Chris Bertram beat me to it.
After following the insipid Ayn Rand-inspired debate about “moochers” and “producers,” and learning that nearly all Americans (96 percent) have relied on the federal government to assist them, I was going to argue that it’s time to move beyond the distributive and redistributive implications of government programs to discuss the prior, “predistributive” effects of capitalist production.
Bertram reminds us of Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme“:
Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?
Bertram then explores the implications:
This standard social-democratic response to capitalist inequality – welfare-state capitalism – has a lot of drawbacks. Not only does it fail to address the basic causes of inequality; it also puts in place, on a permanent basis, a politics of envy and resentment in which “makers” (tax-payers and self-styled “wealth creators”) are pitted against “takers” (scroungers and “welfare Queens”). Rentiers and coupon-clippers, the very people Marx saw as parasites, can form political alliances with hard-working ordinary people against “dependency culture” as an all too human reaction to the state seeming to come along and take away their money to fritter on the indolent and wasteful. Nor does the litany of plutocratic moaning stop there: by taking money off “entrepreneurs”, the state takes away their incentives and makes it harder for them to make the right investment decisions. The ideologists of the free-market right – people like Nozick and Hayek – are successfully tapping into some deeply embedded images of how our societies work.
Bertram heads in the direction of Rawls. In my view, we might be better off if we began to imagine different ways of organizing production, including the enterprises where the surplus is “predistributed” from workers to capitalists, and then redistributed to still others who, as Marx wrote, share in the booty.
A different initial distribution would result if the direct producers themselves appropriated the surplus. It’s not that the workers would keep all the surplus (as Marx also explained in his 1875 critique). But such a noncapitalist “predistribution” would require a very different set of subsequent distributions, and therefore a fundamentally different kind of state.