John Roemer

"Egalitarian Perspectives" is a collection of John Roemer's articles from the years 1981 and 1992. We learn in the introduction that Roemer made a pilgrimage to G.A. Cohen in 1981, like Luke Skywalker to the Jeddi Master, where he learned "the range of questions addressed by modern political philosophy." The visit emboldened the young acolyte to launch an assault against classical Marxism's "wrong-headed" surplus value approach to exploitation. Roemer knew what Marx "really meant," and this was captured by his own property-relations theory.

Roemer states that the purpose of the book is to answer the question of "what egalitarians seek to equalize." Those who are trailblazers on this question are Richard Arneson, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen and John Rawls. If some of you are scratching your heads trying to recall where you last heard these names, trust me that it was not at a trade union conference or a rally for political prisoners. The topic of "egalitarianism" within this circle of professional philosophers is an entirely abstract matter. They chat about it in the same dry and intellectual way that aesthetic philosophers discuss "beauty".

This collection of thinkers treat question of "egalitarianism" as a subject within the rarefied world of Anglophone political philosophy. It arises out of a debate between disciples of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill on one side and John Rawls on the other, who proposes a "primary goods" theory of justice. A just society according to Rawls is one in which society maximizes the "primary goods" of the worst off members. Roemer enters the fray by trying to adapt Marxist solutions to the problem of "distributive justice." In essence he is trying to blend liberal and socialist themes. From liberalism he appropriates the concern with welfare, from Marxism he hopes to find a theory that will reveal the underlying economic forces that explain inequality. Somewhere along the line Roemer drops the connection with Marxism, as tenuous as it is.

There is precious little in Roemer's book that has any relation to the sorts of topics that preoccupy Marxists. Mostly it can be found in the section "Socially necessary exploitation and historical materialism." Roemer's definition of exploitation in this section is as follows: "were a coalition able to preserve the same incentive structure, and, by withdrawing with its per capita share of produced assets thereby improve the lot of its members, then it is capitalistically exploited in the current allocation."

Yeah, I know. This is virtually impossible to understand at first glance. I have been knocking my head against Roemer's shitty prose for a couple of weeks now, so I think I can provide a translation. He is saying that if a group of workers dropped out of capitalist society and improved their situation, then the situation they dropped out of was exploitative. Now you may ask yourself why I chose the words "dropped out." Does this mean the same as Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in and drop out"?

Yes, it does and this is exactly what Roemer is talking about in so many words:

"Assuming capitalist property relations were necessary to bring about accumulation and technical innovation in the early period of capitalism, then the coalition which has withdrawn will soon fall behind the capitalist society because of the incentives to innovate. Even the proletarians under capitalism will eventually enjoy an income-leisure bundle superior to the bundle of independent utopian socialists who have retired into the hills with their share of the capital, assuming enough of the benefits of increased productivity pass down to the proletarians, as has historically been the case."

Translation from the Roemer-ese: When some workers "drop out" of bourgeois society and go to Vermont with their tools and set up a commune like a bunch of lazy grasshoppers, they will eventually fall behind the industrious ant workers who remain in bourgeois society, and who keep their hair short and drive their cars to their factory job each day where foremen yell in their face and where assembly lines keep speeding up and where they keep losing fingers... The criteria for Roemer is not lost fingers or alienation, it is the bundle of goods you can take home. (What was John Roemer doing in 1967 anyhow? Somebody should have slipped him some acid.)

Everything revolves around the most narrow and economistic definition of progress. You got to get those bundles of goods increased and hours required to produce them decreased, come hell or high water. Even if there is longer hours and smaller bundles in the short term, the eventual goal is to maximize the "income-leisure" bundle. Here is how Roemer interprets Marx's version of English colonization of India in this light:

"There are, in the Marxist reading of history, many examples of the implementation of regimes entailing dynamically socially necessary exploitation, which brought about an inferior income-leisure bundle for the direct producers... Marx approved of the British conquest of India, despite the misery it brought to the direct producers, because of its role in developing the productive forces. Thus, the contention is proletarians in India would have been better off, statically, in the alternative without imperialist interference, but dynamically British imperialist exploitation was socially necessary to bring about the development of the productive forces, eventually improving the income-leisure bundles of the producers (or their children) over what they would have been."

I will return to the question of Marx's views on India in more depth later, but one thing should be obvious. We as Marxists have the benefit of hindsight. Does anybody think that Indian workers and peasants have enjoyed a greater "income-leisure" bundle on account of English imperialism? We know that Marxism has evolved a more complete understanding of the relationship of industrialized nations to the colonial world, but you wouldn't know it from reading Roemer. (Nor from G.A. Cohen with his own peculiar upwards and onward stagist notion of history.)

What an omission! We are not living in 1850 but in the 1990s. We can look at objective evidence of colonial misrule in Africa, Latin America and Asia. There has been no evidence of per capita progress in the Roemerian sense. His lack of interest in history and the living class struggle is inexcusable. Less time spent debating with Nozick and Rawls and more time spent reading LBO or the Monthly Review is what Roemer needs.

When we turn to the specifics of Roemer's methodology, we become strangers in a strange land indeed. Those of us who have read Eduardo Galeano's "Open Veins of Latin America", Walter Rodney's "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" or Engels on the working-class of Manchester in 1840 must make a big adjustment when we confront the naked ahistoricism of Roemer. There is no history there, just laboratory experiments based on rational choice players who are either hirers of labor, laborers or peasants. In addition to people of these various types, there are the means of production which consist of corn, farms and factories. He simply postulates their existence but has no interest in addressing the question of how they came into existence.

Look how he tries to explain the inadequacy of the labor theory of value with his parlor game. He puts the following pieces on the board. There is a population which is divided between those who hire labor and those who are hired. The hired are 1/3 of the population.

The hired portion of the population spends a four hour portion of its day working with seed corn that it already owns. The result of such labor is the production of 1/2 bushel of corn.

Then these souls go out and hire themselves out to other souls who also own some seed corn. One individual might hire himself or herself out to three hirers. In the process, the hired person works four hours for each hirer, produces 1/2 bushel of corn, and receives 1/4 bushel for a wage. The hirer retains 1/4 bushel as profit.

This process takes place throughout society using all available seed corn. This arrangement finally exhausts all seed corn since there is two to one ratio between hirer and hired. Each hirer has gained 1/4 bushel in profits while each worker manages to eke out the 3/4 bushel he or she needs, which requires 12 hours labor on the farm. So everybody ends up with a bushel of corn, the minimum daily requirement for a member of this society.

Now here is the key question for Roemer. Why will people who hire themselves out agree to this arrangement? He says that they will because they are "no worse off" than they would be if they were on their own. The income-leisure bundle derived from working for others or working for themselves would be the same.

Are the hired exploited by the hirers? No, answers Roemer, since 12 hours work would produce the same results if the hired person was working for himself or for others. The initial distribution is egalitarian and the outcome is egalitarian. Twelve hours work produces the same results working for oneself or for others. The persons hiring themselves out are "trading some 'surplus' labor" for access to somebody else's "capital".

This does not amount to exploitation since some of the hiring people could easily have been hired as well. All that matters is the amount of hours and capital that are input and the amount of goods being produced. If they are in balance, there is no exploitation. It does not matter whether you do the production on your own land in the countryside or in the corn factory in the city owned by the hirer. Roemer assures us that "Every producer is indifferent among these various arrangements, assuming no particular preferences for the country life over the city life."

The problem with Roemer's example is that it describes a situation which has no historical or social parallel. The notion that there can be a free-floating arrangement where some people in a society choose to be hirers or hired simply ignores how these categories originally arose. They arose out of compulsion. The compulsion was rooted in laws like the Enclosure Acts that drove peasants off the land and others that required taxes to be paid in money rather than in-kind agricultural goods.

Furthermore, the relationship between hirer and hired at the outset was one in which there was no equilibrium between labor and capital as input, and goods produced as output. The whole driving logic behind the capitalist system was to produce a disequilibrium from the beginning. Why would anybody take the trouble to build a factory unless there was some assurance that the output side would be greater than the input side to an extreme degree?

The industrial revolution in England was marked by two features: extreme exploitation of labor in the factory system in the classic Marxian sense, and outright pillage of the resources of the colonial world at the point of a bayonet. Roemer's case studies never depict these class relations.

Leaving aside its relevance to history, one thing that strikes me as particularly specious is Roemer's assertion that individuals have no preference for working their own land in the countryside or in the urban factories, as long as the income-leisure bundle is equivalent. What a one-dimensional understanding of the human race! Peasants are deeply attached to their land and don't make rational calculations simply based on narrow, economic factors.

Since Roemer focuses on the production of corn, I was reminded of the story of Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous Guatemalan peasant leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of years ago. In her memoir "I, Rigoberta Menchu", she describes the spiritual, emotional and psychological attachment Mayan Indians have to their land and their way of life which revolves around the cultivation of maize.

"At the harvest time, we also celebrate the first day we pick the maize cobs, and the rest of what our small plots of land yield. The women pick the beans and the men pick the maize; we all harvest the fruits of our labor together. But before we pick them, we have a ceremony in which the whole community thanks the earth and the God who feeds us. Everyone is very happy that they don't have to go down to the finca and work now that they have food."

This is the most telling indictment of Roemer's methodology. Rigoberto Menchu's people do not weigh the possible income-leisure bundles that can be derived from work on their own land with what may be gained on the finca (Spanish for plantation). Their life has a totality which extends beyond the simple production of goods. These dimensions that can not be captured in Roemer's sterile game-playing scenarios.

More to the point, the whole thrust of the decades long guerrilla warfare campaign in Guatemala has been to preserve the best of the indigenous way of life but on the basis of socialist property relations. This is true of the Peruvian Senderosos and Zapatistas as well. It has been a fundamental feature of 20th century socialism that has been lost on Roemer and G.A. Cohen. Their "stagist" conception of the class struggle simply doesn't map to the way that real people radicalize and fight for socialist transformation.

The entire twentieth century struggle for socialism occurs in situations that Trotsky describes as having "combined and uneven" development. This means that various stages of social and economic development can be collapsed into one. Subcommandante Marcos's use of laptop computers to communicate the message of indigenous people's to cyberspace is emblematic of this tendency.

Finally, the attempt to mobilize Marx's "defense" of English colonial rule in India on behalf of Roemer's crude economism is based on a false reading of Marx. Roemer and others, including the postcolonialists like Vindana Shiva, have fixated on various places in which Marx favorably contrasts the mechanization and industrialization of English colonial rule to the benighted and antiquated Indian village economy.

The following paragraph in Marx's 1853 article, "The Future Results of British Rule in India", presents a more richly dialectical presentation of the possibilities India faced after England's conquest.

"All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what will they not fail to do is lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation.

The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether."

What could be clearer? Marx adds an enormous proviso when he talks about the "progress" that capitalism brings. Unless there is socialist revolution, capitalism has done nothing except revolutionize the means of production. This has nothing to do with the ameliorative scenarios developed by Oxford dons like G.A. Cohen and John Roemer.

Roemer asserts that the "proletarians in India would have been better off, statically, in the alternative without imperialist interference, but dynamically British imperialist exploitation was socially necessary to bring about the development of the productive forces, eventually improving the income-leisure bundles of the producers (or their children) over what they would have been." You will note that there is no reference to socialist revolution. It simply posits a capitalist system that is superior to the old system in delivering those phantom income-revenue bundles. This type of thinking is what allows him to put his trust in market economies in the name of socialism. This "market socialism" is a totally false concept, but outside the purview of this paper.

Louis Proyect