Thursday, October 06, 2011

Marx revisited

Not that I am much of a Marxist, but as my friend Taru said, he asked some good questions even if he didn't have the right answers.  Writing on Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque has an interesting piece on "Was Marx Right?":
In case you've been on Mars (or even just on vacation), here's a surprising idea that's been making the rounds lately: there might have been something to Marx's critiques of capitalism after all.
Now, before you leap into the intertubes, seize me by the arm, perform a citizens' arrest, and frog-march me into the nearest FBI office, exclaiming "See this suspicious looking brown guy? He's a card-carrying communist!!" please note: I'm, well, not. I'm a staunch believer in capitalism (hence, the title of my book.) 

Yet, I do think — and after reading the dismal, dreary headlines every day, not to mention checking the value of your 401K, house, job, economy, society, and future lately, I'd bet you do too — that prosperity as we know it might be lazily circling the glowing inner rim of the burbling event horizon of a massive supergalactic black hole. And when it comes to doing much about it (wave hello to your new friend, "double-dip"), well, the status quo's pretty much out of options, out of ideas, and running out of time (hey, is that a Congressional "super-committee" being stalked by lobbyists I see? Who came up with this brain-melter of an idea?).
Hence, indulge me for a paragraph or two. Now, please note: This is a hugely divisive topic, and by "was Marx right?" I don't mean "Communism is the glorious future of humankind, my brothers in arms!! (And I am your leader — bow!!)". For, of course, I think we've had plenty of compelling demonstrations that it wasn't. Rather, I mean: "Was there maybe a tiny mote of insight or two hidden in Marx's diagnoses of the maladies of industrial age capitalism?"
Let's take Marx's big critiques of industrial age capitalism, one by one (and with a grain of salt: since I'm far from a Marxist economist, it's entirely possible my quick, partial descriptions leave much to be desired).
Immiseration. Marx claimed that capitalism would immiserate workers: he meant that labor would be "exploited" — not just in a purely ethical sense, but in a narrower economic one: that real wages would fall, and working conditions would deteriorate. How was Marx doing on this score? I'd say middlingly: wages in many advanced economies — notably, the most purely capitalist in a financialized sense — have failed to keep pace with productivity; not for years, but for decades. (America's median wage has been stagnant for roughly 40 years.) In macro terms, labor's share of income has plummeted, while the lion's share of growth has accrued to those at the very top.
Crisis. As workers were paid less and less, capitalism would be prone to chronic, perpetual crises of overproduction — for they wouldn't have the means to purchase or invest in enough goods to keep the economy humming. As Marx put it, there was likely to be "poverty in the midst of plenty." How's Marx doing on this score? Not bad, I'd say: the last three decades have in fact been characterized by global crises of what you might crudely call overproduction (think: too little demand chasing too many disposable widgets, resulting in a massive global debt crisis, as vanishing middle classes took on more and more debt to compensate for stagnant real wages).
Stagnation. Here's Marx's most controversial — and most curious — prediction. That as economies stagnated, real rates of profit would fall. How does this one hold up? On first glance, it seems to have been totally discredited: corporate profits have broken through the roof and into the stratosphere. But think about it again, in economic terms: Marx's prediction concerned "real profit," not just the mystery-meat numbers served up by beancounters, and chewed over with gusto by "analysts." When seen in those terms, Marx might be said to have been onto something: though corporations book nominal profits, I'd suggest a significant component of that "profit" is artificial, earned by transferring value, rather than creating it (just ask mega-banks, Big Energy, or Big Food). I've termed this "thin value" and Michael Porter has described it as a failure to create "shared value." Replace "declining real profit" with "shrinking real value" and it's analogous to what Tyler Cowen and I have called a Great Stagnation (though our casus belli for it differs significantly from Marx's).
Alienation. As workers were divorced from the output of their labor, Marx claimed, their sense of self-determination dwindled, alienating them from a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. How's Marx doing on this score? I'd say quite well: even the most self-proclaimed humane modern workplaces, for all their creature comforts, are bastions of bone-crushing tedium and soul-sucking mediocrity, filled with dreary meetings, dismal tasks, and pointless objectives that are well, just a little bit alienating. If sweating over the font in a PowerPoint deck for the mega-leveraged buyout of a line of designer diapers is the portrait of modern "work," then call me — and I'd bet most of you — alienated: disengaged, demoralized, unmotivated, uninspired, and about as fulfilled as a stoic Zen Master forced to watch an endless loop of Cowboys and Aliens.
False consciousness. According to Marx, one of the most pernicious aspects of industrial age capitalism was that the proles wouldn't even know they were being exploited — and might even celebrate the very factors behind their exploitation, in a kind of ideological Stockholm Syndrome that concealed and misrepresented the relations of power between classes. How's Marx doing on this score? You tell me. I'll merely point out: America's largest private employer is Walmart. America's second largest employer is McDonald's.
Commodity fetishism. A fetishized object is one which is more than a symbol: it's believed to have actually the power the symbol represents (like an idol, or a totem with magical properties). Marx claimed that under industrial age capitalism's rules, commodities became revered talismans, worshipped through transactional exchanges, imbued with mystical powers that give them inherent value — and obscuring the value of and in the very people who've worked labored over them in the first place. It's one of Marx's most subtle and nuanced concepts. Does it hold water? Again, I'll merely pointing to societies in furious pursuit of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier, now, whether it's the retail temples of America's mega-malls, or London rioters stealing, not bread, but video games.
Marx's critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here's what I'm not suggesting: that Marx's prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I'd argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing's black or white — and while Marx's prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we're prepared to think subtly, it's worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.
Because the truth might just be that the global economy is in historic, generational trouble, plagued by problems the orthodoxy didn't expect, didn't see coming, and doesn't quite know what to do with. Hence, it might just be that if we're going to turn this crisis upside down, we're going to have to think outside the big-box store, the McMansion, the dead-end McJob, the bailout, the super-bonus, and the share price.
The future of plenitude probably won't be Marxian — but it won't look like the present. And if we're going to trace the beginnings of better, more enduring, more authentic, more meaningful, fundamentally more humane paradigm for prosperity, perhaps it's worthwhile exploring — even when we don't agree with them — the critiques and prophecies of those who already challenged yesterday's.

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