Lego Marx and the Gains from Innovation

Malcolm Harris has a wonderful piece out about something he calls Duplo Marxism. In the piece, he discusses the ways in which women qua women are materially exploited under capitalism and the ways in which nonwhites qua nonwhites are materially exploited under capitalism. The upshot of the discussion is that those Marxists who suppose that material exploitation can only affect individuals qua workers are wrong. The wage-labor relation, according to Harris, is but one relation through which material exploitation operates.

On the way to making this mostly uncontentious point, Harris provides a Marxist account of cultural appropriation that is very troublesome. According to this account, cultural appropriation is a form of material exploitation. This is because a cultural appropriator snatches the material gains of cultural innovation without compensating the true producer of those gains. Just as uncompensated labor is exploitation, so too is uncompensated innovation.

Harris is right to say that this argument flows directly from Marx, both textually and logically. Innovation, just like labor and capital, is a factor of production and is responsible for massive material gains. The benefits of these gains do not generally go to the producers of innovation. Instead, they leak out as unearned surplus to everyone in society.

The problem Harris runs into is that he tries to use innovation-mooching as an example of a particularly racialized form of material exploitation. In reality, the material gains of innovation are mooched from all races of people. More troublingly, if you counted all the uncompensated gains from innovation as exploitation, you would probably end up finding that, in the modern era at least, Whites and men are the most harmed by this particular kind of material exploitation.

The Most Exploited Innovators

At its core, Marx’s theory of exploitation is about improperly compensated production inputs. A production input is improperly compensated when its owner receives more or less than the input produced. Thus, where a laborer receives less in compensation than their labor produces, Marxists say that the laborer has been exploited.

Similarly, it would seem to follow that when an innovator receives less in compensation than the material gain that their innovation produces, they too are exploited. In his piece, Harris applies this particular analysis to the Black cultural innovation of the cornrow hairstyle. That innovation, when inputted into the economy, delivered material benefits to those who used it (including White entertainers), but the innovators of the hairstyle did not receive compensation commensurate with those material benefits. That is, they were exploited.

The cornrow story is a very compelling one. But it is not a particularly unique one. The gains of all innovation are inherently leaky. Unlike with labor and capital inputs, once a new idea is inputted into the economy, it can be copied infinitely and without compensating the producer of the idea. The incentive problems created by this reality are why we have institutions of intellectual property, such as patents and copyrights. But even those institutions only try to halt the copying for brief periods of time.

The material gains from the cornrow innovation did not flow entirely to its innovator, just as the material gains from the electricity innovation did not flow entirely to its innovator, just as the material gains from the integrated circuit innovation did not flow entirely to its innovator, just as the material gains from the mobile phone innovation did not flow entirely to its innovator.

The gains from the cornrow innovation spilled over racial lines, but so do the gains of all innovations. Blacks and other people of color have greatly benefited, for instance, from “White innovations” like electrification without paying specifically for the underlying technologies. The White innovators of the integrated circuit may end up being the most exploited people in the history of the world, judging by the gap between the total material benefit that their input produced and how much compensation they received.

Indeed, if we start trying to add up the aggregate exploitation from “innovation mooching,” we might find ourselves reaching some very uncomfortable conclusions. During the last few centuries, women and people of color have been systematically deprived of the opportunity to be at the frontiers of major technological innovation. Due mostly in part to this racist and patriarchal style of social organization, White men have delivered a hugely disproportionate amount of the most value-adding innovation inputs, at least in the modern era. Some White male innovators were paid handsomely for their contributions. Others were not. None were fully compensated. Innovators never are.

Thus, the net flow of uncompensated innovation externalities is almost certainly from men to women and from White people to people of color. Consequently the racial and gender dynamics of innovation-related “exploitation” are likely the opposite of what Harris’ piece suggests.

Abort!

For these and other reasons, I think Harris’ innovation arguments are unsuccessful and should be abandoned. Marx was right to say that under the compensation-for-contribution ideology pushed by capitalists, innovation is a shockingly exploitative enterprise. But the better takeaway from this observation is that the compensation-for-contribution ideology pushed by capitalists is fundamentally absurd. It is not really exploitative to copy the ideas of others because it is not really correct that compensation should be paid out according to contribution. Rather the proper scheme of compensation is the one the communists favor: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.