Monday, 22 December 2014

Hegel has a lot to answer for

Writing this post is making me a little edgy. Most of the friends I’ve made since leaving high school, I met through student activism in one capacity or another. Which means a lot of my friends are people who hold Marxism dear. That makes criticizing Marxism a painful thing for me to do. And it’s not as if I have to do it, exactly, I could just meander to the back of the crowd and mumble insincerely when my political coalition voices opinions that I find problematic in support of the positions that I am trying to help them defend. But I don’t feel that that’s entirely honest, for one thing; and also, unexamined assumptions in my worldview niggle at me. They keep me awake at night. So before I even start on what the problems are, let me talk about the parts of Marxist theory which I do agree with.
In fact, I’ll start with one that will most clearly establish where my loyalties lie. With the Marxists, and against free-market economic theory, I think that profit in a capitalist economy depends largely or wholly on the exploitation of labour. But this is going to make me look like an economic naïf if I don’t explain a bit. Which I don’t mind doing, because although I’ve said it a few times before, I think it’s one of those things that needs to be said again and again until people get it.
Economists see trade as a positive-sum interaction, and it’s important to understand why. I’ll use the example I’ve used before. Suppose you want to sell your car, and you’ve privately decided that you’ll accept any price over $2500. I’m looking to buy a cheap used car, and I’m prepared to pay up to $4000. We settle on $3000. I now have a car which is worth $4000 to me, where I previously had $3000 in cash; I have gained $1000 by the deal. You now have $3000 in cash, where previously you had a car which was worth $2500 to you; you have gained $500 by the deal. Our trade has created $1500 out of thin air.
At first sight it looks like I’ve pulled a fast one with this example, in that your valuation of the car and mine were both private and subjective. But that need not be so. Suppose that you have a better car, and keeping the old one maintained and registered is more than you can be bothered with. And suppose that I’ve recently started a job where I need to drive around a lot to earn my living. You might be quite right in supposing that you would lose only $2500 worth if the old car got nicked out of your garage, and I might at the same time be equally right in betting that the same car will earn me at least $4000 over its working lifetime. It really is possible for something to be more valuable to one person than to another; that being the case, moving stuff from people to whom it is less valuable to people to whom it is more valuable really does create value.
In capitalist theory, this is where profit comes from. The idea is that workers sell their labour to their boss, and the boss sells the product to customers, and at each step value is created that didn’t exist previously. In this happy scenario the workers take home a wage that is worth more to them than taking the day off, the firm enjoys a profit that more than compensates it for paying out that wage, and the firm’s customers bet on gaining more from using the product than the retail price they paid for it. Any attempt to regulate or control this process, the theory goes, stops some of the movement of stuff from those who value it less to those who value it more, and thereby prevents value from being created.
So where does it all go wrong? It goes wrong when the worker behaves in ways different to what classical economics would predict. The “rational” thing to do is to work hard and long hours when you’re being paid good wages, because you’ll earn the most possible money that way, and take time off when pay is shorter, because that’s a smaller loss. But as I’ve had occasion to mention before, that makes the large and unwarranted assumption that the dollars are worth the same to you in both conditions. In fact, if you’re flat broke, $10 might be the difference between eating and not eating on a particular day, whereas if you’re banking a tidy $2000 a week that same $10 is probably less than half your average nightly entertainment budget. You’re going to push yourself more when you’re poor than when you’re comfortable. It’s when money is tight that people work hardest, and when times are good that they take breaks.
Economists have spotted this already, of course (behavioral economists, not classical economists). There are plenty of psych lab experiments and a landmark field study confirming it, and the rationale for the behaviour has been explained elsewhere as well – let me credit Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius’ book The Rational Animal. What nobody seems to be talking about is how completely it screws up the calculus of supply and demand. The way it’s supposed to work is that the more money the buyer pays, the more they get of the good or service they’re buying. Here, instead, the employer gets more labour by paying less money. Mathematically, the worker’s marginal return on each additional unit of labour they produce is represented by a negative number. The value accruing to the firm may well be greater than the value extracted from the worker; but it remains the case that value is being extracted from the worker.

So far, then, I think Karl Marx’s observations on labour in a capitalist system hold true. But have you noticed something I haven’t done? Any true Marxist would certainly have analysed the situation in terms of interaction between the working and ruling classes. And up until this paragraph, I haven’t used the word “class” once. Again, it’s not as if Marx was making things up out of nothing. And again I feel more comfortable talking about what’s right with Marxist theory than what’s wrong with it, so let me start there.
One of the less attractive features of human psychology is our readiness to form factions, in-groups and coalitions, banding together not for the greater good but to punish those we see as “other”. The most trivial of differences can become a line in the sand separating Us from Them, even the choice of heads or tails on a coin-toss. We identify with our in-group, such that an insult to one, from outside, is an insult to all. It becomes particularly ugly when the in-group holds legitimacy, wealth, military might, or any other kind of power over the out-group; the division between rich and poor in society, between management and labour in the workplace, certainly qualifies on that head. Exactly who counts as one’s in-group and who as one’s out-group can be subtle, as Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex shows.
Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But although one could imagine certain situations in which the Nazis treated the Japanese as an out-group, in practice they got along pretty well... Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares.
Alexander argues that, for typical liberals and leftists, it is conservatives rather than people of other races, classes, genders, or sexualities who form the real out-group. He notes that the same people who were all “It’s tasteless to rejoice in death” when Osama bin Laden was killed cheerfully posted “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”-based memes all over Facebook when Margaret Thatcher died. It’s much easier, he says, to criticize your out-group than your in-group. Socialists are part of my in-group, which is why criticizing Marxism is so much more nerve-wracking to me than criticizing, say, postmodernism. Despite which, I must here explicitly depart from Marx. Yes, anyone who blames people of another race or sexuality or religion, en masse, for the consequences of class inequality, is flat wrong. Marxism is correct on that point. And it’s not far wrong in considering class the most lasting and consequential divide in society. But it leaps from there to a conclusion which the evidence does not warrant: that class inequality is both the historical origin and the current driver of all social evils.
The earliest human societies were forager bands. Such societies today do not amass surpluses, know little of private property, and are highly egalitarian in their organization. Some critics point out that today’s foragers are confined to the harshest margins of the world – the deserts, the tundra, the rainforests – the rest having now been converted to agriculture. It is possible, therefore, that some of our ancestors in richer areas did stockpile enough food to support an élite class, and we know that some recent forager societies did, notably the Native nations of the Pacific Northwest of North America. However, if pre-agricultural burial sites are anything to go by, equality seems to have been the rule for ancient Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately for the Marxist hypothesis, pre-agricultural burial sites also show abundant evidence that one particular social evil long predates class conflict. About 15% of skeletons from non-state societies show signs of having been deliberately killed by other humans. That, for reference, is about five times the percentage of people worldwide known to have suffered that fate in the twentieth century, including all the wars and genocides. Furthermore, the egalitarianism of present forager societies is not a primitive, Edenic “state of nature” à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is the outcome of social policies which the foragers pursue consciously and purposefully, and it is strikingly different from the dominance hierarchies common among our primate relatives. Frans de Waal quotes one !Kung person who spoke to anthropologist Richard Lee:
When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for some day his pride will make him kill somebody.
Frans de Waal, Good Natured: the Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals p. 138
The !Kung are among the most peaceful of forager societies; their homicide rate is similar to that of inner-city Detroit at the peak of the post-1960s crime surge. I confess that when I first read that quote, I thoughtlessly held the condescending attitude that traditional peoples are basically Yoda from Star Wars dispensing the wisdom of the ages. It never occurred to me that Lee’s informant might have been speaking from experience.

Marxism’s prescription for humanity depends partly on the proposition that violence and greed are foreign to our nature, that they were introduced with the invention of private property, and that they will fade away when it is abolished. So far, things aren’t looking hopeful. What about the recommended method for abolishing class divisions and violence? What assurance do we have that armed revolution by the working class will achieve that goal? I knew I had to write this post when a (white, New Zealander) Facebook friend responded to the murder of Eric Garner by police with the comment
Everyone saying that body cameras on police will stop the killing of black and brown men... the system protects its own, the ruling class protects its foot soldiers. Only revolution will fix this.
Just because body cameras haven’t eliminated murderous racism in the police doesn’t mean that revolution will. You could just about replace the word “revolution” in that sentence with “Jesus” and you’d have an almost equally well-evidenced statement.
Here’s a little quiz. What do the following have in common?
  • Reunification of Ireland
  • A sovereign Kurdish state
  • Québecois independence from Canada
  • An Islamic government in Afghanistan
  • A dictatorship of the proletariat in Peru
  • Liberating Kashmir from India
  • A syncretic Christian-Buddhist theocracy in Japan
I could spin out that list quite a bit longer, but you should be getting the idea. People employed terrorism, that is to say sudden big-impact violent acts targeting civilians, in the pursuit of all these goals. Every single one failed. For comparison, here’s another list:
  • Decriminalization of witchcraft
  • Abolition of slavery
  • Votes for women
  • Indian independence from Britain
  • Racial desegregation in the United States
  • The end of apartheid in South Africa
  • Same-sex marriage
People struggling for these goals used non-violent means, and all of them have been at least partly achieved. I’ll grant that there have also been a number of social justice movements which have used non-violent means and failed, and that some of the ones listed here did at times use force in self-defence. I’ll also grant that none of the movements on this list achieved the classless socialist paradise. But neither did the ones on the previous list. Any movement seeking large-scale social change eventually needs to win public support, and you don’t get that by blowing people up.
Well... that’s not entirely true. You don’t get public sympathy by blowing people up, but with enough military clout you might make the public fear you enough to give you what you need. Which is my cue to present a third list, this time of rulers:
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Iosif Stalin
  • Mao Zedong
  • Kim-Il Sung
  • Pol Pot
  • Robert Mugabe
Not all of these men were socialists even in name, and not all of them actually led the respective revolutions that enabled their rise to power. But all of them bear deserved reputations for bloody tyranny. All committed some combination of genocide, imperialistic war, and brutal repression. It seems to be a good general rule that any administration inaugurated by an armed revolutionary movement becomes a dictatorship. I want to qualify armed, though, because otherwise the American Revolution stands out as an obvious exception. Most people are intelligent enough to tell the difference between armed force used for self-defence and armed force used in furtherance of one’s aims; only the latter is poison to public sympathy. The American Revolution began as a peaceful civil disobedience movement. They took up arms under the threat of the Redcoats, and they never “brought the fight to the oppressor” and invaded Britain.
(Actually “never” is, I gather, a slight exaggeration. Apparently a small contingent of American revolutionaries did set sail for England, but on arrival they all went to the pub and forgot what they were supposed to be doing.)

No armed socialist revolution has ever in fact achieved anything remotely approaching the classless society. Instead, they have created dictatorship after dictatorship throughout the twentieth century. This is the most serious challenge to the Marxist hypothesis, one which no honest defender of Marxism can hand-wave away. In the circles I move in Stalin usually gets the blame, apparently for all of it. Even if that were entirely plausible, it doesn’t make “true” Marxist socialism look much better; a system which can be so easily and so thoroughly corrupted by a single power-hungry individual is not one we should entrust our future to.
A movement that kills people to attain its goals soon loses public sympathy – as opposed to a movement that kills people only when they try to harm its followers – and without public sympathy your only option is the rule of fear. That makes you a dictatorship, like it or not. Those who rise to the top in such a system will be those who are good at being fearsome. Survival will consist of convincing the fearsome ones to punish others instead of oneself, which you do by proving your devotion to the cause, which in turn you can often best do by volunteering to help punish the insufficiently devoted. False solidarity enforced by informers and secret police is the deadliest enemy of genuine solidarity. That’s what went wrong with socialism.
In case you are a conservative reading this and going “Yeah!” I should point out that, by the same logic, colonizing or enslaving a people can also only be done through fear, and again creates systems which reward the use of terror, at least against the oppressed group. This time the oppressed group don’t tend to become informers. Rather, unable to trust the state with their interests, they are forced to protect themselves with codes of swift, armed retribution. The state uses this “violent crime” to justify continued oppression, whether through explicit discriminatory laws or through unofficial racial profiling by the police. That’s what’s gone wrong with race in America.
A Marxist critic (and I expect I will have several) would raise objections about my dictatorship scenario. Why should armed revolution not win the sympathy of its intended beneficiaries in the working class? Why, in a world that has abolished class distinctions, would anyone “rise to the top”, or turn informer against their neighbours? Since those things are, in fact, what’s happened every time it’s been tried, I must sadly conclude that insofar as Marxism predicts otherwise, Marxism is wrong. The question that interests me is why Marx didn’t see the problem, given that he had before him the examples of the Cromwell regime following the English Civil War and the Napoleonic Empire growing out of the French Revolution. I think the man who spoiled Marxism came not after Marx but before; not Iosif Stalin, but Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Hegel is very, very hard to read, and I’m given to understand that the German originals are even worse than the English translations. He had an immense academic following in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which has since dwindled to pretty much nothing. His major contribution to philosophy was the concept of dialectic. You start with a thesis, some statement about the world. You then discover an antithesis, something which doesn’t fit your thesis. Thesis and antithesis combine to make a synthesis which accounts for them both.
Stated like that, it doesn’t look too unreasonable. In fact it looks more or less like what science generally does – you’re always updating old models of the phenomena you study, but you don’t often throw an old model away completely, because whoever came up with it usually had some good reason for it. But Hegel’s dialectic goes further, in two different directions. First, the antithesis is not demonstrated by new facts, but is inherent in the thesis itself. Second, this is true of all possible theses short of a complete statement of the nature of reality. I can do no better here than quote Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy at some length.
[Hegel’s] view is that any ordinary predicate, if taken as qualifying the whole of Reality, turns out to be self-contradictory. One might take as a crude example the theory of Parmenides, that the One, which alone is real, is spherical. Nothing can be spherical unless it has a boundary, and it cannot have a boundary unless there is something (at least empty space) outside of it. Therefore to suppose the Universe as a whole to be spherical is self-contradictory... Or let us take another illustration, still more crude – far too much so to be used by Hegel. You may say, without apparent contradiction, that Mr. A is an uncle; but if you were to say that the Universe is an uncle, you would land yourself in difficulties. An uncle is a man who has a nephew, and the nephew is a separate person from the uncle; therefore an uncle cannot be the whole of Reality.
This illustration might also be used to illustrate the dialectic, which consists of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. First we say: “Reality is an uncle.” This is the Thesis. But the existence of an uncle implies that of a nephew. Since nothing really exists except the Absolute, and we are now committed to the existence of a nephew, we must conclude: “The Absolute is a nephew.” This is the Antithesis. But there is the same objection to this as to the view that the Absolute is an uncle; therefore we are driven to the view that the Absolute is the whole composed of uncle and nephew. This is the Synthesis. But this synthesis is still unsatisfactory, because a man can be an uncle only if he has a brother or sister who is a parent of the nephew. Hence we are driven to enlarge our universe to include the brother or sister, with his wife or her husband. In this sort of way, so it is contended, we can be driven on, by the mere force of logic, from any suggested predicate of the Absolute to the final conclusion of the dialectic, which is called the “Absolute Idea.” Throughout the whole process, there is an underlying assumption that nothing can be really true unless it is about Reality as a whole.
For this underlying assumption there is a basis in traditional logic, which assumes that every proposition has a subject and a predicate. According to this view, every fact consists in some thing having some property. It follows that relations cannot be real, since they involve two things, not one. “Uncle” is a relation, and a man may become an uncle without knowing it. In that case, from an empirical point of view, the man is unaffected by becoming an uncle; he has no quality which he did not have before, if by “quality” we understand something necessary to describing him as he is in himself, apart from his relations to other people and things. The only way in which the subject-predicate logic can avoid this difficulty is to say that the truth is not a property of the uncle alone, or of the nephew alone, but of the whole composed of uncle-and-nephew. Since everything, except the Whole, has relations to outside things, it follows that nothing quite true can be said about separate things, and that in fact only the Whole is real. This follows more directly from the fact that “A and B are two” is not a subject-predicate proposition, and therefore, on the basis of the traditional logic, there can be no such proposition. Therefore there are not as many as two things in the world; therefore the Whole, considered as a unity, is alone real.
The above argument is not explicit in Hegel, but is implicit in his system, as in that of many other metaphysicians.
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy pp. 732–733
I hope you don’t mind if I pause for a little to marvel at what bizarre and momentous consequences a minor philosophical error can have – from “Every proposition is about one thing having one property” to Hegelian dialectic to the Soviet Union. But I guess I haven’t quite made the second connection yet. Hegel apparently went on to claim that dialectic has a temporal dimension, or rather that time has a dialectical component. In general, if you have a thesis and an antithesis in the present, their synthesis lies in the future rather than the past. Hegel used this idea to explain events in human history: opposing forces (thesis and antithesis) meet, clash, and are resolved (synthesis). Eventually all theses will be synthesized, at which point humanity will be one with the Absolute.
How Hegel justifies linking dialectic with time, even Russell is at a loss to explain. His applying the abstract concept of thesis and antithesis to human behaviour is similarly tendentious. To be fair, Hegel’s understanding of history as a dynamic struggle between opposing forces was an improvement over the prevailing notion that societies were static entities ordained by God. He may even have paved the way for the acceptance of Darwinism, along with the misinterpretations that have dogged it since the beginning. Certainly Herbert Spencer’s ghastly “Social Darwinism”, in which survival implies merit, looks more like Hegelian progress toward the Absolute than a Darwinian branching bush of biological diversity. “Social Darwinism” was a precursor of Nazism, so... yeah.

You can see where Marx went with these ideas. Where Hegel’s view of history was abstract and spiritualized, Marx identified socioeconomic classes as the opposing theses driving historical change, and revolutions as the events that synthesized them. The French and American Revolutions were both clashes between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie which ended with the victory of the latter. In capitalism, the number of classes has been reduced to two: bourgeoisie (capitalist class) and proletariat (working class). The bourgeoisie cannot exist without the proletariat’s labour, but the proletariat could go on without the bourgeoisie. Therefore, when the final synthesis between them comes, it is the proletariat that will prevail. After that there will be no class division, hence no exploitation, and humanity will create a world combining the riches of technology with the peace of the state of nature.
So what happens if you have a revolution and afterwards it turns out people are still exploiting each other and trying to resist your attempts to collectivize their livelihood? Well, they must be remnants of the bourgeoisie, trying to sabotage your shot at a perfect world. They are traitors, enemies, and you do to them what you do to traitors and enemies. And then there are more dissidents, who by the same logic must also be enemies of the revolution, and you have to defeat them too. And then even your fellow revolutionaries show themselves to be traitors to the cause. All must be eliminated, and all traces of bourgeois sentiments must be removed from public view, otherwise how will the new generation grow up uninfected by them? This is the story of the twentieth century.
My socialist friends are all dedicated to making good political changes happen, I feel I should stress at this point. They’re always ready to stand up in public for good causes, and I can’t think of a single time where it’s been a cause I disagreed with. They are on the right side of every human rights question. None of them take the attitude that Marx himself took when he supported Free Trade on the grounds that it would hurt workers and so speed the revolution along. It’s just that some of the political theory I hear from them is problematic. Many speak disparagingly of “reformism”, which means accepting that in a democratic system changes tend to happen one at a time and slowly. Of course it’s frustrating (to observers; far worse to the victims) that the police are still racist and corporations are still exploiting their workers and banks are still bilking the public. Of course it would be great to get rid of all those problems in one fell swoop. If it worked that way. But it doesn’t work that way.
Socialists love democracy – well, the ones I know do. They suggest that after the revolution it will work by consensus, i.e., the people’s assembly won’t be split into a government and an opposition. Again you can hear the echoes of Hegel, this picture of the world united forever. It is of course a good idea in general to reach agreements that please as many people as possible. But democratic systems without an Opposition have a terrible flaw: all too easily, legitimate criticism can be framed as a trollish attempt to disrupt the consensus. I’ve seen this happen now in two students’ associations and a city council. The latter saddled my home town with a vanity project that we won’t be finished paying for in the foreseeable future.
The socialist explanation for the failure of socialism, which I’ve hyperbolized above as “it was all Stalin’s fault”, is the mirror image of the Stalinesque framing of dissidents as “class traitors”. Clearly the communist leadership formed a new ruling class of their own. (No argument there!) The two-class structure of communist dictatorships explains a bit of socialist terminology which confuses the heck out of everybody else. A society with two classes is by definition capitalist, therefore the Soviet regime was “state capitalism”. I’ve seen a lot of arguments on Facebook and other internet fora that purported to be political but were actually solely about the words “socialism” and “capitalism”, so here’s a handy table just so’s people are on the same page:
Socialism Capitalism
As defined by socialists Workers own and control production The ruling class exploits the working class
As defined by capitalists Government runs and regulates everything Free trade without state interference
Stalinism was socialist by the capitalist definition, and capitalist by the socialist definition. The government were the ruling class, who ran and regulated everything to exploit the working class. Looking at that table, I’m struck by the diagonals. Seems we all want to pursue our livelihoods without disruption from more powerful people. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the countries which consistently do best on economic and human rights indices – Scandinavia is always the go-to example – are those which come closest to fitting both the capitalist definition of capitalism and the socialist definition of socialism, where companies with a strong labour voice in the boardroom buy and sell in markets largely free of state-imposed red tape.

I avoid saying “I am a socialist” because the word means such different things depending on who you’re talking to. Do I believe in publicly funded health and education? Hell yes. Do I believe farmers should be forced off their land at gunpoint (the reality of “collectivization” in practice)? Hell no. I agree with Marxism on one fundamental point, that workers ought to control the means of production. As I’ve said before, I think workplaces should be democratic, for the same reasons that countries should. Maybe you can’t run a business without managers and executives, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be elected, or why company policy shouldn’t go to a vote. In previous posts I have naughtily failed to credit the guy who I got the idea from: Mark Rosenfelder, known to the internet as “Zompist”. Just so you know, he identifies as a liberal, a word which admittedly means even more things than “socialist” does.
And how to get there from here? Well, violent revolution doesn’t work. Marxists sometimes argue that you need to sweep away the old system before you can build the new one. I suspect it’s the other way around: we need to build as much as we can so people can see there’s an alternative to the status quo. If anyone wants help setting up a democratic business, well, I can type really fast and I have an IT qualification...


  1. This is good stuff Daniel. I particularly like your definitional table, as it clears up a recurring argument I've had in the past with various people and highlights the issue of poorly-defined terms in other recurring debates (particularly on the internet).

  2. Actually, maybe "poorly-defined" is wrong - "commonly misunderstood" might be better.