June 29, 2013


Nietzsche's Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek (Corey Robin, May 7, 2013, The Nation)

Nietzsche begins ["The Greek State"] by announcing that the modern era is dedicated to the "dignity of work." Committed to "equal rights for all," democracy elevates the worker and the slave. Their demands for justice threaten to "swamp all other ideas," to tear "down the walls of culture." Modernity has made a monster in the working class: a created creator (shades of Marx and Mary Shelley), it has the temerity to see itself and its labor as a work of art. Even worse, it seeks to be recognized and publicly acknowledged as such. 

The Greeks, by contrast, saw work as a "disgrace," because the existence it serves--the finite life that each of us lives--"has no inherent value." Existence can be redeemed only by art, but art too is premised on work. It is made, and its maker depends on the labor of others; they take care of him and his household, freeing him from the burdens of everyday life. Inevitably, his art bears the taint of their necessity. No matter how beautiful, art cannot escape the pall of its creation. It arouses shame, for in shame "there lurks the unconscious recognition that these conditions" of work "are required for the actual goal" of art to be achieved. For that reason, the Greeks properly kept labor and the laborer hidden from view. 

Throughout his writing life, Nietzsche was plagued by the vision of workers massing on the public stage--whether in trade unions, socialist parties or communist leagues. Almost immediately upon his arrival in Basel, the First International descended on the city to hold its fourth congress. Nietzsche was petrified. "There is nothing more terrible," he wrote in The Birth of Tragedy, "than a class of barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations." Several years after the International had left Basel, Nietzsche convinced himself that it was slouching toward Bayreuth in order to ruin Wagner's festival there. And just weeks before he went mad in 1888 and disappeared forever into his own head, he wrote, "The cause of every stupidity today...lies in the existence of a labour question at all. About certain things one does not ask questions."

One can hear in the opening passages of "The Greek State" the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, "Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves." What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently--not just in this essay but in later works as well--the claim that "slavery belongs to the essence of a culture"? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world. Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before--and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche's birth in 1844--while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century's vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects? 

If slavery was one condition of great art, Nietzsche continued in "The Greek State," war and high politics were another. "Political men par excellence," the Greeks channeled their agonistic urges into bloody conflicts between cities and less bloody conflicts within them: healthy states were built on the repression and release of these impulses. The arena for conflict created by that regimen gave "society time to germinate and turn green everywhere" and allowed "blossoms of genius" periodically to "sprout forth." Those blossoms were not only artistic but also political. Warfare sorted society into lower and higher ranks, and from that hierarchy rose "the military genius," whose artistry was the state itself. The real dignity of man, Nietzsche insisted, lay not in his lowly self but in the artistic and political genius his life was meant to serve and on whose behalf it was to be expended. 

Instead of the Greek state, however, Europe had the bourgeois state; instead of aspiring to a work of art, states let markets do their work. Politics, Nietzsche complained, had become "an instrument of the stock exchange" rather than the terrain of heroism and glory. With the "specifically political impulses" of Europe so weakened--even his beloved Franco-Prussian War had not revived the spirit in the way that he had hoped--Nietzsche could only "detect dangerous signs of atrophy in the political sphere, equally worrying for art and society." The age of aristocratic culture and high politics was at an end. All that remained was the detritus of the lower orders: the disgrace of the laborer, the paper chase of the bourgeoisie, the barreling threat of socialism. "The Paris commune," Nietzsche would later write in his notebooks, "was perhaps no more than minor indigestion compared to what is coming."

Nietzsche had little, concretely, to offer as a counter-volley to democracy, whether bourgeois or socialist. Despite his appreciation of the political impulse and his studious attention to political events in Germany--from the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of the early 1860s to the imperial push of the late 1880s--he remained leery of programs, movements and platforms. The best he could muster was a vague principle: that society is "the continuing, painful birth of those exalted men of culture in whose service everything else has to consume itself," and the state a "means of setting [that] process of society in motion and guaranteeing its unobstructed continuation." It was left to later generations to figure out what that could mean in practice--and where it might lead. Down one path might lay fascism; down another, the free market.

* * *

Around the time--almost to the year--that Nietzsche was launching his revolution of metaphysics and morals, a trio of economists, working separately across three countries, were starting their own. It began with the publication in 1871 of Carl Menger's Principles of Economics and William Stanley Jevons's The Theory of Political Economy. Along with Léon Walras's Elements of Pure Economics, which appeared three years later, these were the European faces--Austrian, English and French-Swiss--of what would come to be called the marginal revolution.

The marginalists focused less on supply and production than on the pulsing demand of consumption. The protagonist was not the landowner or the laborer, working his way through the farm, the factory or the firm; it was the universal man in the market whose signature act was to consume things. That's how market man increased his utility: by consuming something until he reached the point where consuming one more increment of it gave him so little additional utility that he was better off consuming something else. Of such microscopic calculations at the periphery of our estate was the economy made.

Though the early marginalists helped transform economics from a humanistic branch of the moral sciences into a technical discipline of the social sciences, they were still able to command an audience and an influence all too rare in contemporary economics. Jevons spent his career as an independent scholar and professor in Manchester and London worrying about his lack of readers, but William Gladstone invited him over to discuss his work, and John Stuart Mill praised it on the floor of Parliament. Keynes tells us that "for a period of half a century, practically all elementary students both of Logic and of Political Economy in Great Britain and also in India and the Dominions were brought up on Jevons." 

According to Hayek, the "immediate reception" of Menger's Principles "can hardly be called encouraging." Reviewers seemed not to understand it. Two students at the University of Vienna, however, did. One was Friedrich von Wieser, the other Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and both became legendary educators and theoreticians. Their students included Hayek; Ludwig von Mises, who attracted a small but devoted following in the United States and elsewhere; and Joseph Schumpeter, dark poet of capitalism's forces of "creative destruction." Through Böhm-Bawerk and Wieser, Menger's text became the groundwork of the Austrian school, whose reach, due in part to the efforts of Mises and Hayek, now extends across the globe.

The contributions of Jevons and Menger were multiple, yet each of them took aim at a central postulate of economics shared by everyone from Adam Smith to the socialist left: the notion that labor is a--if not the--source of value. Though adumbrated in the idiom of prices and exchange, the labor theory of value evinced an almost primitive faith in the metaphysical objectivity of the economic sphere--a faith made all the more surprising by the fact that the objectivity of the rest of the social world (politics, religion and morals) had been subject to increasing scrutiny since the Renaissance. Commodities may have come wrapped in the pretty paper of the market, but inside, many believed, were the brute facts of nature: raw materials from the earth and the physical labor that turned those materials into goods. Because those materials were made useful, hence valuable, only by labor, labor was the source of value. That, and the fact that labor could be measured in some way (usually time), lent the world of work a kind of ontological status--and political authority--that had been increasingly denied to the world of courts and kings, lands and lords, parishes and priests. As the rest of the world melted into air, labor was crystallizing as the one true solid.

By the time the marginalists came on the scene, the most politically threatening version of the labor theory of value was associated with the left. Though Marx would significantly revise and recast it in his mature writings, the simple notion that labor produces value remained associated with his name--and even more so with that of his competitor Ferdinand Lasalle, about whom Nietzsche read a fair amount--as well as with the larger socialist and trade union movements of which he was a part. That association helped set the stage for the marginalists' critique.

Admittedly, the relationship between marginalism and anti-socialism is complex. On the one hand, there is little evidence to suggest that the first-generation marginalists had heard of, much less read, Marx, at least not at this early stage of their careers. Much more than the threat of socialism underpinned the emergence of marginalist economics, which was as opposed to traditional defenses of the market as it was to the market's critics. By the twentieth century, moreover, many marginalists were on the left and used their ideas to help construct the institutions of social democracy; even Walras and Alfred Marshall, another early marginalist, were sympathetic to the claims of the left. And on some readings, the mature Marx shares more with the constructivist thrusts of marginalism than he does with the objectivism of the labor theory of value.

On the other hand, Jevons was a tireless polemicist against trade unions, which he identified as "the best example...of the evils and disasters" attending the democratic age. Jevons saw marginalism as a critical antidote to the labor movement and insisted that its teachings be widely transmitted to the working classes. "To avoid such a disaster," he argued, "we must diffuse knowledge" to the workers--empowered as they were by the vote and the strike--"and the kind of knowledge required is mainly that comprehended in the science of political economy." 

Menger interrupted his abstract reflections on value to make the point that while it may "appear deplorable to a lover of mankind that possession of capital or a piece of land often provides the owner a higher income...than the income received by a laborer," the "cause of this is not immoral." It was "simply that the satisfaction of more important human needs depends upon the services of the given amount of capital or piece of land than upon the services of the laborer." Any attempt to get around that truth, he warned, "would undoubtedly require a complete transformation of our social order." 

Finally, there is no doubt that the marginalists of the Austrian school, who would later prove so influential on the American right, saw their project as primarily anti-Marxist and anti-socialist. "The most momentous consequence of the theory," declared Wieser in 1891, "is, I take it, that it is false, with the socialists, to impute to labor alone the entire productive return." 

And the most momentous consequence of the universal adoption of capitalism is that labor makes a steadily diminishing contribution to that return.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at June 29, 2013 8:34 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus