Karl Marx on utility

Karl_Marx_001The concept of utility is paramount in determining consumer demand in mainstream economics. Here Marx offers a brief but lively critique of Bentham’s utilitarianism from his own perspective on political economy, in which the social and the historical are vital to the analysis:

“To know what is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs. This nature is not itself deducible from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch. Bentham does not trouble himself with this. With the driest naiveté he assumes that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man. Whatever is useful to this particular kind of normal man, and to his world, is useful in and for itself. He applies this yardstick to the past, the present and the future.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, footnote 51 to Ch. 24, p. 758

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2 thoughts on “Karl Marx on utility

  1. If Bentham is crude in applying his “yardstick”, he is in good company with Marx, whose visions of class struggle and communism presuppose the crudest and most uncaring idea of human needs. Marx’s “yardstick” turned out to be far more dangerous to the human race than Bentham’s awkward reasoning.

    In his blog, Geoffrey Hodgson has a readable piece entitled is “Marxism right-wing?”

    http://newpolitics.apps-1and1.net/is-marxism-right-wing

    It is time for the left to become seriously self-critical, like Hodgson, rather than wallowing in the promise of their long discredited Marxian heroes.

    • Thanks for your comment and the link to Hodgson’s blog piece, which I read with interest. Despite drawing on Marx’s work, I continue to hope and believe that a reformed capitalism is possible and desirable. It may also be superseded at some point in the evolution of humanity, but the attempted socialisms to date have been disastrous for many. Postcapitalism, if it ever transpires, should not be the outcome of one or a few people’s central plan, but a complex phenomenon emerging from the previous social formation. In the meantime, capitalism can hopefully be more ‘wisely managed’, as Keynes once said.

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