The Immiserization Thesis

26 April 2010


Immiserization” is not a common word, but it is a word that ought to be more common than it is because its meaning is a common concept. An online dictionary defines it thus:

im·mis·era·tion (i miz′ər ā′s̸hən)
a making or becoming miserable, as through pauperization
also immiserization im·mis′·eri·za′·tion (-i zā′s̸hən)

Given the human, all-too-human tendency to complain, the idea of being made miserable is quite common. And putting this immiserization in an economic context — what the definition above calls pauperization — is an especially prevalent form of complaint. One can scarcely pick up a newspaper or a magazine without finding either a prominent story of immiserization or dire predictions of immiserization. I touched on this a little in several posts on apocalypticism, and especially in Imagining a Worse World, which was written in response to my own Imagining a Better World, the latter written in a frame of mind when I was not thinking in terms of apocalypticism.

The misery of working conditions in the early periods of industrialization was compounded by the acceptance of institutions such as child labor. If children routinely labored on the farm, why should they not labor in the factory? It took time to sort this out.

Much contemporary social protest takes the form of a protest against immiserization, which, by any other name, is just as miserable. The most famous usage of the term “immiserization” comes from translations of Marx, for whom the immiserization of the proletariat was central to his argument for the inevitable overthrow of capitalism by a swollen and immiserated working class. It was the immiserated proletariat who was to expropriate the expropriators (and presumably immiserate them in the process). This is sometimes called “the immiserization thesis.”

Has Marx been “refuted” by history?

I have recently discussed the idea of the historical falsification of ideas, that is to say, the idea that ideas can be proved wrong (or proved right) by actual historical events (in contradistinction, for example, to be proved wrong or right by argument, or by a thought experiment, etc.). Among the those who believe that Marx has been “refuted” by history, the immiserization thesis is a central exhibit, because immiserization, as Marx imagined it, did not happen. As I previously pointed out, the historical falsification of philosophical ideas is problematic, and I do not agree with this historical falsification argument against Marx any more than I agree with Marx himself.

Karl Popper's critique of observation and induction led him to formulate a distinctive and influential theory of scientific research.

The question of what exactly history refutes when history does decisively deal a setback to a particular ideological position or its representatives strikes me as closely parallel to the problematic that led Popper to posit the theory-ladenness of observation. Popper held that you can’t just tell someone, “Observe!” without telling them what to observe (and possible also how to observe). In abstraction and in isolation from some specific context, the command to observe is highly ambiguous. A command to observe without further direction would elicit diverse responses, some of them probably mutually incompatible. Similarly (if you follow me; I will admit the reasoning involves an intuitive leap), the claim that history has refuted an idea is highly ambiguous because without sufficient detail and specificity there are many different claims that could be made as to exactly what has been falsified.

Aristotelian definition of a species proceeds by identifying the genus and the differentia. In this sense, I cannot define the species of perennial ideas, but I have a general sense of what I am trying to get across.

Philosophy most especially deals with what I will call perennial ideas, and political ideas and ideologies are ultimately drawn from philosophical ideas, so they have a perennial element to them, however vulgarized for mass consumption. Perennial ideas are unlike many other ideas, but I don’t yet have a clear formulation of what a perennial idea is — I certainly do not yet have an Aristotelian definition of perennial ideas that gives their genera and differentia. Perennial ideas are neither falsified nor verified. Like the action of the force of gravity or the work of natural selection, both of which are present, in some form, in all possible outcomes of cosmology and biology respectively, perennial ideas are expressed in all possible outcomes of mind and society.

In extrapolating immiserization from current data, Marx was on sound scientific ground, but his conception of science was necessitarian rather than probabilistic.

But back to immiserization. Marx was fully justified, in terms of the conditions he was able to witness in his time, that the immiserization of the proletariat would continue. In this, Marx was simply being a good inductivist, assuming that the future would be like the past. Certainly the lives of the industrial proletariat that Marx observed and that Engels described in his The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 were miserable indeed, and had the particular form of social organization that dominated the early stage of the Industrial Revolution continued to develop in the way it appeared at the time to be developing, Marx’s prediction would have been fulfilled. Thus it appeared to Marx. And it also appeared pretty much the same to Malthus, who was a very different character from Marx. (Both Marx and Malthus, like Kurzweil, had a weakness for exponential growth curves, as both thought that the developments that they were witnessing would continue to experience exponential growth without leveling off. Similarly, contemporary observers witnessing the current growth from China’s industrial revolution posit continued exponential growth without bothering to figure in the parallel problems that emerge with industrialization.)

There are a great many philosophical problems associated with induction (like the paradox of the ravens) and therefore many problems with what we usually understand by the scientific method. Popper, mentioned above in relation to theory-laden observation, convinced himself that induction was so problematic that it had no place in scientific reasoning. In any case, the most compelling formulation (to me) of the problems of induction can be stated quite sententiously, thus: Will the future be like the past?

The paradox of the ravens comes about as a consequence of seeking inductive evidence for the proposition that “All ravens are black.” Because logic tells us that all non-black things are non-ravens, it would seem that every non-black thing that we observe is a confirmation of all ravens being black.

The question, of course, is ambiguous. What is meant by “like”? Could we quantify the similarity of past and future? Does the apparent similarity of the past and future (as holds in at least some cases) display what scientists call “symmetry”? That is to say, is there a symmetry between past and future? How many different ways can we manipulate the past so that it retains its similarity to the future (or vice versa)? This is a difficult idea that I cannot yet make fully clear. I will hopefully return to it (fate willing) when I can give it a definitive formulation. But it seems to me that there are legitimate senses in which we can ask if the past and future are symmetrical in respect to scale, distance (in time or in space), and other properties. What it comes down to is that some relations between the past and future preserve symmetry while in others symmetry fails.

Will the future be like the past? Is there a symmetry between past and future? This is one of the riddles of induction.

This latter formulation is just a fancy way of saying that, in some respects, the future is like the past, but in other respects the future is not like the past. So, will the future be like the past? Yes and no. The reason for the fancy formulation is the hope that it holds out for a potentially precise and quantifiable formulation of this simple idea. But, like I said, I haven’t made it quite that far yet. That remains as work for another day.

In one of my earlier posts to this forum, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, I suggested that, since the Industrial Revolution, societies affected by it had tried two paradigms for the re-organization of society in light of the radical changes imposed upon social life, that these two paradigms of social organization had been abandoned, and that advanced industrialized societies are more or less casting about for a third paradigm by which to organize. I still believe this observation to be valid. It has become one of the touchstones to which I continually return.

The first instantiation of the factory system following the Industrial Revolution was the miserable world revealed to Marx and Engels, and which has been iterated (with slightly mitigated impact over time) as industrialization has sequentially visited one region of the world after another. With what Marx and Engels knew about industrialization, they had every right to expect immiserization to continue and to eventually reach a point at which worker resentment would spill over into authentic Revolutionary Violence.

But, as it turned out, society changed. The paradigm of social organization that Marx and Engels observed no longer holds. There are, as I mentioned above, protests against and critiques of immiseration, but mostly these do not pass over into unstoppable revolutionary violence. Thus the Immiserization Thesis was a casualty of the radical contingency of history. This — the contingency of history — was a consistent point of reference for Stephen Jay Gould, I will note, who was coming from a perspective of paleontology and evolutionary biology, from which we still have much to learn.

To employ one of Gould’s typical forms of expression, the particular form of advanced industrialized societies is, “the result of a series of highly contingent events that would not happen again if we could rewind the tape.” I do not completely agree with this, but I do agree with it to a certain degree. Establishing a precise degree would require the definitive formulation of the symmetries of past and future suggested above.

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4 Responses to “The Immiserization Thesis”

  1. maxxie said

    I barely understand what you wrote ..

    • geopolicraticus said

      If you have any suggestions as to how I could have make it clearer, I would be happy to hear them.



  2. Travers said

    Nick, it was clear enough for me. Your article was well-written and interesting.

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