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.
Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism
N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.
A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.
Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.
Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.
In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.
When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.
Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.
When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.
‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’
I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?
I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.
However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.
It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.
It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.
It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.
The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.
There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.
Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.
There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time.
Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness
Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.
How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.
Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.
Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism
One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.
In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.
We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.
The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.
This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.
No more buyers for the escapism Top Billing is selling
Of all the feasts and feats of Top Billing in the past 23 years, there are perhaps not enough Gucci slides that can quite help it dodge its flip and …Opinion1 month ago
One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.
Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.
It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.
Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.
Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London
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