Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Analogizing the Marxist concerns over capitalism

A portrait of Karl Marx.
Not the boogeyman. A portrait of Karl Marx. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is often the case that when people wish to criticize something, those who are invested in what is being criticized will attack not only the critique itself but seek to discredit the critic. Thus it becomes difficult to make any criticism without being associated with the disparaged critic and her arguments, the latter of which are often distorted beyond recognition. This has become standard in the shallow and commercialized rhetoric formed from an image-obsessed "spin-to-win" political culture.

Few people in the United States are likely to have had any serious exposure, for example, to the original ideas put forth by Karl Marx. Because of the fear of the Capitalists (which does not refer here to someone who simply endorses a Capitalistic system of political economics but rather to those who own the lion's share of the capital in such a system) of reforms or revolutions which might infringe upon their privileged access to wealth and because of several decades of a Cold War with nations who claimed to be Socialist and Communist, any mention of Marx, Marxism, Socialism, or even a strong critique of contemporary Capitalism still tend to be met by Americans (at least those in los Estados Unidos de America) with reactions ranging from shameful discomfort to paranoid unease to unapologetic loathing and mockery.

This reaction is recognizable to those who wish to discuss Darwin or evolution in the presence of those who are committed Young Earth Creationists or to talk about God or religion around the smugly derisive irreligious. And one wouldn't be surprised to find those displaying such a reaction to Marx believing that Marx was a fan of "big government" who "hates success" and despises everything about Capitalism as well as liberty. Which would only support the suspicion that such dismissive knee-jerk reactions tend to be based on profound ignorance of the idea or belief at hand, replying instead on the ugly caricatures of those who despise or dread what is being proposed or discussed.

This isn't an insult to those who have such a reaction to "Marx" or "Marxism", as many were simply raised in a cultural and political environment which has vilified the words themselves and stigmatized anyone associated with them. It is reasonable to fear being stigmatized. While it isn't ones fault for having such trepidation about such words, it is still one's choice and responsibility as to whether one will give any hearing at all to any notion associated with Marxism and judge them independently of such vilification and negative association. That is, to give such notion's a fair hearing.

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

In fact, Marx was not particularly fond of the way the governments of his time wielded power, he was very passionate about the liberty and dignity of individuals (fearing these were being undermined by the politically endorsed economic systems of his day), he expressed a desire for all to have opportunities for meaningful and gainful labor, and he wrote at length of the virtues of Capitalism. The point here isn't whether people should like or agree with everything Marx wrote, especially considering that some of his criticisms were specific to his own perspective at a particular place in history. I sincerely doubt any Marxist agree with Marx on everything.

Rather, the point is that Americans must move past the stereotypes to look at the critiques that have grown from the writing of Marx and like-minded individuals concerned about the deficiencies in Capitalism in order to see what they may have to offer us today as we grapple with widening wealth disparity, financial systems exploiting the poor, working class, and middle class for their own gains, and an increasingly dysfunctional political system that is increasingly dependent upon and beholden to the donations and influence of global corporations, large-scale special interest funding (however noble the causes might be), and the economic super-elite who can write half million dollar checks for political campaigns as easily as a regular citizens might donate donate twenty five or fifty dollar. (Of course, fewer and fewer regular Americans can spend even that much on something like political campaigns these days.)

To move past such roadblocks, it is helpful to realize that all political economic systems seek to impose their will on the political bodies which govern a society. Capitalism is no different in this regard, with its motive to increase the profits of private industry accompanied by legislation and governance seeking to de-regulate production and commerce while privatizing as much of the economy as possible. It pursues its motive to expand and protect the assets of the wealthy through legislation to make it easier for the rich to avoid taxation. Proponents of such legislation do not apologize for using government to accomplish their ends, and in fact suggest that those who are not rich or in the economic elite will also benefit economically from these same policies. Critics argue that while notions such a a flat tax, which has been renamed as a fair tax, do sound intuitively "fair" and equitable, it disproportionately benefits the wealthiest citizens while disproportionately penalizing the poorest.

On the other hand, Socialism moves in the opposite direction while also seeking to realize its goals through political structures, attempting to narrow the wealth disparity inherently created by Capitalism and to offer basic protections and corrections to this imbalance by having governments provide necessities such adequate education, housing, food, and health care as the right of every citizen rather than privileges for those who can afford them. It seeks to regulate commerce and industry in ways that make them safe, sustainable, and suitable for the needs of the citizens over the desire for corporate profit. Proponents of such legislation claim that this will increase domestic tranquility and promote active political participation by more citizens as well as helping everyone financially by minimizing the boom and bust cycles that occur when too much capital accumulates in too narrow a place in the economy (creating large pools of debt elsewhere and encouraging reckless and unsustainable speculation and investment). Critics claim the cost for such a system in terms of productivity is too high and that it is simply better to crank up the engine of economy and let the benefits trickle down from the wealthy and the major corporations to the rest of society.

Three analogies

Whether one favors one of these approaches to the other both systems rely on government intervention and subsidies to support their economic vision, even while making claims of "getting government out of the way of business". The Capitalist approach appears to require at least as much government support for implementing and maintaining its policies as its rival paradigms (see the response to the Occupy protests as a recent example). The question then becomes what each economic system represents, who it is working for, and which drawbacks is one willing to put up with to achieve the gains one seeks.

To simplify things a bit here I offer three analogies for consideration. By all means, feel free to go out and read up on these subjects and get a more informed perspective. But these analogies are helpful to make the complex and detailed subjects involve less intimidating and therefore more approachable and amenable to everyday discussion and debate. Like all simplifications and analogies they are flawed and limited, so one has to choose whether or not to try to understand them in good faith.

The economic engine analogy

Imagine there is a massive engine that burns hot the more fuel you use. For example, by increasing gasoline intake and air flow combustion rapidly increases in an automobile engine. The energy produced by this massive engine can be used for all kinds of amazing things. When you crank up the engine, the more energy you can draw from it.

However, there are drawbacks. For one thing, people must work in or near the engine to operate and maintain it. The hotter the engine becomes, the more likely these people will be injured or even killed in their labor. Many of these people lack the skills and the means to simply refuse to work in or near the engine.

Another concern is that the fuel supply to which the engine has been built and adapted is limited. The more the engine is cranked up, the faster this fuel supply is depleted. This corresponds to another aspect of the engine, which is that the hotter it runs beyond a certain point, the less efficient it becomes and more of its output is wasted. Moreover, the engine leaks fuel and puts out polluting exhaust, even more so when it is going at faster speeds. The fuel leaks are dangerous because of the threat of fire or even an explosion that could destroy the engine, while the exhaust sickens those within the engine and without.

The engine is effectively owned and controlled by a small number of people who determine how it is run. Many if not most of these people have never worked on the close margins, let alone deep within the engine and therefore are generally well-protected from all but the most noisy and violent of its sputtering. Between them and the outer parts of the engine are another group which benefits very much from the engine but not anywhere close to as well as those who own the engine. This in between group also is more likely to be harmed by fallout from minor and mid-level engine flare-ups.

Those who are closest to the engine and endure the most immediate risks to their health generally benefit the least from its output, while those safest from its dangers tend to benefit the most. The latter, being relatively shielded from the fallout of the engine's use while benefiting enormously from its productivity, are more likely to want the engine to run as hot as possible while keeping control of the engine and its power for themselves. This means more people will have to work to build and then work within a larger and more powerful engine.

The engine here is analogous to the private-industry model favored by Capitalism working on a national or global level. And looking at how the engine works, one might favor some of modifications or additions to the engine and how it is operated to make it safer, more sustainable, and more efficient.

For example, one might desire protective shielding built into the engine as well as protective clothing for the workers closest to the heat and exhaust. This would be the equivalent of workers' rights, fair labor laws, safe practice and workplace laws, wage laws, and the like.

One might wish to refit the engine to run on more sustainable fuels (this is would include transitioning away from fossil fuels), to repair the leaks where fuel is being lost (this refers to fighting corruption, graft, and the practice of cutting corners in the name of profit and efficiency), and to better filter the exhaust that is being omitted (this involves literally limiting or eliminating industrial pollution and carbon emissions but also examining the social and cultural damage done by the "greed is good" mentality).

One might also want to add or modify flow controls for input and output to make sure that the engine runs at a safe speed and that it runs smoothly with fewer flare-ups and sputtering. This would involve removing control of the engine from a small group and distributing control more broadly, which in practical terms involves anti-monopoly and "trust-busting" efforts or putting key industries under public rather than private responsibility.

And the idea of trying to limit or correct the dangers and damage of this engine is what is classically known as Socialism. All of the ideas mentioned under these modifications to the functioning of the engine are directly or indirectly connected to socialist views and policies. Unlike Communism, which seeks to replaced the engine altogether, Socialism seeks to regulate the engine to make it safer. There are many forms of Socialist thought, some of which verge on or even anticipate Communism, but the more popular forms found in places like western Europe do not. These forms primarily want to make sure the engine is as harmless as possible while remaining efficient and that it benefits as many people as possible, especially those who are most at risk from its operation.

It is interesting to see what happened and what is happening as this engine has become more globalized, with the aforementioned social democracies in Europe moving more toward a Capitalist model, especially in the areas of finance and with purportedly "Communist" nations such as China embracing limited aspects of this emerging global engine. Ironically Marxism had been aimed at prosperous and productive Capitalist nations, with the adoption of this economic political system by a then economically poor and productively under-developed Chinese society, leading to disastrous results early on. As China thrives economically, what is becoming of its understanding and application of Marxist principles?

In the industrialized West, it was the move to balance Capitalism with Socialism that helped forestall massive revolutions in the early part of the last century. Ironically, socializing movements and programs such as the rise of labor unions and the New Deal(s) which helped to stabilize the economy in the United States and allowed for the rise of what became known as the middle class. In other words, the best way to keep people in the US and similar countries from seriously challenging and threatening to reject the dominant form of Western Capitalism. Those who want to keep control of the engine for themselves would be better off conceding on modestly higher tax rates for themselves and programs such as public health care for all and forgiveness or forbearance on debts such as mortgages and student loans.

The ugly side of the expansion of Capitalism in the latter half of that century had been kept from the view of the wealthy nations of the West, hidden in the atrocities and tragedies of the peripheral nations (i.e. the Third World) under the regimes which insured cheap, unprotected labor. Now that the global engine is growing and running hotter and faster, more people in these more prosperous nations are feeling the heat.

What will happen to this engine and its masters? Interestingly enough, Marx and others were speculating about similar scenarios over one hundred years ago. They may have been right, they may have been wrong, but doesn't that make you curious how they saw this playing out?

The economic see-saw analogy

I tend to use this analogy for other types of inequality (racial, gender-based, and the like) but it works to make a point about wealth disparity as well. Those who benefit from a system, whether or not it is a fair system is another question, look at those who aren't doing as well and talk about ways of raising those people up.

That is generous and useful to a certain extent, however, at a certain point it becomes not only impractical but counter-productive. Why? Because some forms of inequality arise because some are benefiting from the losses of others. In other words, for some to rise, others must fall. In this kind of system, there is no free lunch, so gains for one person are balanced by losses to others.

Thus the analogy of the see-saw: If you are "up", the person on the other side by necessity must be "down". This means that for some types of inequality in order for others to do better those who are especially successful must be willing to share, to give up some of their advantage and privilege.

This does not mean that one must strive for total and consistent economic parity among all people. It does mean that some will have to be satisfied with doing very well rather than extremely well. This flies in the face of the "bigger, better, more" consumer culture that has taken root in many Western societies and especially in the United States, which idolizes and prioritizes "having it all" and "having it now". Yet once one has enough money to live comfortable, the main value of additional wealth for conspicuous consumption is rooted in the ideal of being wealthy and its social status enhancement rather than the actual direct enjoyment of having a giant home several times larger than you need (or two or twelve such houses).

The sinking ship analogy

But is it really a see-saw system? Isn't it possible for everyone to make it big and live large?

Capitalism is rooted in an operating logic in which there are a few winners and many losers in the economic competition. Even when everyone plays by the same rules (the wealthy and powerful don't really play by the same rules as everyone else, and neither do the poor) and are on a level playing field (it isn't level), with adequate efforts made to ensure that everyone begins at the same starting point (they don't), the game is still about producing inequality. It is just inherent in the system.

The effects of a socialist influence (trying to get everyone to play by the same rules on a level playing field after starting on equal footing) might ameliorate some degree of imbalance, but it doesn't eliminate it. A stronger form of socialist action instead adopts these goals and adds to it a limit to the degree of inequality that is possible. In other words, some can win and some can lose, some can wealthier and some can be poorer, but there are limits to the degree of disparity between winners and losers. The strongest form of socialist imposition is to ensure equality of outcome, which is the basis of a Communist system in which everyone (ideally, anyway) has the same reward despite their occupation, rank, seniority, and so on.

This last kind of action is believed to lead to the free-rider problem (Wikipedia article). At the other end is the despair of hopelessness that comes from thinking that there will be no benefit or improvement no matter how hard one works. A little distance away from the despair of hopelessness is the anger of injustice, wherein one feels that one could succeed but that the system is rigged or biased against them (hence the move towards policies for level playing fields, the same rules applied equally and fairly to all, and so on). The question then becomes where on this spectrum societies should strive to be. How much and what kind of economic inequality is useful? Tolerable?

But it is more complex than that, because it only looks at a single society. Yet we have a global economy. And following the same pattern and logic as already described, citizens in some nations prosper at the expense of citizens in other nations. So trying to simply raise the standard of living in one nation will simply shift a greater burden onto other nations. And when a particular nation is obsessed with obscene levels of conspicuous consumption as a model for a standard of living, the burden is much heavier. It even begins to cannibalize the welfare of its own citizens in the pursuit of such aspirations.

Now imagine such a nation exporting such aspects of its lifestyle aspirations to rest of the world. It simply isn't sustainable on an economic, ecological, or just plain human level. It's a kind of global pyramid or Ponzi scheme gone viral. And of course those who are benefiting from it the most are going to deny how harmful or unsustainable such a system is and attack the credibility of anyone asking about such potential flaws and the disasters they explain and predict. Such as, say, those using a Marxist critique or those using other forms of criticism of the current global economic system.

The analogy for this is a ship where a few people have become heavier and heavier. In order to keep the ship from capsizing, the majority of the people are sent to the other end of the ship, helping to raise the heavy folk higher. In doing so, most people are living on the low end of the ship nearest the water. And as the heavier people become heavier, the more others have to join those on the low end to try to keep things balanced. But even with all of this, the extra weight is still causing the ship to sink lower, with the low end being flooded first.

Clearly, suggesting that the solution is for everyone to get heavier is absurd. The ship can't take it. There will have to be another way to balance the ship and to keep it afloat. The solution doesn't require making sure everyone weighs the same, only that the extremes must be avoided.

Looking Ahead

To re-iterate, the point here is not to directly advocate or defend Marxist thought or socialist principles or to covert anyone into adopting such stances. If people find these analogies a compelling form of advocacy and pursue such ideas further so be it. Rather the point is to help overcome the reflexive demagoguery that prevents people from seriously understanding let alone actually considering common concerns and criticisms of the global Capitalist economic system or changes that could be made to repair or refine that system to make it more safe, beneficial, and sustainable. The analogies are intended to make these concerns and solutions of the light and moderate forms of socialism more accessible and sensible.

Having a better appreciation of them, one can still deny the problems or reject the proposed solutions, but at least this is done in an informed, conscious, and intentional way. And of course, there will be those who reject repairing and refining the current economic engine in favor of replacing it with something else, such as the heavier forms of Socialism and Communism propose. But the stakes are too substantial to not have honest, educated, and mature debates and disagreements over these issues. The engine is sputtering and the ship is listing. Do we crank up the engine and blow the safeties, do we redesign the engine, or do we abandon ship? All of these choices are currently on the table. Staying the course is the only real non-option.

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  1. Excellent contributions Dave. It's getting so bad we going to be nostalgic about good old capitalism which has been replaced with corporate feudalism. I Wish Obama was socializing medicine!

  2. Very well written and interesting. I assume Dave wrote this? Perhaps there ought to be a byline for guest posts?

  3. he's not a guest. I don't know what name he wants to use but he's a full partner in the blog.

  4. And yet Kristen so many people in the United States would take one look at the title of the post and the photograph of Marx and immediately become hostile and closed-minded. The possibility that a significant degree of socialism required for capitalism to not eat itself, democratic forms of government, the poor, and the ecosystem, which is born out by over a century of historical evidence, is rejected outright as a form of anti-American devilry. Most of the GOP as it stands today would go apoplectic at notion. And so the notion of moderation, using institutions to ensure fairness and justice and care for all, has to be framed in language and symbols with which they claim to identify. Despite the historical animosity between Marxism and state-sanctioned organized religion, Christians and Marxists have a lot to discuss.

  5. Dave, you're right. Most people need to have new ideas framed in terms they are already familiar with. My own experience is that reading the Bible without the conservative glasses on made me see that it didn't support libertarian conservatism the way they claimed. I find, however, that for those who are already convinced, even quoting the Bible to them results, not in their listening, but in their questioning my commitment to Christ. It's sad.