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Tuesday, May 18, 2021


Well, my big sister read my reply to her questions and she commented that she was left puzzled by my deep pessimism. Let me briefly explain the source of my pessimism about the future of socialism. I shall be rehearsing things that I said in my paper of that title, but as Socrates replies when Callicles complains that Socrates says the same things over and over, “yes, and in the same way too.”


Marx was optimistic about the prospects for socialism not because he had a religious faith or was an incurable optimist but because he believed he saw structural developments within capitalism that were leading naturally to an evolution that would make socialism genuinely possible – not inevitable, not happening behind the backs of people as it were, but genuinely possible in the way that the fantasies of the Utopian Socialists were not.


Specifically, he believed that he was looking at six or more developments in mid-19th century capitalism that taken together constituted what he elsewhere described as the new order growing in the womb of the old. What were these developments?


First, Marx believed that capitalism would continue to drive out all pre-capitalist modes of production and spread across the entire world. Second, he believed that as this happened capitalist firms would grow larger and larger, become international in their organization and scope and operations, marginalizing or even destroying small local firms. Third, he believed that the cycle of booms and busts that had afflicted mid-19th century capitalism would continue and grow ever more violent and international in their scope. Fourth, he believed that governments in capitalist countries would be unable to control these booms and busts, that the vicious competition among capitalists would block them from taking the cooperative state actions that might serve to control the roller coaster movements of the economy or at least to modify them and make them manageable. Fifth, he believed that capitalism was eating away at and destroying the complex system of trades and crafts and transforming workers into a mass of semiskilled factory operatives whose common conditions of employment would foster and strengthen worker organization, first within single factories, then within entire industries, then within entire nations, and finally worldwide. And finally, sixth, he believed that capitalism was destroying traditional bonds of family, religion, ethnicity, race, and nationality, making it more and more likely that workers across nations and across the world would recognize their common interest and build bonds of fraternity that would strengthen their struggle against capitalists.


The effect of the working out of these structural changes, Marx was convinced, would lead on the one side to a worldwide economic crisis or crash and on the other side to the formation of a worldwide labor movement that would result finally in the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by collective ownership of the means of production, which is to say by socialism.


Marx believed that this world historical transformation would not happen automatically, as it were, but would be the result, if it did happen, of tremendous effort and struggle by workers against powerful, wealthy, politically well entrenched capitalist forces, but because he believed that these tendencies were intrinsic to the evolution of capitalism and did not depend on the goodwill of enlightened capitalists or anything of that sort, he believed he was looking at a moment of transition from one system of social relations of production to another.


Marx was right about much of what he anticipated but, alas, he was also wrong about a good deal. He was obviously right about the tendency of capitalism to conquer the world, and he was equally correct that as it did so capitalist firms would grow to enormous size and power, of a sort that had never been seen before in the history of the world. He was also right that the ever greater booms and busts would lead to a worldwide crash, although I suspect he anticipated that it would come a bit earlier than in the end it did.


But Marx was wrong about three big things, and these three taken together have, in my judgment, undermined the real possibility of a transition to socialism.


The first thing he got wrong was his failure to anticipate that capitalists would find a way through the governments that they controlled to work together and manage the destructive fluctuations of the economy. In effect, he failed to anticipate Keynes.


The second thing Marx got wrong was his failure to anticipate that mature capitalism (what we old lefties in happier days used to call late capitalism) would develop a steeply pyramidal and apparently permanent structure of compensation and privileges among employees that would defeat efforts to achieve widespread worker solidarity. The shirts and suits in modern corporations, as we used to refer to them, are objectively all exploited workers but the reality of their actual lives is entirely different. There is very little that can form the basis for solidarity between a day laborer making $15 an hour and a white-collar worker making $40 or $50 an hour and neither of them has much subjectively in common with a middle manager making $150,000 a year, regardless of what an “objective” analysis tells us.


The third thing Marx got wrong was his failure to realize the persistence of religious, ethnic, regional, racial, and national self – identifications of the sort that stand in the way of genuine international worker solidarity.


For all these reasons, I am, as my sister correctly observed, deeply pessimistic about the prospects for a transition to genuine socialism. I am not for moment suggesting that we should give up on our endless efforts to make the conditions of working people better, but I would be lying if I denied that that struggle is easier when you believe that history is on your side.


s. wallerstein said...

If what you say about Marx above is true, that he got 3 out of 6 historical and economic factors wrong, why be a Marxist?

Almost all of us, maybe all of us, who comment regularly in this blog agree that we should not give up trying to make the conditions of working people better and to struggle against economic inequality, but you don't have to call yourself a "Marxist" to do that.

I realize that Marx can be a fascinating author to read and I in no way suggest that one should stop reading him. However, there are scores of fascinating classical authors, perhaps equally worth reading.

Ridiculousicculus said...

Professor Wolff writes: "The shirts and suits in modern corporations, as we used to refer to them, are objectively all exploited workers but the reality of their actual lives is entirely different. There is very little that can form the basis for solidarity between a day laborer making $15 an hour and a white-collar worker making $40 or $50 an hour and neither of them has much subjectively in common with a middle manager making $150,000 a year, regardless of what an “objective” analysis tells us."

It is true that a day laborer making $15/hr on a construction site or in an agricultural field experiences vastly different "working conditions" than a white-collar office worker making $40-$50/hr or a middle manager making $150k/year. The day laborer, for example, works outside or on a job site performing manual labor, whereas the white-collar office worker sits in an office at a computer and the middle manager does the same, but also directs the work of others. Academics and labor relations professionals refer to such distinctions as "communities of interests."

But does worker solidarity necessarily flow from communities of interests derived from common working conditions? From a theoretical perspective the common thread that ties the day laborer and the white-collar worker and the middle-manager together isn't the physical nature of the work they perform; it's the shared sense of alienation from the product of their labor that ties these workers together, along with a collective sense of exploitation by the top end of the income distribution and political/economic elites. And the evidence of that mutually-felt alienation is all over your television and the internet - see the explosion in the health and wellness industry, tourism, yoga, self-help media, and spirituality in western countries, which are all indicators of a critical mass of humanity desperate to "find themselves" and escape the alienation of their working lives under capitalism.

A political movement aimed at capturing and reallocating the $61trillion in wealth that the boomers are about to pass onto their heirs, along with confiscating and reallocating the resources hoarded by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and the big corporate interests in the US, might not be the revolution that Marx himself imagined. But given the rapid advance of technology, automation, and the dispersal of information and knowledge via the internet, it also doesn't seem entirely impossible - at least to me.

David Palmeter said...

When you speak of “genuine socialism” what do you mean? How would it work? These questions have cropped before and the answer is always the same: Marx doesn’t tell us and neither does anyone else. We’ll have to wait and see.

I can envision a totalitarian nightmare. Today’s largest corporations include many that produce entertainment or news reports and analyses. How would government ownership of the means of production of newspapers, magazines, radio, television and internet news platforms operate? Where would dissenters go to present their views? Who would decide what is reported and how it’s reported? Could the Pentagon papers be published by a Times or a Post in a socialist economy?

marcel proust said...

Two points, one being at best borderline pedantry.

1) Someone working fulltime (2000 hours/year) at $15/hour is in the 34th percentile of US income*: at $40/hour, 77th: at $50/hour, 84th: at $75/hour ($150K/year) 92nd. The last 3 groups all have much more in common with each other than $15/hour, especially since members of the 2 middle categories will have aspirations to be mistaken for being near the last category -- similar to the efforts of nearly all 19thC European immigrants to distinguish themselves from Blacks.. Which brings me to the 2nd point...

2) As we have seen throughout most of US history, "the shared sense of alienation from the product of their labor [and] a collective sense of exploitation by the top end of the income distribution" is easily overwhelmed by the psychic benefits from being white, or at least not black. Furthermore, people are swift to substitute cultural elites (i.e., the educated? -- see Cobb & Sennett's Hidden Injuries of Class) for the top end of the income distribution and political/economic elites.

Thus pessimism.

*All figures for 2019, taken from here I'm taking it on faith that this is accurate, haven't done any background checking on my own.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

To S. Wallerstein,
Since when is a 50% rate of correct predictions about a future nobody else dared to predict a bad record? Let’s assume he never predicted a thing. How about a method of thinking about social reality? or an epistemology that allows us to understand how commodities and the world of “phantom-like objectivity” and illusion is social product that people confront but don’t control? and how about a method with the aim of liberating humanity from domination.

I know of no other philosopher or social theorist, with the exception of Freud, whose work accomplished nearly so much.

s. wallerstein said...

I certainly respect Marx's contribution to human liberation. But if our shared goal is to liberate humanity from domination (agreed), today we'll have to include feminist thinkers as well as the whole and complex movement of what in Chile these days is called "sexual dissidence".

I wouldn't throw out Picketty and those of similar tendencies either.

That is, Marx is just part of the tool kit for liberating humanity from domination these days just as Freud is. If they are both just part of the tool kit, why call yourself a "Marxist" or a "Freudian"?

In fact, listening to the young people just elected to the Constituyent Assambly here in Chile, in an election in which the right and the center-left almost disappeared, I see a variety of new social movements based on gender, on indigenous ethnicity, on sexual orientation, on the environment, on building neighborhoods, on animal rights, yes, on class and so many ways of striving for liberation, all of them to the left of the mainstream, that I'm just amazed.

Ahmed Fares said...

Blair Fix has an article titled: The Allure of Marxism … And Why It’s a Mistake

Here's a few selected quotes:

Karl Marx is probably the most important social scientist in history. But while his influence is beyond compare, Marx’s legacy is, in many ways, disastrous.

Communist revolutions end badly, I believe, because they are based on faulty ideas. The problem is that Marxists misunderstand the source of capitalism’s social ills. It all goes back to Marx himself.

Marx pinned the ills of capitalism on private property. I think this was a mistake. The real cause of most social ills, I believe, is not private property. It’s hierarchy. Why? Because hierarchy concentrates power. And concentrated power is the despot’s best friend. Concentrated power, I believe, leads to social ills like totalitarianism, inequality, mass violence, and oppression. True, private property is intimately linked with hierarchy and power. But, as communist states demonstrated, we can have hierarchy without private property. This is Marx’s fatal error.

So here’s what goes wrong with communist revolutions. Distracted by private property, Marxist revolutionaries make the problem of hierarchy worse than it was under capitalism. They abolish private property, thinking this will solve the problems of capitalism. But to achieve their goals, Marxists create a vanguard party that eventually becomes a single-party state.

So in the name of creating a more just and equitable society, these revolutionaries concentrate power. They replace capitalist hierarchies with an even larger communist hierarchy. Yes, private property is gone. But the problems of hierarchy are even worse than before. It’s an ironic twist. Marxist revolutionaries aim for a socialist utopia. But what they get is a totalitarian nightmare. And it’s all because they focus on private property and neglect the problem of hierarchy.

DJL said...

Self-identifications? Shurely shome mishtake...

Anonymous said...

Ahmed Fares,

Thank you for your reference to Blair Fix’s article. I have just read it, and it is brilliant.

One correction, however, pointed out by one of the commenters to the article. The problem with the totalitarian regimes which claimed to be Marxist revolutions is not the Marx got it wrong regarding the private ownership of property. The Marxis/communist revolutions devolved into totalitarian states because they purported to transfer private ownership of property to ownership by the state, which places ownership in the hands of the hierarchical leader of the state. But this was not implementing what Marx proposed. Marx proposed ownership by the workers themselves. If this had been implemented, and been sustained, then the problems caused by the introduction of hierarchy would be avoided. There would be no hieracrchy.

The problem with this is that the elimination of hierarchy in human social organizations is anthropologically infeasible. Marx’s error is not concentrating on the elimination of private property. It was in the expectation that mutual, joint ownership of property, without hierarchy, was feasible. It is not. And studies of both human and animal societies demonstrate this. Whenever such societies evolve, inevitably a hierarchical structure also evolves, in which one or more members of the society assert authority of the rest. It is an inevitable aspect of human DNA, and therefore common ownership of the means of production, while it may work over the short term, inevitably devolves into a clique within the organization asserting the right to exercise authority over how the means of production will be used.

Fix recognizes this problem and offers the following as the solution:

“I believe the answer to our hierarchy problem is simple – make those in power more accountable to their subordinates. Yes, this is simple, but it is devilishly hard to do. Bottom-up accountability runs counter to the top-down command that those in power love.

“Still over human history we’ve made modest gains in holding those in power to account. We have democracy, however limited it may be. The answer to our hierarchy problem is more democracy. I think that it’s doubtful that we’ll get this through revolution. Instead, the march to hold power to account will be a long slow process, fraught with many failures and setbacks.”

I believe this is consistent with what Prof. Wolff is recommending.

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