Author’s note: This article is the second installment of my “Musings on x” series with regards to political economy and its attendant philosophy. (COVID-19’s made me something of an arm-chair philosopher.) This serves as a first pass on the topic of Marxism, and an honest attempt to educate myself on Marxist thinking and its critiques of capitalism. I profess that this article is quite long, and that I’ll have certainly missed and/or oversimplified many things. For those oversights that are especially egregious, I trust you’ll bring them to my attention for further scrutiny. Because of its length, and the dryness of the topic, I’ve tried to make my writing fun (by which I really mean there’ll be numerous tangents), but for those spoilsports that don’t appreciate this Bella style, with enough interest, I’ll share a stripped down, more rigorous take.



Introduction

If you’re like me, the Marxist take you’ve heard usually goes like this:

There are two entities in society: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, who are linked through the bourgeoisie’s capital: the means of production that is made productive only by the labor of the proletariat. The bourgeois, concerned only for his own profit, undercuts at every turn the portion of surplus given to the proletarian as her compensation. He is a capitalist. Conversely, the proletarian’s interest lies in maximizing, or owning entirely, the surplus value of her labor. This wage-based relationship is naturally one-sided, and if it’s not wholly exploitative, it’s parasitic. (Those acquainted with zero-sum game theory may recognize the similarities between this setup and the familiar Minimax games.)

Within the fabric of capitalism is the exhortation of an unbridled and reckless accumulation of capital. Consequently, the institutions once intended to regulate the egoist nature of humankind, are inevitably coopted by the bourgeoisie to accrete for themselves further wealth at the expense of the proletariat and the environment. Certain elements of society, e.g. the government, the police, and the media, are the accomplices of the bourgeoisie and are enlisted to perpetuate their rule. The government is the appointed custodian of bourgeois capital, and the system through which the oppression of the proletariat is sanctioned. As for the police force, its raison d’être is the—often violent—protection of the capitalist and his property, while the media acts always to undermine proletariat unification efforts, cast doubt on Marxist thinking, scapegoat the proletariat for society’s moral and economic failings, and exaggeratedly laud capitalism for humankind’s positive accomplishments while absolving it of any wrong.

To overcome this oppression, the proletariat can upend this power imbalance either by reformist, gradual change (class collaboration), or, in the case of their total immiseration, revolutionary struggle. Those of the proletariat not interested in revolutionary advancement are the lumpenproletariat (a very cool sounding word amirite?).

This summarizes the Marxist take that I’m most familiar with, and provides the initial perspective with which I’m approaching this two-part article. In Part I, I’ll discuss the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism (as I understand it); contrast Marxism with capitalism; and chat about personal and private property and its relevance to capitalism. In Part II, I’ll deliberate on some points made by Marxist or socialist-minded people that I know in person, provide some criticisms of my own of capitalism, as well as balance out the discussion by given Marxism credit where it’s due. At the end, I’ll tie Parts I and II together as best as I can. The papers I’ve read will be shared at the end; one you’ll see cited often is “In Defense of Marxism”.

Part I


Philosoph-a, philosoph-e . . . i, o, u

He’d spoken many times to crowds in Ephebe, but they were invariably made up of other philosophers, whose shouts of “Bloody daft!,” “You’re making it up as you go along!” and other contributions to the debate always put him at his ease. That was because no one really paid any attention. They were just working out what they were going to say next. – The great philosopher Didactylos from Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Marxists figuratively describe philosophy as a sword, a sword with which the worker (the proletarian) can cut himself free from the “Gordian knot which binds him to the mightiest obstacle in the way of the advancement of himself and his class — ignorance” (In Defense of Marxism).

Let’s answer the glaring questions of what is philosophy and why it is important. Philosophy is the system of beliefs with which you interpret your thoughts, the behavior of others, and your environment. They are usually personal, and simultaneously consistent in certain applications while inconsistent or outright contradicting in others. For example, you may proclaim that everybody is singly responsible for their own moral enterprise (an existentialist), and yet regularly make allowances for trouble-making children that supposedly “don’t know any better”. To reconcile these inconsistencies, you can either qualify your philosophy with caveats and disclaimers, or scrap it for another philosophy altogether. Being unaware of what one practices philosophically is not the same thing as being without a philosophy—we all apply something daily, albeit we often do so unconsciously. Taken to the extreme, a failure to consciously define and practice your own philosophy is to default to the prevailing philosophy and its menagerie of contradictions.

Marxists = Materialists

Western philosophy is arguably split in two on the question of “how is reality known?”. There are idealists, for whom the mind, spirit, and ideas exist before and separate of matter, i.e. consciousness exists outside of the brain. On the other side are materialists, for whom the mind and spirit are never outside of the intricate form of matter (our noggin) from which they originate; or restated, ideas are not independent, self-living things, but instead the result of mechanistic processes within the brain. As such, the various musings, philosophies and ideologies we’ve inherited from the great people of history, ought to be recognized predominantly as the interplay between the thinker and their material environment. Like many modern philosophers, Marxists are materialists, and as the man himself writes: “the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind, and translated into forms of thought” and “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” (Karl Marx, Idealism and Materialism).

Glancing at this briefly—but really because I enjoy being a contrarian—I have some gripes with materialism. For one, I think there is some merit to the philosopher George Berkley’s claim that all material objects owe their “existence” to a thinking/perceiving thing, esse est percipi (aut percipere)—to be is to be perceived (or to perceive). This is closely related to the popular philosophical thought experiment attributed to him, that if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Secondly, it seems to me that certain material things or phenomena are defined circularly. When asked seriously “what is x?”, I’ve heard clever blokes candidly say that “x is to which we attribute properties of x”, (x could be an electron or something or other), which to me implies that sometimes the idea, or abstraction, comes before the material, not after it. Thirdly, my very limited understanding of physics tells me that the precision of measurement that materialists rely on for their mechanistic explanations at the macroscopic scale cannot be similarly attained at the quantum scale. I’m also curious as to how a materialist would explain how time, the transmission of information, and probabilistic notions regarding systems (wave functions) can occur in mediums devoid of anything—see the first issue, or for that matter, give a material origin for the concept of “zero”. On all these things, my mind can be changed, so bring the debate, pick the time, and I’ll order pizza. (Once quarantine is over of course).

Marxism, Capitalism

Like the contradictions found in nature, such as that found between the positive charge of a proton and the negative charge of an electron, there are also contradictions in capitalism. Marxists claim that within capitalism are innate contradictions stemming from the minimization-maximization organization of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. As a reminder, in the Marxist telling, the proletariat wants to maximize or own entirely the portion of surplus value derived from their labor, while the bourgeoisie seeks to minimize that portion. The bourgeoisie allegedly perpetuates itself through shady means and the defenseless proletariat is, for the most part, unaware of their oppression. This, in very crude terms, is the classical Marxist view on capitalism and its supposed effects.

What may surprise you—it certainly surprised me—is that Marxism sees capitalism as a necessary and useful transitory stage; similar to how mankind necessarily underwent the transitions from barbarism to tribalism to feudalism in order to get to where we are now, in what I argue is an elevated human consciousness where the living conditions have improved tremendously for the majority of people. However, the next stage after capitalism, and even after socialism, is the “economy of superabundance” which is achieved by the “application of socialist planning to the industry, science and other technologies established by capitalism . . . [which] in turn will once and for all make redundant the division of labour, the difference between mental and manual labour, between town and countryside, and the wasteful and barbaric class struggle and enable the human race at least to set its resources to the conquest of nature” (In Defense of Marxism). Such an economy is communistic. I’d agree with this completely if not for two of the defining characteristics of socialist planning; namely, the strict requirement for enterprises to be managed (democratically) by workers, and the (near) abolition of private property. More on this later.

History repeats itself. An Interlude

According to Marx, within our historical progression of socioeconomic systems, are perennial cycles—oft-quoted as history repeating itself—with its evolution driven by our struggle to reconcile the contradictions underlying the previous and contemporary system. Some contradictions however, are irreconcilable. So although I called Marxists materialists, modern Marxists are more accurately dubbed dialectical materialists—dialectics describe the evolution of a system that is driven by its contradictions. Marx’s collaborator, Friederich Engels, gave modern Marxism this view. Engels further claims that previous ideas, seemingly disproven, usually make a resurgence, this time enriched by previous experiences and discoveries—this comprises the concept of the negation of negations. So, although capitalism is (was) necessary, its entrenchment and inner contradictions have stagnated human progress, and has prevented us from moving onto the next transitory stage of socialism, after which ultimately comes the communist ideal.

Because I’ve witnessed many people conflating socialism, the economic system, with socialist policies, and erroneously treating them as interchangeable, I’ll tease them apart briefly. Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production, e.g. corporations today, are collectively owned and managed via socially planned worker cooperatives. On the other hand, socialist policies are things like social welfare, a social safety net, and related entitlements. The two are similar in that they both concern the collective, but theoretically speaking, socialism does not automatically imply socialist policies, nor vice versa. The same can be said even if we switch the term socialism with capitalism—many capitalistic European nations have strong socialist programs, e.g. the Nordic nations. (You might be surprised to learn that Sweden doesn’t have a government enforced minimum wage. I’m just as shocked as you are!)

Side note. I personally think that our technological advancements and our attendant ability to make abundance, compels us to create strong social safety nets. Technology has substantially reduced the risk of failing to meet our basic physiological needs, e.g. refrigeration, storage, and the futures markets have enabled larger, more robust, food supply chains which can ostensibly eradicate hunger. To me, a reduction in risk ought to reduce the risk premium expected by shareholders or speculators, and in turn place pressure on industry to attain further economies of scale and to pass these resultant cost savings directly to the customer. (The shareholders invariably benefit if the product/service’s price point is within the purchasing power of the industry’s customer, which often includes the workers and shareholders of the industry themselves, or through “creative destruction” whose harm on the vulnerable will be alleviated by social nets.) At some point, the provision of a certain good or service, either becomes sufficiently cheap and/or ubiquitous enough, that it becomes an expectation, bordering on a right, rather than a commoditized privilege or luxury. Once a particular good or service has become a de-facto right in the minds of the public, then its most vocal members will (justifiably) lobby for it to be guaranteed by some large body, usually the government. Although this is not a tidy, simple process—it is hardly simple to demand something, and very often one’s demand can be derided as unrealistic and met by needlessly vitriolic opposition—I think it is necessary to ensure humankind continues to progress and raise our expectations pertaining to living a dignified life. I for one, am thankful to those that are quicker than I am to demand the things whose societal merits I’m slow to recognize.

Capitalism and Property

Now let’s talk about capitalism directly.

Capitalism’s primary concern is that of property, the protections for said property, and the unmolested and recognized ownership of said property: I may use or dispose of my property how I please, be it to sell, lease, or gift. In practice of course, there are limitations to property rights such that some property is illegal to own, e.g. other human beings; and nearly all property can be seized if certain conditions of the social contract aren’t met, e.g. evading your taxes or violating environmental regulations.

Needless to say, in prehistoric times, there was no justification for property ownership except that “Might made Right”. But today, the liberal1 justification for property typically follows that of John Locke. His labor theory of property claims that if a laborer applies herself to nature, by virtue of her labor, she is entitled to its resulting produce. This makes sense biologically; namely that the life-sustaining reactions involved in the synthesis of biomolecules don’t happen spontaneously, energy is needed to overcome conditions that are not thermodynamically favorable. To persevere efficiently, you put energy in only if you expect to realize something that exceeds the sum of your labor and all other opportunity costs, discounted over time. Locke further argues that because the laborer has the right to self-preservation, she also has the right to own the tools needed for her self-preservation; consequently, to him, property rights fall under natural rights. To be clear, I can’t readily agree that property rights are natural rights in the same way that we customarily acknowledge the right to having your own personal beliefs and values. The reason for my hesitation is twofold: (1) Taken by itself, nature is anarchic—only entropy can reasonably be called our “master”—thus, violations of property happen daily in nature, e.g. predators frequently steal the spoils (labor) of other predators. Property only meaningfully exists in multi-entity settings insofar that there are opportunities for it to be violated, unlike natural rights, which supposedly prevail within the individual themself and notwithstanding others, and for which our argument of their inalienability is predicated on some (non?)existent natural law2. (2) In reality, property is not straightforward; it’s neither guaranteed to be easily divisible, nor is it generalizable; for example, when my labor is mixed with the labor of others, there is the fair question of how the rights over the produce is to be fairly dispensed. If rights over property were indeed a natural right, then the limitations for it would be arbitrary. Here it is better to be a consequentialist in that case-by-case, we choose limitations according to what best approximates our desired consequence.

Money and Biology

In biology class, I was taught that “ATP is the currency of the cell”, and so I’ve asked myself, is there a biological explanation for the need of money, currency? Wage labor is a crucial aspect of our capitalist system: we trade our time for stuff, usually money. Although some might claim that I’ve been indoctrinated, I believe time, labor, and money to be (almost) perfectly interchangeable. (I won’t discuss value). When we buy or sell something to others, or engage in universal production for sale, this is little more than us navigating the constraints imposed on us by the immediacy of life. Currency allows us to trade across space and time. If I were a laborer, supposing I am well rested and well fed today, I might be willing to exchange my labor now (for money) so that I may eat four days from now with minimal further exertion. The capitalist bias for surplus means that during times of normalcy, I get more food than what I pay for—this claim relies somewhat on the subjective theory value (more on this in Part II). This excess can tide me over whenever I don’t wish sell my labor. In an ideal capitalist system, probably that envisioned by Adam Smith, the risk that I can’t exchange my money for food days later is small, as is the risk that my labor is commanded by money rather than vice versa. These are some roseate claims that I’ll break down further in Part II. (For the sake of comparison, I talk about an ideal capitalist system just as I would an ideal socialist system. When I’ve asked socialists to point me to a socialist state in history or present-times, they tell me there is none, and those that proclaim themselves to be socialist are really something else, or on the way, i.e. premature. Admittedly, there are also capitalists that do this with regards to “real capitalism”, so, we’ll compare red apples to striped apples.) With that said, currency itself has a few, relevant functions: it serves a store of “value”; a method of settling accounts with other actors, e.g. the state, and enable trust; a medium of exchange that reduces the costs of physical transaction; but most importantly, it facilitates the deferral of labor and investment, and acts as a hedge against “risk”3. A communistic society is currency-less, whereas a socialistic one might retain some aspects of currency, i.e. you can use it to settle accounts, but you’d be prohibited from hoarding currency as a store of value or to hedge against future risk.

Capitalism’s Myths?

Marxists often make the distinction between personal and private property to abate misguided fears that they intend to collectivize your toothbrush. Personal property is primarily defined by occupancy and immediacy, e.g. the house you actively live in is an example of personal property, as is ownership of one’s own body. Conversely, private property may be owned in absentia and most crucially, is the sort of property that begets more property. Property with these qualities and the additional qualities of being legitimated by a legislative body, and bought or sold for currency is called capital. As far as I can tell, Marxists have no issue with personal property, but have qualms with private property. Recall that capital facilitates the oppression of a certain member of society, the proletariat. To be clear, there appears to be no checklist with which one can categorize their property as personal or private as it depends very greatly on the intent surrounding the use of said property. As a result, this particular Marxist argument smacks of the arbitrariness with which gun buffs allow for certain types of munitions for civilian use, but disallow others, despite the same overall “intent” to cause violence. A social (or legal) system is made less stable when ambiguities abound.

Some Marxists assert that “private property is a myth” (In defense of Marxism), with no basis in reality or nature other than the insistence of dishonest capitalists. I agree that the interpretation of natural rights over private property is artificial, but I disagree that private property is itself a myth. To assert that private property is neither a myth nor an invention of the capitalists, I’ll attempt to show that property owned in absentia, and that ownership/care for property that begets more property, exist in species other than humans. (We can speculate at another time as to whether other species would have private property and complex wage systems in the same exact sense we do if they too had a trust-enabling currency of exchange.)

Why do I suggest we make this argument? For one, we can reasonably assume that the majority of other species don’t contemplate whether or not they are oppressing one another, and as far as I know, do not oppress each other willfully4. Additionally, I contend that the well documented behaviors of animals caching food, and scenting or marking their possessions may be considered primitive expressions of property. Let’s elaborate further using the damselfish, and see if I can convincingly claim, that in the wildest sense, their relationship with property and with each other, is like that of humans and our relationship with private property.

The damselfish is a fish that engages in cultivation mutualism with a particular type of algae, which the fish grows and cultivates in gardens. As passionate gardeners, the damselfish vigorously defends the territory surrounding its garden(s) against opportunistic invaders, and itself makes the occasional foray outside of its own territorial borders for “conquest”5—as I understand it, if it fails to find a suitable place to relocate, it returns to whence it came, but the original garden is owned in absentia in the interim. The aggression with which it defends its gardens is proportional to the garden’s quality and the quantity of algae and so the damselfish can differentiate between its competitors and non-competitors and may “work together” so long as all participants benefit. (It is unclear whether all the participating fish need to benefit equally). The damselfish that fail to establish or mutualistically tend to territories are relegated to a non-propertied floating population. From this, we can surmise that: (1) Damselfish consider gardens to be their own property to the extent that they actively exclude other herbivores and damselfish for their exclusive and (non)immediate consumption—which in the crudest, crudest sense, necessitates an initial enclosure of the commons. (2) The property has some value to them and other fish, and distinctions between the propertied and non-propertied, as well as distinctions between competitor and non-competitor. (3) That this property naturally begets more property—the damselfish cultivates the algae and removes weeds to encourage its proliferation—and by mutualism, theft, or outright conquest may benefit, possibly “unfairly”, from the labor of other damselfish. And finally, (4) that the property is occasionally owned in absentia for lengths of time. The similarities between these gardens and private property are, at least to me, evident, except for one striking difference: the damselfish does not market its produce globally, nor as far as we can tell, sell its labor6; hence why I encourage we speculate at another time as to whether this can only ever happen in species with some notion of spoken language and long-term exchange. Read more about these aquatic gardeners here: The Algal Community of the Farmer Damselfish

The difference between us and animals, is that as big-brained humans, who for whatever reason are concerned about the welfare of lawyers, we’ve enshrined the protections and recognitions of our private property in laws upheld by a social contract—the state and its courts—which provide the guidance on what property is thusly protected, under which conditions it is protected, and the punishments meted out for violations of another’s property. If this weren’t the case, then just like the lawyer-less damselfish, we’d simultaneously be farmers and opportunistic invaders that seek to appropriate the labor of others where possible without compunction.

Therefore, neither personal or private property are unjust instruments of oppression anymore than nature is itself an instrument of oppression. Rather, private property comes from an innate desire of ownership found in many creatures, and capitalism attempts to encourage the peaceful (re)allocation of private property. With that said, the problems concerning property in the modern day (i.e. wealth inequality) lie within the bodies erected to express this desire, i.e. state sanctioned inheritance laws and other provisions that enable what I believe to be the undeserved accumulation of property/capital, as well as other statist things that have given rise to the exploitation at the scales of imperialism, colonialism, and stalinism. However, because I fail to see the inherent flaws or contradictions regarding these property rights as discussed, I must disagree with those Marxists who seek to utterly dismantle capitalism on the basis that private property is a myth and the root of all present evil. If I may opine here—which I’ve been doing all this while—nothing can elevate a person’s condition better than their own ability and interest in using their private faculties and property to accomplish these aims.

Previous (Primitive) Accumulation of Capital

Where I agree very strongly with Marx is his refutation of Adam Smith’s idyllic explanation for how the original propertied and non-propertied came about. As Wikipedia describes it, “Adam Smith’s account of primitive original accumulation depicted a peaceful process, in which some workers labored more diligently than others and gradually built up wealth, eventually leaving the less diligent workers to accept living wages for their labour.”

This is important to consider because the previous accumulation of capital, or lack thereof, is one explanation as to why people occupy the stations they do today. While it is certainly true that some of our ancestors toiled diligently to make an honest living, we also inherit from our ancestors property that was forcibly taken from another, or obtained through lying, cheating and stealing. (Some of our ancestors were possibly enslaved at some point.) Therefore, the current power structures and entitlement to property are legitimated considerably by historical incidents. I can’t in good faith say that the process of the original accumulation of property was decisively peaceful.

Here’s where I’m stuck. On the one hand, those who have benefitted from ill-gotten spoils ought to recognize it, and see to it they rectify the demonstrable harm caused by these spoils. On the other hand, this is nigh impossible to do fairly for several reasons, i.e. everybody’s been harmed differently (e.g. emotionally, physically or monetarily), and everybody’s got their own sense of justice. What makes matters worse is the relentless march of time; those that justifiably perceive themselves to be oppressed (or believe their ancestors to have been exploited), will feel evermore slighted, cheated, and marginalized, while those that have benefitted or can no longer easily see how they continue to benefit from this privilege, will be dismissive or outright hostile to the former group. I sometimes wish we could just “pause time” so that we may address everybody’s issues all at once and have for ourselves a grand reset . . . but then I think to myself, no one would agree to such a thing. There are those on either side who benefit from the current poor state of affairs. With that said, I don’t think this phenomena is unique to either capitalism or Marxism. In the former, greed can propel the unchecked accumulation of property, while in the latter, envy of the more immaterial things can drive disenchantment and conflict, which to me eventually turns into the parceling of ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ resulting in a form of private ownership tainted by loathing for one another rather than founded on the merits of mutualism. On this final point, in a democratically managed enterprise, one may misleadingly attribute their being snubbed/ignored to external factors, such as someone else’s height, charisma, or other superficial qualities that may “unfairly” accord them disproportionate sway over the direction of the enterprise. This may lead some to undermine the good of the enterprise for their own selfish reasons. To me, the most recent and well-known Marxist experiments—despite the insistence that there are no real, recent socialist societies—make a god of “people-influence” in place of the conventional capitalist gods of private property and money.


This concludes Part I. In Part II, I’ll immediately go into deliberating some points made by Marxist friends of mine (e.g. Marx’s labor value theory), and talking about some deserved criticisms of capitalism by adding some criticisms of my own. I’ll also balance out the discussion by giving Marxism credit where it’s due. I’ll then conclude with some observations I’ve made of the archetypal proponents of both Marxism and capitalism, and introduce the beginnings of my “own” system.

End of Part I



Endnotes

  1. Liberalism and the left are distinct political categories. My use of liberal(ism) here is that of the philosophical one discussed in the writings of people like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant. 

  2. For a related discussion on whether natural rights actually exist, read my post “Musings on Dignity”

  3. Risk is a very interesting. Look forward to an article on it! 

  4. Except for ants. Apparently there are some ants that keep other ants as slaves 😯 

  5. I put this in quotes because a damselfish probably has no notion of a military force constituting of armed fish beyond itself and perhaps a maximum of two other damselfish. Not a military force so much as a clique. 

  6. Marx’s contrasting between human production and animal production highlights some of the limitations with the discussion above but is incorrect in saying that an animal produces only for itself or its young. Animals may also produce for their community and for those to which they are not directly genetically related. “An animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product.” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)