PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics
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PLSC 118 - Lecture 9 - The Marxian Challenge
Chapter 1. Marx and the Enlightenment [00:00:00]
Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, good morning. We’re going to make the transition today to talking about Marxism, the second of the three Enlightenment traditions that we’re going to consider in the first part of this course. And I should warn you at the outset that I have something of a heterodox view of Marx.
I have something of a heterodox view of Marx in that if you went and read, for instance, there’s a book by a man called Graeme Duncan called Marx and Mill. He basically, his story line is that Marx and Mill operate with fundamentally opposed paradigms, paradigms meaning foundational assumptions, so that Marx and Mill make completely incommensurable and incompatible assumptions about how the world works, and the political theory that can flow from those assumptions. And so to some extent they are, he thinks on all the big questions, speaking past one another. That they’re basically you can’t adjudicate, if you like, the disagreements between them in part because he thinks they’re speaking from fundamentally opposed paradigms.
I think that view couldn’t be more wrongheaded. Marx and Mill are creatures of the Enlightenment, both, and therefore we will find in examining Marx, that just like all of the utilitarians we’ve already considered so far, they’re both committed to basing politics on a scientific theory of human association, and to committing themselves to individual freedom as the basic and most important principle of politics.
Now, so let’s, before we get into the details of Marx’s own argument, let’s say a few general things about Marx as an Enlightenment thinker. And if we think about the Enlightenment thinkers first of all as committed to science there’s no question that Marx was committed to a scientific theory of politics. If you read his attack on Proudhon and the utopian socialists, for example, it was all about attacking them for being unscientific in their thinking. It was all about rejecting sentimentalism or wishful thinking in trying to understand what was feasible and what was not feasible in politics.
So Marx has a scientific conception. Of course it doesn’t come within a country mile of the scientific conceptions we saw both among early Enlightenment theorists like Bentham, or mature Enlightenment theorists like Mill. Rather, Marx is committed to something called the materialist conception of history. And the materialist conception of history is the idea that, to use another one of his rather impenetrable phrases, he’s committed to the idea of dialectical materialism.
You might say, “Well, what is dialectical materialism?” This comes from the idea first articulated by a German philosopher called Hegel that history moves in a kind of zigzag of fits and starts. The dialectical idea is that some change gets made, some innovation gets made. This, though, breeds a kind of undertow, a resistance against the change, the first change, and then you get as a result of the initial change, the undertow, the kind of pushback, but which isn’t the same as a pushback to where you started from, you get a new starting point.
So Hegel’s famous terms were thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The thesis is a change. So you get, say, the transition from serfdom to a market-based society. Then you get resistance to that market-based society. You get a new working class comes into being, let’s say, and then that working class becomes the agent of a new change that will produce its own antithesis and new synthesis. So history goes like this, if you like. It doesn’t go in a straight line, but it goes in a direction. It goes forward in some sense. And Hegel’s idea had been that history eventually reaches an ending point, and he thought the ending point was the Prussian state of his day. He thought all of history was evolving toward this supreme highest point of the Prussian state of his day, and it was guided by the working out of ideas in history.
Marx turns this on his head; on its head I should say, not on his head. Marx turns it on its head saying, “Well, yes history goes in this kind of zigzag direction of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and then the synthesis becomes the new thesis and so on, and yes, it has an endpoint (which he thinks is a communist utopia), but it’s not driven by ideas. It’s not driven by ideas at all. Instead it’s driven by material interest.” So that’s why Marx’s view is sometimes called, as I said, dialectical materialism. It’s driven by material interest, or as Bill Clinton did put it in the 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
“It’s the economy, stupid.” That’s the basic idea behind materialism that ideas, culture, beliefs, all of that stuff is what Marx referred to as superstructure. It’s not really important. What is important is the economic base, so that economic interests drive everything over time. And if you want to understand how a political system works you better understand the economic system.
So in this sense it’s a very different view than Bentham, or Mill, or any of these folks because they’re really working in the realm of ideas, right? They’re not Hegelians to be sure, but they think that this idea of shaping society in terms of their utilitarian calculus can be used in order to reorganize things. For Marx that would be a completely absurd agenda. You have to start with the economy. It’s the economy, stupid. You have to understand what the power of forces are in the economy and what the tensions and possibilities are within the economy before you can understand anything else about politics.
And in that respect I think one thing you should really get straight right away is just what Marx thought about capitalism. How many people here thought Marx was against capitalism? Marx was against capitalism? Almost nobody? Max wasn’t against capitalism? How many think he wasn’t against capitalism? One? Why do you think he wasn’t against capitalism? Just get to a mic.
Student: He wasn’t against capitalism because Marx thought capitalism was a necessary step in getting to socialism.
Professor Ian Shapiro: You’re exactly right. So what Marx thought about capitalism was, and we’re going to understand the reasons for this in detail in the next couple of lectures, that for a certain phase of history it was essential. He thought capitalism was the most innovative, dynamic, productive mode of production that had ever been dreamed up, and there was no way you could even think abut a socialist or a communist society developing unless you had capitalism first. And Marx would have had absolutely no sympathy for the Russian Revolution which was done in a peasant society, or the Chinese communist system either. He would have said they were completely premature because in the end it’s going to be capitalism which is necessary to generate the wherewithal to make socialism possible. So he wouldn’t have had any sympathy with the Leninist or Stalinist projects, which we’ll talk about later.
So he’s not against capitalism. What he thinks about capitalism is that it’s sawing off the branch it’s sitting on over time. That is to say there are basic contradictions within the way capitalism works, and indeed the very things that make capitalism the most productive mode of production ever to have existed in human history at one point, those very same dynamics ultimately will undermine it. So in that sense don’t think of him as simply against capitalism. He, rather, wants to understand the dynamics process that brings capitalism into being, leads it to maturity, and eventually leads it to self-destruct. And that is the story that he’s going to tell us.
So he has a scientific theory. It’s a materialist theory, and it’s based on this metaphor of the base and superstructure. People have come up with other metaphors, skeleton and flesh and so on, but you can play with them. But the core idea is that it’s the material relations that shape everything else.
More controversially, though, people might say, is to say, “Well, Marx is really a believer in individual rights and freedoms.” Most people say, “What? Marx, a believer in individual rights and Marx thinking that freedom is important?” Most people say, “No, Marx is an egalitarian. Marx is all about equality.” And one of the things I’m going to suggest to you in my exposition of Marx is that that is basically wrongheaded. You’ll see that when we come to talk about his idea of a communist utopia one of his bumper stickers for that is the claim that, “The free development of each is a condition for the free development of all.”
“The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” So he’s an egalitarian in the sense that, yes, he wants everybody to have freedom, and he thinks that that is denied to many people in most forms of social organization. But freedom is the most important value, nonetheless, and he wants to assure it for everybody.
And related to that, you’ll see when we come to talk about on Wednesday or next Monday the labor theory of value, that the basic thing that drives Marx is a theory of alienation from our true selves. We can’t be free unless we’re at one with our true selves. And every system of social organization before communism, in his view, makes it impossible for us to be at one with our true selves. We are alienated from our true natures as productive creatures by the way in which society is organized, and that’s the basic problem. So we’re denied our capacity for free action, according to Marx, and he thinks we can never realize it until we reach this communist utopia.
So the takeaway point is going to be that Marx is an Enlightenment theorist par excellence. Passe people like Duncan it’s simply not correct to see him as doing something fundamentally different than the real Enlightenment thinkers such as Mill and Bentham. Marx is an Enlightenment thinker, and when you want to see radical critiques of the Enlightenment you have to go to people like Burke and other anti-Enlightenment thinkers who we’re going to be getting to after spring break.
A second point related to Marx and individual rights and freedoms is you’re going to see that we’re going to go back to our discussion of Locke, and you’re going to discover that Marx is a true Lockean believer in the workmanship ideal, not in his theory of science, but in his theory of rights and entitlements. Marx is going to embrace a kind of doctrine of self-ownership and the idea that we own what we make as the basis for his theory of exploitation, because his theory of exploitation is going to turn on the claim that people are, in fact, denied the fruits of their own labor because of the way that the system is set up.
Well, you could say, “So what? Why should we care that people are denied the fruits of their own labor unless they’re entitled to the fruits of their own labor,” and indeed that is Marx’s view. So you will see that — I was once accused of belittling Marx by calling him a minor post-Lockean, but with respect to the labor theory of value you will see that the main conceptual ideas that go into it are straight out of Locke’s Second Treatise and it’s straight out of the workmanship ideal.
What Marx is going to try and do, when we get to the labor theory of value, is give a secular version of the workmanship ideal. And indeed, developing a viable secular version of the workmanship ideal is a project with at least as long a history as the history of utilitarianism, and at least as fraught with difficulties as the history of utilitarianism. And we will see when we get to Rawls, an even more radical attempt than Marx to develop secular version of the labor theory of value and the workmanship model, and the difficulties it runs into. So Marx, we will see, is the first in a long line of people who tried to secularize the workmanship ideal by creating this labor theory of value that’s going to have a rather checkered future as we explore it into the twentieth century.
So that’s where we’re heading. We’re going to explore Marx as an Enlightenment thinker by means of three lectures, and the first one is going to deal with Marx and the challenge of classical political economy. Now, why do I say that? Because really there are two Marxes. If you were taking a course in the history of ideas that had more than three lectures on Marx, what you would discover is a lot of attention to his German roots. I’ve already mentioned that he was a disciple and critic of Hegel, the German idealist philosopher, but much of his writing until the mid-nineteenth century was inspired by his critique of Hegel’s other followers and disciples, and we’re pretty much not going to deal with that. We’re not going to deal with the German Marx. We’re not, by in large, going to deal with the young Marx.
Rather, what happened to him was Marx thought — you may or may not know this, but in the 1830s there were revolutions across Europe. Kings and queens were kicked out of office and democracy came to power. And Marx and many of those around him thought this is the beginning of the end of capitalism. By 1832 or 1833, all of those democratic revolutions had failed, and the monarchies had been restored across Europe. But then in 1848 there was another whole series of revolutions across Europe, and once again Marx thought maybe this is the beginning of the end, and had great faith and optimism that that was going to be the case.
But by 1851 those revolutions had all, again, failed and the monarchs were back in power. And Marx, after that, became steadily more dejected and steadily more skeptical over his remaining years that, in fact, he was going to see a communist revolution in his lifetime. And rather, he invested in the project of trying to understand capitalism in a much more systematic way than he had done in his youth.
He was kicked out of Germany. He couldn’t go to France and he wound up in London, and he lived the last decades of his life in London, and in fact died and was buried there. If you’re ever in London you can go up to Highgate Cemetery on the Northern Line. It’s a very interesting cemetery. There are all kinds of interesting people there. George Eliot is there. Anyway, there is Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. It’s all overgrown and very interesting.
Anyway, he spent his last decades working in the basement of the British Museum, and that’s where he composed his magnum opus, his three-volume work Das Kapital. It was actually envisaged as a twelve-volume work, and the only volume that was published in his lifetime was actually volume one. The second and third volumes were put together by his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. And unfortunately for us the volumes about politics were never written. So you have to, to some extent, put together his mature views about politics from scraps he wrote here and there, and some of the short pieces about politics that do appear in the early volumes.
Chapter 2. Marx’s Intellectual Biography [00:20:27]
So we’re going to mostly focus on the mature Marx. We’re mostly going to focus on Marx as he set himself the task of understanding the dynamics of capitalism after he had pretty much given up on his youthful enthusiasm for the quick transformation of the world into socialist and then communist societies, which he had basically started to shed after 1848 with a brief revival of interest in 1870 given events in France, but basically it was a trajectory from youthful optimism into mature pessimism, at least from his point of view.
Okay, so what he did was, he said to himself, “Well, what is it that people are involved in — who are engaged in the serious systematic analysis of capitalism?” And here we tend to present Marx as an unorthodox or radical thinker, but in fact he was a very conventional thinker for his day. That is to say Marx was a follower of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and he saw himself largely as tackling and refining the theories that they developed.
And what I want to do with the rest of our time this morning is say something about the project of classical political economy that Marx inherited and contributed to, and why he thought getting the basic problems that the classical political economists were trying to solve solved would enable us to understand what the real conditions were that would eventually lead to the collapse of capitalism.
The most important feature of capitalism, as far as Adam Smith was concerned in The Wealth of Nations and his followers after him, was the division of labor. The division of labor is really important because it has two features. One, as far as Marx will be concerned, it begins the process of alienating us from ourselves. Why does it do that? Â It does that because, instead of producing things that we then consume, we start producing things in a situation where we divide up tasks and that makes it impossible for us to live rounded lives. That’s ultimately where it’s going to go.
But second, and much more important from the point of view of economics, is that the division of labor is the engine of productivity. The more you engage in the division of labor the more productive you make people. And Smith has this wonderful example right near the beginning of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about a pin factory. Smith has been going around England trying to understand where the dynamism in the English economy is, and he gives this description of a pin factory. He says,
One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head. To make the head requires two or three distinct operations. To put it on is a peculiar business. To whiten the pins is another. It is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper. And the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations.
As a result of that division of labor, though, Smith calculated that ten workers could make 48,000 pins a day, but if they had all worked separately and independently all they could have produced was a few dozen. So that basic insight of Smith’s, that it’s the division of labor that is the engine of capitalist productivity, sets the terms for Adam Smith’s analysis of markets in The Wealth of Nations, for Ricardo’s refinement, and for Marx’s refinement of both of their arguments in Das Kapital.
Chapter 3. The Project of Classical Political Economy [00:25:19]
So what was the project of classical political economy? What was it that Marx was stepping into and trying to contribute to? Well, one way of describing it, as I have it here, is, it was the search for theories of natural and market — I’ve got theories there twice, sorry — search for theories of natural and market wages, prices, rents, and profits. They wanted to understand what determines wages, prices, rents, and profits, but they thought you had to have a theory of natural wages, prices, rents, and profits, and market wages, prices, rents, and profits.
Now, let’s focus on prices, because the way the other three are treated is basically by analogy to the analysis of pricing. A modern neoclassical economist would say, “There is no natural price of anything.” A modern neoclassical economist would say, “What determines prices is supply and demand in the market. There is nothing else to say about prices.” And they gave up the notion that there’s any natural theory of wages, prices, rents, and profits to be found. So a big difference between the classical theorists, and the modern theorists, is this idea that there’s a theory of natural prices.
Now, why would they think there’s a theory of natural prices? The reason they thought there was a theory of natural prices was they were arguing with people like the physiocrats and the trade theorists about where value comes from. What is the source of value? The physiocrats in France said the source of value is the land, that somehow it gets transferred to the products. Whereas the trade theorists, who had been impressed that countries like Holland which had so little land but had become so rich said, “No. Value comes from trade.” So they were all sort of saying, “Where is the it? What is the source of value?” And the English theorists following Locke, Petty — Sir William Petty, John Locke, Hobbes, all believed that the way you find value is to go into labor; that work, workmanship is the source of value. So all classical political economists, Smith, Ricardo and Marx believed in the labor theory of value, and they counter posed it to theories based on trade, or the physiocrats’ theories that were popular in France, as I’ve said.
So that’s one reason, but another is that it’s not the case that they were ignorant of the laws of supply and demand. So and we’ll see how Marx handles them on Wednesday. It’s not the case that they’re ignorant of the laws of supply and demand, but they thought it couldn’t possibly tell you the whole story. So you can think about it this way. Suppose there is a dearth in the supply of coffee mugs? The price will go up. They didn’t disagree with that, right? And if there are too many coffee mugs, more coffee mugs than anybody wants, the price will go down. Maybe somebody will realize you an drill holes in the bottom and then use them to grow plants in, and then maybe the price would go up a bit because there will be more. But they thought that supply and demand fluctuate with what it is that people actually want.
They didn’t have any problem with that notion, but still in all they thought there must be something that will tell you what the price is when supply and demand are in equilibrium. Another way you can think about it is supply and demand go up and down, but they go up and down around some point, and what tells you what that point is? Okay, that’s what the labor theory of value was supposed to do. That’s the natural price. I think a modern economist might call it the long-run equilibrium price. That’s one way in which if you wanted to find an analogy in modern economic thinking to this classical idea of a natural price, it’s the long-run equilibrium price. It’s the price of a commodity when supply and demand are in equilibrium.
So the labor theory of value was a theory of that. It was going to tell you what the long-run equilibrium price of a commodity would be, okay? And all of the classical political economists were trying to have a theory of that. So when you read “natural prices,” that’s what you should think. They’re trying to understand what — not marginal changes in the sense of a Pareto diagram, but the long-run changes given the marginal fluctuations around some point. The question is, what is that point? And that’s what the labor theory of value was designed to give you. It was a theory, in that sense, of natural prices, not a theory of market prices. They thought you had to have both. Supply and demand gave you the market price. The labor theory of value gave you the natural price.
A second big problem that framed the project of classical political economy was that they all believed, as they looked around them, that there was a declining tendency in the rate of profit. This was taken as a given; as a given, widely-accepted empirical fact. And so if it was the case that the rate of profit tends to decline over time, it can be offset by various things and so on which we will talk about, but if it’s the case that the rate of profit in capitalist economies declines over time, your theory isn’t going to be worth a damn unless you can explain why.
So one of the tests, if you like, of a good theory, as far as Smith was concerned, as far as Ricardo was concerned, and as far as Marx was concerned, was it had to explain the declining tendency in the rate of profit. And Smith had an account, Ricardo had an account, and Marx had an account. They all differed somewhat. They all overlapped in some ways. We’ll see part of the reason all three of them thought you would have to have imperialism was you needed new markets to offset this problem of the declining tendency in the rate of profit at home, but that was only going to be a temporary stopgap or solution. But in any event, your theory wasn’t going to be worth anything unless it could explain why prices are what they are, the theory of long-run equilibrium prices, and second, unless it gave a credible account of why profits fall in capitalist systems over time.
Now, a third conceptual point to make that you need in order to understand the project of classical political economy as Marx understood it is actually related to the first point, but I’m just singling it out because people sometimes get confused about it. It’s a distinction that Marx makes between use-value and exchange value. Sometimes you’ll see Marx uses the word value with a big V. You should just read that as exchange value. So value with a big V is exchange value.
So what is the difference between use-value and exchange value? Well, for Marx use-value is utility. That’s all it is. Use-value is simply usefulness. And he has a kind of binary theory of use-value. Either things have use value or they don’t. So coffee cups have a use-value, you can drink out of them. If somebody drilled holes in the bottom of them they would have no use-value until somebody came along and said, “Well, we can use them to grow plants,” then they would have use-value. So things either have use-value or they don’t, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.
And that’s going to affect the supply and demand, but it’s not going to explain the price. It’s not going to explain the long-run equilibrium price. That is the exchange value and that is what we learn about from the labor theory of value as far as Marx was concerned. So it’s the labor theory of value explains the price, and is not to be confused with the use-value or utility of an object. Again, one important difference, and maybe the most important difference between classical political economy and neoclassical political economy is, we will see later, the neoclassical people shed the labor theory of value and so there is no exchange value independent of utility, but we’ll get to that. That’s getting ahead of ourselves. When you’re concerned with the classical formulations, and in the nineteenth century, exchange value or price, or value with a big V, is determined by the labor theory of value and use-value is usefulness.
And that brings me to Marx’s definition of a commodity. A commodity has a very special meaning for Marx. It’s something that is produced for exchange. So if you plant an apple tree and you grow apples in order to eat them, you’re producing for consumption, those apples are not commodities. But if you plant an apple tree and grow apples and sell them, then those apples are commodities, right? And something is a commodity if it’s produced for exchange. And that’s very important because once you have a division of labor you have more and more commodity production.
And you might recall in my very first lecture I said that one of the things Marx shares in common with Bentham is he’s somebody who pushes the idea he has to the absolute extreme and then even beyond that. So what we’re going to see happen with Marx and commodification is exactly analogous to Bentham and utility. That Bentham says, “How would the world look if utility maximization was the only game in town, if there was nothing else at all?” and so his theory runs. With Marx it’s, “How would the world look if commodification was the only game in town?” Everything in a capitalist system becomes a commodity, even the worker himself. Â Even the worker himself. And when we start to understand the dynamics of capitalist production we’ll see that the analysis of the value of a worker is no different than the analysis of the value of the pin that the worker produces in Adam Smith’s factory. So he takes this idea of commodification and pushes it to the hilt.
So I think if you think about those four features of the project of classical political economy it gives you a sense of what was in Marx’s head as he set off to try and understand the dynamics of capitalist systems. And what he did was, he said, “Well, we have to understand, first of all, how capitalist systems look to the participants, because the way in which they look to the participants is not the same as the way in which they really work.” So there’s a basic distinction, if you like, between appearance and reality. The way in which people think market systems work isn’t the way in which they actually work.
So it’s a little like Bentham saying, “You might think you’re not motivated by utility and all the rest of it, but in fact you are, and the rare case is we get it right, not the rare case is that we get it wrong.” In this sense Marx, like Bentham, is an objectivist. He thinks he’s describing scientifically the laws of motion of capitalist systems regardless of whether the participants in those systems understand these laws of motion, and for the most part they don’t. Indeed he’s going to claim ultimately that a socialist revolution differs from all others because for the first time in history, people understand the social relations that they’re part of, and so can self-consciously transform them and create an unalienated social order.
So at the beginning of volume one of Kapital he’s basically saying, “How does it look to the participants?” Well, if you have a division of labor, you look around, what do you actually see? You see people producing commodities. They exchange those commodities for money, and then they use that money to buy other commodities, which they consume. So you have these cycles of exchange; commodity, money, commodity, right? So the person working growing apples, sells the apples for money, and then uses the money to buy milk and eggs and so on, in the simplest case, right? So if someone landed from Mars in the middle of a capitalist economy, that’s what they would see; all of these people producing things, exchanging those things for money, and buying other things which they then consume, right? That was the idea.
But then if you look a little bit more carefully, you see that actually some people are doing something entirely different. Most people are producing commodities, exchanging the commodities for money and then using the money to buy other commodities that they consume. But Marx says, “Some people are doing something different. They’re taking some money, buying a commodity (in this case the labor of the worker for a certain time) and then selling what gets produced for more money.” So they’re not interested in consumption it doesn’t seem, at least at first sight. And indeed, if you look even more closely you’ll see that when they do that, the money they end up with is more than the money they started with. M prime is bigger than M.
And the question, the organizing question of Das Kapital — and it was the question that preoccupied Adam Smith and David Ricardo before Marx, and as I said, in this sense he was completely orthodox classical theorist, his radicalism comes in later. The question is where does prime come from? What makes profit possible? You’re not going to explain why profits decline, after all, if you can’t understand where profit comes from. What is the origin of profit? That’s the basic problem.
The transformation of money into capital has to be developed on the basis of the immanent laws of the exchange of commodities, in such a way that the starting point is the exchange of equivalents. The money-owner who is as yet only the capitalist in larval form, must buy his commodities at their value, sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at the beginning. His emergence as a butterfly must, and yet must not, take place in the sphere of circulation. These are the conditions of the problem.
A very famous passage at the beginning of Kapital telling us that if you want to understand why the capitalist winds up with more you have to understand the source of value, because there’s no cheating; equivalents exchange for equivalents in every one of those cycles. It’s not that somehow the worker is tricked into selling his labor power for less than its worth. On the contrary, he’s paid exactly what its worth.
So once you can understand that puzzle of how, when equivalents exchange for equivalents, new value is still nonetheless created, then you understand the secret to where profit comes from, you know the source of value, and you can begin the process of understanding the dynamic productiveness of capitalism and why it will eventually start to fall apart. And we will dig into those subjects on Wednesday.
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