The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Thinker Americans Don’t Listen To

From Four Sociological Traditions:

Put briefly: Marx’s system rests on the point that labor is the source not only of economic value, but also of profit.  In a pure market system, operating under the impulsion of supply and demand, everything exchanges for its own value.  Hence arises the conundrum: where does the profit come from?  Marx answers: from labor, which is the only factor of production from which can be squeezed more than the cost of reproducing it.  This is, technically, the “exploitation of labor,” which means working laborers longer than the number of hours it takes to reproduce their own labor.  But capitalist competition impels manufacturers to introduce labor saving machinery, which in turn cuts their own throats.  For profit still comes only from the exploitation of labor, and the more that labor is replaced by machines, the smaller the basis of profit becomes.  The result, schematically, is a falling rate of profit and a series of business crises.  Across these crises, capital becomes more monopolistic as cweaker capitalists are driven out and into the ranks of the workers; simultaneously, productive capacity continually exceeds consumer demand among the displaced and increasingly unemployed workers.  (Randall Collins, pp. 54-55, 1994)

One doesn’t have to agree with the underpinnings of all of this (the labor theory of value, and the idea that there is a “lump of work” to be done) to look at it and see the workings of a first class mind, or to notice that where government stops making sure markets stay balanced, that some of what Marx predicted happens.  Consider the industry of your choice: whether banking, media, oil or pretty much anything else, and you will notice and inexorable drive towards oligopoly.  Take a look at a long term capacity utilization chart, and you will notice that decade after decade, utilization drops.  Take a look at wages and include real unemployment and real overemployment (people who want to work and can’t, as well as people who don’t want to work and have to) and see what Marx predicted happening.

Likewise, this doesn’t have to lead to a socialist revolution for it still to contain insight as applicable today as when Marx first formulated his theories.



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  1. beowulf

    Any American politician (Canadian too I’d imagine) would do better to just quote Abraham Lincoln and then infer from it whatever Marxian insight they wish :o)

    But another class of reasoners hold the opinion that there is no such relation between capital and labor, as assumed; and that there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer, that both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them groundless. They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

  2. Mad Hemingway

    That’s all fine and stuff, but this is Amurka where most of the citizenry is of the George W mindset, not Government 101.

    S-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-m …. ooooh, scary evil doers. Capitalist kleptocracy … yay, it’s the Amurkan way.

    In other words, America = stupid.

  3. Formerly T-Bear

    Two nit-pickin’s:
    … inexorable drive towards oligopoly monopoly.
    … include real unemployment and real overemployment underemployment

    Adam Smith’s observation that employed workers would have to provide surplus to their wages in order for the entrepreneur to replenish (his) stock, maintain employment, and receive the income for entrepreneurship – profit. Smith also stipulated the wages for labour had to provide the worker sufficient income to support himself and spouse, rear and educate children, and provide savings for old age and illness. This is clearly “non- negotiable”

    Marx’s views amplified and expanded this in his economic critique as you correctly point out. In the about half century between Smith and Marx, Marx observed the market drift to monopoly and the economic imbalance caused by monopolistic distortion of markets – and the cure suggested.

  4. beowulf

    I was looking up the letter Marx wrote to Lincoln congratulating him on re-election (“it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle…”), What’s more interesting is the reply, written by Lincoln’s ambassador in London, Charles Francis Adams:

    The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.

  5. anonymous

    of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention.(1)

    It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men(2) and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.

    Here are some footnotes in fine print that I found at the end of the letter:

    1. Except of course where doing so would interfere with the profit-making of white males, and their heirs.

    2. So long as the men are men, preferably with substantial wealth, and not women, and are not black or “Indian” or other lesser races. In those other cases, it does not strive to do equal and exact justice.

  6. marku

    A Russian saying:
    “Everything Marx told us about communism was wrong.”
    “Everything Marx told us about capitalism was right.”

  7. Suspenders

    Marx was definitely a brilliant mind. Another interesting thing about him is the sheer volume of material he wrote during the course of his lifetime. His collected works would probably run to over 100 volumes!

  8. Jeff Wegerson

    Thanks for the application of Marxist concepts to current thought. I always enjoy reading such essays.

  9. (reposted–I probably will write a longer version for my blog eventually)

    I have the unsettling suspicion that this may be the Revolution–the one in which industrial capitalism eats itself and is replaced by something…other.

    And no-one knows that, or even thinks in those terms anymore.

  10. BC Nurse Prof

    It would definitely be the Revolution(tm) if more people understood this:

    but that day has been put off for a while longer. A lot of people will die because of the other “peak” events building up right now. The financial crisis is a minor problem, rolling along as it has for so long in Marxist fashion. Peak oil, peak fish, peak water, peak food. The number of people on the planet has probably reached its peak as well, soon to start decreasing.

  11. Ian Welsh

    Largely agreed, BCPN, but the false profits of Wall Street and other fraudulent areas are one of the main things that makes it impossible to deal seriously with peak everything.

    Bad profits drive out good.

  12. anonymous

    The Thinker Americans Don’t Listen To

    Do you think that it would be incorrect to replace “Americans” with “The World” or “The First World” or “The Industrialized World” or the “Gn (n=7,8,9,…)”?

  13. Ian Welsh

    No. He’s still taught much more often in other countries (I got a big dose in university). Same way Noam Chomsky is a big intellectual everywhere except his home nation. Don’t get me wrong, he’s listened to less than he once was (for idiotic reasons, in my opinion. He was once listened to too much, now he’s listened to too little. China and Russia, according to Marx, could not be communist nations. Impossible according to him.)

  14. anonymous

    He’s still taught much more often in other countries

    What I have seen observed (I have to take my information second hand because I don’t live in Europe) is that Marx is not listened to in Europe, as evidenced by the response to the PIIGS’ financial situation. So, Marx is not taught or listened to in the U.S., and he’s taught but not listened to by decision makers in rest of the G7,8,9,…, if I understand you correctly.

    Same way Noam Chomsky is a big intellectual everywhere except his home nation.

    Does Chomsky appear in corporate media outside of the U.S.? Or are his speeches or statements quoted by them? Do politicians meet with him or reference him? (again, in the G7,8,9,…, not the Third World) Whose policies does he influence? By those measures, Chomsky is not a big intellectual in the U.S., except in the reactionary sense, nor is Howard Zinn.

  15. anonymous

    So, Marx is not taught or listened to in the U.S.

    P.S., I don’t know to what extent Marx is taught in the U.S. I suppose that it is the Conventional Wisdom that he is not taught at all, but when is the C.W. correct about any aspect of reality? He is certainly taught at some schools (a web search reveals), but that doesn’t mean his thinking is listened to by the decision makers (neither the voters nor the Voters).

  16. Ian Welsh

    I didn’t specify decision makers. They don’t even listen to modern nobel laureates like Stiglitz, these days. For folks who supposedly have an “elite” education, they are remarkably narrow in their referents.

    Chomsky is very popular in Europe, and widely read in much of the world. And yes, he does get on media more often. The CBC up here in Canada had a major show on “Manufacturing Consent”, for example.

    Marx is still more widely read, and taught, in Europe and Canada than he is in the US. Socialist isn’t yet an evil word in most places outside the US.

  17. jo6pac

    Thanks Ian and commenters I always learn something here.

  18. Jim

    Ian, it may not have to lead to a “socialist revolution” but the revolutionary process certainly intensifies within social production. Why? The mode of expropriation is the purchase of labor power. The mode of exchange is labor power for money; money for necessities; necessities to recreate labor power.

    The means of production have developed past–and come into conflict with–the productive relations. Larger and larger sections of the population become unemployed. The unemployed, in turn, cannot purchase their subsistence. The section of the class that has been driven out of social production and into the fight for survival is the first example of political polarity. This section cannot fight the capitalists because they no longer have any connection to the capitalists in production.

    Their struggle then become one against the political means of control. The political struggle develops when the state power interferes with the circulation of the necessities of life.

    Is this not what is happening today? If your job has been lost due to overseas competition or robotics and you can’t go on strike for higher wages or a better health care package, what are you to do? What if millions of workers will never be able to find work again? Is this not possible? Do you not have the right to demand the necessities of life from someone?

    Simply put, “Give me a job or change the system so I can survive.”

  19. beowulf

    Here are some footnotes in fine print that I found at the end of the letter…

    I guess the millions of American traitors (from the more… humid parts of the US) who levied war against their own government during that period just didn’t read the fine print. In truth, like the rap song says, Abe Lincoln was a good old man.

  20. Mylegacy

    I would suggest that fewer than one half of one quarter of one percent of Americans have even an inkling of an idea of how little they understand about their so-called Capitalist System.

    Just a simple point. Marx wasn’t an economist. He was a political economist – the difference? Political Economy was actually economics, political science and sociology – western capitalists broke this up into three separate fields for two main reasons – all the best Political Economists were Marxist ( cause it made sense) and when you take any one of the three areas without considering the other two it is nothing more than gibberish. You can not understand a “Political Economy” without considering the impact of all three areas.

    Americans are, were and will continue to be mostly like George W. Bush – just plain ol’ boy stupid.

  21. Ian Welsh

    Sociology is the discipline which still takes Marx most seriously, claiming him as one of the three founding fathers (Marx, Weber, Durkheim).

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