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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rousseau and Marx: Against Excessive Economic Inequality

Both Marx and Rousseau are “anti-history” in the sense that socioeconomic and sociopolitical large, complex organization, well beyond the small groups of prehistoric homo sapiens people living a sustenance existence, has alienated workers from themselves (Marx) and introduced artificial, or “moral,” inequalities and inauthentic fronts (Rousseau). In other words, the human condition in the modern world is not a story of progress; paradoxically, things have gotten worse in spite, and indeed in part due to the extent of technological progress. In other words, under the subterfuge (i.e., camouflage) of “progress,” the species has actually acquiesced to increasing decadence and deterioration as human organization has become larger and more complex.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx: Is there a Common Denominator?  
Image Source: anitagaribaldi.com.br

Even so, Rousseau was himself a product of the Enlightenment—an expansion of the free use of reason (i.e., beyond tradition) that he claims widens inequalities. As for Marx, his assertion that man is by nature a part of nature flies in the face of the violations of human nature (e.g., ignoring greed) that doomed the oppressive and yet idealistic Communist states in the twentieth century—the bloodiest and perhaps greediest century of them all. In fact, the Communist “experiments” were to human nature as the Christian sin of usury was to the time value of money.

A person could reasonably ask why ideologies, whether economic, political, or religious, produce such mammoth blind-spots. Is it in the nature of ideology as it interacts with the homo sapien mind to produce denial as a defense mechanism overprotective of a cherished arrangement of interrelated beliefs and assumptions that a  person values? Before the cognitive revolution, which occurred between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, homo sapiens did not have fictive minds and languages; nobody could produce and share a priori  (i.e., ideas that are not from experience, hence not from an empirical source in the world) abstractions like “justice” and “democracy,” as well as fictional stories including myths and folktales, any of which can go into an ideology. The first evidence of religion is dated at around 50,000 years ago (a small statue having a lion’s head and the body of a homo sapiens). Interestingly, sapien means knowledge or wisdom in Latin; members of our species have not been shy in naming our own species.

Paradoxically, the purported ideological sources of the ruddy French Revolution and the seemingly inexorable U.S.S.R., respectively, privilege a human condition (and nature) before ideology, in the state of (prehistoric) nature. This does not mean that the ideal is idealistic in the fictive sense as exemplified by the Golden Age depicted by Hesiod and Ovid, and the “what people would agree to but admittedly never did” social contract  envisioned by Kant. Rather, Aristotle’s tweaking of the idealistic depictions of a Golden Age that never existed into a version reflecting the rural farm life of antiquity, and Hobbes’ intentionally realistic state of nature as nasty, brutish and short come closer how both Rousseau and Marx approach the state of nature as an ideal from which mankind has essentially “screwed up.” 

Both Rousseau and Marx could point to the fictive mind and use of language that resulted from the cognitive revolution in prehistoric times as decisive in the unfolding of the ensuing increased inequalities and self-alienation. The ability to talk about things that do not really exist, such as abstract ideas sourced only in imaginations, and to create fictional stories by imagining a fictive world are requisite to not only  adapting to different natural environments, but also cooperating flexibly with many strangers in artificial or man-made environments. To go beyond the social confines of what gossip can maintain among people who know each other (150 people at most) and create and live in social, economic and political systems that are larger as well as complex and thus can artificially order or regulate even very large numbers of people, the homo sapiens mind had to leap in evolutionary terms to being capable of fictive thought and words. Perhaps a genetic mutation connecting the two halves of the homo sapiens brain took hold in double-click time, evolutionarily speaking, and thus today we have abstractions invisible to the naked eye, such as Microsoft, and even CorporationDemocracy and Nation, Harvard and University, Justice and The Supreme Court enabling very large numbers of people to flexibly cooperate and thus live together rather than in small bands.

 It follows that the very complex, abstract ideas that Marx and Rousseau utilize in the process of ratiocination (try that word, which basically means reasoning, out at a dance party and you will be like honey to the most attractive bees!) is itself a crucial, even perhaps decisive factor in the problems that the philosophers identify and attempt to explain. For example, Rousseau argues that the artificial sources of inequality are found only once people have formed a society and thus is a people rather than merely members of small groups sustained by much fewer interpersonal interactions (and thus less wants, pride and jealousy). A people is itself an abstraction possible only in a fictive mind. Such a mind is also necessary for the abstract ideas and associated legends like CompanyGeneral Motors, and The Goldman Sachs Way to exist in people's minds so large numbers of workers can be coordinated in an exploiting way, according to Marx, and alienated from themselves in both the process and product of their work. Simply for a large company to be possible, more than gossip is needed to maintain the coordination that is necessary. As the homo sapiens humans went from prehistoric, subsistence-level hunter-gatherers in small bands to either accumulating great wealth or working in factories and offices as inequalities increased in the process, history went terribly wrong, according to Rousseau and Marx, so both go back to a simpler time, an actual rather than imagined existence before history, from which to make transparent certain problems in their own day, in the unfolding of history as if it were fated to be so and could be no other Way.

Rousseau would doubtless agree with Marx’s warning, “Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain. Such a primordial condition explains nothing; it merely pushes the question away into a grey nebulous distance.”[1] In other words, one should not go back to a fictitious primordial condition.  Arguing in favor of the humans who lived in the state of nature (i.e., before living in societies), Rousseau clearly does not mean fiction in arguing that it is “ridiculous to represent savages constantly murdering each other to glut their brutality, as this opinion is diametrically opposite to experience.”[2] That experience, or empirical evidence, that Rousseau points to is that of “the Caribbeans [sic], the people in the world who have as yet deviated least from the state of nature.”[3] In looking at a primitive people of his own day, Rousseau was assuming that they would be sufficiently similar to the human being who actually lived before humans began living in societies. Such an assumption has been challenged by anthropologists studying the history of religion; Rousseau is not in danger, however, of being accused of portraying a dream world that never existed.

Furthermore, even though Rousseau highlights living in society as distinct from the state of nature and Marx focuses on economic production as distinct from satisfying only one’s own sustenance needs, both philosophers privilege the human primordial condition over so-called “progress” in order to make the point that things have gotten worse. Rousseau argues that prehistoric human beings were more compassionate and less contentious and, not by coincidence, less rational, in the state of nature before living in society. It is “society alone, which has added even to love itself as well as to all the other passions, that impetuous ardour, which so often renders it fatal to mankind.”[4] The demands that come with the increased interpersonal contact have brought out the worst in human nature—even transforming it into something too smart and ironically contentious.

Similarly, in arguing that the physical and spiritual life of humans is linked to nature, man being by nature a part of nature, Marx too privileges the species as it was long ago before work and its output became separated from the worker. “In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being.”[5] . . . (H)e duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created.”[6] His labor is a “free, conscious activity,” the object of his own will and consciousness.[7] 

Even though Marx differs here from Rousseau in positing that humans were more intelligent before being alienated from one’s own work and the product thereof made the worker stupid, Marx too depicts a historical downward trajectory. “The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”[8] The increased value of material things and the increasing commoditization have come about historically, in the Industrial Revolution. Laboring on another’s product alienates the worker from both it and the production process wherein one labors. Alienated from nature and the freedom in one’s own life activity, the worker “does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.”[9] Additionally, the amount of economic inequality increases, and in this claim Rousseau would also agree, although coming to it from a primarily sociological rather than (though not excluding) economic standpoint. 

In summary, both Marx and Rousseau base their philosophical and ideological ideals on the pre-historic human condition, whether in predominately social or economic terms (there being no religion given the non-fictive minds and languages). That is, the ideals hinge on a condition that really (i.e., empirically) existed, long before the stories that the two philosophers would formulate and publicly tell—stories that ironically would be (mis)appropriated in ways that pushed humanity even further from the simple life that far distant ancestors had enjoyed in relative equality (and empathy), as well as non-alienation from themselves even when hunting and gathering. In their work, those prehistoric ancestors had a deeper awareness of being of a particular species, and they were not so prideful and selfish as to intentionally and unintentionally exacerbate the existing natural inequalities in talent, family, and motivation.


[1] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour,” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (Marxists.org). Accessed August 18, 2013.
[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1910).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Marx, “Estranged Labour.”
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.