Comments on "The New G.A. Cohen, Marxism, and Socialism," by Rodney Peffer and "Premature Autopsies," by Olufemi Taiwo
I begin with a response to Professor Peffer. Rodney offers a very thorough and compelling critique of the first reason that he says Cohen appeals to in his repudiation of Marxism, that Marxism is inherently – and in his view, fatally – attached to an “obstetric” doctrine (or motif) which insists that the emergence of a new form of society always occurs when the new form somehow develops within the old and must inevitably emerge. On this view, according to Cohen, the only thing that political theorists and activists can accomplish is to make the emergence of the new society happen somewhat earlier than later, and perhaps lessen the “birth pangs.”
It seems to me to be a basic principle of historical interpretation that one adopt the most reasonable interpretation that is compatible with the available textual and contextual evidence. In the case of Marxist scholarship, I believe that Peffer’s interpretation and Cohen’s earlier interpretation are more plausible than the alternative view that Cohen labels as the “obstetric” view. Further, I see no reason to suppose that this interpretation is less compatible with the text than the obstetric view. Thus unless Cohen can offer some additional textual support for his new interpretation, I am at a loss to understand his current support of this less plausible view. Second, one needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, understand Marxism as akin to a religion. Even if the best interpretation of Marx himself did support the obstetric view, I there is no reason why people working in social and political philosophy ought to limit themselves to a narrow and inflexible rendering of Marx’s views. We certainly don’t see this with other philosophers. One can defend J.S. Mill’s harm principle without being committed to the relatively conservative comments about women he makes in the last sections of The Subjection of Women; one can describe oneself as a Platonist or a Kantian merely by doing work in the spirit of these thinkers. I see no reason why one’s intellectual relationship with Marx ought to be any more reverential.
I now turn to the second two reasons. Peffer did not have time in his talk to address these reasons, so I offer some suggestions here. First, let me quote Peffer's analysis of these reasons:
The second is that material abundance (or super-abundance) of the type Marx and the Classical Marxists seemed to have had in mind is not possible, especially given the ecological constraints the world is running up against at the present. The third is that the working class – both at the national and international level – is too fragmented and weak to be an effective force for social revolution in today’s world in which capital has an immense advantage in being able to organize internationally (across national borders) while the labor movement, generally, is not allowed to organize across national borders.
I begin with the second reason—that the material abundance that Marx envisioned is simply not possible. I have two points to make here. The first is that I find this a curious reason for rejecting Marx. Since achieving a certain level of material abundance is a goal for virtually any defensible political philosophy, it’s not clear to me why this is a special challenge for Marxism. My second response is that there are some prominent defenders of a market system who argue that the level of material abundance that a just global society should aim for is entirely possible. I have Amartya Sen and Jeffrey Sachs in mind here. Sen points out what should now be fairly obvious—the problem of global poverty is not a problem of abundance but a problem of distribution. Further Cohen’s concern seems to assume a continually increasing global population, but again the evidence suggests that population stabilizes and evens decreases when women are both literate and economically empowered. Jeffrey Sachs thinks that the only thing standing in the way of ending global poverty is the political will among citizens of developed countries to make small sacrifices in terms of effective development assistance to the developing world. While I do have concerns about both Sen and Sachs, it is instructive to note that neither is arguing from a Marxist perspective. Thus, there is no reason to think that concerns about material abundance are the death knell of Marxism. Rather, I think one could argue in the other direction: the concerns about access to the material abundance now possible are precisely concerns about how a market system distributes such abundance.
Cohen might point out there that I have ignored the environmental repercussions of providing such abundance. I think there is no question that humankind are a super predator and international capitalism has been the catalyst for the most devastating environmental damage and that indeed it may be too late to avoid very severe climate change. However, I think that the vote is not yet in about whether sustainable technology can indeed save us. In either case, this is no reason to despair of Marxism. If the widespread, giddy and thoughtless embrace of capitalism is part of the story of environmental degradation, I see no reason for thinking that it is time to look elsewhere for a solution. If Foster is right that Marxism is entirely compatible with responsible environmental practice, then there is no reason to abandon Marxism on this account.
I turn now to Cohen’s third point. Here again I offer a reading of Marx that I
find plausible. What is crucial is not
that it be industrial workers that organize and overthrow capitalism, but that
capitalism creates and enables its own overthrow by empowering its most potent
critics. I agree that international
capital is far more effectively organized and powerful than workers, but I
refuse to concede that this situation is permanent. And even if international labor is not
organized and is unlikely to be in the foreseeable future, I think that the
possibility of coalitions between workers and peasants is possible. Workers and peasants are feeling more
insecure and angry than at perhaps any time in my memory. Though this anxiety has not resulted in any
positive action in the
Finally, perhaps workers won’t organize internationally. Maybe peasants and farmers will be replaced by dams, agribusiness and factory fishing. Perhaps the competing interests that divide workers and peasants will never be overcome. Maybe capitalism will find a strategy to appease, imprison or kill off its enemies. Does it follow that there is no wisdom to be found in Marx? Here let me just cite my agreement with Rodney that one needn’t understand Marxism as a religious dogma to be accepted wholly or not at all. Rodney writes,
By a “Marxist” moral and social theory I mean one that (1) is informed by the spirit of Marx’s radical humanism and egalitarianism; (2) is based on the empirical theses centrally important to the Marxist political perspective (particularly Marx’s theory of classes and class struggle and his analysis of capitalism); and (3) attempts to defend the Marxist’s basic normative political positions (MMSJ, p. 3).
I believe that our understanding of the failures and successes of international capitalism will continue to be informed by Marxist theory and that his basic normative political positions are both distinct from his empirical claims and his musing about the future, and continue to merit careful study in their own right.
I now turn to Professor Taiwo's paper. I agree with him that Marx is both an extremely relevant and insightful critic of contemporary capitalism. What I shall do in my remarks here is extend his arguments about immiserization, alienation and globalization.
Professor Taiwo distinguishes
immiserization in an absolute and relative sense. By immiserization in an absolute sense he
means "however much production increased and the economy expanded, the
working classes will always scrape by on a subsistence basis". He uses an example to illustrate
immiserization in a relative sense: "in the unprecedented expansion of the
1) workers being economically worse off than they were in the past.
Professor Taiwo argues that in this relative sense, workers in industrialized countries have become immiserized. There are two other relative senses of immiserization that I wish to distinguish.
2) workers as a class becoming progressively economically worse off than capitalists as a class; and,
3) wage earners in the lower percentiles becoming progressively economically worse off than those in higher percentiles.
I shall argue that immiserization is
increasing in the second of these relative senses. I begin with the first. One of the obvious difficulties with
distinguishing between capitalists and workers these days is that many workers
own appreciating or wealth creating assets, and many people who get the bulk of
their income from such assets also have income from wages. Rather than look for a hard and fast dividing
line, I will focus on net worth.
I now turn to the next sense of relative immiserization: wage earners in the lower percentiles becoming progressively economically worse off than those in higher percentiles. There are a number of indices we can look at here. The first is income. Since 1979, the average real after-tax income of the lowest quintile has increased by 9%, the second lowest by 15%, the third lowest by 20%, the second highest by 25% and the highest by over 50%. The income of the top 1% more than doubled. Here then is real evidence for immiserization. We can supplement this evidence by looking at the disparities in health care coverage and pension protection in the 5 quintiles. In 1979 37.9% of workers in the lowest quintile, 60.5% of the second quintile, 74.7 of the third, 83.5% of the fourth and 89.5% of the top quintile had employer provided health care coverage. In 2003, only 24.9% of workers in the lowest quintile, 46.9% of the second, 62% of the third, 71.1% of the fourth and 77.8% of the highest quintile had such coverage. Given the great increase in health care costs over the last 25 years, the workers in the lower quintiles have an increasingly disproportionate expense relative to the highest quintile. We see the same trend when we look at pensions. In 1979, 18.4% of workers in the lowest quintile, 36.8% in the second, 52.3% of the third, 68.4% of the fourth and 78.5% of the highest quintile had employer provided pension insurance. By 2003, 14.6% of the lowest quintile, 31.7% of the second, 48.6% of the third, 62.2% of the fourth and 73.3% of the highest quintile had such coverage. Here again we see a huge disparity.
The loss in relative income plus the
loss in employer funded health care and pension coverage provides stark
evidence for the immiserization thesis for most workers in the
Marx and Marxists are often criticized for understanding progress as dependent on increasing uses of technology. Here one might cite, for example, this passage from The German Ideology, "slavery cannot be abolished without the steam engine and the mule and the spinning jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished with improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity."2 John Bellamy Foster, in Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature3, argues that Marx understood alienation from the natural world as a kind of alienation. Humans evolve in the context of the natural environment, but human labor also transforms the natural environment. Capitalism is concerned only with profit and is at best indifferent to environmental degradation as human activity transforms the natural environment. The consequences of this indifference are truly frightening. As one who often struggled to reconcile my confidence in Marxian insights with my ecofeminism, I am glad to see this kind of work. The upshot of it all is that though there has been a good deal of very important work on the natural environment in the years since Marx and Engels, we need no longer consider them enemies to the natural world.
Professor Taiwo ends his discussion of
globalization by mentioning aspects of globalization that he hasn't touched
upon. "The refusal to open the
borders of the leading capitalist countries to the goods, and, more
significantly, migrants from
In what follows, I will touch upon
some of these aspects. I begin with the
purported refusal to open the borders of leading capitalist countries. I take it that Taiwo thinks that Marx would
be committed to saying that the logic of capitalism requires that all borders
be open to exploitation by capitalist enterprises. Thus closed borders are an anomaly that must
be explained away. My response here is
twofold. First, I don't see a general
refusal by leading capitalist economies to open borders to goods, though the
story about migrants is more complex.
The WTO and NAFTA are just two successful attempts by international
capital to open all borders. At the same
time, it is true that there is often intense internal political pressure to
protect national industries. We saw this
recently in the reaction to the lifting of quotas on textiles. However, the protectionist tendencies are
more than offset by the push for free trade.
The other factor Taiwo mentions is the flow of persons. The ongoing controversy about immigration in
I now turn to the purported exclusion
Jeffrey Sachs gives another
explanation for the exclusion of
I agree with Professors Peffer and Taiwo that the reports of the death of Marxism are premature. I think there is much insight in the work of Marx and Engels and good reason for recognizing their important critiques and analyses. Their work does suggest that there is one important question that merits further discussion: What does it mean to describe oneself as a Marxist? If one can be a Marxist without insisting that explanations for all social phenomena must be economic, or that resistance to capitalism must be rooted solely in the working class, then I think Marxism is salient, and more importantly, essentially correct. Regardless of how one answers this question, I think that Marxism remains an impressive and insightful way to understand the present global economic and political environment.
1 Mishel, Bernstein, and Allegretto.
The State of
2 Tucker, Marx Engels Reader, p. 133
3 John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature. (Monthly Review Press, 2000)
4 Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and
Human Rights. (
5 Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty, (Penguin Press, 2005)