Liberty Matters

Alienation, Social Cooperation, and Marx’s “Standpoint Problem”

Virgil has given us much to think about in both his faithful recapitulation of Marx's criticisms of capitalism and the questions he raises at the end. I want to address some of the themes in Marx's theory of alienation and offer a way that those more sympathetic to capitalism might respond. I want to do so without arguing that attempts to implement Marxian socialism would (and did) produce all kinds of alienation themselves, even though I believe that to be true and might return to that point in a later contribution. Instead, I want to contest the overarching Marxian theme that the history of capitalism's development is best understood as a class struggle and that the result is a system that divides us from each other and ourselves. I then want to argue that Marx understands that markets can produce a form of sociality, but he thinks he can do it one better, and he thinks that because of the way he is standing in the socialist future and seeing capitalism's flaws by comparison.
I need not repeat Virgil's elucidation of Marx on class struggle as the central theme of human history. I want to offer an alternative story of human economic evolution that sees it as a process of increasing social cooperation and human interdependence, rather than one of conflict and alienation. That alternative account comes from Ludwig von Mises, particularly in his 1922 book, Socialism. That book and the 1920 article that forms the core of it are justly famous for Mises's critique of the possibility rational economic calculation under socialist planning. His argument -- that socialist planners could not know how best to produce desired goods and services without having access to money prices that emerged out of the exchange of privately owned means of production -- began the interwar debate over socialism. In the longer run of history, Mises (and F. A. Hayek) have been seen as winning that debate and demonstrating the impossibility of socialist planning. That point is an important one in talking about the problems with Marxism, and I will return to it later in this essay.
In addition to that argument, Socialism contains a whole section on the "alleged inevitability of socialism" that begins with several chapters on "social evolution." Mises starts his response to Marx by noting that proper social science is not teleological either for better or for worse. Like biological evolution, an understanding of social evolution aims to describe "what society is, how it originates, [and] how it changes" (1922, 256). For Mises, "Society is cooperation; it is community in action" (258). That cooperation is brought about by the division of labor, which he terms "the principle of social development" (259). He then shows how the division of labor and exchange enable us to produce and, thanks to exchange, consume more than we could if we did everything for ourselves individually. After explaining comparative advantage and the mutual benefit of exchange, he concludes (261):
The greater productivity of work under the division of labor is a unifying influence. It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals.
One might compare this last observation to Hayek's (1977, 108) point that the Greek root for exchange --  katallattein -- also meant "to admit into the community" and "to change from enemy to friend."
Mises is explicit that he is offering an alternative to the Marxian view that history is story of class struggles. Instead, he sees history as ever-evolving and ever-deepening human cooperation as long as we allow the division of labor and exchange to operate. The highest products of civilization are "a product of leisure and the peace of mind that only the division of labor can make possible" (271). In his later discussion of this process in Human Action (1966), he refers to it as "the Law of Association."
In later parts of his discussion in Socialism, he rejects crude social Darwinism (281) by making the point that even the competition of nature is ultimately about cooperation and interdependence rather than "destructive combat." The economic competition that takes place in this process of social evolution is not about destruction but collaboration. Specialization and exchange create social cooperation and interdependence. Mises also goes directly after Marx by noting that capitalism does not juxtapose the interests of owners and workers; rather "private ownership in the means of production serves equally the interest of the owners and non-owners" (306). It does so because private ownership makes possible that process of social evolution driven by the division of labor and exchange.
This excursion into Mises's work on social evolution gives us some reason to be skeptical of Marx's claim that capitalism is a source of profound alienation for humans. If Mises's story is broadly right, exchange and capitalism do not divide us; rather they bind us together in cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships with others. It is capitalism that takes us, as he argues earlier in Socialism (58ff), from violence to peace, from status to contract, and from conquest to trade. We are knitted into a tapestry of interconnected humanity through the trade of the marketplace. And the results of that process have been, empirically, peace, prosperity, and progress, including and especially for the least well-off. Rather than alienating us from each other or ourselves, it has enabled humans to flourish as never before. And although the early years of capitalism that Marx and Engels observed were clearly ones where the nature of work was hardly uplifting, by the 21st century an increasing number of jobs are ones that draw on human creativity, enabling workers both an unprecedented degree of discretion and meaningful forms of collaboration. Never before in human history have we been more connected to our work and to others than we are now.
To give Marx his due, he would (and did) say that the problem here is that this human sociality is the unintended product of self-interest rather than intentionally social forces. As he argued in the 1844 Manuscripts (1964,165):
Division of labor and exchange are the two phenomena which lead the political economist to boast of the social character of his science, while in the same breath he gives expression to the contradiction in his science – the establishment of society through unsocial, particular interests.
What's interesting here is that Marx does not deny the process that Mises later articulated. Rather he thinks that socialism can do it better by consciously creating human bonds in a way that capitalism cannot while also exceeding capitalism's productivity. If humans can decide collectively and consciously how to allocate resources, including labor, we would not just eliminate the waste of capitalism and open up the horn of plenty; we would also end the exploitation and alienation capitalism involves. A completely conscious and transparent collective planning process would allow individuals to understand exactly why they are producing what they are producing and who is consuming it and why. Human economic and social relations would be the product of conscious social deliberation and not mere byproducts of self-interest and the signals of the marketplace. Humans would seize control of their own social processes and direct them for the greater good. By contrast, a world in which we labor for reasons we do not understand to make things for people we do not know, who will use them for purposes of which we are unaware is one in which, Marx thinks, we are deeply alienated from our true humanity.
This is where what one might call the "standpoint problem" comes in for Marx. The Marxian vision of a world in which humans can make their own history, and peacefully and productively control our own social forces in much the same way as we do with the natural world, has its attractions. And standing in that world looking back on the reality of capitalism can understandably make that reality seem wanting in many ways. However, that just raises the question of whether the rhetorical power and empirical validity of Marx's criticisms of capitalism are dependent upon the feasibility of socialism. What Marxism rejects about the spontaneous order of the market is precisely its spontaneity. To see the unplanned nature of market order as a problem would appear to make sense only if we could in fact generate an even better world through conscious human planning. One can extend this point to the particulars of the Marxist criticisms: alienation, exploitation, and the propensity to crises might all have force only if the humanely planned society were possible. For example, what is left of Marx's theory of exploitation (even assuming the truth of the labor theory of value) if a meaningful human society is not possible without private property in the means of production?
If Mises and Hayek were right in arguing that socialist planning is not possible, and that economic rationality requires private property in the means of production along with exchange, markets, prices, and profits, then the socialist future in which Marx is standing and looking back with his critical eye simply cannot exist. And if it cannot exist, what force do the criticisms have? I can perhaps imagine a world without gravity and criticize our world for all the resources we waste in counteracting its effects, but if such a world is not possible, what is the value of my criticisms? Is the imagined socialist future one big beautiful rainbow-producing Mungerian (2014) unicorn in comparison to which all other actually existing animals necessarily fall short?
For me, the central question with respect to Marx in the 21st century is the one that Virgil raises: what remains of Marx's criticisms of capitalism if we are confident that his theory of history, his theory of value, and his belief in the feasibility of the socialist future are all mistaken? I believe the answer is "not much." However, that does not mean that really-existing capitalism is not without its flaws and imperfections. What it does mean is that those have to be judged by comparison to alternatives that can actually be achieved rather than imagined worlds that cannot. As Mises's theory of history argues, it is no small thing for capitalism to have created deep interdependencies and profound increases in human well-being even without conscious human control. The division of labor and exchange created society as we know it, and we must tread carefully when we attempt to fix capitalism's apparent weaknesses and flaws. Reforming really-existing capitalism has to be a project where the imaginable but unachievable future ideal does not become the enemy of the achievable marginal improvements of the present.