Before I respond to a number of interesting comments, I feel the need to say something about several terrible things now taking place in the world, even though I have neither special insight nor any particular information to contribute regarding them. It just seems odd not to acknowledge their occurrence. The first is the truly awful spread of the virus in India, the second largest nation on earth. The second is the Israeli attacks on the huge sprawling open-air prison that they have been maintaining for decades in Gaza. My heart weeps for the first and my blood boils at the second. There is really nothing more I can say.
Let me now respond to three quite different comments that have been offered by readers of my most recent blog posts.
First with regard to my repeated invocation of the name of Karl Marx. Nothing I have said depends essentially on the use of his name or of such terms as “Marxism” or “Marxist.” I am afraid that invoking that name was simply a red herring, whatever a red herring is. One need not invoke the name of Charles Darwin to talk about evolution or the name of Albert Einstein to talk about general relativity, although simple piety might suggest an appropriate nod in that direction, and since the name “Marx” has become freighted (or fraught, to use the old past participle) with a great overlay of associations both positive and negative, let me write these comments without further reference to the 19th century German émigré.
Second, and rather more importantly, why do I talk again and again about collective ownership of the means of production rather than about the many other issues that have been the focus of progressive or even revolutionary struggle in the past century, issues such as women’s liberation, black liberation, or gay liberation? The reason is simple but, in my judgment, exceedingly important. Each of these struggles, to which I have made tiny but deliberate contributions, is an effort to eliminate what might be called imperfections in capitalism. When women in large numbers enter the workforce as paid employees, they increase the supply of labor and thereby drive down wages, which, I believe, is why capitalists have not resisted this very important rectification of an old and unjust inequality. Instead of having to pay men what used to be called a “family wage” employers can reduce wages, counting on each household to send two or more earners into the labor force. The struggle to make women full participants in capitalism has been a liberation for countless scores of millions of women but in no way a threat to capital’s domination of the economy. The black liberation struggle has, especially in the United States, deep and complex roots in the history of slavery but in the end it accomplishes the same removal of an imperfection in the labor market. That is why, when cases come before the Supreme Court concerning such things as affirmative action admissions policies in colleges and universities, large corporations file amicus briefs supporting, not opposing, those policies. The gay liberation struggle, in which I have a very personal interest because my younger son is a proud gay man, in the same way offers no threat to the private ownership and control of the means of production. But any call for collective ownership of the means of production constitutes a threat to capitalism and is, in my judgment, for that reason a proposal of an entirely different nature.
If the ranks of billionaires, of corporate executives, of judges, of generals, and of other leading lights in modern economies perfectly reflected the distribution of women or people of color or LGBTQ individuals in society, it would no doubt open up avenues of advancement to people who are now closed off from such positions but it would make no fundamental difference in the nature of the modern world.
Finally, let me say something, or rather acknowledge how little I have to offer, about how one could organize a society based on collective ownership of the means of production without that society falling into tyranny or hierarchical authoritarianism. Please note that this question, when raised, seems implicitly to suggest that this problem has been solved for capitalism but poses a threat in a society based on the collective ownership of the means of production. However, it would be a truly blind and Pollyanna-ish foolishness for anyone reflecting on the last hundred years of world events to make such a suggestion. As Gandhi is reputed to have said when asked what he thought about Western democracy, “it would be a good idea.”
To an extent that is not generally acknowledged, free and fair elections, impartial courts and justice, a free press and communications and all of the other blessings of modern democracy depend essentially on the fact that none of these indispensable and enormously valuable institutional arrangements poses any threat to the private ownership of the means of production. If it were to do so – if political parties were genuinely to win political power on programs of taking away ownership and control of the means of production from private individuals and vesting them in the collectivity – we might see a rapid and disastrous end of such things as free and fair elections or an impartial judiciary or a free press.
But this does not offer any guidance about how to make so fundamental a change in the organization of our society without risking tyranny – well-meaning tyranny, no doubt, but tyranny nonetheless. As I say, I have very little to offer along these lines but perhaps tomorrow I will try my hand at making some suggestions.