Category: Philosophy

Reflection: Different movements, same problem.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

The Right is unified.  Disparate issues, unified front–there are divisions (libertarians versus social conservatives, for example), but when the day is over, class issues unite them, and gender isn’t far behind.

The Left, however, is fragmented.

You have environmentalists, feminists, queer activists, union folks, civil rights and immigrants rights coalitions, anti-war protesters. . . many groups fighting for many causes, each prioritizing their own (in so many cases) and not drawing the connections between them strong enough to really convince the uncommitted why they should integrate new areas of concern.

This fragmentation has served the traditional Right strategy of ‘divide-and-conquer” well.

Towards a Stronger Left

How do we get beyond this for a strong coalition?  How does one become part of a unified movement?

Sexual practices and orientation, abortion rights, the ability to move safely from one country to another, and struggles for control over one’s workplace certainly don’t look like the same type of issue–but at their core, they are diverse threads of a singular political tapestry.

Each of the arenas of social concern and activism that characterize the New Left involve, in essence, one group with power fighting to control the life and activity of another group, that is, to use them instrumentally towards the acquisition of greater power.

Economic Power

Capitalists fight to gain political and intellectual leverage because they want ever-more-power to regulate the opportunities and possibilities for workers.  Control over workers’ labor, and over their ability to be independent from dependence on wage labor (preventing them from, say, going into business for themselves, surviving off their own plot of land, etc) are the primary ways that capitalists gain increased profits.

Their power, money, prestige, and influence are used to fight for a world in which:

(1) At least someone in your family needs to work for some boss for members of the family to survive (guaranteed through the erosion of welfare rights, Social Security, etc, so survival relies on wage labor), and

(2) That boss has increasing control over how they can progressively maximize your productivity and keep you working harder (eroding labor laws and collective bargaining, etc).  They want control over your activity for their benefit.

Gender and Sexuality

Traditional ‘separate sphere’ beliefs regarding ‘women’s place’ posit women’s ‘roles’ in society as (1) being a wife, and (2) mother of the husband’s children, while (3) taking care of the home, and (4) being perfectly sexually available.

Total deference.

These beliefs (which are enforced directly or indirectly) keep women subservient to men, giving men control over women’s activity.

Heteronormativity and homo/bi/queerphobia further leech into these considerations, inasmuch as free sexuality and reproductive autonomy are really harmful to patriarchal family structures.

Patriarchal family structures, grounded on men having control over women, rest on a monopoly of such control–no sexually free women, certainly no women having sex outside legally binding patriarchal marriages, no reproduction rights, and certainly no women in relationships with other women.


And men with men?  Men are supposed to exhibit and pursue control over women, and to deny all traces of activities or desires associated with women in a hetero-normative patriarchal society–so all non-heterosexual activity is prohibited.

These regulations stem far back, encoded into belief structures when families were the prime locus of production and holders of wealth, and so control over families (and the expansion of families through the prohibition of all sexual activity that didn’t result in babies) was important.

Thus, beliefs formed that chastised men and women for, and outlawed, non-reproductive sexual and relationship freedom, which became the dominant model of the ‘family’ (which, as it just so happens, gives collective power to heterosexual men over women and queer men).   Control over activity, yet again.

Intersectional Complexity

Civil rights issues are clear; racism is admittedly about the dominant racial group trying to control the subordinated racial group.  Anti-immigrant fervor is usually a thinly disguised racism, or a deep-seated fear (about terrorism or something), but either way the design is to control immigrant activity through either keeping them from one place to another or, alternately, to reduce their privileges while here.

Anti-environmental policies and behaviors, too, involve the unconditional domination of human beings (frequently capitalists nowadays) over the environment and all life within it.

In other words, all New Left movements can be unified into a movement of the Now-Left, built around freedom as self-determination, i.e. no group having control over another, but all individuals having control over the conditions of their own existence, living life with an egalitarian autonomy.

Only this is freedom.

Only this is democracy.

And other common factors connect to this notion (well being, sustainability, etc.), but freedom as self-determination could be a unifying guiding light for the movement we need right now, if we are to save what world we have left.

After a solid month of visiting various friends and family members, I am now ready to start blogging more regularly again.  With all vacations, I emerged appreciating life more. . . which means I am going to take a break from reading classics of libertarianism for at least this week.  Today, I am going to do a brief review of Hannah Arendt’s Antisemitism, and proceed to draw out some of its implications for a Marxist theory of racism.

Arendt’s book is not about Marxism in any way;  it is an account of antisemitism, the ideology, itself.  The history of the phenomena, as Arendt explains it, begins with the slow development of the nation states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Individual Jews became strongly associated with the state in these periods, as Jewish bankers became often the sole source of financing for state activities.  This gave European Jews both inroads into the inner circles of the state (without themselves gaining actual political power) and a corresponding dependence on the state for their protection in a society which is otherwise hostile towards them.

After the French Revolution, nation states emerged large enough to require more capital than any individual Jewish banker could supply.  Consequentially, the combined wealth of the wealthier Jews provided financing for state activities, which accorded special privileges to the Jews.  At this stage, wealthy Jews were fully integrated into the state as a sort of ‘financial arm.’  This period ended with the nineteenth century rise in imperialism, where capitalist expansion involved the direct aid of the state.  Early in this period, bourgeois businessmen saw the profitability of financing state activity and displaced Jewish bankers as the dominant source of state revenue.  This removed their long-standing state function, leaving them relatively unprotected yet with large remaining sums of useless wealth.  Additionally, despite the fact that Jews gradually lost their state function, and with it what social power they had (which, in reality, was shared only by rich individual Jews, not distributed to Jews as a group), their prior position as the prime source of financial revenue, and integration into political circles in every European country, connected them directly in the mind of most classes in society to the state independent of their actual position or power.  Thus, as discontent grew against the state, discontent grew against Jews as a race as representatives of the state.  Thus, the rise of Antisemitism, in short, is really a reaction against ‘the state’ which became a reaction against European Jewry.

This process shows its implications for Marxist theories of race after a few facts are introduced.  Jews became enmeshed in banking as a result of Christian prohibition of usury in the middle ages.  Jews were religiously persecuted, and commonly forbidden from traditional occupations, while in those same Christian regions usury (the reception of interest after the loaning of money) was prohibited to, essentially, everyone except the Jews.  The obvious consequence is that, in order to make a living, Jews had to engage in loaning money and receiving interest, a practice that was actually looked down upon rather than empowered (as is the case with modern financial capitalists).

The religious persecution of Jews (rather than racial persecution) resulted, thus, in the system of Jewish banking, that itself led to the process Arendt describes.  This gradually codified into persecution of Jews by race, and throughout this process the finance capitalist Jewry were essentially forced into this degraded class status until its power and profit potential was realized by the bourgeois;  at that point, the Jews could no longer serve this function, and they lost the only protected class status that any Jews had attained.  In short, the fact that Jews were Jews, first religiously then racially, forced them into subjugated economic positions, then forced them out when those positions were no longer subjugated.   Racism, here in the form of antisemitism, seemed to be a tool to force a group of people into a subjugated (yet functionally necessary) economic class.  This insight, though undeveloped, might be the foundation for a strong Marxist analysis of racism.

Philosophy Post: Equality

A recent Huffington Post article alerted me to a paper by UC Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez, showing that income inequality is greater as of 2007 than ever before in American history.  In fact, as of 2007, the top 0.01% of Americans took home 6% of total U.S. wages.  Why is inequality important?

In addition to the obvious fact that inequality between individuals affects their life chances and ability to satisfy their goals and meet their needs, it also represents something.  Inequality between people represents the valuation of their human worth.  If all individuals’ worth is absolute, i.e. independent of anything they do and wholly because they are, then there would be no inequality.  Look at it this way–if the worth of individuals were equal, and independent of what they’ve done, there would never be any reason for unequal distribution of wealth.  If you doubt this, try to think of a way it could be differential (except for accident, and in case of such an accident, equal valuation would likely result in immediate rectification of such momentary inequality).

But it is cannot be said that inequality represents society’s valuation of different individuals’ worth, because society does not choose the distribution of income or the distribution of property. In all societies but the very earliest communal ones, certain classes have had control over the means of production (i.e. tools and raw materials), and these property relationships have been protected by force and justified by the ideologies of their time.  In class societies, including our own, only the dominant class have the ability to determine who gets what job and what they get paid.  Ideological defenders of capitalism claim that supply and demand determine everything, from jobs (where social demand for a job creates it) to income (where the social valuation of the job determines how much it gets monetarily rewarded).  This picture hides a number of factors.  First, it hides that only ‘effective demand’ gets met.  Effective demand is demand backed by the money to compensate the supplier.  Thus, production under capitalism is not intended to meet needs.  Commodities are produced only when, and insofar as they might realize profits for their ‘owner’. If capitalism meets needs, then, it is purely a coincidence.  An accident.  Thus, jobs aren’t necessarily created because the jobs are socially valued or needed, but because their existence makes money for capitalists.  Same goes for income; capitalists pay employees as little as they can get away with while maximizing profit.  They will thus supply however much they think they can get a profit from, and the more money an individual is willing and able to pay to get a good or service, the more suppliers will fight to produce for that market, regardless of the good.  When an economist explains production and jobs according to supply and demand, they really mean to explain it in terms of money, but that directs the question towards one of inequality and needs, which is precisely what a capitalist economist wants to gloss over and assume away. 

Additionally, discussion of ‘supply and demand’ does not address the ‘rate of profit’.  Capitalists mark up the product from its cost of production, but that does not explain how the amount of this markup is determined.  In more competitive markets, profits tend to be lower, and in more monopolized markets profits tend to be higher, but in neither type of market does supply and demand strictly determine the rate of profit.  They tend to be unofficially standardized according to industry, but the process of their standardization has nothing whatsoever to do with supply or demand.  We cannot really explain anything but the most inconsequential facets of our economic system with the concepts of supply and demand.  It is only useful to tell us that the more suppliers per demands, the more relative power potential consumers have, and the fewer suppliers per demands, the more relative power suppliers have.  They don’t themselves explain the creation of jobs or the distribution of income, they only implicitly relate to the concept of power, and they certainly do not reflect need or the will of society as a whole.

Distribution of income, then, reflects the valuation of human worth according to the dominant class in a society, the capitalists in our own.  More specifically, it rewards them according to the function they serve for the dominant class, and how hard it is for capitalists to fill those necessary functions.  Inequality exists, then, because the capitalists (considered as a whole) devalue the worth of the people towards the bottom of the income ladder (relative to the perceived value of their social function), and value the worth of those towards to top more.  This generic formula rings true for labor; the very top tends to consist of capitalists themselves, and class conflict can generate income and benefits for labor with some independence from the valuation of their labor by the capitalists themselves.  This is so because class-conscious laborers can unify as laborers to restrict the supply of their labor, thus giving them greater power, or unify as citizens to enact legislation which will produce similar effects.  In the absence of strong class consciousness on the part of labor, any laborers wages and benefits are as low as capitalists can get away with.

Thus, this inequality is purely the product of class in American society.  It is a combination of the (1) class power of capitalists over society, (2) low valuation of the human worth of those towards the bottom of the economic latter (where laborers, as we have shown, have no inherent worth to capitalists, but only instrumental value), and (3) low class power, revealing their relative absence of class consciousness and unity. It does not reflect nature, or inequality of ability.  It is the result of class society, of capitalism, and the only way out is not a welfare capitalist state, but a postcapitalist (decentralized, democratic, participatory and planned) socialism.

Huffington Post: “Income Inequality is at an All-Time High” –

After reading two quite good posts on the Left Solutions blog against Ayn Rand, I decided that my next book reviews will be about some classics of libertarianism.  I expect to review Friedman, Rand, some Hayek, Nozick, maybe even some Rothbard.

Today’s book review is a classic of Libertarian thought, and a very influential defense of capitalism, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.  It’s major theme is, in the words of Friedman, “the role of competitive capitalism . . . as a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom” (4) and its minor theme “is the role that government should play in a society dedicated to freedom and relying primarily on the market to organize economic activity” (ibid).  As the first two chapters lay out his theoretical position most explicitly, and contain the bulk of his arguments, I will concern myself most explicitly with these chapters, and draw from the last four chapters, The Distribution of Income, Social Welfare Measures, and Alleviation of Poverty, as well as the Conclusion, where appropriate.

Friedman begins through asserting that “only certain combinations of political and economic arrangements are possible” (8), and that “a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom” (ibid).  He specifies that capitalist economic systems are not necessarily democratic, but that capitalism is a necessary prerequisite for democracy.  Friedman continues by arguing that (1) “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood” (8) and thus an end in itself, and (2) “economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom” (ibid).

Economic freedom, to Friedman, essentially means freedom of exchange, i.e. the ability to buy or sell without legal restriction.  He considers it a necessary component of freedom because a restriction of it is a restriction of a range of choices and actions.  Political freedom means “the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men” (15).  Friedman considers economic freedom as a means to political freedom because “it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other” (9).  Markets more specifically secure political freedom because they remove “the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, [and thus] the market eliminates this source of coercive power. . . [enabling] economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement” (ibid).  Concentration of power, he argues, is most dangerous to freedom, and there is no zero sum law of economic power or fixed quantity of total economic power, whereas he sees the quantity of political power being essentially finite and thus more prone to concentration. He notes a general correspondence with the emergence of democracy and the emergence of capitalism, and a short time later argues that “collectivist economic planning has indeed interfered with individual freedom” (11).

After that partial digression, Friedman elaborates on the connection between economic and political freedom.  He argues that “the basic problem of social organization is how to co-ordinate the economic activities of large numbers of people” (12) and that there are two ways of doing so, either (1) “central direction involving the use of coercion” or (2) “voluntary co-operation of individuals” (13).  The latter, he claims, is based on the premise that “both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed” (ibid).  Consequently, he deduces, competitive capitalism brings co-ordination without coercion.  It is worthy to note here that his elaboration that “co-operation is strictly individual and voluntary provided: (a) that enterprises are private, so that the ultimate contracting parties are individuals and (b) that individuals are effectively free to enter or not to enter into any particular exchange, so that every transaction is strictly voluntary” (14).  In his model, viewing all ‘economic freedom’ in terms of exchanges, the buying and selling of goods and labor power are always mutually beneficial, never the product of coercion, and necessary components of freedom.  In fact, he claims that “the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another in respect of most of his activities” (ibid).  The selling of labor power is uncoerced in that “the employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work” (14-15).

This voluntary model of organization by markets is contrasted against “action through political channels,” which “tends to require or enforce substantial conformity” (15). Here he claims that the market is “a system of proportional representation” where “each man can vote [for his consumption choices]” (ibid).

Finally, Friedman argues that competitive capitalist societies have an easier time accommodating the avocation of socialism than socialist societies have allowed the avocation of capitalism. First, he argues that “in order for men to advocate anything, they must be in the first place able to earn a living” (16), which is problematic under socialism, he claims, because of governmental control of the job market.  Whereas in socialist societies, the state would have to subsidize subversive literature, Friedman argues that in competitive capitalism all one has to do is find a rich benefactor, or prove that one’s literature will make the publisher (or other media source) money.  The ability in competitive capitalism to find rich benefactors, Friedman argues, shows “a role of inequality of wealth in preserving political freedom that is seldom noted–the role of the patron” (17).  He further defends the costs borne in capitalist society to advocate radical change, arguing that “no society could be stable if advocacy of radical change were costless . . . [and that] it is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial” (18).  His only caveat is that “what is essential is that the cost of advocating unpopular causes be tolerable and not prohibitive” (ibid).

The role of government, then, is to provide “for the maintenance of law and order to prevent coercion of one individual by another, the enforcement of contracts voluntarily entered into, the definition of the meaning of property rights, the interpretation and enforcement of such rights, and the provision of a monetary framework” (27).  These questions are large, and Friedman places a notable caveat on what he believes to be the extent of democratic determination.  He writes that “the use of political channels, while inevitable, tends to strain the social cohesion essential for a stable society.  The strain is least if agreement for joint action need be reached only on a limited range of issues on which people in any event have common views” (23).  In other words, the more important the issue, the more Friedman sees it being destructive of democratic unity, and thus “fundamental differences in basic values can seldom if ever be resolved at the ballot box” (24) and inevitably result in conflict.  Here, again, he embraces the market for not requiring conformity on these base issues.

Now that we have laid out Friedman’s basic stance on the relationship between economic and political freedom, let us back up and consider his arguments as a whole. To recap, Friedman considers (1) ‘economic freedom’ as the freedom to engages in exchange independent of political authority or coercion, and (2) ‘political freedom’ as, more generally, freedom from coercion. Viewing freedom, generally speaking, as the overriding moral and political value, Friedman argues that the freedom to exchange, i.e. buy and sell in a competitive market, is a necessary component of freedom in that it is a subset of choices and actions that one ought to be able to engage in without experiencing coercion. Economic freedom is thus and end in itself. He also argues that economic freedom is central to political freedom because of (a) its controlling the means to politically determined ends, limiting governmental power, and (b) the ability for unpopular and radical perspectives to find voice in the market.


Friedman’s case rests on a number of assumptions, any of which would undermine his argument, but taken as a whole entirely demolish his case. Friedman’s conception of freedom is the absence of physical coercion. Friedman is right in his overarching perspective that governmental action involves or implies the use of coercion by necessity; the background of governmental laws is their ability to enforce them, and the concept of legitimate government implies its legitimate monopoly on the use of force within its boundaries. He simply sees the range of legitimate coercion extending only to protect the rules and preconditions of free market capitalism—contract enforcement and the definition and enforcement of property rights. He claims that the scope and definition of property rights is a question taken for granted, and properly subject to democratic debate, while simultaneously arguing for the inability for democracy to work in substantial value discussion (like debate over property rights) and presupposes the legitimacy of private property rights throughout his argument. Without the presupposed legitimacy of private property (or at least private property in the means of production) no individual would have the right to produce independent of social agreement, or for that matter restrict distribution of goods; his conception of economic freedom, which he claims to be a necessary component of freedom, is contingent upon the legitimacy of private property in the means of production. He further continually emphasizes that the ability to exchange, economic freedom, is an individual freedom, and thus placing constraints on individual exchange opportunities seems as though it would inherently violate his account of freedom. Thus, while he overtly recognizes that definitions of appropriate property rights are subject to democratic determination, his argument for economic freedom, and thus his argument that competitive capitalism supports freedom and is thus desirable, depends upon private property in the means of production being legitimate. If private property is not legitimate, then the coercion with which the government protects it is illegitimate, and economic freedom in the sense that Friedman intents violates political freedom. So the question becomes “Do we, as individuals, have a right to private property in the means of production?”



This review is continued at:

Left Solutions: Ayn Rand, sociopathic politics –

From today forward, I will post regular, weekly updates three times a week (and, in light of important future news, occasional analyses of important current events.  Mondays I will blog about something important in the news.  Wednesdays I will post about a book or article I am reading or have read–it could be a straightforward review, an analysis of some part, or even an application to something happening in the world.  Fridays I will blog about something philosophical–it could be about a specific philosopher or work of philosophy, an analysis of a concept or argument, or an argument of my own.  There is certainly going to be some conceptual overlap; expect my analyses of current events to pull from literature or to contain arguments, my ‘book reviews’ to contain references to news or philosophical argument, and my philosophy to pull from others’ philosophies.  My point here is to mention that I will be posting regularly, and expect for certain something about current events on Monday, something about a book or article on Wednesday, and something about philosophy on Friday.  Additionally, I check every comment and reply whenever possible, so if anyone has a suggestion of something in the news that deserves mention, a book that should be looked at, or a philosopher or philosophical argument that should be analyzed, as well as any other comments (or criticisms/rebuttals, for that matter), feel free to post.

Today, I want to take some time to explain Marx’s theory of history, referred to as either historical or dialectical materialism.  Some make a distinction between historical and dialectical materialism, but for the purposes of this blog post, I will only be referring to the theory as ‘historical materialism’. 

In Marx’ s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he summarizes historical materialism as follows:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.  The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.”

I’ll stop quoting here, and explain.  In short, Marx is saying that economic structure of society is the driving force behind society (including other institutions, such as religion and the state).  But Marx’s conception of the economy is much more complex than our own.  Nowadays, when we reference ‘the economy’ in public discourse, we’re contrasting the realm of private exchange with the forms of the public sphere, because in capitalism the state and other public institutions ought to be removed from the exchange process (so they argue). It should be mentioned, however, that capitalism is the first economic system in human history where the realm of exchange is notembedded in the public sphere (for this point, see Karl Polyani, the Great Transformation).  But to Marx, the ‘economic structure of society’ consists of ‘the relations of production’ that men fall into ‘independent of their will’.  What does he mean by that?

A society is successful for its members and as itself if it survives, i.e. if at least as many people enter society (from birth or from outside it) as exit it.  Society is thus successful if it can, at the very least, secure its members sustenance and promote their reproduction.  Engels confirms this in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State  in his First Preface.  He writes that “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life.” This basic condition, that society is successful when it helps its members, overall, to live and reproduce, is contingent upon two factors, the forces of production (also referred to as the means of production) and the relations of production. 

The forces of production, generally, consist of the tools and technology at man’s disposal to produce what he needs, as well as the raw materials and natural resources needed to produce or meet needs.  For example, in early hunting-based societies, people needed spears, eventually bows and arrows, in order to meet their needs.  These were forces of production.  But in the process of society’s organizing to meet needs, different individuals begin to serve different functions in the productive process.  These relations are what Marx refers to as the relations of production, and they are the origin of class society.  Different classes are groups of people with different relationships to the forces of production, and these are expressed in the form of property rights (and not necessarily pure private property rights, as exists in capitalism today). The dominant class is the group of people who have ‘rights’ to the things people need in order to produce their sustenance.  They use the power their ownership confers to get nonowners to produce in their stead; i.e. the actual producers or laborers produce are given the tools and resources to produce by the ‘owner’ of those tools and resources, and are then required to produce more than their own sustenance.  This excess production, which serves no needs for the producers is surplus value given to the owner of the forces of production.  This condition, where individual laborers are forced to work for another class because of the monopoly over the forces of production that another class has, is referred to as exploitation.  Marx notes that, historically, the only time in our human past without these exploitative class relationships was primitive communism, and ever since all economic systems have been class systems.  These relations of production are what arrange production that meets man’s needs.  This is what Marx means when he refers to the economy as “the totality of the relations of production”, and people fall into these roles independent of their will because people are born into society, where class structures are already formed, and given the advantages the dominant class has in keeping their position safe, it is far easier to be funneled into the exploited class than the dominant class.  Furthermore, when Marx claims that the superstructure (i.e. the state, religion, etc) is, essentially, subservient to the economic structure of society, he is merely saying that these ideological forms must, overall, support the economic structure, i.e. must allow more people being able to survive and reproduce than not.  For example, if the state in a society kills all the workers, then society collapses, or if the dominant religion in a society believes that it is impious to have children, then society stops reproducing.  These superstructural features cause society to fail because they work against the two things it needs to do to be successful.  The superstructure, then, is dependent upon the economy in the sense that it must promote, overall, the survival of society.  Engels clarifies this in a letter written September 21, 1890, where he says:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.

In other words, elements of the superstructure are constrained by the economic system, and the dominant ideologies are ideologies of the ruling class, who both have the means of promoting ideologies and, in legitimating their class domination, have the need for it.  Additionally, elements of the superstructure (like, again, the state, religion, or moral and philosophical theories) exhibit some independence from the economic base, because they are not wholly determined, and can quite often remain after changes in the base, regardless of their essential obsolescence.

If the ruling class holds the means of production, and therefore people’s ability to survive, backed by the coercive power of the state, and supported by superstructural ideologies that hinder social change and support the status quo, how is change possible?

Marx states that society changes–marked most determinately by a massive change in the economy, i.e. the class structure–when “the material forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or . . . with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.”  This is because “no social order is ever destroyed before all the all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  What this means, in essence, is that social revolutions occur when the productive potentialities of the existing forces of production is limited by the existing class structure and relations of production.  The organization of society, in other words, stands in the way of its potentiality for meeting society’s needs; its organization is standing in the way of its success, as we mentioned earlier.  When this occurs, a revolution must occur if society is going to continue on, rather than die out.  In the Communist Manifesto, after the famous quote that “,” Marx proceeds to argue that “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”  In other words, class struggle ends in either a change in the economic system such that solves the contradictions of the old, or everybody loses and society dies out.  In short, Marx’s point here, I argue, is to show that societies reach a point in their development where they must either have a social revolution in their class structures or they will dwindle and die, and not the common misconception that Marx thought that successful changes from one economic system to another are inevitable.

The distinction between formal and substantive interpretations of rights, to me, is very important in deciding the interpretation of the right.  I think there is a case to be made that you ought to choose the substantive interpretation.  By way of example, lets choose the group of African Americans who live in the post-Jim Crow United States.  Statistically, while they are not formally denied legal equality, and their right to life, liberty, and property is formally protected, statistically many factors in their life reveal unequal treatment.  The formal right is protected, but evidence suggests that their right is not respected.  Where does this difference come from?  It seems that having a formal interpretation of rights applied in a condition where the individuals are on unequal footing does nothing to equalize their footing;  there must be a principle of rectification of wrongs and a realization that unequal footing makes formal rights meaningless.

Lets take, however, the private ownership of capital as an institution.  Perhaps we will assume the starting gate theory in its most egalitarian; a group of people are going to have their initial shares of social resources equalized, and after that point they will have laissez faire control over what they do—there are no limits, because (in theory) as resources were equalized fairly, who can object to what anyone does, or what the results are of what anyone does?  This prima facie seems to account for the substance of my critique, in that it levels the playing field.

But regardless of the equality of the starting point, every time someone purchases something by which they will make money, i.e. capital or land, and it is protected by society, it creates a new starting point, because the conditions that arise are solidified and the options of the rest of society become importantly restricted.  Purchase of capital creates a differential of power and privilege that changes the rules of the game in practice from then on out, and puts individuals on unequal footing from that moment on.  In short, private ownership of capital seems to make rights merely formal for the same reason that African Americans are only formally equal; systemized differential power and privilege translate into differences in the respecting of rights.  Private ownership of capital systemizes differential power and privilege.  So essentially, private ownership of capital translates into differences in the respecting of rights. 

The debate regarding whether equality of opportunity or equality of condition is desirable is a large focus of contemporary political philosophy.  In short, the equality of opportunity position states that, instead of actualized welfare, we ought to equalize opportunity for welfare (or success or whatever your particular valued good is).  Reasons for this position vary widely.  Some don’t think that social benefits are morally deserved unless one has chosen to work for their attainment, for example.   I argue that the fact that one has worked towards the attainment of something does not change their moral status; the ‘work requirement,’ in my conception, has only practical relevance.  Work is a prerequisite if and only if society cannot sustain the fulfillment of positive rights otherwise.  If there are some needs for which we have not found a way to satisfy them, for example the need to be cured of AIDS and cancer, we have a social obligation to work towards their satisfaction in any way we can (if we cannot discover a cure ourselves, we can work towards a charitable foundation, or promote social policy that supports funding, etc).  Thus, if the goods needed to fulfill needs aren’t being produced, society and individuals within it are violating rights.  Furthermore, once these goods are produced, it is a violation of rights to hinge their use-availability on something like money, or abstractly conceived merit.  In short, we have an obligation to figure out how to satisfy needs, produce the goods, social and institutional changes necessary for said satisfaction, and finally, an obligation to distribute these goods according to need only; this obligation is so strong as to be based in justice itself.  The capitalist market is not the proper sphere for needs to be satisfied, and in fact, its very laws exist contrary to social justice.  I suppose the relevance to equality of opportunity is that, in my eyes, equality of opportunity is only an ideal regarding goods that do not satisfy needs.  Requiring that someone do something for the realization of their right (as is supposed in equality of opportunity theories) violates that right by making it practically contingent upon something that it is not morally contingent upon.

This discussion, however, presupposes no distinction between negative and positive rights, or at least no relevant distinction.  As Henry Shue ably points out, however, both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ rights have positive and negative sets of duties connected to them.  They both entail the duties of (1) refraining from the violation of right x (negative), (2) promoting social structures that protect right x (positive), and (3) remedying any violations of right x (positive).  Shue argues that there are, in fact, no positive or negative rights, simply positive and negative duties.  I wish to take a different, yet connected, line of discussion.  The distinction between positive and negative interpretations of rights hinges on the distinction between acts of omission and acts of commission.  In short, this distinction hinges on the belief that it is more wrong to commit a wrong action than withhold a corresponding right action (for example, it is more wrong to kill than to withhold the means of life).  Various arguments are cited for support, including (1) motivational reasons, and (2) the Kantian distinction between perfect and imperfect duties.  One such argument for a motivational distinction would be that, whereas killing (intentionally) is an act of the will and the intent of the action, letting die is commonly not the intent of the action (for example, when you do not give food to the starving, it is not because you want them to starve and die, but because you want to keep your food [or perhaps some prima facie more valuable reason that I cannot think of]).  This, I think, fails because if one has (1) the knowledge that conditions such as that people are starving to death can or do generally exist, and (2) one has or can attain the ability to alleviate some degree of this condition, then (3) one has as strong an obligation as the obligation not to kill, because (4) it takes a conscious act to ignore knowledge of what must be done, and/or do nothing about it.  If (1) prevails, the rest roughly follow (and I did not intend those arguments to constitute a formal logic derivation).  One has a motivational duty as strong to eliminate suffering as the one not to cause it.

Furthermore, some suppose the Kantian distinction between perfect duties (omissions of actions, whereby omissions are perfectly universalizable with no contradiction) and imperfect duties (where universalizable performance results in a contradiction but where some performance is obligatory).  I believe, however, that this distinction rests on a false formulation by Kant.  Kant attempted to universalize maxims of positive action, which cannot be universally performed, and used that inability to universally perform them to suppose no universal obligation; the obligation to positive actions rests on choice, not universal duty.  However, I think that the next step is not to make positive duties ‘nice but not mandatory,’ but to conceive of positive duties as ‘mandatory when (1) possibly achieved in the moment without too grievous of a sacrifice, and (2) achievable in a manner consistent with a long-term ability to continue to fulfill other duties.’  Kant’s problem gets resolved, and the concept of positive rights is reinforced.  While these considerations do not completely remove the distinction between acts and omissions, they do shine some light on why I feel the distinction has little to no relevance to conceptions of rights.