I’m Not a Marxist, But

I think I should start keeping track of how many times I say “I’m not a Marxist.” Or even a Marxian. (Which is a word I can’t look at without thinking of Marvin.)

Because it’s really weird how hard I have to try to keep orienting my own theoretical perspective on economic issues in order to acknowledge that — although capitalism sometimes does bad things to people— we still expect ourselves to take it for granted, as an incontrovertible fact of our lives.

Democracy is the same way: it can do bad things to the minority, but we don’t want to admit it; we want to reassure ourselves that it’s great for everybody. Even the small groups of people who are ill-served by it. We seldom talk about it, but when we do we refer to it as the tyranny of the majority. In a true freewheeling radical democracy that incorporates the rules of capitalist competition, everyone looks out for their own interests, and the group with the lowest numbers loses. If enough conservatives are worried that queer Americans represent a threat to their ways of life, then conservatives vote to deprive those queer Americans of various rights: such is the tyranny of the majority. (Conservative rhetorics often invoke metaphors of the holocaust — as Terry Gross was stunned by on NPR the other night — or the civil rights movement — as John Lovas has recently pointed out — in order to represent the privileged as victims. Does your heart not bleed for the wealthy?)

What I’m trying to say is that it seems to me that the name for any critique of capitalism has become “Marxism”, and that such a label has been used quite well by those that benefit from capitalism as a smear term for the perspective of any who might speak against them. I wish there were more than one term for a critique of the injuries (and their concomitant framework) associated with capitalism.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio.

I’m Not a Marxist, But

One thought on “I’m Not a Marxist, But

  • October 3, 2003 at 11:52 pm

    It’s a good point. As someone who self-identifies as "Marxian," I think Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production doesn’t encompass all critiques of capitalism. I remember from your posts about Wolff and Resnick (were those their names?) that they held that Marx’s position stemmed from a different epistemology than neo-classical capitalism. While that may be so, the neo-classical position is not what Marx was taking on: it didn’t even exist then. Marx was working with the terms and notions of the classical economists. They didn’t have the notions of marginal utility or efficient markets—in the case of the latter, at least not in the sense that’s meant today. The upshot of this is that the Marxian critique is, to my mind, an immanent critique of classical economics. Capitalist accumulation is both possible because of and limited by commodity fetishism; commodity fetishism also enables the exploitation of surplus labor from workers.

    But can all the harms of contemporary capitalism be reduced to/explained by commodity fetishism and exploitation/alienation? I have to confess I’m partial to thinkers who’ve tried, i.e., the Western Marxists, but they can’t be the only game in town. Even the most, uh, marginal of these thinkers (and while I’m thinking of the Situationist International here, I don’t mean to disparage them by this; quite the contrary, I think they deserve much, much more attention than they receive) are still working with terms and concepts that are based in a certain type of materialist ontology.

    Urgh…sorry to be so prolix. Anyway, what about Rawls and the recent analytic philosophers? I haven’t read him myself—I just have the standard third-hand account of the original position/veil of ignorance thought experiment. But at least the equation of justice with a kind of egalitarianism (apologies to the Rawlsians out there if this is wrong!) gives you the ability to criticize the injuries of capitalism without decending into the "economic shit." Also, such an approach removes the burden of making a cost/benefit analysis from the critique: if a state of affairs x is unjust, then its injustice is not trumped by its economic efficacy. Considerations of justice must be paramount.

    Oh, this terrible gibberish. When will it end?

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