Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Karl Marx, neoliberal hacker

There are, I would argue, two core insights to Marxism: one, a specialized and narrow insight now of primarily historical purview and importance; another, a generalized principle extrapolated from this original context.

The first is that Marx not only is the original and perhaps best representative of what might be termed, in the strictest sense, neoliberalism--meaning simply a new follower of classical liberalism--but that he first demonstrated its subversive core. Marx's distrust of capital stems directly from Smith himself. Smith argued that while the political interests of the laboring and landowning classes were consistent with the wider interests of society--the landowners want to see social and economic progress to increase the value of their land, whereas the workers want to see the same to increase the value of their labor--the interests of capital is not consistent with the general interests of society. As he puts it, the political demands of capital "comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it." While Smith believed that both the laboring and landed interests are equally a universal class, who bring about the general interest in pursuing their own interests, it is only the landed class that is politically capable of effecting policies that lead to these outcomes. But what happens when, in the middle nineteenth-century, it's quite obvious that the landed interest is fastly losing its political clout?

At this point, the truly "neoliberal" conclusion was that the only hope for the broader liberation and prosperity of society was working class consciousness--the elevation of the working class into a politically active agent capable of bringing about the political interventions required for promoting its interests and therefore the general interests. Notice that there is very little in this conclusion that is out of step with Smith--Marx's insight is new in the sense that it is adapted to a situation in which the landed interest has lost its political clout, but it is also classically liberal in the sense that it adopts Smith's basic idea that labor, not capital, constitutes the only remaining universal class in such a situation. The policies that have become entrenched parts of the social contract between labor and capital as a result--child labor laws, the minimum wage, progressive taxation, etc.--are so crucial to our current understanding of the status quo that they don't even register as Marxist. These are important primarily for historical reasons, for understanding the radical origins of things that now seem almost mundane.

The other important insight is that the basic problem that the laboring class solves is generalizable as one of private appropriation--it may take a variety of different forms, but there are always going to be classes whose personal interests are inconsistent with the broader freedom, prosperity, and welfare. The solution to this problem, however, isn't some abstraction. It doesn't necessarily require some elaborate academic plan to counteract--the mere actions, supported by the class consciousness of, a countervailing class whose interests do coincide with the broader prosperity is enough to change the balance of power. Any change that promotes these interest, even if it may seem insignificant, can have a larger effect than it may initially seem. Indeed, regardless of whether the action is big and politically noticeable, or very subtle, a barely perceptible hacking of the market's standard functioning that will bring about a much bigger effect, doesn't matter--both will achieve exactly the same thing. If anything, the radicalism of neoliberalism is an offshoot of this basic Marxist idea of a revolutionary form of class interest, except in reverse--what we call "neoliberalism" simply works on behalf of narrow interests like traditional capital whose interests are harmful to the broader social good.

The particular classes that occupy these spots may change, but the general dynamic is ongoing--in the current moment, nominal aspects of the working class--management--occupy a status that often places it in a position enabling private appropriation at a level far beyond what capital broadly construed is capable of anymore. It's even conceivable that elements of capital in a limited sense--that aspect that belongs to the workers in the form of pension funds, the Social Security Trust Fund, etc.--could occupy a radical position over and against elements of nominal labor (i.e. management). The operative concept behind Marxism is private appropriation, not so much labor v. capital in the strictest and most traditional sense.

What this all indicates is that a lot of the knee-jerk Marxist responses that have long been conditioned may no longer be helpful for advancing the continuing cause of Marxism. Labor, of course, is still the universal class over and against capital, but the very notion of labor now has taken on significant aspects of capital--simply being born in the right place now constitutes a significant hidden capital source, to the point that many immigrants will pay thousands of dollars to obtain illegal entry into the US, and the notion of selling visas is gaining significant "neoliberal" (in the current sense) interest. The whole knee-jerk opposition to offshoring is, to a significant extent, about maintaining the value of this hidden capital.

It's also worth noting what Marxism is not about--it does not need to be a total explanation for all the ills of economic life. Perhaps the overwhelming interest for Marxists at the current moment should be in restoring full employment, raising wages for workers, and restoring education and health care as universal rights. But even if there is broad based support for heavy taxation to fund these things, there's always the question of how to implement such a tax. There's always a day after, and such questions will be its focus.

No comments:

Post a Comment