President Obama’s recent assertions about the roles of workers and companies in society betray a disconcerting lack of understanding about how capitalism works. The president of the United States is in fact mouthing ideas that have a better home in Marxism than capitalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe Obama is a Marxist. But he is promoting concepts that are Marxian in origin – perhaps he learned them from some Marxist professor of sociology at Occidental – and that raise profound concerns about his approach to the U.S. economy.
One of Marx’s fundamental concepts is that of the “value” and “use-value.” Value refers to the intrinsic worth of a product and therefore the labor that produces it – its quality and its expression of a worker’s talent and being. It may seem surprising, but value actually has nothing to do with capitalism.
The importance of products and labor in a capitalist society are not whether they are any good, but whether they sell for a profit. If I am working on the assembly line at Ford Motor Co. painting exquisite portraits of my colleagues, then my work has great value, but it’s really not worth much to Ford, and I’m going to be fired.
Same if I do a really superb job putting the front wheel on, but it takes me half an hour. Tremendous value. But little use-value, because time is money.
Use-value is the value of your work in the market. That is, if you spend five minutes making junk, but the junk nets you or your company millions of dollars, your work may have little intrinsic worth or value, but it has tremendous use-value.
Marx felt that workers had become “alienated” because they were not properly expressing themselves by creating things of “value.” Their labor, he felt, had been stolen from them by companies looking for “use-value” and ignoring the intrinsic worth of workers and their products.
Under capitalism, hopefully most people can find jobs that have something to do with their own values and skills. But, sorry, no one wants to pay you for a full day spent mowing their lawn with garden clippers, even if that’s how you like to do it and you’re good at it.
Which brings us to the president.
Here’s what he told Jake Tapper of ABC News in an interview Tuesday:
We want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you’re supposed to do, is rewarded, and that people who are irresponsible, who are reckless, who don’t feel a sense of obligation to their communities and to their companies and to their workers, that those folks aren’t rewarded.
What kind of system is this, and who governs it and sets it up? Who decides what is rewarded – Obama? What is rewarded under capitalism is the usefulness of your work, not whether you’ve tried hard.
Did John D. Rockefeller feel an sense of obligation to community while he was putting all his smaller competitors out of business?
Here’s what Obama said at a fundraiser Oct. 12:
I hope you got involved not just because it was trendy, but because you shared with me a vision of an America in which everybody has a fair shot and everybody does their fair share . . . the idea that if you worked hard and you were responsible, that you showed up at your job every day and you looked after your family and you looked after your community. That that meant that you could pay your bills and send your kids to college and take a vacation once in a while and have a home and retire with some dignity and respect.
These are indeed American values – working hard and doing your fair share. They have “value,” and they may also have “use-value,” though they don’t necessarily have use-value. But sorry, these values don’t get you vacations and a college education for your kids.
The implication here is that as long as you are a good person, you succeed. Who is going to guarantee that? Who is going to decide how nice you are? Who is going to decide what is meant by “fair” share? Obama will. Or some Politburo. not the market.
It’s this type of thinking that led Obama to pronounce recently that banks “don’t have some inherent right just to – you know, get a certain amount of profit,” and to say the following at a press conference earlier this month, where he tried to explain such a statement:
I will be hugely supportive of banks and financial institutions that are doing the right thing by their customers. We need them to be lending . . . We need them to help do what traditionally banks and financial services are supposed to be doing, which is providing business and families resources to make productive investments that will actually build the economy.
I mean, basically the argument they’ve made is, well, you know what, this hidden fee was prohibited and so we’ll find another fee to make up for it. Now, they have that right, but it’s not a good practice.
Really? Who says it’s a bad practice for banks to make money by charging fees? Who says banks have to lend? Obama? Not the market, evidently, because they’re sitting on their cash.
The hostility Obama has to profit and to the means of achieving it – and his insistence that everyone be rewarded merely for trying hard while being “responsible” to the community and contributing their “fair share” – all stems from his embrace of “value” over “use-value.” He fails to appreciate market economics and the good it ultimately brings, even if it’s not always fair or pretty.
Such thinking points inevitably to Marx’s ultimate vision of paradise:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”