Monday, January 25, 2010

Marxist Mondays

Karl Marx, Capital:

In the place of the pompous catalogue of the "inalienable rights of man" comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which at last makes clear "when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins."

As much as people like to contrast Karl Marx with the Marx brothers in order to underscore his seriousness, Marx is actually very funny. In this case he calls the "inalienable rights of man," as enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the US Declaration of Independence -- Marx calls these a "pompous catalogue." Hilarious! But how does he get away with it? And why should we think it's funny?

C.L.R. James takes a shot: "[Marx] says the working-day, that battle -- the day begins at 7:00 and ends at 3:00 -- that is one of the greatest victories for human life and human development that has ever been won. I can tell you something, Mr. Alfie -- it takes time to get that in your head, the habit of looking at things that way."

Talk about "inalienable rights" all you want, but if your everyday "freedom" is the freedom to work for others in order to survive, that is not a very great freedom. Marx is trying to tell us that while private property in the age of Jefferson may have been compatible with high-flown ideas about democracy and freedom, the industrial era puts all those small farmers and craftspeople out of work. The bulk of the population is left propertyless, dependent on the new "owners of production" in order to live. By definition, this creates conditions of servitude, not liberty, for a majority of the people.

Marx is laughing at the expense of economic liberalism (basically, the philosophy of capitalism), which makes a really big deal out of the fact that the people who own nothing and the people who own everything are "free" to enter into relations with each other on a "voluntary" basis. In other words, economic liberalism congratulates itself on the fact that the former is not legally enslaved to the latter, and by this standard defines "liberty" in the marketplace, regardless of other considerations.

Marx's point is that even imposing a "modest" restraint on this market in the form of a 12-14 hour working day, or certain prohibitions on the employment of children -- forcing these, the most basic concessions, from employers is an enormous victory in the everyday lives of average people, and in the ongoing struggle between two distinct classes with conflicting interests.


Ethan said...

I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but your essays on Marx are I think one of the most useful things on the entire internet. So thanks for writing them.

JRB said...

Har! Well, thanks, Ethan. As I write you at 4:15 in the AM, in the short interim between jobs, it's hard to think of anyone else who speaks more directly to my concerns.

d.mantis said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Ethan's sentiment.

Enron said...

I concur as well.