Why Was Marx So Fundamentally Opposed To Capitalism?

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Numerous misinterpretations prevail.  This blog attempts to clear up two of these: the environmentalist interpretation, and the ostensibly ‘materialist’ take.  No blog of around 800 words could do Marx’s ideas justice – these are a few ideas that are intended to spur debate.

 

Firstly, the environmentalist interpretation holds that capitalism is destructive to the environment and must be reformed to enable a simpler type of existence that is more harmonious with the desires or interests of the planet.  But Marx’s concern is only for human welfare – this depends on a functioning planet, yes, and also some concern for animals is appropriate to the extent they enrich human life.  This is Big Anthropocentrism.  Capitalism does degrade the environment, even to life-threatening levels as we are beginning to see with the growing frequency of extreme weather events constituting a new trend.  And yes, part of the issue is indeed non-human species depletion or extinction.  Today Marx would be horrified at the conversion of Africa’s big game into just another resource, or the undermining of the sustainability of coral reefs.

 

But this is because Marx the humanist is worried about things that concern us, rather than some kind of inherent non-human moral value floating within such entities.  The solution to capitalistic environmental degradation is a new human society where our relationship to nature is considerate and rational rather than solely profit-oriented, that doesn’t preclude doing this or that where appropriate.  Moreover, with concerted effort, capitalism can sometimes mop up ecological disasters, so the environmentalist critique is non-revolutionary, whereas Marx wanted to transform our whole relationship with nature so as to remove the powerful alienation that prevails under capitalism.

 

Because Marx wrote so much about economics, and academia has failed to link this to his earlier focus on alienated human relationships, some have claimed that the essential Marx was all about developing the productive forces, go for economic growth whatever the cost.  This is erroneous firstly because it silences that most petulant of productive forces – labour.  Although Marx clearly thought the good society massively develops machinery and the such, his main concern was on the freedom of the individual worker and their own self-development that capitalism negates.  Capitalism reduces the individual member of society to an appendage to the machine and crushes them both mentally and physically.  Thus, the emphasis on developing the productive forces is first and fore mostly about liberating labour from the drudgery of profit-driven society.

 

Secondly there seems to be a semi-conscious attempt to interpret Marx as a vulgar pro-growth materialist in order to let capitalism off the hook – to say that alienated human relationships and their impact on everyone are irrelevant to his overriding concern with fixing or ameliorating the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.  Thus, Phil Mullan’s recent book Creative Destruction that I reviewed here takes a very narrow interpretation of the oeuvre only in order to suggest ways capitalism might overcome some current barriers to growth.  The role played by the theory of the falling rate of profit in Marx’s overall outlook is totally neglected.

The centrality of the theory of the falling rate of profit in Marxism is the final proof that the bourgeoisie would undoubtedly cease to be a revolutionary force in every country they reign, and that capitalism would have to undermine its own moral and intellectual foundations to persist.  In other words, the quality of human life would necessarily deteriorate as long as capitalism persisted, not only in terms of the material standard of living but also in terms of the quality of human relationships in society at large.

 

Marx’s understanding of the consequences of his theory of the falling rate of profit upon the quality of human existence is borne out by subsequent history.  Two world wars later and perhaps a third on the horizon, with only 36 minutes of peace known to the world since the end of World War Two, racism and brutality, the increased role of the state in social affairs, increased homelessness in the ‘advanced’ countries and massive destitution everywhere else, show capitalism has not fulfilled the claim it originally made to be an ‘Enlightenment’ society heading towards a new golden age.  The falling rate of profit is not important because we want capitalists to make lots of money – who cares? – but because the consequences of it upon society are dire as the ruling class offer apology after apology and quietly drop the claims to liberty and equality they once made.  Nowadays everyone hates everyone else, partly because economic life is so frustrating, and, filtered down, you get the new trend of horrendous school shootings in the USA.

 

To conclude, Marx was fundamentally opposed to capitalism because he was the most astute and consistent humanist that philosophy has ever produced.

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Fear Over Artificial Intelligence Taking Over Has Good Grounds – But Not in The Way You Think

 

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The latest developments in technology point to an increasingly mechanised work process.  The abilities of robots to perform tasks, and even to learn on the job, coupled with the way in which we are never away from our smartphones and other smart tech, seem to point to a future where machines are central, and humanity peripheral.  Highly developed AI has won games of chess – and even beaten top players in poker – which shows the magnificent heights to which our creations can attain.  In human culture, there is much fear, or conversely, celebration of the new machine age.  From fear, we have movies such as The Matrix trilogy, The Terminator franchise, the recent Alien spin-offs where it seems that an android sets the whole debacle going, to warn us off putting too much faith in technology; from the celebratory side we are told that artificial intelligence is just a tool to help us with things like medical care and connecting people all over the world.  Both these sides miss the fundamental problem with what is going on.

 

There is a new level of domination going on, but it is not out of machine’s malevolence, but the way production is organised.  To that extent, it is not entirely new, nevertheless a quantitative shift can become a qualitative shift it we are not made aware of what is taking place, and it is that which this blog seeks to address.

 

The market develops by extracting surplus value from workers that is partly represented as ‘profit’.  This ‘profit’ certainly helps business owners lead luxurious lifestyles whilst workers still effectively battle like rats over a piece of courgette that has fallen into a urinal, but that inequality is not the main problem.  Profit also gets re-invested in new technology, to speed up production, make it more efficient, and to increase the productivity of labour.  More gets produced, often to a higher quality and in less time.  Thus, we are told, society ‘progresses’.  But also involved in this is the stripping of the worker’s creativity.  Value he or she has produced, once the surplus is re-invested in machinery, comes to turn his work into a series of just pressing buttons and supervising machinery – it requires less conscious process, and has thus become less creative.  The labour from the past cycle is now embodied in a machine that leaves little room for creativity, hence you have a domination of ‘dead’ over ‘living’ labour.  This is a process that has existed since the dawn of capitalism, and hence is nothing new, but what is new is that the level the process has developed into – seemingly, machines using algorithms to make judgments (including on the stock market), does show that high-tech capitalism leaves even less room for human productive-expression in the commodity.  This self-relegation of the human species gives rise to the culture of fear over new technology where we cheer the sexy Sarah Connor played by Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) in Terminator: Genisys, for smashing things up.  It also gives rise to the celebrationists – who it turns out, tend to be those with a vested interest in the status quo, or are simply brain-dead.

 

Of course, machines can never become self-conscious so as to pose a direct threat to human life.  A good argument from the philosopher John Searle asked us to imagine an isolated room in which a man handles Chinese symbols he doesn’t understand.  In “The Chinese Room” the man, let us say his only language is English, receives Chinese symbols through a hole in the wall.  He doesn’t understand what any of these symbols mean, but has a set of rules for how to process them.  So, he looks at his list of rules, and selects a different Chinese symbol to pass back through the hole.  This is effectively what ‘syntax’ is all about.  You have an input, a rule for processing it, and then an output.  There is no conscious involvement, simply a rule-following procedure is sufficient for syntax to take place.  Therefore, syntax is quite different from the world of semantics (the realm of meaning).  All computers and robots, no matter how advanced, only still operate at the level of syntax, they have never, and can never, develop semantics.  Without semantics, a being cannot develop its own wishes and desires and needs, and therefore can never pose a deliberate threat to any person.  They will always remain our tools.

 

Nevertheless, although they really are just tools, this doesn’t justify AI celebrationism.  As said, the incoming high-tech machine age poses a problem for the majority because it represents such a weight of domination of dead over living labour, and thus the end of labour as in any way a creative enterprise, as experienced at the individual level by the majority in society.  The solution to this does not consist in the smashing up of machines (although that is morally admirable), but in the reorganisation of the mode of production.  Instead of producing for profit, we need to produce to meet people’s needs instead, and have full social democratic control over this process, invoking new models of participatory democracy.  A new post-capitalist mode of production does not see the surplus product re-invested in machinery, unless so desired by the freely-associating direct producers themselves.  In that way, advances can and will occur, but only as a result of democracy rather than businessmen operating behind the scenes wondering how to extract more profit.  If machinery only advances because it is democratically willed, then the alienating consequences of said machinery disappear.  They really do become just tools, then.

 

Finally, this is no pipe-dream – humanity will necessarily be compelled to face these issues.  Just as more of the surplus product is re-invested in high-tech machinery, so too many workers get laid off because their jobs have been replaced by machinery.  This immediately is a source of protest.  But moreover, with fewer people in employment, the capitalist ends up seeing his own rate of profit decline, because the source of profit always was labour, not the machines.  Eventually he has to shut down the enterprise and try and recoup a scrap from a fire-sale.  Expanding these principles worldwide, the most high-tech capitalist economies breakdown and collapse.  This forces people to address the underlying logic of what was already going on, and wasn’t exactly experienced as a holiday camp in the first place.

 

 

Donald Trump Belongs In The Gutter, Humanity Belongs In A New Golden Age

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The idea of a ‘golden age’ for humanity is a common theme in our history.  Usually it has denoted a ‘heaven’ or ‘nirvana’ that is only attainable for the individual by leading a morally good life, and is delivered upon death, or after some almighty Armageddon-like clash between Good and Evil.  In addition to such religious depictions, secular idealists have pondered whether we can become so wealthy economically that we can live the life of Riley.  Furthermore, Star Trek enthusiasts have argued our species will become as ‘One’, do away with money etc., after we make First Contact with aliens, itself achieved by making technological breakthroughs.  All these notions are, however, dreamy and unrealistic.  The recognition of this has now led many to accept the way things are – with the drudgery of 9-5 work, immense dissatisfaction, terrorism and war – as an eternal fact of human existence, at least until we are all wiped out by nuclear apocalypse or global warming.  So, on the one hand, we have dreamy religious idealists, on the other, cultural pessimism.  This blog argues for a superior view: that the golden age is obtainable by society based upon the knowledge left to us by Karl Marx and some successors – it is a thing that can be ‘scientifically’ understood, and armed with a scientifically-thorough vision of this, the public becomes unstoppable in achieving it.

Marx’s unequalled genius in analysing the laws of capitalist development that flow from the exploitation of propertyless labourers shows how we get to the golden age.  It is simply not something that can be delivered by capitalism.  Why?  Because capital itself is an amalgamation of congealed abstract labour – its growth can only be premised upon the subjugation of the majority.  No golden age can ever exist whilst there is capital, because capital itself is like a blood-sucking vampire.  Furthermore, investment can only take place when there is a decent rate of profit – else, capitalists do not invest in the things that make our lives easier.  Hence society’s resources currently only get deployed if it is profitable to do so, rather than to enable a standard of living worthy of human beings.  Additionally, the capitalistic rate of profit must always fall as enterprises become so over-burdened with the value embodied in new machinery (from which no new value can be created), in relation to a relatively fixed stock of living labour from which value can be extracted.  So our work, rather than leading to extra steps towards the good life, ultimately only slows down the tempo of society’s progress.  So, despite everyone working hard, we have stagnant economies.  We’re doing all this for nothing.

Now, if a worldwide revolution took place that threw off the shackles of capital, work could immediately begin to take place to consistently improve the machinery in order to shorten the working day and make it less burdensome.  Eventually robots could do all the boring stuff, leaving humanity free to develop in any way it wanted to.  The individual would be free to become fully-rounded with highly cultivated talents, or simply just lounge around, whatever is preferred by him or her, and society would leap forward in an unbounded way.  That would be the golden age.

So, what changes are required to get rid of capital?  Labour has to become directly social, rather than only indirectly-social as it is with capitalism.  Instead of production for a capitalist’s profit, society would ensure production is directed to meet people’s needs.  So instead of the dual character of the commodity as use-value and exchange-value, what gets produced are simply articles of use that have been requested by others and democratically discussed as part of an overall conscious plan.  Corresponding to the collapse in the dual character of the commodity, labour also no longer has a dual character.  Instead of labour being an unholy alliance of value-producing labour and useful labour, it becomes only useful labour, thus destroying the source of why work under capitalism is both objectively and subjectively a terrible form of suffering.  With society’s conscious plan, labour is no longer exploited – value-producing labour has ceased to exist, and therefore capital itself ceases to be.  With this massive shift in society’s priorities – the destruction of the commodity-form, the destruction of capital, and the changed character of labour, the golden age will see money wither away and the human race would at last be emancipated.  Corresponding to that, the basic source of so many tensions between people disappear as does the oppressive nature of the State, and so we have a world of peace rather than one that is constantly on the brink of destroying itself.  Now, there’s a golden age worth fighting for.

On ‘Estranged Labour’ and ‘Sustainable Development’

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The idea of ‘estranged labour’ simply refers to the character of work undertaken for someone else, under the pressure of coercion or force, and especially when the product of labour is acquired by your enemy.  Labour under such conditions has to take on an ‘estranged’ character because it is not something pleasurable or creative, it is endured as a chore.  With estranged labour, work is just a ‘means to an end’ – physical survival and reproduction of the next generation of labourers, and it is only after the working day is finished that the worker perceives his life begins, yes for those few hours of watching TV then falling asleep.  This is our lives.

Estranged labour has been justified by the ruling class under capitalism in a number of ways.  They’re never honest about it.  The true motive for their imposition of estranged labour on the rest of the population is just to expand capital, the ruling classes’ own alien boss.  If this was made transparent to everyone it is doubtful how long the system could last.  However, they conjure myths about what you are working for, some idea of the ‘greater good’.  In the past this has been ‘for Empire!’ or ‘for the Nation!’  Today, the justification is that we work for the ‘environment!’  Sadly, the only challenges to this symptom of estranged labour comes from people who just want to substitute one excuse for another – their new excuse is we should work for ‘Growth Growth Growth!’  To tackle estranged labour requires a far bolder critique, one which would situate necessary labour in terms of what people need, and reduce necessary labour time to the bare minimum for satisfaction of needs as technology develops (it’s already developed quite a bit, as I’m sure you’re aware!)

So firstly, the justification for estranged labour in terms of the ‘environment!’  Today we are told we are on the verge of environmental apocalypse (a lie), and that people must work to produce wealth that can be used to mitigate climate disasters, stem overpopulation (apparently Africans by virtue of their poverty reproduce too much), to fund expensive green energy projects that would be considered non-cost effective in more rational times, and in other ways to ‘preserve nature’.  This lie for why we produce is bolstered by publicly funded ‘science’ that is open to question, and also structurally reinforced by rules on recycling your waste and monitoring your energy usage, as well as the fact we are bombarded with environmentalist messages all the time in the media.  All of this is loosely banded together under the banner of ‘sustainable development’.  There are critics of this, but as I shall argue later, they are even worse.

This situation, where the ostensible aim of production is for nature, is similar to ancient societies that thought they were working for the gods.  As Karl Marx wrote of this:

“To be sure, in the earliest times the principal production (for example, the building of temples, etc., in Egypt, India and Mexico) appears to be in the service of the gods, and the product belongs to the gods.  However, the gods on their own were never the lords of labor.  No more was nature.” (‘Estranged Labour’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)

The gods, since they don’t exist, were never really the driving force for these labours, it was man’s own activity itself, just existing in an alienated form.  And this alienated form emanated from the fact that you had divisions in society, e.g. with the Pharaoh on top doling out orders.  When man isn’t free, you get a society of estranged labour.  Society sustains this set up through the conjuring of myths.  Today, with production for nature, the same thing is occurring.  The great chasm between the capitalist with immense power at his disposal versus the atomised worker creates a new estranged labour and is sustained by the conjuring of the myth your work benefits ‘the planet’.

Hard environmentalists have criticised this situation because they think we are producing too much and still raping Goddess Gaia.  But because no-one wants to regress to the stone age, their ideas aren’t taken seriously.  A far more significant critique of sustainable development is that it is not progressive enough, with ‘progress’ here defined as mankind dominating nature even more, producing more.  This attack on sustainable development that comes from both right and left political quarters holds that deifying nature comes at the expense of expanding the market and stifles growth.  There is nothing humanist about this critique and do not be deceived by the occasions in which human needs are sometimes employed in the discourse to disguise the truth.  The fact is you will still be suffering from estranged labour (because you work for the alien power capital), it is just that the justification for your hard work replaces ‘nature’ with ‘growth for growth’s sake’.

Marx continues: “And what a contradiction it would be if, the more man subjugated nature by his labor [whilst simultaneously deifying her] and the more miracles of the gods were rendered superfluous by the miracles of industry, the more man were to renounce the joy of production and the enjoyment of the product to please these powers.”

Here we have a clear indictment against the 21st century.  Through estranged labour, we do not enjoy work in the slightest because it is not undertaken as part of a communal project, furthermore we cannot fully enjoy the products of labour.  Witness today’s frenzies for calorie counting all foodstuffs, paying a penance to Gaia through recycling as if we have to apologise for consuming the products of our own labour, and the whole hoohar that we must reduce our carbon footprint – i.e. consume less, in an age where we have achieved a great plenty of goods to consume.  From estranged labour flows estranged consumption – at no stage of life do we actually fully enjoy any of it.

There is a solution to all this which doesn’t fit the environmentalist critique (produce less) or the bourgeois-deviant critique (produce more).  We need to change the social relations of production so that we all become equal partners in the production process.  With equality, we can freely associate as autonomous beings, uncoercively producing as and when necessary (which doesn’t mean producing more), developing technology to make our lot even easier, and fully, sensuously enjoy what we produce with no estranged-based guilt trips.

Two Examples of Enlightenment Misunderstanding: ‘Progress’ and ‘Free Speech’

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This blog looks at two cherished Enlightenment ideals – progress, and free speech – and shows why the narrow understanding of these and poor justification for these ideals as perpetuated by the old Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Bacon and JS Mill) and new Enlightenment thinkers grouped around the radical bourgeois-deviant website spiked-online is not just wrong, but potentially dangerous to society.

Progress

In the origins of the Enlightenment, old and new, the conception of ‘progress’ only entails that progress occurs when mankind increases his domination of nature.  There is no mention of human progress, no discussion of how such progress benefits mankind, it is taken as given.  In fact, as has occurred, the drive for progress has been a mixed blessing for mankind.  Life expectancy, living standards, and efficiency in many spheres increase with progress, but it also extracts a heavy penalty in terms of making work more monotonous and dulling to the senses to the extent that workers become mere appendages of the machine.  It is not that the aspiration to dominate nature is wrong, not at all, the problem is that this progress occurs within the context of exploitative and alienated social relations, those relations of the market.

Progress is really a drive to extract more surplus value from the worker, and therefore impoverishes him in relation to the alien power that is dominating him – capital.  Progress never shortens the working day, indeed it sometimes extends it in the case of white collar workers who now have smartphones and therefore do extra work on the train to work and at home.  The worker’s resistance to that is met brutally with coercion both in the factory and outside.  This concept of progress is therefore narrow, what we want is a society where increasing the domination over nature is truly of benefit to mankind straightforwardly, and that cannot happen until the social relations that underpin the capitalist mode of production are entirely changed.  It is only when labour is emancipated from capital, when people associate freely with one another in production, that progress can be experienced as a good thing, and therefore that mankind’s material progress at last exists in tandem with his human progress.

Tragically spiked-online that emerged out of an ex-Marxist publication, only defends the narrow definition of progress, not this Marxist version, so are making a bad problem worse.  For example, in an article entitled “Britain’s Runway Fiasco: The New Fear of Progress”, Blair Spowart begins by articulating his Enlightenment view of progress, says we need loads more airports, loads more roads, more trains, more everything, before concluding “Right now, much of Asia is living in the future – let’s join them.”  What Spowart neglects to mention is that China, I assume he is thinking primarily of China, is a One-Party state totalitarian police state.  No doubt Spowart doesn’t like those aspects of Chinese society, but what he cannot see from his narrow idea of progress is that the form of the state is necessitated by that mode of production.  If you have the hyper capitalist exploitation that drives “the future”, you have alienated labour, and you just have to have a highly repressive state regime.  The two go hand in hand.  You can’t have market growth without direct repression because workers rebel too much.  So it’s no good spiked-online saying they believe in “liberty” and “progress” – they have to choose one or the other.  I hope they choose the former, and reconceptualise progress in terms of what it does for liberty, not that it is in-itself unproblematically good.

Free Speech

This is spiked’s most famed demand, and it is a good one.  “Free speech, no ifs or buts.”  But rather than justify it in the narrow terms of JS Mill, it is far better to justify it in terms of majority interest.  The principle of majority interest clarifies when free speech is necessary to uphold and when censorship is justified.  Yes, I said it, sometimes censorship is justified.  The principle of majority interest is not the same woolly idea of “public interest” that is bandied about by Lord Justice Leveson in his demands to restrict press freedom, it is the opposite of that.  Public interest as defined by a committee or a judge is not the real interest of the public who are now being denied the choice to read or see what they want ‘in their own interest’.  The idea of ‘majority interest’ by contrast, is exercised by the majority themselves.  It is something they vote on.  Thus in 1985, print workers at The Sun censored the front page that was due to go out.  It depicted striking miners’ leader Arthur Scargill with his arm raised, with the headline “Sieg Heil.”  This was a debased attempt by the bourgeois press to portray Scargill as a fascist, when really he was just a state-socialist.  The workers decided not to allow that to go to print, and the next morning, that issue of The Sun had a blank front page.  This was a case of the majority interest prevailing although it was an act of censorship.

Another example would be the publications suppressed by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.  They banned some bourgeois publications and banned some rival Socialist groups from publishing because to allow that would be to allow counter-revolutionary forces to organise against an already vulnerable fledgling worker’s state.  This censorship was justified because it was in the majority interest.  This wasn’t dreamt up by the likes of Leveson, we know this was what the majority wanted because they voted on it.

By contrast to these examples of justified censorship, it is usually necessary to fight for free speech under capitalism because it is a weapon of ours against the ruling class.  This Marxist view of the importance of free speech is different to the Enlightenment idea that tries to justify it in relation to some abstract principle because we are talking about what humans need in the here and now to help them have better lives.  Thus all the student union bans in relation to speech are unjustified because they harm the majority.  At university, the majority need to be open to all ideas to expand their minds and hopefully contribute to the future.  And all the government laws against speech crime need to be repealed because they express a desire to cripple worker’s development as people.

The principle of majority interest stems from a recognition of human history as that of a species striving to be free, yet constantly caught up in antagonistic social relations.  The principle of majority interest is a way of uniting in theory when free speech works and when it hampers that overall process of liberation.  Of course, when labour is fully self-emancipated, you can have total free speech forever more.  But a realistic attempt to realise the Enlightenment ideal has to acknowledge there are occasions in the run up when sometimes censorship is the right thing to do.  And that can only be justified with a Marxist view of history.