Economic Update: The Contributions of Karl Marx (Part IV)

Economic Update: The Contributions of Karl Marx (Part IV)

Welcome to part 4 of this four-part
series on the work and contribution of Karl Marx. I won’t repeat what we have
said at the beginning of the other segments, because you’ve heard it already,
and you know it anyway, we studied Karl Marx here, we summarized his work because
of the insights it offers us, ways for us to solve problems we face today this is
not about agreeing or disagreeing with what Marx is saying, it has to do with
finding out if there’s something important that we can learn. In this
fourth and final segment, I want to talk about what Marx gestures toward, as a way
to get out of the dilemmas of capitalism, to overcome the obstacles built into
capitalism that prevent us from achieving the liberty, equality,
fraternity, and democracy that we, like Marx and many others, have been committed
to for all of our lives. Before I jump into it, I want to make sure I’m clear
here, Marx never wrote a word, and certainly not an extended examination of
what a future society might look like, what a post capitalism might look like.
He didn’t believe in that kind of future gazing, he didn’t think it was serious,
he didn’t think anybody could know how the world was going to evolve in the
future; so he pointed a only in the gestural sense, that is, he gave some
ideas of what might have to happen, if we were gonna get beyond the capitalism. But
he didn’t offer blueprints, he didn’t offer complete images of what such a
society would look like, as I say, he didn’t believe in that being a useful
exercise; and in particular Marx never suggested, contrary to what so many have
said, that the state, the government had to play some sort of central role
in what this future post capitalism would look like. Later Marxists
interpreted him to have suggested that, but it’s hard to find in Marx any idea
like that, never wrote a book about the state, never wrote an article about the
state, just didn’t do it, because it wasn’t the center of his view; and I say
that to challenge those of you who may still believe that there’s something
intrinsically statist, or focused on the state in what Karl Marx did. So then what
is Marx’s basic idea: well, in a sense, the three segments we’ve already exposed in
this program answer that question. For Marx, the key thing is the
relationship between people, among people in production: the relationship of master-slave, Lord-serf, employer-employee. In each one of those, a minority of people
make all the key production decisions: masters, Lords, employers. They decide what
gets produced, how it gets produced, where it gets produced, and what is done with
the surplus from those workers who produce the surplus. So for Marx if you
want liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy, the place it has to begin is
in production, in the enterprise, in the place where work gets done: the office,
the factory, the store, the home, wherever work gets done; and his idea is simple. No
more dichotomy between a few at the top, who make the decisions, and everybody
else; no more the mass of people produce a surplus that flows into the hands of a
small minority. That’s got to stop. In its place, Marx advocates points
toward a different economic system, one in which the workplace becomes
fundamentally egalitarian and democratic. What does that mean? It means that the
decisions of the workplace: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce,
and what to do with the surplus, is made by everyone together, one-person, one-vote,
a democratic decision making life at the job for all adults. After all, that’s
where most adults spend most of their adult lives: at work. If you believe in
democracy, Marx would have said well then, it has to start where you spend most of
your time, which is at work. So what is the solution he says: a transformation of
the workplace from the top-down, dichotomized, hierarchical employer at
the top, massive employees at the bottom, transform that into a democratic
institution, where everyone has an equal say on what is happening at work. Now let
me point out to you that what Marx is advocating for the economy, is precisely
what, for example, Americans and many Europeans and others in the world,
advocate for their political life. After all, we got rid of kings, and czars, and
emperors, and all of that, on the grounds that that was a tiny group of people
making decisions for all of us. In the United States, we made a revolution
against George the 3rd in England, because he said he could control what
happened here, and we said no, we want to control. And how do we want to do it? One
person, one vote in a democratic system. Took a long time to make all persons get
this right, but you could see where we were going from the beginning. The
democratization of politics has been a mantra, has been a slogan,
has been a goal for a long time. Marx asks the question: why only the
democratization of politics? Why not the democratization of the
economy? The same logic would apply, and I would go even further, having learned
this from Marx, I don’t believe you can have a genuine political democracy,
unless it is grounded on an economic democracy. If you allow capitalism to
make a few people rich, and the mass of people not, you can bet your bottom
dollar that the few rich will use their wealth to corrupt the political system,
to destroy the Democratic reality of it, and make it a contest between
billionaires buying maximum time on TV to get the votes. You don’t need me to
explain that to you, you’re living it every day. So Marx’s argument is: change
the economy. Now let me tell you what this implies, because it may not be
immediately obvious: one of the implications of Marx’s gesturing towards
a different way of organizing the workplace, a democratic way, one of the
arguments that flows out of it is, that it will never be enough for the state to
replace private entrepreneurs, or private employers. If all the state does is get
rid of the private people who are the employers, and replace them
with government officials who are the employers, we haven’t gotten rid of the
employer versus employee division. We have then what Marx would have called
state capitalism, rather than private capitalism, but it’s all capitalism, which
means it will operate in a similar way. Therefore, what the
Soviet Union did, what China did, what Cuba did, whatever the pros and cons of
replacing private capitalism with state capitalism might be, going beyond
capitalism they did not achieve, because that requires, if you’re gonna be taking
the lesson from Marx, transforming the workplace, so it isn’t an
employer-employee relationship. That has to be understood, because it’s the
logical outgrowth of everything Marx tried to understand and to achieve. Is
the question of realizing Marx’s dream, Marx’s solution, Marx’s idea of how to
actually get, excuse me, to liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy, is
that just a utopian dream? My answer is not at all.
Marx was aware, as we are now, that human beings have understood this more or less,
for thousands of years. Yes, Marx is the formal statement of it,
he’s worked it out a bit further, he’s a modern, relatively modern exponent of
this idea; but the idea itself is very old. One of the ways it’s been embodied,
is in something we call worker-coops, where workers cooperatively run a
business. That’s as old as Methuselah. Early American history is full of
examples of worker-coops, workers in farms, in stores, in little craft
enterprises, getting together as groups of people, democratically, an egalitarian
wayn everybody gets the same wagen or roughly the same, everybody has one vote
in deciding everything the business does. There are examples all over the United
States. Today Spain has a famous example in the Mondragon corporation. Emilia
Romagna in Italy is a place where roughly 40% of
businesses are run as a worker coops, etc etc. So yes, Marx makes a breakthrough,
Marx teaches it in a systematic theoretically sophisticated way, but he
is recouping for us the history of many efforts, over many years, in virtually all
cultures to move in that direction, to see that as the way to realize the goals
for a just economic system. What’s the conclusion one can draw from all of this?
Marx was a critic. Marx said that capitalism is not the end of human
history, it’s just the latest phase. Marx reminds us, and he does it with a grin,
that the proponents and the celebrants of capitalism have often made the same
mistake as the proponents and celebrants of slavery and feudalism before them.
They imagined, with wishful thinking, that their system was the end of history, that
their system was the good as good as it gets, that you couldn’t do better than
what they had done. Every single one of those people over the last 5000 years, if
not longer of recorded history, has been proven wrong. That means that the people
who tell you today that we can’t do better than capitalism, that capitalism
is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it’s the end of history,
it’s the ultimate, there’s no more reason to believe that sort of argument today,
then there is reason to do anything but smile at the people who believe that
about feudalism, slavery, and everything else. It’s really the point of view of
people who are either afraid of or dead set against, progressive social change;
and that’s not Marx, that’s what he was about, and he felt that the capitalist
system had demonstrated enough for him by the 1850s, to know that we can, we need
to, we must do better; and as one who has learned from Marx, as I have learned from
all kinds of other thinkers, I have to say that the last hundred and fifty
years since he left the scene, has not made many of us one whit less impressed
by how much he understood, what incites he had to offer; and as an American, which
I am, and I’m glad I am, I am profoundly grateful on the one hand, that I can
explain all of this, and I can say it to you. But my pride in being able to do
that, is coupled with a shame that for the last seventy years, it has been in
the main, almost impossible in this society to get people to understand the
simple truth: that you have to listen and pay attention to the critic, as well as
to those who love the system, if you’re ever gonna get a balanced understanding
of the sort you need to do better. The best part of many of us is that
commitment to do better, and that alone is a reason to celebrate the 200th
anniversary of one of the greatest critical thinkers of the economic system
we live with. I want to thank you for staying with us through these four
segments. It was a pleasure to produce them. I hope it was interesting for you
to listen to them, and once again I want to invite you to join the patreon
community that supports all of this kind of work; and you can easily do that by
going to and following us, and supporting us in that way; and likewise through
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on our two websites. You can also follow what we
do the two websites are rdwolff with two Fs dot com and Thank you very much for your attention.

12 thoughts on “Economic Update: The Contributions of Karl Marx (Part IV)

  1. What absurdity. Marx assumes that every slug on the assembly line has the wisdom…the intelligence to influence what is produced. That would not even work on a farm.

  2. Clear stated ideas – I am privileged to stubble across – ideas presented in this forum. Thank You –

    My Neighbors fly Trump Flags juxtaposed to American and their confederate Flags.

    Many flagpoles line the main road through town, Celebrating a fictional creation of white American. My neighbors are satisfied with their success in our society. And, hope to maintain the isolation that separates them from the Americans of diverse cultural backgrounds and beliefs.

    Many here would not like what you have said in this series.

  3. What professor Wolffe is implying that the Marxists interpreted Marx's works as implying a state economy is partially wrong (as he have stated before too). Although some have indeed done that, most Marxists subscribe to social ownership as in the form of workers councils (essentially worker cooperatives with political power). The thing is that Marxists advocate the nationalisation of industries as a means of the proletariat to be able to seize the means of production, in a case of civil war f.e., as well as the creation of socialism in a sometimes necessary transitional period between socialism and capitalism, such as the NEP.

  4. Creating a genuinely democratic economic structure would certainly buy us some time, but that's really all.

    In the end, someone, somewhere, will decide to subvert the system once people get complacent. And they'll absolutely get complacent, probably rapidly. It's inevitable…a biological obligation. Absolutely nothing can be done about it, short of drugs, genetic engineering, or mandatory brain surgery. It cannot be overcome with any amount of education or cultural change. Period.

    Once it happens, those few clever, unscrupulous individuals will once again plant the seeds of greed and fear in the most intellectually inept members of society, and convince them all to vote against everyone's best interests…and we'll just be back where we are now…if not worse. That's not to say that buying ourselves some extra time wouldn't be helpful…it certainly would. It's possible, if we can stretch it long enough, that we can develop the technologies required to divest ourselves of our evolutionary failings once and for all. Modify our genetics sufficiently to correct the defects in our inborn behaviors that cause these problems.

    But ultimately, that's the only way out. Homo sapiens simply cannot "will" themselves to stop doing what they do. Anyone who claims otherwise, is a liar, or an idiot. Minds do not exist. There is only the emergent properties of the brain's functions, and nothing more…and without the brain, or if it is damaged, then there is no emergent property any longer.

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