We tend to see freedom as the attribute or right of an individual. G.A. Cohen has argued that this is incomplete at best. Individual freedom is A’s freedom to do X. Collective freedom is A’s and B’s freedom to do X. Cohen gives the example of 10 people locked into a room. There’s only one door, one key, and the door can only be opened once allowing only one person to escape. Any individual is free to leave, but collectively all are unfree. Individual freedom is dependent on the decision of all other individuals and of the collective not to exercise their freedom.
Cohen uses this example to argue that the working class is collectively unfree: workers are individually free to escape the working class, but collectively unfree to do so; capitalism allows only a small number of workers to become capitalists, otherwise there would no longer be any workers left to support it. In general, most workers have no choice but to sell their labor power and remain in the working class.
I’m not interested here in an abstract evaluation of the respective merits of individual vs collective freedom. My point is limited: individual freedom does not make sense when we talk about human rights. What is important is not that individual freedom depends on others or the collective giving up their freedom, but that individual freedom is meaningless without collective freedom. It’s only when the collective is free that individuals are free. Few if any of my rights make sense if I’m the only one having them or the only one being able to exercise them. If I can speak but nobody else can, then what is the point of me speaking? I will just be talking to walls. If I have freedom of religion but nobody else has, then with whom will I worship and congregate? Etc. My individual freedom in the sense of my having effective rights depends on everyone else being free and having equally effective rights, not on everyone else giving up their freedom.
More posts in this series are here.
Perhaps there’s not a lot about Marxism that’s worth remembering, but if one thing is, it’s the critique of division of labor. I don’t understand why this subject is systematically ignored in present-day discussions. After all, it’s not like it’s a problem that has been solved or anything. The Marxist critique goes something like this. Modern capitalism forces workers into a rigid system of division of labor and this system, like the wage system and the private ownership of the means of production, inhibits self-development.
Division of labor is driven in part by technology and the automation of labor, but also by organizational choices that promote specialization. It takes place within an industry or a factory, but also in the economy in general. Both the assembly line and the use of nannies and cleaners are examples of division of labor. Cutting production and work into seperate parts increases productivity, which is positive, but it also has some serious drawbacks that are seldom acknowledged. The worker becomes a detail-worker who executes only parts of a production process, or perhaps even only one part, because all tasks are isolated, taken apart and divided into elementary parts. This is done in the name of productivity – specialization means better and faster work – but sometimes is not really a choice: many production processes have become so complex that one man can no longer master them from start to finish, physically or intellectually.
But because production has been cut into pieces, labor becomes monotonous, mechanical, one-sided and repetitive. The worker does not really produce anything – he or she just adds an often insignificant part. This destroys creativity, self-expression and self-development, values that used to be associated with production. It is the system that produces, and the worker is only a tiny part in this system, often unaware of the nature, composition and overall fabrication process of the final product. Perhaps he doesn’t even know what the people before and after him are doing. He cannot develop his “natural human urge toward spontaneous productive activity”. Rather than his will or his purposefulness, he develops only one tiny ability which in itself is rather meaningless and without a product. He becomes stupid and often even sacrifices his health as a result of monotony and indifference.
Again, this is true for the assembly line, but also for many other production systems that are not necessarily located within one single factory. Marx focused his critique on the assembly line or rather the early versions of it discussed in Adam Smith’s pin factory example, but it can be transposed without much effort to other, more modern economy wide types of division of labor. Here’s Marx on manufacture:
This stunting of man grows in the same measure as the division of labor, which attains its highest development in manufacture. Manufacture splits up each trade into its separate partial operations, allots each of these to an individual laborer as his life calling, and thus chains him for life to a particular detail function and a particular tool. “It converts the laborer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts … The individual himself is made the automatic motor of a fractional operation” (Marx, Capital) – a motor which in many cases is perfected only by literally crippling the laborer physically and mentally. The machinery of modern industry degrades the laborer from a machine to the mere appendage of a machine. “The life-long speciality of handling one and the same tool, now becomes the lifelong speciality of serving one and the same machine. Machinery is put to a wrong use, with the object of transforming the workman, from his very childhood, into a part of a detail-machine” (Marx, Capital). (F. Engels, On the Division of Labor in Production, Anti-Dühring)
And although some of us have moved on from “Modern Times” type excesses, workers in many countries and industries are still little more than replaceable parts of an industrial factory, a meta-machine containing both machines and humans. They are replaceable because their tasks are so detailed and stripped of complexity for the sake of easy and fast processing, that they can be taken over by any other worker or by a new machine. They are like organs in a huge organism and in an age of routine transplants.
And this predicament is not limited to factory worker or sweatshop laborers in far away countries. To some extent, we all suffer even if we’ve never seen a factory from the inside. We all work in a divided labor system. For many of us, this means that we cannot use our work to be creative or to form and express an identity through production. The best we can do is deliver the food necessary for other workers to continue their work, take care of their children for a while, or iron their shorts. The creation of products is an essential part in the creation and expression of identity, but the modern worker often does not create products. The system or organization creates products and the worker only contributes an insignificant part. He may be totally unaware of the final product and of the other parts contributed by his colleagues.
The activity of the worker does not have a goal. It’s merely a means in a larger goal. Because he is often unaware of what came before, what comes after and what is the ultimate product of it all, his activity seems purposeless to him, although in reality it has a small purpose. A man without a purpose and without understanding of what is going on, is not a man. How can the worker see his work as an integral part of his life? Work is therefore something which merely serves survival; life starts after work.
Some forms of division of labor also imply the power of the organizer. That the case for division of labor within the factory. The “capitalist”, the owner of the production system, is the only one who oversees, understands and controls everything. Division of labor requires hierarchical organization, the authoritarian imposition of strict rules that have to be rigorously enforced if the system is to operate. There is no freedom at all. The organizer isn’t free either because technology forces him to impose a strict organization which he is not free to choose. Science and competition impose the most efficient form of organization.
The positive fact of cooperation inherent in the idea of division of labor turns into something negative, namely the isolation of the workers and their separation from the overall production process. Division of labor, automation or organization increase productivity but the workers suffer in the process.
[W]ithin the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labor are brought about at the cost of the individual laborer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labor-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labor-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (K. Marx, Capital)
You can read more about this in my latest book.
Factories making sought-after Apple iPads and iPhones in China are forcing staff to sign pledges not to commit suicide, an investigation has revealed.
At least 14 workers at Foxconn factories in China have killed themselves in the last 16 months as a result of horrendous working conditions.
Many more are believed to have either survived attempts or been stopped before trying at the Apple supplier’s plants in Chengdu or Shenzen.
And they were made to promise that if they did, their families would only seek the legal minimum in damages.
An investigation of the 500,000 workers by the Centre for Research on Multinational Companies and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom) found appalling conditions in the factories.
Foxconn admits that it breaks overtime laws, but claims all the overtime is voluntary.
Some officials within the company even accused workers of committing suicide to secure large compensation payments for their families.
Anti-suicide nets were put up around the dormitory buildings on the advice of psychologists. (source)
Consider these two commonly accepted ideas:
- the interests of business and government are incompatible: business wants as little government as possible, and government wants to regulate and tax business for the common good
- wealth or income inequality is to some extent or perhaps even principally caused by differences in effort, talent and productivity: those who have greater wealth deserve it.
These ideas have intuitive appeal and are undoubtedly correct in some cases. As overall assessments, however, they are clearly false. Inequality has many causes. Regarding #2: very deserving people may end up very poor, and very undeserving people may end up very rich. Many other factors besides effort or talent determine monetary outcomes, such as disability, the coincidence of place of birth, parental influence, education facilities, tax policy, discrimination, technological evolution etc.
Regarding idea #1: one could just as easily make the case that big business depends on government and uses government to acquire unfair advantages, thereby deepening the inequality gap. These unfair benefits should perhaps even be called forcible expropriation because some people are getting better off at the expense of those who have less, and are using the government for this purpose.
For example, you often see big corporations embracing government regulation of their business (e.g. Philip Morris accepting restrictions on cigarette advertising) because they know that smaller competitors will have a much harder time digesting the regulatory burden (and, in the case of Philip Morris, filling the name recognition gap when advertising is prohibited). Regulation in such cases gives big companies and big earners a competitive advantage, and causes the income gap to widen. Another example of regulation are quality standards: those also favor big existing companies and make it harder for new and smaller players to enter a market. The same is true for intellectual property rules, zoning restrictions, occupational licensing, capitalization requirements and many other types of regulation. Legislation and regulation is often embraced by big business and wealthy economic actors as a means to benefit at the expense of smaller actors.
Some types of collusion between big corporations and government are even more direct and open: protectionist import tariffs, subsidies, bailouts, expropriation of private property for corporate use (through eminent domain rules) and military interventions abroad.
By the way, this logic does not only widen the wealth gap but also drives the growth of government. Big business leads to big government, which in turn favors big business.
More posts in this series are here.
- Fine Art Graffiti – The Work of Contemporary Painter Jaybo Monk Breaks Stereotypes (VIDEO) (trendhunter.com)
- Infinite Pickpocket Mural by Blu (laughingsquid.com)
- Blu Mural | Warsaw, Poland (slamxhype.com)
- Jerry Brown Graffiti Called A ‘Terrorist Threat’ By Police (huffingtonpost.com)
- Some Inscrutable Banksy Thing: The Movie [Trailer Park] (gawker.com)
- ‘Banksy’ city mural painted over (bbc.co.uk)
- Banksy in Basque (slamxhype.com)
- ‘Birth and death of a Banksy’ – mysterious artwork covered up (independent.co.uk)
- Banksy Does New Orleans [Art] (gawker.com)
In an effort to convince you that my new $19.95 book is actually worth a lot more than that, I’m blogging some excerpts. (I blogged the introduction when the book came out). Today, how do the different parts of the substructure and superstructure determine each other?
Marx is usually understood as arguing that the substructure (the material world) determines the superstructure. But that’s only part of his argument. The creation and propagation of ideology is an important activity of the ruling class. The members of this class usually do not work but appropriate the fruits of the labor of other classes, and hence they have the necessary leisure time to engage in intellectual “work” and to construct and promote ideologies that they can use to serve their interests, consciously or unconsciously. Those with material power also have intellectual power. They can influence what others think, and they will be most successful if they themselves believe the ideologies that they want to force on others.
This clearly shows that the substructure does not only determine the legal and political parts of the superstructure, but thinking as well. The prevailing ideas are the ideas of the prevailing class.
[T]he class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. K. Marx, The German Ideology
But there is a kind of feedback action at work here. The substructure determines ideas, but these ideas in turn help to maintain a particular economic substructure. Not everything goes up from the material to the intellectual. Something comes down as well, but only after it went up first.
This can be expressed in the left half of the following drawing:
In this drawing, an arrow means “determination”. All ideas, not only political and legal ones, are both the expression (arrow 2) and the safeguard (arrow 3) of the economic structure of society. (The bottom-left half, arrow 1, represents the previously mentioned relationship between means of production and relations of production).
But there is also a right half in this drawing: the fact that ideas, in a kind of feedback mode, help to determine a particular economic structure, does not always have to be negative or aimed at the status quo. The poor, when they shed their false consciousness imposed by ideology, become conscious of their real situation, and this consciousness will help to start the revolution which will modify class relations and hence the substructure. This is represented by arrow 6.
Ideally, arrow 6 would have to pass through the box containing “politics” since the revolutionary proletariat will take over the state when attempting to modify the relations of production.
However, as we will see later [in the book], this awakening is bound to certain material preconditions, in particular the presence of certain very specific forces of production, namely large-scale industrial production with mass labor (arrow 4) and the strain imposed by existing class relations (arrow 5). It cannot, therefore, take place in every setting. Ultimately, all consciousness, real and false, is determined by the substructure. The order of determinations is fixed and follows the numerical order in the drawing. …
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. “What’s it like in there?” asks the visitor. “Well,” the devil replies, “in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“That’s terrible!” he gasps. “I’m going to check out communist hell!” He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. “I’m still in the free world, Karl,” he says, “and before I come in, I want to know what it’s like in there.”
“In communist hell,” says Marx impatiently, “they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“But… but that’s the same as capitalist hell!” protests the visitor, “Why such a long queue?”
“Well,” sighs Marx, “Sometimes we’re out of oil, sometimes we don’t have knives, sometimes no hot water.”
More on communism.
The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . . The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . . . It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion. Adam Smith
The purpose of economic rights is the equal possession of a minimum supply of those fundamental material means, which are necessary for the continuation of life in a decent way. If there are some people who have less than the minimum, economic rights will redistribute some of these means. In other words, these rights will take some things away from those who have enough and give it to those who do not have enough. This is possible because, globally or even nationally in some cases, there is enough for everybody. The only problem is the unequal distribution.
It’s good to remind some conservatives that the father of capitalism agrees.
More on spreading wealth.
Given the importance of work and production in the life of individuals, it is justified to give them some say in the way in which the means of production are used. The owners of the means of production should not be entitled to decide unilaterally on the conditions, organization, purposes, processes and meaning of production. Production is an important part of human life and people should have a say in it.
Concretely, this means a kind of corporate democracy and participation. Communism traditionally proposes common ownership of the means of production. The workers in the factory, rather than the capitalists or the shareholders, would own the factory in common. Or, rather, society as a whole, which in communism means the class of workers, would own the totality of all means of production. This would obviously spell the end of private property, not necessarily private property as such, but in any case private property of the means of production.
This is unacceptable because private property is an important value. It’s unequal distribution should be criticized, as well as the exclusive right of decision of the owners of the means of production, but there are good reasons to keep the right to private property more or less intact (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely). I’ve written about this here.
Common ownership of the means of production, as proposed by traditional communists, is not the only means to create corporate participation and worker control over production. Modern-day capitalism has in some cases reconciled private ownership with large measures of worker participation. Many decisions in companies are now taken by the owners and the workers together. This participation is not incompatible with the free market either. A free market is a system between economic agents, not within them.
According to Marxism, democracy suffers from a contradiction between political equality on the one hand (equal votes but also equal rights, equality before the law etc. – see here and here) and economic or material equality on the other hand. The absence of the latter prevents the full realization of political and even judicial equality (equality before the law). Wealthy persons have more means (such as money, time, education etc.) to inform themselves, to lobby, to influence, to get themselves elected, to defend themselves in court etc. A merely formal principle such as political equality loses much of its effectiveness when some can use their wealth to control political debates and decisions. Even more so, political equality, democracy and equal human rights (not only the right to private property) serve to cover up, justify and even maintain material inequality, exploitation and class rule in a capitalist society.
Real material equality and therefore also real political and judicial equality can only be brought about by an anti-capitalist revolution which brings down the capitalist system of property along with the legal and political tools that are used to protect this property. Material redistribution is not enough because it does not affect material inequality in a substantial way. It only provides a minimum of basic goods. The remaining material inequality still affects political equality. Democracy is self-defeating. It can never deliver what it promises because it does not go far enough. It can only give people formal instead of substantial equality. Elections, rotation in office, economic rights etc. are superficial phenomena without effect on the deeper economic processes of exploitation and class rule. Democracy must therefore be replaced by something better.
Marxism claims that there can only be real political equality and real equality of power when the most important goods – the means of production – are the equal property of all citizens. In all other cases, the rich will have more opportunities to benefit from political participation and judicial protection. Equal rights will lead to an unequal outcome, and this is intentional.
Much of this is, of course, correct. Wealthy groups can and do use elections and human rights to pursue their interests, often at the expense of less fortunate groups. They may even use democracy to maintain exploitation. They can speak better thanks to their education; they have a better knowledge of the ways in which to defend interests; they know their rights; they have friends in high places, etc. That is why compensating measures have to be taken, not only in order to respect economic rights, but political rights as well. By way of these measures, the state redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, in order to grant the poor more political influence and not just in order to satisfy their basic needs. Other measures enhance the independence of political parties with regard to wealthy pressure groups (for example public instead of private funding for political parties).
It is clear that we are not dealing with a potentially fatal argument against democracy. Wealth causes political inequality everywhere, not just in a democracy. Democracy and human rights are in fact the only solution to the problem of the unequal political result of economic inequality. Democracy and human rights are not merely formal. Equal voting power, equality before the law and equal rights do not cover up and do not maintain the social division between rich and poor. Democracy does not hide divisions; it shows them and it shows them in a better way than any other form of government. And because it allows divisions to become public, it offers the best chance of eliminating or softening unjust divisions. Democracy does not only serve the interests of the wealthy classes. Poor, exploited or oppressed groups also benefit from freedom of expression, from the election of their own representatives and from the possibility to claim rights (economic rights, for instance, equalize political influence because they create leisure time which can be spent on politics). Even the bare fact of being able to show an injustice is an advantage in the struggle against this injustice. If you are not able to see an injustice – and this can happen in an unfree society – then you are not aware of its existence and you can do nothing about it. Democracy at least gives poverty a voice.
The struggle against injustice means questioning society and the powers-that-be (also the economic powers). It is easier to question social relationships in a society in which political power can be questioned. Publicly questioning political power in a democracy is a process in which the entire people, rich and poor, are involved. This process legitimizes the act of questioning per se and therefore also the act of questioning injustices in society. Elections and rights are not a force against change. They create infinite possibilities, including the possibility to change economic structures.
Of course, the political and legal elimination of the difference between rich and poor (they all have an equal vote, equal rights and equality before the law) does not automatically result in the elimination of the social difference between rich and poor. However, democracy and human rights can diminish the influence of property and wealth because:
- They give legal and political means to the poor in order to defend their interests; no other form of government performs better in this field because no other form of government gives the same opportunities to the poor (the opportunity to show injustices, to elect representatives, to lobby governments, to claim rights etc.).
- They diminish the difference between rich and poor by way of redistribution; they allow for compensating measures to be taken, measures which help to preserve the value of political participation for all (for example redistribution, but also measures such as subsidies for independent TV-channels or for political parties which then become more independent from private wealth and private interests).
If certain divisions are made politically and legally irrelevant (by way of equal rights, equality before the law, equal vote etc.), then this is not necessarily part of a conscious strategy to maintain these divisions in real life. If it were part of such a strategy, it would probably produce the opposite of what is intended. The chances that injustices disappear are much higher in a society in which injustices can be shown and questioned, and only a democracy can be this kind of society. A society which can question itself because it can question the relations of power, is more likely to change. This is shown by the recent history of most western democracies where many injustices have been abolished by way of democracy and human rights. The labor movement, the suffragette movement and feminism would have been impossible without democracy and rights. Workers, women, immigrants etc. have all made successful use of the possibility to claim rights, to elect representatives, to enact legislation etc.
Political influence will probably never be equal for everybody (talent also plays a role, and it is difficult to correct for the effects of talent). But there is more and there is less. Democracy is probably the best we can hope for. On top of that, democracy constantly enhances the equality of influence, even though every victory creates a new problem. The Internet, for example, will empower many people and will enhance political equality, but it will also exclude many other people, namely those without the necessary computer skills or without the infrastructure necessary to use the Internet on an equal basis. It can become a new source of political inequality. We will have to finds ways in which to equalize the access to and the use of the Internet because we want to maintain or increase political equality. In the meanwhile, however, a new kind of inequality should not make us lose sight of the enormous progress for equality which the Internet allowed us to achieve. Many people, who today use the Internet to participate in politics, never participated in the past.
Theories about the “clash of civilizations” are very popular these days. According to this strand of cultural reductionism, the struggle between capitalism-democracy and communism, which was mainly an ideological struggle, is now replaced by the struggle between civilizations or cultures, a struggle no longer based on convictions, ideology or the economy but onidentity.
The identity of one culture may be threatened by another one, or one culture may be expansionist at the expense of others, which causes conflicts. The bloody borders between civilizations (in Israel, Serbia, Russia etc. or even lower Manhattan – 9-11 – given the virtual nature of borders in our globalized age) are given as proof. In order to avoid these conflicts, one has to separate cultures. Multiculturalism, immigration etc. have to be avoided, and the borders have to be defended militarily against aggressive and hostile other cultures. Every civilization should strengthen its identity if it wants to be in a strong position vis-à-vis others.
All this is true to the extent that culture is the cause of conflict. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not, and then other measures are more adequate. Conflicts between the West and Islam are perhaps in part caused by differences in culture, but probably also by economic circumstances, the Palestinian problem, etc. In any case, there are just as many conflicts within civilisations or cultures than between them (Iraq, Rwanda, Korea…). The differences between members of one civilisation are often more important than the differences between members of different civilisations.
More on homogenization.