More Reasons Why Marx Was Right

If you haven’t seen Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right (Yale University Press 2012), consider making some space for it on your reading list. Eagleton is both a brilliant analyst and a masterful stylist. Not only is his defense of Marx’s relevance to contemporary politics sharp and insightful, his prose is always a joy to read.

In the spirit of Eagleton’s contemporary assertion of the importance of Marx’s thought – and just in time for International Workers’ Day – I offer here three more reasons why Marx was right:

1. You Didn’t Build That (On Your Own) During her 2011-12 campaign for the Senate, Elizabeth Warren made the following, now famous, remark:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.”

 Her point is a fundamental and vitally important one – and one made in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels:

“To be a capitalist is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.

Capital is, therefore, not a personal, but a social power.

When, therefore, capital is converted in to common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.”

In essence, what Marx and Engels meant was that farms, factories, and businesses exist only because an entire society contributes to making them work. Yet, in a capitalist society, we treat a collective entity like a farm or factory or business as though it was the personal property of a single individual. Turning a farm or factory or business into collectively owned public property, then, is not taking something away from a rightful owner, but recognizing the true nature of the thing in the first place.

In her remarks, Elizabeth Warren was clearly making the much milder version of this case: businesses benefit from public services and, therefore, have a responsibility to share in the costs of supporting those public services. The fundamental point, though, remains the same: business owners who claim to have acquired their wealth all on their own are forgetting that many hands other than their own contributed to their success.

2. Capital (21st Century Edition) Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press 2014) brings Marx to mind through more than just its title. Piketty’s central argument – that capitalism concentrates wealth, rather than dispersing it – is a central pillar of Marx’s economics. For decades, the idea of the concentration of capital was dismissed (though not disproved) by mainstream economists and political scientists. Piketty’s extensive empirical research shows clearly that apart from periods of mass war or economic crisis, capitalism leads to the accumulation of larger and larger piles of wealth in a small number of hands. The rich get richer and, unless we fight back politically, the rest of us are left serving at their pleasure and whim.

3. Appendages of the Machine (.com) The takeoff of internet technology in the 1990s led immediately to a wave of net-utopianism: internet technologies would now bring about a new era of freedom, prosperity, and equal access to resources; work would be transformed to make it more humane, more flexible, more creative; etc. Yet, as Simon Head demonstrates in his recent book, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (Basic Books 2014), the new world of high technology has only driven forward and intensified the deskilling and dehumanization of work. While a tiny elite of managers and engineers are permitted the use of intuition and judgment, the workforces of Amazon, Walmart, and Foxconn are subject to the pressure of computerized business systems requiring human beings to behave like machines. Here, too, is an echo of 1848:

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him.”

While San Francisco’s new coder elite glides from condo to corporate campus on private, internet-connected buses, armies of workers on assembly lines, in distribution and call centers, are expected to live as drones in exchange for subsistence wages. Marx’s work is directly relevant to an understanding of this situation and its fundamental economic and political dynamics.

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