CIRCA 1865: Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German politician. (Photo by Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)

My mother recalls how I supported Ronald McReagan as a child. I was a young child in the eighties. When the Berlin Wall fell, I was still too young to understand its implications. I learned of the Cold War as a distant memory. It is not always clear how much I knew then compared to what I learned years later, but I cannot recall any memory of communism without a sense of it as a catastrophic failure. It does not help that my father was a former hippie who had converted to libertarianism. His faith in capitalism lacks the pragmatism of traditional conservatives. He remained the radical of his youth despite the revolution in his political world view. My father’s political sensibilities have continued to evolve as he has begun to accept a new ideology grounded in Trump’s populism. But any honest reflection upon my father’s political ideals will recognize a populist undercurrent despite the apparent radical transformations in his political opinions.

It never made sense for me to study Marx. I read political philosophy as early as high school, so it was never a question of effort or comprehension. As young as sixteen I was reading Locke and Rousseau. I gravitated toward the classics because I knew they had merit. But I never devoured Marx the way past generations had obsessed over his writings. I mean, every pseudo-intellectual reads Marx. But it is never more than a cursory reflection that begins with The Communist Manifesto and fails to take his ideas seriously.

There is an intellectual divide between the writers who became immersed in Marx from those who remain detached. Of course, the left never abandoned Marx. But for them Marx was always more about what he represents than what his ideas had to offer. It was different for the great intellectuals of the twentieth century. The early sociologists like Durkheim, Sombart and Michels recognized they remained in the shadow of Marx. The giants of political science like Lipset, Huntington and Dahl mastered the ideas of Marx before they changed the discipline of political science. Francis Fukuyama is the last of the great political scientists to answer Marx through his writings. He wrote of The End of History, but it may have been described as the end of Marx. After Fukuyama, Marx was largely abandoned from the lexicon of mainstream political science.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to understand the political science of the twentieth century without a serious study of Marx. It is not simply the philosophers of the political left who built their ideas on Marx, but the mainstream political scientists, sociologists and economists either embraced Marxist concepts or found it necessary to answer his challenges. Schumpeter recognized Marx as an economist and a sociologist as though there were two different approaches to his writings. Yet the great contribution of Marx was his ability to recognize the ways economic forces shaped society. He gave birth to a sociological perspective through his writings on economics.

It is fashionable to disregard Marx as an economist while he is championed as a sociologist. Indeed, many of the themes in Capital remain topics of research for sociologists to this day. The mechanization of the workforce is a recurrent fear. But it struck me as surreal how his writings on housing paralleled the Pulitzer prize winning work of Mathew Desmond, Evicted. Indeed, Marx remains demonized among the political right, yet many of his demands for social reform are widely accepted. The eradication of child labor has become a hallmark of modernization, replaced by universal education of the young.

But it is misguided to redefine Marx to ignore his economics. Any serious reading of Marx will recognize it as a work of economics. It belongs to the tradition of English economists begun with Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations. Indeed, there is a surprising amount of respect for Smith despite his disagreements with many of his conclusions. Marx believed his ideas were within the tradition of economics. He studied the writings of Smith, Ricardo and Mill in the development of his own theories. Thus, Capital was never a wholesale refutation of past economics. It was grounded within its traditions. Of course, this does not mean Marx failed to recognize the revolutionary nature of his ideas. Marx was never too shy to call for a revolution.

The first volume of Capital focuses on the nature of value. Marx saw the value in commodities as a derivative of labor. This was not a radical notion. Locke conceived of the natural right of property as an extension of labor. Property became an extension of one’s self through one’s labor. Marx was not alone when he conceived of the value of a commodity as a function of human labor. Contemporary economics have since alienated value from labor entirely. A product or service is now recognized as possessing value regardless of the amount of human labor expended on it. But the concept of surplus value depends on a form of value based entirely on labor. Marx believed the use value was based on the amount of labor necessary for its production. Surplus value became the sale price beyond its use value.

The division of labor alienated the worker from the production of a final product. This decoupled any sense of the use value for the worker from the final product. Consequently, capitalism brought about a commodification of labor itself. In a primitive economy, a person may exchange the time to paint for some extra milk. People understood the time it took to make products or deliver services. The division of labor distorts the common sense of value. White collar workers today are largely unable to make many repairs past generations handled on their own. Price remains reasonable due to competition. In the absence of robust competition, the value of many services become difficult to calculate. Medical treatment varies drastically in price because few people can comprehend its value because the service is so specialized.

Marx developed his sense of surplus value from an historical analysis of feudal economies. The feudal system was divided between fields held in common and the fields of the landowner or lord. The common fields produced the harvest for daily consumption necessary for survival. The fields of the landowner were worked out of their surplus labor beyond what was necessary to live. But the feudal system established limits to the work that could be expropriated from the common people. Once the fields were planted or harvested, the people were free to use their time. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a more efficient economic system. Marx demonstrates how the working day continued to expand without any clear limits until governments began to impose restrictions. Workers were sometimes required to work for 18 hours a day. Marx details how a woman literally worked to death at a young age because she was given no rest.

Despite the demands for increased productivity from workers, daily wages remained largely the same. Capitalism centralized the resources of society to bring about greater productivity but failed to contribute to the well-being of the workforce. It is often forgotten how necessary it was to impose rules and regulations on business to spread the benefits of increased productivity to the masses. Marx notes how opponents of laws designed to restrict child labor laws referred to the division of labor as a justification to put so many children to work rather than school. Many believed it was a natural for some to become destined for the workhouse while others went to the schoolhouse. Note the children were destined to these lives not by aptitude but solely by birth. It was the children of the affluent who were given an education regardless of their academic ability or gratitude. This historical context makes Garrett Jones’ advocacy for limitations on suffrage based on education truly horrifying. It is not a great leap before obstacles for a quality education become a necessary component of society’s division of labor.

Max was among the first who recognized economic progress was not evenly divided. For example, Adam Smith saw every economic transaction as founded on personal self-interest. Smith believed both parties gained value in every economic transaction. Marx broadened the sense of self-interest to recognize how transformations in economic systems foster winners and losers. Trades and crafts disappeared as manufacturers increased production through the division of labor. But these jobs became expendable as machinery emerged to reduce the role of labor further.

The current crisis of democracy is largely an echo of Marx’s earlier warnings. But his predictions of a revolution of the workforce were misguided. Indeed, it has brought about a populist insurgency as many have been left behind by the acceleration of globalization. Populism has been its consequence. Not socialism. But there is a fundamental economic truth in Marx that is absent in liberalism. Marx understood economies worked as systems. It was irrelevant to focus on individual transactions. Indeed, people can gradually become compelled toward decisions that may undermine their long-term interests.

The current pandemic has helped many recognize how interconnected parts of the economy have become. Many businesses remain open in the United States because they are “essential” not for the product they make but because they are a supplier for something somebody else makes. The production of ventilators relies on a network of machine shops, metal fabricators, wholesalers and distributors. The layers of the supply chain determine the success or failure of many businesses.

The dynamism of the global economy has been capable to satiate global demand as to distort the important role of supply. The consumer has largely dictated the direction of global production. The pandemic has forced consumers to adapt to the options the supply chain can deliver. Liberalism imagines production will emerge to match consumer demand. But there are limitations imposed by the network of suppliers available to expand productive capacity. Marx recognized economic systems evolve. They transform to meet the needs of the historical moment.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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