I’ve always been curious about the philosophy of Frederick Engels –solo, without the dominating influence of Karl Marx. So I finally got around to reading his monograph, Outlines Of A Critique Of Political Economy.
Engels is very concerned about what we might term Marketplace Morality– or lack thereof. He disapproves of the goods, the prices, the practices, and the men that a Capitalist system churns out. He also decries the boom-and-bust cycles seemingly inherent in Capitalism, as well as the disproportionate– even immoral– outlays of both labor and reward that the marketplace decrees.
Engels asks a very good question in Outlines Of A Critique Of Political Economy, one that we should never stop asking… If, as modern industry shows, each person is capable of producing more than he, himself, needs– how then is there want? The answer appears obvious– there’s somewhere a slip twinxt cup and lip.
To use my own metaphor… The laborer works a long day filling the tank, but every morning he awakes to find only enough fuel remaining to last until the end of the day, at which point, after a day’s hard labor, he refills it again, only to find himself in the same situation the next morning. The cycle repeats for a lifetime. One would not have to possess a particularly suspicious bend of mind to consider the possibility that someone is SIPHONING away the fuel he has worked so hard to acquire.
Juiced by his sympathetic outrage, Engels proceeds to attack such a thievish system, wherein swindling has been “replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud.”
The problems with Capitalism are fundamental to its nature, perforating its very core like some sort of toxic heartworm. Perhaps there is nothing more foundational to Capitalism than the concept of private property. But this is precisely where the evils start. The circumstance of property owned leads directly to the situation of property accrued. And property accrued leads directly to property monopolized. The two conditions– that of private property and that of monopoly– are to Engels inextricably bound. One cannot exist without the other. As long as there is exists the nearly absolute right to private property, there will exist a tendency– in every line of business– toward monopoly.
“Every competitor cannot but desire to have the monopoly,” writes Engels, “be he worker, capitalist, or landowner.” For whoever has a monopoly on his product– including his own labor– can demand a high price for it. “It is in the interest of each to possess everything, but in the interest of the whole that each possess an equal amount.”
Monopoly –or rather, the potential for something to be monopolized– is, says Engels, what is ultimately behind the very creation of “value” in a Capitalist marketplace. “What cannot be monopolized has no value.” That is why air is, in multiple senses, is priceless. “If land could be had as easily as air,” writes Engels, “no one would pay rent.”
Some contend that monopoly is an aberration in the marketplace, a sign that the particular market is not working properly, and that monopoly, on principle, should be fought against at every turn. However, counters Engels, some markets, such as money-printing, seem to require monopoly. Without monopoly, we can be left more vulnerable to fraud, and the number of faulty or unsafe products may increase. This would, of course, strike most die-hard capitalists as preposterous, but what Engels is remarking on is the fact that in a wide-open market– in which anyone can produce and bring to market any good– the only way to avoid getting a bad product is for “everyone has to be an expert in every article, which is impossible.” At least with a monopoly, a buyer knows he is getting the real deal, not some counterfeit.
Others may counter that with monopolies, there is no way to know what the true price of something is. True price? If by “true price” they mean “real value,” then they are delusional. The notion that a “free” market determines the true “value” of goods is a complete hoax, says Engels.
Is “value” of a good determined by the cost of its production? Then, objects Engels, what if “someone were to make something utterly useless with tremendous exertion and at enormous expense”… would this thing that nobody wants be supposed to have a high value in the marketplace? Regardless, says Engels, the example eats its own tail because we’re already assuming an evaluation of production costs, thus we merely wind up with the same conundrum earlier in the process.
Perhaps, says Engels, value depends upon utility, that is demand. But we all know that demand often moves according to whims and fashions. This would make value a subjective term which, by definition, we would not be luckty to come to agreement upon.
We should accept that the valuations arrived at in the capitalist’s marketplace are no more valid than several other alternative methods might prove to be. Furthermore, the way the capitalist market works is basically “unconscious”– that is, no rational mind is contemplating all the different goods and occupations and needs of the people and arriving at conscious valuations or distribution of things. This leads to an economic system which irregularly sloshes from boom to bust, “a constant alternation of over-stimulation and collapse,”– “a state of perpetual fluctuation perpetually unresolved.” To add my own metaphor to the descriptions of Engels, the population of goods in the marketplace environment is no better — or no more consciously– managed than the population of animals in a forest, where the poor, non-understanding creatures exist uncomfortably between good times of procreational booms and the bad times of population control via starvation.
Engels believes that this beastlike management-style must one day evolve into a conscious ordering of mankind’s economic affairs.
Another problem with the concept of private property at the heart of capitalism is that it tends to collect thick in some areas and thin in others– like snowdrifts, to use the Emersonian metaphor. And wealth, once it begins accruing in one place, tends to build upon itself at an ever-quickening pace, due to numerous considerations such as: increased risk-diversification, decreased costs due to bulk purchases, increasing market influence, and an increased financial buffering to help withstand marketplace shocks.
Because of this tendency for wealth to accrue to wealth, Engels writes that “large capital and large landed property swallow small capital and small landed property.” As the large interests continue to absorb the interests below them, the middle section of businesses is eventually decimated. What is left two-tiered economy composed of only two classes… the immense and the miniscule, the rich and the poor.
The only way to prevent or slow this process, says Engels, is if there were to occur “a fusion of opposed interests” and a “transcendence of private property.”
Perhaps the only characteristic running as deeply and fundamentally through capitalism as private property is that of competition. Just as there is no capitalism without private property, neither could there exist capitalism without competition. But Engels despises this essential characteristic of capitalism, for he feels it creates and perpetuates an “adversarial” mindset amongst people that need not be there.
There exists in the capitalist’s marketplaces a “loathsome selfishness,” and the wealth such a system produces is “enrichment born of merchants’ mutual envy and greed.” How can nobility exist and expand among the people if their day-to-day lives are permeated by these constant– albeit usually suppressed– feelings of antagonism, envy, and fear of their neighbors?
And more than livelihoods and provisions are on the line. Engels accuses capitalism of egregious crimes against humanity. Between resource wars, unsafe working conditions, and the unhealthy living conditions of the poor, capitalism “has thus slaughtered, and daily continues to slaughter, millions of men.”
“All this we have seen, and all this drives us to the abolition of this degradation of mankind through the abolition of private property, competition, and the opposing interests.”