Economic Update: The Contributions of Karl Marx - Part 4

Part 4 of 4 

Professor Wolff takes a deeper look at the life and work of Karl Marx in celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth. The full four-part series is available on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/economicupdate

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.


Welcome to Part IV of this four-part series on the work and contribution of Karl Marx.

I won’t repeat what we have said at the beginning of the other segments, because you’ve heard it already and you know it anyway. We studied Karl Marx here, we summarized his work because of the insights it offers us, ways for us to solve problems we face today. This is not about agreeing or disagreeing with what Marx is saying. It has to do with finding out if there’s something important that we can learn.

In this fourth and final segment, I want to talk about what Marx gestures toward as a way to get out of the dilemmas of capitalism, to overcome the obstacles built into capitalism that prevent us from achieving the liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy that we, like Marx and many others, have been committed to for all of our lives. Before I jump into it, I want to make sure I’m clear here. Marx never wrote a word and certainly not an extended examination of what a future society might look like, what a post-capitalism might look like. He didn’t believe in that kind of future-gazing. He didn’t think it was serious. He didn’t think anybody could know how the world was going to evolve in the future. So he pointed only in the gestural sense that is, he gave some ideas of what might have to happen if we were going to get beyond the capitalism. But he didn’t offer blueprints, he didn’t offer complete images of what such a society would look like. As I say, he didn’t believe in that being a useful exercise. And in particular, Marx never suggested—contrary to what so many have said—that the state, the government had to play some sort of central role in what this future post-capitalism would look like. Later Marxists interpreted him to have suggested that, but it’s hard to find in Marx any idea like that—never wrote a book about the state, never wrote an article about the state—just didn’t do it, because it wasn’t the center of his view. And I’d say that to challenge those of you, who may still believe that there’s something intrinsically statist or focused on the state in what Karl Marx did.

So then what is Marx’s basic idea? Well, in a sense, the three segments we’ve already exposed in this program answer that question. For Marx, the key thing is the relationship between people, among people in production: the relationship of master–slave, lord–serve, employer–employee. In each one of those, a minority of people make all the key production decisions—masters, lords, employers. They decide what gets produced, how it gets produced, where it gets produced, and what is done with the surplus from those workers, who produce the surplus.

So, for Marx, if you want liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy, the place it has to begin is in production, in the enterprise, in the place, where work gets done: the office, the factory, the store, the home—wherever work gets done. And his idea is simple—no more dichotomy between a few at the top will make the decisions and everybody else, no more the mass of people produce surplus that flows into the hands of a small minority. That’s got to stop. In its place Marx advocates, points toward a different economic system—one in which the workplace becomes fundamentally egalitarian and democratic. What does that mean? It means that the decisions of the workplace what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the surplus is made by everyone together. One person, one vote—a democratic decision-making life at the job for all adults. After all that’s where most adults spend most of their adult lives—at work. If you believe in democracy, Marx would have said, “Well, that it has to start, where you spend most of your time, which is at work.” “So what is the solution?” he says, “A transformation of the workplace from the top–down dichotomized hierarchical—employer at the top, massive employees at the bottom—transform that into a democratic institution, where everyone has an equal say on what is happening at work.”

Now, let me point out to you that what Marx is advocating for the economy is precisely what, for example, Americans and many Europeans, and others in the world, advocate for their political life. After all, we got rid of kings, and czars, and emperors and all of that. On the grounds that, that was a tiny group of people making decisions for all of us. In the United States, we made a revolution against George III in England, because he said he could control what happened here. And we said, “No. We want to control. And how do we want to do it? One person, one vote in a democratic system.” Took a long time to make all persons get this right, but you could see, where we were going from the beginning.

The democratization of politics has been a mantra, has been a slogan, has been a goal for a long time. Marx asks the question, “Why only the democratization of politics? Why not the democratization of the economy? The same logic would apply.” And I would go even further, having learned this from Marx. I don’t believe you can have a genuine political democracy unless it is grounded on an economic democracy. If you allow capitalism to make a few people rich and the mass of people not, you can bet your bottom dollar that the few rich will use their wealth to corrupt the political system, to destroy the democratic reality of it, and make it a contest between billionaires buying maximum time on TV to get the votes. You don’t need me to explain that to you. You’re living it every day. So Marx’s argument is “Change the economy.”

Now, let me tell you what this implies, because it may not be immediately obvious. One of the implications of Marx’s gesturing towards a different way of organizing the workplace—a democratic way. One of the arguments that flows out of it is that it will never be enough for the state to replace private entrepreneurs, or private employers. If all the state does is get rid of the private people, who are the employers, and replace them with government officials, who are the employers, we haven’t gotten rid of the employer vs. employee division. We have then, what Marx would have called, “state capitalism” rather than “private capitalism”. But it’s all—capitalism, which means it will operate in a similar way. Therefore, what the Soviet Union did, what China did, what Cuba did, whatever the pros and cons of replacing private capitalism with state capitalism might be, going beyond capitalism, they did not achieve, because that requires—if you’re going to be taking the lesson from Marx—transforming the workplace. So it isn’t an employer–employee relationship.

That has to be understood, because it’s the logical outgrowth of everything Marx tried to understand and to achieve. Is the question of realizing Marx’s dream, Marx’s solution, Marx’s idea of how to actually get to liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy, is that just a utopian dream? My answer is not at all. Marx was aware, as we are now, that human beings have understood this more or less for thousands of years. Yes, Marx is the formal statement of it. He’s worked it out a bit further. He’s a modern, relatively modern exponent of this idea. But the idea itself is very old. One of the ways it’s been embodied is in something we call worker co-ops, where workers cooperatively run a business. That’s as old as methuselah. Early American history is full of examples of worker co-ops. Workers in farms, in stores, in little craft enterprises getting together as groups of people democratically, an egalitarian way, everybody gets the same wage or roughly the same, everybody has one vote in deciding everything the business does. There are examples all over the United States today. Spain has a famous example in the Mondragon Corporation. Emilia-Romagna, in Italy, is a place where roughly 40% of businesses are run as worker co-ops etc., etc. So yes, Marx makes a breakthrough, Marx teaches it in a systematic theoretically sophisticated way. But he is recouping for us the history of many efforts, over many years, in virtually all cultures to move in that direction, to see that as the way to realize the goals for a just economic system.

What’s the conclusion one can draw from all of this? Marx was a critic. Marx said that capitalism is not the end of human history, it’s just the latest phase. Marx reminds us, and he does it with a grin, that the proponents and the celebrants of capitalism have often made the same mistake as the proponents and celebrants of slavery and feudalism before them. They imagined, with wishful thinking, that their system was the end of history, that their system was as good as it gets, that you couldn’t do better than what they had done.

Every single one of those people over the last 5,000 years, if not longer, of recorded history has been proven wrong. That means that the people, who tell you today that we can’t do better than capitalism, that capitalism is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s the end of history, it’s the ultimate. There’s no more reason to believe that sort of argument today. Then there is reason to do anything but smile at the people, who believe that about feudalism, slavery, and everything else.

It’s really the point of view of people who are either afraid of, or dead set against progressive social change. And that’s now Marx. That’s what he was about. And he felt that the capitalist system had demonstrated enough for him by the 1850s to know that we can, we need to, we must do better. And as one who has learned from Marx, as I have learned from all kinds of other thinkers, I have to say that the last 150 years since he left the seed has not made many of us one with less impressed by how much he understood, what insights he had to offer.

And as an American, which I am—I’m glad I have—I am profoundly grateful on the one hand that I can explain all of this, and I can say it to you, but my pride in being able to do that is coupled with a shame that for the last 70 years it has been in the main almost impossible in this society to get people to understand the simple truth that you have to listen and pay attention to the critic as well as to those who love the system, if you’re ever going to get a balanced understanding of the sort you need to do better. The best part of many of us is that commitment to do better. And that alone is a reason to celebrate the 200th anniversary of one of the greatest critical thinkers of the economic system we live with.

I want to thank you for staying with us through these four segments. It was a pleasure to produce them. I hope it was interesting for you to listen to them. And once again, I want to invite you to join the Patreon community that supports all of this kind of work. And you can easily do that by going to patreon.com/economicupdate and following us and supporting us in that way. And likewise, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on our two websites. You can also follow what we do. The two websites are rdwolff.com and democracyatwork.info.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Transcript by Aleh Haiko
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