Thursday, January 30, 2014

Marxian political economy verses Marxian ontology

I've been circling around this idea for a while but just didn't have the words to express it correctly.  But now I think I've got it.  It seems to me that:

Marxian political economy is usually quite good.  Marx and those he inspired tend to have remarkable insights into the workings of capitalism. Furthermore, Marxian theorists tend to be able to see past the smoke and mirrors of the hustle, to see things as they really are (which sets them apart from liberal and neoliberal thinkers who become so intoxicated by the film flam show that they eventually become a part of the hustle).

BUT, Marxian ontology (theory about the nature of being) is often woefully inadequate.  Marxian ontology seems to have a couple of different variations -- 1.) that capitalism is what corrupts and if we could just get rid of capitalism everything would be better or 2.) the bourgeoisie is inherently corrupt and if we could just replace the bourgeoisie with the proletariat everything would be better.

But it seems to me that 1.) capitalism is just one of many things that can corrupt; and 2.) that all human beings (regardless of what station in life they are born into) are vulnerable to corruption.

So what happens if we marry the Marxian critique of capitalism with an ontology that says that all human beings are prone to corruption, that power corrupts, and that we need checks and balances to rein in the natural human impulse towards corruption?

Re-thinking the Original Affluent Society Hypothesis

I believe it is true, as has been reported elsewhere, that indigenous people were able to meet all of their needs for food and shelter, with about 14 hours of work a week. The rest of the time they could devote to leisure, play, art, love, storytelling, what have you.  Which sounds pretty great.  (Whoa, a quick google search reveals that even this original assumption is questionable.) Whatever the number is, let's just use 14 hours for argument's sake here, the problem is as follows: when a culture that spent 14 hours a week on sustenance met up with a culture that spent 14 hours a week on sustenance + 1 hour a week making spearheads, arrows, and knife blades, the result was likely not pretty.   And if a society that spent 14 hours a week on sustenance + 1 hour on weapons-making met up with another society that spent 14 hours on sustenance + 2 hours on weapons-making, well the results there would not be pretty either.  Several points emerge from this:

  1. The original affluent society hypothesis only seems to work if one has no enemies and is never likely to encounter enemies in the future (a set of conditions that does not exist anywhere in the world I don't think).  
  2. The arms race has likely been going on for a long time.
  3. The crazy situation that most societies have arrived at -- of spending 40+ hours a week working -- makes better sense if we realize that societies have maximized how much efficient labor is possible in a week.  Said differently, 40 hours a week makes better sense if we realize that only 14 hours are for food and the other 26 hours are for buying the very best weapons in order to  scare off enemies in a dangerous world (and that societies that go beyond 40 hours a week tend to break down because work just is not  efficient after that point).
  4. The retro-romantic notion, that we can somehow go back to an original affluent society (Derrick Jensen, who I like a lot, seems to advocate this position) is a bit untenable because -- a) the arms race would just start all over again and b) the amount of (state) intervention required to prevent such an arms race from breaking out again would be so massive as to resemble totalitarianism.  

I get that those who advocate a return to a hunter gatherer society have a different ontology than I do (they assume that human nature is more peace-loving than I do).  But the history of the world suggests that human beings are prone to rather massive amounts of violence as well.  And protecting against the possibility of that violence takes a massive amount of labor (which then explains a large part of the political economy of many nations).