Posts Tagged Wage Labour

Yes, Libertarians Really Are Lazy Marxists

I have only really just started studying Marxism in depth (though I am stopping short of Capital for now). Subsequently, while reading Bertell Ollman‘s Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society, it once again struck me that (right-)libertarianism is really just lazy Marxism. In many ways libertarianism reads like the first third of Marxism: the area which explores methodological questions and the nature of man. Both libertarianism and Marxism are generally fairly agreeable – and in agreement – in this area, but the former never really fleshes out its arguments satisfactorily. Often I find libertarians, after describing some basic principles (non coercion etc.), make the jump to property rights and capitalism being the bestest thing ever, without fully explaining it.*

I will focus primarily on Robert Nozick and Ludwig von Mises here, as they are the only two libertarians who really explored libertarianism from basic principles of man and his relationship to both nature and economic activity (Murray Rothbard was really an interpretation of Mises in this respect). Overall, I think Nozick and Mises combine to form a fair reflection of minarchist libertarianism.

The state of nature and the nature of man

In Anarchy, State & Utopia, Robert Nozick’s ‘State of Nature’ is one where there is no state (government). He asserts that individuals have rights to protect themselves from aggression, they have rights to the fruits of their labour, and they have the right to cooperate voluntarily, free from deception and theft.

It has always struck me how incomplete Nozick’s exposition of the state of nature is. That man should be a priori free from aggression and entitled to whatever he produces is not really in dispute. What bothers me is that Nozick never really attempts to explore the relationships between different men, between men and society, and between men and nature. For Nozick, an abstract expression of individual rights could be extrapolated up to the whole without much discussion of how things link together. This is especially odd because he demonstrated he was capable of understanding and the limits of such individualism in his incisive critique of methodological individualism. So much the worse for his philosophy that he didn’t apply this thinking to it.

Enter Marx. Marx emphasised that, naturally, man had ‘powers,’ which are the means by which he achieves specific needs. Eating is a power; hunger is the relevant need. Thinking is a power; knowledge is the relevant need. (The former is a ‘natural power,’ common to all animals; the latter is a ‘species power,’ specific to man). By exercising different powers, the individual emphasises different aspects of themselves, and depending on who they are with, which society they are born into, and their available resources, different aspects of the individual will appear to be important, and different conceptions of freedom, happiness, and even the individual himself will emerge.

This may seem like a digression, but in fact it is essential. Once you have established that the abstract individual, when interacting with society, with others, is a very different beast to a lone man in the woods, it leads you down a different ethical path. What becomes important are the interactions the individual engages in, rather than merely the individual himself. It is not enough merely to say an individual should be granted certain rights and that’s that; we have to explore how these rights affect the individual, even by virtue of being defined.

To define every man as an island who cooperates with society and others only through discrete voluntary actions is to diminish the importance of how society and others shape these actions. More than this, it ignores how the rights themselves interact to produce outcomes that may be inconsistent with the principles upon which those same rights, in abstract, were built. Libertarians will likely think I am about to suggest we strip individuals of their rights, but this is not the point. The point is that the rights are not a neutral baseline, and the emergent relations governing these rights could be opposed to individual freedom.

For example, private property is surely the foundation of libertarianism (private property is to be distinguished from possession, btw). But Marx did not think private property, the division of labour, wage labour and capitalist exchanges could ever take place independently; one necessarily implied the other. Any degree of material wealth that qualifies as ‘property’ implies accumulation, which implies producing more than one labourer can manage, which implies employing others, which implies splitting up their tasks into specific, repetitive actions, which implies that what they produce is not necessarily what they need to survive, which implies they must purchase this elsewhere, and so forth. Adam Smith observed this interrelation when he noted that, “as it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the…extent of the market.” I will explore why this may be undesirable from the point of view of individual freedom below, but for now it is sufficient to show that such an emergent property amounts to more than the individual rights from which it originates.

Purposeful action is productive action (which is why capitalism sucks)

Mises claimed man acts to attain certain ends, and only by achieving these ends can he be said to engage in purposive action. If there were no ends to be sought, man would not act; that he acts tells us he has unfulfilled needs. Voluntary exchange gives man the choice and ability to engage in purposeful action with an ever-expanding range of ends at his disposal. The entrepreneur’s role in this is vital, as he channels the purposive actions of many people in the market place, allowing them to attain the ends they seek. This creates an evolutionary process through which man continually realises his chosen ends.

Marx too believed that only man is capable of purposive activity, and this is what separates man from other animals. However, for Marx, the most purposive activity was labour, not consumption. Man engages in productive activity for two main purposes: (1) the end product of his labour and (2) the ability to exercise certain powers of his choosing when labouring, for whichever reason he deems appropriate (efficiency, enjoyment of the task itself, development of skills, etc.). Marx saw capitalism as alienating because in a capitalist system, the individual becomes separated from both the product and the method of production, as well as the time and location in which it takes place.

This separation can be illustrated by an exchange between the worker and the capitalist. The capitalist pays the worker wages so the worker will produce what the capitalist requires him to produce. In this exchange, the worker becomes separated from the product of his labour, producing not what he wants, but what the capitalist requires him to produce. The worker is also required to produce not how he chooses, but at a time, location and in a manner chosen by the capitalist. The worker then uses the wages he earns to purchase other products produced under similar circumstances. The end result under capitalism is that individuals become primarily tied together by what the capitalist guided division of labour demands, rather than by their own autonomous, purposive action. The result is the worker’s alienation from his own labour and also from the products he purchases (this applies to the capitalists too, in a different form; after all, they are on the flip side of the relationship).

So we have two competing narratives here. In one narrative, the individual is merely at the whims of capitalism, while in the other narrative, the individual exercises control over capitalism. Which is more accurate? Ultimately, the question boils down to whether production or consumption is the more purposive activity.

In consumption, the means is exchange, which requires little in the way of personal development or planning, and is brief. What matters most in consumption is the end result: a good or service. Many goods purchased are interchangeable and the act of consumption is relatively brief.** Services are by definition done by somebody else, and generally speaking, the buyer is only interested in the end result (the outcome of a lawsuit; their health; a new conservatory). I’m not suggesting that purchasing goods and services is not useful and does not yield any positive results; I am merely pointing out that as far as man’s self-actualisation goes, as far as purposive action is defined, consumption does not require or achieve much in the way of planning, personal development or uniqueness.

In contrast, during production the individual has both means (productive activity) and an end (the product) in mind when he sets out to act. The productive activity itself cannot be separated from the individual and so the two are inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, productive activity requires and/or results in building up some personal attribute, whether a individual’s capacity to reason, his physical strength and fitness, his perseverance or anything else. Generally these attributes will last beyond the original act of production. The end result is both that the individual achieves some goal he chose, planned and set out to achieve, whatever its exact nature, and that through the process he exercises his individualism by realising certain powers (again chosen by him).

The question for Miseans is how exactly the individual can “discover causal relations” between his purposive productive activity and what he produces if he is not producing what he wants, but doing it under the command of someone else. Mises glosses over the role of the worker in his exposition of purposive action; in fact, he explicitly rejects the notion that labour can be considered ‘action,’ because he considers only ends, rather than means, important for man’s individual development. But are any of man’s actions as rational, as explicitly thought through, as deliberate and purposeful, as labour? For Marx, the tragedy was when labour became a means to an end; Mises merely assumed this was the case.


The heart of libertarianism is the abstract individual, who engages in voluntary actions to attain certain ends, and should be allowed to do this, free from outside interference. But such an abstract philosophy is incomplete and incoherent. In the mainstream, Marx is often projected as disregarding the individual, but in fact, Marx was always highly concerned with the individual. The difference is that Marx’s concern with the individual caused him to zoom out to see the context in which the individual operates, and which aspects of an individual’s character are shaped by the context in which the individual labours. Under capitalism, the most important aspect of purposeful individual action – production – is subsumed, under the command of somebody else, and spurred only by the fact that the work is necessary for the worker’s survival.*** Hence, within his most purposive sphere, the individual is not free to act to realise his own ends through means chosen by him; rather, both the ends and the means are determined by forces outside his control. To me, this doesn’t seem very libertarian.

*To be sure, libertarians do have plenty of fleshed out arguments for capitalism’s efficacy as a system; what I am arguing is that it does not follow from their discussion of man and his nature.

**This has the exception of durables, but how often is the joy of these based on one’s own work on them? Cars, houses and gardens are all the pride and joy of people precisely because they themselves engage in productive activity on them.

***We must remember the context (!) in which Marx was writing. What he says was literally true at the time; in modern liberal democracies the reality is less stark, but the underlying mechanics of working life, and why people work, remain the same.

PS I have used ‘man’ in this post because that is generally what was used by the thinkers I am discussing. I originally tried it with gender-neutral pronouns but it just became confused and more difficult to relate to the original texts.


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