Institutional designs for progressive reform

One place where Jon Elster’s philosophical thinking intersects with empirical social science is in the field of institutional design. This involves an important question: What features of institutional design can be identified as having beneficent features of operation when exercised by normal groups of individuals?

This topic has cropped up several times in Elster’s career. One important instance is the work he highlighted about alternatives to market society in Alternatives to Capitalism (Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., 1989).  Here is how Elster and Moene put the point in their introduction:

Capitalism — actually existing capitalism — appears in many respects to be an ugly, irrational, wasteful way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services…. Five of the essays in the present volume discuss whether there could be alternatives to presently existing capitalism other than central planning. Could, for instance, central planning be tempered by the market, or capitalism tempered by planning? (1-2) 

So the core questions that arise here are these: Are there workable alternatives concerning the coordination of work and the management of property that work better than laissez-faire capitalism and wage labor? And what does “better” mean in this context? A partial answer to the “better” question might go along these lines: we want workable institutions that better embody equality and self-control than an unregulated market. “Workable” means “reasonably efficient and productive”, and self-control means something like “shop floor self-determination.”

It is important to be specific about the normative aspects of institutional design. In order to assess the goodness or badness of an institution, we need to have specific virtues that we hope it will fulfill. Here is the list of virtues that Elster and Moene identify for basic economic institutions:

We discuss some of the main normative criteria that are relevant to a comparison of different economic systems. These include static efficiency (including full employment), dynamic efficiency, self-realisation, participation, community, quality of preferences, stability, economic freedom, and income distribution. (3)

These desiderata need to be spelled out more fully. Static and dynamic efficiency as well as stability have to do with the economic performance of a set of institutional arrangements when populated by normal human beings. Are resources allocated across productive activities in an efficient way? Is labor productivity high? Do the institutions encourage high-quality production? Self-realization, participation,  economic freedom, and community are all normative goals we may have for basic social institutions. Do the institutions provide ordinary human beings the opportunities they need to fulfill their human talents and aspirations? Do the institutions provide opportunities for all participants to take part in the decision-making processes of the institution? Do these institutions afford individuals a broad range of choice in terms of how they conduct their lives?  Do the specific arrangements of the institutions promote trust, solidarity, and mutual respect among the persons involved in them? Quality of preferences has to do with the effects these institutions have on the formation of the goals and desires of the individuals involved. Do the institutions help to cultivate an appetite for what J. S. Mill described as the higher pleasures — a preference for Pushkin over push-pin? And income distribution is a feature that has both normative and empirical characteristics; highly unequal distributions may undermine stability, and they may also undermine self-realization and participation.

One alternative economic institution that is considered in detail in the volume is workers’ cooperatives — systems where the cooperative owns the capital of the enterprise and democratic rules of decision-making permit cooperative members to define work rules and income distributions. Karl Ove Moene explores this institutional variant in his contribution. Here is how Elster and Moene introduce the idea of a cooperative in the introduction:

What is a cooperative? The answer to the question might seem obvious: A cooperative is a firm in which the workers own the means of production and have full control over all economic decisions. Yet the answer, as it stands, is ambiguous and incomplete. It fails to capture the variety and complexity of existing cooperatives. (22)

A more complete and differentiated taxonomy of cooperatives is needed, since variations in institutional design can have very large consequences for the behavior of the overall institution. Here are some of the ways that cooperatives vary in the historical record:

  • Full ownership by workers or just workers’ control over decisions? (22)
  • Equal ownership rights or stratified ownership rights? (24)
  • Shop-floor democracy for all workers, or professional management team selected by the workers? (24)
  • Static business environment or rapidly changing business environment? (27)
  • Large firms or small firms? (27)
  • Production process that permits high/low level of monitoring by other workers (27)

Elster and Moene suggest that these variations of internal design and external business and technical environment make a large difference to the effectiveness of cooperative firms.

Elster and Moene argue that the workers’ cooperative alternative needs to be carefully evaluated with respect to the desiderata mentioned here.  They argue that this evaluation needs to be comparative, and it needs to proceed along two tracks — observation of the actual experience of such institutions, and application of economic theory to the fundamentals of the institutional arrangement. The economic theory of cooperatives is weak, in their assessment, but there is a fair amount of empirical data about how they work. And the empirical data is favorable to cooperatives. “The empirical literature suggests, but far from unambiguously, that cooperation and participation increase productivity” (29). They cite studies documenting lower turnover of the labor force, lower rates of absenteeism, and no strikes (29).

Also worth highlighting is Elster’s own contribution to the volume, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life” (127 ff.). Here Elster takes issue with several foundational premises of the pro-capitalist argument as a normative position: “(a) The best life for the individual is one of consumption … (b) Consumption is to be valued because it promotes happiness or welfare, which is the ultimate good” (127). Against these comsumerist ideals, Elster argues for the importance of self-realization — the full and free development of one’s talents and aspirations, to a reasonable extent. He contrasts self-realizing activities (mastering the piano) with activities of pure consumption (eating a tuna sandwich at your desk) and drudgery (sweeping the streets for forty years). This is plainly a normative position: a life involving self-realization is better than a life of consumption and drudgery. And it has a long pedigree, from J. S. Mill and J. J. Rousseau to Kant to Sen and Nussbaum. What Elster adds to the tradition is important, though: the idea that our ideal of personal fulfillment and a good human life is in fact a key element of the matrix by which we should evaluate alternative institutions.

This is a very interesting volume, for several reasons. The individual essays are very good, by experts like G. A. Cohen, Alec Nove, and John Roemer as well as Elster and Moene. But even more interesting is the shock value of its topic in the neo-liberal environment in which we have found ourselves for the past twenty years or so. To have serious scholars making careful, rigorous efforts to explore and evaluate “alternatives to capitalism” is very surprising in today’s environment; and yet the essays were written as recently as the late 1980s. Plainly there was practical and political interest in the topic of alternatives to capitalism in those years that has largely disappeared in today’s discourse. This suggests that somehow serious progressive thought has been muffled for the past twenty years. It is time to resurrect it.

What about Marx?

At various points since the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his work has been regarded as a dead issue — no longer relevant, too ideological, methodologically flawed, too rooted in the nineteenth century. And yet each of these periods of extinction has been followed by a resurgence of interest in Marx’s ideas, as new generations try to make sense of the tough and often cruel social conditions in which they find themselves. What are the important dimensions of theory that Marx presented through his writings? And how can any of these be considered valuable in trying to come to grips with the global, capitalist, turbulent, unequal, violent world that we now inhabit?

We might say that there are a small handful of key theoretical frameworks that Marx advocated.

Materialism as a methodology for social science. Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Emphasis on the primacy of property and class. Sociologists and historians want to explain processes of social change. Marx puts it forward that the economic interests created by the property system in a given society create powerful foundations for collective social action.  Those who occupy positions of advantage within a given set of property relations want to do what they can to preserve those relations; and those who are disadvantaged by the property relations have a latent interest in mobilizing to change those relations. Persons who share a location in the property system constitute a class, and their interests are systematically different from those in other such positions.

A sketch of a theory of consciousness and culture. Institutions of consciousness and culture play a role in stabilizing and attacking the most important relations of domination in a society. Educational institutions, it is argued, prepare young people for their specific roles in society — workers, managers, elites, sub-proletarians. So struggles over the content and form of the institutions of enculturation can be expected to be polarized along class lines. Less directly, Marxists like Gramsci have postulated that worldviews reflect life experiences; so elites create cultural worlds that are quite distinct from those imagined by subordinate groups.

A diagnosis of social ills including exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization of social relations. Exploitation has to do with the flow of wealth and material goods through the property system from producers to property-owners. Alienation has to do with the loss of autonomy and self-control that individuals have within a capitalist structure. Marx’s distinctive addition to this idea is that this loss of autonomy has psychic consequences — disaffection, lack of self-respect, depression. The dehumanization of social relations follows from the structure of the capitalist workplace — workers and bosses, each related to the other through the workings of a command system. Wittgentstein got it right when he described the “slab” language game: the boss says “slab”, and the worker produces a slab. There is nothing “I-thou” about this relation (Buber, I and Thou).

A theory of several distinct modes of production. Marx believes that history takes the form of a succession of separable and structurally distinct modes of production: ancient slavery, feudalism, and capitalism differ by the structure of the production system, the property system, and the technologies that each embodied. Marx’s most extensive analysis of social formations is his treatment of the capitalist mode of production in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy and the writings that were posthumously edited and published as volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

A common thread through these framing ideas is the perspective of critique: a critical intelligence trying to understand why modern society produces such human misery. But even from the perspective of critique — the perspective that tries to diagnose and understand the systemic flaws of contemporary society — Marxism leaves quite a bit of terrain untouched: gender relations, racism, nationalism, and religious hatred, for example. Marxism doesn’t do a good job of explaining a regime of sexual violence (rape in India); it doesn’t have much to contribute to the rise of fascism; it doesn’t have resources for understanding Islamo-phobia and hatred.  So Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of modern social failings; and we might say that its emphasis on economic conflict eclipses other forms of domination in ways that are actually harmful to our ability to improve our social relations.

Geoff Boucher takes up the issue of the continuing relevance of Marx in the contemporary world in Understanding Marxism. Here is how he opens the book:

Today, radical thinking about social alternatives stands under prohibition. According to defenders of the neoliberal transformation of every facet of human existence into a market, Marxism has failed…. Marx is dead; Marxism is finished — and it must stay that way. (1)

But Boucher rejects this neoliberal consensus.

Marxism as an intellectual movement has been one of the most important and fertile contributions to twentieth-century thought. The influence of Marxism has been felt in every discipline, in the social sciences and interpretive humanities, from philosophy, through sociology and history, to literature. (2)

Here are the core reasons that Boucher offers for thinking that Marxism is still relevant in the twenty-first century:

  1. Marxism is the most serious normative social-theoretical challenge to liberal forms of freedom that does not at the same time reject the modern world.
  2. Marxism is the most sustained effort so far to think the present historically and to reflexively grasp thought itself within its socio-historical context. (2)

And later:

Marxism is a distinctively historical theory that normatively challenges liberalism in a way no other modern theory does. (3)

Much of Boucher’s book contributes to one of two intellectual aims: to give a clear exposition of the most important of Marx’s theoretical ideas; and to explicate the several “Marxisms” that followed in the twentieth century. The successive Marxisms take up the bulk of the book, with chapters on Classical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, The Frankfurt School, Structural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory, and Post-Marxism. So the book provides very extensive explication of the theoretical ideas and developments that have grown out of the Marxist tradition.

What Boucher doesn’t really provide is a clear rationale, based on contemporary sociology and history, for the conclusions he wants us to share about the continuing utility of Marxism as a framework for understanding the present and future. We don’t get the reasoning that would support the affirmative ideas expressed above. The best rebuttal to the neoliberal triumphalism mentioned above is a compelling collection of sociological studies grounded in the perspectives mentioned above. Michael Burawoy’s sociology of factories is a good example (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism). But this isn’t an approach that Boucher chooses to pursue.

So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy — these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world. We need to think of Marx’s corpus as a multiple source of hypotheses and interpretations about how capitalism works. And we need to recognize fully that no theoretical framework captures the whole of history or society. Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of social organization and change. But it does provide a useful set of hypotheses about how some of the key social mechanisms work in a class-divided society. Seen from that perspective, Marxist thought serves as a sort of proto-paradigm or mental framework in terms of which to pursue more specific social and historical investigations.

Historians of Past and Present

 

image: “Historians of Past and Present,” National Portrait Gallery, London

 

A recent article on J. H. Elliott in the New York Review of Books includes a very striking portrait of the founders of the British history journal, Past and Present. The painting includes Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Lawrence Stone, and Keith Thomas (standing); and Christopher Hill, J. H. Elliott, and Joan Thirst (seated). The journal has been an incredibly important platform for some of the best social history being written from its founding in 1952 through the present, and it is very striking to see these pathbreaking historians all depicted together.

The journal was founded post-war by a group of historians who were Marxist and often members of the British Communist Party; but the journal itself maintained an intellectual independence from doctrine and party that allowed it to cultivate genuinely important historical research. As Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm put the point in the 1983 essay mentioned below, “In our dealings with Party or Group we were quite explicit in establishing that the journal was independent, and would accept no policy instructions” (5).

There is one element of this piece of intellectual history that I continue to find particularly intriguing. This has to do with the relationship between intellectual honesty and political conviction.  How is an historian’s work (or the work of a social scientist or philosopher) affected by his or her political convictions? Intellectual honesty seems like a straightforward thing: we want scholars to pursue their findings as the facts and inferences guide them. We want them to help us understand how the world works, based on their best reading of the evidence. We don’t want them to “spin” events or processes into alignment with their political ideologies or commitments. So how did this work for the historians of Past and Present and for Communist historians who were not part of the journal like E. P. Thompson? 
 
One part of the answer seems clear: these historians chose their topics for research based on their intuitions about the drivers of history, and these intuitions were certainly bound up in their political commitments and passions. So when Hobsbawm focuses on “Machine Breakers” (1952) or Soboul on “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4” (1954) or Rodney Hilton on “Freedom and Villeinage in England” (1965) or E. P. Thompson on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” (1971), the topics they study have an obvious relevance to their political passions. But what about their findings? Are they able to see the aspects of their stories that are unexpected from a classical Marxist point of view? Is history “gnarly” and unpredictable for them? And are they honest in laying out the facts as they found them? Having read each of Hobsbawm, Soboul, Hilton, and Thompson with a certain degree of care over the years, my belief is that they meet this test. Certainly this is true for Thompson; the originality of his classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, is precisely to be found in the fact that it is not a cookie-cutter theory of class. Instead, Thompson goes into great detail, based on a rich variety of primary sources, about the sources of identity that working people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created for themselves. These historians are not doctrinaire in their findings, and they honestly confront the historical realities that they find.

One way of getting a feeling for the journal is to look at its contents. The topics included in the first ten years of publication of Past and Present cover a broad range of historical subjects. Here are some exemplars from the first decade:

Out of this list a number of themes recur: for example, underclass life, revolution, class, and economic history. These topics reflect the theoretical and political interests of the founders and the editors of the journal, and they served to encourage a substantial volume of additional research along these lines in the years that followed. Many of these essays have proven to be a classics in their genres.

Two interesting articles were published in the journal in 1983 about its own history (link). The first was by three of the founding editors of the journal, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and Eric Hobsbawm. And the other was by Jacques Le Goff, the then-editor of the equally important French history journal, Annales.  These two essays offer very interesting snapshots into the role that the journal played in British history through the mid 1980s.

Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm emphasize the intellectual independence of the journal from its inception. This independence derived from the commitment of the board of editors: “It has been the collegiality of the Board which enabled us to know each other, to formulate a consensus about the sort of history we wanted to encourage — irrespective of ideological or other divergences within the Board — to establish policies and perspectives for the journal, however tacitly and empirically, and to establish a flexible continuity of policy” (12).

Jacques Le Goff also addresses the Marxist orientation of the journal in his 1983 contribution in these terms:

Never having had any prejudice against Marxism, provided it was open and undogmatic, I was totally able to accept a publication in which there was certainly an element of Marxism but which gave no impression of being subject to a dogma, still less to a party. (14)

Le Goff emphasizes the importance of the intellectual impetus that Past and Present created for historians everywhere. He draws attention to the annual conferences that the Past and Present Society organized, and the importance of many of these discussions for further developments in historical research.

Past and Present has been a leading forum for a particularly dynamic field of historiography in its six decades of publication. Its pages have highlighted the importance of social and economic history; the concrete history of social classes; the dynamics of revolution; the role that technology played in ordinary life in medieval and modern times; the key roles that agriculture and rural life played in early modern history; and underclass social life. These are themes that have a great deal of salience for a Marxist interpretation of history.  But what is displayed in its pages, from beginning to the present, is rigorous, critical history — not Marxist dogmas about the working class, the peasantry, or the inevitability of social revolution.

 
(Here is a rational discussion of Hobsbawm’s political affiliations in the Guardianlink. And here is a diatribe against Hobsbawm’s insufficient commitment to Marxism in the International Marxist Tendencylink. This lengthy piece presents an alternative interpretation of Hobsbawm’s life and work. Harvey Kaye provides extensive discussion of these figures in The British Marxist Historians. Also interesting is Michael Scott Christofferson’s French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Anti-totalitarian Moment of the 1970s.)

Marx’s critique

Marx was a critic above all else. His most comfortable intellectual stance was criticism — most of the subtitles of his works involve the word “critique”. He was, of course, a critic of other thinkers –Proudhon, Smith, Bakunin, for example. And here, the key to criticism is the unearthing of indefensible intellectual presuppositions. But even more importantly, he was a critic of the society he observed around him. The key here is to uncover systemic features of a given society that are fundamentally inconsistent with important human values. His earliest social criticism took its aim at the German society he inhabited in the 1830s and 1840s. But it is his critique of modern capitalist society that is the most enduring, and this critique took shape through his observations of the society and economy of Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s.

I think that Marx’s critique of 19th-century capitalist society can be summarized in three words: exploitationdomination, and alienation. These are simple ideas, but they invoke large and somewhat separate theories. The first has to do with economic relations in capitalism, in which one group extracts wealth from the work of another group. The second has to do with political relations in which one group has the power to compel subordination on the part of another group. And the third has to do with consciousness and the social psychology of the members of capitalist society.

You might say that it is the work of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 to address the first set of questions. Capitalism depends on free labor and freedom of property; it depends on a system of free exchange; so how can exploitation take place? The exploitation inherent in slavery or feudalism is apparent in the formal legal and political relations of those regimes: slaves and serfs are compelled to transfer part of the product of their labor to the masters through a juridical regime enforcing inequality. But how does this work in the system of free exchange in capitalism? Marx’s answer, briefly, is that the privilege of ownership of the means of production allows owners to set the wage at a level that permits the creation of a profit; this profit is a form of surplus value.

Marx’s political writings, and his writings about power within capitalism, are less systematic. But in his writings about French politics and the revolution of 1848 he expresses some of his ideas about how domination works through a political system (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis BonaparteThe Civil War in France: The Paris Commune). And in Capital he offers a vivid description of the social power wielded by the capitalist (link).

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Marx’s writings about alienation are among his earliest writings. The most systematic exposition occurs in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he describes the social consciousness associated with the “modern” factory system. The worker is separated from the product; he is separated from the process; and he is separated from his own essence, his creative capacity for invention and creative labor. Here are a few representative passages (link).

We proceed from an actual economic fact.

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers[18]; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.[19]

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

Estranged labor turns thus:

(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.

In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.

The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.

Each of these theories highlights a different dimension of the social reality of modern society, in Marx’s worldview. Each implies a positive theory of a good society; it is one that emphasizes a kind of human equality, and a positive view of society as an environment that enables the full development of each as a condition of the full development of all. So equality and the fullness of human flourishing are the underlying values.

Finally, there are systemic connections among the three areas. It takes power to sustain an exploitative system; so exploitation and domination are interlinked. A specific group of individuals are privileged by both systems; and Marx has a subtle view of the ways in which the propertied classes wield power through a group of power specialists. Alienation, finally, is a predictable consequence of the circumstances of life created by the social relations of exploitation and domination. There is the alienation of the worker; but there is also the alienation of the consumer and the voter, each carried along by a system of activity that frustrates real human engagement and satisfaction.

Does any of this seem relevant in the contemporary world? The inequalities we see in the current economy certainly suggests the idea of exploitation of someone; wealth is being created and a large proportion of it is flowing to a small privileged group. Power is visibly concentrated in contemporary society — whether it comes to legislation, regulation, or the influence of the media. This implies a degree of domination on the part of a small segment of society — a “ruling elite”. And few would doubt that there seems to be a growing sense of value-less-ness in contemporary society — a condition strikingly like what Marx described as alienation. So it certainly seems timely for all of us to sharpen our critical skills and help figure out what we need to do to create the foundations of a more just and more humanly satisfying social order.

This is a short posting about a large subject. Is it possible to argue that these few paragraphs capture the heart of the view? Could Marx have formulated his key ideas in a posting in the New York Herald Tribune? Essentially, I’d like to argue yes. Much of Marx’s work takes the form of detailed discovery of the facts that make this case and an unconvincing effort to formulate a mathematical economic theory, the labor theory of value. But what is probably of the greatest value today are the dimensions of social criticism outlined here, not the economic theory.

 

Marx an analytical sociologist?

 

In an earlier post I gave a brief sketch of the emerging field of analytical sociology, and summarized its foundations around three premises: microfoundations, rational social actors, and causal mechanisms.

Marx is often thought to be a “structuralist” thinker, highlighting large social processes and entities such as the mode of production, the economic structure, and social class (for example, by Althusser and

Balibar in Reading Capital). However, I argued in The Scientific Marx (1986) that a careful examination of Marx’s economic writings reveals something quite different. I argued, first, that Marx embraced the idea that social explanations require microfoundations.

Marxist social science commonly has advanced macro explanations of social phenomena in which the object of investigation is a large-scale feature of society and the explanans is a description of some other set of macro phenomena. Some Marxist social scientists have recently argued, however, that macro explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macrolevel social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce the outcome. (127-28)

Consider now a second issue underlying the call for “microfoundations” for Marxian explanations: the gap between the interests of a group as a collective and the interests of the individuals who comprise the group. (John Roemer refers to this as the “aggregation gap.”) “Rational-action” explanations depend on identifying an individual’s interests and then explaining the person’s behavior as the rational attempt to best serve those interests. The model is often extended to account for collective behavior of groups as well…. However, Mancur Olson and others have made it plain … that it is not sufficient to refer to collective interests in order to explain individual behavior. (129-30)

In both cases the objection being advanced to macro-Marxism is grounded in a recognition that there are no supraindividual actors in a society. (131)

After examining several examples of Marx’s most important explanations, I conclude that his arguments conform to the requirements of the microfoundations principle. His most characteristic explanations proceed from reasoning about the actions of typical individuals within capitalist institutions to an effort to aggregate these individual choices up to the level of larger collective patterns.

Second, I argued that Marx’s explanations were almost always grounded in an analysis that highlighted rational individual decision-making. But Marx differed from the perspective we would now call “public choice theory” in that he gave much greater attention to the historically specific motives and values of the actor.  Marx highlighted what we might now call “political psychology” of the actor — the socially specific ideas, motivations, and ideologies that the actor acquired through ordinary experience of capitalism. So there is a developed “action theory” present in Marx’s writings.  It is a theory that gives prominence to means-end rationality.  And it gives attention to the social specificity of the actor as well.

Here is how I described Marx’s assumptions about the actors within capitalism in TSM:

Marx’s accounts depend on an examination of the circumstances of choice of rational individuals. Marx identifies a set of motivational factors and constraints on action for a hypothetical capitalist and then tries to determine the most rational strategies available to the capitalist in these circumstances of choice…. A second part of this model of explanation involves an attempt to determine the consequences for the system as a whole of the forms of activity attributed to the typical capitalist at the preceding stage of analysis. (141-42)

But Marx has a nuanced and socially specific conception of the actor:

Against both these positions — the nonsocial individualism of political economy and the uncritical holism of speculative philosophy — Marx puts forward an alternative position. On this account the socialized individual is the ultimate unit of analysis in social explanation. “Individuals producing in society — hence socially determined production — is of course the point of departure” (Grundrisse 83)…. On this account society is not a freestanding entity, and social relations exist only through the individuals who stand within them. At the same time, however, individuals exist only within particular sets of historically given social relations. Consequently, social explanations must begin with a concrete conception of the individual within specific social relations.” (150)

These assumptions about social actors conform fairly well to the assumptions incorporated into analytical sociology.

And third, I argued that Marx offered causal mechanism explanations based on an analysis of what I termed the “institutional logic” of a particular social setting. So various features of capitalism are explained as resulting from rational actors situated within a particular set of institutions. These accounts serve as descriptions of the social mechanisms through which capitalist dynamics take place.

Marx attempts to work out the institutional logic of these capitalist institutions. What distinctive features of organization and development are imposed on the capitalist economy by its defining structural and functional characteristics? What are the “laws of motion” of the mode of production defined by these conditions? We may call this an institutional-logic analysis of social regularities, and it is significantly different from the construction of theoretical explanations in natural science. Such an analysis is concerned with determining the results for social organization and development of an entrenched set of incentives and constraints on individual action. (34)

Marx’s interest in discovering and elaborating the social mechanisms that drive social processes is found within his theory of historical materialism as well.  In TSM I argue that Marx’s claims about causation between levels of the social and economic structures of various modes of production are best understood as “mechanisms” explanations.

In order to understand fully this view of the relation between the economic structure and noneconomic phenomena, it is necessary to describe the mechanisms through which the lower-level structures constrain or filter superstructural elements. The filtering may occur through a variety of mechanisms, both intended and unintended. (56)

This account of Marx’s implicit theory of social explanation — microfoundations, rationality, and mechanisms — reproduces Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory).  The institutions and structures of capitalism create a local environment of choice for individual capitalists and workers, and their behavior aggregates to a macro-outcome of interest (for example, the falling tendency in the rate of profit). This is a “logic of institutions” argument in a specific sense. The institutions (property relations) create an environment of choice in which actors pursue specific strategies, and these strategies aggregate to a certain kind of macro-level outcome. These are the “laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production, in Marx’s terms. And it is a mechanisms-based explanation in a specific sense as well. Marx is deliberately seeking out the social mechanisms through which the institutional setting produces a set of macro-outcomes, through their influence on the behaviors of the actors. The Scientific Marx offers a handful examples of these aggregative explanations. The point here is that this logic conforms very well to the framework of thought associated with analytical sociology.

There is one additional point of convergence between the methods I identified in Marx’s writings in 1986 and the current doctrines of analytical sociology. I argued that the covering law model of explanation and the deductive-nomological model of justification did not work at all well in application to Marx’s reasoning. The reason? Because the covering law model assumes that explanatory warrant proceeds from laws and regularities, whereas the heart of Marx’s explanations rests upon the discovery of particular social processes and mechanisms.

Do Marx’s explanations conform to the subsumption theory? … There are statements of lawlike regularities in Marx’s explanations, but these statements are somewhat trivial…. The real weight of the argument lies elsewhere: in the particular details of the circumstances of choice in which capitalists find themselves, and in Marx’s reasoning from these circumstances to patterns of collective behavior. (152) [Or in other words, he seeks to uncover the social mechanisms of capitalism and their aggregative dynamics.]

The process of discovering an institutional logic is not merely one of working out the deductive consequences of the theory; it is rather discovering new aspects of the social process. These aspects are perhaps “implicit” in the original theory, but their discovery is a substantive one, not a mere deductive exercise. (153)

Here too there is a strong affinity between Marx’s theory of science (as I interpreted it in 1986, anyway) and the philosophy of social explanation developed within analytical sociology.

So it looks as though Marx’s analysis of capitalist society — at least as it is reconstructed in The Scientific Marx — falls squarely within what we would now call “analytical sociology” with a commitment to microfoundations, mechanisms, and socially constituted purposive actors. What a surprise!

Marx on a global wage

 

What is the longterm tendency in the wage for relatively unskilled labor?  In the United States we’ve been thinking about this problem in the past three decades in the context of “outsourcing” and the flight of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. Moderate- and high-wage industrial jobs have left the country in large numbers.  In the 1970s and 1980s apparel manufacture largely left the US for Latin America and Asia, and in the 1990s and 2000s heavy manufacturing jobs (in the auto industry in particular) were widely perceived to have fled to Asia.

What are the effects of these global shifts in manufacturing for the wage in all countries?  It turns out that Karl Marx had some remarkably prescient ideas about this question in the 1860s that still seem important today.  Here are some markedly current observations from Marx’s Capital (link) on the wage in a competitive international context:

A writer of the 18th century, often quoted already, the author of the “Essay on Trade and Commerce,” only betrays the innermost secret soul of English capitalism, when he declares the historic mission of England to be the forcing down of English wages to the level of the French and the Dutch. [37] With other things he says naively: “But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously … then labour must, of course, be dear…. When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, etc.” [38] He quotes the work of a Northamptonshire manufacturer, who, with eyes squinting heavenward moans: “Labour is one-third cheaper in France than in England; for their poor work hard, and fare hard, as to their food and clothing. Their chief diet is bread, fruit, herbs, roots, and dried fish; for they very seldom eat flesh; and when wheat is dear, they eat very little bread.” [39] “To which may be added,” our essayist goes on, “that their drink is either water or other small liquors, so that they spend very little money…. These things are very difficult to be brought about; but they are not impracticable, since they have been effected both in France and in Holland.” [40] (Capital I, chap. 24)

And the footnote amplifies:

[40] Today, thanks to the competition on the world-market, established since then, we have advanced much further. “If China,” says Mr. Stapleton, M.P., to his constituents, “should become a great manufacturing country, I do not see how the manufacturing population of Europe could sustain the contest without descending to the level of their competitors.” (Times, Sept. 3, 1873, p. 8.) The wished-for goal of English capital is no longer Continental wages but Chinese.

In other words, Marx’s view in 1867 was that there is an inevitable competitive pressure on British firms (high wages) to seek out manufacturing locations in other countries where labor costs are lower; and, of course, this movement brings competitive downward pressures on the domestic manufacturing wage.  So the British manufacturing wage falls as low-wage European competitors (eventually Chinese competitors) are able to produce commodities at lower unit cost.  This has a long-term global result: the unskilled manufacturing labor market becomes global, and the wage approaches a global equilibrium that is significantly lower than the present.

One thing is striking about this observation in 1867 is the reference to China.  Mr. Stapleton’s observations in 1873 were highly speculative; China was a century from becoming a great manufacturing country.  But Marx’s eye was focused on the long-term patterns; and he (and Mr. Stapleton) correctly noted the inherent logic of global competition for low-wage labor.  The long-term result, apparently unavoidably, is that production processes that involve low-skill labor will be involved in a rapid race to the bottom, leading to an equilibrium wage across nations that is barely sufficient for subsistence.

Another major force operating on the level of the wage for unskilled labor that Marx emphasizes is the rapid introduction of technology and innovations enhancing labor productivity — leading to a reduction in the demand for labor and putting more downward pressure on the wage.  Writing after the American Civil War about English cotton manufacture, he writes:

The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer. This direct antagonism between the two comes out most strongly, whenever newly introduced machinery competes with handicrafts or manufactures, handed down from former times. But even in Modern Industry the continual improvement of machinery, and the development of the automatic system, has an analogous effect. “The object of improved machinery is to diminish manual labour, to provide for the performance of a process or the completion of a link in a manufacture by the aid of an iron instead of the human apparatus.” [119] “The adaptation of power to machinery heretofore moved by hand, is almost of daily occurrence … the minor improvements in machinery having for their object economy of power, the production of better work, the turning off more work in the same time, or in supplying the place of a child, a female, or a man, are constant, and although sometimes apparently of no great moment, have somewhat important results.” [120] “Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is t)laced in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it.” [121] “On the automatic plan skilled labour gets progressively superseded.” [122] “The effect of improvements in machinery, not merely in superseding the necessity for the employment of the same quantity of adult labour as before, in order to produce a given result, but in substituting one description of human labour for another, the less skilled for the more skilled, juvenile for adult, female for male, causes a fresh disturbance in the rate of wages.” [123] “The effect of substituting the self-acting mule for the common mule, is to discharge the greater part of the men spinners, and to retain adolescents and children.” [124] The extraordinary power of expansion of the factory system owing to accumulated practical experience, to the mechanical means at hand, and to constant technical progress, was proved to us by the giant strides of that system under the pressure of a shortened working-day. But who, in 1860, the Zenith year of the English cotton industry, would have dreamt of the galloping improvements in machinery, and the corresponding displacement of working people, called into being during the following 3 years, under the stimulus of the American Civil War? A couple of examples from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories will suffice on this point. A Manchester manufacturer states: “We formerly had 75 carding engines, now we have 12, doing the same quantity of work…. We are doing with fewer hands by 14, at a saving in wages of £10 a-week. Our estimated saving in waste is about 10% in the quantity of cotton consumed.” “In another fine-spinning mill in Manchester, I was informed that through increased speed and the adoption of some self-acting processes, a reduction had been made, in number, of a fourth in one department, and of above half in another, and that the introduction of the combing machine in place of the second carding, had considerably reduced, the number of hands formerly employed in the carding-room.” Another spinning-mill is estimated to effect a saving of labour of 10%. The Messrs. Gilmour, spinners at Manchester, state: “In our blowing-room department we consider our expense with new machinery is fully one-third less in wages and hands … in the jack-frame and drawing-frame room, about one-third less in expense, and likewise one-third less in hands; in the spinningroom about one-third less in expenses. But this is not all; when our yarn goes to the manufacturers, it is so much better by the application of our new machinery, that they will produce a greater quantity of cloth, and cheaper than from the yarn produced by old machinery.” [125] Mr. Redgrave further remarks in the same Report: “The reduction of hands against increased production is, in fact, constantly taking place, in woollen mills the reduction commenced some time since, and is continuing; a few days since, the master of a school in the neighbourhood of Rochdale said to me, that the great falling off in the girls’ school is not only caused by the distress, but by the changes of machinery in the woollen mills, in consequence of which a reduction of 70 short-timers had taken place.” [126]

(Capital I, Chapter 15)

The note is important as well:

[126] l. c., p. 109. The rapid improvement of machinery, during the crisis, allowed the English manufacturers, immediately after the termination of the American Civil War, and almost in no time, to glut the markets of the world again. Cloth,’ during the last six months of 1866, was almost unsaleable. Thereupon began the consignment of goods to India and China, thus naturally making the glut more intense. At the beginning of 1867 the manufacturers resorted to their usual way out of the difficulty, viz., reducing wages 5 per cent. The workpeople resisted, and said that the only remedy was to work short time, 4 days a week; and their theory was the correct one. After holding out for some time, the self-elected captains of industry had to make up their minds to short time, with reduced wages in some places, and in others without.

So is there any way out for the worker?  Is there any scenario where ordinary working people can earn a moderate to high wage and corresponding standard of living?  There is, through education and skill.  The only way of maintaining a high wage for workers is on the basis of a given workforce possessing the ability to accomplish production tasks on the basis of non-generalized knowledge and skill.  When labor is a commodity that is interchangeable in Karnataka, Guangdong, and Detroit, the wage will approach something like a low-level equilibrium.  But when workers are able to add exceptional value to the process through their skills, talents, and knowledge, they will share in that productivity in the form of higher wages and a higher standard of living.

This observation converges with several themes already discussed in earlier postings: the attractiveness of the “high-skill” alternative to mass manufacturing that is highlighted by Chuck Sabel (link), and the current urgency that we should all feel about making sure that all young people have the opportunity to complete a tertiary degree (link).

 

 

 

Merchant capital

Karl Marx was very interested in capital — an abstract concept referring to society’s wealth. And he was interested in the persons who owned and controlled capital — the capitalists. But the primary focus of his lifelong analysis was upon one particular species of capital, what he referred to as “industrial capital.” This is the form of wealth involved in the production process — factories, mines, railroads.  He had less to say about the aspect of capital that designated the exchange process — what he referred to as “merchant capital” and finance capital. This selective focus reflected one of Marx’s main historical opinions — the idea that history moves forward through the development of the “productive forces,” and that industrial capitalists (as well as the industrial proletariat) are the agents of this kind of economic change. Here is a brief description from Capital of the role of merchant’s capital in his analysis.

The reason is now therefore plain why, in analysing the standard form of capital, the form under which it determines the economic organisation of modern society, we entirely left out of consideration its most popular, and, so to say, antediluvian forms, merchants’ capital and money-lenders’ capital. The circuit M-C-M, buying in order to sell dearer, is seen most clearly in genuine merchants’ capital. But the movement takes place entirely within the sphere of circulation. Since, however, it is impossible, by circulation alone, to account for the conversion of money into capital, for the formation of surplus-value, it would appear, that merchants’ capital is an impossibility, so long as equivalents are exchanged; that, therefore, it can only have its origin in the two-fold advantage gained, over both the selling and the buying producers, by the merchant who parasitically shoves himself in between them. It is in this sense that Franklin says, “war is robbery, commerce is generally cheating.” If the transformation of merchants’ money into capital is to be explained otherwise than by the producers being simply cheated, a long series of intermediate steps would be necessary, which, at present, when the simple circulation of commodities forms our only assumption, are entirely wanting. (Capital I, Chapter 5)

According to the labor theory of value, only the expenditure of living labor into the production process of a commodity can create new value; so only industrial capital includes a process that creates new wealth. Merchant capital plays no role in the production process, and it is therefore historically unimportant — or so is Marx’s view in Capital.

If we now look back on European history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, this assessment seems badly wrong as an historical observation. Merchants and their companies played key roles in the establishment of a world trading system; they actively facilitated the race for colonies by the European powers; and often they played a quasi-military role in suppressing resistance by locals in distant parts of the world. So “merchant capital” and companies established for the purpose of international trade seem to have played a key role in the creation of the modern world system.

Robert Brenner undertook to provide a detailed historical account of the role of merchants and their organizations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993). This is a departure from Brenner’s important contributions to the agrarian changes associated with England’s agricultural revolution in the sixteenth century (link), and it is also a much more detailed historical study than his previous works. Brenner is interested primarily in two topics: first, how did commerce evolve in the sixteenth century in England, both nationally and internationally; what were the institutions, organizations, and individuals that emerged as vehicles for pursuing individual and corporate interests by large merchants? And second, how did the emergence of large merchant fortunes and companies interact with the politics of the English state during this early modern period?

To offer a historical analysis of commerce, it is necessary to have extensive commercial data. Appropriately, Brenner’s research depends heavily on good information about imports and exports throughout the period. Here is his compilation of London cloth exports 1488-1614:
So aggregation of voluminous historical economic data represents one important portion of Brenner’s historical research here. The other important part, however, is at the other end of the scale — detailed information about many of the individuals who played leadership roles in the commercial and political developments of the period.
Fundamentally the book is about the political power of the merchant class. Brenner makes the point that English commercial interests were deeply dependent upon English political and military strength in the competition for import and export markets.
English merchants found it feasible to establish the new trades in large part because of the weakening hold of Portugal and Spain over their commercial empires, as well as certain other favorable political shifts in the new areas of commercial penetration. Even so, they could successfully capitalize on the openings presented to them only because of the growing political, as well as economic, strength of English commerce and shipping in this period. (5)
The development of England’s colonies was particularly important for English merchants:
During the first quarter of the seventeenth century, English traders, for the first time, sought systematically to establish commerce with the Americas. Important City merchants had opened up the new trades with Russia, Turkey, Venice, the Levant, and the East Indies that highlighted the Elizabethan expansion, and in each case, had had recourse to their favorite commercial instrument, the Crown-chartered monopoly company. (92)
This meant, in turn, that great merchants had great political interests, both in terms of military policies of the Crown and in terms of the privileges and monopolies upon which their profits depended.  And much of Brenner’s narrative is a careful parsing-out of the deliberate and purposive political alignments sought out by the great merchants and their companies.
The Levant Company’s privileges were indispensable for its elaborate system of trade regulation and, in turn, for the reservation of the profits of the trade to a restricted circle of merchants. As members of a regulated company, the individual Levant Company merchants traded for themselves with their own capital, but were required to adhere to rules and policies set by the corporation’s general court. (66)

Political alignments were especially important during the century of conflict leading to civil war and revolution.

The political activities and alignments of London’s merchant community both expressed and helped determine the character of City and national conflict in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. From November 1640, London politics and national politics became ever more inextricably intertwined, and ovesears merchants played key roles at both levels…. Civil war became inevitable when City and parliamentary conflicts became fully merged through the consolidation of alliances between the City radical movement and the opposition in Parliament, on the one hand, and the City conservative movement and the Crown, on the other. (316)
An overwhelming majority of company merchants ultimately fell into one of these two allied political categories [of royalist supporters]. But it is difficult to be sure how they were distributed between them … because surviving evidence on the political orientation of large numbers of citizens is available only for the period beginning in July 1641. (317)
But on the other side:
The traders of the colonial-interloping leadership stood at the head of the City popular movement and played a critical role in connecting that movement to the national parliamentary opposition.  The new merchants’ continuing intimate ties with London’s domestic trading community (from which many of them had come) put them closely in touch with a City parliamentary movement that was overwhelmingly composed of nonmerchants. Meanwhile, their activities in the colonial field gave them pivotal links with those Puritan colonizing aristocrates who constituted a key component of the national parliamentary leadership. (317)
If we wanted a single phrase to summarize Brenner’s task in this work, it is the idea that much of England’s politics in the early modern period were influenced or determined by the demands of the commercial sector. The great merchants wielded great political power. And so we need to have a fine-grained understanding of these companies and their networks if we are to understand the coalitions and policies of the period. Contrary to the view put forward by Marx above, merchant capital and its associated actors and organizations were indeed a potent historical factor in modern history.

A recent book by Stephen Bown, Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, picks up the story of merchant capital from a different angle and with a very different level of resolution. Bown is particularly interested in demonstrating the active (and often violent) role that large merchant companies played in the development of the world trading system and the colonial relationships that emerged from the seventeenth century forward. Bown’s central focus is on the individuals and the companies that created the colonial world: Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company, Sir Robert Clive and the English East India Company, Aleksandr Baranov and the Russian American Company, Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company.

Bown opens his book with the story of the Dutch efforts in the early seventeenth century to push English and Portuguese traders out of the East Indies (Indonesia).  The central actor of this story is an employee of the Dutch East India Company and an experienced naval admiral, Pieter Verhoeven. The narrative of Verhoeven’s assault on the Moluccas is a good place for Bown to begin, because it brings together the themes of armed violence and commercial interest that are the core of his book. Verhoeven’s instructions from the board of directors of the Dutch East India Company were explicit:

We draw your special attention to the islands in which grow the cloves and nutmeg, and we instruct you to strive after winning them for the company either by treaty or by force. (10-11)

Bown draws out a story of global competition between nations and trading companies that illustrates the brutality and self-interestedness of colonialism throughout the three-century period he traces. And the chief victims of this violence are non-European peoples from Indonesia to Alaska to South Africa. What the book doesn’t provide is what is so evident in Brenner’s book — a detailed understanding of the political and organizational relationships that underlay these military and commercial adventures. 

Both books have something to add to our own efforts to understand big business in the twenty-first century. On the evidence offered here, business organizations — corporations and companies — have their own interests and agendas, and states have a great deal of difficulty in constraining them to the public good. This is obvious in the failures of large financial institutions to safeguard the interests of the public in 2008 — the harmful conduct of finance capital, but it was equally evident in the behavior of the Dutch East India Company or Brenner’s opening example, the Company of Merchant Adventurers. The hidden hand does not assure us that markets, commerce, and private interest will bring about the common good.

Marx’s relevance as a social scientist

What was Karl Marx’s enduring contribution to the social sciences?  Does he deserve the status of being one of the founders of sociology, along with Durkheim and Weber?  Did he put forward substantive hypotheses about the workings of the modern world that continue to illuminate our social world?  Is there anything important for sociologists, political scientists, or economists of the current generation to absorb from Marx as they construct their own hypotheses about social processes and organizations?

Below are the concluding paragraphs of my 1986 book, The Scientific Marx.  Here I tried to assess whether the theories and frameworks that Marx advanced in Capital and his other scientific writings were of continuing relevance today.  The question for me in 1986 was this: does Marx still have important scientific and theoretical insights into the structures, institutions, and behavior of modern capitalism?  And I came to a tentative conclusion: that Marx’s most important insights were about the institutions and mechanisms of capitalism (not a formal economic theory), and that these insights continue to have some validity and importance today.  Here is the conclusion:

Throughout this work I have examined the logical features of Marx’s social science, not its correctness as an analysis of capitalism. In discussing Marx’s use of empirical evidence, for example, I have not been concerned to discover whether the available evidence confirms or falsifies Marx’s account, but rather the logical question, namely, whether Marx uses evidence in such a way as to permit him to empirically evaluate his account. Thus my primary endeavor has been to examine Marx’s practice as a scientist and to determine whether his efforts at explanation, inquiry, and justification are reasonable ones within social science. It may be appropriate in closing, however, to offer a view of the status of Capital as a body of theory about a social and economic system that continues to dominate our lives in the West. Is Capital still capable of offering scientific insights into the nature of twentieth-century capitalism?

There is a sense in which Marx’s own views would make him suspicious of the claim that an investigation of the social relations of production of nineteenth-century capitalism should remain valid for the social system that emerges from that mode of production over a century later. For Marx is insistent on the historical specificity of the relations that define any mode of production. He raises this point in connection with cross-modal judgments of timelessness (for example, the idea that precapitalist modes of production must “really” have been based on bourgeois exchange relations). But the point is equally valid in application to the development of a single mode of production over time. To the extent that the social relations of production that define twentieth-century capitalism are significantly different from those that defined nineteenth-century capitalism, Marx’s analysis must be modified before it can offer relevant commentary on the present.

There are unmistakable differences between capitalist property relations in 1850 and in the mid-1980s. On the side of capital, at least these changes have occurred: the accelerated separation of ownership and management, the increasing role of finance and credit within capitalist enterprises, the creation of the modem multinational corporation as the basic unit of capital, and the increased involvement of the state in the affairs of capitalist enterprises. Changes have emerged on the side of labor power as well: increasing government regulation of work conditions, the shift from industrial to service employment, the creation of effective units of organized labor in all capitalist countries, the rise of mass-based socialist parties with proletarian support in Western Europe, and the emergence of much more extensive social welfare systems in all capitalist systems.  All these factors potentially may influence the dynamics of modem capitalism, and they all were of only minor importance in the economic structure Marx investigated.

At the same time there are substantial continuities between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century capitalism. (It is these continuities that justify our identification of the modern American or Western European economies as “capitalist.”) The fundamental requirements of capitalist property still exist, namely, the effective separation between a minority class that owns and controls the vast majority of all productive wealth and a majority class that possesses no productive wealth and is obliged to sell its labor power. Capitalism remains a system of class power and privilege — witness the uninterrupted power and influence of the minority class that owns and directs the productive wealth in each capitalist nation. Capitalism remains a system in which class power and privilege derive from ownership of wealth — witness the sharp inequalities of wealth and income that persist to the present day. Moreover capitalism continues to depend on the accumulation of capital, and it continues to reflect a deep conflict of interest between owners and workers in the productive process. Finally — in Marx’s technical meaning of the term — capitalism remains an exploitative system: The social surplus is still expropriated from the class of immediate producers by the class of owner of productive wealth.

Given these important similarities and differences between the property relations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism, it becomes a problem of continuing research — of the sort Marx provided so extensively in Capital — to determine whether the fundamental dynamic of contemporary capitalism should be predicted to resemble that of nineteenth-century capitalism. Only detailed empirical and theoretical analysis will permit us to determine whether the continuities are sufficiently fundamental to offset the alterations introduced by changes in the social relations of property and class. For we have seen that Marx’s arguments for the “laws of motion” of capitalism depend essentially on assumptions about the details of capitalist relations of production, and those relations have not remained fixed.

This finding suggests that the application of the findings of Capital to contemporary capitalism must be somewhat tentative; it is surely not possible to derive particular laws of motion of contemporary capitalism from Marx’s analysis alone. Rather, Marxist social scientists and political economists must provide the sort of detailed account of modem property relations and economic institutions that Marx provides for nineteenth-century relations and institutions. This is not to say that Marxist social science must begin de novo. The continuities between modern capitalism and nineteenth-century capitalism are crucial to understanding modem capitalist phenomena, and Marx’s analysis of those basic features of capitalism remains profoundly illuminating. But it is necessary to supplement, modify, and extend his account to draw particular conclusions about the course of modem capitalism.

Significantly, contemporary Marxist social science conforms to this view of the relevance of Capital today. Thus Marxist political economists have put forward detailed studies of modem capitalist relations of production–e.g. Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism and James O’Connor’s The Fiscal Crisis of the State. Other Marxist social scientists have offered analyses of particular post-capitalist modes of production — Rudolph Bahro’s The Alternative in Eastern Europe or Donald Hodges’s The Bureaucratization of Socialism, to name two. And Marxist political sociologists have refined and extended his treatment of class, property, and politics, for instance, Erik Olin Wright’s Class Crisis & the State and Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society. What these works have in common is not pious deference to Marx’s texts — in Capital or elsewhere. Rather, they are unified in being vigorous attempts, using extensive contemporary data, to offer theoretical accounts of modem social institutions within a framework of analysis that is greatly indebted to Marx’s treatment of capitalism. Contemporary Marxist social science is rooted in Marx’s insights, but it is not confined to his conclusions or to the particular features he singled out for fine-grained analysis. Thus Marx’s Capital established a research program for twentieth-century social science, and it is a program that has borne fine fruit indeed. 

So how does Marx hold up in the first decade of the twenty-first century?  And how does this assessment of my own, written almost twenty-five years ago, hold up as well?

Marx on Russia

In 1881 Marx wrote a letter to Vera Zasulich, an important Russian follower, that addresses the question of theory and prediction when it comes to thinking about the future course of history.  In particular, he denies that his theories have determinate predictive implications for the development of capitalism or socialism in Russia.  Here is a link to the letter, and below are a few paragraphs.

The issue is an important one: did Marx think of his body of knowledge as constituting a general predictive theory?  And the letter clearly implies that he did not.

The letter is interesting in several respects. First, it explicitly rejects the notion that Marx’s economic and historical theories are suited to the task of identifying the necessary or inevitable course of historical development. It summarily dismisses the idea of a necessary sequence of modes of production. Instead, Marx shows himself to recognize the contingency that exists in historical development, as well as the degree to which history creates new conditions in its course that influence future developments.

The other important feature of the letter is its substantive analysis of the material characteristics of the Russian peasant commune, and the potential that this social form has for constituting the material core of an alternative route to socialism in Russia.  As the letter makes clear, Marx thinks that the social relations associated with the peasant commune provide a possible social foundation for a modern socialist economy; and this would be an economy that was not “post-capitalist” but nonetheless technologically and socially advanced.

In a way Marx’s argument anticipates the theory of “late developers” — for example, Gerschenkron’s Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective.  Marx argues that a socialism in Russia was possible through an alternative pathway.  A version of socialism in Russia based on the “archaic” commune can take advantage of the developments in technology and social organization created by advanced capitalism.  It is not necessary for Russian society to go throughout the several-centuries long process of agricultural and technological modernization that England underwent; rather, Russia can simply adopt the modern technologies now available.

The interest of this letter is not to be found in the historical predictions it makes, but rather in the example it offers of the way that Marx’s mind worked.  The reasoning here represents a good example of Marx’s materialist approach to history.  He wants to arrive at a fairly detailed level of understanding of the social and economic relations — the property relations — that constituted a historical form of the rural commune.  And he then seeks to provide an analysis of the way in which those relations might be expected to develop under a specific set of historical circumstances.  And key within this analysis is the workings of the specific form of property that corresponded to this social system — the social relations of production.

I suppose the letter illustrates something else as well: Marx’s interest at the end of his life in finding an alternative pathway to socialism.  The revolutions of 1848 were long in the past, and a proletarian revolution had not ensued.  The Paris Commune had been decisively and violently repressed in 1871.  Working-class militancy was not propitious in the advanced capitalist countries — France, Germany, or Britain.  So the prospects of revolution in the advanced capitalist world were not encouraging to Marx.  And so finding some hope for an alternative process of social development through which the ends of socialism might be achieved was an appealing prospect for Marx.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the letter, which is worth reading in full:

1) In dealing with the genesis of capitalist production I stated that it is founded on “the complete separation of the producer from the means of production” (p. 315, column 1, French edition of Capital) and that “the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the agricultural producer. To date this has not been accomplished in a radical fashion anywhere except in England… But all the other countries of Western Europe are undergoing the same process” (1.c., column II).

I thus expressly limited the “historical inevitability” of this process to the countries of Western Europe. And why? Be so kind as to compare Chapter XXXII, where it says:

The “process of elimination transforming individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, this painful and fearful expropriation of the working people, forms the origin, the genesis of capital… Private property, based on personal labour … will be supplanted by capitalist private property, based on the exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour” (p. 341, column II).

Thus, in the final analysis, it is a question of the transformation of one form of private property into another form of private property. Since the land in the hands of the Russian peasants has never been their private property, how could this development be applicable?

2) From the historical point of view the only serious argument put forward in favour of the fatal dissolution of the Russian peasants’ commune is this: By going back a long way communal property of a more or less archaic type may be found throughout Western Europe; everywhere it has disappeared with increasing social progress. Why should it be able to escape the same fate in Russia alone? I reply: because in Russia, thanks to a unique combination of circumstances, the rural commune, still established on a nationwide scale, may gradually detach itself from its primitive features and develop directly as an element of collective production on a nationwide scale. It is precisely thanks to its contemporaneity with capitalist production that it may appropriate the latter’s positive acquisitions without experiencing all its frightful misfortunes. Russia does not live in isolation from the modern world; neither is it the prey of a foreign invader like the East Indies.

And here is an important summary statement:

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

There is a major irony in rereading Marx’s analysis of the emancipatory possibilities inherent in the social form of the “peasant commune” in Russia.  Most striking is the experience of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the 1920s and Stalin’s war on the kulaks.  Rather than representing a bright new future for the peasants, collectivization represented a cruel war by starvation against rural society (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one (Annals of Communism Series) (v. 1)).

It is also also interesting to recall that one of the disputes among the Bolsheviks within Soviet leadership in the 1920s and 1930s was the issue of cooperatives in agriculture.  A. V. Chayanov advocated for a more democratic route to Soviet socialism, through the mechanism of locally established rural cooperatives (link).  His reasoning had quite a bit in common with Marx’s analysis in this letter to Vera Zasulich; and, of course, it led to his persecution and execution in 1937.

Public health estimates in Marx’s Capital

Long stretches of Marx’s Capital take the form of an effort at developing and defending an economic model of capitalism, based on the theories of value and surplus value.  But there are also recurring efforts at providing a descriptive sociology of capitalism: the forms of day-to-day life that British economic relations imposed upon the working class.  This dimension of the book is descriptive and detailed; it has much in common with Engels’s approach in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Marx was very interested in these descriptive investigations — Dr. Simon, Dr. Julian Hunter, Mr. Smith, Dr. Bell, and the inquiries and Acts of Parliament in the 1860s that shed light on the depth of English poverty.  The index for Capital includes a section, “Parliamentary Reports and Other Official Publications,” which includes references to over a hundred reports on factories, poverty, nutrition, and health.  These range from a Report of Select Committee, London, 1855, on “Adulteration of Bread”, to “Reports of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council on Public Health” (1861-66).  And these reports constitute the core of empirical evidence that Marx brings to bear for his economic assertions throughout the work.  In fact, we might describe some parts of Capital as a sort of “meta-study” of current investigations of the public health status of England’s cities.

This interest is particularly evident late in Capital where Marx turns to the topic of “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.”  Consider one fairly detailed section, “The Badly Paid Strata of the British Industrial Class” (link).  Here Marx is offering the best information available, at the household level, concerning the standard of living of this stratum of the British working class.   Consider this passage:

During the cotton famine of 1862, Dr. Smith was charged by the Privy Council with an inquiry into the conditions of nourishment of the distressed operatives in Lancashire and Cheshire. His observations during many preceding years had led him to the conclusion that “to avert starvation diseases,” the daily food of an average woman ought to contain at least 3,900 grains of carbon with 180 grains of nitrogen; the daily food of an average man, at least 4,300 grains of carbon with 200 grains of nitrogen; for women, about the same quantity of nutritive elements as are contained in 2 lbs. of good wheaten bread, for men 1/9 more; for the weekly average of adult men and women, at least 28,600 grains of carbon and 1,330 grains of nitrogen. His calculation was practically confirmed in a surprising manner by its agreement with the miserable quantity of nourishment to which want had forced down the consumption of the cotton operatives. This was, in December, 1862, 29,211 grains of carbon, and 1,295 grains of nitrogen weekly.

Marx then quotes a Privy Council inquiry in 1863, which finds that

“in only one of the examined classes of in-door operatives did the average nitrogen-supply just exceed, while in another it nearly reached, the estimated standard of bare sufficiency [i.e., sufficient to avert starvation diseases], and that in two classes there was defect — in one, a very large defect — of both nitrogen and carbon. Moreover, as regards the examined families of the agricultural population, it appeared that more than a fifth were with less than the estimated sufficiency of carbonaceous food, that more than one-third were with less than the estimated sufficiency of nitrogenous food, and that in three counties (Berkshire, Oxfordshire, and Somersetshire), insufficiency of nitrogenous food was the average local diet.”

In other words, the Privy Council finds that important segments of the English working class were undernourished by the prevailing scientific standard of the day.  This official report is fundamentally damning of the current economic system; it led to conditions of near-starvation for its workers.

Marx goes on to describe other components of the standard of living — housing, crowding, sanitation, and clothing, for which the working class are seriously deprived.  And in each case he believes that independent, disinterested observers have documented the conditions of misery in which the working class lived in England in the 1860s.
Consider another interesting example, Marx’s use of the Select Committee’s report on the adulteration of bread.  This occurs in an extended footnote in Chapter VI, “The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power.”

In London there are two sorts of bakers, the “full priced,” who sell bread at its full value, and the “undersellers,” who sell it under its value.  The latter class comprises more than three-fourths of the total number of bakers….  The undersellers, almost without exception, sell bread adulterated with alum, soap, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stonedust, and such like agreeable nourishing and wholesome ingredients. (note 3) 

Marx goes on to describe in a little bit of detail the specific timing of the payment of wages, demonstrating the economic coercion that leads workers to agree to buy this adulterated bread.  
Or we might notice that Marx’s index refers to a series of Parliamentary reports on child labor, and then consider the use that Marx makes of these reports.  Here is one example of his use of the child labor reports in the chapter on “The Working-Day”:

The potteries of Staffordshire have, during the last 22 years, been the subject of three parliamentary inquiries….  For my purpose it is enough to take, from the reports of 1860 and 1863, some depositions of the exploited children themselves.  … William Wood, 9 years old, was 7 years and 10 months when he began to work.  He “ran moulds” (carried ready-moulded articles into the drying-room, afterwards bringing back the empty mould) from the beginning.  He came to work every day in the week at 6 a.m., and left off about 9 p.m. “I work till 9 o’clock at night six days in the week.” (Capital I, chap 7, sect. 3)

What is of special interest in these passages is the way that Marx’s mind seems to have worked on these questions.  He was genuinely interested, it would seem, in the concrete details of the conditions of the English working class; and he was fortunate that there was something of an explosion of official and non-official interest in the same set of questions, including especially Parliamentary Blue Books.  These inquiries fall in the category of what we would today call the field of public health, and Marx was plainly an avid reader of the reports that resulted from these investigations.
It is not accident that brings Marx’s detailed discussion of the nutritional status of the industrial poor into Part VII of Capital, “Accumulation.”  It is Marx’s view that the production of surplus value, and the accumulation  of wealth that it enables, is directly related to the production of the poverty of the worker.  So the circumstances that Marx describes in this section do not constitute simply an unfortunate current reality; they are the apotheosis of a system of production that was working well.