Are the Simpsons Ready for Marx, or Are They Stuck in the World of Smith?

WORLD MAKING AND DETERMINISM:

Comparing Marx, Smith, and The Simpsons

By Aldo, Monica, Nate, and Pamela


INDUSTRIAL EVOLUTION

world of a difference.

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Comparing Marx and Smith is like comparing Neanderslob and Homersapien: different worlds and different stages.

Living nearly 100 years apart, Smith and Marx inhabited very different worlds. The most important changes in that century were in part due to the Industrial Revolution. Smith’s world of rapid and noticeable economic growth, small-scale technology and manufacturing, agriculture as the largest employer, and limited urbanization had been replaced by striking and visible changes in technology, explosive development of the iron and steel industry, huge ‘mechanical monstrosities’ in massive factories which caused ports and industry towns to massively expand in population, and while the overall wealth of the country was greater, poverty was much more concentrated and visible in cities, as well as protests.

In Marx’s world, there was also the massive impact of the French Revolution. For the first time, one of the great imperial powers of Europe had experienced a successful revolution which overthrew the monarchical ruling class, establishing a democratic republic.The possibility of the triumph of a revolution of the people, establishing a government for the people, was a real thing, especially in one of the great traditional European colonial powers. Such an occurrence would not have even been conceivable for Smith, and the impact of the revolution was not only felt in future revolutionary movements around the globe, but can also be seen in Marx’s writings and his view of the world.

THE DIVISION OF WORLD MAKING AND DETERMINISM

Well, it is a pin factory.

The world built by Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” is a world where the natural evolution of society is one built upon the division of labor, as shown in the Simpsons video of a bowling pin factory. Division of labor brings with it many advantages in relation to production, and thus the increase of a nation’s wealth: “This great increase of the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.” (Smith, p.7). But this phenomenon was not the result of careful economic planning, nor “originally the effect of any human wisdom, (…) [but] the consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…” (Smith, p.14). In essence, society in Smith’s world is the unintended result of something intrinsic and deterministic to human beings.

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Homer seems to have a grasp of the benefits of division of labor.

For Smith, this factor which determines a human being from other animals is “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (Smith, p.14). This propensity is a result of an evolutionarily advantageous behavior: each individual looks to obtain resources to ensure survival (their ‘self-love’). “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them” (Smith, p.15). As such, exchange occurs when both parties believe they can make better use of what the other is offering, resulting in a positive-sum gain for both parties. This propensity appears to be something exclusive to humans (no-one has seen two greyhounds exchange one bone for another), and thus for Smith, is one of the deterministic traits of mankind.

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It seems that the Simpsons are living in the same world as Smith. Apu might have something that Bart wants, but Bart can only get it if he can supply what Apu wants as well.

For Marx, the human as a species-being is defined differently than in the Wealth of Nations. Marx claims that “The nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production,” (Tucker, p.150) and thus the nature of humans are produced in specific societal conditions. In a society where self-love dominates, such as the society of political economy (Smith), then self-love and exchange appears to be an intrinsic part of human nature – but in a society with collective conditions of production, such as tribal, feudal and state-ownership societies, this would not be the case. In contrast, Marx defines man as a species-being through claiming that “The whole character of a species – its species character – is contained in the character of its life-activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species character” (Tucker, p.76). While “the animal is immediately identical with its life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it” (Tucker, p.76), and thus only labors to survive, mankind is free to labor outside of subsistence. An animal uses nature to produce its subsistence (e.g., eating fruits from trees) and no more, mankind uses nature to produce the means of its subsistence (e.g., farming and growing food). For Marx, real human production is the excess of subsistence, and this is true free activity, at the essence of man as a species-being.

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Maybe this isn’t quite what Marx had in mind when he said production in excess of subsistence, but Marx might agree that it’s a stepping stone to making man truly free.

The world which Marx builds throughout his writings is different to the one built by Smith. In Marx’s world, the society of political economy is the natural evolution of society through history, but is not necessarily the final step. While Smith compares capitalist society to feudal society, Marx sees the former as the evolution of the latter. However, in this society, “The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range (…) Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity” (Tucker, p.71). And as the worker is devalued, objectified (“Labour’s realization is its objectification” (Tucker p.71)) he becomes estranged from the act of production and from himself as a species. Under capitalism, nature becomes a means to an end, causing the worker to “only [feel] himself outside his work and in his work [feel] outside himself (…) His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced – it is forced labour” (Tucker, p.74), in contrast to free, universal activity. So according to Marx, in the world of political economy the worker is no longer human. This sets the stage for Marx’s discussion of the future world of true Communism, where we can “picture ourselves a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common” (Tucker, p.326), as the evolution of society from Smith’s political economy.

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Homer may not be ready for the revolution, but he has certainly learned something new.

 

SOURCES:

Smith, A. (2000). The Wealth of Nations. New York: The Modern Library.

Tucker, R. C. (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

All media property of the Fox Broadcasting Company.

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4 thoughts on “Are the Simpsons Ready for Marx, or Are They Stuck in the World of Smith?

  1. This is super interesting! I like the connection between the pin factory and the bowling pin factory. Maybe estrangement would be nicely linked to Homer’s apathy towards work at the power plant?

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  2. I like how you connected your topic to the lecture two weeks ago; your post really helped further my understanding of the importance of the two writers’ backgrounds and the societies they lived in and modeled their theories off of. You seem to be saying that people and social structures are determined by the societies they develop in, which is why Marx’s is so very different from Smith’s. However, does that necessarily mean that the defining social tendencies of the past no longer have relevance, or are they just built upon so that the original structure is still there, but influenced and directed by further evolutions? It seems that if the former is the case, then neither Smith nor Marx would have relevance to our current society, given the drastic changes it has undergone in the last century and a half.

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  3. Could we argue that Bart realises his species being? He lives life according to his own whims, and frequently rebels against capitalist institutions like school. Of course he is not free from capitalism, he still buys and sells commodities to help realise his needs, but maybe he’s the closest to understanding Marx of all the characters.

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  4. I really enjoyed this blog! The use of “The Simpsons” was very interesting and helpful when you explained concepts. This article relates to one of our class discussions about “The Communist Manifesto” where Marx discusses how from feudalism we got the bourgeoisie, and perhaps it’s time that communism becomes the new social structure (or at least the means by which we reach the new social structure). I would have loved to see you all flesh out the possibilities of what our present world means in relation to our past and our future. But overall, great job!

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