Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Just Capitalism? A Reply to Alan Wood.

Alan Wood has made a career out of making plausible sounding arguments regarding Marx that have no possible chance of being true. In fact one can spot a trend that has allowed a number of social theorists (I might add here Cohen's A Defense of K. Marx's Theory of History) to askew common sense and reasonable inquiry.

When I created this blog I promised to demonstrate how my particular method for understanding Marx might come in handy. I have chosen Alan Wood's contention that Marx believed that Capitalism was/(is) a just society, because it illustrates how distorted a view can become if one does not take into account how Marx often spoke sarcastically when he promoted his ideas.

I will be following Alan E. Buchanan's treatment of Wood's claim from his Marx and Justice. In the book ,Buchanan stencils out Wood's basic claim, by suggesting it can best understood when broken down in to (2) basic premises: [Buchanan p.53]

  1. According to Marx, a standard of justice can only be meaningfully applied to that mode of production from which it arises and to which it corresponds, and each mode has its own distinctive standard.
  2. According to Marx, the wage-relation between worker and capitalist is just according to the only standard of justice which applies to it, namely the standard which requires that equivalents be exchanged for equivalents.

Buchanan goes on to argue that "on the basis of premises (1) and (2), Wood concludes that for Marx the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist , though evil because it is a form of servitude, is not unjust." (Buchanan p.52)

Both Holmstrom and Buchanan rightly insist that Wood has "abstracted from his background" the fact that while the commodity of labour power is exchanged freely and equally , the worker is not on the same level playing field as the capitalist.

As has been noted by Buchanan, Nancy Holmstrom concluded that " we now see that calling it a just exchange could only be done tongue-in-cheek."[my emphasis]( Buchanan p. 54)

Within this unequal playground of Bentham and Mill ,the worker undergoes a compulsion under the threat of starvation and death, to enter within a contract with the capitalist , while the capitalist could wait out such a transaction for quite a longer period of time.

As one can see, without considering the sarcastic nature of attacks that Marx will use in defense of his ideas, a completely different account of the relationship between capital and worker could be given. Despite Marx's admonishments to stay away from moralizing the conflict between proletariat and capitalist, Wood's description of the conflict as Evil rather than unjust [ at least within the field of distributive justice] turns Marx on his head. Marx becomes a moralizer and utopian rather than a critic of capitalist theory.

I think in principle, that Marx believed that (equivalents vs equivalents) is a fair distributive practice within capitalism, but that the practice of real life capitalists was nothing like that, capitalism violated it's own myths so it was both evil and unjust. [ Not that I have show a real case for capitalism to be "evil." ]


Anonymous said...

"The justice of transactions which go on between agents of production rests on the fact that these transactions arise as natural consequences from the relations of production. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as voluntary actions of the participants, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by the state against a single party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds to the mode of production, is adequate to it. It is unjust whenever it contradicts that mode. Slavery, on the basis of the capitalist mode of production is unjust; so is fraud in the quality of commodities." - Capital, III, 339f.

If justice is a function of a mode of production, how does it make sense to claim that the mode is unjust?

Wood very well may be wrong, but I'm unconvinced of the argument that Marx was joking and Wood simply didn't get it.
However, I shall have to read up on it, I'll defer judgment until then.

Also, if you haven't already read it, I recommend:
Alan Wood. 1972. "The Marxian Critique of Justice." Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (3):244-282.

romiustexis said...

The key sentence in this quotation is " which these economic transactions appear as voluntary actions of the participants."

I don't believe Marx thought that the beliefs of the actors were true or correct.

Ham Burglar said...