A recent viewing of the 2016 BBC series on modern geniuses hosted by historian Bettany Hughes that profiled Karl Marx led me to contemplate about the nature of exploitation and surplus.
Marx had a very dim view of surplus. He believed that surplus, which he called capital, was derived from the exploitation of the workers whose physical labor produced all the products necessary for life in the modern world. He even opposed the capital that was used to purchase the great machines that were necessary to create all those products of modern life because those machines were created only to increase productivity (which generates more surplus) and not to improve the lot of the workers.
Marx propounded the Labor Theory of Value wherein the economic value of a good or service was based on the amount of labor necessary to produce the good or service. If the employer of the laborer could increase the economic returns due to the utility of the product (demand) or the scarcity of the product (supply) surplus would be created. The amount of surplus appropriated by the employer was unjustifiable exploitation of the labor of the worker.
Modern progressives carry on this Marxist tradition. They believe that the profit employers and investors receive is not legitimate and is, therefore, subject to expropriation through taxes so that it can be redistributed to deserving workers. In his 2012 hit Shackled and Drawn, famous celebrity .01 percenter Bruce Springsteen sings,
“Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.”
But ditch digging, although it takes a lot of labor, is not highly valued. I am pretty sure that Mr. Springsteen would not want to receive ditch digger wages for his concert performances (he actually made about $60 million last year). Furthermore, I am also pretty sure that, even though his band mates and other workers at the concerts sweated as copiously as Mr. Springsteen, he received the lion’s share of compensation. That’s classic exploitation.
But Karl Marx (and ipso facto Bruce Springsteen) was fundamentally wrong about the nature of surplus. All civilization on this planet is based on surplus. Without surplus we would spend most of our lives searching for berries and running from predators. Let me explain my thinking on this.
Primitive man, except for a few chipped rocks, was little different from the other animals that roamed the forests, plains and savannahs of the pre-historic world. With one exception. Our primitive ancestors learned to talk to each other. Speech not only allowed tribal members to communicate it also allowed one generation to teach the next about the pathways of the forest or the predators of the savannah. All other animals are chained to their instincts. Speech was the tool that created the first form of surplus – knowledge.
But the oral transmission of knowledge is limited. Ancient Greek bards had to perform a prodigious feat of memorization in order to present the 170,000 words of the Iliad to the throngs that gathered to hear the epic poem. But oral transmission is easily corrupted. Writing was developed to facilitate the accurate transmission of information; not of poems but of inventories of agricultural stores in ancient farming communities.
Farming was the next great generator of surplus. By necessity, farmers must generate a surplus to provide food for the winter season and for the planting in the spring. But this level of surplus is insufficient. Granaries must be protected and the weather gods must be appeased so the surplus must be sufficient to feed the soldiers and priests as well as the farmer’s family. And the soldiers and priests needed to make sure the farmer was providing the correct amount of surplus so writing was invented to keep track of the surplus.
The farmer’s surplus allows for the specialization of labor; not just soldiers and priests but also blacksmiths, teamsters and artisans. As surplus grew, more specialization could be supported so that in addition to meeting our material needs we could address our spiritual needs. Poets, artists and musicians are in short supply in primitive subsistence societies that produce little surplus.
The written word (especially after the invention of the printing press) has created a storehouse of knowledge much greater than could be absorbed by any one brain. This surplus of knowledge allows us to build upon the works of earlier scientists to expand our understanding of the physical universe and to create all the technology that makes up our modern world.
Despite Marx’s disdain (as well as that of the progressive left) for money and capital, money is only another tool to manage surplus. It is much easier to pay the soldier guarding the granary in coins instead of giving him a sack of grain and a bushel of vegetables (besides he would probably prefer to take his coins and buy a pint of ale).
It is true that a barter economy can be developed so that exchanges can be made without resorting to money. But bartering is very inefficient and time-consuming. The time and effort put into barter takes away productive time that could be used to create surplus.
Marxian thought rejects innovation and increased productivity because these factors increase the capitalists’ ability to extract more surplus from labor. Socialism seeks to eliminate most surplus from the economic system and what little is left is appropriated by the state for state-sanctioned uses. All productivity growth from surplus in the Soviet Union was dedicated to the military in order keep up with the rapidly growing power of the West (This is the reason why conflict between socialist and free market societies is inevitable - they can't keep up).
Surplus provides the building blocks with which civilization is constructed. You may not like our civilization and wish to tear it down. But you will need surplus to rebuild something to take its place.