Monday, December 14, 2015

note on some lousy ways people think about Marx

One of the simple ways to dismiss Marx is to say that his communist society could never exist because human nature is greedy and competitive—or at least, that some people’s human nature is greedy and competitive. This assumes that Marx establishes the grounds of communism on a speculation about human nature being generous and cooperative. People who assume that haven’t read or haven’t understood Marx.

A secondary assumption about Marx that is used against him in ignorance is that Marx presumed that the establishment of a communist society was inevitable and the necessary outcome of history. This is also not true. What he does argue, in Capital, is that capitalism will not be able to endure its own contradictions, for instance, the contradiction that capitalist accumulation depends on the exploitation of labor as its necessarily diminishing source of wealth.

I am not sure from what writing by Marx, if any, the argument from human nature is supposed to come. I would guess the 1844 Manuscripts, and the analysis of alienated labor that refers to capitalist production alienating labor from “species-being.” I would make the point that in this early stuff, Marx has still not fully formed his own philosophical architecture, and continues to borrow from Hegel and the Young Hegelians (viz., “species-being” is from Ludwig Feuerbach). Even so, the inchoate concept of labor is the only extent to which there is something like a human nature invoked in the 1844 Manuscripts. What makes humans human is that we work, and that our work is the basis for our social world. Nothing determines that one form or another of that work is inevitable or natural. Alienation is not unnatural. The estranged form of labor is not estranged from human nature, it is estranged from the worker.

By the time he wrote Capital, Marx retained only the most basic Hegelian logic of contradiction, but in a form that’s hardly recognizable. In Capital, Marx analyzes historical documents, contemporary economic and social conditions in England, and writings by capitalist economists, to demonstrate the multiple contradictions inherent in capitalism. These are bound to fail not because of some alleged human nature but simply because they are contradictions. For instance, the familiar boom-bust cycles in capitalist economies are inevitable, because they are driven by the capitalist’s demand for accumulation of wealth, the need to generate surplus-value through unpaid labor, and the need to sell the commodities produced with that labor at their cost (including the profit created by not paying labor). When there’s a boom, production increases, leading to stockpiles of unsold commodities, which drives down prices, which drives down profit, which leads to lower employment or lower wages, which leads to decreased purchases of commodities by consumers. The boom creates the bust. The bust creates hoards of unemployed capital that needs to be spent in order to accumulate wealth, and the cycle starts again. The capitalists themselves do not need to be particularly poor examples of human beings (other than, you know, the unconscionable willingness to exploit workers) in order to be compelled to play their roles as cheap buyers of other people’s work, often with other people’s money. That’s the game, and individual capitalists are no more in control of what they do to play the game than are the workers they exploit. Marx does not need to say anything about human nature to demonstrate this. He only needs to show that the cycles have repeated in obvious sequences with the same obvious results—and that’s easy to do when the British business and bourgeois economic communities and the British Parliament keep such detailed records and testimony about economic conditions.

And not to be gloomy and doomy about it, but the catastrophic end of capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to communism. It could just be catastrophe.

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