Afternoon Coffee: Relevance of Marx
The Liquidity Trap Cometh...

Evaluating Karl Marx as Political Activist: Morning Coffee for Holy Thursday

Good morning. I am Brad DeLong. And this is my morning coffee--my morning coffee for Holy Thursday.

Yesterday I said that I divided up--that we divide up--Karl Marx into three: Marx the economist, Marx the political activist, and Marx the moralist prophet, and that I might talk about Marx the activist and Marx the prophet some other time. And Holy Thursday appears to be a good time.

Marx the political activist. Marx the political activist had five reasons that he thought it necessary and possible to work to overthrow the current system. First, he believed that because capital is not a complement to but a substitute for labor, and so technological progress and capital accumulation that raise average labor productivity also lower the working-class wage. Hence the market system could not and in the end would be seen to be unable to deliver the good society we all deserve, and so it must and will be overthrown. This seems to me to be simply wrong.

Second, Marx believed that businessmen continually extend the domain of captalism, and competition from poor workers in newly-incorporated peripheral regions puts a lid on the wages of labor. Hence inequality grows in the core, which should and in the end must trigger revolution. This seems to me to be largely wrong as well: it is very possible for the international economy, if properly managed, to balance up and not balance down as far as the level of real wages is concerned.

Third, Marx believed that previous systems of hierarchy and domination maintained control by hypnotizing the poor into believing that the rich in some sense "deserved" their high seats in the temple of civilization. Capitalism, Marx thought, unveils all--replaces masked exploitation by naked exploitation--and without its ideological legitimation, unequal class society cannot survive. This also seems to me to be completely wrong on its own terms--see Antonio Gramsci, passim, also Fox News.

Four, Marx believed that even though the ruling class could appease the working class by sharing the fruits of economic growth, they would not. They were trapped by their own ideological legitimation--they really do believe that it is in some sense "unjust" for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy would inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality would rise, and the system would be overthrown. The Wall Street Journal editorial page works day and night 365 days a year to make Marx's prediction come true. But I think they will fail.

Fifth, Marx believed that factory work--lots of people living in cities living alongside each other working alongside each other--would lead people to develop a sense of their common interest and of class solidarity, hence they would be able to organize, and revolt, and establish a free and just society in a way that they could not back in the old days when the peasants of this village were suspicious of the peasants of the next village. Here I think Marx mistook a passing phase for an enduring trend: active working-class consciousness as a primary source of loyalty and political allegiance was never that strong; nation and ethnos seem to trump class much more often than not.

There is very little in Marx the political activist that is worth paying attention to--in fact, I would say that there is less than nothing once you recognize that his own polemical habits and his failure to prophesy what would happen after the Revolution created the cracks that turned Marx's world-religion into one of the greatest evils humans have ever managed to create.

I'm Brad DeLong, and this is my morning coffee.