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Monday, November 5, 2012


In response to my call for attention to be paid [if I may reference Arthur Miller] to the materials I have archived on, Ben [I shall keep private his last name] sent me an email with two very interesting questions.  Rather than reply in an email, I have decided to post my responses here on this blog.

Here is Ben's first question:

"1) In "The Thought of Karl Marx" (on, you explain the existence of profit in a capitalist economy by positing a fundamental difference between laborers and owners: the owners can switch from (say) making clothing to making steel if the rate of profit in the former industry is not high enough, while the laborers cannot switch industries and thus must accept pitiful wages. But you also say that your simple, illustrative model should be modified to include "several labor sectors, each [. . .] with its own rate of return." Given that modification, can't laborers switch from one type of labor to another if the rate of profit is not high enough? Sure, this will often be extremely difficult, but so long as it is not impossible haven't we failed to locate a categorical difference between laborers and owners?"

This is a very acute question that raises an interesting and important issue.  A word of explanation first.  Ben is referring to my attempt to reconstruct the Labor Theory of Value, which as I showed in Understanding Marx, cannot in the end be sustained in the form in which Marx advanced it [I cannot summarize the reasons here.  See the tutorial or my book.]   I undertook a formal reconstruction of Marx's theory in my essay, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's labor Theory of Value," in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Spring, 1981].

The central point of Marx's analysis is that workers have been completely separated from ownership or control of the means of production, and are therefore forced, in order to live, to sell their labor [or labor-power, as Marx says] to those who do own or control the means of production, which is to say capitalists.

Marx was looking at a world in which workers' skills and knowledge, which they acquired through lengthy apprenticeships, were being lost as machines took their place, reducing the working class more and more to a homogeneous mass of semi-skilled workers capable of moving easily and quickly from machine tending in one industry to machine tending in another.  This homogenization of the labor force, which Harry Braverman, in his great book Labor and Monopoly Capital, called the "deskilling" of the work force, was, Marx thought, being paralleled by a corresponding centralization of capital, with countless small firms being gobbled up into huge conglomerates.  Marx's formal analysis of exploitation rested on these historical observations and empirical predictions.

But in fact the homogenization forecast by Marx did not take place, and we now see a labor force that is permanently and very significantly segmented and stratified.  Wages and salaries range extremely widely from minimum wage jobs to high paid lavishly benefitted "upper middle class" jobs.

From an theoretical standpoint, we can conceptualize this situation by observing that some workers succeed in acquiring what economists now call "human capital," in the form of formal educational credentials and other skills, on the basis of which they acquire and keep high paying jobs.  In effect, these workers [or their parents] have invested in themselves, in order to enable them to produce a different commodity to be sold in the marketplace, namely skilled labor.

Now, if no exploitation were taking place, then we would expect that the return to that investment in human capital would equal the interest rate.  But in fact it equals much more than the interest rate, thereby indicating that those who have carried out this self-investment are somehow snagging some of what it being produced by those with less human capital.  In short, they are benefiting from exploitation.

But how can this be?  How can the high paid workers be exploiting lower paid workers, if they themselves are being exploited by the owners or controllers of capital?  The answer, as Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis argued in a lovely essay published thirty-five years ago, is that in modern capitalist economies, a structure of relative exploitation has arisen, in which a portion of the income of some workers is acquired through the relative exploitation of lower-paid workers.  [See "The Marxian Theory of Value and Heterogeneous Labour: A Critique and Reformulation," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 173-192.]  When I wrote the essay referenced above, I was unaware of the Bowles and Gintis essay, even though at that time we were all colleagues and friends at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

So the answer to Ben's first question is that he is right.  In a modern capitalist economy, the simple contrast between owners and workers must be replaced with a more complex analysis according to which some persons are pure exploiters [Mitt Romney comes to mind on this eve of the election], some persons are purely exploited -- low-paid workers -- and some people are simultaneously exploited and exploiters.

This, as I argue in my essay, The Future of Socialism, is one of the reasons why despite the emergence within capitalist firms of the structural developments needed for the transition to socialism, that transition is unlikely to take place.  Labor solidarity is almost impossible with a segmented labor force.

Here is Ben's second question:

"(2) Before reading In Defense of Anarchism, I took the problem of political obligation to be determining whether the following thesis is true:

(a) That the law says thus-and-such can be per se morally relevant; hence, a law against X-ing can (all by itself) create an obligation to refrain from X-ing.

However, you seem to take the problem of political obligation to be determining whether a different thesis is true, namely:

(b) The citizen can be morally obligated to refrain from individual decision making in favor of simply doing what the law says because the law says it.

You argue that relinquishing decision-making power in this way is inconsistent with the duty to be autonomous, i.e. to give the moral law to oneself. Hence, you conclude, (b) is false.

It does not seem to follow that (a) is false. After all, it is not inconsistent with my autonomy for me to make decisions in light of the morally relevant facts - taking morally relevant facts into consideration is part of exercising moral autonomy. And, as far as you say in your book, it is possible that one of the morally relevant facts to be taken into account is the fact that the law says thus-and-such. So, for all you say in your book, (a) is consistent with individual autonomy and thus (a) might well be true.  Do you agree, or do you think that the duty to be autonomous means that (a) is false? And do you think that (b) is the more interesting or important thesis?"

Once again, a very astute question.  It was first posed to me in something like this form by Jeffrey Reiman, now the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy at American University in Washington, D. C.  Two years after the publication of In Defense of Anarchism in 1970, Reiman, then a young man [of course] published a reply, entitled In Defense of Political Philosophy.  I then brought out a second edition of In Defense in which I replied to his arguments in a lengthy preface.

All of this is readily available, so I will be brief.  I argued, following Max Weber, that the defining characteristic of any state is its claim that it has a right in morals, not just in law, to issue commands that its subjects have a moral obligation, not merely a legal obligation, to obey.  This, I said, is that it means to say that a state is "legitimate."  Justifications of the claim of legitimacy range [again echoing Weber] from the religious assertion that the ruler has the mandate of heaven to the modern thesis, central to all theories of democracy, that the state rules with the authorization of the people.

Reiman suggested that a defense of democracy needed no more than the restricted claim that the commands of the democratic state create a "prima facie obligation" of obedience, one that had weight and must be taken into account but can be outweighed by other considerations in some circumstances.  I argued that Reiman had no grounds for asserting this, and that in fact his claim was essentially indistinguishable from the customary state demand for absolute obedience.  [It is worth remembering that this debate took place during the Viet Nam War, when because of the draft young men were being ordered to fight in a war to which they were morally opposed.  The argument was explicitly made that even those opposed to the war had a moral obligation to answer the draft call because it issued from a democratically elected government.  This was no merely academic debate!]

But at the same time, I quite freely acknowledged the truth of another argument that one might at first confuse with Reiman's argument.  Indeed, I took account of it in my original little book.  When a state [any state, whether a dictatorship, a monarchy, a theocracy, or a democracy] passes a law, the mere existence of that law becomes a fact that may be relevant to my moral deliberations.  The law does not create a prima facie obligation in me.  But the existence of the law may.  To take a simple and rather trivial example, a concern for my own safety and the safety of others on the roads will lead me to pay attention to the traffic rules even in a dictatorship or a theocracy, because I may anticipate that others will be abiding by them, and that will create in me expectations about which side of the road it is safest to drive on.

Let us return for a moment to the question that was on everyone's mind when my book and Reiman's were published:  Do young men called to the army have a moral obligation to obey the state and present themselves for induction?  Keep in mind that it was the most morally thoughtful and sensitive young men who anguished most about this question.  Imagine one such young man making a list of the considerations, pro and con, in an attempt to determine where his obligation lies.  On the side of obeying, he lists the fact that he will be liable to arrest and imprisonment if he refuses induction.  He also lists the fact that if he refuses to obey, some other young man will be coerced into serving in his place.  On the side of refusing, he lists the fact that he will almost certainly be required to kill people who, he believes, have done nothing to deserve this.  He may also list on the side of refusing his belief that the war is one more imperialist act by a United States that has chosen to take the place of fading imperial powers like France and Great Britain on the world stage.

Now, according to Reiman, when this young man has listed all the considerations pro and con, and has assigned to them some weight in his deliberations, there is one more consideration that he is supposed to enter in the lists on the side of obeying, namely the mere fact that the order to report issues from a democratically elected government.  This consideration, says Reiman, does not trump all other considerations, because the obligation to obey is only a prima facie obligation.  But it has some non-zero weight all by itself, and therefore in a close calculation can by itself tilt the balance in the other direction.

And that, I say, is false.  There is no good reason to hold that view, and very good reason to reject it.

That, by the way, is what I mean when I call myself an anarchist.

Okay, Ben, those are my responses to your questions.  I hope they help.



Ben said...

Thank you for the prompt and helpful response! That all makes perfect sense, though I do have one final question:

You say there is no good reason to accept and very good reason to reject the following claim:

(i) That a democratically elected government tells me to do something is per se morally relevant.

But is (i) inconsistent with the duty to be autonomous -- is that one of the reasons why we should reject (i)? After all, I took the aim of In Defense of Anarchism to be establishing that political obligation is inconsistent with autonomy. And yet I don't see why (i) is inconsistent with autonomy, even if (i) is false.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is inconsistent with moral autonimy because autonomy demands that I act on grounds that I myself consider sound. To say that the a state is legitimate is to say that the mere fact that it commands something constitutes some reason for obeying, irrespective of anything else some ground for doing that thing This is tantamount to saying that when a legitimate state orders me, I have an obligation to forego some portion of my independent judgment. But there is not, there cannot be, a state whose order, by itself, regardless of secondary consequences, constitutes any sort of reason for obedience.

Note, the mere fact that a state, any state, orders something has consequences [such as the expectations it creates in others, etc] and those consequences might indeed be morally relevant. But that is equally true regardless of who issues the order. No consideration of the legitimacy of the state is relevant [although other people's false beliefs about the legitimacy of the state might be relevant factors.]

Ben said...

I hope I am not wearing out your patience, but I am quite intrigued and can't resist another response.

You write:

"To say that the state is legitimate is to say that the mere fact that it commands something constitutes some reason for obeying, irrespective of anything else [. . .] This is tantamount to saying that when a legitimate state orders me, I have an obligation to forego some portion of my independent judgment."

This seems on a par with the following argument:

To say that cruelty is prima facie wrong is to say that the mere fact that an action is cruel constitutes some reason for not performing that action. This is tantamount to saying that when an action is cruel, I have an obligation to forego some portion of my independent judgment. But I never have an obligation to forego independent judgment, so cruelty is not prima facie wrong.

But an action being prima facie wrong (whether because it is cruel or because it is illegal) is not tantamount to saying you must under some circumstances give up your independent judgment. Recognizing that an action is prima facie wrong (whether because it is cruel or because it is illegal) is an exercise of independent judgment. This is not to say that illegal actions are prima facie wrong, but merely that that possibility does not seem to conflict with autonomy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But these cases are utterly different, unless you simply assume that the state is legitimate. The state's "reason" for claiming that you are obliged to obey it is "because I say so." That is no reason at all, unless the I is an authority whose say so takes precedence over your own judgment.

Look at it this way: Does a democracy have any authority that a dictatorship does not have? Both pass laws. Both say, "Do this because I have passed a law -- i.e., issued a command -- telling you to." Now, if you want to say that any state's commands are prima facie binding on me, then you must explain what you mean by a state. If you mean, "a legitimate authority," then you are arguing in a circle. But if you mean, a la Weber, "any group of people who have a monopoly of the means of force," then you must explain why, aside from purely prudential considerations, I am morally obliged to give weight to the commands of a state.

Ben said...

I don't have to explain why you are morally obliged to give weight to the commands of a state, because I am merely arguing that such an obligation is consistent with autonomy. To argue that P is consistent with Q, I don't have to establish P.

Unknown said...

So, why should we privilege freedom or radical autonomy over the good or what is good? Freedom is important; but is it an absolute value?

Unknown said...

The previous comment from unknown was from Howie

Unknown said...

What's wrong with an Aristotelian treatment of the problem of autonomy versus obligation? So obligation and autonomy are the extreme with the moral person aiming for the golden mean?

Thank You,


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Inj this case, the "mean" lies all the way at one end. See Aristotle for a distinction between character traits that admit of a mean and questions that do not.

Unknown said...

I'll look that up in Aristotle. I'm glad you thought this through so thoroughly first

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Howie, look up the Nichomachean Ethics, 1107a lines 9 forward.

Magpie said...


Both of Ben's questions are very interesting, and your answers to them are very insightful, clear and didactic.

For my own reasons, however, I will go into the first one (about the segmentation of the working class).

Your thesis seems similar to Lenin's aristocracy of labour (, the main difference being that for Lenin the segmentation occurs between workers from underdeveloped countries (who are exploited in the Marxian sense) and workers from developed countries, who, while still exploited, somewhat benefit from the exploitation of workers from underdeveloped countries. In your view, this can be seen within (presumably) developed nations.

So, my question is: have you considered this process of “race to the bottom” in incomes and working conditions we, in developed countries, are living through? Would it be misguided to say this could be at least partially reversing this internal segmentation?

This is not to say that workers in developed nations will suddenly become an active force for change, but that perhaps we should keep an eye on workers from China, India or countless other places, as Lenin would have advised.