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Sophie's World Marxist View of Capitalism

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brian0918
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An acquaintance of mine started a local philosophy reading group, and for the first book, she assigned the hugely popular Sophie's World, which is an introduction to philosophies throughout history in the form of a mystery novel. Basically a secretive "philosopher" befriends a 14-year-old girl (Sophie) and starts giving her lessons on philosophers throughout history. They eventually realize that

they're characters in a novel, and it gets weirder from there.

Anyway, I finally came to the chapter on Marx, and found an interesting "description" of capitalism. Whether or not the book's author is actually espousing Marx's views is unclear - he often presents a given philosopher's views as if they are fact, so as to put the reader in the mindset of the philosopher.

So without further ado, here is one of the most popular first introductions to capitalism for teenagers / young adults interested in philosophy:

“Many people still live under inhuman conditions while they continue to produce commodities that make capitalists richer and richer. Marx called this exploitation.”

“Could you explain that word, please?”

“If a worker produces a commodity, this commodity has a certain exchange-value.”

“Yes.”

“If you now deduct the workers’ wages and the other production costs from the exchange-value, there will always be a certain sum left over. This sum was what Marx called profit. In other words, the capitalist pockets a value that was actually created by the worker. That is what is meant by exploitation.”

“I see.”

“So now the capitalist invests some of his profit in new capital—for instance, in modernizing the production plant in the hope of producing his commodity even more cheaply, and thereby increasing his profit in the future.”

“That sounds logical.”

“Yes, it can seem logical. But both in this and in other areas, in the long term it will not go the way the capitalist has imagined.”

“How do you mean?”

“Marx believed there were a number of inherent contradictions in the capitalist method of production. Capitalism is an economic system which is self-destructive because it lacks rational control.”

“That’s good, isn’t it, for the oppressed?”

“Yes; it is inherent in the capitalist system that it is marching toward its own destruction. In that sense, capitalism is ‘progressive’ because it is a stage on the way to communism.”

“Can you give an example of capitalism being self-destructive?”

“We said that the capitalist had a good surplus of money, and he uses part of this surplus to modernize the factory. But he also spends money on violin lessons. Moreover, his wife has become accustomed to a luxurious way of life.”

“No doubt.”

“He buys new machinery and so no longer needs so many employees. He does this to increase his competitive power.”

“I get it.”

“But he is not the only one thinking in this way, which means that production as a whole is continually being made more effective. Factories become bigger and bigger, and are gradually concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. What happens then, Sophie?”

“Er. . .”

“Fewer and fewer workers are required, which means there are more and more unemployed. There are therefore increasing social problems, and crises such as these are a signal that capitalism is marching toward its own destruction. But capitalism has a number of other self-destructive elements. Whenever profit has to be tied up in the means of production without leaving a big enough surplus to keep production going at competitive prices . . .”

“Yes?”

“, . . what does the capitalist do then? Can you tell me?”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Imagine if you were a factory owner. You cannot make ends meet. You cannot buy the raw materials you need to keep producing. You are facing bankruptcy. So now my question is, what can you do to economize?”

“Maybe I could cut down on wages?”

“Smart! Yes, that really is the smartest thing you could do. But if all capitalists were as smart as you—and they are—the workers would be so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy goods any more. We would say that purchasing power is falling. And now we really are in a vicious circle. The knell has sounded for capitalist private property, Marx would say. We are rapidly approaching a revolutionary situation.”

“Yes, I see.”

“To make a long story short, in the end the proletariat rises and takes over the means of production.”

“And then what?”

“For a period, we get a new ‘class society’ in which the proletarians suppress the bourgeoisie by force. Marx called this the dictatorship of the proletariat. But after a transition period, the dictatorship of the proletariat is replaced by a ‘classless society,’ in which the means of production are owned ‘by all’—that is, by the people themselves. In this kind of society, the policy is ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ Moreover, labor now belongs to the workers themselves and capitalism’s alienation ceases.”

“It all sounds wonderful, but what actually happened? Was there a revolution?”

“Yes and no. Today, economists can establish that Marx was mistaken on a number of vital issues, not least his analysis of the crises of capitalism. And he paid insufficient attention to the plundering of the natural environment—the serious consequences of which we are experiencing today. Nevertheless . . .”

“Nevertheless?”

“Marxism led to great upheavals. There is no doubt that socialism has largely succeeded in combating an inhumane society. In Europe, at any rate, we live in a society with more justice—and more solidarity—than Marx did. This is not least due to Marx himself and the entire socialist movement.”

There is also another thread on this book if anyone is interested in discussing the book overall. I'm more interested in reactions to this specific section.

Edited by brian0918
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I like that actually. It makes all the nice predictions that were proven so completely and obviously wrong during the 20th century. I think that as a teenager I would've had enough brains to realize that the final conclusion on Marx being only partially wrong, and in the end having a positive effect are completely unsubstantiated.

Not to mention that there's more than likely at least one responsible adult I would've eventually ended up talking to about this, and he could've told me why the phrase "socialism has largely succeeded in combating an inhumane society" is idiotic, by mentioning China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other states.

Anyway, I think that books about the history of philosophy should generally help the cause of Objectivism, by opening people's eyes at the philosophy which drives the political left. There's no way a significant number of people are actually going to fall for Marxism, given what we know about the history of socialism today. (Which is why successful leftist politicians are sneaking in their policies under the guise of pragmatism, rather than openly, with huge helps from the moronic Republicans enabling that behavior)

Even if these books don't mention Ayn Rand, her name is everywhere. Someone who reads through a book on philosophy will eventually find her too.

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I like that actually. It makes all the nice predictions that were proven so completely and obviously wrong during the 20th century. I think that as a teenager I would've had enough brains to realize that the final conclusion on Marx being only partially wrong, and in the end having a positive effect are completely unsubstantiated.

Not to mention that there's more than likely at least one responsible adult I would've eventually ended up talking to about this, and he could've told me why the phrase "socialism has largely succeeded in combating an inhumane society" is idiotic, by mentioning China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other states.

Anyway, I think that books about the history of philosophy should generally help the cause of Objectivism, by opening people's eyes at the philosophy which drives the political left. There's no way a significant number of people are actually going to fall for Marxism, given what we know about the history of socialism today. (Which is why successful leftist politicians are sneaking in their policies under the guise of pragmatism, rather than openly, with huge helps from the moronic Republicans enabling that behavior)

Even if these books don't mention Ayn Rand, her name is everywhere. Someone who reads through a book on philosophy will eventually find her too.

I left out the part after the quoted section, which draws a line between those crazy "Leninists" and the "Social Democrats" that shaped Europe, thus making socialism seem much more reasonable and less scary.

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I read Sophie's World when I was 17 or so and I remember it being a decent history of philosophy if you take it at face value - it is good to be able to put all the different philosophers in some sort of historical order so you can see the ways they each built on or reacted to previous ideas.

As for the whole "meta-" theme of the novel, there are two ways you could see it. The point could be that the universe and ourselves ("reality") are fundamentally unknowable, since

the main character realizes in the end that she is "really" just a character in a novel being read by a girl in the "real" world which of course is just a novel being read by the reader, who is actually in the real world ... or are you? Dun dun dun.

. Or it could be that the reader has to figure out for themselves whether there is a reason to think that

they themselves are "really real" and can know it, even though Sophie is just a girl in a book.

In the end no book could tell you that reality is real if you're convinced that you can't rely on the evidence of your own senses. Even if the point is that

you can't be any more sure of your own reality than Sophie was

anybody should be able to see how silly it is to throw out your own powers of observation just because some book tells you you could theoretically

discover someday that you're not really real after all

.

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What's wrong with it is that those ideas are presented in a quite favorable light, despite being irrational and morally wrong (redundancy intentional).

As is everything else in the novel, apparently. The book isn't advocating Marxism. However, there were plenty of philosophers in the past 300 years that have supported capitalism, even if they weren't that great in other respects. Perhaps they should have gotten a mention. I don't expect Rand to get mentioned, though it'd be nice.

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As is everything else in the novel, apparently. The book isn't advocating Marxism. However, there were plenty of philosophers in the past 300 years that have supported capitalism, even if they weren't that great in other respects. Perhaps they should have gotten a mention. I don't expect Rand to get mentioned, though it'd be nice.

That is where I think the downside it - that the counter-arguments to Marx are not mentioned. The book was looking more at which philosophies became the most popular in the world, rather than looking for any real truth from the philosophies.

Edited by brian0918
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This is one of those books which I am planning on reading with my son in a few years. In order to judge an idea you have to first be familiar with it and this book presents many philosophical ideas in a format graspable for a young child (10 years old an up I would say). It is more often than not in life that immoral ideas are presented in a quite favorable light. I want my son to develop his own critical judgment based on logic and correspondence to reality without being much influenced in this process by the incidental form of presentation, personal opinion of the author, or the level of acceptance/popularity of an idea. It is a great lesson to realize that many very bad ideas were and still are widely accepted and treated as "no longer needed to be questioned truths".

Edited by ~Sophia~
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“If you now deduct the workers’ wages and the other production costs from the exchange-value, there will always be a certain sum left over. This sum was what Marx called profit. In other words, the capitalist pockets a value that was actually created by the worker. That is what is meant by exploitation.”

At that point I would ask "Then why does the worker need the capitalist? Why doesn't he take his productive self elsewhere and produce for himself?"

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Just the initial premise that mechanizing factory operations means you don't need so many employees is utter garbage and invalidates the entire argument. Who *builds* the machines? Who *maintains* them? Who drives the extra delivery trucks? Who sells the extra product? What do the myriad people who are now saving money on their expenses invest *their* extra money in?

Mechanization (along with all other production advancements), creates jobs, it doesn't eliminate them because there is not a static amount of work that can either be done by humans OR by machines. There is potentially an infinite amount of work to be done, and what mechanization means is that work that previously WASN'T getting done because people had to invest far more time in making a particular widget can now be done. Everyone profits and more stuff gets done.

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What's wrong with it is that those ideas are presented in a quite favorable light, despite being irrational and morally wrong (redundancy intentional).

Should the book accurately summarize Marx's ideas, or should it precede every sentence with the proclamation: "The following sentence is irrational and morally wrong: ..." ?

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Should the book accurately summarize Marx's ideas, or should it precede every sentence with the proclamation: "The following sentence is irrational and morally wrong: ..." ?

Well, ideally it would do both. The problem is that it presents the things that Marx used as the *basis* for his ideas as though they were facts instead of saying "this is what Marx believed the facts were and what conclusions he drew from that".

A LOT of people have a hard time making that distinction and don't realize that they are very definitely supporting a given view by presenting its thoughts on what the "facts" are *as facts*. I think that's one of the things that initially drew me to Objectivism--Ayn Rand knew the difference and knew that she needed to tell you how to find and look at data before you could understand that her views were correct: that's what her fiction novels were. If you read Atlas Shrugged and say, "wow, this is just like real life! It all makes so much sense!" it was because you were seeing that her facts were correct and thus her conclusions must be correct.

You know you're looking at an attempted con job when someone makes no effort to point to *how* anyone knows anything.

Edited by JMeganSnow
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A LOT of people have a hard time making that distinction and don't realize that they are very definitely supporting a given view by presenting its thoughts on what the "facts" are *as facts*.

True. And since I have not read this book, I don't know all the contextual facts of this particular presentation of Marxism. It may be the case that other philosophies are presented in the same manner. Simply posting a few paragraphs of a book that quite accurately summarize their subject matter does not give me grounds to effectively judge the book, its author's worldview, or even its presentation of capitalism. Much less, the ability to judge the author as a "con artist." The desired effect of such a post seems to be: look at how THIS guy presented capitalism by explaining Marxism...now, what is your emotional response to it? The most I can conclude is that I take the point of this small excerpt to be *a presentation of Marx's ideas*, and that it quite effectively fulfills that role.

Edited by adrock3215
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  • 2 weeks later...
Well, ideally it would do both. The problem is that it presents the things that Marx used as the *basis* for his ideas as though they were facts instead of saying "this is what Marx believed the facts were and what conclusions he drew from that".

A LOT of people have a hard time making that distinction and don't realize that they are very definitely supporting a given view by presenting its thoughts on what the "facts" are *as facts*. ...

From the OP:

Anyway, I finally came to the chapter on Marx, and found an interesting "description" of capitalism. Whether or not the book's author is actually espousing Marx's views is unclear - he often presents a given philosopher's views as if they are fact, so as to put the reader in the mindset of the philosopher.

Apparently, that was the aim of the author. Also apparent is that he/she did a good job.

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Mechanization (along with all other production advancements), creates jobs, it doesn't eliminate them because there is not a static amount of work that can either be done by humans OR by machines. There is potentially an infinite amount of work to be done, and what mechanization means is that work that previously WASN'T getting done because people had to invest far more time in making a particular widget can now be done. Everyone profits and more stuff gets done.

THANK you. Every time I hear arguments against improving production because it will "cost" jobs, my blood pressure shoots up. Employing people is not the point of production; at most it is a by-product. Before mechanical cotton harvesting, hordes of people were bent over in fields in the blazing heat, picking cotton by hand. Would anyone seriously argue that we were better off when thousands of hands were blistered and bleeding, creative minds anchored to menial labor, just so society could have clothes?

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  • 3 months later...

Just a note. Later on in the book there this passage:

"[...]

"Yes and No. Today economists can prove that Marx was wrong in some important aspects, like in his analysis of the crisis of capitalism. Marx also did not pay enough attention on the exploitation of nature, that we today experience as more and more threatening..."

The English version might be different. I translated it from German quickly.

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Marx also did not pay enough attention on the exploitation of nature, that we today experience as more and more threatening..."

How can you exploit nature? Does nature have any moral judgement? Can nature work for you in any way? Threatening? Why? Will nature throw a stone in your head if you 'exploit' it more than you do now?

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The worst of it is not explaining anything because the other character doesn't know how to ask questions. Why is capitalism self-destructive according to Marx? What were Marx's mistakes? Etc.

In one of my favourite scenes in the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, Charlie's father gets a better job at the toothpaste factory mantaining the machines that first made him redundant. It's a better paid job and the family can finally eat proper food.

Edited by Jill
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“If you now deduct the workers’ wages and the other production costs from the exchange-value, there will always be a certain sum left over. This sum was what Marx called profit.

This is the thing that every socialist, past or present, communist or liberal, gets wrong. They forget that there are two parties involved. If the worker didnt have the capitalist, there would be no production. If the capitalist didnt have the worker, there would be no production. If the capitalist makes a deal with the worker that the capitalist provides the equipment and infrastructure for the production, and the worker does the manual labour for a certain agreed upon compensation, then why should the capitalist get nothing from this?

Also, they dont understand that both the capitalist and the worker makes a "profit", even though the workers profit is called "wage". The worker exchanged his labour for the wage, and the "sum left over" in this case, is the profit the worker made. The "sum left over" for the capitalist, is the thing that Marx called profit. But both are essentially the same thing, even if one is called profit, and the other wage.

If we applied Marx in reality: The person who presses the recording button and the person who reads the novel, while making an audiobook, should get all the revenue from the sales of the audiobook, while the author who wrote the novel thats being read, and the publisher/distributor that provided the studio, the audio recorder + the marketing and sales of the audionovel should get nothing. Because recording studios, novels, audio recorders and marketing/sales strategies just exist naturally in nature independent of human action, and thus it is exploitative that the novelist and distributor get anything....

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