Ten Marxist ideas that most people agree with
A new economic paper disputing Marx's legacy fails to grapple with his basic ideas.
A new paper in The Journal of Political Economy argues, in effect, that Marx was not considered an intellectually respectable figure until the Russian Revolution. This is just demonstrably false as Jeremy Neufeld points out quantitatively and John Ganz lays out historically, but another way you could contest this paper is to just walk through Marxist ideas that most people would agree with regardless of how they were popularized.
Even liberals, it turns out, often end up agreeing with Marx — they just don’t realize it. Sometimes this is just because his ideas have been so vindicated that we take them for granted now; as Isaiah Berlin put it, they “are necessarily ignored in proportion as their effects have become part of the permanent background of civilised thought.” Other times liberals will end up “discovering” ideas that are really just trivial reformulations of Marx, and they don’t know it because they haven’t read him. This has given us one of the funnier recurring jokes of our time:
On that note, even if we set aside some of Marx’s more controversial claims, the notion that his work can be discredited as only accidentally popular seems particularly facile once we look at what some of his ideas actually are — ideas that very few people would take issue with today. While some of them had intellectual precedents, it is clear that Marx played a central historical role in both developing them and championing them. Here are just ten in what could be a much longer list.
1) Economies can create social alienation. This is probably the least controversial Marxist idea in contemporary politics: you’ll find everyone from hard-right fascists to soulless neoliberals to committed communists saying it. This has been particularly true since the late 80s / early 90s, when brooding over the problems of alienation in the modern world became a staple of popular culture. Think Neo at his office job, or Office Space; think Radiohead’s Fitter Happier More Productive or, well, the entire Seattle grunge scene.
Liberals, of course, typically describe alienation as a symptom of diseased capitalism rather than one of capitalism itself: bad public policy that encouraged homeownership created suburbia, for example, which isolated individuals from the ordinary social interactions they’d experience in other living arrangements. Even here, however, liberalism is recognizing a problem that Marx recognized, and are trying to understand its etiology as he did, by looking at the economic structures and incentives that created it.
2) Culture can be understood by looking at the role it plays in the economy that it emerges in. You can understand culture as an expression of spontaneous creativity, or through influence and imitation, or psychoanalytically, or as divinely inspired, and so on. It was Marx, however, who asked questions like: in a society where the economy is structured a certain way, what kind of ideas would you expect to emerge? What role if any does this cultural artifact play in defending or upholding the system of production that created it? If it seems critical of that mode of production, how then was it produced?
Today these are just standard questions asked by every sociologist, historian, and cultural critic you can think of, but it was Marx who really pioneered this method of investigation.
3) History can be productively understood as a story of class conflict. The particulars of Marx’s analysis of class struggle are so controversial that it’s easy to miss just how influential the underlying framework has been. Put generally, Marx observed that certain economic systems predict inevitable conflict between different economically defined segments of society; that said systems also imply likely or inevitable outcomes to these conflicts, regardless of how particular individuals behave; and that this, combined with point (2), means that a whole lot of history can be understood through this kind of economic analysis.
Liberals use different terminology and arrive at different conclusions, of course, but it’s impossible to miss how influential this way of looking at the world is today. An extraordinary amount of prehistoric anthropology, for example, consists of digging up ancient artifacts, puzzling out how they must have been created, and then extrapolating from these assumptions about production all kinds of conclusions about how society was structured and how different classes related to each other. If (say) you compare how much jewelry contemporaries were buried with, you can start to get a sense of just how significant economic inequality was at a given time, and from there you can work out all kinds of implications about how this society (if relatively egalitarian) would have differed from the same society (if relatively hierarchical).
4) Capitalists create demand. Among liberalism’s more dogmatic intellectuals you may still find some who hold that capitalists only ever respond to consumer demands; this is, after all, a useful way of deflecting responsibility for the market away from the rich and back onto the public. Outside of those true believers, however, it’s just conventional wisdom that capitalists use everything from marketing to sales strategies to political intervention to create needs that they can then satisfy at a profit. Just look at how we talk about things like gambling or microtransactions in gaming, for instance; everyone knows that these markets rely heavily on all kinds of sophisticated psychological manipulation to get consumers to pay for things they would otherwise neither want nor need.
5) Capitalism spreads and integrates everything into a single global economy. Later intellectuals in the Marxist tradition (in particular Lenin) would elaborate on how this process would inevitably entail violent imperialism, but it was Marx who predicted that capitalism can never persist as a regional or segmented phenomena. As often happens, in this case the main controversy surrounding Marx’s prediction is whether it was correct but preferable (neoliberals love globalization) or fortunately incorrect (reactionaries hate globalization, but think we can have capitalism without it).
6) Capitalism inevitably tends towards massive concentrations of wealth and power. Though there are still plenty of orthodox capitalists who will maintain that capitalism is ultimately an egalitarian system that will maintain a kind of competitive equilibrium if you get the cronyism and government intervention out of it, this is hardly the consensus position. Just as often, liberals will concede that inequality is a seemingly inevitable feature of capitalism, but that the rich have earned their wealth; or that it’s a necessary evil because the alternatives are even worse. Regardless, though “the rich get richer” is a very old sentiment, it was Marx who really charted out the mechanics of how this happens in capitalism.
7) Exchange-value is not the same as use-value. Like many items on this list, the general point that what you can trade something for does not necessarily reflect how useful it is has been around for a very long time. It was Marx, however, who formalized this point in the course of criticizing capitalism’s tendency to collapse these two kinds of value. Liberal economists still object to that critique, of course; but that distinction, and its associated argument about commodification under capitalism, is (like alienation, and for the same reasons) a point of common sense everywhere else. Steve Keen even goes so far as to call this insight “the pinnacle of classical economics”.1
8) What we call “truth” is socially constructed. There are two readings of Marx’s position on this point, but both have proven extraordinarily influential. The modest reading holds that “truth”, as it appears in our society, is always mediated by power; it is power that decides what ideas are disseminated, what is ignored, what is sacred, what is taboo, and so on. Here “truth” is probably better understood as something closer to “orthodoxy” or “ideology”.
Placed in the context of Hegel as well as earlier empiricists, one can also detect in Marx a more radical point: that the very act of knowing changes the world it sets out to know. This is not, despite what today’s reactionaries will tell you, Marx taking some kind of postmodern relativist position; it is much closer to the way quantum physicists talk about the observer effect, drawing attention to how the process of observation works and how this has necessary effects on what is being observed. Characteristically, though, Marx was less interested in the epistemological implications of this point than its political consequences.
Regardless, it’s striking to imagine a world where either of these ideas aren’t in circulation; and though I think you can find some very general precedents, the consensus is still with Bertrand Russell, who insists that “Marx was the first philosopher who criticized the notion of ‘truth’ from this activist point of view.”2
9) Capitalism is intrinsically self-destructive. Ask a liberal if Marx has been vindicated in his claims on this, and they’ll reflexively tell you “no”; that Marx was wrong about the collapse of capitalism is just a contemporary truism. But now ask the same question in a different way. Is climate change destroying the earth? Are rich people and giant corporations both a major cause of this and an obstacle to any solution? And is it because capitalism encourages people to chase profits at all costs?
Though this is a significant simplification of the analysis Marx lays out in Capital Vol. 3, it is indeed his analysis; quite often, capitalists deny the Marxist position not by denying its basic claims, but by refusing to follow them to their logical conclusion. You can see this very clearly in contemporary discourse about climate change: though it is generally understood that capitalism is playing a primary role in driving climate change, and that climate change may very well destroy the planet, you will not often see this described as a process of capitalism destroying itself.
10) Capitalism is creating precarity. When capitalism impoverishes workers, capitalist ideology typically insists that this just isn’t true, and rolls out all kinds of numbers about rising wages all over the world. When capitalism creates precarity, however, the move is quite different: instead of denying the basic facts of precarity, capitalists will often simply insist that they are good.
It’s true: workers can’t count on spending an entire career in a single workplace, or on maintaining a single vocation, or on guaranteed pensions as opposed to uncertain investment returns. And it’s true that capitalism is responsible for all of this. But then, we are told: flexibility and hyper-competition and risk are all things we should want! They create opportunity, after all, and they let us tailor our “work life” to fit all of our idiosyncratic wants and needs.
Marx — and most workers, for that matter — will tell you a very different story about those consequences. The added flexibility and customization that today’s gig economy supposedly creates are mostly illusory, and whatever benefits they do provide are far outweighed by the uncertainty, the stress, and the instability of being a disposable cog in a million different machines. Nevertheless, the basic structure of today’s job market isn’t just exactly what Marx predicted; most people get that it’s what he predicted for the reasons he predicted it, having to do with labor being treated by the rich as an expendable commodity.
These are just ten of the more widely accepted ideas with us today that can be traced directly to Marx’s work. Asking how much of his popularity owes to the Russian Revolution seems, in this light, a lot like asking whether the Pythagoras can claim the Pythagorean theorum or whether the Babylonians came up with it first. Interesting historical question I suppose, but no real reason for mathematicians to care either way.
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Keen, Steve. Debunking Economics.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy.