Most people agree that we need to improve our economic systems, somehow. Yet, we are also often keen to dismiss the ideas of Capitalism’s most famous and ambitious critic, Karl Marx (1818-1883).
In practice, his Political and Economic ideas have been used to design disastrously planned economies and nasty dictatorships. Nevertheless, we should not reject Marx too quickly. We ought to see him as a guide whose diagnosis of Capitalisms’s major ills helps us navigate toward a more promising future.
Capitalism is going to have to be reformed and Marx’s analysis is going to be part of the answer.
Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. Soon, he became involved with the Communist party – a tiny group of intellectuals advocating for the overthrow of the class system and the abolition of private property. He worked as a journalist and had to flee Germany eventually settling in London.
Marx has written an enormous number of books and articles, some with his friend Freidrich Engels. They include Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), The Communist Manifesto (1848), The German Ideology (1845), The Holy Family (1845), 1844 Manuscripts (1844) and the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).
Mostly, Marx wrote about Capitalism the type of economy that dominates the Western world. It was during his days that Marx grew to be one of the most intelligent and perceptive critics of Capitalism. Here are some of the problems he identified:
Modern Work is Alienated
One of Marx’s greatest insights is that work can be the source of our greatest joys. But in order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote, workers need to see themselves in the objects they have created. Think of a piece of work done by a straightforward, hardworking, honest, and elegant employee. It is an example of how at its best labor offers us a chance to externalize what is good inside us. However, this is increasingly rare in the modern world.
Part of the problem is that modern work is increasingly specialized. Specialized jobs make the modern economy highly efficient, but they also mean that it is seldom possible for any one worker to derive a sense of genuine contribution they might be making to the real needs of humanity.
Marx argued that modern work leads to Alienation (Entfremdung). In other words, a feeling of disconnection between what you do all day and who you feel you really are, and what you think you ideally contribute to human existence.
Modern Work is Insecure
Capitalism makes the human being utterly expendable. Just one factor among others in the forces of production that can be ruthlessly let go of the minute costs rise due to a crashing economy (Covid-era) or savings can be done through technology (emergence of new media and AI). And yet, as Marx knew, deep inside of us we don’t want to be arbitrarily let go. We are terrified of being abandoned.
Communism isn’t just an economic theory, understood emotionally, it expresses a deep-seated longing that we always have a place in the world’s heart. That we will not be cast out.
Workers Get Paid Little while Capitalists Get Rich
This is perhaps the most obvious qualm Marx had with Capitalism. In particular, he believed that Capitalists shrunk the wages of labourers as much as possible in order to skim off a wide profit margin. He called this Primitive Accumulation (Ursprungliche Akkumulation). Whereas Capitalists see profit as a reward for ingenuity and technological talent, Marx was far more damning. Profit is simply theft and what you are stealing is the talent and hard work of your workforce.
However much one dresses up the fundamentals, Marx insists that at its crudest, Capitalism means paying a worker one price for doing something that can be sold for another at a much higher price. Profit is a fancy term for exploitation.
Capitalism is Bad for Capitalists
Marx did not think Capitalists were evil. For example, he was acutely aware of the sorrows and secret agonies that lay behind bourgeois marriage. Marx argued that marriage was actually an extension of business and that the bourgeois family was fraught with tension, oppression, and resentment, with people staying together, not for love but for financial reasons.
Marx believed that the Capitalist system forces everyone to put economic interests at the heart of their lives so they can no longer know deep, honest relationships. He called this psychological tendency Commodity Fetishism (Warenfetischismus) because it makes us value things that have no objective value.
He wanted people to be free from financial constraints so that they could at last start making healthy choices in their relationships. The Twentieth-century feminist answer to the oppression of women has been to argue that women should be able to go out to work. But Marx’s was more subtle: This feminist insistence perpetuates human slavery. The point isn’t that women should imitate the sufferings of their male colleagues. It is that men and women should have a permanent option to enjoy leisure.
What if Karl Marx was right? An important aspect of Marx’s works is that he proposes that there is an insidious, subtle way in which an economic system shapes the sort of ideas we end up having. The economy, according to Marx generates an ideology.
A Capitalist society is where most people, rich and poor believe all sort of things that really just values judgment that relates back to the economic system. In short, one of the biggest evils of Capitalism is not that there are corrupt people at the top – this is true in any human hierarchy – but that Capitalist ideas teach all of us to be anxious, competitive, conformist, and politically complacent.
Marx did not only outline what was wrong with Capitalism. We also get glimpses of what Marx wanted the ideal utopian future to be like. In his Communist Manifesto, he describes a world without property or inherited wealth, with a steeply graduated income tax, centralised control of the banking, communication, and transport industries as well as free public education.
Marx also expected that a Communist society would allow people to develop lots of different sides of their natures: ”In a Communist society, it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow. To hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, herdsman or critic,” he writes in the German Ideology (1845).
After Marx moved to London, he was supported by his friend and intellectual partner Friedrich Engels, a wealthy man whose father owned a cotton plant in Manchester. Engels covered Marx’s debts and made sure his works were published. Capitalism paid for Communism.
Marx was not a well-regarded or popular intellectual of his days. Respectable and conventional people of his generation would have laughed at the idea that his ideas would change the world. Yet, just a few decades later they did. His works became a keystone for some of the most important ideological movements of the Twentieth century.
Marx was like a brilliant doctor in the early days of medicine. He recognized the nature of a disease although he had no idea on how to cure it. At this point in history, we are all Marxists in the sense of agreeing with his diagnosis of our troubles with Capitalism but we have to go out and find the cures that really will work.