Whoever you are, you are statistically unlikely to consider yourself a Marxist. That said, if you’re drawn to this article, it is highly likely you at least have some opinion on the man. Strangely, there is little middle ground in terms of his popular opinion. People tend to either swallow what little they know of the man’s ideas utterly dogmatically, or find no value in them whatsoever. I for one find some of his commentaries on the thoughts of others to be interesting, and he was certainly a sterling journalist, but on balance, I fall into the latter category. After all, much of his theory is interlinked, and like other Hegelians, Marx was a big system-builder, sticking together all the little ideas with logical-necessity tape.
But even if you are not a fan of Marx, you likely believe at least one Marxist idea, if not two. The main reason for this is that the Cold War totally framed the entire debate on how to govern in the 20th century, and we still haven’t moved beyond it. We have to deal with the hangover of communist sympathisers dominating humanities departments across the Anglosphere, and black block wannabes LARPing revolution in major cities across the West. And yet, we all accept their terms of debate, and as any high school debater knows, when you accept your opponent’s frame, you lose the debate. This frame is the idea of Capitalism. Without it, the very idea of replacing it becomes silly, but it seems almost nobody looks at it that way. Instead, the free market crowd has just been arguing the inversion of his theory’s values, voluntarily dressing as the very strawman he erected to cut down.
For some arcane reason, we all believe in this thing called Capitalism now. What it is, is not very well defined, partly because Marxists have spent more than a century stretching the already rather flexible definition to include and exclude anything they like or dislike, up to and including the Soviet Union itself. What is convenient for rhetorical battles against libs and cons is not that good for long term ideological cohesion. But they still have one idea to rally around.
Before Marx, we talked about capital: tangible assets used for the production of new commodities or drawing rent or interest; money, land, machines, physical stuff, and legally recognised contracts. We talked about capitalists, those who made deals based on exchanges of capital to create new productive organisations in society, or liquidate them destructively, as the case may be. But after Marx, we talk about Capitalism, as the sum of all economic and political behaviour in any world where private property and money exist. The term was invented by Blanc and Proudhon, a pair of pre-Marxist socialists, and what they meant by it was a social regime where the workers don’t own what they make, which is virtually all of history. It only entered academic circles in 1902, with William Sombart’s Der Moderne Kapitalismus. Marx used the term “capitalist mode of production” to refer to the same concept.
We believe we live in it, because we are told so, and strangely, conservatives in the West ended up playing the Marxist game, by defending the very position the 19th century socialists invented and propped up to attack, as a means of generating support for their utopia via negativa. This is a fierce irony, but it’s hard to unsee a pattern, and so far, I have only ever found one other person claiming capitalism doesn’t exist, an absence which is a little baffling, considering the wide range of phenomena the term has been used to encompass.
What Marx did, much like his intellectual forebear Hegel, is view the entirety of human society as a single, total “system” that operates according to strict rules that can be discovered just using abstract reason. History itself is moving through the process of reason, towards a perfect future. Why do we still talk about “systems” with this kind of schizotypal superstition? We all know the human body is already too complicated to talk about as a system united by a single principle, and modern society is many, many times more complicated. But these primitive, superstitious ideas persist like a bad viral infection. There is no system, there is nobody in control, and we don’t really know how the world works. We barely understand ant colonies.
Marx’s ideas, much like Galen’s simple, logical, and totally wrong theory of the four humours, barely hold under scrutiny, and yet they have hung around for centuries, like a fart in an airtight elevator. He claims that each stage of history is divided into “stages of production”, in this order; primitive communism (hunter-gatherers), slavery (the classical world), feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism. But none of these (except maybe the hunter/gatherer stage) are separated by any inviolable distinctions. Take capitalism, for example.
Capitalism is supposed to mean everyone uses money and credit, that we all have private property and wage labour, and that people start businesses with contracts to mass-produce commodities. But these social characteristics are not unique to the modern era. The people who built the pyramids, and most labourers and even soldiers through history were wage labourers, used money, and owned property. Marxists call American slavery capitalist, say the private ownership of land by feudal lords is not, then say landlords under “capitalism” who collect on their tenants’ earnings are not feudal, but “intrinsic” to capitalism. This is schizophrenic. Money (or at least the promise of future delivery of value) has been around since we could bash two rocks together. Mass-produced, identical commodities were a feature of society to greater or lesser extent for most of settled history. Just look at traditional agriculture – huge, uniform monoculture plantations planted, harvested and processed in a systematic way and traded on the market for money. See also, bricks, concrete, pottery, and wattle-and daub houses. And credit, as David Graeber will tell us, has been for 5000 years at least (though I wouldn’t trust him on the last 500). Hell, before unions and corporations, guilds fulfilled the same functions. This is so terribly confused.
Weirder, we have all come to believe that modern “capitalism” (however poorly defined), means suffering, inequality, and a lack of freedom. And yet innovations in both the private and public sector in the 20th century have almost eradicated poverty in the West, and have alleviated its worst forms in the rest of the world at a rate that outstripped the UN’s most radical projections. We are freer, safer, and happier than at any time in human history. And this is where the orthodox doublethink comes in.
It is tempting sometimes to confront a true believer with the quality of life statistics for the past couple of centuries. It would be a great way of pointing out that whatever they want to call the mean by which mankind has got to this point, it looks a hell of a lot better than what came before. But they are quick to point out (as it says in Labour and Capital) that even if you are on a rapid upward trajectory in society, when regarding your neighbours, even a large and comfortable house will feel like a hovel next to a real mansion. And here is the core of his whole philosophy. It is not about improving the overall wellbeing of humanity. If it were, the text would proceed to argue that this was merely a stupid illusion, encourage humility and satisfaction with basic material wellbeing, and promote a sophrosyne and stoic mindset, so we don’t get distracted into violence by other people’s shiny baubles.
The true Marxist revolutionary isn’t driven only by material grievances. They mainly use them to attract followers in the lower classes. The intellectuals tend to be driven by resentment of those with more power. A charitable defence could mention that resentment of the rich is a major cause of social violence. But that isn’t what Marx actually argued. From the context of his deeper beliefs in Feuerbach’s perfectibility of man, and Hegel’s sense of historic human destiny, this would be a stretch.
See, Marx believed in Revolution. He believed in it hard. He believed in these philosophical superstitions so deeply, that he refused to undertake any detailed or even basic discussion of the political form of the socialist or communist society, claiming that the right form would arise spontaneously out of the ashes of the destroyed institutions of capitalist society, a necessary outcome of the spirit of the age. As Scott Alexander puts it: “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”
And so, we are left with a world where attempts to get rid of “capitalism” have led to the slaughter of millions, and yet every time it goes awry, we are either told that it’s all a lie, a conspiracy by those goddamn capitalist imperialists, it really is paradise, or we are told that it wasn’t real communism. But we have to keep trying, apparently, because this system is so basically unfair, that even if it’s going well, it’s immoral to let it keep going. The weird thing is, that beyond “everything is happening fast and at a grand scale and there’s lots of complicated money stuff and shiny new tech around”, capitalism is not intrinsically distinct from any other way of swapping goods and services. Greed and tyranny has always been with us, arguably more so in the past than now, and yet the revolution is supposed to be just around the corner because everything is just so unbearably unfair.
Once upon a time, nobody knew why goods were sold at certain prices. That time is today. We sort of know that the balance of supply and demand is involved, but what drives demand is, like all matters of the human heart, ultimately mysterious, and prone to fickle turns of temperament. At the end of the day, whether you’re looking at the price of gold, wheat, or dildoes, it only indicates what people are, on average, willing to pay for that commodity over the last year/day/hour. Early modern philosophers and primitive economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, came up with something called the labour theory of value, and said that the amount of labour it took to produce the item (Ricardo) or to get one’s hands on it (Smith) were what determined the price.
Marx followed Ricardo but specified that it was the “socially necessary labour”, or rather the average amount of labour required to produce the commodity on the market, that determined its value. Many times over he claims this “exchange value” differs from price, but attempts to argue using superstitious Idealist abstracts: if $10 of beef is swapped for $10 of thumbtacks, there must be some substance shared by both but separate from them, that is worth $10. This is clinical derangement.
His entire theory rests on the idea that this spooky intangible value represents labour, through a mechanism beyond demonstration. Then he claims that this value is equivalent to the price, which allows the claim that profit is only possible if the labourer is paid less than the value his labour creates is worth. This also ignores the obvious retort that labour can destroy value. Give an idiot some flour, eggs, butter and sugar, and he will turn a recipe for kouign-amann (the world’s greatest pastry) into inedible charcoal.
Today we know that price is totally subjective. The merchant can only sell at the price people are willing to buy at and will sell at any price the public is willing to pay. It’s a constant negotiation between millions of people at once. Supermarkets discount what doesn’t sell. It has nothing to do with how many hours the labourer works. In fact, some Marxists say just that: that “capitalism” “creates” desires, manufactures new wants. The Matrix has you, man. Well, maybe, except now we are denying the most basic assumption of the entire theory (material drives ideal), in order to defend it. It also contradicts the labour theory. We decide what is valuable and what isn’t, often for dumb reasons like vanity and insecurity. Salesmen catch the attention of those of us who are suckers for a sweetie, hence the diabetes problem, and hence the phrase “selling like hot cakes”. And we fall for it, because we chase anything we believe will bring us pleasure, until we learn to control our impulses (also called becoming a proper adult).
What the labour theory of value ultimately is, is a moral claim – that the worker is entitled to all the profit from anything he works on. The obvious flaw is that organizing a workforce larger than shoeshine booth requires skills and labour that most workers cannot do themselves – legal, accounting and logistical work, which includes investment for pensions, human resourcing, negotiating material supply, machine maintenance, etc. And then there are the shareholders or owners, who risk their livelihood when they invest in a company. That is not the sort of risk a worker takes. And sure, the more dosh you have, the more you can get, but that’s true for fame and power and any other kind of leverage. Unfortunately, some advantages are cumulative.
This moral claim about labour and value, once you deny it, destroys most of Marx’s other ideas. His idea of alienation, for example. You make a widget, boss pays you less than its worth, and pockets the difference, stealing your produce. Now you are “alienated” from your labour. It doesn’t work. It also isn’t how everyone sees their jobs. People find fulfilment working to make something they can be proud of. This is because most of us are willing to trade money for dignity and self-esteem. Meaning and stuff.
But! cries the Marxist, you can’t eat self-esteem! And a worker can’t negotiate by himself for a fair wage. Well, that’s why we have unions. Unions are a distinctly non-ideological institution, which can only thrive in a free society. How Marxists have managed to take credit for them is one of the great mysteries; they are usually the first to disappear when Marxists come to power. Unions are an important part of the balance of institutions in the private sector. They help negotiate fair working conditions, and limit abuses. Of course, they can negotiate foolishly, bite off more than they can chew, and end up strangling their own source of employment, but generally, they negotiate for tangible demands, rather than the total overhaul and destruction of society, and their struggles can often be against truly evil businessmen. No class of individuals is evil or good by fiat. The idea that any class of people can be deemed an enemy is an entirely insane and nasty idea. But to organise people, you must have a target. To organise them politically, you need an enemy.
And the middle class, especially the academics, have an enemy. Much like screenwriters and artists, they need people with money to bankroll them, they need gatekeepers’ permission to get published, and those people need money. From advertisers, private individuals, governments. And so they start to hate and resent these powerful people who can tell them yes or no. And along comes Marx, who tells them that the bosses and rich people and the institutions really are the enemy, defending the system, inhibiting progress, barring the gates of heaven. Little motivation to help the poor, just a distraction from their own privilege and class guilt, and an outlet for their envious frustration.
One can quibble about dialectical materialism ‘til the cows come home, but stare as hard as you like, the sailboat is not going to come out of that painting (hint – it’s not actually a sailboat). Hegel’s dialectics (which is what Marx built his house on) is not a sound method, it is a claim that you can treat society, not as being metaphorically like a Socratic dialogue, but literally as a Socratic dialogue, as if society can at any and all times be reduced to two voices, and that forces that sometimes clash, sometimes don’t, are turned into “internal contradictions”. And then he deliberately builds ambiguity into the arguments to make them unfalsifiable. Only now it’s backed up with endless reams of evidence selectively chosen to reveal the cruellest aspects of 19th century factory work, tied together with a moral judgement disguised as an economic theory. And revolution? Why, that’s a good in itself! When the true revolution comes, we get to the end of history!
Socialism has existed before Marx, but he has come to define it. While some early socialists claimed the idea that inequality and suffering should be alleviated, with the consent of the governed according to fair principles, through democratic representation, this is more the realm of left-liberals today. Marx asserted instead a totalising morality of class warfare, which has taken over several realms of society, not just economics. Socialists, mixing with the liberal left, often claim credit for free healthcare, free education, nice modern roads and transport systems, minimum wage, workers’ rights, state sponsored childcare. No need for pitchforks and dynamite, just some very boring paperwork by elected (and sometimes unelected) representatives.
The old revolutionaries and vanguardists said that representative democracy is an inherent feature of capitalism and is therefore bad (because so did Marx). They wanted a brutal, non-negotiable position of total overhaul of every aspect of society, anything less was a betrayal. So they launched assaults on democracy everywhere in the world, and either ended up butchering everyone in victory, or being butchered, beaten and ridiculed in defeat. Eventually we ended up with the Soviet Union, a prison planet made of broken tractors.
In response, we in the West got a bit paranoid. Then we defined Capitalism as “markets do everything”, and Socialism as “government does everything”. The big corporations marketed themselves as the origin of all freedom, afraid of bigger tax burdens, unions, and state regulation. We’ve been sold the Marxist idea of Capitalism, just upside down. The best example are loonies like Ayn Rand, who believed that altruism in any form was evil, and dependence was a sin, as if selfishness has ever needed any encouragement.
And here we are all these years later, painstakingly trying to alleviate the unfairness of life, and make sure we all benefit, and we all get heard, and all get to beat our own path. And we’ve got all the tools we need in our democracies. Yet somehow, a new generation , led by Corbyn and Sanders, has convinced itself it’s worth another try. Hopefully their impact will be contained this time.