Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 2

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.  It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

In the first part of this series, I showed that both Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx respected individual freedom so much that they saw it as the essence of socialism. Each man envisioned a future that enabled the fullest expression of individuality. Far from the authoritarian socialism of the Bolshevik model; Wilde had libertarian socialism in mind. Neither man was particularly explicit about what socialism would look like, each preferring to paint in broad strokes his vision of the future. In all likelihood, neither probably knew what socialism would look like so much as they knew what was wrong with capitalism. There is thus no way to compare blueprints. We may, however, see socialism in a negative, that is by knowing what they said socialism is not, and how each believed we get from capitalism to socialism.

It may seem surprising that not even Marx advanced a state-ownership of private property model; one that placed society above individuality and authoritarianism over liberty. State-ownership of the means of production was capitalism for Marx, who thought of the state as the keeper of bourgeois interests. Neither did he think that the dictatorship of the proletariat could be anything other than universal, democratic, and brief. A democratic dictatorship is an anarchic phase that all revolutions necessarily go through. Think of the American Revolution before the constitution, when the Contential Congress claimed self-sovereignty and began issuing dubious laws. The dictatorship of the proletariat under the Bolsheviks came to mean “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors…”, as Lenin put it. No longer would the people rule themselves, they would be ruled by the vanguard of intellectual elites acting as saviors for a whole class of people who revolted quite sufficiently without them. This was socialism in name more than in substance.

Real socialism is supposed to differ from capitalism. Capitalism cultivates economic dependence, suppresses actual political decision-making for indirect democracy, and through these methods stifles individuality. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of poverty under capitalism. From the perspective of capitalism, poor people are “superfluous”, to use Thomas Malthus’ term, or “redundant”, to use Margret Thatcher’s. They are not needed by the economic system and therefore the system is unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to support their continued existence. Capitalist logic dictates that it is the duty of the poor to die, even in the midst of great plenty, if their labor is unnecessary to capitalists. This ruthlessness of capitalism has been defended by Malthus et. al. but generally it is deplored by mainstream society, including a great many wealthy capitalists themselves. Poverty for most people is a social problem that requires a social solution. Wilde writes,

Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.

Poverty is so destructive that those who are in it fail to recognize the social mechanisms that produce their deplorable state; rather like how a drowning person loses sight of everything but keeping their head above water, the poverty-afflicted can only struggle desperately from moment to moment. Disobedience and rebellion, those mechanisms of human progress, require the intervention of others who can help them discover their plight. Wilde writes,

What is said by [capitalists] against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.  Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.

This is the role Marx set for himself. Just as the chains of slavery were not, and could not be taken off by the slaves themselves, abolitionists became necessary. Socialist agitators awaken the proletariat–who at that time, may well have been fully employed and yet completely destitute–from false consciousness, or the conviction that this was the best that they could hope for in life or all they were worth or that the iron law of wages meant there just wasn’t enough for them even if they doubled production.

But it is not only the poor who suffer under capitalism. Another problem is the threat of poverty, which leaves even the richest insecure. Wilde again,

An enormously wealthy merchant may be—often is—at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone. Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself.  Nothing should be able to rob a man at all.

The threat of poverty drives the rich the way a jockey drives a horse. No one, no matter how wealthy, is immune to the threat. Poverty must be done away with, must it not?


Socialism obviously offers a solution, but capitalism provides its own. Charity and altruism are the bulwarks of capitalism. Wilde saw this as a fraud. Like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilde realized that the exercise of mercy is just another form of power and control, a way to make others live for you. Altruism is anti-socialist! Charity hurts the poor. It strings them along without the hope of liberation. Wilde writes,

[People] try to solve the problem of poverty… by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing [them]… The proper aim [of socialism] is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible… Charity degrades and demoralises.

For Wilde, this was cruel self-aggrandizement on the part of the wealthy. Charity makes the rich feel better and that is all it does. The Malthusians among us will no doubt object that it is by the generosity of the capitalist that any poor exist at all. The neoliberal will add that, actually, it is by the self-interest of the capitalist that the working poor, those paupers, have even the meager means to survive. But for Wilde, as for Marx, this is telling the slaves, those who sow the seeds, raise the crops, harvest the food, and prepare and serve the meals, that they should be grateful for the master’s benevolence in providing them sustenance. Wilde writes,

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

The poverty-ridden people unable to recognize who or what is making them poor, have but two options for survival: to steal or submit to capitalism’s picture of humanity. Wilde suggests the choice is between living as a human being and as a pet, writing,

It is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg… As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage.

To the Randian libertarian, who locates the fatal flaw in the idea of altruism itself, a break with capitalism is not necessitated. To these anti-socialist libertarians, one must boot-strap oneself out of poverty, either by accepting their worth as whatever crumbs fall from the rich man’s table or by asceticism. Against this position, Wilde writes,

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

The problem for this libertine brand of capitalism is the loss of human dignity that it entails. One may not need to be “grateful” because one lives by one’s own lights but without socialism, that life must be debased. What is the point of living by one’s own labors if one cannot earn a respectable living with nearly super-human effort? What is the point of individualism when it reduces individuality to mere animal subsistence?  Indeed, it is not finer to take than to beg?


Rejecting capitalism’s cold comforts and Bolshevik authoritarianism, we are left only with a particularly libertarian form of socialism. The socialism of Wilde approaches something like the minimal state of Robert Nozick, but unlike Nozick’s, a state incompatible with exploitation.

Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result, the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures.

Wilde was very nearly an anarchist, however, the state remains as a

…voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.

How exactly the state and individual efforts are to be arranged, Wilde leaves us to speculate. Which to his credit he acknowledges:

Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.  Progress is the realisation of Utopias.


Still glimmers of what Wilde envisions come through. Wilde, like Marx, sees the unlimited potential of mechanization to free human beings, but only under socialism where its benefits are shared by all. Mechanization eliminates manual labor and frees human beings from toil.

There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities…. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine… Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.


How close is Wilde to Marx’s vision of socialism? In the third volume of Capital, near the end, Marx argues that “the realm of freedom” his ideal society of free individuals, cannot begin until freedom from want and thus compulsion is achieved.

Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants… so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all the forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied. The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins the development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. (Fromm, 60)

Marx paints a picture of socialism where humans produce rationally rather than in an alienated way. That is, they produce for themselves what they want, not necessarily what the capitalist would profit by the most. They produce associatively, which may or may not be competitive, but without the ruthless competition of capitalism. This clearly rules out the possibility of a state-run, bureaucratic socialism. The individual must be the central agent and the goal of socialism. Socialism then is merely meant to alleviate human beings from the struggle with nature, and so allow us to create ourselves for ourselves. Socialism will be known when economics serves the needs of society the same way it serves the needs of capitalists under capitalism. For Marx and Wilde, socialism is a machine for serving the basest of human needs, our animal needs. It is not here to tell us how to satisfy them, only to ensure that they get satisfied.

 

 

 

 

Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 1

“The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

Socialism is not the first thing I associate with Oscar Wilde. In fact, it’s not the fifth thing. The man in my mind is first a playwright, then a poet, novelist, artist, dandy, homosexual, Irishman, celebrity, and finally–with mild dubiousness–a social critic. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde is exactly the socialist thinker we need today. His essay on socialism, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, offers a particular analysis of capitalism written with Wilde’s usual jaunty wit. While less theoretically precise than the work of, say, Peter Kropotkin, who presents anarcho-communism in a dense manner that was–consistently–a heavy influence on Wilde, the spirit of Man Under Socialism is more moving and more profound than the writer of The Conquest of Bread. Wilde’s picture of socialism is, perhaps, a trifle less anarchistic than Kropotkin, but still heavily emphasizes individual liberty and autonomy.

I think Oscar Wilde best fits the model of a libertarian socialist. The term may be apocryphally applied, but as is clear from his writings on socialism, individual freedom is an essential part of his socialist idyll. Wilde’s position, briefly summed, is that individuality is not to be taken as a given, as many right-wing libertarians would, but instead, individuality can only develop under a system that promotes general fairness and relative equality, viz. socialism. Wilde’s fascination with individual expression led him away from authoritarian socialists, like those that would only a few decades later come to power in Russia. It is dubious that Marxism leads only to the Bolshevik model of socialism, in fact, I would go farther and argue that Wilde’s brand of libertarian socialism is more consistent with Marx’s ideas than Bolshevik theory.

The Bolshevik’s denounced individuality because of its relationship to private property. They felt that it was an example of false consciousness, rather than a valid perspective. Wilde on the other said that socialism is valuable “simply because it will lead to individualism.” Like Marx, Wilde saw that individualism is the goal of socialism and that capitalism, for all its talk of individuality, really makes the vast majority of people live for the betterment of a few. For Wilde, the poor under capitalism are degraded by their relative poverty and so cannot be fully individuated, they must live for others (viz. the capitalists) or perish altogether.

Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community.

This is not unlike Karl Marx’s vision in the Communist Manifesto:

In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, shall we have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

But looking after the well-being of each member requires that each member be treated individually and not as a mere member of the community. Wilde writes,

What is needed is individualism. If socialism is authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

Wilde is taking aim here at what Dr. Richard Wolff will later call “state capitalism”. It is a form of capitalism that retains the aspect of private property ownership but resolves to make the state the sole owner of all property. In effect, this is “concentrated capitalism”, and it is far worse than private capitalism. This concentrated form of capitalism–monopoly capitalism–is no better off when the monopoly is the state. And its failures are replete in the twentieth century.

It is clear, then, that no authoritarian socialism will do. For while, under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

Wilde introduces a need for freedom into the idea of socialism. Authoritarian socialism, while good for the defense of the socialist state from the teeth of capitalist rivals, is ultimately self-defeating. Despite this, the attempt to force socialism without liberty was as popular in Wilde’s time as it was in the twentieth century.

But I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question… It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

But still, the abolition of private property remained central:

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world.  Most people exist, that is all.

Compare this to Marx, writing nearly half a century earlier:

A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. (138)

Marx, especially early on, was greatly concerned for the life of the individual. Socialism and communism were meant to liberate the individual, rather than dictate to individuals their duties and needs. Marx writes,

Alienation is apparent not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desires are the unattainable possession of someone else, but that everything is something different from itself, that my activity is something else, and finally (and this is also the case for the capitalist) that an inhuman power rules over everything. [Emphasis his] (151)

It does not matter to Marx if our life belongs to a private master or a public one, to live in the service of a lord, a landlord, or a capitalist is no worse than to live in the service of a state, a society, or a community. If it is wrong for one person to steal what is yours (your surplus value) it is just as wrong for ten-thousand people to steal it. And this is just as true when society is “free” as when it is controlled and directed by a governing body.

The “inhuman power” in Marx’s quote above is his name for the action of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. The action governs the behavior of both capitalist and laborer so that neither is truly free. Wilde, like Marx and Smith, emphasizes this freedom for individual expression as necessary for a good life. Marx is a staunch individualist and his socialism is designed to bring about more, not less, individual expression. It is the same for the wealthy capitalist as it is for the working poor according to both Marx and Wilde. Although Marx merely mentions this fact as an aside in the parenthetical (above), Wilde puts it much more cheekily,

If [private] property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich, we must get rid of it.

The real antagonist to individual expression is, according to Marx, the political economist, who reduces people to base functions in an economic system:

First, by reducing the needs of the worker to the miserable necessities required for the maintenance of his physical existence, and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movements, the economist asserts that man has no needs for activity or enjoyment…; and yet he declares that this kind of life is a human way of life. Secondly, by reckoning as the general standard of life… the most impoverished life conceivable, he turns the worker into a being who has neither senses nor needs, just as he turns his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. Thus all working class luxury seems to him blameworthy, and everything which goes beyond the most abstract need (whether it be a passive enjoyment or a manifestation of personal activity) is regarded as a luxury.

Property creates roles, duties, and even the ideas of idleness and luxury. “What does a worker need ‘free time’ or ‘income beyond necessity’ for? Nothing as far as we can see?” But workers never feel the things they want are “luxuries”, they are simply the things necessary for a good life. Private property, for both men, was entangled with a notion of social rank from which it must be freed before it can be fair. Wilde writes,

In a community… where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things… man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of… considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him—in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.

Rich or poor, your life under capitalism is not free to develop its own character. You inevitably live for others. You are forced into a set of classes, which according to Marx, narrow to a set of two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While I doubt we will ever come to see ourselves merely as class interests, as Marx predicted, there is no doubt that we do come to live in the “groove in which [we] cannot freely develop”. Wilde defines “class” as a social script, the deviation from which is difficult at best and deadly at worst. Anyone in contemporary America who is not white, straight, healthy, wealthy, and male knows what I am speaking of all too well. The point here is that it is capitalism which establishes what “success” looks like, and to succeed without fitting the model becomes increasingly improbable as capitalism becomes the hegemonic economic system.

In the third part of this series, I will look into this idea further, examining what it means to be an individual and how capitalism interferes with that process according to Wilde and Marx. For now, suffice it to say that Wilde, unlike the Bolsheviks, shared Marx’s underscoring of individuality and his disdain for life under the authority of another, be it the bourgeoisie or the state. The need for individual freedom, for both men, sprouts under any political economy but it flowers only in the soil of equality. In the next part, I will examine the pragmatics of socialism as Wilde and Marx saw it.

 

 

A Non-Marxist Theory of Exploitation: And How to Resolve It

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poli
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1865: Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German politician. (Photo by Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)

Introduction

It’s been a century and a half since Karl Marx published Das Kapital and a century since the Soviet revolution.   I think it’s time to consider class and labor exploitation outside the shadow of Marx’s economic system.  Central to Marx’s social and economic theory was his theory of exploitation.  His theory, in a nutshell, proposed that capital siphons off the value labor produces allowing the owners of the means of production to self-validate their property.  More specifically, the contribution of the owners in providing the means of production was already reflected in the value of the commodity at market.  So, the commodity’s profit was entirely owing to the contribution of labor.  Any profit taken by the owners of the means of production, i.e. the capitalists, was an exploitation of the workers’ labor efforts.  Marx’s entire positive economic theory was an attempt to expose how the system generated exploitation and, assuming Marx’s determinism, would eventually succumb to its own contradictions and give way to scientific communism.

There are many arguments against Marx’s account, but the most notable is a lack of capitalism’s demise.  I’m no proponent of determinism, but even if capitalism is determined to fail, the lack of failure despite reoccurring economic collapses, seems to paint a picture of capitalism as a flawed, perhaps even contradictory, system that nevertheless, humankind is willing to support and sustain indefinitely.  Contradiction is not enough to overthrow a failing system, a new system must be ready in the wings to takes its place.  Communism itself seems contradictory as it seems to suggest that humans, who may produce and “own” in common, may consume in common as well.  This last is not possible and without it neither is communism.  Private property it seems is here to stay.  The question for this century is how to affect private property without exploitation and without contradiction.

To take a step in that direction, I want to challenge Marx’s account and give an alternative theory of capital’s exploitation of labor.  My alternative is based on the labor theory of private property, like that proposed by John Locke.  If I’m right, the justification establishing private property rights also implies that capitalism, as it is generally understood, is exploitative of labor efforts.  Whereas Marx saw the exploitation of labor as a result of his theory of value–one based exclusively on labor–this theory insists that labor is exploited because the ownership of the means of production is only justified by those doing the labor of producing.  Labor alone justifies ownership and this ownership is necessary to claims of entitlement to profit.  Like Marx’s theory, this theory sees the fractionation and distribution of profits from the sale of commodities as the method that exploits labor.  The theory differs from Marx’s solely as to why the mechanism of exploitation is unjust.

The labor theory of private property is not itself without controversy.  For the sake of expediency, however, I will leave arguments against the labor theory of private property aside for now and simply assume that it is the best available justification for establishing private property rights.  The goal here is not to argue for labor theory but to show that if labor theory is the best justification for private property then capitalism must be exploitative.  Aside from Marxists, we might all agree that private property needs some sort of justification.  As Locke observed, there is no natural justification why this or that thing might be privately owned.  Thus, we seek some social justification to exclude all others from the use of a thing that cannot be consumed except exclusively.   Like Locke, we seek a method for individuating the common world that we might all agree is fair.  The result of this fair method would be a justified scheme of private property ownership.

Labor theory satisfies this method by asserting that by laboring to acquire a thing for the purpose of exclusively consuming it one ought to have the right to fulfill that purpose.  Labor thereby justifies ownership.  Ownership here, it is important to note, is limited to those things one intends on using one’s self.  Without this boundary, labor cannot be applied to anything, and this renders any labor theory of property uncogent, as Robert Nozick has pointed out.  For example, we might say that a crafter who sews bags is entitled to the use of the bag unless they transfer that right by some legitimate method.  They are neither entitled to do whatever they wish with the bag nor is the scope of the bag indeterminable.  What is important here is that labor theory requires a background right, namely the assumption that since one must exclusively use certain goods if one is to use them at all then one must of some means of legitimately gaining exclusivity.  Also important is the fact that the labor theory of property implies that labor has a stronger claim to ownership than mere nominal claims.  In other words, a claim to private property is only as good as the labor claim supporting it.  For example, in the case of the means of production, the mere owners of capital have no labor claims and thus have no legitimate claim to either the means of production or the products that are produced with them.

Before moving on, I wish to be as explicit as possible about what I mean as my labor theory of property.  For the most part, I will follow Locke’s reasoning; however, I am making a few modifications or making explicit what is implicit in Locke.  Firstly, Locke’s theory applies only inside a society and that as such, it is not a universal theory of individual rights, but a theory for individual rights as a need of society.  Civilizations, if they hope to remain stable, must solve the problem of the individual consumption of the common world, and this is what the labor theory of property does.  Secondly, I link labor to use far more explicitly than Locke, although it is both present and essential in Locke’s argument.  Labor acquisition operates only under the assumption of personal use in a labor theory of property.  Thirdly, the link between labor and use is bridged by intention; thus, intentionality serves, in lieu of actual use, to justify exclusive ownership in this labor theory of property.  I acknowledge that these are no minor modifications and that each should be argued for; however, I feel this paper is not the place for those arguments and I hope my reader will grant these assumptions until such time as they may be questioned directly.

Ironically perhaps, this theory is positioned in opposition to both the dominant western economic paradigm, which merely assumes the nominal ownership of the capitalists, as well as the reigning critique of that paradigm, viz. Marxism.  Thus, I have two arguments to make here: (1) that capitalism is exploitative and (2) that it is not for the reasons Marx claimed it is.  Naturally, I will structure what follows in two parts.  The first part is why an economic critique based on Marx’s labor theory of value fails to prove exploitation.  The second part will hopefully show why a theory of exploitation based on a labor theory of property works.

Part 1: Contra Marx

It is no easy task to critique and condemn a thinker whose conclusions one feels to be more or less all correct.  The reason is quite simply that the argument continues to feel right even where it is wrong.  Marx’s folly was not that capitalism is actually just, but that he misidentified how and why capitalism is actually unjust.  Marx rested his critique of capitalism by trying to identify all value with labor, specifically the labor in a commodity.  The labor that went into making the commodity and delivering it into the hands of the consumer is, for Marx, the sole source of all its value.  This is Marx’s labor theory of value.  My critique of Marx begins right here with his positive economics.  I want to show that Marx’s positive economics is missing some key elements, which render value-judgments questionable.  I will argue that labor does provide all the value of the commodities, as Marx claimed, but that labor only has value in concert with use and further that labor-use only bestows value because it justifies a claim to ownership.  In other words, labor provides a value to commodities precisely because it justifies private property rights, or the right to exclusively consume a commodity.

Marx, I fear, got off on the wrong foot and everything went wrong from there.   In the first section of the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, he makes the dubious assumption that use is purely qualitative and so can be summarily dismissed from any further talk of value.  There is nothing like an argument to critique here.  Marx simply assumes use plays no part in value determinations and moves on to what he believes does.  This doesn’t present a problem, Marx thought since he was only concerned with a commodity’s value on the market and not as it is consumed.  He believes that the price (exchange-value) hovers around what he called the socially-necessary abstract labor required to produce the commodity.  In short, how much human labor time society needs to invest in bringing a commodity to market given current technological capabilities.  Since Marx’s interests in commodities values end at the moment of acquisition, use-value is indeed superfluous.  But it appears that rather than letting his assumptions imply his theory, Marx let his theory imply his assumptions.  Use-value was an inconvenient truth for political economists, one that Marx had to explain away rather than explain and incorporate into his theory, and he did just that.

Despite Marx’s assumption, use’s relationship to value is just as pivotal as labor’s.  Primarily, use provides the desire for an object in the first place.  Marx too admitted as much, but use is not just qualitative.  We can measure how useful a commodity is or estimate how useful a commodity is likely to be in similar terms of abstract labor that Marx employed.  Only here we’re not speaking of the labor embodied in an object, but the labor saved to us by employing an object at a given task.  For example, we might claim that the use-value of a phone is the labor it saves us from having to travel to speak with someone.  If use-value can be quantified in this way, then Marx’s theory has a gaping hole in it.   This is significant because it adds another value into the equation that results in exchange-value or price.  Now instead of saying exchange-value simply equals the amount of socially necessary abstract labor involved in a commodity’s production, we must fit use-value in somehow.

Marx looked at the situation too closely from the point of view of the producer of commodities and not nearly enough from the point of view of the consumer of commodities.  From the point of view of the producer, the question of value is nebulous, but from the point of view of the consumer, it is much more concrete.  The consumer simply estimates the use-value of the object in question relative to themselves and then subtracts the cost of acquiring it.  This is necessarily an individual estimation since objects can only be consumed individually.  Interestingly, the cost of acquiring it is the consumers attempt to guess the quantity of socially necessary abstract labor they would have to expend to achieve the acquisition.   In other words, the consumer looks around for the best deal (socially averaged labor cost) and then determines if the commodity will ultimately save them more value in use, if so it is worth buying, if not, then your interests are best served by leaving it on the shelf.  If this sounds a lot like the market place to you, you’re right.  The market determines the price by allowing consumers to weigh use-values against production costs in relations to their needs.  Just determining the costs, as Marx did, is insufficient to determine value.  Value is not socially abstract in the way Marx claimed, that is as an abstraction of production efforts.  Instead, value is socially abstract as an averaging of consumer’s demands.

This means that neoclassical positive economics is much closer to the truth than Marx’s.  Neoclassical models adequately describe the actions of values in the volatile market place.  But before western economists break open the champaign, a great irony should be noted: the values these western economic models describe purely quantitatively are in fact units of labor-use.  Neoclassical economics is describing the labor consumers estimate they will save by purchasing a commodity against the labor they must expend to acquire it.  Consumers, and never producers, set the value on all commodities.  These facts are highly problematic for both Marxists and neoclassical economics alike.  Simply put, Marxist economists can’t actually describe how value is generated because Marx’s positive economic model doesn’t take consumer’s needs into consideration, and neoclassical economists can calculate values, but can’t tell you what it is they are calculating because they don’t have a phenomenological model of what value is.  For a normative economic system hoping to be fair, we’re going to need a model that can both calculate value and understand what that value consists of.

Part 2: Exploitation Through Property

The labor theory of property as I have described it reveals exploitation in capitalism that does not rely on value.  Values factor in only afterward and reveal only how much exploitation is going on.  The exploitation itself is based on the justifications for the way we come to own property and what rights are conferred as we come to own it.  A need for personal use is the necessary background right for an act of labor to make something exclusively ours.  It is not enough merely to labor, but to labor for something we must use individually for private property rights to be conferred.  As Locke maintained, it is unacceptable to deprive others of that which one has no intention of using in a civilized society.  One is free to claim goods through labor for personal use and even exchange, which is also a form of personal use.  But there are other uses which violate the principle which made the property exclusively yours and this family of special uses are what we must examine to understand the exploitative nature of capitalism.  This family of special uses go by the name of rent and consist of rent, interest, and profit.

To illustrate why rent is problematic we should return to Locke who conceived of the labor theory of property as an argument purporting to show that the tenant farmers were more entitled to the land and produce of that land they worked than the landlords who nominally owned it.  The landlords claim to the land was purely political, often as a grant from the monarch.  This feudal system perpetually kept the tenant farmers in a state of perpetual poverty despite the fact that they worked ceaselessly and at the same time kept their lords, who produced nothing, very wealthy.  Locke, like Marx, recognized this as exploitation and struggled to both explain and condemn it.  While I feel Locke got closer to the truth than Marx, he nevertheless failed to successful eradicate exploitation with his pro-capitalist theory.  Instead, the feudalism against which Locke argued was replaced by a capitalist system, which, while initially radical, grew more and more conservative over time, eventually coming to resemble the feudalism it replaced.  By the time Marx began his critique, capitalism had gone from undermining the landlords’ claim to exclusive ownership to reinforcing their position.  While landlords under feudalism relied on ancestry and royal grants, landlords under capitalism relied on their socially agreed-upon right, through labor, to private property to justify their wealth.

The capitalist’s claim, as it comes to us from Locke, is simply that as the owner of the property they have the right to use that property as they will, including lending or leasing it.  Now no one holds this position absolutely.  For example, no one is going to claim that private property ownership of a handgun gives one the right to use it on anyone you want.  However, rent it could be argued is a much more reasonable use of property; at least that is until we consider what conditions are necessary to grant property to owners in the first place.  As we saw, labor theory asserts that labor and an intention of personal use are both necessary for a legitimate claim to exclusion.  Even if we assume that an owner justly acquired their property through labor, the moment the intention to personally use that property is removed, the legitimacy of their claim falls away.  They simply no longer meet the prior condition.  By definition, there cannot be an intention of personal use in the act of renting.

The use of rent does not require exclusivity.  Rent requires a dual use, as an object of rent is only rentable when someone else has a need to use it exclusively but cannot acquire it themselves.  During rent, the object is released to the person with a need for the exclusive use of it, but the nominal ownership is retained.  Thus, during rent a second use is created for private property beyond the one that requires exclusive use.  The problem of rent can be seen as making what is private, common again.  When the property is shared it cannot by definition be private.  What we end up with is two individuals, each with a partial claim to the same property: the renter and the rentee.  The renter has a claim to ownership through the labor of acquisition to the object, but at the point of lending the object for rent, the renter lacks a need for exclusive use.  The rentee has the right through the need and intention of exclusive use, but when renting lacks the labor of acquisition to legitimately possession of the object.  This seeming impasse is not insurmountable, however.  The right granting power of labor, it must be recalled, rests on wholly on the background right for the need for exclusive use.   The rentee, it seems, ultimately has the stronger claim.

Before moving on, let us consider a few objections.  First, we might ask, but what of lending without charge?  If renting is a problem, wouldn’t lending be a problem too?  The short answer is no, lending is not a problem because there is not a second use in play with lending.  The ownership may remain with the lender because the lender is not able to use the object while it is being lent.  It is the dual use of “private” property that defeats its own justification.

Second, rent, our capitalist friends might suggest, is not the same thing as profit.  In some ways this is true, but as far as what is at stake here, it is not.  The question for the laborer and the capitalist is merely a question of who owns the product at the end of the production line.  The laborer has the need for the means of production to produce, just as the owner of the means of production requires labor to produce.  Just like the rented object we can see that labor has a stronger claim to ownership under a labor theory of property.  So it is that under a labor theory of property ownership of the product is legitimately labor’s to use or sell.  In fact, the claim to the ownership of the means of production is most legitimately that of the laborers.  Under a fair economic system then, all businesses should actually be owned by the workers and not by capitalist investors.  This is just like saying, as Locke did, that farms ought to be owned by the farmers and not the landlords.  The landlord–or capitalist as it may be–should be incentivized to sell the land they are not using themselves by disallowing a profit to be generated from it.  As with the land, the same holds true of the means of production.

Finally, what about incentives?  What incentive can there be for lending, which we might readily admit is useful and necessary to an economy, without rent, interest, or profit?  Incentives don’t really change.  What changes are how those incentives get expressed.  People will still have reasons to lend, just not to make more money.  In fact, the incentive to make more money is at the root of much of the world’s sorrows.  The unending desire for more, that is the ethos of capitalism is an evil that pits all against all in perpetual economic warfare.  But that is the structure of the system, not the incentive to acquire, nor the incentive to be economically secure and comfortable.  Everyone might want infinitely more money, but barred for the uses of rent, interest, and profit, they’ll have to labor for every cent they make.  My hunch is that this will create a disincentive to acquiring more and more wealth.  Without the endless desire to accumulate, resources can be distributed more equally both inside society and between societies.  Without the fierce competition for resources, we might slow down our mad rush to strip the Earth and foul our nest.  We might all breathe a little easier, live a little better, and smile at one another.  The goods of economic peace to too great to be counted, and that is the only incentive we ought to be concerned with.

To reiterate, the goal of an economic system based on private property must be to get the property that needs to be used exclusively into the hands of those who need to use it, i.e., to make it their exclusive property.  Measuring capitalism by that standard we can see that capitalism fails because it does not distribute private property to those who are most entitled to it, that is those who are going to actually, physically use it.  The fact that capitalism allows for rent sets it at odds with the economic advantages of a system based on private property.  Make no mistake, I am forcing capitalists into a rather unpalatable dilemma with this argument.  Either private property is justifiable or rent (and profit and interest) are justifiable, but not both, and capitalism as it currently defined requires both.  Rent, obviously, requires private property, but we might have a private property based system that does not permit rent.  But the capitalist, who lives by rent or interest or profit, as opposed to labor, is necessarily eliminated from economic consideration.  With the capitalist, goes capitalism as we know it.  What is left is a private property based economic system that deals in free markets, utilizes money, and places ownership of the means of production squarely in the hands of those who will use it best, the workers.  Surely such a system is not capitalist, but neither could it be considered communist or even particularly socialist.  Whatever name history chooses for it, let us have it.

There are many pragmatic problems to overcome in implementing such a system, but these problems are neither innumerable nor insurmountable.  Such as system is not only feasible it is efficient.  It is more efficient than the perpetual cycles of boom and bust, of welfare and austerity, of liberalism and conservatism that cost millions of dollars and hours, every time we have to stop and reverse direction.  This simple system will go farther to end economic exploitation with less effort, and at the same time achieve a fair and balanced economic situation that is at the same time more stable and more flexible than either capitalism or communism or any hybrid could possibly hope to be.

 

 

Locke, Marx, & Two Theories of Labor

Back in April I won the Next System Project’s essay contest for a graduate essay attempting to reimagine our economic structure.  Below is the link to my essay on published on their site.

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Locke, Marx, and Two Theories of Labor