Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Marx And Commentators On Marx On The Justice Of Capitalism (Part 2 Of 3)

In part 1, I quote Marx, showing that one can read his complaints about capitalism as claiming something other than that capitalism is unfair or unjust in its logic. This is no novelty to those who have studied the post-1960s flowering of interest in Marx.

Some have argued that Marx is ambiguious on whether he thinks exploitation is unjust. I only know about Norman Geras (1985 and 1992) second-hand:
"Norman Geras poses the issue of whether the condemnation of capitalism in Marx is rooted in a principle of justice. He begins by itemizing arguments contrary to this hypothesis:
  • In good contractual logic (including the purchase and sale of labour-power), 'sold' labour-power belongs to the capitalist, who is henceforth legally entitled to use it without any restrictions other than those prescribed by law. The capacity to generate a surplus-value possessed by this remarkable commodity is simply a 'windfall' for the buyer, not an injustice to the 'seller'.
  • The wage relation cannot be deemed 'just' or 'unjust'. Conceptions of justice are, in fact, historical - that is to say, relative to a particular mode of production. Just as slavery is not 'unjust' from the standpoint of a slave society, exploitation is not 'unjust' by the contractual rules specific to general commodity production.
  • The notion of distributive justice, which is theoretically questionable, fosters the practical illusion that exploitation can be corrected or eliminated by reforming income distribution. But it would be as absurd to demand fair renumeration on the basis of the wage system as to claim freedom on the basis of slavery.
  • Invoking principles of justice inevitably entails a formalism that is inconceivable in the absence of the state and institutions that are, in fact, condemned to wither away. Communist society is firmly located 'beyond justice'. 'Equal right' thus remains a bourgeois right by virtue of the fact that it is inscribed in the horizon of justice. By contrast, the needs principle, which is opposed to the abstract equivalence of the commodity order, is no longer a principle of distributive justice.
Geras offers a symmetrical refutation of this set of arguments, likewise grounded in a reading of Marx... Having expounded thesis and antithesis, Geras proposes his own synthesis..." -- Daniel Bensaïd (2002).
Bensaïd argues that the logic of Capital doesn't support those who claim Marx took the exploitation of the proletariat to be unjust.

Zizek is one of the most famous "postmodern" cultural critics writing today. And he knows of the reading of Marx I am discussing:
"Let us recall the gist of Marx's notion of exploitation: exploitation is not simply opposed to justice - Marx's point is not that workers are exploited because they are not paid the full value of their work. The central thesis of Marx's notion of 'surplus-value' is that a worker is exploited even when he is 'fully paid'; exploitation is thus not opposed to the 'just' equivalent exchange; it functions, rather, as its point of inherent exception - there is one commodity (the workforce) which is exploited precisely when it is 'paid its full value'. (The further point not to be missed is that the production of this excess is strictly equivalent to the universalization of the exchange-function: the moment the exchange-function is universalized - that is, the moment it becomes the structuring principle of the whole of economic life - the exception emerges, since at this point the workforce itself becomes a commodity exchanged on the market. Marx in effect announces here the Lacanian notion of the Universal which involves a constitutive exception.) The basic premise of symptomal reading is thus that every ideological universality necessarily gives rise to a particular 'extimate' element, to an element which - precisely as an inherent, necessary product of the process designated by the universality - simultaneously undermines it: the symptom is an example which subverts the Universal whose example it is." -- Slavoj Zizek (1999), p. 180
Those hard-headed, "no bullshit" analytical Marxists have similar findings:
"The riddle was, how could expropriation of labor come about - for come about it must to explain the huge difference between class fortunes under capitalism - in the absence of a coercive institution for the exchange of labor? Marx constructed an answer to this question with his version of the labor theory of value, surplus value, and exploitation. What is important for our purposes is just this: The task of the theory was to show that the coerciveness of the institution of labor exchange was not a necessary condition for the existence of exploitation of one class by another.

Marx believed that the conditions for the existence of the wage labor market were themselves coercive - that is, workers had no choice but to sell their labor power, as they had been separated from the means of production, and had no alternative for survival. In a precise sense, however, this simply sets certain initial conditions on the bargaining strength of the two parties in the market; it does not obviate the fact, juridically, that participation in the labor market is voluntary, at least in a model of pure capitalism. This is one example of Marx's 'scientific', as opposed to 'utopian', approach to capitalism. He wished to explain the existence of exploitation in a noncoercive model, in the sense described. This is obviously more difficult than appealing simply to the omnipotence of the capitalist class." -- John Roemer (1981), p. 146 - 147
And one of Sraffa's colleagues wrote along the same lines:
"It is in the same context that we must understand the importance which Marx attached to his distinction between 'labour' and 'labour-power': an importance essential for the context of exploitation as a key to understanding the bourgeois (or capitalist) mode of production. The role of the labour theory of value in relation to the theory of surplus value is frequently misunderstood. Often this is interpreted as embodying a Lockean 'natural right' principle, to the effect that the product of a man's labour belongs 'of right' to the labourer; whence it is held to follow that the appropriation of part of this product by the capitalist is 'unnatural' and unethical. Hence exploitation is interpreted as a quasi-legal or ethical ethical concept rather than a realistic economic description. If what we have said about labour and the labour process has been appreciated, it should be clear that this is an incorrect interpretation. What could be said, of course, is that the notion of labour as productive activity implicitly afforded the definition of exploitation as an appropriation of the fruits of activity by others - appropriation of these fruits by those who provided no productive activity of their own. But far from being an arbitrary or unusual definition of 'productive' and 'unproductive', this would, surely, meet with general agreement as normal usage of these words. The problem for Marx was not to prove the existence of surplus value and exploitation by means of a theory of value: it was, indeed, to reconcile the existence of surplus value with the reign of market competition and of exchange of value equivalents. As he himself expressed it: 'To explain the general nature of profits, you must start from the theorem that, on an average, commodities are sold at their real values, and that profits are derived from selling them at their real values... If you cannot explain profit upon this supposition, you cannot explain it at all.'"

...The importance which Marx attached to the distinction between labour and labour-power lay precisely in its enabling him to show how there could be inequality and nonequivalence in 'equivalent exchange' - or exploitation and appropriation of what was created by the producers consistently with the theory of value (i.e., by demonstrating how 'profits are derived by selling them at their values')." -- Maurice Dobb, Introduction to Marx (1970a)
  • Bensaïd, Daniel (2002). Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique New York: Verso
  • Geras, Norman (1985). "The Controversy About Marx And Justice", New Left Review, N. 150 (Mar./Apr.)
  • Geras, Norman (1992). "Bringing Marx To Justice: An Addendum and Rejoinder", New Left Review, N. 195 (Sep./Oct.)
  • Marx, Karl (1970a). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow: Progress Publishers
  • Roemer, John E. (1981). Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Zizek, Slavoj (1999). The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London and New York: Verso.

1 comment:

Magpie said...

Prof. Daniel Little (who was John Rawls' teaching assistant in the early 1970s) has an interesting post on the subject of Marx and the theory of justice.

According to Little, quoting from Rawls' lecture notes, Rawls, too, agreed that for Marx the problem of exploitation is not one of justice (or lack thereof).

Rawls on Marx; December 1973

Interestingly, Rawls, as a liberal, was precisely criticizing Marx for that. In other words, in Rawls' opinion, that was a weakness of Marx's ideas.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't, I guess.


As a sidenote: it seems the mantra that Marx (and Adam Smith, of all people) was a moralist became popular during the first half of the 20th century among particularly obtuse English economists, who enjoyed dabbling in philosophy.

Ever since their even more obtuse imitators and epigones took to parrot the same shit.