Marx vs Keynes: What’s the matter with ‘peak’ idealism?

The NZ Labour Party hanging onto the coat-tails of dying capitalism will end up in the same graveyard of “progressive hopes”. Fortunately, before that happens workers will reach ‘peak’ idealism and awaken to dialectical materialism. But such is its hold on our minds, idealism is not spontaneously replaced by the materialist world view we need the make the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Without a class conscious revolutionary leadership to warn them and point the way, workers will fall for anti-scientific conspiracy theories of power elites manipulating their lives. Without the antidote to idealism, workers fall prey to demagogues of left and right instead of uniting and organizing to fight for survival socialism.

Idealism is the doctrine that thought creates being, rather than as Marx put it, that being determines consciousness. Being is our material, biological and productive life. Life begins with material needs not the ideas we use to measure them. Marx famously stood Hegel on his material feet to sort out the ideas in his head.

So if our basic needs (jobs, health, housing, education etc) are not met and we face poverty, racism, sexism etc., the bourgeoisie blames this on the idea of ‘human nature’ and follows Hegel in praying to God for redemption.  Business as usual.

Keynes, master of distributional economics based on the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalists, was the arch idealist. On the face of it he was a practical economist. But capitalism was motivated by ideas. When capitalists failed to invest because they calculated they would not get a sufficient profit, Keynes had a bright idea; use the state to boost wages and demand (the multiplier) and stimulate  capitalists to invest in supplying that demand. But this bright idea failed to see that the ‘spirit of capitalism’ was the extracting surplus-value.

Keynes idea fell flat because despite increased demand, the capitalists hoarded or speculated with their money rather than invest in production and the result was inflation as the increased money supply chased too few goods and services. Marxists at the time explained why this happened. Capitalism was subject to the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (LTRPF) and that required the supply side (inputs of labour and raw materials) to be cut in price to restore an average rate of profit.

In other words all attempts to tweek the markets will fail if the conditions necessary to restore profits are not satisfied. All neo-Keynesian ideas like Modern Monetary Theory and Donut Economics suffer from the same defect as Keynes basic idea. If the costs of inputs are not cut sufficiently to return a profit, capitalism will stagnate and enter a slump. So with all bourgeois economics workers always pay for the bosses’ crises.

So, state ‘interference’ in the market is idealist because the material conditions required for the production of profits demand greater state attacks on workers living standards and on nature, to drive down costs the of production. The idea is to attack the sources of material being to the point of exhaustion and extinction.

In Aotearoa today, peak idealism will be reached when workers no longer believe that the Labour government (or any capitalist government) can rescue society and humanity from the destruction of nature. Any last hopes of a system reboot to avoid its self-destruction will be overtaken by the looming apocalypse of climate change, pandemics, economic crash and political tyranny.

Yet what is the response to the failure of such defunct ideas? Mostly a shift to supposedly new or better ideas that still remain trapped in idealism. The failure of the system is still seen as the failure of ideas, usually the ideas of influencial individuals who create social movements dedicated to the delusion that a radical rebooting of capitalism will save us all.

That is why we are served up a mad menu of theories and conspiracies, invoking the ideas of self promoting gurus and their corporate backers who resist peak idealism with even more extreme post-modern forms that deny the biological and sociological reality of the material world. Scientific truth as a collective struggle for knowledge become a full-on relativism where the free individual can escape external forces and realise his or her or their personal truth. Conspicuous consumption becomes religious mania.

Commodity fetishism now escapes the normal institutions of academia, journalism, history and law, and become frenetic denials of reality such as QAnon where elites rape children, antivaxxers in denial of coronavirus, or trans ideology that reduces biological sex to idealist feelings about being ‘born in the wrong body’. 

Once ideas become detached from material reality, notions of growth and personality become detached from biology, science and nature. Debates exist in an otherworldly vacuum of religious belief without roots to the earth. It’s one thing to reject these as false, it’s another to know what causes them. The critique of such forms of idealism today has to start at the beginning by grasping Marx’s critique of idealism.

Even before class society emerged historically (before there was sufficient surplus to enable it) social production was the result of material need not ideas. Ideas served only to organise the collective struggle for biological reproduction. The kinship group had a classless relation to production developing the tools to harness nature’s (non-human) energy.

Once that development produced a surplus, ideas then turned to conserving the labour time of the few at the expense of the many. The ruling class had the ruling ideas about labour time. Work hard and do what you are tole. The shaman and warlord was born to impose those ruling ideas within the class system.

After this gigantic leap, class societies went from exploiting the labour of slaves, to that of peasants and then wage workers – and cumulatively! The ruling minority imposed its ideas on the working majority. Those who became the rulers justified their wealth in the name of gods, projecting their class power onto the gods in the interest of the ‘nation’ or ‘community’.

The capitalist system is not an aberration, it follows this historic law – a succession of class societies in which the the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. The capitalist ruling class has the advantage over previous ones in that it doesn’t need gods. Capitalism itself produces its own ideology – the ‘rationality’ of the market – in the very process of production where the act of exploitation of labour-power to produce surplus-labour and profit appears to be ‘natural’ and ‘just’. If we are all individuals buying and selling commodities, including labour-power, at their value then the worker who sells his/her labour power at its value is no different to the capitalist who buys it.

For Marx the ideology of capital is the idealist fetish of labour value created in market exchange rather than production. As a result we are alienated from production and trapped in the fetishism of exchange.

The production of labour value is separated from the ‘being’ of wage-labour and magically, ideally, becomes the result of supply and demand. Therefore, the failure of the market to create equal and free individuals appears to be caused by unequal exchange of commodities rather than the exploitative relations of production.

Under capitalism, unequal exchange results from monopoly power forcing down the price of the commodity below its value. Naturally capitalists always blame workers for this disruption. Marx demolished this illusion,  proving that labour-power was the only commodity that produced more value than its own value – hence the secret of profit extracted at the point of production, not its fetish in the market.

If the ruling idea of capitalism is the ideology that the system is natural and perfect, and breaks down when the market malfunctions, it still leads to  attempts to reform the market from Proudhon to Piketty, and every shade of Labourism and Democratic Socialism.

So, Marx’s discovery of labour-power (a child’s discovery said Marx) proves that capitalism as a system never was intended to benefit all, but to justify in the name of all, poverty for the producers who produced the wealth for the ruling class.

Once he made that discovery Marx had the key to unravel the apparent complexity of capitalism as a living reality determined by laws of motion that would lead necessarily to its eventual demise as it destroyed its own material base in nature. 

But there is no need to surrender to fatalism. Knowledge provides an escape route from the alienated fetishism of life under capitalism which sucks us into futile identity politics. No longer are we isolated individuals but part of a social class where our collective knowledge becomes that basis of our capacity to act and change society.

The understanding of Marx’s scientific method creates the opportunity to become class conscious and organise the power of the producers to end the long history of class society and embark on building the classless society – communism.