Sometimes media get so close to saying something Marxist, but then they don’t.
Here’s one I saw today:
Sometimes media get so close to saying something Marxist, but then they don’t.
Here’s one I saw today:
In this Episode, Tony and I discuss student debt.
File info: 54 Minutes, 49 Megabytes.
The DSA’s Drop Student Debt Campaign can be found here.
Kicking Off Season 3, with Episode 1 we have “Wages for Facebook.”
In this Episode Tony and Red discuss the monetization of internet activity, spying on the internet, and internet access as a human right.
I’m reading Rick Wolff and Steve Resnick’s Contending Economic Theories, which compares Marxist, Keynesian, and Neoclassical economic theories. Wolff and Resnick are very familiar with the theories – they’ve done scholarly work contributing to the field of Marxist economic theory, and they’ve taught (mostly) neoclassical economics at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst for decades. They are well informed and the book is easy to read.
Recently the book has made me ponder the use of economic theories in those day to day small-talk conversations. Two years ago, while speaking with a group of friends about the recent news that paid internships for college students/grads were disappearing, a friend gave a short lesson in supply and demand to explain the change.
In retrospect, I’m now realizing that he was applying one economic theory, Neoclassical, and to add to the conversation I didn’t need to argue against his interpretation, but rather I could also add another perspective – the Marxist one.
Now, Marxism has never denied the effects of supply and demand, but rather seeks to go beyond it. What happens when supply and demand are in equilibrium? Why do they balance at that point? What else is at play?
How I Could Have Responded: Clearly supply and demand are part of it, but I don’t think they are the whole story. There are some clear winners and some clear losers in this scenario. Employers are getting labor for free (something they normally need to pay for, and something that is required to keep their business running), and the workers (interns) are getting nothing in return. Class struggle also play a part in this change. Employers needed to decide to shift from paid to unpaid interns. That didn’t just happen magically. If there were social taboos against not paying interns that’s something that could prevent the shift. If there was legislation requiring interns to be paid a certain amount that could also stop the shift. There are a whole world of forces out there beyond supply and demand that go into shaping our world. Politics, laws, cultural norms, and class struggle are among these forces, and are clearly all influenced by each other. So it’s fine to look at this as an effect of supply and demand, but be aware that there are other factors at play too, and some of them may even be more useful in explaining this change.
Wolff and Resnick call this approach to causation “overdeterminism” – everything is effected by everything else. They use it the way many other Marxist use “Dialectics”. In fact, they introduce overdeterminism as a new more accurate term for dialectics. Whichever word you use, it gives Marxism a clear advantage as a theory. It makes it very flexible to use for understanding complex situations. Instead of the caricature of Marxism where everything boils down to economic (and sometimes technological) determinism, this approach to causation allows for theorists to move between politics, science, culture, economics and more the way Marxists have often done. Neoclassical economic theory has nothing to say about literature, while Marxism is a staple of critical literary theory – this is because Marxists have traditionally been excited by other fields of study and ready to blend and mix them with what they already know, making the range and scope and ultimately the understanding of Marxists more broad, more deep, and more complete.
Are you paid what your labor is worth?
I asked this question with a group of friends and got a variety of answers – “yes, but… yes, if…. not even close… depends on how you look at it… compared to my last job…”
Then I asked a harder question “how do you know how much your labor is worth?” This really gave them pause. Nobody really knew how to figure that out. We ended up with comparing to other people or to other jobs, but neither of those answers seemed satisfactory.
Then came the cut-the-b.s. moment. I brought out two different ways of viewing the value of labor.
Theory one: Your labor is worth exactly how much you get paid. Just like how a car is worth whatever it sells for, your labor is worth whatever you can get someone to pay you. This means that you are never underpaid, you are always paid the right amount.
Theory two: Your labor is worth more than you are paid for it. Your employer hires you only if the amount of value you create is more than the amount he will be paying you. Otherwise there is no incentive for him to hire you. This means that all people are underpaid (assuming their employer is smart enough to fire them if they aren’t adding enough value).
I then explained that theory one belongs to neoclassical economic theory, while the second theory belongs to Marxist economic theory. Some friends found them both to be correct, and I agree – they both make sense.
The next interesting question is “how does each theory account for the opposing theory’s seemingly also correct stance?“
Neoclassical theory basically just doesn’t. According to neoclassical economists you don’t create more value than you are paid – that’s it, there’s only one number. In other words, it just ignores the question.
Marxists have taken a much different approach – they recognize both numbers (how much you are paid AND how much value you create), and consider them two different but related things.
The first is the value of LABOR POWER. Labor power is your capacity to work – your time, muscles, and brains hold this potential, and you essentially sell this potential to your employer when you are hired to do a job.
Your employer uses the commodity he has bought (by telling you what to do, and then by making sure you do it), in order to create a new thing – labor. Labor is the actual work you do, which has greater value than labor power.
You sell labor power for it’s value (your wage), but then by the act of simply doing your job, you transform labor power into labor for your employer, and your employer pockets the difference.
Now we’ve got two distinct theoretical objects that help us distinguish between these two ideas – but how do Marxists explain the difference in value between the two?
There are two ways to approach this. The simplest quickest answer is that Capitalism enforces a difference in the values because no employer would pay it’s employees that much – and if they did they wouldn’t remain competitive in the marketplace. Capitalism discourages, disincentivizes and eventually purges any employers that might try to do this.
Another answer is that labor power is priced at its “cost of production” like other commodities. Now, the “cost of production” of labor power is more slippery than that of other commodities like a shoe. The cost of production of labor power at the very least is the cost to house, feed, and clothe a human, but also goes above and beyond that to meet a certain socially determined standard of living. The level of this standard is something constantly debated and struggled over between the classes of society.
There you have it. Your employer pays you what it takes to get you to show up (a socially determined standard of living that is the object of class struggle and other forces). You then do your job which creates a greater amount of value. The difference between these is the source of economic growth, dividends, and other payments that employers make to secure their continued privileged position of power for the future.
So what’s your labor worth? – More than the market value of your labor power.
What’s your labor power worth? A value determined by the market, class struggle, technology and a host of other factors.
Final Point: You are paid what society says you are “worth” (what it has to pay you), but when you work, you create much more (which is the reason they decided to hire you in the first place).
A friend recommended a Youtube series to me titled “Crash Course World History”. I’m impressed by the quality of the videos and I’m glad that folks are growing a space for educational videos on Youtube.
My take on John Green’s (and Raoul Meyer’s) crash course in world history is that it does a relatively good job with history. Now to be clear, I’m no professional historian nor really much of an amateur one. But Green’s attacks on the “great men” theory of history are solid and are a much needed clarification since most primary and secondary history courses are taught using this flawed theory. For those unfamiliar with it, the idea is essentially that great men (and every once in a while a great woman) are who make history – so you study George Washington, or Napoleon, with no or little attention to the lives of the vast majority of people. This gives a sense that these men were leaders who changed the world, rather than simple figureheads who became a symbol of much larger and complex issues involving large groups of people.
Moving away from the “Great Men” theory leaves a narrative gap – how do you tell the story of world history if it’s not the parade of leaders? Green only does OK with creating another narrative. He emphasizes complexity but he admits that his format often causes him to ignore complexities. In the end, Green offers several “lessons” of merit, but no overall framework for understanding history, which is what an understanding of Marxism could provide to a study of history.
Green on Marx
But how does Green treat Marxist thought? Not particularly well. He paints a caricature of Marxists as brutal dictators or as unsophisticated students, or at the best rudimentary social theorists with a one-track mind on economics only.
However, despite the bad rap that Marxism gets on his show, many of the important pieces of analysis are drawn or connected to Marxist theory. In one episode, Green refers to himself as a Keynesian Centrist, so it’s clear he is no Marxist, but I think he, as with many liberals/centrists, has certain sympathies with Marxist theory. If only he could overcome the rudimentary caricature of Marxism that he presents, he may find it more meaningful. To my point and his credit, Green does favorably cite Fredric Jameson in one episode, but fails to mention Jameson being a Marxist or the quote being related to Marxist theory.
A Marxist History Course?
Noting Green’s “textbook” understanding of Marxism, I thought how a space could be made for a Marxist World History course. This also made me think of Chris Harman’s “A People’s History of the World” which I haven’t read yet. My point being that history has been studied by Marxists and they have applied Marxist theory to history – however, this scholarship is not popularized like other stories of History. Harman’s book is a step in this direction, but I would love to see a World History mini-series online that would highlight the events of history using Marxist analysis. I won’t be planning to take this on for Marxism Today – partially because that’s not what this Podcast is for and partially because I’m not well-read enough in history for that now. But none-the-less this would certainly be a project worth exploring for the online Marxist community.
Here’s the link: