How Analytic Philosophers Have Made Sense of Capitalism

Analytic philosophy, a branch of the discipline that emphasizes rigorous argumentation, is often dismissed as a set of abstract puzzle games. But analytic philosophers have reinterpreted Marxism to provide a radical critique of capitalist society.

Workers packing syrups and fruit delicacies into glass jars at a bottling plant, circa 1890. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The legacy of Marxist theorizing in this century and the last is a contradictory one. Karl Marx himself developed a totalizing view of capitalism as a global system which transformed human social relations by relying on the most advanced economic theory of his day and information about the workings of nineteenth-century capitalism gathered by bourgeois institutions. For instance, the factory inspectors employed by the British state from the early 1830s, though few in number and largely impotent, provided Marx and Friedrich Engels with a treasure trove of data without which the development of the empirically grounded arguments of Capital would have been impossible. So enthusiastic was Marx about the value of a bureaucracy armed with the tools of scientific objectivity that he described the head of the factory inspectorate, Leonard Horner, as the “censor of factories.”

The irony is that Marx’s own pragmatic engagement with “bourgeois science” has often not been shared by his followers. While left-wing economists developed sophisticated understandings of the effects of technological change on profitability and philosophers thought seriously about the right balance between the power of the individual freedom and the authority of social institutions, dogmatic Marxists often siloed themselves in theoretical ghettos. There they frequently developed a priori explanations of economic and social phenomena that fit like baggy clothes onto reality.

The Marxist economist Joan Robinson had perhaps the harshest response to this strain of “zombie Marxism”:

When I say I understand Marx better than you, I don’t mean to say that I know the text better than you do. If you start throwing quotations at me you will have me baffled in no time. In fact, I refuse to play before you begin. . . . What I mean is that I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth. [If] we each want to recall some tricky point in Capital, for instance the schema at the end of Volume II. What do you do? You take down the volume and look it up. What do I do? I take the back of an old envelope and work it out.

This hostility toward undogmatic thinking has led two central problems of radical politics in particular — human agency and justice — that have either been buried beneath obscurantist explanation, as in Louis Althusser’s theory of overdetermination, intended to explain a phenomenon that is determined by a myriad of causes, or dismissed altogether as bourgeois moralizing “perfectly compatible with the private ownership of society’s main productive assets,” as the sociologist Dylan Riley has claimed.

But these objections miss the mark. Over the course of the last century, a tradition of Marxist theory, analytic Marxism, developed that ran parallel to the dogmatic thinking still prevalent among sections of the Left. It attempted to grapple with the complexities of capitalist social relations armed, like Marx himself, with the most sophisticated conceptual tools available, be they from bourgeois economics or philosophy. Despite claims to the contrary, its insights remain indispensable to anyone attempting understand what’s wrong with capitalism and to chart a path toward a more just society.

Class, Individual Agency, and Collective Action

One dogma of leftist thinking is that attempting to understand society from the perspective of the individual in some way mystifies broader capitalist social relations. Basing an analysis of capitalism on individual agents’ interests, attitudes, and behaviors, the thought goes, transforms a structural explanation of capitalism into something no more sophisticated than market research. The attempt to explain large-scale social phenomena like class in terms of individual “microfoundations” is sometimes presented by proponents and detractors alike as anathema to Marxism. Yet such an approach is indispensable for any plausible Marxist analysis of class and the dynamics of class formation.

In fact, the most sophisticated thinking about class in the second half of the twentieth century, Erik Olin Wright’s writings, sought to ground the dynamics of capitalism in the microfoundations of individual agency. For Wright, class is a matter of your relation to the means of production (land, buildings, machines, and so on); that relation determines what sort of income you make and how you make it. “What you have determines what you get,” Wright argued, and “what you have determines what you have to do to get what you get.”

Capitalists must hire workers to produce goods, which the capitalists then sell on the market; profit is what is left over after paying the costs of production (including wages), which provides capitalists with their income. Workers, of course, must sell their labor for a wage, which makes up their income, on which they must rely to survive. Because workers can only reproduce themselves by participating within a wage contract, they are subject to exploitation and domination, which makes their relationship to bosses fundamentally antagonistic. Crucially, what is compelling about Wright’s theory is that, using a supposedly “bourgeois” sociological concept, he produced a social theory that took aim at one of liberal economics’ key tenets: that workers enter freely into the labor contract.

Class, as Wright understood it, is entirely a matter of the interests, attitudes, and behavior of individual agents. The facts of capitalist exploitation and domination arise because individuals with ownership of the means of production wield power over those who lack that ownership, with systematic consequences for the individual members of each class.

Wright’s rigorous — or positivist, if you wanted to be dismissive — approach to understanding class helped him and fellow travelers, like Adam Przeworski and Jon Elster, to provide Marxism with something it sorely lacked: an error theory of why, despite the proletarianization of the majority of society, socialist revolution did not take place. Much of Wright’s work was devoted to figuring out how to classify people who didn’t fall neatly into the classic capitalist-proletarian dichotomy, and to tracing the consequences of falling in a “contradictory class location.”

The consequences of one’s class location are somewhat different than Marx and many of his earlier followers predicted: it isn’t true that workers, in virtue of the awareness of their common class position and shared interests, will necessarily organize to resist their exploitation, let alone make a socialist revolution. Again, we have to look to the interests of the individual agents to see why this is. Though workers have a shared interest in collectively fighting back against the capitalist class, there are also many barriers to collective action. Controversially, from the perspective of dogmatic Marxists, Marxists interested in clarifying the causes of worker inaction even used the theoretical tools of game theory, an approach used by the defense industry to understand the threat of nuclear war.

This more rigorous approach allowed Marxists to clarify the obstacles to mass worker resistance to capitalism. One is that workers depend on steady employment for their livelihood (and that of their families), organizing against the boss therefore carries the risk of being fired. Another is the free rider problem, much discussed in game theory: individuals stand to benefit from collective action even if they themselves don’t participate in the effort, generating an incentive to shirk and let others shoulder the burdens. But the danger is, if enough people free ride, collective efforts will fail. Despite their shared class interests, we should expect collective resistance to capitalism to be an exceptional rather than a typical state of affairs, as sociologist Vivek Chibber has recently argued in his book The Class Matrix, which in part develops the ideas of his mentor Wright.

Socialists need to grapple seriously with these problems rather than hide behind convoluted explanations that conceive of resistance in a voluntaristic way. Without attention to the structure of capitalist society, and the incentives and pressures this structure creates for individual agents, we will be unable to reverse decades of declining labor union membership and revive mass working-class political movements. We do ourselves no favors by assuming that attention to individual motivations and rationality is inherently liberal or anti-Marxist, or by dismissing supposedly bourgeois theories as fundamentally bound up with pro-capitalist ideology.

Socialism and Moral Philosophy

A similar knee-jerk aversion to serious thinking can be found in socialist responses to moral philosophy. Explicit attempts to theorize about justice, right and wrong, and the good life often crash against the rejoinder that making recipes for the cookshops of the future gets in the way of an analysis of capitalist exploitation.

But socialists need moral principles to guide them in constructing a vision of the future. We need to be able to explain to others how and why that vision of the future is morally desirable. “A socialist conception of justice,” philosopher Lillian Cicerchia wrote recently in Jacobin, “should offer good reasons for a great existential gamble: Why should people throw their lot in with a transition beyond capitalism?” Given the risks involved and the uncertainty of the destination, the Left needs to be clear, for others’ benefit and our own, about what’s morally at stake in our project of fundamentally transforming society. (It’s no wonder that G. A. Cohen, who made his name painstakingly and rigorously reconstructing Marx’s theory of historical materialism, spent most of his later career evaluating moral arguments for and against capitalism and socialism.)

Accepting the need for moral philosophy means doing the spadework of carefully assessing moral claims and arguments on their own merits. Sadly, much of the work that gets produced in Anglo-American philosophy departments doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to say the least, nor is it of much practical use to the Left. Still, we should guard against reflexive opposition to philosophical approaches that truck in ideas that are seen as “liberal.” This is a reflex that can preclude a proper understanding of thinkers which, though not explicitly of the Left, may offer useful contributions to socialist thought.

A typical example of this dismissiveness can be found in a recent broadside against analytic philosophy delivered by Christoph Schuringa. In it he claims that the political philosopher John Rawls’s classic A Theory of Justice is “an extended apologia for American liberalism.” But here he runs the risk of equating the fact that liberals have embraced Rawls’s ideas with the idea that these same ideas are hostile to socialist politics. Attentive engagement with Rawls reveals that he believed that a just society would go further than even the Scandinavian welfare states in redistributing wealth and power along egalitarian lines.

Furthermore, he believed that “actually existing” capitalism, even of the relatively humane postwar variety, was morally unacceptable. Depending on a society’s particular history and an empirical assessment of the concrete consequences of different institutional arrangements, justice would require either what he called “property-owning democracy,” in which private ownership of property was permitted but radically dispersed so as to prevent large concentrations of wealth, or a market-based socialism that protected individual rights of free expression and political participation.

This mischaracterization of Rawls is perhaps due to a more fundamental, and common, misconception of his premises. Schuringa charges the author of A Theory of Justice with “[ignoring] the central insight which Marxism, critical race theory, feminism, and other critiques of the social order” have tried to impress on liberals, which is “that relations of power structure the marketplace [of ideas] before anyone has even entered it.” Rather than ignoring relations of power, a recognition of the unequal distribution of power is a founding premise of Rawls’s political theory.

The theory is meant to articulate the principles of justice that govern the basic structure of society, that is, “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.” The reason for focusing on the basic structure is that

its effects are so profound and present from the start. . . . This structure contains various social positions and . . . men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as economic and social circumstances.

The aim of Rawls’s theory of justice, in other words, is to articulate principles that explain if, when, and how fundamental, “starting-point” inequalities of power and privilege can be justified. In fact, the last third of A Theory of Justice is devoted to exploring how different types of basic structure would affect their members’ psychological development, and so secure (or fail to secure) social stability.

This is the point of the infamous “veil of ignorance” thought experiment in which the philosopher asks us to envision the principles we’d want to govern society without any knowledge of our potential place within it. This thought experiment has probably led to more confusion than clarity about what exactly Rawls was arguing. But the basic idea was that a society’s major institutions should be equally justifiable to all, regardless of accidents of birth or one’s idiosyncratic visions of the good — a person’s religious creed, say, or their creative or artistic aspirations. It is no surprise, then, that Rawls ended up arguing that the capitalist status quo was unjust, or that left-wing thinkers today continue to find powerful anti-capitalist arguments in his work.

The Theory We Need

One of Marx’s most-quoted lines, from his Theses on Feuerbach, is: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” We should not interpret this dictum as suggesting a wholesale abandonment of clear and systematic thinking about society. Rather, we should ask, what theoretical approach will help socialists today change the world?

The answer must be one that penetrates the mystifying appearances of capitalist society without depriving itself of the theoretical tools that this society has produced. Doing the latter, socialists must recognize, entails an intellectual regression rather than an advance.

Embracing the best of what “bourgeois” theory and philosophy has to offer can allow us to explain what we find morally objectionable with today’s society and to offer an appealing vision of a better world. In advancing this project, the insights of analytic philosophy and analytic Marxism will be essential to building the emancipatory theory we need.