the theory of alienation is living, as is, correlatively, Marx’s conception of the good life for man

Norwegian rational choice theorist Jon Elster is a notable proponent of analytical Marxism and critic of economic theory underpinned by mathematical modeling. In Explaining Social Behavior, Elster observesthat:

I now believe that rational-choice theory has less explanatory power than I used to think. Do real people act on the calculations that make up many pages of mathematical appendixes in leading journals? I do not think so.


As he notes, mainly due to their psychological thinness and behavioral inadequacies.


There is no general nonintentional mechanism that can simulate or mimic rationality. At the same time, the empirical support … tends to be quite weak. This is of course a sweeping statement. … let me simply point out the high level of disagreement among competent scholars … fundamental, persistent disagreements among ‘schools.’ We never observe the kind of many-decimal-points precision that would put controversy to rest.  


All of which helps explain his openness to finding what can be salvaged from Marxist — or at least Marxian — political economy.



1. The dialectical method, or at least one version of it, is certainly alive. Not everything Marx learned from Hegel led him astray. Although Hegel’s Logic is among the most obscure books ever written, The Phenomenology of Spirit is vastly more valuable, which is not to say that it is easy reading. Marx was under the influence of both. Sometimes he seems to espouse the doctrine of the Logic, that the world is contradictory in the sense that two mutually inconsistent statements can both be true. This view, frankly, is nonsense. Other analyses seem to draw on the Phenomenology, which offered an account of real contradictions that does not commit one to this absurd view. What Marx refers to as social contradictions correspond both to a certain type of logical fallacy ("the fallacy of composition") and to the perverse mechanisms whereby individually rational behavior generates collectively disastrous outcomes. Before Keynes, he diagnosed an essential paradox of capitalism in the fact that each employer wants his workers to have low wages and those employed by all other capitalists to have high wages. The theory of the falling rate of profit, though mathematically unsound, rests on a structurally similar mechanism. Against Adam Smith’s view that the self-interest of the individual and the collective interest of society need not conflict but that, on the contrary, the latter can often be realized only through the former, Marx was more impressed by negative unintended consequences and by the self-defeating rationality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.


2. The theory of alienation is living, as is, correlatively, Marx’s conception of the good life for man. By emphasizing the ideal of the self-realization of the individual, Marx wanted to mark his distance from two rival conceptions. First, the emphasis on the self-realization of the individual excludes any conception that places the self-realization of mankind at the center. Although Marx’s commitment to methodological individualism was intermittent at best, his ethical individualism was unwavering. He hailed the contributions to science and culture made by class societies in general and by capitalism in particular, but he also recognized that they were achieved at the expense of lack of self-realization for the vast majority. Second, the emphasis on the self-realization of the individual excludes any conception of the good life as one of passive consumption, however enjoyable. His was an Aristotelian conception of the good life for man, as one in which men bring to reality their "species powers," that is, their creative potentialities. He did not ask or answer the question of why men ought to develop their species powers, but some responses can be suggested. Because of the economies of scale involved in self-realization, it is inherently more satisfactory than consumption. Also, self-realization allows the development of self-respect, without which even consumption loses most of its attractions. Finally, to the extent that self-realization leads to more people engaging in creative activities, others will benefit from what they create.


If properly modified and restricted, Marx’s theory of self-realization is a good guide to industrial reform and, more ambitiously, to large-scale social and economic change. Some of the modifications are the following. It will not turn out to be possible for everybody to develop all their abilities, if only because this would prevent exploitation of the economies of scale. Nor can one expect that everyone will be able to find satisfaction in a restricted form of self-realization. Because it is difficult to know what one’s abilities will turn out to be, there is always the risk that one may embark upon a mode of self-realization that is either too easy or too difficult, leading to boredom or frustration. Moreover, self-realization is demanding in that it requires some delay of gratification; not everyone might be willing to wait, especially as there is some uncertainty as to whether the result will be worth the sacrifice. Finally, it is uncertain to what extent complex industrial societies can be reorganized so as to allow universal scope for self-realization.


3. The theory of exploitation is living, as is, correlatively, Marx’s conception of distributive justice. Although exploitation is not a fundamental moral concept, as it would be if exploiting someone ipso facto was doing something morally wrong, the theory provides a robust guide to what is right and wrong in a large number of standard cases. These arise when people perform more labor than is needed to produce the goods they consume, for any of the following reasons: physical coercion, as in slavery and feudalism; economic coercion, as when employers interfere with alternative employment opportunities for workers; or economic necessity, as when people, by no fault of their own, are forced to sell their labor power. The underlying principle of distributive justice is "To each according to his contribution," deviations fromwhich can be justified only on grounds of special needs. Neither the contribution principle nor the principle whereby needs justify deviations from it is clearly stated by Marx, although, again, they can serve as useful first approximations.


To see why exploitation is not a fundamental moral concept, consider two cases. Imagine first that current injustices have been eliminated and that society can start from a clean slate, whatever that means. (What it means would depend on which finer approximation to distributive justice one adopts.) If under these conditions some people save more than others, who prefer immediate consumption over delayed consumption, and if the former offer jobs to the latter that would involve exploiting them, on what grounds could anyone object to such "capitalistic acts among consenting adults"? It would seem perverse to punish practices that do not impose harm on anybody and that are the result of freely undertaken, mutually beneficial contracts. Although some of the arguments developed with respect to other "victimless crimes," such as gambling or prostitution, might sometimes apply here, one can also think of circumstances in which they would not be relevant. Second, imagine that the persons who own most of the capital also have a very strong preference for consumption over leisure, in which case one can construct cases in which the rich will offer themselves out for hire to the poor, who do not want to use even what little capital they have. Although strictly speaking the poor would then exploit the rich, they would not be doing anything morally wrong. Exploitation, when wrong, is wrong not just because it is exploitation but because of some further features. Hence, the concept of exploitation has mainly a descriptive and heuristic function, which, in any actual inquiry into social injustice, can be a very important one.


4. Marx’s theory of technical change is definitely living. Some of the most exciting chapters of Capital I are those in which Marx dissects the relations among technology, profit, power, and property rights at the level of the firm. When the capitalist confronts his workers, he does not simply deal with a "factor of production" that is to be combined optimally with other factors of production. The workers have a capacity for individual and collective resistance, which can be affected by the specific organization of the work process, including the choice of technology. Because their capacity for resistance affects the wage the capitalist has to pay the workers, the effective cost of employing them is partly decided within the firm, not only by outside market conditions. Hence, the employer may have an incentive not to introduce new technology if it goes together with a physical reorganization than enhances the solidarity or bargaining power of the workers or if it involves prohibitively high costs of supervision. (On the other hand — and this is an aspect that Marx did not stress — the workers may have an incentive to restrict their freedom of action, so that the capitalists will not be deterred from introducing new techniques that allow scope for improvement for both parties.) This problem may create a free-rider difficulty among the employers, if the solidarity-enhancing effect of new technology occurs only if it is widely adopted.


5. Marx’s theory of class consciousness, class struggle, and politics is vibrantly alive, although it is generally recognized that it does not provide the full answer to the questions that motivate its construction. At the most general level, one would expect a theory of classes to provide some flesh and blood for the abstract theory of productive forces and relations of production. If this was Marx’s intention, he failed to carry it out. The latter theory fails, as noted, precisely because Marx did not show how social classes and the individuals who make them up would want to link their fate with a new social arrangement just because it promises a higher rate of innovation.


At another level, Marx believed that his theory of class offered the key to the understanding of social conflict. He thought deeply about the conditions under which members of a class were likely to act in a concerted way, that is, to become collective actors in the arena of social conflict. He emphasized, among other things, spatial isolation, high turnover rates, and cultural heterogeneity as obstacles to class consciousness. He had, moreover, pioneering insights into the nature of class conflict, class cooperation, and class coalitions. Because members of different classes may have common interests and common enemies, one cannot take it for granted that the class struggle is one of implacable opposition, at least not in the short or medium term. Today we would emphasize more than Marx did that the class struggle is also blurred by the presence of other, cross-cutting conflicts. There is no doubt that class is one important source of social conflict in Northern Ireland, South Africa, or Poland, but one would have to be very dogmatic to assert that it is the only or the dominant element. Religious, racial, and nationalistic sentiments have proved to be independent focuses of loyalty and organization. Marxism is not really able to come to grips with this fact, except by the somewhat desperate measure of arguing that in the very long run, defined by the emergence of a new mode of production, these cultural struggles have little importance — a statement that seems both false and somewhat irrelevant.


Finally, Marx wanted the class theory to provide an explanation of political phenomena and in particular of the behavior of the state in capitalist societies. The theory for which he is best known, that the state is "nothing but" a tool for the collective class interests of the capitalists, is one that he himself abandoned early on, when it was disproved by the turn of events in the main European countries around 1850. Instead, he proposed an "abdication theory" of the state, according to which the state is allowed to have some autonomy but only because it suits the interests of the capitalists. A closer look at this theory, however, shows that the autonomy granted to the aristocratic-feudal-bureaucratic governments in England, Germany, and France was quite substantial. Indeed, it would not be a great exaggeration to say that in Marx’s historical writings, as opposed to his more theoretical pronouncements, the autonomy of the modem state is a cornerstone. The reason why Marx did not fully acknowledge this fact must be sought partly in his reluctance to abandon his general theory of history, in which the derivative nature of the political superstructure was equally much of a cornerstone. In part it may also be found in his insufficient grasp of the strategic nature of politics and of the fact that a political system can assign power in ways that do not correspond to the prepolitical resources of the actors. These flaws should not, however, obscure Marx’s insight that the state depends structurally on the capitalist class. simply because its self-interest compels it to take some account of the interest of that class. How much account it must take is a strictly empirical matter, which cannot be prejudged by appealing to the general statements of historical materialism.


6. The theory of ideology is not particularly well and alive, but I believe it can and should be resurrected. Of all Marxist doctrines, this more than any other has been brought into disrepute by the arbitrary procedures adopted. Sometimes functional explanation has been the culprit, sometimes the even less intersubjectively valid method of looking for "similarities" between economic and mental activities. The first step to remedy the situation must be to draw upon the rich insights of cognitive psychology and its accumulated evidence about the motivational and cognitive processes that distort belief formation and preference formation. In fact, there could potentially be a two-way influence. The Marxist tradition in the sociology of knowledge might be able to suggest some specific hypotheses that could be tested by rigorous experimental procedures. One might, for instance, try to specify in a testable way the idea that the economic agents’ perception of economic causality depends on their location in the economic system. Similarly, some forms of hot ideology formation, such as the motivated preference for some economic theories rather than others, would not seem to be outside the reach of experimental research. These are proposals for the future. The immediate task is to achieve recognition for the fact that the theory of ideology must have microfoundations if it is to go beyond its present stage, which is partly anecdotal. partly functionalist, partly conspiratorial. And partly magical.


Above all, the sheer vitality of Marx’s thinking makes it impossible to think of him as anything but alive. His endless curiosity, vast culture. burning commitment, and brilliant intellect combined to create a mind with whom we can still communicate across the century that has passed. Commitment, of course, is not a value in itself; commitment to the wrong goals can be disastrous. Marx’s goals were generous and liberating: self-realization for the individual, equality among individuals. His utopian attitude and lack of intellectual control prevented him from carrying out the theoretical and practical tasks he had set for himself, but without these qualities he would not even have tried. He suffered the cost; we are the beneficiaries.


—from “What Is Living and What Is Dead?” in John Elster, An Introduction To Karl Marx (1986), pp 194 – 200.


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