The Devil's In the Details
or, how Marx was generally right, yet specifically wrong
Part 1 of the Apesurgency Series. Part 2 here.
In which I attempt to explain, understand, rationalize, and motivate the burgeoning market revolution.
As is the case with many originators of new and innovative thought, (consider the historical Siddhartha’s condemnation of idolatry and the immediate idolization of his bodily remains upon death) there is a wide gulf between what Marx actually taught and what his later followers practice(d). For the purposes of this paper, we will limit ourselves to Marx’s own claims and observations (ignoring those who followed after) grouping his ideas into four main categories:
the exploitation inherent in capitalism1,
alienation of labour,
and the inevitable transition to communism.
I will argue that Marx was essentially correct, wrong only in the omission of factors driving historical change and his labour theory of value. These errors, when mapped onto the trends he identified using historical materialism and extrapolated into the future lead to some problems with Marx’s vision of communism. Let’s take a look at each of these ideas before bringing it all together to see what will inevitably replace the current system.
Marx and Engels’ conception of historical materialism strictly adheres to the form of Hegelian Idealism; it uses the same dialectical tools, mirrors Hegel’s stages of historical development, and it shares his ontological monism. Hegel’s basic claim was that Ideas are the fundamental nature of being. Human history can be seen as the inevitable development of human consciousness through a dialectical mechanism. For Hegel, the dialectic was the existence of an Abstract, leading necessarily to its Negation, before the two come together as the Concrete. This is the internal mechanism of ideas that leads the spirit to externalize as the material world. The same process broadly describes the history of ideas, which defines our history.
Marx flipped the underlying assumptions of Hegel’s Idealism. He saw the Material (vs. Ideal) as the fundamental nature of reality and, as such, humans were essentially producers of the material needed to sustain existence rather than ideas. Therefore, human history is properly viewed as successive developments of modes of production, with differing historical societies reflecting these changing modes.
Material Dialectics became a tool for understanding and studying social history. For Marx, the elements of the dialectic were Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. Let’s apply the dialectic to these dialectical theories: let Hegel’s Idealism be the abstract thesis and Marx’s Historical Materialism be the negative antithesis. What then is the concrete synthesis?
While Marx’s material view of history seems more accurately descriptive of the everyday world than Hegel’s Idealism, I suspect that a more precise theory would incorporate elements of both. After all, ideas do change things in the real world - the impact Marx’s ideas had in shaping the 20th century demonstrates this readily enough. Given the messiness of the real world however, ascribing total causality to a single factor seems too limiting. Due to this (I submit), Marx was unable to predict material and technological developments that aren’t directly related to the means of production that have, and continue to, shape our world. Nuclear weapons, rocketry, computing, and communications technologies have fundamentally changed human interactions socially, politically, and economically - all without any basic changes in the mode of production (thinking primarily pre-2000’s here). Despite these blind spots, Marx’s lens brings real descriptive and explanatory power to broadly understanding history and its progression.
Capitalism’s Intrinsic Exploitation
The area in which I most completely disagree with Marx is in his assessment of capitalism as inherently exploitative, which is the necessary conclusion of his labour theory of value. In order to reject his conclusion therefore, one must identify problems in the labour theory of value (LToV). The LToV posits that the only true/fair/proper value of something is related to the labour required to produce it. Specifically, the socially necessary labour required to produce it. If LToV was universally accepted, then I would be able to equitably trade a good which I had produced for some other good that someone else produced - as long as both goods consumed the same amount of labour in their production.
From this, we can see that trading money for a commodity, and then trading that same commodity for more money than was originally spent cannot work (arbitrage, appreciation, etc. have no place in LToV). Marx concluded that the only possible source for this excess currency valuation (M→C→profit!) was exploitation of workers: paying those who produced the good less than the value of the socially necessary labour to produce said good. Thus, the mere existence of non-net-neutral money→good→money transactions proves that exploitation of workers is inherent in the capitalist system. Or so Marx claims.
While this is a very simplistic presentation of the labour theory of value, it should serve to highlight several of my objections:
Assume the premise:
labour is the correct and/or morally fair criterion for value.
Does it necessarily follow that any profit in a capitalist transaction can only come from exploiting the workers? Even if we treat money only as a token for value, the ability to bring large amounts of concentrated value to bear is actually highly valued by many. What then would be the socially necessary labour required to amass and stockpile large amounts of wealth? It would be relatively large. The ability to spend or loan that money (token for accumulated surplus labour value) is something that demands a huge amount of labour.
Now, an individual might amass wealth with very little effort (e.g., they bought a bit of $GME back in December of ‘20), but then, we don’t care about the individual’s labour under LToV. We care about the socially necessary amount of labour. If we asses society at large in order to determine the amount of labour needed to generate that fortune, (which relatively very few have actually been able to do so), we could conclude that a corresponding amount of labour is required to create that wealth. Marx’s own method of determining labour value based on society rather than the individual means that we cannot then look at an individual capitalist and say that he did not expend the labour necessary to accumulate his fortune, any more than we could look at an extremely talented and efficient worker and say that his goods are worth less because he didn’t work as hard.
My second objection is with the premise (from objection #1) itself:
that valuation based on labour is the most fair.
Correcting for individual variation through the socially required labour does protect against artificially high valuation of the lazy worker’s products, but it also artificially punishes the very talented and hard-working. By setting a universal bar, the value of the result of an individual’s labour is removed from the actual labour. Or, when some universal valuation is applied to everyone, no-one’s unique circumstances will be accurately reflected.
My final objection is with real-world LToV implementation.
Since the value of actual labour would be relative to the abstract value of socially necessary labour, someone/thing must determine this. Market forces cannot be relied upon because they are driven by the aggregated subjective valuations that producers and consumers each place on any given object. Furthermore, based on changing technology, levels of education, and social mores, the amount of labour that is socially necessary will also change from place to place and from time to time. There is no such thing as inherent and objective value attached to labour (or anything else for that matter - like colour, value is not a property of things, it is a kind of relationship between things and people).
This means that some entity will have to determine that value for us. For the sake of fairness and equity, this determination must be as near-universal as possible. However (as centralized decision-making organizations have demonstrated throughout history), whatever entity determines value will be ‘wrong’ more often than not. Combine the inherent inefficiency and limited information that centralized decision-making bodies have with the requirement to universally apply spatio-temporally limited valuations of labour, and we end up with a recipe determinations of value that are almost necessarily unfair for most people in most situations.
Simply put, any theory of value that rests upon a hypothetical human institution to enact and enforce fairness for all is doomed to failure from the start.
To summarize the above objections to the labour theory of value:
it is internally inconsistent,
it is not clearly superior (re: fairness, justice, morality, etc.),
and it cannot actually be applied to the real world as described.2
Having addressed the labour theory of value, let us now examine Marx’s theory of alienation. While Marx himself never visited the soul-sucking factories that he depicts and his image of working conditions seem to be influenced by Dickens’ hyperbolic and factually inaccurate Victorian settings, I generally agree with Marx’s description of alienation. Building upon the idea that humans are fundamentally producers, alienation is Marx’s critique of the conditions of life that capitalism had produced.
Marx writes about four types of alienation:
alienation of the producer from the product or fruits of his labour,
alienation of the worker from (meaningful) work itself,
alienation of the worker from other workers,
and finally, alienation of the human from his spirit or nature.
Given the highly specialized division of labour we have, it is relatively rare that someone produces a product start-to-finish anymore. When all you do is one repeated action on an assembly line, you have no claim on the finished car or iPod. Thus, you lose the ability to trade the product of your labour, and are reduced to selling your labour itself, becoming a wage-slave.
Similarly, such work offers neither development nor fulfilment. Being really good at tightening a screw thousands of times a day in no way nurtures the soul, nor does it prepare the worker for professional advancement. Such dead-end work further entraps the worker in wage-slavery and numbs their ambition to break out.
When the worker is forced to sell his labour, that labour becomes a commodity. This means that every worker is in competition with (potentially) every other worker. This dog-eat-dog competition isolates each worker and forces them to see others as potential threats, destroying what should be a cooperative community of natural allies.
Finally, this drudgery separates us from our essential nature as producers. When we cease to engage in the very activity that sets us apart from base animals, we reduce ourselves to their unthinking, amoral, and empty existence. From this, Marx and many of his followers have developed various theories of ‘consciousness’ e.g., class- or race-consciousness.3 While I find the emphasis on production as the sole defining characteristic of humanity to be excessively reductive, and I disagree with the notion that wage labour is synonymous with wage-slavery, and I reject the Dickensian lens as historically inaccurate, I broadly agree with this critique.
Having worked on an assembly line, I can attest to the drudgery, the near-inability to feel pride in one’s work, and the isolation. Luckily, such extremely alienating work seems to be on a downward trend (as a share of all work) as new technologies open up types and styles of work that have never before existed. For those with the chutzpah and the goods to step off the hamster wheel and chart their own course, damn near anything can be monetized (even this humble rag might one day generate a bit of revenue). Once again, Marx failed to anticipate the impact of technology. These technologies are at once the causes of and the solutions to many of the problems which Marx identified in a capitalist society, and they seem to be the reason that capitalism has in fact remained vital far longer than he expected.
Wrapping up the argumentation
Given Marx’s historical materialism, and his view that the social superstructure of a society depends upon the economic base, I find it difficult to understand why he thought that revolution was the necessary predicate for transitioning from one historical stage to another.
Of course, revolutions have historically been contemporaneous with stage transitions. However, it seems to me that Marx would have been more internally consistent to say that revolutions are strongly correlated with (or even the result of) such stage transitions, rather than their proximate cause. History has amply demonstrated that while perhaps necessary, revolution is not a sufficient condition for a stage transition. I agree with Marx that capitalism will eventually encounter its own limits of productivity, and that it may in fact be doing so now. But my disagreements with Marx have lead me to a rather different predictive conclusion.
I find Marx’s monism (in his identification of the essential human nature and the driving forces of history) to be excessively limited. I would subscribe to a synthesis of Hegelian and Marxian views; which is that both ideas and material conditions matter.4
I utterly reject the labour theory of value, and the implied central bureaucracy required to create and maintain it.
While I broadly agree with the alienating effects of certain types of industrialized labour, The Times - They Are A-Changin’, and in any case, things/times don’t have to be this way.
I see no evidence in favour of Marx’s view that revolution is the (only/required) cause of historical transition.
Finally, I place much greater emphasis on the role and impact of technology in the coming transition and following stage than Marx did. Marx identified the current stage in history as capitalist. I think that a more accurate defining characteristic is the modern, Westphalian-descended nation-state and its entanglement with capitalism.
There is an extant term that describes such a politico-economic system, where big gov and big biz get in bed together (at least as I was taught history, economics, and politics waaaay back in the before times)…
The dominant mixed-economy of today is far closer to fascism (as a type of government and economy, disregarding ethical comparisons to Nazis) than capitalism and/or liberal democracy (it’s also structurally far closer to Stalinism than laissez faire, free-market ‘capitalism’ or voluntaryism). As history continues its inexorable march past Marx’s time, this meshing of centralized government with corporations has only increased/accelerated; it continues to do so.
Marx wrote that the prime purpose of government was to resolve the irreconcilable tensions between capitalist and worker. I would submit that it actually created (or at least helped to sustain) those tensions. It is the very merging of government with business that led to massive inequalities (predicted by Marx) and the “business cycle” of boom and bust - not free-market “capitalism”, which is long extinct.
But the automated technology that enslaved Dickens’ factory workers is poised now to empower and liberate the individual. Advances in additive manufacturing, distributed communications, computing technologies, and other fields will soon allow virtually everyone in the world access to each other. When we can print -at home- the necessities of life for pennies, communicate with anyone (anywhere and anytime) for basically free, and harness the mental energy of the crowd and cloud, a world where free association is possible and natural will be ours for the grasping.5
The coming revolution will be one of technology, not of politics. Of course, the global-fascist regime of nation-states and corporations will resist (for in a world where all are self-sufficient, who needs government and the corporations they prop up?), but they will be fighting a losing battle. When each person can produce the means of life themselves, when we all have control of our own means of production, then we each will be able to become free to find meaning and fulfilment in our own way.
Let us not forget that “capitalism” as a concept was created by Marx/Engels in Das Kapital. The very idea of a socialism vs. capitalism as the two sides of an economic spectrum is a partisan framing. Every use “capitalism” (and it’s variants) is a concession to Marx, allowing him (and more so, his degenerating intellectual lineage) to literally dictate the terms used. Not only that, but the past 155 years of usage by mystagogues, '“economists”, economists, disaffected children of the capitalists and bourgeoisie, and everybody else has so overloaded this term with various and conflicting meanings that it means either nothing, or whatever the speaker wants it to. So, yeah, meaningless (Quine and Wittgenstein can wait for a later post).
Imagine a substance that is exactly like dihydrogen monoxide in every way except that it has a different chemical makeup. Seems easy right? Wrong.
Steve Biko is the father of Black Consciousness. There’s a whole rabbit hole of it’s own here (that I’m not delving at this time) with the various struggles in Southern Africa during the Cold War, but here’s a first gloss if you don’t already know about him.
Here I’ve got to shout out and point you towards one of my favourite articles of all time: John Nerst’s (of Everything Studies) Partial Derivatives and Partial Narratives.
I’ve become much less naïvely technotopian in the years since the first draft of this. The potential remains however. We ‘just’ need to ditch the overwhelmingly dominant business model for the entire digital world. Easy peasy! /s