Reply to a Libertarian Critic of Marx

I came across this article while browsing internet for articles written about Marxism, and decided to write a short response. Because the author spends the majority of the article explaining Marx’s views on man, capitalism, and alienation in a decent manner, I won’t critique that, rather move right into the author’s alleged “refutation” of Marx. So, let’s begin. The author first claims:

“Let me suggest that what Marx was objecting to – revolting against – was human nature and the existence of scarcity. Man can never escape from or get outside of being an individual “ego.” We exist as individual human beings; we think, remember, imagine, choose and act as distinct and unique individual men and women.

Our experiences are our experiences; our thoughts and beliefs are our reflections and ideas; our judgments and valuations are our estimates and rankings of things of importance to us. Even when we try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to try to sympathize, empathize, and understand the meanings, experiences and actions of others, it is from our perspective and state-of-mind that we attempt any interpretive understanding and appreciation of others.

It is the individuality of the person in these and other facets of our distinct nature and character as conscious, conceptualizing creatures that make for the unique differences and diversities of our minds as self-oriented human beings. This is the source of the creativity and plethora of possibilities that can and have emerged from seeing the world in the distinct and different ways that self-oriented and self-experiencing people can and do when pursuing their own improvement, as they consider most advantageous for themselves and others they “selfishly” care about in an institutional setting of peaceful and voluntary market association.”

As for the assertion that Marx was “revolting against” the concept of human nature, let’s see what Marx himself had to say on the matter, rather than straw-manning his beliefs, shall we? For Marx, one of his most important understandings in the conception of man was his recognition of man’s consciousness. To quote Marx,

“we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself — geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.”  [1]

From this, we can deduce that Marx’s “natural bases” – human nature and the natural environment – are modified “in the course of history through the actions of men”. Hence Marx’s distinction between “human nature in general” and “human nature as historically modified in each epoch.” [2] Marx’s idea simply put then is that humans are all composed of the same fundamental raw materials but what these raw materials are shaped into differs across time and place. Importantly, the nature of the raw materials places definite limits on what they can be shaped into.

One of the main factors that modifies and further develops material human nature, is society itself. Marx saw that the capitalist mode of production forces people to behave in certain ways that often counter-acts what rightists would consider “human nature.” However, how is a human going against his own nature even possible? The answer is quite simple: material conditions. While our author outlines capitalism here as “peaceful and voluntary market association” the reality is is that capitalism is inherently exploitative of one class by another which is perpetuated because those who own the means of production hold more power than those who don’t; and this puts a hole in the whole “voluntary” conception of the capitalist market place, given that conditions can force situations to not be voluntary. Under capitalism, if your conditions are thus that you are poor and have no choice but to work for a capitalist, this is not a voluntary exchange, rather a capitalist taking advantage of a situation you are in. Wage labor is no more voluntary than share-cropping was post-slavery.

Next, in a section titled “Marx’s Denial of the Reality of Scarcity,” our author tries to make a claim so espoused by rightists that I’m not sure it’s even worth addressing, but I will do so anyways. Our author makes a few central points:

  1. Marx doesn’t like that people have to produce in order to consumer under capitalism and wants labor to be “free to use for whatever desires one wants”
  2. Marx revolts against men viewing each other as means to their respective ends that they desire to achieve, and this is wrong because people value certain things in certain ways, he asserts

There are a few problems I have with these arguments, most notably the fact that Marx’s critique of capitalist commodities was not that it “isn’t fair that you have to work to get stuff” rather his critique was that under capitalism, a worker must sell their labor as a commodity to a capitalist, and this therefore creates a contradiction in society between those who sell their labor and those who buy labor-power. This contradiction then further manifests itself in the contradiction between a commodity’s use-value and its exchange-value which leads to things that we see such as the fact that there are more houses than homeless people, food is wasted at a rate which could virtually save children from starving if used correctly, and we have many useless jobs that the market demands; just think of how much better our species could be doing if we made these goods and had these jobs for only utility, and not for market demand.

Next, the second critique of Marx once again reveals a flaw in the right-wing view of economic analysis. That is, they ignore material relationships in economies and fail to see why things happen, rather they just observe that these things do happen. To say that some people just “value some things more than others” for some individual subjective reason is not a valid explanation of an economic relation. Rather we must understand the social pre-conditions that exist in the case of capitalism, that being the pre-condition of property relations; and we must understand how this severely impacts the ways by which one can manipulate another for their own personal gain. For example, a rich man who has a much better chance at using a poor man for their own benefit than the other way around, because the rich man owns private property. Because this rule of “people doing what they find more valuable to them” isn’t applied on an equal playing field, it is inherently oppressive to those not at the top and creates mass contradictions.

Next, in a section titled “Marx’s Misconception of Action and Choice,” our author raises a point that under communism (that being a stateless, classless, moneyless society with collective ownership) scarcity would still be a reality. For an example of this, our author asserts how if many people all want to go fishing on the same day (or if a situation like this occurred) they would have to come to an agreement of how the lake can be used, and during this process, some people may feel “exploited or alienated” from society. In short, our author is trying to deflect Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production onto Marx’s proposed communist society, however this is a seriously weak argument.

To begin with, exploitation is not a subjective matter under which one is exploited based on their beliefs, rather it is a material phenomenon that actually occurs in the real world, outside of the human mind. In short, because all value is created through the labor process, [3] when workers produce more value than they earn in a wage this is exploitation [4] because they are not receiving the full fruits of their labor, rather their labor is being used for private interests. One simply “feeling” exploited does not mean that they are, and because under communism the means of production are held collectively this eliminates alienation. [5]

Next, our author tries to explain how capitalism itself has “de-alienated” man from the contradictions of capitalism by raising living standards, reducing poverty, etc. through the spread of the capitalist mode of production. Let’s take a common case of this for an example: China. China is often praised for its market reforms which were followed by an economic boom, however this did not come without a cost. In China, after the introduction of market forces, manufacturing employment declined as well as state employment. [6] And while its true jobs in the private sector grew, these jobs often offer terrible conditions and benefits to their workers [7] thus making them more alienated from society, not less. A report on labor practices in China by Verite Inc., a U.S. company that advises transnational corporations on responsible business practices, found that “systemic problems in payment practices in Chinese export factories consistently rob workers of at least 15% of their pay.” [8] Workplace safety is an even greater problem. According to official Chinese government sources, about 200 million workers labor under “hazardous” conditions. “Every year there are more than 700,000 serious work-related injuries nation-wide, claiming 130,000 lives.” [9]

There simply being more wealth in a society is not what can solve a society’s contradictions. An Asian Development Bank study of 22 East Asian developing countries concluded that China had become the region’s second most unequal country, trailing only Nepal. This is not surprising considering that over a roughly ten-year period (from the early 1990s to the early 2000s) China recorded the region’s second highest increase in inequality, again trailing only Nepal. [10] While the results of the Asian Development Bank study are significant, they do not adequately convey the real concentration of wealth that has accompanied and motivated China’s market reform program. According to the Boston Consulting Group, China had 250,000 U.S. dollar millionaire households (excluding the value of primary residence) in 2005, the sixth greatest national total in the world. Although this group made up only 0.4% of China’s total households, it held 70% of the country’s wealth. [11]

These market reforms that our author is praising are really just revealing an inherent contradiction of the capitalist system. While it can be argued that the living standards and economic growth of China has increased as a result of these reforms, the wealth it did generate accumulated into the hands of a small few, thus impeding on the chance of living standards being raised to the fullest capacity possible. You may say “stop complaining, at least living standards increased under capitalism unlike socialism” this is ignoring the bigger picture at large which can be better emphasized by the people of China themselves.

As a reaction to the challenges proposed by the market reforms in China there is now a fueling of political discussions and debates (many of which are taking place on electronic chat rooms and bulletin boards) about the nature and significance of the Mao era and the experiences of socialism. [12] To this point, farmer and worker participants appear focused on refuting the false claims of ruling elites that the Mao period was both a social and economic disaster by drawing on their own life experiences to illustrate the accomplishments of that period, in particular employment and social security and a sense of national purpose. These are what people who have experienced socialism desire. Not more wealth, but freedom from the exploitation and alienation of capitalism.

Lastly, our author tries to make the argument that:

“Each individual, under competitive capitalism, is at liberty to select and follow their own purposes and pursue happiness in their own way. Using each other as the voluntary means to their, respective, ends in the arena of peaceful market exchange allows a much larger diversity of outcomes reflecting the differences among people than if one central plan needs to imposed on all in the name of the interests of a collectivist community, as a whole.”

However here, like most right wingers, our author doesn’t seem to take into account the social pre-conditions that exist under capitalism. I explained this briefly earlier on in this essay, however I will repeat myself. Under capitalism, the market place is not an equal playing field. If you do not own the means of production, you are at a disadvantage and have less opportunities and must submit yourself to wage labor or risk poverty or even death in some cases. The outcomes of the market do not reflect the differences among people as individuals, rather the differences among people’s socioeconomic conditions in that the rich are far more likely to succeed in life than the poor because from birth they have access to better education, housing, development environment, food, and so much more that a poor person does not have, and so when a rich and poor person enter the market place, they do not have an equal opportunity at succeeding because of the social precondition I just outlined.

In a planned economy however, this would not be the case. A planned economy would ensure that all have equal opportunities at obtaining education, receiving healthcare, and growing up in a stable environment; as well as ensuring that the production process suits the interests of people in a society rather than a few private capitalists who own the society. [5]

Notes:

  1. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “The German Ideology” 
  2. Marx 1990, Capital Vol 1, p. 759
  3. Anwar Shaikh, “The Empirical Strength of the Labour Theory of Value
  4. Ian Wright, “The general theory of labour value
  5. Allin Cottrell and Paul Cockshott, “Towards a New Socialism
  6. Enrique Dussel Peters, “Economic Opportunities and Challenges Posed by China for Mexico and Central America”
  7. John S. McClenahen, “Outsourcing”
  8. Craig Simons, “New Labor Movement Afoot in China”
  9. China Labor Bulletin, “Migrant Workers in China”
  10. Asian Development Bank, “Inequality in Asia, Key Indicators 2007, Special Chapter Highlights”
  11. Wu Zhong, “China’s ‘Most Wanted’ Millionaires”
  12. For a discussion of this development see Mobo Gao, “The Battle for China’s Past, Mao and the Cultural Revolution.”
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