By Leon Galis
Karl Marx must be hoisting a stein to hardcore libertarian ultra-free marketeers like the recently departed David Koch of Koch Industries. They think they’re staving off socialist tyranny, but Marx would be egging them on to pave the way to his socialist paradise.
Marx’s collected writings were projected to fill 100 volumes. Somebody that prolific, though bound to get a lot of things wrong, is just as bound to get some things right. The Communist Manifesto, his most famous work, seems hopelessly quaint now, justly discredited by the repressive regimes it inspired. But one could argue that Marx did incalculable damage by ignoring in the Manifesto insights that are prominent elsewhere in his writings.
Marx thought his version of socialism superior to competing versions because he’d uncovered the economic mechanism by which capitalist society would transform itself into his communitarian utopia: the capitalists, driven only by naked self-interest, would become agents of their own demise, done in by the irresistible inner logic of capitalism itself.
He thought unfettered capitalism does two things at once, both unavoidable and unsustainable. First, because competition forces capitalists to wring ever more labor from workers either by lengthening the workday or introducing technology to increase worker productivity, capitalism has a built-in tendency to grow more powerful, casting up more and more goods from a stable or shrinking work force. Simultaneously, because of that very feature of capitalism, it also has an inherent tendency to destroy the markets for the immense quantity of goods it churns out — the unemployed not being consumers.
But since the post-capitalist society Marx dreamed of is impossible without the enormous productive powers that are the hallmark of mature capitalist economies, capitalism itself, he believed, is an indispensable historical stage in mankind’s march toward a better future.
While current the libertarian right flails away at the “socialism” of Europe’s Social Democrats, Britain’s Laborites and our Democrats, Marx contemptuously dismissed the ancestors of those parties for offering mere palliatives “by means of which existing societies will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible... .”
He would have looked more favorably on John Tammy, editor of RealClearMarkets and Forbes Opinions, who contends that job creation proposals from both Democrats and Republicans are irrelevant because neither government spending nor tax cuts will create jobs.
The way to create jobs, Tammy argues, is to stay out of the free market’s way, letting companies do the only thing that really boosts employment, which is, paradoxically, destroying jobs. That’s the cure for unemployment because it’s only investment that promotes job creation, and investors, being profit-driven, gravitate to enterprises that “produce as much as possible with as little in the way of labor costs as possible.”
Tammy admits this hands-off approach will produce a short-term spike in unemployment, as businesses shed costs, but in the longer term will actually increase employment.
While Tammy is confident this churning ultimately will be beneficial, Marx thought just the reverse, and evidence is accumulating that Marx was on to something. Hardly a day passes without a news story about jobs being automated out of existence.
Notes Peter Orszag of Citigroup, “Over the past two decades ... the share of national income that flows into wages and other kinds of worker compensation has been plummeting,” a development driven primarily by “globalization and technological change.”
Reports Jason Lange for Reuters, “Since 1999, business investment in equipment and software has surged 33 percent while the total number of people employed by private firms changed little.”
Says Howard Gold, columnist for MarketWatch and editor at large for MoneyShow.com, the “natural” rate of unemployment below which economists expect wage inflation has been increasing steadily, and is projected by Goldman Sachs to reach 7.25 percent by 2020. Among the causes driving this trend is “technological change (that) has made entire job categories obsolete. Since the recession, companies have used technology to do more with less and have stockpiled cash rather than hire new workers.”
I could go on with stories about how not even highly paid white-collar professionals, like doctors and lawyers, are immune. But you get the idea.
If this trend continues, the consequences will be profound. The post-capitalist society Marx envisioned may not emerge from the violent cataclysm he expected. It may be ushered in almost by stealth as our market economy evolves so as to diminish the role of human labor as a factor in production.
That possibility used to be the stuff of science fiction. But it’s looking less and less like fiction of any kind and may bring us to a point where it no longer makes economic or political sense to insist on “no work, no income.” If that happens, we’ll have come to the doorstep of Marx’s post-capitalist society. And capitalism itself will have brought us there.
So if we could channel Marx, I think he’d have just one message for the current crop of anti-government, ultra-free marketeers: “Knock yourselves out.”
Leon Galis is an Athens native who returned to town in 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008, he has written dozens of columns for local Athens media. He is also a frequent contributor at LikeTheDew.comikeTheDew.com and Medium.com.
Galis is a professor of philosophy emeritus, with broad interests in current events and cultural commentary. You may read additional works by Galis at https://medium.com/@leongalis