I am not a happy warrior. I am not one of those admirable people who enjoys the fight. I do not wade into a struggle for economic justice or gender equality or environmental protection with a laugh on my lips, reinvigorated by each defeat to ever greater efforts. I much prefer to sit quietly and contemplate my circles, as Archimedes did when Syracuse was attacked [or so Kierkegaard says.] But the sheer awfulness of contemporary America, both before Trump and after, compels me to pay attention. In these brief remarks, I shall try to come to terms in some way with what Karl Marx got right about capitalist society and what he got wrong. I do this because I need to understand why the behavior of my fellow Americans so dramatically diverges from what I would have expected.
Standing off a bit from the detail of his theories [including the Labor Theory of Value, about which I have, after all, written an entire book and several highly technical journal articles], what I can see is that Marx told us about three related but different things: First, the fundamental exploitative structure of capitalism; Second, the probable direction in which capitalism would develop as its institutions matured; and Third, how men and women would respond to that underlying exploitation and that development.
Looking at things a century and a half after Marx published Capital [less one year], I believe that what I see is this: Marx was dead right on the first point, more right than wrong on the second point, and utterly wrong on the third point.
First things first: Capitalism is indeed built on exploitation, it thrives on exploitation, it requires exploitation to survive, the exploitation is structural, and has nothing in particular to do with the character or feelings of those who control the capital, and capitalism will therefore continue to exploit workers for as long as it exists, regardless of the ameliorations and accommodations it may be forced on occasion to concede. To demonstrate this was an enormous accomplishment for Marx, and all by itself establishes his claim as the greatest social scientist who has ever lived.
With regard to the second matter, Marx was shrewdly prescient, although he was not alone in anticipating the way things would play out. He was quite right about the tendency of capitals to gobble up other capitals and become larger and larger. I am not sure he anticipated how resilient and persistent would be the realm of small firms, start-ups, petty capitalist economic activity, but his larger claims are compatible with that phenomenon. He, like many others, saw the danger to capitalism in the cycle of booms and busts, and in some loose sense he may even be said to have predicted the great crash of ’29, although he expected it sooner than it came. The internationalization of capitalism is entirely in keeping with his central insights, of course. What he got wrong, as I have argued elsewhere, was the persistence of a pyramidal structure of jobs and wages in the ranks of the working class, broadly defined. This was an important failure on his part, though he can hardly be blamed for it, I think. A century and a half later, the stark opposition of capital and labor has been not replaced but it has been overlain with the conflicts of interest between well-paid and poorly-paid members of the working class. Technically speaking, they are all exploited – the minimum wage workers and the lavishly paid members of the upper middle classes – but the political, social, ideological, and human consequences of that exploitation are utterly different for the two groups.
The third thing, the likely response of men and women to the devolution of capitalism, Marx got totally wrong, so far as I can see. Now do not misunderstand me: I think Marx was the world’s greatest theorist of mystification, of false consciousness, of ideology [and I have written a book and many articles about this as well.] But Marx was convinced that over time, as the centralization of capitalism continued, and even though members of the ruling and exploiting class would more firmly clasp to their collective bosom the self-justifying rationalizations offered for their unrelenting exploitation by priests, political theorists, and economists, workers would be led to unite, throw off their acceptance of those rationalizations, and develop ever sharper and more energized consciousness of their condition, inspiring them to cast about for ways to overthrow the exploiters and take collective ownership of their own collective product: Capital.
Well, in the early years of the last century, when my grandfather helped lead the New York Socialist Party to electoral victories, himself winning election to the New York Board of Aldermen in 1917, it was still possible to believe that he and his comrades were the avant garde of a worldwide revolution. But a century later, only those who have converted a triumph of social science into a quasi-religion can still cling to that belief. Thomas Frank memorably asked, What’s The Matter With Kansas? I think we need to ask, what in the name of God is the matter with the whole damned country?
Now, I know all about the biases of the media, about epistemic bubbles, about the well-funded efforts to deny the plain facts of climate change, of economic misery, of plain straight-up kleptocracy, but why do scores of millions, more than scores of millions, buy into that nonsense? I mean, we know it is nonsense, and we do not have access to any sources of information that are denied to our fellow citizens. The information is all there, free, available simply by picking up a TV remote and changing the station, or Googling with a mouse. Fox News draws vastly more people than Lawrence O’Donnell, but there is no legislative limit on the number of people allowed to tune him in. Never mind Trump. Why on earth do people all over America elect and re-elect politicians whose whole aim in life is to screw them?
I know all about gerrymandering and voter suppression, but that is no explanation. Bernie Sanders, God bless him, was the only candidate in the last Presidential cycle talking about the fact that the rich are screwing the poor. Why didn’t he pull 80% of the total vote of both parties?
I don’t get it.