Book Review: How Marx Can Save American Capitalism, By Ronald W. Dworkin (2015)
This book would drive Marx crazy, and might send a lot of right-wingers around the bend as well. And you may be excused for thinking, as I did initially, that the author is the distinguished political and legal philosopher. That Ronald Dworkin is dead. This Ronald Dworkin teaches at George Washington University, works at the Hudson Institute, and moonlights as an anesthesiologist. This Dworkin is a quirky conservative, and his book is original.
Focusing on the early Marx (including the Communist Manifesto), Dworkin argues that Marx as a humanist understood the human costs of capitalism, which take such forms as alienation from meaningful work, radical insecurity, disempowerment, and commodity fetishism (seeking meaning through owning stuff). While Marx was wrong about the adaptability of capitalism, and thus wrong about inevitable revolution, his critique of capitalism was on target.
Left to its own devices, capitalism really will create a world in which workers are driven ever harder to produce ever more, with a division of labor that becomes profoundly alienating.
Left to its own devices, capitalism really will create a world in which workers are driven ever harder to produce ever more, with a division of labor that becomes profoundly alienating. It will drive wages down, discard surplus workers, and pollute the environment. The reason there hasn’t been a revolution in the most advanced capitalist countries is that “patches” have been applied: the welfare state, and regulation of the market both came about in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for example.
The patches, Dworkin argues, nonetheless have their own negative effects. They tend to create what he calls “crony capitalism.’ He uses the term much more broadly than its conventional usage to describe the economies of many Third World societies. What he means is that even in advanced industrial societies like ours, both corporations and individuals become dependent on the state and thus lose their capacity for independent and creative action. Thus when corporations focus on shaping the state’s regulatory policies and gaining government contracts, they are no longer free agents in a free market. When individuals depend on the state for their material well-being, they lose the capacity for independent action. This is where American society is now.
Dworkin would drive Marx crazy because he is arguing that capitalism is capable, yet again, of transcending its own internal contradictions and moving on to a new stage. That stage he calls “advanced capitalism.” The hallmark of advanced capitalism is that it moves beyond crony capitalism. This is where Dworkin will run into trouble with his fellow conservatives. He argues that capitalist companies must address the problems cited above: alienation from meaningful work, radical insecurity, disempowerment, and commodity fetishism. They have to look to the well-being of their workers if they want to wean them away from dependence on the state.
At the same time, companies have to swear off their own dependence on the state for regulation and contracts. That would include most prominently the entire defense industry. Advanced capitalism amounts to free-market capitalism, but the competing companies are more enlightened in providing for the welfare of their employees, thereby weaning them away from dependence on the state.
Those on the left will see this vision as no more than a fevered dream. Those on the right in America today will agree with ending dependence on the state—but only for the workers. They want less regulation of the economy, of course, but the captains of industry want to continue feeding at the government trough.
Dworkin’s conservatism shows up in his choice of examples. Rather than illustrate alienation from meaningful work with a factory worker, or even a fast food worker, he uses an eye surgeon who is desperately bored with performing the same surgery multiple times daily, day after day, year after year. He shows the power of the new guilds (i.e., unions and professional accrediting agencies) by talking about his mother’s experience as a non-credentialed social worker in a nursing home. Unions do not do anything good: they just restrict access to particular fields of work. They are just a part of crony capitalism.
He dismisses the current demand for more economic equality as a pointless obsession. Most on the left would argue forcefully that greater equality is a key to greater prosperity.
It is of course a tribute to Marx that the term capitalism has come into universal use, even by its defenders. This book is perhaps a tribute to Marx, but I felt nonetheless, when I had finished it, that I had witnessed a perversion.