[Marxism] Marx on Robinsonades in Das Kapital
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Mon Mar 22 13:13:10 MST 2004
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On Feb. 12, 1709, Alexander Selkirk, known in the history of economics
as well as literary history as *Robinson Crusoe,* was rescued from Juan
Fernandez Island after a four year solo stay. In his first and most famous
novel based on this true story, *The Life and Strange Surprizing
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner*, the author, Daniel
Defoe, captured the imagination of generations who yearned to transcend
the confining division of labour of the urbanized commercial world.
Defoe had been a relatively well-known economist of foreign trade before
the novel appeared in 1719, when he was almost 60.
By the time Marx was writing, Daniel Defoe's novel of the castaway had
generated hundreds of imitations known collectively as *Robinsonades.*
>From our vantage point we can see that this novel, the first of its kind,
more or less invented the modern Western conception of the individual,
and the thousands of Robinsonades in the 20th century constitute the very
core of its culture. What is remarkable about Marx's use of the term is his
sardonic application of it to the leading Political Economists, the
founders of the new Science of Man in the 18th century. I am not aware
of any reference by the key theorists, Adam Smith or David Ricardo, to
the novel by name, but Marx must have seized on textual clues to
deconstruct that novel's influence.
This remarkable insight has rarely been remarked upon, but it provided
inspiration for early 20th century sociologists studying the spirit of
capitalism. In some ways, this newer Science of Society began with the
rejection of the Possessive Individualism (to use the 1962 McPherson
term) that Marx critiqued. (Zafirovski, 2001).
In Chapter 3 on Money Marx says in a revealing footnote about Adam
Smith's classic work on the theory of value, The Wealth of Nations,
*Smith begins his work in the official manner with an apotheosis of the
division of labour.* (Capital, Vol. 1 p. 220F; p. 124M).
The methodology used by Marx, in contrast to the tradition of Political
Economy, did not start with a pseudo-historical parable about how
specialized tasks arose and gradually proliferated in civil society, purely
on the basis of self-interest and comparative advantage. In a way, Genesis
was recast in economics with Man evolving from a State of Nature, and
living by the sweat of his brow, on the basis of an innate acquisitiveness,
a shrewd eye to looking out for any gain for the solitary survivor, who is
nudged along by the invisible hand, not of a deity, but of self-interest.
The *mythodology* for this traditional economic logic, we now see, was
the famous tale of Robinson Crusoe.
Since Marx, both in his 1859 Critique and the 1867 Capital, has invited
us to observe the lonely survivor, *let us take a look at him on his island.
Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must
therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and
furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting.*
Marx pursued this primordial accounting, this dividing up of Crusoe's
own labour-time on the basis of efficiency:
*Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between
his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in
his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or
less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect
*This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued
a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-
born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the
objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their
production; and lastly, of the labour-time that definite quantities of those
objects have, on an average, cost him.* (Capital, Vol. 1 p. 169F; p. 81M) .
A critic reminds us that the protagonist *spends the opening sections of
the novel in heavy pursuit of money. He readily admits to the reader his
reasons for travel: it is more profitable to trade with indigenous peoples
of non-Western cultures, since they value goods differently than
Europeans do. It is possible, then, to trade trinkets that Westerners place
little stock in -- like buttons and baubles -- for gold and precious stones.
Getting more for one's money than it is worth is one of the prime
directives of a capitalist economy, and Robinson is hooked on it from the
moment he makes his first trade. With the money he makes from trading,
he is able to buy a plantation in Brazil and begin reaping great profit.*
Crusoe's acquisitive nature became the protoype of *Homo Economicus.*
As Smith said in The Wealth of Nations (1776), *Every individual is
continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous
employment for whatever capital he can command* (Smith, 1961).
*It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he
has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather
necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most
advantageous to the society.* (Smith, 1961)
Isaac Newton had explained planetary orbits as *controlled by the
invisible hand of gravity,* and Smith preferred this metaphor to the idea
of the strong hand of a protectionist state. (Hays, 2002)
Smith argued that the individual *...generally, indeed, neither intends to
promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By
preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends
only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as
its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain,
and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to
promote an end which was no part of his intention.* (Smith, 1961)
This *invisible hand* of self-interest, or what C.B. McPherson (1962)
has called *possessive individualism,* is the social equivalent of gravity,
a natural law as immutable as any in physics, and it governed the Law of
Value in classical theory. This is precisely why, as Marx says, *political
economists are fond of Robinson Crusoe stories.* (Capital, Vol. 1 p.
169F; p. 81M)
*Even Ricardo has his stories a la Robinson,* As Marx says. *He makes
the primitive hunter and the primitive fisher straightway, as owners of
commodities, exchange fish and game in the proportion in which labour-
time is incorporated in these exchange-values. On this occasion he
commits the anachronism of making these men apply to the calculation,
so far as their implements have to be taken into account, the annuity
tables in current use on the London Exchange in the year 1817.* (Capital,
Vol. 1 p. 169F; p. 81M)
However, Marx was far from rushing into a critique of the classic Labour
Theory of Value:
*The insufficiency of Ricardo's analysis of the magnitude of value, and
his analysis is by far the best, will appear from the 3rd and 4th books of
this work*. (Capital, Vol. 1 p. 173F; p. 84M)
*Political Economy,* Marx concedes, *has indeed analysed, however
incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies
beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour
is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the
magnitude of that value.* (Capital, Vol. 1 p.173-4F; p. 84M)
He says, *These formulae, which bear it stamped upon them in
unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the
process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being
controlled by him, such formulae appear to the bourgeois intellect
to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive
labour itself.* (Capital, Vol. 1 p. 174fF; p. 85M)
The Nature seen in this mythodology is, in the first instance, Human
Nature. An article in a 1994 newspaper summed up the continuing
influence of Daniel Defoe on contemporary laissez faire economics: *To
Austrian School Economists, Robinson Crusoe Describes It Best. These
free-market advocates rely on logic, deductive reasoning, and colorful
metaphors.* (Anonymous, 1994).
>From Marx's analysis is should be clear that the central problem of
bourgeois economics has always been the paradigm assumption of a static
human nature set in motion by the cultural equivalent of gravity. The very
long process by which Marx reconstructs the history of theories of
surplus value and moves tentatively toward his own theoretical construct
will become clearer as we proceed in the reading of Capital.
NEXT: THE FETISHISM IN THE FETISHISM OF
Anonymous (1994), Christian Science Monitor: Aug 4, 1994;
Hays, Jon (2003), Adam Smith, Take Back your Kith,
Marx, Karl (1867), Capital, Vol. 1. Ben Fowkes, Trans., London:
Penguin/New Left Books, 1976; Samuel Moore, Trans., New York:
International Publishers, 1987 printing. Note F = Fowkes; M = Moore
McPherson, C.B., (1962), The Political Theory of Possessive
Individualism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rosenberg, Jordana (2002), "Book Review: Robinson Cruse."
Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations (1961), Indianapolis: The Bobbs-
Merrill Co., pp. 153, 166. Biblomania website:
Zafirovski, Milan (2001), Max Weber's analysis of marginal
utility theory and psychology revisited: Latent propositions
in economic sociology and the sociology of economics, Durham;
History of Political Economy, Vol. 33 Issue 3, Fall 2001: 437-458.
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