Monday, May 19, 2014

The Influence of Karl Marx - Part 5

Perhaps it’s too late for this series of posts not to give the impression of a simple hatchet job, but nevertheless, it is important to consider a creation from the creator’s point of view. In the words of Jacques Barzun, “...though it is possible and necessary to show how Marx was wrong, it is even more instructive to see why he felt he was right.”

Like all popular movements - be they religious, political, or cultural - there is an element of truth to everything he alleges. Without the truthful element, his thoughts could never have inspired so many hundreds of millions. And when viewed without a third dimension, there is very little in his thought that is objectionable. So in order to understand Marx’s thoughts, we must see the world through his prism.

Marx wanted a definitive, scientific, systematic explanation of world events. He referred to this goal as ‘the solution to the riddle of the sphinx.’ Philosophers before him referred to the existence of a true, ‘noumenal’ world beyond the world we see and sense, but Marx was the Columbus who set sail for its discovery - and Marx set sail for his new world far more deliberately than Columbus did. Marx saw many partial glimpses of this new world in the work of previous thinkers, but none who displayed anything like the full landscape. To him, all modern thinkers were hampered by bourgeois ideology, and had no glimpse of the true ‘value’ of things.

Value is, perhaps, the most important word in the Marxist lexicon. Of course, Marx is not dissimilar from many economists in that regard. But when most economists, or most of us laymen, refer to ‘value’, we refer to things which fill our needs. And because of that definition, we call the things which possess value ‘goods’ or ‘commodities,’ because they have good and commodious use to us. The worth of these goods and commodities to us is therefore called ‘value-in-use.’ But what does it mean to attach value to a commodity for its ‘use’ when every person values a commodity differently? How can any good have a fixed value-in-use when no person uses any good in the same way for the same amount of time? And, still more importantly, how do we compare the value of different goods by different people. Who can say whether my violin is of any more or less use to me than your use of a computer? Nevertheless, because we buy and sell these things in the same currency, we can sell these goods with prices that are set in relation to their perceived value to customers.

But when money is not used, the goods can be bartered rather than bought, and this process is called ‘value-in-exchange.’ As Marx didn’t think people’s individual needs needed much accounting for, Marx sought a fixed value for all goods, and when seeking a fixed value for all goods, what is most important is the ‘value-in-exchange.’ To use one argument of his, if a pound of cheese has the same value in exchange as a dozen eggs, there must be some third quality which both goods possess, otherwise an exchange would be impossible. In his words: “Each of them, insofar as it is exchange value, must be reducible to the third.”

When we speak of Marx the scientist, it is to ideas like this of which we speak. Eggs and cheese would appear to have little in common except for being food, but between them lies a common denominator. A person may hate cheese or eggs, but because other people value them, they nevertheless have value in exchange. And therefore must have some quality in common between them, and that quality is value. Value is as important to Marxist economics as matter to physics and carbon to biology. It is the basic building block. Leibniz has his monads, Kant his thing-in-itself, Marx has his value.

But there is no way of ridding these items of the external qualities which differ between them. How then do you come up with a correct value for any given item?  The answer is in value-in-exchange, and the quality which is common to all those goods - the labor it takes to make them.

Measuring labor is difficult, especially in relation to other labors when the skills are so different. How is the skill it took to make my violin remotely comparable to the skill it took to make a computer, or the skill to make cheese and feed chickens? Furthermore, when viewed with specificity, labor does not create value, labor creates the goods which possess value. Therefore, Marx supposes the existence of what he terms “abstract labor… (an) unsubstantial entity, a mere jelly of undifferentiated human labor.” The value of all goods derives from the abstract labor made by them, and that abstract labor can be measured in the time it takes to create said object.

But that leads us to another problem, which necessitates another abstraction. The amount of time it takes a competent laborer to make an object is far less time than it takes for an incompetent laborer, or a laborer lacking the correct materials, or a laborer working in adverse conditions. Furthermore, a machine will create the same object in still far less time than even the most skilled laborer. To solve this problem, Marx creates the concept of “socially necessary labor time,” which averages out the amount of time which it takes to create the object. And by doing so, Marx created what he (and many others), perceived as a completely uniform system of value for the entire world. As Marx wrote in the first volume of Das Kapital:

"The riddle of the expression of value is solved when we know that all labor, insofar as it is generalized human labor, is of like kind and equal worth; but this riddle can only be unriddled when the notion of human equality has acquired the fixity of popular conviction."

In his own mind, Marx was not an economist or a philosopher, he was a scientist, and a great one. Marx believed that he had defined economics forever as a quantifiable science, and made as much difference to the field as Newton and Gallileo did in changing astrology into astronomy.

But Marx went even further. Let’s remember that Marx believes we humans are fundamentally shaped by our goods and their technical knowhow:

The social relations connecting the labor of one private individual (or group) with the labor of another, seem to the producers, not direct social relations between individuals at work, but what they really are: material relations between persons and social relations between things…
Morals, religion, metaphysics and other ideologies, and the forms of consciousness corresponding to them, here no longer retain a look of independence. They have no history, they have no development, but men in developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter along with this reality of theirs their thoughts and the product of their thoughts.”

Upon connecting these readings of economics and history, Marx believed that he arrived at the true view of humanity that quantified the humanities and social sciences as a hard science: “Phrases about consciousness cease, and real knowledge must take their place.”

Because of this ‘real knowledge’, Marx believes we can now perceive how capitalism has taken mankind horribly awry. The capital which an owner takes from his laborer is the ‘surplus value’, of which the owner only allows the laborer enough to keep him working productively and never enough to free him from his dependence. And from this theft of surplus value comes the class struggle itself, the isolation and unskilled unfitness of the Ruling Class, and the means for the workers to rise up against their employers to establish the Communist State.

It is worth noting at this moment how striking are the similarities between the jargon of capitalism and the jargon of communism. There’s an old Russian joke that explains the difference between capitalism and communism by saying that ‘Capitalism is when a man exploits a man. Communism is the other way around.”

Who can hear about a ‘culture of dependence,’ and not think of how Ayn Rand harps on the same thing, only to say that the laborers are spongily dependent on their owners. Eric Hoffer, a great though no longer much read American philosopher, speculated an almost Oedipal connection between the two. Much like how Christianity began as Jewish heresy, communism began as a heresy against capitalism which then grew to the point that it threatened to overtake it altogether. And as Communism may have begun as a capitalist heresy, perhaps Objectivism began as a Communist heresy - one that has more to do with Communism than with the original conception of Capitalism.

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