Thursday, January 18, 2018

Marx and the Missing Link (1993)

Book Review from the September 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx and the missing link: human nature. By W. Peter Archibald, Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands. NJ.

This is another "What Marx really meant" book, although at least the author is pro-Marx. Archibald is a sociologist who aims to make us think about Marx’s conception of human nature. Those who find Marx difficult to read won’t find this book much easier unless they are at home with sociological jargon such as "social formations" and "structuration". But, as one reviewer says, the author is sane and reliable and his scholarship is industrious.

Archibald is concerned to show that, in Marx’s theory, the individual is just as important as society. Individuals experience needs and wants, deprivation and frustration within an intergroup context rather than an individual vacuum. But that does not make us any less people whose psyches must still be analysed if we are to understand what we think and do collectively as well as individually (the author wrote them and they but surely we are all in this thing together).

He also discusses Marx’s theory which sees human nature "as modified in each historical epoch, the epochs considered are "communal" (the Asiatic, Classical Antiquity and the Germanic), "personalized exploitation" (feudalism, the guild system) and "impersonal exploitation" (capitalism), this is a useful division and one familiar to socialists. More contentious is Archibald’s section on "the communist mode" in which he talks about communist society in the present tense. A later statement questioning "whether the Soviet Union and other such socialist societies can be accurately and fruitfully be regards as 'state capitalist’" suggests that Archibald is, to put it kindly. out of date as well as wrong.
Stan Parker

50 Years Ago: Money and Socialism (1993)

The 50 Years Ago column in the October 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many people are incredulous when Socialists declare that money and banking will have no part to play in Socialist society.

Money is rightly said to be the lubricating oil that enables the capitalist mechanism to move, but it is not the motive power, for the true drive is the human need of the necessities of life. Standing in need of these necessities, the workers must sell their labour-power before they can buy commodities for their subsistence, and by the social legerdemain of money they are legally robbed of full access to the social wealth which they have produced, the trick being that w'ages will purchase but a portion of the total wealth made by them, the surplus being split up among the employing class.

In contradistinction to state capitalism and those who advocate the nationalisation of the financial system. Socialists stand for the complete ending of the assessment of values in terms of money. Socialist society will not produce exchange-values or spend any part of its labour force obtaining the metal gold for currency, so essential to capitalist production and payment.

It will, undivided by classes, produce and distribute goods and services without money or price for use by the whole community.

From an article by F.D. in the Socialist Standard, October 1943.

The Illusion of Choice (1993)

Book Review from the November 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Illusion of Choice by A. Schmookler, State University of New York, Albany. 1993.

Subtitled "How the market economy shapes our destiny", this book mounts a devastating attack on capitalism. Schmookler shows how the market is deaf to the voices of those without money with which to express their needs. Capitalist "justice" does not require that anyone in the marketplace invest capital or labour to cure the ills of people in the Third World who have nothing to give in exchange.

The market is sensitive to the needs we have as "social atoms" but it disregards the needs we have as a social community. Despite all the goods and services individuals can buy if they have the money, "there is no place you and I can go to buy a clean environment, a coherent landscape, an intact social community".

Those who run capitalism — ironically, unless they own considerable wealth, they are workers — do not actually seek to discover what consumers need. They offer consumers what they can be persuaded to want from among commercially viable choices. A good illustration of this is Nestle’s campaign to persuade Third World mothers to buy infant food. Breastfeeding was a better choice for women and their infants. "But this superior and naturally available option involves no sale and makes no companies rich. The market system is adept at blunting all threats to its continued dominion. Schmookler recalls seeing, in the midst of the youth rebellion of the early 1970s, an advertisement in San Francisco for a new style of clothing which was recommended for "the revolutionary look". The author is oddly split-minded about the possibility of abolishing capitalism. In one mode "I more or less accept the world as it is and feel comfortable in it. In the other, I feel an acute awareness of how out of joint the world is". Like so many radical critics of capitalism he pushes the needed revolutionary change into the future:
  "Ultimately, it is probably necessary to change our entire concept of property and the rights that adhere to property where the resources of the earth are concerned . . . The market system . . . is not the end of history. The systems failure to align with the forces of life makes its eventual transformation inevitable, for those forces will continue to seek fulfilment."
Why not be really revolutionary and join those forces now?
Stan Parker

A Culture of Contentment? (1993)

Book Review from the December 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Culture of Contentment. By J. K Galbraith. Penguin 1993.

Professor Galbraith, the venerable centre-left economist, has written another book on American capitalism. Nothing surprising in that — he has written many previous such books on slightly different themes. The main theme of this one is that a majority of Americans who actually vote are contented with the way things are and will vote for the party that says it will make them pay the least taxes.

Galbraith sees this culture of contentment as supported by a number of attitudes and beliefs. The first is that the allegedly contented majority the four fifths living above the poverty line — believe they are receiving their just desserts and are entitled to be angry if anything impinges on what they so clearly deserve. The second altitude is short-termism: don’t pay out of today's taxes for things that will only benefit people in the future.

Thirdly, the state is seen as a burden; measures to help the poor only sap their moral fibre and help to keep them poor. However, state measures designed to support the system or bail out unfortunate investors are acceptable (such as social security, military' expenditure, guarantees to depositors in ill-
fated banks). Fourthly, the contented are said to be tolerant of great differences in income and capital: the plush advantage of the very rich is the price the contented majority pays for retaining what is less but is still very good.

Galbraith, a long-time supporter of the Democratic Party, expands on these themes with wit, clarity and convincing research. But never with even a hint that the whole lousy system can and should be changed. The mood in which he prefers to write is "analytical and not adjuratory, detached and not, as far as possible, politically involved". Bringing news of capitalism's excesses of poverty and riches, misery and privilege, Galbraith obviously has no intention of being shot as the messenger. His point is not to change the world but to "understand" it.

Galbraith invites us to be sceptical about claims that America is a classless society. Yet his own conception of the American socio-economic structure seems equally unrealistic. He recognizes a "functional underclass" of at least 12.8 percent living below the poverty line. But he makes no mention of any other class except the contented majority. In this latter group are a tiny minority of billionaires — and millions struggling to make ends meet just above the poverty line. Perhaps, like the equal right of rich and poor to sleep under bridges, all except the underclass have an equal right to be contented with the system. In his last chapter, entitled "Requiem", Galbraith offers only a "sad ending". The two main parties — and he could be talking here about either the USA or Britain — offer alternative administrations of capitalism to slightly different but heavily overlapping constituencies. The underclass is dismissed as powerless, despite its growing numbers. Is there really as much contentment as Galbraith would have us believe? He seems to doubt it himself, since on the last page he writes of "the present discontent and dissonance".
Stan Parker