There is no denying it. Marx is an intellectual force. With an influence on economic sociology, critical theory, political science and the political economy of communication, his is a voice that is always singing loudly. To me, though, it is a swan song that never seems to end that final crescendo. His economics, which came directly from Adam Smith, Malthus and many of the classical economists, fell intellectually with the marginalist revolution and then was buried with Hayek. However, his social commentary has not seen the same fate, and much of it is because of the theory’s totalizing nature. This is where my critique starts and where it will forever return.
For example, Marx claimed that the system of capital was what creates poverty. In this, there is forever the reserve army of the unemployed. He says,
Big industry constantly requires a reserve army of unemployed workers for times of overproduction. The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it, i.e., when the overpopulation is the greatest. Overpopulation is therefore in the interest of the bourgeoisie, and it gives the workers good advice which it knows to be impossible to carry out. Since capital only increases when it employs workers, the increase of capital involves an increase of the proletariat, and, as we have seen, according to the nature of the relation of capital and labour, the increase of the proletariat must proceed relatively even faster. The… theory… which is also expressed as a law of nature, that population grows faster than the means of subsistence, is the more welcome to the bourgeois as it silences his conscience, makes hard-heartedness into a moral duty and the consequences of society into the consequences of nature, and finally gives him the opportunity to watch the destruction of the proletariat by starvation as calmly as other natural event without bestirring himself, and, on the other hand, to regard the misery of the proletariat as its own fault and to punish it. To be sure, the proletarian can restrain his natural instinct by reason, and so, by moral supervision, halt the law of nature in its injurious course of development.
The world of Marx is one of intense meaning. And make no mistake, it is meaning that Marx wants us to consider here. In the middle of a world transitioning from traditionalism to a more liberal way of life, Marx connects the brutal Malthusian trap of population with a perception that such a thing is both known and perceived to be horrible by the bourgeois. He assumes incorrectly that certain groups would actually be morally abhorred by inequality. It is a mistake that liberals continue to make with regards to conservative or traditional mindsets. Equality is a pillar of morality that is important to liberals but not as important to traditionalists who tend to see authority, purity, and ingroup cohesion as primary concerns. This is not to say that the poor or unemployed are not important, but rather, that a totalizing world view centered on inherent equality and a certain sense of fairness is a worldview not shared by everyone. This critique is lifted from Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality, which I think deserves more intellectual exploration, but that is for another time.
A similar kind fallacy is found in economics. Although it often builds itself up as a science of actions, economics is a world totalized around utility. And in its founder, a version of the problem is realized,
The old Das Adam Smith Problem is no longer tenable. Few today believe that Smith postulates two contradictory principles of human action: one in the Wealth of Nations and another in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Nevertheless,an Adam Smith problem of sorts endures: there is still no widely agreed version of what it is that links these two texts, aside from their common author; no widely agreed version of how, if at all, Smith’s postulation of self-interest as the organising principle of economic activity ﬁts in with his wider moral-ethical concerns.
The problem seems to exist because of the need for a unity of the two. There is an Adam Smith problem because, as the laws of logic tell us, he has to be non-contradictory. Self-interest and sympathy are incommensurable.
Adam Smith’s primary project was to write four tomes, each dedicated to an area he deemed of serious import. The first two are well know – ethics in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” and business/economics in “The Wealth of Nations.” The other two, a treatise on law and a treatise on philosophy/literature are not so well know, but important when see that he was interested in areas of social relation steeped in meaning. He knew then, as we should take to heart today, that there will be contradiction. The logic of one field of study may lead to incongruities with another. Humanity, though, is not running according to logic but passion. The social sciences is at its self critical worse when it attempts to form a unified theory of behavior and meanings, as though people make decisions and act exactly the same when they are in different social situations.
It is one of my long term projects to begin to build an antidote to this kind of thinking. It is a project to understand the world by complexity. And much like the earth, there are joints and fault lines of social and psychological tension, tectonic plates of social importance with earthquakes, aftershocks and rumbles all the same. Perhaps I am foolish, but I would say that it is much better to recognize the difference than to formulate a tidy theory.
EDIT: I don’t think I was extremely clear in this post. The incommensurability comes not from the action of the individual, but our description of it. We use words to represent ideas, and because selfishness seems to be opposed to sympathy, we must believe Smith to be contradictory. My dad explained this a little better in an exchange we recently had,
Any kind of mutually satisfying interchange, whether by trade or exchange, be it of goods, services or information (ie communciation), be it in personal or in formal markets, is an indication of cooperation, even if (perhaps especially if) it is for a personally satisfying benefit.
In other words, Smith’s fellow-feeling and sympathetically based morality is not positioned against individual self-interest if we believe humans are complex creatures mitigating between multiple levels of responsibility and intention.