Karl Marx’s Guiding Idea

by Emrys Westacott

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“Nothing human is alien to me.” This was Karl Marx's favourite maxim, taken from the Roman writer, Terrence. But I think that if Marx had lived a century later, he might have added as a second choice the famous phrase sung by Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so.” For together these two sayings capture a good deal of what I think of as Marx's Guiding Idea, the idea at the heart of his philosophy that remains as valuable and as relevant today as in his own time. Let me explain.

Human beings have been around for a few million years, and for most of that time most people's material and social circumstances have been quite stable. The experiences of one generation were pretty much the same as the experiences of their forbears. In this respect the lives of humans were like those of other animals. Unlike other animals, however, human beings reflect on their lives and circumstances; moreover they communicate these reflections to one another. The result is religion, mythology, philosophy, history, literature, and the performing arts (all of which can arise within a purely oral culture), and eventually the natural sciences, and social studies of various kinds, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political theory.

These diverse forms of reflection on the human condition perform various functions. One function is to explain why things are the way they are. For instance, the bible explains why the Israelites lived in Israel (God made a promise to Abraham, and kept it, enabling Joshua's army to conquer the land); the theory of the four humours purported to explain personality differences between individuals. Another function is to justify a certain order of things. Thus, the doctrine of the divine right of kings sought to justify the institution of a powerful executive who stands above the law. The doctrine that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression is often cited to justify a policy of religious tolerance.

These two functions are sometimes hard to disentangle. For example, the alleged cultural inferiority of a people might be taken both to explain why they have been conquered and to justify that conquest as legitimate or even desirable. The “laws” of market competition provide an explanation of why some individuals and businesses do better than others, and these same laws are appealed to by those inclined to endorse the the outcome of the competition.

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The conflict between competition and leisure

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_590 Apr. 14 11.15In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity due to technological progress would lead within a century to most people enjoying much more leisure. He believed that by 2030 the average working week would be around fifteen hours. Eighty-four years later, it doesn't look like this prediction will come true. Most full-time workers work two, three, or four times, that: and many part-time workers would work more hours if they could since they need the money.

So why haven't we come closer to realizing the expectations of Russell and Keynes? In their recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky offer an interesting answer. According to them Keynes' mistake was his failure to realize that capitalism has unleashed forces that can't be brought under control. Specifically, it has greatly inflamed a natural human desire for recognition and status, turning it into an insatiable desire for ever more wealth—wealth being the number one determinant of status in our society. If we could just settle for a modest level of comfort, we could work far less. But the yearning for more wealth and more stuff now leads people to spend far more time working than they need to. The same insatiability characterizes our society as a whole. Every politician and most economists take for granted that we should be striving with all our might to achieve economic growth without limit. The wisdom of this relentless, endless pursuit of economic growth is rarely questioned.

The Skidelskys' explanation of why we still work much more than Keynes predicted isn't entirely wrong, but I don't think it's the whole story or even the most important part. It's no doubt true of some people that they are driven to work more than they need to by insatiable greed. But I suspect that far more people work the hours they do because of circumstances beyond their control. For instance, many people work long hours simply because their hourly wage is quite low, so they work overtime, or perhaps take a second job, just in order to have enough to live on. Some live in expensive metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco, so even though they make a good wage, they actually need a full time job even to secure a fairly modest level of comfort, given the cost of housing. Many people keep working full time, even though they'd like to retire or go part time, because only a full time job will provide indispensible benefits like health insurance and a pension. And lots of people would like to cut back the hours they work but can't for a simple reason: their boss won't let them.

But there's also another factor preventing us from achieving a more leisured and balanced lifestyle, and that is the intensely competitive social environment in which we live.

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