The New York Times recently launched a debate about Karl Marx and our 21st century economic future. In fact, the new economics of inequality — if I may take the sudden fame of Thomas Piketty as a case study — makes significantly different predictions than Marx. Glossing Piketty, Matt Bruenig shows how Marx lacked a proper grasp of Total Factor Productivity — i.e., how technology and efficiency drive economic growth in quantifiable ways that are irreducible to labor and capital.
My friend Adam Winck, a Germanist, gives good reason to suspect that all this retrospective analysis of Marx is misguided in the first place:
What does it mean to apply Marxist analysis to our current situation? Forgetting that Marx was a revolutionary thinker who sought not to describe the world but to intervene in it, the New York Times debate merely parodies his writings. Marx was not just an economist, an observer who seeks to understand—he was a revolutionary. To read him as simply a backward-facing witness is to misread him entirely and to obfuscate even his extraordinarily insightful quality as an observer. Keeping the revolutionary quality of his thought in mind will open up for us the fruits of his scrutiny, even if we depart from the specifics of his vision.
To practice a Marxist analysis of our economic environment (the only way to determine whether and/or how Marx really is relevant), we may have to deviate from Marx’s claims. On the one hand, deviation from Marx is no problem for the economists quoted whose monolithic Marx is unrecognizable to anyone who has bothered to subtleties and doubts of the early Marx as compared to some of the more stridently prophetic (and less subtle) Marx of Das Kapital. But even this later Marx appears in their summaries only in the grotesque caricature mask of the Soviet Union whose “communism” had as much in common with Marx’s vision of communism as a rat does with a high-frequency trader—there is a connection, but we need to do some twisting and turning (and maybe a metaphorical leap or two) to get there. This is unfortunate, because actual attention to Marx’s writings are highly instructive, often in simple ways.
Then there is the further problem of taking Marx out of context. The discussion of inequality, for example, drowns out Marx’s concept of alienation or estrangement. Higher living standards draw even the underclass into the cash nexus, which involves alienation. (In the Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844, Marx arrives at the concept of alienation with the descriptive aid of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.)
Let’s begin with what the economists consider flaws in Marx’s analysis. Both Michael Strain and Tyler Cowen cite as a major flaw Marx’s misunderstanding of the relation between living standards and inequality. Marx, they charge, fails to recognize that inequality may increase at the same time as living standards even for the poor. This is not an entirely unfair critique. But it ignores the fact that Marx, from his inverted Hegelian perspective, does actually account for this phenomenon, only he values it differently. This is particularly evident in his discussion of a workers estrangement from the products of his labor. As living standards for the poor increase, their fate becomes evermore tightly enmeshed in the system of capitalism, and the interests of its powerful, which are eo ipso exploitative by virtue of the dramatic increase in income inequality. Once sufficiently a part of this web, the impoverished are exposed to exploitation at the hands of those with capital power. (It is important to recognize that exposure to exploitation is a structural possibility that may or may not be actualized.) It is easy to see that the recent concentration of capital is inherently dehumanizing for those who suffer the silk whip of enormous inequality exchanged for living standards.
If we are to depart from Marx’s full blown communist vision in a fruitful activation of his thinking, we need to shift to quantitative distinctions of scale rather than qualitative distinctions as he made them. Hence the terms “dramatic” and “enormous” in relation to inequality. We must also accept responsibility to manage the inherently dehumanizing tendencies of even a regulated capitalism. Politics must become a therapy for the traumata of a fundamental exposure to exploitation in our economic system. Responsible politics cannot cure capitalism’s ills, but perhaps they can treat them better than other therapies.
Marx’s concept of species-being, the third category of alienation in EPM 1844, provides the link between economic alienation and dehumanization. Human beings approach life as an object (they pass Foucault’s threshhold of biopolitics, Marx assumes), which the early Marx links to freedom. The proof of this autonomy is creative production of objects. It is this view of the homo faber, that material production is active species-life, that has always struck me as a great oversimplification (EPM XXIV). But the later Marx complicates this picture, and the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach (i.e. “The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.“) opens the question of whether Marx has a theory of human nature, period.
In other words, I have some trouble with what properly counts as “inherently dehumanizing”, even if it is easy to see — as Adam notes — that alienation is inherently dehumanizing for Marx. Fortunately, Adam prefers praxis to the entanglements of Marxology:
But the political realm has developed a structurally close and effectively toxic relation to capital power. And there’s the rub. This is where Marxist analysis must direct its scalpel. Until we address this through campaign finance reform the troubling entanglement of massive amounts of money and politics, we cannot begin to have confidence in a therapeutic treatment of capitalism. And until we counter the excessive “humanization” of corporations, our ability to manage the dehumanizing structures of capitalism may well be fatally crippled. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in precisely the wrong direction if we still want to salvage capitalism.