Opinion: How Marxism Explains Everything
Written by Priya De
“You may have come across communist memes on social media. The man, the meme, the legend behind this trend is Karl Marx… The political philosopher turned 200-years-old on May 5, but his ideas can still teach us about the past and present.”
This is the introduction to an article titled “Who is Karl Marx: Meet the Anti-Capitalist Scholar” written for Teen Vogue in May. Times are clearly a-changing when mainstream fashion magazines explore socialist thought alongside celebrity gossip. Marxist ideas surface again and again in the history of global politics like a game of whack-a-mole: the ruling class and their ideological agents proclaim the theory busted, and yet it pops into public consciousness periodically and irrepressibly. To the chagrin of the Right, Marx just won’t die because his searing critique of capitalism resonates with the real experience of life for oppressed people across the planet. To put it simply: Marx was right.
Marxism provides a set of analytical tools with which to interpret the world. It begins from a materialist perspective: that is, it presupposes that the shape of human society is ultimately determined by things with a physical existence, not ideas or the supernatural. Understanding why things are the way they are involves figuring out how they came to be. Hence, Marxism is a theory of historical materialism.
Through persistent effort to uncover the core of what it means to be human, Marx concluded that society is not static, but undergoes constant processes of development and change. Few things have remained eternal across all human existence outside the vital functions of eating and reproducing: humans live collectively and labour consciously. From the Neolithic Age to the 21st Century, humans have lived in groups and laboured upon the natural environment to create products of their consciousness. This is what demarcates humans as a species. As Marx describes in Capital:
“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of the bees is… that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.”
Labouring is in human nature. We labour for survival, creative expression and entertainment. Work is everything from construction, knitting, cooking and writing. It forms the basis of human society. Capitalism, therefore, vulgarizes human nature by divesting workers of any control over their labour.
Capitalism, as Marx identified, is a system characterised by private ownership of the means of production. There are people who own capital – from nineteenth century cotton mills to modern day Amazon “fulfilment centres” – and people who don’t. Capitalists get to decide what is produced, how it is produced, who is employed and what their working conditions will be. The basic facts that shape human society are determined by a tiny minority. The catch is: capitalists don’t perform this productive labour themselves. Workers produce things, and capitalists sell them on the market. Workers ensure the system functions – driving buses, caring for the sick – so the market can open and close. Bosses say it, workers do it. Workers make it, bosses take it.
The name of the game in capitalism is profit. Bosses obviously don’t care about what’s good for humanity. Otherwise, why would they organise for truckloads of food to be dumped in the ocean while nearly a billion starve? Why would houses lie empty while people sleep on the street? If you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it. If bosses can make people pay for it, by golly they will. In the aftermath of the cyclones that ripped through the United States in January, killing thousands and devastating tens of thousands more, the market was ‘optimistic’. Why? Because they could sell a six pack of water for $60 a pop.
This system is fundamentally exploitative: workers produce all wealth, but only keep a cut in the form of a wage. It is fundamentally unequal: today the richest 1% own more wealth than the rest of the planet. It is fundamentally undemocratic: workers don’t get to decide whether a new coal mine or wind farm is invested in, or whether higher education gets a funding cut whilst military spending is boosted. The ruling class lays down the law, and workers are the physical things bosses need to ensure their will is carried out.
Capitalism degrades workers to the status of a thing. To the ruling class, workers are not human beings with feelings, passions and dreams, but a commodity, like a paint brush or a slab of concrete: a thing needed to make other things they want to sell. But workers are the most important commodity in this system, more valuable than coal, or gold, or steel combined, because without workers, nothing else would be produced. A car is a series of disassembled parts without manufacturing workers. Living labour is the beating heart of the entire capitalist system.
There is, then, a constant tension underpinning life under capitalism: a tug of war between bosses and workers, the class struggle. When workers fight, society goes forward; when the bosses go on the offensive, the rest of us suffer. The 8-hour day, penalty rates, sick pay, paid holidays – basic worker’s rights – were snatched from the bosses’ greedy paws through strikes and street marches. Today, the Australian ruling class are trying to unwind those gains and limit the ability of unions to collectively organize. The result is heightened inequality and a poorer standard of living: wage theft is rampant and deaths on worksites soar, while corporate profits break records.
Marx understood society as a totality; all things are connected, with economic organisation forming the cog around which everything else turns. All institutions are perverted by exploitation. There can appear to be a separation between politics and economics: between ‘business’ and ‘democracy’. The capitalist state – the legal system, the courts, the parliament – are supposedly neutral and above class. This is a sham, because the state is beholden to economic decisions made by capitalists who control the means of production.
It might seem that capitalism proceeds without human intervention at all. And indeed, it does. The stock market rises and falls as if by magic. This is commodity fetishism as Marx understood it: when a thing created by humans – the market – appears to take on a conscious existence outside of our control, like a monster that sometimes sleeps and sometimes snarls.
Marx had an answer. A way to resolve all the contradictions and madness of capitalism. It’s simple. Revolution. It is the ruling class minority who benefit from division and deprivation, not the working-class majority. If workers took control over the means of production, it would end exploitation. Resources could be distributed according to human need and not profit. Workers could be liberated from the status of a thing and emerge as human again. Socialism is the synthesis of politics and economics for the collective good.
Marx is often painted as a ‘determinist’ or ‘structuralist’ who thought the downfall of capitalism was inevitable without people playing a conscious role. This is a lazy reading of Marx mostly perpetuated by people who want to discredit him. It also smacks against his personal history of being a political activist. At Marx’s funeral, his life-long collaborator Engels remembered:
“For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being… Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.”
Marx saw a crucial place for subjective intervention: both of individuals, and of the working class understanding itself as a class and entering the sphere of history. This is why he himself was an organiser, and why at campuses and street-corners around the world you will still find socialists with petitions and papers. As Marx himself famously wrote:
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world: the point is to change it.”
Priya is a guest writer for the PPE Society, a history student at St Lucia, and the president of Socialist Alternative UQ.
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