Putting the system on trial

by Rob Horning

10 March 2010


This post requires an elaborate chain of references: Mark Thoma links to Daniel Little’s notes on John Rawls’s lectures on Marx. Rawls is trying to explain why Marx doesn’t condemn capitalism as unjust, but instead struggles to establish that it is just on its own terms. In other words, the way production is organized under capitalism generates its own norms of justice that suit and support it. From the notes:

Let’s now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental—as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.
Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

What difference does this make? Part of it has to do with Marxism’s pretensions to being “scientific”—but that argument distracts from what seems to be the more relevant point. One of the more frustrating aspects of a Marxist approach is that the “enemy,” it turns out, is not actually the greedy people and corporations, the fat cats and running dogs, et al., but instead a nebulous system by which moral responsibility is dispersed. We find ourselves obliged to, in a sense, love the capitalists, but hate capitalism.

This is especially true now, with the broader conception of a middle class. We are all implicated in the capitalist system because we are able to benefit at times from its coherent vision of justice, from its apparently stable institutions, in spite of the systemic inequities. Rawls’s analysis shows how, from Marx’s point of view, we all end up getting co-opted—we become justifiably invested in the particular, local rules of the institutions we are affiliated with, even those these institutions mesh at a larger level into the capitalist totality that perpetuates all the exploitation, the immiseration, the hierarchy building, the alienation.

Justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

Hence the ideological gridlock that always seems to afflict the left, perpetually torn between impulses for reform and revolution. It seems much more persuasive to rally people to the revolution by saying society is unjust. But once you do, you simultaneously make the case for ameliorist measures that leave the underlying problems in place.

All that being said, Markos Moulitsas is right: Dennis Kucinich is being a “little prick” about health care reform, killing it for a better proposal that will never come.


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