Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"It's not Personal, Sonny. It's Strictly Business"

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations).

The title of this piece comes from a line spoken by Michael Corleone in the 1972 Francis Ford Coppola blockbuster The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo's book.

Michael and Sonny Corleone, sons of a Mafia don, were discussing Michael's plan. Sonny opposed it, believing that Michael (his little brother, whom he patronizingly calls Mikey) was being driven by considerations outside commercial interests (i.e. "personal").

Michael argues in a quite unemotional, reasoned manner and uttered the line above.

At the end of this piece, I trust the thread linking the two preceding quotes and the cartoon will become apparent.


One of the commonest misconceptions about Marxism concerns its relationship with morality/ethics.

To me, it's difficult to make heads or tails of the following passage, which illustrates that misconception:
"Marx, like Ricardo before him, believed that all value came from labour; that is, the blood, sweat and tears of workers. We might find this a convincing argument from a moral perspective - after all, doesn't the worker do all the work? Or we may not find it a convincing moral argument at all - is that to say that the capitalist literally does nothing? But whether this is morally convincing or not it is, in essence, irrelevant to understanding the processes of a capitalist economy." (See here).
In my mind, moral/ethical arguments boil down to this: "A is wrong (right, ethical/unethical, etc.), because of B; therefore C" (where A, B and C are statements, C being also the conclusion, which somehow negates A if it is wrong, or reinforces it, if it is right). It is the terms "wrong", "right", "ethical", "unethical" that characterize this as a moral judgement.

Example: "It is wrong for wealthy butchers to sell meat to the poor, because the poor are hungry, have no money and cannot pay the price asked; therefore wealthy butchers must give away free meat to the poor".

Translation key:

A: "wealthy butchers sell meat to the poor";
B: "the poor are hungry, have no money and cannot pay the price asked";
C: "wealthy butchers must give away free meat to the poor".

That is a moral argument. Let's consider it, under Smith's terms: it addresses the wealthy butcher's humanity, and talks of the poor's necessities. There is also an explicit moral valuation: "it is wrong".

My purpose with the example is to provide a comparison with the statement "all value comes from labour". Unlike the example, the statement "all value comes from labour" does not fit the scheme "A is wrong, because of B; therefore C". It contains no moral valuation. It does not address anyone's humanity and does not speak of anyone's necessities.

Thus, the statement "all value comes from labour" is neither a moral judgement, nor a moral judgement's conclusion.

So, if the statement "all value comes from labour" is not a moral judgement, what is it?

It is the conclusion of a standard logical analysis. To represent that analysis symbolically, in terms similar to those used before: "If we assume premises X, Y, ... and Z, then it must be the case that all value comes from labour" (X, Y, ... and Z are statements). Note that there is no explicit moral valuation.

Although I do support the statement "all value comes from labour" (i.e. I believe its premises are true and the conclusion follows logically from them), it is not my purpose here to convince you of it. In principle, all analysis may be disproved (i.e. the conclusion shown not to follow from the premises); the premises shown to be false. The same applies to this particular analysis.

Thus, readers are free to make their own minds. If the reader is prepared to defend his or her position, by all means, state your case in a pertinent, logical, clear, brief fashion in the comments.

My purpose is to clarify that, as in Smith's quote above, Marx's and Ricardo's statement "all value comes from labour" is about "what is", not about "what should be".

So, Marxism has no moral/ethical implications?

Far from that. It means that these considerations are not required to support Marxist socialism. In this, Marxist socialism differs fundamentally from other forms of socialism and reformism, some of which predated or were contemporaries to Marx (see here). Some of these movements did base themselves on moral judgements, not unlike the "wealthy butchers" example (see here).

To illustrate Marx's point:

Imagine you are in a mission from God to convince wolves that it's wrong to kill and eat other animals, because all animals are God's creatures; wolves, therefore, should become vegetarians (that is, following my example above, a moral argument).

So, armed with zeal, good-will and faith, you head into the forest and start preaching to the wolves.

Soon you find that your message isn't making converts. Even if wolves could understand your language, the message itself makes no sense: wolves kill and eat other animals because that's what wolves do. It's a part of the definition of what a wolf is: a predator.

Further, if a wolf were foolish enough to heed that preaching, it would soon cease being a wolf and turn into a corpse: its metabolism and digestive system are not adjusted to a vegetarian diet, its teeth and jaws are not efficient grass-foraging tools.

The same reasoning applies to the economic human predator: the capitalist. Capitalists exploit workers because that's what capitalists do: "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business".

In the course of events workers make a living from employers, just like buyers get bread, meat and beer from bakers, butchers and brewers. But that's not what motivates employers, bakers, butchers or brewers. What motivates them is profit. That's the thread linking the quotes and the cartoon.

No wonder socialism isn't popular among capitalists or businesspeople in general: if a wealthy butcher gave away meat he would lose money and would not remain a wealthy butcher much longer; further, if he stubbornly persisted, he would go broke and become a pauper. (That's precisely what happened with Capitalist, an employer, in the example studied here).

Let's not fool ourselves: my little wolf story may be original (at least, I haven't heard it before), but it does not express anything new. Its central message is obvious to anyone.

But progressives often assume that what is obvious to any thinking reader (or any butcher) in our days, would be a complete revelation to Marx or Ricardo or to a host of other economists (including Petty and Smith).

When progressives assume that the statement "all value comes from labour" depends on moral judgements, they are projecting on Marx and Ricardo their own naivety/ignorance. And, in Ricardo's case, this is particularly funny: Ricardo was a wolf among wolves, an extremely successful financial speculator, a landlord and an MP from a rotten borough! You've got to love the irony.

But that does not reflect the full magnitude of this "progressive" mistake: "progressives" (and the quotation marks were deliberately inserted here) are, unwittingly or not, misrepresenting superstition as if it was Marx's thought.

Contrast this "progressive" view of Marx, with Marx's own vision of the human predator:
"I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense coleur de rose. (...) My standing point, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them". Karl Marx. (Das Kapital, vol. 1, preface to the 1867 edition).
In this passage there is no appeal to humanity and no talk of anyone's needs: it's all about business. No moral valuation: no "this is wrong", or "that is right".

Marx isn't preaching to the wolves: he's addressing the animals wolves kill and eat. If you work for someone else for a living, he is talking to you.

To answer the question posed in the passage motivating this post: "is that to say that the capitalist literally does nothing?" Yes, while wearing the capitalist hat, they literally do nothing. The workers do.

Or, paraphrasing Smith: It is not from the benevolence of the capitalists that we expect our wages, but from their regard to their own self-interest.

The myth these "progressives" unconsciously perpetuate is that this is not true: workers are a collective Blanche Dubois, always depending on the kindness of strangers.

Image Credits:
[1] Cartoon of the big bad wolf reading a bedtime story, by Gaspirtz. Wikipedia. My usage of this cartoon does not imply Gaspirtz's agreement or disagreement on the subject of this post.

26-09-2011. Having said all that, does it mean that each and every capitalist, without exception, is a predator? In a word, yes.

But there are vegetarian wolves, too. Or more precisely: wolves that try to be vegetarian (like perhaps Warren Buffett). They are few and far in between, but deserve recognition nonetheless (see here, h/t David Ruccio's Occasional Links and Commentary).

24-02-2012. I've just found this excellent series of articles by Robert Vienneau:  "Marx and Commentators on Marx on the Justice of Capitalism". See here for parts 1, 2 and 3.

In it Vienneau documents a reading of Marx's exploitation as an empirical fact, similar to what I described above. And I say empirical fact in opposition to the view of exploitation as a moral/ethical ("metaphysical") thing promoted by "hard-nosed" "progressives" and right-wingers (significantly, both sides often coincide in this); and Vienneau does this in a very erudite manner, with abundant quotes, from Marxist and non-Marxist authors alike (btw, I believe he is an Sraffian).

I am not sure I concur with some of Vienneau's ancillary points, but if he in any way misses the mark, from a Marxist perspective, it is not by much. I highly recommend these posts, especially for the more academically-minded readers.

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