Replies to the "but the owner bought the tools" argument?

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spacious's picture
spacious
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Aug 21 2018 07:31

Yeah I read someone saying once Marx never wrote a single line about cities, and I can't say I disagree. The theory of rent in Marx is entirely about agriculture, which seems like an odd oversight - what about rent in an urban setting, rent for industrial purposes, housing rent etc.?

I've had some interesting discussions with Georgists on twitter about land as a resource, in economic theory etc. and about the different ways of envisioning social revolution or reform in that area.

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Aug 21 2018 14:23

Thanks for your reply jura

Don't we need to morally justify the socialist expropriation of the capitalist class?

Is the justification that the expropriation will make the problems that you list (for example waste of human labour power) dissappear?

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Aug 21 2018 15:09
explainthingstome wrote:
Don't we need to morally justify the socialist expropriation of the capitalist class?

Is the justification that the expropriation will make the problems that you list (for example waste of human labour power) dissappear?

I don't think I've seen a moral argument justifying the expropriation of capitalists per se, but since the 1970s/1980s there has been a lot of discussions in Anglophone political philosophy on the morality of property (and of interventions against property), including contributions by various leftists. So I'm sure there exists some such argument. But personally I think discussions about the moral justification of private property (or its expropriation) are mostly an academic thing with little use beyond that. They also often start from "self-evident" premises such as that there is a universal right to private property, which kind of makes the whole effort circular and pointless.

The orthodox "amoral" (or almost amoral) justification for expropriation was that capitalist relations of production have become a fetter on the development of the forces of production, and so expropriating the capitalist class is justified as a necessary condition for further historical progress. I don't think this is a good justification because it starts with an assumption I don't agree with (I think capitalism still can and does develop forces of production, albeit at the expense of some very destructive consequences, but this has been true of capitalism from the start). It also does not seem to be too useful in convincing people to do something (I mean who apart from 18th and 19th century philosophers really cares about "historical progress"?).

I also think that ultimately, "at the very bottom", there are some normative (moral) assumptions behind the communist project and also behind Marx's critique (in Capital). Obviously every (libertarian) communist will say that it's better if individuals can fully realize their potential than if they're enslaved. It's better if all people have more free time. Obviously Marx thought it's better if children don't work 10 hours a day in dangerous conditions etc. etc. These are all normative assumptions (and there were also actual people in Marx's time who were prepared to defend child labor in dangerous conditions in moral terms!). They also have something to do with human needs and with a particular (philosophical) notion of what is a human being. I'd say that at bottom, the argument for communism is based on assumptions like these which are at odds with the consequences of capitalism listed in one of the posts above. So I agree with your answer in the form of a question – doing away with capitalism will do away with its consequences which are in conflict with our (normative) notion of how humans should be able to live their lives.

DevastateTheAvenues
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Aug 21 2018 16:48
explainthingstome wrote:
Don't we need to morally justify the socialist expropriation of the capitalist class?

Is the justification that the expropriation will make the problems that you list (for example waste of human labour power) dissappear?

I would say that a moral justification is not the point. Rather, communism, as "the real movement to abolish the present state of things", is something borne out of the struggles of the working class against their alienation (our creative force is ultimately put to the service of another, doing things for the sake of profit rather than for the act itself or directly for the things the act does or produces) and exploitation (and that profit belongs to some capitalist fucker while my own means of living are gradually eroded away) under capitalism.

It it not necessarily because I have a clear vision of what I want in some post-capitalist future, but that I must struggle right here and now if I want to make my position under capitalism better, say in my wages or in my time spent working versus my actual life, and that this puts my into conflict against the capitalist class. In time, once I start seeing that capitalism imposes these political conditions on me and on other workers, I come to realize my common interest with those other workers in struggling against our common political condition of our dispossession of everything but our labor that puts us at the mercy of capitalism--in short, our proletarian status. This turns our conflict into a political conflict, a class conflict. And once we understand that our alienation and exploitation cannot end under capitalism, our class struggle becomes a revolutionary one against capitalism. The future is opaque and unknowable and, while we might have our guesses and wants, the society that comes after capitalism will only be made in the process of that struggle, in the act of revolution against all existing social conditions.

Of course, following jura, this does entail certain normative assumptions, namely that alienation and exploitation are experienced as bad things and that this provides sufficient motive force to struggle against capitalism. This also makes it important that we see alienation as something to abolish; if we are merely concerned with the "economic" side of things, in exploitation, then we have no reason to be against, say, self-managed exploitation (various kinds of market socialism) or even against a society that sufficiently provides us with the means to live. Even if we were able to manage our own work, if we still produce to create profit rather than directly for what we need and want, we still relate to ourselves and others only via production and exchange, and our relations between people retain the appearance of being relations between things (commodity fetishism) because of the continued necessity of controlling our lives and labor to satisfy the need to produce exchangeable value, commodities, in a society where access to exchangeable value provides the means of living.

Re the OP post, I would say that it's incredibly important to realize that, while labor does create surplus value, profit is only realized via exchange. This makes it easier to grasp that the value of a commodity does not depend on the particular labor used up on it, because it is in the necessarily social act of exchange that all particular labors are equated as quantities of abstract labor and that the value of the commodity becomes the value of its socially necessary labor time to produce it.

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Aug 23 2018 11:35
Mike Harman wrote:
There are things about land which do have value - i.e. improvements like sewerage, irrigation, running water, electricity, access to roads, and buildings themselves are commodities. So the payment of rent incorporates both paying for these commodities, but also for the use of the actual unimproved land itself, which is not a commodity (because it's not the product of social labour).

Well yes. But also this:

Mike Harman wrote:
However Marx is talking about ground rent as it gets extracted from capitalist farmers leasing from landowners, he's not talking about people renting flats in Manchester.

An element of the rent on a flat will be ground rent but most of it won't be that, it is a payment for the use of the building...

Edgar Hardcastle wrote:
Marx’s theory of rent sets out to explain that under capitalism, landed property is a source of unearned income going to the landlord by claiming a right over a portion of surplus value.

Surplus value is extracted from the working class during the productive process.

http://www.socialiststudies.org.uk/marx%20groundrent.shtml

Note, nothing about "secondary exploitation". Surplus value is created in production, not exchange, and is then distributed among various different capitals via the mechanism of the market.

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Aug 23 2018 11:54
explainthingstome wrote:
Don't we need to morally justify the socialist expropriation of the capitalist class?

Think of it the other way around. Can we morally justify the capitalist expropriation of the wealth created by the working class?

Mike Harman
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Aug 23 2018 12:02
darren p wrote:
An element of the rent on a flat will be ground rent but most of it won't be that, it is a payment for the use of the building...

Well yes, but rent on a two bed house in Middlesborough is about £500/month and rent on a two bed flat in Islington is about £1500-2500/month. Land value is pretty unique compared to actual commodities. But I think the argument that rents make up part of the cost of reproduction, and therefore the MCM' capitalist ends up paying more in wages, which then goes straight out again to the landlord, is a way of explaining this without some kind of double surplus gymnastics.

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Aug 23 2018 13:01
darren p wrote:
Think of it the other way around. Can we morally justify the capitalist expropriation of the wealth created by the working class?

Well, the capitalist enables production because he owns the tools and stuff.

"But that's only because private property exists", you might argue. But what's wrong with private property? Why shouldn't I be allowed to own the land and tools that I've bought? Why should I be forced to give away my private property to society as a whole?

(Has this argument already been countered in this thread without me realizing it?)

Also, the world has become much better over the last 100 years. Capitalism is making everyone richer and happier. Extreme poverty will dissappear in a few decades. Soon everyone will be educated and well-payed.

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Aug 23 2018 13:23
explainthingstome wrote:
Also, the world has become much better over the last 100 years. Capitalism is making everyone richer and happier. Extreme poverty will dissappear in a few decades. Soon everyone will be educated and well-payed.

Are you familiar with Thomas Pogge? He makes good arguments against this kind of thing, but in favour of a more re-distributive type of capitalism. Communists can make some use of his arguments I think - but also argue that the structural nature of capitalism makes some things impossible, the types of reforms Pogge argues for being amongst them.

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Aug 23 2018 14:03
explainthingstome wrote:
darren p wrote:
Think of it the other way around. Can we morally justify the capitalist expropriation of the wealth created by the working class?

Well, the capitalist enables production because he owns the tools and stuff.

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Aug 23 2018 23:54
explainthingstome wrote:
"But that's only because private property exists", you might argue. But what's wrong with private property? Why shouldn't I be allowed to own the land and tools that I've bought? Why should I be forced to give away my private property to society as a whole?

(Has this argument already been countered in this thread without me realizing it?)

As I said, I'd generally try to avoid this debate on justifying property, but there's the "genealogical" argument on primitive accumulation: capitalist property has its ultimate origin in the expropriation of independent agricultural producers. Their private property (and/or communal property) had to be expropriated by future capitalists (and the state) to make way for capitalism. If that was justified, then why shouldn't the expropriation of capitalists be justified? And if it wasn't justified, then capitalist private property itself is illegitimate, so expropriating it shouldn't be such a big deal, morally.

One possible justification for primitive accumulation is that it resulted in a more efficient economic system (in the sense of increasing, in the long term, the standard of living for most; alhough in the case of capitalism, the long term was very long term as there was a pretty long period when people in Britain were actually worse off in capitalism in terms of their average real consumption than in late feudalism). A similar argument can then be made about the expropriation of capitalists.

explainthingstome wrote:
Also, the world has become much better over the last 100 years. Capitalism is making everyone richer and happier. Extreme poverty will dissappear in a few decades. Soon everyone will be educated and well-payed.

It seems to me that in one sense, "everyone is better off now" is almost a trivial statement. Sure, there were periods of straight-up decline in human history (in some places), but generally, I'd say it's a story of progress, faster of slower. So saying "everyone is better off today than they were 100 years ago" is not saying much. People living in feudalism were probably better off than most slaves. This does not justify feudalism, at least in my view. Or, more precisely, I don't think it justifies not rebelling against feudalism.

But perhaps the rate of improvement of the general state of things has accelerated under capitalism. However, even this isn't too clear-cut. There are reversals of fortune like wars and crises that can be seen not as random events but as more or less direct consequences of the nature of capitalism. So, for example, there has been a decline in life expectancy in the US and other developed countries recently that can be linked to preventable social issues, very generally speaking. There are wars and the looming enviromental catastrophe which at this point seems almost inevitable, both linked to the specific "laws of motion" of capitalism. So the statement "everyone is better off now" is not even strictly true, certainly not without some serious qualifications. If you look at real wages in the US or in Germany over the last 25 years, you can see that not everyone faces the same rate of improvement, and not even the same standard of living as their parents. After decades of hard-won job security, rising wages etc., there has been a turn towards increased precariousness, fragmentation of the labor market and even a declining standard of living for some. Eastern Europe, in the 1990s, experienced a wholesale decline of living standards due to the reintroduction of free market capitalism that took years to fix and for some (e.g., the Roma population) it never really got fixed. There are now people in the EU – in a country which produces the most cars per capita in the world – who basically live in conditions approaching the middle ages in terms of sanitation and heating, with localized epidemics of syphilis or measles. But their conditions could have been said to be improving only a few decades ago. So capitalist development is contradictory and it is precisely due to its essential features like its orientation toward profit, competition etc.

Also, the improvements that we've seen over the last, say, 150 years, were not God-given or natural. They were the results of fierce struggles and some terrible sacrifices by the working class, women, non-whites and others. Without the workers movement it's dubitable if most people would even have the right to vote today. So it's not like capitalism is some sort of an automatic engine of progress. Quite the contrary – left to itself, it has some pretty destructive consequences for both humans and nature.

So when looking at the standard of living, I don't think it's all that useful to compare it with that of our ancestors. It doesn't say anything about what one should reasonably expect. It makes more sense to compare it with what would be achievable at the given state of technology, productivity etc. The FAO says that even if only one fourth of the food wasted globally each year was saved, it could feed the roughly 900 million people who go hungry. And that's just one fourth of the "regular" waste. We're not even talking about what could be done with the billions of person-hours of labor time which are wasted every year in retail, real estate, marketing, finance, armaments production or outright repression.

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Aug 24 2018 12:34

Those were some good answers, thanks

alb
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Aug 26 2018 07:15
spacious wrote:
Yeah I read someone saying once Marx never wrote a single line about cities, and I can't say I disagree. The theory of rent in Marx is entirely about agriculture, which seems like an odd oversight - what about rent in an urban setting, rent for industrial purposes, housing rent etc.?

I've had some interesting discussions with Georgists on twitter about land as a resource, in economic theory etc. and about the different ways of envisioning social revolution or reform in that area.

You and someone are quite wrong. In chapter 46 of Volume III of Capital Marx does discuss "building site rent" and also refers to a previous mention of it in chapter 12 of Volume II. In both he quotes the evidence before a Select Committee of a building contractor that:

Quote:
Without speculative building, and on a large scale at that, no contractor can get along today. The profit from just building is extremely small. His main profit comes from raising the ground-rent, from careful selection and skilled utilisation of the building terrain. It is by this method of speculation anticipating the demand for houses that almost the whole Belgravia and Tyburnia, and the countless thousands of villas round London have been built. (Abbreviated from the Report of the Select Committee on Bank Acts, Part I, 1857, Evidence, Questions 5413-18; 5435-36.)

This is still the situation in Britain today and one reason why the housing problem in London in intractable.

Marx was aware of Henry George. In fact his analysis is basically the same, that ground-rent was money for nothing, not even having to invest capital that capitalists had to to make a profit:

Quote:
One part of society thus exacts tribute from another for the permission to inhabit the earth, as landed property in general assigns the landlord the privilege of exploiting the terrestrial body, the bowels of the earth, the air, and thereby the maintenance and development of life. Not only the population increase and with it the growing demand for shelter, but also the development of fixed capital, which is either incorporated in land, or takes root in it and is based upon it, such as all industrial buildings, railways, warehouses, factory buildings, docks, etc., necessarily increase the building rent.

However, he didn't think much of George and regarded the Georgist Single Tax on Land as a way of reducing taxation on the industrial capitalist which would be of no benefit to workers (see his letter here)

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Aug 26 2018 10:42

Thanks alb, looks like you're right. I've been reading Vol II but that part clearly didn't register. I have Vol. III on the reading list next.

There are several of Marx's letters in which he mentions and critiques George, after he was sent no less than four copies of George's book Progress and Poverty by his friends and correspondents. Marx's opinion was that George's thought was an interesting if insufficient step away from bourgeois (Ricardian) economic theory, and he saw the proposal of Land Value Tax as a panacea aimed at saving capitalism (freeing it from having to support an unproductive rentier class of landowners, which capitalism inherited from previous social formations) rather than abolishing it, so basically he saw it as no more than a radical form of liberalism.

I think this is also borne out by some discussions I had with Georgists, they do not see relations between capital and labour (between wage and surplus value), as the main sociopolitical problem. Instead they think that once unproductive landownership is removed or "land value" can be taxed and redistributed, the essential relations of capitalism are basically fine, and both capital and labour will share the benefit.

alb
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Aug 28 2018 06:33
spacious wrote:
I think this is also borne out by some discussions I had with Georgists, they do not see relations between capital and labour (between wage and surplus value), as the main sociopolitical problem. Instead they think that once unproductive landownership is removed or "land value" can be taxed and redistributed, the essential relations of capitalism are basically fine, and both capital and labour will share the benefit.

Yes, I agree that's a fair assessment of what Georgists stand for. Apart from wanting to introduce a Single Tax on "land values", most of them are out-and-out "free" marketeers. The only class that would benefit from this would be the capitalist class in terms of a reduction (in fact abolition) of taxes on them. The landlord class would be worse off while the position of the working class would be unchanged.

At one time, when workers in America and Britain, had not been separated so long from the land and still saw the way-out in going back to it, Georgism was a rival with Socialism for working-class support. There's a debate here that took place in 1889 between Henry George and H. M. Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation in which George clearly came out for competitive capitalism while Hyndman argued:

Quote:
We do not particularly hate landlords more than capitalists, or capitalists more than landlords. The alligator and the crocodile; it matters not which it is from the point of view of those upon whom they feed (Laughter.) We wish to get rid of both, and what we are aiming at is the abolition of the wages system – (Hear, hear.) – and that aim can only be accomplished by the abolition of private property in the means and instruments of production including the land. (Hear, hear.)
ajjohnstone
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Aug 28 2018 11:55

being an ignoramus when it comes to economic theory i am not sure how relevant today's article in the Guardian is. Nevertheless, it does offer interesting facts and figures and current reform proposals.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/aug/28/call-to-stop-landowners-making-huge-profits-from-speculation

ajjohnstone
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Aug 29 2018 23:24

A related article on land prices in the UK and a call for a land tax

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/aug/29/uks-wealth-rises-as-land-values-soar-by-450bn-in-a-year