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What’s Left After Marx

Nearly 40 years ago, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet saw a new specter that threatened American society. In an essay for Commentary called “The New Despotism,” he condemned the bureaucratization of American life and its whittling away of individual freedom. These new bureaucracies were staffed and run by a new sort of person: Nisbet called them the “New Equalitarians,” and they weren’t interested in making America’s promises of equality before the law and equal opportunity a reality. Rather they were interested in coercively enforcing an equality of result through a regulatory state that would increasingly centralize its power and invade the every nook and cranny of citizens’ lives.

“Equality has a built-in revolutionary force lacking in such ideas as justice or liberty,” Nisbet wrote. “For once the ideal of equality becomes uppermost, it can become insatiable in its demands.”

Four decades later, however, it’s pretty clear that if these New Equalitarians ever existed in any coherent form, they decidedly lost their fight. As French economist Thomas Piketty has empirically shown in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the West is lurching back to a past where society can be divided into two distinct classes: a rentier class who live off of the proceeds of their capital assets and everyone else who works for a living, often making meager and falling wages unless they’re fortunate enough to be pulling down the “supersalaries” of America’s financial elite. The top 1 percent of Americans own about a third of the country’s wealth and have seen their average incomes rise by 31 percent in between 2009 and 2012, while everyone else’s wages remained stagnant despite considerable increases in productivity.

This wealth concentration, not surprisingly, translates into another form of inequality, that of political power. As researchers Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright have shown recently, the average American has virtually no say in public policy when their policy preferences diverge from the top percentiles of wealthy Americans. As Founding Father and first Chief Justice John Jay said way back when, “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

Ironically, the growing inequities of 21st-century life in America have caused a resurgence in equalitarianism, primarily Marxist in sympathy, by a new breed of radical thinkers who are very much concerned with the equality of result or condition that so troubled Nisbet.

One of these thinkers is Benjamin Kunkel. A former best-selling novelist and self-labeled “Marxist public intellectual,” Kunkel has written a little book, really an anthology of previously published essays, called Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis [1]. It is an alternatively witty and impenetrable survey of six major leftist thinkers over the last half-century.

Kunkel’s plunge into autodidactic Marxism was a byproduct of existential angst. Writing about the critical and commercial successes of his novel Indecision, Kunkel admits: “These very welcome developments coincided with the worst depressive episode of my adult life. I can’t say what caused it, but I remember thinking of the poet Philip Larkin’s line about bursting ‘into fulfillment’s desolate attic’.”

What Kunkel is clearly after is community. “Part of the trouble seems to have been that your own fulfillment is no one else’s,” he writes, “and therefore not even quite your own.” In the pursuit of something bigger than himself and a diagnosis of what ails global society after the financial crisis of 2008, Kunkel rediscovered Marxism and began devouring its present-day theorists.

The two best essays in Kunkel’s collection wrestle with the ideas of Marxist historian Robert Brenner and anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. They are the best because they are the most concrete, concerned with the ravages of inequality, the political not natural reasons for this disease’s metastasizing, and how political communities can ameliorate inequality’s rapid rise since the 1970s.

Brenner’s main thesis is that the cause of global economic stagnation during the 1970s wasn’t growing wages squeezing out profits but increased international competition as Europe redeveloped after it had been nearly obliterated in World War II and Asia modernized. If Brenner is correct, then the past few decades of neoliberal policies are even more tragic because by driving down workers’ wages worldwide, businesses don’t have enough customers to realize a reasonable profit. Ironically, their ideological victory undermined their bottom line. Adding to their misery, unsatisfied with the returns from investing in actual production, investors plowed capital into the casino capitalism that nearly took down the global economy in 2008. “Hence,” Kunkel writes, “the financialization of the world economy, delivering more volatility than growth.”

Where there’s finance, there’s debt. And where there’s debt, there’s anarchist David Graeber, a political anthropologist of considerable renown whom Kunkel reads to gain a greater understanding of how debt has functioned as a form of control from antiquity to the present. As Kunkel remarks, “The servicing of debt can … become a way to practically dominate the formally free, to exact a stream of tribute in societies without official hierarchies.”

Graeber finds his solution to the debt crisis in an unlikely place for an anarchist: the Bible. Every 50 years, the ancient Israelites engaged in a jubilee, where all debts were canceled and everyone started with a clean slate. However utopian this sounds, it isn’t crazy when you consider the massive bailouts—the erasure of debt financed by the indebted American taxpayer—that the federal government orchestrated for Wall Street. As Kunkel observes:

A far simpler and more effective monetary policy would have been for the government to print a new batch of money, distribute an equal amount to everyone, then sit back and watch as stagnant economies were stirred to life by the spending and debts were paid down and eroded by temporarily higher inflation. The inconceivability of such a policy is a mark not of any impracticability, but of the capture of governments by a financial oligarchy.

As an analytical tool, Kunkel’s little book shows Marxism remains useful, vibrant, and relevant, even if only among privileged intellectuals and writers, as he freely admits. But as a political program, Kunkel seems to recognize it can lead to nowhere but to tyranny. Much like Marx, Kunkel and the thinkers he analyzes are more content to analyze capitalism’s contradictions rather than to lay out a systematic—and always ill-advised—program for humanity’s liberation.

Kunkel does take shallow stabs at possible reforms, while noting his next book will tackle how to build the free, cooperative, and sustainable society so many of us, left and right, crave. The general outline is full employment at a living wage guaranteed by the state. These solutions to the present crisis aren’t all that novel—they’re pretty standard social democratic fare—but they refreshingly refrain from irresponsible Marxist calls for violent revolution, which historically does far more bloodletting than liberating, or anti-democratic vanguard parties, which lead the stubborn masses toward the promised land. This is important because it shows today’s young, or youngish, radicals know state-imposed socialism won’t work economically, morally, or politically.

Kunkel also smartly stays away from the broad and elitist cultural criticisms that always seems to drag down the left. Any radicalism planted in American soil, as the late cultural critic and former Marxist Christopher Lasch observed, will only grow if it isn’t dismissive of belief, family, and community. Kunkel seems to understand this and also recognizes that capitalism’s insatiable hunger for profit over people undermines the very things that Lasch castigated leftists for criticizing. There are inklings in Kunkel’s writing that his true end game leans toward self-governing communities made up increasingly of worker cooperatives content with more control over their day-to-day lives at the expense of an abundance of material goods.

Kunkel is high on the idea of the government sponsoring workers’ cooperatives. “Such cooperatives would receive startup loans from the government, but would then survive on their own income or, like other businesses, fail,” he writes. “Compensation would be set by workers themselves, and any profits of enterprise likewise distributed by labor/management.” thisarticleappeared-novdec14 [2]

There’s much even conservatives might agree with here, for it would begin to produce a society, reminiscent of the Jeffersonian archetype, of self-sufficient small proprietors, farmers, and cooperatives producing for local markets, where the distinction between worker and capitalist becomes harder and harder to discern. The advent of the “locavore” locally-sourced food movement and the 3-D printer/maker movement, both embraced by fringes of the left and the right, should also provoke optimism that a freer and a more cooperative future is possible.

Ultimately, Kunkel’s critiques of capitalism are incomplete: there’s little talk of imperial America’s vengeful wrath overseas, which redistributes massive amounts of Americans’ wealth into the national-security state and the corporations that feed it while undermining democratic institutions and basic civil liberties. Unfortunately, there’s also little discussion in Kunkel’s book of the dignity of meaningful work, which is another area of common ground shared by the old right and left in America.

“The most important issue remains work,” as Lasch observed decades ago, “the loss of autonomy on the job, the collapse of high standards of workmanship, the pervasive demoralization that results from the mass production of goods that are widely recognized as intrinsically worthless by those who produce them, and the general crisis of a culture historically oriented around the dignity of labor.” This alienation persists today.

Increasingly the divides in American life are not between those who defend equality of opportunity versus those who demand equality of result, as Nisbet argued. Rather they are between whether freedom and voluntary association on a more local level can win out over coercion and bureaucracy at an ever more distant national level. Kunkel’s desire for sustainable production by worker-owned businesses and grassroots democratic decision-making seems to envision a new kind of politics, more local and left-libertarian in nature, that transcends easy categorization. And if there is a genuine mood rising among Americans, particularly the young, toward a return to smallness and democratic self-control throughout American society, then the argument now should revolve around means. It’s a discussion neither side should flinch from. Through this tension, modesty and limits may well become the new radicalism both left and right can embrace.

Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union. His work has appeared at Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, The Washington Monthly, and elsewhere.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "What’s Left After Marx"

#1 Comment By Reinhold On December 11, 2014 @ 12:14 am

Well-put and slightly inspiring.

#2 Comment By libertarian jerry On December 11, 2014 @ 7:21 am

If one stands back and studies our history one would find that all 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto,albeit in modified form, are engrained into the American fabric. This would include,among other planks,the progressive income tax,central banking,legal tender laws and public education. What we have,in America,is a form of socialism called fascism. Or,for a lack of another description,”feudalism with a different vocabulary.” The amazing thing about this situation is that a majority of the so called “99%” voted for politicians who promised socialist solutions to those same voter’s problems. That is why over 2/3 of the American voting population are ensconced in the Political Class(govt.employees,retired govt.employees,welfare recipients of all stripes,govt.contractors,subsidy recipients etc.)while the rest are part of the diminishing Economic Class that creates the wealth. The biggest enemy of the socialist is the citizen who can think for himself,is self reliant and is self responsible for himself and his offspring. The individual who doesn’t need or wants to pay for big government solutions. The elites,whether they are globalists or communists,want to destroy the self reliant bourgeois middle classes and replace it with an equality driven dependency class. This is being achieved by the Lenin proclamation that “we will destroy the middle classes by grinding them between inflation and taxes.” This,sadly to say,is what is happening to America today. I’m afraid,however,that it is too late for America. With the 14th,16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution,the New Deal,The Great Society plus the Patriot Act,among other legislation,American is well on its way to a collectivist nation with the elites,bolstered by the Dependency/Political class at the top and the rest of us consigned to being tax serfs.

#3 Comment By John Doe On December 11, 2014 @ 10:44 am

“[…] the loss of autonomy on the job, the collapse of high standards of workmanship, the pervasive demoralization that results from the mass production of goods that are widely recognized as intrinsically worthless by those who produce them, and the general crisis of a culture historically oriented around the dignity of labor”

It’s also one of the main reasons USSR’s approach to socialism failed: alienation of the work’s result from the wrokers didn’t disappear, and grew to the point where virtually no incentives left to be passionate about your job.

And funnily enough, the proposed solution, “Such cooperatives would receive startup loans from the government, but would then survive on their own income or, like other businesses, fail. Compensation would be set by workers themselves, and any profits of enterprise likewise distributed by labor/management”, pretty much mirrors the Soviet approach to individual handycraftsmen and small-scale cooperatives during the Stalin’s era: urge the individuals to gather into artels, provide them with credits, and make sure the appointed managers don’t appropriate the profits and hold general meetings regularly and often.

#4 Comment By Michael N Moore On December 11, 2014 @ 11:03 am

Using the word “Utopian” in relation to the thinking of Marx and Engels is an oxymoron. They specifically critiqued the kinds of happy face solutions mentioned above. They did not believe in a Utopian society. Marx was once asked the philosophical question “What IS?” He replied in one word:”Struggle”.

Brenner clearly lays out the Marxist fundamental contradiction of the system; the harder the capitalist compete with each other the more they immiserate the rest of us. They see themselves as “job creators”, but Piketty has shown that they are actually constantly destabilizing the human condition. Religious values, family stability, and social cohesion are all chewed up by endless “creative destruction” as Schumpeter called it and subtly warned about.

The reason public employment keeps growing is because people actually want some element of stability and predictability in their lives. This is why the 2 US political parties have basically become engines of state-subsidized jobs.

I don’t advocate for it and I hope I am not around for it but, there is only one way this is going to end: Badly.

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#5 Comment By frater On December 11, 2014 @ 11:41 am

I guess it was true what some commentators were saying on the post about the demise of TNR: TAC is conservative only in name.

Frankly much of the criticism directed towards capitalism mentioned here could be made from a non-Marxist point (say, to give a venerable example, from the perspective of Catholic social doctrine).
The critique of Marx is indissoluble from his metaphysics (his silly taxonomy that is imposed on the whole of history, with a fine disregard for historical accuracy and contingency). Also, never mind the already adopted assumption of the claims of liberalism (in the European sense of the word).

I’m sorry, but this article is a disaster. Its astonishingly naive and rather selective on its portrayal of marxism.

#6 Comment By simon94022 On December 11, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

Marxism is just another 19th century pseudo-science, like phrenology, eugenics or spiritualism.

The critique of capitalism developed by Marx and Engels may offer certain limited insights, but intelligent people can find better insights elsewhere.

On the other hand, Marxism as modified by Lenin is an inhuman secular religion which no decent human being should want to be associated with in any way.

#7 Comment By T. Sledge On December 11, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

The whole structure of leftist thought is based on a fundamental flaw: that most of “the people” act rationally. Anybody who grew up among “the people” knows that nothing could be further from the truth.

An overnight stocker in a big box store won’t save the few hundred dollars that it would cost to take technical courses at a junior college to fill a job that remains open for a lack of qualified applicants, but he WILL spend $200 dollars a month on cell phone charges, and he WILL buy $200 sneakers.

A ‘Working Joe’ falls for jingoistic garbage spewed by a bunch of right wing blabbers who were physical wrecks themselves back in the 1960s (when they ducked the draft), and he supports every military intervention cooked up by these draft dodging neocons, none of whom saw fit to risk their precious necks when they had the chance.

A bunch of penniless blacks stick their chest out and blabber about “my president”, BHO, who happens to be the most cynical little bought-and-paid-for hack since Warren Harding. A pair of hapless idiots, one of which (according to the Grand Jury testimony of the survivor) just ripped off a box of cheap cigars from a convenience store, ignore an order from a cop to get out of the middle of the street and onto a sidewalk, and in the ensuing confrontation the cop kills the alleged thief. A whole generation of young men such as this pair have so bought into their idiotic myth-making that they think they can “sell wolf tickets” to a cop and the cop will back down.

Any “ism” that doesn’t factor in the thoroughly irrational behavior of the people for whom the “ism” is to be a savior is BUNK.

#8 Comment By Michael On December 11, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

Wait a minute, did I somehow wander onto “The Nation’s” website?

#9 Comment By Reinhold On December 11, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

Michael N Moore makes an important point regarding utopianism: Marxism explicitly rejects rationalistic utopian planning, and advocates for a continual class struggle. Of course, the routine criticism of Marxism is that they imposed their utopian plans on the workers; but a closer look at Soviet or Red Chinese history shows that it was actually Stalin’s and Mao’s express preference for infinite struggle––the impossibility of utopia––that carried many of the extralegal practices of war communism over into what should have been a stable worker-run society. I wouldn’t argue for MORE utopianism in Marxism to correct this, but it’s important to note that it was precisely the anti-utopianism of the most infamous Marxist dictators that inspired much of their purges and terror.
And the byline here repeats another common criticism of Marxism, that it has value descriptively but not prescriptively. But given that Marxism specifically targets the problem exploitation of the working class for the profit of the capitalist class, the solution is not just an add-on to but follows from the analysis of the problem: if capitalism is based on the exploitation of the worker, you need to eliminate it at its most basic point of production, and get rid of capital investment and private production as such.
Finally, I’m skeptical about Kunkel’s preference for worker-cooperative market socialism––I think we’ll be saddled still with the problems of “creative destruction” and progress over traditional institutions––the conservative reasons for criticizing capitalism––which result from market competition and rapid technological innovation and financial crisis and so on.
On the whole, though, good review: nice emphasis on the value of work and on the great anti-imperialist strain in Marxism (one of its most valuable contributions).

#10 Comment By Joe A On December 11, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

Neither unbridled capitalism nor communism are valid, wsorkable societal structures. The workable solution is somewhere in-between.

#11 Comment By Spengler On December 12, 2014 @ 12:20 am

Marxism is not the answer, just as Libertarian capitalism assumes we are such rational creatures to be able to plan for any eventually, and to be able to turn against any bad apples. Marxism assumes that we can become empathetic enough to not fall for the greatest of all our foibles, that when we are given near absolute power as Marxes dictatorship of the protoletariat would have, we are corrupte absolutley. That is not to say that we should not work to change the current system, which has largley been corrupted to the core, both by the post 60s left and the neo con right. But we should be wary of utopianism and seek to build a system that both empowers our people, but doesn’t allow for us to fall to dictatorship.

#12 Comment By Tom On December 12, 2014 @ 1:38 am

The problems are real, but the solutions are bunk.

Worker’s cooperatives simply don’t work. We saw this in Tito’s Yugoslavia. When workers were allowed to vote on spending decisions, they voted to pay themselves bonuses. As a result, they starved their companies of investment and allowed the capital stock to fall into disrepair.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Look at how many Americans live beyond their means on credit card debt and home equity loans. Deferred gratification is hard.

#13 Comment By russell On December 12, 2014 @ 9:07 am

It should be mentioned that Marx wrote, give or take, 100 pages about Communism. On the other hand he wrote, give or take, 10,000 pages on the current economic conditions of his time. He was less a political philosopher and more an economic one.

That being said, Marxism is a worn out ideology, as is unfettered capitalism. As someone upthread stated, the workable solution is somewhere in between. I believe both fail because they rely on the same baseless assumption that people are inherently rational enough to see the big picture. It’s just as silly and unrealistic to think that the banker class will voluntarily give up profits for the benifit of the average person (even though it would come back to benifit them) as it is to think that a person in control of a centralized, state-owned economy would shy away from despotism.

#14 Comment By Antony On December 12, 2014 @ 9:14 am

Tom:
” When workers were allowed to vote on spending decisions, they voted to pay themselves bonuses. As a result, they starved their companies of investment and allowed the capital stock to fall into disrepair.”

Last quarter Coke hiked their dividend (and yield) in response to declining sales revenue, to save some sex appeal for the stock. Isn’t that the same thing? This is mostly an argument for a managerial class of employees, not really for the blessings of non-working capitalist ownership.

#15 Comment By Michael N. Moore On December 12, 2014 @ 11:27 am

Thanks for the mention, Reinhold. I’m not sure about Marx’s street cred on imperialism. He thought the British occupation of India was a progressive force and he vehemently supported the North in the American Civil, missing the aspect of the establishment of Northeast imperialism on the South and then the World.

Lenin wrote the definitive work on imperialism entitled “Imperialism The Highest State of Capitalism”. If you get cooties reading Lenin try “Americanism Versus Imperialism” by none other than Andrew Carnegie.

Regarding Catholic social teaching, from a Marxian point of view the Church is a per-capitalist institution rather than a capitalist or anti-capitalist formation. For example, the Church did not recognized the distinction between usury and capital investment until 1830. John Calvin introduced this concept centuries prior to that, ushering in Western capitalism and the USA.

Nevertheless, anyone who believes in a value system not based purely on monitarization is, each in his/her own way, an obstruction to capitalism.

One of Marx’s best constructs was “The Reserve Army of the Unemployed”. That is, just as capitalist like to have a pool of liquid assets for economic downturns they like to have a pool of surplus labor ready for periods of expansion. This groups also helps keep pressure against wage demands.

Whenever I suggest that women were pulled into the US workforce for just this purpose I am called a “crazy conservative”.

#16 Comment By Spengler On December 12, 2014 @ 11:38 am

“The problems are real, but the solutions are bunk.

Worker’s cooperatives simply don’t work. We saw this in Tito’s Yugoslavia. When workers were allowed to vote on spending decisions, they voted to pay themselves bonuses. As a result, they starved their companies of investment and allowed the capital stock to fall into disrepair.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Look at how many Americans live beyond their means on credit card debt and home equity loans. Deferred gratification is hard.

Explain the Mondragon Experiment then, explain the numerous successful cooperatives in the United States.

#17 Comment By Reinhold On December 12, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

“Thanks for the mention, Reinhold. I’m not sure about Marx’s street cred on imperialism. He thought the British occupation of India was a progressive force and he vehemently supported the North in the American Civil, missing the aspect of the establishment of Northeast imperialism on the South and then the World.”
That was exactly my thought after I wrote that – ‘I should have credited Lenin with the anti-imperialism,’ because I have read Lenin’s great book and still use his definition of imperialism as foreign investment.
And here’s Marx on colonial India: “There cannot, however, remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.”
His positive statements about it refer more to the erosion of the caste system, if I recall correctly. As for supporting the North in the Civil War, I think that was a practical and practically correct decision––he was not a supporter of Northern capitalism, but he was anti-slavery. He was always willing to admit that capitalism, however barbaric, had certain positive modernizing features.

#18 Comment By cka2nd On December 12, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

Spengler says: “Explain the Mondragon Experiment then, explain the numerous successful cooperatives in the United States.”

Or the widespread and sometimes market-dominant workers cooperatives of pre-World War I Britain and Germany.

#19 Comment By cka2nd On December 12, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

Michael N. Moore says: “I’m not sure about Marx’s street cred on imperialism. He thought the British occupation of India was a progressive force and he vehemently supported the North in the American Civil, missing the aspect of the establishment of Northeast imperialism on the South and then the World.”

Marx acknowledged that capitalism had been, overall, a progressive force from a world-historic (what we might now call “Macro”) perspective, but that didn’t mean workers and farmers, or revolutionaries, couldn’t oppose its depredations, including imperialism. Still, if you have a specific reference on India to refer us to, I’d happily check it out.

Regarding the American Civil War, if it’s a choice between chattel slavery and an agrarian economy dependent upon slavery’s expansion via imperialism on the one hand and indebtedness to European finance on the other versus a capitalist imperialism that will nonetheless create both a mass manufacturing system and a mass proletariat made up of legally free labor, I imagine that Marx didn’t take too long in deciding which side to back. Nor did a whole slew of European revolutionaries exiled since 1848 who joined the Union Army.

#20 Comment By cka2nd On December 12, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

Personally, Commie Pinko Red Trot that I am, I still find Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism quite valuable, including some of the theoretical and empirical work of various Marxists since World War II. However, I think the revolutionary left makes a big mistake by using “We’re not utopians” as a dodge to avoid answering the big question: “How would you keep it from going all wrong AGAIN?” We obviously don’t think Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot are inevitable consequences of revolutionary socialism (let alone reformist social democracy) but what are the concrete steps that we might take to avoid that whole line of corruption from emerging again?

I reject the libertarian and conservative, not to mention pop psychiatric, arguments that Marxism, socialism or leftism as a whole are so fundamentally flawed that they are at best useless and at worst evil, etc., etc., but my comrades, broadly speaking, do ourselves and the world no favor by not examining the past for lessons to put into practice in the future. And that may include some lessons – good and bad – from Social Democracy and anarchism as well as from liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, communitarianism and distributism.

#21 Comment By Chick Dante On December 12, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

Love the article!

Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, the father of Reaganomics and former Assistant US Secretary of the Treasury under Saint Ronald, has written a fine book on the Failure of Laissez-faire economics in which he takes apart the worst aspects of neoliberal economics, globalism and so-called “free trade” which has been turned into a euphemism for nothing more than labor arbitrage. I recommend the book to the readers on this site.

Dr. Roberts comments that where the Soviet brand of socialism went wrong, mostly, was in the failure to properly and correctly measure outputs. He laments the futility of empty earth economists who seek solutions to the problem of infinite growth in a world of finite resources. He recognizes that politics and economics readily converge. But, even as a reformed Republican, he advocates for the need for state management of the economy by eschewing ideologies that seem bent on exporting our wealth and prosperity overseas to our competitors solely for short term (and short sighted) gains.

Not exactly Marx, but a far cry from Milton Friedman for sure, Dr. Roberts is a voice of experience and reason.

#22 Comment By Ken T On December 12, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

“When workers were allowed to vote on spending decisions, they voted to pay themselves bonuses. As a result, they starved their companies of investment and allowed the capital stock to fall into disrepair.”

And how exactly is this different than American CEOs?

#23 Comment By Michael N Moore On December 13, 2014 @ 11:15 am

The problem remains the same. Capitalism can’t distribute and Socialism can’t produce.

#24 Comment By William Dalton On December 13, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

“Regarding the American Civil War, if it’s a choice between chattel slavery and an agrarian economy dependent upon slavery’s expansion via imperialism on the one hand and indebtedness to European finance on the other versus a capitalist imperialism that will nonetheless create both a mass manufacturing system and a mass proletariat made up of legally free labor, I imagine that Marx didn’t take too long in deciding which side to back. Nor did a whole slew of European revolutionaries exiled since 1848 who joined the Union Army.”

European revolutionaries who sought refuge in the United States, and settled primarily in the North, were typically Germans who became farmers and small traders, and they enlisted in Lincoln’s Army to prove their Americanism. The Irish, who were common laborers, not so much. They feared the importation of free black labor, and reacted violently against Lincoln’s attempts at conscription. And, pace Marx, there were more Jews in Jefferson Davis’ government than there were in Lincoln’s.

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#25 Comment By Baltasar On December 14, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

Pie in the sky … ask anyone who has lived in one of those worker’s paradises about life in them.

#26 Comment By Tom On December 15, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

What about Mondragon?

Survivor’s bias. You’re not accounting for the failures. Worker’s cooperatives make up a tiny fraction of the economy, whether in Spain, the UK, or the US. Yugoslavia shows what happens when you try to run an entire economy in this way.

Alternate forms of ownership do tend to be more successful when an industry is not moving very quickly. For example, mutual companies are quite common in banking, finance, and insurance. Even then, they’re vulnerable to disruptive innovation. Geico and Progressive have been eating into State Farm’s market share recently.

State Farm, of course, is a worker’s cooperative masquerading as a mutual. It’s essentially run for the benefit of its agents. The agents are siphoning off State Farm’s surplus, which makes it possible for a for-profit company to beat them with a direct sales model.

#27 Comment By Viking On December 15, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

Tom, I’m not sure about Mondragon either. But what if we revised the model of worker co-ops with some innovations? (1) Capital is obtained on the market at a fixed and guaranteed rate, with the workers then sharing the profit (surplus) or loss (deficit). (2) Widely varying enterprises are put under one aegis, basically a mutual fund for workers rather than investors. (3) The amount of profit per worker is divided partly by length of service given to the consortium. This last model could be given even to retirees as a partial offset to pensions, the profit decreasing steadily as the pension becomes larger, until eventually the pension takes over in toto. This is to ensure that older workers think in the long term just like younger ones.

#28 Comment By ADM64 On December 15, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

Marx has nothing to say to us about anything. His view of history and economics were fundamentally wrong, and that’s why the political program does not work. Granting it any legitimacy as an ideology is the one thing that has kept it alive. It is long past time to bury it, intellectually as well as politically. No one, after all, speaks of the merits of the fascist analysis of the flaws of liberal democracy and free markets, and rightly so.

#29 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On December 16, 2014 @ 9:20 am

Allowing for the fact that Marx was plying his trade at the height of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, his critique of capitalism does indeed ring true to some extent in the current Informational/Techonogical Revolution. However his prescription was, and is, totally wrong.

#30 Comment By J D On December 17, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

As you say, the analysis of capitalism by Marx certainly has value. However, it always amazes me that so many Americans think there are only two sides to every issue, including economics. Cooperatives offer an alternative, as do the social-democracies of northern Europe (which have survived better than their somewhat more free-market and corrupt southern neighbors recently). Americans need to be reminded that Lenin preferred to kill social-democrats; communists are not the same as socialists. Some zero-growth “green” ideas have value as well. All of these offer an alternative to the competing secular religions of Communism and Libertarianism, both of which share the dangerous tendency to sacrifice real people on altars of abstract notions.