Marx and Capitalism

Aware of Friedrich Schiller, Karl Marx was concerned with alienation and recognized the connection between the estrangement of human beings from themselves and from nature and the Industrial Revolution.  Marx re-wrote Schiller’s eighteenth century concept of psychological alienation of humans from nature into the estrangement of workers in industrial capitalist society from the products of their labor. Capitalism is based upon money and money is abstract.  If money is abstract, then value is abstract.  Barter for goods and services ceases to exist and is replaced by exchange of money and thus the value of both labor and goods become arbitrary. Once the worker is alienated from the product he or she produced, then the value of his or her labor is rendered arbitrary.  The Communist Manifesto, co-written by Marx and Frederick Engels, which explains the impact of capitalism upon human relations is written in short pithy paragraphs and is curiously poetic and even literary compared to the “scientific” approach taken by the Positivists. In explaining the shift to capitalism, Marx and Engels wrote, “The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopoliaed by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop. Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacturer no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutioniaed industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.”

The new class that has come into being, the middle class, is a business class, wedded to its source, capitalism. It is also a modern class, meaning that it did not exist until capitalism or that the power of the bourgeois increased as capitalism expanded. By the early nineteenth century, the middle class had obliterated any remaining niceties of the feudal period, along with it any sense of human obligations among members of society. Although the origins of the middle class can be discerned in the Middle Ages, it was the development of world markets that allowed capitalism and the bourgeois to dominate the older classes. In the place of the courts of kings and queens, in the place of rural towns with close community ties, there is the anonymity of the cities with the teeming impersonal crowds, the invention of the bourgeois. According to Marx and Engels, this activity must always be in the process of expanding, which means that change must be incessant. In a very famous passage, the writers create a metaphor of creative destruction: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” The Manifesto states, “It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

According to Marx,

“…devaluation of human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things…” and “…labor does not only create goods’ it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity…” therefore  “…his labor becomes an object…”

Marx’s concept of alienation was worked out in his 1844 essay, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” which set up a triad of alienation: the state is an alienated form of social life, social life is an alienation of labor, and the wage laborer is alienated from the product of his/her labor.  The cause of the alienation of the worker is the unfortunate discovery of surplus value.  As Marx’s writing partner, Friedrich Engels, stated,  “…the appropriation of unpaid labor is the basis of capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of the worker…” Surplus values pocketed by the owner as profit.  What the owner refers to, as “profit” is also, according to Marxist theory, the fundamental incompatibility between mode of production and mode of appropriation.  When the worker was in control of his/her own product, all such “surplus value”, or “profit” accrued directly and only to him/her. But, as Marx pointed out, surplus labor creates surplus value, and surplus labor allows exploitation. Surplus labor is the result of two major factors: an increase in population and the development and use of labor saving machinery, which increases profits for the owner of the mode of production.  Although the initial capital investment in the machinery was substantial, this investment was finite, compared to ongoing or infinite costs of hiring extra workers. Under capitalism, the end product belongs to the capitalist, not to the worker.  The worker is alienated from the product because his/her actions are performed in relation to the desires of the capitalist for a larger an distant market that the worker has no connection to. The laborer becomes a “tool” for the owner and is robbed of “humanity” or of the potential for human development.  Working in a state of “illiteracy,” the wage laborer is trained in one operation and cannot participate in the benefits and achievement of society that is progressing…but only for the middle class. The products are objects of desire, which the laborer must labor to purchase in a viscous circle of desire and debt and powerlessness.  All workers are competitors with each other because their choice is between work and starvation.  Thus all workers are alienated from each other.

These are the facts of productive life, the fundamental factors that influence the ways in which all other aspects of all human affairs will develop. The question is why are the workers complicit with a system that enslaves them?  The answer is that their consciousness has been determined by the economic system.  Ideology or the belief system put forward by the ruling classes teaches the laborers to work on employer’s premises and on employer’s terms. Ideology is a powerful mixture of truth and lies.  Capitalism requires capital or money to invest in a business.  A laboring family may take generations to accumulate the capital necessary to become bourgeoisie. A person from the working class encounters a system that is monopolistic and works to eliminate or bar competitors.The workers are made to believe that their alternative is no job and no wages, and they are made to hope that some day their condition will improve if they are cooperative. The laborers believe the dreams of success and wealth that capitalism keeps alive and count on the positive effects of social mobility.  The owners of the mode of production, after all, were once lower class people who were rewarded for their hard work.  Surely, the worker thinks, me and my family will also receive the benefits of capitalism.  Laborers labor on, not realizing that fortunes are made within a network of privileges, invisible to the workers, and not upon merit.  Because the workers are in the thrall of an ideology of social and economic improvement, the owners of the mode of production are able to buy labor cheaply and sell goods dearly.

But Marx predicted that the consciousness of the workers will be “raised” and they will see past the veil of ideology, or “false consciousness,” and the proletariat will become aware of itself.  The workers will rise up against the owners and the two classes, the thesis, and the anti-thesis will clash.  The destiny of the proletariat is the truth of dialectical materialism and destruction of capitalism.  The class revolution is inevitable when “false consciousness” is dispelled and proletariat recognizes the exploitation and recaptures its own labor from the masters and institutes a classless society that Marx called the “Dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx’s dialectical model of change is the revolution and the destruction of one class by another.  According to this model, violence and conflict between classes are fundamental. Although he understood that the economic system determined human consciousness, Marx could not predict is how deeply ideology was embedded in society.  The lower classes continued to reinforce the needs and the dominance of the upper classes who proved to be adept at misleading the workers through misinformation and gaining their cooperation to work against their own interests.  The consciousness of the lower classes was structured to obey the dominant class and no amount of information could release or “raise” the consciousness of the exploited class.  Those who attempted to advise the workers of the “truth” were rejected as elitist oppressors and the familiar and real owners of the mode of production were embraced and defended.  Labor unions could easily be co-opted by management be entangling the worker with the fate and profit of a company.  The poor would reject the very social policies designed to aid them, preferring the known and the familiar, no matter how badly they were treated.

For Marx, ideas and theories are epiphenomena or byproducts of economic forces, which are the real determinants of change.  Marx stated that “Consciousness does not determine life; life determines consciousness…” and that “…man makes religion, religion does no make man…” Although these statements sound idealist, they are actually materialist.  Yes, Marx understood and accepted that the mind constructs reality, and he asserted that social relations are bound up in material production, which become forms of perception or particular ways of seeing the world related to dominant way of seeing or social mentality.  Marx remarked,

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.  The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises on a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life processes in general.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness…”

The ideology of the age is the product of concrete social relations, in other words, materialism.  Actual lived class relations are experienced, legitimized and become perpetuated.  The dialectical method accommodates itself to fundamental changes of reality due to constant change, resulting from oppositional forces. Marx was opposed to the formalism of Kant who sought the transcendental.  According to Marx, it is life that determines consciousness and the resulting consciousness is understood as “natural.” This unseen set of beliefs is unrealized or so accepted the ideology is invisible.  The lower classes are trained to believe in an ideology of inferiority, which is internalized and forces them to accept their lower status in society.   They are poor because they “deserve” to be poor.  The poor are poor, not because the system is designed to work against success for the many, but because they lost out in the Darwinian struggle for survival.  Ideology is the ultimate form of alienation because the workers will work against themselves.

Also read:  “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels, and Property” and “Marx, Engels, and Capitalism” and “Marxism, Art and the Artist”  


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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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