Marx versus Nozick, judged by David Baird


Nozick is a big fan of “freedom.” Such as his scariest freedom, the freedom to enslave people if they agree to it and they’re of the age of consent, (this age to be determined by an impartial panel). And the freedom to not share any of one’s however-gotten gains with the group and its more needy members. Or the freedom to act in a way contrary to the survival of humanity and the biosphere if such an act consists of “minding your own business.” (Anyone want to invest in the oil industry, kiddies?) But who knows, people might be good. If you give them freedom to set up any markets they want, maybe good things will happen. Except that freedom, or capitalism, is what’s already happening. And good things aren’t happening, on average, to most people.

But there are different freedoms. There is not just one “freedom,” and it certainly has nothing to do with the imaginary, impossible, illiterate and ill-used Lockian “state of nature,” and the right to do what you want in such an equitable and ahistorical situation. In the real world, permeated by pre-existing structural evil, otherwise known as Power, there is freedom of capital, and freedom of labor. The one biosphere holds two spheres of economic actuality. That which owns and controls, capital, and that which is needy and under control, labor. When capital is free to do what it will–that is, when people are free to use value in arbitrary and selfish/unselfish ways, individually planned and with no necessary connection to the group’s needs or desires, this value tends to be used to increase itself. The bigger the boy, the bigger his toys need to be.

Even if you do believe in social entities, you may have doubts that one could know what it wanted in the way of goals, rational or irrational. But a free group could make its wishes known to itself if its digital nervous system were ordered coherently. A coherent order involves access by all members to the information, and access by all sectors of society to the production of information. Of course everyone is not going to be a producer. But everyone has the right to consume what those who do want to produce produce. The power to produce should turn out to be quite democratic.

I don’t know if total social value is what we’re going for so much as common social quality. Of course, we do not need to increase the total social value, because it is quite large and too large to sustain already. We need to change the economic political reality, by altering the flux of oil, illicit cash, information, water, (the oil of the future), governance, and scientific and scholarly research, in order to accomplish through simple organization and voting a democratic re-organization–the opposite of what is happening now: the death of the world.

We do not need more value but more rights–that is, a greater good, a social good and not a selfish good. Yes we are often selfish. But some, like the libertarians, are committed to a philosophy of selfishism. They would have us never be asked by the group to share our winnings involuntarily, because such a thing would be equivalent of making us actually work for someone else, which is slavery, unless, he hastens to add, the market is the thing forcing you to work for someone else, in which case it is a consenting capitalist act between hopefully adults, a capitalist act which is the model that all other systems of acts aspire to achieving, and will indeed naturally achieve, unless you violate people’s rights in some sort of crazy socialist redistribution, otherwise known as tax bracketing. Selfishness is the highest good and motivating reason for libertarian behavior. And when I say “selfishness” I do not mean evil, but a blindness to the reality that people are but specks on a speck, minuscule parts of a larger earth-bound species of billions, which species will hopefully survive for a long time, but perhaps not if many go on acting like their tiny tiny lives, lasting less than one century, are philosophically more important than an entire History, and entire World. I myself would like to be rich, as would almost anyone. But I’d rather the world be rich, and I be merely decently well-off. Though as a creative agent, a writer and composer, I seem to require tools that are more valuable than those things less creative people need, such as laptops, guitars, pro sound gear, a university education, etc.



Modernity as Knowledge Expanded to its Current Limit


We know more than Marx. We can use words with greater contextual significance. We have seen more of reality. That doesn’t necessarily help, as in the case of Nozick’s tunnel vision.

Libertarians would have themselves and their friends get rich. Their guts and smarts will accomplish this. And don’t you dare, dare, take anything away from them once they have got it. Finders keepers, loosers weepers. According to Nozick, to tax these winners would be to enslave them. To force them to help other people would be to violate their right to do whatever they want. It would be immoral to make them cooperate in the war on error, the struggle of humanity to achieve sustainability, (the ultimate goal, if one believes that thousands of years more of human history wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and may even prove that we here at the dawn of the electronic age know almost nothing about what life can possibly become in a future that goes on for extremely long.) Or, we could simply continue business as usual, kill the biosphere, and leave a ruined and miserable earth to the future humans, who after all will know more than we do, and will even more deeply realize the crime we have committed.

It’s all about the “value” each of us has. We are not average units of labor, a la Marx. We are exceptional wonders of nature’s infinite creation. As such we are all different, and deserve different things according to our lives. Some of us—capitalists—think we deserve to have our value increase without limit. Some of us are fixated on the cash-aspect of value, and want to profit from the world’s doings. The world’s doings mostly involving pain and death at the moment, it is strange to want to profit off of such a situation, but who says strangeness and eccentricity aren’t the ultimate modalities for businesspeople and academics alike?

How can value increase itself? A product once made has a fixed value, unless it is some kind of evolving machine that complexifies itself over time, perhaps like a computer database. Even so, the increase in the database’s value is due to the input of labor by its data manipulating human servers.

A product can be taken to a different market, and sold for more value than it would get in its home market, and this arbitrage indeed produces profit for the business, and indeed the value of the world may increase because a useful item has been moved to a place where it is most useful.

More commonly though is when not a product is taken to a different market, which is occurring less as the world’s product markets merge into one global market, but when a producer goes to a different labor market to buy cheaper labor. (Labor markets will always remain varied, because labor is for the most part stuck where it lives, and each place is different, with a different history, leading to a differential distribution of workers’ rights, and business responsibilities. In some places, workers have the right to nothing except their lives if they are lucky, and business is responsible only for bribing the provincial authorities if it is unlucky, getting huge loans and tax breaks from them if it is lucky.) In the all important realm of competition, this wage arbitrage gives business an edge over businesses who remain in the old labor market.

But we still haven’t explained what happens inside one market alone. How is value increased? The answer is simple. Life increases the value of the world. Life is generative, productive, creative, and quite simply alive, and life is a kind of force, powered by history, nature, evolution, and the sun, which is capable of making things, making better things, and making them more efficiently.

Life is what the capitalist uses to build his castle. And life is willing to be used, apparently. To use someone is to have a certain relationship towards him. You could also abuse him, or cooperate with him, or follow him, or control him, or love him, or hate him. When people are free to develop their own relationships without Nozick-wise evil government interference, unfortunately the outcome is that some people are desperate enough to become slaves of the other people who are callous enough to maximize profits in the face of maximal pain.

Is it as simple as the business paying the worker what his labor power is worth, which is the worker’s lifestyle cost, and extracting from the deal not what the labor power is worth, but what it can accomplish productively, which is a larger quantity, value-wise, if the business has managed its resources properly and chance has been kind?

This is apparently what happens, and I think it makes sense even if you define value as something other than measuring the labor that went into a commodity. Any way you measure value, cash will come into play, and it is an inescapable fact that the capitalist ends up with extra cash in the end. What is this due to? Consider the total action of an enterprise. Thousands of workers potentially, billions in capital. All that going on, and the stockholder sits there and counts his winnings. It’s not difficult to determine that all the enterprise’s work, done by workers, probably had more effect on the profit number than the effect of the stockholder’s armchair action had.

What else could possibly happen when deals are defined as one value being exchanged for a product or service? Competition and not cooperation is the prime modality of a market where everyone is trying to become better off by establishing “profitable” relationships with other people, (beneficial relationships?),  who cannot all unfortunately be the winners. Exchange, or capitalistic motion, inevitably results in people giving up commodities, such as themselves, for other things they need more, but may want less. We would rather have our lives than our Lexus’s. But we’re forced to trade our lives, if we want to continue living in our neighborhoods, and even if we get Lexus’s in return, some of us may still miss our lives just the same. Because of the fact of money that anyone accepts, a product is more valuable to the purchaser than it is to the seller, else the seller will not part with it and the purchase will never happen. Why do people work for bosses? Because a service such as labor is more “valuable” to a labor-consumer than it is to a labor-producer, and the deal will go down.

The worker has to work. It is the fate of humans in the modern world to not live off of fruit falling from trees, but instead to pick fruit off of other people’s trees for a (usually starvation) wage, or to own orchards, (if one is part of the exceedingly small and ever-smaller group of millionaires.) But what else is the worker going to do with his life? He has life, so the capitalistic self-apology goes, so he might as well use it productively. On his own he is usually not capable of producing much except for good times and good memories, which don’t as they say put food on the table, unless you can find someone willing to pay you for being a good-humored companion. The labor-consumer on the other hand has ideas, has a vision, and cannot accomplish it on his own. On his own he is not capable of doing much but playing golf, drinking micro-brew beers, buying lots of DVD’s, and drawing little diagrams of his wished-for business ventures’ parameters. But give him labor to consume, and he will build the world.

When consumed, or used, or actualized, labor is a life force with fixed cost inputs, worker lifestyle costs, and limitless value output, in the form of a viable value-embodying product. Let the actress use her eyes, let her seduce the audience with her motion and voice, and you could quite possibly have on your hands an object, (film), worth hundreds of times more than what it cost to produce.

Why doesn’t everyone go into business if that is the case? People like Nozick think it takes too much guts and smarts for most people to get an enterprise going in the face of the seething humanity and its blood-curdling but intrinsically beautiful competitive reality.

The other answer is old money. Old money is hard to come buy. It is basically usually money that was given to you by extra-friendly people such as parents. Where did they get it? If you trace it back far enough, you’ll most likely find some ugly scenes.

This is the money, though, that is used to build the world and generate new money. Most people are in possession of almost no money at all, enough perhaps to keep them going for a month, and have no way of participating in the great generative work of history. Except–by selling their life-time to those who do have the money.

It is strange, but to start an enterprise, produce a product, make a killing, takes no pre-existing structure at all. You need not have a factory, workers, managers, land. You need only have simple cash.

Simple cash is thus the foundational form of value. In this world, it is the only thing you need to produce more value. You do not even need Nozickian “entrepreneurial talent” to know what you should do with your cash. Just give it to a money manager, and he will give you back more! How do you know which money manager to choose? The best ones will have the most money, and be able to buy the slickest advertisements, and as anyone knows, average consumers can by definition tell which ad is the most compelling.

Labor is a sort of version of value. It can be obtained with simple cash value, and used to produce life-filled bounty. Marx calls it the bounty “surplus value.” The worker is a creator of surplus.  He is the source of the extra, the push, the fantasy winnings in the social product.

Nozick thinks this is a good situation. It is so good and natural that if you equalized the world and broke the old money up and gave everyone a fair share, things would soon degenerate, or evolve, back into the social topography of most people in the ocean trenches with nothing and almost nobody on top of Everest with the space age palaces. But they’re big palaces, so I guess their inhabitants’ extra happiness cancels out the misery of the trench dwellers. Why else apologize and rationalize? If things were really bad, wouldn’t one instead do something like ponder the alternatives and complain loudly?

So, to reiterate–Marx likens one to a slave if one’s boss profits from one’s necessary life functioning. Nozick, on the other hand, thinks that someone is going to profit however things are arranged, so it may as well be a cunning and courageous “entrepreneur.” Nozick thinks we become slaves when the government takes value from us, and redistributes it to the losers in the game of life, which is not a game.  Though there are prizes, winners, losers, judges, etc. (Even though in wonderful capitalism, it is usually not lazy peasants who get the welfare, but vast global corporations.)

 But I have to give my own view, which is that Nozick the libertarian is like a boy in a bubble, thinking he is independent, wanting to keep all his toys to himself, and ignorant and oblivious to the vast social apparatus outside keeping him alive. I think in the end it is, as you (Thompson) put it, a matter of how you look at things. Marx looks at the market and sees a reproductive lifeform, with nature creating us all on one level, as humans equal and unique at once, and capitalism elevating some to the level of gods, and dragging many down to the level of animals. Nozick, (apparently being closer to the god-level), sees a wondrous market, everything going well, for the most part, at least in “our society,” even though our society is directly based on the slave labor going in on other societies. That is an inconvenient fact, as is the fact that the workers Nozick would hire to perform his miracles need to be educated with the taxes he would have us refuse to pay, and the trucks to carry his fruit need to travel on roads that voluntary philanthropic institutions are strangely unwilling to maintain, and the Harvard lifestyle he would live is made possible by a military industrial complex which is supported by the largest acts of corporate welfare in the history of the world. Oh–to be fact-defective... Theory, after all, is bliss...


[1]  Half of the world’s individuals live, if you want to call it “life,” on two dollars a day or less.

[2] In a world that contains nukes, a digital nervous system will be forever necessary, and it is ahistorical to talk as if this is a mere technological side effect and variable, and not a fundamental philosophical category with which civilized humanity will never escape from, and may never want to escape from, unless wild science fiction scenarios with total biocontral and genetic engineering of an organic superstructure were to take place, and we could shed the machines like skin that was only necessary while we were in an immature stage of growth.

[3] Poor people and victims have better ideas about what common social quality means, while rich and healthy people are elevated into the realm of sensual and cognitive abstractions, and may be quite far removed from the concerns of everyday biological and economic struggle. It is not very hard to judge, unless one is committed to a freedom of capital that enslaves some of the group,  scenarios in which on the one hand there are millionaires and hunger victims, and on the other hand there are no millionaire-types while there are also no hunger victims.

[4]  Though labor is probably most “meaningful” to the worker heself. Capitalism organizes the world according to value, while the social aspect of being human is wrapped up not in value, but in meaning. It is not a complex choice, but one we make as a society. I think we are making it wrongly.

[5]  If there is a god, certainly he or she would want us to do this. What else is life for but to profit from it? We’re here on earth, so we may as well put the locals to work and build some lasting monuments to our greatness, and thus by implication to god’s greatness.

[6]  This little story about how rich people go about investing is meant merely to illustrate the wonder of capitalism–if you simply have capital, even the act of investing it to get more doesn’t take “labor” so much as an adventurous, frolicsome foray into the neat and nifty world of high finance. Sure there is Nozickian “risk”–you may lose your shirt, and return to the miserable, miserable existence of the common laborer, or “peasant” as you used to know him in your happier days. But is this so bad? It is educational, to say the least–even more educational than a fact -and process-defective theory, I bet.