What does the marxian analysis of capitalism really tell us about why capitalism is problematic?

Hi, Dr. Wolff I have a question about your video series “Introduction to Marxian Theory.” I am a concerned leftist with some philosophical training, and I’m finally deciding to try to understand this Marx fellow everybody keeps talking about. Your series is great because it reduces the complexity of Marx’s arguments in Capital. I have some questions though. Let me recap some of the main points of the series. First, you note that Marx was critical of capitalism because its failure to achieve the spirit of the French Revolution mantra: “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” You don’t specify precisely what is meant by the spirit of this mantra, but we can assume it is the kind of society that leftists generally want: where everybody is taken care of because we all work together in solidarity against the urges of individualist greed, fascist violence, racism, sexism, and the rest of it. The Marxian analysis you present does not, in fact, tell us anything about (a) what a desirable or just society would look like or (b) how to achieve that desirable or just society. The Marxian analysis is solely supposed to be just that: an analysis of societies generally and capitalism more specifically to understand, from a certain perspective, how they function. Okay, so now we move on to the analysis. It goes like this. First, we note the empirically universal truth that in every society there are people who work, and there are people who do not. We could instantly raise the question of what counts as “work.” You suggest that some people do not work but instead might “sing for amusement” or they might “stand around with a big stick” to protect the group from violent outsiders. In other words, you seem to say that some kinds of activity should count as “work” and others shouldn’t. I’m not super worried about how to properly draw this distinction, but I do note that at the moment, it is vague without any further elaboration. (You at one point says that work produces the “basic goods and services” of society, but again, it would be controversial at best to say that singing and protecting a border don’t in some obvious sense count as “basic services”). Okay, so then you note the following almost tautological truth: if those who do not work consume, then they must consume surplus value produced by those who work. As an example, if a child does not work but does in fact consume, then the child must be consuming the products of other people’s labor. There does not appear to be any question that this is trivially true. Then, you claim that Marx argues that in every society we can see five different class structures, three of which Marx claims are “exploitative.” Now, this word exploitative does not, in Marx’s usage, imply anything normative. As we will see in a moment, it is merely a word used to designate a particular kind of arrangement. Five types of societies: (1) Communism. In a communist system (communist only in Marx’s usage), a bunch of people (not necessarily all people) work and they themselves distribute the fruits of their labor themselves. They are both the producers and the ones who choose how to distribute their produced things. They make these choices collectively. Now, just to remind my readers, just because Marx calls this arrangement “communism” does not necessarily mean it is good. There could be a communist arrangement in which those who produce and distribute simply ignore their obligations toward those who cannot, or fail, to produce; maybe, for example, they just neglect to take care of their kids! There would be, on Marx’s definition, no reason why this would not still count as a “communist” system. Thus, we must remember that “Communism” in this usage merely designates a system in which a group of people collectively produce and collectively distribute the fruits of their labor. (2) “Ancient” societies. This poorly chosen word designates those societies where each individual is self-sustaining. Each person produces their own goods and their own surplus which they distribute by themselves to whoever they wish. Note also that nothing about this kind of society implies that it is actually desirable or good. (3) Slavery. In slavery, there are slaves and masters. The slaves are themselves the property of the master. Everything the slave produces is “instantly and automatically” the property of the master, and the master may decide how much to give back of the produce, usually enough to keep their property alive. (4) Feudalism. In Feudalism, there are lords and serfs. The serfs are legally (by threat of violence) obliged to work half of their free days on the lord’s lands. Everything that they produce is “instantly and automatically” the property of the lord. The lord decides to whom to distribute the fruits of the serf’s labor. Most everybody except the fascists would probably think slavery and feudalism are unethical systems. We should keep that in mind because if we can identify why those systems are unethical, we can see if that reason would equally apply to the final exploitative system: capitalism (I am actually skeptical such a clean argument will present itself) (5) Capitalism. In capitalism, there is neither lord nor serf, master nor slave. There is instead “employer” and “employee.” The employee is a “free person” who hunts around for a job. Upon finding one, he signs a labor contract under which the employee will work a certain number of hours for a certain wage provided that the employee signs over all rights to decide what happens with the products of his labor. In other words, like Feudalism and Slavery, the what the employee produces is “instantly and automatically” the property of the employer in exchange for a wage. You point out that there is no way that the employer would be willing to pay you wage W unless the work that you do at wage W produces more value for the employer than it does for the employee. We can see that this is true, and thus that in every single labor contract, the value produces is higher than the wage paid. Thus, workers are “exploited.” The difference between the “value” of the labor’s work and their wage is called “surplus value.” Now, I agree thus far. However, you make the argument that the capitalist arrangement flies in the face of liberty and equality because the workers are getting “screwed over.” I do not think this is true simply by virtue of the fact that surplus labor exists. Let me explain. First, let us note that middle managers, upper-level managers, lawyers, accountants, and so on are not themselves directly involved in the production of things. What does the corporate lawyer “produce”? Well clearly, he produces something of value to the whole corporate racket. He produces memos and gives out advice using his expertise in the law. He is himself offered some wage W to do this intellectual work, even though his work does not, in the end, really produce the basic commodities sold by the corporation. Now you say that this lawyer must be paid by the surplus labor of the exploited workers. Well, of course he must be paid with that surplus labor. From where else should we expect the money to come? The corporation doesn’t do anything but sell some widget! Well if the lawyer must be paid by the surplus labor of the worker at the bottom, then he cannot tell merely by the fact that his wage is less than the value he produces that he is “exploited” in any meaningfully moral sense. He should thus not feel that he is not being treated in a way which is inconsistent with “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” Now, I do not see myself as offering a deeply nuanced or interesting objection. I just want to clarify that it is not the mere fact that surplus labor exists that proves that workers are “exploited” in any meaningful moral sense. This then raises the question I am eager to get answered: What does this Marxian analysis do for us, then, if not prove that workers are “exploited” in a meaningful sense? What does it tell us, if anything at all, about why capitalism cannot fulfill the promise of the French Revolution? Note that I agree with you that this whole system is in fact deeply fucked. I am as appalled as anybody that Jeff Bezos’ billions exist, and I have my own criticisms of capitalism from the perspective of property rights. I am right now trying to understand this marxian analysis better to see if it gives us genuine insight to what’s wrong with capitalism. - Jordan


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  • commented 2018-02-15 06:34:21 -0500
    I think it’s important to specify that exploitation/ surplus value is going to happen in every society to an extent. The issue that most modern Marxists seem to focus on is who has control of the distribution of said surplus. Marx expressed the idea that Capitalists always have a relationship with their employees based on the pressure to reduce overhead costs in anyway that they can. Downsizing, outsourcing, automating, innovating, all ideas that directly lower the value of labor. Unemployment is actually a favorable phenomenon for capitalism( especially in the short term). The second point is that capitalists wield the resources to control legislations. Any and all labor legislation is doomed to be undone or unenforced in a society where the resources are so unevenly distributed. These two ideas combined to lead him to determine that ultimately capitalism will cannabalize itself as it feeds on worker productivity, but the workers share of wages decline. He also switches focuses and analytically addresses the capitalist free market ideal as advertised. Basically he makes a very convincing argument that monopolies are natural conclusions of capitalism with or without government intervention. Thus the free market idea is inherently flawed as it cannot even provide what it advertises. Additionally the theory of surplus value may have political connotations but it actually addresses a question that no other economic theory actually explored. What creates value? If you read popular literature, he answer is that something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. But that is the definition of exchange value. That does not explain how something obtained value in the first place. Marx’s answer is labor. A commodity must have labor invested in its creation as well as be desirable. The laws of supply and demand do not address this issue. Once there is equilibrium between the two(which is the free market ideal) they fail to explain the natural value of the commodity in question. Personally I’m not a fan of the whole productive vs unproductive labor argument. It is divisive and often feels like semantics. But I think it’s worth pointing out that most work is unproductive in our modern world, and that there is a direct correlation between the rise in Marx’s definition of unproductive labor and the “success” of capitalism. So our modern perspective is inevitably skewed in that regard. It’s also worth mentioning that capitalism creates labor that is unskilled, undeveloped and appendages to the machines they work with. This is not just a Marxist concept but permeates the writings of Adam Smith and Ricardo as well(who advocate capitalism). An incalculable amount of human potential has been wasted as caretakers for machines that ultimately went on to replace their caretakers. Finally, capitalism is inefficient. Capitalism allocates resources based on demand. It is reactionary. Therefore it never acts until it can secure as much profit as possible. I’m some cases it simply never acts because the population effected lack the resources to justify the expense. Inevitably these parties are or were part of the labor and their lack of personal wealth stems from the fact that they have never once received the actual value of their labor.

    There are many other aspects of
    Marxism that I simply don’t have time to address. I highly recommend you read his work and decide for yourself what you do and don’t agree with.
  • published this page in Ask Prof. Wolff 2018-02-14 23:33:29 -0500

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