Was Marx Right?

In The German Ideology, Marx claimed that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. The idea, roughly, is that the way the dominant class frame and view the world comes to be the ideology of the entire society. If the ruling class sees people as divided into castes, for instance, then most people – whether they belong to that class or not – will absorb this way of thinking and see the world in the same way. This explains why – according to Marxists – people may be complicit in their own subordination: it seems natural to them.

If that’s true, there are several possible explanations for it. One explanation involves cynical manipulation: perhaps the ruling class deceive the ruled into accepting their ideas. That doesn’t seem to have been Marx’s view. Rather, he thought that economic conditions determined the ruling ideas for both rulers and ruled. They seem natural to both, because they are expressions of the ‘mode of production’.

A new paper just published in Science may be seen as offering some support to Marx’s claim that the mode of production determines the ruling ideology. Many researchers believe that East Asians are (on average) more cooperative in their dispositions and holistic in their thinking than Westerners, who are more individualistic. The new paper provides evidence that the communal/individualistic distinction does not (merely) divide West from East: rather, it is to be found within China. People in areas north of the Yangtze  river tend to be more individualistic whereas those in the south tend to be communal in orientation. But the real interest in the study lies in the explanation offered for these differences.

Thomas Talhelm, the paper’s lead author, argues that these differences are the legacy of different kinds of farming. People in the north have traditionally grown wheat while people in the south have grown rice. Rice farming is highly labor intensive. It also requires the sharing of water resources and the building of dikes and canals, which provide benefits to more than one farmer at a time. For these reasons, rice farmers are highly interdependent: they must all work on a common infrastructure. Wheat farming, by contrast, may be carried out by individuals or families without the cooperation of neighbors. As a result, in areas in which the staple crop is rice people become more interdependent and more communally oriented, whereas in wheat-growing areas they tend to be more individualistic. These dispositions become internalized and may persist for generations, even if the mode of production alters.

Of course the study only claims that the dominant mode of production exerts a powerful influence on people’s dispositions. It does not show that it determines the ruling ideology in any simple or direct way. So the support it offers to Marxists is limited. Nevertheless, just as the Marxists have always claimed, it seems to have political implications.

Many people think that market relations are atomizing: they encourage us to think of ourselves and one another as competitors for scarce resources. To the extent to which this is true, the study suggests that capitalism may instill in us a number of moral vices. Proponents of laissez-faire often express the hope that capitalism is compatible with, and may even encourage, charity to others (it is because this is true that an extensive welfare state is not required). This study suggests that there may be a tension – at very least – between the promotion of a disposition to help one another and the persistence of market relations.

 

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23 Responses to Was Marx Right?

  • Dave Frame says:

    That’s a pretty fanciful reading, Neil. It’s a huge stretch to go from “hey, look, patterns of agricultural co-production map to cultural norms about mutual assistance” to “Marx was right”…

    Specific issues might include: the fact that people who need to collaborate to eat are more collaborative than people who can fend for themselves is a long way from establishing the position Marx might have wanted, ie that social relations or the means of production are doing *all* the work in establishing “human nature”. The paper is just as well-aligned with readings that say people are self-interested, but smart enough to collaborate when that’s the best strategy and compete otherwise (Coase’s theory of the firm, and all that sort of thing).

    • Neil Levy says:

      Please read before commenting, Dave.

      • Dave Frame says:

        Not sure which bit I didn’t read… I read the paper, and I read your post (which did have the title “Was Marx right?”)… but I’m afraid I still don’t see how the paper offers support for Marxists compared with more mainstream views.* As I said, people cooperate where that’s in their best interests and they compete where that’s in their best interests. [I missed the bit in the paper where it said this was the function of a “ruling ideology”.] It shouldn’t be surprising if groups form priors regarding the relative value of cooperation vs competition on the basis of their experience. So given the same policy problem, northerners might first start exploring individualist solutions, and southerners might begin by exploring cooperative solutions. But that doesn’t mean much – in a problem in which the only reasonable solution is individualist (eg shopping for household goods), both groups ought eventually to converge on that solution. [Likewise, in those instances where the only reasonable solution is collectivist (e.g. defence), both groups will converge on that, too.]

        I just don’t see a much case for a good fit between Marx and the evidence discussed in the paper. Bayes, yes, Coase, yes, even Schelling and co… but not obviously Marx. [Actually I wonder why academics keep recycling the guy.]

        *Another point in the paper which might be obvious but inconvenient for fans of international socialism is the bit where it says “One defining feature of collectivistic cultures is that they draw a sharp distinction between friends and strangers.” (This is easily explained if you take the ultimate goal of both cultures to be rational, personal self-interest – the strong distinction is required because you need to make sure your (small, well-defined) collective internalises your own personal investment. Otherwise you’re giving stuff away and that would be bonkers.)

        • Neil Levy says:

          You accused me of being “fanciful” on the grounds that it is “a long way from establishing the position Marx might have wanted, ie that social relations or the means of production are doing *all* the work in establishing “human nature”. Leaving aside the reference to human nature (it is well established, by the way, that Marx had a view of human nature incompatible with the one you attribute to him here: see the book by Steven Lukes), I can only conclude you didn’t read what I wrote since I wrote that the study shows at most that “the dominant mode of production exerts a powerful influence on people’s dispositions. It does not show that it determines the ruling ideology in any simple or direct way. So the support it offers to Marxists is limited”. I guess you missed that bit,

          You also missed the bit where the paper claimed that people’s dispositions were influenced by the mode of production. It does not claim that people cooperate when it is in their interests to do so. It claims that under specific circumstances, when people cooperate that tends to influence their psychological dispositions and that becomes a part of cultural inheritance.

          • Dave Frame says:

            The paper makes it clear that people cooperate when it is in their interest to do so – it says things like “a husband and wife would not be able to farm a large enough plot of rice to support the family if they relied on only their own labor” and “To deal with the massive labor requirements, farmers in rice villages […] form cooperative labor exchanges.” And “This encourages rice farmers to cooperate intensely, form tight relationships based on reciprocity, and avoid behaviors that create conflict.” I take “encourages” here to be a synonym of “incentivises”.

            All of which sounds far more, to me, like support for a modern theory of why it’s rational to cooperate sometimes than it sounds like support for Marx.

            As for the persistence of these habits across generation – presumably that’s because culture matters, is autoregressive, and so on. The paper leaves open the question of for how many generations these priors about cooperation persist: “perhaps modernization simply takes more generations to change cultural interdependence and thought style.” I don’t know the answer – but I suspect those changes happen faster where the personal costs of having a cooperative prior are higher. [Or maybe where the benefits of having a less pronounced boundary between friend and stranger start to become enticing.]

            Either way, when I read the paper (it was featured somewhere else this week, too – The Economist?) I felt like Marx was very far from my mind when I read the paper. [As he usually is.]

  • Keith Tayler says:

    I think Adam Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment philosophers provide a better account of how the division of labour makes people what they are. What Marx and Engels did, again developing Smith, was to identify the division of labour within the ruling class. They say:

    The division of labour…manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class, its active conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood, while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. (The German Ideology. p.65)

    When Dave Frame says ‘All of which sounds far more, to me, like support for a modern theory of why it’s rational to cooperate sometimes than it sounds like support for Marx’, Marx would perhaps reply “Please read ‘The German Ideology’ before commenting”. For Marx, ’thinkers’ believe in the ’universal dominance of theory’ that stops at the ’abstraction “man”’. His description of the effects of the division of labour was supposed to capture the lives of real humans not “rational decision-makers”. I do not want to be an apologist Marx’s methodology, description and “theory”, but I think it is worth reflecting upon how studies like the one Talhelm et al present can be understood from a Marxist or indeed a Smithian framework. Modern theories are perhaps like modern musical instruments and do not always sound correct when playing older music.

    • Dave Frame says:

      Keith wrote: “Modern theories are perhaps like modern musical instruments and do not always sound correct when playing older music.”

      Not sure I follow you here. The Talhelm paper is a modern paper making modern observations in a modern context. The results can be explained really simply using a bit of hysteresis and some armchair rationality. If you want an old guy, pick Bayes. Given that the paper is explicable in simple, non-Marxist terms, I don’t see why I should shuffle off and read more Marx.

      This all reminds me of doing some data analysis with software: you get some interesting data and people chat about which programs and routines to use to make sense of it. There’s always an old guy who tells you that you need to download some elaborate, obsolete but influential* software package written in something like Turbopascal in the 1980s (it crashes on modern systems). The old guy swears by it – only thing he’s ever needed; only thing you’ll ever need.**

      *It was a big hit in its day.
      **Rorty once said something to the effect that proper names play the role in the humanities that propositions play in the physical sciences. He was probably being cute, but I do think there’s something in that observation. I’m struck by how often names/theories/citations from the pre-war period are used in conversations in the humanities, compared with how few citations from that period are used in modern physical sciences. Perhaps scientists are quite quick to cannibalise the past; but perhaps folks from the other culture are quite prone to ancestor worship.

      • Keith Tayler says:

        Sorry – it was a bit throwaway, but what I was trying to say was some data does fit the older observation model used by Smith and Marx, and can be placed within the this context. Having said that, the later Marx can in many respects be credited with being one of the first modern analysts of data. As Ian Hacking (a post-war old guy) observed:

        Marx read the minutiae of official statistics, the reports from the factory inspectorate and the like. One can ask: who had more effect on the class consciousness, Marx or the authors of the official reports which created the classifications into which people came to recognize themselves? (‘The Taming of Chance’, p.3)

        I realise that ageism is not regarded as being bias and bigoted among some young guys, but I must say your ‘old guy choosing obsolete software’ analogy brought a smile to my wrinkled old face. As I said, I am not an apologist for Marx, but I do try to “understand“ him, along with hundreds of other pre-war has-beens. Philosophy, social theory, politics, economics, history art, etc. are not the same as the natural sciences. You often need a hermeneutic understanding of the ancestor you are studying and try to view the world from their perspective. It’s not ancestor worship, it’s called doing philosophy or trying to understand what knowledge, reason, truth and being, is; how what we call a theory, system or observation changes; how language and mathematics has developed, etc.. To understand the natural sciences you also have to put yourself in the world of earlier scientists. Our understanding of particle, number, gene, etc. is not “same” as it was pre-war; so in order to understand the modern ontology of gene we need to understand its history. Of course you can ’make sense’ of the data with ‘hysteresis and some armchair rationality’, but would will not be doing philosophy and you will not be exploring reason and the human mind. You will no doubt try to make sense of that “problem” with another view from nowhere and, like so many old guys before you (inc. Marx), you will fail.

        In short, scientism is rubbish.

        • Dave Frame says:

          I think we’re talking at slightly cross-purposes here. I’m not sure I’m doing philosophy or exploring reason and the human mind. I expect that’s all a bit hard for me. I was just trying to make sense of a paper and found I could, very easily, without requiring any elaborate kit, and pointing out that you don’t need to install Marxism 6.4 t0 make sense of that paper. [I don’t think this implies a broader commitment to scientism.]

          Hyperextending my previous metaphor might help explain what I mean: Turbopascal guy always says the problem with my assertion that his software platform is not the best is that I don’t know enough about the Turbopascal thing. If I knew more about his platform, he argues, it would be obvious that it is the best. But it’s not like it has a bunch of terrific advantages over competing alternatives; in fact it has some obvious, well-documented disadvantages. From where he sits, these are not disadvantages, but mere features* – the small price you pay for doing things properly. Time is short and demands on it are many. There’s nothing I could say to change Turbopascal guy’s mind, even if I did wade through 1980s code and the accompanying hand-typed documentation. Now imagine he gets up at the annual departmental retreat and gives a talk (mylars, overhead projectors) entitled “Is the Turbopascal platform still the best?” in which he shows how it can be used to analyse some interesting new data. There are reasons to put your hand up at the end and point out that there are dozens of other (simpler, more efficient) ways of analysing the same data. Those reasons for intervening are not to change his mind or to show logically from within his framework why he is wrong, but to prevent grad students (and funders) from heading down blind alleys. As you point out, this sort of intervention is not philosophy; but it is useful.

          [Also, I’m not sure that you’re right that we need to understand the history of something to understand that thing. My experience doing physics was that the best way to understand classical mechanics was to read Herbert Goldstein’s beautiful (old-ish) book rather than to go right back to Newton and start from there.** I do think that’s a difference between philosophers and scientists (and engineers).]

          *As in, “it’s not a bug it’s a feature.’
          **Your mileage may vary – but I’ve met many fellow physicists who feel similarly.

          • Neil Levy says:

            ” I do think that’s a difference between philosophers and scientists (and engineers)”

            I don’t think you know very much about philosophy. Analytic philosophers – the dominant tradition these days by a long way – are notoriously uninterested in the history of philosophy. As Tom Sorrel writes, “Philosophy written in English is overwhelmingly analytic philosophy, and the techniques and predilections of analytic philosophy are not only unhistorical but anti-historical, and hostile to textual commentary”.

            • Dave Frame says:

              “I don’t think you know very much about philosophy.”

              Turbo guy is pretty sure I’m crap at programming, too. You’re both probably right. [Deficient education, lack of talent… never sure which.] But like I said, I don’t think think the main point I was making is about philosophy.* It was challenging the idea that this new paper could say much at all about the question in the title of your post.

              (1) Even if the paper is consistent with Marx, it’s also consistent with a whole bunch of other, simpler explanations, so it’s not like this new “evidence” does much to differentiate between competing theories. (2) And it doesn’t shed any light on the things usually taken to be central failings of Marx such as the Labour Theory of Value, so it’s not like it’s addressing some of the central points that might be expected to be addressed if people were seriously to revisit the question “was Marx right”?

              *I’m generally more interested in the practical end of the practicalethics space. [It often seems to me that the practical dimensions (policy, institutions, economics, etc) of some of the posts here aren’t always handled as well as they might be – that (and fun) are why I post here.]

            • Anthony Drinkwater says:

              Dave states that he thinks there’s a difference between philosophers and scientists – the latter don’t need to know the history of their discipline in order to practise it.

              Neil replies by citation that certain philosophers are unhistorical and even anti-historical
              Pity that Neil feels no need to back this up by argument but merely by stating that this is “the dominant tradition these days” (not sure that this isn’t an oxymoron, but let it pass…)

              I think that this is stretching it a bit unless :
              1. one thinks that a style that dates from around 100 years ago is a “dominant tradition”
              2. one conflates the majority of anglo-saxon academics with the entire population of philosophers, and ignore those who don’t fit into the analytical mould.

              Who doesn’t know very much about philosophy ?

              • Neil Levy says:

                Anthony, there is absolutely nothing controversial in what I said. There is nothing inappropriate in my use of tradition. Look it up. 100 hundred years is plenty of time for a tradition (indeed, as Hobsbawm showed, many things we take to be traditional are recent in inventions). Whether you measure philosophers by sheer numbers or by institutional power or funding, there is no doubt that analytic philosophy is dominant. I don’t feel any need to back this up by argument: it’s in no way controversial. Any further insulting comments will be deleted. Remember you are a guest and behave accordingly.

                • Keith Tayler says:

                  Dave

                  I think we could argue about “understanding” for sometime. If something has a history you need to study it in order to understand it. Just to make things more complicated, I agree with Nietzsche that ’The only things that are definable are those that have no history’. Sorry I have no time to pick the bones out of that one.

                  Neil

                  I agree that analytical philosophy is dominate in the English speaking world and is on the unhistorical side (making it somewhat parochial), but this is perhaps, as Anthony suggests, corrected if you take philosophy as a whole. Obviously there is quite a lot of Continental philosophy around (especially in the USA), intellectual history is going strong, the philosophy of science and technology is meaningless without history, and most analytical philosophers now expend a lot of words discussing the old guys (Sorrel and Hobbes for example). There are of course some, applied ethics seems to attract them, that make a virtue of their ignorance. This is, I believe, in part due to their self-appointed “expert“ status. (I know of one leading bioethicist who styles himself as a “scientist”!) Of course the analytical style is in rude health but there is, I can sure you, far more diversity than there was forty or fifty years ago.

                  • Neil Levy says:

                    No Keith, you’re wrong. You’re wrong that “most analytical philosophers now expend a lot of words discussing the old guys”. And you’re wrong that analytic philosophy is only dominant in the Anglophone world. The great majority of professional philosophers are analytic. Analytic is the dominant tradition in the Anglophone world by a big majority. It is also dominant in the Scandinavian countries, is strong in Germany and South America. It is growing in influence in France, Spain, and Italy. In Asia, the picture is more mixed but there are sufficient numbers to ensure that across the world analytic remain a strong majority. Trust me on this one: I have PhDs in both continental and analytic philosophy.

                    • Keith Tayler says:

                      ‘You’re wrong that “most analytical philosophers now expend a lot of words discussing the old guys”’.

                      If you look as any undergraduate exam topics and reading list you will find a lot about the old guys (I have just looked at the Oxford Trinity term lecture list and the majority are about old guys, old philosophy, Continental phil. etc.). All the leading academic publishers’ catalogues are mostly filled with books on old guys, old philosophy and theory, intellectual history, the history and philosophy of science, political philosophy, etc.. They also contain quite a lot of Continental philosophy, futurology, applied ethics, scientism, aesthetics and other topics that would not, I can assure you, have been classified as being A.P. by any of my supervisors 40+ years ago.

                      ‘And you’re wrong that analytic philosophy is only dominant in the Anglophone world.’

                      I did not say A.P. is ’only’ dominant in the Anglophone world. I suggested, in support of Anthony, that ’perhaps’ if we ’take philosophy as a whole’ A.P. is not that dominate. I am fully aware of the growth of A.P. in other countries, but, if we take a broader look of philosophy and include the “philosophy” that is being done in arts, humanities, politics, economics, sociology, history, etc. university departments throughout world, we might find that much that is being done does not fall within A.P.. You might say this is not “proper” philosophy and should not be included. But then again I do not accept that applied ethics, futurology, risk analyses, the use of evolutionary psychology, speculative theories about the brain and machines, and any number of technology research projects that employ philosophers or ethicists fall within A.P.. I am not saying these are not philosophy (some of them are not), just that they are not strictly A.P.. (Some of them might be because they appear to be attempting Wittgenstein’s suggestion that ‘A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes‘)

                      I accept that the majority of professional philosophers call themselves A.Ps. (even if they are not), but it would be a dangerous vanity to immediately assume that professional philosophy is, or indeed should be, the most dominate philosophy (this is a point well understood by Hume and Smith, and developed by Marx). Indeed, arguably the most influential philosophical movement of our time, like it or not, is postmodernism.

                      I too have a PhD in both traditions and as an undergraduate was supervised by some now old (dead) guys of A.P. Today’s A.P., within both a narrow and broad sense, is different to what it was then and of course completely unlike what it was in pre-War Cambridge and post-War Oxford. Perhaps it is time to move on and try to do some philosophy that communicates to a wider audience.

  • Tim Kitchin says:

    To assert that the roles we adopt have an impact not only on our behaviour, but dynamically on our self-perception is the daily work of psychology. To discover that these normative (even archetypal) roleplays can be informed or guided by economic systems is self-evident. Further, to imagine that the rules and heuristics of such systems are commonly interpreted by participants as power relations with moral dimensions, and further that they are most informed by those who wield most power within those systems seems like a reasonable (dual) hypothesis. Whether you see this a a Marxist ‘lens’ on the phenomenon, a sociological one, or an unintended consequence of utility optimisation is an individual choice. All such lenses can yield useable subjective personal insight. Context is everything. Neil’s use of a grabbing hyperbolic headline is the the only thing that seems off-key here, but I think a little self-consciously rhetorical slackness is acceptable in this sort of forum??

  • Tim Kitchin says:

    Cutting slightly across this debate, which seems now to a long way from the original arguments, do the participants think that the terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ are useful in furthering the adoption and adaptation of the disciplines involved either branch? I suspect they both have a strongly negative effect on respect and revitalisation of either a systemic/synthetic philosophy or a process/problem-oriented philosophy, just to create two sets of alternative random descriptors. It seems hilarious that philosophy – the thinking discipline – should find itself with such an inappropriate, inward-facing, parochial and historical taxonomy of itself…creating entirely false divisions which further erode public and peer confidence. Discuss or ignore as you wish, please. I am a generalist and just a curious eavesdropper.

  • Tim Kitchin says:

    Cutting slightly across this debate, which seems now to be some way from the original arguments, do the participants think that the terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ are useful in furthering the adoption and adaptation of the disciplines involved either branch? I suspect they both have a strongly negative effect on respect and revitalisation of either a systemic/synthetic philosophy or a process/problem-oriented philosophy, just to create two sets of alternative random descriptors. It seems hilarious that philosophy – the thinking discipline – should find itself with such an inappropriate, inward-facing, parochial and historical taxonomy of itself…creating entirely false divisions which further erode public and peer confidence. Discuss or ignore as you wish, please. I am a generalist and just a curious eavesdropper.

    • Neil Levy says:

      Tim, I think analytic and continental philosophy have different kinds of aims, and though there are losses caused by people not reading one another, I’m unconvinced that the losses are significant enough to warrant remedial effort. After all, we all have limited time, so we are forced to use all sorts of heuristics to cut down the space of things we devote our energy to. Any time someone spends reading Deleuze, say, is time not spent reading any of enormous number of things that might be equally or more illuminating (string theory, or Piketty on inequality, or evolutionary psychology, or….).

      Within analytic philosophy itself, you get a recapitulation of the same kinds of informal barriers: again there are costs but there are benefits too. Some of my work in naturalistic philosophy of mind, for instance. Keeping up with the neuroscience and social and cognitive psychology means I have less time to read philosophy outside of my area. Further, because I take these sciences seriously, my work is less accessible to people outside it. They might lack the background in the debates to understand it, and even to see how it might possibility matter. I’m in the same boat with regard to their work: I can read and understand a paper in metaphysics, but I lack the background to understand how it fits into their debates. And I can’t understand papers in mathematical logic or philosophy of physics: I simply lack the requisite skills. This kind of specialisation is required for us to make progress on problems arising out of specialised areas (the new wave of philosophers of science tend to have at least masters level education in the science they specialise in; dual PhDs are increasingly common).

  • Tim Kitchin says:

    Thanks Neil. I guess you’ ve partly answered my question by suggesting that the disciplines have different aims, and hence tend to specialise different sorts of problems, and also inspire different sorts of interdisciplinary linkages. And I totally understand specialisation in such a vast (unbounded?) field. It will be interesting as this conversation community grows to see this play out in practice and see if there are predictable paradigmatic dissonances…

    The separate, more creative element of my question was to ask whether the terms themselves are well understood academically and secondly whether they enable or thwart the desired collaborations. ‘Continental’ seems instantly small-island pejorative to me. While analytic may fail to describe huge realms of imaginative and speculative philosophical work that can be done well-aligned to scientific decision-making. By virtue of being speculative or constructional, is it de facto non-analytical? Curious…

    • Neil Levy says:

      Tim, the terms are widely accepted – on both sides of the divide – but not well understood. Neither refer to a particular way of doing philosophy, though. Conceptual analysis is no longer central to the toolkit of analytic philosophers. Analytic philosophers are those who address problems and use tools hat descend from the problems and tools of people who thought philosophy was concerned centrally with conceptual analysis. Continental philosophy is also used to describe a loose set of affiliations, descended from early and mid twentieth century philosophers (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and so on). You can easily come up with a list of approaches that are characteristic of one or the other, but no such list will apply well to every person on one or the other side. And you get some people who straddle them, and others who don’t really fit into either.

  • Tim Kitchin says:

    Thanks so much. So more like clubs or economic ‘schools’ than anything, derived from lineage through which there has always been some interbreeding and over-the-fence exchange. That helps. Sounds like any attempt of analytic philosophy to free itself into a widely-applicable, ahistorical tool-set of reasoning will be hampered or at least coloured by this origination. A new autonomous, ‘purer’ analytic discipline may be required, with alternative means of self-validation, to break this cultural impasse and help foster more of the equivalent sorts of cross-fertilisation that gave birth to and nurtured e.g. behavioural economics, for example. Academic sectarianism can be a prelude to procreation. Further Mathematification beckons, I guess…?

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