"This sphere that we are deserting [i.e. exchange], within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all."Observe in that passage the four notions of "Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham", which I emphasised. Marx, author of that text, had a purpose in mind when he directed our attention to them.
Those four words will help us understand why the modern Left sucks and blows at the same time.
The first two, of course, remind us of the great 18th century bourgeois French Revolution and its motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (by Marx's time, the liberal heirs of the Revolution, who always cared more about Property, had forgotten all about Fraternité). Bentham, evidently, is an allusion to Jeremy Bentham, the British utilitarian philosopher, and his doctrine that humans were motivated only by the desire to satisfy their individual needs and wants.
Those four notions, for Marx, are fundamental to understand the situation of workers and capitalists as they confront each other in the labour market.
Freedom. Workers and capitalists are free agents, acting on their own will. In fact, workers are freer than capitalists: as the capitalists, workers are free in the sense of not being the property of someone else; tradition or social mores do not compel them, either; unlike capitalists, however, workers are also free from Property.
David Ruccio often reminds us of that:
"Free labourers, in the double sense that neither they themselves form part and parcel of the means of production, as in the case of slaves, bondsmen, &c., nor do the means of production belong to them, as in the case of peasant-proprietors; they are, therefore, free from, unencumbered by, any means of production of their own."Equality. In its magnanimity the law abstracts from any difference between workers and capitalists and treats them impartially as equals, equally bound by contract and contract alone.
The last liberal buzzword, Bentham, means that workers and capitalists are isolated individuals, acting motivated by their inner needs and wants.
Altogether, "Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham" justify in capitalist ideology and law an often unstated symmetry between the roles of worker and capitalist: each is a consumer of the other's produce. As Robert Paul Wolff has noted,
"Like the cobbler, the farmer, the coal monger, and the clothier, bourgeois law and ideology would have it that the worker too is an independent entrepreneur who buys his raw materials in the market [food, clothing, shelter] in order to bring a commodity [labour power] back into that market for sale."In a deep sense, the great achievement of liberalism and capitalism was to put Ebenezer Scrooge and his employee Bob Cratchit in quite the same position. Ironic as that may sound, and whether you believe it or not, that was a step forward.
Based on "Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham" and a few other assumptions, Marx and Engels deduced the theorems of Marxism. To the extent that the abstractions embodied in the assumptions approach reality, to that extent we can trust the theorems (assuming, as I do, that Marx's and Engels' deduction was correct). That's why I gave that an unusually extended treatment.
One of those theorems is the necessity (in the normative sense as "the only way to solve capitalism structural problems") of a socialist revolution.
In a very schematic way, we could represent it thus:
if Assumptions then Theorems_of_Marxism.
Again, I rush to highlight that nothing here is to be understood in a deterministic way, as
The critical question, then, is empirical: how closely Assumptions match reality. To argue that goes well beyond the scope of this post; personally, I am not confident to be fully qualified to do that.
Nor, as it happens, is that needed here.
A couple of years ago, in October 2015, German philosopher and professor Byung-Chul Han wrote for the openDemocracy website (emphasis added):
"The neoliberal system of domination has a wholly different structure. Now, system-preserving power no longer works through repression, but through seduction -- that is, it leads us astray. It is no longer visible, as was the case under the [capitalist] regime of discipline. Now, there is no longer a concrete opponent, no enemy suppressing freedom that one might resist.
"Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed. People see themselves, not society, as the problem."Before proceeding, compare Han's passage to my previous exposition and particularly with Marx's quote. Take your time. We'll go on when you are ready. In the meantime, I'll withhold the title of that piece and its corresponding link for a little longer. I beg your patience: I do that for a reason.
You could be forgiven to think that Han was making Marx's case: doesn't that passage seem to argue that current empirical reality corresponds closely to Marx's assumptions?
There's more. In the article he twice described workers, in our times of the self-employed and free-lancer. One is above, the other is below:
"Instead, the prevailing mode of production is based on lonesome and isolated self-entrepreneurs, who are also estranged from themselves."That's not far from paraphrasing Wolff's quote, is it?
That's not the end of it, but I'll give just one more example. Han's article contains 7 references to freedom:
"Domination that represses and attacks freedom is not stable. The neoliberal regime proves stable by immunizing itself against all resistance, because it makes use of freedom instead of repressing it. Suppressing freedom quickly provokes resistance; exploiting freedom does not."
At the time Han's article generated a lot of hand-wringing among his leftist readers. For one, Rosemary Bechler, the editor of openDemocracy, replied to him in fairly critical terms. As I seldom visit that site, I missed the whole brouhaha.
All that anxiety was not due to Han's arguing the need for revolution. No siree. If you thought that Han was a Marxist making Marx's empirical case you may be forgiven, but you were dead wrong, just the same.
Provocatively entitled "Why Revolution is no Longer Possible" (in another website) in its English translation from the German original, Han's piece argued that capitalism had mutated into something new, different: neoliberalism. That's why, Han argues, revolution is no longer possible. Current reality, he thinks, moved away from Marx's times. Believe it or not.
I don't know if any Marxist ever replied to him. If any did, my apologies (I don't think Bechler is one, but I could be mistaken). So, it's up to yours truly, a working class, semi-educated Marxist grunt, barely over a chimp, to reply.
This says something about what passes for Left nowadays, doesn't it?
Apologies to the reader for the length.