Let me suggest that what Marx was objecting to – revolting against – was human nature and the existence of scarcity. Man can never escape from or get outside of being an individual “ego.” We exist as individual human beings; we think, remember, imagine, choose, and act as distinct and unique individual men and women.
Our experiences are our experiences; our thoughts and beliefs are our reflections and ideas; our judgments and valuations are our estimates and rankings of things of importance to us. Even when we try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to try to sympathise, empathise, and understand the meanings, experiences, and actions of others, it is from our perspective and state of mind that we do so.
It is the individuality of the person in these and other facets of our distinct nature and character as conscious, conceptualising creatures that make for the unique differences and diversities of our minds as self-oriented human beings. This is the source of the creativity and plethora of possibilities that can and have emerged from seeing the world in the distinct and different ways of self-oriented and self-experiencing people when pursuing their own improvement. As they consider what is most advantageous for themselves and others they “selfishly” care about, they support and encourage an institutional setting of peaceful and voluntary market association.
Marx’s Denial of the Reality of Scarcity
Marx also objects to the reality of the necessity to have to produce in order to consume and to have to view one’s own labour as a means to various ends, rather than simply being somehow provided with all that we want and our labour being “free” to be used as a pleasurable end in itself.
Likewise, he revolts against men viewing each other as a means to their respective desired ends rather than as purely human relationships, a “club” in which all get together and freely associate for “good times” with no concern for how or who provides the things without which good times cannot occur.
Nor can he abide men looking upon nature and man-made objects as the means or tools of producing the necessities, amenities, and luxuries of life, with the assignment of a “money value” to a house, a work of art, a waterfall, or a sculpture being “dehumanising” for Marx.
However, the only reason such things are given values by people in society is that they are wanted but also scarce and because the means to achieve them are scarce as well. As a consequence, we must decide what we consider to be more or less valuable and important to us since all that we would like to have cannot be simultaneously fulfilled at the same time.
Marx’s hatred for the division of labour is an outgrowth of this worldview. Man is seen as somehow less than whole by specialising in a task and selling both his labour and his fraction of the total output to achieve the ends and goals he considers more important than what he has to give up in return.
Marx’s Misconception of Action and Choice
The entire Marxian conception of man, society, and happiness can be conceived, therefore, as a flight from reality. It can be seen in Marx’s distinction between “autonomous action” and capitalist “choices.”
“Action” is, in fact, nothing more than choice manifested: we undertake courses of action only after we have decided what it is we wish to do. That is, we decide which among the alternatives available to us we shall try to bring about, and which shall be set aside for a day or forever because not everything we desire can be had, due to the constraints of nature and the existence of other human beings.
Marx talks of people fishing in the morning and hunting in the afternoon – does that not mean that the person’s time is scarce? Is he not “frustrated” that he cannot do both at the same time, or be in two places at once?
If every man is to be “autonomously free” to hunt and fish whenever and to whatever extent he desires, what happens when the various members of the community wish to kill the forest animals or catch the fish at such a rate that they are threatened with extinction? Or what if several people all want to fish from the same place along the river or lake bank at the same time, or from the same “cover” position while out hunting?
Marx might say that a “societal orientation” on the part of everyone would result in some form of “comradely” compromise. But is that not just other language for “mutual agreements,” “trade-offs,” and “exchanges” concerning the use and disposal of scarce resources – the disposition of the communal property rights among the members of society?
There is no certainty that all of the members of such a society will always like the communally agreed-upon outcomes, with some of them considering themselves “exploited” for the benefit of others who have out-voted them. And, therefore, they may be “alienated” from their fellow men and from nature even in the communist paradise to come.
Nor can there simply be the idea of art for art’s sake or nature for nature’s sake.
Resources for art and gifts of nature (unless cultivated to expand them) are always limited. The use of forests for primitive contemplation versus industrial use versus residential housing would still have to be made in Marx’s magical communist society. And, certainly, not everyone in the bright, beautiful communist society may agree or like the decisions that a majority of others in the blissful societal commune make about such things.
The paint for the artist’s pallet is not in infinite supply, so some art would have to be forgone so other art might be pursued; similarly with the ingredients going into the manufacture of paints versus being used for other things. To assume that men would never conflict over how to dispose of these things is to escape into a complete fantasyland.
Also, it is a physical and psychological fact that men differ in their relative capacities and inclinations in terms of various tasks needing to be performed. It is a physical and psychological fact that men tend to be more productive when they specialise in a small range of tasks as opposed to trying to be a “jack-of-all-trades.”
The Reality of Communism Versus the Reality of Capitalism
As a result, the division of labour raises both the productivity and the total production of a community of men, standards of living rise, leisure time can be expanded, and more variety and quality of goods can be produced.
Indeed, it has been free market capitalism that has provided humanity over the last 200 years with that actual relative horn-of-plenty wherever a fairly free rein has existed for self-interested individual action in pursuit of profit in associative relationships of specialisation based on the peaceful use of private property.
Capitalism has been the great liberator of ever more of mankind from poverty, want, and worry. It has freed people from the hardship and drudgery of often life-threatening forms of work. The free market has shortened the hours of work needed to generate levels of material and cultural comfort for a growing number of people and provided the longer, healthier lives and increased leisure time for people to enjoy the wealth that economic freedom has made possible.
The “de-alienation” of man from his everyday existence, in the sense that Marx talked about it, has also, in fact, been brought about through the achievements of capitalism. It has relieved more and more of mankind from the concerns of mere survival and subsistence through the capital accumulation and profit-oriented production that has raised the productivity of all those who work and expanded the available supply of useful goods and services. The free market has enabled people to have the means to fulfil more of the enjoyments and meanings of life as ends in themselves.
Furthermore, as Austrian economist F. A. Hayek and others have pointed out, the advantage of the free market system is precisely that it does not require all of the members of the society to agree upon and share the same hierarchy of goals, ends, and values. Each individual, under competitive capitalism, is at liberty to select and follow their own purposes and pursue happiness in their own way. Using each other as the voluntary means to their respective ends in the arena of peaceful market exchange allows a much larger diversity of outcomes reflecting differences among people than if one central plan needs to imposed on all in the name of the interests of a collectivist community as a whole.
Marx’s flight from reality, on the other hand, was the wish to have everything capitalism, the division of labour, and competitive exchange can produce, but without the cost of work, discipline, specialisation, and selecting among alternatives. It is like the cry of the child who refuses to accept the fact that he cannot have everything he wants, right there and then and, instead, expects someone or something to provide it to him and everyone else in a blissful fairyland of material plentitude.
This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).