Burning Money,
The Material Spirit of the
Chinese Lifeworld

by C. Fred Blake

University of Hawai'i Press, 2011

As an intellectual construct, Capital was a masterpiece. But, like some other intellectual masterpieces, it was an elaborately sophisticated structure erected on the foundation of a primitive misconception.

...In the realm of ideas in general, the Marxian vision -- including his theory of history -- has not only dominated various fields at various times, it has survived both the continuing prosperity of capitalism and the economic debacles of socialism. It has become axiomatic among sections of the intelligentsia, impervious to the corrosive effects of evidence or logic.

But what did Marx contribute to economics? Contributions depend not only on what was offered but also on what was accepted, and there is no major premise, doctrine, or tool of analysis in economics today that derived from the writings of Karl Marx. There is no need to deny that Marx was in many ways a major historic figure of the nineteenth century, whose long shadow still falls across the world of the twenty-first century. Yet, jarring as the phrase may be, from the standpoint of the economics profession Marx was, as Professor Paul Samuelson called him, "a minor post-Ricardian."

Thomas Sowell, On Classical Economics [Yale, 2006, p.184-186, boldface added]

That Marx is worth reading is certain. The question is, however, whether his theory truly explains anything in our world, and whether it provides grounds for any predictions. The answer is no. Another question is whether or not his theories were ever useful. Here the answer is, obviously, yes; they operated successfully as a set of dogmas that were supposed to justify and glorify communism and the slavery that inevitably goes with it.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "What is Left of Socialism?" Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.64, boldface added]

The problem that Professor Blake's book sets out to tackle is not to describe or understand on their own terms Chinese religion or the Chinese practice of burning fake paper money, and other things, as offerings for the Chinese dead, but to provide a dogmatic Marxist formula to attach to (it certainly does not explain) such religious phenomena. This is the equivalent of using the 18th century theory of Phlogiston (the last incarnation of the element of fire) to explain something in modern chemistry. As Thomas Sowell says above, there is nothing in modern economics, no premise, doctrine, or tool of analysis, that derives from the writings of Karl Marx. This is not to say that Marxism is not popular at American universities. It is. But Professor Blake cannot be expected to know much of anything about real economics; and his use of Marxism is for something about which it has nothing meaningful to say [note].

He does, however, know his Marx, and this is almost refreshing in comparison to the "lumpen Marxism" (as Robert Hughes put it) or Cargo Cult Economics that we find in English and Sociology departments, etc., expressed through "deconstruction," "post-modernism," or, grandly, "Theory" -- also "Critical Theory," in a more overt reference, for those who know, to (Frankfurt School) Marxism. These are the versions of Marxism that are actually popular at American universities. Blake, far from celebrating the triumph of ignorance and folly that we see, occasionally voices his dislike of the "postmodern turn" (despite using the word "lifeworld," which sounds like the fruit of "Theory"). Verily, they have fallen from the pure faith, as though the straight Marx were not sufficient for enlightenment and liberation. The faith flows unadulterated in Blake himself. So if we want to read a little something about Chinese religion, but also have a tutorial in Marxism and an object lesson in the poisonous corruption and debasement of American education, this is the book to do it. It is a chilling business, since decades of communist propaganda have not gone without their effect on American political culture and American voters, not to mention the effect in places, like Venezuela, that do not have the economic depth and resilience of the United States. As we know from the example of Cuba, mere tyranny and poverty, for decades, are not enough to discredit a dictatorial regime whose ideological credentials are good enough in the eyes of intellectuals and "progressives." In 2014, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin returned from Cuba and spoke on the Senate floor about how great it was, earning a rebuke from Marco Rubio, of Cuban derivation himself, for being a dupe and enabler of a mendacious dictatorship [note]. With someone like Professor Blake, it is not at all obvious in advance how much tyranny and poverty, let alone murder and imprisonment, he is willing to tolerate in the quest for Marxist ideals.

How Blake came by this faith is unclear. From references in the book, it sounds like in his youth he was a political pilgrim to Mao's China, eager to be present at the birth of the New Man and the new world of the communist utopia. The fall of communism, and the redirection of China, by the Communist Party no less, into its own authoritarian (i.e. crony, fascist) brand of capitalism, has, for all its faults (slave labor, etc. -- although slave labor was fine under communism), proven far more productive than any form of Marxism has in any other country. This has left Blake lost and despairing among the ruins, with the blooming confusion of enthusiastic enterprise going on all around him. It has not, however, dented the depths of his convictions and orthodoxy. So he may as well become a professor of Anthropology and study the terrible fruits of capitalism (in consumerist abundance) and the pathetic revival of Chinese religion. How he feels about his subject matter and the fall of communism we eventually see:

This [i.e. the religious practice under study] requires an enormous pile of paper cut from an endless scroll, which is turned into palls of smoke and shrouds of ash, an irritant and a pollutant of the physical environment, widely considered a serious fire hazard, a farce in the wake of the tragedy that was the communist's last hurrah, a burlesque of virtue and reason... [p.210]

Tell us how you feel, Fred. But it is curious here to see the notion that this ancient religious practice, apart from being wasteful, polluting, and ridiculous, is an insult to the poor, tragic communist. Of course, it has nothing to do with communism but long antedated it. Also, the fall of communism was not a tragedy in the first place, but a triumph of the human spirit -- unfortunately a very incomplete business in China and some other places. The tragedy, and a terrible one is was, is that communism existed in the first place and was able to reap its harvest of millions of innocent souls, while trapping millions others for decades in the prison states and enforced poverty of the Soviet Block, including Maoist China. There is not a hint in Blake's book that he has a slightest awareness of this or regret for its human cost. The capitalist enemy, with its potato chips and iPods, is far worse than prison camps and mass murder. It is Blake, the orphan of communism, who feels tragic about himself.

Since it is quite common in Chinese and other religions to believe that smoke carries offerings and prayers up to heaven (as Blake himself seems aware), and that the ashes from sacrifice themselves are purifying or sanctifying, whether used on the forehead at Lent or to cover the Sadhu in India, one begins to wonder if Professor Blake actually knows, or cares, about religion at all, except as one of the reactionary impediments to the communist utopia. The only affection we see for Chinese religious practice in the book is where Blake thinks it exemplifies some Marxism principle, such as the labor theory of value, or the "material spirit" (whatever that is) of his title. Heaven forbid (as it were) that people might be concerned about the dead or the afterlife. Nobody believes that crap anymore.

What we can expect from Professor Blake, were he to have his way, we can glean from the following remark about "ideology," which to the proper Marxist means all doctrine except Marxism:

...ideology reifies or naturalizes the mode of exploitation by making it disappear in the discourse of a quasi-science, economic science:  for example, the fairness of wages, the freedom to sell labor power, the autonomy of the individual. [p.115]

Thus, we learn that the economics of which Blake is innocent, and which ignores (after refuting) Marxism, is a "quasi-science," excusing Blake's neglect, and that concepts like "freedom" and "autonomy" are part of the process that makes exploitation "disappear" so that it can continue unchecked.

What we can expect from Blake's remedy to these evils is thus a totaliarian order where things like freedom and autonomy, as anyone would ordinarily understand them, are abolished. Blake was not attracted to the nightmare of Maoist China for nothing, and of course he need not worry that Stalinism will ever suffer any reproach in the modern American university, where free speech is under constant assault, political crimes now require little beyond an accusation to be proven, violence against conservative speakers is winked at, and "due process" in student discipline, or even rape accusations, is a Star Chamber with no Constitutional protections of the accused. Anyone bothering to look can see what these people are about. It would have helped clarify things if Blake were to volunteer an opinion about North Korea, where traditional religious practices, or Christianity, are suppressed with a level of terror, torture, and murder that should (but don't always) astonish and horrify the modern world. Where Stalin only starved Ukrainians to death, North Korea uses starvation against its population at large, the way Cambodian communists effected a genocide against their own people. The Korean regime does not embarrass Professor Blake with anything like "bourgeois" liberties or the economic successes of the dreaded "consumerism." Perhaps he knows better than to come out behind his jargon and evasions to be more candid. But what he does say is bad enough, at least to anyone who knows what the theoretical rejections of "freedom" and "autonomy" have consistently lead to in practice, and as is often candidly admitted by academics and activists to private and friendly audiences (fortunately subject to recording by cell-phones, to be aired, at least, on Fox News).

Blake's book, on its analytic side, is actually little more than a dismal catalogue of Marxist jargon and boilerplate. That this gets published by a University Press, without most of it being edited out, is a disgrace. Nor does Blake have a right to publish just anything because of academic freedom. The "peer review" process is supposed to ensure that a work is competent in its field, but Blake's book is not likely to have included review by real economists. It is not as though this is a scholarly study of Marxism. Instead, the Marxism is presupposed as the unproblematic framework for interpretation in a report of anthropological fieldwork. As such, it may as well have been using astrology, geocentrism, or biological vitalism, without a contrary word from real astronomers, biologists, or chemists. The University of Hawai'i Press has some explaining, and apologizing, to do. But it is not surprising that such vicious nonsense should be waved through, perhaps with a pat on the back and a kind word, by the modern academic publisher.

But let's think a bit about Chinese religion. Blake's book does not deign to notice that offerings for the dead are common, indeed universal, in ancient religion. In both the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita (1:42) the dead are miserable, and even senseless, without offerings from the living. This idea, that the dead derive necessary nourishment from offerings, has lapsed in most major world religions. Blake himself notes that Chinese converts to Christianity at least say that offerings are no longer necessary. Chinese religion then is in the extraordinary position of continuing the ancient beliefs and practices in full flood. Also, Blake's example of the family of a deceased Christian knowing from a dream that the dead need offerings after all, is also something else that ties modern Chinese religion to a great deal of ancient practice. Since a lot of modern Chinese, like a lot of modern Japanese, certainly observe their religious ritual without necessarily believing in the entities, i.e. the dead, that it concerns, Blake might have noted that dream messages from the dead, which are quite common and are recounted in more sympathetic and objective books about Chinese religion, would tend to otherwise bespeak that common belief in the condition and needs of the dead continues. Presumably, Blake would rather believe that the Chinese are natural atheists (like the Vulcans of Star Trek), whose good sense frequently breaks through the "mystification" of the ritual "burlesque of virtue and reason" that constitutes offerings to the dead.

Much of the fascination of the disinterested observer with Chinese religion is due to the survival of offerings for the dead and to the intimacy of communion with the dead that we see in the dream messages and in the annual Qingming, , observance, when family graves are visited and tended. The needs of the dead concerning their graves themselves may previously have been communicated by dreams. The service of the dead involves two uniquely Chinese inventions:  paper and gunpowder. Paper allows offerings to be made with a cheap substitute, paper, in place the genuine articles. Where the Egyptians generally would offer food to the dead, and pack tombs with furniture and clothing, the Chinese can now offer refrigerators, cars, houses, and, in short, anything a model of which can be constructed out of paper and burned. This also sounds like fun, and Blake actually notes that children take to it with enthusiasm [note]. Gunpowder is then used for firecrackers, something else that Blake at least notices. Having spent a New Year's Day in Honolulu, in 1975, when fireworks could be shot off by anyone from 1 PM to 1 AM, I can attest to the enthusiasm, and to the nuisance, of this practice (our cat simply disappeared into hiding for the duration). This is not always allowed in Hawai'i for New Year's; but fireworks, in daylight hours, are always allowed in Hawaiian Chinese cemeteries. The practice in general is to frighten off evil spirits and influences; but Blake himself comments, quite sensibly, that in rituals for the dead they also mark the end of the service and function to chase off the dead themselves, whose presence among the living can have negative effects. The necessity of separating the living from the dead, and the dangers of failing to do so, is the subject of a great deal of world mythology.

For Blake, of course, the only external source of information for his study is Marxism, not knowledge of anything as irrelevant as other religions. This is especially conspicuous in the chapter Blake actually entitles "Burlesque," which is supposed to contain the most absurd and discrediting of the Chinese practices. Among the most intriguing of these is sending models or dolls of "beautiful ladies," , as mistresses or concubines to the (male) dead. This seems to embarrass many Chinese, and Blake is probably happy to group it with footbinding and other appalling traditional Chinese practices (indeed, he often associates burning money with footbinding, although he never makes clear what the connection is, except as a form of "mystification" and oppression). It does raise the metaphysical question how a thing of paper in this world becomes a flesh and blood person in the next. What Blake does not deign to notice, however, is that this practice was universal in Egypt, where little figurines, the "ushabiti" (variously vocalized), were placed in tombs to provide necessary labor for the dead in the afterlife. The Egyptian practice raises the same metaphysical question, but we don't get the same variety among ushabiti as in China or any sense that any of them were intended for sex. Egyptian tombs are exemplars of family values, and the Egyptians seem to have wanted nothing more than the reunion of couples and their children. But if there was work to do in the afterlife, they wanted some help. So if this is part of the "burlesque" of Chinese religion, it is a very ancient sort of burlesque.

As the modern secularized Chinese may really believe none of this stuff anymore, there was already a strain of unbelief in traditional China. The Hung-wu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty, was told by one of his Confucian counselors:

People are born possessing the material [qi] [] of Heaven and Earth. This is why physically they go from young to mature, mature to senior, senior to senile, and senile to dead. At the moment of death, the hun [] rises to Heaven and the po [] sinks to Earth. The hun is made of spiritual substance but is exhausted when it reaches the empyrean and is blown to the four winds. The po on the other hand consists of the bones, flesh, and hair. When it touches the Earth, it decays into dust and mixes into the mud. That is why Confucius refused to talk about the spirits. [Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire, China in the Yuan and Ming Dyansties, Belnap Press, Harvard, 2010, p.168]

Despite the Confucian orthodoxy of the Hung-wu Emperor's counselor about the Chinese soul, popular Chinese belief would have none of it; and the counselor was rebuked by the Emperor, who said:

If one believes there are no spirits... then there is nothing to fear in Heaven or Earth and nothing with which to nourish the ancestors -- what kind of person would think this? [Brook, op.cit.]

The basis of the Confucian dismissal of concerns about the dead was the account in the Analects:

Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead [] and gods [] should be served. The Master said, "You are not able to serve to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?" [XI:12, Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius, 1938, Vintage Books, 1989, p.107]

In this matter, Blake serves us well and provides a contrasting, if not contradicting, Confucian quote:

Confucius said, in dealing with the dead, if we treat them as if they were entirely dead, that would show a want of affection, and should not be done; or, if we treat them as if they were entirely alive, that would show a want of wisdom, and should not be done. [p.64].

This is from a canonical source, the Book of Rites, . It represents the sort of distance from the dead that we see in the Analects quote, but then it also expresses something that we expect from Confucius in the Analects and elsewhere, namely a respect for , namely ritual, "the rites," propriety, and manners. While the Analects seems to say that rites for the dead are unnecessary, this is not what we have ever seen in practical Confucianism and it is inconsistent with the observance of . From the Book of Rites, however, we have the very Confucian sentiment that actual neglect of the dead would "show a want of affection." If only Confucius had read his Marx.

The question why such an ancient, we could even say primitive, practice as offerings for the dead -- as opposed to perhaps no more than prayers for the dead, which we see in Judaism, Christianity, etc. -- should have survived in China may be due to the particular attitude that Confucianism imposed on Chinese religion. Confucians viewed the popular Chinese gods in moral and political terms and treated them in much the same way as other subjects of the Chinese State. Morally worthy gods, or those symbolic of necessary institutions (like city gods, or Confucius himself), were recognized and promoted, while those who were not thought to represent anything morally edifying were officially suppressed. Buddhism posed a problem in these terms, since Confucians never believed that things like Buddhist monasticism were socially valuable, and a rich tradition of stories about Buddhist monks as social parasites and sexual predators always provided fodder for Confucian hostility. Nevertheless, Buddhism became entrenched during the confusion of the Northern and Southern Empires; and Buddhists could always argue that the moral content of the dharma was as edifying and demanding as anything in Confucianism. At the same time, the overall structure of Buddhist religion shared features with both Confucianism and Taoism. A riot of multiple gods, although present, did not figure at the higher levels of the religion, where impersonal principles, like the Tao, the dharma, or Nirvân.a, stood on roughly the same level of generality and ultimacy as the Confucian Mandate of Heaven, . The popular deities might be regarded as no more part of elite religion in Buddhism than in Confucianism, and indeed the groups of deities from Buddhism, Taoism, and elsewhere come to overlap and be identified with each other -- but the status of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas did provide a doctrinal basis for a personal element. The low cultural status of popular gods was evident to me whenever I would ask classes if anyone, who wasn't Chinese, knew the name of even a single Chinese god. None ever did. Indeed, I continue to learn of gods that I had previously never heard of, such as the goddess of the sea , Mazu (or Ma-tsu), curiously honored by the Moslem Admiral He on his voyages.

The elite principles of Confucianism thus did not invade popular and traditional religion, to alter or abolish it, as Monotheism did in the West. A similar distance between popular religion and elite concepts can be found with the gods of India. Consequently, it has been traditional to distinguish between philosophical Confucianism and Taoism and religious Confucianism and Taoism. But misconceptions about this are common. A correspondent recently asserted, indignantly, that Confucianism was never a religion. I still have not understood the vehemence of this assertion, but it was expanded with the argument that this circumstance was understood by the Jesuits, who became familiar with Chinese culture in the late Ming and who contended that Confucianism was a moral philosophy perflectly compatible with Christianity, which meant that Confucians could become Christians, or Christians Confucians, without any compromise to their respective convictions. This was viewed with astonishment and alarm by other Catholic missionaries in China; and, of course, it looks like no more than a clever strategy to gain Chinese converts to Christianity with the comforting assurance that this did not compromise the status of the , the Confucian Way, of Chinese civilization. As a strategy, it failed, as no more than a small number of Confucian scholars took it seriously or wished to convert to Christianity. It is especially odd to hear now that Confucianism was not a religion, when most Confucians clearly concluded that Catholicism was incompatible with Confucianism. It is not hard to understand why.

Where such an assertion really comes to grief, however, and where Catholic opponents of the Jesuits scored their points, was in the status of the Confucian virtue of , "propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony, worship," or just "the rites." Confucians were expected to observe the rites, especially those for the dead and the ancestors, and now we can see the manner in which this could even be rationalized by unbelieving Confucians as a socially valuable function of affection and respect. But it was not optional. The Jesuits seemed to be saying that such things were empty ritual and that the rites could be performed without believing that they implied anything about religion. Diocletian would have disagreed. After all, in the Great Persecution of Diocletian, all that Christians needed to do was pour out a small libation to the gods. They were not asked to renounce their own faith or make any positive confession about the pagan gods or the Emperor. Yet Christians were willing to die rather than pour that libation. Now the Jesuits were saying, in effect, that they were martyred for nothing and that empty "rites" would not have compromised their faith. The martyrs of Diocletian were fools. Hence the fury of other Catholics.

The problem here is the meaning of religion. In Roman religion, it really didn't matter what you believed as long as you did what you were supposed to do. Religion was practice, and this means that creeds or confessions are conspicuously missing from the Roman religious record. Judaism and Christianity, however, were about belief. Practice was in there; but not only was it secondary, but in the dynamic of the institution, it tended to fade -- until the strict observances of something like Orthodox Judaism came to be regarded as peculiar, if not benighted. What Diocletian knew, and the Jesuits wanted to forget, was that ritual was more basic to religion than creed. And Chinese religion was never one of creed or confession.

The survival of offerings for the dead in Chinese religion thus seems to result from its condescending tolerance by elite Confucianism, a tolerance that simultaneously preserved it in its own terms but also shut it out from the considerations of elite culture. Again, we see this also in India, where the intellectual elite may respect the rarified philosophy of the Upanishads and Vedanta, and may observe required rituals, but at the same time may harbor little more than contempt for popular religion, its devotional gods, and its enthusiasms. In terms of Western, Monothesistic religions, this is hard to understand. Some influence, whether Jewish or Greek, planted a seed of logical consistency and systematization in Western religion, and the sort of exuberant and chaotic structure of Hinduism or Chinese religion is not seen, or only hinted at in popular and usually local developments. Indeed, Jewish and Greek attitudes seemed to have coincidentally harmonized (together with Zoroastrianism), and this leaves the riotous polytheism of modern Indian and Chinese religion looking extraordinary. Moses, and Constlantine, respectively, put down that sort of thing in the West, even as St. Paul and then Martin Luther gutted the details of ritual practice.

From Professor Blake, we get not a hint of this. We do not learn of the distance between elite and popular religion in China, let alone of questions about the rites. Instead, we get Marxism, to which we can now return. The explanation for burning paper as offerings for the dead is "a mystification of labor power under an advanced feudal mode of production" [p.140]. Blake knows that this is not in line with Marx's own analysis of the kind of state and society that China was, which was a special category of oriental despotism (not unlike Stalinist Russia). And Blake is aware that China has not recently been "feudal" in a sense familiar from the West. Indeed, his definition of "feudal" is nonsense. Imperial China, in most of his history, was a state based on a cash economy with a paid, professional army and bureaucracy. This contradicts the most fundamental characteristics of any feudal system, which was essentially an accommodation to an economy based on subsistence agriculture, without a cash nexus. Western Europe drifted into a subsistence economy because of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and because of the disruption of trade in the Mediterranean that attended the Islamic Conquest. China had been in such circumstances in the Chou Dynasty, when a familiar feudal order and characteristic fragmentation is evident. Blake's application of this to later China, either of the time of the origin of burnt paper offerings or of the present, is fantastic and preposterous. It is a floating phantasm of Marxist jargon that has no connection to any reality, let alone any reality of Chinese religion or history. The only tool he's got is Marxism, and, by God (or something), he's going to use it.

From Chinese religion, I now turn back to the tutorial in Marxism. Blake favors us with a statement of some basic Marxist principles, perhaps because he expects that, in their purity, they may be relatively unfamiliar to the reader, even the reader somewhat already indoctrinated with "people's history" and the other leftist cant of the academy. Thus, we get:

Money and all other things that take the money form (i.e., commodities) are prone to fetishism to the extent they are produced and circulated under the rule of capital, in which the human labor or "the socially necessary labor time" that it takes to produce a useful thing for the sole purpose of exchanging its use value is itself a commodity (a factor of production purchased from its owner-agent, the laborer). [p.107, boldface added]

This murky passage contains some key concepts. A "fetish" is something that comes to be characterized or valued for something that it isn't. The labor value or use value of an object is thus "fetishized" and alienated from its true nature by being sold as a commodity, "under the rule of capital." Marx believes that under communism useful things will be produced by labor and then just given away to those who need them. Since producers may never know how much they need to produce until someone shows up to take what they need, they would need to have some sort of "just in time" production, if they are to avoid producing a wasteful surplus of goods. At the same time, the need to produce anything requires that the inputs of production, the raw materials needed for production, must be available on the same "just in time" basis, without anyone knowing in advance, however, how much production is going to be needed and so what raw inputs are going to be needed. None of these can be done without prices and the market exchange of commodities, which neither Marx nor Blake wish to allow. But no economy has ever run on such a basis, and exchange occurred even before the existence of money, on the basis of barter. Thus, the condemnation of capitalism for "fetishism" and for creating an illegitimate "exchange value" of commodities is nonsense.

The next point concerns "the socially necessary labor time" for production. While Blake speaks of "time," he elsewhere condemns the idea that labor can or should be quantified in terms of time -- the mechanical and dehumanizing clock. So there is a bit of incoherence here. More importantly, however, is the qualification of "socially necessary" to the terms of labor or "labor time." The notion of what is "socially necessary" is added to the Marxist labor theory of value in order to avoid the absurdity that just any kind of labor produces something of value. The Marxist thus would probably judge that the entire Leave It To Beaver television show was "socially unnecessary" and thus a worthless waste of labor. But Blake does not, and cannot, ever define what "socially necessary" is going to mean. It will involve his own judgment about what is necessary in the economy of the Marxist utopia. Since others are likely to disagree, and Leave It To Beaver was actually popular with many people, we can already see the approach of a totalitarian government (consisting of Blake and his friends) telling people what they are going to like -- or else.

Finally, there is the point that capitalism supposedly sets to "produce a useful thing for the sole purpose of exchanging its use value." This is simply false. Businesses produce goods and services first of all so that businessmen can make a living, which means to survive by providing useful things to others, in exchange for other necessities and luxuries of life. The Marxist notion that necessities of life are properly just given to users establishes an incentive, of course, to do nothing and become a free rider on the labor of others. Marxist regimes, in turn, solve this problem with slave labor. Free riders will be forced to work, and this is then more noble and humane than expecting them to make a living by providing some good or service that others will be willing to pay for. The Marxist expectation that a selfless "consciousness" will attend the communist utopia, so that everyone will work willingly for the good of others, according to the abilities and needs of all, without coercion, should remind us of a striking passage from David Hume:

Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies. And if we would explode any forgery in history, we cannot make use of a more convincing argument, than to prove, that the actions ascribed to any person are directly contrary to the course of nature, and that no human motives, in such circumstances, could ever induce him to such a conduct. [An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sect. VIII, Part I, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1972, L.A. Selby-Bigge edition, p. 84]

Marxism, of course, denies any durable human nature. The expectation that men "divested of avaraice, ambition, or revenge" will automatically be generated among the "workers" by the dialectic of history, when confronted with the same old Adam of human motives and character, then resorts, like Lenin, to Terror and all the ferocity of a totalitarian police state. Class enemies deserve nothing better than death.

Marxists, however, feel morally superior by reducing and dismissing the motive of all business as solely concerned with profit. They are truly clueless than an unprofitable business not only cannot provide a living for its owner and employees, but that it cannot even survive. A business operating at a loss, without a subsidy, consumes its own capital, runs out of money, cannot purchase its inputs, and falls into bankruptcy. Marxists regard this process as a fiction, but operating productively or unproductively is no more a fiction than gravity, as was harshly demonstrated in the experience of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other "progressive" countries. The "profit motive" is thus absolutely necessary if an enterprise is to accomplish a net increase rather than a net decrease in value. Also, anyone in business must consider that the good or service produced by the business must be appealing and desirable to customers. The business with no sales will soon go bankrupt also. But Marxist economies are famous for producing things that no one wants while failing to produce things that they do, while meanwhile having no concern for waste or efficiency. Thus, the central heating system for the City of Moscow consumes energy at a rate greater than the whole of the Republic of France. This is a bitter farce when meanwhile the United States Government has decided that incandescent light bulbs are not energy efficient enough and must be abolished by law. But the Soviet Union never thought that it needed to worry about anything so fictitious as the cost of energy.

After some more of this nonsense, Blake gets to a key point. If profit is illegitimate and unnecessary, where does the profit of a business actually come from?

But the whole point of Marx's analysis is to show how the money fetish hides the fact that "money making more money" is an illusion -- that monetary profit comes not from exchange but from "surplus labor." The commodity in its money form disguises its original animus in the "willing" of its human labor to work more hours than is socially necessary to produce useful things. [p.108, boldface added]

If this is really "the whole point of Marx's analysis," then it is sheer, absurd nonsense. However long labor works has nothing to do with whether an enterprise is profitable or not. Indeed, the enterprise may be the self-employed project of a single worker. He will need to work enough so that, by the exchange of his product, he can cover his costs and obtain enough extra, a profit, both to have a living and provide for other expenses. It may be, with inefficient production or a useless product, no amount of labor, even working around the clock, will produce a profit. Similarly, by capital investment and an increase in productivity, the worker, or a businessman, can reduce the amount of labor necessary while at the same time increasing the quantity and/or quality of the the goods or services produced. Of course, as already noted, Blake doesn't want to quantify labor time anyway. "Socially necessary labor time" cannot be timed, just as what is "socially necessary" cannot be defined.

Thus, as Thomas Sowell says that Marxism is "an elaborately sophisticated structure erected on the foundation of a primitive misconception," it may actually be difficult to narrow things down to just one "primitive misconception." That value depends on the quantity of labor is generally taken as the foundational misconception of Marxism; but the notion of "surplus value," that profit exists because workers somehow are made to work longer than they would otherwise, although a corollary of a labor theory of value, is so absurd in its own right as to nearly rank equally with the other. Telling anyone in business that they can make more profit by just making their workers, or themselves, work longer is likely to be meet with incredulity, if not laughter. A small business owner may learn that working longer may be necessary to make a go of the business and avoid bankruptcy, but many businesses fail despite desperate amounts of labor put into them. And anyone in business knows that if he can reduce labor costs (i.e. labor time) by increasing productivity, he will have a better chance of breaking even. But there are many other, external factors involved [note].

Benjamin Franklin already understood how exchange indeed already explains the existence of profit and the increase in the value of things through trade:

In transactions of trade, it is not to be suppos'd that like gaming, what one party gains the other must necessarily lose. The gain to each may be equal. If A had more corn than he can consume, but wants cattle, and B has more cattle but wants corn, an exchange is a gain to each; hereby the common stock of comforts in life is increas'd. [1783]

Franklin has understood how such exchange is what is now called a positive sum game. Both corn and cattle increase in value in the exchange because they are useful to their new owner as they were not to the old. In Marxist production, however, the corn grower is expected to just give away his product, out of the goodness of his heart. But he experiences a net loss of value, since he has invested and worked to produce corn for which he has obtained nothing. This leaves him with no incentive to produce anything more, especially if his government (i.e. the Obama Administration) spends much of its time telling him that he is wicked and a political criminal for being in business at all.

Leftists in general like the idea of economics as a zero sum game -- what one gains another loses. This is openly stated in the movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas asserts that money is constant, just moves around, and so one person's gain is another's loss. But again, this is nonsense. The value of money itself varies, which means that as exchanges take place, even a constant quantity of money increases in value. This is called "deflation"; and it is actually what happen in the United States economy from 1865 to 1896.

But as Marxism inevitably implies slave labor, it also requires forced exchanges, which ordinarily is called "theft." This is a negative sum game, in which value decreases; for a good that you have simply taken from someone else is probably going to be worth less to you than it was to them (which is why fences pay less than market value for stolen goods). And you've given them nothing in return. So overall value decreases. This is what we see in regimes based on Marxist principles.

If Professor Blake used his teaching and his books to promote Neo-Nazi racism, his books would not get published by university presses and chances are that he would not be allowed to remain in his teaching position, despite all the pieties about academic freedom. Since Blake promotes Marxism instead, the situation is very different, despite the butcher's bill being significantly higher for communism than for Nazism. Intellectuals, as it happens, don't mind breaking a few eggs in a good cause. In Stalin's own words, one death is tragedy, but millions of deaths are just a statistic. Blake's teaching and influence thus represent a danger to the nation, a clear and present danger as such ideas influence voters, whether "educated" or not, and further socialism, long after the evidence is in on the wisdom or worth of such programs. Thus, the voters of New Jersey in 2013 amended the State Constitution with a minimum wage law, indexed for inflation. Even the ads against the measure failed to point out that raises in the minimum wage come out of the jobs of other workers, not out of the greedy profits of capitalists, which means that large cohorts of unskilled workers are being permanently priced out of the employment market. New Jersey, which already ranks as one of the most hostile States in the Union for business, is thus also one of the most hostile to low skill workers -- both youth and historically "disadvantaged" minorities. It is isn't just that the follies of price fixing are popularly promoted by leftist and "liberal" political forces, but that the simple truths about the evils of such things do not get articulated by the "stupid party," i.e. Republicans, or anyone else outside a few political commentators like Walter Williams or Thomas Sowell. Since Democrats (the "evil party") want to take credit for helping minorities, by actually putting them out of work, the irony is that they are rarely called out for their "objective" hostility to minorities (as Marxists would say), which extends to their practice of holding the same minorities hostage in the public schools that provide them with nothing to improve their skills and human capital.

Professor Blake is thus worse than a fool. He makes himself an enemy of humanity. And, despite writing a book that is ostensively about Chinese religion, we find out what is really important to him. The book ends this way:

To the extent we want to view this in the totality of historical dialectics, we would have to say that thus far capitalist civilization has moved the human spirit toward an alienation of historic profundity. Our task is to understand how our notions of value are shaped by these modes of production/reproduction. [p.214]

Nothing about Chinese religion here, just Blake's animus against capitalism, in his Stalinist terminology ("historical dialectics"). It would be nice to know Blake's opinion how Cuba or North Korea fit on his scale of alienation, or how consumed with guilt and remorse he is living his comfortable life in the warm weather and high prices of Hawai'i. He is certainly alienated from the means of production that actually provide for his own position, doubtlessly with its agreeable opportunities to travel to China, academic conferences, and other enjoyable venues. Blake is thus a perfect example of Julian Benda's La Trahison des Clercs [1927], "The Treason of the Intellectuals," who use their freedom and status to promote tyranny, slavery, and oppression, as in Brenda's day they supported the totalitarian systems of Communism and Fascism. There is far too much of this in American public life, and particularly in "education."

The Marxist-Leninist Theory of History


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Copyright (c) 2014 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Burning Money,
The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
, Note 1

It is possible to credit Marx with at least one insight that anticipated an important part of modern economics. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel had said that bureaucrats would be the "universal class" whose only interest would be the health of the State. In his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx held that this would not be true and that bureaucrats would have their own interest, which could be contrary to that of the State or of anyone else. In modern terms, we would say that bureaucrats become rent-seekers, with their behavior the subject of study in Public Choice economics. Since Marx didn't like rents anyway, he could even use the modern language about rent-seekers.

Marx was not alone in having intimations of Public Choice principles. John Locke was also sensible of the problem of politicians beginning to feather their own nests:

But in Governments, where the Legislative is in one lasting Assembly always in being, or in one Man, as in Absolute Monarchies, there is danger still, that they will think themselves to have a distinct interest, from the rest of the Community; and so will be apt to increase their own Riches and Power, by taking, what they think fit, from the People. [The Second Treatise, "Of Civil Government," in Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett, Cambridge University Press, 1960, 1988, §138, boldface added]

Despite Founders like Jefferson being keen for term limits, many American voters have been taken in by the fiction that they need "professional" politicians whose knowledge of government, over an extended period of time, will rebound to the benefit of the nation. Instead, we see that long serving politicians become increasingly detached from the interest of the nation and are simply beholden to their own particular rent-seeking constituencies and interest groups. Politicians have also learned to deflect (unaccountable) responsibility for evils from themselves onto the bureaucracy that they have created, in part with the argument that the bureaucrats are "experts" who are needed in the administration of a modern government and economy. Since their constituents are constantly plagued by the indifference, obstruction, hostility, and persecution of these selfless "public servants," politicians curry favor, thankfullness, and votes by defending constituents from the monstrous, irresponsible power that they themselves have created. It is a clever swindle.

The application of Marxism in the Soviet Union quickly resulted in government by a feudal hierarchy of overbearing bureaucrats, with the Communist Party, Lenin's "Vanguard of the Revolution," at its center. Stalin institutionalized and firmed this up as a durable form of government, although not one that allowed for any real economic development, in that the principle was that profits were unnecessary and every industry could be inefficient and subsidized. The Soviet economy thus gradually ground down as it consumed its own capital. Trotsky identified the evil of the bureaucracy, but he was never in any position to show how he would do it any differently -- and his arguments justifying slave labor do not leave us with any confidence in his humanity or justice. Mao Tse-tung was in a position to do something different; and the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" was it, unleashing the terror of the "Red Guards" on the Communist Party and bureaucrats alike. While Stalin had purged the Old Bolsheviks just because they they could not be subservient enough to him, Mao purged old comrades just because he wanted the Party apparatus gone altogether. Since Marx had believed that the State would wither away and disappear under Communism, this may have seemed like a good idea at the time. The result, however, was real anarchy and an all but total collapse of the economy. We get reports of cannibalism. This was the closest that China came to the self-genocide later seen in the "killing fields" of Cambodia, both of which included the practice of removing educated classes from the urban economy and returning them to rural (slave) labor. This actually would have astonished and appalled Marx himself. Fortunately, Mao died, and his more pragmatic successors instituted more rational policies, if not much in the way of political freedom. The problem of the bureaucrats returns.

Thus, from Locke to Marx, we have the natural roots of Public Choice understanding. Unfortunately, the remedy to the evil is not at all in the works even in the United States; and a Stalinist bureaucracy is eagerly promoted by Professor Blake's fellow Marxists in American education. If a Maoist, he may have different ideas, but then he doesn't get into that kind of detail in his book, any more than Marx did. The eagerness of "lumpen" Marxists for bigger, more powerful government, larger bureaucracies (like the additional IRS agents budgeted by ObamaCare), and ever more bureaucratic regulation (in volume, reach, and detail), reveals what Marxists themselves might otherwise gleefully identify as a "contradiction" in Marxism itself; for a political theory that is supposed to lead to the "withering away of the state" and to actual anarchy, nevertheless has never been put into effect to any extent without a bureaucracy of unlimited authority, which only gets bigger.

The fault, as it happens, is not in the stars but in itself. Marxism has incompatible goals. Private property and government cannot be abolished without the continuation of a power to keep them abolished, and only government can fill that role. This is the incoherence of all "anarcho-socialism," which cannot have one of those two elements without the other becoming impossible. Also, Marx, like Rousseau, rejected the existence of Civil Society, which is the system of private relations in society, protected but otherwise not directed by government. One might think that the abolition of government would render all society into Civil Society (as in "anarcho-capitalism"). But quite the opposite is desired by Marxists. Everything becomes political and thus all relations become subject to political inspection, control, and sanction. The only significant crimes are political crimes. But again, this requires a ferocious enforcement mechanism, which, with the elimination of private relations and so privacy itself, assumes totalitarian proportions. A Marxist thus may at some point dream of anarchy, but everything posited and required by the system always points in the opposite direction.

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Burning Money,
The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
, Note 2

After praising Cuba, would Senator Harkin think it unreasonable to ask him if a totalitarian police state is what he desires for the United States? I expect he would be offended that anyone could imagine such a thing; but Harkin can only be embarrassed by the Brain Trust of the Democratic Party at American Universities, where Marxists like Professor Blake are common and Stalinist practices in regard to free speech (i.e. lack of it) and political tolerance (i.e. intolerance) are ubiquitous.

Marx himself said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The tragedy we might remember were the confident assertions of people like Representative Barney Frank that the mortgage institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were financially sound and secure, while people suggesting otherwise were just racists -- an accusation that sent cowardly Republicans scattering. When the mortage bubble collapsed, and the misconduct of Fannie and Freddie was evident to all, Frank denied that he had ever promoted or defended them. Indeed, the leftist narrative after the collapse, which had been engineered by federal regulation of the market, including actual threats of civil rights prosecutions against the banks, was that it was due entirely to deregulation and to the greed of banks, Wall Street, and (if we listen to the unconstrained voices on the fringes, as in Occupy Wall Street) the Jews.

The farce that follows the bad faith or, charitably, the blind self-deception of Barney Frank is to find openly socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, elected as an "Independent" by what can only be called the idiocy of the voters of Vermont, praising and promoting the U.S. Postal Service in a piece in the March 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal ("There's No Need to End Saturday Mail Delivery," A15). It is unlikely that Senator Sanders has needed to stand in line at a post office in years. This is something, of course, that I avoid whenever possible. I noticed some years ago that the post offices I occasionally had to visit had removed the wall clocks they used to have. A small thing, but I expect they did not want a visible reminder to patrons of how long they were waiting in line, while clerks left for their coffee breaks. But we do see where the priorities lie for Sanders -- in a State Monopoly of notorious fiscal inefficiency and indifferent customer service. Just what we expect from an irresponsible government bureaucracy. As it happens, the financial difficulties of the Service have been worsened by the ability of people to avoid its zombie-like grasp. The postal monopoly on First Class mail is now evaded with e-mail, while FedEx and United Parcel (etc.) provide swift and efficient service in other areas. While the Postal Service is at least based on a Constitutional responsibility of the Federal Government -- unlike most of the rest of what the Federal Government does these days -- it certainly otherwise suits the preferences of Sanders for bloated Stalinist state monopolies. Indeed, e-mail has already been threatened with a tax to subsidize the loss of First Class revenue to the Postal Service.

We are not reminded often enough that when lefists rail against "monopolies" by private business, when these rarely are anything of the sort -- certainly not IBM, Microsoft, or Apple, which have been persecuted one another the other -- they have no objection to monopolies or cartels run or authorized by the government. Consumers are probably unaware that television commercials for milk, cheese, or raisins may not mention the name of any actual dairy company or or grape growers because these advertisements are paid for from the often involuntary contributions of real farmers to the government sactioned and compulsory cartels that control the dairy and other agricultural industries. When politicians or leftists complain about the power of Big Oil, Big Tobacco, or even Fox News, but they skip over milk and cheese, we know that they are dishonest, indeed, that they are lying hypocrites. They want government monopoly and control of all things.

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Burning Money,
The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
, Note 3

We sometimes see skepticism expressed that Marco Polo ever actually went to China because he fails to mention a few things that seem important to us, like the Great Wall. However, in the 13th century it is not clear how many Chinese would have been aware of the Great Wall, which had long been unused and was in ruins. The Wall we see now was rebuilt by the Ming.

Reading Polo's story, however, we find that he describes the Chinese burning paper money for the dead -- a reference casually mentioned by Blake. No fertile imagination, certainly not that of a mundane Venetian merchant who was unable to write up the account of his own travels, is liable to have conceived the idea of such a bizarre practice independently. Such a report carries the immediately conviction of eye-witness testimony. It also tells us that the practice was already common in this period.

The invention of paper itself, of course, made this possible; and we should note how this passed from China to Abbasid Baghdad after 751, and subsequently to Constantinople. A paper mill is not attested in Francia until found in Aragón in 1282 -- within the lifetime of Marco Polo. The effect of paper on book making and learning, although significant, was not as dramatic as that of the printing press later, but the power of the printing press itself is hard to imagine without the paper for it to grind out in quantity. Parchment could not be mass produced in the same way.

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Burning Money,
The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
, Note 4

An excellent example of the foolishness of the Marxist analysis is the fate of many movie productions. Making a movie is a small industry in itself. Producers put together the capital for a movie, line up the actors, director, crew, and other labor and then organize the process from planning and pre-production, to shooting the movie ("production" per se), and then all the work that needs to be done after shooting ("post-production"). What then happens, after everyone goes home, is anyone's guess. Whether the movie ever makes any money for the producers and investors is a large scale crap shoot. It doesn't matter how much labor, let alone "socially necessary labor," has been put into the production, and we often find that movies requiring extensive post-production work, bespeaking various problems with the product, are the ones that may be the most likely to fail in a spectacular fashion. Thus, significant overruns of cost and time in making the movie Titanic [1997] gave many observers a very bad feeling about its quality and prospects. That it was very successful and profitable, as the equally dubious Star Wars [1977] had been, hardly diminishes the disappointment of overwrought recent fiascos like John Carter [2012] or The Lone Ranger [2013]. It is hard to see how there could be, or not be, "surplus value" in The Lone Ranger just depending on its fate at the box office -- actors like Johnny Depp, however, who are usually paid a great deal of something up front (around M$20), often do just fine from flops.

Quantity of labor, whether gauged by clock or effort, was entirely irrelevant to the profitability of these enterprises. Movies that fail sometimes bring down whole, otherwise successful production companies (e.g. Carolco, 1976-1996), or even whole studios (MGM, 2010). Or, a movie may initially be a failure and later, unaccountably, become popular. It is said that 2001, A Space Odyssey [1968] only showed a profit after seven years. Ownership of a movie may be lost in bankruptcy and then become profitable for the investor who speculatively picks it up, to no benefit of its original owners. Bankruptcy illustrates a saying about capital, that "what is sunk, is sunk." That is, you can put money into something, and it can just become worthless. Since Marxism holds that value is intrinsic to things, put there by "socially necessary" labor, nothing can become worthless, which is why "progressive" thought can burden modern economies with worthless products, like the unprofitable "zombie corporations" propped up by crony protections in the Japanese economy since 1990. As we often see with state owned enterprises, the more that business is co-opted by government, the more its becomes a feudal domain of permanent waste and political privilege.

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