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Branko Milanović's criticism of the Marxist left makes no sense
Another episode of broad-brush criticism that ends with the implicit "not me, though"
Branko Milanović is one of the world’s foremost scholars on inequality. Most of his career can be understood as a campaign to reduce it: “a more equal world,” he writes, “remains a salutary objective.” He has also acknowledged “the inescapable influence of [Karl] Marx on my work”; and yet in a new article for Unherd, Milanović insists that according to Marx, “the reduction of inequality that could be obtained through syndicalist struggles cannot by itself be the final goal.”
How can we explain this apparent contradiction? Pretty easily: Marx insists that it is an
impossibility to achieve true equality under capitalism. True equality will become possible only when a minority no longer monopolises access to capital in order to hire labour, and to appropriate the surplus-value.
Thus if your final goal is to reduce economic inequality as much as possible, Marx’s political programme of abolishing capitalism is a crucial next step. Marx is also, Milanović argues, “absolutely indispensable in the work on income and wealth inequality,” that is, studying it; Marx’s “class analysis is absolutely crucial for all students of inequality.”
So there really is no contradiction here at all: Milanović understands that you can be a Marxist while opposing income inequality.
And that’s what puzzles me about his new Unherd article: its central argument is that “the Left has given up on usurping capitalism,” but his evidence is our habit of “believing that reduction of inequality is the primary objective of the left.”
The train of logic seems to be something like this: Marx argues that you have to abolish capitalism if you want to reduce inequality. This is my goal, and why I often champion Marx in my opposition to inequality. But when the left does this, it’s proof that they “have given up on the idea of ending capitalism”. What?
Milanović’s article is a case study in what I’ve started to call Not Me, Though criticism — a line of rhetoric that’s become more and more common in attacks on the left. Not Me Though criticism is when you make a case against the Left that would seem, on the merits, to apply to yourself as well; but it proceeds, without explanation, as if it does not. Logically this is just a type of special pleading, but Not Me Though criticism has three distinctive features:
It relies on the assumption that people ordinarily do not criticize themselves, especially when the criticism is ungenerous or ferocious.
It is self-aggrandizing inasmuch as it implicitly positions the critic as a unique exception to the rule.
It flatters its audience by implying that if they agree with the critique, they are exceptional too — and in this way encourages them to exclude themselves from references to “the left.”
Unherd provides the perfect audience for this kind of criticism: it aims “to push back against the herd mentality,” but it almost always does so by punching left. Indeed, Not Me Though criticism seems to be the price of admission for leftists who want to write for pseudo-independent publications like Unherd and Compact; you can make substantively left arguments, but only if they are mobilized as a critique against a generalized left, and only if you present yourself as an exception.
It’s hard to say when Milanović feels the need to frame his argument with Not Me Though rhetoric, but the response to it straightforward. While his nuanced reading of Marx is correct, he provides no real evidence that Marx’s champions on the left tend to disagree with it. As far as I can tell, the sort of leftists who object to the abolition of private property are the sort of leftists who are likely to distance themselves from Marx as well. If Milanović thinks otherwise, his work is still ahead of him.
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