Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Failure of Marxism

One of the central concerns of Marxism was placing the means of production in the hands of the workers, and Marxists had serious trouble delivering on this front.

In Capitalism, the means of production turned into yet another product, and in considerable part - without much central planning at all - placed and continues to place said means of production in the hands of everyone who cares to have them.

There are problems with capitalism. But there's some bitter irony in that capitalist systems have managed to accomplish one of Marxism's main goals without the need for any particular policy at all.

Marxism failed for a number of reasons, but to argue that those reasons can be addressed and that Marxism can 'work' if only we apply fixes to it, is to make a critical mistake. Marxism is not just a failure - it is, in large part, obsolete.

4 comments:

B. Prokop said...

"[Capitalism] continues to place said means of production in the hands of everyone who cares to have them"

I think you and I still have either a gigantic difference in our definition of terms or else we truly disagree on this point.

250 years ago, the means of production were accessible to any free person. It didn't take much to construct a water wheel or put together a forge other than some universally available materials and a great deal of backbreaking labor.

Fast forward to the industrial revolution (and Marx's worldview), and the machinery of production required vast sums of capital to set up and maintain, and the one-man shop was mercilessly driven out of business by the great capitalists (the Lowells, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, etc).

A certain amount of balance was restored by the rise of unions and, crucially, by the New Deal - which put the middle class on a firm foundation, and largely removed the fear of falling into hopeless poverty for millions. (This is the Big Reason why the USA did not experience a proletarian revolution and capitalism survived the Great Depression).

So the means of production were never put into the hands of "the Masses", but this fact became largely irrelevant thanks to the universally agreed upon shared social compact of the mid and late 20th Century.

The Digital Revolution smashed beyond recovery that compact, while simultaneously spreading the products (but not the means) of production to most of the population. (Thus it is not unusual for me to see panhandlers texting on their smartphones.)

I frankly don't know where we're headed next. The 1950s are gone forever and cannot be resurrected. Clearly the current situation cannot hold forever - there's way too much inequality built into the system. But we are nowhere near to any point where you can say the means of production are not in the hands of a increasingly tight elite circle.

One thing's for sure - they won't be spread to a wider ownership by means of a political revolution. In fact, I can't think of anything that would make matters worse than a revolution.

So is Marxism obsolete? I'm not so sure. Maybe it's obsolete in the same way that "Darwinism" is obsolete to a 21st Century evolutionary biologist, with his knowledge of things Darwin never dreamed of, such as DNA and genetics. (Yet he will still acknowledge his debt to Darwin in getting to what he knows now, while dismissing the outdated specifics.)

Crude said...

Fast forward to the industrial revolution (and Marx's worldview), and the machinery of production required vast sums of capital to set up and maintain, and the one-man shop was mercilessly driven out of business by the great capitalists (the Lowells, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, etc).

Funny - I see all manner of one-man shops and family businesses around me, and certainly online.

Because whereas previously you needed considerable wealth to produce literature, now printers are within the means of just about everyone.

Or, if they don't wish to kill 'precious trees', they can go online thanks to numerous businesses that provide cheap access to the internet, using their computers that are vastly more powerful than the best of the best top-tier computers generations ago.

Or maybe they'll prefer to use their 3D object printers they can cheaply acquire. Or their cheap laser cutters. Or...

(Links providable upon request.)

Oh, and best of all? They can ship their products far away, with the rails Carnegie helped build.

See, Bob - you repeated a mantra to me, but I notice 'technology' shows up nowhere in your oral history. Rich people rose up and they put everyone out of business, and then there were unions and the New Deal and... that's everything, right?

But you left out the technological innovations, the absurd increase in the availability of the means of production, and the business impact. You don't bring them up then explain why they had a given effect, or didn't go far enough. They just have no place in the narrative, and I think it's because it's extremely difficult to argue that an abundance of cheap, affordable tools and materials and more never took place, since you yourself see panhandlers with cell phones.

That's a problem.

But we are nowhere near to any point where you can say the means of production are not in the hands of a increasingly tight elite circle.

Sure I can. I mean, easily so. You know what a 'means of production' is, right?

Tools.

Equipment.

Know-how.

Money.

And the first three - absolutely indisputably - have been made vastly more common and attainable by businesses, in large part due to technological innovation.

C'mon, Bob. You can say it: "Yes, technology and businesses have spread around the means of production in ways Marx never foresaw." You don't have to become a capitalist. You don't even have to abandon socialism. Hell, complain all you like about 'economic inequality'.

But admit that much. I admit, I'm asking you to say something which amounts to blasphemy against the political left, just as my pointing out the shortcomings of capitalism is a blasphemy to many on the political right.

So what. Do it anyway.

Blasphemy against political religions is a lot of fun, believe me.

B. Prokop said...

Nope. I think it's a difference in definitions here. I can obtain a laptop, a DVD player, a cell phone, but I cannot manufacture one. That's what production means. So (to repeat), the products of production have spread wider than ever before in history, but the means to produce them are still in the hands of a tiny subset of humanity.

You are aware that a very small percentage of people controls an overwhelmingly great percentage of the world's wealth, right? This from Wikipedia: "the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000. The three richest people in the world possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined."

That's not "left" or "right" - that's just the data.

As for solutions (and even Pope Francis says the situation cries out for one), I'll be perfectly honest - I have no idea, and will will not pretend that the answer lies with any particular ideology.

Crude said...

Nope. I think it's a difference in definitions here. I can obtain a laptop, a DVD player, a cell phone, but I cannot manufacture one. That's what production means.

Your own cell phone? Sure you can.

Laptop, DVD player? Similar.

It'd be time-intensive, but time-intensive differs beautifully from 'impossible'.

Now, that said? Sure, there are some products you can't make. But here's where the problem comes in for you: those easily obtainable laptops, cell phones, and DVD players... are themselves means of production. They produce things of utility and value.

Hence my examples of 3D printers, laser cutters, all manner of tools, computers, and more.

I already gave away that not every single means of production is available - but Marx needs more than limit cases. We already have a long and established history, now, of technological and material wealth spreading throughout the world. Even a, pardon me - shithole like Brazil is awash in tech.

You are aware that a very small percentage of people controls an overwhelmingly great percentage of the world's wealth, right?

Wonderful. Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: for the sake of argument I am going to assume that exactly one person in the world owns 99.9999% of the wealth of the world. I'll call him Don Simmons. The rest of us get the dregs.

It doesn't affect my point, because wealth disparity is irrelevant to what I'm saying. And even the most backwater, impoverished, "eating other humans still isn't a very big taboo here" country are able to experience the benefit of the expanded means of production assuming they can stop shooting people with blowguns long enough to play with them.