Every Man a King: Reconnecting Marx, Democracy and Humanism - Part II

This article is the second installment of a four-part series. Come back next week to read Part III. Enjoy!

How “Free Enterprise” Enslaves the Individual
An Overview of the Nature of the Capitalist Mode of Production

In order to discuss what real socialism is we must first examine the injustice, exploitation and alienation that permeates throughout capitalist (and bureaucratic collectivist) societies from the standpoint of its effect on–as Kautsky puts it–“[...]human self esteem.”

Beginning in their early landmark writing, The German Ideology, Marx and Engels developed the concept of historical materialism. They argued that the only way that society could be properly understood was by scientifically examining the material forces that constituted it. The truly materialist way to examine how society is formed is to examine how a society organizes its production. According to Marx, the organization of production is comprised of two important elements, forces of production and social relations of production. Forces of production include land, raw materials, technology, skills and knowledge, while social relations of production refer to who controls the forces of production and how they control it.

Marx believed that there are points when the social relations of production become incompatible or contradictory with the forces of production, retarding growth and human development until the old social relations of production are replaced by new ones. This is what happened to feudalism when it was superseded by the awesome productive power of capitalism and this is what will eventually happen to capitalism when workers gain class consciousness and emancipate themselves from capitalism. Capitalism, according to Marx, is “…the last antagonistic form of social process of production”–he had this hope, because he saw through capitalism the development of “…productive forces [that] create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism.” In other words, capitalism is unjust, but necessary, because it develops productive forces to a point where socialism becomes possible.

But what is capitalism? Why is it inherently exploitative and why does it offer humanity a way out into a Shangri-La of cooperation and solidarity? According to Marx, throughout history social relations of production have been the site of class struggle:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freedman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Capitalism continues this legacy of antagonistic class relations as it is a system characterized by the dependency of the worker on the capitalist via the mechanism of wage labor. Although there are gradients to the mold, humanity during the epoch of capitalist development is largely separated into two groups of people. Marx describes these two contending groups as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, or working class, is a class of people that is unable to survive without selling its labor power–its ability to work–to the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, the stratum of society that owns the means of production as their private property. The worker produces products by using the capitalist’s mean of production and that the bourgeois goes on to exchange these products of labor for a profit. In return the worker is given a portion of the wealth he or she creates in the form of a wage. In short, the workers create the wealth of society while the capitalists undemocratically control how that wealth is created.

Capitalism is often referred to as the “free-enterprise” system, but through an examination of the basis of this system it is clear that in certain respects capitalism is not so far removed from feudal or slave societies. In feudal societies peasants were tied to the noble landowners (noble by deeds of conveyance and not by virtuous deeds), just like workers today are effectively tied to specific capitalism firms. And just like slaves, proletarians can eek out an existence by laboring for their master and in return getting an allowance of food and shelter. This example can even be taken even to the criminal underworld of modern society. Proletarians has nothing to sell but their own labor power, their physical body, and just as the prostitute sells her body to survive, the working class must prostrate itself day in and day out, hour upon hour, toiling for the benefit of its capitalist “pimps.” It may appear that labor has a choice to work or not, but what kind of choice is really presented–indenture yourself to a capitalist, waste the primacy of your life producing for another’s profits, or starve? There is in actuality no choice at all–all wage-labor is thus forced labor. Of course labor has the “freedom” to choose which capitalist they want to sell their labor power to, but in reality what kind of prize is this? Does granting a slave its choice of master or a prostitute its choice of procurer really help alleviate the mental and physical denigration of the exploited?

The advocate of modern bourgeois-democratic society would argue that perhaps our economic relations are less than perfect, but this only constitutes one part of our social order. But as Marxism explains, the economic base of society shapes its political and legal superstructure. The class that controls the economic sector will have a disproportional control over the political state and will use this control to protect that is truly important, its economic stake in society. The power goes even further, as the controllers of the economic sphere also consciously or unconsciously protect the status quo through the propagation of bourgeois ideology. The mass media along with elements of the education system and organized religion serve as agents of control that foster social integration. Social integration enables bourgeois society to ameliorate or completely remove open conflicts on the basis of class, gender, or ethnic grounds, promoting hegemonic rule. Through the mass corporate media the capitalist class can more easily project its class-perspective on the world to the masses who will accept its perspectives as “common sense.” Proof at how effective not only this ideological hegemony can be seen by the fact that modern American newspapers have a “Business” section but not a “Labor” section. It seems commonsense to the majority of Americans that what is good for business is invariably good for them. Some wage-laborers even possess shares in companies that they don’t even work for, so they are indirectly profiting off the extraction of surplus labor value from their fellow workers.

Yet after a century of socialists decrying it and working towards its downfall, capitalism has proven both dynamic and persuasive enough to keep itself alive and to persuade the working class that it is the only feasible economic system. Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci proposed fighting this ideological hegemony by erecting a counter-hegemonic project to disseminate working-class values like cooperation and solidarity, ideas that could make socialism commonsense and capitalism seem nonsensical.

That said, we would be remiss in suggesting that the capitalism is purely an instrument of evil; compared to previous modes of production it is actually quite progressive! Marx, in brilliant prose, explains the great productive power of capitalism has reshaped the world unimaginably (and he was writing in 1848!):

Constant revolutionizing of productions, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions. Everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, as swept away, all new-form 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.

Market competition and labor exploitation all in the name of pursuing greater and greater profits have had unintended side effects. Populations are urbanized; former titles of nobility are cast away; a global market is developed in which racism and old prejudices are impediments to profit maximization; local and regional markets are enveloped; religions and old beliefs are torn asunder. Only one thing remains–the economic imperative of dominating market share. The downside of this development is that is it based intrinsically on exploitation and inequality, so capitalism can only take humanity only so far. As Marshall Berman puts it, “The irony of bourgeois activism, as Marx sees it, is that the bourgeoisie is forced to close itself off from its richest possibilities, possibilities that can be realized only by those who break its power.”

Capitalists are only concerned about their profits; any benefits of capitalist development are merely unintended after-effects. So even in the most advanced capitalist nations–like the United States–gross examples of human deprivation exist (and are largely ignored). In the U.S. over three million people are homeless, forty million people experience hunger regularly and fifty million are without health insurance. Why don’t we build more houses for the three million plus homeless Americans? We certainly have enough raw materials and enough unemployed persons to do the labor, but there simply is not enough of a profitable incentive. On the other hand there is pressure from the owners of capital to limit housing programs, to keep housing prices high, and even to abolish safeguards like rent controls and stabilization.

Fortunately for humanity, capitalist development however creates a new type of laborer, and the key to the next epoch of historical development, the (urban) proletariat. A social-being used to working in close-proximity with his/her fellow laborers that has the power to erect agencies like unions and political parties promulgating the interest of labor and contesting the primacy of capital. Once workers realize the “real conditions of life and [their] relations with [their] kind,” and cast aside their chains, reclaiming the surplus labor stolen from them and moving to revolutionize production once again, this time producing democratically to meet their common needs, society is advanced towards the classless society: communism.

However, as Marxism as a movement and theory drifted into economic determinism, it ignored a key aspect of the Marxian worldview: a respect for the soul and the vitality of the exploited proletariat. Capitalism regards labor as a mere tool used for the extraction of surplus labor and the reproduction of more labor, just as “orthodox” Marxism–divorced from Marx’s intended humanism and epicureanism–came to regard labor as a mere tool for the revolutionary reconstitution of society. I will discuss this in the next section.


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