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Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Inasmuch as Chris has done me the honor of addressing me by the title I have affected these past  fifty -six years [I think of it as the academic version of a patronymic or matronymic], I think I owe it to him to pause momentarily in my re-reading of Capital in order to address the question he raises, viz, how exactly would a socialist society work?  It is worth reminding those of you who have read a great deal of Marx and telling those of you who have not that Marx said almost nothing about this subject.  Indeed, if we were to add up all the pages that Marx devoted to an analysis of capitalism and the critique of theorists of capitalism, we would certainly pass 5000, and perhaps many more.  If we were then to gather together every passing comment, aside, and ephemeral remark he made about what a socialist society would look like, we might manage, generously, to cobble together five pages, but even that would be in large print.  There were, of course, many nineteenth century authors who speculated extensively about the lineaments of a socialist society.  Marx and Engels had nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as "Utopian Socialists."

There are a number of reasons why the high priest of socialism never wrote about it, the most profound of which is that Marx understood, better than anyone before him [and perhaps after as well] that how the transition to socialism was made would shape what emerged from the transition.  This idea, of the relationship between the character of a socio-political transition and what emerges from it, is the subject of a truly great book by my old friend [and the godfather of my younger son] Barrington Moore Jr.  I refer, of course, to The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.

What follows are some thoughts I had during my morning walk.  The temperature at six a.m. was hovering just above 20 degrees, so a good deal of my energy was devoted to staying warm, which may explain why these thoughts are a trifle scattered.  [Wearing thermal underwear, two sweaters, and a scarf under my hoodie, I looked rather like a miniature version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.]

I shall begin with a point Chris makes, about which Marx has a very great deal to say in Volume One:  At the present stage of economic development, an extremely extensive division of labor has long since taken place, with the result that few if any of us actually reproduce our own means of existence by our own individual labor.  Those of us who are city dwellers , which I assume includes virtually all the readers of this blog, do not grow our own food or spin, weave, and tailor our own clothes, nor have most of us had a hand in the building of the dwellings in which we reside.  [I have, as it happens, carded and spun raw wool into thread, but that was at an upscale leftwing work camp for middle-class teenage boys and girls, so it does not really count.]

For this reason, Marx, for certain analytical purposes, speaks in Capital of the assembled labor of the entire working class as though it were the labor of a single worker, a portion of whose day is devoted to reproducing "his" conditions of existence [i.e., wage goods], the remainder being devoted to producing the surplus value that is transmuted into the money form as profit for the capitalist. 

Thinking in this way is useful for reminding us that in a socialist society, a certain amount of labor must be done in each cycle simply to produce what is consumed, one way or another, by the workers, and also to reproduce the capital that is used up in the processes of production.  If the population is growing, or if a decision has been made [by whom?  Ah.  That is the question] to raise the standard of living, in either case requiring an expansion of the scope of output through economic growth, then "the" worker will have to labor longer than is required for simple reproduction, either to produce the capital goods to which the additional working population will apply itself productively or else to expand the output of wage goods available to the existing population.  What is more, if the demographic composition of the population is shifting, perhaps with fewer persons of working age doing the labor required to support the entire population, then those who work will have to labor longer than would be required merely to sustain themselves.  All of this is obvious and has been well understood for a long time.

A good deal of the labor performed by our "worker" goes to produce wealth for those who control or own the means of production, and are therefore in a position collectively and individually to compel the workers to perform surplus labor by threatening to withhold from them the food, clothing, and shelter that they need to survive.  There are more pages in Capital devoted to this doleful subject than to anything else.  It is the fundamental fact of capitalism [and also of all previous economic formations, but that is several other stories.]

How would things differ in a socialist society?  Indeed, what would a socialist society be?  Well, the traditional answer -- and I am in this, as in so much else, a traditionalist -- is that in a socialist society capital, which is to say the means of production, would be collectively owned, and decisions about what and how much to produce would be made collectively.  [This is why the transition process matters.  If a small cadre of revolutionary leaders act as the commanders of the revolutionary process, you can bet that after the revolution, even if we are all eating peaches and cream, they and their epigones will be making all the big decisions, which they will no doubt call Democratic Centralism, without irony, alas.]

At the present time, decisions about the allocation of capital are for the most part made by private owners who are motivated by a desire to expand the value of their holdings through the making of a profit.  These decisions may, but they also may not, serve the human needs of those doing the labor in the society.  In America today, for example, a good profit can be made by manufacturing in expensive, nicely designed, reasonably well made clothes.  Hence even the poor are well-dressed by historical standards.  But in the housing business, the real money is to be made in high-end luxury housing.  Hence the poor, who are well-dressed, are ill-housed.  In a socialist society, it would be possible to allocate capital in such a way that the workers are well-housed.  It would not be cheap.  Even under socialism, there is no free lunch [except at Apple headquarters].  It would be a deliberate decision, made with full knowledge of the costs, which include what would have to be foregone.

Shifting the capital around looks easy on paper when one is working with dollar equivalents.  Take so many billions out of this industry and put it into that industry.  Things are a bit trickier when we get down to the real economy.  One cannot simply issue an order that an aircraft manufacturer making Lear Jets must forthwith start producing nicely designed workers' dwellings, nor can one require a Rolex Watch manufacturer, by fiat, to start churning out nutritious school lunches for poor children.  However, with a little Schumpeterian "creative destruction" the changes can be made.

Thus far, I have been talking about America, but it is time to acknowledge a fact that requires some deep thought.  Those cheap, well-designed clothes I mentioned that you and I are wearing [leaving to one side my utter lack of clothes sense] are made by girls and women working twelve hours for a wage that we would not consider adequate pay for a day.  So are those making our cell phones.  They just don't happen to be living in America, so a socialist transformation in America will do them precious little good.  [Oscar Wilde is reported to have said of socialism, "It will never work.  Too many meetings."  I shudder to think what would happen to me if I were to explain to a gathering of revolutionary youth that they might have to give up their IPhones.]

Well, this is a great deal more in a connected way than Marx ever wrote about socialism, and since I am now all warmed up, I am going to go back to reading Capital. 


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

I was looking for something else and came across this possibly pertinent remark, "And if Herr Dühring now manufactures a new Utopian social order out of his sovereign brain instead of from the economic material available, he is not practising mere "social alchemy". He is acting rather like a person who, after the discovery and establishment of the laws of modern chemistry, attempts to restore the old alchemy and to use atomic weights, molecular formulas, the quantivalence of atoms, crystallography and spectral analysis for the sole purpose of discovering — the philosopher's stone."

Chris said...

The central, so far as I can tell, seems to be between reproducing the means of production, and reproducing societies desires and needs, without putting undue onus on people due to endowments that are morally arbitrary (age, genetics, etc). Of course the long term Marxian goal is to kill the law of value and ensure wages are done away with entirely, so we lose the veil that hides exploitation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The central what? Idea? problem? Contradiction? Theme? I have to say that I don't think the issue of morally arbitrary endowments is at all central to Marx's analysis, nor is it to the theory of socialism. Why do you say that?

Chris said...

Whoops, it's around 20 degrees where I am, so my fingers are very cold and not functioning well. I just type as fast as I can and put my gloves back on without checking for typos.

The central concern*

You're right that this is not a primary concern for Marx, but he does address it a bit in the Gotha program critique. He's clear that factors of endowment really are arbitrary, and that to distribute equally amongst society the wealth of society is a very unequal thing to do given this arbitrary endowments. So there is a tension here (for socialists) between work load and distribution, especially given our materially necessary extreme division of labor.