Marx on individualism, equality and democracy

As I’ve mentioned before, I am one of several scholars participating in the Social Science Centre’s course on ‘Co-operation and education‘. This week (week five), we were discussing co-operative values and principles, with a particular focus on ‘autonomy’ (4th principle) and ‘democracy’ (2nd principle). The reading for this week was Ian MacPherson’s ‘Speech Introducing the Co‐operative Identity Statement to the 1995 Manchester Congress of the ICA’, and the article on democracy from the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

In addition to this, I also went looking for something that discussed Marx’s views on democracy, partly because he usually acts as a counter to the dominant liberal history of ideas, and also because I have been thinking about the role of democracy, equality and the individual in the context of teaching and learning in a post-capitalist form of higher education. The article I ended up reading was Springborg (1984) Karl Marx on Democracy, Participation, Voting, and Equality, Political Theory, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Nov., 1984), pp. 537-556. Below are my rough thoughts and notes on Springborg’s article…

Marx’s views on democracy share things in common with classical political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Hegel. He viewed participatory democracy negatively as a form of radical individualism as it emphasises first and foremost the agency of the individual rather than of the community as a whole through representatives. Springborg identifies three main arguments from Marx in defence of the idea of democracy:

1. Democracy is “the essence” of the political. It is more than its legal, juridical form. In his 1844 Manuscripts and 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, communism and democracy are described separately in the same terms.

Springborg paraphrasing Marx on communism:

“the resolution of the antithesis between essence and existence, form and content, individual and species; it is the riddle of history solved and knows itself to be that solution.”

Marx:

“Democracy is the resolved mystery of all constitutions. Here the constitution not only in itself, according to essence, but according to existence and actuality is returned to its real ground, actual man, the actual people, and established as its own work. The constitution appears as what it is, the free product of men… democracy is the essence of every political constitution, socialised man under the form of a particular constitution of the state… stands related to other constitutions as the genus to its species; only here the genus itself appears as an existent, and therefore opposed as a particular species to those existents which do not conform to the essence. Democracy relates to all other forms of the state as their Old Testament. Man does not exist because of the law but rather the law exists for the good of man. Democracy is human existence, while in the other political forms man has only legal existence. That is the fundamental difference of democracy.”

Springborg: “Under the aegis of democracy, first the abstract distinction between civil society and the state and second the state itself as an abstraction are surpassed. Thus “in true democracy the political state disappears.” (Marx) This is because democracy as unity of particular and universal, part and whole, is no mere constitutional form but a system whose principles actually govern.” (my emphasis)

“In democracy the constitution, the law, the state, so far as it is political constitution, is itself only a self-determination of the people, and a determinate content of the people.” (Marx)

I understand this to mean that rather than the state being an abstraction set apart from people, under a true democracy the people constitute the state (they are the “essence of the political”) to the extent that the state as a determinate abstract force in society is negated. True democracy is stateless. It is literally the ‘rule of the people’, expressed through social, human existence.

2. Democracy does not require the participation of all members of society as individuals in the decision-making process. Both direct or representative participation is to falsely conceive of the problem. Membership in a true democratic society does not demand participation in the state. The artificial distinction between society and the state is wrong in the first place.

“In a really rational state one could answer, ‘Not every single person should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern’, because the individuals share in deliberating and deciding on matters of general concern as the ‘all’, that is to say, within and as members of the society. Not all individually, but the individuals as all… Hegel presents himself with the dilemma: either civil society (the Many, the multitude) shares through deputies in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern or all [as] I individuals do this. This is no opposition of essence, as Hegel subsequently tries to present it, but of existence, and indeed of the most external existence, quantity. Thus, the basis which Hegel himself designated as external – the multiplicity of members – remains the best reason against the direct participation of all. The question of whether civil society should participate in the legislature either by entering it through deputies or by the direct participation of all as individuals is itself a question within the abstraction of the political state or within the abstract political state; it is an abstract political question.” (Marx)

This is, I think, a warning that questions about ‘participation’ in democracy are situated/trapped in the very conceptual approach they are trying to escape from. To suggest that everyone participate in deciding matters of political concern is to assume that the state continues to remain an abstract political force, apart from people, that benefits quantitatively from the direction of each individual. Marx wants to avoid “the methodological individualism of radical democracy.” (Springborg) In a true democracy, the state is not external to the people and therefore does not and cannot act apart from the will of individuals who act “as all.” It is a fundamentally different conception of large scale human social relations as well as posing a different “ontology” of the political. Marx notes that according to Hegel:

“In its proper form the opposition is this: the individuals participate as all, or the individuals participate as a few, as not all. In both cases allness remains merely an external plurality or totality of individuals. Allness is no essential, spiritual, actual quality of the individual. It is not something through which he would lose the character of abstract individuality. Rather, it is merely the sum total of individuality. One individuality, many individualities, all individualities. The one, the many, the all – none of these determinations changes the essence of the subject, individuality.

All as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern; that is to say, then, that all should share in this not as all but as individuals.” (Marx, summarising Hegel)

Where Marx fundamentally differs from Hegel is in his conception of how the state exists as a social form, not in abstraction but ontologically and epistemologically as its members:

“The very notion of member of the state implies their being a member of the state, a part of it, and the state having them as its part. But if they are an integral part of the state, then it is obvious that their social existence is already their actual participation in it. They are not only integral parts of the state, but the state is their integral part. To be consciously an integral part of something is to participate consciously in it, to be consciously integral to it. Without this consciousness the member of the state would be an animal.” (Marx)

To consciously ‘be’ is more than to simply ‘participate’ in something. One’s existence is already participation to the extent that the state can only exist as a form of the social existence of all individuals. What ‘activates’ this integration or transcendence is being/becoming conscious of such an existence. Marx recognises that “it is a tautology that a member of the state, a part of the state, participates in the state, and that this participation can appear only as deliberation or decision”.

“The false alternatives of political participation either as “all” or “not all” is predicated on the abstract separation of civil society and the state, which in turn falsely presumes the political to be constituted by single political acts performed by individuals, focusing exclusively on the legislature as the locus of popular participation.” (Springborg)

“On the other hand, if we are talking about definite concerns, about single political acts, then it is again obvious that not all as individuals accomplish them. Otherwise, the individual would be the true society, and would make society superfluous.” (Marx)

“Let us note that although Marx dismisses the traditional concept of the state as a real collectivity with sovereign power that can represent and be represented, he retains the notion of society as a collectivity in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One of his objections to the possibility of all participating in political decisions making as individuals is that this proposition is based on a radical individualism that fails to see society itself as a corporate entity representative of the interests of the individuals who constitute it.” (Springborg)

“The question whether all as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern is a question that arises from the separation of the political state and civil society.” (Marx)

In a true democracy, where “civil society is actual political society”,

“…it is nonsense to make a claim which has resulted precisely from a notion of the political state as an existent separated from civil society, from the theological notion of the political state. In this situation, legislative power altogether loses the meaning of representative power. Here, the legislature is a representation in the same sense in which every function is representative. For example, the shoemaker is my representative in so far as he fulfils a social need, just as every definite social activity, because it is a species-activity, represents only the species; that is to say, it represents a determination of my own essence the way every man is the representative of the other. Here, he is representative not by virtue of something other than himself which he represents, but by virtue of what he is and does.” (Marx)

I understand this to mean that representative power in a truly democratic society is not determined by legislative power, but rather by social activity which fulfils a social need. One individual is representative of another by virtue of their social activity as a human being. Representation exists in a natural state, before and apart from the fabrication of legislative representation. The shoe-maker represents me through her social activity. I represent the shoe-maker through my social activity. Our social activity is representative of each other and all others of our species. As Springborg notes, Marx goes

“against all attempts to impose the rubric of strict equality in such a way that functional substitution becomes the test of an individual’s integrity as a person. Such levelling egalitarianism is premised on radical individualism that aims to make all persons featureless monads, alike in the sameness and incapable of actualising the rich range of potentialities that human nature promises. Marx’s argument has serious implications for some of the campaigns waged in the name of Marxist humanism, feminism, etc., which, as he predicted, merely reproduce voluntarily the prerequisites for a higher state of capitalism that devours women and children allowing no distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, etc…” (Springborg)

“For the first time, nature [in capitalist society] becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Marx, Gundrisse)

This is a reminder, I would add, that in capitalist society, efforts towards ‘equality’ serve the purpose of ensuring everyone equally has the opportunity and capacity to sell (exchange for money – a wage) their labour power, the source of capitalist wealth (value). Marx showed that this is so-called ‘freedom’ under capitalism. Rather than view civil society equally and quantitatively as an abstract ‘population’ of individuals, Marx showed how the abstraction of exchange, (based on abstract labour, the measure of which is socially necessary labour time), is the necessary basis of capitalism’s equality. Human need and the capacity to produce goods and services to meet those needs is the precondition for an equality based on exchange, which capitalism exploits by separating individuals from the means of production (private property) such that they have to sell their labouring capacity in exchange for a wage so as to meet those needs through the exchange of money.

“the individual has an existence only as a producer of exchange value, hence that the whole negation of his natural existence is already implied; that he is therefore entirely determined by society; that this further presupposes a division of labour etc., in which the individual is already posited in relations other than that of mere exchanger, etc. That therefore this presupposition by no means arises either out of the individual’s will or out of the immediate nature of the individual, but that it is, rather, historical, and posits the individual as already determined by society.” (Marx, Gundrisse)

Human need and capacity are mediated indirectly through the abstract equivalence of value in the form of money, rather than the direct and reciprocal labour of individuals. This commodified relationship under capitalism, where both labour-power and its product is commodified , is in one sense unequal in that the labourer is paid less than her labour is worth. For a portion of the day, she works for ‘free’, enabling her employer, the capitalist, to sell the product of labour power for a value which is higher (i.e. not equivalent) than it cost them to produce. Thus, value, the substance of which is abstract labour measured by socially necessary labour time (time, being the ultimate measure of equivalence), determines human equivalence in capitalist society and not the direct meeting of human needs and capacity i.e. inequality (what Marx, in the Grundrisse, called “natural differences”).

“Only the differences between their needs and between their production gives rise to exchange and to their social equation in exchange; these natural differences are therefore the precondition of their social equality in the act of exchange, and of this relation in general, in which they relate to one another as productive. Regarded from the standpoint of the natural difference between them, individual A exists as the owner of a use value for B, and B as owner of a use value for A. In this respect, their natural difference again puts them reciprocally into the relation of equality. In this respect, however, they are not indifferent to one another, but integrate with one another, have need of one another; so that individual B, as objectified in the commodity, is a need of individual A, and vice versa; so that they stand not only in an equal, but also in a social, relation to one another. This is not all. The fact that this need on the part of one can be satisfied by the product of the other, and vice versa, and that the one is capable of producing the object of the need of the other, and that each confronts the other as owner of the object of the other’s need, this proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need etc., as a human being, and that they relate to one another as human beings; that their common species-being [Gattungswesen] is acknowledged by all. It does not happen elsewhere — that elephants produce for tigers, or animals for other animals.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

Later Springborg elaborates further, stating that

“equality as mutually substitutable individuals is equality by virtue of a false abstraction. For what is crucial about human beings is the variety and plenitude of their talents and functions. The cultural richness and depth of society is a reflection not of mere numbers of individuals, equal and undifferentiated, but of the opposite. Thus to fix on equality as a critical concept is a sign of intellectual mediocrity that cannot cope with the problem of unity and difference.”

Furthermore, Marx

“… gave depth to the Hegelian analysis by perceiving the phenomenon of exchange, and not merely the arithmetical abstraction of society as a collection of individuals, as the basis for equality. He was thus able to interpret the old socialist slogan demanding justice according to need not as the expression of equality, pace Hegel, but as its opposite, a formula tailored to the specific differences of need and capacity characteristic of individuals. When in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he boldly proclaimed that distribution according to need, rather than strict equality, would herald the crossing of “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right,” Marx meant what he implied: that equality was an extrapolation from the presuppositions of capitalism. He had said as much in The Holy Family, declaring that the idea of “‘equal possession’ is a political-economic one and therefore still an alienated expression.”

3. Debates over direct or participatory democracy are misled. Political participation rests on universal political suffrage: the vote. Voting, “considered philosophically… is the immediate, the direct, the existing and not simply imagined relation of civil society to the political state”. (Marx) The unity of the political and the social is symbolised by universal suffrage. “Indeed it is the struggle for universal suffrage that brings about the dissolution of the dualism of civil society and the state.” (Springborg)

Thus, the struggle to achieve legislative power is the struggle of civil society to “transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society… [this] shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.” (Marx) Legislature then, is “an articulation of the political will of the community as such”. (Springborg) Marx argues that it is not the depth of engagement in legislature but the universalism of suffrage that is key, whether active or passive.

“It is not a question of whether civil society should exercise legislative power through deputies or through all as individuals. Rather, it is a question of the extension and greatest possible universalisation of voting, of active as well as passive suffrage.” (Marx)

Rather than see voting as a meaningless exercise, it should be considered philosophically:

“Voting is not considered philosophically, that is, not in terms of its proper nature, if it is considered in relation to the crown or the executive. The vote is the actual relation of actual civil society to the civil society of the legislature, to the representative element. in other words, the vote is the immediate, the direct, the existing and not simply imagined relation of civil society to the political state. It therefore goes without saying that the vote is the chief political interest of actual civil society. In unrestricted suffrage, both active and passive, civil society has actually raised itself for the first time to an abstraction of itself, to political existence as its true universal and essential existence. But the full achievement of this abstraction is at once also the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the abstraction. In actually establishing its political existence as its true existence civil society has simultaneously established its civil existence, in distinction from its political existence, as inessential. And with the one separated, the other, its opposite, falls. Within the abstract political state the reform of voting advances the dissolution [Auflösung] of this political state, but also the dissolution of civil society.” (Marx)

In theory then, universal suffrage transforms, for the first time, the existence of civil society into a political existence. The political state is no longer an abstraction and civil society, its dialectical opposite, is dissolved, too. The outcome of the synthesis of this dialectic, enabled by universal suffrage, is the political existence of all transformed into true social existence. This dissolution, I think, is resolved gradually through the praxis of consciously becoming political: At first with the struggle towards universal suffrage; and then the struggle to understand what this means philosophically and recognise that out-dated and out-moded legislation is no longer deemed suitable or necessary to the historical material conditions of this political existence. Such conditions are conditions of abundance that allow the “natural differences” among people to labour directly with one-another reciprocally, not mediated by the equivalence of exchange value. To labour ‘directly’ does not necessarily mean ‘local’ to one-another face-to-face, but rather directly meeting need with capacity regardless of and without concern for ‘equivalence’.

What does this mean for democracy, equality and freedom in post-capitalist society? Democracy will be the social existence of individuals who no longer have a juridical existence quantified by an abstract state.  A political existence is to be (ontologically and epistemologically) a social human being. i.e. not an individual. Equality will be mutual recognition of the difference in our needs and capacities i.e. inequality. Freedom will be a life of non-reciprocity where ‘equivalence’ is redefined as the meeting of one person’s needs with the abundant social capacity of others. It will be a freedom which tends to our natural differences (not ‘natural rights’), undetermined by ‘exchange’ conceived as an abstract calculation of one’s value.

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