Incredible legerdemain has been coming out of the Barack Obama policy shops. Taking the cake is the administration’s response to the Congressional Budget Office report showing that Obamacare will reducejobs for lower-earners. Here’s the official spin: unfortunates (as we used to call them), bolstered by health insurance provided by the government, will now be able to enjoy some leisure instead of sticking to the drudgery of menial work.
Under the umbrella of Obamacare, the poor are free to…find themselves.
We might think these justifications of the health-care monstrosity peculiar, but they have a pedigree. The left has been trading on these ideas ever since the industrial revolution got going in the first half of the 19th century.
The principal figure, as always, was Karl Marx. Marx (writing in the 1840s) noticed that what economists would call the “capital-labor ratio” was increasing mightily as the industrial revolution made progress. With every passing year, one unit of output came care more and more of machines than human labor.
Marx figured that in a relatively short while—say, two generations—the capital-labor ratio would have risen so much as to make the necessity of labor dwindle essentially to zero. Capital would be the sole input to production.
As for human beings, they would now be in the enviable position of having everything provided for them—by all that advanced workhorse capital. They could devote their lives entirely to leisure. The only problem in this scenario was the vice of avarice. If people were greedy, they would take more than they needed, even though there was an abundance of stuff for everyone, and ruin everything.
This is why Marx seethed at capitalists. They were the ones responsible for figuring out how to substitute capital for labor in the economy—that blessed process. But capitalists were also suckers for greed and acquisitiveness. The working class, on the other hand (and Marx pulled this out of thin air), gained “consciousness” in the experience of capitalist exploitation and was ready to act reservedly in the coming age of abundance. The working poor would be the bearers of the correct personality and character once that capital-labor ratio hit 100%. They would make sure that everyone took just what they needed for full, healthy living from the output of the all-productive machines.
It’s remarkable that Marx has held onto his reputation as a dismissive atheist all these years. His theories came straight out of ancient and medieval theology. Marx envisioned a return to the Garden of Eden, where bounty supplied all needs and more to the human inhabitants. The phrase from Genesis that haunted Marx was that said to Adam after the expulsion from the garden: “You shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.”
Marx was following in the long millennial “neo-Platonist” tradition that said that the drama of creation and fall was that of emanation and return. At the moment of creation, the universe was so close to God that it kept up its righteousness. As time passed and the world willed itself further from God, in came moral turpitude and its concomitant, economic want.
Salvation meant returning to the original state. Marx felt that capitalism—yes, capitalism—was the salvific means by which humanity would be restored to the state where everything was abundant. In this context, as originally in Eden, everyone could enjoy the world in fullness, if they kept avarice at bay.
Strange to say, it was Thomas Malthus, that scold about population increase of fifty years prior, who prompted Marx to these thoughts. Malthus had uncovered “struggle” as the key to human interaction. Marx incorporated this idea into his concept of class struggle. If the proletariat could overthrow the capital-owners, finally the kind of people who knew how to live well in abundance would be in charge.
And yet it was Malthus who also served as principal influence on Charles Darwin as he formulated his theory of natural selection. For Darwin, struggle for survival and perpetuation characterized all biological life, human, animal, and plant. It was an irreducible fact of existence.
Marx saw humanity differentiating itself from all other species, as the industrial revolution progressed, in that humanity was achieving the means of doing nothing instrumental, nothing practical in life. Thanks to capitalism, machines could soon do all useful work. Marx’s predecessor in philosophy Ludwig Feuerbach had spoken of a new “species-man,” and Marx advanced the idea by incorporating the incredible material developments of the dawning new age.
Today, the left is one part Marx and one part Darwin. It wants redistribution of wealth and everyone having a nice, long, hassle-free materialistic life (à la the administration’s ludicrous “Life of Julia”). Yet the left also insists on evolution and the inerrancy of Darwin. Either humanity is a different kind of species from every other one (Marx/Feuerbach) and therefore has dominion and abundant living for all coming to it, or it is locked in inescapable biotic struggle and is driven to be overly-acquisitive and selfish (Darwin). It is very hard to reconcile the two traditions, even a little.
It is worth remembering that Marx came out of a philosophical hothouse in a Germany that was barely industrialized at all by the time he started writing in earnest. Marx philosophized the industrial revolution while it was a foreign (mainly British) phenomenon. Moreover, Malthus, with his gloomy insistence on “surplus population,” would not stand the test of time. Malthus has proven one of the great goats of philosophical history, in that world population has risen magnificently ever since he called the opposite.
As neo-Platonism goes, it was practiced better in medieval times. Marx strove to solve the venerable philosophical problem of what instrumentality would be necessary for a recovery of the initial perfection of creation. That he picked capitalism (of all things) and the self-consciousness of the working class (of all things) as the two messianic devices to provide for this was such a wild gambit that it qualifies as a non sequitur. Capitalism—more properly, the industrial revolution—still awaits its sage.
This easy first appeared in Forbes and is republished here by gracious permission of the author.
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