Liberty Matters

Don’t We All Have a Standpoint Problem?

I would like to thank each of the four scholars for their responses to my easy.  Taken together, I think they raise the points that ought to be raised in response to any articulation of Marx's "moral" critique of capitalism. In many places, I agree with what they wrote and think they each raise questions that anyone who is sympathetic to Marx's exploitation and alienation critiques of capitalism would have to answer.
I wonder, though, if the challenges to Marx's "moral" critique are as damaging as we sometime imagine. I want to take up later the question raised explicitly by Dave regarding whether it's fair to think of Marx's discussions of alienation and exploitation as "moral" critiques despite Marx's objections to reading them that way. I want to focus this response on a potential problem for Marx's exploitation and alienation critiques that was raised in all four responses.
The Standpoint Problem
Each of the responses advanced a version of the "standpoint problem" in answer to the question I posed about what remains of Marx's critiques of capitalism if the socialist world Marx imagined is in fact impossible. Stated succinctly, to fairly characterize some aspect of the social world as a social problem, you must be able to "stand" in a realizable imagined future where that so-called problem does not exist. Stated another way, to complain about the existence of X when X must exist is to bark at the moon. For Marx to fairly critique capitalism for alienation and exploitation, these scholars suggest, he must be able to "stand" in a world where no alienation and exploitation exist. But, they explain, that world cannot exist, and so Marx's critiques can be ignored.
There are, however, at least three problems with this position:
1. We can meaningfully complain about social facts that cannot be changed. 
Surely, we can look at an animal raised in horrific conditions (say, in a cage that was too small) and decry that as a result it is now stunted. Noting that this particular animal, given the particular circumstances of his birth (e.g., he was born to an abusive owner in a secluded area), was destined to grow up in a cage that was too small does nothing to reduce our complaint.  Pointing out that this particular animal will never achieve the level of development that we imagined possible does not mean we ought to be silent. Explaining that if a million animals were born to this owner their lot would be the same cannot mean that describing this animal as stunted is inappropriate. Yes, in this scenario things are as they had to be; no different or better world for this animal was possible. But this can't mean that an (unrealistic and impossible) imagined existence for this animal with a different owner or in the wild is irrelevant to how we should view the situation. This animal is stunted even though he could not have been otherwise. It would be strange to describe the animal as flourishing.
One way to read Marx's moral critique of capitalism is that he is arguing that human beings are stunted in a capitalist system. Pointing out that we cannot do away with capitalism (that we must be caged animals) is to leave the thrust of his claim without a response. Dave is no doubt correct that "One can only be 'blocked' from that which is possible; one cannot be blocked from that which is impossible to ever achieve." However, I am not so sure that this settles anything. Any animal born into that society had to grow up in a cage that was too small; that is, there was no realistic future where it could be full grown. But still the animal is stunted. Surely, animals born into that society are not flourishing.
2.  Complaining about gravity is what inspires flight.
Steve's essay compared Marx's complaining about the "evils" of capitalism to complaining about the consequences of gravity.  As Steve asks rhetorically, "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?" Steve believes that the answer is obviously that these kinds of complaints are not all that valuable. I wonder, though, if they aren't essential. It's possible that they inspire us to create new, better, and cheaper ways to counteract the effects of gravity. It's possible that they push us to find additional, creative ways to harness gravity on our behalf in order to rebalance the ledger. And for those not prone to adopt the criticisms of the excessive costs of combating gravity, I wonder if the criticisms don't push us to re-articulate the benefits of gravity and to re-appreciate the various ways we have worked to overcome its effects. Standing in an unrealizable and imaginary world without gravity might be the only "standpoint" from which we can see how many resources we are expending on overcoming gravity. And it might be the only "standpoint" from which we can work to overcome its effects.
It should be noted that a number of social critiques, some quite dear to the commenters, suffer from a standpoint problem. For instance, some worry about the various ways that central banks distort the money supply. To say they have "distorted" the money supply requires standing in a world where central bankers don't exist or exist but don't behave as they tend to behave. We have good reason, however, to believe that this is an unlikely world (i.e., central bankers like their discretion; governments like that the bankers have it; citizens are unlikely to organize to push for that world). To be sure, if Mises was right, socialism suffers from a "logical problem" that it cannot ever overcome. If public choice is right, however, then liberalism might suffer from a "political problem" that might be almost impossible to overcome. "Cannot overcome" and "might be almost impossible to overcome" is a distinction without a practical difference. If we get to keep our utopias, Marx gets to keep his.
3. Marx borrowed his alienation and exploitation critiques from Smith.   It's unclear, however, how much of Marx's "moral" critiques of capitalism actually do suffer from a "standpoint problem." Others standing in very different imagined futures saw the same problems. Adam Smith, for instance, articulated both an alienation and exploitation critique of capitalism.
Describing the inevitable struggle between capitalists and workers, Smith (1976, 83) argued that "What are the common wages of labour depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible." Smith (ibid., 85) goes on to explain that employers have the advantage in any dispute with their employees. 
Likewise, describing the estrangement that plagues workers in a capitalist society where the division of labor becomes quite extensive, Smith (ibid., 782) writes,
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance, in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
It is clear to anyone who read the 1844 manuscripts that Marx borrowed his "moral" critiques of markets from Smith. It is possible to suggest that what was just a social fact in Smith became a social problem in Marx. But this reading is belied by the fact that Smith proposed solutions to both exploitation and alienation (i.e., increasing competition between employers and education). It is likely more accurate (following Dave's essay) to say that what was a social problem for Smith became simply a social fact for Marx. That Smith recognized these problems in capitalism from a radically different imagined future than Marx suggests either that Smith also has a standpoint problem or that Marx's standpoint problem is overblown. Notice that if we accept that Smith might also have a standpoint problem, we are forced to explain why it is only a problem when Smith talks about the evils of capitalism and not also when he discusses the benefits.
Marx's "Moral" Critiques of Capitalism Still Resonate
I simply don't think that we get to reject what Marx had to say about subject A because he or we think its connected to what he had to say about subject B. Given how many errors Marx made, incorrectly seeing the linkages between two pieces of his system would be a relatively small one.
At essence, Marx's exploitation critique is a charge that under capitalism workers don't get what they deserve, that they are paid less than they contribute. "Are workers exploited under capitalism?" is an empirical question that we might ask and answer independent of any questions about whether or not exploitation can be eliminated or reduced. My guess would be that most of us feel that we are paid less than we contribute, and many people feel that workers in general are paid less than they deserve. This suggests that if we can answer this question, we should answer it.
Similarly, at root Marx's alienation critique speaks to the disconnect that many workers feel in their work lives. According to Marx ([1844] 1988, 73-74), in a capitalist system "the more the worker produces the less he has to consume" and "man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions." He argues that with the advance of machinery, workers become "idiots" and "cretins." Marx argues that workers become detached from themselves and each other. "The worker," Marx (ibid., 74) claims, "only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself." These are empirical claims that can be assessed.
I actually think that Marx would be surprised at the answers.   Pete has described this as the aesthetic appeal of Marxism. As Pete writes, "The aesthetic is too appealing. No logical demonstration of flaws and inconsistencies and no accumulation of evidence can make the aesthetic of the totality project appear distorted and disjointed."
I don't think that's right. I think Marx's critiques have an empirical appeal. Marx describes a social world that many people recognize. They believe that the facts on the ground are likely to match what Marx predicts. This might be why people could abandon his policy position when it proved disastrous but still embrace his moral criticisms of capitalism.