jenab6 on Marx


Karl Marx was right about the injustices of capitalism, but he was wrong about the remedy. Capitalism's biggest fault is that individual merit only determines success at the beginning. As time goes by, wealth gathers into the hands of a minority, where it becomes a decisive advantage in the pursuit of more wealth. The measure of man moves from his genes to his bank accounts, from his blood to his wallet, from what he is to what he owns. The possession of wealth becomes the supreme survival trait, easily overmatching strength, dexterity, agility, stamina, and, in the end, even intelligence.

The reason it works is the availability of exosomatic energy resources, chiefly fossil fuels. As long as money can buy gasoline, rich men can pretend that fossil power, put to use in engines, is power inherent in them as men. No one without money-privileged access to nature's accumulated stores of exosomatic energy can compete with those who do.

That's what Ayn Rand left out of Atlas Shrugged. It's a fantasy, of course, but it is a fantasy very seductive to rich people, who believe it because it flatters them. Ayn Rand spoke much of "men of ability," leaving it very strongly implied that what enabled them was their personal qualities, such as intelligence or decisiveness. She spoke often of coal-burning engines and other industrial uses of fossil fuels. But she used every trick she could think of to prevent her readers from connecting the ability with the fuels and observing that her "men of ability" really weren't so much superior to everyone else as their wealth might lead one to suppose. In real life, wealth brings such men privileged access to exosomatic energy resources, which then become their enabler.

The simple fact is, the employer merely stands between the customer and the labor. He listens, and then he points. He produces nothing himself and could be outdone by any of his workers were he to try it.

When fossil fuels are depleted, as eventually they must be, the illusion will be dispelled: the lumberjack will again know himself stronger than the owner of the bulldozer, the engineer will again know that he is smarter than the corporate manager who once bossed him, and the banker will understand, at long last, that he is worthless. When fossil fuels are depleted, nature will present mankind with the bill for his accumulation of genetic defects, which temporarily had been put on the credit card of technology, and many hereditary lines will suddenly discover that they are not really fit to live in this world.

But Marxist socialism isn't a good remedy to capitalism. It leads merely to the exchange of one kind of exploiter (the capitalists) by another (the communist party). The workers don't actually get to behave as if the country were theirs; no, they must toe the communists' political lines and jump through the communists' legal hoops, more or less as they once did for their employers, or for corporate lawyers.

Marxism has "tragedy in the commons" type failures. Capitalism has one of these, too, but capitalism's commons is the entire world and everything in it, including the "non-player" people (the working folks), and the tragedy doesn't happen until the world is all used up. Socialism has tragedies in the commons on a much smaller scale, being the result of presuming all workers equals, even though they are not, and pretending that each worker ought to be paid the same for being "on the job" for an hour.

Every worker knows that it is useless for him to display exceptional talent or diligence, since he won't be paid for it, and what eventually happens is workers just show up and read books or drink vodka, unless the secret police appear to see whether everyone is working. Then one guy gets dragged off and executed, and everyone else works hard until they aren't scared any more, then they go back to reading books and drinking vodka.

Capitalism is like a cancer. It grows like mad, kills a world, and dies along with it. Marxism is like having chronically low energy while most of your body parts have been assigned to the wrong places.

However, it is a mistake to consider Marxism as the only kind of socialism. Marxism is socialism based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of economic classes. That's the wrong idea that causes much of the trouble with it. Nature's laws never produced any special reason for people to identify with their economic class.

But there is a kind of socialism that is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of biological communities: families on the small scale, races on the large scale, with tribes being somewhere in the middle. Nature's laws did create a special reason for people to identify with their biological communities, though it requires explanation.

Millions of years ago, evolution was making animals more competitive by making them bigger, stronger, and more ferocious. The fossil record shows that dinosaurs kept gaining size and power. After a while, though, the point of diminishing returns was found, as the mass-to-muscle-power ratio set a limit on how large an animal could be without being unduly burdened by his own weight. At that point, additional increases in size were evolutionarily counter-survival, and further adaptive advantage had to be found by other means.

With the evolution of mammals, nature had settled on intelligence as the new means for evolutionary progress. But now there was a new trade-off: between the amount of time the mother remained pregnant, thereby being burdened and endangered, and the amount of time required for the formation of the baby's brain. Nature's compromise was somewhat longer pregnancies, but the baby was born without the ability immediately to care for itself. If the mammal babies were forsaken by their mother, as reptile babies usually are, they'd be easy prey for any carnivore or omnivore.

Nature's remedy was to evolve a new emotion for mammals, and that emotion was love, perhaps first expressed as the maternal instinct to take care of babies. That allowed mammal brains to grow larger with time. It also overcame the "tragedy in the commons" problem for biological collectives—up to a point, anyway.

A socialism based on the idea that people are primarily members of biological collectives might actually work, whereas Marxism, which is based on the wrong sort of collective, never has worked so far.

Jerry Abbott