Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Marx's "On 'The Jewish Question'"

Over at Crooked Timber, Corey Robin has a very short post suggesting that "Islam is the 21st Century's Jewish Question," which has attracted a long and perhaps predictably heated comments thread. Some of the more agitated commenters at CT apparently think that such comparisons are inherently dishonest or immoral.  To me, it seems obvious that, however you weigh the similarities and differences in this particular case, the historical experience of anti-semitism is an important reference point for thinking about the way various Others are regarded today.

I don't want to relitigate that comment thread here -- except, again, to say that I don't see anything unreasonable or offensive about the comparison Corey is making. No, the reason I'm writing this is that Corey's mention of it reminded me of what a brilliant and profound, and profoundly misunderstood, essay Marx's "On 'The Jewish Question'" is.

The essay is a response to Bruno Bauer - note the additional quote marks in the title. Bauer is responding to demands for emancipation of Germany's Jews from the various legal restrictions they were subject to. Bauer has two objections. First, he says, there are no citizens in Germany, only different classes of subjects with their own distinct privileges and assigned roles. Jews have one set, Christians have another, but no one is free. Second, even if freedom were possible in Germany, Jews could only become citizens if they were willing to limit their Jewisness to private life -- no special accomodations for religious observance, no maintaining their own institutions. "The Jew must retreat behind the citizen."

Marx replies: All that is true as far as it goes. But that only shows the limitations of the liberal conception of freedom. It is true, as Bauer says, that political emancipation requires the Jews (like everyone else) to make their religion a purely private matter, but all that shows is how far short political emancipation falls of human emancipation.

Human emancipation would recognize that we exist only in relation to myriad other people, and in these relationships we are conscious, moral, rational beings, making choices about our collective lives. Political emancipation, by contrast, isolates our conscious collective life in the political sphere, leaving us disconnected egoists in our private life.
Where the political state has attained its true development, man ... leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. ... In his most immediate reality, in civil society, man is a secular being. Here, where he regards himself as a real individual, and is so regarded by others, he is a fictitious phenomenon. In the state, on the other hand, where man is regarded as a species-being, he is the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty, is deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality.
Political emancipation allows people to participate in collective decision-making but only on condition that they give up or deny any concrete, organic identity or connections they have beyond abstract citizenship. While in private life people are free to be really ourselves, but disconnected from the society we continue to depend on, we experience this freedom as being "the plaything of alien powers." 
This connects directly back to the Jewish Question: Judaism is the kind of community or collective identity that people must give up to become citizens in the liberal state. Or rather, pretend to give up:
Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois, “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen, between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.
While liberal political life is organized on the principle of reasoned debate between disinterested equals, it is not actually the case that inequality and particular interests disappear. One important thing to note in this passage: Here, as elsewhere, Jewishness is only one of various examples of a particular identity. Which should make clear: This is an essay about the limits of political freedom in the liberal state, not an essay about Jews. It's an essay about "The Jewish Question," not about the Jewish Question.

So: Under the bourgeois state (of which Marx already recognizes the northern US as offering the purest example) religion goes from being the most public question, to the most private. "Religion ... is no longer the essence of community, but ... the expression of man's separation from his community ... It is only the abstract avowal of specific perversity, private whimsy, and arbitrariness." It is, in short, now just a matter of taste. 

In the private sphere we are all just automatic pleasure-and-pain machines; our capacity for moral and rational action is limited to the political sphere. Just look at the distinction the French Revolution made between the "rights of the citizen" and the "rights of man":
The rights of man, ... as distinct from the rights of the citizen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society, the rights of egoistic man, separated from other men and from the community. ... It is the question of the liberty of man as an isolated monad. ... The rights of man appear as "natural" rights because conscious activity is concentrated on the political act. ... Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and on the other, to a citizen, a juridical person.
Economics, perhaps even more than other social sciences, has taken this distinction and made it doctrine. A core methodological assumption of economics is that private choices are purely arbitrary, they are given natural facts. We can't discuss them, debate them, subject them to reason: De gustibus non est disputandum. In private life, we are animals or not even, we are mechanical objects. Where economics poses a choice, it is invariably: What should the State do?

There is a more direct connection with economics, too. While individuals in civil society are conceived of as monads, they do still relate to each other, through the medium of property. Marx:
The practical application of man's right to liberty is man's right to private property ..., the right to enjoy one's property ... without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty ... makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it.
Social life, to take another tack, is a series of hugely complicated coordination problems. When these problems are solved through norms or tradition, or through rational debate, we experience their resolution as freedom. We see ourselves doing what is right, because it is right. When they are solved by markets or other forms of coercion, we experience unfreedom. One person decides and the rest of us comply.

At the start of the essay, Marx poses the question: "Does the standpoint of political emancipation give the right to demand from the Jew the abolition of Judaism?" Here towards the end, it's clear that Marx's answer is, No. A democratic politics that allows us to act as rational beings only by denying our particular identities is no true democracy. And a private life that allows us our individuality only as arbitrary personal tastes, and in which have no organic ties or moral duties to anyone else, offers no true freedom. Marx does hope and expect that Judaism, like all religions, will eventually disappear. But that's only possible once the separation of political life and civil society has been transcended. We will be able to dispense with religion only once we are able to act as moral agents in our daily lives. Or as he says:
Only when the real, individual man reabsorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his own powers and, consequently, no longer separates power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.

What Comes Before Capital?

"The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.'"

Everyone knows that line. If your intellectual formation is like mine, it has approximately the same status as "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

The rabbis, I'm told, used to like to point out that in Hebrew the first letter of "In the beginning..." looks like a box with three sides, and only one opening. This was to convey the message, don't ask what happened before, or what might be happening somewhere else. The only story we care about starts here.

We all have our rabbis. But we keep asking anyway, what comes before? What comes before that first sentence of Capital, what's happening elsewhere? What form does wealth (claims on the good life) take in societies where the capitalist mode of production doesn't prevail? And apart from how it appears, or presents itself, what can we say about what it really is?

I think the biggest problem with how people read Capital is, they don't take the subtitle seriously: It really is a "critique of political economy." There's an overarching irony, the whole thing is written under the sign of the hypothetical. (In general, I think this irony is one of the most important, and hardest, things that students have to learn in any field.) The whole book is written to show that even if everything Ricardo said was true, capitalism would still be an unjust and inhumane (and unstable, though that doesn't come til later) economic system. But that's not the same as saying that everything Ricardo says really is true. In my opinion -- people I respect disagree -- everything Marx says about the Labor Theory of Value is preceded by an implicit "even if..." It shouldn't be interpreted as a set of positive claims about the world.

So what does Marx positively believe? For this, I think we have to turn to the early writings. I know these are deep waters, on which I am innocently paddling about in my little water wings. But in my opinion, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are the essential "before" to Capital.

In Capital, exploitation is defined in terms of the share of the product (already quantifiable; the transformation of the infinitely heterogeneous content of human activity into a mass of commodities has already taken place) to which claims accrue as a result of wage labor. But in the Manuscripts, he says
A forcing-up of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that the higher wages, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would ... be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or for labour their human status and dignity.
Or equivalently, “The alienation of the product of labour merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself.” What's important is exhausting one's creative powers on alien ends. How many channels you have on tv afterward doesn't matter.

Alienated labor means (to take various of Marx's definitions):  “the work is external to the worker”; the worker "does not fulfill himself in his work”; the worker “does not develop freely his mental and physical energies”; “work is not voluntary, but imposed, forced labour”; work “is not the satisfaction of a need, but a means for satisfying other needs”; the worker “does not belong to himself but to another person.” This is the non-quantifiable fact about life under life under capitalism for which questions about the distribution of commodities are a stand-in. Everything that happens in Capital, happens after this.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"The Labouring Classes Should Have a Taste for Comforts and Enjoyments"

McDonald's model budget for its minimum-wage employees -- along with the smug, fatuous, those-people-aren't-like-us-dear defenses of it -- has been the target of well-deserved scorn.

This kind of thing has been around forever (or at least as long as capitalism). Two hundred years ago, liberal reformers offered "Promoting Sobriety and Frugality, and an Abhorrence of Gaming"as the solution to the collapse of wages following the Napoleonic wars, and gave workers instruction on "the use of roasted wheat as a substitute for coffee." You could make an endless list of these helpful suggestions to the poor to better manage their poverty.

To be fair, liberals today do mostly see this stuff as, at best, an effort by low-wage employers to divert attention from their own compensation policies to the personal responsibility of their workers. And at worst, when the budget help includes assistance enrolling in Medicaid or the EITC, as a way of getting the public to subsidize low-wage employment.

But there's a nagging sense in these conversations that, disingenuous as McDonald's is here, still, at the end of the day, frugality, living within one's means, is a virtue; that the ability to prioritize expenses and make a budget is a useful skill to have. Against that view, here's Ricardo on wages:
It is not to be understood that the natural price of labour, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. ... It essentially depends on the habits and customs of the people. An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where 'man's life is cheap', and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries at an earlier period of our history. 
The friends of humanity cannot but wish that in all countries the labouring classes should have a taste for comforts and enjoyments, and that they should be stimulated by all legal means in their exertions to procure them. ... In those countries, where the labouring classes have the fewest wants, and are contented with the cheapest food, the people are exposed to the greatest vicissitudes and miseries.
In a world where the price of labor power depends on its cost, there's no benefit to workers from budgeting responsibly, from learning to get by on less. The less people can live on, the lower wages will be. On the other hand, to the extent that former luxuries -- a decent car, some nice clothes, dinner out once in a while, whatever consumer electronics item the scolds are going on about now -- come to be seen as necessities, such that it's not worth putting up with the bullshit of a job if you still can't afford them, then wages will have to rise enough to cover that too.

For much of the 20th century, it seemed like we had left Ricardo's world behind. Among economists, it became a well-established stylized fact that it's the wage share, not the real wage that is relatively fixed. To even sympathetic critics of Marx, the failure of real wages to gravitate toward a (socially determined) subsistence level looked like a major departure of modern economies from the capitalism he described.

These days, though, the world is looking more Ricardian. For the majority of workers without credentials or other shelter from the logic of the labor market, real wages look less like a technologically-fixed share of output than the minimum necessary to keep people participating in wage labor at all. In the subsistence-wage world of industrializing Britain, workers' "frugality, discipline or acquisitive virtues brought profit to their masters rather than success to themselves."  Conversely, in that world, which may also be our world, profligacy, waste and irresponsibility could be a kind of solidarity.

I would never presume to tell someone surviving on a minimum-wage paycheck how to live their life. I know that being poor is incredibly hard work, in a way that those of us who haven't experienced it can hardly imagine.  But as a friend of humanity, I do worry that the biggest danger isn't that people can't live on the minimum wage, but that they can. In which case we're all better off if McDonald's employees throw the bosses' helpful budget advice away.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Exception and the Rule

MERCHANT: To assume that the Coolie would not strike me down at the first opportunity would have been to assume he had lost his reason.

JUDGE: You mean you assumed with justification that the Coolie must have had something against you. You may, then, have killed a man who possibly was harmless -- because you couldn't know he was harmless.

MERCHANT: One must go by the rule, not by the exception.

JUDGE: Then I pronounce the verdict. The Court regards it as proven that the Coolie approached his mater not with a stone but with a water flask. But even when this is granted, it is more credible that the Coolie wished to kill his master than that he wished to give him something to drink. The Merchant did not belong to the same class as his carrier. He had therefore to expect the worst from him. The Merchant could not believe in an act of comradeship on the part of a carrier whom, as he has confessed, he had brutalized. Good sense told him he was threatened in the highest degree. The accused acted, therefore, in justifiable self-defense -- it being a mater of indifference whether he was threatened or must feel himself threatened. In the circumstances he had to feel himself threatened. The accused is therefore acquitted.