolution as the workers acquired greater self-discipline, the techniques of union organization, and carefully timed strikes that would yield an increase in wages. In his comparative study of working-class history Peter Stearns has emphasized the degree to which the workers’ acceptance of organizational imperatives left them with a big residue of complaints arising out of the work situation.1

Under socialism, of course, all these matters are arranged very differently, even if many of the results turn out to be similar. Instead of depending on the vagaries of the market for its supply of moral outrage and the uses to which that outrage will be put, a socialist society plans the production and allocation of this commodity in much the same way as it decides on the production and distribution of steel and electricity. (Since socialist societies do not produce very many relatively frivolous and wasteful items like soft drinks and junk food, it is better to use different examples.) In this way it is possible, some authorities tell us, to determine with some precision the society’s priorities in moral outrage and exactly how angry the citizenry should be about each offense against socialist morality, which represents, they tell us, a higher stage of historical development than bourgeois morality. As soon as the planners have agreed upon the list of enemies of the people appropriate to the political, social, and economic configuration of the moment, they can pull the levers that set in motion the enormous machinery of a socialist state.

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People’s organizations, loudspeakers, newspapers, the secret police, and the courts all swing into action and the campaign is launched. A reasonably intelligent person, particularly the educated product of Chinese civilization, which for centuries has stressed the nuances of moral indignation in a setting of intrigue and bureaucratic protocol, 2 will know at once just how to adjust facial expressions and tones of voice in showing the correct degree of indignation for each degree on the official set of priorities that ranks all possible varieties of the execrable behavior of the enemies of the people. A poor peasant or worker cannot be expected to do as well.

Worse still, a peasant or a worker may have trouble understanding why this year’s enemies of the people include some of last year’s heroes, and why it is necessary to have another exhausting campaign so soon if the last one was as successful as everybody said it was. But since socialism is a workers’ and peasants’ state that belongs to the people, there are lots of people to explain such matters to workers and peasants, and indeed to anybody else who cares to listen. Furthermore just about everybody must care to listen. Woe to the person who stubbornly refuses to listen to the right noises or to try to make the right noises under socialism, since a socialist state is very efficient in its allocation of human as well as material resources. Human beings who prefer peace, quiet, and thinking for themselves to listening to and making the right noises are sent off to camps for reform through labor.

All this looks like a very efficient way of coping with the need for moral anger and moral outrage. At least to sympathetic foreigners watching the parade of enthusiastic demonstrators marching through the great square of the capital carrying their series of carefully worded slogans for the occasion—and who never see camps for reform through labor—it all seems much more efficient, equitable, and morally inspiring than do the workings of the market and political contests or pseudo-contests under liberal capitalism. But is it really more efficient and more equitable in the sense of focusing moral anger in ways that are more effective for the whole society and more satisfying for the individual concerned?3

The socialist society, for all its obviously stifling side effects, might just possibly have the edge on this score if those who drew up its moral priorities proceeded in as rational and informed a way as possible, listening carefully and sympathetically to the complaints of its citizenry. But that is hardly what happens. The moral priorities 4 are drawn up intermittently by the Wisest Man in the world and reflect mainly the thought of the Wisest Man in the world. He makes his decisions in his capacity as chairman of a Committee of the Next Wisest Men. The Next Wisest Men are the loyal advisers and helpers of the Wisest Man, but also his rivals and potential successors. The policy that is presented to the public as the outcome of rational discussion is actually very much the product of the system of rivalries, hostilities, and shifting clique relationships among these figures at the apex of the system and their institutional supporters lower down in the competing bureaucratic hierarchies. When the Wisest Man in the world dies, as evidently happens from time to time, the rivalry becomes all the more intense. Decisions about what to produce and what to be angry about are as much weapons in Byzantine bureaucratic intrigues as they are adaptations to the demands of a wider situation.

In the importance they give to bureaucratic and personal rivalries socialist and liberal capitalist systems approach one another. To speak of the expropriation of moral outrage under these conditions does not of course tell the whole story of the transformation that has taken place in modern times. But the notion may reveal significant historical trends and distinctions. In any event the situation now is totally different from the one we can glimpse through the autobiography of Ulrich Bräker, an eighteenth-century peasant in German Switzerland, who was on the way to becoming a self-employed worker in textiles. In the course of his first contact with the world outside his remote Alpine village, Bräker’s noble patron sold him into the armies of Frederick the Great. Blinded by the aristocratic aura of the nobleman, at whose hands he had indeed received unfamiliar gratifications, young Bräker found himself quite unable to feel angry, though he was clearly aware of shabby treatment.

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The contemporary state of affairs is again very different from the situation we can perceive about a century later, through the eyes of an unskilled German factory worker, Karl Fischer, who lived through a large part of Germany’s late nineteenth-century industrial surge without hearing about Karl Marx. What offended Fischer most was not the material deprivations, hard to bear though they were. Instead it was his superiors’ apparent ignorance about the workers’ habits, their callous indifference to the workers’ sense of fairness and how jobs ought to be done. Most of the time Fischer just grumbled, as when he said of one boss that this fellow understood about as much about the job as a cow does about Sunday.

Karl Fischer used a flat, dry tone to describe his father’s habit of stealing pennies from his little savings-box when he was a small boy; one might well wonder if the man was capable of moral outrage. He was. After many years of almost mute acceptance, he exploded, thundering out his judgment of the factory director in the latter’s private office, accusing the official of “firing workers he didn’t even know!” For this act Fischer lost his job.

Neither Ulrich Bräker nor Karl Fischer knew what to do with his sense of outrage and injustice. But they did not know, and probably could not know, for historical reasons that differ sharply in their own two cases and are again very different from those prevailing today. Yet the historian who tries to avoid both nostalgia about the past and cheap optimism about the future may pause with a disturbed wonder at the way different historical causes can produce such similar forms of human helplessness and unhappiness.

Copyright © 1978 by Barrington Moore, Jr.

This Issue

June 1, 1978

  1. 1

    Peter N. Stearns, Lives of Labor (Holmes and Meier, 1975), pp. 300, 310, 322-323, 349. Scattered throughout Michelle Perrot, Les ouvriers en grève (Mouton, 1974) are numerous reports and acute observations on the contrasts between the old-fashioned, “spontaneous” strike—that often included a good deal of secret informal planning and discussion among the workers beforehand—and the modern, carefully orchestrated strike and public demonstration. See especially vol. 1, pp. 120-124; vol. II, pp. 419, 425, 553-559. In Germany worker resistance to the “organizational imperative,” one that the worker elite imposed on others, contributed to the explosive situation in 1918 and subsequently. 

  2. 2

    For an instructive study of this configuration during the T’ang dynasty see Howard J. Wechsler, Mirror to the Son of Heaven: Wei Cheng at the Court of T’ang T’ai-tsung (Yale University Press, 1974). 

  3. 3

    These two criteria are unlikely to be altogether compatible in any society. But any society where they are totally incompatible is probably headed for trouble. 

  4. 4

    Economic priorities are also moral priorities.