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Sunday, July 7, 2013


Rick Wolff and I were colleagues for many years at UMass, and I learned a great deal from him.  He is a bright and learned man, and also a very charming fellow.  I have not kept up with what he has been writing, so I do not want to try at all to comment on his views, but I would like to suggest why Rick, or anyone else steeped in Marx's economic theories [like me, for example] might want to try to separate judgments about the personal moral character of capitalists from an analysis of capitalism as an economic system.

Marx's central thesis, with which I wholly agree [and with which I imagine Rick also agrees, whether he thinks it is Marx's central thesis or not] is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class, an exploitation that is built into the structure of capitalism and is quite independent of the knowledge, intentions, or motivations of the individuals who function in that system as the owners or managers of capital.

Marx spends a good deal of time in Volume I of Capital explaining where profit comes from.  It is, he says, the money form of the surplus labor extracted from  the workers in the production process.  [See my lengthy tutorial on the Thought of Karl Marx, or my various books and articles, for my analysis and partial reconstruction of this claim.]  He goes to great lengths to rebut any suggestion that the capitalists make a profit only by greedily extracting more labor time from the workers than they have contracted for.  In the great Tenth Chapter, On the Working Day, he cites numerous examples of capitalists who go so far as to fiddle with the clocks in their factories in an attempt to wring a few extra minutes of labor time from the workers, but he insists -- quite correctly in my view -- that even if the capitalists were pillars of Puritan rectitude and kept their bargains with the workers to the last jot and tittle, they would still exploit the workers.  Even those storied capitalists, much beloved by modern apologists, who befriend their workers and give them Christmas turkeys and ask after their workers' children, exploit their workers.  That is to say, they extract more value from the labor of their workers than is embodied in what they pay their workers.  This is a structural fact about capitalism.  No moral education or religious uplift for the capitalists can eliminate exploitation from capitalism, because capitalism rests necessarily on that exploitation.  No exploitation, no profit.

Now, the case of racism is quite different.  Capitalism is not inherently racist, nor is it inherently sexist, nor is it inherently homophobic.  Indeed, capitalism is a liberalizing forced in the modern world.  The reason is quite simple, Marx thinks [and, with a great many historical complications and caveats and qualifications, he is right, in my judgment.]  Capital seeks labor at the lowest price it can get it for, and any non-economic, hence irrational, prejudices -- against African-Americans or against women or against gay men and women or against non-Christians -- will have the effect of distorting the labor market and driving labor prices up.  Capitalism does not depend structurally on prejudice; quite the contrary.

So my wry observation, a few days ago, that an enormous number of Americans are just hateful bloody-minded bigots, is not at all meant to suggest that the personal beliefs and attitudes of capitalists are somehow the cause of the exploitation of workers.  This last election cycle has been quite useful in revealing the stupid and despicable beliefs of many capitalists and their defenders.  Mitt Romney did us all an enormous favor by blurting out, over and over again, his true beliefs -- beliefs that any prudent candidate would have kept under wraps.  Romney behaved like someone whose deepest ambition was to appear on the public stage as an Edward Arnoldesque bloated capitalist.  There were times when I thought he might appear in the old Thomas Nast cartoon garb as The Capitalist with top hat and a dollar sign on his vest.

But even if all the capitalists in America were to become enlightened philanthropists, it would not change the fact that capitalism itself rests on exploitation.  By contrast, it is perfectly possible [albeit not at all likely] that Americans should shed their racist, sexist, and homophobic prejudices and work industriously to eliminate the last vestiges of institutional or structural bigotry from this great land.  At which point -- Oh Lord, let it happen before I die! -- it will still be the fact that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.


formerly a wage slave said...

I have never imagined capitalists becoming philanthropists (people of "good will"). My thought was that they might come to intellectually understand the workings of the societies in which they live. But, I suspect that the divide between what I said and this new comment is the following: I do not hold a Kantian view of ethics/morality.

In short, interesting though your latest remarks are---and I do believe they identify a specific piece of Marxist thinking that is relevant---they are, so far as I can see, simply a ignoratio elenchi so far as what I've said (or tried to say).

More carefully, deep issues divide us, and I've neither spelled out nor defended the non-Kantian account of morality which I suppose, and which I believe to be found in Plato's earlier writings.

In any case, your latest comments bypass my suggestion that there is a real question of individual psychology. I am guessing the problem here comes from two different (assumed) views of psychology or what philosophers like to call 'moral psychology'.

You advert to the category of "enlightened philanthropist". If you mean by that to somehow allude to my previous comments, you've misunderstood me.

Philanthropists, as you must know, only manage to perpetuate capitalism by softening its appearance.

If, contrary to fact, Bill Gates were to become convinced that capitalism is unjust---if he came to know that thing which you and I agree about---would he then become a mere "enlightened philanthropist"? I think not.

It would require a much more fundamental and genuine change.

Much as I've learned from you, and respect you, on this point I think you've missed the point.

To be sure, I don't claim to have presented my point of view with perfect clarity. But, for the moment, I shall have to stop.

formerly a wage slave said...

I realize that you wanted to talk about racism, and, from that point of view, I've derailed the conversation. Alas, there's not much that I can do about that--except, now, to stop.

Magpie said...

"Capitalism is not inherently racist, nor is it inherently sexist, nor is it inherently homophobic. Indeed, capitalism is a liberalizing forced in the modern world."

In principle I fully agree with the above. Marx himself put it very well:

"I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense coleur de rose. (...) My standing point, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them". Karl Marx. (Das Kapital, vol. 1, preface to the 1867 edition)

(I'd also point out that chauvinism, in all its varied forms, subsisted under "really existing socialism")

However, I think one needs to recognize that racism, nationalism, elitism, homophobia, and chauvinism in general can be and often are tactically useful weapons to keep discontents divided: "divide et impera".

As I see things, that's one of the reasons why, in Australia, one finds arch-conservative politicians demonizing Afghan asylum seekers, all the while asking for a greater intake of Pakistani and Indian workers.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oh, I agree completely. In American history, race was used both to keep Black and White workers from uniting in a more powerful working class movement in the later 19th century and also to separate Black from White women in the drive for the vote. I could not agree more.