In ancient Norse myth the universe was a tree at whose roots a worm gnawed. When the worm brought the tree down, the ultimate battle between good and evil would happen.
Lately I’ve been wondering if they were mostly right.
Our own civilization is a sort of tree, with its roots in property rights and the rule of law, and its branches lifting the rarefied heights of science, technology, arts, and literature.
For the last forty years in the U.S. — longer in other places – a worm has been gnawing at the roots and sickening the tree. That worm is the philosophy of Karl Marx.
Karl Marx is described as a nineteenth century philosopher (which is true) but also as an economist, a historian, and a sociologist (which are only true if prefaced with “very bad.”)
Marxist theory is now applied to all those fields and more. (In the 70s, in Portugal, I studied it in history, sociology, economics, literature, art, and philosophy. They were only waiting for the proper choreography to teach Marxist interpretive dance in Phys Ed). Because of its many permutations, and how it has been interpreted, it would take me a small tome to take Marx to the woodshed properly and cut through the Gordian knot Marxists have woven around his thought. (These disciples now, like a restaurant changing its name after a case of food poisoning, call themselves Marxian, instead of Marxist.)
I don’t have a small tome, so I’ll have to be brutally simplistic. At his most basic, Marx believed history could be described as a struggle between classes, in which each class rose to the top with each new change in the means of production and ownership of said means. He believed in the future the proletariat — urban workers — would seize the means of production and thereby institute a dictatorship. After that a miracle would occur, the state would naturally wither away, and this would lead to a utopian, classless society, where everything worked on the basis of “From each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” (I’ve always suspected this last step involved unicorn flatulence and, possibly, skittles.)
We were never told how this miracle would occur, though at least in the Soviet interpretation, it entailed the appearance of a new creature, a Homo Sovieticus, devoid of greed and egoism. Which shows you that even those trying to bring Marxist paradise to fruition realized that it required every man to be a combination saint and ant.
But it is worse than that. Even if the Homo Sovieticus had issued forth from Lenin’s laboring over Marx, neither this fabled creature nor its minions could make a Marxist society work.
Marx’s problems extend to the whole definition of “class.” He might have seen it as a purely economic concept, which is how it was taught to me in economics in Portugal. It might be he thought those who labored for others were always proletarians. But in the real world, things have become a lot more complex. Are farmers proletarian or not? What about tenant farmers? How about tenant farmers who own a cow? (Marx, the blood of the Kulaks is on your hands.)
More importantly — more damagingly — though, Marx managed to be an economist who did not understand the most fundamental concept of economics: value.
It is thought he based his theory of value on David Ricardo, who was already considered erroneous and out of date when Marx used it. Which is no wonder, because no functional economy can be built on Marx.
Marx believed that raw materials + labor = value. The more the raw materials were worth or the more labor put into transforming them, the more the end product would be worth. No other considerations applied.
Clearly Marx never taught a child to cook. You start with raw materials worth something, you spend hours on cooking (and putting out small fires), and the result is, more often than not, a mess that has to be thrown away. This disproves his theory, which is not exactly hard as it’s a very silly theory. It doesn’t take into account such things as distribution. Because to Marx, value is value is value. Marx thought an Appalachian quilt would be worth the exact same thing in the small town where it was made as in the most artsy areas of New York City — and no monetary reward should go to anyone who transports and resells the thing. More importantly, since no one should resell, if a NYC resident wants a quilt, he’d best intuit they exist and travel to the Appalachians to buy it. At least, according to Uncle Karl.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, where people don’t often wander the countryside looking for products they never heard of, value is based on what someone is willing to pay. Therefore, a quilt might be worth time and materials in the Appalachian, combined with its value as something to keep warm under. But it will be worth that plus a sizable premium for craft collectors in NYC. This means the middle-man who serves that market deserves the fee he pockets and — if he’s smart — goes back to the Appalachians and offers more money for better quilts so he can make more money.
Again in the real world, someone can invent a process that takes raw materials, up till then considered useless, and turns them into something valuable. (Gas powered engines. Various kinds of cosmetic mud. For that matter, going back far enough in history, pottery-clay and metal.)