Rejoice! Tim Worstall has become a Marxist. He points to an example of how technology shapes people's choices of whether to cooperate or not as corroboration of Marx's claim that "The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life." He then says:
If the old philandering sponger off Engels was correct on this then should we listen to the modern leftists who insist that we should all be doing much more cooperating socially and a lot less competing...? No, absolutely not: for what is being stated is that that level of cooperation or competition is emergent from the technologies in use... Even if the old boy was correct on this point the wailings of his successors are still wrong.
Here, though, Tim wrongly conflates the Marxist and non-Marxist lefts. Sure, the non-Marxist left wants more cooperation. But we Marxists see that, within the confines of capitalism, this is happy-clappy idealizing - a bit like Hopi Sen's "yes, we'd like a free pony." Marxists know that socialism requires particular material conditions, and that if these are lacking, revolution will be premature. As Marx said:
No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed.
There are two particular conditions here:
1. People must be sufficiently wealthy that they have pro-social motives. Marx saw what Ben Friedman has corroborated - that the potential for cooperation grows with income; desperate men rarely think of others. Here's Jerry Cohen:
[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 & Equality p10-11)
2. Technologies must exist which permit cooperative modes of production, and which capitalism cannot develop.
Here, though, it is quite possible to argue that we are moving in this direction, in (at least) two ways:
- The decline of mass production and rise of more human capital-intensive businesses means that traditional capitalism with external shareholders and top-down hierarchies is no longer technically efficient. A classic paper (pdf) by Luigi Zingales discusses this in non-Marxian terms.
- The internet is facilitating cooperation at the expense of traditional capitalism. We see this most clearly in the way the media and music industries are suffering, but we could add P2P lending too.
Sure, these are small beer now. But they might grow. The socialist revolution might take as long as the industrial revolution.
But that's not really my point. My point is rather that there is a sharp difference between Marxism and the soft left. One of these points of difference is that Marxists are sceptical about the possibilities for non-market forms of cooperation within capitalism. In this sense, Tim's more of a Marxist than he'd like to admit.