As I’ve taught Marx this week, I’ve been struck (and not for the first time) by the similarity of Marxists and free marketeer capitalists on one narrow point.
At the end of history, Marx explains, humans won’t need to alienate themselves from their humanity by defining themselves by their professions. Instead of reducing themselves to a single form of labor—”fisherman” or “poet” or “exotic dancer” or any one profession—they’ll be able to
“do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic [or poet, or exotic dancer, etc].”
Instead of specializing in one set of tasks in order to effectively trade their labor for resources, humans will be able to do whatever they’d like. According to Marx, in the post-capitalist era (the so-called “end of history”), there will be enough resources around that humans will be able to meet their needs AND wants without being forced to specialize. By following their instincts and impulses, humans will produce what they need and also maintain the community’s general abundance. The trash will be picked up, the crops will be tended, the art will be created, and the water treatment plant will be staffed by humans who happen to be in the mood to get involved with each of these tasks on that particular day. Do what you want, and all the needs get met.*
They will, as it were, produce a sort of “spontaneous order” simply by freely choosing what they’d like to do. Their daily choices will, as if by an “invisible hand,” cover the needs and wants of the community.
Because, see, that’s the same sort of argument that free marketeers make all the time. Market-based economic order is “spontaneous!” It surges forth from the messy ether of the universe! In other words, if everyone follows their rational self-interest, the market converts that into everything that we need and want.
In both cases, individual human behavior arrives to interact with resources and leaves harmonious, even optimal (Pareto and otherwise), outcomes for the whole. Whether it’s the unique effects of free, conscious activity or the invisible workings of the market, the argument usually takes this particular mechanism as a given.
The technical term for this is “magic.”
* Yes, yes, yes, I know that Marx’s work is peppered with references to regulation of “the general production of society” at the end of history. Yes, the state reduces to a sort of technical apparatus that adjusts productive forces in the service of the common good. Yes, there’s a technocratic Marx that exists parallel to the grassroots, communitarian Marx.
BUT—it’s not clear to me that these two sides to Marx are compatible—if our daily labor is limited (or even chosen) and directed by centralized institutions, it’s unclear that we’ve escaped the labor alienation characteristic of capitalism. Marx promises true freedom for our creative, productive capacities, not a duty-bound allegiance to a managing technical committee.
Incidentally—the Marx/Marxist caveat is in effect for this post (and always, when we’re thinking critically about Marx). Lenin’s choices are not an ipso facto demolition of Marx’s positions, even if they’re worth considering in some instances.