Is Redistribution the Solution?

Toward the end of a very interesting and worthwhile conversation about how right-wing “populism” co-opts righteous anger at established institutions, Vincent Bevins asked Naomi Klein how she would counter that co-optation. Her answer was to advocate a “real left that has a political program that is actually redistributive,” which sounds good until you realize that the capitalist economy is already massively redistributive so “redistributing the redistribution” would end up building a doppelganger of capitalism, to use Naomi Klein’s own term.

Naomi Klein and Vincent Bevins in Conversation YouTube

Throughout his mature critique of political economy work from the Grundrisse to Capital to his work with the First International, Marx consistently advocated shorter working time as the prerequisite for the “blossoming of the realm of freedom.” He didn’t make those proclamations because he was kidding or drunk or couldn’t think of anything else to say. He said it because disposable time and its expropriation in the form of surplus labour time was at the core of his analysis.

The tragedy of 20th century socialism was that it went off on the untheoretical detour of “redistribution.” So-called Communist regimes even had to beef up their industrial production so that they would have (barely) enough to redistribute. To repeat such a “program of redistribution” in the 21st century would not be a joke. It would be a farce. Such programs were already advocated in the 19th century by Proudhon and Sismondi — and refuted by Marx.

Redistribution makes sense if one assumes the main problem with capitalism is the private ownership of property. In The Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in1848, Marx and Engels appeared to take such a position. That was before Marx began his decade-long study of English political economy. His magnum opus, Capital, is a notoriously difficult read that was made easier to understand by interpreting it through the lens of the Manifesto. But surplus value, the big new idea in Capital, was something Marx only discovered in the 1850s.

The political economy of the 20th century has largely consisted of attempts to refute or vindicate Marx’s doppelganger, the guy who wrote an agitational pamphlet as the guide to an unfinished critique of political economy that he would write 20 years later. Some of the brilliance of the “unknown Marx” managed to shine through his imposter’s facade and it is highly improbable we would anything about the former if it weren’t for the fame — and infamy — of the latter. Marx, of course, had other policy ideas than shorter working time but my point is simply that repeatedly Marx emphasized the reduction of working time as a precondition for emancipation and not as some pie-in-the-sky for workers in the sweet by and by.