Deepening the Critique of Marxism
by Benjamin Studebaker
I found myself in another lecture on Marxism yesterday. Why do I say “another”? I did a cursory search of my own website and found that just shy of a year ago, I was responding to a lecture about Marxism on this blog. In that piece, my focus was primarily a criticism of the solutions Marx and the Marxists offer. Specifically, I was objecting to the Marxist belief that it is possible for people to be socially rewired so as to become more altruistic or otherwise capable of working hard without a scale of variant material incentives. Rereading that argument, I found myself agreeing, but I also found my critique had deepened, that there was somewhat more to it than I said last year. That’s what I’d like to develop today.
My original complaint is that Marxism seeks to build political structures that only suit exceptionally benevolent people. The existence of ordinary and sometimes even especially self-centered individuals has a tendency to make Marxist solutions practical nightmares. While Marxists can present us with many good reasons for thinking that if people were willing to work hard without a scale of diverse material incentives our society would be a better place, they are not able to offer us a convincing argument as to how it would come to pass that existing ordinary, selfish people would become benevolent societal maximizers in this way, indifferent to their relative standing individually.
However, there’s a further problem with Marxism and with the Marxist solution that deepens the critique. Let’s say that we were able to somehow educate people such that they would be willing to work without a scale of diverse material incentives. According to Marx, if everyone received the same and had the same stake in ownership of the means of production, this would mark the end not merely of class conflict, but of social troubles more broadly, because Marx believes that all alienation and social conflict ultimately derives from facts about who owns the means of production.
There is a hidden presumption here that the primary thing that human beings care about is their share of societal wealth and their sense that this share is a product of a procedure they deem fair. Human beings do care deeply about wealth, but Marx does not properly evaluate why it is that people care about their share of the means of production. In every instance, our society’s economic output can in some way be described as giving someone the power to do something or control something he otherwise could not do or control. For instance, purchasing a car gives one the power to travel large distances in much shorter time frames and the opportunity to control a complex machine and make it serve one’s ends. Purchasing a massage gives one the power to use another person for one’s own ends (in this case, the pursuit of comfort or pain relief). In every case, wealth is used to acquire what can ultimately be described in power terms. Marx is right that we are very preoccupied with distributions of wealth, but not as an end, but as a means to power, the power to acquire for ourselves the things we consider good and to avoid for ourselves the things that we consider bad.
Wealth is merely one form of power. Power can be acquired through other means. While Marx sees these other kinds of power ultimately in a servile position to wealth and to the predominant means of production, it is possible to design political systems in which wealth does not subjugate all other forms of power. I would argue that this is one of the principal criteria by which a system of government is to be judged–does it prevent those with money from using that money to possess other kinds of power? To the extent that it does, it is unjust and requires revision. No political system has successfully full de-linked money from power, but we can all agree that there are laws or judicial decisions we could pass or make that would either further link these forms of power together or would further de-link them. If we eliminated the cap on campaign donations to specific candidates, that would link money to power more so than it presently is. If we forbid private citizens from donating to campaigns altogether, that would do the inverse. The mere fact that states levy taxes in a progressive way such that the burden on the rich is greater is proof that in some way, other kinds of power can dominate over raw wealth.
So even in a society in which there is no cause for distress over the distribution of economic power, there may yet be cause for concern over the distribution of political power, power in social relationships, at work, among friends, in families, and in a variety of other contexts. In the face of this argument, Marxists often agitate for radical direct democracy, so that every person in every institution or social setting is afforded equal power. But this is subject to the same criticism I set out initially–are human beings happy to maximize their own varying potentials while receiving shares of power that do not reflect those potentials? At present, the answer is overwhelmingly negatory. There are many people who do not merely desire power, but who desire to have more power than others have, the antithesis of the Marxist objective. For these individuals, a Marxist society is as alienating as a capitalist society is for Marxists. And even were man to mellow and his nature to become more accommodating, it only takes a handful of defectors to cause considerable trouble. Furthermore, how long will it take for men to mellow? Centuries? Millennia? Longer? How many generations should suffer whatever injustices and miseries there are while waiting?
Many Marxists agitate and campaign their entire lives in an effort to get the wider population to change its attitudes and behavior, but they are on a fool’s errand. In trying to induce the public to radically reform society, they pass up the opportunity to radically reform society themselves. Already, several generations of Marxists have lived and died without having achieved significant amelioration of the problems identified by Marx. Those who have made meaningful changes have made them through the regulatory and welfare states–through Keynesianism, not Marxism.
There is a better way of dealing with our problems–we need institutions that assimilate highly anti-social behavior, that convert selfish, otherwise damaging acts into productive and useful ones. Instead of waiting for people to lose interest in power, the one thing that human beings have consistently fixated on, we should put competing ambitions to work within political frameworks that curb corruption and abuses while simultaneously allowing these individuals to flourish. Those individuals and groups that cause Marxism to fail in practice are not bad or in need of reform, they are in need of being better utilized in more effective and less damaging ways. Instead of trying to force men to fit our theory, we need a theory that fits our men. Marxism, a year later, is still not that theory.
Very interesting Benjamin. You are without a dought one of the most thought-provoking bloggers I’ve seen on wordpress. Given your argument you have some interesting points, but since I always like challenging people about this stuff i’ll try to get you thinking about your personal beliefs shown here. Your primary dictum here is that, contrary to Marxism, habits of altruistic acheivment and personal development can be obtained by alternative methods without being spurd by “financial temptations” despite being aware that much of our global society runs on such a system. Regardless of whether the full breadth of what you believe is true or not this raises some opposing views, for it also goes against (or better say agitates) one of the most openly believed philosophical thought experiments out there: the tragedy of the commons. Anyone who’s read that knows that, as humans, our inclination towards self-interest in almost any fashion (whether it be material or personal) drives us to accomplish anything humanly possible if we know or somehow predict that an object of personal value is at stake, even if it means destroying or taking from others or even an entire group as a whole. If that dictum, that money is not an absolute medium in which we can manipulate or use power, then what would be the alternative? Nearly every human has an egotistical drive to protect or gain something in life at the expense of others to some degree. Also if this ‘altruism’ is so important I don’t think it’s an all relavent habit to be too obsessed over. I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand, watched the videos and the documentaries of atlas shrugged and support her critique of altruism in conventional morality. We should try to help others, but this obsession, almost likened to that of a religious martyr, is something people should avoid. Even if such a system of institutions were founded, wouldn’t it still be governed by capitalist regimens within our own country? Hence the whole scheme to me would be ruined by the cooperate vices of modern american business. It would mean an entire global reform, something unlike anything that ever happened in history. You’ve got good ideas, had to think a bit to follow through with what you were trying tell everyone. I want to hear more from you and I’m going to share this!
I’m not arguing that people care about other things aside from money out of altruism, I’m arguing that people selfishly fight over other kinds of power in addition to money, and that money is important only insofar as it can secure some kind of power. I agree that it is reckless to rely on altruism as a motivator–the Marxist belief that people can be “made conscious” and caused to become less selfish and concerned with relative power gains is one of the things I’m criticizing.
Marxists see the fight over the means of production as the original fight from which all other discords flow. For Marxists, if you eliminate inequalities in wealth, you eliminate discord and create a utopia. I argue that eliminating inequalities of wealth would not succeed in doing this because there will always be inequalities in power of some kind. People do not merely desire to have the power to do things, but to do things that others cannot do, to be superior to others in some way. Marxism alienates us from our competitive impulses.
Oh I see it now here 🙂 politics and ethics not my strong suit exactly, I’ve been known to tactlessly overlook what other people mean in such works, quite challenging in my opinion. If that’s the case then I misrepresented the perspective I was supposedly trying to debunk. Either way this was a very interesting piece and I actually learned something from this.
No sweat–I’m very glad you enjoyed the piece! 🙂
[…] will allow me to indulge myself in some further thoughts on Marx in addition to those I offered earlier in the week. After this, I’m moving on–there should be no more Marx for a while. I had a new […]
Thank you again benjamin for a thouhtful piece. Correctme if I am wrong, I see your argument as marxists are wrong because people are selfish and not altruistic and then you take it deeper about our quest is not about wealth, but power. However, let me offer you my five cents on this age old discussion since my father was the chairman of the communist party in my country and I took part in numerous discussions related to this.
First, it is very difficult to say weather humans by nature are altruisitc or selfish. If you read a fantastick book called the social conquest of earth by wilson you will get an explanation why we evolved to be both at he same time. In short he says that the selection happened on a group level not on individual level and as such any groups with too much of selfish or too much altruistic behaviour did not survive. If you simulate prisoners dilemma you will see that systems which only displays selfish behaviour, will not thrive but are inherently unstable on less successful. Maybe a more prominent feature of the human nature is that we adapt to the structures and optimise our behaviour within that structure. Fuurthermore, it is very troubling if we try to boil our human nature to altruistic vs selfish, but also elements such as need for belonging, sense of justice and search for meaning seems just as dominant features worth considering when discussing such complex phenomena as the inner nature of human beings.
The question as such is not then what the nature of human beings are but what kind of behaviour do we wish to promote (not dictate and while maintaining our freedoms) and what kind structures supports that.
Secondly, I do not understand why Marxism presupposes altruistic behaviour. I currently working in a consultancy were we all own (to a various degree) our company and it works great. Mondragon is another coop that seems to working. Semco is another very interesting companyin Brazil where the employees own a controlling share of the company and they individually decide their own salaries. The only caveat is that your salary is made public to all to see. It is a very successful company. I do not understand the deep fear of experimenting of different ways of socially organising the way we work. Being an productivity specialist by trade I now for sure that workers who own their means of production and has a meaningful stake in the game are far, far more productive than the ones that dont.
Thirdly, I do absolutely agree with you that is not about wealth, but the power. Bertrand Russel has written an absolutely suberb book on the matter called Power. A great read if you want delwe into the various sources of power.
My question is not whether people are selfish or altruistic in the abstract, but whether people are altruistic enough for a specific kind of Marxist solution–a system in which there is no scale of diverse material incentives. In such a system, regardless of the amount one contributes socially, one receives the same benefit.
This kind of Marxist solution presupposes a high degree of altruism because it requires that individuals be willing to work to their maximum potential even though the amount of effort they put forth will have no influence on the amount of compensation they receive.
I then proceed to highlight a trend in some of the Marxist literature that I find dissatisfying, the tendency for Marxists to attempt to reform people to suit a pre-conceived ideal system rather than reform their conception of the system to suit extant people.
In the co-ops about which you’re writing, there is a scale of diverse material incentives. The incentive structure in the co-ops differs from the incentive structure in the traditional corporation only in terms of how it is created (non-hierarchically, by the workers themselves). They are consequently not all that radical. I don’t object to them. If however the workers were to opt for true equality, and mandated that every person in the company was to receive the same wage regardless of preference or productivity, the enterprise would swiftly run into trouble.
I’ve read Russel’s work on Power, and I agree, it is excellent.