Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The despiritualized plane

Note: This is a companion piece to “Marx’s sine qua non: Ayn Rand.”

Marx’s disciples run in the opposite direction of the free market because they view liberty as the libertarians do, as license. Marx wrote:

None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice... Thus man was not liberated from religion; he received religious liberty. He was not liberated from property; he received the liberty to own property. He was not liberated from the egoism of business; he received the liberty to engage in business.

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Liberty is, therefore, the right to do everything which does not harm others... It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself.

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The right of property, is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s fortunes and dispose of it as he will; without regard for other men and independently of society... It leads every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty.

From that he derived a concept of liberty as liberation from property, in which material man is satisfied in the provisions of forced collectivism. Rather than reject the materialist view for a humanitarian one, Marx, who was atheist, settled on the other pole of the wrong plane.

The most popular literary defender of the free market is Ayn Rand. Her response to communism was the same argument about liberty that Marx rejected 100 years earlier. “Isolated monad, withdrawn into himself” describes many of her characters, economic automatons stripped of spiritual and human needs. Even the act of love is described as a transaction, pleasure its only object.

She was atheist, too.

At First Things, R. R. Reno reflects on Larry Summer’s review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Here’s a passage I found particularly helpful: “Think about the contrast between George Eastman, who pioneered fundamental innovations in photography, and Steve Jobs. Jobs has an immediate global market, and the immediate capacity to implement his innovations at very low cost, so he was able to capture a far larger share of their value than Eastman. Correspondingly, while Eastman’s innovations and their dissemination through the Eastman Kodak Co provided a foundation for a prosperous middle class in Rochester for generations, no comparable impact has been created by Job’s innovations.”

To my mind this contrast captures a great deal of our problem today. Globalization has put vastly more resources at the finger-tips of the so-called creative class. They have quick access to labor across the globe as well as capital. That’s plain to see, and it naturally magnifies and accelerates the economic advantages (or lucky or well-connected—we shouldn’t discount those sources of competitive advantage!).

What I hadn’t seen before is the Eastman side of the comparison. His capacity to translate innovation into marketable products requires organizing and improving the social capital of Rochester. The same was true for Henry Ford, who famously raised wages for his factory workers. He saw that increased incentives would accelerate the reorganization of agricultural and small town society around large-scale industrial production, something necessary for him to realize the full economic potential of his innovations in mass production, marketing, and so forth. You couldn’t just invent the modern mega-corporation. It required profound transformations of social capital.

That still happens, but it’s diffused around the globe in ways that are difficult to see as part of an evolving, healthy social organism (not that American industrialization was trouble free!). Thus Silicon Valley. It’s an amazing source of new wealth in the Bay Area—unprecedented in many ways. But it’s not building a new city, as the auto industry did in Detroit or steel did in Pittsburgh (or for that matter aerospace in Los Angeles after WWII). Take General Motors out of Detroit in 1970 and the social structures in that state would be profoundly altered, if not collapse. (That’s what has in fact happened in slow motion over the last few decades.) Suddenly uproot Apple from the Bay Area and I don’t think it would make much of a ripple.

The ripple would be in the state’s coffers.

Before the digital revolution, the old way of getting rich required cooperation and building up the skills and fortune of your neighbors. The new way of getting rich is to write code that repeats an operation on command.

This form of enterprise is divorced from facial social networks. It serves an anonymous customer base global in reach. Its inherent bigness as it succeeds centralizes information to the state’s advantage, devolving control from local power structures and relationships.

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