Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What about Marx?

No, not that guy
Jesse Myerson seems to be on a one-man quest to rehabilitate Karl Marx. Good luck with that. Still, his arguments here are pretty accurate: Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism) (Salon)
1. Only communist economies rely on state violence: In capitalism, competing ownership claims are settled by the state’s willingness to use violence to exclude all but one claimant. If I lay claim to one of David Koch’s mansions, libertarian that he is, he’s going to rely on big government and its guns to set me right. He owns that mansion because the state says he does and threatens to imprison anyone who disagrees. Where there isn’t a state, whoever has the most violent power determines who gets the stuff, be that a warlord, a knight, the mafia or a gang of cowboys in the Wild West. Either by vigilantes or the state, property rights rely on violence.

2. Capitalist economies are based on free exchange: The idea that we’re all going around making free choices all the time in an abundant market where everyone’s needs get met is patently belied by the lived experience of hundreds of millions of people. Most find ourselves constantly stuck between competing pressures and therefore stressed out, exhausted, lonely, and in search of meaning. — as though we’re not in control of our lives. We aren’t; the market is. If you don’t think so, try and exit “the market.” The origin of capitalism was depriving British peasants of their access to land (seizure of property, you might call it), and therefore their means of subsistence, making them dependent on the market for their survival. Once propertyless, they were forced to flock to the dreck, drink and disease of slum-ridden cities to sell the only thing they had – their capacity to use their brains and muscles to work – or die. Just like them, the vast majority of people today are deprived of access to the resources we need to flourish, though they exist in abundant quantities, so as to force us to work for a boss who is trying to get rich by paying us less and working us harder.

3. Communism killed 110 million people for resisting dispossession: For one thing, a large number of the people killed under Soviet communism weren’t the kulaks everyone pretends to care about but themselves communists...The most horrifying episode in 20th Century official Communism was the Great Chinese Famine, its death toll difficult to identify, but surely in the tens of millions. Several factors evidently contributed to this atrocity, but central to it was Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” a disastrous combination of applied pseudoscience, stat-juking, and political persecution designed to transform China into an industrial superpower in the blink of an eye. The experiment’s results were extremely grim, but to claim that the victims died because they, in their right minds, would not volunteer for “a left-wing dream” is ludicrous. Famine is not a uniquely “left-wing” problem. [although he doesn't mention it - famines have occurred due to capitalist principles - notably the Irish Potato Famine]

5. 21st Century American communism would resemble 20th century Soviet and Chinese horrors: Given the technological, material, and social advances of the last century, we could expect an approach to communism beginning here and now to be far more open, humane, democratic, participatory and egalitarian than the Russian and Chinese attempts managed. I’d even argue it would be easier now than it was then to construct a set of social relations based on fellowship and mutual aid (as distinct from capitalism’s, which are characterized by competition and exclusion) such as would be necessary to allow for the eventual “withering away of the state” that libertarians fetishize, without replaying the Middle Ages (only this time with drones and metadata).
Good luck in country where Barack Obama is considered "Communist," as is government run health insurance (but not privately run? - why?). See also: Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014 (Rolling Stone):

1. The Great Recession (Capitalism's Chaotic Nature)

2. The iPhone 5S (Imaginary Appetites)

3. The IMF (The Globalization of Capitalism)

4. Walmart (Monopoly)

5. Low Wages, Big Profits (The Reserve Army of Industrial Labor)

What, no mention of technological unemployment? That one is coming true in spades!

And some more intellectual fare: Marx and the physiocrats (Understanding Society) and The Many Straw Men Surrounding Marx (Pieria):
The Labour Theory of Value (LTV) states that the "value" of a commodity is determined by the "socially necessary labour time" embodied in it ("socially necessary" to avoid the nonsensical idea that somebody who makes something slowly will contribute more value than somebody who makes the same thing, but faster). To the extent that 'capital' (machines, raw materials etc) contribute toward this value, it is only in the necessary labour time required to produce that capital. Hence, only labour can 'add' value, and therefore surplus is produced by workers, while capitalists are parasitic, receiving profit only because they pay their workers less than the workers produce.

Now, contrary to what many - including some Marxists - insist, the LTV is not a theory of price. Sure, thinkers from Adam Smith to David Ricardo, and to a certain extent Marx himself (at least initially), tried to work it out as such. But the finished product, as espoused by Marx and Engels, had nothing to do with price. Instead, it was a theory of the total value in capitalist economies: where the surplus came from (exploitation) and how the changes in the production of this surplus would manifest themselves (periodic crises). Marx made this much clear in a response to critic, who charged that his theory of value was erroneous because prices are also a function of demand:

"What has this to do with my theory of value? To the degree that corn is sold above its value, other commodities...are, to the same degree, sold below their value. The sum of values remains the same."

Hence, the theory can only predict the total value produced in a capitalist economy, while individual prices can vary based on monopoly, demand or whatever else. This is what led Eugene Bohm-Bahwerk to call Marx's theory "tautological"; similarly, philosopher Karl Popper famously argued that such statements made Marxism unfalsifiable.

However, there is a clear criterion for testing Marx's theory: the declining rate of profit. If there is observed a short term tendency of the rate of profit to fall - due to capitalists substituting capital for labour, hence reducing their surplus per unit of cost - manifesting itself in periodic crises, this is consistent with Marx's theory. If not; if, say, the rate of profit increases before recessions, this would falsify the theory.* To paraphrase commenter Hedlund, if we cut through the nonsense and merely ask the question "is what Marx called value, itself a function of necessary labour time, the major parameter underlying the motion of the economy?" then we have an empirical inquiry, and can dispense with the metaphysical confusion, at least for the purposes of science. For those interested, the Marxist economist Andrew Kliman has taken up this challenge.


  1. hm... what about the 10 million of muzhiks who died in the Ukrainian famine? (kulaks refers pejoratively to rich farmers, these people were mostly not anywhere near that)

    Both Mao and Stalin liquidated the small farmers who didn't kowtow. Capitalism does not liquidate them in person... it ruins their livelihood. I suppose that is some advantage... meager though it sounds...

  2. "fellowship and mutual aid"... well, yeah, if anyone knew how to do it. On the other hand... in Kerala, the commies were just as fanatical and Stalinist as elsewhere (originally)... yet Kerala has flourished in remarkable measure due to government support of mutual aid. How did that happen?

  3. Wherever you go, whatever you do. Karl Marx will be right there waiting for you.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.