Why Karl Marx was right about capitalism
From the moment Karl Marx put pen to paper, pro-capitalist political commentators and academics have attempted to bury his ideas. But successive generations of political activists have continually turned to Marx’s ideas, from the best working class fighters who joined the various communist and socialist parties in the early 20th century to the student radicals who stood up to the horrors of Vietnam war in the 1960s, embracing his searing indictment of capitalism and his argument for revolution.
Today, with millions around the world plunged into the indignity and pain of unemployment, hunger and homelessness, and with whole swathes of the Middle East torn apart, Marx’s ideas have an enduring relevance. They are essential for understanding why modern capitalism is so obscene. For those of us who want to win a society free of the misery and class inequality that scar our world, they are also indispensable as a guide to action.
“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – capitalists and workers”
– The Communist Manifesto
Despite all the pronouncements that class doesn’t exist, that the biggest divisions are those between nations, sexes, or cultures, Marx was right about the nature of capitalism. It is a system defined by the exploitation of the working class by the capitalists. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and later, Capital, capitalism dominated only in pockets of Europe and North America. Most of the the world’s population were peasants, independent farmers or tribal groups.
However, capitalism quickly became a global system. Around the world, peasants were thrown off their land and pushed into rapidly-developing urban centres. The working class and the capitalist class grew as nation states were established. Society became polarised between these two main social classes. The working class, which includes white collar and blue collar workers – anyone who has to sell their capacity to labour power to a boss in exchange for a wage – is now more than 2 billion people.
The capitalists on the other hand are a tiny part of the population. Yet they wield enormous power through their private ownership and control over the means of producing wealth in our society, whether that’s arable land, the mines, the offices or the factories. They are the ones who get to decide what gets produced and how it’s distributed, who will have a job and who will be thrown into poverty. They are the ones who decide whether our natural resources will be plundered or preserved. They are ones who can make or break governments.
As society has become polarised between the working class and capitalists, it has been increasingly marred by grotesque inequality. This is part of the structure of our society, and it helps to explain why the classes not only exist, but are “hostile camps”. Wealth doesn’t just come from thin air. The profits of the capitalists are not a product of their genius or hard work. They come from paying us less than the value that we produce at work. And because the capitalists are locked into competition with each other, they’re always seeking ways to cut costs and maximise the profits they can squeeze out of us.
Capitalism is therefore characterised by a never-ending struggle between labour on one side against the capitalists and their allies in the parliamentary and legal system on the other. This class struggle is waged over the rate of exploitation, over safety and conditions at work, over whether essential services like hospitals and public transport that working class people rely on will be publicly funded or privatised, and so on. This class struggle is sometimes hidden and at other times it is part of an open battle. It can be clearly seen in the attempts by governments to slash social spending and hold down wages.
“What the capitalist class therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers”
– The Communist Manifesto
Marx was also right when he argued that the only group in society capable of fundamentally challenging the inequality, war and oppression was the very class that was most impacted by these things – the working class. The horrors of capitalism inevitably push all its victims to resist. But Marx argued that the working class has a special capacity to be the system’s gravediggers.
Marx saw the working class as the agent for revolutionary change for several reasons. First, we have numbers on our side. As the poet Percy Shelley famously put it, “Ye are many, they are few”. But more important is the centrality of workers to production and profit making. Without our labour in the workplace, not a single wheel of industry would turn, not a single product would be produced. If we withdraw our labour, the source of their profits would dry up.
No other group has this power to challenge the functioning of capitalism in such a fundamental way. The working class brings together all people – blacks, whites, gays, straights, men, women, etc. While everyone has a different identity in some way, it is as workers that they can truly wield power.
While capitalism forces workers to compete against each other for jobs, housing, university places and so on, it brings us together in the world of work where we need to cooperate with each other for our workplace to function. Similarly, to bring the economy to a halt, individual heroism won’t do. It requires the active involvement of our workmates. The need for collective action in turn requires that workers build democratic organisations that can inspire solidarity and convince and organise the majority of workers to take action.
This collective nature of working class life and struggle under capitalism gives us the capacity to reorder society in the interests of the majority. In seizing control from the capitalists, workers can’t simply divide up the factories, the hospitals and the offices and share them out individually – one person taking a steel furnace, another a heart monitoring machine, another a photocopier. Obviously, none are sufficient for sustaining life. The only way workers can abolish the conditions of exploitation is to collectivise and socialise the means of production and distribution, democratising all aspects of production and decision making. Given the interdependent nature of the world economy, this process would have to be international, hence Marx’s call for workers of the world to unite.
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”
– The German Ideology
Today, pretty much every idea pushed by the education system, the media, advertising companies etc. justifies capitalism. Ruling ideas include the notion of social mobility – that if we work hard, anybody can make it. They also include the idea that the competitive, individualistic, dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism reflects, not the interests of the elite, but instead our human nature. And because of this “nature”, any attempt to radically alter society through revolutionary struggle will inevitably end in dictatorship, so we’d better not try.
Once again, Marx was right when he argued that a key weapon in the hands of the ruling class is ideology – systems of ideas that attempt to naturalise their privileges and the subordinate position of the majority of people. This isn’t surprising: the capitalist system tramples on the needs and desires of the majority of people in the interests of a minority. To preserve the status quo and stop the gravedigging, they have to both break up the majority and win some of us over to the idea that nothing else is possible. The ruling class has at its disposal the means of disseminating and promoting its ideas on a huge scale.
Take the mass media, which have the capacity to shape public debate on a national scale. They are far from neutral observers. To deflect attention away from the real problems – like crap public transport and overcrowded hospitals – the media help stoke anti-refugee sentiments whenever they decide to give politicians prime time coverage to talk tough about “stopping the boats”. Why would anyone even notice, let alone resent, desperate refugees if it weren’t for the mass media carrying front page stories announcing their arrival?
Another key institution for the dissemination of ideas in our society is the education system, where we’re taught that to get by in society you need to obey the rules and respect or at least tolerate the authority of those above you. These are the types of classroom lessons our rulers hope you will take with you into workforce. We’re also taught about how history is made by great men (and very, very occasionally great women), downplaying the role that masses of ordinary people have played in creating historical change.
The reality of life under capitalism also plays a role in reinforcing pro-capitalist ideas. For instance, because of sexist discrimination in our society, women are generally in lower paid jobs which carry less authority. This fact can in turn reinforce the ideology that women are naturally inferior. The norms under capitalism can become established as natural rather than being seen for what they are – a social construction.
However, while ruling class ideas are dominant, they are never completely hegemonic. Lived experience under capitalism not only reinforces ruling ideas, it also clashes with them. For instance, the promise of social mobility that capitalism holds out to us is continually dashed against the rocks of economic crisis. The clash produces contradictory and mixed ideas in workers’ heads. Most workers accept aspects of capitalist ideology at the same time as holding oppositional ideas. If this weren’t the case, if we were all brainwashed, radical social change would be all but impossible. The civil rights and women’s movements, which were a direct challenge to the ruling ideas, could not have happened.
Key to undermining these ruling ideas is the class struggle itself. When workers go on strike it can reveal to them the real social power that they do have. It can reveal just how indispensable we are to the capitalists and how little we actually need them. It can also undermine the bigoted ideas that workers may hold, because successful working class struggle requires unity in action and solidarity.
Divisions that the capitalist class tries to sow, like sexism and racism, can be overcome because the special oppression of one section of the working class sets back the entire class. As Marx wrote in Capital, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”.
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”
– Theses on Feuerbach
Marx was not an armchair thinker. He argued that just understanding the world – knowing the real reasons for war, knowing about the lies the ruling class push, knowing that their wealth is based on our exploitation – was not going to change it. For Marx, gaining a deeper insight into the contradictions of capitalism was not some purely intellectual exercise. The point of developing theory was so that it could inform his political practice. The point of learning about historical struggles was so he could better understand the most effective levers for changing society.
Ideas alone were insufficient for altering the world around us. It wasn’t the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality that chopped off the heads of the aristocracy during the French revolution. For ideas to have force, especially those that run completely counter to the common sense under capitalism, they need to be organised and embodied in the actions of working class men and women, which is why Marx played a leading role in radical organisations such as the Communist League.
Far from being a mechanical determinist, Marx understood that the victory of socialism over capitalism was not inevitable. Capitalism, despite being wracked by internal contradictions and periodic economic crisis, is not going to collapse of its own accord. Revolutionary social change needs to be fought for. Indeed, to achieve any progressive social change we need to demand, agitate and organise for it. If you want to see an end to the murderous wars; if you want to win genuine equality for LGBTI people; if you want to see the refugees freed from the concentration camps, then you need to put your actions where your mouth is. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”.
Just a cursory glance at history confirms this. It is working class people who had to fight to win the eight-hour day. It is working class people who have had to fight for and continue to fight for equal pay for women. None of these gains were handed to us by some impersonal law of economic development. Nor were they handed down by some benevolent politician. The leopard has not changed its spots. Twenty-first century capitalism continues to be steeped in the blood and suffering of ordinary people. It’s high time our generation learned how to fight with passion and tenacity against this beast.
Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.
The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.
“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.
Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.
Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:
“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”
He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.
“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.
Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.
“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.
The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”
The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.
And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.
Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.
“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.
Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.
The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.
Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.
More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.
“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”
Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”
The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.
In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.
Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”
Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”
The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.
Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021
Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?
For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.
The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.
At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.
The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.
Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet
National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.
The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.
The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads.
The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.
“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.
“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”
“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.
“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.