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Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Chris has sent me an e-mail message asking for my views on Marx and justice, with particular attention to the question why Marx thinks that exploitation is unjust.  Since this may be of more general interest, I have decided to reply here rather than in a private response.  The simple answer to Chris's question is that in my view, Marx did not think that exploitation is unjust, but you had better settle down, because it is going to take me a while to spell this out fully. 

Marx considers the philosophy of a society to be a part of its ideological superstructure, along with its religion, law, and art, among other things.  Moral judgments are a part of the philosophy and law of a society, hence ideological and superstructural as well.  The fundamental principle of bourgeois justice is that equals be given for equals in a free and open marketplace where men [it is always men] meet one another as legal equals, none compelled by law or custom to enter into bargains with another.  The ideal capitalist, Marx argues, pays a fair price for the labor he employs.  He pays a price equivalent to the reproduction cost of that labor, which, as he and Ricardo would say, is equal to the labor value embodied in that labor.  Now, to be sure, capitalists do not play fair.  As Marx tells us in the great chapter on The Working Day, capitalists try such underhanded tricks, in their effort to extract more value from their workers, as fiddling with the clocks in the factory so as to make the workers labor for a bit longer than the contracted for ten or twelve hours.  But this is not exploitation.  This is just cheating.

Exploitation is the extraction from a factor input of more value than is contained within it.  A good deal of Volume One is devoted to discovering how capitalists manage to pull off this trick -- the secret to profit.  Marx's solution -- which, as I have explained at length elsewhere is in my opinion incorrect -- is the distinction between labor and labor power.

But what would socialism have to say about exploitation?  Is it not the case that exploitation is, from a socialist perspective, unjust?  This, Marx thinks, is a fundamentally confused question.  It is as confused as asking whether, from a bourgeois perspective, feudal laws regulating the making and selling of craft goods are unjust.  Exploitation would indeed be unjust in a socialist society, just as exploitation  is just in a bourgeois society.

But from a transhistorical rational point of view, which one is correct -- socialist morality or bourgeois morality?  That, Marx thinks, is a meaningless question.  There is no pou sto, no place to stand from which one can make objective, neutral moral judgments uninfected with the ideological perspective of any particular society.  That is precisely the fatal illusion of such covertly bourgeois ideological rationalizations as the "theory of justice" of John Rawls.

This may sound plausible, but surely it is wrong.  Marx is no bloodless observer of social reality, reporting what he finds without judgment, in the manner affected [self-deceivingly] by modern sociologists and economists.  No one has ever thundered more powerfully against bourgeois injustice than Marx!   Quite true, quite true.  But Marx is not a moralist. 

A descent into armchair psychoanalysis is called for here.  In Victorian England there was a popular parlor game called Confessions.  Each person in the gathering would be asked to state his or her favorites:  favorite color, favorite food, favorite author, favorite literary character.  There are, in the Marx's collected papers, several sheets listing Marx's responses to the game of Confessions.  His favorite trait in men?  Strength.  His favorite trait in women?  Weakness.  [I have this from the great biography, Marx's Fate, by Jerrold Siegel.  You see perhaps why I do not like Marx very much as a human being, for all that I consider him the greatest social scientist who has ever lived.]  Marx hated weakness in men, and considered the making of moral judgments as the last resort of the weak.  To say "That is morally wrong" is implicitly to say, "I am powerless to stop that, so I shall inveigh against it."   [If this makes you think of Nietzsche, you would be right.]

Marx expressed his deep loathing of capitalism not by offering moral condemnations of it -- troubling deaf heaven with his bootless cries, as it were -- but by proving rigorously, scientifically, irrefutably, that it was doomed to self-destruct. 

So, Chris, my response to your question is this:  Marx does not offer an argument that exploitation is morally unjust.  He offers a static scientific analysis of exploitation as essential to capitalism, and a dynamic scientific argument that capitalist exploitation will be replaced with socialism, in which exploitation will play no role.

And will socialism then be a just social and economic order?  Marx does not say.  There are two answers that might be inferred from his analysis of capitalism.  If you think that in a socialist society there will be no ideological superstructure, because all mystification will have been dispelled by revolution, then the answer is that a socialist society will have no need for such ideological apparatuses as moral theory, so the question will be moot.  But if you think that even in a socialist society there will be an ideological superstructure, then you can be certain that from a socialist perspective, socialism will be just, as from a bourgeois perspective capitalism is just.


Chris said...

Okay, this is roughly the answer I was expecting. I appreciate the blog post. Thank you.

I find it odd that so many people rest the case of capitalism being unjust - or even framing the question of Marx and justice - around the (theft) extraction of surplus labor time in exchange for labor power. It strikes me as a hard way to definitely declare an injustice has occurred. For instance let's say I go out of town and while I'm gone my wife plants a second lemon tree in the backyard, and I don't notice it I when I return. The next day a neighborhood child comes by and asks if I have work for him, so I say sure I'll give you $5 to pick my lemon tree, which at the time is the fair going rate for the value of those lemons THAT I KNOW ABOUT. If at the end of the day after he has gone home I realize I have twice as many lemons as expected and he only has $5 I don't think AN INJUSTICE has taken place. It's not even clear anything entering the realm of ethics or morality has taken place so much as a mundane mistake has occured. Now had the boy brought it to my attention or had I seen the tree midway through, then perhaps we could make the injustice claim.

It seems to me that something similar is taking place in the working day, if one is not a Marxist. That is, capitalists really don't know about labor power/labor time. As Marx shows, they have all kinds of absurd - and false - theories where their profit comes from. But many of them really believe these theories, just as I believe I have one lemon tree. And the worker doesn't know about the distinction either, just as the boy doesn’t know the contract he entered doesn’t fully map on to what’s taking place. It strikes me as the same sort of scenario as the neighbor boy and the money tree. Both parties - if really formally free and equal - are engaged in a mistake.

This worries me because there obviously is something WRONG about exploitation, but I must reserve my answer for now.

Is there any scholarship on the question of Marx, justice and exploitation, that you think is absolutely necessary for someone to read if they want to write on the topic?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Isn't the morally or ethically obvious an artifact of bourgeois socialization? Is there no connection between the form of the equation that "x units of lemon picking is worth $5.00" and the society in question being one in which the capitalist mode of production prevails?

If capitalism is unjust by its own standards, doesn't that just show that capitalism is simply irrational as it has been suspected to be? Bob Ackermann once floated the idea that having an incoherent ideology saves the energy needed to keep up the appearance of consistency. On the other hand, it shouldn't be surprising if capitalism is just by its own standards, no?

It is interesting, though, that there is a kind of rumor of justice that isn't just market place justice, like Peter Berger's rumor of angels, that serves as a standard by which capitalism can be judged.

Berger had this idea that socialization everywhere and at all times requires appeals to things like angels and gods and so on, and so, in effect, religion will never disappear. The only thing that I remember is the example of the religious like implications of telling a child that everything will be ok; everything? Seemed religious to Berger. As it is difficult to imagine socialization in the context of ever present fear, it is also difficult to imagine socialization without something like the just/unjust cut. If that cut is a condition of socialization, and socialization is a condition of capitalism, then capitalism may be forever hounded by people who insist on applying the cut to capitalism. A peculiar fate. Berger has a weird twist on this. If socialization requires, in effect, angels, then they will always be with us, but how can we do anything but treat what will always be with us as real? Mutatis mutandis, if the just/unjust cut is a part of socialization, it will be like Berger's angels, that is, always with us, but again how, practically speaking, treat such a thing as if it isn't real?

This is a double edged sword, though. Accepting this sort of transcental-sociological argumentation might provide a standard by which to judge capitalism, but what about all the really nutty stuff that is required by socialization? like angels Some early American judged is said to have argued that there must be witches, since there are laws against witches and there couldn't be laws against things that didn't exist. Can one have the rumor of justice without having a rumor of angels? I think that I get off the bus with the premise that angels and substantive ethical divisions are conditions of socialization per se. I know that this is Beger, but that seems to me to be rooted in a lack of sociological and historical imagination. Besides, though, the original point was that such things have no claim outside their sociological and historical spheres; the obvious, in short, is an illusion.

Interesting stuff....

Tony Couture said...

from R.P.W: "Marx expressed his deep loathing of capitalism not by offering moral condemnations of it -- troubling deaf heaven with his bootless cries, as it were -- but by proving rigorously, scientifically, irrefutably, that it was doomed to self-destruct."

Why (given the Marx's Fate account of Marx's sexism, and your account of Marx's irony in MOneybags, p28 about double meaning and speaking ironically to your different audiences) do you not say instead: Marx spoke morally and in moral terms about exploitation in Capital to the females in his audience; but Marx spoke scientifically without moral nuance to his male audience, spun his formulas for them and generally talked over the heads of the "weaker" sex. Is it plausible to think that Marx's dismissal of moral argument is macho posturing against the female voice? From The Working Day, Marx says to the ladies: "Hence capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society." But, Marx says to the men: "The capitalist mode of production (essentially the production of surplus value, the absorption of surplus labor) produces thus, with the extension of the working day, not only the deterioration of human labor power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and function." Why not say this?

Chris said...

I think your questions are relevant, pertinent, and also well discussed in the literature on Marx and justice. They are questions that have reached no clear cut conclusion. But what I think Marx means by exploitation, and what the literature, Wolff, and others mean, is starkly different. So my first step is to straight up ignore the question is capitalism REALLY just, unjust, both unjust and just (depending on vantage point), and where did Marx side; I’m concerned about the following: if we are going to make this debate revolve around 1) the theory of exploitation, and 2) the theory of exploitation as theft, how can it inform our meta discussion of justice. Since I think given my lemon tree example, 2) simply CAN’T inform the discussion (no matter where you side on it), then we need to rethink 1). And I am in the process of doing that. I won’t say what I think on the matter though; I’m working on a future publication.
Also it’s quite clear that wherever you side, exploitation is not a neutral term. Appropriation might be a less normative and descriptive term, i.e., the capitalist appropriates the value of the worker’s labor time, when he hires him and pays for his labor power. Very neutral and descriptive claim. If you change appropriate to exploit, the tone does suggest Marx has a bone to pick. And I think he does have a very good bone to pick, but it has nothing to do with theft, unless you think in my lemon tree example, I, the owner of the tree, am stealing. Which seems dubious….no? If I’m wrong please correct me.

Tony Couture said...

RPW: "There is no pou sto, no place to stand from which one can make objective, neutral moral judgments uninfected with the ideological perspective of any particular society. That is precisely the fatal illusion of such covertly bourgeois ideological rationalizations as the "theory of justice" of John Rawls."
TC: Once upon a time there a Princeton man who went to the most racist war in history and was dipped in blood many times over, and he came back to philosophy and found a new mission through Walter Stace, to construct an understanding of justice that was not grounded in war, but in reason. With cannons forever ringing in his ears, he retired from bourgeois existence, and tried to devise a flawed path of peace between the capitalists and the socialists. He did not do interviews, appear on TV or star in a MOOC called Justice. He was unable to finish his life's work, but he was moving in an increasingly socialist direction in The Law of Peoples. He too was a master of the ironic voice in philosophy and no friend of ideology. He did not find his way out of the war, but he called Truman a war criminal and refused the Kyoto Prize. He writes in his dissertation: "...moral education should not be the inculcation of a doctrine, but instruction in the method appraising beliefs and lines of conduct, together with a full presentation of various existent ideals so that the student may critically and reflectively choose between them" (p 193-4/unpublished). Rawls was the opposite of a supreme soldier, and thought of philosophy as the opposite of a war of ideas and as the search for a reflective equilibrium rather than a victory over the other side. World War II scared Rawls about the possibility of a reasonable democratic future for humanity, and set up his mission in life: he was the messenger of justice to America, the victor of World War II, that it not forget the need for greater equality in protecting universal liberties. Trained by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in radio communications, he worked on perfecting the written communication of philosophy despite his disability in stammering and public speaking. His work may look ideological from too close up, but Rawls was a long distance communicator with an ironic style of writing that is lucid, untechnical, and a model for public reason. Rawls spoke on the wavelength of long term liberal democracy to the collective sense of right in all of us. That is what was beautiful in Rawls!

Magpie said...


"Marx hated weakness in men, and considered the making of moral judgments as the last resort of the weak. To say 'That is morally wrong' is implicitly to say, 'I am powerless to stop that, so I shall inveigh against it.' [If this makes you think of Nietzsche, you would be right.]"

For what it might be worth, my interpretation is not too different from yours, but goes a bit farther: others -- before and after Marx -- decried exploitation on moral grounds. Think of the utopian socialists, the Fabian socialists and such like. In essence, these people's appeals were and are tantamount to begging on someone else’s behalf.

What is wrong with begging? For one, beggars aren't choosers. Beggars are expected to feel gratitude towards their “benefactors”: often enough the same capitalists who exploit them. That only perpetuates exploitation.

The mere act of arguing on moral grounds -- begging -- subjects the arguer/beggar to ridicule and leads nowhere:

classtruggle said...

Certain rights and their practice in one mode of production may be seen as unjust vis-à-vis the rights of another mode yet just in relation to their own underlying principles.

Injustice within a particular mode occurs when its own rights, principles and laws are violated. It follows that a mode of production is just if it is consistent with its own principles.

The following quote from Marx is interpreted differently in the literature on morality/ethics/justice but I tend to see it as supporting the view that Marx does not condemn capitalism as unjust on the basis of transcendent principles of justice i.e., rights or values defined as essential or absolute.

"Slavery on the basis of the capitalist mode of production is unjust; so is cheating on the quality of commodities (Marx, Capital III, p.460-461)