Jan 302013
Karl Marx

On Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, Part I, an early, unpublished work from 1846.

What is human nature? What drives history? How can we improve our situation? Marx thought that fundamentally, you are what you do: you are your job, your means of subsistence. All the rest, this culture, this religion, this philosophy, is just a thin layer over our basic situation. Ideas are not primarily what changes the world; it’s economics. In fact, you can’t even have an idea that doesn’t end up being in some way a product of your economic situation, and any given culture inevitably reflects and reinforces the interests of the rich within that culture. Marx saw history as following an inevitable progression driven by the division of labor and development of technology, which would inevitably lead to a situation so awful for the vast majority that we’ll have no choice but revolution leading to Communist paradise.

OK, so that last part is a pretty big stretch, but some of Marx’s diagnoses seem on point: our alienation from our jobs, the fact that our opinions really do more often than not reflect our situation and are not therefore the product of a wholly free intellectual choice, the fact that a lot of philosophy ignores our practical situation to its detriment (Marx really rips into the “Young Heglians” that were dominating German thought at the time), our general lack of self-knowledge (this idea among others being lifted from Hegel), and some of his analysis of past cultural advances (mostly lifted from Adam Smith). The original threesome of Mark, Seth, and Wes are back to hack into these issues and more. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Job” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Download it free.

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.


facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

  67 Responses to “Episode 70: Marx on the Human Condition”

Comments (62) Pingbacks (5)
  1. This was wonderful to listen to. I am sure to come back and listen to some more. I have also shared this link with many friends. I have studied Marxism and Existentialism for 20 yrs. Great Job guys! Great discourse.

    • Thanks! I was very worried we wouldn’t do it justice, particularly in the eyes of experienced students of the subject like you.

      • Haven’t gotten all the way through podcast yet, but I would caution you against saying “Ideas are not primarily what changes the world; it’s economics.” This is a vulgarism that a lot of Marxists try to fight against. In fact, there’s a saying in certain Marxist circles to the effect of, “in Marxism, there’s no such thing as economics.” The point being that “economics” in itself (i.e., understood as an social science that studies “how human beings react to scarcity” [or whatever]) is itself a product of the academic division of labor characteristic of bourgeois society, and as economics does not deal with material and social relations of production, it is just merely concerned with the “realm of appearances” and not with the true nature of capitalism as a system. Think of Hegel’s famous “das Ganze ist das Wahre” (The truth is the whole) applied to the study of society — i.e., “economics” — supply and demand, consumer behavior, whatever, cannot be analytically separated from the entirety of the society — social relations, technological advancement, productive process, ideology, etc. — from which they emerge.

  2. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2202993

    ‘If we consider the possibility of extra catallactic relationships then the market-community dualism so prevalent in modern economic and social thought might be overcome – Virgil Storr’

    Interesting paper where the author looks at Marx’s alienation and finds more in common with Hayek (!) than one would have thought.

    • Great note, thanks! I was just thinking today that it’s a shame that when people talk about Hayek and the Austrians there’s an immediate association with a kind of heartless social Darwinism. It makes sense to me that Hayek’s concern with individual freedom aligns well with Marx’s conception of alienation and desire to see individual’s fulfilled.

      • Not to blindly dismiss Hayek (since I think some of his concerns still haven’t been dealt with sufficiently by leftist political economy yet) but you kind of paint yourself into the “heartless” corner when you flirt with heterodox positions on child labour bans

  3. I believe Marx is stating that revolutionary thought does not immediately come from the initiation of the offload of productive forces to the slave because revolutionary thoughts would require a desire for a change in the social situation, which would not be an impetus for the person unburdened by the productive force, quite the contrary the person whom is now unburden by the production of subsistence might find ways to continue the situation regardless of outside influence. By nature of his argument, the slaves ability to philosophize to create revolutionary ideas is stunted by his new found responsibly to the productive labor. This is why revolutionary ideas do not come about until the laborers find themselves unemployed by technology, this creates a group of people with the time to philosophize, and since they have lost their mode of subsistence, have an active desire to change the social situation, making them capable of birthing revolutionary ideas.

  4. Excellent talk, guys. I thought you did a wonderful job and nailed quite a few points in reference to economic relations and type of social stratification capitalism can create. Depending on Christological view in history (high/low), Adam Smith’s metaphor of “the invisible hand” of the free market can be a type of blind faith or a transcendent god or ideology, keeping the power structure in place. Thus keeping the power of production in the hands of a few masking what is real by complexity. Human beings become a means to an end, not an end in their self (someone mentioned) and in the name of collective power (benefiting society) becomes only enough power to consume the products of their own labor – no real purchase power in production. “Reduction in the desire of consumption” was another great point at 1.46 minutes.

    There’s a great read by Joerg Rieger called No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future. He really digs deep into the topics you address. Again, excellent talk.

  5. Essential stuff, a good intro to a vast subject.
    Going back to Democritus, this way of seeing the world, atomistic, not in terms of modern scientific nuclear science, dealing with judgmental deity’s, facing history as a science, in the way of Giambatista Vico, a Victorian emphasis on sensibility over metaphysics, can be, if taken as a cure of anxieties towards “what is, must be”, liberating. The liberal side of Marx is perhaps the side of Marx as a philosopher, which should be brought to light, today. He was a good friend of Heine when he wrote this text. Heine, an aesthete, typical of his age in the position he was in, in a way, the archtype of Victorian sensibility, along with Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, Huysmans’s Etienne, Joyce’s Stephen, Proust’s Baron de Charlus, all characters affecting young men like Marx, with a nostalgia for a past spirituality, fading away as capitalism reduces all illusions of the good, beauty, justice and so on, to nothingness. What was forgotten later in interpretations of Marx was perhaps that core of atomism.
    It is a typical “Victorian paradox” that Marx, an aesthete, a philologist, a deep scholar, should propagate the idea that the proletariat is actually capable of true revolution (if you are cynical enough you might call it sadism). The majority never has revolutionary discontent, that is reserved to the “basement man”, if it were otherwise we would see “a regeneration of the world”. Marx was the child of the time of the aesthete.
    A good follow up on this episode might be to take it back to Democritus and Lucretius and the back and forth’s of the thoughts of Epicurus.

    A good episode indeed, if anyone want’s to go deeper in the enormous construction that is “Das Kapital”, check out: http://www.youtube.com/user/readingcapital?feature=watch

  6. Great episode! I hope you continue the tech/futurism angle soon. David Chalmers has written philosophically about the singularity, but it might be better to focus on a single topic, like longevity. Anyway, great show, keep it up :)

  7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/thinkingallowed/thinkingallowed_20060118.shtml
    “What are the differences between earlier forms of industrial capitalism and the more global, boom and bust version of capitalism that is taking its place?
    In recent years, reformers of both private and public institutions have preached that flexible, global corporations provide a model of freedom for individuals.
    But as Professor Richard Sennett explains with this latest economy model come new social and emotional traumas that only a certain kind of person can prosper from.”

  8. Timely episode I suppose. Leiter Reports yesterday or so says “Marx’s comeback continues..” and I’ve heard that before about Marx coming back. You can comeback but not all the way I guess. Leiter has links to Marx related articles, one from NYT featuring this “Jacobin” magazine guy. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/01/marxs-comeback-continues.html
    I vaguely recalled hearing of Jacobin, went to their site and there’s a very critical piece on Thomas Frank (I’d heard Frank dissing Jacobin in the latest Baffler) claiming the Baffler was the shit during the Clinton years, just right for the times and itself a product of the 90s..but now the Baffler sucks and they detail all the limitations and the point is Jacobin is a rightful successor. Some writer is quoted as saying Frank is another class reductionist liberal, white male. Ugh. Anyway interesting shit.

    The Baffler is STILL the shit. Read Frank on the failure of Occupy Wall Street:

    Anyway, good job as usual people.

    • The New Inquiry is another young magazine that has good stuff in a similar vein

      • Hey do I know you? I told a Joshua I sort of know about this site. I knew this would be a worthy online rag to add to the dozens I regularly read/skim when I saw the piece on a counter-surveillance clothing collection by some ‘visionary’ fashion designer.Wouldn’t it be somethan’ if ‘post 9-11′ paranoid, cowardly America people began wearing burkas? And “accessories that subvert thermal-imaging technologies used in citizen surveillance”. This country is fuct.

  9. Good work. Don’t be so hard on yourselves. Thanks for doing Marx before Ayn Rand =P

    signed, Unreformed Marxian Favoritist

  10. Excellent podcast. I mentioned via Twitter that I had recently taught on this material (Manifesto, Feuerbach, Ruthless Critique, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) and it would have been great to point my students to this perfect preparatory podcast.

    Maybe you’d be interested in something that came out of our class discussions on the subject of what Marx really intended by his historical materialism:

    You can read all of the later Marx (basically everything from 1842 onwards) as a political project which uses communism and scientific analyses of capital as a revolutionary device in itself, not necessarily a prediction. In Feuerbach, he specifically identifies the purpose of philosophy and critique not as one of prediction and truth, but of pragmatic orientation to action and change. In a quite hilarious passage, he savages the scientific ideals of truth and causal knowledge: “Up to now the philosophers had the solution of all riddles lying in their lectern, and the stupid uninitiated world had only to open its jaws to let the roast partridges of absolute science fly into its mouth.”

    So did he change his mind when he began predicting communism? Did he perform an Obama-esque evolution of thought? The clue lies in “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing”:

    …each is compelled to confess to himself that he has no clear conception of what the future should be. That, however, is just the advantage of the new trend: that we do not attempt dogmatically to prefigure the future, but want to find the new world only through criticism of the old…I am therefore not in favor of setting up any dogmatic flag. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatics to clarify to them­ selves the meaning of their own positions. Thus communism, to be specific, is a dogmatic abstraction

    Marx believed that even the radical communists made the same mistake Feuerbach made by identifying the nullification of the political enemy with their own emancipation. He seems quite pessimistic about the prospects for an actual communism at this point. What he does insist on, however, is the necessity of the full articulation of the dogmatic belief itself as a way of bringing the contradictions (both political — as the communists recognized it — and philosophical — as Marx believed they did not) to their climactic face-off. It is in that moment of complete systemic breakdown (what Gramsci calls the interregnum) that the unity of the political and philosophical becomes obvious (i.e. the mutual support of capitalism and ideology).

    To me, that eventuality is really what Marx is driving at. Expressing a belief in communism as necessarily emerging from history can be seen as a strategic manifesto, a midwife of revelatory crisis. I really think there is a good case to be made that Marx sacrificed his intellectual life to the articulation of a dogma that he only ever saw as a means, and not an ends.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

    • Doesn’t all of this fly right in the face of what Marx saw himself doing in performing a project of dialectical materialism and not a historical materialism? The important difference being that he was not at all seeking only an analysis of the old forms, at least not in any way for its own sake, as the real end toward which all his “aimless” means were driving at was always a sublimation into a new form through the dialectical critique of the old.

      I will add that all of the heterodox views on Marxism that have been expressed on this page do work to reaffirm for me the revolutionary potential of Marx’s thought. Most people from the last century who have attempted to deal with Marx in good faith have to do so from very willfully obscurantist positions, what with McCarthyism abound, but even in these cases just his presence in the critique (or rather within the program of “critical theory” at large) is still enough to bring about a radical kind of dogma as compared with common complacency to the norm where Marx is just literally Satan.

      • I don’t think this flies in Marx’s face at all if you take his earlier comments seriously. Of course Marx was doing dialectical materialism, and he seemed to want to move history on to something else, presumably something with less of a stark rift between the political and philosophical dimensions. But in several places Marx explicitly says that communism is one expression of the human spirit within the dialectic, and not an end. So there’s definitely room to view his project as a pragmatic strategy rather than an idealistic manifesto. If you look through German Ideology and Ruhtless Critique and earler works I think it’s a consistent thread that might be teased out. I think your second paragraph bears this out, as it is the power of the dogma that produces the reaction and passion that is essential to the dialectic. Certainly lots of room to keep thinking through Marx.

    • Thanks Dan, very helpful.

  11. First, great episode. Secondly, a lot of Wes’s comments about the future, the division of labor in the future, and the nature of work in an increasingly technological world reminded me a great deal of Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. It’s a dystopian novel that takes place in the future where a great majority of jobs have been automated. It deals a lot with dignity and alienation, but with KV’s humor and manages to make great points without clearly falling on either ‘side’ of the ‘debate.’ I think it’s a great example of what you guys talked about in doing the No Country For Old Men episode, how literature is a great way to test out a theory, in this case it’s a great sandbox for playing with the exact ideas you were discussing today.
    -Nate Johnson
    I’ve been a PEL listener for about a year and a half, and I have been listening to the episodes in order, so today when I finished this episode, I was finally cought up and I hope to participate more in (at least for now just) the blog comments. This episode, like most of them, was great. I listen to a lot of other podcasts: In Our Time with Melvin Bragg, Elucidations, and Philosophy Bites. I love them all, but PEL is certainly my favorite. I also listen to a lot of iTunesU content. iTunes has become a great place to do some ‘individual study’ and this podcast helps give me a little direction. It’s interesting how often another podcast or course I’m listening to relates to a PEL episode I’ve listened to recently. After finishing the Marx episode, I happen to listen to an IOT History episode on money and they discussed Marx a good deal.

    • Congrats, Nate! Thanks for listening!

    • Thanks Nate — I love Vonnegut but haven’t read that one; I’ll check it out.

      • Also, I was just browsing the first few pages of Al Gore’s new book, The Future, and The first chapter seems directly pointed at some of the themes you were discussing particularly the effects of the increase in productivity.
        What I’ve read so far is very interesting, and I think each chapter is on vastly different subjects, but here is one small quote:
        “The impact of robosourcing on employment is sometimes misunderstood as a process in which entire categories of employment are completely eliminated when a technological advancement suddenly results in the replacement of people with intelligent interconnected machines. Far more common, however, is that the intelligent networked machines replace a significant percentage of the jobs while greatly the productivity of the small number of employees remaining by empowering them to leverage the efficiency of the machines that are now part of the production process alongside them.” – Gore, p.7

        He goes on the explain how this increases income inequality between capital and labor.


  12. Glad you guys finally got to Marx. I haven’t finished listening yet but I wanted to make a quick note. Early on you deal with the Theses on Feuerbach and read off this quote:

    “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.”

    Seth quickly dismissed this as another part of Marx’s economic determinism, but this is a misreading. What Marx is doing here is attacking what he would call “vulgar materialism”, (that is, a reductionist materialism that ignores the role of human consciousness), and the thrust of it is that we cannot discount human agency and motivation in our analysis of history. Far from advocating determinism, this is probably the most voluntaristic passage in all of Marx’s corpus. This goes to the fact that Marx believed his materialism did not entail a strict causal relationship between material/economic “base” and cultural/political “superstructure”, and though the former was the ultimate cause of societal structures, the actual individuals involved are far from irrelevant. That said, it remains an open question whether this formulation works, and moreover whether it is compatible with what he says later in The German Ideology, the preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, and “late” Marx generally.

    If you’re interested in this apparent contradiction, a good book to read is The Two Marxisms by Alvin Gouldner, a mid-20th century critical theorist. Unfortunately it’s out of print but it is available for free online. The introduction in particular is very philosophically interesting.

    • Thanks for the detailed listen, clarification and recommendation. I’ll have to go back to hear what I said and revisit whether I am committed to a reading of strong economic determinism. Obviously Marx believed in some kind of human agency if there was at any point to be some kind of revolution against the “superstructure”.

      • I went back and listened again myself, and apparently it was actually Wes Alwan who read this passage as suggesting determinism by Marx’s “material conditions”. I still have trouble remembering which name goes to which voice. My apologies.

        As to the issue of determinism in Marx, an important essay is Raymond Williams’s “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”. Williams argues that while there is a deterministic element in Marx, in fact Marx was opposed to a strong and narrow determinism where static economic factors determine all of social life, (after all this would “divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society” just as much as the alternate view of the Young Hegelians he attacks in his early works). Also, David Harvey, probably *the* most influential and respected Marxian philosopher today, has aptly pointed out that it would make no sense for Marx to both subscribe to an absolute determinism and still embark on a mission to radically transform society through politics, (and writing books like Capital), like you say. A less charitable (and more common) view would be that Marx wanted to have it both ways, and that he falls into the same trap as those he attacks.

        • A great podcast, but like Ibuki I also felt the discussion overstated determinism in Marxian thought (a widespread misconception). In fact, I have always been drawn to historical materialism for its rejection of vulgar materialism and economic determinism. In my view, this thought is best seen as a synthesis of French materialism, German idealism, and British political economy.

          There might be a few reasons that vulgar Marxism is often thought to be Marxian. First, Engels which I’ll leave be. Second, Althusser which in my opinion greatly overstates the break in Marx’ thought and fails to see the subjective dimension in the Capital (see Samuel Knafo’s 2002 article ‘The fetishizing subject in Marx’ Capital’). Last, and perhaps most important, the texts are not understood/read in the context of Marx’ ontology where the open synthetic dialectic overcomes the Cartesian subject-object divide. This last point is of course debatable and might be the result of an overly sympathetic reading, but it is crucial in order to understand Marxian thought.

          • would help your case here to provide some textual references from the readings for the podcast.

  13. I enjoyed this topic – particularly as I had a number of Marxian instructors and took a graduate course in the Theory of Economic Planning (from a Hungarian mathematician involved in the process during the 1950s and 1960s). Near the end of the podcast you pose the question whether Marx’s vision for the alternative is possible and / or feasible. My recollection of something close to a proposed solution:

    Oskar Lange, a Polish economist, in 1936 showed that a decentralized socialist state could replicate the properties of a capitalist system. Under this system, the state would own all capital and rent it out to bureaucratically managed enterprises. Those managers could be instructed to maximize the profits of their enterprises (the efficient allocation of resources). There would be freely functioning labor markets with wage rates being competitively determined, and prices of outputs would also be determined by a centrally planned state based on signals observed in markets. That is, even with the abolition of private property, society could achieve the same perfect competition optimal outcomes of the capitalist system. The state could then distribute some of the returns to capital to households to supplement their labour income, presumably towards a more egalitarian distribution of income. Unfortunately, in contrast to Marx’s goal, the division of labor continues and we have made no progress on that matter.

    Interesting from an academic perspective at the time, particularly the mathematics, but still highly impractical in practice.

  14. I really enjoyed this one… The first 10-15 minutes seemed a bit awkward and way too serious when considering the usual manor in which you guys delve into works/authors/subjects. But then I found the serious tone rather humorous given the way many of my leftists friends tend to act when people talk about marx(ism)…as if you guys were tiptoeing around the common misconceptions and an array of comments from perturbed leftists.


  15. Great episode. I especially liked Wes’ emphasis on technology being the driving factor behind societal upheavals. Makes me think that Marx has never been more relevant- maybe he was much further ahead of his time than we expected!

  16. I have listened to all your shows and would be interested to know why you never say anything positive about capitalism. It’s not perfect but look around you at the material abundance that has lifted a growing mass of humanity (immiseration of the proletariat? nope) out of the nostalgic hell of medieval conditions.

    As you note yourselves at the end, Marx doesn’t suggest anything actually workable as an alternative (is that the definition of utopian?) and it is rather weak (forgive me) to suggest that the failure of anywhere that has tried to practice anything close to Marxism is easily dismissed because the whole world has to adopt Marxism at once. Seriously? Heaven forbid. Why not note that anywhere that has adopted greater degrees of capitalism scores higher on nearly all measures of wellbeing than any other system?

    There are some good economics papers out there that suggest that communism as practiced in fact only lasted as long as it did because it could rely on price signals from the non communist parts of the world. After all, without prices (which Marx doesnt really talk about), how on earth can anyone decide how much to make of what or with what or stop making what and how much and so on and so on.

    As to my biases http://mises.org/daily/6353/The-Austrians-Were-Right

    • For a positive view of capitalism, I refer you to “The Bourgeois Virtues, Ethics for an Age of Commerce” by Deirdre N. McCloskey. Some quotes:

      “I do not want to rest the case for capitalism, as some of my fellow economists feel professionally obligated to do, on the material achievement alone. My apology attests to the bourgeois virtues. I want you to come to believe with me that they have been the causes and consequences of modern economic growth and of modern political freedom.”

      “The triple revolutions of the past two centuries in politics, population, and prosperity are connected. They have had a cause and a consequence, I claim, in ethically better people. I said “better.” Capitalism has not corrupted our souls. It has improved them.”

      An excerpt from can be found here: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/556638.html

      • Roy,

        couldn’t agree more.

        I just read both of her books and am looking forward to the third.

        For a slightly punchy article on wealth and happiness from predictably market friendly paper … nonetheless..



        • Jonathan:

          Actually, I have not up my mind on McCloskey’s position and was just pointing out an opposing view. I work in capital markets – dealing with “Wall Street” and “Bay Street” (Canada’s equivalent) all day, and this daily experience invariably taints my views on capitalism to the negative side. Let me reflect upon this for a while . . . .

      •  I just brought this book – thanks for the recommendation – looks very interesting and I always found virtue ethics – particularly Aristotelian, very inspiring and informative.

        Some of the difficulties however present with legislating virtues in terms of a capitalist approach of these “Bourgeois Virtues” for how the state/government gets involved.

        Can a state/ government legislate virtue ? This seems like it could become a disaster considering much of virtue ethics tend to be highly individualistic and may well have different requirements for people of different temperaments & personality traits.

        What are the best methods for social education and influence for a virtue ethics of this kind which promotes an “enlightened capitalism of love” ?
        The Nicomachean Ethics isnt exactly a jolly read, quite tedious and hardly likely to create virtue !

        • 1. Thanks — it’s really great.
          2. The Szeleny lectures are worth it just for the man’s accent alone. My favorite moment is when he calls Rousseau ‘a real bastard’. If all sociologists had a Hungarian lilt the world would be a better place.
          3. I noticed that virtue ethics popped up here and just wanted to remind other readers that the anti-liberal Alasdair MacIntyre felt that a ‘theory of ideology’ lay beneath his ‘central thesis about morality’. After Virtue p. 110 3rd ed. It’s another example of how once the Marx can is opened so many very different crazy snakes jump out.
          4. Bourgeois Virtues? Doesn’t the ghost of Nietzsche come and haunt you if you say that five times in front of a mirror in a dark bathroom? That’s some scary shit!

  17. A pitty that no former resident of any of the now extinct socialist republics of eastern europe was invited for some lived experience of marxism…

  18. I dislike the turn to marxism as the occult Leitmotiv of your efforts. Marxism is a dangerous hoax with a legion of agents and you seem to be falling prey to them.

  19. Great podcast. Just finishing a long paper on Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, in many ways, still the most essential text of Marxist philosophy, even if its author repudiated its main theses. I think your choice of the German Ideology was a good one. Louis Althusser places this text as the beginning of the ‘break’ between the early and late Marx, or Marx the ‘humanist’ and Marx the ‘structuralist’. The latter according to Althusser ceased to follow the lead of a human essence and focused instead on the immanent material totality, losing Hegelian idealism in the process. The most satisfying reading of the late Marx is Moishe Postone, still teaching in the US, I think at Yale, who argues for a very nuanced understanding of the present forms of labour, not as the essence of social ontology, but as the sine qua non of capitalist exchange relations, meaning that, as Wes was at pains to point out, overcoming labour itself is the real teleology of Das Kapital (circumventing what Marx called concrete and abstract labour). Mention was also not made that communism is never achieved until there is a withering away of the state, so that top down collective economies are nothing other than forms of state capitalism (that is how many left communists and Troskyists viewed the USSR and its satellite countries).

  20. Terry Eagleton on Marxism as a Theodicy:

  21. I have always thought that Marx was spot on as far as how wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few as productive forces are ratcheted up via technology. I am less confident about the advent of a “political consciousness” among the working class. I think he vastly underestimates the extent to which the average person wants to be more than simply what they do. I think this is because, in truth, Marx was simply wrong in his reduction of personhood to labor. We are, or at least aspire to be, more than that. Even if personhood could be reduced to labor plus aspiration it is this second ingredient that Marx doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to.
    Suppose we were to find ourselves in a workers utopia. If the value of such a state lies in the idea that all people would “flourish” in such a state we are still left with the question of what it means to flourish. Leaving aside the great many people who would no doubt be happy with an endless supply of cheese doodles and internet porn, there are many people who find that they flourish most IN THEIR WORK. You just can’t become accomplished in any art, craft or science be doing it occasionally. Mastery is a major source of life satisfaction which requires long years of study and practice. This still leaves us with the old problem of division of labor. A communist utopia would then require a serious consideration of what things are actually WORTH doing in order to minimize the number of different things that needed to be done. Of course the notion of “worth doing” presents a huge range of philosophical problems.
    Another thing worth thinking about in terms of Marx is his assumption that technological advancement and globalization (both of which he seems to think are necessary ingredients for the rise of communism) are sustainable or even desirable within the context of a finite system (like the global environment). I will not hold his lack of consideration about questions of exactly we would get the energy to drive all this technology because this question wasn’t on the radar in his time. For us however it is a question we can not avoid.
    Anyway, great discussion, thanks.

    • Of course he would not have said that life can be reducible to labor in a vulgar sense, in the first place there would not be the need for his dire calls of emancipation. We simply would be exploited labor and it wouldn’t be so much as recognizable let alone the apparent conditions for the possibility of a revolution.

      However there still remains the open question today about how labor becomes objectified, and it should at least be very clear to us by now that it does what with the proliferation of waged-labor even to a much greater extent than in Marx’s own time. There are those people who treat Marx skeptically, and say that he seems to have a pretty good vision about the way labor really takes place, but just don’t believe in the last instance that there can be objectified labor at all out of a relativistic nihilism. Then there are people who treat Marx economically, and are unable to move past the numerical commodification of quantified labor and work to also see a way in which things could be otherwise. A complete answer to this question for me would basically mean already being present in a post-capitalistic society that had successfully performed the revolution, the revolution is the process of working out the actual contradictions that only become raised by the posing of these sorts of questions.

      Marx was also skeptical about the possibility for the working class to develop its consciousness and so spent his whole life writing incriminating texts on political economy and deliberately inciting would-be revolutions, putting his family through an immense amount of suffering that adhering to a kind of normal liberal bourgeois life would have avoided for himself (although his daughter would have despised him for it), rather than sitting back and hoping for change to take place as it seems people would love to characterize him as having done. Many of your criticisms about human nature are actually only criticisms about life under capitalism which Marx would have certainly agreed upon, they are not necessarily applicable to life in general. He deals with your problem about what is worthy of being done by the notion of socially necessary labor time which is just precisely such a thing although has yet to become fully realized, the reasons for which you might want to explore.

  22. Ryan said:

    “Many of your criticisms about human nature are actually only criticisms about life under capitalism which Marx would have certainly agreed upon, they are not necessarily applicable to life in general.”

    I think this is where I disagree with Marx. I think that these problems are not caused by capitalism but that the latter is the result of these problems-that the conditions that bring capitalism about ARE in fact problems about life in general. The notion that the rich live the “good life” that we make possible by our toil doesn’t conceal the fact that we (the laborers) have largely agreed with our overlords about what constitutes the good life. We consent to the system because, at bottom, we, by and large, aspire to the same things.

    What does this good life consist of? It seems to consist primarily of being able to avoid the limitations placed on us by nature. The rich can eat what they want, when they want and as much as they want. They can go where they want to go when they want to for as long s they please and do what ever they like while they are there. If they become ill, they can get the best medical care. If they feel afraid, they can surround themselves with armed guards while they enjoy their orgies. In short, being rich consists in living the way we imagine the gods must live-free from the constraints of space, time, mortality and finitude of resources-they do not appear to suffer. I maintain that the desire to live beyond the limits of nature is a primary theme in human nature and this is, ultimately, why we do not revolt. We think they are right in their aspiration and only wish that we could somehow live the same way. We permit it because we want it and can, to a certain extent, have it vicariously through them. This is why we love celebrates, millionaires and mobsters.

    Ryan said:

    “He deals with your problem about what is worthy of being done by the notion of socially necessary labor time which is just precisely such a thing although has yet to become fully realized, the reasons for which you might want to explore.”

    Socially necessary labor time is an interesting notion. I am thinking of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of a device called the mechanical reaper. He is credited with “liberating farm workers from hours of back-breaking labor”. The original ad copy for this machine promised that one man with two mules could do in one afternoon the work that would take ten men a week to do. This was seen as a great boon. The problem wat that it put nine men out of work and the tenth into debt. those left without work would eventually find their way to the cities and the factory work that waited there. The tenth, if he was lucky, became a richer farmer with more disposable time, if he was not lucky, he would loose his farm to the bank. Was the labor time of the orginal ten men with primitive scythes “socially necessarily”?

    I could say more here but I’d like to know what people think before I go on.

  23. I greatly admire and esteem PEL and its audience. But I have sensed a longstanding intellectual complacency (repeated curt dismissals and ridicule of your political opponents real or perceived on the Right) that can be seen most clearly in the Marx podcast. Because I regard you all with respect, I feel obliged to lay my concerns out here.

    There’s something cult-like in the monolithic adoration of Marx. The tripod trap of initiation is the uncritical acceptance of these ideas: 1) That logic is not universal, that all thought is class based and relativized. Any critique of this is bourgeois reasoning. 2) That history has an end and dialectics leads inexorably to utopia, or socialism/communism. Any other conclusion is automatically dismissed. 3) That speculation and research into the nature and construction of the ultimate manifestation of socialism/communism is not permitted. Marx maintained that it was “unscientific” to formulate, test and reformulate a hypothesis of socialism/communism.

    There were flickers of recognition of this in the course of the podcast conversation, but only mere flickers. When we came to the moment when the ultimate manifestation of communism was revealed as an abracadabra maneuver (universal spontaneous mutual cooperation… REALLY?!?), no one pulled the circuit breaker of disbelief.

    I define a cult as a membership in a group where one cannot exit without significant damage. Marx and his followers attempt to lead us with visions of sugar plum fairies into a tripartite conceptual box. Exit from this box and you are demonized as the oppressor, designated a pariah, and methods of punishment are explored and employed (ranging from marginalization to demonization and even worse). This is identical in design to every cult in history.

    I think that the central problem of our time is the recuperation of critical thinking, that rebellion has become routinized, and there must be a way to rebel against rebellion without reactionary recourse. The universally recognized value of Marxian thinking is its engine of criticality, but the prohibition of self criticality within Marxism ultimately destroys its intellectual authority and condemns it to the status of the cult.

    And here, we arrive at the impossible dream: to find an alternative to Marx. We must rebuild the Left from the foundation. We must dare to do this, otherwise we are no better than Scientologists, members of the People’s Temple or elements of North Korean Upper Management.

    • I’m not sure what discussion you listened to, but my position was consistent throughout that 1) Marx had some good observations (which you can just as well find in many other humanist thinkers) about how consumerism is not good for us, and 2) He offered little in the way of realistic redress for that.

      I maintain that Marx did, at least at some point, conceive of his method as scientific and falsibiable, and by his own lights, his historical predications have already been falsified. Yes, universal revolution is a joke, and though our democracy is much too plutocratic and in need of reform, it’s going to be democratic tools through which we will eventually fix things, if we do (and I’m not optimistic). Wes took up the point in this discussion that I usually take up that technology is the key to our eventually being able to not be our jobs, but from what I understand, that’s never been a point that Marxists have really taken up that I’m aware of (I got that from Frithjof Bergmann, whom I hope to have as a guest on the show, but we’ll see).

      As for intellectual relativism, that’s complex (see our pragmatism episode), but we’ve certainly put in our time ridiculing the undergraduate “it’s all relative” attitude. Casually dismissing Ayn Rand is not the same as casually dismissing the position that truth is not in any sense relative.

      I’m not invested enough in tussles with Marxism to say whether trying to found the left wing on his legacy makes sense or not. I do think we can be intellectually objective enough to see that his observations are not equivalent to or subsumed by the various political regimes that called themselves Marxist. I don’t see studying Marx as any more provocative than studying Kant or Leibniz or Nietzsche. Neither, though, have I personally seen enough value in Marx himself to want to go read Kapital right now, but to each his own.

      My sense re. this and a few of the other objections on this thread (e.g. why don’t we ever say nice things about capitalism?) is that you’re asking us to take a political stand that goes beyond criticizing what was actually in this text, which is, of course, our (modest) ongoing goal for these discussions. It has not yet been in our purview to give any kind of summary assessments of utopian thinking or capitalism as an edifice or even objectivity itself. That kind of global statement is invariably bullshitty, and I think we try to stick to the text for the most part.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Your complaints would be more credible if were you to actually cite some quotes from the podcast episode, and specifically explain what they got wrong, or what they accepted uncritically. It seems like you’re mainly just frustrated that they didn’t go far enough out of their way to declare Marx full of shit at each and every element of the exegesis of the text.

      Exactly what comments did the podcasters make that you deem incorrect?

  24. “I define a cult as a membership in a group where one cannot exit without significant damage. Marx and his followers attempt to lead us with visions of sugar plum fairies into a tripartite conceptual box. Exit from this box and you are demonized as the oppressor, designated a pariah, and methods of punishment are explored and employed (ranging from marginalization to demonization and even worse). This is identical in design to every cult in history.”

    I am pretty sure that global capitalism has caused far more damage to society, the environment, and individuals than any other coordinated system. Marxist or not, I am pretty sure by your definition that would make capitalism the largest cult in the world. If i say to anyone in America that capitalism is the problem, i would be stigmatized just as you say. Zizek has commented before that it is easier to imagine the ed of the world than it is to imagine the end of global capitalism as a system of production.

  25. So why has no one called you a dirty, rotten, no-good Communist pig? Why were you worried? This is an amazing state of affairs. To claim “God is Dead” used to be a big deal. Now to claim “Communism is Alive” is a big deal. (Sound like Derrida?)

    What is needed perhaps is a good dose of deconstruction of the old Communism which has the historical failures of Stalin, Mao, etc. now embedded in it’s history. Had no one ever heard of Communism, and if Marx were writing now (and without his vitriol against philosophers) and were he now analyzing the economic progress and regress, with the new knowledge that economic progress depends on the progress of a world economy, not state by state economy, and were he to have not a stripped-of-it’s-original-soul Hegelian theory, but some believable conditions for the possibility of the success of Communism (such a terrible word needing refurbishing—how about back to its roots, like community-ism or something? –socialism has a similar problem—I’ll pick Synchronism just for fun) .

    So what could those conditions possibly be? Foundational human motivations such as Love or Respect seem like values to add to economic explanations for the new Synchronism, but perhaps it would require some good philosophic, sociologic, economic undergirding to give it a chance in people’s minds. Then if this transformation (revolution) becomes immanent toward the end of history, perhaps people will recognize it as a good thing and not run in fear that Communism is running rampant.

    I am reminded of William Faulkner’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: “when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
    This is a step up from Cormack MCarthy’s The Road, an apocalyptic nightmare, which may also be a possibility in the absence of Absolute Spirit.

    It is also interesting that, from this point of view, the possibility of everyone getting together at the end of history and giving up their claims to property for the freedom to not have to work is quite an appeal to faith (“The Rebirth of God?”) I’m also struck by the concept that work has such a bad reputation that “heaven” in the end times must include not working—the same nightmare of sitting on a cloud strumming your harp forever. If this gig is going to work, I think the concept of work also has to transform into the desire, ability and understanding of being continuously creative in life, not just less work. (In Deluzian terms, how to get A LIFE).

    I also find it fascinating, to think not just of the age of technology and information leading us to a shorter work week, the results of which have not been maximized (perhaps because it has not yet hit the global melting point), but that perhaps the next step in society after tribal/agrarian/industrial/technological-informational as a necessary precursor (or two) has not yet arrived.

    If the age of technology/information has led to less integrity, connection and accountability of wealth to the masses, then the next age might have to cause an increase in integrity, connection and accountability of wealth and property to the masses. What could that new age possibly progress into?
    Synchronicity anyone?

    Thanks guys for another in a series of stimulating and thought provoking podcasts!

    • Recently there was a speech given in London at a European bank’s Chinese New Year dinner. The speech was titled “The Spirit of Marx Lives”. I provide the following quote from the speech (without comment):

      “You may think that the US is the antithesis of the Marxist ideal. You may be mistaken. In the Communist Manifesto published in 1848, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels demanded a list of immediate actions that capitalist economies should follow on the path to communism. What were they? Free education, well the US has that. Progressive tax system: which the US has. Curbs on inheritance: which the US has. Fair labour laws: which the US has. Centralised credit: which was perhaps not the case before the 2008 crisis, but is certainly the case now with the nexus of the Fed and regulation providing a strong centralised system of credit. It also demanded the public ownership of land. This for many is the ultimate differentiator between a capitalist state and a communist state. But even for the US, the picture gets blurred when one considers that 30% of land in the US is directly owned by the Federal government. Of the land that is not held by the US government, 80% of householders are either renting or have a mortgage. Remember, having a mortgage means that the property is owned by the mortgage provider, not the private individual. In a centralised credit system and as became apparent since 2008, the ultimate underwriter of these mortgages is the US government. So the vast majority of property in the US could be traced back to the state. The spirit of Karl Marx lives on in corners of the world one would least expect!”

      • Thanks for sharing, great comment…

      • I should say that I myself did feel the same when I was in US for the first time last year. With labours ensured that they can get work anytime (considering high rates of employment), for a base standard of living, individuals were free to pursue their own course ( and isn’t that the case already, with US producing the most number of enterpreneurs, risk takers, path breakers).

        But, then later having been initiated in Marx, I realized the folly of argument. Social relations of production are a totality, and when you look at some of the benefits that has accrued to US and percolated to its huge middle class, is at the cost of impoverishment elsewhere. Oil is not the only commodity that is tainted. Consider its “hegemonic” policy of demanding free flow of money capital to the markets of world, while at the same time obstructing the flow of labour capital in US. This stopper on immigration laws helps to keep the labour over-valued and creates a facade of betterment of labour. But when Outsourcing ( the improvisation of capital) hurts, it is manifested in unemployment, recession, and then people start realizing the situation on ground. Then suddenly they find the there are huge inequalities, huge gaps.

        Isn’t this the contradiction of Capital Marx talked about, that by transforming itself it may take up multiple appearances ( and sometimes of a very humane kind), but it’s inner contradictions are too big to be hidden forever, and of-course glaringly evident when you look at the totality of social relations.

        Not quibbling here, just putting my perspective on board. Do you agree? Seth?

  26. Regarding Nietzsche/Marx: “you could combine the views and ‘you could say both those dynamics are at work.’” Wouldn’t Hegel do just that?

  27. Liked your discussions here, as it helped to clarify the concept and bases from where Marx’s later writings emerged. How about doing a session on Capital’s first part, Commodities and Money, the first three chapters, as I think it forms the core of his argument, that provides the framework, or rather base, on which people interested in Marxist writing, could build on. Do give it a thought. Great work guys, keep it up!

  28. The things I like most from Marx:
    1. The only objective value is labour!!. Just take a look around, almost all of the material around you is shaped by labour. Supply and demand is socially constrsucted. (So stop the objectivity bullshit economics people).
    2. The drivingforce of Society is the (material?) diatectic between the ‘forces of production’ (tools, tech, labour) and the ‘relations of production’ (worker-master, politics, ideology, law, pay). It is the dialectic tension which creates social change. But the spinning dialectic is unevenly balanced because the capitalist takes a disproportionate amount of the ‘surplus value’. The uneven balance generates economic collapeses, like the economic crises, until the social utopia, where the inherent contradiction between ‘the relations of production’ and ‘forces of production, are settled. (I think, cannot remember the source)
    3. Before industrialism people became human through there work. Eating, sex and play was more of animal behavior. After industrialism we are alianeted from our nature because the work is divided so you dont fulfill your human potential you become animal like. And through sex, eating, meaningless behavior… you become human (or at least me)

  29. Ahhh! I love you guys but you totally butchered Marx minutes 28-31. Gotta read Althusser’s For Marx. Keep up the awesome podcasts though; just couldn’t live with myself without advancing that recommendation.

    • Kevin, don’t name drop; just make your point. Give us your revised formulation.

      • haha. I didn’t know the rules applied to the comments section!

        Alright, the point I was alluding to was on the subject of Marx and abstraction. Marx was in no way afraid of, or attempting to avoid, abstraction. Mark, you hit the nail on the head at one point when you mention the fact that Marx’s big move was from philosophy to praxis. Praxis is another name for “theoretical practice” which involves a re-thinking of what it means to “do philosophy.” So, when Marx says that the philosophers have only interpreted the world but that the point is to change it, he is actually not juxtaposing idealism (philosophy) with materialism (practice/activism as you jokingly refer to it, and thus ironically imply the division of labor that Marx is explicitly rejecting!). This simple juxtaposition is based on the famous ‘inversion’ which is Feuerbach’s, not Marx’s. Marx is actually critiquing this very inversion by claiming that while it inverted the terms, it actually remained within the realm of ideology (idealism, speculation, the world of ideas – which for marx is superstructural, which is not the same as being causally determined by the structure, a common misconception). In other words, Marx is not preserving the hegelian dialectic but is creating his own dialectic: Historical Materialism, one of the points of which is to develop concepts that more accurately reflect the units of history (my words). Meaning, if you are starting from an anti-humanist position, you are necessarily basing your abstraction not on the ideas created by human beings, but on the objective social formations that condition those human beings to think those thoughts. Your units of analysis must change! So, what this statement (the point is to change it…) means (according to althusser at least) is slightly more complicated than this simple feuerbachian inversion. Instead, Marx is calling out feuerbach for not questioning the terms themselves, for falling into a world of idealism whereby the terms he is working with are advanced to him before the ‘theoretical practice’ takes place. A direct quote from Althusser would probably explain this better than I can:

        “A real understanding of materialism reveals that this ‘labour’ is not a labor of the universal, but a labor ON a pre-existing universal, a labor whose aim and achievement is precisely to REFUSE this universal the abstractions or temptations of philosophy (ideology), and to bring it back to its condition by force; to the condition of a scientifically specified universality.”

        SO – in English – Praxis is defined as the ‘theoretical labor’ necessary to interrogate ideologically formed universals (raw material) and convert them into scientific-concrete universals (concepts). In other words, the ‘theoretical labor’ necessary to form a system for understanding history is precisely the “elaboration of its own scientific facts through a critique of the ideological ‘facts’ elaborated by an earlier ideological theoretical practice.’ (Hegel, Feuerbach, the young hegelians – in short, the GERMAN IDEOLOGY. VIOLA!).

        I don’t think Marx is claiming that all philosophical problems are resolved. I think he is simply stating that the questions of philosophy – if they are to be questions of politics and questions of history, as they certainly were at the time – must be answered by rethinking the terms upon which the dialectic of material relations actually occurs. This is precisely why his project is so innovative. It is the creation of a science out of the questions of german philosophy at this time. This science calls for the constant re-investigation of the terms of analysis in order to stay current epistemologically (not simply ‘factually’). Yes, out of Marx we get ‘class’ and ‘labor’ and ‘capital’ as fundamental terms. But they are not fundamental ontologically. They are fundamental socially, historically. The best category for the terms that Marx comes up with is something like ‘social ontology’, a term very popular in certain historical/macro minded sociologists today (ME!).

        So, getting back to the basic point: marx is not at all trying to remove himself from abstraction. In fact, he is claiming that ‘theoretical practice’ is precisely the ongoing act of abstraction and the creation of concepts that serve the function of helping us understand society. Therefore, theorizing is itself an act, creating ‘material forces’ that can be as powerful historically as the objective social formations. But concepts must be created as they apply to a given historico-social time-space, not in the realm of ideology/speculative philosophy. It is only by this process (this ‘theoretical labor’) that philosophers can realize their true potential as revolutionaries rather than their bourgeois existence. In a way, the german ideology was a call upon philosophers to use their forces of abstraction for good, rather than amusement. As philosophy was more overtly political back then, this was not as ridiculous a call as it may, unfortunately, seem today.

        wow- that was long. I hope I didn’t misunderstand your points during the podcasts. If I did, and this laundry list of quibbles is redundant, I apologize. Keep up the good work guys. I’m a phd student in sociology and I always look forward to your podcasts. They keep my philosophical mind pumping while mainstream soc. tries to lobotomize me with statistics of dubious reliability.

  30. Oh, and I definitely didn’t mean any offense with “totally butchered.” I realized later that might have been just a wee bit harsh. But it’s hard not to get riled about about Marx!

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>