UNCERTAINTY [Philosophy of Science]
Some things are certain; that is, some beliefs are certainly true, and have been established beyond any reasonable doubt—such as that the earth revolves around the sun. But many beliefs, even some which are ordinarily assumed to have been well-established by scientific investigation and experiment, are still somewhat uncertain to varying degrees. Having a balanced perspective on this matter is an important issue in having a genuinely scientific approach to the world. In the past, especially when religious dogmas were far more pervasive, way too much was thought to be known for certain. This included many beliefs which are now known for certain to be false—such as that the earth is flat or that it is the center of the universe. On the other hand, in the modern period since World War I, when so much doubt about the very future of humanity has arisen in the minds of those who dominate society (the capitalist ruling class), ideologies which grossly exaggerate the degree of uncertainty in the world have become quite pervasive. Postmodernism in academia is one clear example of this, as are other forms of epistemological agnosticism.
As Mao put it, “Doubting is correct; doubting everything is not.” [Note in the margin of Mao’s copy of the book by Marxist philosopher Ai Siqi, Philosophy and Life. In Nick Knight, ed., Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism (1990), p. 237.] Some considerable degree of skepticism is indeed appropriate in science, in politics and in life in general. But total skepticism is never justified and is totally absurd. In science we must train ourselves to be more skeptical of ideas which are less-well tested, less-well supported by evidence, and less-well thought out (i.e., less fully raised to the level of coherent scientific theory). As has been well said: Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge. But we must also acknowledge that many things about the world and human society are now known beyond any rational doubt. Within Marxist theory too there is room for, and a need for, some caution and skepticism, even though we know for certain that a great many principles of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism have been proven to be certainly true.
See also the essay: “Do We Know For Certain that the Earth Goes Around the Sun?”, by S.H. (Nov. 14, 1997), online at: https://www.massline.org/Philosophy/ScottH/certain.htm
See: HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE
1. The active mental processes (or high-level characterizations of the functioning of the brain) which are outside the range of the subject’s awareness. This includes the brain processes that occur when a person performs routine tasks “without thinking about them”, such as walking, or driving a car while thinking about something else. But it may also be said to include similar sorts of characterizations of brain processing which people are normally incapable of being consciously aware of. Thus we may be aware that we have recognized somebody’s face, but we are not aware of the precise complex processing in the brain that allows us to actually do this. In this sense, most of the processing that the brain does is unconscious.
2. [In Freudian and similar types of psychoanalysis:] The part of the mind (or “psychic apparatus”) that does not ordinarily enter the individual’s awareness, and which is repressed, but which may be manifested indirectly by slips of the tongue, otherwise inexplicable actions, or in dreams, and which can supposedly be brought into conscious awareness through psychotherapy. The unconscious, in such theories, refers to “psychic activity” which concentrates eternal and immutable motives and desires, including taboo sexual and domination wishes. However, there is little or no scientific evidence that the “unconscious” actually exists in this Freudian sense. It is just a wild hypothesis of pseudoscientific psychoanalytical theory.
See also: SUBCONSCIOUS
See also: LUMPENPROLETARIAT
One of a number of basic theories in the Marxist milieu for what causes capitalist economic crises. Marx called these events “overproduction crises”, though he actually put forward at least three different explanations for them—overproduction (or underconsumption), the anarchy of capitalist production, and the falling rate of profit theory). (And the followers of Marx have constructed even more crisis theories besides those three.)
Underconsumption is just another way of looking at overproduction; they are two sides of the same coin. Underconsumption is in relation to what the masses of the people actually need and want, and results from their not having enough money to buy those commodities. Overproduction is in relation to the real market demand (and not in relation to what people need and want!), but likewise results from people not having the money to buy all the things that are produced which they do in fact need and want.
Some of the early bourgeois theorists of underconsumption (such as Rodbertus, but including even Sismondi, the best of them) put forward undeveloped and often quite naive theories that tended to discredit this type of explanation for capitalist economic crises. In particular, many of them thought that simply raising wages would prevent such crises. (It is actually impossible for the capitalists to raise wages to that degree; they would go broke! In any case, they are definitely unwilling to even give it a try!) Furthermore, because of the multifaceted explanations which Marx himself gave for crises, even many Marxists do not understand that his central, and most essential, explanation was in fact a much more sophisticated form of underconsumption/overproduction theory than bourgeois economists like Rodbertus put forward. Hence the name he used for the phenomenon! Most of us defenders of the “underconsumption” theory of crises follow Marx and instead refer to them as “overproduction crises”. Consequently the term “underconsumptionism” is used mostly by opponents of overproduction theories of capitalist economic crises.
It should also be noted that Marx’s theory of overproduction focuses primarily not on the excess consumer commodities themselves (which are produced relative to the market demand), but rather the excess capital that is created which in turn can be used to produce so many “excess” commodities. In other words Marx is focusing on the overproduction of capital, rather than the overproduction of consumer commodities. This also explains why the term “overproduction” is superior to “underconsumption” in his theory.
See also below and: OVERPRODUCTION CRISES
UNDERCONSUMPTIONISM — Marx’s Supposed Rejection Of
There are a great many statements in Marx’s Capital, and in his other writings (including Theories of Surplus Value), in which he makes clear that his basic theory of capitalist economic crises is the Overproduction Theory. And, indeed, Marx even calls these crises by the name overproduction crises. However, as the introductory entry on UNDERCONSUMPTIONISM above notes, there are two competing crisis theories in Marx’s writings: the anarchy theory and the falling rate of profit theory. Those who favor one or the other of these theories instead of the overproduction theory prefer to call that theory “underconsumptionism”. And they have scoured Marx’s writings looking for the slightest clue that he also rejected “underconsumptionism”. They’ve found very few such statements, and even those are totally misconstrued. The specific passage from Marx which has been cited most often is the following from volume II of Capital:
“It is sheer tautology to say that crises are caused by the scarcity of effective consumption, or of effective consumers. The capitalist system does not know any other modes of consumption than effective ones, except that of sub forma pauperis [in the form of the pauper] or of the swindler. That commodities are unsaleable means only that no effective purchasers have been found for them, i.e., consumers (since commodities are bought in the final analysis for productive or individual consumption). But if one were to attempt to give this tautology the semblance of a profounder justification by saying that the working-class receives too small a portion of its own product and the evil would be remedied as soon as it receives a larger share of it and its wages increase in consequence, one could only remark that crises are always prepared by precisely a period in which wages rise generally and the working-class actually gets a larger share of that part of the annual product which is intended for consumption. From the point of view of these advocates of sound and ‘simple’ (!) common sense, such a period should rather remove the crisis. It appears, then, that capitalist production comprises conditions independent of good or bad will, conditions which permit the working-class to enjoy that relative prosperity only momentarily, and at that always only as the harbinger of a coming crisis.” —Marx, Capital, Vol. II, chapter 20, part 4, (International ed., pp. 410-411; Penguin ed., pp. 486-487.)
First of all, just who is Marx criticizing here? Engels, who edited volume II, comments in a
footnote to this paragraph that “possible followers of the Rodbertian theory of crises” should
take note of this passage. So we immediately see that Marx’s comments were directed against naïve
underconsumptionists such as Rodbertus, and not at all against the whole notion that
underconsumption by the masses is a central aspect of capitalist crises.
In fact, Marx makes it absolutely clear that underconsumption is indeed central to crises in the first sentence in the above passage where he says that “It is a sheer tautology to say that crises are caused by the scarcity of effective consumption, or of effective consumers.” Several times over the years I’ve heard people quote that sentence as part of their attacks on “underconsumptionism”. I’ve often wondered—do these people even know what a tautology is? To say that something is a tautology is definitely not to say that it is false, as some of these people seem to think! But it is true that Marx wanted to emphasize here that the forced underconsumption by the masses is by no means the whole story—that though it is certainly true, there are also other contradictions involved in crises.
There is another critical sentence in the above passage which I’ll repeat, but this time with the key part of it—the part that is unaccountably neglected by many—put in bold type: “But if one were to attempt to give this tautology the semblance of an profounder justification by saying that the working-class receives too small a portion of its own product and the evil would be remedied as soon as it receives a larger share of it and its wages increase in consequence, one could only remark that crises are always prepared by precisely a period in which wages rise generally and the working-class actually gets a larger share of that part of the annual product which is intended for consumption.”
It should be clear once again here that Marx is by no means denying that crises are in fact ultimately caused by the fact that the working class receives wages which cover only a part of the value which they create. But his point is that the complexities of the contradictions involved in crises, and the complicated way they develop, means that simply raising wages cannot possibly prevent crises from breaking out. This is true for any number of reasons. It is true because even if wages are raised, workers will still be exploited (though to a lesser degree). Capitalism cannot continue without the continuous extraction of surplus value from the workers. But more to the immediate point, it is also true because crises are postponed by means of the expansion of credit—consumer credit, government deficits, and so forth. So when these financial bubbles pop we have a crisis—even though wages are typically increasing at the time. To imagine that crises can be prevented by simply raising workers wages—even by raising them substantially—is in large part to fail to understand all the many additional contradictions at work on top of the most basic contradictions.
Marx’s point—in emphasizing that wages usually rise in the period just before crises break out—is that simple-minded crisis theories which recognize only that the consumption of the masses is forcibly restricted are completely inadequate. It’s not that Rodbertus was wrong about this basic point; on the contrary he was entirely correct about it. But this much is totally obvious; it is a “mere tautology.” What Rodbertus and others like him could not do was work out the full story, and explain all the additional mechanisms at work which both prevent crises for a time, but then inevitably lead to their sudden outbreak just when it seems the capitalist economy will fly forward unimpeded forever.
I should also add here that while what Marx says in the above passage is certainly true, it is a bit misleading in another way. A substantial increase in the real wages of the workers—either through actual wage raises, or a fall in consumer prices, or a cut in workers’ taxes—can in fact help to postpone or possibly somewhat mitigate the severity of a crisis. But just as extending the workers more credit can only ward off the crisis to some degree and/or for a limited period of time, the same is true of any real increase in wages. Eventually a crisis will break out in any case because none of these things truly resolves the underlying contradiction—that the workers are still being paid for only part of what they produce and therefore cannot possibly buy back all of it. No increase in wages—no matter how great—can permanently prevent a new crisis from developing. If the capitalists were suddenly to all go crazy and to actually try to pay the workers enough to buy an equivalent amount to what they produce then the capitalists themselves would soon go broke and the entire system would collapse. —S.H. [From a section of my work in progress, An Introductory Explanation of Capitalist Economic Crises].
UNDERSTANDING — “Perfect”
The science writer James Gleick quotes a student at Cambridge University who is said to have remarked about Isaac Newton, the author of the great but extremely difficult book, Principia Mathematica, as he stode by: “There goes the man that wrote a book that neither he nor anybody else understands.” [Gleick, Isaac Newton (2003), p. 132.] Were there some things in the Principia that even Newton did not really fully understand? Undoubtedly! But it is asking way too much of any author to completely and perfectly understand every idea that he or she discusses or presents!
One might suppose that to have an absolutely perfect understanding of something would be to totally understand every possible aspect of it, and every possible relationship it might have to every other possible thing. Those who expect or demand this have a metaphysical conception of reality. The dialectical view is that there is always more to say, more to understand. It is a great service for someone to advance our collective understanding of some important topic even in partial or limited ways; and we should focus on that, while also looking at what remains to be worked out or understood later. The Marxist theory of knowledge is that human understanding perpetually develops through our continuing practice in interacting with the world and changing it.
Dictionary Home Page and Letter Index
MASSLINE.ORG Home Page