Friday, November 26, 2010

It's the system, stupid

Dominant ideologies teach us that "personal responsibility" and individual efforts are all that shape our social and political world. All Great things, we're taught, were forged out of nothingness by Great individuals (who, it turns out, are almost always men). Accordingly, we learn American History as though it were, in the first instance, the outcome of the actions of individual Presidents. We're encouraged to admire fabulously wealthy "self-made men" at the same time that we're taught to blame only ourselves for all our hardships. These ideologies, Fredric Jameson points out, "all find their functional utility in the repression of the social and historical, and in the perpetuation of some timeless and ahistorical view of human life and social relations".

This ludicrous view is even given a "scientific" veneer in the fantasy world constructed by neoclassical economics, where we are told that the money individuals receive in market societies attaches to nothing but their marginal productive contributions. These ideas are part of the conceptual legitimation of the society we live in, and, thus, it is unsurprising that they should be ubiquitous and "obvious" to many.

Accordingly, when radicals, and Marxists in particular, criticize the capitalist class it is often assumed that the criticism is merely a moralistic condemnation of individual capitalists. For example, when those on the Left criticize, say, the dominance of multinational corporations, this criticism is often heard as an attack on "evil corporate leaders". But the Marxist complaint has never been that the individual capitalists are evil or merely in need of moral scrutiny.

The Marxist complaint isn't that the ruling class is evil. In the first instance, of course, the Marxist complaint against the ruling class consists in hostility to the fact that they are a ruling class. The Marxist complaint, therefore, is not concerned to moralistically attacking capitalists as "bad persons", it is a complaint that targets certain unequal social relations. And what grounds and structures social relations, of course, is not for any individual to decide willy nilly: human beings "make their own history, but not in conditions of their own choosing", that is, "in the social production of their life, men [sic] enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of the development of their material productive forces" (see the Eighteenth Brumaire and the 1859 Preface respectively).

Thus, the complaint isn't that we have a ruling class that is too greedy, too mean to their workers, too insensitive to human need. The complaint is that we have a ruling class at all.

But we can sharpen this further still. When Marx criticizes the actions of the ruling class, it isn't because he thinks they made incompetent or insufficiently moral decisions. It's because he thinks that the basic structure of capitalism makes it rational for those in certain institutional roles, such as the role (class) of capitalist owner, to tend to act in certain ways. Hence, in order to be a capitalist at all, given the way that economic structure of capitalist societies is set up, you have to be able to compete against other capitalists, reinvest profits in further growth, etc. In order to be a capitalist, you have to do certain things whether you like it or not, given the pressures of market competition and the way that investment is structured. To be sure, as an individual you are free to diverge from the structural pressures of the system, but only so much. The reactionary slogan that "you can't buck the market" has a slice of truth to it (the reactionary part of it being that it suggests that we can't get rid of the market itself). An excessively "friendly" capitalist might easily be pushed out of business by more ruthless and exploitative competitors.

As political theorist Alan Ryan describes it:
"Marx supposes that under capitalism, there are two sorts of oppression at work, rather than one. Capitalists oppress workers, driving them as hard as they can to extract maximum surplus value from them. But this is not because capitalists are individually brutal; they themselves are driven by their capital. The irrationality of a capitalist economy in which production is dictated by the accidents of market interaction is read by Marx as the blind tyranny of capital over its human subjects. The fact that capital is in any case only dead labor leads Marx to tremendous rhetorical flights in which he describes capital as a vampire, renewing its life-in-death by sucking the blood of living laborers...what humanity has done is create Frankenstein's monster; so far from the world submitting to human control, it has been set in motion as a blind force tyrannizing over all of us... Capital dominates all of us and turns all of us into its purposes."
Or, as I described in a recent post on alienation:
Think of the terms in which the present financial crisis is described. People in the media talk about the economy as though it were a natural disaster, completely beyond our control, laying waste to human lives in its wake. But the market is no force of nature; it is something that human beings constructed. And what we've built up, we can tear down. "The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives". Capitalism, in Marx's words, is "the complete domination of dead matter over men".
Capitalism is, thus, like a car that humanity built, which we continue to fill with fuel but which we have no capacity to control or steer. Adding the threat of global warming to this metaphor would be to say that our out-of-control vehicle is steadily heading towards a steep cliff.

I should add one more thing to stave off a misunderstanding. It's not that I think that individual members of the ruling class should be exempt from moral critique qua persons. On the contrary, I think many of them are reprehensible in many respects. But we shouldn't confuse such moral criticism from the political critique we need in order to properly place their behavior in its institutional context. Suppose some individual capitalist was won over by such moralizing critique and then sold off their productive assets to become a revolutionary. This is all well and good, but the way the system is set up it is certain that someone else will fill this person's "empty seat" at the ruling class table in no time. The Marxist argument is that we need to get rid of these seats and this table itself, not just the particular individuals who happen to sit there at any one time.

I also hardly mean to suggest that because we're all dominated by capital, we're all somehow in the same predicament. We're not; capitalism is a class society and the ruling class dominates and exploits the majority of us for their benefit. But we won't get very far if we think that capitalism is a highly coordinated, planned system that is ruled by a small, highly organized and conscious class whose intentional actions shape the system all the way down. This is not a left-wing critique, but a conspiracy theory that draws on the individualist ideology I impugned above. This kind of line suggests that the ruling class deliberately drove the world economy into the dumps, since whatever happens would have to be intended by the all-powerful rulers.

But this isn't Marxist in the least; the most interesting part of the Marxist critique of capitalism is that we get a dialectical interpretation of the relationship between structure and agency, between system and individual, such that neither is wholly reducible to the other. The actions of the ruling class do matter and need to be critiqued, but always in the context of the pressures of capitalist system which shape and structure their motivations and actions. In the case of the recent economic meltdown, for example, this analysis allows us to see how capitalism makes certain actions appear locally rational for individual capitalists, but collectively irrational even for the entire capitalist class writ large! It is an chaotic system that structurally requires myopic individual (or firm-level) profit accumulation.

Marx says on many occasions things to the effect that "human beings make their own history, but...". As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, the goal of socialists is to remove that "but...".

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