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Archive for the tag “objectivism”

John Galt’s Modest Proposal

Bourgeois ideologue, Harry Binswanger, thinks it's time for the 99% to start paying tribute to their overlords in the 1%

Bourgeois ideologue, Harry Binswanger, thinks it’s about time the hoi polloi start paying tribute to their superiors in the 1%

While sitting in traffic the other day I happened to glance over at a nearby luxury vehicle’s bumper and noticed a single sticker placed prominently thereon. “Who is John Galt?” it read. Suffice it to say, revulsion instantly overcame me. (Unfortunately it was not the first I encountered the catchphrase in public.)

With the rise of the Tea Party and release of the two-part Atlas Shrugged motion picture, it certainly seems as though Ayn Rand’s Objectivist pseudo-philosophy is experiencing something of a revival. The reason is easy enough to deduce, given the persistence of the economic crisis and the demographic currently enamored with Rand’s sociopathic novels. The petite bourgeoisie has a history of being drawn to extreme philosophies when the vicissitudes of the market threaten their class position and the government attempts to tax their wealth in order to subsidize the increasing demands placed upon it for public assistance; so it is no surprise that the wealthier segments of that class are the impetus behind the sudden surge of Objectivist and “Libertarian” activism. The public acclaim being bestowed unto Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as of late is also endowing that segment of the population with an undue sense of superiority and entitlement, which Ayn Rand’s philosophy speaks to.

But despite the originality her devotees ascribe to her, Rand’s message was essentially little more than an elaboration and defense of what the American proletarian press in 1850 dubbed “the new spirit of the age”—succinctly described by the maxim “gain wealth, forgetting all but self.”[1] It conforms perfectly with the morality of the market, i.e., firms producing goods and services for which there is a demand gain profit, the capitalists who own said firms receive exorbitant incomes based exclusively upon that ownership, and the few workers fortunate enough to possess uncommon skills are rewarded with scarcity rents. Redistributive taxation imposed by the state, on the other hand, appears as an alien force interrupting this seemingly natural order. Worse, it can cause the individuals near the bottom of the system’s hierarchy to question the very justice of this particular economic arrangement. The latter phenomenon is precisely why ideologues such as Ayn Rand, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman have been necessary throughout the ages. All class societies require a group of people skilled in the art of deceiving the toiling masses into believing their oppression is virtuous. Harry Binswanger, an exponent of Objectivism and frequent contributor to the atrocious rag that is Forbes magazine, is an exemplar of this ignoble tradition.

Coincidentally, the very evening of the aforementioned traffic incident, I received an e-mail containing a link to Binswanger’s latest column, entitled “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time for the 99% to Give Back to the 1%”[2] And lest you think the title is just a bit of hyperbole intended to catch readers’ attention, a cursory glimpse through the article’s content will reveal that Binswanger’s thesis is just as appallingly elitist and inhumane as the title suggests. It turns out that the individuals partaking in the occupation of Zuccotti Park in the Autumn of 2011 and their sympathizers across the country were correct to be disgusted with the status quo, but their outrage was misdirected, if not utterly backwards. “Collectivism” is the real unjust blight on our culture, says Binswanger. Moreover, to remedy the maltreatment the bourgeoisie has had to endure at the hands of the state—acting on behalf of the inferior specimens that constitute the ranks of the proletariat and unemployed, according to this narrative—he advances the following “modest” proposal: “Anyone who earns a million dollars or more should be exempt from all income taxes.”

Binswanger faults Marxism for this scourge of collectivism, which society—itself a dubious concept to Randians—all too readily accepts, and the adherence of which will prevent his “modest proposal” from being adopted. Why? Because Marxism is allegedly premised upon the notion that “wealth is accumulated by ‘exploiting’ people, not by creating value.” Unbeknownst to Binswanger, what Karl Marx actually asserted, building off of the labor theory of value initially introduced to the study of political economy by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, was that the socially necessary labor time required to reproduce a commodity is the prime source of that commodity’s exchange value. (Incidentally, the labor theory of value has been logically[3] and empirically[4] validated in recent years by a number of radical economists.) It should be noted that this is a positive claim. Some Marxists additionally argue that the practice of wage labor, which capitalists utilize to accrue profit, is exploitative[5] and proceed to condemn it on normative grounds. Binswanger, however, contends that exploitation is illusory because “Voluntary trade, without force or fraud, is the exchange of value for value, to mutual benefit.” “There is nothing to give back,” he goes on, “because there was nothing taken away.” But Binswanger is clearly engaging in obscurantism. Apologists for the system have been regurgitating defenses of wage labor on the basis of its supposed “voluntary” nature from time immemorial. What many of the individuals who accept this asinine rationale neglect to realize, however, is that voluntarily selling oneself into slavery due to dire circumstances can be justified on the same exact basis.[6] The notion that contracts entered into by unequal parties are impervious to criticism is absurd.

As it happens, there are very persuasive analytical reasons for designating wage labor an exploitative practice, and Nicholas Vrousalis has elucidated them in a recent paper on the subject.[7] To summarize his argument, Vrousalis claims that bourgeois social relations are characterized by individuals (i.e., workers) in a position of relative vulnerability to other individuals (i.e., capitalists) being dominated by the latter for reasons of self-enrichment. This is precisely what the Binswangers of the world try so desperately to conceal: the bourgeoisie are able to instrumentalize the proletariat’s relative vulnerability due to their possessing hegemony in wage-for-labor-time contract negotiations by virtue of their ownership of the means of production, which enables capitalists to then extract surplus labor-time from their workforce and therewith appropriate the fruit of those workers’ labor. Thus, regardless of how voluntary wage labor may appear, the bourgeoisie are materially benefiting at the proletariat’s expense.[8] Binswanger’s remarks do not even begin to discredit exploitation so defined, nor has any other reactionary ideologue that I am aware of. And if domination for self-enrichment is held to be unjust (which I suspect most people would, upon reflection, agree with), and society is genuinely committed to the principle of equality, a project which aims to transform the prevailing bourgeois organization of production is in order.

Unlike communists of Vrousalis’ disposition, Karl Marx was somewhat skeptical of such deontological criticisms of capitalism[9] and instead favored a more Aristotelian method of evaluating modes of production. But rather than categorize Marx as a virtue ethicist, Richard W. Miller believes it would be more accurate to refer to Marx’s Weltanschauung as exhibiting a certain (non-utilitarian) consequentialism reminiscent of Aristotle’s:

Marx, like Aristotle, judges societies by the kinds of human lives they create. Sometimes, he directly describes the life mankind should ultimately promote, life in communist society. Usually, though, he describes the best life indirectly, by presenting the main features of its opposite, a life of alienated labor, in which workers’ labour power is put under the control of another.[10]

Marx refrained from casting moral judgement on historical class societies because he believed that, for many of them, “valuable activities, above all, cultural goods, could only be sustained through a social division of labor that oppress[ed] the vast majority, and [cut] them off from the enjoyment of those activities.”[11] In fact, he was only prepared to condemn capitalism because he believed “on empirical grounds, that socialism, in his time, had become a [feasible alternative to capitalism],” unlike during its nascent stage, when “important ultimate goods depended on human misery.”[12] Such is why Terry Eagleton refers to Marx’s theory of history as being intrinsically tragic:

Marxism is not generally seen as a tragic vision of the world. Its final act—communism—appears too upbeat for that. But not to appreciate its tragic strain is to miss much of its complex depth. The Marxist narrative is not tragic in the sense of ending badly. But a narrative does not have to end badly to be tragic. Even if men and women find some fulfillment in the end, it is tragic that their ancestors had to be hauled through hell in order for them to do so. And there will be many who fall by the wayside, unfulfilled and unremembered. Short of some literal resurrection, we can never make recompense to these vanquished millions. Marx’s theory of history is tragic in just this respect.[13]

Also like Aristotle, Karl Marx espoused a notion of eudaimonia, as I have mentioned elsewhere. (In short, it consists of mankind overcoming the alienation wrought by capitalism, cultivating his potential in ways the current system stifles, and finally achieving self-realization in labor.)[14]

Returning to the matter of value and Marx’s conception thereof, Binswanger is not uncovering an inherent weakness in scientific socialism by stating that, absent Henry Ford, the Ford automobile company and the assembly line would not have come into existence, and without Steve Jobs we would not be blessed with Apple products. Marx made a clear distinction between what he termed ‘exchange value’ and ‘use value’ throughout his writings. Again, it was only his contention that in economies engaged in generalized commodity production labor is the source of the former. Use values—the creation of goods and services to fulfill human needs and desires—however, are the product of the general intellect (i.e., the sum total of human knowledge), nature, and labor.[15] Marx intentionally omitted capital from this triad because private ownership of means of production and the institution of wage labor are unnecessary for the production and distribution of goods and services, centuries of bourgeois mythology notwithstanding.[16] Gar Alperovitz has done a considerable amount of research on this subject[17] and has found that, of the three, knowledge appears to be the most crucial to economic development:

A half-century ago, in 1957, economist Robert Solow showed that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the 20th century alone, from 1909 to 1949, could only be attributed to technical change in the broadest sense. The supply of labor and capital—what workers and employers contribute—appeared almost incidental to this massive technological ‘residual.’ Another leading economist, William Baumol, calculated that ‘nearly 90 percent. . . . of current GDP was contributed by innovation carried out since 1870.’[18]

And although it is seldom regarded as such, knowledge ought to be viewed as our common inheritance, for it is the product of a gradual evolutionary process of which individuals play but a minor role. Take, for instance, inventions. Are they not, as Peter Kropotin once wrote, “the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded [them]” thereby rendering each one a synthesis?[19] What is more, social institutions are the mechanism which preserve and transmit knowledge to each generation, and this gets to the crux of why, contra Binswanger, taxation is a legitimate practice. The alternative is to permit capitalists, or indeed workers (in the case of a hypothetical socialist commonwealth), to free ride off of society’s contribution to the joint product.

But Binswanger might require further justification for taxation. After all, much as one who misses the forest for the trees, he refuses to acknowledge society as a meaningful entity. So we can supplement our case with arguments found in luck egalitarian philosophy. Philosophers of this school of thought draw attention to the fact that, sans redistributive intervention, brute luck becomes the sole determinant of one’s lot in life. Obviously none of us have any control over the genetic endowment we inherit, nor the families or environments we are born into. Thus justice would seem to require that we compensate the victims of the cosmic lottery via redistributive taxation, while allowing individuals to gain only from those actions which are freely chosen (e.g., the intensity, relative conditions, and duration with which one chooses to labor). Unsurprisingly, only libertarian communism can achieve a state of affairs in which that ethic is upheld, which is why men like Binswanger restrict themselves from thinking in these terms.

In one of the more puerile sections of his column, Binswanger laments the fact that the memory of Mother Teresa is showered with more moral praise than Lloyd Blankfein receives, and he cannot comprehend why we live in a culture wherein Goldman Sachs is smeared as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” Allow me to elucidate the reason, dear sir. It is not because the public has yet to be properly educated to realize Goldman Sachs has channeled savings “to their most productive uses,” as you seem to believe. It is rather because that lovely little investment bank received a $10 billion bailout in 2008, while ordinary working people have had to weather this crisis of capitalism with minimal public assistance for well over 5 years now—and as a self-professed ‘defender of laissez-faire capitalism’ you should at least sympathize with their criticism of corporate welfare.[20] People also find it absolutely repugnant that Goldman Sachs’ bonus pool alone in 2010 alone was larger than, say, the entire GDP of Haiti, because it violates their innate sense of fairness. Simply put, the masses do not relish living in a world in which the blind forces of the market determine one’s access to the social product.

Although things seem bleak now, we can at least drawn comfort in the knowledge that, eventually, purveyors of false consciousness like Binswanger will no longer be able to stem the tide of righteous indignation which will usher in the coming Gütergemeinschaft.

NOTES:
[1] Gary L. Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer, 2013), p. 37.
[2] Harry Binswanger (2013, September 17), “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time for the 99% to Give Back to the 1%”, Forbes.com. Retrieved September 25, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/harrybinswanger/2013/09/17/give-back-yes-its-time-for-the-99-to-give-back-to-the-1/
[3] Andrew Kliman, Reclaiming Marx’s Capital: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
[4] See, for example, David Zachariah, “Labour Value and Equalisation of Profit Rates: A Multi-Country Study,” Indian Development Review, Vol. 4, pp. 1-21 (2006); W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, “The Scientific Status of the Labour Theory of Value,” IWGVT conference at the Eastern Economic Association meeting (April, 1997); and Anwar Shaikh, “The Empirical Strength of the Labor Theory of Value,” in R. Bellofiore (ed.), Conference Proceedings of Marxian Economics: A Centenary Approach (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 225–251.
[5] There is considerable debate among Marxist scholars as to whether or not Karl Marx considered capitalist exploitation to be ethically objectionable. See Norman Geras, “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” in Alex Callinicos (ed.), Marxist Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 211-267 for an overview.
[6] Indeed, the propertarian economist Walter Block argued precisely that in “Libertarianism: A Reply to Peter Schwartz,” Reason Papers, Vol. 26, p. 58 (2003), by way of a thought-experiment wherein desperate parents sell their child into sex slavery in order to acquire the means by which to feed themselves and the child—which he further argued is ethically permissible on both “libertarian” and Objectivist grounds.
[7] Nicholas Vrousalis, “Exploitation, Vulnerability, and Social Domination,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 131-157 (Spring 2013).
[8] Except, of course, during instances in which profit is not realized. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie maintain autocratic control in managerial affairs during periods of unprofitability due to their workers’ position of relative vulnerability, which is equally exploitative on this account.
[9] Particularly in the latter half of his career, as is evidenced in such texts as the Critique of the Gotha Programme (Rockville: Wildside Press, 2008). Justin Schwartz, in “What’s Wrong with Exploitation?,” Nous, Vol. 29, p. 183 (1995), suggests that one of the ways Marx avoids matters of justice altogether in his appraisal of capitalism is by acknowledging that “Freedom is a concern logically prior to and independent of justice.” Hence capitalism was only objectionable to Marx because of the three forms of “unfreedom” it perpetuates. These unfreedoms are: (1) “workers are forced to work and denied effective power to realize desires they may have,” (2) “they are made to work harder than they might like to benefit capitalists,” and (3) they are “used for capitalist purposes regardless of their own.”
[10] Richard W. Miller, “Marx and Aristotle: A Kind of Consequentialism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8, pp. 323-352 (1981).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 61.
[14] This is the theme of Michael Lebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
[15] For example, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (Rockville: Wildside Press, 2008), p. 18, Marx writes, “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power. . . . The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since from the fact that labour depends on nature it follows precisely that the man who possesses no other property than his labour power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can only work with their permission, and hence live only with their permission.”
[16] The ideological foundation of bourgeois economics is, of course, that each of the three factors of production—land, labor, and capital—are compensated for their marginal contribution to production. But, as David Schweickart points out, “They [landlords and capitalists] merely grant permission for their land and capital to be used—in exchange for a healthy cut of the proceeds. But. . . . if the workers owned the land collectively, we wouldn’t say that part of their contribution to production is their labor, while another part is their granting permission to themselves to use the land. . . . So Marx’s question retains its bite. To produce material goods, we need human labor and we need nonhuman raw materials. But why do we need landlords? Why do we need capitalists?” After Capitalism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), p. 34.
[17] See Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, Unjust Desserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back (New York: The New Press, 2009).
[18] Gar Alperovitz (2011, October 29), “How the 99 Percent Really Lost Out—in Far Greater Ways Than the Occupy Protesters Imagine,” Truthout. Retrieved September 25, 2013, from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/4253:how-the-99-percent-really-lost-out–in-far-greater-ways-than-the-occupy-protesters-imagine
[19] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 16.
[20] The mutualist anarchist Kevin Carson describes the double standards frequently displayed by proponents of laissez-faire, like Harry Binswanger, as follows: “Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term ‘free market’ in an equivocal sense: they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate by the Adam Smith Institute arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because ‘that’s not how the free market works’—implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of ‘free market principles.’” Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Charleston: BookSurge Publishing, 2007), p. 116.

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Is Capitalism Moral?

Reflections on the Schweickart-Brook Debate

Professor Schweickart (far left) learns the hard way that "Objectivsts" are objectively insane

Professor Schweickart (far left) learns the hard way that it’s impossible to engage in mature debate with apostles of Ayn Rand’s “Objectivist” cult.

On March 17th the Loyola Student Objectivist Society hosted a debate between David Schweickart and Yaron Brook. Schweickart, a professor of philosophy associated with the analytical Marxist tradition, is a leading authority on the subject of market socialism[1] and, as one would predict given this background, argued that capitalism is an immoral method of organizing production. Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, was true to his institution’s namesake and defended capitalism as the very pinnacle of morality. I recently had an opportunity to watch the debate and have decided to write a commentary on the spectacle.

Before getting into the specifics of the debate, however, I would like to briefly examine the ethical theories espoused by Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. Though it may invoke shock and horror among Marxists and Objectivists alike, both thinkers were influenced by Aristotle to a considerable extent;[2] but it will come as no surprise that their respective conceptions of eudaimonia were at variance with one another. With that said, there is vast and contentious literature on Marx’s relationship to moral philosophy, but within it there are basically three schools of thought: (1) essential unity theory, (2) rupture theory, and (3) developmental theory. The first school claims that there is a continuous harmony between Marx’s early humanist writings (e.g., the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844) and his mature scientific work (e.g., Das Kapital) with respect to the question of ethics. The second school, by contrast, argues that Marx severs all ties with matters of normative philosophy by the publication of The German Ideology in 1846, therewith adopting a reductionist theory of human action entirely divorced from matters of justice. The third school is in agreement with essential unity theorists concerning Marx’s lifelong humanism, but accepts that Marx had come to reject the concept of human nature that animated his early writings. Personally, I find the developmental theorist’s exegesis the most persuasive among the contending schools of thought.

For the purposes of this post, I will focus primarily upon Marx’s early moral philosophy because I happen to find a great deal of value in it. Simply put, it can be characterized as a synthesis of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. From the former, Marx adopted the concept of human essence—which he took to be fundamentally social[3]—and from the latter he adopted the notion of a universal categorical imperative. Though some might find these moral doctrines irreconcilable, in the following passage Philip Kain aptly explains why Marx was not necessarily mistaken for considering them mutually compatible:

A moral theorist who holds a deontological theory of obligation need not reject a theory of the good. In fact, the theory of the highest good plays an important role in Kant’s ethics. The highest good involves happiness as well as morality. Happiness is certainly an end or good to be sought. A life without happiness would not be the highest good; thus to achieve the highest good we must seek happiness. But our moral obligation demands that the desire for happiness not determine our moral action; the categorical imperative alone must do that. The highest good is thus attainable only if God or history manipulates nature such that happiness accompanies morality. So also, for Marx, the realization of species’ essence can be called the highest good. But this good alone does not determine our obligation. The principle of universalization is a necessary component in determining our moral obligation and allowing us to be free.[4]

Thus, for the young Marx, capitalism not only alienates us from our communal Gattungswesen, but the very practice of wage labor upon which the system is based additionally treats human beings as commodities, i.e., as mere means to accumulate capital, thereby egregiously violating the categorical imperative.[5] Only under communist social relations can man lead a truly fulfilling and dignified existence. This is, of course, the converse of Ayn Rand’s view. She rejected Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative as one of the most destructive moral theories ever devised,[6] and, according to her vapid theory of human nature, man is only in his element when free to amass commodities without public restraint.

I do not intend on demonstrating the superiority of Marx’s political philosophy vis-à-vis Rand’s here,[7] I only wanted to juxtapose their positions for the sake of uninitiated readers.

Returning to the debate, I should perhaps begin by mentioning that, although it was his first formal debate, Schweickart performed quite admirably. None of what is to follow is intended to be insulting towards him, it should instead be interpreted as constructive criticism. Brook, being a spokesman for Ayn Rand’s pseudo-philosophy, has a substantial amount of experience in public relations, and hence was simply better able to convey his case to the Loyola University-Chicago audience. (But it should be noted that the house was so stacked against Schweickart that heckles from the Objectivist nitwits who organized the event are audible whenever he finishes speaking in the video. Also, the moderator frequently allowed Brook to have the last word on numerous exchanges, which gave him an unfair advantage.) Brook’s delivery was sloppy and often immature, but the zeal with which he spoke of bourgeois principles most likely won over whatever undecided individuals existed in the audience. Schweickart’s cerebral arguments and his reserved tone may yield positive results among fellow academicians, but he was confronted with a crowd reared in our machismo pop culture wherein whoever is the loudest and exudes the most confidence in a dispute is commonly regarded as the winner, and he should have modified his presentation accordingly.

Rather than try to persuade the audience of the merits of Ayn Rand’s vacuous “rational egoist” philosophy—a Herculean task even for the most charismatic defenders of the faith—Brook decided to frame the debate in terms of coercion versus freedom. This is a clever tactic reactionaries utilize when debating leftists because it enables them to blame all of the maladies regularly associated with actually existing capitalism on “statism,” while appearing to take the moral high ground by accusing socialists of seeking to infringe upon one’s autonomy or “self-ownership.” This is precisely where Schweickart should have explained the differences between formal self-ownership and effective personal autonomy. The non-aggression principle which follows from the theory of self-ownership is not violated under socialism,[8] and even if it were, self-ownership is not axiomatically self-evident,[9] so whatever benefits ensue from violating the alleged principle would need to be taken into account before casting judgement.[10] Moreover, of the two systems, democratic socialism allows far greater scope for personal autonomy because the practice of workers’ self-management it endorses grants everyone the ability to participate in the decisions that intimately affect their lives (e.g., what is going to be produced, how it is going to be produced, and the manner by which the joint product is to be allocated). Reactionaries may retort that this can only be realized at the cost of prohibiting “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” and that workers already have the freedom to become their own bosses. In such cases, socialists should respond by mentioning the following: (1) the nature of the credit rationing system under capitalism is such that the asset-poor in society are systematically denied an equal opportunity to capitalize on entrepreneurial discoveries,[11] and (2) affording individual workers the luxury to become capitalists themselves structurally requires there be a large class of disadvantaged people readily available to exploit as wage laborers.[12]

Which brings me to my next criticism. It is rather odd that in a debate concerning the morality of capitalism the question of the exploitation of man by man was conspicuously absent. The charge of exploitation has been socialism’s greatest ethical challenge to capitalism since its inception, and there was a time in Schweickart’s own career when he was attempting to develop what he called a “democratic theory of exploitation”[13]—which was to incorporate facets of Karl Marx’s and John Roemer’s respective theories of exploitation—but it appears as though he has abandoned that project. Perhaps he came to agree with Roemer that Marxists should focus their criticisms of capitalism elsewhere.[14] Whatever the case may be, Nicholas Vrousalis has recently presented a compelling argument that Marxists are justified in accusing capitalism of being an exploitative mode of production. He does so by defining exploitation in terms of domination for self-enrichment, as opposed to Roemer’s “exchange against the background of injustice in the distribution of assets” or Marx’s labor theory of value.[15] Vrousalis also demonstrates that the only conceivable way to abolish exploitation (i.e., the instrumentalization of someone’s relative economic vulnerability for the appropriation of his or her labor) is by collectivizing the means of production and implementing a policy of workers’ self-management.[16]

Surely Schweickart could have fared better in the debate had he been able to cite exploitation as the sole source of capitalist profit—which, I would argue, is intuitively obvious to large segments of society. I suspect one of the reasons he neglected the issue is because his market socialist model allows ample space for the continuation of the practice. Indeed, not only did Schweickart fully concede that “Mises and Hayek were right” about the insurmountable obstacles that allegedly doom any attempt to comprehensively plan a complex economy to failure, but he even claimed that inequalities derived from capitalist entrepreneurship are permissible under his model. The explanations he provides for his defense of competitive markets and “entrepreneurial capitalists” are utilitarian, in that he believes they are indispensable factors in sustaining a sufficiently dynamic economic system, but in so doing he slips into idealism and cedes too much ground to his conservative opponents by agreeing with their ideological assumptions. With respect to the utilitarian concern, David Kotz has done an extensive amount of research which, in my opinion, indicates that neither markets nor bourgeois entrepreneurs are required for rapid innovation and economic dynamism,[17] and Daniel Pink has compiled evidence revealing the many negative consequences which often stem from conventional monetary incentive structures.[18] As for my accusation of idealism, I believe Schweickart is being incredibly naïve to think his socialist market economy could withstand the class tensions that would inevitably emerge between the wealthy entrepreneurial capitalist sector and the working class cooperative sector. Being that he is a Marxist, he should understand why.

During the debate Schweickart frequently claimed his market socialist system would be considerably more egalitarian than any form of capitalism is capable of being, and made much ado about the fact that political democracy is undermined by the inequality capitalism engenders. Since Objectivists are elitist minarchists, this phenomenon obviously does not trouble men like Brook, and he took the occasion to employ another popular reactionary strategy: conflating ochlocracy with democracy. Those who use this straw man argument basically claim that anyone who favors democracy is a mindless advocate of “mob rule,” and, in order to be consistently democratic, they would have to support virtually any decision (even the most abhorrent ones, such as rape or genocide) as long as it was consented to by a majority. In response, Schweickart should have stated that democracy is a method for achieving self-governance, i.e., allowing people to participate in decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by the outcome, not an indiscriminate extolment of majorities. Despite his indignation at capitalism’s corruption of democracy, however, it is not clear how Schweickart’s model would prevent wealthy entrepreneurs from also taking advantage of rent-seeking politicians. Of course, Brook is equally naïve for thinking corporations within his ideal laissez-faire economy would abstain from colluding to establish a government large enough to continue providing them with the welfare privileges they currently enjoy (periodic bailouts, state funded research and development, etc.), and for believing that a market economy could even function without a heavily intervening state apparatus.

Now, this may be somewhat of a trivial point, but during one of their exchanges Brook compared Schweickart’s market socialist proposal with the Israeli kibbutzim and claimed the latter were a dismal failure, thereby suggesting there is reason to suspect market socialism would be as well. And while Schweickart was correct in saying his model is not analogous to the kibbutzim, I think he should have challenged the empirical validity of Brook’s statement nonetheless. A brief glance through the literature reveals that there are currently 256 kibbutzim in Israel with approximately 106,000 individuals residing within them—figures hardly indicative of failure.[19] There was, in fact, a crisis that occurred within the kibbutz movement during the credit squeeze of the mid 1980s, but that affected the entire Israeli economy, and in the decades preceding said crisis the kibbutzim were regarded as successful and efficient by most impartial analysts. The restructuring some of the kibbutzim have undergone since then can largely be attributed to the ideological contamination that has transpired as a result of Israeli citizens reared in the capitalist sector being granted permission to live on kibbutz property, and to the fact the welfare state that helped support life for many kibbutzniks has been dismantled. Suffice it to say, it is difficult to sustain a communist ethos when communities are faced with such circumstances.[20]

Despite 2/3 of kibbutzim transforming from communistic societies to more individualistic market socialist communities, the kibbutz movement continues to thrive.

Although 2/3 of the kibbutzim have transformed from being relatively communistic to more market-orientated socialist communities, the kibbutz movement continues to thrive in Israel.

Finally, I think a useful way for Schweickart to have illustrated the immorality of capitalism would have been for him to contrast the possessive individualism and unfair outcomes it generates with the socialist vision of man attaining self-realization in labor. By providing publicly subsidized higher education, health care, and basic housing to the masses—in conjunction with collectivizing the means of production—a socialist commonwealth would create an environment in which everyone possesses a comparable opportunity to develop their capacities, while the distributive inequities that follow from brute luck are mitigated. This return to the young Marx’s conception of the good life has an attractive quality which I think would resonate with people.[21]

I realize that time constraints and the format of the debate probably prevented Schweickart from being able to get into some of these subjects, but hopefully this post can serve as a guide for other socialists preparing to debate this topic.

NOTES:
[1] Schweickart’s Capitalism or Worker Control?: An Ethical and Economic Appraisal (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1980) and Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) were instrumental texts in my development as a socialist. I continue to believe that something like the market socialist model he advocates is the most likely successor-system (to borrow Schweickart’s phrase) to capitalism, but no longer consider it a desirable end point. The market itself must be transcended if humanity is to achieve a world free of exploitation and alienation.
[2] Indeed, Rand would often remark that Aristotle was the only philosopher who ever influenced her work—though the mark of Nietzsche is ever visible in her writings.
[3] And naturalists as diverse in political and evolutionary opinion as Richard Lewontin and Matt Ridley would, for the most part, agree. The best exposition on the subject remains Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (New York: New York University Press, 1972); originally published 1902.
[4] Philip J. Kain, Marx and Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 74-75.
[5] Even after Marx abandoned the idea of a static human nature and began to question the usefulness of abstract moral principles, his conception of the good life remained Aristotelian in the sense that he envisaged communism as consisting of individuals flourishing by realizing their historically-bred capacities.
[6] For example, in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet Books, 1984), p. 98, Rand writes: “The widespread fear and/or resentment of morality—the feeling that morality is an enemy, a musty realm of suffering and senseless boredom—is not the product of mystic, ascetic or Christian codes as such, but a monument to the ugliest repository of hatred for life, man and reason: the soul of Immanuel Kant.”
[7] That may be the subject of a paper I write in the months ahead, however.
[8] Provided self-ownership is conjoined with common ownership of the world (as opposed to Lockean individual appropriation of land) and the hypothetical socialist constitution contains a provision permitting everyone the liberty to opt-out of collaborative work arrangements. See Nicholas Vrousalis, “Libertarian Socialism: A Better Reconciliation between Self-Ownership and Equality,” Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 37, pp. 211-226 (2011).
[9] Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen makes a cogent argument against the self-ownership thesis in “Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 86–118 (Winter 2008).
[10] G. A. Cohen believed that the self-ownership thesis was essentially irrefutable but that its appeal could be significantly diminished by closely examining its ethical implications. See Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Ch. 10.
[11] Theodore Burczak, “A Critique of Kirzner’s Finders-Keepers Defense of Profit,” The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 75-90 (2002).
[12] G. A. Cohen, “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 3-33 (Winter 1983).
[13] David Schweickart, “A Democratic Theory of Economic Exploitation Dialectically Developed,” in R. Gottleib (ed.), Radical Philosophy, Tradition, Counter-Tradition, Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), pp. 101-122.
[14] John Roemer, “Should Marxists be Interested in Exploitation?,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. I, pp. 30-65 (Winter 1985).
[15] Although I believe the labor theory of value has been empirically validated—see, for example, Dave Zachariah, “Labour Value and Equalisation of Profit Rates: A Multi-Country Study,” Indian Development Review, Vol. 4, pp. 1-21 (2006)—I do not think it qualifies as an adequate theory of exploitation, since all that could follow from acknowledging its validity is that workers should receive the undiminished proceeds of their labor. Redistributive taxation, which is a necessary action for securing social justice, could not be justified on such a basis. G. A. Cohen provides additional criticisms of the labor theory of value’s use as a theory of exploitation in “The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 338-360 (Summer 1979).
[16] Nicholas Vrousalis, “Exploitation, Vulnerability, and Social Domination,” forthcoming in Philosophy & Public Affairs (2013).
[17] David M. Kotz, “Socialism and Innovation,” Science & Society, Vol. 66, No. 1, pp. 94-108 (Spring 2002).
[18] Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011).
[19] Avraham Pavin, “The Kibbutz Movement: Facts and Figures” (Ramat Efal: Yad Tabenkin-Research and Documentation Center of the Kibbutz Movement, 2006).
[20] See Uri Zilbersheid, “The Israeli Kibbutz: From Utopia to Dystopia,” Critique, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 413-434 (Winter 2007).
[21] Jon Elster provides an excellent case for this position in “Self-realisation in Work and Politics: The Marxist Conception of the Good Life,” in Elster and Moene (eds.), Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 127-159. Michael Lebowitz also develops the idea in The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

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