Thursday, December 21, 2006

Marxist Myopia versus Adam Smith's Optimism

While involuntarily disconnected (a hapless state not recommended for regular bloggers – in fact it is ‘blogging awful’), I came across a highly serious blog, dedicated to what it calls ‘sound proletarian science’, a wholly new notion in the annals of science as science. It will not surprise readers to know that ‘What in the Hell…’, for that is its name, is thoroughly Marxist in orientation, probably deserving of the appellation, ‘intellectual’, as well as ‘deadly serious’, as compared to the usual Marxist rants we get from people loosely acquainted with well-known third-hand quotations, rather than the serious study of the most obscure transcripts of Marx and with a working knowledge of the German that he wrote them in (you also have to be good at reading Marx’s handwriting).

You can find “What in the Hell…” at:

This paragraph from it is relevant to Lost Legacy (the rest is also interesting in that mood of ‘if I had the time I would learn something, but …):

“In his 1844 Manuscripts, Marx quotes Adam Smith noting that competition for wages often served to “reduce the wages of labor to what was barely sufficient to keep up the number of laborers.” [Smith I, p. 84] Marx adds, making the point more clearly: “The surplus population would have to die.”

Marx also quotes Eugene Buret, “Labor is life, and if life is not exchanged every day for food, it suffers and soon perishes. If human life is to be regarded as a commodity, we are forced to admit slavery.” [ Eugene Buret, p. 49-50 ] and “The large industrial towns would quickly lose their population of workers if they did not all the time receive a continual stream of healthy people and fresh blood from the surrounding country areas.” This latter quote suggests that Marx’s beloved metaphor of capital as a vampire can be construed not as simply a rhetorical flourish but also as a comment on the biopolitical nature of the capital relation as such. Buret also describes capitalism as a “war of conquest” (20). Marx adds that “political economy knows the worker only as a beast of burden, as an animal reduced to the minimum bodily needs.” This reduction of the body to its minimum for survival is precisely bare life: thinking of the proletariat as proletariat, as bare life, leads to the production of the proletariat as materially existing bare life, life on the edge of death. It is no surprise that Marx refers to the proletariat being treated as a beast, for animalization - based on the separation of humans from other animals - is an old mechanism for treating some bodies as bare life.”

Note the disembodied use of ‘political economy knows’, a habit among intellectual Marxists, who often use the word ‘capital’ as if ‘it’ has a conscious purpose separate from the people (‘zombies’?) who own it; Smith’s ‘capital stock’ has come ‘alive’ and is free from the mysterious and magic ‘lamp’; ‘globalisation’ is ‘alive’ and humans have become ‘its’ slaves, etc.

I quoted the second paragraph to convey the theme of the entire piece, specifically that weird forces (unfortunately only understood by inductees into Marxism) set out to become all powerful, by destroying the right-less and dispossessed proletariat, torn from the common land farms (visions of hardworking but happy families, dancing round maypoles, swapping philosophical thoughts about the meaning of life, and eating their fill of the products of their labour) and driven into factories and mills by grasping vampire capitalists, and when no longer fit for purpose are spewed out as shrunken, fleshless skeletons, by the uncaring weird forces who rule them.

The extract from Eugene Buret envisages the cycle of hearty proletarians to their early deaths as ‘slaves’, is sustainable only if there is ‘a continual stream of healthy people and fresh blood from the surrounding country areas’. That the industrialization process also accompanied an historically high rapid growth in population seems to eliminate Buret’s fanciful rhetoric and Marx’s elaboration of the same theme.

Looking outside our windows now and again is good for philosophers. Marx has an excuse (he saw what he believed he saw; or more correctly, only imagined what he wanted to believe), but what excuse has the author of ‘What the Hell…’ got when he, or she, sees the ‘working class’ around them living in a degree of opulence beyond the imaginations of Marx and Adam Smith?

Smith’s ‘subsistence’ level of wages (determined by circumstances and custom, not the biological minimum, but by that ‘which is consistent with common humanity’, Wealth of Nations, I.viii.15: p 86) became in Marx’s mind the biological minimum in the ‘vampire’ economy of capitalism (a 19th century word, first used in 1854, and then with monotonous regularity in Marx’s ‘Capital’).

In Marx’s, and his epigones’ imaginations, the immiseration of the working class was inevitable in all its gory details; yet while ‘capitalist’ proletariats flourished under the regimes of rising real wages, the hell envisaged by Karl Marx came to its terminal destination only in the thirty-year history of the concentration camps of Soviet Socialist Russia (and, for a shorter while, in Nazi National Socialist Germany).

Smith had a far more optimistic view of the affects of markets on living standards, especially for the labouring poor and their families) than is justified by Marx (and Marxists) hijacking his name to provide intellectual comforts for absolutely wrong predictions about the future of ‘capitalism’ (a word and a phenomena that Smith knew nothing about in mid-18th century Scotland).

The history of markets under the capitalist mode of production confirms Smith’s optimism.

‘What the Hell’ does that say about Marx’s confident and absolutely wrong predictions?



Blogger Nate said...

hi Gavin,

I just found this. Thanks for the compliments and for the challenge(s), which I also take as a compliment. My life's been very busy lately so I didn't notice this comment until now. Here's a crack at responding.

First, the 'sound proletarian science' bit is a joke. I'm opposed to the traditions of scientific socialism and think that much of that is both scientistic and anti-working class.

Second, the "political economy knows" is Marx's locution, not mine. I'm actually quite open to criticisms of Marx for what you criticize me and other 'intellectual Marxists' for. I'd still say there's a baby in that bathwater, though. I'd see that baby (Marx, a certain reading of Marx) as useful against the things you're opposed to - the USSR etc. And actually a lot of that criticism has already been done within the marxist tradition (for instance, accounts of the Soviet Union as being a form of capitalism, and attacks on the bolsheviks for their actions against workers and working class movements and organizations in Russia and elsewhere).

Lastly, part of the rejection of marxism as science is a rejection of inevitability of capitalist immiseration and the inevitability of capitalism's ending. The basic point is to see economic relationships - in workplaces and those things which make most people have to have jobs or have relationships with people who have jobs - as power relationships.

None of that particularly speaks to the stuff on my blog about Buret etc, that's a rather awkward work in (very slow) progress. All I'll say about that for now is that it's common for Marx to quote other people, often people who didn't agree with him politically, in order to make his points (like the line of Smith that I can't fully recall right now, about what Smith took to be the debilitating effects of specialization on workers). One thing that many marxists aren't very good about noting is that Marx's drawing on all these various sources undermines precisely the image of Marx as great originating thinker. Rather, Marx was a smart and critical synthesist of a lot of other material.

best wishes,
Nate (from "what in the hell...?")

7:42 pm  
Blogger Lizzy said...


This is late, obviously, but I just found this. I think your critique is specious all over the place. People were in fact driven from the country into the cities by the landed classes after the Middle Ages. And evolutionary biologists speak about evolutionary strategies that involve overproduction of offspring during hard times--as statistical insurance, more or less. That's to say the least. But I'm guilty of not having studied Marx in twenty years, and never read much of Smith. So sue me ;-)

I hope I'm not taking your critique out of context (maybe I've missed an early, crucial part of some ongoing dialogue here, or who knows). Anyway...

Best wishes.


5:05 am  
Blogger Reason over religion! said...

“The history of markets under the capitalist mode of production confirms Smith’s optimism.”

What about that part of history between 1929 and 1941?

11:44 pm  
Blogger Alex said...

I stumbled upon this blog when I Googled Eugene Buret's name after reading his passages quoted in Marx's EPM, and found it an interesting discussion. Having not read any of your other blogs (thus, take this as you will), I'd like to make a comment or two to add to the discussion.

I second 'reason over religion's comments on the market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression. Millions of Americans were living in destitute poverty and, indeed, fighting for any sort of work they could get.

To add my own bit in:
Most people in the opulent Western societies (particularly the US) forget about the effects of globalization on those in the third world. Our increasingly globalized economy, as rich and prosperous as it is, props itself up on the cheap labor available in developing areas such as China and Latin America. They live the lives described by Marx: poor working conditions, long hours, dismal wages and short lives. We, in the first-world, profit off of their misfortune by receiving cheap commodities. It is necessary to take into account the economic evolution that has taken place since then, and to understand that the economy is not nearly as simple as Marx or Smith laid it out to be.

Furthermore, in response to your paragraph about philosophers 'looking out their windows,' I must add: how many of those in the working/middle class are one serious illness, layoff or market crash away from being in poverty? How many of those now in poverty are there as a result of those circumstances?

Just thought I'd weigh in. Cheers and happy holidays.
-Alex Myers

5:18 pm  

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