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Marx was neither an economist nor a social scientist 1
Portentous metaphysics is not the basis for understanding social patterns.
Deirdre McCloskey says that Marx was a great social scientist (who got everything wrong), Mark Blaug that Marx was a great economist, with an unparalleled capacity to drive an economic argument to its conclusion. Both of them thoroughly disagreed with his analysis, but still treat Marx as a major social scientist, a major economist. This is the standard way folk have thought of Marx.
To quote the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, all of them were deceived.
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To show how much Marx is neither an economist nor a social scientist we need go no further than a September 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge, part of an exchange of letter published as Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (1844) and Estranged [Entfremdung] Labour from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). So, Young Marx, but writings that prefigure Marx’s later writings (indeed, his entire system) and the use folk have made of the same.
Not a social scientist
Let us start with a passage from the letter:
But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
“Ruthless criticism of all that exists” is, of course, the methodology of “wokery” (Post-Enlightenment Progressivism) in a nutshell. As James Lindsay correctly says, the woke, the PEPs, offer one long parade of “not that”. Whatever they want, it is not that currently existing thing.
They are following in the footsteps of Marxists dismissing the entire experience of revolutionary Marxism, of tyrannies and mass murder, as a “doesn’t count” parade of “not that”.
The great advantage of the “not that” methodology, the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”, is that one is never wrong. Any failure becomes just another case of “not that”. If it fails, clearly it was not what such clever folk as oneself advocate. Thus, no hostages to fortune are offered.
It is, however, an utterly disastrous advantage, as “not that”, the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”, means rejection of all embedded learning.
If one is going to be any sort of social scientist one has to grasp the role, dynamics and functionality of embedded learning. To systematically reject it, which is what the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” does, is to substitute one’s ideological project for genuine enquiry and understanding.
Which is exactly what Marx does. For all activist scholarship is degraded scholarship, as it rejects the humility of discovery in favour of the arrogance of certainty, the arrogance of the moral grandiosity of the adopted project.
Systematically rejecting the functionality of embedded learning, seeing its manifestations as pervasively exploitive and inadequate, as “not that”, so requiring transformative supersession, is to reject understanding.
How much progressivist policies will go wrong, how much they will be a failure in terms of human flourishing, is directly proportional to how thoroughly they reject embedded learning.
Thus, by far the most grotesque and vile progressivist-politics-of-the-transformational-future failure in terms of human flourishing, Pol Pot’s Year Zero, was such because it was the most complete supersessionist rejection of embedded learning. To the extent of systematically slaughtering as human dross all those seen as carriers of such learning.
Not an economist
Nor is Marx any sort of economist, though he certainly manages a pretence of being one. A classic definition of economics is the study of choice under scarcity.
Choice exists because organisms use information and resources to maintain their own functioning. (Information being what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.)
Human societies are, to a large degree, driven by relative scarcities: what is more or less scarce compared to what. In societies where it is hard to produce things, (produced) stuff is likely to be expensive (as relatively scarce) and people are likely to be cheap (as relatively plentiful).
Thus, despite modern societies having hugely more people than did medieval societies, that they are orders of magnitude more productive means that, in our societies, stuff is cheap (being very plentiful per person) and people are expensive (as much scarcer than stuff).
The first age of globalisation, from the application of steam power to transport (railways and steamships) in the 1820s to the start of the Dynasts’ Great War in 1914, provides a particularly vivid example of how much human societies are studies in relative scarcity.
The huge expansion in the application of energy to transport created the first era of global mass trade. Where a factor of production—land, labour or capital—was scarce (i.e., food, labour or capital was imported), then its holders or providers supported trade protection to protect its local scarcity premium. Where a factor of production was plentiful (food, labour or capital was exported), then they supported free trade to get access to global markets.
So, in the Anglo-settler societies (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) that exported food and imported labour and capital, labour and capital got together and imposed trade protection on land. In the UK, which imported food but exported labour and capital, labour and capital got together and imposed free trade on land. In Germany, which imported food and capital but exported labour, land and capital got together and imposed trade protection on labour.
Human societies are, to a striking degree, studies in relative scarcity. Then again, so are ecosystems generally.
Relative scarcity because value as something-operating-in-the-world is not an absolute quality, it relies on patterns of response by living organisms. A lifeless universe would have nothing of value, because there would be no living thing in it to value anything and to react to anything as having value.
Humans direct their labour towards things that are expected to have value, to be valued: not always successfully. It is entirely possible for a productive process to consume more value than it produces. Loss-making firms do this all the time. It is even more common in government and other bureaucracies.
With these preliminaries out of the way, let us consider one of Marx’s chestnuts from Estranged [Entfremdung] Labour:
the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production.
This is an elementary falsehood. The most productive workers are the most highly paid workers. The scarcer labour is compared to capital, the more productive they are, the more value their labour has and the more highly paid they are.
Nor is this mistake some sort of one-off error. Later Marx tells us that:
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things
This is just restating the same elementary falsehood. For instance, as children have become more scarce, both within families and relative to the ever-expanding world of stuff, our societies have become more and more adverse to children being exposed to risk. More resources are put into valuing children.
Marx continues later in the same vein:
the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.
As time has marched on, as our societies have become more productive, workers have become more and more propertied.
The use of regulation to restrict the use of land for housing while importing lots of immigrants has made housing more expensive, due to making housing relatively more scarce. But that is a function of government action generating market responses, it is not an inherent logic of market production nor of private property.
Then we have:
the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume.
Another elementary falsehood.
Early industrialisation had plenty of horrible factories and hovels, so one could be misled. Nevertheless, Marx clearly does not understand relative scarcity.
If you do not understand relative scarcity, then you are no sort of economist. Moreover, error is built into your analysis right at the base. Your analytical superstructure will be built on a disabling flaw in the foundations.
Marx is very much purveying an idea of constraint-as-oppression. The secular version of this idea goes back to at least Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his famous passage in The Social Contract:
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.
Rousseau himself being famously hostile to the constraints of civility, hygiene and parental responsibility.
Further on in Estranged Labour, we get the following metaphysical word-salad making it clear that Marx does not understand contractural interactions:
the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it
Yes, for almost our entire existence as a species, except for children, if you did not work, you did not eat. We are living organisms who use information and resources to maintain our functioning.
Faced with the take/make/trade choice to gain such resources, we often trade. Indeed, our propensity to trade (especially our propensity to share what we have acquired within a group: such sharing often being a form of trading across time) sets us apart from all our ape cousins.
The more societies trade, the more access to resources, and to goods and services, they have, and the more important consent is within the society. Hence, the more mercantile societies are, the generally better they are to live in.
It is not a coincidence that anti-commerce politics tend so strongly to be anti-consent politics.
Employment is trading labour for payment. It is very different from being taxed (a taking). It is very different again from being a slave: domination of another enabling their reduction to the status of property and extraction of all their production net of subsistence. When Marx talks of folk being “wage slaves” he accurately characterises slavery but is wildly wrong about employment.
Because workers can choose to leave to other employment, or to be more or less productive, part of successfully employing folk is getting them to invest in the continuing (employment) connection. The voluntary element in employment is crucial to its dynamics.
Marx fundamentally does not understand contractual relations. If you do not understand such, your understanding of commerce will go profoundly awry. As, in Marx’s case, it very much does.
If Marx was a social scientist, then that says something very bad about being a social scientist.
Reading Marx for this essay, I yet again have the response I normally have to reading Marx: why does anyone believe this crap? Or take it seriously, other than for its historical significance? (We will return to this question in part two.)
Marx himself, despite his comprehensive failure of understanding (unless, of course, he is lying to us), holds that he has profoundly surpassed conventional political economy, getting far deeper than it does into the dynamics of the contemporary economy. As he says, with epistemic grandiosity:
Political economy starts with the fact of private property; it does not explain it to us. It expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas it then takes for laws. It does not comprehend these laws – i.e., it does not demonstrate how they arise from the very nature of private property. Political economy throws no light on the cause of the division between labor and capital, and between capital and land. When, for example, it defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause, i.e., it takes for granted what it is supposed to explain. Similarly, competition comes in everywhere. It is explained from external circumstances. As to how far these external and apparently accidental circumstances are but the expression of a necessary course of development, political economy teaches us nothing.
Of course, the sense that you are being provided with a much deeper understanding than folk such as Adam Smith or David Ricardo can manage can be intoxicating.
How does Marx get such elementary stuff so wrong? The core reason is that his commitment to a vision of change, of social transformation, drives (and so degrades) his analysis.
The mechanism for such degraded analysis is him being a certain sort of pre-Darwinian metaphysician. For the estrangement of labour is a metaphysical estrangement.
Man is a species-being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species (his own as well as those of other things) as his object, but – and this is only another way of expressing it – also because he treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.
As a footnote to the marxists.org version states:
The term “species-being” (Gattungswesen) is derived from Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy where it is applied to man and mankind as a whole.
Every existing lineage, including every existing Homo sapien lineage, including yours, has gone through many species, right back to single-cell organisms.
Species are just sets of lineages. The boundaries between such sets can be somewhat fuzzy. Lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris) are different species, but they can interbreed, creating ligers and tigons.
Competition between lineages to occupy viable niches drives evolution. Competition is not an invention of political economy but a manifestation of ecological reality.
Social animals—colonial invertebrates (such as corals), eusocial insects, and social mammals—are highly successful, making up a very high proportion of total animal biomass. Yet they are phylogenetically rare, as it is hard to get lineages to switch to systematic cooperation as an evolutionary strategy.
Marx argues that while man is in nature, man has a special relationship with nature:
In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But 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. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.
This is not merely man-as-special-creation, this is man as creator of nature.
What being paid for his labour (payment that has to cover the costs of capital, management and risk to be sustainable) does to the worker is estrange him from his proper metaphysical placement:
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.
This is how a metaphysician writes. It is not how a social scientist of any form writes.
According to Marx, individuation is at the heart of estrangement:
Estranged labor turns thus:
(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.
(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.
Every organism that sleeps is conscious when awake: for sleep is turning off consciousness. We Homo sapiens develop self-consciousness so that we can consciously package and process information in order to have certain forms of interaction with each other.
The simplest way to understand why feral children are the way they are is that, lacking human interaction in their early years, their brains fail to wire for self-consciousness.
Such self-consciousness is an evolution of our highly cooperative breeding and subsistence strategies and a manifestation of our individuation. Of how competing lineages cooperate in groups (that then compete against other groups). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution because what works is selected for through lineage competition for viable niches, what does not work dies out.
We are not somehow metaphysically separate from nature red in tooth and claw. We are unusually self-conscious and cooperative, but due to competition between lineages selecting for us being so.
Marx was writing 15 years before Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species. But that is the point: the metaphysical and epistemic arrogance he displays is thoroughly unwarranted. He is not aware of what he does not know. And things he could know, he gets wrong.
If Marx was not a social scientist, not an economist, what was he? Was he just a pre-Darwinian metaphysician? And why would people believe this mixture of falsehoods and portentous metaphysics? Those questions are tackled in the second and concluding post.
Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect, Cambridge University Press, , Fourth Edition, 1985.
Chris D. Frith, ‘The role of metacognition in human social interactions,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2012, 367, 2213–2223.
Ronald Rogowski, ‘Political Cleavages and Changing Exposure to Trade,’ The American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4. (Dec., 1987), 1121-1137.
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