A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Reflections on The Capital

22 July 2019 3:31 PM (society | economics)

So. I read Capital. Capital is very large and one could spend a long time commenting on it; many people have devoted their entire lives to doing so. I won't.

First, should you read Capital? If you're interested in the history of ideas, yes. It's probably the most influential book on the subject of social science. In that sense it's a bit like the Bible or the Koran. Some people read it, their lives are changed, and it becomes the touchstone of intellectual landscapes. I am not one of those people. Like the Bible, Capital is a very long book with some literary interest (particularly volume 1) that influenced world affairs to a great extent. Many parts are boring. If you were only going to read one or the other, I'd pick the Bible. More influential and the good parts are more fun to read. The most interesting historical detail in Capital, for me, was how Marx saw himself as related to other economists: which he spoke highly of and which he despised. (If you've read The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Anti-Monopolist and Union Agitator, it's unsurprising how highly Marx spoke of him.)

Comparing Capital to other works and tracing influences, it became plain to me that most of Marx's best ideas were modified, developed, and incorporated into other disciplines. Game theory for one, and there are clear influences of Marx in Orthodox Macro. (Keynes claims to have never read Marx, but he was surrounded by people who did. Marx was in the water supply.) Most of what remained to become Distinctly Marxist and define itself in opposition to mainline economic scholarship was less worthwhile. I may revisit this opinion, as I plan to read two works in Analytic Marxism, which attempts to find worthwhile ideas that may have been overlooked in Marxism due to the pernicious influence Hegel.

Marx is a great improvement on many of his successors, Lenin for one, let alone the vulgar Marxists you find online with their idiot guillotine crap. Marx did the world the great disservice of infusing the less worthwhile parts of the left with revolutionary claptrap, but in this he has become the victim of people latching on to his follies of inexperience. As Marx studied political systems throughout the world (the United States and United Kingdom in particular) he was convinced of the possibility of communist transformation through democratic action.

To me, Marx weakened his case by building it on the appropriation of Surplus Value. Specifically, he seems to appeal to the Lockean notion of property through ‘mixing’ of labor (this isn't just my interpretation, David Harvey points out several places, such as Marx's critique of working hard and saving through ones own labor so that one may later live on the interest, that directly appeal to Locke.) and argue that the workers have a right to this value. This may be a rhetorical trick. In the first volume, Marx addresses capitalist political economy on its own terms, arguing why even if we assume everything it claims is true, it must still fail into dystopia. I've read that Marx had a vaguely deontological attitude, and he acknowledged a debt to Kant, though also repudiated most of Kant's actual ideas. The way appropriation of surplus value pops up in volumes two and three, as well as ideas like 'when rights conflict, force decides' makes me wonder. I may simply be the wrong audience; to me any appeals to who is or is not the 'rightful' beneficiary of some labor are hollow; the only legitimate question is what structure of distribution we can create to produce the most well-being. This means I tend to laugh at any angry diatribes about 'Capitalist Expropriation' or 'stealing from the workers' for the same reason I roll my eyes at the claimed injustice of taxation.

The immiseration of the workers (and, if we follow Marx to his conclusion, the capitalists) is the real cause for rage. This reminds me of the current-day argument between the faction of the left that supports globalization on the grounds of well-being and the improvement in circumstance of the global poor versus the faction who oppose it on the grounds of justice, loss of control, and the inequitable distribution. Me, I'd like to preserve globalization for reasons of well-being while also fighting for safeguards on the international level to keep poor nations from becoming vassal states of corporations. (At least until we rip corporations apart and reconstruct the economy more thoroughly.)

Marx's moral outrage at the conditions of the poor is his best quality. His descriptions of the physical, emotional, and intellectual harm done to people by industrial capitalism is the most compelling part of the book and likely the reason it was such a sensation in its time. It gives Marx more authority and weight than anything else he's written. (This concern, the way it resonates with the Utilitarian obligation to seek out and eradicate suffering is probably why Peter Singer thinks so highly of Marx while disagreeing with his economic system.)

Other things Marx gets right (and which prefigure game theory in spirit if not in direct lineage) are the coercive laws of competition and the way that they render the moral character of individual capitalists irrelevant in aggregate. (And renders the idiot guillotine crap of the less worthwhile parts of the left nothing more than the moralistic Puritanism of the cult of ‘personal responsibility’.) In addition to game-theory this prefigures and underwrites the important notion of the systemic kyriarchy no actual prejudice to enact and need not benefit anyone to continue.

As an aside, if you do decide to read Capital, I recommend following along with David Harvey's lectures (or commentary, he also publishes a book that is available DRM-free.) Due to the time period Marx assumed Adam Smith's labor theory of value was well-known and built his own idea of socially necessary labor time atop it (apparently even many Marxists nowadays reject the idea), while he takes commodification to be a strange and unknown notion and elaborates it at depth. Harvey is a gifted expositor and knows his material well.

So. The worst part of Marx (I'm not counting the revolutionary nonsense because even Marx went back on that) is class. Class is intuitively appealing: the Capitalists have money and keep much of it for themselves. The workers want money and wish to get it from the capitalists. Marx's first example of Class Conflict at least works out. He states that the repeal of the Corn Laws was an act of class conflict between the Aristocracy (the agrarian landowners) and the Bourgeoisie (the factory owners.) For Marx, opposition to the corn laws was driven by a desire for employers to have cheaper food and, thus, a lower wage. Somewhat to my surprise, there's a good amount of evidence for this! If you read James Wilson's (Marx's Enemy) pamphlet on the corn laws, he describes it as a contest between middle-class factory-owners and landed aristocracy driven by the desire to lower wages. (Wilson was one of the middle-class businessmen wanting to pay lower wages.)

Score one for Marx. There are complications, of course. Many middle class people who fought the corn laws spoke only of the well-being of the workers and the famine in Ireland, following on from the altruistic abolitionist movement. The working classes had little political pull, but were themselves divided by those who thought repealing the corn laws would leave them better off, and the Chartists who thought it was a waste of political effort as any gains would be lost to lowered wages.

While anything in history is complicated and confounded, Marx comes off pretty well here, but his class-conflict based approach falls apart fairly quickly. Marx's first example of a conflict between the workers and factory owners is that of the length of the working day. It takes the wind out of the sails that the shortened working day left both workers and factory owners better off, because the workers were able to recover the power of labor and perform better. In Marx's time we had some workers opposing shorter hours as a coddling of the lazy, as now we have many workers in technology taking pride in long hours as showing them to be performers. And we had factory owners petitioning Parliament to restrict working hours just as today we have employers urging an end to long work-weeks as they destroy productivity and make employees miserable.

This is something I see over and over again with class-analysis. Marxist-influenced people will try to, for example, explain that the police can't possibly work for 'the people' and are instead an implement of class warfare, with the rich using drug laws to create a cheap labor force (or the ridiculous claim that they're put in place to recapitulate slavery) in spite of the facts that:

  • Tough on crime policies have historically been fantastically popular with ‘the people’ and being visibly 'tough on crime' is an excellent way to increase your electoral chances.
  • Quite a few nations have harsh drug laws while having no prison industries or recent history of slavery. There is something unsatisfying about your analysis being completely unable to explain the same phenomena elsewhere.
  • The rich don't form a unified ‘class’ here. Certainly some rich people benefit from prison industries. Many rich people noisily oppose them, either on humanitarian grounds or for more economic reasons, like being taxed (or having tax money that could go for infrastructure that benefits them diverted to expensive projects that don't increase industrial capacity).

The main breaks in US society in attitudes toward the police are political (with the left disliking the police more than the right), racial (with black people having the least positive view of the police of any group), geographic, and economic. The first two are what you might expect: liberal progressives generally dislike extensive use of force, punitive attitudes, and long sentences more than the right. Black people have reason to see law enforcement as a thing done to them, as the police and courts are shockingly racist in effect and many officers are bigoted in attitude. The economic break is not one between the rich and everyone else, it's one between the poor and everyone else. Given that black people tend to be disproportionately likely to be part of 'the poor' I wonder if the economic divide would disappear if we looked at income corrected for race.

It makes sense either way. The United States has made progress but still enacts a disgraceful amount of racism. Many towns use the police to attack the homeless. Municipalities prey on the poor with fines and fees, and making people pay for the cost of their incarceration is obscene. Suburbs have much more favorable attitudes toward law enforcement. I wonder if there's a connection between this and the way suburban areas with low immigration but close to cities with high numbers of immigrants have the strongest anti-immigrant bias. Could suburbs be closer to (and get the news coverage from) cities and spend time imagining the Dangerous Elements while having no exposure to them?

Nevertheless, if there is class conflict here, it isn't between capitalists and others. It's between working classes and capitalists on one side and those Marx would have called the lumpenproletariat (the homeless, the under-employed, migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, those in and out of the criminal system, those on whom systemic oppression falls heaviest) on the other. Here again, I am more inclined to think of ideological and moralistic factors driving economic developments (which may then help reinforce them) than the other way around.

Marx's attempt at class analysis is also foiled by a source he draws on again and again: the Factory Inspectors. They and other liberal reformers were members of the capitalist class and pursued no obvious class interest. Here, Marx invokes one of his least worthwhile ideas: 'bourgeois morality'. In other works ‘bourgeois morality’ is used to refer to sexual morality and ‘family values’. Here it's an attempt to save 'class conflict' as a narrative, with bourgeois morality having a stabilizing function by allowing the bourgeoisie to name and perform moral acts, or allow themselves to feel as if the system they're part of is just. This kind of thing gets to be rather silly and has its apotheosis in some of Critical Race Theory's attempts to defend its dogma of 'interest convergence' where anti-racist policies are explained away as simply driven by the interest of white people in feeling that their society is more fair. This is fatuous drivel on the level of the adolescent claim that altruism is impossible because someone who helps another gains the benefit of feeling that someone is better off.

'Bourgeois economics' seems to hint toward another minor problem in Marx that has become a major pathology in the left: the selective belief of convenience that people's views and beliefs are determined by their demography and background. This doesn't mean that background has no effect, of course it has an effect, but it doesn't override everything else. There is certainly no justification for the rhetorical device whereby people who agree with me have come to their conclusions by the honest, difficult work of considering the truth and overcoming their biases, and those who don't are just repeating whatever is in their class interest as bourgeoisie. Marx wasn't as bad as many of his followers, but did weaken his case substantially in many places by indulging the temptation to fabricate motivations for those he disagreed with.

Marx's focus on class conflict has damaged the fight for equality along other social axes, particularly in the unhealthy confluence of the Marx-inflected left and reactionary communitarianism. That something like ‘identity politics’ can and should exist is obvious: the political identity of 'homosexual' is created by violence and denigration against those who perform certain acts. The political identity of blackness is created by racism. Political identities are violently forced on people rather than adopted. Where things become pathological is when political identity is subsumed into the false doctrine of the 'oppressor-oppressed dichotomy' and the harmful structure 'class consciousness'.

Adherents of this kind of thought dictate ideology from demography, as one sees in the discourse around abortion and the insistence that it's a male vs. female issue in spite of men and women in the US having roughly the same attitudes toward bodily autonomy. It is particularly pernicious when authoritarians appropriate the experience of an entire group and dictate what the interest and beliefs of that group should be, with inevitable identity-shaming of those who disagree.

In a way, class consciousness can becomes something of a conspiracy theory or a ‘red pill’. The class analysis becomes a certain truth its adherents know must be there rather than a useful too of modeling to be adopted or discarded as the evidence suggests, and any suggestion to the contrary is met by the claims of naivete or being a pawn of the mainstream that one sees in any number of conspiracies. (Or homeopathy, for that matter.)

One irony is that while Marx created an activist political theory, always emphasizing the idea of ‘praxis’, most of its modern manifestations have been noisy, but ineffectual, quite likely due to Hegelian influences of the continental tradition deepening into a stagnant idealism. Richard Rorty described this in his contrast between the liberal, activist Progressive Left and the continental-derived Critical Left; with the latter tending towardto paralysis or undirected action-for-action's-sake. (This certainly seems to be the case with, for example, Critical Race Theory, which on the one hand has spent a good deal of time writing dubious critiques of liberal civil rights activism, but on the other has also failed to accomplish anything except for indulgent faffing about with academic speech codes that get struck down after a couple years. The book Faces at the Bottom of the Well suggests that some of its exponents don't ever expect it to accomplish anything either.)

This pattern repeats. If you look at the push against mistreatment of prisoners, the attempts to end the death penalty, fights against the use of prison for nonviolent offenders and shorter sentences and more rehabilitation for the violent ones, this has all been under the liberal discourse of human rights. The main effect of Discipline and Punish in the world is that many people know what the word ‘panopticon’ means. Some might argue that liberal thought can only make minor reforms while leaving a bad system intact, while only critique can truly transform. First, this is a false dichotomy: the nations with the highest living standards and reported well-being in the world moved from tribalism to Feudalism to social democracy and a few hints of socialism without the kind of upheaval and clean-slate dreamed of by naive revolutionaries, while the revolutionary states have become authoritarian or kleptocratic hyper-capitalist police states. Secondly, liberalism has been and remains a radical movement. There are anarcho-syndicalists who view deconstruction of the state as simply the logical outworking of the liberal program of creating the system most conducive to individuals pursuing their personal projects. Liberal socialism existed before Marx, and, much to the annoyance of Marxists, continues strong long past him. The analytic, liberal school of thought also has the advantage of a much better set of tools of dialogue and disagreement, and more effective discursive norms.

Overall, Marx deserves the recognition of a Newton in the social sciences; one who transformed his field and was then transcended by it, with his ideas incorporated into others and changed beyond his recognition. Instead he has been done the disservice of becoming an Aristotle, with people clinging to and elaborating even the less worthwhile of his ideas and founding an ædifice on notions no longer believable or relevant.

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