Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Three Things Karl Marx Didn't See Coming

Karl Marx is rightly regarded by many as one of history’s most brilliant thinkers on society and political economy, while for many, including for many who regard him as an important foundational thinker for the social sciences, he has an image problem associated with the things done in his name in the 20th century.

There’s another problem for more orthodox Marxism (where Marxist-Leninism and Maoism are clearly unorthodox Marxisms) – namely that its predictions of a worldwide communist revolution have simply not come to pass. It’s possible we’re just not thinking with a long enough timeframe. Marx argued that the revolution won’t occur until all the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production have been developed and worked out, and it’s possible that that simply hasn’t happened yet – some of the phenomena associated with globalization, such as the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs as capital chases the cheapest labor in a global labor market alongside the attempt to cultivate those same outsourced workers as consumers of products now produced by cheaper labor in China or elsewhere, could fit right into the orthodox Marxist framework of the contradictions of capitalist production being worked out.

More importantly, I think, is that capitalism turned out to be more stable and resilient to revolutionary resistance than Marx envisioned. To be fair, this is largely due to factors that developed after Marx’s development of his basic ideas, so it’s more the case that capitalism turned out to be more stable and resilient than Marx could have envisioned and more stable than it actually was at the time Marx’s ideas were developing. There are three things in particular which Marx didn’t see coming that provided much greater stability to capitalist production – the limited liability stock corporation, a rapprochement between labor and capital, and a blurring of the distinction between capital and labor.

Before the legalization and establishment of limited liability stock corporations, initially in the U.K. and U.S., investors in a corporation not only risked the money they had invested in stock but also took on the risks of the corporation and any debts it might acquire in the case of failure. This placed a limit on the number of potential investors and on the variety of ventures that those investors would be willing to invest in; it also meant that personal fortunes were easily ruined along with the failing of a corporation. As a result, capital and capitalism were in fact highly unstable and susceptible to resistance at the time Marx was developing his ideas. The limited liability stock corporation, by making investors only liable for the specific amount of money they had invested, changed all of that. It didn’t guarantee the stability of a particular corporation, but did shore up the stability of capitalist production as a system.

Another thing that Marx didn’t seem to see coming was a rapprochement between labor and capital, especially in the U.S. by the early 20th century, but also elsewhere. The economic interests of labor and capital remain opposed, but the trade union movement realized it could achieve greater standing for labor by foregoing any attempt to radically transform the capitalist mode of production as the cost for acquiring a larger percentage of the surplus value produced in the form of wages. To be sure, more radical or revolutionary elements of labor, whether in the form of the I.W.W. wobblies in the U.S. or Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, greatly contributed to capital’s willingness to give concessions to less revolutionary trade unionists (just as the enhanced position of capital in the current globalizing context diminishes capital’s willingness to give concessions), but the mutual agreement of labor and capital to commit to capitalism and restrict their fight to the proportional share of the spoils gave capitalism a greater stability and resilience than Marx or anyone else in the 19th century could be expected to have imagined.

Finally, the division between capital and labor is blurred as never before. The opposition between the interests of capital as capital and labor as labor are as contradictory as ever, but for many individuals this now means that their own interests contradict, because to varying degrees they are both. Over the past century, the effects of capitalist production under limited liability stock corporations and in the context of a rapprochement between labor and capital have created a setting where more and more workers are also limited capitalists, primarily in the form of owning stock as part of retirement packages, tying individual worker’s interests to the interests of capital as never before.

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