Friday, April 12, 2013

Marx: Five Big Mistakes

We all like to rag Karl Marx on the failure of his "immiseration" thesis, that the workers would get poorer as the capitalists got richer.

Well, not all of us.  Tens of thousands of "progressives" still firmly believe in the immiseration doctrine.  That's what makes the fight against inequality meaningful.

But that wasn't the only big mistake that Marx made.  Let's enumerate them, one by one, starting with the gold standard, the immiseration thesis.
  1. Immiseration of the workers. Marx argued that the progress of machine industry run by the capitalists would slowly drive the small operators out of business, leading to poverty in the lower bourgeoisie and the working class.  Of course, there's a big truth in that.  It happens all the time.  Some giant of capitalism that bestrode the marketplace slowly loses its mojo.  Think A&P pushed out by Safeway.  Think Detroit pushed out by the Germans and the Japanese.  But every time, jobs in new industries spring out of the ground as the old jobs wither away.  As long as we leave them the space to grow.
  2. Alienation. Marx argued that capitalism and the division of labor alienated workers from their true nature.  He had in mind the degradation of the manufactory where workers performed mind-numbing repetitive tasks that didn't require the skills of the old hand trades.  And there was a sense in which the working class was forced into the factories after being dispossessed of their rights by the enclosure movement that changed the tradition of collective ownership of the land to individual freehold.  But it is clear that many people actually choose to work for a big corporation.  They like the idea of the implied life-time employment, the benefits, and the meritocratic bureaucratic structure.  Is it alienation when people choose to work in the giant modern office factory over the hurly-burly of the small startup?
  3. Labor theory of value. Marx took the problematic theories of value promoted by the classical economists, the divided notion of use value and exchange value, and mixed them up into the nonsense of his labor theory of value.  Yes, it's true that everything we know and do comes out of the brain or the labor of somebody, somewhere.  But today we understand that everything from the past is simply a sunk cost, not a value.  All the work of the past is done, the work that helped feed millions and also the work that went into useless pyramids and bankrupted great empires.  When you have done your labor and finished your product, the labor, the effort, the genius, that is all in the past.  The question is: what will the next customer pay for that product?  And all the effort and the labor that meant so much to you means nothing to him.  The labor theory of value stinks.
  4. Socialism and bureaucracy.  Marx correctly sneered at Hegel's paen to the bureaucracy as a mediation between government and people.  That is rubbish, because the absolute monarchs generated their bureaucracies precisely as an instrument for taxing and controlling the people.  But Marx predicted that bureaucracy would wither away after the socialist revolution.  OK, Marx had an excuse back in the wild and crazy 19th century.  But we now know that the more socialism in a government, the more bureaucracy, and the more taxing and the more control.  Bureaucracy, as Marx insisted, is the administrative organ through which the sectional interest of the ruling class is imposed upon the people.  He was right on that one.
  5. Disappearance of the division of labor.  Marx maintained that the alienating division of labor would disappear under socialism.  No longer confined by the limited, dehumanizing task, the laborer would be able to develop the full range of his talents and capacities, making a product in the morning, gardening in the afternoon, and going to the theater in the evening.  This is rubbish.  People like to specialize; to become an expert in something.  And there is no division of labor more rigid and dehumanizing that the administratively organized workplace of the socialist state.
What is striking about the Marxian vision -- and for that matter the modern liberal vision -- is its oblivious turning away from the fundamental truth of life: the cycle of conception, gestation, birth, growth, maturity, decline and death, and the renewal of life in a new generation with all the genes remixed.  The old must die so that the young can inherit the earth.

The cosmic joke on the modern ruling class is that the very thing that it sets its shoulders against, capitalism, is the very thing that approximates in its operation the metaphor of life.  Ideas, businesses, industries are all the time, all around us, getting created, expanding, contracting and dying, just like life itself.  And what do we do?  We rebel against it.  We want to live forever, we want to preserve our traditional standard of life from all external shocks.  And we want the rest of the world to pay for it.

Thanks Chuck.  But I sometimes wonder if we will ever get this world out of the ditch you got us into.

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