Home > political-economy > Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State: Some comments

Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State: Some comments

The Scream, Edvard Munch

I was somewhat surprised to see an interest in the theories of Karl Marx among at least a small section of libertarians, in the form of two recent articles, Brad Warbiany’s “Marxism And Libertarian Exploitation Theory” and Michael O. Powell’s “Rethinking Marx”. Given the continuing distortion among even most Marxists of Marx’s theories, not to mention the blatant misrepresentation of his views by official academic portraits of the man, I didn’t think anyone among those committed to the idea of a stateless society would be able to break through the clutter to try at least reclaim some of his ideas for our time.

That said, I want to clear up what I think might be some lack of clarity regarding his views that might allow others to experience them in a form that is more consistent with what I think was his intention. I am not an expert on Marx, so what I say here is only my best approximation of his ideas. They are always subject to dispute.

Brad Warbiany in his post made a serious stab at clarifying Marx’s views on the State. Based on his understanding of what Marx wrote, he found it quite incomprehensible that Marxists today can embrace the very machinery of repression that Marx himself rejected as illiberal, parasitic and oppressive. I agree that it is a complete betrayal of Marx by Marxists in this regard. However, Brad then makes what I think are a number of observation about Marx’s own views that are wrong, and reflect the distortions introduced into his theories by Marxists themselves.

Brad states:

Marx made what I would consider to be three critical mistakes in his analysis:

* Humanity has far too close of a relationship with property to function in an anarcho-socialist system.
* The state, once breaking the capitalists, had too many perks to let itself “wither away”.
* Much of his goals for workers “owning the means of production” are already beginning to occur within capitalism.

Brad then turns to the first of these mistakes:

“The first point is a bit of my own conjecture, but stems from Marx’s treatment of classes as classes rather than the more individualist libertarian treatment of classes as collections of disparate individuals. Marx saw the proletariat seizing the means of production and then finding harmonious sustainable ways to equitably distribute the fruits of such production. The analysis does not take into account individual goals, which is a very human desire to maximize gains for one’s self and one’s own. Humans are cooperative, but we are cooperative individuals. Cooperation can be sustained in a system of mutual benefit, but humans typically have a difficult time sacrificing for the collective over the long haul. Anarcho-socialism relies on such mutual cooperation (and sacrifice) in the absence of a coercive entity, and thus relies on human nature to be compatible with such a system. I do not believe human nature is so constituted — which, of course, is why I’m an anarcho-capitalist..”

Actually Marx’s view of social classes was probably the opposite of the way it is presented here. For Marx, capitalism is a society founded on universal competition much in the model of Hobbes’ “war of all against all”. Bereft of all means to produce for his own needs, the proletarian was the owner of himself alone; forced by this poverty to sell himself as a commodity. But, this sale took place in the context of a market where there were millions of like impoverished individuals; each of whom, on pain of starvation, were driven to conclude the same transaction in conditions of market competition. The intensely competitive environment into which they were thrown from birth onward was not by any means conducive to the formation of a social class consciousness. Marx argued that it was not really a class at all but merely the detritus of the decomposition of classes, composed entirely of individuals who had lost their property and, hence, were compelled to sell themselves into wage slavery. Although they shared a common circumstance, this circumstance was not by any means the basis for cooperative association. If they were to act more or less as a class, it would be the result of seeing their common interest through the dense fog of their relentlessly competitive environment.

His view of the capitalist class was not very different — under certain circumstances it could appear to act as a class, but there are also circumstances in which it clearly did not act as a class. In both cases, however, the relation between one capitalist owner and the rest was founded on a competitive clash of interests where the losers were consumed by the winners. So, both the class of proletarians and the class of capitalists were subject to an increasingly intense competitive environment. Moreover, both the relation between and among the class of capitalists, and the relation between and among the class of proletarians, rested on a larger ongoing class conflict between all capitalists and all workers over division of the product of the labor of the workers.

The picture one comes away with is that of a completely atomized environment in which every interest is counter-posed to every other interest in society; and, society itself acquires the character of a permanent, all-sided, all-encompassing state of civil conflict. It is a condition under which all human relations escape the control of the members of society, all productive activity is carried on without regard to the ends of any individual, group of individuals, or all of them together — in which this activity exists only for itself, and operates as a blind uncontrolled force in society that respects no individual will. The activity of the members of society appear to them as the blind action of economic laws over which they have no control; and, which appear for all the world as impersonal as any law of nature. All gain and loss incurred by individuals, their position in society, and their circumstances generally, appear completely accidental: as personal character traits, or birth, education, and luck.

To a degree not imagined in any libertarian scenario, Marx’s theory identifies the individual as an abstract individual — no longer as a distinct member of some social formation, but rather as one who is progressively stripped of every conceivable sort of direct social connection: affinities based on family, community, religion, language, race, nation are unceasingly subjected to the withering erosion of a nasty, foul, merciless and relentless Hobbesian atmosphere until the individual as an individual is reduced to a mere abstract human being robbed of any particular identifying characteristics — a cipher, for whom any given characteristics are merely accidental and passing. It is this individual who makes his appearance in political economy, and in libertarian political thought, as the average member of society.

On this basis, we can not only understand the liberal background of Marx’s theory, but also what Chris Cutrone calls the increasingly illiberal State that appears to separate itself from this universal all-sided conflict; and, to hover over civil society as an interest independent of civil society and in conflict with it. In Marx’s model, it is not simply economic relations that escape the control of the members of capitalist society; all relations escape their control. The increasingly illiberal State reflects the fact that no one in society can establish any degree of self-interested control over economic processes without also establishing their self-interest as the general interest of the community — i.e., as a matter of State interest. Marx, in a more complete excerpt of the quote cited by Brad, warns that the State was,

“…increasing at the same rate as the division of labor inside the bourgeois society created new groups of interests, and therefore new material for the state administration. Every common interest was immediately severed from the society, countered by a higher, general interest, snatched from the activities of society’s members themselves and made an object of government activity – from a bridge, a schoolhouse, and the communal property of a village community, to the railroads, the national wealth, and the national University of France. Finally the parliamentary republic, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen the means and the centralization of governmental power with repressive measures. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of breaking it. The parties, which alternately contended for domination, regarded the possession of this huge state structure as the chief spoils of the victor.”

In Marx’s model, the State itself is being further developed as a parasite on society by the very forces of the ongoing civil conflict within society itself and the increasing complexity of this conflict. This complexity is nothing more than the increasingly sophisticated division of labor within society; and, the condition of utter dependence of the individual on society, who is, at the same time, in a state of universal competition against every other member of society and all of them together. The result of this process is not the realization of the bourgeois ideal of liberty, but an increasing illiberality of a State founded on an all-sided universal competitive conflict — ultimately leading directly to 20th Century Fascism, in which the State appears as a renunciation of civil conflict between classes, but also as its necessary political expression.

It is this model of society, which finds its expression in the categories of political-economy, as Liberty, the Individual, and the State, that serves as Marx’s point of departure for his own theory. Marx does not propose anything more than what the liberal writers of the 18th and 19th Centuries themselves assume with regard to the nature of these categories. And, it is important to understand that Marx — while rejecting the idea that these categories are in any way Eternal Truths — begins by accepting all of their assumptions as the starting point of his own work.

Then he begins to outline his theory on how the working out of the social process through these categories leads ultimately to voluntary cooperative association.

To be continued.

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