1. Distributive Justice: You ask on what grounds I can reject the assertion that ‘it is fine for society to have some people earning $30,000 a year and other people earning $400,000 if each had the same opportunity to get the higher paying job.’ But the principle of distributive justice that I (tentatively) support states that everyone is entitled to equal access to the resources they need to live the life they have reason to value, not that everyone should have equal opportunity to compete for unequally remunerated positions. Further argument would be required to show that such unequal rewards are consistent with my principle.
We could test like this. Granted that this principle requires (as I think can be shown) social ownership of the main immaterial productive resources, how should income be distributed? We could start by saying that everyone receives the same direct income, set at a level that supports a decent, though not lavish lifestyle. This is the default position. Then we look at see what disadvantages require extra income. It seems reasonable that if one is disabled or a lone parent one should receive more than the basic income. So – just to repeat – I don’t reject any outcome just because it involves some people getting ‘more items’ than others. On the contrary, as Marx argued in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, once we take into account differences in need we see that any outcome that didn’t involve some people getting more would be unjust.
What about your person who wants $400,000 a year? How would they justify this claim? Probably it would come down to having some scarce skill. But this skill would derive either from natural talent – and we agree that the advantages created by genetic accident confer no special merit – or from education – which is a benefit provided by family or by society at large that again implies no extra entitlement for the beneficiary. I suppose one could appeal to your norm of remunerating effort or sacrifice, but I doubt whether that could support one income being such a high multiple of another as in your example (let alone the much greater distributive inequalities prevailing in our societies).
2. Marxism as an Explanatory Theory: Of course you’re right that being proved wrong can be liberating. But I still find your theoretical criticisms of Marxism wholly unpersuasive. This is not because I think Marxism has an answer to everything. Take, for example, the preceding discussion of distributive justice. Apart from a few pregnant remarks by Marx, mainstream Marxism is of very little help here: our understanding of the subject has been greatly developed by egalitarian liberals like John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Amartya Sen.
The respect in which I am willing to defend Marxism pretty robustly is its claim to be an explanatory theory, where I think it is simply unequalled in social theory. You write: ‘For me to be to be comfortable you would have to show that there are Marxist concepts that highlight sexuality, gender, race, and power at the same level of priority as Marxist concepts highlight economy and class.’ (Emphasis added.) And you go on to talk about patriarchy, racism, authoritarianism, and capitalism as ‘four systems’ that mutually influence one another. This doesn’t seem to me to be a theory – more a list of some of the major social ills that afflict humankind today. I don’t see why one should stop there: your list doesn’t include, for example, the domination of people because of nationality, ethnicity, or religion.
Once we’ve completed the list, what we have isn’t any kind of theory, just a better description of social injustice. What an explanation does is precisely what you ban in the italicized phrase: it identifies some features as more fundamental than others in producing the reality in question. More specifically, Marxism claims is that its central concepts – above all, those of the forces and relations of production – represents the indispensable starting point for understanding the dynamics of human societies, including the phenomena of economic and political inequality, political domination, and oppression on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, etc.
This kind of claim of explanatory priority doesn’ necessarily imply any programme of reduction of the determinations held to be of lesser explanatory import. In the physical sciences we are familiar with the phenomenon of emergence – that is, of a level of reality that is dependent on a lower, more explanatorily fundamental level but that has its own distinctive characteristics and patterns of behaviour: this, for example, seems to be the best way to think about the relationship between the human and the biological, or the biological and the physio-chemical. To be a Marxist is not to deny that any society involves a plurality of determinations, but to argue that social explanation requires a certain ordering of these determinations, starting from the forces and relations of production.
Whether this research programme is in fact reductionist or just leads to poor (that is, ultimately, empirically refuted) theories isn’t an a priori question. You list various non-economic things that Marxism is supposedly weak on, but it is striking how many leading cultural theorists are Marxists – Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, T.J. Clark, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek. To read Jameson, for example, on postmodernist culture is to realize that Marxists can comfortably operate deep into the superstructure. David Harvey has also written brilliantly on capitalist cultural forms, within the framework of what he calls ‘historical-geographical materialism’. I remember a conversation with you when you seemed unfamiliar with Harvey and his work. Maybe you should sample a bit more of the best contemporary Marxism before condemning it.
I think your theoretical rejection of Marxism is politically motivated. You illustrate your accusation of economic reductionism thus: ‘One result is that in Marxist revolutions we repeatedly find homophobia, patriarchy, socialist realism, homogenized communities, and political dictatorship.’ But I deny that there is a natural kind called ‘Marxist revolutions’. In Russia in October 1917 a socialist revolution was briefly successful, but was (for reasons under dispute between us) it was subsequently corrupted and destroyed. The other ‘socialist’ revolutions that indeed had the obnoxious features that you listed (but which the early Soviet republic lacked – look, for example, at the laws emancipating women and gays, and the ferment of cultural experimentation, all reversed or crushed under Stalin) – were replicants of the Stalinist monstrosity that emerged on the ruins of the Russian Revolution. That is why I had to introduce the question of Stalinism (not Stalin the person, but the social system): a proper understanding of Stalinism is essential if we are to distinguish the authentic socialist tradition from the regimes that claimed its name but represented in fact its antithesis.
3. Class and Coordinators: I think our differences here are partly verbal and partly substantive. The substantive differences are about how to conceptualize class. You resist relating class antagonisms to ‘differences in ownership relations’, I think in part because you understand ownership juridically as private property. Clearly ownership in this sense isn’t the sole source of class power. Look at the USSR. But Marxist’s don’t equate economic ownership with property title, but rather with effective possession. This is critical to understanding the bureaucratic and managerial structures on which capitalism universally came to rely in the 20th century.
You say that the ‘coordinator class’ that have benefited from the development of these structures ‘get their power and status from monopolizing empowering conditions and tasks and from the more associated knowledge and skills’. It’s certainly true that upper-middle-class households pursue strategies whose aim is precisely to reproduce this monopoly (this is something Bourdieu wrote very well about). But I’m not persuaded that the result is a class co-equal to capital and labour.
This is partly because ‘co-ordinators’ occupy a more heterogeneous range of positions in the structure of economic power than do workers or capitalists. Sure there are many differences within the latter two classes, but all workers sell their labour-power while capitalists invest to profit (directly or indirectly) from the exploitation of labour. But, to repeat, some coordinators (e.g. managers) control labour, others (e.g. most academics) don’t. More fundamentally, if we concentrate on managers, the demand for people with their kinds of skills is a consequence of the fact that, in conditions of mass production, the core capitalists have to delegate their powers of supervision and management to a layer of trusted employees. The managers’ economic power is in this sense derivative of the more fundamental relations of production.
The sense in which this argument is a verbal one is that we agree that there are conditions where members of the intermediate strata can constitute themselves as a ruling class. So I agree also that ‘a movement can be anti-capitalist but not pro-working class’, though I’d prefer to say that a fully anti-capitalist movement has not just to be against private property and the market but for the emancipation of labour from the entire system of exploitation that these institutions support.