Does Karl Marx have anything to say to us today, 200 years after his birth? Have his predictions about a proletariat triumph over the bourgeoisie aged well? Read on …
For me, his critique of capitalism still resonates, just not in their original context. Read the first few pages of The Communist Manifesto. Then see if you can apply it to your life, versus the world he and Engels described. They wrote of how capitalism replaces old wants with new ones that require:
for their satisfaction the products of distant lands
about how it involves
constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation
about how it reduces all social interaction to
callous cash payment
Does this sound familiar? These seem all too prescient in light of today’s globalised economy.
Marx and Globalisation
Look at how we fetishist items like the iPhone. Marx warned that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate high value on arbitrary products would, over time, lead to what he called
a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.
It’s a harsh but accurate way of describing how most of us live. We enjoy incredible luxury and yet are driven by a constant need for more and more stuff to buy. We hardly give a thought to underpaid Chinese workers who slave away at its production. And who fall sick with cancer from our e-waste.
Look also at how Facebook has turned its own customers into exploitable assets.
And how income inequality and ‘the 1%’ are getting ever richer. This was a subject which in times past was only talked about in the same breath as anti-capitalism. But now:
a full two-thirds (67%) of U.S. adults are either “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S.
The Impact of High-Tech Labour
Globalisation, in conjunction with the growth of high-tech labour saving solutions, has devalued jobs which need a lower level of skill. For example, there are real (but unfounded) worries that robots are about to steal all our jobs.
To see why, you need only consider the cash machine, which turned 50 this year. Has the automated teller machine put every bank teller out of a job? No, as there are more human bank tellers in the US today than when the ATM was introduced. Rather than just dispense cash, they now also cross-sell loans, mortgages and credit cards. Something similar occurred in the 19th century when cloth weaving was automated. The rise in demand for clothes more than offset the effects of automation, and employment in the industry increased.
Far from making humans redundant, machines boost the demand for complementary, non-routine tasks. The real problem today is that this happy dynamic has stalled; despite the robots we have lousy rates of productivity growth.
Top Earners Keep on Earning
Somehow those in charge get ever greater rewards and obscene pay and bonus packages, despite this lack of growth. These top earners have not only enjoyed an increase in their wealth but are helping to create an ever increasing amount of people who have to absorb the impact of income disparity in terms of lost jobs and declining wages and benefits. Additionally, as less money is made available for social services and education the result is a perpetual growth in social underclass thereby exacerbating the problem.
So how do you address this? Well, people from both ends of the income spectrum need to be brought together. Each need to prevent these elements of society feeling isolated from each other. Implementing a process that unites people from all income levels will have a far greater effect than riots or crusading against money inequality. It’s this that the politicians need to focus on above all else.
Marx predicted that something else would replace capitalism. An alternative economic system like what Marx envisioned is still a distinct possibility. This could be based on local exchange trading schemes and the .org sector. But if it comes it will not replace capitalism — indeed it is likely to depend on capitalism to fund it.
There is no doubt about it: Marx still helps us to understand the state we’re in.