the imaginative conservative logo

Karl MarxIncredible legerdemain has been coming out of the Barack Obama policy shops. Taking the cake is the administration’s response to the Congressional Budget Office report showing that Obamacare will reducejobs for lower-earners. Here’s the official spin: unfortunates (as we used to call them), bolstered by health insurance provided by the government, will now be able to enjoy some leisure instead of sticking to the drudgery of menial work.

Under the umbrella of Obamacare, the poor are free to…find themselves.

We might think these justifications of the health-care monstrosity peculiar, but they have a pedigree. The left has been trading on these ideas ever since the industrial revolution got going in the first half of the 19th century.

The principal figure, as always, was Karl Marx. Marx (writing in the 1840s) noticed that what economists would call the “capital-labor ratio” was increasing mightily as the industrial revolution made progress. With every passing year, one unit of output came care more and more of machines than human labor.

Marx figured that in a relatively short while—say, two generations—the capital-labor ratio would have risen so much as to make the necessity of labor dwindle essentially to zero. Capital would be the sole input to production.

As for human beings, they would now be in the enviable position of having everything provided for them—by all that advanced workhorse capital. They could devote their lives entirely to leisure. The only problem in this scenario was the vice of avarice. If people were greedy, they would take more than they needed, even though there was an abundance of stuff for everyone, and ruin everything.

This is why Marx seethed at capitalists. They were the ones responsible for figuring out how to substitute capital for labor in the economy—that blessed process. But capitalists were also suckers for greed and acquisitiveness. The working class, on the other hand (and Marx pulled this out of thin air), gained “consciousness” in the experience of capitalist exploitation and was ready to act reservedly in the coming age of abundance. The working poor would be the bearers of the correct personality and character once that capital-labor ratio hit 100%. They would make sure that everyone took just what they needed for full, healthy living from the output of the all-productive machines.

It’s remarkable that Marx has held onto his reputation as a dismissive atheist all these years. His theories came straight out of ancient and medieval theology. Marx envisioned a return to the Garden of Eden, where bounty supplied all needs and more to the human inhabitants. The phrase from Genesis that haunted Marx was that said to Adam after the expulsion from the garden: “You shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.”

Marx was following in the long millennial “neo-Platonist” tradition that said that the drama of creation and fall was that of emanation and return. At the moment of creation, the universe was so close to God that it kept up its righteousness. As time passed and the world willed itself further from God, in came moral turpitude and its concomitant, economic want.

Salvation meant returning to the original state. Marx felt that capitalism—yes, capitalism—was the salvific means by which humanity would be restored to the state where everything was abundant. In this context, as originally in Eden, everyone could enjoy the world in fullness, if they kept avarice at bay.

Strange to say, it was Thomas Malthus, that scold about population increase of fifty years prior, who prompted Marx to these thoughts. Malthus had uncovered “struggle” as the key to human interaction. Marx incorporated this idea into his concept of class struggle. If the proletariat could overthrow the capital-owners, finally the kind of people who knew how to live well in abundance would be in charge.

And yet it was Malthus who also served as principal influence on Charles Darwin as he formulated his theory of natural selection. For Darwin, struggle for survival and perpetuation characterized all biological life, human, animal, and plant. It was an irreducible fact of existence.

Marx saw humanity differentiating itself from all other species, as the industrial revolution progressed, in that humanity was achieving the means of doing nothing instrumental, nothing practical in life. Thanks to capitalism, machines could soon do all useful work. Marx’s predecessor in philosophy Ludwig Feuerbach had spoken of a new “species-man,” and Marx advanced the idea by incorporating the incredible material developments of the dawning new age.

Today, the left is one part Marx and one part Darwin. It wants redistribution of wealth and everyone having a nice, long, hassle-free materialistic life (à la the administration’s ludicrous “Life of Julia”). Yet the left also insists on evolution and the inerrancy of Darwin. Either humanity is a different kind of species from every other one (Marx/Feuerbach) and therefore has dominion and abundant living for all coming to it, or it is locked in inescapable biotic struggle and is driven to be overly-acquisitive and selfish (Darwin). It is very hard to reconcile the two traditions, even a little.

It is worth remembering that Marx came out of a philosophical hothouse in a Germany that was barely industrialized at all by the time he started writing in earnest. Marx philosophized the industrial revolution while it was a foreign (mainly British) phenomenon. Moreover, Malthus, with his gloomy insistence on “surplus population,” would not stand the test of time. Malthus has proven one of the great goats of philosophical history, in that world population has risen magnificently ever since he called the opposite.

As neo-Platonism goes, it was practiced better in medieval times. Marx strove to solve the venerable philosophical problem of what instrumentality would be necessary for a recovery of the initial perfection of creation. That he picked capitalism (of all things) and the self-consciousness of the working class (of all things) as the two messianic devices to provide for this was such a wild gambit that it qualifies as a non sequitur. Capitalism—more properly, the industrial revolution—still awaits its sage.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This easy first appeared in Forbes and is republished here by gracious permission of the author.


Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. One of the best XXth century manifestations of these ideas were Asimov’s Robot novels. Insofar as our tablets are our “robots”, we aren’t quite there yet since humans do the literal “leg work” for their “androids”…

    Still, the point is that the clear solution to the problem of idle sloth is space colonization. Strangely, for all of its “liberalism” or even “Marxism”, the Obama administration is not pursuing even the maintenance of the space program (though in fairness, they are “working” on a new delivery system I suppose…)

    Instead of taking the Asimovian route of interpretting Marx, Obama liberals have gone the “Gender” route. Man is to be liberated from the artifice of sexual inhibition and nature rather than from the chains of gravity. Quite a pity. Thankfuly, the Russians still fly into space (Terry Verts to be the most recent American astronaught to benefit from Soyuz flights).

    If liberals must think in Marxist terms, I await with eagerness a return to Asimov’s interpretation of Marx and a flight away from Gender.

  2. One of the more charming jewels of bluegrass/gospel music is the song, “I’ll Fly Away”. (“I’ll fly away, o glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah, bye and bye, I’ll fly away.”) It is a particularly Christian idea, of defying gravity and ascending. How sad this idea is taken by the Left as a mantra of the temporally achievable. Cast off the chains of sexuality, or economics, or human nature, or,,, gravity. Merely float above your problems (if you are advanced enough). A sorry fallacy, well evident to the rational mind.

    But, like O’Brien telling Winston Smith 6079 as he ‘re-educates” his victim, the elite (the Inner Party) creates reality.
    “But how can you control matter?” he burst out. “You don’t even control the climate or the law of gravity. And there are disease, pain, death-”
    O’Brien silenced him by a movement of the hand. “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn-by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation-anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the laws of nature.”

    This, sadly, is the thought of all the utopian ideologues from whatever part of the political spectrum they originate – I say “originate”, for in the end, *ideology* inevitably leads them all to the same place, where it is very warm, and the whiff of brimstone fills the air.

  3. Marx didn’t “philosophize” (Ph.D. from Jena though he was): His Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach rejects philosophy and embraces power and violence instead.

    Nor did he believe capitalism would redeem anything. Rather, through “the negation of the negation,” the class conflict would lead to the most violent conflagration in world history – the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – after which would emerge the Truly Socialist Man, who would be like Robinson Crusoe – no exchange (or division of labor), and who would possess a new consciousness that would no longer seek to annihilate its opposite.

    To reconstruct the collapsed culture that surrounds us, we have to take Marx seriously, not as an addled economist but as a gnostic leader who, in Eric Voegelin’s fabled term, would “immantize the eschaton” – deny transcendence and bring the promise of paradise found in Augustine’s notion of Salvation History into the this-worldly time continuum.

    It’s important to recognize this fundamental tone because all progressives share it, or at least harmonize to it. Denial of the creator and His primordial authority allows them to assume the mantle of self-divinization, and the unlimited power that goes along with it, to destroy the existing world, as Marx clearly told us in the passage from Feuerbach, noted above, demands.

  4. I like Marx for his analysis of Capitalism, not for his solution. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx rightly wrote of the Bourgeoisie of his day and Neoliberal Capitalism of today that:

    It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

    Or in his work Wage Labor and Capitalism, he rightly observes how Capitalism has made the labor of the worker into a commodity. And by doing so, it is easy to see how the worker then becomes disposable as the commodity they provide can be bought at a cheaper price. And thus, not only is the worker disposable, so is his/her community. These things are rather obvious.

    I don’t like his solution of creating a proletariate dictatorship though. That simply says that we will play the same game but change the players of the championship team.

    As for Obamacare, realize that it isn’t a solution from the Left–the Left advocates a universal, single-payer system. That is far from Obamacare. And that one cannot cut out Obamacare from the system for which it was designed. So either you have the weaknesses of Obamacare or the weaknesses of what existed before. In either case, those weaknesses indict the larger economic system in which Obamacare was crafted.

  5. “But, like O’Brien telling Winston Smith 6079 as he ‘re-educates” his victim, the elite (the Inner Party) creates reality.”

    From that same dialog there are the following lines, expressing the true nature of Marxism:

    “The Party wants power for its own sake.”


    “The future is a boot smashing a human face … forever.”

Leave a Reply