I’m not embarassed for choosing Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction as a jumping-off point for learning more leftist philosophy. I weighed the costs and benefits of reading primary sources versus summaries and commentaries, and decided in favor of the latter.
The clincher was that the rare times I felt like I really understand certain thinkers and philosophies on a deep level, it’s rarely been the primary sources that did it for me, even when I’d read them. It’s only after hearing a bunch of different people attack the same idea from different angles that I’ve gotten the gist of it. The primary sources – especially when they’re translated, especially when they’re from the olden days before people discovered how to be interesting – just turn me off. Singer is a known person who can think and write clearly, and his book was just about the shortest I could find, so I jumped on it, hoping I would find a more sympathetic portrayal of someone whom my society has been trying to cast as a demon or monster.
And I don’t know if this is an artifact of Singer or a genuine insight into Marx, but as far as I can tell he’s even worse than I thought.
What really clinched this for me was the discussion of Marx’s (lack of) description of how to run a communist state. I’d always heard that Marx was long on condemnations of capitalism and short on blueprints for communism, and the couple of Marx’s works I read in college confirmed he really didn’t talk about that very much. It seemed like a pretty big gap.
But I’d always dismissed this as an excusable error. When I was really young – maybe six or seven – I fancied myself a great inventor. The way I would invent something – let’s say a spaceship – was to draw a picture of a spaceship. I would label it with notes like “engine goes here” and “power source here” and then rest on my laurels, satisfied that I had invented interstellar travel at age seven. It always confused me that adults, who presumably should be pretty smart, had failed to do this. Occasionally I would bring this up to someone like my parents, and they would ask a question like “Okay, but how does the power source work?” and I would answer “Through quantum!” and then get very annoyed that people didn’t even know about quantum.
(I was seven years old. What’s your excuse, New Age community?)
I figured that Marx had just fallen into a similar trap. He’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.
But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say it was irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work. He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.
Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.
Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?
I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is basically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”
[EDIT: Some Communists are taking this joke completely literally and getting angry because they think I am accusing them of believing in ghosts. This was not my intent, and I had hoped a tradition whose core text starts with the phrase “a specter is haunting Europe” would understand that ghost references can sometimes be used metaphorically. The Hegelian World-Spirit is an abstract force governing the progress of history; Marx’s adaptation is even less spiritual. But my understanding is that it preserves the sense in which communists don’t have to worry about the specifics of their system, because History is subject to a force that automatically sorts things out. I think “a ghost will solve everything” accurately reflects my skepticism about this sort of abdication of responsibility. And to forestall an obvious objection – yes, “the free market will sort everything out” also seems a little ghostly (cf. “invisible hand”), which is related to why I don’t believe this.]
Conservatives always complain that liberals “deny human nature”, and I had always thought that complaint was unfair. Like sure, liberals say that you can make people less racist, and one could counterargue that a tendency toward racism is inborn, but it sure seems like you can make that tendency more or less strongly expressed and that this is important. This is part of the view I argue in Nature Is Not A Slate, It’s A Series Of Levers.
But here I have to give conservatives their due. As far as I can tell, Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.
Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.
It is evidence that economics establishes an alienated form of social intercourse as the essential, original, and natural form
Which Singer glosses with:
This is the gist of Marx’s objection to classical economics. Marx does not challenge the classical economists within the presuppositions of their science. Instead, he takes a viewpoint outside those presuppositions and argues that private property, competition, greed, and so on are to be found only in a particular condition of human existence, a condition of alienation.
I understand this is still a matter of some debate in the Marxist community. But it seems to me that if Singer is right, if this is genuinely Marx’s view, it seems likely to be part of what contributed to his inexcusable error above.
You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.
A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.
There was one part that made me more sympathetic to Marx. Singer writes:
Marx saw that the liberal definition of freedom is open to a fundamental objection. Suppose I live in the suburbs and work in the city. I could drive my car to work, or take the bus. I prefer not to wait around for the bus, and so I take my car. Fifty thousand other people living in my suburb face the same choice and make the same decision. The road to town is choked with cars. It takes each of us an hour to travel ten miles. In this situation, according to the liberal conception of freedom, we have all chosen freely. Yet the outcome is something none of us want. If we all went by bus, the roads would be empty and we could cover the distance in twenty minutes. Even with the inconvenience of waiting at the bus stop, we would all prefer that. We are, of course, free to alter our choice of transportation, but what can we do? While so many cars slow the bus down, why should any individual choose differently? The liberal conception of freedom has led to a paradox: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one’s interest. Individual rationality, collective irrationality…
Marx saw that capitalism involves this kind of collective irrationality. In precapitalist systems it was obvious that most people did not control their own destiny – under feudalism, for instance, serfs had to work for their lords. Capitalism seems different because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly, nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one – not even the capitalists – has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.
This is good. In fact, this is the insight that I spent about fifteen years of my life looking for, ever since I first discovered libertarianism and felt like there was definitely an important problem with it, but couldn’t quite verbalize what it was. It’s something I finally figured out only within the last year or so and didn’t fully write up until Meditations on Moloch. And Marx seems to have sort of had it. I read the relevant section of Marx when I was younger, where he was talking about how capitalists would compete each other into the ground whether they wanted to or not, and I remember dismissing it with a “capitalists have not competed each other into the ground, for this this and this reason”, dismissing the incorrect object-level argument without realizing the important meta-level insight beneath it (something I have since learned to stop doing). If Marx really had that meta-level insight – really had it, and not just stumbled across a couple of useful examples of it without realizing the pattern – then that would make his fame justly deserved.
But two things here discourage me. First, Marx seems so confused about everything that it’s hard to parse him as really understanding this, as opposed to simply noticing one example of it that serves as a useful argument against capitalism. I notice Singer had to come up with his own clever example of this instead of quoting anything from any of Marx’s works. Second, the insight does not seem original to Marx. Tragedy of the commons was understood as early as 1833 and Malthus was talking about similar problems related to population explosions before Marx was even born. John Stuart Mill, writing twenty years before Das Kapital, had already explained the basic principle quite well:
To a fourth case of exception I must request particular attention, it being one to which as it appears to me, the attention of political economists has not yet been sufficiently drawn. There are matters in which the interference of law is required, not to overrule the judgment of individuals respecting their own interest, but to give effect to that judgment: they being unable to give effect to it except by concert, which concert again cannot be effectual unless it receives validity and sanction from the law. For illustration, and without prejudging the particular point, I may advert to the question of diminishing the hours of labour. Let us suppose, what is at least supposable, whether it be the fact or not—that a general reduction of the hours of factory labour, say from ten to nine,*119 would be for the advantage of the workpeople: that they would receive as high wages, or nearly as high, for nine hours’ labour as they receive for ten. If this would be the result, and if the operatives generally are convinced that it would, the limitation, some may say, will be adopted spontaneously. I answer, that it will not be adopted unless the body of operatives bind themselves to one another to abide by it. A workman who refused to work more than nine hours while there were others who worked ten, would either not be employed at all, or if employed, must submit to lose one-tenth of his wages. However convinced, therefore, he may be that it is the interest of the class to work short time, it is contrary to his own interest to set the example, unless he is well assured that all or most others will follow it. But suppose a general agreement of the whole class: might not this be effectual without the sanction of law? Not unless enforced by opinion with a rigour practically equal to that of law. For however beneficial the observance of the regulation might be to the class collectively, the immediate interest of every individual would lie in violating it: and the more numerous those were who adhered to the rule, the more would individuals gain by departing from it.
So one might apply to Marx the old cliche: that he has much that is good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.
But it is interesting to analyze Marx as groping toward something game theoretic. This comes across to me in some of his discussions of labor. Marx thinks all value is labor. Yes, capital is nice, but in a sense it is only “crystallized labor” – the fact that a capitalist owns a factory only means that at some other point he got laborers to build a factory for him. So labor does everything, but it gets only a tiny share of the gains produced. This is because capitalists are oppressing the laborers. Once laborers realize what’s up, they can choose to labor in such a way as to give themselves the full gains of their labor.
I think here that he is thinking of coordination as something that happens instantly in the absence of any obstacle to coordination, and the obstacle to coordination is the capitalists and the “false consciousness” they produce. Remove the capitalists, and the workers – who represent the full productive power of humanity – can direct that productive power to however it is most useful. In my language, Marx simply assumed the invisible nation, thought that the result of perfect negotiation by ideal game theoretic agents with 100% cooperation under a veil of ignorance – would also be the result of real negotiation in the real world, as long as there were no capitalists involved. Maybe this idea – of gradually approaching the invisible nation – is what stood in for the World-Spirit in his dialecticalism. Maybe in 1870, this sort of thinking was excusable.
If capitalists are to be thought of as anything other than parasites, part of the explanation of their contribution has to involve coordination. If Marx didn’t understand that coordination is just as hard to produce as linen or armaments or whatever, if he thought you could just assume it, then capitalists seem useless and getting rid of all previous forms of government so that insta-coordination can solve everything seems like a pretty swell idea.
If you admit that, capitalists having disappeared, there’s still going to be competition, positive and negative sum games, free rider problems, tragedies of the commons, and all the rest, then you’ve got to invent a system that solves all of those issues better than capitalism does. That seems to be the real challenge Marxist intellectuals should be setting themselves, and I hope to eventually discover some who have good answers to it. But at least from the little I learned from Singer, I see no reason to believe Marx had the clarity of thought to even understand the question.