GUEST BLOG: Dave Brownz – MARX VS KEYNES: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH ‘PEAK’ IDEALISM?

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The NZ Labour Party hanging onto the coat-tails of dying capitalism will end up in the same graveyard of “progressive hopes”. Fortunately, before that happens workers will reach ‘peak’ idealism and awaken to dialectical materialism. But such is its hold on our minds, idealism is not spontaneously replaced by the materialist world view we need the make the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Without a class conscious revolutionary leadership to warn them and point the way, workers will fall for anti-scientific conspiracy theories of power elites manipulating their lives. Without the antidote to idealism, workers fall prey to demagogues of left and right instead of uniting and organizing to fight for survival socialism.

Idealism is the doctrine that thought creates being, rather than as Marx put it, that being determines consciousness. Being is our material, biological and productive life. Life begins with material needs not the ideas we use to measure them. Marx famously stood Hegel on his material feet to sort out the ideas in his head.

So if our basic needs (jobs, health, housing, education etc) are not met and we face poverty, racism, sexism etc., the bourgeoisie blames this on the idea of ‘human nature’ and follows Hegel in praying to God for redemption.  Business as usual.

Keynes, master of distributional economics based on the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalists, was the arch idealist. On the face of it he was a practical economist. But capitalism was motivated by ideas. When capitalists failed to invest because they calculated they would not get a sufficient profit, Keynes had a bright idea; use the state to boost wages and demand (the multiplier) and stimulate  capitalists to invest in supplying that demand. But this bright idea failed to see that the ‘spirit of capitalism’ was the extracting surplus-value.

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Keynes idea fell flat because despite increased demand, the capitalists hoarded or speculated with their money rather than invest in production and the result was inflation as the increased money supply chased too few goods and services. Marxists at the time explained why this happened. Capitalism was subject to the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (LTRPF) and that required the supply side (inputs of labour and raw materials) to be cut in price to restore an average rate of profit.

In other words all attempts to tweek the markets will fail if the conditions necessary to restore profits are not satisfied. All neo-Keynesian ideas like Modern Monetary Theory and Donut Economics suffer from the same defect as Keynes basic idea. If the costs of inputs are not cut sufficiently to return a profit, capitalism will stagnate and enter a slump. So with all bourgeois economics workers always pay for the bosses’ crises.

So, state ‘interference’ in the market is idealist because the material conditions required for the production of profits demand greater state attacks on workers living standards and on nature, to drive down costs the of production. The idea is to attack the sources of material being to the point of exhaustion and extinction.

In Aotearoa today, peak idealism will be reached when workers no longer believe that the Labour government (or any capitalist government) can rescue society and humanity from the destruction of nature. Any last hopes of a system reboot to avoid its self-destruction will be overtaken by the looming apocalypse of climate change, pandemics, economic crash and political tyranny.

Yet what is the response to the failure of such defunct ideas? Mostly a shift to supposedly new or better ideas that still remain trapped in idealism. The failure of the system is still seen as the failure of ideas, usually the ideas of influencial individuals who create social movements dedicated to the delusion that a radical rebooting of capitalism will save us all.

That is why we are served up a mad menu of theories and conspiracies, invoking the ideas of self promoting gurus and their corporate backers who resist peak idealism with even more extreme post-modern forms that deny the biological and sociological reality of the material world. Scientific truth as a collective struggle for knowledge become a full-on relativism where the free individual can escape external forces and realise his or her or their personal truth. Conspicuous consumption becomes religious mania.

Commodity fetishism now escapes the normal institutions of academia, journalism, history and law, and become frenetic denials of reality such as QAnon where elites rape children, antivaxxers in denial of coronavirus, or trans ideology that reduces biological sex to idealist feelings about being ‘born in the wrong body’.

Once ideas become detached from material reality, notions of growth and personality become detached from biology, science and nature. Debates exist in an otherworldly vacuum of religious belief without roots to the earth. It’s one thing to reject these as false, it’s another to know what causes them. The critique of such forms of idealism today has to start at the beginning by grasping Marx’s critique of idealism.

Even before class society emerged historically (before there was sufficient surplus to enable it) social production was the result of material need not ideas. Ideas served only to organise the collective struggle for biological reproduction. The kinship group had a classless relation to production developing the tools to harness nature’s (non-human) energy.

Once that development produced a surplus, ideas then turned to conserving the labour time of the few at the expense of the many. The ruling class had the ruling ideas about labour time. Work hard and do what you are tole. The shaman and warlord was born to impose those ruling ideas within the class system.

After this gigantic leap, class societies went from exploiting the labour of slaves, to that of peasants and then wage workers – and cumulatively! The ruling minority imposed its ideas on the working majority. Those who became the rulers justified their wealth in the name of gods, projecting their class power onto the gods in the interest of the ‘nation’ or ‘community’.

The capitalist system is not an aberration, it follows this historic law – a succession of class societies in which the the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. The capitalist ruling class has the advantage over previous ones in that it doesn’t need gods. Capitalism itself produces its own ideology – the ‘rationality’ of the market – in the very process of production where the act of exploitation of labour-power to produce surplus-labour and profit appears to be ‘natural’ and ‘just’. If we are all individuals buying and selling commodities, including labour-power, at their value then the worker who sells his/her labour power at its value is no different to the capitalist who buys it.

For Marx the ideology of capital is the idealist fetish of labour value created in market exchange rather than production. As a result we are alienated from production and trapped in the fetishism of exchange.

The production of labour value is separated from the ‘being’ of wage-labour and magically, ideally, becomes the result of supply and demand. Therefore, the failure of the market to create equal and free individuals appears to be caused by unequal exchange of commodities rather than the exploitative relations of production.

Under capitalism, unequal exchange results from monopoly power forcing down the price of the commodity below its value. Naturally capitalists always blame workers for this disruption. Marx demolished this illusion,  proving that labour-power was the only commodity that produced more value than its own value – hence the secret of profit extracted at the point of production, not its fetish in the market.

If the ruling idea of capitalism is the ideology that the system is natural and perfect, and breaks down when the market malfunctions, it still leads to  attempts to reform the market from Proudhon to Piketty, and every shade of Labourism and Democratic Socialism.

So, Marx’s discovery of labour-power (a child’s discovery said Marx) proves that capitalism as a system never was intended to benefit all, but to justify in the name of all, poverty for the producers who produced the wealth for the ruling class.

Once he made that discovery Marx had the key to unravel the apparent complexity of capitalism as a living reality determined by laws of motion that would lead necessarily to its eventual demise as it destroyed its own material base in nature.

But there is no need to surrender to fatalism. Knowledge provides an escape route from the alienated fetishism of life under capitalism which sucks us into futile identity politics. No longer are we isolated individuals but part of a social class where our collective knowledge becomes that basis of our capacity to act and change society.

The understanding of Marx’s scientific method creates the opportunity to become class conscious and organise the power of the producers to end the long history of class society and embark on building the classless society – communism.

Dave Brownz is TDBs guest Marxist blogger because every Left wing blog needs a Marxist.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Please carefully explain and describe the system you have in mind to replace what we have. Many of your criticisms are valid . Reform is clearly needed. But you are verbosely describing the short comings of our system , and condemning it to extinction without any description of what is to replace it.
    But Good talk
    D J S

    • The solution flows from the analysis. I have traversed this in many posts on this blog.
      Once you believe that the source of the problem is capitalism’s death drive against nature the solution becomes obvious.

      Capitalism cannot escape its own predatory nature. The gap between rich and poor must worsen. Even Jim Bolger can see that creates social chaos in the future.

      As to what must replace it, it is the opposite of what caused the problem. The hoarding of wealth extracted from workers has to be expropriated back as an economic fund to build a new socialist society. That means the power structure that has been built up to defend capital has to be brought down by the power of the masses to build a new society.

      This has been tried before usually unsuccessfully, as the ruling class knows how to adopt authoritarian and fascist methods to defeat revolution. The options are more stark today.

      As Rosa Luxemburg said the choices facing us are socialism or barbarism. We understand barbarism today as the destruction of nature as capitalism destroys its own material base. Socialism, we understand as the democratic will of the majority to overthrow capitalism and build a new society committed to equality and freedom.

      So once workers see the need for revolution in deeds not just words, they have to organise to mobilise their power in their numbers, their refusal to work, to defend themselves, and to make all decisions democratically based on workers assemblies.

      Detailed blueprints will emerge when necessary as workers debate and decide what options are necessary to make this social transformation work.

      • But forgetting the forces that have to be dealt with to overpower capitalism. Assuming you are starting from scratch without any opposition to defeat. Simply designing a socialist nirvana from whole cloth, how would the decisions be made as to what should be produced, how it should be distributed, would innovation that improved life for everyone be rewarded in some way, and who would decide???
        What would be the political structure of your replacement? would it involve any kind of democracy?
        D J S

        • David, let’s start with democracy as without that there will be no solution to the current terminal crisis but a reactionary dystopia where warlords rule and the masses suffer.

          We are 150 years from the Paris Commune. For socialists the lessons of the commune were important. Marx’s best popular writings were on the the commune. The workers of the commune elected delegates that had to obey their decisions or they were recalled and replaced. But majority decisions were only as good as their understanding of the situation. For Marx the commune was an embryonic workers’ state that had to smash the existing bourgeois state regime. Marxists elected to the leadership were few, among reformists, adventurers and anarchists, so this policy was not tried when the only opportunity arose to defeat the superior forces of Trier. The regime was able to smash the commune despite its courage in defending itself.
          Marx’s conclusion was that the commune was premature since the workers in their majority decision did not accept the need for a new workers’ state.

          In Russia in the period before the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks took up this lesson and applied it to the coming revolution. As early as the 1905 revolution, workers and peasants formed soviets (workers assemblies) in which the majority decisions were acted on by the whole soviet. That revolution was put down terribly but lessons were learned.

          Between February and October 1917 the soviets were the democratic bodies of both workers and peasants. All political parties took place and debated strategy and tactics. Those who argued that the revolution could not do more than overthrow the Tsar and develop Russia as a capitalist society, prevailed until just before the revolution when the Bolsheviks won the majority in the armed soviets and seized power in a largely bloodless insurrection. What made this possible was the Bolshevik strategy of refusing to act prematurely, but slowly winning the majority necessary to seize power. Hence the slogan ‘all power to the soviets’.

          Of course this revolution ultimately failed but only because workers democracy was smashed by imperialist invasion and a civil war which created the conditions for the rise of a Stalinist dictatorship making peace with imperialism.

          I wrote a longer account of this in a review of China Mieville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. https://livingmarxism.blog/2017/10/23/review-of-china-mievilles-october-the-story-of-the-russian-revolution/

          • So the Paris Commune operated under a democratic structure.Limited by the fact that they existed under a larger state. OK.
            Do you consider that we in New Zealand operate under a democratic structure?
            Can you conceive of a manifesto that a new political party in NZ could put to the NZ electorate that would clearly describe a social structure and government that might win a large voter support?
            Is the very interesting and detailed history of the Russian revolution you reference at all indicative of what you would like to see take place here? given that you present it in response to the question of what should the structure of our ideal society look like.
            Cheers and thanks for the response.
            D J S

      • While I agree that socialism should be more equitable in sharing a countries wealth you fail to allow for human nature. People are different in their ability & moral values so there will always be some that take advantage of any situation to enrich themself compared to the general population. While sometimes this can be harmless & cause all to improve their situation (a rising tide lifts all boats) most of those easy gains have gone now so it is more common for people to increase wealth by taking it from others (ie property, those with property gain wealth by subjecting those without property to rent or increased debt if they want to purchase their own property) so all the signs suggest that no man-made system will be capable of restoring the prosperous times of the past. I think that having the right (not referring to their political belief) people in power could improve things but there is such a remote chance that people with the values required to improve society actually getting control so it is not going to happen.

          • You’re totally correct with your “It won’t be easy but we have to try” comment although you have a more positive view of human nature than I do. The problem is that selfishness is rampant in most people & as long as over 50% of voters who own property or are likely to inherit it combine with a significant minority of less well off people who will oppose anything that helps suffering people because they claim it is communist or they just don’t want to do anything to help others even if it would improve their situation. Covid has shown us that major events can transform opinions so with the expected future problems causing unrest there is a chance for some charismatic person to swing support for your ideas although history would also suggest it would only be a temporary solution.
            There is a promise for an eternal future but the corruption of those who claim to believe the promise has made them a laughing stock with almost zero credibility but it remains as the only certain plan for the future
            They shall build houses and inhabit them;
            They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
            They shall not build and another inhabit;
            They shall not plant and another eat;
            For as the days of a tree, so shall be the days of My people,
            And My elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
            “For as the new heavens and the new earth
            Which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the Lord,
            “So shall your descendants and your name remain.

  2. Hi Dave
    So I saw your reply to Bonney and the references. It is a fair explanation of your idea of a society.So pretty much what happened in Russia.
    Once the Worker’s democracy has been established and the capitalists have been vanquished, will any capitalists or their offspring remaining alive be allowed to vote in the worker’s democracy? Do you think that before the worker’s revolution takes place a majority of present day voters can be persuaded to vote for this development? or must it be imposed first and the democracy established later? It seems from what you write that only workers should participate in this democracy even if they are a minority as not all workers would necessarily vote for this society.
    Your excellent description of the factions of the Russian revolution brought home tome as I have not thought about before, how there were many participants who did not wish to be as ruthless as the event turned out to be. But without a clear agreed plan of action,(or at least not one that was followed by the most militant factions) they got railroaded into following the most aggressive and violent leadership. (Leading from the safety of a hiding place in another country).
    It is also interesting to reflect that starting with the armed forces, once a start was made at the insurrection it had to carry on or the perpetrators would be summarily executed. So no turning back once the first step was taken however tentatively. So the most belligerent leaders were bound to prevail.
    You make reference to the need in the Paris Commune for decisions to be made by a majority who were informed and understood the issues. This would be the problem in transforming our society to your vision ( or perhaps Marx’s vision) . A mass education of the electorate would be needed, and once they all knew the deal they would mostly want to vote for it and that doesn’t seem very likely to me.
    That’s not to say I don’t think our system needs reform. The way the world’s leading , “exceptional”capitalist
    nation behaves in the world in order to advance her capitalist drive is translating into a foreign policy that involves a vast military complex being mobilised all over the world together with finance to access the resources of every nation on earth to feed the insatiable appetite of the wealthy elite of that country. It seems to me that this situation is indeed the natural development of a laissez faire capitalist regime where capitalism is the master and society is the servant. Which is indeed the status quo. We do need to alter this situation but I fear that Marx’s solution is too simplistic and does not take into account enough of human nature. The good bits not just the bad bits.
    It would be good to sit down and talk one day.
    Cheers D J S

  3. I think you conception of what happened in Russia is still one which singles it out as created by an ‘aggressive’, ‘violent’ ‘belligerent’ leadership.
    This after an almost bloodless revolution following a destructive war and invasion, and followed immediately by the invasion of 7 imperialist powers to smash it!
    The revolution had to defend itself against the violent counter-revolution.
    Of course Marx argued that the revolution would succeed only when workers were the majority and that the vote for the revolution would be the majority of that majority expressed in the soviets.
    The only thing different in Russia was that its backwardness meant the workers were a minority compared with the peasantry. But the revolution was supported by poor peasants, whose party was the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and formed the majority along with the Bolsheviks in the soviets.
    They were educated in the school of class struggle to survive against the Tsarist and imperialist system.
    Far from being treated badly, capitalists were enlisted as managers in their socialised factories. The same with the peasants who became landowners, being encouraged to produce for the market.
    In fact the Bolsheviks always claimed that unless Russia was joined by the European revolution, the Soviet plan would have to use capitalist technology to develop the economy.
    At any rate it would not be possible to realise socialism without a wider federation of socialist states In Europe or Asia to overcome the wartime scarcity of commodities and the impoverishment of the workers and peasants. Failing that the revolution would not survive.
    For Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, ‘human nature’ is largely determined by the social relations of production that define the relations of distribution, and not until there is greatly improved productivity can ‘plenty’ overcome ‘scarcity’.
    If we look at applying this experience to today’s terminal crisis of capitalism, then it’s clear capitalist ‘human nature’, given by the need to work and be exploited in order to live, explains the struggle for existence and the ‘greed’ of those who hoard wealth at the expense of those who produce it.
    The recognition that this situation is not natural or just, but can be revolutionised, also means that ‘human nature’ can be revolutionised.

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