PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Lecture 11

 - Marxian Exploitation and Distributive Justice


Exploitation is an important technical–not normative–concept in the theory of Karl Marx. Although we are dealing with voluntary Pareto transactions, under capitalism, exploitation occurs whether or not an individual is better off. Capitalism is destined to fail, says Marx, because of (1) the possibility for liquidity crises, (2) the nature of capitalist competition inducing declining marginal profit on the industry-wide level, (3) the fact that capitalist competition eliminates competitors and promotes monopolies, (4) weak demand, as workers could not pool their money and buy all that they produce, and (5) the fact that “workers will come to realize that they have nothing to lose but their chains.” However, communism (that distribution should be “to each according to his needs”) can only arise from socialism (“to each according to his work”), which in turn can only arise from superabundance created by capitalism. However, scarcity is very much a reality, which makes superabundance impossible; this, Professor Shapiro points out, is the major weakness in Marx’s theory.

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PLSC 118 - Lecture 11 - Marxian Exploitation and Distributive Justice

Chapter 1. Relative and Absolute Surplus Value and Rate of Exploitation [00:00:00]

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, we’re going to pick up where we left off with talking about Marx last time.

I was just talking to some of the teaching fellows about how the sections went, and it seemed like there was some confusion or lack of, what’s the word, lack of comfort with this concept of exploitation in Marx. Just where does it come from and how does exploitation occur when people are making voluntary Pareto exchanges? And I think that is the right question to zero in on, and we’re going to spend more time on it both today and next time, because it really is important for Marx’s argument to work that exploitation is not about cheating people. It’s not about getting people to do things involuntarily. The idea behind the concept of exploitation is equivalent is exchanged for equivalent. Use-values are voluntarily exchanged.

So another way of putting it, if you like, is that the transaction between the employer and the worker is a Pareto superior transaction, and Marx is not claiming that it isn’t. So then you might say, “Well, what is this idea of exploitation?” And we saw that in some ways it’s quite counterintuitive because when we worked through this, the only way in which the capitalist can increase his productivity is by either increases in what Marx called absolute surplus value, which is basically lengthening the working day, getting people to work harder. There are obviously physical limits to that and political limits. Workers are going to organize. They’re going to get the Ten Hours Bill passed through Parliament, as they indeed did.

And so then you get the other approach, what he called increases in relative surplus value, which is technological innovation, so that the capitalist can cover his wage bill in less time. And so the necessary labor time goes from four hours to three, and there’s seven hours of surplus labor time where the workers producing goods, that when sold, produce value that is not accrued to them, okay?

We saw there was something counterintuitive here, and we’re going to come back to that, in that most of you figured you would choose three over two if you had to take one of them, but that’s actually a higher rate of exploitation. And I started talking about the assumptions about how people compare themselves. Remember the self-referential versus other referential, and we’ll come back to all of that.

But the point I want to make first, and to get you just clearly to understand, is that this kind of move, increasing productivity by technological innovation, Marx and modern economists all agree is the thing that makes capitalism dynamically productive. Because it’s the pressure to innovate that is created by capitalist competition that leads to technological innovation and more and more capital-intensive production. Because if you think about it, the more you’re spending on technology to make your labor more productive the less you’re spending on your wage bill, and it’s only living human labor-power that creates fresh value according to Marx.

And so when we think about this line moving this way we’re thinking about production becoming ever more capital intensive, right? More and more spent on technology to make the workers more productive, and we should expect capital intensity to increase over time. When you see Marx use phrases like “the organic composition of capital increases,” he’s just saying that production becomes steadily more capital intensive.

Now you could say, “Well, why is this exploitation?” Marx wants to say — this is, I think, at the end of the day not a very plausible argument for reasons we’ll see on Wednesday. He wants to say this is not a moral argument. This is not a normative argument. He’s using it as a technical term. And so the fact that people don’t feel more exploited in this circumstance than in this is neither here nor there. It’s true in the class-in-itself sense that I talked about last time, that they, objectively speaking, are more exploited. He has an argument about why they will eventually come to feel more exploited that we’ll attend to a little bit later today, but for right now he just wants to say this is an objective argument.

Now you could say, “Well, so is the rate of exploitation the rate of profit?” And the answer is no. It’s not the rate of profit because the value that’s created here, the so-called variable capital, which just covers the wage bill, is separated out from capital that is spent on everything else. So it’s true that the capitalist’s profit comes out of here, but so do rent, research and development costs, advertising, mail, you name it. So profit is some subset of this but not the totality of it. So the rate of profit is not the same thing as the rate of surplus value. And the rate of profit is also not the same as the rate of exploitation. But what he is assuming in the concept of exploitation is that the worker is producing some value that ultimately accrues to the capitalist.

Chapter 2. Five Sources of Crisis in Capitalist Systems [00:07:08]

Now I said to you, when we started out talking about Marx, that just like the neoclassical theorists he has a micro theory and a macro theory. You now know what the micro theory is. It’s this story here. You might think about it. This diagram is to Marx what the Pareto diagram is to the Pareto system. This is the micro story of exploitation in the same way that the Pareto system is the micro theory of market exchanges.

But at the end of the day, of course, there’s a macro theory as well. As I said, Marx, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo before him, had an invisible hand theory. And I think the easiest way to get a grip on his macro theory is to talk about the five sources of crisis in capitalist systems that he thought followed from his analytical logic. And I’m just going to spell them all out now. None of them is without its problems, and we’ll come back to the problems later today and mostly on Wednesday, but I think it’s better first to see the argument in its totality before we start dismembering it and see what survives and what doesn’t survive closer critical scrutiny.

So in the first instance one of the possible sources of crisis is the existence of money. Now money for Marx is a commodity like anything else. This is, of course, before the era of paper money and anything like that. So money is gold or silver or something like that, and it’s a commodity like any other commodity. Its value is determined by the cost of producing it. So gold is valuable because it takes a lot of work to dig it up, basically, and to refine it.

Obviously for a commodity to function as money it’s got to have certain properties. It’s got to be easily divisible. If we used sheep it’d be kind of hard because if you want to use one leg of a sheep to represent three bottles of wine you’d have to kill the sheep, wouldn’t be very convenient. So money has to be easily divisible and not atrophy and things like that. Those are its properties as a use-value, if you like, but as an exchangeable commodity it’s like anything else.

But once you get a developed market system it depends on money to function, and there’s the ever-present possibility of liquidity crises if people start hoarding money. And he thinks that in times of anxiety and so on people will start to hoard money. We saw this, if you remember, during the financial crisis last year where suddenly banks that had trusted one another for decades and even centuries stopped trusting one another and wouldn’t lend money to one another in ways that they regularly did because they didn’t know whether the other party had the money to lend. And there was a period of several weeks where the entire financial system was in danger of crashing simply from the liquidity crisis that sort of was perched on top of the credit crisis. So once the system becomes completely dependent on money as a medium of exchange there’s the ever-present possibility that people will hoard money and the system will go into a crisis.

Secondly, Marx thinks he’s now understood, better than Smith and Ricardo before him, just why it is that there’s a declining tendency in the rate of profit in capitalist systems. And the answer is in the logic of the system you’ve already worked your way through. So if you go back here, as we move down here to make the system more capital intensive, any given move increases profitability for the person who makes it. So if this is the status quo, and it’s a cotton factory and the capitalist puts in a spinning jenny and makes his wage bill more quickly than anybody else, that leads him to be able to undercut his competitor, and so his profits will go up. But all of the competitors will then make exactly the same innovation themselves. And then once you have spinning-jennies throughout the cotton industry the claim is that the rate of profit in the cotton industry will be lower than before anybody had put in a spinning jenny, okay?

So the idea is, what you do at the margin to improve your profits as a capitalist, leads to the declining rate of profit in the industry as a whole, because as we become more and more capital intensive in the production of cotton we have less and less living human labor-power going into the production of cotton, and it’s only living human labor-power that produces fresh value.

Now you might say, “But doesn’t the spinning jenny produce fresh value?” Marx’s argument is no. The value of the spinning jenny was determined by the labor to produce the spinning jenny, and its value is transferred to the product, but that’s all. It doesn’t produce new value. It’s only the living human labor-power. And the way you need to think about it is that that is less, and less, and less, of the capitalist’s investment as a proportion of his total investment. So living human labor-power, or variable capital, as Marx calls it, is a diminishing proportion of what the capitalist has to invest in order to remain competitive. And so over time profits are going to diminish in very competitive industries because they’ll get more and more productive.

And that’s what we mean in the modern world when we say there’s very little margin in a particular industry. If you want to go into making something like salad dressing, a very saturated market where every gizmo has been tried, you’re going to find miniscule margins; very, very hard. And Marx thinks this is a process going on economy-wide, and so that’s why economy-wide, the rate of profit gradually declines in capitalist systems. And as I said, that’s something that all of the classical economists thought that they had observed, and so any theory worth its name was going to have to account for it. So that’s the second source of crisis, though, because as it becomes harder and harder for capitalists to make a profit many of them are going to go out of business.

And that brings me to the third source of crises in capitalist systems, and it’s basically that competition eliminates competitors. So that the initial market model he starts with is a perfectly competitive one, but what he’s saying is, of course, over time people go out of business at the same time as things are becoming more and more and more capital intensive — another way of putting it is the entry costs become very high.

For instance, in 1984 when the Challenger blew up there was a company called Morton Thiokol that made the O-rings for the Challenger on the rocket boosters. It turned out that the design was faulty. Now you might say, “Well, that was probably the end of Morton Thiokol’s relationship with NASA. Having made such a terrible error they would go to a competitor.” But guess what? Morton Thiokol is still making rocket boosters for NASA. Because the notion that I would say to myself, “Hmm, looks like a good business for me to get into. They’re obviously no good at it. I’ll go start making rocket boosters for NASA,” is laughable because the entry cost is so high. So that’s an example, pretty much, of a monopolistic industry.

So competition leads to innovation, yes, but it also leads to the elimination of competitors as production becomes more and more capital intensive. And once you don’t have competitors you don’t have a reason to innovate, and the basic dynamic of capitalism starts to slow down because monopoly capitalism doesn’t have the same inbuilt incentives for innovation. Remember, the capitalist is not afraid of the worker in Marx’s story. The capitalist is afraid of the capitalist down the street, and once there is no capitalist down the street about to take his business away or her business away then this competitive dynamic starts to atrophy. So that’s a third source of crisis as far as he is concerned.

A fourth source of crisis that Marx identifies, and here he’s pretty much actually following Adam Smith, the way you can think about it most straightforwardly is the workers collectively, if they pooled all of their wages, couldn’t buy what they produce. The workers collectively can’t buy what they produce, and that being the case there’s going to be an endemic problem of weak demand in capitalist economies. There’s not going to be enough demand to satisfy. There’s not going to be enough demand to satisfy the needs of the system in order for everything that’s produced to get sold. 

Big problem. You could say, “Well, doesn’t that just mean wages will rise,” and indeed it does put some upward pressure on wages, but as we said, wages are basically going to be held around subsistence by unemployment, and so there’s not much scope for that, right? Because if wages start to rise you’re then going to have the problem that any capitalist who’s not in the system, or would be capitalist, or want to be capitalist is going to come and hire unemployed workers to work for him or her and so drive wages down.

So this is a problem. It’s why Adam Smith thought you got imperialism, and indeed Marx and Lenin after him all thought one of the reasons you get imperialism is to find markets for the goods that are produced. There were other reasons too, cheap resources and so on, but one of the reasons is the search for new markets, more demand, but that’s a process which has obvious limits because eventually your empire is going to bump into the French empire, and the Belgian empire, and the German empire, and you’re going to fill up the world, and then what do you do? So you can stave it off with imperialism, but the basic underlying problem is that the workers collectively cannot buy what they produce.

Now we see this sort of dynamic plays out in some ways during recessions when there’s not enough demand in the economy, and of course there are things you can do about it. You can do what we did in The Great Depression. The government can borrow money and basically give it to unemployed people by hiring them to do public works, and then they spend it and stimulate demand, or they can try what we’ve been trying to do in the last year and a half. They can try and get the banks to give credit to people to buy things and stimulate demand. But it’s a basic structural problem, Marx thinks, built into the system by the very fact that the workers collectively cannot purchase everything that they produce.

Now you could say, “Well, these are all sort of tendencies, but there are counter tendencies as well, and these problems can be staved off,” imperialism being an example of staving off, the one I’ve just discussed. And Marx is not particularly clear on just which one of these problems is supposed to be decisive. Rather, what he thinks is they’ll all sort of kick in and start to make the system creak at the joints and not work very well. And as that starts to happen, workers will start to get mad because they will start to discover that the system isn’t giving them any particular benefits; the famous line towards the end of The Communist Manifesto that you all read: “Workers will come to realize that they have nothing to lose but their chains.”

The system that has given them certain benefits will give them fewer and fewer benefits as competition becomes more cutthroat. Their employers are working with narrower and narrower margins. They’re unable to buy the luxury goods that they see all around them, and so they’ll start to become angry, and that leads us to the discussion we had last time where we see that Marx wants to say that their declining relative share of the total product is eventually going to make them militant.

And so the image is of a system becoming less and less dynamic, a smaller and smaller number of monopolies in every industry, capitalists who are going out of business falling down into the working class bringing all their resentments with them, and finally the system starts to reach the point where it just can’t function, and that’s when he thinks the socialist revolution becomes both possible and necessary. And so you will get some sort of revolutionary moment, and the workers will take over the state, and the small remaining number of monopoly capitalists will be put out of business, the means of production will be nationalized and then socialism will exist.

Chapter 3. Features of Socialism and Capitalism [00:23:36]

So that’s the story that he’s telling. Now I want to zero in on a few features of socialism and communism before we start, and then we’ll come back and talk about the difficulties with this argument. Socialism for Marx is not an equilibrium any more than capitalism is. Socialism is not a system that is without its own internal contradictions according to Marx. And the reason is as he says here,

What we have to deal with is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from a capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, (now he’s talking about after a socialist revolution) the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it.

So another way you might put this is workmanship is no longer hypocritical. Under socialism the worker really gets back what he’s put in. “He receives a certificate from society that he’s furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost.”

So you have what he describes here as the rights that workers get to what they’ve produced, he says, it’s “still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.” Don’t worry about that last phrase, but what he’s saying here is that principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads. What he means is the worker is being recompensed for his work, right? Whereas, under capitalism the worker appears to be being recompensed for his work, but in fact some of what he produces is accruing to the capitalist.

So that’s the difference. Principle and practice are at loggerheads under capitalism. It professes the idea that we’re entitled to what we make, whereas under socialism we, in fact, do get what we make, and in that sense, socialism is an advance on capitalism. But he says, “In spite of this advance, the equal right is still constantly stigmatized as a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.”

Now what does all that mean? It’s rather contorted language, but just look at a little more of the contorted language, and then I’ll explain in words of one syllable what it means. This is from The Critique of the Gotha Programme, and what he wants to say is even if you reward people equally, even if you reward people equally for their work, there’s going to be inequality in the society. So he says, look,

One man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time (works harder), or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor.

So if some of us are stronger than others and we get paid according to how much work we do some of us are going to get more than others, right? “An equal right to unequal labor.”

It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else (once we get to socialism); but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on.

So if you think about a system in which there is no longer a capitalist, but people are rewarded on the basis of work there’s still going to be inequality because some people have more effective capacities to work than others, and because some people have more demands on them than others. If you have more children to feed than somebody else earning the same amount, it’s going to leave you relatively worse off.

So socialism is not a condition of equality because there is this right based upon labor. And he says,

These defects are inevitable in the first phase of a communist society (which is socialism) as it is when it has just emerged of the prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also, the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs;” that is the definition of the distributive principle under communism, whereas under socialism it’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” So socialism is not hypocritical with respect to the workmanship ideal, because unlike capitalism the workers get rewarded for their work, but it’s still an unequal society because people are differently abled, and people have different demands to meet. And so finally we have to get to the abolition of the very idea of rights in order to get to the communist idea of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

So that’s the Marxian story. I’m sorry I put such long quotations up there, but I think you need them to get a flavor of how he was actually thinking about it. There are these interaction crises all of them making one another worse, declining profits, liquidity crisis, more and more militant workers, and so on and so forth. Finally you get an increase in consciousness, this socialist takeover. It’s still an unequal system, but it has the capacity for superabundance, “For cooperative wealth to flow more abundantly,” and so we can abolish the idea of right completely and just distribute on the basis of needs.

Now I want to start digging into this in a critical way to show you all of the things that are wrong with it, but this is in the spirit of how we treated utilitarianism. That is to say, we’re going to see all of the things that are wrong with his argument, in the same way that we did with Bentham and Mill, in order then to see if there’s any surviving intuition.

And I want to start with this concept of needs. One of the reasons Marx and his followers were so focused on needs was that they were convinced that in order to keep itself going, capitalism manufactures pseudo-wants all the time. We already saw there’s this problem with insufficient demand. You’ve got to get people to want things. You’ve got to get people to believe if you don’t have the latest whatever-it-is, you’re a schmuck. My son looks at my Blackberry Tour and he says, “How can you use a phone like that? Nobody uses those anymore. You’ve got to have a Google phone, and if you don’t have a Google phone you’re just a complete loser.” That’s his view of the matter.

And because there’s this problem of weak demand there’s this built in emphasis to constantly manufacture demand for things that nobody needs. But the impulse to create all of these phony needs will go away once you don’t need capitalism to innovate. So once you don’t have capitalism, you don’t need people to constantly think that they have to have the latest gizmo. You don’t need to try and get people to think of the 27 kinds of dishwashing liquid in Stop and Shop. This one’s better than that one. All these manufactured artificial needs are an artifact of the problem that we have to keep capitalism going, and once that goes away we can think about people having finite needs. And so if society reaches a certain level of abundance then those needs can be met.

Who thinks that’s a terrible argument? Okay, what’s bad about it? Take the — over here, yeah?

Student: It just doesn’t seem like a good model of human nature and it puts a limit on how much you can want.

Professor Ian Shapiro: It what?

Student: It puts a limit on how much you can want. It seems like everyone has to want the same amount of things.

Professor Ian Shapiro: I think those are good points. What else is wrong with it? I mean, surely it’s true that some of the things — there is a difference between wants and needs, and a lot of our wants are very frivolous, right? There are a lot of things that we want. A neoclassical system doesn’t differentiate because we don’t allow interpersonal judgments of utility, right? So Trump thinks that he needs the next hundred million dollars and you might say, “He might want it, but he doesn’t need it.” But what’s wrong with that? I just want you to elaborate on what you were saying, or somebody else elaborate on what you were saying. Yeah?

Student: It’s hard to know how the government will decide what people need and what they just want.

Professor Ian Shapiro: You’re troubled by the idea of the government deciding what people will need and what they just want. I think that’s fair enough, but I think Marx in his most utopian moments — after all, one of the differences between socialism and communism is, there is no government under communism. There’s a withering away of the state. So his idea, I think, is there’s just going to be all this super — all these goodies everywhere and people will just take what they need.

Student: Where does the abundance come from, also? That’s another problem.

Professor Ian Shapiro: It’s been made possible by capitalism. The productivity of capitalism will have…

Student: And then it gets used up and then there’s no more capitalism to create more.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, so you’re saying we might go to superabundance, but then fall back from it. Yeah, I think those are good criticisms. So why will there be continuing abundance? I think that’s a fair criticism, but I think there’s a more fundamental problem with it, and that is in distinguishing wants from needs you could say, “Look,” — even before you get to those problems which you both raised serious questions for it, but even before you get to those questions, somebody might say, “Look. We can at least define needs by what people require in order to survive.” Surely if we want to distinguish wants from needs we make a distinction between things that if you don’t get them you’re going to die versus things that if you don’t get them you might not be that happy, but you’re not going to die.

What about that? Who thinks that that would solve Marx’s problem? Anybody? Why wouldn’t it? Who thinks it wouldn’t? You just said we’re going to reach a level of productivity where we can produce what people need in order to survive, and then we could get rid of the regime of rights. I think Marx makes a very valid point when he says, “Any regime of rights is a regime of inequality.” Yeah?

Student: Well, I think that’s kind of keeping with the same thing they had during capitalism. Like if it’s still just subsistence level, if that’s what you need then that’s the same thing the workers had under capitalism. It’s not really making communism a better society for the people.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, so you’re saying a world in which people only meet their needs may not be a better world.

Student: Yeah.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, I think that might be a fair criticism. He wants to say the alternative is that we’re all like these rats on wheels running faster and faster to get less and less benefit. So unless we can accept finitude, that we live for a fixed time, and if we can’t come to grips with the fact that we are finite creatures we’re never going to be happy.

So I think that’s the debate that he would want to have with you, but I think that even within Marx’s own terms of reference there’s a different problem and that is this. Suppose you said, “All right, we’ll grant you, as a matter of the philosophy of it, we’ll grant you, Karl Marx, the proposition that needs are defined by what is necessary for people’s survival, and that they should somehow be more important than Trump — frivolous wants that might make life better, but still in-all making my life better by letting me have a nice car is less important than preventing somebody from starving when it really gets down to it. And so we could make this distinction between needs and wants in that sense.

But here’s the problem. Even if we’re only trying to meet people’s needs defined in that narrow sense of keeping people alive, there’s still endemic scarcity. This notion of superabundance doesn’t make any sense. Just think about it for a minute. Money that we spend on dialysis machines is money that we don’t spend on heart transplants or AIDS research. So no matter how much wealth there is, there are still distributive choices to make in this society. There’s still going to be the problem that we’re going to say, “Well, if we choose to protect needs A, B and C, anyone who needs dialysis should get free dialysis.” Whether we make it explicit or implicit is beside the point. Somebody who needs something else to keep them alive is not going to get it. We’re not going to do research on cancer because we’re spending that next marginal dollar doing research on the causes of AIDS.

So once you see that point, then the notion of superabundance becomes incoherent. There is no such thing as superabundance. And without superabundance you can’t get a world beyond entitlements explicit or implicit. You’re never going to transcend the world of scarcity. Once you see that meeting needs, even defined in this minimal way of what’s necessary to keep people alive, involves tradeoffs, what you’re really saying is that scarcity is endemic to the human condition.

And this is the deepest analytical flaw in Marx’s normative theory. Because once you say that scarcity is endemic to the human condition you can’t get away from distributive conflict. You’ve got to find some way whether it’s a system of rights, whether it’s the market, whether it’s the government making decisions about who needs what, somebody or some mechanism is going to make those decisions, right? So you reach the proposition that scarcity is endemic to the human condition and you have to reason about what makes sense taking that for granted.

In a way it’s ironic that Marx was so blind to this because Marx was the person who said, “Human nature’s not static. It evolves through history. We develop and change,” and so you would think he of all people would see that the fact that in 1886, the natural life expectancy was, whatever it was, forty-six years, why that shouldn’t be taken as a given, or the biblical three score years and ten be taken as a given for that matter. But you’ll never reach a condition in which scarcity can be transcended, and that’s the ultimate hope behind his utopianism.

So it’s not that I disagree with any of the points you folks made. I think they’re all correct. There are other reasons that you would question it, but the reason this particular argument, I think, cuts at the roots of his theory is that it’s the most favorable interpretation of his account of needs, right? There’s no more favorable interpretation than limiting them to survival, and even on that account we can’t get to a world of superabundance. We will always live in a world of scarcity, and that means that whatever you have to say about distribution has to take that for granted.

This is, I think, as powerful a point as the point we made when we came to the end of our discussion of Mill, to the effect that you can’t get the politics out of the definition of harm, right? There’s no neutral way to define harm. Another way of thinking about this is it’s a way of trying to transcend politics, right? One of Engels, not Marx, but never mind Engels was stating a Marxian view, was that the great thing about socialism and communism is that politics gets displaced by administration. That you don’t have to worry about distributive conflict in this story because there’s superabundance, right? And in Mill’s account you don’t have to worry about the definition of harm in his case because there will be a neutral scientific account. Neither of them works. So we have a world in which there have to be political choices about distributive questions. Some say leave it to the market, but that is itself a political choice. We’ll have more to say about that.

So the beginning of the end of Marxism is, I think, the recognition that scarcity is endemic to the human condition. What we will do on Wednesday is explore and unpack some other difficulties with his argument and then see whether and what the remaining insights might be. See you then.

[end of transcript]

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