Think Out Loud

An invitation to debate ecology, art, human development and enlightenment

Isaiah Berlin’s Karl Marx and a Marxist-Materialist Argument for Regulation of Industry

One fundamental point of tension in the realm of Political Science is that between rationalism and idealism.  The rationalist argument asserts that individuals, classes, and societies at large make decisions based on the appraisal of their material needs and the scarce resources available.  Increasingly popular in contemporary studies, the idealist argument asserts that decision-making happens at the intersection of rational concerns and less cut-and-dry influences, like cultural biases, relationship dynamics, and moral norms.  Although most people associate Marx with class-based moralizing and defiant cries for social justice, Berlin states categorically that the historical Marx was utterly unsympathetic to idealism.

Thus, in the spirit of Marx’s famous “historical materialism”, we must understand that he believed revolution was inevitable: not because of the crescendo of class consciousness amidst burgeoning ideas of democracy, justice, and cooperation, but rather because the proletariat class would have to act in order to fulfill their basic, material needs.

What social policy questions might this provoke?  Assuming, as Marx did, that government only represented the ruling classes and their material interest to remain in power, we can assume that the best tactic to avoid revolution is for governments to ensure the material sustenance of the population.  The Chinese government is a striking example of this mentality: domestic issues reign supreme as the ruling Chinese Communist Policy puts forth measures and rhetoric emphasizing “social harmony” and “stability”.  Let’s assume for now that all governments exist for the self-perpetuation of the existing ruling structure.  Using our rationalist perspective and considering aspects of the contemporary state of the global economy, what social programs must governments provide?  Specifically, what are the most effective programs at fulfilling the people’s material needs, and do these programs intervene (if so, to what extent) in the ideal functioning of free market capitalism?

Let’s look again to China.  The tens of thousands of yearly protests that occur there are most commonly the result of land disputes, unemployment issues, and environmental concerns.  Regarding the land, non-democratic decisions to develop areas for the sake of increased economic growth often push hundreds, if not thousands and occasionally millions, off their agricultural tracks and ancestral homes.  Adding insult to injury, compensation for this forced migration tends to fall way below peasant expectations.  Thus, from a materialist’s narrow focus, we can see that these affected parties must face the stressful challenge of developing a new livelihood in regions with different market pressures and resource availability.  Similarly, factory shut downs and mass lay-offs incur the same social stress, and environmental incidents may threaten even more basic means of acquiring subsistence: human health.

To prevent social instability and the unsettling of the existing power structure, our China model suggests that social policies must at least ensure widespread gainful employment and protect against massive incursions to human health through industrial waste.  As one of the government’s chief functions is to maintain Rule of Law, and a fundamental law in every modern society is the protection of private property, the government must become involved in social uprisings directed toward private industry as well as local government and (in China) state-owned enterprises. Thus, it only makes sense that the government may need to intervene in the market system to prevent the social unrest that threatens power.

One possible counterargument to this assertion is that businesses may summon the wherewithal and, in our modern condition, even rationally justify more ethical conduct in business (i.e. the production and disposing of industrial waste).  Although historical and many current examples support the contrary, the wealth of social media and potential for widespread and even global mobilization for and against certain companies could, if adequately utilized, form a new vehicle for corporate accountability.  I think we might still be far off from realizing this level of consumer-based monitoring, though.

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