Via Mark Thoma, Chris Dillow posts about a key error that Marx (and Keynes) made in their economic analyses:
However, there is this passage in the The German Ideology, written some 30 years before vol III:In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
What’s more, Marx wasn’t entirely daft. He was presaging a point made 85 years later by Keynes, in his essay (pdf), Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. In this, he predicted – just as Marx did – that productivity would grow sufficiently to allow our needs to be met with very little labour:For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom form pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
Marx thought that living wisely and well would consist in working voluntarily, cultivating mind, body and garden.
This, though, raises a question. Why is it that the rise in productivity hasn’t had the effects predicted by Marx and Keynes? Why have our “needs” risen as our productive powers have, with the result that the hours we devote to employment haven’t fallen as much as Marx or Keynes forecast? Why is it that so many of us – I count myself fortunate to be a partial exception – haven’t used wealth to free ourselves from alienating labour?
Yes, Marx was wrong, as was Keynes. But their error raises a deep question, which Marx’s illiterate critics have not sufficiently appreciated.
I don’t think Dillow is making himself out to be a critic of Marx. In fact, he is critiquing somehow who is critiquing Marx in a false manner. Nevertheless, I think he is missing something obvious here. Wasn’t a big part of Marx’s analysis the idea that because of their alienation from the goods they produce, their wages are set by the capitalist, beyond their control? These wages, assumed to be equal to the value of the worker’s labor-power, would in turn equal the customary basket of goods socially necessary to replenish that labor-power. As society develops, fridges, tvs, cars, and cell phones gradually enter this basket of goods, which is reflected in their wages.
At the same time, though, the capitalist is still seeking his/her profit. One of the ways Marx realized you could do this was by increasing (or in this case, at least holding constant) the length of the working day, even as the worker’s productivity is increasing. I think, if anything, the fact that workers don’t have more leisure time bears out the truth in Marx’s analysis.