May 5 is the birthday of Karl Marx. I published a version of this post five years ago, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. This is a very slightly updated version.


Here’s a characteristic little taste of Karl Marx’s writing that I ran across the other day. It’s from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, a set of essays written in 1844, not necessarily intended for publication themselves, but an early attempt at sorting through ideas and themes later developed in in Capital. This is from the Third Manuscript on “Private Property and Labor.” Marx wrote (what follows was all part of one paragraph, and I’ve inserted the paragraph breaks for ease of blog-post reading):

“Political economy, this science of wealth, is therefore at the same time the science of denial, of starvation, of saving, and it actually goes so far as to save man the need for fresh air or physical exercise. This science of the marvels of industry is at the same time the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but rapacious skinflint and the ascetic but productive slave. 

“Its moral ideal is the worker who puts a part of his wages into savings, and it has even discovered a servile art which can dignify this charming little notion and present a sentimental version of it on the stage. It is therefore – for all its worldly and debauched appearance – a truly moral science, the most moral science of all. Self-denial, the denial of life and of all human needs, is its principal doctrine. 

“The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life. 

“Everything which the political economist takes from you in terms of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth, and everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you: it can eat, drink, go dancing, go to the theatre, it can appropriate art, learning, historical curiosities, political power, it can travel, it is capable of doing all those thing for you; it can buy everything: it is genuine wealth, genuine ability. But for all that, it only likes to create itself, to buy itself, for after all everything else is its servant. And when I have the master I have the servant, and I have no need of his servant. 

“So all passions and all activity are lost in greed. The worker is only permitted to have enough for him to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have.”

The quotation has the tone of prophetic certainty that is so enticing in Marx. You can almost hear someone preaching at you from behind a lectern, voice rising and falling, waving their arms and pointing for emphasis. You may want to punch your fist up in the air while reading it.

But for any economist, the specific ideas here are ostentatiously incorrect. For example, the statement that “the true ideal is the ascetic but rapacious skinflint and the ascetic but productive slave” is profoundly wrong. Capitalism is not built on misers and workaholics, and the US economy is not built on asceticism and self-denial (!). Instead, economics is about the interactions that arise when people in their role as consumers are searching around to buy the products they prefer, when people in their role as workers are thinking about how to acquire skills and contribute to production, when people in their role as managers and entrepreneurs are thinking about how to produce and innovate, and yes, when people in their role as savers and investors direct the flow of capital to provide security for their families and eventual retirement for themselves.

Moreover, economists tend to argue that we all wear many hats: not just consumer, worker, and saver, but also spouse, parent, child, community member, church member, cultural participant, book club member, hobbyist, vacationer, and many others. As to  Marx’s list of activities that economic forces are supposedly discouraging–“eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence”–explicit economic activity certainly interacts with these activities, but it does not particularly seek to limit them.

Marx is openly disbelieving that political economy can be detoxified. He views  descriptions of buying and selling as a cover story for oppression; moreover, it’s a kind of oppression that takes over participants, separating people from their true selves.  He wrote elsewhere that the division of labor itself–that is, the idea of people having jobs–is a form of enslavement. In the passage above, money becomes the master, with people as the servants. Again, these Marxist views seem to me categorically wrong as a description of the subject of economics.

But as a description of how people can feel in a world of choices and scarcity, Marx seems to me to be touching on some deeper truths, even if his tone feels off-kilter to me: he is using drums and trumpet blasts to play a theme that would play better on string instruments in a minor key. Marx’s words echo with the doleful insight that many people do indeed live through weeks, months, and longer when their job feels like a burden that they cannot put down. Many people do wish that they could spend their time in other ways. Many people would like to have more consumption in various forms. Many people worry about having enough money in the bank to cover an emergency, or enough for retirement.  These economic pressures and worries and fears can shape what kind of people we are and how we act, sometimes in unpleasant ways.

But when Marx’s viewpoint focuses only on the burdens and pressures of economic life, it has little to say about more positive aspects. Yes, it’s fun to “eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc.” as Marx writes. But it’s also rewarding to do a good day’s work, to have camaraderie at work, to build up skills and a higher level of responsibility, to save up some money, to support one’s family, to support a local business, to buy gifts for friend or a treat for oneself, and generally to have some sense of responsibility and ownership and control over one’s economic life.

Of course, it would be silly to get dewy-eyed while romanticizing some potentially positive aspects of economic life. But frankly, it’s also silly when Marx describes economic interactions as if they were a Gothic horror story. Contra Marx, our economies worries are don’t arise because money is our master and jobs are enslavement. Instead, it’s all just tradeoffs, just reality, just various aspects of the human condition.

We should all know enough history to have an idea of what “masters” and “enslavement” really mean, and working at a US job in the modern economy doesn’t qualify.  For those of us living in the United States 200 years after Marx was born, it’s worth keeping the perspective that the economic stresses in our lives are first-world problems.