Carl Packman on Twitter has described my vision of socialism as “entrepreneurial Marxism.” I like that. Entrepreneurial Marxism is necessary, roughly compatible with Marx, and feasible.
Let’s start with the necessary. Here, we Marxists have a paradox. On the one hand, Marx thought that socialism required material abundance: it was the solution to Keynes’ problem (pdf) of what to do with our leisure time. As G.A.Cohen put it:
[Marx] thought that anything short of an abundance so complete that it removes all major conflicts of interests would guarantee continued social strife, "a struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business". It was because he was so uncompromisingly pessimistic about the social consequences of anything less than limitless abundance that Marx needed to be so optimistic about the possibility of that abundance (Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality, p10-11)
He thought capitalism would deliver such abundance: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed.”
This might, however, be too optimistic. Over the last ten years, productivity has almost stagnated – something we’ve not seen (except briefly in the 1880s) since the start of the industrial revolution. This suggests we’ll need a form of post-capitalism which delivers economic growth. Now, I’ll concede that a centrally planned economy might be good at generating growth in the sense of more of the same; it can deliver more pig-iron. But this isn’t the sort of growth we need now. As Gilles Saint-Paul points out (pdf), growth must come from an increased variety of products. Centrally planned economies are lousy at this. Decentralized entrepreneurship is better.
In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.)
It’s for this reason, largely, that he condemned capitalism. Capitalism, he thought, forced us to do meaningless drudge work under the domination of others, and thus alienated us from both our nature and each other. It’s for this reason that Jon Elster has written: “Self-realization through creative work is the essence of Marx’s communism.” (Making Sense of Marx, p521.)
It’s likely that, for some at least, this self-realization will take the form of working under one’s own steam. In fact, Marx saw this:
A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, quoted by Erich Fromm)
Marxists have traditionally interpreted this as to mean that collective self-mastery is necessary, through democratic control of the means of production. That’s true enough. For some people, though, it might mean individual own-mastery – working for oneself.
But wouldn’t this entail the very exploitation of others that Marx hated?
Maybe not so much. Even under capitalism, the profits (and hence exploitation) from innovative activity are small. And the prospects for exploitation under post-capitalism might be less, to the extent that intellectual property laws would be less friendly to incumbents and because fulfilling work elsewhere would make it hard for entrepreneurs to attract labour without offering something decent.
But wouldn’t this kill off innovation and entrepreneurship? Not necessarily, and not simply because I suspect a lot of such activity arises from intrinsic motives such as the urge to create things and solve problems. It’s also because there’ll be offsetting stimuli to entrepreneurship. One is that higher aggregate demand would close the innovations gap. Another is that post-capitalism would ensure a high supply of finance, for example via a state investment bank. And a third is that lower rewards to rent-seeking would force some bosses out of cushy monopolies and bureaucracies and into entrepreneurship.
Of course, I appreciate that all this will be sneered at from both sides – from Marxists claiming (with some justification) that I’m being unfaithful to Marx, and from some rightists who can’t get their tiny minds around the possibility that there are economic models other than capitalism and central planning. But I don’t give a shit.