Marx's Mirror Image

by Bruce Walker

The Means of Consumption And
The Dictatorship of the Consumer

Karl Marx viewed the rise of modern industry, and the consequences of the accumulation of productive resources, as processes that would transform society. Work, which until then had been primarily an activity undertaken very close to home, now became physically remote and organizationally distinct from home.

While this certainly included the well-known movement of workers from agricultural activities to industrial activities, it also included a movement from those industrial activities which involved craftsmanship and the intimate training within guilds, to large organizational structures that were inherently less personal and more regimented. Man would become alienated from labor.

The value added by labor, Marx posited, was the source of what we call wealth. This wealth constituted power. Ultimately the impoverishment and alienation of workers from their work would lead inevitably to a revolution, and the result would be the dictatorship of the worker, the true source of production. Those who controlled the means of production, according to Marx, controlled history.

What happened was very different. Productivity, guided by free market policies and wide-open areas of opportunity, produced an explosion in technological and scientific innovation. Although heavy industry and transportation are the most common examples of this productive explosion, the greatest human impact was in other areas of economic activity: food production, food packaging, cheap clothing, home appliances and other immediate improvements in the lives of consumers.

By the time of the Great Depression, the United States and most other modern industrial nations produced enough useful goods and services to make every household modestly affluent. This productive power was in stark contrast to the reality of poverty, unemployment and despair. The culprits, according to Marxist analysis, were the producers.

Men like Ford, Rockefeller, Du Pont and Carnegie may have lived in grand style, but their opulence consumed a far smaller proportion of the wealth within their control than a medieval lord in similar circumstances. The total leveling of all this wealth would scarcely have nudged the general welfare.

Where was the wealth going? Not to producers, but to consumers. Not just any consumers, however, but those consumers who made a socio-political case for their consumption. This new class did not control the "means of production" but rather the "means of consumption."

What classes of people dwelled within this group? Those who might best be called verbalists: professors, writers, lawyers, bureaucrats, politicians and professional advocates. These verbalists did not produce anything wanted by society as a whole, but rather they defended fiefdoms much like medieval lords protected their holdings. As the overt violence of the Middle Ages was replaced by the covert intimidation of courts and laws, these new nobles wielded swords for mercenary interests hidden behind the petticoat of justice.

As peasant levees of these new lords, a whole class of aggrieved people began to appear. The very nature of the grievances often betrayed the economic uselessness of the complainant. Poor people, who often did not work, were somehow "oppressed." Housewives, whose work had been reduced by washing machines, vacuum cleaners, second cars and a plethora of easy to prepare meals, also became "oppressed." Students in college were likewise "oppressed."

The patent absurdity of bored housewives and idle students having cause to complain against farmers, factory workers and lumberjacks, needed an ideology beyond validation. The "consumer" was subliminally transformed into the Marxist equivalent of the "worker." This required suspension of reason, but had an ancient pedigree.

Kulaks, Jews, and small businessmen in America all reek of that most serious secular sin: carrying one's own weight. The real problem lay not in too few producers or too much difference in wealth, but rather in a different non-Marxist power - "the means of consumption" - having a constant need for psychic nourishment.

Like the university graduates of Third World nations, the "oppressed" people could easily be maintained in comfort by those with real work to do. Men did not complain about going to work and having their wives stay at home, and parents did not complain about children being supported through college.

It was those supported by others who felt useless, and that sense of uselessness required "work" that actually stopped productive work. The activities of student activists, environmentalists, feminists et al. had the natural and the subconscious result of squeezing efficiency out of economic activity. Much work these days is nothing more than complying with the need of priests and priestesses of primitive beliefs to feel needed.

Environmental impact statements, affirmative action plans, food stamp programs and all similar notionally "good" social coercions artificially depress real wealth, and at the same time elevate the importance of the consumers and their advocates.

The logical solution is to recognize the economic destructiveness of invented and counterproductive labor, and to recognize that everyone needs to feel significant. This could be easily done by reducing the amount of real work each of us needs to do to realistic levels of twelve hours a week, and then devote the rest of our time to the pursuit of beauty, virtue, love, and joy.

This step requires a counter-Marxist analysis: the many are exploiting the few. And it recognizes that the quasi-Marxist dictatorship of the means of production is the principal obstacle to the alleviation of poverty. The real "Marxists"are those who consume goods and justify their right to control the "means of consumption" based upon a quasi-Marxist analysis. Housewives receiving support alimony are an excellent example of this process. Lawyers who sue government agencies and receive huge contingent fees for the "service" of suing taxpayers are another good example. The dollars these people spend are not exchanged in any free market sense for comparable goods and services. They're extracted by nonproductive people in order to have a right to consume goods and services produced by others.

Marx had a glimmer of collections of individuals in activities that would tend to gravitate into singularities, but his reading of the tea leaves was wrong. The means of communication, entertainment and education count much more than the campaign contributions of corporations. That which drives the consumer drives the political process. The decisions of consumers, not the decisions of producers, determine the contours of finance, industry and society.

Marx had it right, in a way, but he saw the mirror image of the future, a left-handed version of reality. The means of production simply is the work of slaves.

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